Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Myths in Our Bible?

A while back I wrote a rather presumptuous and muddled post on the nature of mythology and the book of Genesis, where I made some knocks at Creationist literalism. As is often the case, the comments ended up being more interesting than the post itself. Em summed it up like this:
Are the fantastical-sounding parts of Genesis
A) Historical accounts,
B) Simple allegories written to teach us abstract principles, or
C) Lies crafted by those evil theists?

Your answer, as far as I can figure, is simply "No," though it leans closest to B. Maybe you add a choice D that you call "art," which is way cooler than A or B but contains elements of both.
She’s right – I think it’s divine art (although I don’t know that it’s really closer to B than A). They are stories that, while cloudy regarding hard historical data or scientific information, nevertheless are the best way for us to understand both ourselves and our origins. Myth can be a way of telling about something that really happened in a way that a modern scientific observer never would. The scientist, seeing the origin of the universe, describes the mathematics of the big bang. The writer of Genesis, his imagination inexplicably guided by the Spirit, sees God saying “let there be light.” Both see true things, but the mythmaker sees the deeper truth.

Iambic Admonit, a fellow blogger, took issue with me in the comments. If the events of Genesis aren’t accurate historically, then they are not true. It is only after historical and scientific accuracy have been established that we need look for emotional or symbolic value as myth:
So I want to say that Genesis is not mythology, that it is science and history. The only way it is “true myth,” in the Lewis/Tolkien sense, is that it has all the emotional power and mythic symbolism and cyclical resonance of myth.
I do think Lewis was talking fundamentally of the Gospels as “myth becoming fact” and that he saw the beginning of Genesis as mythology proper, but the point is a serious one. Am I shying from wrestling with the Bible when I promised otherwise? Am I just pretending the Bible is trying to tell us something other than what it is actually saying, because I am uncomfortable with it flying in the face of modern science (oh me of little faith)?

I hope not. But I can put the question the other way around. Where do we get the notion that only science and history are appropriate genres for Holy Scripture? Are we making myths in the Bible out to be history and science because we don’t see how anything but these type of facts can be true?

This is why some have said that the liberal/fundamentalist debates of the 20th century had both sides united in being fully modern (a horrible era for the arts, by the way). The liberals rejected anything fantastic in the Bible as mythology and the fundamentalists defended the Bible by insisting that it wasn’t mythology. If forced to choose between the two, I have to side with the fundamentalists, as there's no way I'm throwing out the history of the Gospels or the Resurrection! But the point is that neither side stopped to think that a little mythology might be something worth having in the inspired word of God. Just the facts, ma’am.

What if God, in his divine wisdom, wanted to employ the poetic artistic vehicle of mythology in kicking off the greatest book ever written? What if the Spirit can use mythology to guide us in all truth, where the bare historical facts wouldn’t? By what principle do we rule this out?

The discussion of myths in Genesis continues here.

Thanks. I think well put.Certainly genres used in Scripture convey the truth of God. In ways that resonate with us as human beings in a multi-dimensional world.

(I am looking at myth as a genre, and perhaps am off here. But whatever vehicle God uses, is my point.)

All right. Fantastic question. Thank you for you humble, teachable, honest, questioning attitude here. You have challenged me to look into one of my dearest doctrines -- the [literal] inerrancy of Scripture -- and find out where it comes from, why I believe it, etc. Of course, I don't believe the parables are "literal" in a superficial way, to choose a simple example, and I don't think that "the sun rose" means literally that the sun orbits the earth, so then why do I think that the 7 days in Genesis must be 24-four days? Hum. I will have to do some researching, reading, and thinking, and get back to you. If you don't hear from me soon, come on over to Iambic Admonit and give me a prodding. Thanks!

