Ancient biblical art depicts Noah’s ark as a box with legs
Reading the story of Noah’s ark today (Genesis 6–9), we naturally imagine that Noah, his family, and the loaded animals of all kinds survived the flood aboard a large wooden ship or other seaworthy vessel. After all, the ark was a boat, right?
Not so fast! Ancient biblical art depicts Noah’s ark not as a boat, but rather as a simple wooden box on legs. In his article “The Curious Case of Noah’s…Box?” in the Summer 2021 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, archaeologist Shelley Wachsmann looks at examples of ancient biblical art and examines how early translations of the Hebrew word for “ark” may have influenced, in surprising and unexpected ways, ancient depictions of Noah’s fabled seaworthy construction.
So does ancient biblical art help us answer the question, “How did Noah build the ark?” It may seem odd, but early Christian and Jewish artists of the early first millennium C.E. portrayed Noah’s ark as a box, often with legs. The earliest depiction of the ark actually comes from the pagan city of Apamea Kibotos, where coins minted during the second and third centuries show Noah and his wife standing inside a box with an open lid. Above the lid is depicted a dove, bearing an olive branch, and a raven (Genesis 8:6–12).
Noah’s ark and the biblical flood story are also recurring themes in the mosaic floors that adorned churches and synagogues throughout the ancient world. One of the best-preserved and most elaborate scenes comes from the site of Mopsuestia, Turkey, where dozens of animals surround an open chest with four legs (see image above). A Greek inscription depicted on the chest’s open lid reads “the ark of Noah the redeemer.” More recently, excavations at the fifth-century synagogue of Huqoq in northern Israel revealed a similar mosaic carpet, also showing the ark not as a boat, but as a wooden chest with legs.
So why does ancient biblical art depict Noah’s ark in this unusual way? The answer has to do with translation. While the original authors of the Pentateuch used distinct Hebrew terms to refer to Noah’s ark (tieveh) and the box-shaped “Ark” of the Covenant (aron), the Hebrew Bible’s Greek translators, who began their work in the third century B.C.E., used a single Greek word, kibotos, meaning an enclosed wooden container used to store valuables, to refer to both objects.
It seems likely, therefore, that early Jewish and Christians artists, working in the early first millennium C.E., were influenced by overly literal interpretations of the translated Hebrew Bible, which suggested to them that Noah’s ark and the Ark of the Covenant were similar in appearance.
In the free eBook Exploring Genesis: The Bible’s Ancient Traditions in Context, discover the cultural contexts for many of Israel’s latest traditions.
This article first appeared in Bible History Daily on July 21, 2021.
Sign up to receive our email newsletter and never miss an update.
Dig into the world of Bible history with a BAS All-Access membership. Biblical Archaeology Review in print. AND online access to the treasure trove of articles, books, and videos of the BAS Library. AND free Scholar Series lectures online. AND member discounts for BAS travel and live online events.Subscribe Today