The Bible Among the Myths: Unique Revelation or Just Ancient Literature? Book Review Example

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Book Review

Introduction

In the introduction to the book, Oswalt discusses the reasons he wrote it. He touches on his reactions and responses to relatively recent scholarship that has disputed whether the Bible is unique, and also touches on larger historical issues about how changes in human perspective have changed humanity’s relationship to the Bible, and consequently, our relationship with God. Oswalt asserts that he wrote the book to counter what he saw as inaccuracies in the contemporary scholarship, positing that his interpretation would correct the record.

Part One: The Bible and Myth

The Bible in its World

In his book “The Bible among the Myths: Unique Revelation or Just Ancient Literature?” author John Oswalt discusses what he sees as the theological, philosophical, and historical antecedents of Christianity. His discussion reaches back to the pagan era of early Greek history, and he examines the nature of polytheism and the “polyverse.” Oswalt draws a distinction between the ideas of a polyverse and a universe. In a polyverse, the physical world in which human beings live is merely a manifestation or projection created by the gods and other supernatural figures and forces that inhabit the world of the invisible. In a sense, there are multiple worlds, and the visible world is only one of them. As Greek philosophy and logic developed, the idea of a universe developed. In a universe, the entire world is a single, unified whole that can be explained or understood by a single, unifying principle. Other writers working in the context of Christian Apologetics have discussed this distinctions (Groothuis, 2011), but few have stated it so clearly and elegantly as Oswalt does here.

Pre-Christian Israel also embraced polytheism and the polyverse worldview. In the centuries before Christ, a monotheistic worldview developed, as expressed in the Old Testament. Oswalt asserts that early prophecies that eventually came true had the effect of convincing many Israelites to embrace monotheism and to devote prayer and worship to Yahweh. At the same time, however, many of the cultural traditions and worldviews of paganism remained alive in Israel culture, leading to a society that seemed to be moving towards the monotheism of Hebrew and later, Christianity, though it was still not quite there yet.

As Oswalt states, “it was when the Gospel of Jesus penetrated into the Greco-roman worldview” that the philosophical and logical foundations of the Christian worldview were formed. This combination Greek/Israelite worldview gives great weight to the “validity of reason, importance of history, the worth of the individual, and the reality of nature.” Greek logic and reason “intuited” the universe worldview, while the text of the Old and New Testaments provided the theological underpinnings for a monotheistic creator and ruler of that universe. Oswalt leaps over centuries of history in this section, jumping ahead to the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason. It was in this period, he asserts, that humans began to believe that “logic and science could stand on their own,” and they began to reject, or abandon, keeping God at the center of their worldview.  Oswalt concludes this section of the book by affirming his belief that there are only two worldviews,” the Biblical one and the other one,” and claims that he will use the rest of the book to prove the validity of the Biblical worldview.

The Bible and Myth: a Problem of Definition

One of Oswalt’s central ideas is that the Bible is mistaken for “myth” by those who do not understand and believe it. The next section of the book begins with a discussion about what constitutes myth and mythology, and examines the ways that the Biblical text differs from mere myth. Oswalt admits that the term “myth” can be difficult to define, and that it may mean different things to different people. Oswalt asserts that the only way to have an honest discussion about whether the Biblical text stands apart from myth is to first define the term “myth” in an acceptable manner, one that most people can be comfortable with. In discussing myth, Oswalt also examines the nature of mythology, and whether mythology can contain the kind of truth that is meaningful even if it does not satisfy the requirements of scientific reason. Oswalt cited the example of a story told by C.S. Lewis, a little girl, and a bottle containing “horrible red things.” The bottle contained poison, and when asked why it was dangerous, the girl explained that it contained “horrible red things.’ She did not understand the mechanics of how poison works, but her advice not to drink it was still valid nonetheless. With this story, Oswalt introduces the idea that knowledge and wisdom can be found outside the context of science or naturalism.

