Is the Bible Myth or Historical?

LIBERTY UNIVERSITY BAPTIST THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY

 

 

The Bible Among the Myths

 

 

Submitted to Daniel Warner, in partial fulfillment

of the requirements for the completion of the course

OBST 510

Old Testament Introduction

 

 

by

Kenneth Brooks

January 27, 2014

 Introduction

            During the early 1940’s there was a shift in thinking. The shift occurred after the two world wars had led to an economic depression. This depression had a worldwide impact. There was a shift in the thinking that one could live up to high standards. These high standards came from the Old Testament and this caused many to rethink the Old Testament.[1]

Some of the major contributors to this rethinking were Williams Albright and G. Ernest Wright. They argued that there were major differences between the Israelites and their neighbors. New discoveries have not been made, but the way of thinking has changed and it is widely accepted that the Israelite religion is one of the complex religions.

After the early 1950s people were more willing to discuss the thought of revelation. This was a thought that our world cannot explain itself and that there has to be some external communication to explain the world. Then in the 1960s the way we think changed. People did not want to think about something from the outside having authority over us. We wanted individualism. So this meant that revelation was not an option for explaining the Old Testament.[2]

Then we must look at the similarities between the literature of the Israelites and their neighbors. Scholars have tried to show that the Israelite religion is not different from the other religions around it and has actually developed from other religions. This has led to many people questioning the truth of the statements that are found in the Bible. According to Oswalt, people view the Bible as being “history-like”.[3] People have also questioned the veracity of the theological claims that are made in the Bible. When studying the Old Testament one must study both the historical and theological claims together. This book addresses issues that show that the Israelite religion is not false and the Bible is accurate. If the Bible has information that is not accurate then we cannot believe any of the Bible and the Christian faith and religion is false.

Bible in its World

            The world today looks at reality in different ways. The way we view reality deals with many factors that have contributed to the way that we think. According to Oswalt the most significant contribution to the Western world is the Bible.[4] There are two other major contributions: the Greek thought and the Hebrew thought. The Bible provides the foundation for Greek thought and Greek thought helped organize the biblical narratives.

During the period of time from the seventh to the third centuries BC Greek philosophers came to the conclusion that we live in a universe. They felt that it was one and not many therefore dismissing the thought of a “polyverse”.[5] With this conclusion it was only logical that we were controlled by one being, a being the controlled the entire cosmos. This was also the time that cause and effect was discovered. All effects were caused by some action.

During this same time period the same issues were taking place among the people in the Mediterranean. The Hebrew people were questioning their faith. They were being conquered by empires such as the Assyrian and Babylonian empires. The prophets warned the people and gave them hope if they would repent. The words from the prophets were not their own. The words from the prophets lead to several ideas. First there is only one God. Next God is the only creator. He has revealed himself to humans and that he will punish and reward based on our obedience.[6] The prophets had accurately predicted the capture of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires. This prediction was to prove to the people that God will punish those who do not believe. There is no way that the predictions could have come true without divine insight.

It was not until the beginning of the Christian era that the Greek and Hebrew thoughts came together. The biblical view had not been worked out but people believed it because of the fact they were rescued. The Greek view was logical but had not been translated into experience. When the two thoughts combined the Greeks were able to show the Hebrews their logic for a universal creator. They were able to prove logically that there is only one God.

The combination of the two thoughts led to several foundations of the Western world. The first is the validity of reason. Next we see that history is important so that we can learn from past mistakes. We also learned that individuals have worth. We also learned the reality of nature.[7]

The Bible and Myth

            Is the Bible a myth? Many years ago this would not have even been a question. This has recently changed with the thoughts of Robert Oden. He claims that the Bible has mythical thoughts and that this is the heart of the Israelite religion.[8] Other scholars who have this same thought are Mark Smith and J. W. Rogerson. What is important to remember is that that these scholars did not think this way because of new discoveries but as a result in the shift of thinking.

When trying to classify the Bible as a myth one must look at the definition of a myth. The problem is that there is not a precise definition of what a myth actually is. There are two main types of definitions: Historical-philosophical and the phenomenological.[9] The historical-philosophical definition can be further broken down to etymological, sociological and the literary.

