Is Genesis 1-11 a Collection of Myths? | The BioLogos Forum


(system) #1

Recently, I was asked a provocative question by a young-earth creationist: If I think that the Genesis account of creation is largely symbolic, when does Genesis stop being symbolic and start reporting actual history? Noah? The Tower of Babel? Abraham? Is the whole book a myth? At that moment, I wished—and not for the first time—that the Bible was color-coded into neat sections and had built-in footnotes so we know exactly how to interpret every part. This is not to downplay the power of the Bible’s message or the extraordinary way in which sixty-six ancient books speak in unison of God’s love for his creation. But there are parts of God’s word that defy our efforts to plumb their depths. Simply put, they are difficult to understand. The first eleven chapters of Genesis are a prime example; populated by epic narratives that tell the story of the beginning of all things and set the stage for the calling of God’s people.

No matter what we conclude about these chapters, certainly they come from a time and culture far removed from ours, with vastly different ways of communicating about the beginnings of all things. But to what extent are these chapters speaking of real, historical events? Christian scholars disagree—and this is reflected in Zondervan’s newly released book Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither?: Three Views on the Bible's Earliest Chapters, part of their Counterpoints series in which top scholars present their cases and respond to each other’s presentations (readers may remember we extensively reviewed a previous book containing three views on the historicity of Adam). In this new book, three Old Testament scholars wrestle with whether the stories in Genesis 1-11 should be interpreted differently than the rest of the Genesis, and to what extent the stories reflect factually accurate history.

The three contributors to this volume are Drs. James K. Hoffmeier, Gordon J. Wenham, and Kenton L. Sparks (full bios at the bottom of the post). Spoiler alert: All three scholars, even though they have massive disagreements about how to understand the Bible’s authoritative message, all firmly agree that these early chapters of Genesis are not fiction, and two out of the three are uncomfortable with the word history as well. In fact, they urge us in unison to develop our interpretive imagination beyond the confining limits of modern categories and see these important and mysterious biblical texts with fresh eyes.

The excerpts I have chosen purposely highlight these scholars’ attempts to disentangle the interpretation of Genesis from the restrictive boundaries too often placed upon it. Today’s selections all center on the question of “myth.” This word is frequently thrown around in debates about science and the Scriptures, but is it a helpful word to use to describe the stories of early Genesis?

Hoffmeier (from essay titled, “Genesis 1-11 as History and Theology”):

“Thus myth, in the technical sense, is concerned with ultimate realities, not fiction. Even though preserved in the form of stories or epic poems, myths are not fantasy...Myth is a type of literature that does not necessarily look like historiography. It could be written in poetic form and may employ symbolic language, and yet, myth can be considered writing about real events. A classic example of this is the flood story, for which we not only have the biblical Hebrew report, but also a number of different Mesopotamian flood traditions [...] Consequently, it is reasonable to assume that while Genesis 1-11 uses mythic language, that such language does not necessarily make its contents fiction.” (p. 27)

Wenham (from essay titled, “Genesis 1-11 as Protohistory”):

“In everyday usage, “myth” usually characterizes a belief as false or misleading. And this is not how the first authors or hearers of these stories would have viewed them: they would doubtless have held them in similar respect to our era’s respect for modern cosmologies or other scientific theories. For these reasons, it is prudent to avoid the term “myth” in describing the genre of Gen 1–11. . . “(p. 84)

Sparks (from essay titled, “Genesis 1-11 as Ancient Historiography”):

“Modern readers are quick to assume that “myth” is, in the nature of the case, opposed to “science” and “history,” but there is evidence that ancient authors did not think like this [...] So while he needn’t assume in every case that ancient myth writers envisioned a one-to-one correspondence between myth and fact, neither can we presume that they didn’t.” (p. 123)

As we have seen, all three scholars agree that “myth”—in the modern understanding of the word—is not a helpful or appropriate label for the early chapters of Genesis. But even if the narratives are not wholly fiction, to what extent were the writer(s) of Genesis intending to communicate factually accurate history? That is the subject of tomorrow’s excerpts. Finally, on Wednesday, the series will conclude with each scholar’s thoughts on whether the authority of the Scriptures demands that historical intent match historical reality.

References and Credits

All passages are taken from

Hoffmeier, James K., Gordon J. Wenham, and Kenton L. Sparks. Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither?: Three Views on the Bible's Earliest Chapters. Ed. Charles Halton. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015. Counterpoints: Bible and Theology.

Brad Kramer is the BioLogos content editor. He completed his M.Div. at Biblical Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania and earned a BS in politics, philosophy, and economics from The King’s College in New York City. His articles have appeared in The Daily Beast, Patrol, and OnFaith.

James K. Hoffmeier (PhD, University of Toronto) is professor of Old Testament and Near Eastern archaeology at Trinity International University Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. He is the author of Ancient Israel in Sinai and Israel in Egypt, and co-author of Faith, Tradition and History.

Gordon J. Wenham (PhD, University of London) is tutor in Old Testament at Trinity College, Bristol, England, and professor emeritus of Old Testament at the University of Gloucestershire. He is the author or editor of numerous books, including Story as Torah and commentaries on Genesis, Leviticus, and Numbers.

