Sunday, March 10, 2013

The myth that doesn't fit

From an interesting review by Tom Gilson of The Bible Among the Myths (2009) by John 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? ....
"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:
  • 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.

The “Myth” That Doesn’t Fit

Exactly once in the history of mankind there arose another creation account that opened with, “In the beginning God…” There is only one monotheistic creation account among the religions of man, and its contrasts with the other accounts could not be more stark. The God of the Old Testament is serenely supreme. He struggles with no other god. Rather than subduing chaotic matter he creates it according to his will, and it is good. Matter is no emanation of himself, and humans are not his flesh and blood; rather there is a distinct separation: transcendence rather than continuity. .... [more]