~ Admonit

Very stimulating debate, Admonit and Oyarsa. I’m glad to see you are both humble, teachable, honest, gentle, and committed to the authority of Scripture. I was thinking of posting something a couple of days ago, but then thought I’d wait to see how you two resolved your differences before I jumped in too early. I also just recently read an excellent article in Comment called “Reading the Bible like a Grown-up Child” by Calvin Seerveld, which makes me take a long -- if not infinite -- pause before stepping into a debate about dearly held doctrines. My tendency might be to start from where I’ve arrived at personally on this question of the literal interpretation of the “days” of Genesis and then try to convince one or the other of you to think about it differently. But Seerveld says that it is wrong to use the Bible to prove a point. “To read the Bible the way it is written, you have to give up on your own agenda.” To read it “like a prosecuting attorney, marshaling evidence and scoring points, is to squeeze the juice of compelling mystery out of God’s living Word. It is to leave it behind like a dried-out shell, as exhibit A or exhibit B. Whenever a … theology calls on biblical texts as evidence to set somebody else straight, someone has lost the key to Bible reading. And that can lovelessly bind burdens on other people’s backs (Luke 11:37-54).”

Whether or not the days of Genesis 1 are literal 24-hour periods, there has obviously been some craftsmanship put into the arranging of the narrative, which wouldn’t a priori preclude the use of mythological elements. There’s a lovely parallel structure of 3 days to create the domains where things will go and 3 days to fill them:

Day 1: Day & Night               Day 4: Lights to govern the day and the night
Day 2: Sky                           Day 5: Birds
Day 3: Sea & Land               Day 6: Sea creatures, animals, humans

One then is led to the natural question: so how could there be a day and night without the sun, which wasn’t created until Day 4? The attempts I’ve seen to explain this do seem awfully like someone who has a previously held notion having to work really hard not to question it. Are these literal days then? Or are they trying to show something else? What would the original audience of the Genesis creation stories have needed to hear? They were faced with competition from all kinds of other gods in the Ancient Near East, including gods of the sun and moon and planets. Knowing that Yahweh was the creator of these heavenly bodies and thus in total control of them would put to rest any threat from such foreign gods and any temptation to worship them. And they were also faced with other creation narratives floating around in the religions of their neighbors (much as Christians are loathe to admit it, the elements of our creation story are not altogether unique!), but none of them involved a personal God who cared about his creation, who had a purpose for it, who breathed His own Spirit into it, who set it up in an orderly and not a chaotic way. These seem to me the most important new elements of the Biblical account as over against the other creation "myths" (I'm using that term in its meaning as a narrative that explains a cosmic phenomenon, not as an inherently fictional story). This still doesn’t mean the days of creation weren’t literal days. But would that have been the question people in Moses’ time (when these texts were presumably first written down) would have been asking? Are we not in this day and age more prone to ask scientific questions of a text that was not meant to be answering scientific questions? In some sense it’s irrelevant to the rest of the Bible whether the days of creation were 24 hours or eons or a literary device. But it wouldn’t be a threat to my belief in God as Creator and Sovereign over all of life if they were not literal days. Bruce Waltke, whose commentary on Genesis I helped edit, quite adeptly defends the position that the “days” are literary/structural elements for the story of creation and are neither meant to be literal days nor long stretches of time (as some who would want to reconcile science and the Bible would say). He gives credit to Henri Blocher, the second chapter of whose excellent book In the Beginning takes a look at all the various interpretations of the week of creation and concludes that it makes the most sense to understand it as a literary device.

