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On Myth and Meaning

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May 19, 2010 Tags: Biblical Interpretation

Today's video features John Walton. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

In this video, John Walton talks about ancient myth and how we might better understand it if we think about its intended functionality—that is, myths were a way to explain a culture’s origin and universal significance though they lacked the advances of scientific discovery.

For example, the concept of mythology is often a “trigger word” , Walton says, for contemporary readers because we don’t define even the term myth properly. The term myth refers less to the narrative’s content and more to its genre, that is, the framework used as the vehicle to convey meaning.

Walton explains that the people of the ancient world believed their mythology. Myths weren’t false stories, fairy tales, or fables to them—they were real. Those myths were vital to the way that they understood themselves and their world.

But the idea that Genesis answers the kind of questions we would expect a 21st century human to ask is misguided. Similarly, the notion that Hebraic scriptures were derived from other ancient myths is also flawed—it was simply their “cognitive environment”—just the way that they thought and approached the bigger questions.

Commentary written by the BioLogos editorial team.

John Walton is a professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College in Illinois and an editor and writer of Old Testament comparative studies and commentaries. Throughout his research, Walton has focused his attention on comparing the culture and literature of the Bible and the ancient Near East. He has published dozens of books, articles and translations, both as writer and editor, including his latest book The Lost World of Genesis One.

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Norm - #14103

May 19th 2010

Did Israel borrowed mythology in Gen 1-11? IMO there doesn’t seem to be any doubt that the Jews used common themes and story lines from the ANE to capture their own idea about God. Are these stories embellishments from a modern viewpoint? Of course they are as you do not have people speaking to real live serpents and people living extraordinary long lives as these narratives indicate. So what do they mean from the inspired Holy Spirit viewpoint might be one question to consider.

It’s obvious for example that the Garden theme concerning Eden was understood allegorically even by the OT writers such as Isaiah Ezekiel, Zechariah ect. They obviously didn’t take the symbolism literally as we might but instead appropriated those themes into their own writings and basically provides us insight on how Genesis should be understood from the Jewish point of view. Then in the NT these classic motifs are brought back again to illustrate the completion of the Temple creation era.  Revelation being the prime example.

ken wilson - #14122

May 19th 2010

John Walton’s book, The Lost World of Genesis One, is the most helpful thing I’ve ever read on Genesis 1.  I only wish I’d had it when I was a brand new believer trying to make sense of the Genesis account of origins in light of the scientific account of origins.

BenYachov - #14176

May 19th 2010

QUOTE"The first eleven chapters of Genesis, although properly speaking not conforming to the historical method used by the best Greek and Latin writers or by competent authors of our time, do nevertheless pertain to history in a true sense, which however must be further studied and determined by exegetes; the same chapters, (the Letter points out), in simple and metaphorical language adapted to the mentality of a people but little cultured, both state the principal truths which are fundamental for our salvation, and also give a popular description of the origin of the human race and the chosen people. If, however, the ancient sacred writers have taken anything from popular narrations, (and this may be conceded) , it must never be forgotten that they did so with the help of divine inspiration, through which they were rendered immune from any error in selecting and evaluating those documents. (Humani Generis)“END QUOTE

BenYachov - #14177

May 19th 2010

BTW if Gregory is reading this I just want to apologize for punking out of the last discussion.  There have been lied layoffs at my job & I have be a bit preoccupied as of late(fortunately I still have my job).

Anyway I’m back.

Bob R. - #14228

May 20th 2010

So, let’s translate what Prof. Walton says, without adding spin and without twisting the obvious facts into an inverted apologia for Evangelical Literalism:  Genesis One is a myth.  This is the gist of what Walton is saying here.  Myth is a way of explaining without recourse to objective evidence or science, which is what he means when he says that Science is Modern Mythology.  What he actually means is that mythology is ancient science, before science proper yet existed.

Therefore, I have to ask—what is it that Biologos and those like Dr. Collins are defending?  Why the lingering desire to try to harmonize science and myth?  Walton and others here have sheepishly and apologetically and indirectly admitted that the jig is up.  Even Evangelical scholars (like Walton) now admit the mythological character of Genesis.  There is no more discussion to be had—science is free to explain the world according to evidence and fact, while fans of Ancient mythology are free to enjoy their fairy tales about how God made man like a pot, from clay and spittle, and how he breathed magic life into his lungs.  This is a quaint little story, but these days, even our most conservative Bible scholars are well aware that it simply isn’t true.

