Deconstructing A Title . . .

I was looking through my Zondervan Academic catalog that arrived in the mail today and came across a title for a forthcoming book that rubbed me the wrong way.  Well, to be more specific, the sub-title rubbed me the wrong way, which made me go back and get wrongly-rubbed by the title.  I haven’t read this book yet but I will when it is released.  I thought I’d walk through my reaction to the title, however, just for the sake of discussion.

Title = “The Bible Among the Myths”

Interesting title.  Perhaps this will be a volume about the various mythic expressions and themes that are found in both the Bible and extra-biblical literature; things like angelic beings, Job’s “hasatan“, the sea-monstors of Ps 74.13-14, etc.  This could be a neat study of the various fantastical features of the biblical (especially the apocalyptic) accounts.

Another thought struck me, based on Webster’s Dictionary’s definition of myth: “an old traditional story or legend, especially one concerning fabulous or supernatural beings, giving expression to the early beliefs, aspirations and perceptions of a people and often serving to explain natural phenomena or the origins of a people etc.”  Using this primary definition of the word “myth,” perhaps this book might deal with how the various biblical narratives function as “identity shaping” material – literature by the community, for the community as they forge their corporate identity (in this case, as the people of YHWH) utilizing the grandiose and supernatural categories available in the mythic genre.

The subtitle, however, struck me as quite flawed:

Subtitle = “Unique Revelation or Just Ancient Literature?”

The subtitle capitalizes on the recent debate that has raged in evangelicalism over the comparative method by weighing in on the matter of whether the biblical literature can be compared with contemporary ancient Near Eastern literature in any significant or meaningful way.  While I don’t know exactly how this author is going to argue his point in these pages, it seems likely that he will emphasize the unique-ness of the Bible, either by down-playing the commonalities it shares with other literature or by centering his case around his prolegomena and showing that the bible is unique simply by being God’s word. (Note: one of the endorsements of this volume gives me the impression that this is the direction it’s going.) Either way, something important is missed.  The full title:

“The Bible Among the Myths: Unique Revelation or Just Ancient Literature?”

The sub-title narrows the word “among” in the title.  Now rather than speaking of the Bible in its human genres as one of many mythic presentations written by ancient peoples, it says that though it is among the myths, it isn’t really among the myths.  At least not unless you believe it is “just [read: merely] ancient literature.”

Perhaps I could propose a different book.  The “or” could be replaced by “and.”  Here we would capitalize on the import of “just” (which seeks to show that there is indeed something unique about the Bible) but still offer a robust approach to the very normal types of texts found in the Bible.  My proposed title:

“The Bible Among the Myths: “Unique Revelation” and “Just Ancient Literature.”

When we read the Bible, we are struck by the foolishness of it all; that God has been pleased to reveal himself in such an earthy way (cf. 1 Cor 1.23 on how the gospel itself is “foolishness.”).  And yet, when we read that very same Bible, we are struck by its majesty.  It is these very words that God has spoken.  These words are the ones that go forth and don’t come back void (Isa 55.11), these words bring an army of dry bones to life (Eze 37).

This new title would help us to face squarely some of the very non-impressive genres and style used by the biblical writers.  We’d note that in many ways, the Bible is as difficult and problematic as any ancient document.  And yet we’d come to embrace that very difficulty, recognizing that it is this very form that God was pleased to give to us and that testifies to his redemptive plan.

Of course, if we insist on holding to secondary meanings of the word “myth” – i.e., the idea that myth means “false,” “non-existent,” or “untrue” – then perhaps we need a different title altogether:

The Bible Among the Fictions: “Unique Revelation” and “Just Ancient Literature” (Unlike the Fictions Which Are, Of Course, Only the Latter)

But of course, such a title isn’t quite as snappy and starts to sound like I’m just trying too hard.

_______________
Andrew

8 thoughts on “Deconstructing A Title . . .”

  1. Thanks for the heads up. I saw the book isn’t too long (around 200 pages). I also just saw the ToC on Zondervan’s website. It is composed of two main parts: 1) The Bible and Myth 2) The Bible and History. I think you’re right – history and myth are set against each other. Anyway, sounds like an interesting read; looking forward to your future interaction with it.

    shane

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  2. Yeah, I’m sure it’ll be a good contribution to the discussion, though I am always wary of these apologetic-esque sounding volumes that seem more defensive and less constructive. Once people finally stop pitting myth against history (as though history was a univocal relationship between the worlds in and behind the text), we’ll be able to really appreciate how some of the paradigms of the biblical writers are both similar to and different from our own and how recognizing that will give us a more robust read of God’s revealing work in history.

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  3. I’m hoping that too, Richard, but I’m afraid I’m a bit pessimistic on this matter. I had a laugh the other day at one writer’s critique of Peter Enns’ very careful definition of the word “myth”: “Note well that there is no reference to history or actual events in this definition.” Hmmm, critiquing someone for what they *didn’t* say. Sigh. I’m afraid that this is just where the lines are being drawn right now.

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  4. It seems quite a short book for such a large topic, may be that is a sign…

    On myth, well saga but related to your point, Kock noted in his The Growth of the Biblical Tradition,

    It is hoped that the use of the term saga in connection with biblical narratives, which are regarded by the church as the word of God, will not shock some theologians, or horrify the more devout. But the reader must not make the crude mistake of dismissing the saga as a fantastical, primitive, and therefore ‘untrue’ phenomenon. The next but one paragraph will show that on the contrary biblical sagas conceal much that is true, and are of vital importance for the preaching of Christianity.

    Myth is a slipery thing and I felt Enns’ definition in I&I was quite good.

    More Kock quotes are here.

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  5. Ck – Ch – it all depends on what transliteration schema you’re using! I always get a kick out of transliterating ‘shin’ as ‘szin.’ Crazy . . .

    Nice looking quotes. I wonder if most of the problem comes because people take for granted the word “history.” They seem to over simplify the very nature of history and history writing. I’m really convinced that it comes down to how we construe the relationship between the worlds in and behind the text. Fundamentalists view the correspondence univocally. Liberals, equivocally. The key, however, seems to be analogy. There is correspondence, yes, but that correspondence is not one-to-one. How does what happened at Jericho in the text compare with the event behind the text? I’m just not sure.

    Anyway . . .

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  6. Agreed.

    Chapter 9 in von Rad’s From Genesis to Chronicles: Explorations in Old Testament Theology is pretty interesting on the question of history, it’s entitled “The Beginnings of Historical Writing in Ancient Israel”.

    I think Barr makes a good point, when he says in The Scope and Authority of the Bible words to the effect of ‘The reason we have the stories about Abraham provided for us in Genesis is not to inform us of life in the second millenia BCE but because they formed the basis of the eschatological hope of Israel’ his point being the OT narrative was written as a ground for a future hope rather than strict historical curiosity.

    I’ll see if I can dig it out.

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