John N. Oswalt Book Review

John N. Oswalt Book Review

The following article is an assignment submission for Intro to the Old Testament for my graduate studies at Liberty University.

Introduction

The author, John N. Oswalt, opens his book with an introduction into the comparative study of the Old Testament and the religions and cultures of other peoples from the Ancient Near East. The Bible Among the Myths begins with the assertion that while the data has remained unchanged since the 1960s, the analysis has shifted. Scholars used to believe that the Old Testament was unique among the other beliefs in the Ancient Near East, but now scholars predominantly hold the view that the Old Testament is virtually identical to the other religions of its day.[1]

bible_among_the_mythsOswalt also discusses a major philosophical division when comparing the Old Testament to its contemporaries. He makes the distinction between “essence” and “accident.”[2] When a person talks about an object’s essence, he is referring to that which makes up its core. Accidentals, on the other hand, are those things that are merely incidental and do not necessarily define the object.

The author introduces the reader to the concept of myth. While acknowledging that scholars differ greatly on the precise definition, Oswalt insists that this ought to not dissuade the individual from seeking a good definition of the word. In an attempt to help define the word, he lists four basic characteristics of a myth. The first characteristic is that human beings have little or no intrinsic value. The second characteristic is the relative lack of interest in historical studies. The third is the practice of magic and involvement with the occult. The final characteristic is the refusal to accept responsibility for individual actions.[3]

The final portion of the introduction deals with a weighty claim. Oswalt asserts that theological claims are inseparable from historical claims.[4] He basically says that the trustworthiness of the theological issues is contingent upon the trustworthiness of the historical claims. If the historical claims are patently false, then no credence ought to be given to the theological decrees. However, if the historical descriptions are consistent with what is known, then the theological issues should be taken seriously by the reader of the Bible.

Chapter One

The first chapter deals with the Bible in the context of its surroundings and its contribution to society at large. Oswalt states that there are many contributions to the way the Western world views reality. The Bible, however, is the most important contributor.[5]

The Greeks brought a type of thinking that had a profound impact on society. Three of their most significant contributions were: the belief in a “universe” instead of a “polyverse,” simple cause and effect, and non-contradiction.[6]

The Hebrew people were also unique in their worldview and the effect was no less profound. They believed that there was only one God, that God is the one and only creator of the universe, God exists apart from the creation, God made himself know to people, God made his will know to people, and that God rewards and punishes people for following or disobeying his will.[7]

The Greek and the Hebrew peoples combined their ways of thinking about reality in several ways. The Greeks’ rational thought combined with the monotheism of the Hebrew people. The Greek belief in the law of non-contradiction dovetailed with the Hebrew belief in God being separate and distinct from creation.[8]

Oswalt makes the argument that logic was not completely developed until after people realized that God not only was the sole creator of the universe, but also completely separate from the creation. Despite the currently held beliefs of the superiority of logic and science apart from religion, Oswalt maintains that logic and science alone leads to self-destruction. Without the transcendent creator of the universe to direct humanity’s path, people only look to serve themselves. Oswalt uses Hiroshima and the Buchenwald concentration camp as examples of humanity’s achievements when it is devoid of God’s influence.[9]

Chapter Two

In the second chapter, Oswalt attempts to find a suitable definition for myth. Before defining the word, Oswalt revisits the notion that scholarship has drifted from the view that the Bible is unique from the other writings, religions, and cultures of the Ancient Near East. Since the 1960s, scholars have been asserting that the characteristics of the Bible and its contemporary belief systems have more in common that are in opposition even though the data used to support these assertions have remained the same.[10]

Oswalt wishes to apply the appropriate classification to the Bible. Specifically, he addresses whether or not the Bible ought to be viewed as myth. In order to properly answer the question, one has to consider the many definitions posed by scholars today. Oswalt lists these definitions and explains why he feels that they are inadequate.

