This write up presents the summary of John N. Oswalt’s book, The Bible among the Myths. The writer begins his book presenting his own theological perspective regarding revolution of Old Testament from the religious and cultural standards of ancient people. Within the first part of his book, Oswalt gives a comparative study of the Old Testament, the ancient religions and cultures of other ancient people. These were widely influenced by the inseparable evolutionary paradigm inherited from the philosophy of idealism of the Ancient Near East. His assertion on the onset of the book is that while the uniqueness of Old Testament among other religions was untenable since 1960s, the rethinking of such views has changed predominantly by the analysis of today’s scholars.
Sixty years ago most biblical philosophers pointed out the uniqueness of Israelis religion among others, however, this has changed sparingly. According to Oswalt, the philosophical division of comparing the revolution of the Old Testament to its contemporaries has essentially illustrated the fact that Israelis religious stand out to be the same as others. To him, the revolutionary change in Israelite religion, especially the Old Testament, has been contributed by the emergence of complex Semitic religious characteristics. In illustrating this concern, Oswalt brings out significant distinction between “essence” and “accident”. According to him, object’s essence and accidentals refers to what makes up the object and do not necessarily define the object respectively. His assertion is that human beings are never in control of themselves, especially in determining their own destiny by disposition of the things just for their own benefits. For instance, people only analyze an object by determining which among its characteristics is essential or accidental and in doing so they tend to demean the object itself.
On the other hand, Oswalt introduces the concept of myth while trying to make readers understand whether the Old Testament stem from mythical cultures of its neighbors, or it is just a divine encapsulate that stands on itself. While he acknowledges the variances in the precise definition of myth by different scholars, he notes that this should not bar people from obtaining relevant definition of the word. According to him, “myth” has been defined by scholars differently based on its common characteristics and functions. Therefore, Oswalt gives out four basic characteristics of a myth which contributes towards defining the word. These characteristics include the little or non-intrinsic value of human beings, uninteresting nature of people towards historical studies, magical practice and involvement in occult, and the individual’s nature of refusing to accept his or her responsibility.
Moreover, Oswalt asserts at the end of his introduction the inseparability of theological claims from historical claims based on the veracity of the Old Testament. According to him, the trustworthiness of theological issues is only factual and practical based on the trustworthiness of historical claims or notions. He maintained that the falsehood on the part of historical claims means that there is no need to give out decree to any theological claim. However, he agrees that in a situation where the two are consistent, the theological issues highlighted in the Bible should be taken seriously.
Summary of Chapter 1 “The Bible in Its World”
In Chapter 1, “The Bible in its World” of Oswalt’s The Bible among the Myths, he discusses the Bible in the context of its immediate surroundings and the contribution which have been made by the entire society. While acknowledging the certainty with which the Western world views reality based on many contributions, he points out the Bible as the most pivotal contributor to which reality is profound among western countries. According to him, the integrated contribution of the Bible in understanding the reality can be weighed back to the contribution of Greek philosophers Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.
The author nods the metaphysical foundation contributed by the above Greek philosophers for the transcendent monotheism of the Bible. He points out that these philosophers deployed a single unifying principle of believing in “universe” as oppose to “polyverse”, simple cause and effect, and the non-contradiction of convicting something of what it could or could not be at the same time. This is the conflict which undermined human consciousness, and the nature of the real world is essential in understanding the dominant conflict of reality at that time.
Oswalt also presents the uniqueness of the Hebrew and Greek people in terms of how they struggled to view the world and events that took place. According to him, the unique contribution between Hebrews and Greeks logically brought out the meaning of reality. By Greek’s showing the Hebrews the impact of monotheism while Hebrews, on the other hand, believing in the idea of sole creatorship by God, the reality of existence of God as separate and distinct entity from creation is established. This logical perspective of Oswalt is to make people realize and understand that God as the sole creator of the universe, and separate from His own creation contrary to what science points out.
Summary of Chapter 2 “The Bible and Myth: A Problem of Definition”
In this chapter, Oswalt raises concerns whether the Bible views reality distinctively, and whether it forms the basis why people shift their understanding towards myth. While attempting to suitably define the word, “myth”, he takes the reader back to scholar’s drifting notion that the Bible in itself is not unique from other religions, writings, and cultures practiced by Ancient Near East. This, based on his writings, raises concerns of whether the monotheism nature of the Bible form a historical context which does not allow mythmaking to form the biblical concern whether the Old Testament originated from mythical perceptions.
