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Book Summary: the Bible Among the Myths by John N. Oswalt Essay

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John Oswalt, in his book The Bible Among the Myths, presents his position to the reader that the bible is different and separate from other writings of the Ancient Near East. He asserts the Bible is both historically accurate and theologically sound. He makes the defense the Bible was divinely inspired and revealed to humanity and unique from other Ancient Near East literature. There was a time when the Bible, and the Israelite religion was different from its neighboring societies. But as times have changed, many people now lump the bible with other Ancient Near East myths.

The book is broken up into two sections. The first half of the book, “The Bible and Myth,” Oswalt takes the time to define what a myth is and what differentiates the Bible from a myth. He then describes the different between the worldview of the Ancient Near East and continuity is different from the Bible’s transcendence. The second half of the book, “The Bible and History,” examines several philosophical thoughts proposed by others that attempt to explain the Bible’s relevance separate from historical validity. Oswalt provides excellent arguments against the new age philosophies. Oswalt provides an articulate argument for the veracity of the Bible’s history and theology by providing several convincing points to affirm the Bibles varicity.

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Introduction

John N. Oswalt, in his book The Bible Among the Myths, provides the reader with a brief, yet comprehensive view of the differences and similarities between the Old Testament and Ancient Near East religions. In the introduction, he provides a brief overview of scholarly thought regarding the Old Testament literature and Ancient Near East literature and how perspectives have changed in nearly 50 years. Oswalt states at the time he was introduced to the subject, scholars believed the Old Testament and its theology stood alone from other Ancient Near East religions. He now contends that present day scholars believe the Old Testament is just one of many Ancient Near East religions.

Oswalt states it was the differences between the Old Testament and other Ancient Near that separated the two. But today, scholars are taking the same data and looking their similarities (11-13). He states that this is a “vital philosophical distinction between “essence” and “accident.”” “Essence” has to do with the essence of the subject whereas “accident” is those things that are not essential to the subject (13). He insinuates that scholars of today are centering their attention on the “accidental” attributes of the Old Testament and Ancient Near East religions and not centering on those things that are the essence of the subject; those things that make the religions different.

It is these similarities and differences Oswalt states he will center his attention (14). Oswalt then turns the attention of the reader to the definition of a myth. He states there are different definitions of a myth but the Bible is not one of them. He states when people start to think of this word as “typical of a myth,” then four things happen: 1) The individual is devalued; 2) There becomes a disinterest in history; 3) People become open to the occult; and 4) People do not take responsibility for their actions (14). Oswalt believes what makes the difference between the Old Testament (OT) and the Ancient Near East (ANE) literature is how God makes himself divinely known to his people.

The next premise Oswalt boldly states is that if we believe in Scripture theologically, then we can also believe that the Bible is historically true. He states, “the veracity of the theological claims of the OT is inseparable from the veracity of the historical claims” (16). The Bible maintains a “unique worldview” and is one that has been revealed by God to his people, Israel. He states there are things we must wrestle with when it comes to investigation the Bible historically from its theological stand but the Bible can uphold its claim to be theologically and historically viable.

Chapter 1

Chapters one through five discuss the differences and similarities of the Bible compared to ANE literature. The premise of chapter one is the Bible has had a major impact on the world, especially with its contributions to Greek philosophy and thought. Greek philosophers believed there was one “unifying principle in the cosmos” (21) and that everything could be identified and reasoned with through logic. As Oswalt states, this brought into conflict the thought of a myth based polytheistic society to a monotheistic mindset.

Oswalt states that the Hebrew thought survived through the exilic period in Assyria and Babylon even though they were in direct conflict with the societies in which they were captive. Israel brought into these societies the thought that there was only one God and He was the creator of the world and humanity. In addition, Oswalt states the Israelites brought the unique ideas that God was not dependent upon humanity but himself and that God revealed himself to humanity and gave them specific understandings of what he expected from his people.

