Holy scripture, holy myth (part I)

My present intention is to make this a three-part series of posts about some recent reflections on the meaning and purpose of the scriptures. This initial post will focus on the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (HB/OT). A follow-up will introduce additional issues that the Book of Mormon narrative adds to complicate my thoughts from post #1. The third post will discuss how what I have set forth in post #1 might explain (or affect) the way that we teach scripture in the Church.

Since this semester is my last one at a university (at least in the foreseeable future), I chose to take an undergraduate-level course in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, in part because I knew so little about it and in part because I so desperately needed to get outside of the law school for an intellectual experience. I chose an undergraduate course simply because the sum total of my exposure to the OT is limited to whatever I have heard or discussed in Sunday School every four years. My professor takes a secular and academic approach to the HB/OT, which is entirely appropriate given the setting. It has definitely been a different experience from your typical Mormon Sunday School class (and for that matter, any Sunday School class I ever attended prior to joining the Church). By writing what follows, I don’t mean to endorse any of these theories or hypotheses. I agree with some, but am undecided on many others. I simply mean to explore our notions of the historicity of scripture with what contemporary HB/OT scholarship might be able to tell us (or what it cannot tell us).

The main theme that I wish to address is how the HB/OT breaks down into history or myth. Due to Latter-day Saints’ general rejection of the infallibility or inerrancy of the Bible, the introduction of mythic elements to our scripture should not bother one much. However, exactly where that division occurs is not entirely clear, neither to me nor to most of the scholars who have devoted years to understanding this complex work. My own sense is that the historicity of much of the HB/OT is not important to the truth of the Restoration. Acknowledging the mythic elements of these important stories can be very disconcerting at first, especially to one who has grown up with these stories and characters. However, in my opinion, the fact that some of the HB/OT is myth rather than history provides no grounds for a rejection of the Restoration of the Gospel through Joseph Smith. Apart from its literal historicity, the HB/OT can still tell us important things about our Heavenly Father’s relationship to his sons and daughters, our relationships among ourselves, and God’s plan for his creations.

In the time and space available to me, I could not possibly go through the entire HB/OT. Instead, I have chosen to pick out a couple of major instances of this phenomenon to illustrate my thesis. I also can’t lay out all of the evidence for the assertions I am making, but I will point you to the textbooks I am using if you need to see it for yourself.
For example, there is little or no extra-biblical evidence for the Exodus, at least as it is told by the Book of Exodus. There is likewise no extra-biblical evidence for the figures of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob. The first relatively certain historical event that we have recounted in the HB/OT is the establishment of the United Monarchy under David and his son, Solomon. From there on, things get more and more concrete. Further back from that point (around 1000 BCE), it becomes more and more difficult to tell where history begins and myth ends.

The Exodus and Conquest– Scholars generally reject the idea that somebody named Moses liberated a bunch of Hebrew slaves and took over 600,000 of them (about 2 million with women and children) wandering in the desert, eventually coming to conquer and settle in Canaan under the leadership of Joshua. Alternative theories that have been proposed include: a small group of slaves escaped from Egypt and came and instigated a revolt in Canaan, eventually taking over. There is some material evidence for the presence of Semitic slaves in Egypt during certain periods, but no Egyptian record of a mass exodus. Furthermore, many are comfortable with the notion that some Hebrew slaves came out of Egypt simply because it does not make much sense to make that embarrassing incident part of your history if it simply is not true. On balance, I am willing to say that the Exodus, on the scale recounted in the book of Exodus, did not happen.

My point is, if the Exodus is not historical…so what? I cannot think of any core tenet of the Restoration that hinges on this fact. We certainly tell stories about Moses parting the Red Sea (also questionable) as an example of faith and the power of God. If these events never happened, those stories function equally well as myth and does NOT mean that God lacks the power to do them. (The story of Moses parting the Red Sea also shows up in the Book of Mormon, but my discussion of that will appear in part II of this series).

Where things get problematic is where certain stories or characters who are extremely important to Mormon belief get thrown to the myth side of the equation.

