The Bible Among the Myths: Unique Revelation or Just Ancient Literature?

By John N. Oswalt
Grand Rapids : Zondervan (2009). 204 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. William Barrick
21.1 (Spring 2010) : 125-127

John Oswalt also authored Isaiah (NIVAC, Zondervan, 2003), Called to Be Holy: A Biblical Perspective (Evangel Publishing House, 1999), The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 1–39 (NICOT, Eerdmans, 1986), and The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40–66 (NICOT, Eerdmans, 1998). At the present he serves as research professor of OT at Wesley Biblical Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. Oswalt’s two-volume work on Isaiah in NICOT takes a clear stand in defense of the unity of the Book of Isaiah, and The Bible Among the Myths stands unashamedly on the side of divine inspiration of the OT and its distinct character as compared to ancient Near Eastern literature.

In his “Introduction” (11-18) Oswalt calls for the acceptance and defense of the historical and theological veracity of the OT (16-17). The Bible claims to be divine revelation. He defends that biblical claim and argues that it ought to be given the attention it deserves, instead of allowing disbelief in the Bible to occupy a privileged position in the discussion (18). Part 1 (“The Bible and Myth,”19-107) consists of five chapters establishing the differences between Scripture and myth. Part 2 (“The Bible and History,” 109-94) presents five chapters dealing with the issues involved in the Bible’s relationship to history and historiography.

Oswalt declares that changes in scholarly opinion resulting in the classification of the Bible as myth have come about through a shift in theological assumptions and worldview, not by means of any discovery of new data in the recovery of ANE literature (31). The first step one must take to respond to this shift involves establishing a definition for myth (31-46). After dealing carefully and exhaustively with the potential definitions of myth and identifying the best definition, he proceeds to demonstrate that “Whatever the Bible is, whether true or false, symbol or literal, it is not myth” (46).

In reality, Oswalt concludes, “[S]imilarities between the Bible and the rest of the literatures of the ancient Near East are superficial, while the differences are essential” (47). The very features common to myths (especially in the ANE) prove the distinct nature of biblical revelation (57-62). The biblical worldview differs diametrically from the views of extrabiblical cultures and their myths (63). The characteristics of biblical thought (e.g., monotheism, iconoclasm, the Spirit as first principle, absence of conflict in creation, a high view of humanity, God’s reliability and supra-sexuality, etc.) prove the distinction (64-81).

Scholars repeatedly appeal to correspondences between ANE literature and the Bible. For example, the Enuma Elish (a Babylonian creation account) supposedly proves that the writer(s) of the biblical creation account in Genesis aligned it with the Babylonian account. However, a basic comparison of the elements and characteristics of both accounts reveals that the similarities are artificial. Oswalt reminds his readers, “In fact it is important to point out that the Enuma Elish is not about ‘creation’ at all” (101). Genesis speaks of God creating something that did not exist before; Enuma Elish recounts the emergence of the world from pre-existent chaotic matter. Some scholars associate tehom (“the deep”) in Genesis 1 with the Canaanite chaos monster Tiamat because of similarity due to lexical origin. However, the potential association only demonstrates that Hebrew is a Semitic language, not that the writer conscientiously made either direct or indirect reference to Tiamat (102). Overdrawn similarities often continue outside Genesis in other OT literature like the Psalter. No matter how many claims some scholars make regarding Canaanite influence on the literature, imagery, and concepts of the biblical psalmists, evidence in the Ugaritic literature consistently manifests a clear distinction from anything in the biblical text or a total absence of any analogue (104-7). As Oswalt puts it, “the undoubted similarities . . . do not indicate a common way of thinking” (107).

This reviewer admits to a certain frustration with The Bible Among the Myths. With each passing page, he kept expecting a treatment of the matter of the Bible’s borrowing or employing ANE myth, mythical characters, and mythical imagery. A quick check of the “Author Index” (203-4) found that Oswalt makes no reference to the work of Elmer Smick on mythology in the Book of Job. Smick’s work must be considered foundational to such a discussion, so why its conspicuous absence? With the transition from the superb treatment of the topic of myth in the first half of the book to the topic of history, the direction of investigation continues down a separate path. Having established that the Bible is not myth, Oswalt does not resolve how biblical writers might have employed ANE myths. The second half of the volume presents a contrast between a conservative and biblical historiography as opposed to a non-conservative or postmodern historiography. The discussion is valuable, but leaves the reader hanging with unanswered questions about whether the Bible utilizes ANE myths.

One of the most helpful aspects of Oswalt’s comparative analysis of the Bible’s approach to history vs. the ANE’s approach to history (146-47) replicates differences identified by John Walton in Ancient Israelite Literature in Its Cultural Context (Zondervan, 1989). The tenth chapter of The Bible Among the Myths concludes by describing the views of four scholars with regard to biblical history: John Van Seters (172-75), Frank Cross (175-77), William Dever (177-81), and Mark Smith (181-84). Oswalt concludes that these scholars (and others) have not presented “a convincing explanation for the unique features of the biblical worldview and the ways in which that worldview affects the understanding of reality in the Bible” (184). The only satisfactory viewpoint regarding the nature of biblical revelation resides in its uniqueness in the world, not its apparent similarities to ANE literature and worldviews (192, 194).

This volume represents a distinct and high view of Scripture, its inspiration and veracity. Oswalt exposes the evolutionary, humanistic, and antisupernatural characteristics of opposition to the Bible’s uniqueness as divine revelation. He makes a significant contribution to the discussion of myth and history related to the Bible.