According to Oswalt, it is only by applying appropriate classification of the Bible that one can effectively address the issue of whether or not the Bible should be considered as a myth. Oswalt highlights the various definitions of myth as contributed by diverse scholars which fail to answer this concern. First, he points out that myth has been defined based on the historical-philosophical category. In this aspect, myth has been given etymological, sociological, and literary definitions. As the author points out, etymological definition of myth concentrates mostly on the falsity of the deity or event being described, while the sociological definition stresses the profound truth seen relative and considered true by others. Consequently, the literary definition of myth within this historical-philosophical category assesses why events are not judged right or wrong.
Additionally, Oswalt identifies phenomenology as another category which has attempted to define myth based on the common characteristics displayed by the world literature. Nevertheless, just like the others, it conforms to the philosophy of continuity. According to him, bringing out the reality of continuity does not present individuals as the essence of the culture or mythological tradition they believe in, but rather denotes them as the continuity of such beliefs.
Summary of Chapter 3 “Continuity: The Basis of Mythical Thinking”
Oswalt expounds on the topic of continuity in this entire chapter which stems from what he had talked of at the end of Chapter 2. The author therefore analyzes the characteristics of assimilated word myth which undermines the general thinking about reality. In his account, myth denotes how people think about reality differently from the renowned Western thoughts which is widely contributed by the principle of continuity. According to him, the idea of continuity, which forms the way people think, has made them view all things as stemming from each other in certain ways. In the process, the three essential forces of humanity, nature and divine have all existed in circular continuum thereby overlapping and making the reality of the world far-reaching to people.
The implications of the continuity among the major forces illustrated above are evident where emphasis or explanation of reality is based on the signs portrayed by the nature. Here, Oswalt gives an example of a scenario where an idol made by human kind which either look the same or sound as well as a Baal, is regarded as Baal itself. He wishes to point out the idea of continuity as resulting into no distinction between symbol and reality; as a symbol in itself is the reality.
In the same chapter, Oswalt points out the common features that can denote any concept or idea as mythical. First, from the concept of polytheism, he notes that myths have common ground of belief that there exist a multitude of gods of which each addresses the different forces seen in the world. Second, he believes that myths purely utilize symbols such as images and icons in order to interact with divine and nature. Therefore, myth presents a low intrinsic value on human consciousness which makes him or her believe that there is no single ethical standard.
Summary of Chapter 4 “Transcendence: Basis of Biblical Thinking”
This chapter presents Oswalt’s view points on why biblical worldview differs diametrically around the world. He introduces the characteristics of the Bible especially by illustrating where the sole Creator, God, interacts with the universe in profound and supernatural ways. Through the topic of transcendence, Oswalt present unique belief systems that differ from the contemporary one in different circumstances.
For instance, Oswalt talks of monotheism as a significant characteristic of the Bible which makes it different from other religions. He argues that apart from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam that in one way or the other stemmed from the Bible, other religion originated from polytheism. In the Bible, as the author notes, the concept of Yahweh as the sole God, and argument that no any other god exists, was the major defining characteristics of both the Old Testament and the Bible as a whole. Next, the author talks of the iconolocastic characteristic of the Bible denoting the existence of God before any other cosmos existed. While many concepts of creations denoted by science and logical argument accounts of myth that led to the formation and existence of the world today, the Bible presents God as the creator of the universe out of nothing.
Additionally, Oswalt brings out humanity as a highly regarded concept in the Bible which differs from other religious beliefs. According to him, the Bible narratives, such as Genesis 1:27, present human beings as those who have been created in the same image of God and, therefore, have an intrinsic value. If the human beings were created not in God’s image, then they could have been given dominion over it. Therefore, the Bible presents humanity as the basis of God’s creation of which He wanted human beings to play His personified role of constituting names to God’s creations.
Summary of Chapter 5 “The Bible versus Myth”
In this chapter, the author continues with the thoughts of why the Bible should not be viewed as a myth, especially by discussing the issue of ethics. He notes an ethical misbehavior from the principle of continuity as based on either offenses done against gods or those done against other human beings. According to him, these two sets of ethics which are non-biblical were created by the Ancient Near East people stipulating how individuals interacted with each other. For instance, during the day of Mesopotamia, unethical conducts were based on crimes against customary regulations and were meted out based on stipulated laws.
