The lack of success in finding Noah's Ark on Turkey's Mt. Ararat has prompted various researchers to search for the Ark elsewhere. Since the biblical 'mountains of Ararat' cannot be exegetically equated with the single mountain known today as Mt. Ararat (Agri Dagh, 'the painful mountain,' in Turkish), we cannot use Scripture to prove Mt. Ararat was where the Ark landed, nor that it was even in existence as the Flood waters were abating. This ambiguity has opened the door for suggestions that other peaks could have been the site of the Ark's landing-place.
For example, Robert Cornuke has looked at several different locations, most recently at Takht-e Suleiman (see Cornuke’s website and my response, Noah's Ark in Iran?). Other sites mentioned as possibilities at various times, by different researchers, include Mt. Cudi in southeastern Turkey, Mt. Damavand and Mt. Sabalon in Iran, and the mudflow at Durupinar near Mt. Ararat.
Given that there exists a known body of testimony alleging that Noah’s Ark has been seen on Mt. Ararat, to seriously consider any non-Ararat locations as the landing-place of Noah’s Ark requires one to either disregard or argue around those testimonies. Ararat skeptics justify doing exactly that by making several major claims:
- Allowing the use of testimonial data has no place in what should be a strictly “scientific” endeavor.
- Seemingly conflicting details found in the testimonies means they cannot be trusted.
- Many years of searching, both on the ground and by air or satellite, have not found definitive evidence of the Ark on Mt. Ararat, so it is probably not there and the “eyewitnesses” were all either mistaken or telling a fiction to gain notoriety.
- Even if the Ark was once on Ararat, by now it would have been destroyed by volcanic action, or pulverized by the grinding action of glaciers, or scavenged for its timbers, so that for one reason or another it no longer exists there, and the testimonies cannot possibly be right.
- Geology supposedly proves Mt. Ararat is a young volcanic peak that did not exist at the time of the Flood, again invalidating all testimonies that the Ark was ever on Mt. Ararat.
- A clear historical trail exists in the Western tradition, going back as early as the writings of Berossus in the third century BC, indicating the Ark was believed to be on Mt. Cudi; conversely, there was no such tradition for Mt. Ararat until much later, after the tenth century AD, meaning it was invented by the Armenians and never factual.
In view of these perceived problems with locating the Ark on Mt. Ararat, they must first be addressed before one can evaluate the considerable body of testimonial data without undue bias against it. They are superficially persuasive, and throw up a stumbling block preventing some people from objectively evaluating the testimonies. It is my conviction that simply tossing them out as irrelevant is an illegitimate way to do research—an easy way out of the hard job of searching for ways to resolve those apparent difficulties. The goal of this article is to biblically justify the use of testimonial data as a way of getting at truth; suggest how certain troubling details in the testimonies can be resolved; and demonstrate that the most oft-cited geological and historical claims against Mt. Ararat, pitting them squarely against details common to multiple testimonies, are based on incomplete data that is misleading when researchers consider it comprehensive. Some little-known geological and historical information will be presented that casts doubt on the position that this type of information precludes the Ark from ever being on Mt. Ararat.
Preface: The Danger of Scientism
Some individuals reject testimony as a valid way of evaluating truth, and will only consider what they think is “real science.” When closely examined, however, “real science” often turns out to consist only of studies used to justify certain firmly-held positions or preconceptions. Their appeal to science is a smokescreen anchored in an attempt to vindicate already-held opinions, not impartially evaluate all factors via a multi-disciplinary approach. It is not the scientific method that they place on a pedestal, but a particular application of it that yields particular results.
Science indeed is a good truth—or rather, fact—determiner, but only when properly used. Strictly speaking, science can only accurately deal with repeatably measureable data, as in a lab, where all the initial conditions can be specified—e.g., amounts of chemicals, pressures, temperatures, etc. Our knowledge that the physical properties of materials can be relied on to remain constant allows us to accurately predict that when such-and-such is done, such-and-such will be the outcome, as surely as night follows day. Knowing these factors allows cause-and-effect relationships to be precisely determined. That is science in the classic, empirical sense. It is an endeavor to find out factual evidence about the world we live in and how it works.