It was only by God’s design that the people of Israel were able to maintain their religion in a foreign land. Greek and Hebrew thoughts combined into a complementary way of thinking about the universe and the world. The Hebrew religion of one creator who created the world found a place in the Greek philosophy of a unifying principle to the universe. On the other hand, Greek philosophy could combine itself by to Hebrew ideas by linking the cause and effect of the world (26). Oswalt states that there was a necessity for the biblical worldview. Without it liking itself with the Greek philosophy, we would not have a need for reason, understand the importance of history and have value of the individual (27).

Chapter 2

Oswalt, in chapter two, attempts to define the word myth but prior to his discourse, he revisits the divergence of scholars going from believing in the OT as a separate piece of literature from all other ANE mythological literature to being placed in the mix of ANE literature as mythology.

Oswalt contends the job of defining a myth is challenging especially in a climate the Bible is being placed with other ANE literature. He states there are two definitional problems. The first problem has to do with the definitions of myth. He states there has been a breakdown in providing an accurate definition. The other problem has to do with the definition itself. It may not accurately describe the members of a class (32).

Two primary definitions are provided for the reader. The first is the historical-philosophical definition which attempts to “describe how the myth operates in society” (40). Subdivisions of the historical-philosophical definition are the etymological, the sociological-theological and the literary. The second is the phenomenological. Etymological definition attempts to identify the false nature of an event or story. The sociological-theological definition is a form of story in which conveys some truth about the world.

Literary definition of a myth is the narrative attempts to use the source of symbolism to convey truth or meaning (33-39). The phenomenological definition regarding a myth is to look at the common characteristics of the story and how it relates to the society. Oswalt states that all these definitions have a commonality of continuity. No matter their defined variations, they are interrelated. Oswalt states, “Continuity is a philosophical principle that asserts that all things are continuous with each other” (43). Myths are to have a common approach to the world (45).

Chapter 3

The idea of continuity in myths is continued and expended in chapter three. Continuity can better be defined as all elements of a myth are interrelated physically and spiritually, in a circular motion, to each other. In a story, there are no distinctions between humanity, nature and the divine. This also includes the thought of pantheism, “the divine is everything and everything is divine” (49). The problem with this is that there are no absolutes, and people and nature are equal to god.

Oswalt state, there are a number of “far-reaching implications” with regard to continuity. The first is that myths only look at the here and now, the present, and keeping things as status quo. Myths are not in interested in the future or moving forward. Second, myths do not look at the involvement of humanity and the choices they made. Third, myths also perpetuate the actualization of a “timeless reality.” Maintenance of the system is needed. This is accomplished through sexual relations in order to maintain fertility of the earth and living creatures as well as performing other ritualistic acts in order to ensure the gods and goddesses maintain the cycle of fertility. Fourth, nature is used as an important “expression of the divine.” The gods were personified in nature. Fifth, mythology used magic in order to accomplish something in nature or in the divine realm. Finally, because of this continuity, there are no boundaries which cause a blurring of the natural, human and divine (44-56).

Once both sides of continuity are explained, Oswald provides what he believes are common features of myths. There are always elements of polytheism. There are multiple gods. Gods are always represented by some natural element such as wood, stone or other natural element. The gods are not multidimensional and are stereotyped. The gods are not valued nor are humans. The gods are appeased by certain acts and humans are subject to the gods. There is always an element of conflict in the myth either with the gods or other human conflict. Eternity, both before and after the establishment of the world, was and is chaotic. Because humanity is at the whim of the gods, there is no standard of ethic. Finally, the cycle of life is cyclical. Oswalt states that the cycle goes from “nonexistence to dependence to independence to dependence to nonexistence” (57-61)

Chapter 4

Biblical transcendence and the transcendence of God are the major themes of chapter four. While chapter three centered on the identifying factors of what constitutes a myth, Oswalt provides several key elements that make the Bible, especially the God of the Bible, unusual and exceptionally different from other ANE mythological literature and religions. As mentioned before, there is only one godly source of the OT (64). God who is spirit is separate from his creation and cannot be created in any form (65). Once created, the conflict ended with created order both in heaven and on earth (67). God created man in his image and therefore gave him importance by being in his likeness (69).

