I was going to post this as a comment on the thread for my first “creation vs creationism” post from the other day, but decided instead to make it a full post, as I’d be interested to get a wider range of responses.
The discussion of “myth” versus “history” called to mind C.S. Lewis’ concept of “crystallization”, which he describes in a footnote in his book Miracles: A Preliminary Study. This is Lewis’ proposal that the Old Testament moves gradually (and unevenly) from “myth” to “history”. As Lewis writes (quoted here):
My present view – which is tentative and liable to any amount of correction – would be that just as, on the factual side, a long preparation culminates in God’s becoming incarnate as Man, so, on the documentary side, the truth first appears in mythical form and then by a long process of condensing or focusing finally becomes incarnate as History.
This involves the belief that Myth in general is not merely misunderstood history … nor diabolical illusion … nor priestly lying … but, at its best, a real though unfocused gleam of divine truth falling on human imagination. The Hebrews, like other people, had mythology: but as they were the chosen people so their mythology was the chosen mythology – the mythology chosen by God to be the vehicle of the earliest sacred truth, the first step in that process which ends in the New Testament where truth has become completely historical.
Whether we can say with certainty where, in this process of crystallization, any particular Old Testament story falls, is another matter. I take it that the memoirs of David’s court come at one end of the scale and are scarcely less historical than St. Mark or Acts; and that the Book of Jonah is at the opposite end.
This has probably had more of an influence on me over the years than I sometimes consciously realise. A couple of thoughts arising from Lewis’ statement:
- Lewis did not share the general discomfort of modern westerners towards “myth”, which we tend to equate with “untruth”. We like our truth to come in linear and literal form, and we then read that expectation back into the Bible. (Think, for example, of how belief in “inerrancy” is strongly correlated with a preference for “literal” interpretation. There is no inherent reason why this should be the case: it arises from our preconceptions about what constitutes “truth” and “error”.)
- I like Lewis’ point that, even if elements of the OT are mythical in nature (or have mythical elements), then these are still “God’s chosen myths” – the myths which God has inspired to communicate his truth to us.
This still leaves us with the question of how these OT texts are cited by Jesus, the apostles and the New Testament authors. However, even those who disagree with Lewis would have to acknowledge he has an acute ear for literary genre, which should not be dismissed lightly.