Kenton L. Sparks (Ph.D., University of North Carolina) is professor of biblical studies and vice president for enrollment management at Eastern University. He is the author of several books, including Ancient Texts for the Study of the Hebrew Bible, God’s Word in Human Words, and Sacred Word, Broken Word.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://biologos.org/blog/is-genesis-1-11-a-collection-of-myths

(Brad Kramer) #3

What do you think? Is “myth” a helpful word—in any sense—to describe the narratives in Genesis 1-11? Perhaps some stories and not others? Which of the scholars did you most agree with in this regard?


(Wm Dawit Wallace) #4

I think myth is a fine word to describe Gen 1-11 as I accept an evolutionary origin to mankind and most of life on this planet. I am not sure about the OOL question as the science seems week there. But Genesis does set the frame for much of the rest of the Bible and is essential. Ordered the book but I am in the midst of reading another of Kenton’s books “God’s Word in a Human…”. Sometimes from reading Pete Enn’s books and blog it seems that myth should extend well into the exodus and into significant portions of the OT. I wish we had a Bible marked up in color to show the portions of the OT and NT that biblical scholars generally agree are historical and which are myth, propaganda, midrash… DaveW


(Jim Lock) #5

@BradKramer

I’m not sure that ‘myth’ is a good word to use. However, I am having a hard time coming up with a viable alternative. Modern connotations conjure up mythology or fantasy and changing how our culture understands the word seems like a fairly Herculean task. I would put forward ‘historical fiction’ as an alternative but I’m not sure that is any more accurate. It still implies a line between fact and fiction that I’m not sure exists here. Western culture is very good at asking ‘which side is correct?’ We struggle to consider situations when both, or neither, sides are correct. We are very good at queuing, not so much at a natural free-for-all.


(Lou Jost) #6

Well, we know many of the central elements of the Genesis account are objectively false. Do readers think that the Muslim or Hindu origin stories deserve the label “myth”? If so, then they should do the same for Genesis.


(Tony | Ie Day Ideas ) #7

Well, many biblical Christians have espoused an old-earth view for a century and more, and also faced up to these same questions. Have they never over all these years found any other term than ‘myth’ that would be the clearest and nearest way of describing early Genesis? Is there a need to coin or adopt a new term that would have no baggage, not be misleading or confusing, be everyday rather than sound highly technical/theological, and able to obtain a positive majority consensus to use?


(Larry Bunce) #8

The word “myth” carries as much baggage as the word “evolution.” A myth is a story that a people use to gain identity. It is not, in that context, a synonym for “falsehood.” Jesus told of two men who built houses, one on sand, the other on solid rock. The existence or non-existennce of the houses is totally irrelevant to the story of faith built on a solid or weak foundation. Similarly, Genesis is giving a very definite picture of the relationship of God to human beings. There is no need for Adam and Eve to have been historical people in order for the story to be “true.”


(Preston Garrison) #9

Many will have read C.S. Lewis. I learned from him that literary people think of myths as stories that involve god(s) and humans or otherwise deal with ultimate realities. If we think God gave the Scriptures, then it’s clear that he mostly gave a bunch of stories, poetry, letters, proto-biographical novels, so stories that convey that truth in some respect are the main way that the truth is conveyed, not by theology/philosophy textbooks. The way to read them is to look for what a grown up can see as the point of the story.

Chesterton wrote that about 9 out of 10 people get their point of view from stories. The other tenth become philosophers of one kind or another (I’m one of them.) He of course wasn’t being scientific about the percentages. Being post-Enlightenment has moved many in the direction of science/factual history, so reading the Bible in anything like the way the original audience would have has become almost impossible for some people. I remember a guy who insisted that the parable of the Good Samaritan would mean more if it had actually happened. I don’t how to get through to someone with that mentality.


(David Hume (nom de plume)) #10

Some commenters here seem to think that myth = falsehood is a “modern” use of the term, whereas myth = traditional story is perhaps somehow “correct.” But in fact, both uses of the word are correct, and have been since it first appears in the language. (According to the OED, at least.)

The first definition of ‘myth’ in the OED is:

A traditional story, typically involving supernatural beings or forces, which embodies and provides an explanation, aetiology, or justification for something such as the early history of a society, a religious belief or ritual, or a natural phenomenon.

That is a perfect description of Genesis 1-11. This definition of ‘myth’ is (per the OED) first seen in 1830 in what appears to be Westminster Review.

The second definition is:

A widespread but untrue or erroneous story or belief; a widely held misconception; a misrepresentation of the truth. Also: something existing only in myth; a fictitious or imaginary person or thing.

That definition is first cited by the OED in 1849.

It may be that there are millions of English speakers who are unaware of the first definition of the word, but my experience (among mostly well-educated people) is that myth = falsehood and myth = story are easily distinguishable from context.

If there is a problem, then, it may just be that lots of people are ignorant of the use of their language. That’s not news, and it’s also not a reason to invent new words.