Unfortunately, such initial conditions are the very factors which can be neither comprehensively known nor controlled when one deals with one-time events that took place in the past. Geological disasters, for example, are individually one-time events where we are never able to know all of the initial conditions, but are only in a position to suggest what MIGHT have happened based on partial knowledge from other comparable events. And for the young-Earth creationist (YEC) who accepts that virtually the entire geological column was laid down by the world-wide Flood of Noah’s day, geology is an examination of the end result of one great, unrepeatable disaster! There is nothing else in the history of the world to compare it to. It may be possible to use deductive reasoning to gauge the likelihood that some process was involved in the Great Flood and its end results, but this is a far cry from the precision and predictable outcomes of laboratory science. Recognizing this is embracing common sense—accepting that the scientific method has its limitations.1
Yet, there are individuals who embrace a more strict view of science that does not allow for such a common sense approach. They instead take a rigid, simplistic view called “scientism” that assumes the scientific method can do no wrong, that it is universally applicable to understanding all events in the world (past ones included). The PBS.org website offers the following, generally applicable definition of scientism:
Unlike the use of the scientific method as only one mode of reaching knowledge, scientism claims that science alone can render truth about the world and reality. Scientism's single-minded adherence to only the empirical, or testable, makes it a strictly scientific worldview, in much the same way that a Protestant fundamentalism that rejects science can be seen as a strictly religious worldview. Scientism sees it necessary to do away with most, if not all, metaphysical, philosophical, and religious claims, as the truths they proclaim cannot be apprehended by the scientific method. In essence, scientism sees science as the absolute and only justifiable access to the truth.2
One form of scientism sometimes seen in educated Christian circles is the assumption certain disciplines provide virtually infallible information about their special focus, whether that discipline is geology, astronomy, or some other field—even when addressing unrepeatable past events. That favored discipline is regarded as always leading to valid conclusions, even when the initial conditions are only hinted at in the pages of the Bible and the conclusions depend entirely on the appearance of the end product. Scientists who are Christians are not immune to some form of scientism. I have personally experienced it in some discussions with others concerning research into both Noah’s Flood and the search for remains of his Ark.
I personally find it hard to see how scientism can be embraced by any who claim to want to pursue Truth; I think it should be sought by whatever means, not just certain means—by a multi-disciplinary approach, not exclusive reliance on just one as the filter for all other data. This conviction is the wellspring of this paper. (For those who want to investigate scientism further, there is a thoughtful essay, Blinded by Scientism.) With that said, let us take a look at reasons to accept testimonial data as a valid help in determining the truth about something generally, and about the landing-place of Noah’s Ark specifically.
Is Testimony a Valid Means for Finding Truth?
A General Defense of Testimony—The Exodus
Those who have followed the work of ABR know that, when it comes to reconciling the Bible with the findings of archaeology, absence of evidence does NOT equate with evidence of absence.3 If trustworthy historical/testimonial data about a non-repeatable event exists, as it does in the pages of the Bible, then the lack of hard scientific evidence an event happened only allows us to conclude the evidence has not yet been found. We have no basis for saying anything more; certainly none for saying that the event never occurred.
Such is the case, for example, with the Exodus wanderings of the Israelites. We have a long and reliable textual record upholding the historicity of the Exodus, as well as continuing traditions that independently point back to that time, such as the feasts of the Jews and their arcane dietary laws that are still followed to this day. These traditions must have begun somewhere, and it makes far more sense that they arose from a real historical event than via fictions imposed on the people from above—and by presumably God-reverencing priests serving the Lord who declared in Lev 19:11, “You shall not steal, nor deal falsely, nor lie to one another.” The Exodus record is thus based on an experience shared by a great many people over a long period of time, yet at the same time was recorded for posterity in the written testimony of just a single historian—Moses. Since the longstanding Jewish feasts and archaeological remains of the places the Jews conquered immediately following the Exodus exist,4 not to mention the Jewish people themselves, we have excellent objective reasons to accept the testimony of Moses in the Torah about historical events, even though conclusive archaeological evidence of the Exodus he reported has not yet been found.5
The “Two or Three” Principle
It should also be observed that Moses sets forth, with God’s authority undergirding his words, the following principle: agreement of the testimonies of two or three witnesses is sufficient to establish the factuality of an event. This applied in cases of capital punishment: “On the evidence of two witnesses or three witnesses, he who is to die shall be put to death; he shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness” (Dt 17:6). (All Scripture citations are from the NASB.) It also applied to civil disputes generally: “A single witness shall not rise up against a man on account of any iniquity or any sin which he has committed; on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed” (Dt 19:15).
