Posted on November 30, 2010 at 7:54 pm by Dr. Jim
WHY IS THIS MYTHOLOGY DIFFERENT FROM ALL OTHER MYTHOLOGIES?
This is a much expanded version of the paper I delivered Nov. 20, at the 2010 National Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in Atlanta to the Secular Biblical Criticism and Introductions to the Bible session, held under the auspices of the Ideological Criticism program unit. The expansions include some material original material I had to cut out to make the paper fit the 20 minute time slot and some additional material I wrote after the fact. Most of the expansions are in the first half of the paper.
This paper began as a short critique of some recent introductions to the Hebrew Bible and how they handle the issue of mythology with a preface discussing the confused secular/confessional state of biblical studies. In this longer version I demonstrate how some aspects of religious scholarship are quite incompatible with secular scholarship, especially comparative religion, and the question of mythology in particular. Considering this, my comments on the books by Christopher Stanley, Barry Bandstra, Michael Coogan and John Collins seem all the briefer, but I hope better supported.
I will offer no definition of myth or mythology of my own. I am currently working on a book length treatment of myth and the Hebrew Bible but this project is in its early days. I should indicate, however, that I reject form-critical definitions of myth and tend to favour more functionalist ones, although I am not fully comfortable with these either. I am leaning towards looking more at “mythology” within a larger “symbolic universe” as the primary subject of research rather than “myth” itself, as I think it is more productive to look at all representations of religiously significant stories and not just specific narratives. Moreover, my work is tending to emphasize the process, and not the product, of myth making and remaking and the loss and potential rediscovery of old stories as mythology. To me, myth is in the eye of the beholder, and no story is inherently mythical. It depends on its cultural context and interpretational strategies to make a story a myth. I hope my project will help clarify these issues and to develop a workable understanding of ancient Judean mythology.
There are many useful, if not universally accepted, theories of myth across the many disciplines of the social sciences and humanities. A huge bibliography explores myth’s relationship to history, cosmology, ritual, political discourses, psychology and group identity. Those interested should find the following to be useful resources:
Eric Csapo, Theories of Mythology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005).
William G. Doty, Myth: A Handbook (Tuscaloosa Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 2004).
Robert A. Segal, Myth: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
Thomas J. Sienkewitcz, Theories of Myth: An Annotated Bibliography (Magill Bibliographies, Lanham MD: Scarecrow Press, 1997).
The long history of myth studies has not always affected biblical studies as much as it should, and biblical scholars sometimes rely on outdated definitions of myth. For example, Werner H. Schmidt’s 1999 edition of his Old Testament Introduction (2nd ed., Louisville, Westminster John Knox, p. 63) employs Herman Gunkel’s definition of myth from a century ago). This was already outdated in the first, German edition of Schmidt’s work in 1979. That being said, the SBL’s current program unit on the Bible, Myth and Myth Theory should do much to address this shortcoming. The most controversial issue concerning myth within the guild of biblical scholarship, however, is not so much the preferred definition of the word but whether it is at all applicable to any part of the Bible.
The disagreement on the applicability of myth stems from the split identity of the Guild of Biblical Studies that seeks to serve differing confessional and secular perspectives. This split identity is worsened by the fact that it is not always acknowledged. This can be seen in how books are sometimes targeted to audiences. Many books are marketed as being well suited to both the university and seminary class room. From a secular viewpoint, this is a regrettable situation with sometimes humorous implications.
For example, Daniel J. Simundson’s short volume on six prophetic books highlights just how absurd, or, more charitably, ambiguous, such a claim can be. His volume, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah (Nashville: Abingdon, 2004) is part of the Abingdon Old Testament series of introductory books. Its back cover claims that it directed towards theological students and clergy. The series also advertises itself as being “useful for upper-level college or university students”. Simundson discusses the humorous story of the reluctant prophet Jonah, who ends up in the surprising position of having his audience repent upon hearing his prophecies of doom. The story relates how the king orders sackcloth to be placed on the animals and demands that they too cry to God for forgiveness (Jon. 3:7-8). Of these animals whose fate is bound up in the fate of the wicked city Simundson writes that it is reasonable for them to cry to God and perhaps they themselves have their own reasons for repenting (p.279). It is really reasonable to suppose that animals can talk? What university, except the most fundamentalist of institutions could seriously entertain this? I wonder how it would go over in a biology class (see my review of this volume Catholic Biblical Quarterly 68 , pp. 318-19).