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob + the Twelve Tribes– There is generally little in the way of evidence to suggest that Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob, or any of the Jacob/Israel’s twelve sons were historical figures. Most of the events of their lives were private intrafamilial happenings and so it is not surprising that no extra-biblical evidence exists to substantiate them. Such persons could have plausibly existed. However, the narratives we have of their lives are composite in nature (see the Documentary Hypothesis) as is most of the Pentateuch, meaning that different stories (probably from different oral tradition) were woven together over time to form the version that we now have.
It is also believed by some that the twelve tribes that come to compose the nation of Israel are not in fact the biological sons of Jacob/Israel, but merely twelve tribes that united in Canaan under the worship of YHWH. Under this theory, the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would be etiologies, or stories of how certain people(s)/tribe(s) came to be. The patriarchal story would have explained to the Israelites that they were kin rather than simply political allies.

I can ask the same question of this as I did of the Exodus above- if not true, then so what? Unfortunately the answer is much more complex here. Mormons have a great deal invested in the figures of the patriarchs and the Twelve Tribes. In the temple, we are given the blessings of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In our patriarchal blessings, we are declared to be of their lineage and are named to be a part of one of the tribes of Israel. Our notions of eternal marriage are closely tied up with the Abrahamic covenant. So it becomes much more difficult for us to cut ties with the patriarchs than with the Exodus, or with a global Flood. Nevertheless, in spite of its difficulties, I could imagine a non-literal reading of these narratives that nevertheless affirmed the truth of the Restoration (Incidentally, my wife, in her Ph.D. program, has studied all of the numerous ways that early Christian theologians discarded the literal truth of the patriarchs and “spiritualized” or allegorized their biographies). Even if Abraham did not exist, the fact that we call the covenant of eternal marriage along with other covenants the “blessings of Abraham” does not make them any less real. I do not think that we really believe that these blessings originated with him in the first place. His narrative is simply a shortcut for us to explain the meaning of the covenant. Similar to this is the way we call the higher priesthood after Melchezidek- he was not the first, but he was exemplary of it. I am not sure what to make of the twelve tribes, if they are not in fact historical. The importance of tribes seems to be declining in the global Church anyway, so it may be moot. Still, Abraham seems such a key figure in our theology that doing away with his historical reality would seem so much more problematic than many other HB/OT personages and stories.

I could go on for a long time about this, but I would rather here from you. Am I missing something here? Would introducing mythic elements into the HB/OT completely destroy the Gospel? If you have any specific instances, I would be happy to hear them. I am still making up my mind about all of this, so I would be happy to get any input I could.

I promised to disclose the textbooks I am using, so here they are: Ancient Israel: From Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple (Revised and Expanded) ed. Hershel Shanks and The Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (2nd ed.) by Stephen L. Harris and Robert L. Platzner.

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3 thoughts on “Holy scripture, holy myth (part I)

  1. I took a class at BYU called “The Bible as Literature” from Steven Walker. (It was my [and many others’] favorite class at BYU.) I remember Dr. Walker saying the story of Jonah could be myth, but that, like you said, it didn’t really matter. It still taught us lessons and was still hilarious (see “Humor in the Bible” http://www.byui.edu/Presentations/Transcripts/MajorForums/2003_07_17_Walker.htm). I tend to lean toward believing the stories are true; although, if some are myth, they’re still relevant, interesting, and essential.

  2. Which early Christian theologians did not believe in a literal Abraham?I am familiar with allegorical hermeneutics, but to say the stories are myth? hmmmI am interested in the source quotes.

  3. Todd,I may have stated my argument too strongly. Instead of saying that the patriarchs did not literally exist, what I meant is that the entire narrative of their lives would not be accepted as literal. For specific theologians I would point you to Origen and Ambrose, who take it from Philo, who is admittedly not a Christian but a Jew. Nevertheless his ideas were widely accepted by those early Christians. For specifics, I would say that the matriarchal figures (Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel) are heavily allegorized by theologians focused on asceticism so that it would not appear that the patriarchs were actually engaged in sexual relations with women, but rather were engaged with or married to “virtues” (in the Platonic sense).From a certain post-modern point of view, to say that the Abraham of the Bible may have historically existed but that his biography is something less historical than what the Bible contains could mean that we are talking about two Abrahams and that the Abraham of the Bible is indeed a “myth.”Also note that I am probably far outside the mainstream of LDS thought on the Bible in this area.

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