One of the groups of definitions falls into the category of the historical-philosophical. The first definition of myth in this category is known as the etymological definition. The emphasis here is placed on the “falsity” of the deity or event.[11] The second is described as the sociological-theological definition. In this definition, the truth is seen as relative and something is considered true if it is seen as true by others.[12] The final definition within the historical-philosophical category is the literary definition. With this definition, the events are not seen as right or wrong. Instead, the narrative employs heavy use of symbolism to express its meaning.[13]

The various definitions of myth have one thing in common at their core—they all subscribe to the philosophy of continuity. Continuity assumes that all things are not only related to one another, but they literally are one another in some fashion. Oswalt uses the example of a person being “one with the tree.” With continuity, the individual is not just figuratively one with the tree, but he or she is literally a part of the tree’s essence and the tree is a part of the individual’s essence.[14]

Chapter Three

Continuity is the main topic of the third chapter. Here, Oswalt expounds upon what he touches on at the end of chapter two. The one thing that myths have in common at their very core is the presence of continuity. The way of thinking in continuity views all things as part of each other in some way. The three major forces (humanity, nature, and the divine) all exist on a circular continuum where the three have considerable and ambiguous overlap. Oswalt states that the consequences of such a worldview are far-reaching.[15]

The effects of the continuity worldview are numerous and varied. One of these effects is the emphasis of looking for signs in nature. Attempts are made at explaining reality from weather patterns, floods, fire, plagues, and the celestial bodies. Another effect is the use of magic to influence and affect the cosmos. One last example from the long list of effects of continuity includes people’s fixation on fertility. Oswalt uses the example of how sexuality is so central to people’s lives today as a reason for this effect of continuity.[16]

Finally, Oswalt deals bluntly with what he feels are the common features of myth. Save for a few exceptions, myths all share the belief that there exist a multitude of gods. They also believe heavily in the use of symbols and icons to interact with nature and the divine. The gods themselves are viewed lowly; they are seen as fallible beings. The creation accounts usually involve some sort of major conflict in order to bring about the universe. Finally, a common feature of myth is the low intrinsic value placed on humanity itself, which stems from the belief that no single standard of ethics exists.[17]

Chapter Four

Oswalt turns to characteristics of the Bible in chapter four. Here he deals with the topic of transcendence, where God (who exists apart from the cosmos) purposefully interacts with the universe in profound and supernatural ways. This biblical thought process is unique from its contemporary belief systems in many ways. Oswalt provides the reader with an extensive list of some common characteristics.

Monotheism is one of the most obvious characteristics of the Bible that sets it apart from the other religions. With the exception of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (which all derive from the Bible in some way), nearly all other religions were polytheistic. The idea that Yahweh exists as that no other gods exist was a defining characteristic for the Old Testament and the Bible as a whole.[18]

Another major characteristic was the belief that God pre-existed. Nothing in the cosmos existed before God. Everything that exists is therefore subservient to the God that created it. Many of the creation accounts of myth involve the deity or deities manipulating matter in some way in order to form the world as it exists today. With the Bible, God created something out of nothing.[19]

Humanity is view very highly in the Bible and is another characteristic that sets biblical thought apart from other religious beliefs. This makes sense when a person reads in Genesis 1:27 that God made humans in his own image. People have intrinsic value, they were they “apex” of God’s creation, and were given dominion over it.[20]

Other characteristics that set the biblical worldview apart from other worldviews is the belief that God is supra-sexual, the prohibition against the practice of magic, and the ethical code that God expects humanity to obey.[21] Transcendence can be viewed as the foundational principle among the key characteristics of biblical thought.[22]

Chapter Five

The author continues the thought in chapter five that the Bible should not be categorized as myth. Oswalt goes in depth with the issue of ethics. In the Ancient Near East, the non-biblical worldviews held two sets of ethics. One set dealt with how people interacted with each other. The other set of ethics dealt with how people acted upon the deities. For the Bible, ethical behavior was defined by God alone and, therefore, not subject to the whims of societal change. Other distinctive features of biblical ethics include: there was also only one set of ethics, the same ethical code applied universally to every person, and a grievance against someone else was considered an offense towards God himself.[23]

Oswalt looks at some of the similarities between the Israelite and non-Israelite peoples. Some of the areas that were similar were practice, expression, and thought pattern. While similar, Oswalt reaffirms his belief that these areas are incidental and not essential to the basic identities of those people groups.[24]

Chapter Six

As with the definition of myth, history is a term that has been defined differently by various scholars. While the definition of myth is a bit more contentious, the definitions of history are not as varied.  Oswalt uses Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language for a definition that he believes represents the consensus.[25]

There are several different types of writings that give scholars insight into the lives of individuals during ancient times. While often useful in understanding cultures of antiquity, Oswalt writes that most of their writings do not fit into the definition of history. The various types of non-biblical writings include omens, king lists, data formulae, epics, royal annals, and chronicles. Omens attempt to use signs from nature to determine the course of action that a leader should take. King lists include genealogies of significant people but often greatly exaggerate information. Date formulae includes list of key events in the progression of a society but does not relate the events in a way that gives people a deeper knowledge of the culture. The other types of non-biblical writings do not quite meet the standard of history because of exaggerations, emphasis on an individual over people as a group, and other reasons.[26]