Oswalt interesting notes that God is “supra-sexual.” Meaning, God is not known by his sexual identity but his roles. In addition, creation is not directed by sexual activity (73). God in all his activities can be relied upon to do all that he said he would do and not deviate as those gods of myths. God prohibited magic was as a method of manipulating Him into some type of action (75). The final element is in regard to the Sinai covenant God made with the people of Israel. They were obligated to live a certain lifestyle whereas there were no restrictions for the other who lived outside of the covenant (76).

Comparing and contrasting the biblical worldview from those of a mythological perspective provides some understanding of how radically different and distinctive they are from each other. Transcendence verses continuity; God is above all and separate from the universe, nature and humanity. God interacts with humanity through his covenant relationship.

Chapter 5

Oswalt continues his discussion between the differences between the Bible and mythology however he looks at it in light of their similarities. Before he does looks at those similarities, however, Oswalt digs deeper into the ethic as it relates to human relationships with God and man. He states that there are two offences, which are offenses against the gods and offences against other people (85). The mythic ethic, offences against the gods in literature were “cultic or magical” where offences against people were against society, (85-86). Oswalt points out offences against the gods had nothing to do with their treatment of each other. The biblical ethic was something different, more wholistic.

Behavior on every level, social and personal was out of obedience in the covenantal relationship with God (88). God and his relationship with the covenantal people maintained the same standard. The author provides a few examples where it would seem as though the Bible is a similar to myth. He provides examples of the creation story in Genesis and in Psalms to point some similarities in the Enuma Elish (Babylonian creation account) and other literature. Oswalt acknowledges that similarities and disputes them as something the Bible took from mythos but that they were similar practices not intended to make the Bible like other biblical literature as much as identifying the differences that stood apart from other literature.

Chapter 6

Chapter six marks the second half of the book as it discusses history and the Bible. Like before in the attempts of defining myth, Oswalt attempts to accurately define history. He defined history, in summary, as a narrative that records events which is recorded for “human self-knowledge” and used as a means of evaluation in order to capture important events. According to Oswalt, there are several factors that are dependent upon when understand history. The first thing is that people are “free and responsible.” The second item is that there are causes and effects in everything that happens. The recorded information must be true is the third element. The fourth key is history can be used as a learning tool for other to grow. Fifth thing is that what happened yesterday is just as relevant today and that there is significance in their “relationships.” Finally, there must be a standard in which the information is evaluated (113-115).

There are several ways ancient people of the Near East recorded events of their lives. They are omen texts, king lists, date formulae, epics, royal annals, and chronicles. Omens were documents that contained something that predicted the good or bad of an event or circumstance. The kings’ lists contained the genealogy of the names and duration of the kings in power. Date formulae contained the yearly accomplishments of the kings. Epics were a narrative of events in a hero’s life which attempted to convey life’s philosophy. Royal annals were recorded events of a king and existed to “glorify the king” not so much to accurately chronicle what really happened. Chronicles were recordings of what actually happened, both positive and negative. They are about as accurate a historical record then the rest. In all, they were specific in the information they contained (116-122).

Unlike our historians today or even the historical view of the Bible, the peoples of the ANE perspective was different than ours today. They were generally focused on the here and now and not future orientated. Their orientation included making sure they maintained the status quo in order to maintain the good in their lives. The best for everyone was to maintain the order of their society. They believed that everything was outside their control with a multiciplicity of causes determining their fate. This provides reasons why they were not interested in recording for the future and concerned about seeing the relationships of the events that took place in their lives.

The Bible, on the other hand, provides a different perspective. As Oswalt states, “They [characteristics of the Bible] are clearly presented to us as unique individuals, firmly rooted in time and space” (125). The events which took place were recorded whether they were positive or negative. The events were recorded showing the interrelationships between the events and persons as well as showing the results of human choices and the impact those choices had on the lives of those people. The Bible connects all the pieces together in a way that transcends “the events themselves” by showing the divine interaction with humanity (127). Oswalt asks the question how then could the Israelite nation be different without myth. He indicates it is because there was only one God who kept “breaking into their experiencing and smashing their easy interpretations” (134). God kept involving himself in their lives and these events were recorded.

