The Bible Among The Myths: John Oswalt
Yet, by the 1960’s, people’s opinion about the Bible began to regress in classifying the Bible as a myth. Because of this regression, Oswalt seeks to examine the real definition of myth and if that definition is appropriate application for the Bible. In exploring the characteristics and commonalities by which myths are defined, he explains there are quite a few variations which are not analogous in meaning or nature.
He concludes that all three definitions are too broad in meaning and there is great probability that each classification consists of one common characteristic. Therefore, Oswalt voices that a much narrower definition is needed in order to classify all commonalities, which has given place to a working definition of a myth, called the phenomenological definition.
Oswalt voices that a much narrower definition is needed in order to classify all commonalities, which has given place to a working definition of a myth, called the phenomenological definition.
The Basis of Mythical Thinking
Continuity is the principle notion that gives the world its view about myths. Continuity
teaches that all things are connected to all things and there are no inherent differences between the realms of humanity, nature and the divine. Thus, the human are gods and nature is divine.
Everything is interconnected and co-existent. There is no distinction. Continuity also conveys there is no difference between symbols and reality, which is referred to as pantheism. Oswalt sees this as a problem with continuity because the principle gives no place or responsibility to the effects, impact, or accountability for human behavior.
In light of all of the various definitions of what a myth is and the predominant overlay of the principle of continuity, Oswalt turns to analyze some of the usual characteristics of myths. One of these characteristics is polytheism. In the world of myth the ascription to more than one god is common.
Transcendence: Basis of Biblical Thinking
It is clear that the Bible cannot be placed in the same category as a myth, as the Old Testament supports its own view of reality. Correspondingly, the Bible consists of characteristics that are unequivocally different from those of New Eastern reality.
The most prominent characteristic of the Old Testament is its principle of monotheism. In fact, there are only three religions that are grounded in monotheism: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. All of these religions find their beginnings in the Old Testament.
The Old Testament doctrine and Israel’s religion mandates the worship of one God, Yahweh. Despite the polytheism of Israel’s surrounding neighbors, they still remained loyal to the worship of one God. The second principle of the Old Testament which separates the Bible from its surrounding countries is iconoclasm: the demand that no images can represent God.
The second Commandment in Exodus 20:405 emphasizes that there should be no image of Yahweh. The doctrine of transcendence derives from this commandment and declares that God is distinct from this world and cannot be identified nor controlled by this world. He exists outside of his creation.
The third characteristic is pre-existence of the Spirit God who was before matter, not the other way around as in myths. God the Spirit comes before everything, and quite the opposite of the gods in myths, He does not come from matter.
The Bible Versus Myth
In this chapter, Oswalt demonstrates that the similarities in the literature, ceremonial, and sacrificial precepts of the Bible of Near Eastern practices do not connote that Israel’s thinking is the same as the surrounding peoples.
He begins this chapter by comparing Near Eastern ethics and the ethical standard of the Old Testament. The Near Eastern world has no standard logic for their behavior by reason of the gods’ desire for different things. But Israel’s ethical and moral code was based upon Yahweh’s character and their relationship and complete obedience to him.
In other words, God established one standard by which he would judge all. Nevertheless, Oswalt notes, there are similarities between Near Eastern and Jewish cultures that are evident.
The Bible and History: A Problem of Definition
The Bible has been labeled as an unhistorical narrative. Oswalt believes this notion is self-contradictory on the account that history and historical writings originated from Greek and biblical conceptualizations. He argues the problem comes from the way people define history. So, Oswalt provides a very common definition of history, which has several meanings, from a series of connected events to recordings of various occurrences.
He feels these definitions do not fit the true context of history. Therefore, according to the context Oswalt believes should be conveyed, he defines history as: the writing of interconnected events and people within a particular time and location intended to enrich and/or clarify a person’s understanding and knowledge base. Oswalt asserts a person’s mental framework for understanding reality must be established before he or she can truly produce a historical account.
