Mather was not the only one to make this mistake, of course: there are many examples that pre- and post-date him. What is interesting about the Mather case is that his prodigious writings on the subject provide context as to why the idea of finding giants was so attractive. In my opinion, the appeal of giants to Mather in 1705 was much the same as it is for many Nephilim enthusiasts today.
Mather was a Puritan minister who wrote extensively about science and religion and was vigorously involved in both. Working on another post, I was interested to learn that a large, previously unpublished work written by Mather during the period 1693-1728 had become available in 2010. The book, entitled Biblia Americana, has been printed in 6 volumes with over 4,500 pages. It is the earliest comprehensive Bible commentary written in North America, containing the thoughts of Mather on a huge variety of topics related to the intersection of science and religion. The first volume alone (Biblia Americana: Genesis) costs $200, which is well out of my price range. Luckily, however, I found some sections related to Mather’s thoughts on giants reproduced and discussed in a couple of publications made available by one of the editors (Reiner Smolinksi) as pdfs.
I’m going to reproduce several passages that I think are good illustrations of Mather’s thinking about giants. These are from the annotated version of Biblia Americana that I found here. I’ll keep the emphases (italics and capitalization) as it is provided.
The first quote (pages 582-583 in the publication, section 185r) is a question and answer about whether there is physical evidence of giants that proves the Old Testament to be true, therefore refuting atheism:
“Q. Concerning the Dayes before the Flood, the glorious Historian ha’s told us; There were GIANTS on the Earth, in those Dayes. Could any undoubted Ruines and Remains of those GIANTS, be found under the Earth, among the other subterraneous Curiosities, in our Dayes, it would be an Illustrious Confirmation of the Mosaic History, and an Admirable Obturation on the Mouth of Atheism?
A. Then let the Inquisitive Part of Mankind, know that the Bones of those who were certainly some of the Antediluvian GIANTS, have been found under the Earth, in these later Ages. Below the Strata of Earth, which the Flood left on the Surface of it, in the other Haemisphere, such enormous Bones have been found, as all skill in Anatomy must pronounce to belong unto Humane Bodies, & could belong to none but Giants, in Comparison of whom, Og, and Goliath, and all the Sons of Anak, must hardly be so much as Pygmies. But that AMERICA too, as tis but agreeable, may throw something, to the Treasures of the BIBLIA AMERICANA, I will surprise you, with telling you, That the Men who were able to have Turned the World upside down, came hither also; [How! No Man alive can tell!] And the Bones, probably of the Antediluvian GIANTS, have here been met withal.”
Mather's answer to his own question is a resounding "yes!" This is a clear statement of Mather's belief that the remains of pre-Flood giants could be found in North America, supporting the idea that biblical narrative was accurate. As discussed in the footnotes to the section of the text quoted above, the interpretation of mastodon bones as the bones of pre-Flood giants neatly resolved the problem of how to account for fossil remains that didn’t appear to be those of any other creature mentioned in the Old Testament.
Mather spends several paragraphs discussing what the giants actually were, remarking on what the term “Nephilim” might mean (pages 584-585 in the publication, section 185r):
“I will not go to trouble you, with the Opinions of the Ancients, who suppose the Original of those Giants, to be, The Sons of God coming in unto the Daughters of Men; and that the Sons of God, were Angels, or Divels; to which the Name of, Nephilim, which may signify, Fallen Ones, agrees well enough: . . .
An Extremity of Incredulity, ha’s led some to think, That the Antediluvian Giants were but Metaphorical Ones; That they were Giants for Quality only, and not for Quantity.”
In Mather's discussion, we can see two of the core elements that characterize the worldview of Nephilim enthusiasts today:
- Hard evidence of giants proves the Bible is true, therefore showing alternatives (whether atheism or Darwinian evolution) to be false;
- The term “giant” in the Bible was not used metaphorically, but rather to denote an actual human-like creature of large size (and possibly of supernatural origin?);
- Biblical giants should be found in the New World as well as the Old Word.
And there is another important point of similarity between Mather's interest in finding biblical giants and the approach taken by today’s Nephilim enthusiasts. We all know how the story of Mather's giant bones ends: the bones were later shown to be those of a mastodon. His enthusiastic acceptance of the “proof” that giants existed was conditioned by his pre-supposition that they of course must exist (because they were mentioned in the Bible). Looking for evidence to support a foregone conclusion, Mather accepted as proof something that was nothing of the sort.
Modern Nephilim enthusiasts routinely commit this same error, presenting as “proof” anything that fits with the Nephilim worldview.
Not much has really changed in 300 years. It would be funny, except that it’s not.