Returning to the controversy over biblical myth, the situation is not a simple dichotomy with the avowed secularists using the word “myth” freely while every scholar operating within confessional contexts scrupulously avoids it. Many liberal Christians and Jews find at least some myth in their Bibles, most often in the two creation accounts of Genesis. Those who do reject the notion that the Bible contains myth, however, typically do so because of a religious belief in the uniqueness of the Bible and Israel’s transcendent monotheism and purportedly “historical” faith. This faith is held to be fundamentally different from that of other ancient people who laboured under the burden of “cyclical myths” and immanent gods.
Such exceptionalism has a long pedigree in the guild of biblical studies, and is still defended to this day, but in my mind it is a perspective that is as mythic as ancient Near Eastern chaos struggles. This religious view is part of an outdated, and rather outrageous western-centric evolutionary model of societal development.
Readers without access to much scholarly writing should be able to obtain the articles on “Myth and Mythology: Mythology” and “Myth in the OT” by Robert A. Oden in the very popular Anchor Bible Dictionary that many public libraries posses (Vol. 4, 1992, pp. 946-56, 956-60). Oden gives a good overview of different theories on mythology and how biblical scholarship has for too long displayed an aversion to applying such theories to the Old Testament. One strategy was to define myth in such a way as to be inapplicable to biblical research. As Oden explains, this work was going on at the same time that scholars were working on the material from the ancient Near East that made it obvious that strong parallels existed between Israelite and other writings. Oden also describes that great influence on biblical studies exerted by the Grimm brothers’ view that myths were stories about gods. Since the Bible is monotheistic, it represents a major breakthrough in the history of human development. This view was adopted by the great German form-critic, Hermann Gunkel. While he thought that the Chaos dragon myth was behind references to Leviathan and Rahab in the Old Testament’s imagery, the myth did not exist in the Bible in a pure form, but was “faded”, as the Old Testament is monotheistic to the core (Oden, p. 957). As noted already, Schmidt still employs Gunkel’s view in asserting that the Bible has no real myths.
Feeding this view this was the Frankforts’ The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man: An Essay on Speculative Thought in the Ancient Near East (1946) that saw the ancient Hebrew religion as a major stage in the “emancipation” of humanity from the limitations of a mythopoeic and non-scientific worldview. Nick Wyatt has written that this theory had its most “egregious” influence on the rise of the biblical theology movement in the 1950s (The Mythic Mind: Essays on Cosmology and Religion in Ugaritic and Old Testament Literature [The Biblical World; London: Equinox, 2005] pp. 146, 154-55. As Wyatt points out, the supposedly mythopoeic peoples of the ancient Near East were hardly incapable of rational thought.
Brevard Childs, in his Myth and Reality in the Old Testament (Naperville, IL: Alec R. Allenson,1960), saw myth and history in the Old Testament as being in tension. The introduction to his third chapter, Myth in Conflict with Old Testament Reality” is revealing:
It will be the purpose of this chapter to show the problem which was caused within the Biblical tradition when mythical material entered. By selecting particular passages we hope to demonstrate different degrees of tension existing within the text. This variation depends on the degree to which the Biblical writers have been able to assimilate or destroy the foreign understanding of reality carried in the myth (p. 30).
Terms like “conflict”, “problem”, “tension” “assimilate”, “destroy” and “foreign” indicate the degree to which Childs sought to protect the uniqueness of the Bible and of anceint Israel’s religion. Noteworthy is his view that myth was not something that Israel simply left behind as its religion developed but that it “entered” the tradition from outside
Rather more nuanced was Frank M. Cross, in his famous book, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1973) who likewise saw a conflict between “mythic” modes of thought and the historical or epic perspective in much of the Old Testament. Two quotes are particularly apt.
Israel’s religion emerged from a mythopoeic past under the impact of certain historical experiences which stimulated the creation of an epic cycle and its associated covenant rites of the early time. This epic, rather than the Canaanite cosmogonic myth, was featured in the ritual drama of the old Israelite cultus. At the same time the epic events and their interpretation were shaped strongly by inherited mythic patterns and language, so that they gained a vertical dimension in addition to their horizontal, historical stance. In this tension between mythic and historical elements the meaning of Israel’s history became transparent” (p. viii).
As late prophecy and remnants of the royal ideology flow together to create the early apocalyptic movement, we may say that the old mythological themes rise to a new crescendo, though even in the apocalyptic the expression of Israel’s faith is still firmly controlled by a historical framework. The primordial events of creation and the eschatological events of the new creation are typologically related but are held apart by the events of human history so that, unlike the movement of myth, the primordial event and the eschatological event never merge in a cultic “Now” (p. 90).
