Saturday, January 19, 2013

Book Review: The Bible Among the Myths by John Oswalt

We live in an age of reductionism. Most commonly this comes through the use of the word just. Reductionists say, “the human mind is just a complex system of matter” or “morality is just an evolutionary byproduct for group survival.[1]” In biblical studies, it usually takes the form of, “The Genesis narratives are just another Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) myth.”

Post-evangelicals today regularly use such arguments. At the popular level, writers like Rachel Held Evans comment on the “remarkably similar” ANE flood and creation accounts to those found in Genesis. Understanding Genesis as non-historical, non-scientific myth, which contains the same “human literary devices” and “cosmological assumptions” as the ANE was “freeing” to her.[2] Peter Enns is the post-evangelical scholar most frequently associated with this view. In his book Inspiration and Incarnation, Enns sought to show that God accommodated himself to the cultures of ANE by using non-historical and non-scientific literary forms in Genesis (and elsewhere) to communicate his message.[3] Many have followed his lead, especially those seeking resolution of the perceived discord between faith and science.

In the realm of secular scholarship, such views are unquestioned. The reigning paradigm originated in the History of Religions School. This 19th century perspective held that monotheistic religion originated from the lower classes of primitive society creating tribal shamanism as a means to assert power over those more physically or societally powerful.[4] These shamanistic beliefs evolved into polytheism, then to henotheism and eventually to monotheism. The school founded their view in the religious similarity of ancient cultures and sought to fit all data into a linear, evolutionary paradigm. Within this paradigm, the Genesis narratives became just another myth alongside the myths of other ancient cultures. In the early 20th century, scholars began critiquing how well certain beliefs fit within the paradigm. Eventually, the predominant scholarly view shifted away from the linear model, yet interpreting the Genesis narrative as just another creation myth remains prevalent.

Why is this the case? There are obvious similarities between Genesis and other ancient and modern origin stories. Scholars maintaining this view have presented the similarities as those characteristics most essential to Genesis, and the differences as secondary and non-essential aspects of the Genesis narratives. But what if this is misguided? What if the differences are the essential aspects in Genesis and the worldview of the Old Testament (OT)? What if Genesis and other ANE stories are similar in the way that my KIA minivan and a Ferrari are similar? “Hey, they both have wheels after and a steering wheel, therefore the Ferrari is just another type of car. Want to trade?” It seems to me that in Genesis, as in car sales, the differences are much more significant than the similarities.

John Oswalt, professor of OT Studies and Hebrew at Asbury Theological Seminary, has attempted to make this case recently in his book, The Bible Among the Myths. He builds on older work of G.E. Wright from Harvard University to make his case, contending that Wright’s work still stands as an efficient critique to the predominant view.[5] Since the data from the ANE hasn’t changed significantly in nearly 70 years, Oswalt contends that the key reason behind the persistent reductionist view isn’t the data itself, but “prior theological and philosophical convictions” held by those in the field.[6]

The book is divided into two sections; the first discussing the Bible and the genre of ancient myth, and the latter discussing the Bible and ancient historical writing. Although both topics are highly pertinent to Christian apologetics, the latter has been more fully addressed elsewhere and thus this review will largely focus on the first section and its implications for the apologetic task.[7]

The first section gives a good introduction to the various contemporary meanings of myth; etymological, which stressed the “falsity of the thing being described;”[8] sociological, which stresses whether or not the group views the thing as true but ignores whether or not the thing is actually true; literary, which simply means a certain way of writing; phenomenological, which stresses the common characteristics of writing that has been called myth. Oswalt spends most of his writing on this final meaning, for it dominates the meaning frequently used in biblical studies. He shows that the proponents of this view seek to define myth as that which seeks to relate the natural with the human, the ideal with the actual and the punctual to the continual. After his analysis of these views, he concludes by showing that an essential aspects of descriptive or phenomenological definitions of myth is what he calls “continuity” or “correspondence;” “that all things are continuous with each other.”[9] This core presupposition of continuity explains the near universal ancient attribution of human characteristics to the natural world. It explains the cyclical framework through which most of the ancient world saw reality, not to mention the belief that reenactment of the myths will bring about present fulfillment for those reenacting them. After this analysis, Oswalt makes this provocative claim about the Bible’s relation to this world of myth:
The fact is that the Bible has a completely different understanding of existence and of the relations among the realms. As a result, it functions entirely differently. It’s telling does not actualize continuous divine reality out of the real invisible world into this visible reflection of that reality. Rather, it is a rehearsal of the non-repeatable acts of God in identifiable time and space in concert with human beings...whatever the Bible is, whether true or false, it is not myth.
Oswalt does not believe that the reductionist view of the Bible can be maintained, and argues passionately against seeing the Bible as just another myth by first describing the perspective of continuity that underlies other ANE literature.

