Archive for the 'Mythology' Category

The Bible: fairy tale or history?

Monday, April 14th, 2014

Bible closed by crisg - closed Bible book with bookmark     magical by evaline02 - Two princesses in fairy tale illustration style, with a slug and grass in front.

(images courtesy Openclipart)

By Spencer D Gear

I asked a fellow on a Christian forum on the Internet: ‘Why are you not taking Jesus seriously and the challenge of what happens at death?[1]

His reply was: ‘I don’t take fairy tales seriously’.[2]

When I asked him to provide evidence that The Bible contains fairy tales, there was a total silence. He likes assertions but not evidence.

Secularists think that way

That is not an uncommon response from unbelievers. There’s a webpage that asks, ‘What is your favorite bible fairy tale?’ On this page, people name their favourite Bible fairy tales as including: ‘An all-powerful perfect being creates the world, but he screws it up so bad, he wipes it out with a flood and starts over’; Noah’s Ark, creation, Daniel & the lions, those who live to be over 600 years old, Jesus lets people kill him, and unbelievers tossed into the Lake of Fire. Another is titled, ‘Fairy tales in the Bible’.

How does one know if the Bible contains fairy tales or is of some other genre?

How to assess the Bible as history

This is how I responded to the fairy tale assessment:[3]

With that kind of statement, you obviously do not know how to study history. I’m writing my PhD dissertation on an aspect of ‘the historical Jesus’ – not an aspect of the ‘fairy tale Jesus’. I’ve had to develop an entire chapter on methodology for investigating history and that included what is in the NT.

When you get out of your presuppositions and into an examination of how to do historical study, then we’ll have an opportunity to examine the Scriptures from an historical perspective.

Dr Paul Barnett (photo courtesy Patheos)

Ancient historian and Christian exegete, Dr Paul Barnett, who has taught history at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia, has written:

Provided that we accept the limitations in the Gospel of Mark, in its brevity and single focus, we have good reason to believe it provides a historically credible account of Jesus’ activities in Galilee, the regions of Tyre and Sidon, Ituraea-Trachonitis, and the Decapolis. The words of Jesus, which are weighty and wise, are singularly applicable to the pericopes in which they occur. The parables in Mark as well as in Matthew and Luke are arguably authentic, based (in particular) on the cogent double criteria of similarity and dissimilarity. In any case, we argue that the gospel writers would neither invent nor omit a word of the Lord, though they felt free to adapt a word appropriately.

The narrative of Mark and the synoptics is set within the complex jurisdictions of the thirties, but not those as they would be altered in the decades following. As the narratives unfold we note the inconspicuous ways in which Jesus’ movements cohere with the political realities of those times. Furthermore, Jesus’ own path crossed the paths of the notables of that time, whether John the Baptist, the tetrarch Antipas, the high priests Annas and Caiaphas, or the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate. In the course of the narratives we encounter those who were eschatologically excited (‘the men of violence’) as well as the ‘sinners’ with whom Jesus aligned himself as a lawbreaker. Furthermore, we see Jesus as the worker of mighty deeds, including in those towns where most of his mighty works were done.

In brief, we have in Mark a gospel that is a useful source of information about Jesus’ words and actions in Galilee and adjacent regions in the north (Barnett 2009:247).

I’m sticking with the assessment of a long-time university ancient historian (and a Christian to boot) who knows his product about ancient history and how to assess historical documents.

And I’m not going with Matt and his throw-away line, ‘I don’t take fairy tales seriously’.

What qualifications do you have to assess any historical document? I find it disappointing that you are the one engaging in trifling mass media style sensational lines, instead of an examination of the biblical documents from an historical perspective – using historical criteria.

Jesus, logic and history

Paul Barnett, in examining the logic regarding Jesus and history, has stated that there are at least two senses in which Christianity is a historical religion. These include firstly, ‘that it has been continuously part of world history for a long time’, and secondly, because ‘Jesus was a real man who was born, lived and died at a particular time and place’ and this can be demonstrated by the same methodology used to investigate other significant persons from history (Barnett 1997:11).

