…Does that mean they’re just myths?
I’ve heard this type of question a lot, and my perception that modern science had proven once and for all that those Bible creation stories were “just myths” was one of the things that prevented me from taking Christianity seriously when I was an atheist. Recently I got a good email from a reader on this subject. She writes (I’m paraphrasing for brevity):
I am a Catholic homeschooling mom who has been reading your blog for a while. One thing I have been wondering is this: how did you come to terms with the argument that Christianity is merely an anthropological construct? So many of the Old Testament stories seem to have parallels in ancient mythology. My kids are now asking these questions as we cover ancient history in our schooling.
This is an important question, so I promptly answered it with: “Phhhft dhurr goo-goo.” (I’d had another long night with the baby and seemed to have misplaced my brain that day.) Thinking that that might not be an entirely satisfying answer, I did what I often do when I’m not able to articulate an answer to a question as I’d like: I emailed regular commentor Steve G. As usual, he had a great answer. He writes:
First of all, read the post Adam, Noah, and Science by Jimmy Aiken. He does a far better job of handling the historicity issue better than I ever could, but I am not so sure that really addresses her question. It gives some context that is needed for further discussion though. Reading the comments to this post might also be helpful.
To answer the question more broadly, however, let’s start with discussing mythology in general. I think it’s important to keep in mind the context of what mythology really is. Ancient mythology is not the equivalent of modern day fantasy. Mythology was not simply a set of fantastic stories meant to entertain. They were vehicles by which societies passed on the truths they believed. They were stories that explained how the world worked and why it was the way it was. Most, if not all, ancient societies had these mythic explanations for the basic understanding they had of why we existed, how the world came into being, etc.
The ancient Hebrews were not different in that regard, and I think we have to read parts of Genesis (especially the early parts) with that in mind. These chapters were events that occurred before Abraham and in many regards are the mytho poetic telling of the Hebrews regarding the creation of the universe, man, and why the world was in the state it was (the fall).
It shouldn’t surprise us in the least that the mythic telling of different cultures have commonalities. If God truly created us and we have a common humanity, many of the truths we discover should be common as well.
Think of it like this:
Let’s say the Catholic faith is advanced Calculus in terms of mathematics. Part of the base mathematics that are used are very simple operations. Adding, subtracting, multiplication.
Now, if we encounter another society that has a much more primitive understanding of mathematics, maybe pre-algebra level…should it surprise us when we look at that basics, that they too use adding, subtracting, etc? Should that fact give us any concern that perhaps our math is wrong because of the commonality?
I don’t think so. I think we should rather expect such things if man is man, and if man is made in God’s image. ALL men, even those who haven’t had access to the gospel would be able to get at least some of the fundamental human truths correct and those truths would be part of what we hold true. Just as any society could get the basics of mathematics even if they haven’t gotten to the point of doing advanced calculus.
So, if man is fallen, we’d expect to see stories in one form or another of the fall of humanity, and the ‘breaking’ of original creation. And in fact that’s what we do see.
If there was a HUUUUGE flood in the known world of the writers (the Ancient Near East) in which only a few survived, we should expect to see that story common to the cultures of that area.
Let’s keep in mind here also as we talk about mythology, that mythology doesn’t necessarily imply untruth. If we say that the story of Adam and Eve is told in mythic language, that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. It may mean it isn’t literal in every detail, but the essential truths being conveyed to the hearer/reader are meant to be taken seriously.
That the universe was created by God (does six days or six million years really matter?). That man was created by God in His image. That man by his free choice broke his relationship with God and wounded himself and creation. These are the essential truths we are being taught. They are, or should be, discernible to all who read these books.
All of the context I’ve laid out here doesn’t to me make this any less the inerrant word of God, it’s just that we need to understand these books in their proper context. Again, I think Jimmy’s article hopefully does an excellent job of handling that. It may be that the Hebrews, as the chosen instrument of God, shared some common mythology, that was ALSO informed by their special relationship with God. I just don’t see the two as mutually exclusive. I definitely don’t think we should be troubled to find the common elements that are referred to.
Thanks to my reader for the good question, and to Steve G. for taking the time to compose an answer.
UPDATE: Here is a Part II to this post.