By Doug Powell
After a satellite image using ground penetrating radar indicates a man-made object near the peak of Mount Ararat, Ancient Near East Scholar Graham Eliot finds himself secretly ascending the slopes where tradition says Noah’s Ark landed. But the summit holds more questions than answers.
A flood of betrayal, blackmail, espionage, and terrorism conspire against him as he escapes the mountain, desperately trying to find a way out of a maze of deception and false leads. As he descends Ararat, he discovers the greatest secret of all: Ararat may not be the biblical mountain at all. All he has to do is try to prove it.
The dark oak grid of the coffered ceiling above Graham Eliot ensnared his thoughts like an opulent net. He had always struggled with feeling like an observer of his own life rather than the main participant. Olivia used to joke that presence was not his gift. Wife Wisdom, she’d called her insights. Now that she was gone, he usually felt like a stranger to himself, a pretender in someone else’s life. Especially in his current surroundings.
The private library enveloped him in rare books and manuscripts, imbuing the room with an aroma of history, as if he could smell the words of their ancient authors. A paneled wood door with a pointed arch stood among the shelves, like a portal to the worlds contained in the books. Floor-to-ceiling bookcases filled to capacity created an abstract mosaic of spines that left no room or need for decoration. He tried to imagine a room like this in his own house in Los Angeles, but the idea was absurd given the modest suburban home he kept just a few miles north of Disneyland. He felt both alien and in his element in the midst of the private collection in Münster, Germany.
By rights, it should’ve been Andrew Singer doing the work. But since his murder—a crime Graham had unexpectedly played a part in solving two years earlier—Graham had taken up the work left undone by Singer. And it was Singer’s life he felt he was trespassing on. The vision to create a database of images of every known New Testament manuscript, as well as other ancient manuscripts that contributed to the understanding of the Bible, was Singer’s. But it wasn’t until after Singer’s death that Burkhard Vogel finally agreed to allow the collection his family passed down to be scanned. Singer had tried for years to develop a relationship with Vogel, to gain his trust enough to create extremely high-resolution images using equipment specially designed for the photographing of ancient documents.
Graham turned his attention back to the laptop and calibrated the lights for the multi-spectral camera, changing the tint of the shadows pooling in the sunken squares of the coffer. The angular stand next to him was designed for functionality, with no thought for aesthetics, a design philosophy that stood in harsh contrast to the tastefully appointed room.
He zoomed in on a stroke of ink, checking his focus before capturing the next image. Looking at the manuscript in such detail transformed the words into squiggles of ink, devoid of meaning. As he zoomed out to frame the folio, the minuscule Greek letters became recognizable again. The lowercase style of the letters was typical of manuscripts belonging to the Byzantine text family. Of the 5,800 or so known New Testament manuscripts, ninety percent of them shared this trait. The manuscript had been dated to AD 900 and was cataloged in the index of New Testament manuscripts kept by the Institute for New Testament Textual Research at the University of Münster.
The INTF—after the initials for its German name, Institut für Neutestamentliche Textforschung—used the data to create the Greek text that formed the basis of all translations of the New Testament. The final, edited text included an apparatus, or footnotes, that cited the manuscripts used to support the reading of each verse, referring to them by the names and numbers assigned by the INTF. Graham had continued Singer’s close relationship with the INTF, and had, in fact, come to Münster at their invitation to deliver a series of lectures. He’d used the opportunity to reach out to Vogel, and to his surprise, Vogel had given him permission to document the manuscript. Why Vogel had changed his mind, he didn’t know or care.
Graham read the text on his monitor, a passage from Luke 21.
During the day, he was teaching in the temple, but in the evening he would go out and spend the night on what is called the Mount of Olives. Then all the people would come early in the morning to hear him in the temple.
However, instead of ending the chapter there—as in most Bibles—the text continued beyond verse 38.
At dawn he went to the temple again, and all the people were coming to him. He sat down and began to teach them. Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, making her stand in the center.
“Discover something of interest, Dr. Eliot?”
Graham had become so entranced by the text that he hadn’t heard anyone enter the library and was startled to hear Burkhard Vogel’s voice. Small round rims of glasses caught the light as the remainder of Vogel emerged from the shadows. He was a trim, fastidious man in his late fifties, with close-cropped hair and serious, intelligent eyes. The custom-tailored suit rarified him, insulating him from ordinary concerns of the world, his affluence an inherited trait on par with the blond color of his hair.
