The God that is seen in the Bible is described as the only true God and the only one that should be worshipped. This is beside the fact that the Israelite religion is not the only one that existed during the Old Testament period. Other religions were practiced by the Semitic communities that lived around Israel. The book is, therefore, an examination of the similarities between these religions and the Israelite religion. It attempts to explain the reason why these similarities and differences occur.
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Specifically, it looks at the Bible as either a myth or the historical account of people that were trying to record the events happening at the time. Furthermore, it attempts to find an explanation as to the meaning of the word myth. It endeavors to show that the characteristics of a specific religion are highly dependent on the worldview that that religion adopts. Therefore, if a religion assumes a mythological worldview, then there are certain identifiable characteristics of that religion which result from that particular choice of worldview.
The second part of the book looks at the veracity of the accounts as recorded in the Bible and attempts to find reasons as to why the truth or lack thereof of these accounts is of importance. Finally, the unique understanding of the Israelites of biblical events is also analyzed as the book attempts to explain the source of the unique perspective that they adopt while interpreting the Bible.
The Bible in its world
Human beings have always looked for signs and evidence that there is a supernatural realm that exists outside the world that they know. They are also always looking for ways in which the understanding of this transcendental being can be understood. The argument in this first chapter is that the Bible and Greek philosophy have been the two greatest contributors to this effort.
A key example that is used to represent Greek philosophy regarding the existence of God is the Greek tragedy, The Bacchae, which portrays the conflict between reason and faith in higher beings. It is centered on an annual festival, bacchanalia, during which the god of pleasure is worshiped and celebrated. Ultimately, people who refuse to recognize this God because of their staunch realism are destroyed by the people who believe in him and worship him.
Hebrew thought, on the other hand, is shaped around prophesies and the lessons that their religious leaders teach them about God. At about the same time that the Greeks are struggling to understand religion, the Hebrews are also grappling with the understanding of the God that they have served for centuries. In fact, the siege and subsequent conquest of the Babylonians and Assyrians over them cause them to significantly doubt their God and his power.
However, they are consoled and reassured of his power by the fact that their exile had been foretold and that everything came to pass exactly as it had been planned. The overarching argument, therefore, is that these two beliefs cooperate to bring a fuller understanding of the Bible. The problem with western civilization, the author asserts, is that it has embraced the Greek philosophy thinking that it can stand on its own without the support of biblical history and understanding to give meaning to its various theories.
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The Bible and myth: a problem of definition
Here, the discussion revolves around the question of whether the Bible can be rightly termed as a myth. The author explains that the view of the Bible as a myth has evolved over the years. Initially, the Bible was not equated to myth, but it was considered to be the center of revelation. With growing contradictions on the historical accuracy of biblical occurrences, however, there came the question of why other religions can be considered as myth but not biblical religion.
The author goes into an analysis of the different kinds of definitions of myth. This discussions spring from the fact that the definition of the very concept of a myth has been a very problematic endeavor and therefore, if the question of whether the Bible is a myth or not arises, then there must arise the attendant question of what a myth is. Examples of these definitions are the etymological definitions, which focus on the falsity of the myth, and sociological definitions, which state that myth makers rely on stories to communicate what they think is true about the world.
He concludes that the Bible is not a myth merely because it falls within one or more of the definitions of a myth. In essence, his argument is that the law of non-contradiction does not necessarily apply to all matters and that it is not the similarities between the Bible and myths that matter but their difference in the understanding of existence and the realms of the world.
Continuity: the basis of mythical thinking
The author further posits out that it is not the fantastic stories in myths that make them so, but rather, the special way of viewing the world through myths that make them what they are. It is, therefore, this view that gives rise to the various characteristics of a myth. This worldview, he adds, is that of continuity which considers the realms of divinity, nature, and humanity as being connected and continuous as opposed to being disjointed.
In this worldview, the essence of the things that exist in the different realms seeps into each other because the boundaries separating the realms are inherently permeable. The resultant situation is that what seems to be a particular thing is considered to be that thing. For example, if a man worships a table, and only a deity is supposed to be worshipped, then the table is a deity by that man’s worship. The implications of continuity, therefore, are that there is no such thing as a symbol because the symbol is the reality.
