William Lane Craig’s new book, In Quest of the Historical Adam, has an extended discussion on the relationship between Genesis and the myths found in the mythic literature of the Ancient Near East. Based on what he identifies as myth-like elements found in Genesis, Craig concludes that Genesis should be classified as “mytho-history”.
Craig attempts a nuanced treatment of “myth” as he affirms that some elements in Genesis are historical, like the genealogies. He affirms that Adam and Eve were real people who constitute the fount of all humanity. However, his proposal that Genesis should be regarded as “mytho-history” has drawn criticism from John Oswalt, a prominent Old Testament scholar who explains that “A myth is an oral or written narrative that functions to make actions of the gods, presumed to be constantly occurring in the invisible realm, effective in the world of time and space. In short “mytho-history” is an oxymoron. Myths are a-historical by nature.”
Excerpts from the interview, Craig’s Quest for the Historical Adam: A Response from John Oswalt (Part 2)
Q2: Craig argues that, “On the basis of comparative studies of Sumerian literature, the eminent Assyriologist Thorkild Jacobsen proposed that we recognize a unique genre of literature that he dubbed “mytho-history (152).” In your view, should readers be concerned with Craig’s use of Jacobsen to ground his own definition of mytho-history?
I think Craig wants to say that Genesis 1-11 is history with myth-like characteristics. That was not at all Jacobsen’s interest. He believed that Genesis was a “false tale of the gods” just like the Sumerian writings are. But Genesis displays some odd (very odd, I might say) characteristics. There is only one God; he does not bring the world into existence through sexual behavior; he is not a natural force with a human-like persona; his realm of action is not in the constantly recurring invisible realm but in identifiable, non-repetitive events in time and space. Hmm! What shall we call that kind of myth (having pre-judged that since it is about a god it must be a myth)? Well, let’s call it “mytho-history” by which Jacobsen meant “a false tale of the gods with history-like characteristics.” Again, I say “mytho-history” is an oxymoron.
Q6: Craig argues that given his 10 criteria of mytho-history, there is a clear and unequivocal break between the protohistory of Genesis 1–11 and the history of Genesis 12 and following. Yet in chapter 12 and beyond we read a wild story about a talking donkey, a fantastical story of God appearing in a pillar of smoke and fire, multiple claims of divine appearances in human form, a story of a woman turned to a pillar of salt, plagues, and cities destroyed by “magic” fire from heaven. Given Craig’s criteria for “mytho-history” do you think his genre analysis holds up?
In short, his genre analysis does not hold up. In the interview with McDowell, Craig spoke amusedly of the anthropomorphic God walking in the Garden and talking to Adam and Eve and saying that marks the material as mythic (because it is false?). But he insists that after Genesis 12 we have no more of this kind of mythic material. In Genesis 18 the Bible says very explicitly that Yahweh visited Abraham in human form and talked with him. Myth? The other examples you cite are equally well-taken. If Craig had defined myth according to its essential characteristics and not its superficial ones, this confusion would not exist.
Q7: Regarding Craig’s 10th literary element, Craig concludes that content of Genesis 1–11 contains a sufficient number of logical contradiction and incoherencies and, therefore, it must be classified as mytho-history. Do you think this claim properly reflects the Hebrew worldview?
As I mentioned above, what distinguishes the Biblical world-view from the mythic one is absolutely critical. What we might see as inconsistencies or incoherencies are not the issue. What is at issue is the fact that myths see the gods as part of the cosmos, while the Bible insists (just as much in Gen 1-11 as elsewhere) that God is not part of the cosmos. Myths insist that the divine is to be known in the great recurrences of nature; the Bible insists that since God is not part of the psycho-socio-physical cosmos; you cannot finally know him through the great recurrences. But above all, we can know God through the many non-repeatable interactions with unique non-repeatable human persons in unique times and spaces. Every bit as much as this characterizes Genesis 12 onward, it characterizes Genesis 1-11. What is going on with 7 24-hour days, and with certain identifiable rivers? These are literary devices used to show that the origins of this cosmos are not part of the constantly recurring, invisible never-never land of primordial (non-historic!) reality, but part of this world—our world—of time and space. By adopting the term “mytho-history” Craig has “given away the store.”
Q9: In your book, The Bible among the Myths, you consider the following questions, “This issue of differences and similarities will provide the focal point around which this book will revolve. Is the religion of the Old Testament essentially similar to, or essentially different from, the religions of its neighbors? That discussion will be further focused in two areas: myth and history. Is the Old Testament more like the myths found in its neighboring cultures, or it is something else? (14)” In light of your own research, how persuasive is Crag’s argument that Genesis 1–11 is mytho-history?
What I say in my book is this: “Whatever the Bible is, it is not myth. It may be the rankest fiction, but it is not myth.” Myth is religious literature derived by assuming that the invisible (the real) world is just like the visible one. Thus there must be many gods; these gods are personified psycho-socio-physical forces, with human-like characteristics—better than us and at the same time worse than us. Matter is the basis of existence. Chaos is always threatening and must be defeated. There is no progress, only change; time is cyclical, going nowhere. Existence has no purpose. Sexuality is the key to identity; it is the life force to be manipulated in any way possible; the gods function sexually and are continually bringing the cosmos into existence through sexual means. Because the realms of deity, nature, and humanity are all-interpenetrating, the means of gaining power (which is the summum bonum) is through sympathetic magic. Individuals are of no significance; the significance of an item is in its conformity to the norm. l could go on at some length. But the point is: the Bible, from Genesis 1 to Revelation 21, consistently and continually denies every one of these, and more that could be listed. Whatever the Bible is, even if its theology is dead wrong, it must not be included in the classification “myth.”
You can read the whole interview at
Craig’s Quest for the Historical Adam: A Response from John Oswalt (Part 2)