“I’m just reading the passage of the woman caught in adultery,” Graham said. “It’s fascinating to see the story in the middle of Luke’s Gospel instead of in John 7:53 to 8:11. I remember hearing about this variant in my first class on textual criticism, but I’ve never actually seen a copy with it.”
“Ah, yes. I am pleased you can appreciate it.” Vogel’s German accent shaped his English, emphasizing consonants in a deliberate precision that mirrored his appearance. “I confess, the particulars are lost on me. I do not read Greek. I am certain there are scholars who must think that is a great injustice—a manuscript of such importance belonging to someone who cannot read it.” He smiled apologetically.
Graham chuckled at the truth in the statement. “It could be worse. You could have a Bible in a language you do know and not read it.”
“Excellent point,” Vogel said, arching his brow. “And a problem far too common.”
Graham pointed to the screen and moved his finger along a line of text. “Here’s where it starts. Goes until the middle of the next folio. But this isn’t the only variant. Some copies of John put it in different parts of the book. The one thing all the variations have in common is that they are from the Byzantine text type. The oldest biblical manuscripts don’t have it at all.”
Vogel bent to look at the pattern of ink, as if closer inspection would fashion them into the words that Graham saw. “Tell me, Dr. Eliot, do you believe the passage belongs in the Bible given that scholars do not know if or where it originally belonged?” He waited until finishing the question before looking to Graham for the answer.
“My opinion is that the pericope—the story—is probably an oral tradition that was passed down and included at a later time. I think it is plausible the story is a real event. It sounds like something Jesus would do. But I do think that if the passage is going to be included in the Bible, then it should be clearly noted where the text is uncertain, like by bracketing the text so that readers know there is an issue with it.”
Vogel’s face remained a mask. “Do you not believe that doing so would raise more questions than answers, that it will make faithful believers doubt the Word of God?”
“Not at all,” Graham said. “I would hope that being clear about it would actually strengthen the faith of believers. Marking what parts of the text are in question would show just how little of the New Testament is in question. It should give assurance that we can know what the original writing said and that scholars can identify the parts that might not be original. There are only about five hundred words in the New Testament that are in doubt as to whether they are part of the original text or not. And no essential doctrine is based on them.”
Vogel’s eyes moved across the manuscript. “I assume that in addition to this passage, the bulk of the remaining uncertain text is the end of Mark.”
“Exactly. Mark 16:9–20. The ending of that Gospel is almost certainly not original, but people shouldn’t doubt the entire text because of those two passages. They should realize that ninety-nine percent of the New Testament is known with reasonable certainty. And even though the number of New Testament manuscripts has quadrupled over the last hundred and fifty years, not a single new discovery has changed the reading of the text. Every manuscript confirms the text as we have it.”
Vogel opened his hands in an empty gesture. “Of course, the interpretation of that text differs—sometimes dramatically.”
“That is an understatement,” Graham said, wondering what Vogel’s view of Scripture was.
“This brings me to another piece of business I would like to discuss with you,” Vogel said. “Indulge me, please, and follow me to my study? I would like to show you something.”
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Vogel led Graham through the arched door into a study and took his place behind a large desk that matched the dark wood coffers and shelves. Many of the surrounding cases contained artifacts rather than books, but the shelves directly behind the desk displayed a collection of inscriptions that instantly captured Graham’s attention.
On the far left of the shelf, a six-inch-tall stone roughly the shape of Wisconsin-turned-upside-down sat beneath its own soft light. Graham recognized it as Tablet XI of the Gilgamesh Epic. The inscription recorded the Babylonian story of a worldwide flood that shared striking similarities to the biblical story of Noah. However, it had been written more than 1,500 years before Moses wrote Genesis. Several copies of the Gilgamesh Epic had been discovered, the oldest one dating to 2,000 BC. But Graham remembered this seventh century BC copy was the best-preserved version of the story.
To the right, a slightly taller, narrower L-shaped stone sat next to it. Graham identified it as Tablet III of the Atrahasis Epic. Like Gilgamesh, the inscription contained the story of a worldwide deluge, though this version belonged to the Mesopotamian culture of nineteenth century BC.