I think that people who say we must take the first chapter of Genesis literally, down to the very definition of a “day”, or else the whole foundation of faith falls like a house of cards, must have a pretty fragile belief system. I believe in a God who could create everything that exists in six literal days if He wanted to, so I cannot rule out that interpretation. But I also believe he is a God who could create it over an extended period of time if he wanted to, and who is not by nature deceptive (contra Henry Morris, et al., who explain that God placed fossils and other seeming evidence of an ages-old earth into the creation in order to lead atheistic scientists astray since they were seeking to understand the created order apart from His Word). If he used the forces of time and geo-evolutionary processes to make the world as we see it today, it is no less miraculous, nor in any way less purposeful. I think the biggest fear of literal creationists is that miracle and purpose would be undermined if they allowed themselves to question their underlying assumption. I don’t think that the only other option is a random, purposeless existence. The more we investigate science, the more it reveals an amazing telos in everything, and yet to take science seriously means we cannot stick our head in the sand or get our hackles up when it uncovers strong evidence of geological ages. I think a tenacious holding to literal creationism does tend to make people less honest in their explorations of science. The Scientific Creationists seem to have one primary agenda, and that is to marshal all the scientific evidence they can to prove that Genesis 1 is meant to be interpreted literally. They are doing exactly what Calvin Seerveld says turns the Bible into a dried-out shell, rather than a life-changing encounter with the Living God.

Wow, Rosie. That comment is longer than my post! I like the observation about the pair of threes - I noticed it too on my post on Genesis 1. I think I pretty much agree with everything you say, though I might add a few qualifiers.

The biggest thing is just to realize that the threat that motivates literal innerrancy is very real. Liberal theology had this nice little way of assulting core Christian beliefs under the guise of "figurative interpretations". And some of the social movements that come out of Darwinism have brought upon us the worst horrors the world has ever seen.

Admonit, I suggest the fight against these diabolical ideologies is where to look in finding out where the doctrine comes from. It's a worthy fight, and I've already said that if I had to choose a side, I would choose the fundamentalists (as you've presumed about Lewis).

However, I reject that choice as a false dilemma. I have to agree with Mark Noll - fundamentalism is like cancer treatment. It removed the disease of modernist liberalism from Christianity, but only by leaving the patient horribly disfigured.

What I'm most reluctant to do is find myself forced to assert some idea that isn't said in the Bible in order to defend its inerrancy. Rosie has some good examples. I also think that literal inerrancy can cause us to ask bad questions. When we start saying "how can there be light without the sun and moon?" and "how did Cain find a wife?", I think we should be suspicious that we aren't reading the passages right. I highly doubt the author of Genesis had these questions in mind.


After a crazy week, I finally got around to reading this post. I'm particularly struck by your notion of fundamentalism vs. liberalism as a false dichotomy, of which I've been convinced for a long time. For me, the whole debate about Genesis as literal, figurative, myth, history, or some undefinable combination of the above, is a hollow one that grows immediately from that same false dilemma: to choose faith or reason, but not both.

It's my contention that the whole problem arises from a deficient understanding of Scripture--that it does not interpret itself, so therefore, it is not sufficient as a rule of faith. Scripture is inspired and inerrant (though literally inerrant, I highly doubt, particularly given our plethora of translations); it is the word of God. But, we all bring something to the table when we read it. Calvinists emphasize passages related to predestination; Arminians point to those that seem to prove free will. Catholics like to point James' emphasis on faith without works being dead, and don't see why Calvinists and Arminians aren't both right on predestination and free will. What we cannot do is divine from Scripture itself whose interpretation is correct.

But, although I am uneasy with an emphasis on Scripture alone (which doesn't ever really happen, anyway), I completely understand it. Watching liberalism corrode all the foundations of Christianity, Fundamentalists had to take refuge somewhere. I just wish they hadn't thrown reason by the wayside in order to do so. As Pope Benedict wrote in a speech that has become infamous for a side comment about Islam:

Looking at the tradition of scholastic theology, the Reformers thought they were confronted with a faith system totally conditioned by philosophy, that is to say an articulation of the faith based on an alien system of thought. As a result, faith no longer appeared as a living historical Word but as one element of an overarching philosophical system.

The principle of "sola scriptura," on the other hand, sought faith in its pure, primordial form, as originally found in the biblical Word. Metaphysics appeared as a premise derived from another source, from which faith had to be liberated in order to become once more fully itself. When Kant stated that he needed to set thinking aside in order to make room for faith, he carried this program forward with a radicalism that the Reformers could never have foreseen. He thus anchored faith exclusively in practical reason, denying it access to reality as a whole.

