Note: I originally wrote this post on another blog as part of an FAQ for my church in 2013. I am re-publishing here (with minor edits), since I will be using it in an upcoming class on science, faith, and Old Testament interpretation.
What’s the problem?
Genesis 1-11 has sometimes been called “primeval history” because it focuses on humanity’s beginnings and sets the stage for the rest of biblical history.1 It tells the story of God’s creation of the universe, the creation of the first humans Adam and Eve, their fall into sin, and their expulsion from the garden of Eden. We also read the story of the first murder (Cain and Abel), a massive flood (Noah), and a confusion of languages (Babel). While Christians have traditionally considered these stories to be referring to actual events in the past, it is becoming increasingly popular today to dismiss them as nothing more than myth. There are generally two main reasons given for this growing tendency: 1) these stories sound suspiciously like many other creation and flood stories from the ancient world, and 2) these stories seem to contradict what is believed to be scientific fact. Since it would be difficult to cover both of these issues in a single post, we will split them into two parts. Part 1 will deal with the first issue: did Genesis borrow from ancient pagan myths?
What is a “myth?”
To begin with, we need to clarify exactly what we mean by the word “myth.” Some people may call any story a myth if it tries to convey timeless truths by use of symbols or metaphors.2 Others might define myth as any story that attributes natural phenomena or human experiences to supernatural causes. If it is described in these ways, we might be able to say that Genesis is a myth of sorts. But the problem with such definitions is that they say nothing about the truth or falsehood of the story. Most people ordinarily use “myth” to describe a story that didn’t actually happen—that is, myth is basically fiction.3 Although other, more technical definitions of myth might be appropriate in some contexts, we should normally use terms according to their ordinary usage in order to avoid confusion. So in general, when people ask whether Genesis is a myth, what they are really asking is, does Genesis refer to events that actually happened?
Another related question is whether by “myth” we are referring to the author’s intention in writing the story, or to the reader’s evaluation of the story.4 For example, it would be wrong for us to take Jesus’ parables as real history (or to fault them for being unhistorical) when Jesus never meant for them to be taken that way. So when dealing with the book of Genesis, we first need to ask whether the author intended to write fact or fiction (or perhaps a mixture of both?), and only then ask whether the events are true. If Genesis was written as myth, we should read it as myth. But if it was written as history, we should judge it by historical standards.5
Genesis compared to Ancient Near Eastern myths
Genesis has often been compared to the creation and flood myths coming from Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) in the second millennium BC. These myths include the Eridu Genesis, the Enuma Elish, the Atrahasis Epic, and the Epic of Gilgamesh.6 In some respects these texts look very similar to Genesis, but in other respects they look very different. The Mesopotamian accounts picture a beginningless primordial chaos where gods procreate, fight each other, and turn the chaos into an ordered universe. Humans are formed out of a mixture of clay and the blood and spittle of the gods, in order to relieve the burden of the lesser gods to work for the greater gods. The gods eventually send a great flood to deal with the problem of human overpopulation (or noisiness), but one man (variously named Ziusudra, Atrahasis, and Utnapishtim) is warned in advance of the impending flood and builds an ark, loads it with his family and with animals, survives the seven-day flood, and then offers sacrifices to the gods.
The Genesis account, on the other hand, portrays one true God, Yahweh, who speaks the entire universe into being out of nothing. He then creates human beings in his own image by breathing life into dust, and he gives them responsibility to rule over his creation on his behalf. God later sends a massive flood to deal with the problem of human wickedness, but warns in advance one righteous man named Noah. Noah builds an ark, loads it with his family and animals, survives the year-long flood, and lands atop one of the mountains of Ararat. So while the similarities between Genesis and the Mesopotamian myths can’t be missed (especially in the flood narratives), Genesis is still unique in its picture of ethical monotheism—that is, the belief that there is only one God, and humans are morally accountable to him.
There are a number of ways to account for the similarities. While it is possible that Genesis borrowed from the Mesopotamian myths, it is also just as possible that the Mesopotamian myths borrowed from Genesis (or perhaps some earlier version of it), or that they all derive from a common source or from shared historical memory. Part of the problem is that we don’t know which source came first. Critical scholars usually date Genesis to around the mid-first millennium BC, while the traditional dating places it around either 1440 BC or 1250 BC. But even then, there may have been much earlier oral or written Hebrew sources behind the present text of Genesis. Further, even if Genesis did borrow from these other accounts, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the events are therefore untrue. There may have been a genuine historical core in the Mesopotamian myths, which the author of Genesis was able to recover through a process of historical research, literary judgment, and divine inspiration.7 Since the evidence is so sparse, any claim about borrowing will be speculative. But whatever their relationship is, one thing is sure: Genesis is not a direct copy of the pagan myths.