Etymological definition of a myth deals with the thing being described as false. This can include items in the story that are supernatural or historical phenomena. If we take this definition we are saying that all of the literature is based on false teachings. Another part of this definition is that stories of the gods are accounted for supernaturally. This would not allow anyone to speak truthfully about a divine interaction. The problems with these types of definitions are that they are generally not narrow enough.

The sociological definition deals with whether someone believes the story is true. If someone believes it is true then it is true to them. This type would only show someone’s perspective on the issue and therefore it is classified as a myth.

Literary definition deals with the way in which the story is written or spoken. Is there use of symbolism to illustrate realities? Many stories that have been written do use symbolism in the stories. Again this definition is way too broad to classify the Bible as a myth.

The phenomenological definition is a more narrow definition that describes the common characteristics of literature that could be called a myth. One of the most important aspects of this myth is our view of personality to nature. Nature can be predictable. We know when seasons are going to change, but there are times when nature can change and cause massive destruction. Many societies have given human like characteristics to nature which means that humans have control of their gods and then nature. God cannot be manipulated because he is not of this World.

Continuity

            This is a principle that states all things are continuous with each other.[10] This is a principle that is found in all major religions except Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. This means that one is continuous with each other. So if one is continuous with everything including gods then one can manipulate their gods, because they are subject to the power of humans who are one with them.

The idea of continuity means that the three realms: humanity, nature, and the divine have no distinctions and are the same.[11] This idea obviously has some problems. First things that sound the same or look the same are. It is like the old saying if it walks like a duck it is a duck. This is not always true. Things can have similar qualities and not be the same. This also means that humans can participate in nature. This is not the case either. We have no control over natural forces. It also means that the symbol is reality.

There are several common features of myths.[12] First of all we see that myths are polytheistic, which means the belief in more than one god. This is a worldly view. Next we see that gods are always represented in shapes of this world. They are made of wood or metal or other object to represent what they human views that god as. Thirdly, we see in the ancient Near East literature that the first thing was that the gods took a chaotic matter and turned it into an orderly matter. Next we see that personality is found in humanity. The gods were not personable so one cannot be continuous with the gods. Humanity had a low view of the gods because they were untrustworthy and they were feared. There was also a low view of humanity. Humans were an afterthought to the gods and were to serve them. The divine world also would not allow a single standard of ethics. Each god and goddess had their own views of how things should be done.

Transcendence

This chapter deals with many of the distinctions between the Old Testament and the literature of the ancient Near East.[13] The most obvious difference is that of monotheism. This is the belief in one God. There are only three monotheistic religions. All of these religions came from one culture. All the other religions believe in multiple gods. The next difference is the belief in iconoclasm. The Israelites believed that God shall not be made into an image. The neighboring civilizations would make idols that represented their gods. Again this idea was unique to the Israelites.

Unlike the myths we see that Old Testament has a high view of humanity. In all the myths gods are made in the likeness of humanity. In the Old Testament we see that humanity is made in the likeness of God. The myths show humans being created as an afterthought for food for the gods, but God created humans last as the culmination of His creation.

Unlike the surrounding areas magic is prohibited for the Israelites. They are not to try and manipulate God through sorcery or rituals. The Israelites will be supplied with their needs by obeying and trusting in God. This is the basis for ethical obedience.

The one thing that is common in all of these myths is the relationship of God to the universe. [14] God is not a part of this universe and the universe is not God. God is omnipresent but He is not the world. This is the principle that could allow the Israelites to keep belief in the one and only God. However, they did not have a solid foundation in this and fell back into polytheism and iconoclasm and worshipped their past idols. Some Israelites even joined in child sacrifice.[15] Even with the Israelites turning from God there is nothing in the text that changes. There is only one God and there is no way for humanity to manipulate God.

