The Historical Argument Against Mt. Ararat
I dealt in detail with ways to resolve the major historical problems with Mt. Ararat being the Ark’s landing-place in an earlier paper, An Armenian Perspective on the Search for Noah’s Ark, so I will not repeat it all here. At this time I wish to take a closer look at just one historical aspect where new information has come to light recently—Roman historian Flavius Josephus’ mention of a detail reported by Nicholas of Damascus (whose name is often rendered Nicolaus).
Some preliminary background about why Nicholas’ information is important must be given first. Crouse and Franz went into great detail in a recent issue of Bible and Spade magazine (vol. 19 no. 4, Fall 2006, pp. 99–111) about how historical records indicate Mt. Ararat was never known as the mountain of the Ark until after the 10th century AD, bolstering their case for Mt. Cudi. The online Encyclopedia Iranica agrees with them:
Ararat is the same word as Urartu, the ancient kingdom on one of whose mountains Noah’s ark was said to come ashore (Gen. 8:4). It is the name given to the volcanic massif by the Europeans, who reasoned that the region’s highest mountain ought logically to be the ark’s landing place. This notion, however, is quite recent. Early Armenian tradition (up to the 10th century A.D.) and Islamic tradition (based on Koran 11:46) set the ark’s landfall on Mount Jūdī, which after the Arab conquest was generally identified with a range only 2,100 m high in the Jazīra (southeast of Siirt in what is now Turkish territory: 37° 24’ north latitude 42° 32’ east longitude), though the earliest Arab authors placed it in Arabia (in Mohammad’s lifetime this term had probably denoted the whole West-Arabian mountain system). The names given by the Arab geographers to Great and Little Ararat are Jabal al-Hāret (The Ploughman’s Mountain) and Jabal al-Howayret (the same in the diminutive form) (http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/ararat-mount-pers).
The assertion that the earliest historical traditions, from the time of Berossus (late fourth century BC) up to the 10th century AD, overwhelmingly point to the Ark’s landing place being Mt Cudi, seems to be a compelling one. Nevertheless, there has long been a weak point in how they supported their case: the identity of “Baris.” To this we now turn our attention.
The Baris Question
Nicholas of Damascus, the first-century BC friend and biographer of Herod the Great, also gained repute as the author of a “General History” of the world spanning at least 80 books, probably 144 (cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicolaus_of_Damascus). Roman historian Flavius Josephus preserved some excerpts from those writings, most of which have been lost. Here is the pertinent quote from Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews 1:95; LCL 4:47):
There is above the country of Minyas in Armenia a great mountain called Baris, where, as the story goes, many refugees found safety at the time of the flood, and one man, transported upon an ark, grounded upon the summit, and relics of the timber were for long preserved; this might well be the same man of whom Moses, the Jewish legislator, wrote.
The exact identity of “Baris” has been an ambiguity for some time. My friends Bill Crouse and Gordon Franz, stalwart champions of Mt. Cudi as the site of the landing of Noah’s Ark, have done their best to understand every trace of historical information in favor of this site. Yet they could only write the following about Nicholas: “The name Nicholas gives this mountain, Baris, however, is a mystery. According to Lloyd Bailey (Noah: The Person and the Story in History and Tradition, 1989, p. 216, footnote 19), the Greek word baris means ‘height’ or ‘tower,’ and even ‘boat’! Others identify Baris with Lubar, as mentioned earlier.” This brief analysis of Nicholas’ information does little or nothing to advance the Mt. Cudi case, so I think it was included in the Crouse/Franz study simply because it was in Josephus, whose history they needed to cite for other points, even though they considered this bit of unhelpful information “a mystery.”
Solving a Mystery
Perhaps we should start unraveling this mystery by first reviewing geographical clues given by Josephus. Nicholas identifies his mountain of the Ark, Baris, as being in Armenia. The land of Urartu (another name for the land of Ararat, or Armenia) is, as Nicholas described it, “above” the land of Minni, that is, generally north of it. Mt. Ararat fits this description, as seen on the following map, but Mt. Cudi lies well to the west, making it tough to reconcile with Nicholas’ description:
Apparently with this geographical information in mind, Columbia University cartographer William R. Shepherd did not hesitate to identify Baris with Mount Ararat in his 1923 Historical Atlas (p. 20).
