The Smithsonian's department of Anthropology has received numerous inquiries in recent years regarding the historicity of the Bible in general, and the Biblical account of Noah's flood in particular. The following statement has been prepared to answer these questions:

Most Biblical scholars and Near Eastern archeologists and historians regard the Biblical story of the flood and Noah's Ark as a story handed down by oral tradition. This story has obvious relationships with the Mesopotamian account of a flood found in the Epic of Gilgamesh. The Biblical and Mesopotamian accounts differ in important details--The respective boats are of different sizes and shapes; the Biblical boat lands on Mount Ararat, the Mesopotamian boat lands on Mount Nisir--and both stories may go back to a still earlier common source which remains unknown to us today.

Many people ask if the Biblical flood actually took place, i.e. a flood which literally covered the entire earth and wiped out all living things except those which managed to board the ark? The occurrence of a flood story in both the Bible and the Epic of Gilgamesh, as well as in other folk traditions, does hint that there may have been enormous flooding of river valleys in a far distant time. However, thus far, after literally hundreds of archeological excavations at different times in the Near East, no all-encompassing flood stratum has ever been found. During the 1920's, Sir Leonard Woolley found a six foot...:thick flood layer at Ur with evidence of earlier occupations below the flood layer and later occupations above it. We now know that this flood stratum was deposited by a change in the course of the Euphrates River that meandered rather widely over the flood plain, much as the Mississippi River once did before flood control measures were taken. Other sites near Ur display no such evidence of a flood stratum. Another difficulty in verifying the Biblical story is that the identification of the particular mountain now known as Ararat goes back to no more than a few hundred years, and, in fact, we have no idea where an ancient Mount Ararat might have been located. In addition, there is no hard evidence of an early ship resting on top of any mountain anywhere in the Near East.

In short, it is impossible to verify the actual events recorded in the Biblical account of the flood. On the other hand, much of the Bible, in particular the historical books of the old testament, are as accurate historical documents as any that we have from antiquity and are in fact more accurate than many of the Egyptian, Mesopotamian, or Greek histories. These Biblical records can be and are used as are other ancient documents in archeological work. For the most part, historical events described took place and the peoples cited really existed. This is not to say that names of all peoples and places mentioned can be identified today, or that every event as reported in the historical books happened exactly as stated. There are conflicts between present archeological evidence and historical reports that may result from a lack of information on our part or from misunderstandings or mistakes by the ancient writers.

However, in the stories found in the Book of Genesis, Chapter 1-12, such as the flood story, the record is quite different: the time period under consideration is much more ancient. The factual bases of the stories are hidden from our view archaeologically. The stories remain a part of folk traditions and were included in the Bible to illustrate and explain theological ideas such as: Where did humans come from? If humans were created by God (who is perfect and good), how did evil among them come to be? If we are all related as children of God, why do we speak different languages? It must be remembered that the Bible is primarily a book of religion, a guide to faith. it was not a book of history, poetry, economics, or science. It contains all sorts of literary genre, which are used to teach about the relationship between God and mankind. Even biblical history is edited history: events were chosen to illustrate the central theme of the Bible. The Biblical writers did not pretend they were giving a complete history; instead they constantly refer us to other sources for full historical details, sources such as "The Annals of the Kings of Judah" (or Israel).

It is therefore not possible to try to "prove" the Bible by means of checking its historical or scientific accuracy. The only "proof" to which it can be subjected is this: Does it correctly portray the God-human relationship? In the best analysis, the Bible is a religious book, not an historical document.

For further reading on the Bible as history, the following books may be consulted:

The Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land. 3rd. ed. Edited by Abraham Negev. Prentice Hall, 1991.

Biblical Archaeology. Magazine published by the American School of Oriental Research. (Johns Hopkins University Press, 701 W. 40th St., Suite 275, Baltimore, MD 21211.)

Biblical Archaeology Review. Magazine published by the Biblical Archaeology Society, 3000 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Suite 300, Washington, D.C. 20008.

The Bible as History by Werner Keller. Bantam, 1974.

The Flood and Noah's Ark by Andre Parrot (Studies in Biblical Archeology No. l, The Philosophical Library, New York, 1955).

The Harper Atlas of the Bible, edited by James B. Pritchard. Science News Books, 1988.

The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible. (Abingdon Press, 1976)