A Book Summary of the Bible Among the Myths by J.N. Oswalt

HomeEssaysBook ReviewA Book Summary of the Bible Among the Myths by J.N. Oswalt

John N. Oswalt begins this section with a reference to the early years of his professional training and the circumstances that led him to the study of the issues discussed in the book. The author discusses philosophical concepts of revelation, essential and accidental parts of everything. The point of the author’s consideration, around which the book will revolve, is the issue of differences and similarities between different world religions. Oswalt pays significant attention to the analysis of differences between Israel’s religion and religious views of their neighbor nations.

The author also claims that religious tenets, embodied in the mythology of individual beliefs, seriously affect people’s actions. The belief in the reality of what is happening in the scriptures of different religions influences the model of the behavior of a person, causes a person to comply with the religious canon. According to this idea, Oswalt raises the question about the preferred role of sacred texts in modern society: Should the majority think that the Old Testament events actually took place (Oswalt, 2009, p. 9)? The author writes about the ties of the religious and historical context of the Old Testament, the need to find a compromise in the evaluation of historicity of religious texts by modern historians.

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At the end of this section of his book, Oswalt states the differences between Israel and other nations religious tradition, depending on the faith of the Jewish nation in a special relationship of God to their people. Since the Lord had chosen them to fulfill His purpose and distribute new outlook, they were given a Promised Land and a special status among many nations. The conclusion of the book’s introduction part is that the scholars and readers should not examine the religious texts from the point of their historical failure and unreality. The Bible and other sacred texts should be reviewed with the appropriate attention and rigorous study of all the arguments.

The Bible in Its World

The first argument of this paragraph is that the Bible seriously affected the processes of the Western World, its ideology, and outlook formation. Oswalt shows the development of monotheistic during the creation of Western civilization. Greeks, as one of the founders of the Western World, created cosmological ideas of the universe based on the principle of unity, thus giving rise to thoughts of a single divine beginning one God. Though the philosophic views on the unity of the world gained the upper hand, the majority of society did not support them.

At the same time, the preachers of Hebrew in the Middle East were trying to persuade Jews to monotheism, although most still believed in gods pantheon (Oswalt, 2009, p. 14). Assyrian and Babylonian invasions, the later exile of the Jewish nation, allowed preachers to persuade believers in their faith through the prophecies and promises of the return to the Holy Land after the recognition of the true faith.

Oswalt states that the Christian faith was a stable combination of the universal philosophy of the Greek and religious Biblical worldview. As a result, world science and logic owe their existence to the emergence and strengthening of Christianity in Western society. Oswalt thinks that the monotheistic religion was the main condition for the development of scientific thought in the West. The absence of Christian moral influence in society leads to negative consequences for all humankind. In a world, in which only mind and logic determine a person’s actions, conflicts, and contradictions between nations are rapidly spreading. Oswalt considers a departure from the religious tenets of one of the main causes of social and political upheaval in the late 19th century to the present day. The Greek rational philosophy cannot provide solutions for all the issues itself, because it does not have the tools of moral evaluation of decisions. Isolated from the Christian moral, it causes wars, clashes, and crises on a global scale.

The Bible and Myth: A Problem of Definition

At the beginning of this chapter, the author states the issue of the Bible events interpretation by researchers from different historical periods. Oswalt finds it interesting to discuss the reasons and causes of the Bible’s events estimation, as a real story or a myth. Here in front of the author raises the problem of defining the essence of the concept of myth. Since myth figures out to be the subjunctive concept, there is no unambiguous definition of it. Therefore, the researcher should form his/her characteristics of the myth. Later in this chapter, Oswalt describes the methodology of religious events – their real or mythical nature, – evaluation. In this case, Oswalt presents objective (etymological) and subjective (sociological theological, literary) methods of myth definition, their characteristics, and differences between them. These largely paradoxical approaches, not only did not bring the solution to the question of the biblical stories nature but brought additional confusion, increasing the contradictions between supporters of different assessment approaches.

Oswalt also expresses the idea of myth as a way of the world’s recognition. According to him, a human had used mythological structures to describe the phenomena of the world around him in an intelligible form (Oswalt, 2009, p.25). As a result of nature’s cognition, human-created mythological ideas about the humanlike characteristics of nature. Thus, humankind sought to combine the real world and the ideal to form their mythical picture of the universe – just, with equal rights for all.