If Shepherd’s identification is correct, then the Baris of Nicholas of Damascus is the same as Mt. Ararat. However, since this is not a conclusion fitting the thesis of Crouse and Franz, they quickly set it aside as a “mystery” and skip over it with no detail in their otherwise detailed historical overview. Is there any additional information that can help settle the question of where Baris is, and whether William Shepherd based his map on something more than an assumption?
The Cuneiform Clue
I believe the answer to this question is yes. I recently was fortunate to receive a copy of a work done by Armenian scholar Artak Movsisyan, The Sacred Highlands: Armenia in the Spiritual Geography of the Ancient Near East. Published under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Armenia, Institute of Oriental Studies, by Yerevan University Publishers in 2004, it was translated into English by the Spurk-Diaspora Organization of Los Angeles. The intent of this small 76-page book is explained on pp. 3–4 of the Introduction:
This book is the first attempt to compile these ancient passages describing Armenia, as preserved in one of the cradles of world civilization, the Near East. The citations are presented here with meticulous care, strictly without any additions or omissions...At the same time, this being the first attempt at such an undertaking, we have no pretensions of being the last word on this topic and expect that in the future these findings will be augmented with new information.
One may read the entire monograph with profit, but for our purposes we are only interested in gaining insight on the Baris question. Beginning on page 62, Movsisyan addresses exactly that issue in depth in an appendix headed, “THE ARMENIAN TRADITION CONCERNING THE UNIVERSAL FLOOD AND THE EARLIEST REFERENCES TO THE MOUNTAIN NAMED MASIS.” He writes:
It is significant that no mountain in the Armenian Highlands has been known by the name of Baris. Such a significant mountain name would not have been forgotten completely, therefore it is logical to assume that it was corrupted before the time of Nicholas of Damascus. When and how could such a corruption take place (if in fact it did)?
The fact that location of the mountain of salvation is described with reference to Minias means that the source on which Nicholas of Damascus draws was written no later than the beginning of the sixth century BC. The Minias (Minni/Manna) kingdom ceased to exist and were [sic] off the historical scene and referred to at the latest in the beginning of the 6th century BC (Jer. 51:27). That means that the original source was probably cuneiform from the Near East. [This also supports the hypothesis that the original Near Eastern Flood accounts were also recorded in cuneiform].
Movsisyan presents the following chart to show the cuneiform options for rendering “Baris” and “Masis.” These options follow from the fact that cuneiform is a syllabic rather than an alphabetic language:
How could it have been written in accordance with the rules of cuneiform writing? Possible alternatives are Bar-is, Ba-ri-is, Ba-ar-is and other variants (pic. 12), of which the most appropriate, efficient (shortest), non-duplicative and simplest to write is Bar-is in a two syllable form (see pic. 12a). Based on this it becomes evident how a corruption could have taken place. In cuneiform syllabary there was a good deal of ambiguity and the symbol for the syllable bar could also be read mas, maš, par.
A cuneiform reference cited by Movsisyan at this point in his text, R. Labat’s Manuel d'epigraphie akkadienne, substantiates this analysis (click image for a larger version):
Movsisyan goes on to explain the likelihood that, since cuneiform had begun fading from use by the time of Nicholas and its interpretation was complicated by the virtually identical forms for “bar” and “mas,” it was a misreading of the cuneiform that gave rise to the Baris name in Nicholas:
Indeed, for this reason to this day is it not clear whether name the wife of Haldi, chief god of the Kingdom of Van, whose name in Assyrian sources should be pronounced Bag-bar-tu, Bag-mas/š-tu, or Bag-par-tu, or whether the name of one of the constituent units of Uruatri is Bar-gun, Par-gun, Maš-gun, or Mas-gun. In translating the cuneiform into Greek, if the scribe did not know the exact name of the mountain, it could have been misread, as a result of which the Greek translation of the mountain’s name appeared in different variants. On the one hand, Nicholas of Damascus refers to a great mountain where the ark came to rest above the land of Minias, that is, north of the Lake Urmia basin (which corresponds to Masis), and on the other the same cuneiform symbols could be read Bar-is or Mas-is (see pic. 12a & 13a). From another perspective, the Armenian tradition that the mountain where the ark came to rest was Masis supports the hypothesis that in the primary source the original cuneiform name of the mountain was Mas-is.168 This means that the Armenian tradition about the Flood pre-dates the 6th century BC, was known outside of Armenia, and was written down in one of the ancient centers of cuneiform writing.169
The last two sentences above include these endnotes to back up his conclusions:
168Of all the possible ways the name could be written, Mas-is is the most suitable of the options (see pic. 13).