Chapter 7

Chapter seven unpacks Oswalt’s position that the Bible is historically accurate and theologically sound. Oswalt debunks the idea that history must be recorded without divine involvement in order for it to be historically accurate. In fact, he indicates that is what differentiates the Bible from any other work (138-139). The author states that it is the unique working of God in the lives of people to reveal his divine purposes, which is nowhere else in any literature other than the Bible (142). It is what he calls “revelation through Human-Historical experience” (149).

God revealed himself and was divinely involved in the lives of the Israelites. Oswalt notes that he Bible did not “bifurcate between revelation and witness to revelation” (140). The author goes on to state that if we fail to acknowledge God in the history then how can we accept the “acts” of God presented in the literature. There is also the question of how can God be known if we take him out of the equation. Although many maintain that one cannot have an accurate account of history with God. Owalt maintains that without God there cannot be an accurate history without God. Israel had a different and unique perspective of God in literature.

Chapter 8

Chapter eight is an extension of chapter seven although Oswalt moves forward on his conviction that the Bible is both historically accurate and theologically relevant. He critically reviews two popular scholars’ works that have attempted to separate history from the Bible. The first is Rudolf Bultmann’s Existentialist Foundation and the other is Alfred North Whitehead’s Process Thought. The Existentialist Foundation is the way one sees self relevant to history. As Oswalt explains, “Instead of seeing the self as an entity shaped by history and a human “nature,” this way of thinking sees “existence as the most fundamental aspect of historic consciousness” (156). Oswalt states there are several problems with this philosophy; the first major issue is the use of the term “history.” He says that the term must be narrowed even further.

He introduces the reader to the separation of the “narrative Geschichte from the event Historie. Geschichte is what is “going on and is in the domain of the theologian.” Meaning what is in the narrative of the story. Historie defines “what happened and is in the domain of the historian” (157). Historie centers upon what is the event that is actually happening in the story. Oswalt identifies several flaws with the Existentialist philosophy but the major ones are, 1) God is removed from the process; and, 2) The historical narrative excludes the past there is no acceptance of any standard of evaluation or appreciation of past events.

Process Thought is seeks to take the events of the Bible and create together the events that take place into a new event. The events are integrated of the past, present and future. It is interested in the event not so much the substance. This too has its faults, one being that it also removes the transcendence of God in the narrative (167).

Chapter 9

Oswalt provides alternative views concerning the biblical worldview in chapter nine. He maintains his stand that the biblical narrative has not changed but thoughts about it have and the biblical narrative is different than other mythological narratives. The author provides four alternatives concerning the biblical narrative.

The first alternative is from John Van Seters. Seters stand is that several documents were pieced together and then priests rewrote what we now have today. The document was a work by someone using works similar to Thucydides and Herodotus. The second alternative is from Frank Cross. Cross work asserts that the bible came out of rewriting a poetic epic. The third alternative is from William Dever. Dever does deny archeological evidence of biblical history nor does he believe in the bible’s “religious explanation of Israel’s existence and nature” (178). Dever stand is Israel’s religion was no different than that of the Canaanite religion until after the exile and the religion has been inaccurately perceived. The fourth alternative is from Mark Smith. Smith suggests that Israel’s religion originated from the polytheistic religion of the Canaanites (181). Oswalt argues that not one of these alternative thoughts of the biblical narrative has proved the unique nature of the Bible.

Chapter 10

Chapter 10 concludes the book by summarizing Oswalt’s main points he expressed throughout the book. The bible is both historically accurate and theologically sound. The Bible is unique and separate from myth literature but their similarities should not stand in the way of perceiving it as different. What makes it markedly different is that a transcendent God come to involve him into the lives of humanity is radically different means than
that of the other cultures which overrode the continuity of myths.

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