Lest one protest that this principle only applied to Old Testament law which was superseded by different New Testament principles, examine the following New Testament quotes:
- Mt 18:16: “But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that BY THE MOUTH OF TWO OR THREE WITNESSES EVERY FACT MAY BE CONFIRMED.” This is a quote from Jesus Himself, indicating corroborating testimony was accepted by Christ as an adequate basis for establishing the factuality of something. And if it was good enough for Jesus, it should be good enough for us.
- 1 Cor 14:29: “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment.”
- 2 Cor 13:1: “This is the third time I am coming to you. EVERY FACT IS TO BE CONFIRMED BY THE TESTIMONY OF TWO OR THREE WITNESSES.”
- 1Tm 5:19: “Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses.”
- Heb 10:28: “Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses.”
Can anyone read all of these verses and have any doubt that the “two or three” principle is God’s standard for using testimony as a determinant of truth, and has wide application to many situations? Since all human beings have been sinners with a penchant toward lying, or at least stretching the truth, since the Garden, it is not as if human nature has gotten fundamentally worse with time, giving us cause to say the “two or three” principle no longer applies in our day because fewer honest men can be found! The problem of lying witnesses was recognized not only by Moses (Dt 19:18–19), but also Solomon in multiple Proverbs, e.g. 14:5, “A trustworthy witness will not lie, but a false witness utters lies,” and 19:5, “A false witness will not go unpunished, and he who tells lies will not escape.” This did not dissuade Christ and the apostles from affirming the continuing validity of the use of testimony for finding out factual truth, and it must not prevent us from affirming it either.
Nor are we in any position to simplistically claim that the rise of modern science has rendered the old, tried-and-true testimony standards passé. Scientism is incompatible with the scriptural teaching on the proper use of testimony. It is clearly impossible, biblically speaking, for science to be the sole arbiter of what is or is not true. And speaking practically, scientific “proof” can only be had, as mentioned earlier, for repeatable events where the initial conditions are known, an impossibility when dealing with non-repeatable historical events. This should be self-evident, but there are many people, Noah’s Ark researchers included, with a personality akin to that of Doubting Thomas. He adamantly refused to believe testimony, even from others he knew well. Let us read once more the familiar passage in John 20:24–29:
But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples were saying to him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.”
After eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors having been shut, and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.” Then He said to Thomas, “Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing.” Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.”
Therefore, on the basis of the words of Christ Himself, if there is no obvious reason to distrust what someone says—the person’s character is known to be reliable, and others testify to the same or very similar things—then it is more blessed to have the believing attitude of a child than a fundamental distrusting skepticism of everything one cannot personally prove. So, let us bring that kind of attitude to the testimonies of the Ark’s survival on Mt. Ararat, without at the same time being naïve. We are told to be innocent as doves, yet also as wise as serpents (Mt 10:16).
Applying This to the Search for the Ark
At the risk of sounding too strong, if we claim to follow the Bible as our guide to life, these principles should obligate us to accept testimony as a valid basis for evaluating truth claims, including those concerning the possible survival and location of Noah’s Ark. To reject them as not applying to the search for the Ark is to reject what God has revealed as a lasting principle for men and women to follow. God nowhere hints that the “two or three” principle has been set aside in our day in favor of science, or was ever to be restricted only to a certain time or only to “religious” matters; rather, it has wide application to determining truth in civil disputes and diverse other issues. Corroborating testimony, after all, underlies the whole foundation of our modern system of jurisprudence: the principle that repeated, believable testimony from multiple eyewitnesses, supplemented by objective factual data when possible, provides an adequate reason to say that something really happened.
Now, applying all of this to the search for Noah’s Ark, the very first step is to determine if there are obvious reasons not to believe a testimony—to see if the claims are being made by people out to make a buck or for other personal reasons. It is true that there have been a number of frauds and deceivers in the history of Noah’s Ark research. George Jammal in the early 1990’s pulled a fast one that duped a number of people, and 2011 has seen the ongoing saga of “Parasut” Ahmet Ertugrul and the Chinese Ark research team. But in both cases, it took just a little investigation by unbiased researchers to uncover the fact that things looked less than kosher.6
This is not true of the bulk of the recorded eyewitness testimonies concerning sightings of Noah’s Ark on Mt. Ararat. Many were made by well-disciplined military men with no apparent motive for lying, such as White Russian Army Col. Alexander Koor, US Army Sgt. Ed Davis, and several US Navy and Air Force servicemen. Their military training, plus advanced equipment at their disposal in some cases, made them careful observers. In the cases of George Hagopian and Ed Davis, not only were interviews with those who knew them performed as a character check, such things as financial records and obscure details in their stories were closely examined to check on their trustworthiness. As if that was not enough, they were also subjected to lie-detector tests (Corbin 79, 81, 108–109) that they passed. This constitutes far more than adequate character investigation. On this basis we can accept provisionally that these diverse individuals were reporting something they actually saw, although this does not itself rule out the possibility that they misinterpreted their sightings.
