The Bible among the MythsWritten by John N. Oswalt Reviewed By Matthieu Richelle
Since the nineteenth century, the comparison between the biblical texts and the documents from the Ancient Near East (ANE) has been one of the most prolific areas of research in exegesis. The recently-published Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009) will again help readers to benefit from the results of comparative studies.
However, something essential has changed during the last fifty years, claims John Oswalt in The Bible Among the Myths. While scholars like G. Ernest Wright noticed numerous similarities between Israelite and ANE texts, they considered the differences as fundamental. Today, it is common to argue that the religion of the Israelites was to a large extent similar to the practices of their neighbors, and authors like Mark Smith see biblical thought as the product of an evolutionary process from the Canaanite religion.
In this book Oswalt tries to assess this new situation in two steps. In the first part, he has a close look at the connections between the Bible and the ANE myths. Reviewing the possible definitions of “myth,” he concludes that it is “a form of expression, whether literary or oral, whereby the continuities among the human, natural, and divine realms are expressed and actualized” (pp. 45–46). He then devotes two chapters to exploring the basis of mythical and biblical ways of thought: “continuity” and transcendence. For example, in the myths the overlapping of divine, natural, and human worlds results in a blurring of all the boundaries. This is why a god can also be a bull or why humans can influence gods and natural forces through magic. Various characteristics of the myths are easily explained in this context. For example, the diversity of the natural forces implies polytheism, and the projection of human realities on the divine realm results in a low view of the gods. On the contrary, transcendence involves monotheism, a high view of God, etc. Finally, Oswalt reviews the resemblances between the Bible and ANE texts, whether they rest on a similarity in practice (e.g., sacrifices), of expression (e.g., “Leviathan”) or in thought patterns (e.g., Gen 1 and Enuma Elish). He shows that they are in no way fundamental and far less important than the essential opposition of continuity and transcendence.
In the second part of his work, Oswalt deals with the question of whether the Bible accounts can be considered as history writing. As with the myths, in chapter 6 he first gives a definition of history: a narrative intended for human knowledge of a series of events involving human beings acting in time and space, trying to be accurate and complete, and providing an evaluation of the relative importance of the events. Then he demonstrates that there is no such thing in the ANE (although some categories of texts provide historical data) and that the underlying reason is the principle of continuity. Conversely, the transcendence of God creates an interest in the way he intervenes in the experience of Israel and consequently in writing history. Chapters 7 and 8 answer two important questions: (1) Given the differences between the biblical accounts and modern historical works, is it really fair to call the former “history”? (2) Does it matter whether these accounts are historical? Regarding the first question, Oswalt dialogues with authors like G. von Rad and James Barr. He reaffirms that the biblical accounts are true history and claims that the sole explanation for the unique way of thinking of the Bible is that it stems from a revelation. As for the second question, he criticizes both the existentialism of Bultmann and process theology. The final chapter (chap. 9) briefly expounds the insufficiency of four alternatives explanations for the appearance of the biblical thought: J. van Seters, F. M. Cross, W. Dever and M. Smith.
I am grateful to Oswalt for this book. When studying the fascinating parallels existing in ANE literature, there is a risk of losing sight of the fundamental differences with the Bible. The Bible among the Mythsprovides a good corrective in order to get a balanced view. Particularly illuminating is the insightful analysis of the underlying principles of continuity and transcendence because it explains many aspects and the overall logic of both the mythical and biblical ways of thinking.
Certainly, in his effort to point out the main principles of the myths, Oswalt sometimes seems to oversimplify the subject. For example, I wonder whether the distinction between sacred and profane fits into his perspective. Moreover, it seems exaggerated to say that in the worldview of continuity, “nothing is considered for itself apart from its impact on me. Ultimately, it only has existence as it relates to me” (p. 123). Furthermore, I regret that Oswalt chose to discuss only Bultmannian ideas and those of process theology to answer the question “Does it matter whether the Bible is historical?” Many people ask this question without adhering to these philosophies.
But this work does not claim to constitute a handbook of religious studies, nor does it stand as the definitive work on the connection between history and the Bible. Rather, it is a useful reminder of the fundamental differences between ANE texts and the OT. Within these limits, it is a refreshing and instructive book that I highly recommend to readers studying the Scriptures in their context.
Faculté Libre de Théologie Evangélique
Other Articles in this Issue
New Testament scholarship in its present state is experiencing a time of abundance, especially with respect to biblical commentaries of every shape, length, level of depth, theological persuasion, intended audience, and hermeneutical angle...