Book Review: The Bible Among the Myths by John Oswalt
by G. Kyle Essary
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.” 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. 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. 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. 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.
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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. 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…
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