Myth in the Scriptures

Would an inspired book necessarily be historically and scientifically inerrant? There is no particular reason to think so. One could not be sure, as fundamentalists would like to think, that an inspired book would not contain inspired myths and legends, even fiction. There are other non-factual genres in the Bible, after all, like the Psalms. Who is the theologian to tell God that he cannot have included certain genres in his book? If we know God’s literary tastes in such detail, then I suggest the Bible is altogether superfluous. We already know the very mind of God before we even open the Bible! – Robert M. Price

Today I’m writing about mythology as it relates to the scriptures.

First of all, let me clarify that when I say “myth” I don’t mean what it means in popular usage, namely a story or belief that is simply false. Rather, I mean the very specific meaning it has as a genre of ancient literature.

Historians of the Near East didn’t use the word “myth” to mean untrue or made-up. These ideas may be included, but it is actually used to get at something deeper. Peter Enns defines myth as “an ancient, premodern, prescientific way of addressing questions of ultimate origins and meaning in the form of stories: Who are we? Where do we come from?” Another good definition, given by Alan Dundes, is, “A sacred narrative explaining how the world and humankind assumed their present form.”

As the quote at the beginning explains, we have no good reason to assume that the scriptures do not contain any mythical accounts. This is true even if we grant that the scriptures are inspired. There is nothing about the category of myth that could inhibit God’s ability to speak to us through it.

On the contrary, God speaking to people according to paradigms that were already held would significantly help their comprehension; otherwise his communication would have been incomprehensible (e.g. if God communicated to people thousands of years ago with our modern worldview, which, unfortunately, many people read back into their interpretation of the scriptures).

Many assume that a modern recording of history (with an emphasis on factual accuracy) is more valuable than myth, and therefore that’s what God did in the OT. But is God really concerned about us getting our facts straight? What if he only cares about our beliefs to the degree that it affects how we relate with him and others? What if he’s interested in the message that is communicated more than making sure the statements recorded are true propositions?

Ancient peoples did not attempt to describe the universe in scientific terms. Myths in the scriptures would not have the goal of telling historically and scientifically accurate stories; they wouldn’t derive value from catering to what is merely our modern worldviews and academic practices. Rather, myths have value because they have analogues in other civilizations. It was in the differences with those analogues, and thus in comparison, that the myths spoke its message. (So what happens when we lose sight of the analogues and there is nothing to compare it to? We simply take everything in it, enforce concepts of modernity on the text, and say “well, I guess all of it must be true.” This misses the purpose of the myth and therefore what it tries to communicate.)

Let’s look at some examples of myth in the scriptures.

The land Abraham came from (Mesopotamia) and that he was called to (Canaan) both expressed stories of origins in mythic categories for a long time. What makes Genesis unique is not that it is historically accurate unlike the similar mythic stories of its time but that it begins to reveal the God that is different from all the gods before him.

God adopted Abraham as the forefather of a new people, and in doing so he also adopted the mythic categories within which Abraham – and everyone else – throughout. But God did not simply leave Abraham in his mythic world. Rather, God transformed the ancient myths so that Israel’s story would come to focus on its God, the real one. – Peter Enns

Since the  ancient Near Eastern stories are myth and the Genesis stories are extremely similar to them, Genesis should also be understood as myth. This is expected since Genesis is an ancient document, not a modern one. Just because our culture does not understand origins in terms of myth doesn’t mean that we can make something that was written as myth fit our modern perspectives or judge them based on standards of modern historical inquiry and scientific precision.

The literal interpretation [of Genesis] is only about a hundred years old, and that approach to the Bible came out of the Enlightenment, which requires a Eurocentric post-scientific-revolution worldview that none of the writers of the Bible ever considered. I more favor a literary interpretation; understanding not only the cultural context but also the genre and style that certain sections of the Bible were written in. And the first eleven chapters of Genesis are written in the genre of a creation myth: fantastic imagery used to package the explanation of how we got here. I think reading the Bible like a textbook full of facts is not only quite silly, but also sucks out all the enjoyment of reading the Bible. – Andrew Love

Jesus’ claims are another good example (although perhaps not exactly myth in and of themselves, they were definitely derived from myths). Put simply, they weren’t unique. Indeed, Jesus wasn’t trying to be. He was making a comparison between himself and other people or objects that were the subject of the claims. When Jesus said the things similar to what others had previously claimed, he did so knowing that when he did so those people or objects would be brought to the minds of his audience.

The point isn’t that Jesus’ claims are false. Rather, their meaning is only revealed in light of their prior uses and meaning to which he was making comparative statements. And, truth be told, most people are ignorant of the historical contexts of certain phrases in the scriptures such as “so-and-so is Lord” or “such-and-such is the light of the world.”

*****

Also see:

Genesis and the Myth of Enuma Elish
http://hearhim.net/wordpress/2014/01/09/part-5-genesis-and-the-myth-of-enuma-elish/

The Good News According to Rob Bell
http://www.viddler.com/embed/8b15da06/?f=1&autoplay=0&player=full&loop=false&nologo=false&hd=false

10 Christ-like Figures Who Pre-Date Jesus
http://listverse.com/2009/04/13/10-christ-like-figures-who-pre-date-jesus/

WTF – The story of Jesus isn’t unique? Of course it isn’t.
http://www.atheismresource.com/2010/wtf-the-story-of-jesus-isnt-unique-of-course-it-isnt

Is Jesus Unique?
http://reknew.org/2007/12/is-jesus-unique-2/

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