In order to establish sola scriptura, the Reformers divorced faith from reason. Or, perhaps, in reaction against the admittedly excessive rationality of some medieval thought, they threw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. I think it's high time we retrieved the baby. And, it's thoughtful exegesis like you're doing that has promise to do just that.

Really! Blaming Luther and Calvin for the Scopes Monkey Trial...I expect better from you, Chad! ;-) I don't suppose you expect me to agree with you here about the Reformation, me being Protestant and all.

I'm not an expert on Reformation history, but I think it's an awfully big accusation to say the reformers divorced faith from reason. I really do think this came far far later out of some segments of protestantism. It does seem like the sort of thing that the Orthodox might say about the Western Church: the problems we have all stem from Augustine. This is all too complex and involved for these simple charactarizations, methinks.

In a sense, I disagree - I think the primary interpretive guide to scripture should absolutely be scripture. But I also agree that we don't come to it in a vacuum (and are never more clouded in our reading of scripture than when we think we do). The best place to be when reading scripture is in the company of the community that has been shaped by it for thousands of years. But we can't rule out fresh insights that may shake up our traditions now and then!

A few things. First of all, I think we need to separate "history" from "science." These are two separate inquiries, and two separate questions. Many fundies (such as myself) view the Bible as history but not science, and it makes a big difference.

Now you said:

"What if God, in his divine wisdom, wanted to employ the poetic artistic vehicle of mythology in kicking off the greatest book ever written? What if the Spirit can use mythology to guide us in all truth, where the bare historical facts wouldn’t? By what principle do we rule this out?"

I do think the Spirit can use mythology to guide us in truth, and in fact did so in the parables. The difference is that the parables are clearly defined as such. Especially where in Genesis it says "for this reason...." If the facts aren't true, then neither is the conclusion!

God has certainly used other forms of literature than historical narrative to communicate. The only issue is that the language in Genesis seems to consist of historical narrative. The Psalms certainly use poetic license to talk about any number of things -- but they are Psalms!

Anyway, that's my take on it.


Point well taken about the Reformers and faith/reason. I suppose my hyperbole got the better of me: Luther and Calvin definitely attempted to keep the two together. The line of thought that took Scripture explicitly apart from Tradition, though, began with them, did it not? The Radical Reformers and their heirs took it to a logical extreme, but without the first step, they would never have gotten there.

Really! Blaming Luther and Calvin for the Scopes Monkey Trial...I expect better from you, Chad! ;-)

Nah, I blame William of Ockham and Duns Scotus ;-). Seriously, nominalism produced both the individualistic Christianity of Bryan via the Reformation and the secularism of Darrow via the Enlightenment.

Maybe I am being way too simplistic, but once the "ontotheological synthesis" of the medieval world was torn asunder, I think conflict between groups holding on for dear life to various floating pieces of the the sunken ship Christendom was inevitable. The heirs of the Reformation boldly hold onto "faith", the heirs of the Enlightenment blithely grasp at "reason," and the leftover Catholics try, perhaps somewhat hopelessly, to hold onto both.

Now, on to a probably incoherent ramble, but something caught my attention in your latest commentor's remarks:

I think we need to look very carefully at the distinction between "history" and "science." I agree that there is a distinction to be made: "science" should refer to those things that are determined by an empirical examination of the world around us, normally by experimentation. That definition makes "sciences" like paleontology more "historical," because they look at the past and try to determine patterns and data from it. "History", looking at the past, can never be as definite as "science". And neither of them, rooted in empiricism, can explain all of reality.

