Noah’s Ark and Sir William Jones

  • David N. Lorenzen Colegio de Mexico
Keywords: Sir William Jones, India, Noah's Ark, Orientalism


Sir William Jones (1746-1794) is considered one of the founders of the modern study of Indian culture and religion. His translations from Sanskrit and his founding of the Asiatic Society of Calcutta were instrumental in making India better known in Britain and Europe. Nowadays particular attention is paid to a passage in which he posits the existence of an ancient language that modern linguists call Indo-European. The present article questions to what extent this hypothesis is indebted to Jones and notes the work of earlier linguistic scholars. It also argues that his historical speculations about both linguistic history and the history of the ancient world were vitiated by his faith in the literal truth of Biblical history, most notably the idea that Noah and his sons and their wives were the only survivors of a great flood that occurred in 2348 BCE. The article also reviews the gradual decline of Biblical literalism both before and after Jones and how this affected European studies of India and its ancient history.


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Author Biography

David N. Lorenzen, Colegio de Mexico
David N. Lorenzen did his graduate studies with A. L. Basham in London and Australia. Since 1970 he has been a professor in El Colegio de México in Mexico City. His research has dealt primarily with the study of Hindu religious movements. These have included groups associated with Tantrik religion, groups derived directly and indirectly with the poet-saint Kabir (ca. 1500), and an eighteenth-century Christian mission of Italian Capuchins in Bihar. A full curriculum and a selection of Lorenzen’s published articles is available through the web-site He can be reached at:


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