Thank you for your awesome contribution to the cause for Christ. I really enjoy reading your apologetic material especially because I am learning myself as I go. But concerning the actual question I want to ask and get your opinion. Recently I glanced at some of your articles on myth particularly some of them in the Old Testament. This undoubtedly becomes a question of biblical inerrancy which I know you take interest in. My question as a brother in Christ is why there is myth in the Bible in the first place? Does this mean the Bible is not inspired at all?
Thank you for this question, Phillip. I also am humbled that you find value here at James Bishop’s Apologetics. Please continue visiting!
Yes, the Bible has myth. In other words, the Bible is clearly home to ancient pre-scientific beliefs that we know, from our privileged contemporary vantage point (one not shared by the ancient biblical authors), are not true explanations about reality. Of course many Christians will take exception to this line because they see it as undermining biblical inerrancy. If the Christian allows myth into the Bible then what can be said to be God inspired? If the Bible cannot get scientific and historical facts right then is it really God’s word?
Now, I clearly don’t believe that such a standard for judging the Bible as God’s word is at all warranted. And if we do employ and impose this criterion then the Bible falls flat on its face. Moreover, I don’t at all wish to undermine this question since it is a really good one that requires deliberation. But such a rebuttal (“what can we then trust from the Bible if it has myth?”) also misses the point. This is because it does nothing in the way of denying the overwhelming evidence that myth exists within the Bible. Instead it illumines a repercussion, namely factoring in the question of trusting the Bible. Without venturing too far off course my answer would be that we can trust a substantial amount from the Bible as historical documents even if myth has its place in there too.
Now you ask “why there is myth in the Bible in the first place?” The simple answer is because of its very ancient context and the ancient milieu in which the traditions developed. We all know, for example, that the Earth is not flat with a solid dome above it (Genesis 7:11). Of course, as far as we can tell, the biblical author did not know this. Contemporary Christians who enjoy fuller revelation in Jesus Christ know that other gods other than Yahweh alone do not exist. However, some psalmists (86:8, 95:3, 96:4, 97:9, 135:5, 136:2) and the author of Exodus (20:3, 20:4-6) didn’t know this. As far as our historical-grammatical evidence shows they all assumed polytheism, although they clearly view Yahweh as a far more powerful and worthy deity especially since he saved them from captivity in Egypt. Moreover, the biblical authors say that Adam lived 930 years and Methuselah 969. However, we know that this is far too long to be historically or scientifically probable (Barr). We also know that from the Ancient Near East we have other accounts, of which clearly have a connection to the biblical authors themselves, that also have lists of prominent people with enormous life spans (Sumerian King List, for example). Christian scholar and Professor Peter Enns explains that “Such similarities certainly suggest Hebrew’s clear connections to its Semitic predecessors.” We also know from persuasive evidence from geology, stratigraphy, geophysics, physics, palaeontology, biology, anthropology, and archaeology that there was never a global flood, as some Christians believe. Many (Vela, Deem, Minton, Peters, Young) have persuasively argued, given that the Bible does indicate a real historical flood in Genesis, that the flood is best explained as a localized event. Beyond these myths there are historical myths. As I’ve highlighted before much of what the book of Joshua alleges happened in the context of Israel’s conquest of the Promised Land, never actually happened. Archaeology just does not support some of these early biblical traditions. This material, argues scholar James Barr, is “not consider[ed] to be historical or scientific, instead it belongs to legend.” This is hardly an exhaustive treatment. I will leave it open to what others conclude of Jonah’s episode in the belly of a fish, Balaam’s talking donkey, or the Tower of Babel, just to name a few narratives where considerable debate can be had.
The point being is that the Bible has its fair share of ancient myths. This is, as far as I believe, undeniable. However, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Enns, who holds to biblical inspiration and authority, convincingly argues that the biblical worldview described in Genesis is an ancient Near Eastern one and it therefore belongs in that setting. He writes that “the opening chapters of Genesis participate in a worldview that the earliest Israelites shared with their Mesopotamian neighbors. To put it this way is not to concede ground to liberalism or unbelief but to understand the simple fact that the stories in Genesis had a context within which they were first understood. And that context was not a modern scientific one but an ancient mythic one… It is a fundamental misunderstanding of Genesis to expect it to answer questions generated by a modern worldview, such as whether the days were literal or figurative, or whether the days of creation can be lined up with modern science, or whether the flood was local or universal. The question that Genesis is prepared to answer is whether Yahweh, the God of Israel, is worthy of worship.”
So why is there myth in the Bible? As Enns and Rauser have argued it is because God reached down into human history to reveal himself to the Israelites where pre-scientific myths were commonplace, which is understandable given their lack of sophistication. God does not leave the Israelites there but instead adopts the mythic categories within which the ancients lived and thought. Rather, as Enns points out, God transformed the ancient myths so that Israel’s story would come to focus on its God, the real one.
But the central question to Christianity’s truth certainly does not center on Old Testament myths or the historicity of events in certain books and passages. Instead, the reason for belief centers on Jesus and his resurrection from the dead as a dramatic act of God. This is a fact that we have good historical evidence for affirming. Enns continues:
“We will not understand the Bible if we push aside or explain away its cultural setting, even if that setting disturbs us. We should, rather, learn to be thankful that God came to them just as he did more fully in Bethlehem many, many centuries later. We must resist the notion that for God to enculturate himself is somehow beneath him. This is precisely how he shows his love to the world he made.”
So, does this mean that “the Bible is not inspired at all?” Certainly not. It would also depend on what inspiration is taken to be which, again, is open to debate and beyond our scope here. I like rational explanations and, as far as I am concerned, we have a rational explanation as to why myth is in the Bible.