Myth, Truth and Genesis 1-11

In Naturalism Defeated, Evan Fales attacks the biblical teaching that man is made in the image of God. One reason he gives is, “How seriously, then, should one take the testimony of Genesis 1:26-27? … There is the generally mythical character of Genesis; many of the themes in the first 11 chapters are borrowed from, or influenced by, the myths of other ancient Near Eastern cultures.”[1]

Fales’ reasoning here is not uncommon. He argues that what Genesis teaches is false because Genesis 1-11 is a myth. The latter claim he substantiates by comparing the early chapters of Genesis to various Ancient Near Eastern texts which we know to be myths. Fales contends that a comparison of the texts in question leads to the conclusion Genesis is a myth and hence what it teaches lacks authority.

In this post I want to address one aspect of this argument. The key premise I want to contest is that if Genesis is a myth and of the same genre as Ancient Near-Eastern myths then what it teaches lacks authority. Note this is a conditional claim: I am arguing that if Genesis 1-11 is mythic in genre then this would not necessarily entail that the text lacks authority. I am not, in this post, committing myself to any claim that Genesis is mythic; I am simply asking what follows if it is.

As a way of entering this question let me start by summarising a debate between two evangelical scholars, both of whom affirm biblical inerrancy. In Inspiration and Incarnation, Peter Enns compares the story of creation, fall, flood and Babel in Genesis 1-11 to various Ancient Near-Eastern texts such as Enuma Elish, The Gilgamesh Epic, Atrahasis Epic, the Sumerian Flood Story and the Sumerian King Lists. Enns argues that:

(a) these writings appear to be earlier than Genesis; and,
(b) the latter four in particular contain obvious parallels to Genesis that cannot be mere coincidence; and,
(c) these texts are myths.

In light of this, Enns argues that Genesis must be understood as a myth.

When Enns says Genesis is a myth it is important to not misunderstand his meaning here. In contemporary English the word myth is often a colloquial term for a falsehood, so that calling something a myth means it is false. In Enns’ use of the term the word ‘myth’ refers to a particular kind of genre, “myth is an ancient, pre-modern, pre-scientific way of addressing ultimate meaning and origins in the form of stories: Who are we ? Where do we come from ?”[2] Hence, by saying Genesis is a myth Enns is not committing himself to the claim that the text is false.

However, later in the same book Enns goes on to state that “the biblical account, along with its ancient Near Eastern counterparts assumes the factual nature of what it reports. They did not think, “We know this is all ‘myth’ but we will have to wait until science is invented to give us better answers.”[3] He suggests that while the text is myth, its original hearers would probably not have distinguished myth from what we would call an historical narrative.

It is worth noting that Enns is not alone in this kind of assessment. Drawing on the same literary parallels, Gordon Wenham has argued that the author of Genesis 1-11 was retelling stories that were well known in Babylonian culture. However, the author was transforming them to make a radically different theological point. These  points, in fact, repudiate and at times ridicule, the very teachings the Babylonian myths  were trying to teach.

Like Enns, Wenham notes several important parallels between Gen 1-11 and Ancient Near-Eastern myths and legends to substantiate this point. Wenham suggests that in retelling the Babylonian myths to make theological counter points the authors assumed or took for granted, the historicity of the folk stories in question. In The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism, Greg Beale responds to Enns’ suggestion, “But Enns is saying more than this: the biblical writers thought they were recording history but were really recording myth … Thus one ends up with a completely inspired bible  in which the narrators recorded what they thought was history, but we know they are wrong. This is tantamount to saying the biblical writers made mistakes.”[4]

Beale goes on to state that Enns sees Genesis as “a genre of divine accommodation,  whereby God knew better but the Israelite writers did not. They thought they were writing true history, but God knew they were not. In this respect has Enns formulated a new version of sensus plenor?”[5]

I think Beale is correct; Enns’ position does commit him to the claim that the biblical authors made mistakes. However, I think the conclusion he tries to draw, that this claim compromises the authority of scripture is too quick. It is worth noting that Enns claimed that the biblical writers assumed the factual nature of what they reported. He explicitly states also that the genre of myth uses stories to teach answers to certain theological and existential questions.  For exampl, questions regarding ultimate meaning and origins, such things as, who are we? where do we come from? and so on. Hence while Enns position accords errors to what biblical writers assumed, it does not necessarily entail that what the text teaches is erroneous. This may sound like a minor technical point but I am inclined to think it is important.

An example might help to illustrate this point. Let’s take as an example the well known story of  the boy who cried wolf. This story, on the face of it, is simply a description of a shepherd boy who was killed after giving false alarms about wolves. Taken in a straight-forward, literal fashion it appears to relay an historical event. Now most people recognise that this story is not designed to teach us an historical event, those who retell this story do so to make a moral point about the dangers and pitfalls of repeatedly lying. The story is a powerful and graphic way of teaching this point and gives the point a vividness and power that the mere claim “don’t lie” does not have.  It is also clear, I think, that no one would consider what this story teaches to be false if it was discovered the events the story described never happened (which they probably did not). This is because once the genre of the text is realised, it is evident that the text does not teach that the events happened and if it does not teach that they happened then the fact that they did not cannot render what it teaches as false.

Now, let me provide a hypothetical situation. Suppose I was researching the origins of the story of the boy who cried wolf and I discovered that at some point in the past a person heard this story and believed it to be literally true, the person believed that the events actually happened. Suppose this person was also struck by the fact that these events provided a powerful illustration of the dangers of lying and issuing false reports so much so that this person began using this story to teach about the dangers of lying. Suppose that this person’s pedagogy caught on and the story entered into cultural consciousness and that those people who heard and retold the story also believed it actually happened. Would this discovery lead us to conclude that what the story teaches is false? Again it seems clear to me that it would not. This is because whatever the original teller believed about the story, what the story teaches remains true. The original teller may have all sorts of beliefs about what was authored but unless the story was actually used to teach each of these beliefs the story is not discredited by any finding to the effect that these beliefs are false. The story of the boy who cries wolf teaches us about lying it does not teach (nor does it purport to teach us) an historical event. As such, it is shown to be false only if someone can show us that what it says about lying is false.

It is important to see the limitations of this illustration. I am not arguing that Genesis 1-11 should be construed as a fable in the vein of the story of the boy who cried wolf – I think Genesis  is clearly not a fable – the point I am making is that there is a distinction between what a person assumes about a story when they tell it and what the story actually teaches. Even if a person falsely assumes the factual accuracy of the events in a story or narrative as true then that does not entail that what the text teaches is untrue. The example of the boy who cries wolf shows that with some genres the truth of what is taught stands whether or not the story used to teach this truth is historically accurate. Even if we grant that Genesis is myth or folklore, it does not follow that what it teaches is false.

[1] Evan Fales “Darwin’s Doubt, Calvin’s Calvary” in James Beilby Naturalism Defeated? Essays on Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000) 55.
[2] Peter Enns  Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids MI : Baker Books, 2005) 50.
[3] Ibid 55.
[4] Greg Beale The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism: Responding to New Challenges to Biblical Authority (Wheaton Ill: Crossway Books, 2008) 69.
[5] Ibid.

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