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The Bible Among the Myths


John N. Oswalt

Book Summary by the Author

The thesis of the book is that whatever the Bible is, it is not appropriate to define it as myth.  This is so because it does not share the common characteristics of all those other objects carrying that definition. The attempt to so define it is the result of confusing “accidentals,” secondary characteristics, with essentials. 

In this regard, there has been a fundamental change among Old Testament scholars in the last half century. Writers such as Harvard professor, G. Ernest Wright, writing in the early 1950’s, declared that the Old Testament was not compatible with myth. Yet many Old Testament scholars today would say that the Old Testament is fundamentally mythic in its origins and its outlook.

Is this change because of dramatic new discoveries in the literature and archaeology of the ancient Near East?  No, it is not.  The last great finds were the Ugaritic literature coming from Ras Shamra on the Mediterranean coast of Syria starting in 1929, and the Dead Sea Scrolls, which began to come to light in the late 1940’s. Although many profitable insights have emerged from the intensive study of these troves since their discovery, nothing has arisen to overturn the features that caused Wright and his compatriots to take the positions they did. 

What has changed has been the willingness of scholars to accept the possibility of divine revelation.  Karl Barth, the Swiss theologian, had a tremendous impact on theological and Biblical studies in both Europe and America from about 1920 until about 1970.  One of the most important effects he had was to reestablish the idea that the Bible can only be understood as the result of revelation.  With that premise in place, Wright and others could accept that the differences between the Bible and the literatures of Israel’s neighbors were indeed defining.  These differences included among others: monotheism, iconoclasm, the prohibition of magic, the supra-sexuality of deity, the de-sacralization of nature, an absolute ethic, and human-historical experience as the arena for knowledge of the divine.  All of these grow out of the understanding that Yahweh transcends the cosmos, and is not to be identified with it in any way.

To be sure, there are many similarities between the culture of the Bible and the cultures surrounding Israel.  Some of those would be the sacrificial system, the tri-part worship centers, and the idea that God makes his will known through prophets.  Similar literary forms can also be recognized.  Furthermore, it can be readily admitted that the people of Israel often fell short of the Biblical ideals and followed the patterns of faith and practice of their neighbors.  But these do not define the essence of the Biblical worldview nor the Bible itself. If others flirted with many of the ideas that characterize Biblical faith, at no other place in the world did these become the absolute norm as they have in the Bible (e.g. if the Hebrew people sometimes worshipped other gods, no place in the Bible is it suggested that under some circumstances that might be acceptable behavior; it is never acceptable).

If revelation is admitted to be a possibility, it can be granted that these differences are truly essential, that is, at heart, Israelite faith really is unlike anything around it, with the similarities to surrounding practices and expressions being not essentials, but accidentals.  However, if revelation is ruled out, then Israelite religion cannot be permitted to be sui generis. Rather, it must be one more of the ancient Near Eastern religions, all of which evolved along the same general lines from similar starting points.  In this case, it must be the similarities that are defining, whereas the differences are really accidentals that emerged only at the very end of the process, at which point the Biblical literature was largely created with its somewhat odd points of view.  This is what has happened in Biblical studies.  It simply cannot be admitted that there is anything truly unique about the Biblical understanding of reality.  So in the end they came to worship one God, but it was a god, was it not? So in the end, they became iconoclastic, but so were the Zoroastrians, were they not?

The problem with this point of view is the Bible. If Biblical religion is the end-product of the same evolutionary process that occurred everywhere in the ancient world, then there should be at least one other example of such an end-product.  Surely if the Israelites were on the same track as the Ammonites or the Arameans, there should be an Ammonite counterpart to the Bible , or the Aramean one.  In fact, there is nothing that comes even close. And why is that? It is because the Bible is written out of a completely different world view, one that simply cannot be explained as having evolved out of the understanding that characterizes all the other ancient Near Eastern religions, and indeed all other religions, except the three that are directly dependent on the Old Testament: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The other religions, all other religions, locate the divine within the cosmos, and define the deity in terms of the cosmos. In the book this world-view is labeled “Continuity.” In this view, all elements in the cosmos: humanity, nature, deity are all continuous with each other.  That is, what occurs in one realm is also occurring in the others. This understanding is perfectly modeled in the idol: a god in the shape of a human made out of a natural material.  In short, the cosmos is taken as the starting point, and ultimate reality is understood analogically with the cosmos.  For example, is the cosmos diverse, lacking any obvious unifying element? Then deity is also diverse, without any unifying element.

All of the convictions about reality that Israel’s neighbors share can be explained as arising from this worldview.  So where do Israel’s odd convictions come from? They all stem from the realization that the cosmos is not to be identified with God, nor he with it. That understanding, carried out with resolute absolutism, characterizes the Bible from end to end, as no other piece of literature before it or contemporary with it ever did.  Here is why the Bible is resolutely monotheistic: there can only be one being that truly transcends all others. Here is why the Bible is thoroughly, not just occasionally, iconoclastic: how can the One who transcends the cosmos be captured by anything within the cosmos?  Here is why Yahweh is supra-sexual: sexuality is descriptive of the cosmos, not of the One Being who spoke the cosmos into existence.  The book continues this exploration at some length.

The question is: how could the worldview of continuity ever evolve into its polar opposite: transcendence?  The answer is that it could not, and without transcendence, the Biblical understandings are both groundless and inexplicable.

What is myth? It is that form of expression which by rehearsing the great cosmic constants seeks both to perpetuate those constants and to appropriate their power for the changing world of time and space. Whatever the Bible is, it is not this. Here we have the narrative of Yahweh’s entering into the unique, non-recurring world of time and space, and in the context of non-repeatable human-historical experience revealing his transcendent character which he wishes his human creatures to replicate. Perhaps that narrative is the rankest fiction, but even if that should be the case, the Bible is not myth. However, if the transcendent God did not break into time and space, revealing an understanding of reality completely at odds with that of the surrounding world, I am hard put to explain where the Israelites, self-professed religious hard cases, could ever have come up with the idea.

Publisher's Book Information

Book Review

The Version of this page: 7th February 2014

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