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SBL e-journal

Nadav Sharon





Antediluvian Knowledge





APA e-journal

Nadav Sharon





Antediluvian Knowledge








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Antediluvian Knowledge

Whose knowledge is the most ancient? In the Hellenistic period, Egyptians and Babylonians, among others, debated the antiquity of their wisdom. Second Temple Jews claimed that their own knowledge dated from before the Flood. But how did it survive the destruction of the flood?


Antediluvian Knowledge

Noah: The Eve of the Deluge, 1848 John Linnell. Cleveland Museum of Art

Preservation of Pre-Flood Knowledge

The debate about which society had the most ancient knowledge was particularly intense in the Hellenistic period, when Babylonians and Egyptians were competing over who “invented” science and whose wisdom was the most ancient. Along with their neighbors, the Jews also attributed great importance to ancient wisdom; the more ancient the wisdom, the more important it was and the more respected a society with such wisdom would be. In this context, wisdom from before the flood, from the time of Adam or Enoch, was especially significant. At the same time, it would have posed a particularly thorny problem, since how could any knowledge survive such a cataclysmic destruction?

The biblical text itself mentions the invention of shepherding, playing music, and blacksmithing before the flood (Gen 4:20–22), though it contains no account of how that knowledge survived to the post-flood period. Moreover, the antediluvian ancients apparently had other forms of esoteric knowledge as well. Adam had a direct connection to God in the garden (Gen 2-3), in the time of Enosh, people began to speak YHWH’s name (Gen 4:26), and Enoch walked with God (Gen 5:22-24). Could any of their knowledge have survived the flood? If any group could make such a claim, it would certainly bolster the importance of that group’s esoteric lore.

Jubilees and the Knowledge of the Watchers

The earliest reference to the survival of antediluvian knowledge after the flood appears in the book of Jubilees (2nd cent. B.C.E.). Quite surprisingly, this source discusses the evil teachings of the Watchers, i.e., the rebellious angels that mate with human women and live on earth, rather than general esoteric or useful knowledge. The teachings of the Watchers were rediscovered by Cainan, the son of Arpachshad:[1]

And he (Cainan) found a writing which the ancestors engraved on stone. And he read what was in it. And he transcribed it. And he sinned because of what was in it, since there was in it the teachings of the Watchers by which they used to observe the omens of the sun and moon and stars within all the signs of heaven. And he copied it down, but he did not tell about it because he feared to tell Noah about it lest he be angry with him because of it. (Jubilees 8:3–4)[2]

In Jubilees, the writing on stone facilitated the preservation of this early material; other explanations are given in different texts.

Preserved by Angels (2 Enoch)

A positive description of antediluvian knowledge and its preservation appears in 2 Enoch, or the Slavonic book of Enoch (a work from Antiquity, whose date is unknown), which describes the secrets of the universe that Enoch learns from God in the heavens. 2 Enoch speaks about books written by the protagonist Enoch and his ancestors. God tells Enoch to give these to his sons so that they may learn God’s secrets (2 Enoch 33:5–12):[3]

…And you [i.e., Enoch] take the books which you yourself have written…And give them [=your sons] the books in your handwriting, and they will read them and they will acknowledge me as the Creator of everything…and let them distribute the books in your handwriting, children to children and family to family and kinsfolk to kinsfolk.

The text continues with the description of the future preservation of these original books by angels through the flood:

And I will give you, Enoch, my mediator, my archistratig, Michael, on account of your handwritings and the handwritings of your fathers—Adam and Seth and Enos and Kainan and Maleleil and Ared your father. And they will not be destroyed until the final age. So I have commanded my angels, Ariukh and Pariukh, whom I have appointed on the earth as their guardians…so that they might preserve them so that they might not perish in the future flood which I shall create in your generation.

In this case, the problem of continuity through the generation after the flood is solved miraculously, but many sources take a more naturalistic approach.