But that is beside the point. The crucial thing to note is that each of these “alleged” eyewitnesses was deemed reliable by those in a position to draw such a conclusion, with no known evidence to disqualify their testimony. Each acceptable testimony provides a data point for evaluation. On the authority of Scripture, we must accept their data as valid input in the efforts to find Noah’s Ark. After all the obviously shaky witnesses are removed from the table, we are obligated to look at all the rest and see if we can find the “two or three”—or more—that agree. We must not refuse to do this, if we are looking for truth and not merely self-vindication of a firmly-held opinion.
Do the “Ark on Ararat” Testimonies Pass the Test?
It is time to get an overview of the testimonies recorded in the book by B.J. Corbin, The Explorers of Ararat and the Search for Noah’s Ark (second edition, 1999), and ask if they can pass the “two or three” test. A summary chart of the testimonies can be found at http://noahsarksearch.com/Eyewitnesses.htm. Following is an abbreviated version of it:
One immediately notices the many repetitions of the very same features—the general location being on Mt. Ararat, at least partly in ice, having a box/barge shape, in a valley/depression, being near a ledge, cliff or both, and being either unbroken before about 1917 or broken thereafter. All of these factors pass the “two or three” test. It may be significant that the only two testimonies saying the sighting was NOT in ice were also two (of only four) which stated the Ark was NOT broken, so these factors may be related. Although not made clear on the chart, in the text of the George Hagopian testimony in Corbin (66–69, 368–374) it is clear that Hagopian considered the Ark to be unbroken and mostly ice-free in the early 1900s as well.
A Close Look at One Testimony—George Hagopian
Let us now examine the Hagopian testimony in some detail, for it has unique features that make it stand out from most others. A native Armenian, he claimed to have twice climbed Mt. Ararat as a young boy in the early 1900s and to have actually climbed on top of the Ark (Corbin 370). His testimony has been closely scrutinized by many researchers, and has stood up remarkably well. Below is a photo of him with researcher Elfred Lee.
The first thing to note is that, unlike in the case of Ed Davis, there is absolutely no ambiguity that the mountain he claimed to climb was Mt. Ararat. Hagopian demonstrated this certainty in many ways, including his use of the native Armenian name for Mt. Ararat, Masis (sometimes spelled “Massis”), and his intimate knowledge of things in the area of Lake Van. From journalist Rene Noorbergen’s interview with Hagopian (The Ark File, Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1955), we glean the following:
I first went there when I was about ten years old. It must have been around 1902. My grandfather was the minister of the big Armenian Orthodox Church in Van, and he always told me stories about the holy ship on the holy mountain. And then one day my uncle said, “Georgie, I’m going to take you to the holy mountain,” and he took me with him, packed his supplies on his donkey, and together we started our trek toward Mount Ararat. “Uncle, that’s the holy mountain,” I said, pointing to what seemed to be our destination up ahead of us. “That’s right, Georgie,” he said. “Massis is the holy mountain” (165).
We can therefore immediately rule out the idea that he placed his Ark discovery on any mountain other than Ararat. I also believe we can trust Noorbergen’s reporting, as he was a professional journalist, foreign correspondent and photographer who handled magazine and newspaper assignments in more than 80 countries over a period of at least 22 years (ibid., dust jacket back flap). Researcher Elfred Lee likewise recorded some of Hagopian’s testimony, delivered in a thick Armenian accent which can be hard to understand. Here is a brief transcript (Corbin 370, cf. Noorbergen 166 ff):
And then we got to the ark..My uncle dropped his pack, and together we began to haul stones to the side of the ship. Within a short time we had stacked a high pile of rocks against the side of the ship. “Georgie, come here,” he said, grabbing me by the arm. “You are going on top of the holy ark.”...I stood up straight and looked all over the ship. It was long. The height was about forty feet. “Look inside the ark,” my uncle called up to me. “Look for the holes. Look for the big one. Look inside and tell me what you see.”...Yes, there was the hole, big and gaping. I peeked into the blackness of the hole, but saw nothing. Then I knelt down and kissed the holy ark...The top of the ark was covered with a very thin coat of fresh fallen snow. But when I brushed some of it away I could see a green moss growing right on top. When I pulled a piece off...it was made of wood. The grain was right there.