The language of emergence harkens back to an older (if somewhat sharper) social evolutionary model. In the second quote, Cross implies that myth works in cultic contexts to unite the present and primordial bears the influence of Mircea Eliade and his “Myth of the Eternal Return”. While this theory of cosmogonic myth/cosmic renewal rite works for some myth, but hardly all, as noticed by classicist G. S. Kirk (The Nature of Greek Myth, London: Penguin, 1974, p. 63-66). Despite this, Cross was careful to point out that efforts such as that of Yehezkel Kaufman to radically disassociate the religion of ancient Israel from that of its neighbors is a level of apologetics that, in Cross’s words, “violates fundamental postulates of scientific historical method” (p. viii).
The dichotomy between “historical” and “mythic” mindsets has been undercut on many occasions (e.g., Nick Wyatt The Mythic Mind). For a number of our guild, however, myth still properly names stories set in a primordial, “Ur-period”, an epoch outside of historical time. For them, the Bible is seen as operating primarily in “historical” time with the notable exception in many cases, of the creation accounts. Stefan Paas for example, maintains that myth properly concerns an “Ur-period”, and sees Gen. 1-3 operating in this way. He challenges the sharp dichotomy often drawn between Israel’s historical consciousness and myth (Creation and Judgment: Creation Texts in Some Eighth Century Prophets, Leiden: Brill, 2003, pp. 97-99, 104). Even so, it needs to be remembered that Genesis plainly links the creation narratives to the more “historical” patriarchal narratives and that these are then connected to the longer story of Israel told in subsequent books, books that at least in their latter episodes sometimes relate episodes with demonstrable historicity.
On a more progressive note, E. Theodore Mullin in Ethnic Myths and Pentateuchal Foundations: A New Approach to the Formation of the Pentateuch (SBLSS, Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1997) views the entire primary history from Creation to the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem as a “composite history that constituted a complete ethnic myth” (p. 86). Michael Fishbane’s volume, Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003) traces the development of biblical myth into the rich traditions of later Jewish mythology. In my opinion, a universal attribute of religion is the transformation of myth into new myths and symbolic formulations, and Fishbane’s work highlights this in the Jewish tradition.
In a similar vein, but with a far wider comparative view is Burton Mack’s recent book Myth and the Christian Nation: A Social Theory of Religion (London: Equinox, 2008). Building on the work of Jonathan Z. Smith, Mack offers a fascinating view into mythology that replaces generic or form-critical criteria with a focus on myth as tools with which to explore the meaning of the world. Mack writes that the difference between story world and the present, real world, establishes the space in which thought can occur. What separates myth and other fictions are the level of social interests.
Myths are narratives set at the border and overlaps of the two imagined environments where social interest and human projects meet the constraints located in the imagined environments. The normal process of the narrative imagination is sufficient to create a myth as long as it treats this intersection of environments in ways appropriate for focussing on the social interests and projects involved, and does so in ways that make it possible, if not necessary, to give such a project concentrated through and critical attention. Myth can do this by creating a space between the narrative account, set in an imaginary time, and the current situation as the occasion for telling the story (p. 89)
Noteworthy about Mack’s theories is that myth does not so much generate continuity between the divine and human as discontinuity between the imagined and the “real”.
A backlash against this trend towards seeing “historical” myths in the Bible (as opposed to only “cosmogony ” or “creation” myths) is easy to find. For example, Stephen L. Cook made a number of posts on his blog, Biblische Ausbildung in 2006. His first post on the subject was a reaction to Peter Ens’ Inspriation and Incarnation. Against Ens’ claim that there is myth in the Bible, Cook alleges that the Bible only makes a “critical appropriation” of myth, using “mythic images” in relating its “deep truths” but somehow remains free from employing the literary genre of “myth”. He cites for supports the aforementioned 1960 book by Childs, form critic Hermann Gunkel (d. 1932), and the short introduction to form criticism published by Gene Tucker in 1971. This hardly represents the current state of the academic discussion about myth.
It should be noted that this exceptionalism is not only religiously motivated but itself quite mythic. I do not wish to be seen telling Cook what the content of his religion should be, but since our Guild spans both the confessional and the secular, the content of Cook’s religion impacts the work of biblical scholars and can be taken as part of the work of the guild itself. Cook is a good scholar but from a secular viewpoint, we need to differentiate between Cook the religious thinker and Cook the thinker about religion in a way that Cook himself need not do.
In his second post, “The Bible and Myth (and Dr. Enns)” Oct. 17, 2006), Cook as myth maker is plainly obvious.
