The Bible Among the Myths

by Tom Gilson

Book Review: The Bible among the Myths: Unique Revelation or Just Ancient Literature? by John N. Oswalt

Somehow we’ve been led to believe that the main apologetic issue in the first chapters of the Bible is whether they’re good science. John N. Oswalt has raised a more interesting question: Are they good myth?

He didn’t phrase it quite that way, but I don’t think he would object to my doing so.

What is Myth?

“Myth” has multiple meanings. Some writers conceive of it as including any story purporting to explain where we came from and what we’re doing here. Some limit it strictly to false stories, some to stories of the unknown, some to stories of gods. Oswalt, a specialist in Ancient Near East (ANE) history and literature, takes it that the most helpful way to define “myth” is according to way it is most often used.

On that view, stories labeled as myths have certain common features. Above all they communicate belief in continuity: that wherever we came from, in many ways it’s a lot like where we are. Thus:

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  • In the beginning there were gods having family squabbles just as we do, or
  • In the beginning there was stuff (matter) everywhere, and it wasn’t terribly cooperative, so it took someone to work it into shape, or
  • In the beginning there was some combination thereof…

…as in the Baylonian Enuma Elish, where Chaos (Tiamut) had to be vanquished by the god Marduk, out of whose very blood and bone man was fashioned. These all exhibit the common them of continuity: from matter to mankind to the gods, everything is on one continuum.

This is myth, and in one form or another this idea of continuity is universal in creation stories—almost. There is an exception…

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