On the other hand, Oswalt presents ethical behaviors defined by God as in the Bible which, according to Him, were not subject to any selfish societal change. He points out that the Bible establishes a covenant as a submissive tool; in accordance with this covenant, human beings should live their lives as a reflection of heavenly causes. Nonetheless, unlike non-biblical worldviews, the Bible has only one universal ethical code which associates offense against another, as offense committed towards God Himself. It is highly significant how Oswalt compares the practice, expression and thought pattern between Israelites and non-Israelites; eventually, it reaffirms his belief that some of these areas as engaged by these groups have no consequential meaning to people as they are only mythological. According to him, the Bible employs some ancient concepts of Near Eastern mythology that does not reject these worldview thoughts but rather encompasses them.
For instance, just like Canaanite literature points out stories about God’s defeat over chaos monsters, the Bible presents explicit examples such as Leviathan in Job which is direct analogue of the above during primeval times. What the author projects is the need for self-conscious appropriation in understanding the language of myth for which historical literatures such as the Bible can be considered as one.
Summary of Chapter 6 “The Bible and History: A Problem of Definition”
While there is a variety of definition of myth, the author, in this chapter, notes how finding non varied definition of the term history can bring consensus in defining the former. He notes that the existence of various types of non-biological writings such as omens, data formulae, chronicles, and royal annals has only been essential in understanding the culture of antiquity, but does not offer a distinct definition of history. For instance, omens only attempt to use sign from the natural creation in trying to determine the consequences of actions that leaders should adhere to and take in enforcing law. In the process, they exaggerate the historical standards that present an individual as the one who is having control over other people.
However, Oswalt notes that the Bible attempts to link the divine human interaction with uniform occurrences in order to bring out the humanistic reason that emerged during the Enlightenment period. His agitation that human experience should be linked to causes and effects that occur in the visible world is to ensure that individuals are projected to reality.
According to Oswalt, the short-sightedness of the ancient people is only concerned with what they currently see and have failed them from seeing the significance of recording historical information for the future use. He adds that the self-centeredness in the viewpoint of the ancient people was another reason why they could not effectively use historic writings. This, as he notes, made them believe in multiple causes rendering them unable to control their destinations. However, it is the uniqueness of the Bible in handling historical events that present the individuals as real and fallible. In its depictive stories, such as the story of King David, the Bible emphasizes the human relationships and choices which form part of their daily lives.
Summary of Chapter 7 “Is the Bible Truly Historical? The Problem of History (1)”
What comes out in Chapter 7 is the historical context of which the Bible is considered, and whether this is relevant to human kind. In this chapter, Oswalt points out the Biblical stories such as revelations and supernatural events about Israelites which raises concerns on whether the Bible should be quantified as a historic book. His intention is to illustrate the fact that, unlike myths that have no subsequent foundation, the Bible contains exhaustive historical writings of divine causation of which are progressive. The supernatural revealing of God to Israelites which is ultimately showcased in Chapter 8 brings out the historical context at which Israelites were careful in ensuring that their writings are accurate.
According to Oswalt, what tends to make the Bible to be historical or not is whether the incorporated divine causation and intervention are materialistically essential for future responsibility of human events. Most of historians, such as Collingwood, believe that the Bible is unhistorical because it talks of divine intervention that is only essential for historical writings. This is based on the fact that human beings make choices while being unable to explain how they happen. So they lack historical context since incorporated divine intervention in the Bible is more than meant for human factor.
However, the author points out that historians such as William F. Albright, believe that the Bible in its context is historical. In his account, the Bible history seems to be a revelation of God’s actions which includes authentic witness that justifies the veracity of God’s actions concerning various events. According too him, the Bible as historicity is not the issue but rather the human concept of knowing of events that historically resulted into God’s actions. Therefore, removing the Bible from its historical context makes people not to believe that God can either act or speak to his people, thereby leading to speculative conveyance of natural occurrences.
Summary of Chapter 8 “Does It Matter Whether the Bible Is Historical? The Problem of History (2)”
Oswalt, in Chapter 8 expounds on the understanding of the Bible as an accurate historical document especially by denoting it as being the same as Pentateuch, Prophets, and poetry books which are historical in their contexts. His assertion of the Bible as historical is based on inseparable characteristics and belief in the Bible which are from historical events such as the belief of the Apostle Paul on the resurrection of the Jesus Christ.
According to Oswalt, the Bible is historical, because it extensively allows the interpretation of the historical lives of the Israelites during the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He argues that the evident prophets’ speeches are historical as they are based on the historical covenant that the ancient Israelites made with their Yahweh. Additionally, by the Bible categorically grouping Hebrew prophets beginning with Joshua, Judges to Kings, it eludes the fact that Israel constituted a community that recognized history as formidable for their experiences.