If the worldview of continuity is to be used to understand the divine, therefore, then the natural conclusion is that the divine affects the way the world is and vice versa. It presupposes a situation where there are many gods because there are many forces at work in the world. Similarly, idols are also justified on the basis that there is no symbolism, and therefore, they are gods, and since they are carved from natural resources and mostly take the form of a man, then nature, divinity, and humanity exist in the idol at the same time. Quintessentially, the characteristics of myths, therefore, spring from the worldview they espouse and not the other way round.
Transcendence: basis of biblical thinking
A comparison with biblical data reveals that the Old Testament also has a consistent view regarding the nature of reality. The examples given are the understanding that there is only one God, that he cannot be related to or represented in any form in the natural world, that the existence of the spirit is what gives matter its enduring characteristic, the lacking significance of conflict in creation, the creation of humanity in the form of the divine as opposed to the divine in the form of humanity, the reliability of the divine as opposed to the capricious, self-interested gods of the myths, etc.
All these characteristics can be said to grow from the worldview of the transcendence of God. In contrast to myths where the divinity is equal to humanity and nature, in the view of transcendence, God cannot be equated to the cosmos. By His very nature, He is higher than and unaffected by them. It is, therefore, the Israelites view of the nature of God, which affected the way that they behaved; for instance, they could not make idols, they could not worship other gods, they could not incorporate sex, and even more significantly magic in their relationship to him.
Unlike myths in which each of the three realms interferes with the activities of the other two, the Israelite’s view of God did not allow them such interference. In this regard, the Bible stood out from the other forms of worship that went on around Israel. Furthermore, this view of reality persisted through generations and was evidently deeply rooted in their culture.
The bible versus myth
The biblical viewpoint is entirely different from that of surrounding ancient religions, and the only reason that they may seem to have similarities is that of the adaptation of the Israelites into the cultures of their neighbors. This is the argument that the author propounds in the fifth chapter. With regards to ethics, the similarity between the ancient religions and that of the Israelites is that of punishment for wrongdoing.
There are offenses that are committed against the gods (or God) and those that are committed against other human beings. The difference, however, is that for the other religions, there is no specific explanation as to why people are required to act in a specific way, but in the biblical context, the principle that keeps the Israelites from wrongdoing is that of the covenant that they have made with God.
The covenant that is made between God and the Israelites is also compared to the covenants that the surrounding Kings made with their subjects. The characteristics of the covenant are also similar in that they were meant to outline the obligations of the subjects to the King and the benefits that He gave them in return. The author surmises that the reason that this type of covenant was selected was so that God could prove his singularity from the deities and gods of other religions.
Whereas these deities are not willing to bind themselves to human beings, God enters into a covenant with them in that he is similarly and equally bound to them as they are to Him. Finally, the author also asserts that even though there are points of contact between the forms of expression between Israelite and other surrounding religions, these points are few and only serve to show that the Israelites were integrated and fully participant in the world that they lived in.
The Bible and History: a problem of definition
As earlier stated, biblical understanding is an amalgamation of Greek philosophy and biblical thought. History, like myths, has various meanings but from the various interpretations arise some important factors of history that are instructive in understanding its nature. Among these are the fact that it is people-centered, for their benefit, attempts to be an accurate account of relative elements of a series, and also efforts to evaluate the importance of these elements.
Borrowing from this, he further concludes that these characteristics necessitate certain characteristics in the human being for history to be adequately recorded. For example, people should be understood to be free and responsible and incapable of falsifying data because this would have adverse effects on understanding, which there are particular relations between cause and effect and all human actions are goal oriented.
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Further, a comparison of how the ancient religions recorded history and why it was done reveals that the continuity worldview also has an impact on the importance that they attach to historical accounts. This is contrasted with how the biblical, historical accounts are presented and this contrast shows that biblical accounts place a lot of weight on things like the relationships shown therein, an accurate account of both failures and defeats, etc.
All these are factors that are not present in the accounts of the other communities. This difference is accredited to the transcendence of the biblical God and his centrality to the historical accounts submitted by the Israelites. He could not fit into human interpretations of history as the other gods because he was mostly separate from human experience and, as has been noted earlier, cannot be controlled by history.
Is the problem truly historical? The problem of history (1)
There seem to be inadequacies in the biblical account of history in that it is not exhaustive and leaves out large blocks of time. Moreover, some of the fantastical miracles that occurred are also difficult to prove. These controversies, therefore, led to a lot of debate in the scholarly world in which various scholars proposed and countered each other’s theories. Some of these arguments revolved around the issue of God acting in the history. Even though this does not automatically render whatever is recorded in the Bible true, the fact remains that God acted to make himself known through various events.