In short, I strongly resist the idea that the Bible’s witness really became incarnate through the mythic categories of its contemporary cultural milieu. Rather, against the constraints of mythic categories, Bible understands the saving acts of God to have a non-repeating, once-for-all character. For biblical Israel, the structure of reality was first and foremost linear and historical in character and not mythical and timeless. In biblical theology, real history–fixed historical events and a singular covenantal enactment with God–made Israel what it was [accessed Nov. 25, 2010].
When confronted with claims that the world really is a multiverse of immanent supernatural forces, Bible gets combative and mounts a struggle. The chaos serpent is reduced to a talking snake in Eden, who played no role in the drama of creation (Genesis 3:1). Alternatively, Leviathan is a mere sea creature (Genesis 1:21). In either case, he has lost his power to overwhelm the human psyche. When the King of Tyre claims to be one of the heavenly cherubim, he is soundly put in his place (Ezekiel 28:2, 19). When Assyria claims to be the mighty cosmic-tree of world myth, it is pictured chopped down like any tree of Lebanon (Ezekiel 31:12).
The myth Cook tells is the story of the incursion of the pure, myth-free Divine Word/Bible into a world lost in a fog of cyclical thought, straightening of the eternally coiled. That the establishment of a humanly habitable reality and communion with the divine is established within a chronological sequence instead of a primordial Ur-period seems to me to be a small distinction. Scholarship outside of Biblical Studies readily finds “historical” myths serving various purposes on behalf of various national, ethnic or religious groups. The requirement of myth to be “primordial” and over emphazizing the “uniqueness” of Israel establishes a barrier for students to integrate their studies of the religion of ancient Israel with other fields of study. The isolationism can be undermined with a few examples. On the one hand, the Nihon Shoki and Kojiki texts trace the Japanese imperial family back to the creation of the universe and the Japanese Islands (there is a new, and brief study of these texts by Jun’ichi Isomae, Japanese Mythology: Hermeneutics on Scripture, London: Equinox, 2010). This is a clear parallel to the kind of connection the Bible makes between Genesis’ creation accounts and the patriarchal narratives.
On the other hand, the Sabbath is established through the first creation narrative in Genesis 1:1-2:4. Every week, one must do on earth as it was done in heaven at the beginning. As interpreted in Rabbinic thought, the work forbidden on the Sabbath are those tasks related to the construction of the tabernacle in Exodus. Sabbath liturgy sees a clear demarcation between sacred and profane time, both at its outset and its conclusion. The tradition of welcoming the Shabbat Bride every week also attests to the union of myth and ritual on multiple levels in the Jewish celebration. One could also point to Pesach rituals in which the Exodus story comes to life and Jews recall how they, and not merely their ancestors, were slaves in Egypt. The Catholic Mass is a ritual that does not merely commemorate the event of a historical story but recreates something of the original sacred power in the transubstantiation of the host. Other examples could be found as well, including the transformative power of baptism in some Protestant denominations or the belief in spiritual gifts based on the Pentecost story in Acts. Indeed, the Christian concept of being “born again” refers to an association between the believer’s spiritual death and rebirth and Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection which, in turn will result in eternal life for the Christian. I cannot see how such an application of a story is less mythic that that of Brahmin priests assuming the roles of various gods in Hindu ritual enactments of mythic sacrifices. In short, a historical setting hardly disqualifies a story from the category myth, especially if key religious ideas (not to mention rituals) revolve around that story.
Another reactionary “anti-myth” apologist in the guild is John Oswalt who published a reactionary and remarkably unlearned work in 2009 called The Bible Among the Myths (Grand Rapids: Zondervan). He thinks that all non-biblical based world religions and science “take it for granted that matter is the source of everything” (p. 67). All non-biblical religions operate on the principle of “continuity” that holds that “all things that exist are part of each other” (p. 48). Of all the religions not based on the Bible, Oswalt produces a strawman of mythic proportions.
In a short section called “Conflict is the Source of Life”, he notes how myths typically narrate a continuing struggle between the “chaotic matter and the gods whom she has spawned … The names and details change, but the same ideas recur in myth after myth around the world” (p. 59). He continues:
But what of other parts of the world, where no such borrowing is possible? Here the only way to account for the similarities is to recognize that if one starts with this cosmos and reasons from it to the ulitmate realities, then one will get basically the same results, whether one is an Australian aborigine or a Hindu Brahmin (p. 59).
Elsewhere, he reduces all “mythic” religions to a quasi-mystical panentheism:
The idea of continuity also means that there is no distinction between symbol and reality; the symbol is the reality. To be sure, the visible world is only a reflection of the invisible, divine worlds, but as its reflection it is identical with it. A popular term for this idea is pantheism … perhaps a slightly more accurate term for this way of thinking about reality, especially as it appears in the ancient Near East and most other cultures, is “pan-en-theism”: everything is within the divine. The fundamental point, however, is that all things that exist are physically and spiritually part of one another. This is the single most important aspect of the way of thinking that characterizes myth (p. 49)
The Bible, however, affirms “history” and the radical transcendence of Christianity’s god that fundamentally distinguishes it from “mythic” religion.