Bob R. - #14229

May 20th 2010

Why posit “divine inspiration” for myth?  All myth-makers claimed that the gods or the muses were inspiring their quaint, but ultimately inaccurate, accounts of the origins of all things.  Now that we no longer have any doubt that Genesis is inaccurate, and that it is mythological, what is left for divine inspiration?  God inspired a text that is wrong, but that we still happen to like a lot, and therefore it’s still just as authoritative as if it were correct, even when it’s not?  It would be much easier for everyone if we just cut to the chase and stated the obvious.  Genesis is Myth.

And the sun was not darkened, and the moon was not turned to blood, and everyone went on with their lives just as if nothing had happened.  Because, of course, nothing has happened.  Genesis was myth when it was compiled, and it still is today.  We’re just part of a 4,000 year old conspiracy to pretend as though it’s an adequate and accurate account of the origin of the cosmos.  Thanks be to God that the insatiable intellects of scientists like Dr. Collins do not obey the myths that they’re told to believe, otherwise instead of the human genome we might have a pottery manual on how to fashion human beings from clay.

BenYachov(Jim Scott 4th) - #14244

May 20th 2010

So what’s your point Bob R?  Genesis is not a literalistic explanation of the creation of the world therefore religion & God are bunk?  How does that logically follow?  Especially since we can know God exists threw reason alone apart from Divine Revelation.  Or are you saying “Genesis is not a literalistic explanation of the creation of the world therefore why believe in the Divine inspiration of scripture”?

>We’re just part of a 4,000 year old conspiracy to pretend as though it’s an adequate and accurate account of the origin of the cosmos.

I reply: Then explain to us WHY Philo of Alexandra, Augustine, Origen, several Rabbis from the Talmud & Mishna said we should NOT take Genesis literally?  Mind you there was no scientific argument for an old Earth or Evolution at the time.

Gregory - #14296

May 20th 2010

Hi BenYachov,

Yes, still hanging around, but also very busy these days. No worries and no need to apologize about the previous discussion. Many of these topics are difficult to resolve into black or white answers anyway. Last words are usually not as ´last´ as they seem.

With hopes that things continue as smoothly and fortunately as possible at your job.

Respectfully yours,

Bob R. - #15789

June 1st 2010

Ben Yachov,

You’ve masterfully illustrated the problem here.  How would it logically follow that, if Genesis One is myth, therefore God and Religion are bunk?  But, that’s what you fear, that’s what the church fears, and that’s why there’s such a strong and misguided attempt to force people of faith to suffocate their reason in favor of believing that a patently incorrect and etiological text is “literally true in all its parts”.  I think the root of the problem is that people confuse the Bible with God.  They think that if the Bible is either inaccurate or inadequate, then somehow there must be no God.  This is, in fact, the fundamental belief of all “inerrantists”, which includes all Evangelicals.  If there is a single error in the Bible, then the whole thing is “bunk” (to use your words), and by extension, God is not real.

Bob R. - #15790

June 1st 2010

The position above is a completely illogical position, and one that’s based in paranoia.  I believe it’s based in the suppressed knowledge that all thinking people of the Judeo-Christian persuasion must necessarily have, that they really are basing their lives on mythology.  Believers know this deep down, so they spend all of their energy trying to convince themselves and others that they’re not.  Note the great lengths Dr. Walton goes to in order to never utter the word “myth” in connection with Scripture.  The ANE believed in myths, but the Bible is not myth.  He knows that it really is myth, however, and I believe you know it, as do all Evangelicals, and I believe that there are times when it makes the believer intensely fearful and anxious. 

While it is possible that some parts of one’s religious text or dogma could be erroneous or inadequate while others are free from error, that possibility is excluded from the outset by Evangelical Christians.  It’s an all-or-nothing proposition.  I, for one, think that it’s a horrible mistake, wholly untenable, and one that completely falls apart under scrutiny, but it’s what Evangelicals (like Walton) are committed to.

Bob R. - #15793

June 1st 2010

So, if we were to rid ourselves of the manufactured criteria of “inerrancy”, or the notion that if Genesis One is myth, then God and religion are “bunk”, we would begin to do with the Bible what we do with every other aspect of our lives.  We would look at each issue on a case-by-case basis, and see if the various parts of the Bible stand up under scrutiny, the same that we do when we’re buying dish soap and cars, or choosing spouses, and so on.  Once we do that, we might begin to see the millions of ways that the Bible is dependent upon the cultures of its day(s), or how it might have been influenced by Babylonian, Egyptian, Canaanite, Assyrian, Persian, and Greek mythologies, or how it’s more of a collage of these cultures than it is an original, “inspired” work.  Once we realize that most obvious and basic fact about the Bible, we might lose the impetus to defend it.

But, the first step is to rid ourselves of the all-or-nothing paradigm, and to take the Bible as we take everything else in the world.  We are not responsible for truth—God is.  If something in the Bible is untrue, then God would rather have us be honest about that, than to lie to ourselves and others about it.

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