Saturday, August 03, 2013

Book Review: The Bible Among the Myths by John Oswalt

Visit any forum where atheists and Christians are engaged in discussion and you will find non-believers claiming that Christianity is a myth and that Jesus is no more real than Zeus or Osiris. They will then offer a number of supposed similarities as evidence. However, as John N. Oswalt, distinguished professor of Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, Kentucky, states in his The Bible Among the Myths, such a comparison stems from a lack of understanding about what constitutes a myth. While some people think it is simply a story that is false, Oswalt explains that it is a worldview with specific characteristics that stand in opposition to what the Bible tells us.

There was a time when the majority of people accepted God’s Word as true in what it related about people and events. Oswalt says the Ancient Near Eastern data hasn’t changed, but the way we explain and understand it has. In a society where naturalism reigns, people’s view of reality no longer includes the supernatural.  The Bible’s miracles cause it to be relegated to the category of myth.

Oswalt devotes almost 20 pages to nailing down the meaning of the word. Etymological definitions “stress the falsity of the thing being described” (33) or assert that myth is “a story involving a pre-scientific worldview” (34). Sociological-theological definitions include “the central theory of any religion which its adherents regard as true” (36). One phenomenological definition describes myth as “an attempt to relate the actual to the ideal” (42) with reality residing in the ideal world, not this one.

A common literary definition states that “myth is a narrative in which there is a deeply serious use of symbolism to convey profound realities” (38). However, these “realities” need not be historically true. As Oswalt notes, a book such as Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is mythic in that it explores some of the realities of life such as obsession, but the people in the book did not exist and the hunt for the white whale did not take place.

Oswalt sums up myth as a worldview of “continuity” in which all things are continuous with each other. This makes the statement “I am one with the tree”, not merely a spiritual or symbolic claim, but an actual one because everything in the cosmos is considered to be physically part and parcel of each other.

Oswalt notes that “this blurring of the one and the many” is common to all myths. However, it is noticeably absent from the Bible. In Ancient Eastern mythologies, the world emanated from the deities whereas Genesis tells us that God created the earth and everything in it ex nihilo. He is entirely separate from his creation and his transcendence stands in direct opposition to the continuous existence of mythical gods.

This understanding of continuity explains why proponents of myth see their gods in nature and represent them with idols of wood or stone made in the form of human beings or animals. Myths offer a myriad of deities because there is a myriad of elements in the world. The gods are like human beings in that they are petty, argumentative and selfish. People are created to be their slaves and have no value apart from that role. How vastly different is this scenario from the Biblical one in which the one and only holy God crafts humankind as the crown of creation to be in a loving relationship with him.
The worldview of continuity is evident in how people regard the past. In mythology, life is viewed as circular rather than linear. People attempt to recreate events and manipulate deities through rituals that often include the sexual act. On the other hand, the Bible contends that “human experience (is) moving toward a goal through a series of linked causes and effects in the world” (111).

Indeed, Christianity is based in history. Therefore, Oswalt spends a great deal of time exploring the understanding of reality on which history depends. He looks at how both the Israelites and their pagan neighbours viewed it, noting that the latter had no concern for accuracy, but created fictional accounts of the past for control purposes (137). This meant that their chroniclers only produced fanciful records of glory.

In comparison, the Old Testament reports events and actions of great shame on the part of the Israelites with one specific goal in mind – to keep an accurate historical record of their ongoing relationship with God so that he could be known through it (143). Therefore, the Bible is not just “history-like” as some critics assert.

Oswalt then looks at the uniqueness of the Bible as history by discussing the German distinction between Historie and Geschichte. The former defines what happened and is the domain of the historian while the latter tells us what was going on and is the domain of the theologian (152). The Bible involves both simply because the Biblical message cannot be abstracted from its historical substructure (153). As Oswalt puts it, “the theology is an interpretation of the historic event, and apart from the historic event, the theology is simply illusory” (170).

But, critics will protest, what about the supernatural elements? Surely that argues against the historicity of the Scripture content. Again, Oswalt insists that the fantastic does not make a religion a myth; it is the worldview of continuity and all it entails that makes it one. The Bible, he concludes, differs essentially from all other religious literature – except that which derives from it – in that it “claims to be the result of (the transcendent) God’s breaking in upon distinct persons and a distinct nation in unique, non-repeatable acts and words” (194).

It is important to note that, while Oswalt offers a brief comparison of the Genesis creation story with the Babylonian account of the world’s origins (known as the Enuma Elish), he does not spend much time presenting the differences between the Bible and individual mythologies. That is because he is not interested in attacking the slight and superficial similarities between them, but is focused on exposing the profound differences between the category of myth and Holy Scripture. However, some readers might be disappointed not to have a detailed juxtaposition of the content of specific legends with that of God’s Word in the book.

Apart from that, however, The Bible Among the Myths is excellent, not just because it provides clear, intelligent responses to the issues that non-believers raise about the Bible and mythology, but because it gives the reader a deeper understanding and appreciation of God and his uniqueness. Therefore, it is highly recommended.

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Mary Lou is a Canadian journalist currently working on a Master’s degree in Theological Studies from Tyndale University College and Seminary, Toronto, Ontario. She holds three other degrees, including one in history, and writes poetry and fiction as well as non-fiction.

1 Comment

  1. The Janitor August 6, 2013

    Been meaning to read this for a while. Thanks for the review.