169 We consider this the earlier reference to the mountain by the name Mas-is, since the references to Masis in the Alexander Romance (written in 240 BC) and to the Mašu Mountains in Gilgameš point not to Masis (Greater Ararat), but to the Masius/Masion Mountains on the southern border of Armenia (see fn. 26).
Returning to Movsisyan’s text, he persuasively reasons that:
Later, probably in the Hellenistic period, this tradition was translated into Greek, at which time the ambiguous cuneiform symbols Masis were interpreted to be Baris. In the sources used by Nicholas of Damascus the name of the mountain must already have been corrupted and found its way into the “General History” in that form.
Movsisyan then closes his seminal work with the following conclusion, which I cannot improve upon:
In summary, the name that Nicholas of Damascus used in his “General History” to refer the mountain where the ark landed is corrupted and a closer look at the cuneiform text permits a recovery of the correct original form Masis. Based on this, it is clear that the Armenian tradition that Masis is the place where the ark rested did not emerge in Armenia as a result of the spread of Christianity, but was known for centuries before this and spread beyond Armenia’s borders and was written down in a center of cuneiform writing sometime before the 6th century BC. Later there was a mistake in the transliteration of the cuneiform into Greek which found its way into the “General History” of Nicholas of Damascus and reached us through the “Jewish Antiquities” of Josephus Flavius [sic]. In Christian Armenia the pre-Christian native Armenian tradition and Biblical accounts merged and was embellished with episodes from local folklore, giving rise to a colorful new tradition. The comprehensive study of this tradition (especially its chronological layers) is a topic for future research.
This has turned into a quite long research paper, so I thank those who have stayed with it to the end. I have come away from the research personally convinced—for biblical, testimonial, geological and historical reasons—that there are no insurmountable barriers why Noah’s Ark should not be sought in the snows of Turkey’s Mt. Ararat.
Scripture firmly upholds the legitimacy of using testimony to establish the existence of a fact, subject to the “two or three” principle that began with Moses under God’s direction, which Jesus Himself never set aside, and the Apostle Paul applied to diverse situations. The modern Mt. Ararat testimonies are largely known to have been given by people we have no cause to be unduly suspicious of, and the repeated mentions in their stories of the same or very similar details, by people widely separated in time and place, would be more than enough to establish their factuality in a courtroom. We accept information from "historical" sources like Josephus and Berossus readily enough, so it appears that the veracity of the modern testimonies is being judged by a much higher, and unjustified, standard of proof.
The criticisms leveled at Mt. Ararat as the landing-place of the Ark for ostensibly scientific reasons, when closely examined, reveal they are based more on assumptions about unknown starting conditions than upon empirical science. All of the geological data which the Ararat critics rely on, in the final analysis, is based on models and assumptions that no actual field research has validated—and flying in the face of field research which HAS been performed.
Lastly, the historical case against Mt. Ararat is founded upon the assumption that valid historical data going against the Mt. Cudi case prior to the 10th century AD does not exist. I trust it has been shown by Movsisyan that there are compelling reasons why we should heed the Armenian traditions that have survived, because they point back to cuneiform originals that pre-date Berossus, the Chaldean astrologer/priest whose ostensibly historical information cannot be separated from its roots in Babylonian mythology (see the Berossus section of my earlier paper, An Armenian Perspective on the Search for Noah’s Ark, for the reasons).
And ultimately, the validity of the geological and historical criticisms against Mt. Ararat involves a blanket rejection of testimony as a valid input into the picture. I cannot help but wonder what Jesus would think of this approach, which makes a modern-day skeptical scientism overrule God’s own standards for acceping testimony.
Further research still remains to be done. The remains of the Ark still need to be found, but current research using satellite remote sensing and ground penetrating radar, supplemented by new insights into the testimonies that resolve some of their apparent contradictions, encourages us to be optimistic that they WILL be found very shortly, if it pleases God.
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