It is noteworthy how Oswalt conflates such a diversity of religions from around the world and at times talks of the role of myth in ritual (cf. “Actualization in the Timeless Reality”, pp. 51-52), but never looks at the specific cultural contexts in which myths are told or transmitted. Indeed, he talks very little about any particular mythology at all. He also avoids talking about specific cultural contexts for the Bible’s production and reading. For Oswalt, the Bible is ancient Israelite thought and is the essence of Christianity. In this sense, he is taking badly out out context, at least for the purposes of a comparative study.
Also noteworthy is Oswalt’s patchy theoretical underpinnings for his views on myth that are from badly outdated sources. He relies primarily on Childs (1960) and Y. Kaufmann (1960) and James Barr (1959, 1963). Surely an author who opens his book’s introduction’s by saying “The ideas presented in this book book have had a long period of maturation” (p. 11) should be able to demonstrate a long period of reading other people’s ideas! Oswalt’s book is plainly an apologetic work articulating the Christian myth of biblical origins and divine intervention within “history”. This historical intervention of the divine actually strikes me as mystifying and enchanting the world more profoundly than do stories concentrating on divine actions in some primordial Ur-period. It constructs the historical as the mythic period.
Oddly, the Review of Biblical Literature took Oswalt’s book seriously enough to offer it for review. The reviewer, Claude Mariottini, however, provides virtually no critical appraisal. He merely ends with this rather odd statement:
Oswalt’s book was written to affirm the uniqueness of the Bible. Those who believe that the Bible is the literary product of divine revelation will agree that Oswalt has shown that the Bible is different from the other religious writings from the ancient Near East. Those who reject the notion that God has revealed himself in the history of Israel will remain unpersuaded that the Bible is a unique book containing divine revelation and that the religion of Israel is different from the other religions in the ancient Near East.
That our guild, not to mention the SBL itself, would often embrace such “ecumenical” wishy-washiness speaks against its health, at least from the point of view of its secular wing. If one is to allow Oswalt’s apologetics, his lack of research is all the more inexcusable. He does not prove his case about the nature of myth nor does he refute other explanations, since he is not really aware of the state of the question. He does not bother to provide proof that all non-biblical religions work the way he describes. If fact, his few footnotes do not even direct readers to good sources of information on a selection of other religions. One could expect a certain level of special pleading in apologetics but the gross misrepresentation of other faiths is inexcusable. It goes far beyond simplification for the sake of brevity. That Mariottini let him off the hook on these matters and the editors of RBL published such a glib review is clearly indicative that a serious overhaul of academic standards for the journal is necessary. That this is a Society of Biblical Literature journal is embarrassing. I, for one, expect a more careful delineation between critical scholarship and religious expression from my own undergraduates, not to mention better research than Oswalt did!
In light of all of this, I will turn now to briefly look at the issue of biblical myth in representative examples of introductions to the Hebrew Bible. I will demonstrate that in some there seems to be a reticence to employ the term that may be the result of its continued problematic status within the pluralistic biblical studies guild.
I review only a small sample of the available introductions here as one is really spoiled for choice. To cut a long list short, I excluded books that dealt with both testaments and those that were introductions to methodological issues pertaining to biblical study, such as the excellent book edited by Steven McKenzie and M. Patrick Graham, Hebrew Bible Today: An Introduction to Critical Issues, or The Cambridge Companion to Biblical Interpretation, edited by John Barton. Many of the issues I will raise today can also be, and should also be, raised in regards to these books.
I chose to avoid books specifically addressed to Christian readers as I have no use for such books. The books I will discuss are marketed to secular institutions, although this is not to the exclusion of the liberal end of the confessional market segment.
I chose a selection of surveys newly available in print or in new editions. I had wanted to discuss Frank Frick’s A Journey Through the Hebrew Scriptures, but my attempts to order the most recent edition have so far resulted in backorders from two sources. My criteria for selection and assessment are derived from my understanding of the goals of my own institution, the University of Lethbridge. This is a secular, provincially funded university in Southern Alberta with about 7500 students. My department offers a diversity of courses spanning the Eastern and Western religions and I am perfectly at home in this environment. There are no theological colleges or seminaries associated with the University of Lethbridge. My perspective, therefore is full secular and comparative.
