In the January/February 2016 edition of the magazine Biblical Archaeology Review, there is an article entitled “The Multiple Truths of Myths”. “Myth” is not always used to convey falsehood but instead can be used as a literary device to convey “multiple truths” about a culture’s worldview, and do it in a literary way! So says the author of this article.
There are many things which are bothersome in this article, but I don’t fault the author, the ideas presented are standard arguments which have been promulgated for a long time by many different folks, especially those who feel that science has put limits on what parts of the Bible can be accepted as valid, actual historical events! This rejection of a literal (or “plain”) view of the Creation stories is not new and each generation will try their hand at somehow “correcting” the impression the text gives when read in an unbiased manner, that impression being a smooth, continuous, historical account of the Beginning!
One focus the article emphasizes the similarities cultures around Israel shared with Israel. There have been many “creation” accounts discovered through archaeology which were found after the decipherment of ancient texts. It seems all the major societies had their own version of events, multiple versions in fact. And there are some similarities between Genesis and these other accounts. Some scholars would go so far and say the Genesis accounts are borrowed completely from these other cultures and then reworked a bit to reflect the Israelite perspective. So creation accounts were the norm!
A second focus of this article is its emphasis on the possible number of different creation stories in the Bible — 2 different ones in Genesis (Genesis 1 and Genesis 2-3), and possibly an allusion to a third one in Psalms and Job. The surrounding cultures had many variations of their creation “myths” and so the Bible seems to be no different! There has been a lot of energy expended trying to defend the various positions these ideas engender.
A final focus is an effort to put all these ideas into a context for us today. The ancient cultures used “myth” to answer their questions and the variations in the stories arose due to external circumstances changing. These stories, even the contradictions, could be accepted by those societies because the stories were meant to answer a particular question at a particular time, not provide ultimate answers, not to be a fully “truthful” account of things. An example the author uses concerns the god Marduk. When he arose as a prominent god in Babylon, the myth Enuma Elish was written trying to connect him to the original creation. This would have “justified” his ascendancy! While there may have been details which were true, the “myth” itself didn’t have to be totally true. Supposedly that is how Christians are supposed to read the beginning chapters of Genesis!
The author concludes with this line: “This means that reading the creation stories in the Bible is neither likely to answer the question of what happened at the beginning of time-nor to even answer the question of what ancient Israelites believed happened at the beginning of time. But the myths do give us rich sources of information about the kinds of fears, values and principles with which the authors grapples, espoused and reinforced to audiences in their own day. Rather that one Truth, ancient myths manifest many truths about the cultures that composed and disseminated them.” (italics mine)
A phenomenon I have been noticing, among many others as well, in the last 2-3 decades regards the attitude towards the Bible. There are many who would like to relegate the Bible to the past and move forward under a humanistic, rationalistic motive, ones which don’t feel the need to be hindered by what the Bible has said. Others though, want to “rescue” the Bible and try to restore its validity to society. One way of doing that is to present the Bible as the kind of book that functions in a way commensurate with other societies in other times, as “myth”. The article in this magazine was attempting to do that!
If the Bible can be viewed as a kind of writing which the ancient world was used to, then the clashes which the Bible has with certain modern viewpoints can be minimized and thus the Book can be restored to modern society as one which is valid as mainly a literary tool, one to help us with our “fears, values…..” which the author concluded in her article above. “Truth, absolute truth” is not something that has to be considered by those with this “new” view of the Bible.
These views of multiple creation stories, stressing the similarities between certain points in the many stories of the surrounding nations, the lack of concern about ultimate explanations regarding “truth” do seem to situate the Bible as just another book similar to all the other ancient writings. Much has been written, though, which counters all these arguments which the article summarizes and the Bible can be defended fairly easy regarding those. It is a good thing too since I don’t think Christianity would be very effective if these ideas from this article were embraced by all Christians!
But there is one thing which the article didn’t mention but is like the “elephant in the room”—and that is science, specifically evolution. This article concerns itself mainly with Creation, the first 3 chapters of Genesis. When I read anything about Genesis 1-3, I think evolution has to be lurking somewhere! And that is due to the fact that the ideas in Genesis 1-3 present one of the main clashes with modern science, not operational science but philosophical science,—and that regards how long did Creation take? And that confronts evolution directly!
Evolution needs billions of years, Genesis 1-3, says 6 days. A lot rides on that distinction and there is very little hope of a total reconciliation, though it has been tried with things such as the Gap-theory, theistic evolution, and maybe a few others ideas. There is a large contingent of folks, me included, which see the nonsense of evolution and recognize it as just a “science of the imagination”. It represents a spiritual battle taking place between evolution and the Bible, and one way to smooth things over is to regard these first few chapters as only literature concerned with answering questions which the early Israelites may have had, not for the purpose of really showing them how the world came to be.
This article may not have evolution in mind, but if these ideas are accepted as valid, then the clash with evolution is basically shunted. Karl Barth once wrote: humans “cannot make truth falsehood”. Now why is that? One reason, which pertains to this article is that making something “false” (or just “myth”)in the Bible, causes other parts of the Bible to be reinterpreted, and then others, etc. and before you know it, most of the Bible is made false (or “myth”) There will be a chain-link effect that begins to take place.
An example which brings this possibility closer to home is the words of Christ himself in Matthew 19:4-6 (KJV):
4 And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female,
5 And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh?
6 Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.
This clearly references Genesis with Adam and Eve in Genesis 1-3! Christ clearly accepts the legitimacy of these verses. Or is Christ wrong? Does he not know “truth” or does he predicate his teaching upon “myth”? What about the miracles, the resurrection? “Myths”?The answers to these questions will then affect many other verses of scripture, etc. etc. etc.
One of the challenges of Christendom is understanding what the Bible really says and then defending it! Many things have been written supporting the Bible’s view of Creation in 6 days—Christians need to pursue these things. The magazine article had good intentions, and may seem persuasive to someone who hasn’t given these things much thought, but the major conclusions are wrong! If that means we still clash with the world—well, what else is new? We shouldn’t change our views just because of that!