Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Bible Among the Myths Review

The Bible Among Other Myths

The Bible Among Other Myths
Unique Revelation or Just Ancient Literature?

by John N. Oswalt
Zondervan Publishing Company, 2009
192 pages, English
ISBN: 9780310285090
List Price: $17.99
Your Price: $16.19

I had the privilege of studying under John Oswalt back in the early 1980's, just before he became president of Asbury College. Among the courses he offered was “Myth and History.” The class was influential in my intellectual development, therefore when I heard that he was putting the course into book form I was quite excited to see how it had morphed and grown over the years.

But, before I get into the book itself, let me tell you about his classes. As was common at Asbury (and probably other seminaries), most classes started with prayer. But, Oswalt's were different; most professors offered the perfunctory prayer and went on with class. Not Oswalt. He would say, “let's pray.” Then there would be a shorter or longer period of silence. During that silence, you could feel the Spirit of God come into the classroom in a tangible way. A peace would descend, then Oswalt would pray. The prayer wasn't anything spectacular or different; what was different was waiting for the presence of God.

The other thing that Oswalt stressed in his teaching was that the ramifications of any of his (or other teachers/scholars) teaching would be seen in his students. This viewpoint caused him to be extremely careful about what he said. I suspect it also has kept him more conservative than he would have been otherwise. He always had an eye to what the students would take from his classes and how it would be interpreted in their lives.

That being said, what about the book? Well, I am of two minds about it. One of the endorsements on the back says that “This book will be extremely helpful for both undergraduate and graduate students...” I disagree. I would say it is aimed more for the lay/undergraduate audience, with the exception of 2 chapters, where the lay audience would probably get lost.

Why do I say this? For two reasons. First, there is no bibliography. There are footnotes, but no comprehensive bibliography is included. I know Oswalt must have one; he handed one out when I had the class. One of the things I was looking forward to was seeing what was new in the field. Second, the references cited in the footnotes are quite old. The foundation of his viewpoint is based on Collingwood's definition of history in the 1940's and Child's definition of myth in the 1960's. Don't misunderstand this; I am not one who thinks that newer is better. Rather, I would like to have seen an interaction with what is going on in the field right now. If the field is moribund and nothing new has happened, then that should be noted. But, I don't think that this is the case.

Oswalt's entire thesis hangs on the distinction between transcendence and continuity. He claims that the biblical worldview is unique in this respect. It is true, and shouldn't bother anyone, that the Bible contains many elements that are common to the ancient Near East, says Oswalt. What else would one expect? What is unique is the way they are put together. The other cultures are based on a view that the divine is contiguous with the material (continuity). Consequently, the divine can be controlled via the material, hence ritual and magic. The biblical text, and he is careful to make sure you understand that we are dealing with the text as we have it, has none of that. Not only that, but the text continually condemns any attempts to manipulate the deity.

Oswalt realizes that this is not a popular view right now. Most would say that while Israel might be somewhat unique, it can be explained on the basis of the commonalities, not the differences, with the surrounding culture. He asks why the change in views from those in the middle part of the twentieth century. Have there been any dramatic new finds to justify such a change in views? No. The changes are in intellectual viewpoint.

History writing is based on evaluating the data we have and trying to make sense of them within the constraints of cause and effect. Divine intervention, which is very common in any ancient text, is not considered a valid cause. Of course, this means that the historian is forced to do violence to the explanations given by historians such as Livy and Herodotus, who are full of references to the gods. The situation is even worse in the biblical text! While Livy and Herodotus have a backdrop of gods, they can be utilized without too much damage. Not so the Bible. Because of this, the writers of modern histories of biblical times have to make decisions. Oswalt examines the twentieth century to show how the reigning paradigm has changed, and what that has meant for how the biblical data are interpreted.

Oswalt asks us to examine the biblical texts aside without ruling out divine intervention a priori. His claim is that there is no way to explain the uniqueness of the biblical viewpoint in the ancient world apart from divine revelation. All cultures reason from the visible to the invisible. Aside from the Bible, all cultures have a viewpoint of continuity and rely on ritual and magic to control their world.

Not only that, but even the Israelites continually fall back into attempts to control and manipulate. Of course, we need look no further than ourselves to see it happening in today's world. How many “deals with God” have you done in your life? Oswalt closes the way he began, by pointing out that the option of a transcendent God who cannot be controlled or manipulated, but must be trusted and believed in, is too difficult for most people. The view that allows humanity to control the results and outcomes of life is far more comfortable. It was in the ancient world; it is now.

As I mentioned above, I am of two minds about the book. I agree with his thesis. I agree with the conclusions for trusting God. I just wish he had given more space to proving them. The book can be used profitably by undergraduates, possibly by first-year seminary students, and interested laypeople. I really think that without extensive expansion, it doesn't offer an adequate rebuttal to the prevailing academic paradigm.

<idle musing>
I say that sadly, as I think the reigning paradigm is radically wrong; I would be classified as a “maximalist” by most. The reason I would be a “maximalist” is that I have seen and experienced God breaking in on my life and the lives of others. Once you have experienced that, the stories in the Bible are not so hard to believe. If you read the archaeological reports and the biblical text with a “hermeneutic of sympathy” rather than a “hermeneutic of suspicion,” you can see that it is possible for the text to be correct.

Don't misunderstand what I just wrote! I am not saying that archaeology “proves” the Bible! I don't think that archaeology can “prove” anything. Archaeology can be used to interpret what we see, and what we see depends on our theological paradigm. If you have a paradigm of non-divine intervention, you will come to a radically different conclusion than one that allows divine intervention.

One view is not more scholarly than the other! To believe in a God who can—and does—intervene in human affairs is not naïve and unlearned; it is taking the given data and analyzing them just as carefully as possible. As Sherlock Holmes used to say, if you look at the data and you have dismissed every other possibility, the remaining one must be true—however illogical it seems! Up until the last 300 years or so, the view that deity, or deities, were involved in daily lives of people was normal. That it isn't now is an aberration. Even people who claim not to be religious believe in angels and good luck and superstitions. What they say they believe and what they act out are two radically different things! In the end, they would do well to heed the call of Socrates—through Plato—to “know yourself” and realize that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”`
</idle musing>

Update: FTC disclaimer: I received this book from Emily at Zondervan to review (thanks, Emily). No money changed hands, no approval of the review, etc., etc., etc. ad infinitum (how's that for Latin?).


Andrew R said...

Thanks for your thoughtful review.

Andy said...

Being a lay-person, I'd venture to say that most lay-people wouldn't get past the title: those unfamiliar with Child's definition of "myth" are going to go with the more common understanding of the word—grand, made-up stories about things that aren't true. So to a layperson, the title of the book is "The Bible among Other Made-up Stories" ...which, depending on your view of the Bible, nets instant rejection or acceptance without ever cracking the cover.



jps said...


Interesting; I've been living with this stuff so long I didn't even think about that. Although, I did have an airport security guard quiz me about the title when I was coming back from New York.


Andy said...

FWIW, I think what you (mis)titled your post would work better as a title for the book.