Ancient peoples failed to use historic writings. Oswalt lists several reasons for this. Ancient peoples did not see the importance of recording information for the benefit of others since they were concerned about the here and now. Another reason the people of ancient times were not concerned with historic writing was because of their self-centered viewpoint. They did not care to remove themselves from their situations while writing about events. A result of this was the production of severely biases narratives. They also believed in multiple causes when simple causes were sufficient, subscribed to a belief that they could not control their destinies, and were more concerned about maintaining order.[27]

The Bible, however, is unique in how it handles historical events. It deals with individuals as real, fallible people. The writers included failures in their narratives whereas other non-biblical writers would have made no mention. Such an example was the story of King David and how he committed adultery with the wife of one of his generals followed by a murder to cover it up. The emphasis on human relationships and choices are also examples of those things that make the Bible unique in its depiction of history.[28]

Chapters Seven and Eight

Oswalt addresses some of issues that are used against the Bible concerning its historicity. Some of these relate to revelation, supernatural events, and whether Israel was unique in these areas. Oswalt explains how the God supernaturally revealing himself to humanity caused the Israelites to ensure that they were careful in making sure they were accurate with their writings.[29]

The author makes the case in the eighth chapter that it is important to understand that the Bible is a historically accurate document. Oswalt alluded to this somewhat earlier in the book, but he expounds upon this notion here.

It is important to realize that the whole Bible is historical. When looking at the Old Testament, one realizes that the Pentateuch, Prophets, and books of poetry are historical. They describe people and flesh out their relationships with one another, careful not to marginalize weaknesses, failures, and improprieties.

Oswalt introduces the reader to a more nuanced view of history and splits the definition. Geschichte is a German word that connotes a narrative while Historie deals with the actual event.[30]

The conclusion of this section determines history to be inseparable from theology in the Bible—for the theology belief stems from the historical event. Oswalt uses an excellent example in the resurrection to support this conclusion. In his epistle to the church in Corinth, the Apostle Paul states that one’s faith cannot exist without a historical belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.[32]

Chapters Nine and Ten

The ninth chapter deals with some alternative views concerning the biblical narrative as it is known today. The first criticism is by John Van Seters and how he asserts that Jewish priests altered the Bible after the Babylonian exile.[33] The second is Frank Cross’ assertion that the Bible used to be an epic poem, but was changed at some point to the Old Testament’s current state.[34] Thirdly, Oswalt looks at how William Dever believes that Israel’s belief systems were identical to Canaanite beliefs and that Christian scholars have overlooked certain facts throughout history to paint an inaccurate portrait of ancient Israel.[35] Finally, the author looks at Mark Smith and how he argues that Israel’s beliefs emanated out of the Canaanite’s polytheistic beliefs.[36]

Oswalt concludes his book in chapter ten and basically restates his main points from the previous chapters. The major theme that he stresses is that the contrast between biblical and non-biblical views of reality. The biblical view is rooted in transcendence while the non-biblical view is rooted in continuity.[37]

References

  1. John N. Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 11-12.
  2. Ibid, 13.
  3. Ibid, 14.
  4. Ibid, 16.
  5. Ibid, 21.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid, 23.
  8. Ibid, 25-26.
  9. Ibid, 27.
  10. Ibid, 29-30.
  11. Ibid, 33.
  12. Ibid, 36.
  13. Ibid, 38.
  14. Ibid, 43.
  15. Ibid, 48.
  16. Ibid, 50-56.
  17. Ibid, 57-61.
  18. Ibid, 64.
  19. Ibid, 66.
  20. Ibid, 69-70.
  21. Ibid, 71-78.
  22. Ibid, 82.
  23. Ibid, 85-87.
  24. Ibid, 91-107.
  25. Ibid, 112.
  26. Ibid, 116-122.
  27. Ibid, 122-124.
  28. Ibid, 124-127.
  29. Ibid, 138-151.
  30. Ibid, 157.
  31. 1 Cor. 15:13-17.
  32. Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths, 169-170.
  33. Ibid, 172.
  34. Ibid, 175.
  35. Ibid, 177.
  36. Ibid, 181.
  37. Ibid, 185.

Further Reading

Oswalt, John N. The Bible Among the Myths. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2009.