Secondly, some authors also asserted that the fact that God intervened was not by itself highly significant as even the gods of other religions did. The thing that stands out about the appearance of the God of the Bible was his purpose. Others asserted that the Bible did not contain the essential components of an accurate historical account. Regardless of all this, it cannot be denied that the divine purpose of history is present in the biblical account and that it also points to a particular apocalyptic end as proposed by Collingsworth.
It is, therefore, not whether or not God intervened into Israel’s history that determines whether their account is accurate, but it is their unique interpretation that is unique and different from all the religions that were around them at the time that is the basis of faith. Furthermore, historical events are not rendered accurately by their exhaustive nature, but by data that is available being true.
Does it matter whether the bible is historical? The problem of history (2)
The next question for consideration, therefore, is whether the truth of the facts presented in the Bible is a significant thing and whether the inaccuracy of these accounts would hurt biblical faith. This contrast is made even more glaring by the fact that as the word of God, the Bible is authoritative, but as a historical account, it seems to have a lot of holes and insufficiencies. Bultmann posited that the solution for this was to be found in a separation of the narrative of the event from the event itself. This arises from the earlier mentioned separation between the divine and humanity.
History is primarily made up of records that are made as a result of human endeavor and for human benefit. Also, history presupposes that humans are free and responsible for their actions and therefore, does not leave room for humans to be conditioned and restricted by divine will. His argument, therefore, is that metaphysics interfere with the understanding of the Bible as a historical account and vice versa.
It is concluded that there can be no separation between the truth of the events and the faith that results thereof. Drawing heavily from Paul’s words, it is evident that the whole of Christian theology and faith rests on the event of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If this fact were found to be false, then the whole faith crumbles. Also, it means that the Israelites have fabricated their accounts of God and his character and in fact, do not know much about him. Logic, therefore, demands that the events have to be true for what the Israelites record about God to be true.
Origins of the Biblical worldview: alternatives
This chapter examines the arguments of four scholars who assert that the explanation that is given for the biblical worldview is wrong. The first one is John Van Seters, who argued that the most authoritative documentation from which the Old Testament was written was the fictional work of one author. Frank Cross criticized this theory because Seters ignored the evidence of the language used in the texts and also, the fact that the information could have been passed down orally through generations. His opinion was in fact that the Pentateuch arose as a result of the rewriting of a previous poetic epic into a prose form. His view was, however, too human-centered to explain the Israelites’ distinct view of reality which majorly affected their literature as well.
William Dever on his part rejected all the evidence that the exodus occurred, and his work denies Israel’s explanation of biblical events. Furthermore, he uses archaeological evidence to dispute the existence of the Biblical Israel. He also believed that there is much evidence which has been ignored and which proves that the Israelite religion was profoundly similar to the neighboring Canaanite religion.
Finally, Mark Smith, whose theory is in some way related to Dever’s, asserts that Israelite religion was derived from both the Canaanite and Ugarit religion because of the resemblances that it bears with them. He further tries to explain the Israelite understanding of the events around them as being a result of the challenges that they had faced on their sojourn and stay among the Canaanites. Oswalt, however, concludes that modern literature has been ineffective in trying to explain away the Israelite understanding of its history and that the worldview of the transcendence of God remains the most fulfilling explanation.
The first conclusion is that the difference between transcendence and mythology as worldviews is what accounts for the uniqueness of the biblical understanding. Oswalt tries to surmise the reasons for the other religions choosing the worldview that they did and arrives at the answer that they did not have any generations before them, from whom they could have drawn knowledge on how to think otherwise, or they just chose to adopt that view of the world.
Also, a specific philosopher, Molnar, showed that most thinkers today are afraid of embracing transcendence because it would entail them losing control over their lives. Essentially, it means that one cannot only rely on their power of rational thought to discover the meaning of life.
Ideally, Oswalt concludes that the need to understand the interpretation of the Bible by Israelites and how it came to be is an important endeavor for one who believes that there is a God and that this God has intruded on the events of humanity in order to provide them with a way of discovering his will for their lives. Indeed, the Israelite interpretation of the events that have occurred to them can only be explained as having been divinely revealed, in addition to the divinely revealed truths of the Bible. The natural conclusion is that the God of the Israelites was intentional about both the events that occurred and the way that would be understood by his chosen people.