He addresses the first question in this chapter by reiterating the disregard modern day scholars express concerning the Bible’s historical accounts due to God’s divine interjections. R. G. Collingwood’s viewpoint is akin to this thinking, as he disqualifies the Bible as a true historical writing because of God’s intervention. Amazingly, Oswalt discovered Collingwood’s criterion of what entitles a writing as historical is found in the Old and New Testaments.
Bible Truly Historical: A Problem of History
Oswalt opens this segment by posing the questions of whether or not it is reasonable to call the Bible history and end the end, does it really matter. He addresses the first question in this chapter by reiterating the disregard modern day scholars express concerning the Bible’s historical accounts due to God’s divine interjections.
R. G. Collingwood’s viewpoint is akin to this thinking, as he disqualifies the Bible as a true historical writing because of God’s intervention. Amazingly, Oswalt discovered Collingwood’s criterion of what entitles a writing as historical is found in the Old and New Testaments.
On the other hand, G. Ernest Wright and Gerhard von Rad are convinced the Bible is a truly historical book. But the 1960’s scholars, like James Barr, began to argue the Bible is not historical because revelation could not possibly be a concrete part of history. Barr did not believe in Yahweh’s acts or intervention. In like manner, when Bertil Albrektson compiled the ancient literature of that time, he saw no real distinction between the God of Israel’s intervention and other gods so-called intervention. Oswalt agreed there is no significant difference.
But, what he is striving for is the same recognition and regard be given to the revelatory aspect of the Bible as well as the interpretations of God’s actions. In fact, he says the very revelation of God to Israel derived through their history.
Does It Matter? A Problem of History
Oswalt continues to counter various views that the Bible is not historical and if it is worthy of discussion. He explains the Bible does not allow for division between fact and meaning. Oswalt insists the prophets’ ministry was centered on Israel’s behavior and decisions historically in light of their covenant with God.
Even so, the questions still comes up whether or not biblical faith and history are intertwined. Oswalt reviews two perspectives on this matter: the works of Rudolf Bultmann and Alfred North Whitehead.
Bultmann uses the philosophical view of existentialism, which says a person is ultimately responsible for his or her choices. In his view of existentialists, he identifies two problems: an uncertainty or obscurity about the definition of history and the denial that biblical events actually happened.
Oswalt’s determination says we can never disregard the truth of the Old and New Testaments because they are precisely distinct from other writings. To this end, he asks how the authenticity of the Bible can be preserved. According to Bultmann, the answer resides in the division of the narration, called the Geschichte, and event, called Historie. The outcome here is we can in no wise confine God to just Historie, as this would equal fiction.
Origins of the Biblical Worldview: Alternative
Oswalts takes the opportunity to use the works of four scholars whose views are not aligned with the belief that the Bible is truly historic and revelatory in nature. He reviews the work of John Van Seters, Frank Cross, William Dever, and Mark Smith.
Seters produced a work entitled Documentary Hypothesis, which essentially conveyed the need for a complete overhaul of Israel’s historical writings based on three ancient documents: the J document taken from Judah’s history about 900 BC, the E document taken from Israel’s history around 800 BC, and the D document (based on Deuteronomy) at about 621 BC.
These writings were generated into a narrative historical account concerning Israel. Seters believed these accounts were not at all authentically historical and are comparable to the mythologies of Herodotus and Thucydides. He dismissed them as having been written by Yahwehists. Fortunately, Seters’ convictions were not widely accepted.
Oswalt’s theme has focused on the comparison between the Bible’s view of reality and Near Eastern peoples’ reality. Israel’s religion and understanding derived from a transcendent God who cannot be represented by this world nor controlled by this world. In Contrast, the ancient cultures’ reality was encompassed by continuity, the never-ending cyclic movement in which all things are connected and co-exist. This world exists in what is called mythical world.
The acts of God are not repetitive, and through divine revelation, He is known to humanity. Oswalt concludes the answers to the following questions will make our defense of the Bible that much more effective: Does God exist? If so, does he possess a plan for our lives? Has God conveyed his will in a way that humans can understand? Oswalt says if the answer “yes” to God possessing a plan for our lives, how we explain that God has indeed revealed it us will mean all of the difference.
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