Jesus’ resurrection as myth, fairy tale or history

There has been academic and popular controversy over whether the resurrection of Jesus should be regarded as an historical event. Should the NT records of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus be regarded as historical or of some other genre?

At the popular level, there are people like Joel Hoffmann who have written for The Huffington Post,

Some stories in the Bible were meant to be history, others fiction. But modernity has obscured the original distinction between the two kinds of biblical writing, depriving readers of the depth of the text.

Perhaps surprisingly, this confusion lies at the heart of the History Channel’s miniseries “The Bible,” which continues the pattern of blurring history and fiction, and thereby misrepresenting the nature of the Bible to its viewers (Hoffmann 2013).

Notable German, liberal, Lutheran theologian Rudolph Bultmann, had this view that was a supposed academically respectable way of evading the historicity of the resurrection:

If the event of Easter Day is in any sense an historical event additional to the event of the cross, it is nothing else than the risen [sic] of faith in the risen Lord, since it was this faith which led to the apostolic preaching. The resurrection itself is not an event of past history. All that historical criticism can establish is the fact that the first disciples came to believe in the resurrection. The historian can perhaps to some extent account for that faith from the personal intimacy which the disciples had enjoyed with Jesus during his earthly life, and so reduce the resurrection appearances to a series of subjective visions. But the historical problem is not of interest to Christian belief in the resurrection. For the historical event of the rise of the Easter faith means for us what it meant for the first disciples – namely, the self-attestation of the risen Lord, the act of God in which the redemptive event of the cross is completed (Bultmann 1953).

However, another German theologian, Wolfhart Pannenberg, took a very different view. He claimed that Jesus’ resurrection needed to be investigated as a historical event. He stated that ‘whether or not Jesus was raised from the dead is a historical question insofar as it is an inquiry into what did or did not happen at a certain time’ (Pannenberg 1967:128). Craig Nessen’s assessment of Pannenberg’s view was,

Wolfhart Pannenberg powerfully contends for the historical character of Jesus’ resurrection based on the sources that commend it, both the testimony of original witnesses to the risen Jesus and the tradition of the empty tomb. Jesus’ resurrection has more credible historical evidence than many ancient events whose occurrence we don’t question, for example, some incidents in Julius Caesar’s life (Nessen 2004).

Leading NT historian and scholar on Jesus’ resurrection, N T Wright, considered that ‘we can and must discuss the resurrection as a historical problem’ and that there is no reason in principle why what happened at Easter ‘cannot be raised by any historian of any persuasion’. His view was that even from a Christian perspective, it ‘does not mean that there is no access to Jesus and his death and resurrection in the public world. Peter did not need to appeal to Christian writings when reminding the crowd of what they already knew about Jesus’ – see Acts 2:22 – and Wright suggested that ‘historical knowledge about the resurrection’, without presupposing the Christian faith, ‘cannot be ruled out a priori’ (Wright 2003:14, 21-22).

For a fuller explanation of the historical nature of both Old and New Testaments and how to establish their historical credibility and reliability, I recommend:

  • Craig B Blomberg 2009. The historical reliability of the Bible, 2nd edn. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press.
  • Walter C Kaiser Jr. 2001. The Old Testament documents: Are they reliable & relevant? Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press.
  • K A Kitchen 2003. On the reliability of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan / Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

 

See my other articles on Christianity and history:

Conclusion

Those with a flair for the sensational and speculation may call the Bible a book of fairy tales.

Those like Bultmann who are committed to a liberal and sceptical worldview do not want to acknowledge the Bible as history but a metaphorical event.

Nevertheless, there are substantive Christian theologians and historians such as Pannenberg, Barnett and Wright who are prepared to conclude that the Bible can be investigated as an historical document.

Works consulted

Barnett, P 2009. Finding the historical Christ. Grand Rapids, Michigan / Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Barnett, P W 1997. Jesus and the logic of history. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press.

Bultmann R 1953. The mythological element in the message of the New Testament and the problem of its re-interpretation Part 2. In Bultmann, R (and five critics), Kerygma and myth (e-book). Tr by R H Fuller. London: SPCK. Available at religion-online: http://www.religion-online.org/showchapter.asp?title=431&C=293 (Accessed 17 September 2013).