At the end of this chapter, Oswalt claims that it would be wrong to evaluate stories from the Bible as myths. Since myth serves as a literary tool of reflection of the surrounding world, and biblical texts are the instructive histories of interaction between God and humans, which are supposed to form human morality, scholars cannot assess these literal forms to be equal. That is why Oswalt thinks it is impossible to talk about the stories from the Bible as myths.

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Continuity: The Basis of Mythical Thinking

As can be seen from this chapter’s title, Oswalt continues to discuss the question of the role of myth in the Christian religion and the modern world. His first statement is that it is not wise to consider myth as something primitive and obsolete nowadays. The author thinks that mythology is something that is necessary in the contemporary world (Oswalt, 2009, p.29). Here, Oswalt develops the idea of one of the main aspects of mythical thinking the continuity of the universe. It means that all the elements of the surrounding world, all the possible manifestations of matter in the world are a single entity. One of the origins of the world’s continuity idea, according to Oswalt, is the desire of humans to avoid intellectual chaos impossibility to understand and explain the structure of the surrounding world. By reaching intellectual order, humanity had provided the idea of continuity. In this chapter, Oswalt also discusses the mythical ideas of timeless reality, individuality, and ubiquity. The nature symbolism of the myths manifested through the personification of natural phenomena also plays a vital role in the mystical worldview.

The author provides unique features of the myth, which distinguish it from the more recent religious movements. The most important features are lack of irreproachable opinions about the gods, the conflicting nature of life itself, neglectful relation to humankind, absence of unified moral ethics, and the cyclical concept of existence. All of these features are not only mythology qualities, as a religious movement, but they also greatly affected human life. The conclusion of the chapter is that the presented features of the myth were typical for the Western World but uncommon in other parts of the existing world. John Oswalt states that such a specific is due to differences in the conditions of the development of human societies in various parts of the world. As soon as myth is a way for human to interpret the conditions of the surrounding world, the differences in the environment affect the features of the mythology of various people.

Transcendence: Basis of Biblical Thinking

Based on the results of the previous chapter’s discussion, Oswalt states that it is impossible to find similarities between biblical and mythical worldviews. In this section of his book, the author describes the basic concepts of biblical religion. The main difference between Christianity and earlier Israel neighbors religion is its monotheistic nature. Biblical faith recognizes only one God, abandoning the earlier common pantheon. There is no god besides me (Deut. 32:39); For all the gods of the nations are idols, but the Lord made the heavens (Ps. 96:5). Oswalt also lists other important qualities of biblical religion: iconoclasm, the superiority of the spirit over the flesh, absence of conflict as a basic of life, a high estimation of humanity’s role in the world, the impeccable faith in good intentions of God, desacralisation of sex and prohibition of magic. In general, new biblical faith figures out to be a mirror image of the pre-existing beliefs. By dethroning the previously widespread religious ideology, Israel’s belief spreads diametrically opposite values.

Above all the presented differences, according to Oswalt, is the biblical principle of God’s relation to the cosmos (Oswalt, 2009, p.49). The Israel biblical religion destroys earlier views on the dissolution of god in the surrounding universe and identifies God as the isolated guiding force of the universe, which was created by him. Thus, the principle of God’s discharge from the world, or transcendence, penetrates all the other principles of biblical religion. The absence of mechanisms of cooperation between God and humans by idols or sexual rituals eliminates the need for such practices in the new religion. At the end of the chapter, the author argues about the reasons for slow spread of the biblical faith. His conclusion is that the new faith was not as popular as mythical religions due to the due to lack of opportunities for people to influence their destiny by magic rituals. The old gods were tricky, but it was possible to find an agreement with them. The new God demanded respect for the canons of faith; the believer could rely only on God’s mercy and could not affect him.