Oswalt defines the underlying continuity in myth as “the idea that all things that exist are part of each other...[with] no fundamental distinctions between the three realms: humanity, nature and the divine.”[10] Everything coexists in this worldview. The idols are symbols of the gods, but in a very real sense are the gods. Thunderstorms are the gods action. Human sexual reenactment of the gods sexual activity inspires agricultural produce in reality. Each realm is continuous and connected. In this worldview, “the mythmaker...reasons from the given to the divine.”[11]

Oswalt gives an assortment of common characteristics of a worldview of continuity. First, it emphasizes the present reality against both the past and the future. Origin stories are not told to emphasize what happened per se, but to explain the current situation with its complexity of relationships. Second, they blur the image and the real. Thus, the god behind the idol becomes blurred with the manifestation of the god in the image of the idol(s). The unifying divine source behind the gods cannot easily be distinguished from the manifestation of the gods. Third, they emphasize natural symbols. From a perspective of continuity, this makes sense as what happens in nature affects and represents both the human and divine spheres. Fourth, they value magic. Oswalt defines magic as the ability to “accomplish something in the divine doing a similar thing in the human realm.”[12] In this perspective, ANE cult prostitution is a theological statement about the nature of reality. Human sexual action produced offspring, and in a worldview of continuity such action would have been thought to inspire divine sexual action producing the harvest. Finally, a worldview of continuity inherently denies boundaries. Since everything connects and is interrelated, one cannot expect to find distinct boundaries between things. Therefore, one is not surprised to find prostitution, beastiality, incest and other types of sexual behavior for this perspective inherently rejects boundaries.

Based on these underlying characteristics of a worldview of continuity, Oswalt gives the following characteristics of myth as both logical deductions of this worldview, and as common features of ANE myth. They are polytheism, idolatry, eternality of chaotic matter, a denial of individual personality, a low view of the divine and human, seeing conflict as a source of life, no single standard for ethics and a cyclical concept of existence. Each of these clearly come from the underlying presuppositions above. Oswalt makes clear that this perspective was not only typical of the ANE, but almost universal including the Greeks and Romans, the Hindus and various other Asian religions. He states that if “humans may discover ultimate reality by extrapolating from their own experience…[then they will] arrive, all over the world, at a remarkably similar understanding of reality.”[13] At this point, it should be clear that these perspectives are not universal, and the exceptions are obvious; Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which each hold to a radically different understanding of reality. But where does that understanding come from apart from their common source literature, i.e. the Hebrew Bible?

At this point, I have to admit to a personal bias in favor of Oswalt’s perspective. Whenever I began studying biblical studies, I did so at a mainline Protestant university. The professors spoke of Genesis as being mythical and sharing countless characteristics with the myths of the ANE. As such, I assumed the truth of their statements. I must admit, that it was shocking whenever I actually began reading ANE literature. The differences were profound and many of the suggested similarities seemed ad hoc. Whereas I could understand some of these similarities as veiled polemics against other ANE literature, seeing the Genesis narratives as a progression from these writings seemed (and remains to seem) impossible. Why? Oswalt does a wonderful job outlining the perspective of the OT on origins to show just how distinct its worldview is from the worldview of other ANE writings.