There is also the question of the respective purposes of Genesis and the Mesopotamian myths—that is, did their authors intend to write fact or fiction? One might suppose that if the Mesopotamians never intended to report actual history, and if Genesis and the Mesopotamian myths belong to the same literary genre, then we shouldn’t expect Genesis to communicate actual history either (again, it would be like mistaking Jesus’ parables for real events). But there are two main problems with this line of reasoning. First, we can’t be so sure that the Mesopotamians didn’t intend to report actual history, and in fact there is good evidence to suggest otherwise. According to Egyptologist K.A. Kitchen, the Mesopotamians placed the flood squarely in the middle of their list of historical kings, indicating that they treated the flood as being as much a part of their history as their royal dynasties.8 Second, even if the Mesopotamians were comfortable mixing fact and fiction (which is questionable), that doesn’t mean that the Hebrews were as well. We need to remember that Genesis is first and foremost a part of the Hebrew Scriptures, and it must be read primarily against that backdrop. So if the Old Testament as a whole shows a concern for historicity (and certainly it does—see Deuteronomy 4:32-39; Isaiah 51:1-2), and if Genesis is seamlessly woven into the Old Testament narrative, then it stands to reason that Genesis shares that concern for historicity.
Genesis as “true myth”
C.S. Lewis once said, “Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.”9 Myths “work on us” by rooting our human longings and experiences in a grand, cosmic story. We might say that myths are told with the goal of “worldview formation”—that is, they seek to make sense of the world around us by giving an account of its ultimate causes and purposes. In this regard, Genesis is much like the ancient pagan myths. But Genesis is different in that it attempts to “set the record straight” by telling how it all really happened. Yahweh is the creator, not Marduk; the world comes from God’s powerful word, not from a primordial chaos; humans are dignified bearers of God’s image, not just workhorses for the junior gods. If Genesis parallels its pagan counterparts, it does so as a point-by-point refutation, directing its audience to the worship of the one true God.
But even the term “true myth” can lead to confusion. One can still ask, what exactly about the myth is true? Some interpreters of Genesis argue that the real value of the story is in the enduring religious truths that it conveys, rather than in any of its supposed historical claims. They suggest, for example, that the point of Genesis is merely to show that humans are sinful, not that the first human pair was really tricked by a talking snake into eating a forbidden fruit. But this wrongly treats the worldview as separable from the story. Old Testament scholar C. John Collins writes:
[T]he worldview is not an abstraction derived from the story; that is, one cannot treat the story simply as the husk, which we can then discard once we have discovered the (perhaps timeless) concepts. This is not to deny that there may well be such things as transcendent truths (such as moral norms); but they gain their power from their place in the story—that is, they equip the members of a community to play their parts in the story meaningfully. It is the worldview story that, if well told, captures the imaginations of those who own it, thereby driving them on and holding their loyalty.10
Genesis certainly shows us that humans are sinful, but the point of the story is to tell us how we got that way. Genesis also shows us that humans have dignity and responsibility, but that is only because we were supernaturally created in God’s image. Without the story, we have no basis for accepting the worldview.
In sum, we cannot call Genesis “myth” (in the sense of fictional or non-historical) simply because it resembles the ancient Mesopotamian creation and flood narratives. The Mesopotamians probably meant to present real history, and the Hebrews certainly did. So if borrowing did occur one way or the other, it is largely irrelevant. But it is one thing to have a historical intent, and it is quite another to succeed in that intent. Or to put it differently, an account can be history with respect to purpose, but myth with respect to reality. So far, this discussion has focused only on the intent of the original author. But even if we can be sure that Genesis makes real historical claims, can we be sure that those claims are actually true? To answer that question, we have to examine the relationship between Genesis and science, which will be taken up in Part 2 of this post.
1 The rest of Genesis, chapters 12-50, is usually called “patriarchal history” because it covers the lives of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. While some critics may also question the historicity of these chapters, most controversies today concern the primeval history of chapters 1-11.
2 For example, Captain Ahab in the novel Moby Dick might be a symbol of humanity’s desire for glory or revenge. See John Oswalt, The Bible among the Myths (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 38.
3 Just think of the television series MythBusters, where “myth” refers to widely-held false beliefs that need to be debunked. This is also how the Bible itself uses the word “myth”—see 1 Timothy 1:4; 4:7; 2 Peter 1:16.
4 V. Philips Long calls this the distinction between “truth claim” and “truth value.” See Long, The Art of Biblical History (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 24.
5 Of course, such standards should take into account the differences between ancient and modern historical writing. It is pretty obvious that Genesis contains a great deal of poetic (or better, stylistic) language and lacks the sort of scientific precision that we find in modern historical writing. This point will be addressed further in Part 2 of this post.
7 According to OT scholar John Walton, “For confessional [Christian] scholars who consider it important to maintain the integrity of biblical inspiration, the idea that the author of Genesis made use of material from the ancient Near East need occasion no more concern than the idea that Solomon incorporated into the book of Proverbs some of the wisdom material that he had encountered in the wisdom of his world. Inspiration can operate through editors, redactors and tradents as effectively as it operates through authors.” “Creation,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 167.
8 K.A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), 425-426.
9 Wayne Martindale and Jerry Root, The Quotable Lewis (London: Tyndale House, 1990), 121.
10 C. John Collins, Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? Who They Were and Why You Should Care (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 27.