The Bible verses Myth

            There are similarities in the Bible and the literature of the ancient Near East; however, that does not mean that unity with the thought. It means that there was a culture adaptation.[16] The first issue is ethics. There are two types of ethics. The first is offenses against gods. One example is that of the sex goddess, Ishtar. She offers free love but in the end there will be trouble. The Bible offers advice to stay away from these types of situations as well. The other type is crimes against humanity. When people do something they are punished. This was the same in the Bible as is the surrounding civilizations. In Exodus we are given punishments for specific sins.[17]

The difference in the laws is that God gives His people laws through covenants. The Hebrew people were no longer making decisions based on what society states is correct but on what God says is the right thing.[18] Disobedience or obedience was shown to God depending upon whether one followed the Mosaic covenant. When the laws are placed in a covenant with God means we are only judged on a single standard. There are not multiple standards that we face because of multiple gods.

Some people say that there are similarities in the laws and customs and that this shows that they were just copying the religions of their neighbors. One similarity is the layout of the temple is the same layout of the Canaanite temple.[19] Key issues such as this are not what make the religion different. It is how the Israelites used these features that made the religion different.

There are more serious similarities that are discussed[20] There are many stories from the ancient Near East that appear in the Bible. It is not important that they are in the Bible, but how they are used. One example is Leviathan. In the Canaanite literature a god defeated Leviathan, who is the chaos monster. In the book of Job, Leviathan is not depicted as a monster that threatened God, but possibly as a crocodile. Leviathan is not something that was before God and God did not emerge from Leviathan.

There are also similarities in thought patterns.[21] Many people maintain that the first chapters of Genesis maintain patterns of a myth. There is nothing in the book of Genesis that contains mythical features. There is no gods or conflicts between good and evil. These chapters would have to have been rewritten and these things left out. The second argument is that the Babylonian creation story is different from that of Genesis. In the first 160 lines of the Enuma Elish we see the emergence of the gods and their plans to deal with chaos. There are a few similarities but the differences are too numerous.

Psalms has also been compared to Canaanite literature. In Psalm 29 God is being compared to the thunderstorm. This is in comparison to Baal the Canaanite storm god. The difference is that God is being compared to the thunderstorm but He is not actually the storm.

The Bible and History

            The concept of history and history writing deals with combining Greek with the Hebrew literature.[22] The problem with history though is just like a myth. How does one define history? Even though it is vague there is a little more consensus on the definition. There are five parts to the definition: must be an account of what happened, systematic account of what has happened in the life of a people, all recorded events of the past, deals with systematic recording of events, and a known recorded past. This means that history can only be about human beings.

There are six things that must be understood about reality to write history.[23] The first is that humans are free. If we cannot make choices then why does one need to know what happened in the past? Second, cause and effect are linked. Every action we have there is a reaction. Third, falsification of data is worthless. If the history did not occur then it is meaningless. Fourth, the writer must realize that the human experience is goal oriented. One must be able to learn from the past to accomplish something better in the future. Fifth it is important to realize that since we are not continuous with each other we are connected. Lastly, there must be a consistent standard to evaluate behavior.

The ancient Near East recorded events but these events. These following six examples do not necessarily fit the definition of history writing.[24] Omens were used to predict the chances of success or failure of an endeavor. King’s lists were used to record the genealogy and reign of kings. Date formulae are when the reign of a king would be given a name based on an accomplishment of the king. There was no analysis or evaluation so the king or future kings could not improve. Epics are narratives that told a narrative of a hero. Royal annals recorded events of the king’s reign. They were created in order to glorify the kings and no other reason. The Chronicles recorded both victories and defeat. It was not done however for people to improve.

There are many reasons for the absence of history writing in the ancient Near East.[25] The main reason is the focus on the now. People believe that based on the concept of continuity we are on a cycle and the future is the same as now. There is also no subjective orientation because there is no one from the outside recording the events. With this view our outcome is predetermined so there is no reason to learn from the past so there is no reason to write down history to pass it on to future generations.

The Bible has a unique approach to the human-historical accounts.[26] People in the Bible are represented as human beings. They are not portrayed as semi-gods. They are represented for who they are. Their successes are recorded as well as their failures. The Bible also shows the significance between people and events that occur. For example Sodom was destroyed because the people refused to obey. This is significant because it shows people they will be punished for disobedience.

There are many implications of transcendence for Israel’s view of the human-historical experience.[27] With this understanding God cannot be tricked or manipulated. If a god is part of the universe he/she can be manipulated. It also offers a simplified understanding how things occur. The Bible explains that He is in charge of all. He is in charge of everything that occurs. Also because we are not part of His life we cannot receive any blessings from Him because of what we do only because of who He is. The Israelites tried to fit God into their own picture so that they could control Him. They had forgotten that they could not do this and that God could not be controlled by anyone.