Continuity: the Basis of Mythical Thinking

When discussing and defining myth and mythology, Oswalt puts forth the concept of “continuity.” He claims that continuity is at the core of more or less all mythology. In the context in which Oswalt use the term, continuity describes world where “all things that exist are a part of each other,” and that what exists in the physical world is also connected to the world of the supernatural or the divine. Further, notes Oswalt, the supernatural world can be affected and manipulated by activities in the physical world, such as performing ritual sacrifices or other activities that are intended to appeal to the world of the supernatural. Oswalt argues that the purpose of myths is to “actualize the continuity,” by which he seems to mean that myths and mythology are intended to explain or reinforce the idea of this continuity, to teach a larger worldview to those who learn the myth. That does not mean that all myths tell the same story, of course, but that they all have a similar, underlying purpose.

Oswalt seems to be saying that all myths, at their core, are designed to present the idea that all things –including people- in the natural world are divine. He also puts forth the idea that all world religions aside from the Abrahamic ones are built on this same set of principles of continuity. Oswalt’s discussion about continuity is well-presented and easy to follow, but it is lacking enough information to really make his case. He discusses the myths of other religions at some length, but he could have included more specific details or examples of how the concept of continuity is actually evident in these various religions. The conceptual material is easy to follow, but the supporting, contextual material that would bolster the case is not prsebted as strongly.

Transcendence: the Basis of Biblical Thinking

If the concept of continuity underpins the majority of world religions, argues Oswalt, then it is in the lack of this continuity that the primary difference between the Biblical worldview and that of pagan religions can be seen. As he describes it, the Bible presents a worldview with a clear divide between the natural world and the world of divine. At the core of this worldview is the idea of “transcendence,” by which Oswalt means a manner in which human beings can transcend from the natural world to the world of the divine by properly following the teachings of the Bible. Where the continuity of the pagan myths offers a world where everything and everyone is divine, the Bible offers a world where the natural world and the world of the divine are two distinct realms, and the means by which one moves from one to the other is through faith in God. Further, Oswalt makes it clear that the idea of divine revelation is core component of faith, and that we as human beings must rely on revelation to truly understand the world and to truly have faith in God. Revelation serves as an example of the relationship between the creator and His creations, and is another unique feature of the Biblical worldview.

In the context of this divide between the worlds of continuity and the world in the Biblical perspective, Oswalt also discusses some fundamental features of the myth-based pagan religions as compared to Bible-based religion. In the world of continuity, human beings are not necessarily at the heart of the worldview, and are in fact often portrayed as insignificant components of the larger world, creatures that often are seen as existing merely to serve the pleasure of the gods. Oswalt also discusses how myths often portray a world where things and events are cyclical, as opposed to the linear view of history presented in the Bible. In a sense, human beings in the myths are just cogs in the machine, just small parts of the larger order.

The Biblical worldview, by contrast, portrays the human experience as a linear history, one in which revelation from God shapes and affects the course of that history. It is through these revelations that humans have learned to understand God and their relationship to Him. Oswalt examines the idea of ethics, and asserts that the ethics of the Biblical worldview are rooted in the revelations God has offered to human beings. This view of ethics is very different from the form of ethics found in the myth-based pagan religions; in the former, ethics are handed down from God, while in the latter, there is no external, unchanging standard to which truly ethical behavior must adhere.

Oswalt touches on some of the ideas he presented early in the book about how shifts in the way many people see the world have had serious, significant consequences for humanity. As Oswalt sees it, the unique relationship between human beings and God is also what underpins not just our ethical standards, but is the foundation of objective truth. In the context of continuity, he argues, there is no true objective truth, and every person can and does define it for himself or herself. Again Oswalt refers to the concept of transcendence, and claims that objective truth and ethical and moral standards exist apart from the human experience. Oswalt sees continuity and transcendence as being mutually exclusive, and again makes the case that this exclusivity is the sole province of the Biblical worldview.