I am primarily interested in the question of how well these books bring the Hebrew Bible into the wider realm of religious and mythic studies. For the most part, they are excellent works of pedagogical writing. Of course, with all the discipline specific issues that need to be covered a full discussion of myth would be far too much to expect. Some nods in this direction are made but there is some inconsistency and a lack of confidence. It is tempting to attribute some of this to theological reservations about myth and the general isolation of biblical studies from many aspects of Religious Studies, despite the incredible sophistication many biblicists have in other disciplines.
Of the new introductions the one that most closely matches my own approach is Christopher D. Stanley’s The Hebrew Bible: A Comparative Approach (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010).
Stanley says in his glossary that religious scholars use myth to name a story. “about the ancient past, usually involving supernatural beings, that aims to communicate a profound religious truth”. He also adds that “[m]uch of the narrative material in the Hebrew Bible would qualify as myth under this definition” (p. 530). I wonder if Stanley’s expression “would qualify … under this definition” is not an attempt to distance himself from using the term freely since it appears only rarely in the main text. In the opening pages he notes that the Bible includes “stories, songs, legal codes, letters, poems, historical narratives, theological treatises, proverbs, apocalyptic texts, and more” (p. 8). “Myth” appears here only reference to Hindu texts.
Stanley calls the story from creation to the post-exilic period the “Grand Narrative” and a “national epic” (see the glossary p. 536 and the relevant chapter, pp. 99-111). In discussing its historicity, he notes that scholars disagree how much of the narrative is “historical and how much should be viewed as myth or legend” (p. 99). This dichotomy between history and myth seems quite inconsistent with the his glossary definition of myth, and the historicity of the biblical accounts are something that seems to take up a lot of space in the book.
In the tenth chapter Stanley introduces Ninian Smart’s sixfold breakdown of religion into various components that will be the subject of the remainder of the book. These include doctrinal, ritual, ethical, and experiential dimensions. The first of these, however, is the mythological. (See N. Smart, Worldviews: Crosscultural Explorations of Human Beliefs, 3rd edn., Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice Hall, 1999. In later renditions, Smart added a seventh, the material.) The single paragraph Stanley devotes to the Mythological Dimension does not mention the Bible. Neither is the “mythological dimension” discussed explicitly in the subsequent chapters that deal with the importance of narrative in the Bible. Indeed, the index lists only one use of the word myth here, and I failed to discover it on the indicated page (p. 243, that discusses the historicity of the exodus story). Chapter 25, however, includes a section labeled “The Ritual Dimension”. In these pages, Stanley avoids mentioning that a significant aspect of at least some rituals are the recitation, enactment or symbolization of myths.
His reluctance to follow up on his own glossary definition of myth or attend to does students of comparative religion no favors. Neither does this statement:
Historians can explore why the people who composed these stories came to believe that Yahweh was at work in the events of their past, but they cannot determine whether those beliefs are valid. Only believers can make those judgements (p. 243).
On the contrary, how religions create and negotiate meanings, mark space, time, objects, and texts as “sacred”, how they cast veils of mystification over human experience by seeing countless gods, spirits, devils and esoteric powers at play in history are not subjects beyond our critique but are properly the subject of it. Students of comparative religion are ill-advised by Stanley that the very essence of their studies, the core of human religiosity, is beyond their grasp. While the attempt to produce a comparative introduction is commendable, when it comes to biblical myth and the freedom to critique historicity, Stanley’s book fails badly. Besides its own internal contradictions and the blind eye it turns the mythology its says could be found on man y biblical pages, it gives students no background or discussion on theories of mythology and pays only lip service to this broad field of research.
Although not directed specifically for students of comparative religion, Barry Bandstra’s Reading the Old Testament: Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (4th edition, Belmont CA: Wadsworth, 2009) is a far better bet and I have used successfully in previous years.
I was very glad when I found out that Bandstra would be responding to these papers in the SBL session, and horrified to learn of a missed communication that prevented my admittedly late draft from reaching him (for which I take the blame). His book offers the reader a useful glossary in which myth is described as a “story, theme, object or character” “embodying a foundational aspect of a culture” (p. 515). The author affirms that Genesis 1-3 may be labelled as myth for these reasons. Elsewhere, Bandstra follows the views of classicist G. S. Kirk in understanding myth as “a traditional story of supposedly real events that is told to explain a culture’s beliefs, practices, institutions, or something in nature” (p.74, citing Myth: Its Meaning and Functions in Ancient and Other Cultures, 1971). In labeling the Primeval Story myth Bandstra sees Israel expressing its core beliefs about nature, deity, humanity and the cosmos (pp. 74-75). I find nothing here with which to disagree.
