Friday, June 27, 2014

Book Review of John Oswalt's The Bible among the Myths

The Bible among the Myths: Unique Revelation or just Ancient Literature by John Oswalt. Published by Zondervan, 2009.

I read this book as part of a broader desire to read and engage with ideas related to contemporary non-evangelical scholarship on the Old Testament. I was hearing a lot of 'scholarly consensus', which to be honest should immediately make you ask the questions, "which scholars?", "what arguments?" Consensus represents a quantity, not a weight, of scholarship. Anyway, particularly I was reading opinions on the idea that monotheism 'evolved' in ancient Israel out of polytheism, and I wanted to read something on the conservative side.

Oswalt's book doesn't, for the most part, engage directly on some of the issues that I was reading about, but actually takes a step back and tackles a broader set of questions about how we read the Old Testament comparatively. In this way it is similar to my other recently reviewed book, "Against the Gods". But whereas the latter is much more focused on reading polemical theology and certain texts,  "The Bible among the Myths" begins by positing the question in terms of "What are the essentials and what are the accidentals of Old Testament religion?" The modern consensus basically argues that the 'essentials' of OT religion are the same as their neighbours, except in a quite late period of development, and that the 'accidentals' are distinct but not important. Oswalt's overall argument is that the 'essentials' are different, while the 'accidentals' are relatively similar. Indeed, the similarities generally serve to highlight those essential differences.

One of the things I appreciated about Oswalt's book was the time spent in the first few chapters (2-4) dealing with competing definitions of Myth, before providing his own analysis of Myth as a "particular way of looking at reality" (loc. 632), charactirsed overall by the concept of continuity between the realms of humanity, nature, and the divine (loc 651). Oswalt then maps out how this main concept of Continuity relates to such things as eternal presentism, 'actualisation of timeless reality', 'blurring of source and manifestation' (and I might add that the basis of all sympathetic magic traditions is obvious here), as well as common features, including polytheism, images of gods, a low view of those gods, the eternity of chaotic matter, etc.. Oswalt then provides a contrasting picture of Biblical thinking, organised around the principle of Transcendence (chapter 4).

When it comes then, to the question sf assessing similarities and differences, in chapter 5, Oswalt then makes the argument that what matters is that there is a signfiicant, fundamental difference that underlies Old Testament religion, and that the similarities are not at that fundamental level. I think this is the point at which Oswalt's thought interacts with, say Currid's work. When one actually does comparative study between Old Testament literature and other Ancient Near Eastern texts, there is a wealth of similarities, but its the differences that are striking. The Creation account of Genesis is missing major components of that Mythic world-view, it doesn't show 'traces' of earlier polytheism, it shows the work of someone composing an anti-polytheistic rejoinder.

In the second portion of the book, Oswalt moves to tackle a second, but related 'meta-question', that of the idea of History. In Oswalt's view, the conception of history as a an organised account of what has happened, centered on human activity, with significance for human life, is seen, and develops out of, the Scriptural texts. Why? because the pre-requisite beliefs that make history 'viable' emerge from the Bible. Namely, believe in human ability to make free and meaningful choices, a belief in observable cause and effect, the objectivity and importance of true facts, that human experience is dynamic, that historical events and relations are significant, rather than the merely 'ideal' world, and that there is an objective ethical reality.

Oswalt supports this view of history as a unique phenomenon or discipline by noting how other types of ANE literature dealt with 'events': "omens, king lists, date formulae, epics, royal annals, and chronicles" (loc 1718). While each of these deals with, to some extent, events and sequencing, they fall a long way short of the idea of 'history'.

In the chapters that follow Oswalt deals more directly with objections to the idea of the Bible being historical. These include philosophical objections as well as historical ones, though this is not really a text on the historical defensibility of the Old Testament. This section leads into chapter 9, which considers 4 alternate 'explanations' for the OT: John Van Seters, Frank Cross, William Dever, and Mark Smith.

I found this section particularly interesting, and lacking. I do not think the deficiency is in the realm of argument, but more of scope and length. These are attempts to explain how Israel ends up with the theology it does, how do we account for the theological outlook of the OT. Briefly, Van Seters proposes that basically most of the 'history of Israel' is a 'historical novel' created fictiously by 'the Yahwist' in the 6th century. Frank Cross argues that the Hebrew Scriptures are a prosification of an earlier, non-extant 'epic history' comparable to Homer. Dever argues that an orthodox, nationalistic, and urban elite created monotheistc Yahwehism and imposed it on a nation that basically practiced Canaanite polytheism. Lastly, Smith argues that the dominance of Yahweh emerges as an evolutionary process from polytheism to henotheism to 'monotheism' in response to the socio-historical challenges that Israel faces during its history.

Oswalt's has already provided his own alternative, so in engaging each of these authors directly, his main question is to ask whether these proposals credibly account for the evidence we have, do they have explanatory power for the documents as they are. I think the weakness of Oswalt's engagement is that each of these authors would contest, with some strength, some of the major elements of Oswalt's own presentation of Transcendence vs. Myth, and so the question of explaining Israel's 'uniqueness' would not arise within their own schemes. Nonetheless, despite these misgivings, I think Oswalt does what needs to be done - asking meta-level questions about these approaches to religious development in Israel, rather than only engaging specific arguments. Indeed, having done some reading in the field, the number of elements that actually need to be discussed in terms of 'evolution' from polytheism to monotheism, the question of Asherah, etc., is less than a dozen.

Overall I appreciated Oswalt's book, and would recommend it to others thinking hard about the field of Old Testament studies and some of the challenges provided by an overwhelmingly 'hostile' sector of non-believing scholarship. It's a reminder that 'consensus of scholars' is, more often than not, a stick to beat outsider views (though, to be fair, sometimes rightly so!); historical and theological studies must, if they are undertaken in earnest, both delve into detail as well as deal with meta-level questions of method, worldview, and presuppositions.

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