Is the Bible Truly Historical?

            In determining if the Bible is historical it is important to answer two questions. The first is can the biblical accounts be called history? The next question is can does it matter if the Bible is historical?[28]

Many people have taught that the Bible is historical, but in the early 1960s this started to fall apart when scholars started to question the truth of the Old Testament. James Barr made the argument that revelation and witness to the revelation does not exist so the “acts of God” disappear.[29] B. Childs also proposed the same statement. There was no religious agenda, but Barr was trying to remove the Bible from the category of history. Also Bertil Albrektson tried at the same time to disprove the Bible. He tried to prove that God revealing Himself to the people was not unique to the Israelite culture.[30] He was able to show in the ancient Near East literature where gods and goddesses had revealed themselves to their people. The difference between this literature and the Bible is that in the Bible God is always viewed as the one true creator. This was not always the case in the Near East literature.

  1. Collingwood also concludes that the Bible contains no historical writing. He list seven concepts that are essential to historical writing.[31] The first deals with was the issue right or wrong. The second is the denial of good and evil forces that direct events. Third, he suggests that there cannot be someone who does no wrong. History writing must be more than just all the parts put together. Fifth there must be an end point such as the apocalypse. There must be definable stages along the way. The last is that the world must be one and all events are judged on a single set of standards. What Collingwood failed to recognize is that these characteristics not only existed in the Old Testament but the New Testament as well. It is important to use both to have a complete view of the Bible.

Also for literature to be considered historical writings the accounts must be accurate. As God revealed Himself it was important for the recorders to accurately record what was taking place.[32] The Bible gives us accurate information but it does not give details of everything that occurred during the time. This is not the purpose of the Bible.

Does it Matter Whether the Bible is Historical?

            The second question is does it matter whether or not the Bible is historical? Oswalt agrees that the Bible is much more than historical facts.[33] When viewed in its entirety the Bible is seen as Israel’s historical experience. This is a history that includes the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord. The Bible also gives us speeches from God. We are also given authoritative books. The poetic books give us a view of life that Israelites had with God. So it is important for us to the facts that reveal how God reveals Himself.

There have been two attempts to separate biblical faith and biblical history.[34] Rudolf Bultmann used existentialist to address the problem of history in faith. This makes people take responsibility for their existence. Humans are not viewed as being a part of nature they just exist. Bultmann came across two problems while constructing his theology. The first is that is hard to speak of objective facts of history. The other problem is the facts the people have tried to discredit the biblical history.

For Bultmann he found the answer by separating the Geschichte and the Historie. According to him one must separate the divine from the event. God must be separated from the actions of the world. A historic account of Jesus would emphasize His obedience to God and his responsibility for the world.

Alfred Whitehead developed what has become known as process thought.[35] This thought pattern basically states that as history develops so does God. God developed everything and is what everything is moving toward. There are many positive thoughts to this process. The first is that God is involved in human life. Next God cannot be manipulated. We cannot control Him. It also makes history real and important. There are also some problems with the process. It removes God from the world. So there is no room for a personal God. There is also no clear purpose so there is no standard evaluation.

Origins of the Biblical Worldview

There have been many shifts in the origins of the biblical views. Many people believe that the Old Testament reveals who God is and that there are some unique features. The shift has occurred in the fact that people believe that the literature has come from the ancient Near East literature. According to Oswalt we must look at two things. The first things is why did the writers create explanations of their ideas and then one must reexamine the claims to biblical uniqueness.[36]

Professor Van Seters proposed that there is little history in the JE documents.[37] The JE documents were written around 900 BC to 800 BC. They were from Judah and Israel. In fact he felt that this was just a novel that must have been written by a genius during the sixth century BC. This work was not widely accepted.

Frank Cross proposed that the Pentateuch was actually a rewriting of an epic.[38] He supported this thesis by pointing to Russian and Spanish examples. He used these as examples to show that this type of thing could happen. The problem with this argument is that there is nothing in the Bible that mimics the Homer epic that Cross had used as his example.