In discussing the book of Job, Bandstra observes that the great beasts Leviathan and Behemoth are not mere animals but “mythic monsters of chaos” (p. 413). I wonder, however, why he calls the language of the passage to be “overblown” and not simply mythic. Leviathan reappears in Isaiah 27, and of this Bandstra follows standard wisdom in writing that Isaiah used Canaanite mythological imagery (p. 444). I wonder, however if that wisdom reflects a desire by scholars’s to distance the combat myth from Israel’s own repertoire of core symbols by making it out to be Canaanite.
Bandstra does not use the term “myth” concerning the patriarchal story. Rather he sees its primary genre to be saga, which he describes as “a legendary narrative about an ancestor or community figure” with a simple plot that “recounts the leader’s success in weathering threats or overcoming obstacles” analogous to the reader’s own problems. This view may reflect old form critical delineations between myth, saga, legend and other genres that can be traced back to scholars such as Herman Gunkel. It is, however, an odd analysis given that Bandstra calls the patriarchal narratives the “cultural genetics” of Israel (p. 78). A key Israelite ritual, circumcision, finds its charter here, as does the covenant. Genesis marks sacred places and the relationship of the Israelites to some of their neighbors. Genesis 12-50 seems better subsumed under Bandstra’s definition of myth than saga.
I find myself heartily agreeing, however, when he relates Yahweh’s splitting of the Reed Sea and Jordan River in Exodus to the “myths of YHWH” in Psalms 29 and 74 and Isaiah 51 (p. 128). Bandstra offers no detailed description of Exodus’ overall genre but describes the book as establishing “Israel’s core identity”, justifying the legal and ritual material by embedding it in “historical narrative” (pp. 114-15, 146-47).
Throughout Exodus to Deuteronomy one reads of the establishment of a priesthood, of sacrificial services, annual pilgrimages and numerous accounts of theophanies. Rules of purity and taboo are laid out and a complex system of marking the sacred from the profane is outlined.Any other collection of stories imbedding as an impressive array of important religious elements as do these biblical books would be called “myth” by scholars of religion. The aforementioned G. S. Kirk invested few pages at the outset of his own book on the nature of Greek myths in rehearsing some theories of myth and their failure to explain all the data. Even so the review has opened the eyes of many students of classical mythology to different routes of interpretation. So too, could such a review for aspiring biblical scholars if one were provided.
Michael D. Coogan has become something of a one man publishing industry dedicated to Old Testament introductions (at least on behalf of Oxford University Press). Besides his comprehensive The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures (2006), there is an abridged version called A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament (2nd edition, 2011) and a completely different book called The Old Testament in Oxford’s Very Short Introduction series (2008). For the sake of brevity I will discuss only the longest and shortest one. This is probably not the only time I have adopted the Fallacy of the Excluded Middle as a scholarly approach.
In the longer book, Coogan defines myth as a “traditional narrative concerning the remote past in which gods and goddesses are often principle characters” (p. 550). This is a little inconsistent with a definition given on another page, in which the principle characters of myth are gods (p. 38). This more restrictive definition is troublesome from a comparative perspective since it would exclude stories with only human actors, for example, in the case of political mythology. I also find troublesome Coogan’s requirement for the setting in the “remote” past. Certainly modern political and national mythology can be generated quite quickly about relatively recent events, and religious mythology as well, such as the foundational story of the LDS church.
Coogan writes that Genesis “demythologizes” the ancient Near Eastern Combat Myth. This is accomplished by the rejection of divine status for the sun and moon and the sea monsters. Although this is standard fare in biblical studies, I wonder how Genesis 1 “demythologizes” anything, especially given Coogan’s glossary entry. If Genesis is a monotheistic reaction to Babylonian creation mythology, it does not stop it from being mythology. Coogan’s reticence seems to reflect more of the lingering distrust of myth in biblical studies rather than ancient Israel. Coogan gives a page to the connection between creation and the Sabbath. This connection should make Genesis’ creation week a full myth in its own right.
Coogan considers the imagery of Yahweh as a storm god defeating the Sea in Psalms and Isaiah, as “a much more explicit mythology” (p. 37). However, in the storm god motifs in the Exodus account Coogan notices that enemy is now only a human and the sea an inanimate weapon while the story is given a setting in historical time. For Coogan, this amounts to the combat motif being “partially demythologized” (p. 109). Again, I do not see this. It is interesting that in Coogan’s glossary definitions of myth, non-historical time setting is not given as a criteria or frequent characteristic of myth.