That said, how then do we look at Genesis? As a science textbook? No way. It describes neither experiments nor results of experiments. As history? It depends on what that means. Does it mean that, if I look at radioisotope dating and, by careful calculation, determine that the Earth is 4 billion years old, but Genesis tells me it is no more than 6,000 years old, that I must throw away the "scientific" data that I find to be true? I cannot do that and remain true to my God-given reason. Genesis, which I know and believe to be true, cannot then be literally true, because the science is incontrovertible. It explains the truth of Creation, but in mythic terms. When we get to Abraham, then the concreteness of the narrative brings us into literal history, but before that, it's hard to accept.

But, I don't have to, because my faith is not based upon Scripture's literal truth, but upon an unbroken Tradition, faith in the reasonableness of God and Creation, and in the absolute truth of the events described in the New Testament. Whether or not God created the Earth in six 24-hour days, whether or not Methuselah lived to be 969 years old, or even whether or not the Flood happened as literally depicted, does not matter, because it does not impinge upon the truth of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Am I just way too liberal for my own good? ;-)

cseminarian -

Thanks for your post. Though I'm not a big fan of fundamentalism, I've enjoy the company of fundamentalists quite a bit. I'm not patronizing you or Admonit when I say that I want your critique voiced. This was what I was taught in church and Christian school growing up - and I mustn't part ways with any aspect of my upbringing lightly. I hope you stick around, and hold my feet to the fire when we disagree.

Your answer is, of course, reasonable: there is no principle that rules out mythology being in our canon of scripture; Genesis just doesn't isn't written as mythology. If it were mythology, that wouldn't be a problem - it just isn't the case. You probably think I am trying to classify it as mythology because I am unwilling to accept the plain implications the text has for me.

I can't rule this out - the heart is deceitful above all things. At this point, however, I think the most faithful way to read Genesis 1-11 is as myth rather than history. Again - I need to reiterate what I mean by this. Myths are not allegories! They are not parables! They are stories that are meant to be read as things that really happened, but the focus is on the poetic drama and spiritual mystery rather than the historical details. Homer truly meant to say that Hector and Achilles were real people, but the Iliad is not a "history" like the works of Polybius.

Look at Genesis 8. We are told that on the seventh month the Ark came to rest on the mountains, and on the third month the land could be seen coming out of the water. Is the point that we could know the exact timing of these events? Did the author have access to Noah's log? I think he had access to the many flood myths of ancient Mesopotamia, and was guided by the Holy Spirit to write the story anew in a way that revealed God's true intentions. The ark came to rest on the seventh month just as God rested on the seventh day - resting from his judgment on creation. Land was seen on the third month as it was separated from the waters on the third day - creation being made anew.

Would if, had we seen the actual event, we would see it come to rest only two months later, and they saw the land just a few days after? We would tell the story differently, but the mythological telling would be far richer and truer than the historical one.

Chad, you flaming liberal, you! Next thing I know you'll be denying the virgin birth, advocating gay marriage, and wanting to incorporate wicca into your worship services. I think it's time to get an auto de fe going here...

And when you, O Grand Inquisitor, start up the auto da fe, I shall respond as Ivan's Christ did... ;-)

The tension in this discussion is the sometimes hidden and sometimes clearly evident idea that a straightforward reading of Genesis conflicts with the facts of science. I believe this is the real false dichotomy in this thread. For instance a reference was made earlier in the thread by Chad to the Bible teaching the earth to be 6,000 years old and that careful calculation of radioisotope dating yields an age of the earth at 4B yrs. Both assertions require many unprovable assumptions. I don't believe it is fair to characterize people who point out that we don't have access to enough data (indeed cannot ever have access to enough data) to make confident assertions about age using radiometric dating are burying our heads in the sand. Likewise it is not anti-scientific to point out that there is no evidence for the existence of nonbarionic dark matter other than its neccessity to make current Big Bang cosmology hold together. Science, as someone here previously pointed out, is empirical in nature. Therefore it is not correct to say that Bible presents science. It presents fact. By the same token paleo-anything is not science either. It is etiology. It can tell us that something happened, but it does not ever rise to the level of scientific proof. However those who hold to the absolute veracity of paleo-studies create myths to explain their worldview.