William Dever has tried to recover history of the Biblical times through archeology.[39] From his work he has determined that there is good archeological evidence that Israel did exist. He also states that the biblical history of Israel did not occur as in the Bible. The main thing is that he feels that the exodus did not occur. He also feels that the conquest in Joshua could not have occurred. He feels that there was a rewriting of history.

Mark Smith argues that the Israelite religion has its foundation in the Canaanite religion.[40] However, he cannot find anything in the Bible that supports this claim. Smith also suggests that the Israelite understanding of deity came from Ugarit. He noted the four stages of deity for the Ugarit as: the king and queen of pantheon, prince and princess, magician, and the rest of the gods. He then proposed a second stage in Israel as follows: king and queen plus Yahweh, elements such as the moon and sun, blank, and the angels. The third stage was the same. The fourth stage was different. It listed: Yahweh, empty, empty, and the angels. The last stage is the only stage that is biblical. Smith’s explanation of how we get to the fourth stage had too many questions that could not be answered.

Conclusions

            In this book Oswalt dealt with the comparisons of the Bible to the literature of the ancient Near East. He called the Bible’s view transcendence. He also discussed the issue of continuity. Myths have also been discussed and defined. These myths are basically stories that are told about the gods and how they have maintained the world.[41]

The mythical view of thinking was at first believed to be primitive, but this could not be the case if one looks at the accomplishments from this time. Another possibility is that there was limited information to the societies. This was not the case either. So mythical thinking must be explained by choice. People chose to think in these ways.[42]

One of the ways people chose to think can be viewed in the enlightenment period. This was a period of time when people thought that material possessions would bring them happiness.[43] Scholars also thought science would lead to human perfection. It is now known that science can only answer the questions of how and not the why questions. This thinking has led to a world that is morally bankrupt. One of the enlightenment writers was Mircea Eliade. Eliade was determined to define all religions as a myth. Doing this he defined myths as reorienting oneself with the beginning.

If we go down the path of these writers and more we can come to ten different conclusions.[44] First we will no longer have a set up ethics that guide us. Power will take the place of truth. Right and wrong will be terms that will be used loosely. They will become useless. People will use magic to get their way. People who want to control sexual freedom will be thought of as someone who hates others. Individuals will lose value. People not look out for others. People will not accept responsibility for their actions. The study of history will disappear. Lastly, people will not transform from worse to better.

The literature that claims to be from the divine revelation of God is different from all other religious literature.[45] These words were given to a distinct people group. We are now able to interpret these words due to the work of the Holy Spirit. If we do not keep this as a possibility then we have no explanation of the biblical theology.

Bibliography

Oswalt, John. The Bible Among the Myths. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009.

 

 

[1] John Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths: (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 11.

[2] Ibid., 13.

[3] Ibid., 15.

[4] Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths, 21.

[5] Ibid., 21.

[6] Ibid., 23.

[7] Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths, 28.

[8] Ibid., 29.

[9] Ibid., 33-42.

[10] Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths, 43.

[11] Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths, 48.

[12] Ibid., 57-62.

[13] Ibid., 64-76.

[14] Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths, 81.

[15] Ibid., 83.

[16] Ibid., 85.

[17] Exodus 21:1-22:16.

[18] Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths, 87-90.

[19] Ibid., 91-92.

[20] Ibid., 93-96.

[21] Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths, 97-107.

[22] Ibid., 111.

[23] Ibid., 113-116.

[24] Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths, 116-122.

[25] Ibid., 122-124.

[26] Ibid., 124-126.

[27] Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths, 127-132.

[28] Ibid., 138.

[29] Ibid., 140-141.

[30] Ibid., 142-143.

[31] Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths, 144-147.

[32] Ibid., 149-151.

[33] Ibid., 152-154.

[34] Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths, 155-159.

[35] Ibid., 165-169.

[36] Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths, 171-172.

[37] Ibid., 172-173.

[38] Ibid., 175-177.

[39] Ibid., 177-181.

[40] Ibid., 181-184.

[41] Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths, 185.

[42] Ibid., 186.

[43] Ibid., 187-190.

[44] Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths, 191-192.

[45]Ibid., 194.

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