Seth and the Science of Astrology (Josephus)

The great Jewish historian of the Second Temple period, Flavius Josephus (37-~100 C.E.) takes a more naturalistic approach to the preservation of ancient knowledge, this time not by Enoch but by the sons of Seth:

…And they [the sons of Seth] discovered the science with regard to the heavenly bodies and their orderly arrangement. And in order that humanity might not lose their discoveries or perish before they came to be known, Adamos having predicted that there would be an extermination of the universe, at one time by a violent fire and at another time by a force with an abundance of water, they (=the sons of Seth) made two pillars, one of brick and the other of stones and inscribed their findings on both, in order that if the one of brick should be lost owing to the flood the one of stone should remain and offer an opportunity to teach men what had been written on it and to reveal that also one of brick had been set up by them. (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 1.69–71;translation L. Feldman)

Unlike Jubilees, where knowledge of astrology is considered destructive and the providence of the sinful Watchers, according to Josephus, such knowledge is a good thing, and the providence of the righteous sons of Seth. Moreover, to explain why the sons of Seth would have inscribed this knowledge on stone and brick, Josephus claims that they were informed about a coming destruction by their prophetic ancestor Adam; the stone inscription was designed to survive a flood, and the brick inscription a fire.

Predictions of the Flood and Writing on Stone

‍This idea that select people before Noah knew that a flood was coming reflects a widespread belief among Second Temple and Rabbinic Jews. For example, in the third chapter of the likely ca. 3rd century C.E. Testament of Adam, a Christian text in its current form but one that is possibly constructed upon an earlier Jewish text, Adam tells his son (3:5):

“You have heard, my son Seth, that a flood is coming and will wash the whole earth…”[4]

In rabbinic literature, in the mid-first millennium C.E. midrash, Genesis Rabbah (23:4), the wives of Lamech make use of knowledge of the flood as a reason to avoid sexual relations with their husband:

ויאמר למך לנשיו עדה וצלה שמען קולי רבי יוסי בר חנינא אמר: תבען לתשמיש. אמרו לו: למחר המבול בא נשמע לך ונהיה פרות ורבות למארה?!…
And Lamech said unto his wives: ‘Adah and Zillah, hear my voice’” (Gen 4:23). Rabbi Yose bar Chanina said: [he] summoned them for cohabitation. They said to him: Tomorrow (i.e., in the future) the flood will come; shall we listen to you and be fruitful and multiply for a curse?!…[5]

The Double Recording of Adam and Eve’s Biography

We find a similar constellation of concepts to that of Josephus in the pseudepigraphic work Life of Adam and Eve preserved in Latin, a Christian work in its current form from the first centuries C.E., that probably drew on Jewish materials. In this text, Eve says to her children:

Michael the archangel said to us [i.e., Adam and Eve]: “On account of your conspiracies, our Lord will bring upon your race the wrath of his judgment, first by water, and second by fire.…” Make, therefore, tablets of stone, and other tablets of earth, and write on them my whole life and that of your father, which you have heard from us and seen. If he judges our race by water, the tablets of earth will dissolve, but the tablets of stone will endure. If, however, he judges our race by fire, the tablets of stone will be destroyed, but the tablets of earth will be fired. (L.A.E. 49:2–50:2)[6]

In this case, Adam and Eve are told about the Flood by the angel Michael, and Eve in turn passes on the knowledge to her children. The most significant difference between this source and Josephus pertains to the type of knowledge that is to be preserved. According to Josephus, some kind of scientific and astronomical wisdom is preserved (Ant. 1.69), while in the Life of Adam and Eve, the knowledge pertains to the biographies of Adam and Eve (50:1).

Otherwise, these two similar sources share the same three basic elements, which are additions to the biblical account:

  • Knowledge of the flood by Adam and Eve passed on through the generations;
  • A prediction of yet another upcoming destruction, this time by fire;
  • The people inscribe their knowledge on tablets of both stone and of brick/earth, so that one tablet (or pillar) will survive.

Together with 2 Enoch (discussed above), both sources show how important knowledge—whatever it was—survived the flood.