The Bible versus Myth

The thesis of this chapter is that the author tries to show that the similarity between the biblical and mystical religions comes from the fact that the founders of a new faith have used the old forms of cultural expression for entirely new ideas. First of all, Oswalt represents the differences between biblical and mythical ethics. In the Mythical worldview, according to Oswalt, the absence of strict ethical rules that adjust human’s life leads to the absence of human behavior model. The biblical religion provides ritual sins, which bring punishment for a person. The system of punishments that is present in the Israel religion, according to Oswalt, deeply affects the human’s ethical behavior. In the new religion, a person achieved a chance to change his/her life by ethical behavior. Instead of dealing with gods, the Lord’s favor has been offered to humans in exchange for ethical behavior.

Oswalt claims that, despite all the similarities between Hebrew and mythical belief, Israelites belief system is radically different from anything around it (Oswalt, 2009, p.56). Similarities in expression, which to some extent twin the Bible and the earlier myths, are caused by the desire to explain the idea of a new religion, using the old artistic and religious forms. It is hard to imagine how it is possible to spread new ideas without the use of toolset that is already familiar to people. Despite the Bible and other saint scriptures often refer to the mythical form of the description of events, it does not make Christianity the mythical religion. In this chapter, John Oswalt shows that the biblical belief accumulates the expression tools of earlier religious forms, including myths, to promote completely new ideas in society. Differences in intrinsic terms, not in the manner of surface description, make the distinguish between Israel religion and their neighbors beliefs.

The Bible and History: A Problem of Definition

At the beginning of the chapter, Oswalt recognizes one of the features of the Christian religion, which relates to the subject of history – unique acts of man and God interaction. If in the era of the mythical world fellowship between God and man has been accustomed, in the biblical era it becomes something unique. Later, author figures out the basic definition of the history concept, which he will use later to evaluate the historicity of biblical events. Oswalt states that only execution of the list of conditions could lead to a description of historical events the human’s feelings of freedom and responsibility, the belief in that causes and effects are linked and traceable in time and space, the understanding of malicious nature of the history’s falsification, the belief in dynamic character of human’s experience, and the presence of standards of human’s behavior evaluation.

Author’s opinion about the development of history as science shows that most of the nations, who did not belong to the Western world recorded history not for the purpose of human self-knowledge or for progress toward the goal of human improvement (Oswalt, 2009, p.72). Ancient historical sources – omen texts, king lists, date formulae, epics, royal annals, and chronicles, – did not represent collections of data about the past with a view to enlightening. Oswalt explains the absence of history writing in the ancient world by the influence of the mythical belief specifics, first of all, its worldview of continuity. Thus, following reasons have limited the development of the ancient science of history: focus on now, subjective orientation, the multiplicity of causes, determinism, and preoccupation with order and security. But the spread of monotheism led not only to a change in peoples world view but also changed their views on many processes, including history. Oswalt states that it would be rude to consider Hebrew’s historical science as a myth-making process.

Is the Bible Truly Historical? The Problem of History

It is clear from the chapter’s name that the author states the question of whether it is right to consider the Bible as a historical book or history-like writing. One of the questions, which scholars face trying to define the historicity of biblical events, is the interpretation of the effect of divine providence in historical processes. Since divine intervention plays a vital role in the variety of biblical scenarios, many researchers consider it necessary to separate the divine influence on the events of their natural progress. Oswalt, at the same time, considers such an approach to be excess in the interpretation of biblical events. To define the specific of the biblical religion from the point of its historicity, Oswalt states a question about differences in its treatment of the past between biblical and mythical beliefs (Oswalt, 2009, p.86).

Considering the part of the revelation in the biblical history, Barr states that the revelation did not definitely divine actions and events of the history. At the same time, Oswalt continues the theme of predestination in biblical events and reports that divine actions are not unique to Israel. The discussion of the unique process of Israel God’s discovery through the historical development of the biblical religion serves as an argument in favor of the consideration of biblical events as history. Oswalt claims that it was a historical experience that allowed Israel to discover the monotheistic religion and the one God. According to this argument, the historical understanding of biblical events seems to be adequate.

Does It Matter Whether the Bible is Historical? The Problem of History

Here Oswalt aims to prove the statement about the historical character of the Bible. His first argument is that the Bible represents historical facts because it always refers to the description of not abstract, but quite real events of the Judea history and outlines the centuries-old experience of the Jewish people. In this case, Oswalt claims that the speech of God is never in the air. It always relates to what someone is experiencing (Oswalt, 2009, p.93). The Israel authoritative books grouping show that for Jews history was unintelligible apart from the prophets. Thus, religious books become a part of the historical literature.

