Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Myth, Inspiration, and Believing the Bible

The following is another forum response in my master's program about Ancient Near Eastern myths and their place in the Bible.

The essay by Frankfort says that " nothing less than a carefully chosen cloak for abstract thought."1 I would agree, but add that it is also more than this; myths are not simply the ancient version of our modern, abstract thought, or its expression in ancient language. Peter Enns gets at this more clearly when he describes myth as "an ancient, premodern, prescientific way of addressing origins and meaning in the form of stories."2 The purpose of myths went beyond the abstract philosophizing we associate with the term "metaphysics" today. In ANE cultures there was little distinction between theology, philosophy, science, and history; myths addressed them all, effectively laying out the backdrop on which everyday ancient life was lived.

Myths told people about the nature and doings of the gods (whose existence was evident; as Frankfort explains, there was little distinction between the personal and the impersonal, and "natural" events were attributed to higher powers), how they pervaded and affected the visible world, and how to live rightly before them. They provides people with a common sense of identity and purpose. They served as a kind of glue that bound a society together by participation in a collective story that had been going on since the formation of the world. Roetzel describes this sociological purpose of myths in a society, saying they "point beyond everyday experiences to the deeds of its deity and thus provide a transcendent vision that legitimizes the institutions of a society"3—especially the monarchy.

Overall, I think "myth" is the best term for ANE stories that expressed metaphysical ideas, as long as you keep in mind that the purpose of myths was also broader than this, because in the ancient world there was little distinction between metaphysics, physics, politics, science, etc.—the narratives of myths bound all of these things together in a unified vision of life before the gods.
All of this is certainly interesting, but it gets dicier when you start comparing the Bible and these myths. For most of Christian history the assumption has simply been that since the Bible consists of inspired revelation from God, the stories depicted in it are historically true. To question the historicity of the creation, the flood, or the exodus is to question God's truthfulness.

But the parallels we see between parts of the Old Testament and ANE myths show that it's not that simple. Rachel Held Evans describes how she encountered this tension while studying the Gilgamesh flood story: "“The similarities between these texts must mean that they are of the same genre and share a similar context,” my English-major mind was screaming. “Why would we regard one as history and the other as story when they use such similar images, styles, symbols, and plotlines? That just doesn’t make sense.”"4 In other words, all other things being equal, are the stories in the Bible that bear such resemblance to ANE myths somehow less mythological themselves by virtue of their inspiration?

I would say no. I would definitely agree that "[God used] forms of thought current at the time the Bible was written, including myth, to communicate truth". It is tremendously presumptuous to say that because the Bible is inspired by God and therefore true, that it must be true in exactly the way that we conceive of truth today, so that Biblical narratives must be true in a historical, scientific sense. It simply doesn't do the Bible justice to impose our modern standards of truthfulness on it. We must accept the Bible as true on its own standards. When God communicates to man, He does so in a contextualized way, using the forms and methods of communicating truth that are familiar to the people He is speaking to, rather than some kind of formless, transcendent divine speech (which we unconsciously equate with speaking the kind of historical, scientific truth with which we are comfortable).

Of course, once we realize this the question of the mythological forms of the OT doesn't simply go away. The problem is, the stories of the OT resembling myths were written in a time when little distinction was drawn between myth and "true" history, but were passed down to a time when a sharp distinction is drawn; so we believe them as historically true because that's how they've always been believed, even though they no longer bear any resemblance to our culture's definition of "history" as they once did. This distinction has been so gradual that it is easily missed.

We are still concerned with the historical truth of Genesis because, as Enns points out in The Evolution of Adam, Paul seems to assume it and use it as part of a theological platform. So it won't do to simply say that the truth of Genesis has nothing to do with its historicity, as we do of Job. We want to agree with Paul that Adam was a real flesh-and-blood person living in the not-too-distant past from whom all modern humans are descended—a historical and scientific claim—but we do so in a premodern way, based on myth and divine revelation, contrasting with the modern, more empirical basis on which we usually believe historical or scientific claims. The effect of holding these beliefs in tension is to drive a wedge in between what we believe "on faith" and the everyday things we believe on a more rational basis, preventing valuable dialogue between the two.

What are we to do? What are we to make of how the biblical authors take seriously writings which we would classify as "myth", a genre which we normally consider more fairy tale than historically reliable? We can't simply go back to being premodern people like Paul for whom there was no such tension, not if we want any meaningful interaction with the world around us. Simply arguing that Genesis is fundamentally different than contemporary ANE myths is intellectually dishonest; the similarities run too deep.
The most common solution is, as I mentioned, to argue that while other myths are antiquated and false, the Bible gets a "free pass" to being true by virtue of its inspiration, despite its resemblance to them. As I tried to show, I don't think this is a tenable position either; it is anachronistic (inspiration = modern truth, no matter how premodern it may appear) and a bit presumptuous.

A somewhat better way is to attempt to separate out the different ways that Genesis was believed to be true. So while we now see that Genesis is not scientifically true, its intent was not to teach modern science, but to teach about God and human purpose, a teaching which is just as valid today as it was then. Unfortunately, this belies the fact that the various facets of myth (the theological, the historical, the scientific) were all united for ancient people, and separating them out in this way is still anachronistic, albeit more subtly; Genesis may not speak to modern science, but it does express ancient science. And, of course, Paul bases his argument in 1 Cor 5 on Genesis being true in a historical sense, indicating that he would probably resist such an attempt to dissect the mythological genre in this way.

So what is left? While not fully achieving it, Enns at least points to the need to integrate our modern perspective with the Bible's premodern one. Can we accept that the Biblical authors considered Genesis to be historically true though, from our perspective, much of it looks more like myth, while also affirming that from then to now it has always been the inspired word of God? I think so. This requires interpreting in such a way that "translates" the Bible not just from an ancient language to a modern one, but from an ancient worldview to our modern one. The result is not necessarily a stronger or better faith, but one that is less compartmentalized and more integrated with how we go about our whole lives—a goal worth striving for.

  1. Henri Frankfort et. al., The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man (The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1977), 7.
  2. Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation (Grand Baker Academic: Grand Rapids, 2005), 40.
  3. Calvin Roetzel, The World That Shaped the New Testament (Westminster John Knox: Louisville, KY, 2002), 79.
  4. Rachel Held Evans, A Review of "The Evolution of Adam" by Peter Enns, 1 February 2012, <> (5 February 2014).

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