Even so, Coogan is quite perceptive about the relationship between myth and history, writing that “mythic conventions informed the interpretation of the past in ancient historical writing, and accounts of origins were the beginning of the record of a historical process was understood to be divinely guided” (p. 38).
Coogan is more consistent in The Old Testament: A Very Short Introduction whichincludes an entire chapter entitled “The Old Testament and Myth”. As could be expected, the chapter spends a good bit of space on creation, the flood, combat, and storm god myths. He calls attention the Exodus story as the paradigm for other events in Israel’s sacred history with the return from Exile imagined as a new exodus in Isaiah 43. The mythological basis for kingship in other near eastern cultures is related to the choice of David and other monarchs. A few pages are devoted to “Myth and History” and right at the outset Coogan says, “[m]any historical texts have mythical components, as do collections of laws and other genres as well” (p. 38). This is an excellent little book on many counts and can be highly recommended.
John J. Collins has a massive introduction called Introduction to the Hebrew Bible published in 2004 and an abridged edition called, A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007) and it is the shorter volume on which I will comment as it is the book that I chose for my class starting in January 2011 (for a variety of reasons: it was a hard choice).
Collins gives only the briefest definition of myth in his glossary, merely saying that it is a “sacred story”, but in the discussion of the ancient Near Eastern context of the Hebrew Bible he is more forthcoming:
The word “myth” is derived from the Greek mythos, or story, but is used especially for sacred stories or traditional stories deemed to have religious import. In English usage, “myth” is often opposed to factual truth, but this is unfortunate, as it makes it difficult to take myths seriously. The ancient myths are serious but imaginative attempts to explain life in this world (p. 20).
As should be evident by now, I would have preferred including a statement that a myth can also be a story deemed to be important to group (political, ethnic, national, etc) identity. Collins certainly is aware of this. Collins calls the exodus the “creation” and “founding myth of Israel” and says the book provides a “pattern of divine intervention that is being reenacted in the present” (pp.62, 63, 199). The mythic storm and combat mythology in the Prophets is duly noted and Collins comments on the transformation of “myths of the beginning” into “myths of ending” in which the final chaos battle in projected into the future (pp. 206-207). While Collins is right to claim that some biblical texts have a linear view of time, he denies that this is the case in the wisdom literature or Ecclesiastes, Job, and Proverbs. He even refers to Satan in Job as not being the Devil of “later mythology” (pp. 259, 264). Like the others authors reviewed, Collins does not include a discussion of myth theory. A strength of Collins’ book, however, is that it is the most open to classroom elaboration on the transformation of myth within a changing culture and the production of types of myth specific to ancient Israel or Judah, Judaism or Christianity.
This brief review raises an important question. Are biblical stories myths only when they resemble the myths of other ancient Near Eastern cultures? Most references to myth in the textbooks surveyed occur only in contexts in which a biblical story resembles in some way a myth from Canaan or elsewhere. To a certain point this is understandable but it has limitations.
The great differences between world mythology are clear as are the vastly differences in other cultural products and ways of life. Canaanite myths are not Babylonian myths. Similarly, Egyptian mythology is not like that that of ancient India, Scandinavia, modern New Guinea, pre-contact North America, medieval Judaism, Evangelical Christianity or Scientology. Similarly, despite the intense cultural overlap, American national mythology is not the same as Canadian national mythology. Ancient Judah’s myths often resembled that of its neighbors but not all of their myths need need to have clear cross-cultural counterparts. For example, the Bible itself is evidence that ancient Judah did develop a concern with long connected historical narratives, to express national and religious identities and values but in my view, this is a transformation of myth, not its replacement. Judean myth is not Canaanite myth, its uniqueness need to be highlighted, but we do not need to shy away from discussing the wealth of theory and methodological material concerning other, different, mythologies.
What I think students need is a way to come to grips with the biblical mythology in its own unique brilliance. That being said, there are established methods that can be applied to the myths of different people and the different kinds of myths within each society, and in the very least, introductions to the Hebrew Bible, and especially those interested in introducing the corpus as the products of an ancient society, could and should provide the rudiments of these methodological tools alongside the basics of the specific critical issues established by biblical scholars. I would even prefer less on J, E, P, and D, or the many theories of DtrH, and more on myth (and ritual) theory.
Should introductions merely reflect the academic status quo or should they take a stand and train students to carry the discussions forward? For the secular religious studies, it does not good to continue the relative isolation of the study of the Bible and ancient Israel from the study of Hinduism, Shinto, “New Age” movements and so on. To my liking, the status quo does not provide sufficient points of contact with the broader study of religion or response to the myth of biblical and Israelite uniqueness that is still alive and well in the guild, and sometimes legitimized by societies like the SBL.