Destruction by Fire

The fire stands out in Josephus and Life of Adam and Eve. With the exception of the localized destruction of Sodom story, the Bible never claims that the world was destroyed by fire.[7]Nevertheless, this notion of a double destruction, by water and by fire, is found in a number of early non-biblical texts. [8] For example, in the part of the book of 1 Enoch known as The Similitudes (probably the latest book, perhaps from the end of the first century B.C.E. in the composite 1 Enoch), Enoch describes his vision of the punishment of the “armies of Azaz’el,” who was one of the Watchers (1 Enoch 54:5–8):

Then I looked and turned to another face of the earth and saw there a valley, deep and burning with fire… Then Michael, Raphael, Gabriel, and Phanuel themselves shall seize them on that great day of judgement and cast them into the furnace (of fire) that is burning that day… And in those days, the punishment of the Lord of the Spirits shall be carried out, and they shall open all the storerooms of water in the heavens above, in addition to the fountains of water which are on earth. And all the waters shall be united with (all) other waters…[9]

The New Testament book of 2 Peter (3:5–7) mentions a past destruction by a flood of water (that is, Noah’s flood) and a future destruction of “ungodly men” by fire, in “the day of judgment.” This is likely partly inspired by Malachi 3:19:

מלאכי ג:יט כִּי הִנֵּה הַיּוֹם בָּא בֹּעֵר כַּתַּנּוּר וְהָיוּ כָל זֵדִים וְכָל עֹשֵׂה רִשְׁעָה קַשׁ וְלִהַט אֹתָם הַיּוֹם הַבָּא אָמַר יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת אֲשֶׁר לֹא יַעֲזֹב לָהֶם שֹׁרֶשׁ וְעָנָף.
Mal 3:19 For lo! That day is at hand, burning like an oven. All the arrogant and all the doers of evil shall be straw, and the day that is coming — said YHWH of Hosts — shall burn them to ashes and leave of them neither stock nor boughs.

This notion of a flood of fire as part of the eschatological judgment is perhaps of Babylonian origin.[10]

The possibility of a future “flood of fire” is mentioned in rabbinic literature as well. For example, Tosefta Ta’anit (2:11) suggests that although the flood of water was in the past and we can be certain that it will not reoccur, a flood of fire is still possible (trans. mine):

…בטוחים אנו שאין המקום מביא מבול לעולם שנא’ (בראשית ט) ולא יהיה עוד המים למבול וגו’ (ישעיהו נד) כי מי נח זאת לי אשר נשבעתי וגו’ רמ”א מבול של מים אין אבל מבול של אש ושל גפרית יש כדרך שהביא על הסדומיים שנאמר (בראשית יט) וה’ המטיר על סדום
…We are certain that God will not bring (another) flood to the world, as it is said: “and the waters shall no more become a flood…” (Gen 9:15); “For this is as the waters of Noah unto Me; for as I have sworn (that the waters of Noah should no more go over the earth)” (Isa 54:9). Rabbi Meir says: “A flood of water (indeed) there will not be, but a flood of fire and of sulfur there can be, in the manner in which He brought upon the Sodomites, as it is said: “Then the Lord caused to rain upon Sodom (and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire)” (Gen 19:24).

The Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 108b) tells how, when Noah rebuked the people of his generation and warned them of the coming flood, they made fun of him and replied that whatever flood it would be—of fire or of water—they have a solution and would be safe:[11]

אמרו לו זקן תיבה זו למה אמר להם הקב”ה מביא עליכם את המבול אמרו מבול של מה אם מבול של אש יש לנו דבר אחר…ואם של מים הוא מביא אם מן הארץ הוא מביא יש לנו עששיות של ברזל שאנו מחפין בהם את הארץ ואם מן השמים הוא מביא יש לנו דבר… אמר להם הוא מביא מבין עקבי רגליכם שנאמר (איוב יב, ה) נכון למועדי רגל
They said to him: Old man, why are you building this ark? Noah said to them: The Holy One, Blessed be He, is bringing a flood upon you. They said to him: A flood of what? If it is a flood of fire, we have another item… [and it is fireproof]. And if it is a flood of water that He brings, if He brings the water from the earth, we have iron plates with which we can plate the earth to prevent the water from rising. And if He brings the water from the heavens, we have an item… [which will absorb the water]. Noah said to them: If He wishes He will bring the water from between your feet and you can do nothing to prevent it, as it is stated: “For them whose foot slips.”

Unlike what we read in Josephus and in the Life of Adam and Eve, in this case the people prepared to protect themselves – not their knowledge – and those preparations counted for naught. Nevertheless, the question remains: how did this notion of future destruction by fire become part of stories about the flood?