Hoffmann, J 2013. The Bible isn’t the history you think it is. The Huffington Post (online), 3 April. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-joel-hoffman/the-bible-isnt-history_b_2803409.html (Accessed 15 March 2014).

Nessen, C L 2004. The reality of the resurrection. The Lutheran magazine, Augsburg Fortress, beliefnet (online), available at: http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Christianity/2004/03/The-Reality-Of-The-Resurrection.aspx (Accessed 15 March 2014).

Pannenberg, W 1967. The revelation of God in Jesus of Nazareth, in Robinson, J M & Cobb Jr., J B, New frontiers in theology: Discussions among Continental and American theologians, vol 3, 101-133. New York: Harper & Row.

Wright, N T 2003. The resurrection of the son of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. (Series in Christian origins and the question of God, vol 3).

Notes:


[1] Christian Fellowship forum, The Fellowship Hall, ‘Why I avoid discussing life after death’, ozspen #267, March 10, 2014, available at: http://community.compuserve.com/n/pfx/forum.aspx?tsn=261&nav=messages&webtag=ws-fellowship&tid=122769 (Accessed 15 March 2014).

[2] Ibid., Matt #268.

[3] Ibid., ozspen #270.

 

Copyright © 2014 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 1 August 2016.

The myth that the Genesis record is based on mythology

Sunday, March 18th, 2012

Moses in the bulrushes by johnny_automatic - a drawing of the baby Moses in the bulrushes from a pre-1920s program from the Library of Cnngress

Alleged myth: Moses in the bulrushes

(Courtesy: Open Clip Art Library)

By Spencer D Gear

It is not uncommon to hear statements like this to try to associate the Genesis record with mythology:

The Bible begins by simply plagiarizing ancient Babylonian myths. They weren’t anything new or divinely inspired….. Genesis 2 doesn’t coincide with the other parts that were clearly taken from Babylonian myth. It was purely Hebrew. Whether it was inspired or just plain made up is the disagreement![1]

Another statement of this ilk, came from Peter Bycroft, writing in The Australian newspaper. He was reflecting on the Australian Anglican church, which secular humanists like the most. Then in discussing the decline in interest in the Christian story in Australia, he stated:

For some, this “awakening” of Australians reflects, in part, the progress of archeological, cultural and historical research that is defining the Bible as essentially a book hybridised by well-meaning authors from previous mythologies, built on half-truths, Bronze Age fables and inaccurately referenced historical events.[2]

These claims are often made in association with the Enuma Elish (EE) which is a Mesopotamian or Babylonian myth about creation that described a struggle between order and chaos in the cosmos. It has been described as “a myth of the cycle of seasons”. The EE name comes from its opening words which are recited on the fourth day of the ancient Babylonian New Year’s festival. You can read a copy of the EE at: “Enuma Elish: ‘When on high’”, by Dennis Bratcher.

Bratcher explains that the story exists in a number of forms from the Babylonian area and his translation is from

“Akkadian, an old Babylonian dialect, and features Marduk, the patron deity of the city of Babylon. A similar earlier version in ancient Sumerian has Anu, Enil and Ninurta as the heroes, suggesting that this version was adapted to justify the religious practices in the cult of Marduk in Babylon”.

This version of EE had been estimated to have been written about the 12th century BC in cuneiform[3] on seven clay tablets. The tablets were found in the mid 19th century in the ruins of the palace of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh. They were first published by George Smith in 1876 as The Chaldean Genesis.