To answer the question about real connections between biblical history and faith, the author discusses the works of Rudolf Bultmann and Alfred North Whitehead. For Bultmann, the history is subjective, that is why it is impossible to evaluate the biblical events as unhistorical due to their biased description. Bultmann provides a solution for scholars that intend to study the Bible from its historical point to distinguish Historie from Geschichte. Historie is the description of historical events; Geschichte describes theological events miracles and mystic. Oswalt’s critique of Bultmann’s ideas includes the privilege of the modern interpreter in relation to the text; the control of modern construct, scientific empiricism over the text. Bultmann, according to Oswalt, also removes God from his natural position in the world. Bultmann’s faulty conception of history excludes the past from the discussion and also distorts the picture of the world in the Christian religion.

Whitehead considers God to be a part of the historical process of development. According to him, Lord is included in the world development process and changes together with his creation. Here Oswalt shows positive and negative points of the process theory. Positive are: the inclusion of God in human life on all levels, God is no more a puppeteer. The negative aspect is the absence of the finite solution to the biblical history question.

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Origins of the Biblical Worldview: Alternatives

In the final chapter of his book, John Oswalt raises a question about origins of the Bible and Israel’s worldview. To find a solution to this issue, the author discusses the ideas of four scholars: John Van Seters, Frank Cross, William Dever, and Mark Smith. Von Seters studies the logic of revelation and its role in the Bible. As soon as the Bible describes events much earlier than such historians, like Thucydides and Herodotus, there are questions about the origin of biblical texts. Oswalt claims that von Seters work did not bring the solution to this issue, but became a basis for discussions.

Cross considered the Bible and the Pentateuch to be the prosaic rewriting of the earlier epic poems. He represents the examples of same actions, which were performed in different countries, as the proof of correctness of his hypothesis. Writing about Dever’s opinion, Oswalt considers it as an opinion of the archeologist. Dever describes the Bible as the recorded principles of the Israel elite. The author seriously critiques this idea and sets a couple of questions that show its doubtfulness.

Smith considers biblical religion to be the successive stage of development of the Western Semitic religious worldview. According to him, the creation of monotheistic belief was caused by the historical conditions of the Jewish nation’s development. In response to this argument, Oswalt sets a question whether other nations of the Near East region, which faced the same problems, have ever created anything similar to the Israel monotheistic religion.

As a conclusion of the chapter, Oswalt writes that he had no purpose to provide the right answer to the question of biblical faith origins. He wanted to discuss the common explanations of this issue by the most popular scholars and to evaluate the completeness of the results obtained. Oswalt claims that there is no concept that explains the evolution of earlier beliefs into the biblical religion.


Here the author summarizes the results of his research on the mythical and biblical religions. The key difference between these worldview models is the difference between the basis of philosophical concepts of both religions. The concepts of continuity and transcendence are diametrically opposed. That is why there is a question not only about the specifics of each type of religion but also the logic of each of the two religious movements. The mythical world model, according to Oswalt, has emerged as a way of describing the world by people with quite a low level of knowledge and concepts of reality (Oswalt, 2009, p.113). Other possible reasons for the mythical faith development are the lack of information about the surrounding world among humans, which is the people’s wish to see the world in a mythical way.

In conclusion, Oswalt also asks an important question about the reasons for neopaganism development in modern society. He thinks that such changes in the contemporary world have been caused by the reduction in the degree of religious awareness of the public. The materialism did not bring the final satisfaction to the people and did not manage to answer the question about the purpose of human life. The mythical understanding returns earlier lost ground in the world. The author presents several writers that contribute to this process: Carlos Casteneda, Mircea Eliade, C. G. Jung, and Joseph Campbell. Each of them gives their readers a new worldview model that combines materialistic and mythical ideas to make this model relevant in the contemporary world. For people, such a worldview is more attractive because it gives them a feeling of the ability to influence their destiny. The main conclusion of the author is the awareness of the need for each person to answer the question about the existence of God. If a human believes that God does not exist, then the discussion is meaningless. If the answer is the opposite, then understanding God’s will nature is significant.

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