The Bible versus Myth

Oswalt discusses a number of ways in which the gods of myth and paganism differ significantly from the Biblical God. The pagan gods were often petty and vulgar and also were often in conflict with each other. Pagan gods were often depicted in various images, and had a physical presence in the world. The God of the Bible, by contrast, is apart from the pettiness of humanity, and is not engaged in the vulgar and sexual behavior of human beings. God is not petty and unreliable, but is instead always reliable and consistent. The creation stories of the two worldviews also differ; in the pagan creation myths the world often arises out of some form of conflict among the polytheistic figures. The creation of the universe by God, by contrast, was a singular event, not borne of conflict. It was instead a peaceful, beautiful thing.

Oswalt tackles several arguments raised by those who see the Bible as mere myth. In order to do so, he first acknowledges that there are some similarities between the myths of the Ancient Near East (ANE) pagans and the stories and teachings of the Bible. These similarities, he argues, are largely superficial, and do not touch the core argument he makes about the differences between ANE myths and the Bible. The pagans that lived as neighbors to the Israelites were almost all polytheistic and embraced the worldview of continuity. Not only does the Bible differ from the pagan myths, argues Oswalt, but the entire worldview of the Israelites stood in sharp contrast to the worldviews of its neighbors. The Israelites were entirely unique in the way they embraced Yahweh as the one true God and rejected the polytheism of their neighbors. So the differences between the Bible and the pagan myths is not just something to be discussed from a scholarly perspective, but they also manifested in the world of humans by giving the Israelites a perspective on the world that was much different from those of their neighbors (or, really, anyone else in human history).

Oswalt continues to discuss the concept of transcendence, and attempts to put it into context by comparing it to the pagan worldview. The pagan gods, as noted, were just as petty as human beings. Pagan gods would, in fact, engage in very human behavior, like committing murder or stealing or committing other acts that would be defined as immoral by Biblical standards. This is what Oswalt means when he attempts to explain the difference between the ethical standards of continuity-based religions and the ethical standards of the Biblical God. If the pagan gods were just as petty as humans, and did not adhere to any consistent ethical or moral standards, then how could they possibly be able to offer ethical standards to human beings? The Biblical God, by contrast, offers a moral standard that exists entirely apart from the vagaries of human behavior, and serves as an independent, consistent, and all-pervasive guide for moral behavior. God is not limited to, or limited by, the confines of the natural world or of human behavior.

Taking this idea further, God’s ethical and moral standards exist in an entirely separate world from the world of human beings, and transcendence is the mechanism by which human beings learn and exemplify the ethical standards that will lead them to the salvation of God. It is this possibility of salvation through transcendence that lies at the heart of the relationship between God and human beings. The only way that God can in fact be the consistent, unwavering moral beacon for humanity, Oswalt posits, is by existing separately from the world of human beings. The pagan gods, through their connections of continuity, are almost portrayed by Oswalt as being trapped in a world without morals and standards, and human beings are likewise trapped in world of the gods. By explaining how the Biblical God exists apart from the natural world, Oswalt reinforces the idea of, and need for, the transcendence of salvation.

Part Two: the Bible and History

The Bible and History: a Problem of Definition

After his discussion about continuity and transcendence in the first half of the book, Oswalt then moves to a discussion about the place the Bible holds in the context of history and its resonance in human culture and societal evolution. As he did in his discussion about myth, Oswalt begins by discussing the concept of “history,” and how we define the differences between history and myths or legends. Earlier in the book Oswalt had discussed the idea that the Bible is “unique from (other religious works) in its use of human-historical experience as the locus of revelation.” Oswalt then tackles the following assertion: if revelation is the way God communicates with humans, then the history of revelation as presented in the Bible must be historically accurate or the Bible itself is unreliable. Oswalt notes that some scholars have found discrepancies between Biblical history and other accounts of history that are considered to be reliable. If Biblical history is sometimes incorrect, is the Bible itself flawed as the means of transcendence for human beings?