Because there are parallels with the Genesis account, some have contended that the Genesis record adapted the Babylonian accounts/myths/story. Because of the nature of the authority of Scripture, some have maintained that there are no parallels with this Babylonian account. However, there are some parallels between the two accounts and some considerable differences. Bratcher states:

There are simply too many similarities between the accounts to deny any relationship between the accounts. There are significant differences as well that should not be ignored. Yet there is little doubt that the Sumerian versions of the story predate the biblical account by several hundred years. Rather than opting for either extreme of complete dependence or no contact whatever, it is best to see the Genesis narratives as freely using the metaphors and symbolism drawn from a common cultural pool to assert their own theology about God

Archaeologist, Alfred J. Hoerth (1998:187), explains that while the sequence of creative acts is similar in Genesis and the Babylonian account (firmament, dry land, celestial luminaries, humans) and both stories commence in a watery chaos and end with God or gods at rest. He says that ‘the similarities are not meaningful; they can be explained as expected coincidences in two works on the same theme’. While he rightly states that archaeology cannot excavate the remains of creation, texts such as EE reveal what these ancient cultures had to say about creation events. He explains that while the biblical account of creation is not as complete as many would like it to be,

it owes nothing to other ancient cultures or their myths. The complete Enuma Elish reveals many dissimilarities with Genesis. The omnipotent God in Genesis is very unlike the frightened, feuding, and foul gods of the epic. Necessarily there are similarities, but the Genesis account shows no dependence. The fledgling Hebrew nation should have been thankful when God brought them out from the “bewildering variety” of opinions on their origin and, through Moses, told the story as it happened. Viewed only as a creation story, Genesis is unique, but viewed in comparison with these other stories, Genesis is lucid and complete.

For another statement on how unlikely it would be for Genesis to be based on the Babylonian myth, see, ‘Does the Genesis creation account come from the Babylonian Enuma Elish?’, CARM. Its view is that,

Knowing the issues of the differences, the monotheistic and polytheistic natures, the obvious influence from the Mesopotamian region, and the unsettled dating of the recording, it is safe to conclude that it is highly unlikely that Moses borrowed or was influenced by the Enuma Elish.  Genesis is far different in nature than any of the ancient Near Eastern creation myths and therefore must not be considered among that fold.

The view of Genesis being based on a Babylonian myth has been refuted over and over by competent OT scholars but it is pushed rather frequently on the www.[4] Of course there will be theological liberals and sceptics who want to promote this view, as they have a very low view of Scripture.

Here is the conclusion by Gary Brantley, “Pagan mythology and the Bible”, at Apologetics Press:

We need not deny that some similarities exist between pagan and Hebrew literature. But, these similarities do not imply that pagan mythical texts directly influenced biblical writers. The literary quality of biblical poetry argues against such dependence. To illustrate, scholars have identified at least one pagan modification of a Hebrew Psalm (an Egyptian adaptation of Psalm 20, dating to ca. 125 B.C.), whose literary quality is far inferior to the original. This Egyptian document (written on papyri) was discovered sometime before the turn of the century. Egyptian philologists soon identified the script as demotic—a cursive kind of hieroglyphic writing which came into use around 650 B.C. For years, however, its contents remained an enigma to experts.

Progress in deciphering the text occurred in 1940 when Professor Raymond Bowman and Egyptologist George R. Hughes discovered that, though the text was written in demotic script, the actual language was Aramaic. The Egyptian document contains Jewish words such as YHWH (i.e., Yahweh) and ‘adonay, but it also mentions an assortment of pagan gods (e.g., Horus, Sahar, Mar, and Baal). These features, and its familiarity of language and composition to Psalm 20, indicate that it was adapted from the Hebrew Psalm. The text, however, is riddled with scribal errors of such nature that indicate the scribe did not understand what he transcribed (see Shanks, 1985). Such is not characteristic of biblical poetry. Its literary quality, according to some scholars, is far superior to that of pagan stock (see Wheeler, 1992). This certainly would be one indication of its originality.

Further, along with its distinguished literary quality, the Bible’s ethical and spiritual concepts are unparalleled by pagan sacred literature. For instance, the gods of pagan myths are guilty of degenerate behavior of all sorts; the true God is infinite in purity. Practitioners of pagan religions constantly worked to pacify their angry gods; worshipers of Yahweh, Who was quick to forgive, received undeserved blessings from His gracious hands (Psalm 32:1-5). Thus, the similarities between biblical and pagan literature are eclipsed by the enormous differences. Actually, there is no better indicator of the Bible’s inspiration than to put it side by side with its pagan counterparts. Such comparative literary analyses bolster our conviction that “all scripture is given by inspiration of God…” (2 Timothy 3:16).

