There is no lack of books that argue that the Bible is no different from any other ancient mythology. From one perspective, there seems to be logic to such a theory. The Bible shares with ancient myths a belief in divine beings, miracles and heroes performing fantastic deeds. Perhaps the only difference is that the “biblical myth” continues to have believers today.
John Oswalt deals with these questions in his book: The Bible Among the Myths. It would be tempting to tackle this issue by simply comparing biblical stories with mythological stories. However, Oswalt takes a more useful route by looking at the different worldviews found within the Bible and ancient myths. Building from this foundation, Oswalt provides a persuasive argument that the Bible is fundamentally different than ancient myths.
Oswalt does a good job of taking a look at the very nature of mythology. He investigates etymological, literary and phenomenological definitions of myth in an attempt to have the best understanding of the nature of myths. After looking at these definitions, Oswalt concludes that the common link between all myths is the concept of continuity. By continuity, Oswalt means that all things are continuous with each other. This link explains how the ancients attempted to manipulate their gods. A worshipper may enter into sexual intercourse or some other activity to try and receive the assistance of a fertility god, since what is done on earth is continuous with what takes place in the heavenly world of the gods. Further investigation of ancient myths provides additional common characteristics including: polytheism, images, eternity of chaotic matter, personality not essential to reality, low view of the gods, conflict as the source of life, low view of humanity, no single standard of ethics, and a cyclical concept of existence. With a solid foundation of the true nature of myths, Oswalt then prepares the reader for the way in which the Bible differs.
Just as continuity is the foundation of all mythological thinking, Oswalt finds an underlying principle for the biblical worldview in the concept of transcendence. Central to biblical thinking is that God is other than his creation. This belief shapes all that is found in biblical narratives. Oswalt also finds a number of common characteristics of the biblical worldview that are diametrically opposed to the mythic worldview, including: monotheism, iconoclasm, first principle as spirit, absence of conflict in the creation process, high view of humanity, reliability of God, God as supra-sexual, sex being desacralized, prohibition of magic, ethical obedience as a religious response and the importance of human-historical activity. By contrasting these concepts with those found among myths, Oswalt demonstrates that the Bible is indeed fundamentally different from mythology.
The second part of Oswalt’s book deals with the issue of history. What does one really mean when they claim that the Bible is either historical or unhistorical? To investigate this, Oswalt looks at the different ways that ancient non-biblical texts recorded information, including: omens, king lists, date formulae, epics, royal annals and chronicles. Oswalt argues that ancient history writing was handicapped by its worldview of continuity. If all things are continuous, it is impossible to take seriously an individual person or event. On the other hand, the biblical view of God’s transcendence provides a better environment for history writing as all events can be examined separately and individually. Unlike the myths, who may use a historical setting as a context for a moral message, the Bible presents itself as book where one personal God acts in history, using real historical people and makes himself known in real historical events. Oswalt is very well aware that not everyone agrees with his view of faith and history. Oswalt does take a look at other attempts to redefine the role of history by Rudolf Bultmann and Alfred North Whitehead, examining their positions and providing helpful critiques.
This book is a very helpful resource for biblical scholars. Although Oswalt is an Old Testament scholar and uses that knowledge in this study, Oswalt takes his investigation beyond the limits of Old Testament study. Oswalt does include the New Testament, myth scholarship and philosophy of history in his research. Oswalt is also open about his own bias as an evangelical Christian. This is not a weakness as every author has a bias, Oswalt is simply more honest. Oswalt does seem to make an attempt to not just repeat evangelical beliefs and he carefully interacts with opposing viewpoints. Oswalt does not take the position that the Bible is true because it says it is but rather by research into mythology and history, is able to argue persuasively that the Bible does not belong to the genre of mythology.
It is difficult to find any weaknesses in Oswalt’s work. However, at one point Oswalt acknowledges the difficulties of numbers in the Old Testament and the challenges archaeology has presented for Old Testament historicity. Unfortunately, Oswalt does not provide the reader with any help in understanding these problems in the context of a historical Bible. He simply acknowledges that these problems exist but continues to assert the historicity of the Bible. Despite this one disappointment, The Bible Among the Myths is a very useful resource. It is very readable and helpful for the interested layperson and still has enough content to be valuable for scholars. John Oswalt has provided a very important work both for Old Testament studies in particular and Christian studies in general.
Stephen J. Bedard