(Brad Kramer) #11

@jlock I absolutely agree. I think this a prime example of how some elements of post-modern thinking can aid in interpretation, because it opens up new ways of viewing the text that are less obviously modern and Western.

I think you make a good point, @loujost. In a secular, religiously diverse world, Christians need to realize that there are two levels of understanding a biblical text: One meant for the community of believers, and one that refers strictly to genre and literary context. Hindus and Christians both have pre-modern “cosmogonies” (origins accounts), but Christians see God speaking through theirs in a special way that non-Christians do not.

@soonguy Barth and Bonhoeffer both used the word “saga”. I wonder if that might be more neutral-sounding than “myth”.

@Humeandroid Maybe. Words are just words, and if a new word communicates the original concept better and quicker than another, then I think it’s worth it. I agree with the scholars above—“myth” just has too much baggage to be useful in non-scholarly conversations.


(Lou Jost) #12

Christians see God speaking through theirs in a special way that non-Christians do not.

Brad, sure that’s right, but it is important to realize that Hindus think the same about their story, and Muslims think the same about theirs. It is clear that one’s place of birth is the main factor in determining which of these legends/myths is given special treatment. Many people seem to give a free pass to their own myths, perhaps because of early indoctrination so that the myth becomes a badge of identity, but these same people are justifiably skeptical and rational about others’ myths.


(Merv Bitikofer) #13

@loujost

Hindus think the same about their story, and Muslims think the same about theirs. It is clear that one’s place of birth is the main factor …

Well; of course this will be true, but how is that an interesting or strong claim? It’s like saying that folks really think their own opinions are true; which is what it means to hold an opinion. Where one is born can be a factor for a whole host of things such as how much education they attain or how they approach various issues without that in itself invalidating the possibility of truth being found there.


(Lou Jost) #14

Merv, my point was that mere feelings of “specialness” are not indicative of truth. Many Christians claim to see the “hand of the divine” in their holy book, but this is exactly the same subjective claim that Muslims and Hindus make about their own holy books.

Sure, there could be valid arguments for the truth of one culture’s legend as opposed to the others. No one has produced such an argument though. Quite the opposite; many of the stories and claims of the OT(and the Quran) are now known not to be true, and intelligent Christians have to continually adjust their biblical interpretation to make it less literal.


(Roger A. Sawtelle) #15

The word myth comes directly from the Greek. Since the NT is written in Greek, this question should be a “no brainer” for Christians.

The Greek religion was based on myths about Zeus and company, which of course Christians and everyone else today know to be false, therefore to group Genesis with Greek mythology is insulting.

However the meaning of the Greek word “mythos” is an idea which is believed to be true based on tradition. In other words we do things a certain way because that is the way we have always done it. This is contrasted with another Greek word, logos, which is an idea which is believed to be true because it is based on careful thinking and discussion of the known facts. Logos challenges mythos. Jesus is the Logos.

The problem with Genesis is that “conservative” Christians want to treat the Bible as mythos, when God through John 1 reveals it should be treated like logos. The Bible is not True because it is God’s Word, it is God’s Word because it is True. The Logos is the meaning, which is separate from the words which are used to convey that meaning.


(Merv Bitikofer) #16

@loujost

and intelligent Christians have to continually adjust their biblical interpretation to make it less literal.

…a process which began long before modern science, geology, or evolution were ever on the scene. That is, intelligent readers have long been delving into the text and engaging in interpretation, not because science demanded it, but because the text itself demands it. Natural philosophies, experiences, and reason, right on up to science today can all be valuable aids in that process.


(Roger A. Sawtelle) #17

@loujost

Lou,
Do you deny that the universe has a beginning, just as the Bible said it does, and no one else did?

Do you deny the evidence that the universe is tailored for life in general and human life in particular?

What other “legend” besides the Bible makes that kind of statement?

It seems to me that long ago you were willing to say that “love” is the basis of a valid ethic and that does come from Christianity and no one else.

You seem to look at the trees, which you say are false and fail to see the forest which is true.


(Walt Huber) #18

For an interesting view of the beginning of Genesis see the book: “How Did God Do It? A Symphony of Science and Scripture” more info at the website www.HowDidGodDoIt.com


(Michael Peterson) #19

Nahun Sarna reminds us that the word ‘myth’ derives from the Greek word ‘mythos’ meaning “what is told” or “the story told” (Understanding Genesis). Myths, in the original sense (and especially the biblical myths), were literary works designed to express those deep truths that escape pedantry. Myths, folklore, fables, and parables are an amazingly effective means of communicating truths. For example, the truth arising from the myth of the boy who cried wolf is independent of whether this boy or the wolf ever existed. When we read/hear this story we learn that lying destroys one’s credibility - quite independently of whether the story is historically accurate. Another example? George Orwell originally titled his book, Animal Farm as a fairy tale. He was correct to do so because talking barnyard animals do not exist. However, Russian totalitarianism certainly existed and his “fairy tale” skewered Soviet totalitarianism is ways no empirical argument could.

Blessings,

Michael


(system) #20

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