Tony L. Shetter has written, “Genesis 1-2 In Light Of Ancient Egyptian Creation Myths” to refute this view. His conclusion is that

the author/redactor(s) of the Genesis creation accounts share certain concepts of the makeup of the world with other ancient Near Eastern cultures. However, it is especially with Egypt’s worldview that the author/redactor(s) are familiar. Evidence for this lies in the many allusions to Egyptian creation motifs throughout the Genesis creation accounts. But, rather than being a case of direct borrowing, they demythologize the Egyptian concepts and form a polemic against the Egyptian gods. Thus, they elevate Yahweh-Elohim as the one true God, who is transcendent and who is all powerful. He speaks his desire and it comes to pass. He does not require the assistance of other gods to perform the acts of creation. He alone possesses the power and means necessary to effect the creation of the world. This paper has compiled a list of the more significant parallels between Egyptian cosmology and the Genesis creation accounts, and has shown that Egyptian cosmology and the Genesis creation accounts share more affinity with one another than the Genesis creation accounts share with Babylonian cosmology.

The article, “Is Genesis stolen from Babylonian myths?” by Tekton Education and Apologetics Ministry, refutes this view.

Our summary conclusion: The views of EE proponents simply do not correspond with the data – and thus it is not surprising that most borrowing-proponents have sought their parallels elsewhere. (For more on those other stories, see the series here by the Christian ThinkTank.)

A better conclusion is that while there may be parallels with early mythology, parallels do not equate to the biblical text plagiarising Babylonian or Egyptian mythology. While there may be convergences with Babylonian mythology, the radical differences are too great to promote a view that the Genesis record, for example, was built on mythology.

The Genesis record promotes Yahweh-Elohim as the one true, transcendent and all-powerful almighty God of creation and of His people. This is very dissimilar to the gods represented in the Babylonian epic.

This leads to the obvious question of the nature of the OT. What was Jesus’ view of the OT? He spoke of the events, including miracles, and people of the OT as historically factual. We see this in how Jesus affirmed the authenticity of the destruction of Sodom including the death of Lot’s wife (Luke 17:29-32). The manna fell from heaven (John 6:31) according to Jesus. Who was Daniel? Jesus affirmed him as a genuine prophet (Matthew 24:15). Jesus confirmed the validity and historicity of Jonah and the whale. (Matthew 12:39-40). Jesus spoke of those who were created male and female in the creation account (see Matthew 19:4-6).

Jesus said, “The Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). Jesus directed us to the OT, asking, “Have you not read what was spoken to you by God?” (Matthew 22:31).

When 2 Tim. 3:16 as “all Scripture is breathed out by God” (ESV), he was referring to the OT as the NT canon was not yet formed.

References

Hoerth, Alfred J 1998. Archaeology and the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books.

Notes


[1] KhaosTheory #11, a post on Christian Forums, Christian Apologetics, “Understanding the Bible”, available at: http://www.christianforums.com/t7640465-2/#post60032437. My response, OzSpen, is at #17, and includes the material that refutes this plagiarism of the Babylonian mythological view.

[2] Peter Bycroft 2011. Sometimes love, even if a gift from Jesus, is not good enough. The Australian, 25 June. Available at: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/arts/sometimes-love-even-as-a-gift-from-jesus-is-not-good-enough/story-e6frg8nf-1226080049755 (Accessed 19 March 2012).

[3] ‘One of the earliest forms of writing, cuneiform was (probably) invented in Uruk, Mesopotamia around 3000 BC. The word is from the Latin, meaning “wedge shaped”; we don’t know what the script was actually called by its users. The symbols are formed from wedge-shaped objects pressed into soft clay tablets which are then fired (accidentally or intentionally), “Cuneiform”, Archaeology. Available at: http://archaeology.about.com/od/cterms/g/cuneiform.htm (Accessed 15 March 2012).

[4] Another example is the Religious Tolerance site and the article, ‘Comparing two creation stories: From Genesis and Babylonian pagan sources’ (Accessed 15 March 2012).

 

Copyright © 2013 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 16 October 2015.

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