It is interesting to note that the "scientific facts" which lead many to abandon orthodox Christianity 100 or more years ago are all pretty much discredited by now. However none of the rock-ribbed science of a century ago has been discarded--it still fits with the reality we face today. That is the difference between empiricism and etiology.

The biggest hurdle I see when we force the Bible to fit with what our surrounding culture says must be true is the issue of death. If the geologic column is interpreted as an eons-long record of disease, death and dismemberment rather than an artifact of the judgement God visited on the world at the Flood we have some real fancy footwork to do in describing this creation as "good." One of the awkward places this leads us to is a pre-Fall world in which Adam and Eve and their descendents would live an endless, painfree life, uncorrupted by sin and thus immune from death. And yet they and the God who made them would be blissfully serene about the carnage, suffering and death taking place all around them. Of course the man and woman would not necessarily be aware of the millions of years of death and suffering that went on prior to their creation, even to creatures who by outward appearances would most certainly resemble them in every detail. Nature red in tooth and claw would be the natural order of creation, not a corruption of something which God made very good that has now fallen under a curse.

Another problem with this view is that it limits the effects of the Fall solely to man. All creation cannot be said to be groaning and travailing under the curse brought about by man's disobedience. That was implicit in the created order for hundreds of millions of years before man showed up.

In summary, I believe the Bible teachs the pure unvarnished truth. I believe that the facts of science and history are true. I do not believe that all models of things in the past created by astronomers, geologists, or biologists are true. If that makes me a Fundie, I'll wear the title with honor. If that makes me closed-minded or intellectually dishonest I would appreciate someone taking the time to show me where I have gone off the rails.

I got carried away reading your blog and left comments in your "Difficulties with Genesis" thread and "Curse in Retrospect" thread.

I found the link to your site at EO when you asked Joe to send you some dedicated anti-fans. I hope I don't fall into that category for you. I know we aren't on the same page with each other about the historicity of the early parts of the Bible, but you seem to present a thoughtful position with a minimal amount of invective against us fundies who don't share the same view. Looking forward to some stimulating discussion.


Thanks for your gracious postscript. It inspires me to sit down and hash this stuff out with you, though I don't have as much time as I might like.

You make some good points, and I don't want to pretend that I have a water-tight synthesis that perfectly reconciles the stories told by modern biologists and physicists and the story of Genesis 1-3. The most difficult is the notion of death and human responsibility. But I don't think its hopelessly irreconcilable - we can, for instance, imagine spiritual effects working backward through time.

I do get all the comments e-mailed to me, so I'll notice if you comment on an older post, though the discussion will end up being rather private. It does have the unfortunate effect of not giving the other commenters a chance at rebutal, so perhaps its my duty as the blogger to make a new post extending the discussion. I guess I'll have to do that. Stay tuned, and welcome aboard!

OK, standing by.

Sorry for my delay in returning to the conversation, but some think that in fact the story of Noah is that which is told by his three sons.

It's called the tablet theory, and, while I think it has a lot of hurdles yet to cross, I think it is a fairly reasonable way of looking at Genesis. Basically, the phrase "these are the generations of Shem, Ham, and Japheth" are referring to the preceding narrative. "generations" is a word that means "family histories", and, if you look at the text, you see in fact that many of the details are repeated three times using different wordings.

Beginning of the flood:
Version 1 - 7:6-10
Version 2 - 7:11-12
Version 3 - 7:13-16

Floods prevailing:
Version 1 - 7:17
Version 2 - 7:18
Version 3 - 7:19

Everything dying:
Version 1 - 7:21
Version 2 - 7:22
Version 3 - 7:23

And at the end of the story, what do we find in 10:1?

These are the family histories (i.e. generations) of the sons of Noah -- Shem, Ham, and Japheth.

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home