The myth about myths in early Genesis
Up to the mid-19th century, a myth was just that—a myth. The Greek stories of gods and African spirit folk tales were regarded as untrue, whereas the findings of historians who compared documentary records were generally regarded as true. So was Genesis 1 to 11.
But during the 19th century, ideas about what constituted a myth underwent rapid evolution. Myths were no longer regarded as stories devoid of truth, while truth was regarded as acceptable even if intertwined with myth. In the 20th century, Freud,1 a number of other writers, and people such as Velikovsky,2 came to regard myth as any category of information which could be called ‘true’ in some sense. They argued that since there could not be any smoke without fire, so there could not be fictional stories or myths without some factual experience to precede them.
But what is a myth? If we take, for example, the Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish, found in a 600 BC library, we find the following elements:
- The gods were created from water and earth.
- Water and chaos were at the origin of everything.
- The gods rebelled against their leaders.
- The gods fought each other as equals.
- A man-like god carved up a goddess to form part of the universe from her dead body.
- Man was created from the blood of another god.
This summary shows some of the typical ingredients of myths: multiple heroes, no one in supreme control, unpunished violence and illicit sex amongst gods and between gods and men, inanimate and created beings as gods, and the stories or myths themselves were the invention of both men and gods rather than revelation from one God to mankind.
History, on the other hand, or to be more specific, the language of history is matter of fact and uses a recognisable style. It is unified. You can’t invent real history. You can create a myth based on history. Unknown to most people, history has to happen before myth can arise. Even children learn to take things seriously before they invent stories in the true sense of invention.
Early use of fantasy by children doesn’t contradict this, simply because fantasy happens to be the real expression of how the child does understand the world. Telling lies and inventing stories are quite a different category from fantasy and appear later.
Those who create myths usually have to know or experience (a) what usually happens, or (b) what truly did happen on a specific occasion. Only then are they in a position to fantasise on the details and turn history into myth. Even the evolutionary story began with the facts of the creation which were then fantasised to produce the myth of evolution: a ‘history’ that never was.
It is relatively easy to take true history and turn it into false myth, but it is not so easy to extract suspected truth out of any popular myth.
Such an exercise usually becomes one of intense scholarship. It is extremely difficult, and in the end you cannot do it unless you have access to the historical truth in the first place (e.g. analysing Aboriginal flood legends depends on prior knowledge of Noah’s Flood). Those who claim that Genesis is merely a purified or refined Babylonian myth should try extracting the truth from an unfamiliar myth some time and see what they end up with. They will find that myth and gossip have a lot in common—confusion, distraction, vagueness, uncertainty, and lack of chronology! All this is apart from the fact that Enuma Elish is dated 600 BC whereas Moses lived around 1450 BC and his sources for Genesis 1 to 11 go back long before this.
It is a far more sound historical hypothesis to suggest that Enuma Elish was a perverted version of Genesis, that is fantasy degenerated from fact.
If ordinary people obtain a copy of Enuma Elish, they will not automatically connect it with any reading they have done in Genesis. Only academics do things like that. Genesis 1 to 11 in contrast to Enuma Elish is matter-of-fact, and is unified. It was this unified composition of Genesis that was attacked in the 19th century in order to try to establish that Genesis was a myth.
How do we know that Genesis is linguistically unified? A comparison of Dickens’3 Tale of Two Cities, chapters 1 and 2 with Genesis 1 to 2:3 and 2:4 to 4.25 shows that Genesis is more uniform than Dickens. How do linguists decide this? Quite easily. The results are obtained by totalling up what English teachers call the ‘content’ words. These are words such as earth, road, create, and lay, which do one of the following:
- represent a picturable thing, person or action,
- summarise a quality,
- indicate a manner of doing something. After these are totalled, the amount of repetition in each section is calculated by counting the number of times content words are repeated. The number of repeated words is then expressed as a percentage of the total number of content words. In Genesis chapters 1 to 2:3, the repetition is around about 62.7 percent. In Dickens chapter 1, it is 23.4 percent. In the second section, Genesis 2:4 to 4:25, the repetition is 74.3 percent. In Dickens’ chapter 2a, repetition is 63.2 percent. What does all that mean? Simply that the first section of Genesis shows nearly three times the repetition of content words when it is compared with Dickens’ chapter 1. The second section of Genesis likewise shows greater use of repetition than Dickens’ chapter 2. In other words, Genesis uses an economy of style characteristic of the ordered presentation of fact rather than being a rambling discourse.
On the other hand, the extravagance exhibited in the early section of Dickens’ work manifests a poetic element.