The third inscribed tablet on the shelf was a stone about ten inches wide and eight inches tall that Graham knew was the Sumerian Creation Myth from sixteenth century BC.
Completing the row was an eight-inch-tall, four-sided, rectangular block Graham recognized as the Weld-Blundell Prism. The eighteenth-century BC text contained a list of Sumerian kings that was famously divided to distinguish those who had ruled before the deluge from those who ruled after. The list not only gave the names of the kings, but how long they ruled. Interestingly, the kings before the flood had astonishing long rules, while the kings after the flood had far shorter reigns. The parallel with the biblical differences in lifespans before and after the flood of Noah was inescapable. Several other copies of the Sumerian kings list had been found, but this one was the most famous.
“Museum quality replicas,” Vogel said, stating what Graham already knew.
“Still, very impressive,” Graham said. “I have seen the originals, of course, at the British Museum. Many times. And the prism, at the Ashmolean at Oxford.”
“Have you seen this?” Vogel picked up a picture frame from a small stand on his desk and handed it to Graham.
He stared incomprehensibly at a Chinese character artfully rendered in calligraphy. “No. What does it say?”
“It is the Chinese word for ship,” Vogel said. “The symbol is formed by combining the characters for ‘eight’ and ‘mouth.’”
“Hmm.” Graham squinted thoughtfully. “As in eight people on the ark. And the mouth is the vessel that holds things.”
“Fascinating, is it not?” Vogel gestured blindly to the display behind him. “And what is your opinion? Did Moses commit plagiarism? Did he appropriate the story of the flood from other cultures?”
Graham smiled cautiously, again wondering where Vogel’s convictions lay. “Some of my professors certainly thought so.”
“And you, Dr. Eliot?”
“It’s possible,” Graham said, undermining the words with a doubtful look on his face. “But I think it is more likely that they are all records of the same event, documented by different cultures. And as you no doubt know, there are many more flood myths besides these. They differ on the details such as the man’s name who built the ark, how many people were saved, and why the flood happened. But I believe the variations indicate corruptions of the story. The fundamental catastrophe is the same.”
Vogel nodded, though Graham couldn’t tell if he was agreeing with his position or simply indicating that he followed the train of thought. “You believe, then, that the deluge described in the myths was an actual, historical event?”
“Yes, I do.” Graham felt as if the conversation had transformed into a test, and he wondered how his direct answer would be received.
Vogel arched his brow. “And do you believe the waters covered the entirety of the earth?”
Graham had come to dread the question after encountering too many Christians who treated the answer as a test of orthodoxy, as if it addressed an essential doctrine of the faith. And the answer invariably led to a debate about the relationship between science and the Bible—a rabbit hole he didn’t want to go down at the moment. But he felt an obligation to reply, given the privilege of having access to Vogel’s manuscripts, and he heard himself give his stock answer.
“Whether or not a catastrophic flood covered the entire surface of the earth is a question I leave to geologists. I am an Ancient Near East scholar. The text of Genesis leaves the door open to different interpretations that are equally valid. The flood may well have been global, covering the entire earth. But the language of the Bible could also be taken to mean the flood was regional or even local as long as it effected all human beings.
“Since that is who is being judged, that is all that is necessary to fulfill the scope of the flood. I lean toward a flood effecting all human beings, but not necessarily the entire globe. I could be wrong on that, but if I am, I would happily admit it. Nothing about my theology or view of Scripture would change, and I would not have done any damage to the text in changing my interpretation.”
Vogel smiled approvingly. “Quite judicious. I expected nothing less.” He gestured, lifting an empty palm. “And yet, some would call you a heretic for such views.”
Graham shrugged. “Someone would call me a heretic no matter what view I took. The global flood crowd would accuse me of compromising the Bible, while on the other, archaeologists who don’t share my faith would consider it a scholarly heresy to treat the Bible as historically reliable. At least that particular passage. As long as I have accusations on both sides, I feel I’ve attained a kind of balance.”
Vogel rocked slightly in an inward laugh that quickly subsided. “I wonder if you will be quite as perspicacious about what I want to ask you.”
“And what is that?” Vogel paused, as if gauging Graham’s reaction before it happened. “The location of the ark of Noah.”
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