Whereas ANE myths project a worldview of continuity, Oswalt argues that the Bible displays a worldview of transcendence and revelation. He lists the common characteristics of “biblical thought” as monotheism, iconoclasm, spiritual priority over material, creation through process, a high view of God and humanity, a redefined view of sexual ethics (desacralization), a prohibition on magic, a demand for ethical obedience, and the importance of God’s interaction with humanity in history. Clearly, these distinctives are incompatible with the worldview of continuity outlined above. Each flows from the basic presupposition that there is a transcendent God apart from and beyond creation, or what some theologians call the Creator-creature distinction. Such a God cannot be manipulated by magic, nor be represented by anything within His creation whether an idol or nature itself. Were he to reveal Himself, his commands would be unalterable and define boundaries for existence within that creation, etc. Since the Hebrew Bible undergirds this worldview, one is not surprised to find typical ANE ideas such as the fertility cult, idolatry and the divinity of finite things utterly rejected.

What are the implications of these distinctions for Oswalt’s argument in regards to Christian apologetics? First, calling the Genesis narratives myth requires redefining the term in a way that devoids it of any value. Second, it means that the distinctions between the Bible and ANE myth are more relevant than the similarities. Oswalt shows that there are many similarities, but there is discontinuity in how these similar forms, ideas, etc. are used between the Hebrew Bible and ANE literature. He says, “it is not unique because it is not part of its world; neither is it unique because its writers were incapable of relating what they say to that world...rather, it is unique precisely because being a part of its world and using concepts and forms from its world, it can project a vision of reality diametrically opposite to the vision of that world.”[14]

Although the broadness of the topic could require much more exploration and detail, Oswalt completes his task in a mere 200 pages. His arguments are clear and persuasive. As such, I recommend this book for apologists interested in biblical apologetics who are regularly bombarded by the reductionist argument of the Bible being just another myth. Oswalt effectively ends such talk. Whereas one might quibble with a few points here or there, the force of the book is strong enough that those wishing to maintain the reductionist position must at least respond.[15]

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer G. Kyle Essary loves studying Scripture, and the Old Testament in particular. He and his family live in Southeast Asia where he strives to live for the One to whom the Old Testament points.

[1] There are a number of books that deconstruct such reductionism dating back to the early 20th century with classics such as G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man or C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man. More recent contributions have virtually removed any plausibility from true materialist reductionism. See for instance, Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos or Conor Cunningham’s masterful Darwin’s Pious Idea. A personal favorite is Wendell Berry’s Life is a Miracle.

[2] Rachel Held Evans’s blog post, “Can God Speak Through Myth?” found at:

[3] Peter Enns was openly evangelical at the time of the publication of his book, but has since espoused a more agnostic stance on many evangelical doctrines, while rejecting others. His current views seem best to be defined as post-evangelical, although such a classification is rather broad.

[4] The thinking largely followed the conjectured perspective of Nietzsche in On the Genealogy of Morality. For the school, and Nietzsche, the origins of religion and slave morality are closely linked.

[5] Wright’s book The Bible Against Its Environment critiques the evolutionary idea, arguing for the uniqueness of the biblical text and worldview against other ANE literature and perspectives.

[6] John Oswalt, The Bible among the Myths, Kindle ed. HarperCollins, 2010, loc. 101 - The ANE creation stories from the Ugaritic “library” were found primarily between1928-1958, the Enuma Elish was found in 1849, as was the Atra-Hasis, the Epic of Gilgamesh in 1853 with many of the Egyptian stories being known even earlier.

[7] A recent contribution worth reading is Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? edited by James Hoffmeier and Dennis Magary.

[8] Oswalt, loc. 406.

[9] Ibid., loc. 579.

[10] Ibid., loc. 660.

[11] Ibid., 700.

[12] Ibid., 782.

[13] Ibid., loc. 893. Some have recently argued that contemporary atheism also falls into this continuous paradigm where matter is eternal and chaotic (without ultimate purpose originating as a bubble in the quantum vacuum), and the powers of reality are reduced to the brute forces in nature. One such recent article is Ben Suriano, “On What Could Rightly Pass for a Fetish” found at“every-christian-should-‘quite-rightly-pass-for-an-atheist’”/

[14] Ibid., loc. 1700.

[15] Although I stated earlier that there are better books for discussing the relationship of the Bible and historical matters, I do not mean to imply that Oswalt does not do so effectively. Such matters are regularly discussed in apologetic circles though, so I decided to focus this review on the discussion of uniqueness and myth.


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