The Bible Among the Myths – Part 2

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The Bible and Myth: A Problem of Definition (Ch. 2)

In a scholastic shift, the Bible has now been classified as included in the category of myth. Oswalt noted, however, that this inclusion has occurred by a reworking of the term ‘myth.’ There are two main categories of definition: “the historical-philosophical and the phenomenological, or descriptive.”[1]

The former category actually includes three subcategories: etymological, sociological, and literary. The etymological definition emphasizes the inaccuracy of the event or narrative, deriving from the Greek mythos, meaning “a false legend of the gods.”[2] Therefore, if the Bible is to be classified as ‘myth’ in this sense, then the researchers are burdened to prove why the Bible is inaccurate. The sociological-theological definition claims, “The mythmakers tell their stories to convey what is to them some truth about the world.”[3] Rather than emphasizing the falsity of the story, the sociological emphasizes the relative truth contained within the story. ‘Myth’ in this sense expresses the culture’s perception of reality. This definition, however, misses the essence of the religious claims found in the Bible, being that its truth claims seek to be universal and verifiable. The literary definition claims that myth is a “narrative in which there is a deeply serious use of symbolism to convey profound realities.”[4] In this sense of ‘myth,’ there is an odd relation of symbols to reality, supposing no connection of the story to history. The Bible is not ahistorical in this sense, and thus needs further reasoning to be classified in this literary definition of myth. Oswalt noted that all three of the historical-philosophical definitions are too broad.

The second main category of definition is phenomenological or descriptive, and it is narrower than the historical-philosophical definitions. In contrast to the historical-philosophical, which describes the function of the myth or its relation to truth, the phenomenological definitions “describe the common characteristics of that world literature that, for one reason or another, has been called myth.”[5] Oswalt noted three phenomenological definitions, three common characteristics of myth: 1) attribution of personality to nature, 2) attempt to relate the actual to the ideal, the punctual to the continual, and 3) “myth’s nature is to ignore fetters of time and space, gazing into the widest vistas and launching into the exalted and immense.”[6] For Oswalt, these three definitions can be summed up in their one central feature: the worldview of continuity. “Continuity is a philosophical principle that asserts all things are continuous with each other.”[7] Oswalt continued to show how all myths carry this worldview, and he concludes by defining myth as “a form of expression…whereby the continuities among the human, natural and divine realms are expressed / and actualized.”[8]

[1] John Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 33.

[2] Ibid., 33.

[3] Ibid., 36.

[4] Ibid., 38.

[5] Ibid., 40. Emphasis added.

[6] Ibid., 42. Oswalt footnotes and quotes different scholars for each characteristic: for the first, A. Weiser, Introduction to the Old Testament, trans. D. Barton (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1961), 58; for the second, M. Gaster, “Myth,” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, ed. G. Butterick (New York: Abingdon, 1962), 3:481; for the third, A. Weiser, The Old Testament (New York: Association, 1961), 58.

[7] Ibid., 43.

[8] Ibid., 45-46.

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