The Old Testament and mythology


The book is Reading the Old Testament - an Introduction by Lawrence Boadt. (1984, The Missionary Society of t. Paul the Apostle)

I’m going to use a word here that usually elicits a knee-jerk reaction and I hope that it doesn’t. I once linked to a very useful and insightful site that unfortunately had the word “unitarian” on it somewhere and that one word turned off a couple of people would not read any further than that one word. Hey, I’ve probably done the same thing myself. No problem.

Undeterred, however, I will go on to today’s word “Myth”.
This is a longish quote from Boadt’s book, pages 130-131, and if you stick with it I think you will find some interesting and challenging perspectives.

"In ancient thought, such time (he’s discussing ‘golden ages’ ‘edenic-like creations’ etc.) such time was expressed by means of certain traiditonal themes or motifs that were different from everyday language and experience. This type of literature is known everywhere as Myth. Myths are not all of one kind, nor do they only speak of creation. They also tell stories of the gods, or of legendary heroes…or origins of customs and ethnic groups…In many cases the myth is tied closely to a ritual action in worship and forms the dramatic explanation for an actual celebration…Myth allows us to speak of events of primal importance at the very beginning of time because it does not depend on knowing scientific facts, but upon understanding the inner meaning of what happened and what purpose stands behind the event. It especially concerns itself with divine being and their relation to the human world.
It is not history in the strict sense, but surely it is not anti-historical either…profoundly historical in outlook (because knowing how ‘the gods’ are in relation to people, those people can anticipate the same in the future - DB)

The common themes and motifs used in myths are the symbols cherished by all ancient civilizations. These include creation in or near water, a faith among the ‘gods’ for order in the universe, the defeat of chaos by a hero ‘god’, the making of humans from mud or other lowly material, and a death and rebirth of the hero ‘god’ parallel to the annual winter and spring cycle of nature. They explore the basic contrasts of nature: sun and earth, light and darkness, water and drought, male and female, gods and human creatures.

Gen 1-11 incorporates many such elements into its stories and many of its individual incidents find parallels in the myths of other ancient Near Eastern Peoples…clearly the biblical tradition did not hesitate to make use of these literary forms. But this does not mean that the biblical ‘myth’ always has the same view of the world as the original pagan story.
So we must be careful to distinguish our use of the word ‘myth’ on two levels.

…first level, myth is a story using traditional motifs and themes…not scientific or historical in outlook…more like a folktale but it does convey how the Israelites saw the shape of the world…
(He uses the example of the Eden story and points out that the following motifs were all familiar parts of ancient descriptions of the world: life originated in the East; there was a central source of water that split into the great rivers; the first man made out of dust, woman from a rib; God planted two special trees in the garden; harmony between humans and animals in the beginning.)
On the second level however, myth is a theological explanation (with which we must be more careful- DB) of our relation to the gods which includes
natural powers were manifestations of the divine
gods were symbols of fertility
gods were bound to seasonal patterns…every year the forces of chaos had to be fought

He then points out the the "authors of Genesis consciously intended to refute and contradict such a view of religion by reworking the traditional stories to remove andy ideas that there is more than one God, that the world is subject to chaos, that God is callous or uncaring, or that superstitious sexual practices are neede to renew nature.

By telling the story of Genesis 1-11 as they did, stressing Yahweh’s freedom and power versus human refusal of responsibility, the Israelites demythologized the myths - they destroyed the heart of the pagan belief and reinterpreted the real meaning of the world in light of the one God who had revealed himself as Savior and Ruler to Moses."

From page 86: The positive role of editing, or redaction, as it is often called, is now appreciated more. No longer do scholars see the redactors as unimaginative bureaucrats pasting together older tests, but as men (and possibly women) passionately involved inthe problems and needs of their time, who are updating and re-expressing the traditions so that they can speak to a new generation."

So - my purpose is to share this information with you and give a thumbs-up to the book.

I’ve noticed that a great number of discussions/problems center around the Old Testament, so I’m devoting some time to getting a perspective on it. The above portions of the book do not trouble me; in fact, I find them inspiring.

The Tree of Life

Well, it wouldn’t bother me to read an article by a unitarian. In one sense, I’m a unitarian myself, since I believe (with Jesus) that the Father is “the only true God.” (John 17:3). But I’m not a classic unitarian (in the modern sense) since I do believe in the pre-existence of the ONLY-begotten Son of God, believing, with the early Christians, that He was divine, having been begotten by God before all ages.


It is unfortunate that the common understanding of the word “myth” makes it refer solely to things that are unhistorical. That is not in fact the case. Some historical things are myth, some unhistorical things are myth, some historical things are not myth, and some unhistorical things are not myth:

  1. Jesus Christ rising from the dead is historical myth; i. e., it is a myth that really happened.

  2. Prometheus stealing fire from the gods is unhistorical myth; i. e., it is a myth that did not really happen.

  3. I went to the museum last week. This is historical and is not myth.

  4. I went to a play last week. This is unhistorical and is not myth.

In short, saying something is myth says nothing whatsoever about its historicity.


:bulb: Tom Wright gives a good, short and succinct take on “myth” with regards to the Genesis account, which I posted over HERE. :bulb:


I’ve listened to that a couple of times and I think it is spot-on.

Good points Geoffrey, as well.