Is the Bible Truly Historical? The Problem of History (1)

Oswalt offers his own definition of history to help place this question in context. As he sees it, history is uniquely centered on human activity, and it takes place in a specific time and space. Further, the purpose of history is to attempt to provide knowledge and information to those to whom it is presented, and it is an attempt to be as accurate as possible within the confines and limitations of those who preserve and maintain it. This differs from myth, which largely puts the activity of the various gods at the center, and more or less ignores linear, human-centered activity for the sake of the cyclical world of continuity. In this context, Oswalt begins to assert that, by placing human activity at its center, the Biblical text differs from the myths of the pagan gods not just in its description of transcendence, but also because it serves as a work of historical significance.

Does it Matter Whether the Bible is Historical? The Problem of History (2)

In order to make his point about the difference between myth and history, Oswalt notes that many of the figures in pagan myths are believed by scholars and historians to have been based on the lives of real people. The heroes of epic tales and legends may have been based on real people but over time these stories lost their connections to the facts about those real people. Oswalt explains that as they become the stuff of myth and legend, the purpose of these stories grows to fulfill the requirements of the worldview of continuity. It does not matter if the facts about the people upon whom these myths were developed are lost, because the purpose of telling and retelling the myths is not to preserve or present human history. As Oswalt notes, the entire concept of preserving and presenting human history is largely absent from the continuity worldview. Without the unique “human-historical…locus of revelation” that defines the relationship between God and humans, there is no real need to preserve the facts of human history, at least not in a religious context.

Just as Oswalt rejects the notion that the pagan myths fit the description of “history,” Oswalt makes the case that the Bible does qualify as history. He cites several examples of biblical figures that he says are clearly representative of actual historical figures. There may have been some facts about these people that have been by turns lost or embellished or altered over the centuries, Oswalt acknowledges, but the real historical figures upon which the Biblical stories are based are not entirely lost. More significantly, the importance of these real historical figures is preserved. It may not have been possible to keep track of all the details and facts about these people as the Bible was compiled and then handed down over generations, but the motivation to preserve these stories was to do the best possible job to keep the memory and lives of these people extant for coming generations.

To put Oswalt’s arguments more simply: the Biblical stories were intended to recount real events in the lives of real people, rather than to glorify the activities of the various pagan gods at the expense of human significance. Pagan myths may have kernels of truth at their core, but their primary purpose is to describe the world from the perspective of the gods. Biblical stories, by contrast, place the relationship between God and humanity at the center, and emphasize stories about real people. It is this fundamental difference that separates myth and history, Oswalt argues.

Origins of the Biblical Worldview: Alternatives

Oswalt does make an effort to examine the arguments of those who see the Biblical text differently than he does, and acknowledges that many scholars and historians have taken exception with the idea that the Biblical text exists apart, and above, the world of mythology. Again, Oswalt acknowledges the similarities between the Bible and earlier pagan myths, but in the end returns to his fundamental thesis about their differences: they are not comparable because they exist for entirely different purposes; further, the purpose of the Bible is unique among the world’s religious texts.

Conclusions

In a sense, Oswalt makes two relatively simple arguments in this book. The first is that the Biblical worldview differs from the pagan worldview in the context of transcendence vs. continuity. The second argument is that the Bible is unique because it emphasizes the importance of human activity, and human history; in so doing, the Bible itself transcends the world of mythology and enters the realm of historical documents. These views have been taken on and examined by other writers in other books, such as in Geisler’s (2009) “Christian Apologetics,” though some of these books suffer from being too dense and inscrutable to be of value to the average lay person. Regardless of where one stands on the questions raised by Oswalt, there is no question that he presents his case clearly and forcefully, offering a work that is suitable for anyone interested in having a broader understanding of the significance of the Hebrew/Christian Bible.

References

Geisler, N. L. (2009). Christian Apologetics. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books.

Groothuis, D. R. (2011). Christian apologetics: A comprehensive case for biblical faith. Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic.

Oswalt, J. N. (2009). The Bible among the Myths: Unique Revelation or Just Ancient Literature?Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan.

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