Posted on Mar 8, 2013 by Tom Gilson
The Bible among the Myths: Unique Revelation or Just Ancient Literature? by John N. Oswalt
Somehow we’ve been led to believe that the main apologetic issue in the first chapters of the Bible is whether they’re good science. John N. Oswalt has raised a more interesting question: Are they good myth?
He didn’t phrase it quite that way, but I don’t think he would object to my doing so.
What is Myth?
“Myth” has multiple meanings. Some writers conceive of it as including any story purporting to explain where we came from and what we’re doing here. Some limit it strictly to false stories, some to stories of the unknown, some to stories of gods. Oswalt, a specialist in Ancient Near East (ANE) history and literature, takes it that the most helpful way to define “myth” is according to way it is most often used.
On that view, stories labeled as myths have certain common features. Above all they communicate belief in continuity: that wherever we came from, in many ways it’s a lot like where we are. Thus:
- In the beginning there were gods having family squabbles just as we do, or
- In the beginning there was stuff (matter) everywhere, and it wasn’t terribly cooperative, so it took someone to work it into shape, or
- In the beginning there was some combination thereof…
…as in the Baylonian Enuma Elish, where Chaos (Tiamut) had to be vanquished by the god Marduk, out of whose very blood and bone man was fashioned. These all exhibit the common them of continuity: from matter to mankind to the gods, everything is on one continuum.
This is myth, and in one form or another this idea of continuity is universal in creation stories—almost. There is an exception.
The “Myth” That Doesn’t Fit
Exactly once in the history of mankind there arose another creation account that opened with, “In the beginning God…” There is only one monotheistic creation account among the religions of man, and its contrasts with the other accounts could not be more stark. The God of the Old Testament is serenely supreme. He struggles with no other god. Rather than subduing chaotic matter he creates it according to his will, and it is good. Matter is no emanation of himself, and humans are not his flesh and blood; rather there is a distinct separation: transcendence rather than continuity.
I have asked in the past how the ancient Hebrews could have been so far ahead of their time. The Bible Among the Myths extends the question: how could they have been so utterly different from every other culture in history? For the contrasts are great. Oswalt identifies these common (if not universal) features of myth, contrasted with the Genesis view:
- Cyclical time: there is a lack of definite beginning and no clear direction to reality (with no one to give it direction). The Bible speaks of history with a beginning, with progress, and with a destination.
- Nature symbolizing the divine. The Bible specifically rejects this.
- The significance of magic, specifically the use of ritual and/or manipulations of matter to cause predictable results in the realm of deity. This, too, is nowhere to be found in biblical religion.
- Obsession with fertility and potency, often expressed in religious (temple-based, even) prostitution of every base description. God is not sexual, nor is the religion he revealed.
- Polytheism: obviously not the case for biblical theism.
- The use of images in worship: expressly forbidden in the Ten Commandments.
- Eternity of chaotic matter: see above; not so in the Bible.
- Low view of the gods, who are more powerful than humans but no better ethically; the Bible depicts God as perfectly holy, just, loving, and righteous.
There is considerably more: I would rather leave you wanting to know more than thinking you had the gist of it covered here. These differences in substance obtain in spite of certain similarities of form between the Bible’s account and others.
Not Good Myth At All
And so I return to the question I started with: are the first chapters of Genesis good myth? No, not at all. They are good in other ways; in fact, they are astonishing for their uniqueness. If I had time to go into it I would also speak of their explanatory excellence, not so much scientifically but in terms of clarifying the human condition.
But as myth, the first chapters of the Bible are no good at all. How could they be? They don’t even fit the category.
The Bible among the Myths: Unique Revelation or Just Ancient Literature? by John N. Oswalt. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009. 186 pages (Nook Edition) including endnotes.