The inseparability of biblical faith from biblical history as indicated by Oswalt clearly denotes this concept of the Bible as an accurate historical document. From the Bultmannian approach, the author depicts the history as forming part of individual’s consciousness rather than determining his or her experiences. However, the problem with history is the ambiguousness at which this statement of faith is meaningless and defined scientifically. It has been shown that most of the biblical events never took place, especially the metaphysical nature events. Therefore, scientific accounts of Jesus’ life or Israel’s development differ from what the Bible can denote. It thus offers a faulty historical statement to today’s believers. This can seriously interfere with their faith and belief in God.
Summary of Chapter 9 “Origins of the Biblical Worldview: Alternatives”
In Chapter 9, the author narrates some alternative worldview on the biblical concept and how this has transcended in today’s world. This concern first emanates from John Van Seters who claims that Jewish priests had taken advantage of Babylonian exile in altering the Bible. To Seters, the gained ascendancy in altering the Bible since the fall of Babylon Kingdom, has not sufficiently answered the question of whether divine intervention should not be considered as the source for the Bible. This was initiated in order to understand Israel’s history, tradition, and culture. In his argument, the Bible was created by Yahwist genius as a distinct historical material for national history which was not unique in terms of its objectivity as compared to other historical materials.
Secondly, Frank Cross claims that the current state of the world is what has changed the Bible from an epic poem to the known Old Testament. Cross is of the view that the fall of distinct Israelite literatures such as old epic which explicitly offered human explanation in pointing out the reality, clearly denote how the Bible too could have been changed. He argues that the Bible was created from epic which noted special functions to be conducted by pilgrims towards shrines.
Thirdly, the author points out that certain scholars have overlooked the historical belief system of Israelites, and that this has made them portray an inaccurate picture about the ancient Israel. The contradiction in thoughts between William Dever and others in regards to the belief about the ancient Israel as portrayed by Oswalt illustrates the above perception. Moreover, Oswalt points out that Mark Smith has asserted that the Israel’s belief system had originated from Canaanite’s polytheistic beliefs. His observation on the monolithic nature of the Bible presents it as only used for preserving much of what it originated from; that is Canaanite polytheism.
Summary of Chapter 10
Finally, in Chapter 10, Oswalt deploys reversed theological flow by basically restating the main points from the discussed chapters contrasting them between biblical and non-biblical views on the concept of reality. His assertion is to point out that the Bible, unlike other ancient literature of Near East, is mainly characterized by worldviews that differ sparingly from others. He, therefore, summarizes these world characteristics as either transcendence or continuous. In expounding on this, he acknowledges that the Bible incorporates divine intervention events which are inseparable from the cosmos. According to him, it is through believing in this transcendence that the world only knows of three religions namely, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
However, failure by human beings in understanding the difference in worldviews concerning the Bible has harbored their individual understanding of life. This is due to the fact that the Bible, unlike other literatures depicts, non repeatable events that are within person’s time which is essential in understanding an individual’s life.
While this chapter roots the biblical views as emerging from biblical transcendence, it also denotes the non-biblical views as emanating from the philosophy of continuity. The author notes the need for historians, anthropologists, and sociologist to have a clear understanding of the mythological way of depicting reality as have resulted into scientific and academic mentality of viewing human thoughts and approaches towards reality. He additionally points out the existence of limited information among the ancient societies as having been the cause for they were unable to understand what was before them thereby arriving into true conscious thoughts.
According to Oswalt, the existence of historical materials such as the Bible has made people’s rational objectivity responsible for their intellectual and moral deficiency. These historical materials have resulted into a contemporary world that is not only heartless, but rather is devoid in producing promises it has made earlier. Therefore, failure to understand the Bible would make ethics disappear within human conscious, truth as a replacement of power, and black magic as the only way of human deeds.
Oswalt has effectively expressed his overall interest in biblical and non-biblical views as the main causes of contrasting belief towards reality. His use of impeccably cross-cutting reference of scholarly articles of the prominent biblical and non-biblical philosophers such as Augustine, Aquinas, Seters, Cross, and Smith among others is to achieve his primary goal. His goal is to expound and demonstrate how the redefining of biblical views based on the Bible transcendence and preservation of the non-biblical views through the principle of continuity has changed the manner, according to which individuals conform to the reality. However, the summary of the Oswalt’s scholar articles generates a pertaining question of whether harmonization of biblical with non-biblical views can make people interpret the unseen realities. There is a number of questions that remain unanswered. Does reconstructing the Bible context through theological systematic transcendence creates in us self-containment cosmos, as we would think of? Will restructuring of worldviews from the principle of continuity to biblical concepts make each individual understand and interpret the reality of not obeying God’s will? Is this certain?