A Grave Mythstake

I have just now seen that Alan Lenzi has called me out for avoiding “the M word” (HT to Simon Holloway) To quote him in full, since it is a short note:

If you can’t use the m-word for Genesis 1-2, then you’ve unduly privileged the Bible. It’s simply not intellectually honest to restrict the term to non-Israelite texts. If the Enuma Elish, Hesiod’s Theogony, or the Song of Ullikummi are myths (and they are by all accounts), so are the creation accounts in Genesis. To say otherwise is an explicit attempt at mystification, an ideological smoke-screen that other scholars ought to call you on.

Do go and read Alan’s post and especially the comments that follow. They are all very thoughtful and insightful. I will take a moment, however, to briefly defend my position to be placed alongside the other responses.

First, I think it hardly fair (or polite) to suggest that I am “not intellectually honest” when I choose not to use the term “myth” with reference to Genesis 1 and 2. I say this precisely because I am being open and upfront about my language choice. Furthermore, I do privilege the Bible, no doubt unduly to Alan and others, but again, I am open and honest about that. To criticize me for doing so would be the same as to criticize an atheist scholar by asserting that they must first accept that God exists before they can do research on the Bible. Again, my assumptions are clearly stated, the foundation of intellectual honesty.

Returning to the question of myth, as I said in the comments to my earlier post that began this thread, my issue with using the term “myth” is that fundamentally, as well as in popular perception, myth has the meaning of “a commonly held yet false belief.” So to say, as we often do in religious studies circles as a kind of special pleading so as not to offend, “it is a myth, but it contains deep and eternal truths” may make sense in our little circle, but to the average person it just sounds nonsensical.

In the comments on Alan’s post John Hobbins suggests Bruce Lincoln’s definition (and full disclosure: I do not know this work) of myth as “ideology in narrative form.” Alan expands and rejects that definition.

What I am really open to is a VERY general approach to myth. Perhaps it’s too general because almost anything can qualify. Myth, in this overly general view, is “ideology in narrative form” received by its target audience as authoritative (a la Bruce Lincoln). This has draw backs. We’re no longer talking about a genre, rather a mode of discourse and the reception of that discourse by an audience.

What is being missed in this discussion is the question of today’s audience. For example, my little series on Genesis is explicitly intended to be broad, general, and accessible to a non-specialist audience. So while we might, in our own academic fiefdom, be very comfortable with a nuanced definition of myth, most people understand the term to simply mean “old story that is now believed to be untrue.” If I refer to Gen. 1-2 as myth the average reader may well come to conclusions about both the text and my reading and approach to the text that I feel is unfounded. My goal then is to avoid such prejudice.

Of course many believe that Genesis 1 and 2 is just that, an old story that is untrue, but I am making the explicit assumption (the point of my initial post) that this story does contain truths. (Thus I am not being intellectually dishonest, I am being very direct and upfront about my beliefs, something that I don’t think many agnostic or atheist biblical scholars are.) What I am trying to carefully tease out in asking us to read Genesis “literarily” is what those truths are, both those intended to be conveyed and those theologically implicit within the text. Leaving to one side the “historical” claims since I contend that, reading the text literarily, we realize that it is not an historiography in any modern sense. I am also fully aware that this is precisely what many scholars and theologians are trying to do by employing the term “myth” but see my previous paragraph.

Bottom line: “Myth” is used by many because supernatural beings are involved and, the implicit assumption is, they do not actually exist. But for Jews and Christians God and such beings do exist, so why not simply jettison the term and instead focus on other traits and characteristics of the literature?


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