Discerning Reader Editorial Review
Reviewed 08/26/2009 by Mark Tubbs.
Recommended. An academic book on revelation and worldview from an excellent scholar and communicator.
Theological books that truly capture one’s attention are few and far between. A book’s ability to entrance the reader depends on its intrinsic subjective interest to the reader, as well as its objective stylistic qualities. I am happy to report that John N. Oswalt’s book The Bible Among the Myths heartily and handsomely delivers on both counts, at least where this particular reader is concerned.
John N. Oswalt’s publishing pedigree is impressive. To date he has written three or more commentaries on Isaiah for the NIV Application series and the NICOT series, is a member of more than one major Bible translation team, has consulted for the New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, and has written a few other smaller books on the side. Formerly a student and faculty member at Asbury Theological Seminary, he is ten years into a tenure at Wesley Biblical Seminary. I have said it before and I will say it again: whatever you think of their theology, Methodists are among the finest Christian writers, bar none.
The Bible Among the Myths seems to have been a labor of love for its author. In the introduction Oswalt reveals that its content had been stewing for decades. Indeed, the venerable age of many of the books he cites in his footnotes (from the 50s and 60s) betrays this. However, Oswalt assures us that the datedness of the cited materials is not an issue, for virtually no new and/or significant discoveries have been made in the field for decades.
Revelation, myth, and history are the main topics treated in this book, virtually always on a macro scale. While Oswalt does deal with some specific mythological materials, their treatments are always and only in service to his greater themes: that by any scholarly definition the term "myth" cannot be applied to the Bible, that one cannot divorce "fact" from "meaning," and that "contrary to the nineteenth- and twentieth-century delusion, science and logic are not self-evident." These points are subsumed under his major point: the Bible is essentially different from other Near Eastern literature. The view that the Bible must be beholden to myths of neighboring Near Eastern cultures is the result of a change in assumptions over the past five or more decades, and not the result of new discoveries, says Oswalt.
It is divided into two main parts of five chapters apiece. The first part, subtitled "The Bible in Its World," firstly defines myth, then places the creation and transmission of the Hebrew Bible in its near Eastern historical and geographical context. This was a time and place in which "continuity" thinking prevailed. As Oswalt ably demonstrates, continuity thinking was the natural result of humans reasoning backwards from the creation to the unseen. Under this view, the gods look, behave, and feel as humans do. In contrast, the essence of the Bible’s portrayal of reality posits a transcendent vision of reality in which humankind has received revelation from outside of itself.
Once Oswalt has dealt with those who would call the Bible myth, he then turns to those who would assert the Bible isn’t history. More and more Evangelicals fall into this camp, unfortunately. Navigating through various definitions of history, Oswalt differentiates between historical accounts in Judeo-Christian Scripture and those purportedly historical accounts of neighboring pagan nations, whose “history” shows up in royal annals, epics, king lists, and chronicles. Oswalt demonstrates convincingly that whereas these nations’ written "histories" virtually always served to deliver a biased, even fanciful account of a king’s reign or military campaign (for example, two nations would routinely claim to have won the same battle, or the losing nation’s annals would fail utterly to mention the battle at all), the Hebrew Scriptures do not paint the protagonist nation in any sort of special light in and of itself. On the contrary; the Hebrews failed, and failed, and failed again, time without end. And the Hebrew writers reported, and reported, and reported again, on the Hebrews' failures. This is just one of the crucial differences Oswalt identifies between Hebrew Scripture and the written accounts from the surrounding nations.
Perhaps some critics will accuse Oswalt of special pleading; that he has conveniently omitted some lines of inquiry that might fatally wound his thesis. Certainly one must have a Christian faith commitment to fully embrace his advocating of divine revelation, but even so, his lines of logic are worked out in fine detail. As one just beginning seminary training I may be oblivious to the finer points of the debate, but I can say with relative certainty that there are no gaping holes in Oswalt’s argumentation.
Near the end of the book Oswalt includes a chapter surveying "alternatives" to the orthodox view of the Bible as divine revelation. In this chapter he deals briefly with thinkers such as John Van Seters, Frank Cross, William Dever, and Mark Smith. Elsewhere a reviewer has suggested that Oswalt might have dealt with more recent figures in the field such as Peter Enns and Kenton Sparks, but I’m content to give Oswalt a pass on this count. The regular Christian reader could, in my opinion, skip this section and not do any damage to their overall understanding of this book.
My one complaint is minor and barely noteworthy, but is entered here for the record. Since the book only deals with the Old Testament, it would have been more accurate to title it The Old Testament Among the Myths, or The Hebrew Bible Among the Myths, or to lift a phrase directly out of the book itself, Israel’s Bible Among the Myths. The book barely touches on the New Testament, so the title is slightly misleading. Savvier publishing heads prevailed, I suppose.
For the most part I found The Bible Among the Myths riveting reading. From beginning to end, I couldn’t wait to pick it up again. Oswalt possesses an old-school eloquence which is a delight to read. He is thoroughly informative without succumbing to interminable technicalities. More than "just" a book about the Bible, this is a book on worldview. If you have read the two-dozen or so worldview books published in the last few years and find yourself pining for the next step, here it is.