Saturday, March 27, 2010

Myth: Continuity or Transcendence?

A Review of The Bible Among the Myths
John N. Oswalt, Zondervan 2009

By Benjamin Shaw
Associate Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament
Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary

In a brief book, Oswalt has done a good service for college and seminary students (and ministers) faced with the common assertion that the Bible is simply one other among the dozens of Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) mythologies, whose only real difference is that it originated in Israel, and not in Babylon, Assyria, or Egypt.

In the first half of the book, “The Bible and Myth,” Oswalt first addresses the issue of definition. If we’re going to call something a myth, we have to know what a myth is. So Oswalt investigates the numerous competing definitions that have been offered, concluding that, when properly defined, the Bible is not myth. This is so because myth presupposes a particular view of the world and how it operates that the Bible does not share. He follows the chapter on definition with two chapters, one describing the worldview of myth, characterized by Oswalt as “continuity.” The next chapter then describes the worldview of the Bible, which Oswalt characterizes as “transcendence.” These two chapters alone are worth the price of the book. The first half of the book concludes with a comparison of the Bible and ANE myths, focusing on the similarities between the two literatures and the significance of those similarities for the overall discussion.

In the second half of the book, “The Bible and History,” Oswalt again deals with the initial problem as one of definition. As in the first part, Oswalt carefully examines various proposed definitions of history. At the risk of oversimplification, he concludes that the Bible is history, simply not modern secular history. He then considers the significance of the historicity of the Bible for the Christian faith, defending it against the existential treatment of the Bible put forth by Bultmann, and against the more modern treatment by process theology. The concluding chapters then deal with explaining the origin of the Bible as unique in world literature. He concludes that any explanation other than the one offered by the Bible itself (God revealed it) is inadequate to the task.

I heartily recommend the book, but I wish he had done two additional things. First, I wish he had made the simple point that, with all the attention being paid to ANE mythologies these days, it seems to have escaped the notice of most that these texts were buried in the dust of the Near East for better than two millennia and had no effect on the lives of people beyond, perhaps, their initial immediate audience. The Bible, in the same time span, has produced the most populous religious community in the world. If the Bible is really just another myth, that large fact needs to be explained.

The other thing I wish Oswalt had done is to have presented in an appendix the text of the Enuma Elish in parallel with the text of Genesis 1-11. The reason the Enuma Elish is so often referred to is that it is the only ANE “creation” myth that has reached us virtually intact. A simple presentation of the two texts in parallel would do almost as much as Oswalt’s discussion to make it clear that what similarities the Bible may share with ANE myth, they are incomparably different forms of literature.