To explain what I mean by ‘poetic element’ and repetition: Japanese poetry was once dependent on getting as much meaning as possible out of only 17 syllables. Such a feat is only possible (in Japanese) if you avoid repetition and obtain a wide spread of diverse meaning in very few words. It is characterised by non-repetition. Similarly, Hebrew poetry is characterised by extravagance of words or non-repetition. This characteristic style of parallelism, that is saying the same thing twice, and using two sets of words, certainly repeats the meaning of the words but does not repeat the words. It is characterised by non-repetition, hence non-repetitiveness is a feature of poetic style. Early Genesis is repetitive and clearly non-poetic. It is factual history!
Another way in which linguists measure the unity of a literary work is to calculate the number of identical words in two sections of any work.
When this is done for Genesis and Dickens, Genesis has 76.5 percent of words in common but Dickens only 21.5 percent. Even when this is done by the alternative method of using word types rather than actual words, the sections in Genesis have 40.5 percent in common and Dickens only 14.9 percent. Both these sets of linguistic calculations show that the Genesis passages are far more uniform in style than the Dickens extract. All this information points to the fact that the early sections of Genesis are from one writer. This is based on scientific data, and is far more reliable than claiming the chapters out of Dickens are from one author, even though we know they are!
Despite all of this, the critics of Genesis during the 19th and 20th centuries have been increasingly prepared to classify Genesis as myth. Why have they done this?
The 18th century saw European scientists (and theologians) moving away from the idea of a universal flood and increasingly towards many floods, then local multiple floods, and finally the idea of slowly deposited sediment and vast eons of death in the history of the world. Behind this new ‘history’ of the world, based on no humanly recorded direct observations, was a rejection of the supernatural. Reason, which had once been used to support the wisdom of God, now showed that God was not needed to explain anything at all. Events which didn’t fit this category were regarded as anomalous or unreasonable and were ruled out. Science cut itself free from God. So did theology, by and large!
Increasingly, the fall of man with its implication that man couldn’t control his own destiny was played down as being offensive and degrading.
Evolutionary ideas were already present, having filtered through from ancient Greek (originally ancient Babylonian) thought, with a boost during the Renaissance. But instead of being contrasted with Scripture as they were at the time of the Reformation, they were now integrated.
Patriarchal history was put alongside Babylonian exaggeration and Noah’s Flood against Babylonian distortion. Genesis was regarded as a late refinement of Enuma Elish. Theologians accepted this and Bultmann crowned it all by stating that Genesis ‘myths’ didn’t have to be factually true. ‘Salvation history is what the Bible is about, and that only the spiritual content is really true’ became their theme. Therefore, ‘what is true in the myths is spiritually true, not factually true’ and we can learn from these ‘allegories’, it was claimed.
But such a categorisation of truth and myth, union of fact and fancy, is not only false; it is dangerous. The Bible is for everyone; it is not just for scholars.
Even if scholars could perceive such subtleties as they claim to see concerning truth in myth, we must face the fact that ordinary people are led astray by those who call Genesis ‘myth’. For the ordinary person in the street, a myth is still a myth … something which is made up. To such people, the claim that Genesis is myth is a statement about the Bible being false. To them it really poses the questions, ‘Did Jesus really exist?’ and ‘Why would God deceive us like that?’
Scripture contains humour, parable and fable (Judges 9:7-15) but not myth in either the scholastic or popular sense. Confusing myth with truth only serves the purpose of leading men astray. After all, ‘In the beginning’ is far more specific than ‘Once upon a time’!
References and notes
- Sigmund Freud was the founding father of psychoanalysis. Return to text.
- Immanuel Velikovsky was a psychiatrist and independent scholar, best known as the author of a number of controversial books reinterpreting the events of ancient history. Return to text.
- English writer Charles Dickens is regarded as the greatest novelist of the Victorian period. Return to text.
A couple of years ago a Nazarene "scholar" opined about how the Genesis creation and flood was a response in defense of the Gilgamesh epic...thus it was a myth like the epic. Thanks for setting the record straight. All legends like Gilgamesh are just that--legends based upon the real event.
Thank you for including the part about the Hebrew poetry. The pastor of a church my parents and i attended for around 13+ years believed that the early chapters of Genesis, or at least chapter 1, were some kind of poem Moses wrote to explain creation and the fall to the "simple and uneducated" Israelites.
The difference in poetic styles should be taught and understood, because in English Genesis 1 does seem poetic, having verse and chorus structure, but understanding that the content being non-repetitive refutes that idea, but only if one understands that Hebrew poetry is not written that way.
Now i want to read the Psalms again to compare their literary style to the factual style of Genesis.
Thanks so much!