Plato’s Timaeus and the Trope of Worldwide Destructions

In Plato’s dialogue Timaeus (4th century B.C.E.), which gives an account of the formation of the universe, one of the participants in the dialogue tells a story about the visit which the great Athenian lawgiver Solon made to the Egyptian city of Sais, and the conversation he had with the priests there. The priests explain why Egyptians have ancient knowledge while Greeks do not (22b-c, Lamb trans.):

You are young in soul, every one of you. For therein you possess not a single belief that is ancient and derived from old tradition, nor yet one science that is hoary with age. And this is the cause thereof: There have been and there will be many and diverse destructions of mankind, of which the greatest are by fire and water, and lesser ones by countless other means.

The priest then explains why it is that Egyptians are safe both from fiery conflagrations and from floods (22d-e):

At such times [of fiery conflagration] all they that dwell on the mountains and in high and dry places suffer destruction more than those who dwell near to rivers or the sea; and in our case the Nile, our Saviour in other ways, saves us also at such times from this calamity by rising high. And when, on the other hand, the Gods purge the earth with a flood of waters, all the herdsmen and shepherds that are in the mountains are saved, but those in the cities of your land are swept into the sea by the streams; whereas in our country neither then nor at any other time does the water pour down over our fields from above, on the contrary it all tends naturally to well up from below. Hence it is, for these reasons, that what is here preserved is reckoned to be most ancient.

Thus, the notion of destructions by water and by fire is attributed in this early Greek text to an Egyptian priest. But the Egyptian priest’s claim in Timaeus has yet another significant point of contact with the sources noted above: cataclysmic destructions also erase knowledge, and only certain special people or societies are capable of preserving this knowledge. This is why, the priest argues, the Greeks have no ancient knowledge and all that they know is new (23a-b):

[Y]our people and the others are but newly equipped, every time, with letters and all such arts as civilized States require and when, after the usual interval of years, like a plague, the flood from heaven comes sweeping down afresh upon your people, it leaves none of you but the unlettered and uncultured, so that you become young as ever, with no knowledge of all that happened in old times in this land or in your own.

Interestingly, the early third century B.C.E. Babylonian scholar Berossus writes that tablets with knowledge were preserved through the flood by being buried in the earth in accordance with a divine command.[12] Thus, for the Egyptian priest in Plato’s dialogue, preservation of knowledge in Egypt is due to Egyptian geography, for the Babylonian Berossus it is due to divine command to bury tablets, while for the Jewish authors, the preservation of antediluvian wisdom by the sons of Seth is due to the early predictions of the coming destruction and the medium upon which the knowledge is written (or due to the angels that preserve the books).

Philo: Forgetting the Shabbat

This Greek concern about loss of ancient knowledge through periodic natural catastrophes appears explicitly in one Jewish source. The Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (25 B.C.E.-50 C.E.) uses destruction by fire and water to explain how it is that the holiness of the Sabbath had been forgotten, until it was taught again to the Israelites by Moses, even though it had been holy since before the creation. He writes in Life of Moses 2.263:

Yet men knew it not, perhaps because by reason of the constant and repeated destructions by water and fire the later generations did not receive from the former the memory of the order and sequence of events in the series of years. (Trans. Colson).

The Importance of Ancient Knowledge

The story of Noah and the Flood are alluded to, interpreted, and embellished in a vast number and great variety of ancient Jewish and Christian texts.[13] In this discussion we saw three such embellishments: predictions of the coming flood, the combination of destructions of fire alongside Noah’s flood of water, and the means of preservation of pre-Flood knowledge; each embellishment is found in a number of Second Temple and post-Second Temple period texts.

The latter embellishment about the preservation of pre-Flood texts, shows the Jews’ involvement in contemporaneous debates between peoples of the ancient near east about the antiquity of each people’s knowledge. A civilization which could claim access to ancient traditions, was to be greatly respected, and in such a context, while destructions by the flood and/or by fire were at times an explanation for the loss of knowledge, the ability to claim access to antediluvian knowledge would garner great respect. Babylonians, Egyptians, and Greeks all seem to have taken part in this debate, and the Jews also coveted this respect, and wished to present their own esoteric knowledge as venerable and ancient.


October 10, 2018


Last Updated

October 25, 2022


View Footnotes

Dr. Nadav Sharon is a Lady Davis Postdoctoral Fellow at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He holds a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University and he is the author of Judea under Roman Domination: The First Generation of Statelessness and Its Legacy.