By claiming he actually climbed onto the Ark, his story leaves no room for any misidentification of the Ark itself. This might be claimed against sightings from the air or photos taken from a distance, where rocks and shadows can play tricks on the eyes and yield that bane of researchers, a “phantom Ark,” but is not a factor here. Below are a few such “phantom Arks” which got researchers briefly excited in the past:
Hagopian’s story was also consistent; he did not vary his story in retelling it. This greatly impressed Ararat skeptic Bill Crouse (Ararat Report 32, May 1993), who observed,
Hagopian’s story is difficult to falsify. As he told and retold his story he never deviated from his original account.
Not only this, Hagopian was eminently credible. In an interview about his experiences working with Hagopian and tape-recording his testimony, Elfred Lee noted:
He was not one who would fabricate or lie. We checked him out as well. He had a very good reputation in town. We verified his bank accounts and income to make sure he was not making anything off of his statement. We also went to Lake Van in Turkey and specific sites he discussed to verify his authenticity (Corbin 69).
As to his integrity, he [Hagopian] had a PSE test, the lie detector test...and he passed the test. Also, his personal life, his reputation, his friends, and business acquaintances bore witness that he was an honest man who would not lie or fabricate. And he was not looking for any personal gain from it (Corbin 79).
Taking all of the above into account, one gets the impression that here we have someone worth listening to regarding Noah’s Ark. Bill Crouse admitted:
His knowledge of the Ararat area as he describes it is accurate and detailed. Other aspects of his story given to researchers seem to substantiate his credibility (1993).
We conclude that the story is quite believable in every way—EXCEPT for the subject matter! For the Ararat skeptics in particular, it seems to cry out for SOME reasons to fault it. Bill Crouse gave it his best shot:
The fact that he [Hagopian] is no longer with us makes it difficult to render any kind of judgement....The story itself is interesting, but it still provides no empirical evidence, and even if credible, is not helpful in the critical subject of location. Some things that trouble me are the fact that the testimony itself is secondhand...The George Hagopian story remains an interesting, but unverifiable story (ibid.).
Crouse’s comments merit discussion, because they go to a core issue: how we evaluate the trustworthiness of historical sources and eyewitness testimony. Why should Hagopian’s death make rendering a judgment about his testimony more difficult than when we evaluate historical documents we accept as valid? Since interviews with Hagopian were tape-recorded by both Elfred Lee and Rene Noorbergen, we are much closer to having firsthand testimony with him than with anything we have from ancient historians, such as Berossus, on whom the Mt. Cudi believers rely. The transcribed interviews of Noorbergen and Lee confirm that Hagopian did not vary his story for different hearers. Thus, I am convinced that the real issue is not so much about VERIFYING the Hagopian story, but simply BELIEVING it. This is very hard to do, particularly for those who have staked out a contrary position on the issue in their writings. But honesty demands it.
We face the predicament of being unable to completely verify a story, and thus having to exercise a certain measure of faith that it is true, with the writings of every dead historian of the ages. Yet, we don’t let the fact they are long dead stop us from using their information. We just try to make sound judgments about the sources, based largely on three factors: (1) their “reputation”; (2) their internal consistency; and (3) their external coherence with other known facts. The only essential difference between historical documents and eyewitness reports is the patina of antiquity possessed by the former. But that should have no bearing whatsoever on the trustworthiness of a source. What Berossus and Josephus wrote should not be given more weight than the firsthand testimony of George Hagopian. Since it also passes the “two or three” test in terms of its broad details—a mostly exposed, barge-shaped, unbroken Ark before about 1917, cf. the Eywitnesses chart—it demands to be taken into consideration by any truly honest researcher.
With these foundational matters out of the way, we end Part 1 of this study. Part 2 will build upon it, and address a few important issues critics have focused on as reasons for refusing to deal with the Mt. Ararat testimonies.
This article remains the sole property of the Associates for Biblical Research and Richard Lanser. Any reproduction, republication or other use without express permission from Associates for Biblical Research is strictly prohibited.
1. For more on this important issue, see: Greg Bahnsen, Revelation, Speculation and Science in the Fall 2011 issue of Bible and Spade.
2. Found offsite at: http://www.pbs.org/faithandreason/gengloss/sciism-body.html. The reader should observe that this definition refers to “scientism,” and has nothing to do with the relationship between true science and faith, which are quite compatible.
4. See http://creation.com/noahs-ark-or-what for more information on this apparent hoax. (Offsite link).