On Swimming Elephants

Andy Naselli —  April 3, 2009 — 10 Comments

Do you know the precise origin of the following textually related quotations?

  1. The Bible is like a stream of running water in which a lamb may walk and an elephant may swim.
  2. The Bible is like a body of water in which a child may wade and an elephant may swim.

Photo © Olivier Blaise

I’ve heard this quoted in many sermons (sometimes with “drown” swapped for “swim”), and I’ve seen it quoted in many books (sometimes in commentaries on John’s Gospel). It vividly illustrates that some parts of the Bible are simple and straightforward and that others require the highest level of historical and theological integration. Most people, however, quote this without attributing a source (e.g., “it has been said that”). Others attribute it (almost always without documentation) to Augustine, Gregory the Great, or John Owen.

After looking into this a bit (with the help of my friend Mark Snoeberger), I think that the original source of this quotation is from Gregory the Great’s commentary on Job (Moralinscr. 4 [CCL 143:6]):

Scripture is like a river again, broad and deep, shallow enough here for the lamb to go wading, but deep enough there for the elephant to swim.

That translates the Latin original, included here with more context (note the bold words):

Habet in publico unde parvulos nutriat, servat in secreto unde mentes sublimium in admiratione suspendat. Quasi quidam quippe est fluvius ut ita dixerim planus et altus in quo et agnus ambulet, et elephas natet.

Cf. John Moorhead (Gregory the Great [Routledge, 2005], pp. 21, 161n41):

In a famous image, Gregory explains that the Bible is like a river in which a lamb can walk and an elephant swim.

Gp ad Leand. 4. This memorable image gains in force because Gregory again uses sounds, in this case a sequence of vowels, to emphasise the point: agnus ambulet et elephas natet. This expression occurs in a letter to a distant friend, rather than in a work originally delivered orally, suggesting that Gregory expected even his written words to be apprehended aurally.

Does anyone know if this quotation predates Gregory the Great?

Update: Here’s video of an elephant swimming.

Related:

  1. Planet Earth: A Theological Documentary
  2. Piper on “Planet Earth”

10 responses to On Swimming Elephants

  1. Maybe… Tarzan the Great?

    Oh wait. He’s later.

  2. The same question was asked on the Puritan Board with the same conclusion. See also Google Books and Archive (p. 5 bottom of the footnote).

  3. They said Tarzan too? Cool!

  4. What I want to know is if all elephants swim or if that one has been trained to do so?

    What a picture!

    Jim

  5. I have read someone who attributed the saying to Chrysostom’s comment on John’s Gospel. However, your research agrees with that of Craig Koester. I will need to correct my reference when I use the imagery. Thanks.

  6. Jim,

    I’m not an elephantologist, of course, but it doesn’t seem abnormal for elephants to swim. There’s some really cool footage of it in one of the Planet Earth DVDs. Cf. my two posts on that:

    1. Planet Earth: A Theological Documentary

    2. Piper on “Planet Earth”

  7. Joseph Hall used a similar phrase in the 17th century, but as a rebuke for the unlearned lay-people to stay close to shore & leave the deep waters for the elephants like himself.

    XLIV In the waters of life, the divine scriptures, there are shallows, and there are deeps: shallows, where the lamb may wade; and deeps, where the elephant may swim. If we be not wise to distinguish, we may easily miscarry: he that can wade over the ford, cannot swim through the deep; and if he mistake the passage, he drowns. What infinite mischief hath arisen to the Church of God from the presumption of ignorant and unlettered men, that have taken upon them to interpret the most obscure scriptures, and pertinaciously defended their own sense!

  8. The video you posted is now blocked by BBC. :(
    The question you pose, however, is delightful.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Quote of the day: “Scripture is like a river . . . broad and deep, shallow enough here for the lamb to go wading, but deep enough there for the elephant to swim.” « Grateful to the dead - February 26, 2010

    [...] to Andy Naselli, blogger and PhD student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, for tracking down the quotation [...]

  2. A Conversation with Andy Naselli- Credo Magazine - September 6, 2012

    [...] It has been said that the Bible is like a deep, broad body of water, shallow enough for a lamb to wade but deep enough for an elephant swim. Some parts are simple and straightforward, and others are not. Romans 9–11 is not. It is logically dense and theologically weighty. And it ends with an often-overlooked typological connection to Isaiah and Job. [...]

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