So is Genesis 1 a myth? That depends on your definition of myth. Some would say if you are a believer in the Bible, the answer is, of course it is not myth.1 These people hold tight to their version of inerrancy and reject the comparisons to the pagan literature. The English word myth comes from the Greek word mythos, which was not originally used to distinguish between true and false stories. It was only over time that it began to refer to a fictional story.
As a result of the similarities between Genesis 1-2 and other ancient near east myths, some would say the creation stories are merely a human construct, misguided stories. Wenham calls myth an “inappropriate category”, arguing that the common lay person’s understanding of myth confuses the issue too much. Therefore calling the opening chapters of Genesis “myth”, he considers “at least unwise, at worst misleading”.2 While he may be right that myths have gotten a negative reputation for being equated with falsity, he even admits that there are many who have a more positive understanding of myth. He acknowledges that myths represent a different way of expressing truth.3 Jacobsen characterizes Gen 1–11 as mytho-historical, “We may assign both traditions to a new and separate genre as mytho-historical accounts.”4
Kenton L. Sparks sees no problem using the words “myth, legend, fable, and tale” for some parts of Genesis 1-11. He says instead of avoiding the word, we should argue that “the myths of Genesis get at “the truth” better than other Near Eastern myths.”5 This lets the text speak truth as God’s word while at the same time removing demands for historicity. Sparks goes on to define “myth” as pertaining to stories where the gods are the main characters and the setting is in the heavens or in the early cosmos.6
Genesis 1 and 2 are theological compositions, bathed in allegory and symbol, which tell the story of humanity, not only two individuals. It is also important to note that ancient writers would not have adhered to the idea of “generic purity” which would mean a firm boundary between history and fiction.7 Karl Barth argues: “We must dismiss and resist to the very last any idea of the inferiority or untrustworthiness or even worthlessness of a “non-historical” depiction and narration of history. This is in fact only a ridiculous and middle-class habit of the modern Western mind which is supremely phantastic in its chronic lack of imaginative phantasy, and hopes to rid itself of its complexes through suppression.”8
C. S. Lewis would agree with Barth. In fact. Lewis addressed these issues in Reflections on the Psalms. He says he does not believe “that every sentence of the Old Testament has historical scientific truth.” Lewis writes, “[This] I do not hold, any more than St. Jerome did when he said that Moses described Creation ‘after the manner of a popular poet’ (as we should say, mythically) or than Calvin did when he doubted whether the story of Job were history or fiction.”9 Lewis knew one did not have to be a biblical literalist to be faithful to the scriptures. He wrote, “I have therefore no difficulty in accepting, say, the view of those scholars who tell us that the account of Creation in Genesis is derived from earlier Semitic stories which were Pagan and mythical.”10
For Lewis, “myth” was not a bad word; it was not to be equated with falsity. Genesis can be myth and still be the word of God articulating the truth of creation. Like Lewis, I have a high view of Scripture and a high view of mythology. Lewis believed that myth can communicate truth even better than history or science can at times. In his essay, “Myth Became Fact,” Lewis argues that, myth is able to express abstract truths in concrete terms. “In the enjoyment of a great myth, we come nearest to experiencing as a concrete what can otherwise be understood only as an abstraction.”11 A myth is not a story that is not true. A myth is truth communicated via story.
I agree with Enns when he says, “a literal reading of Genesis is not the firmly settled default position of true faith to which one can “hold firm” or from which one “strays.” Literalism is a hermeneutical decision (often implicit) stemming from the belief that God’s Word requires a literal reading.”12 Enns concludes that literalism is not an option when it comes to the creation stories in Genesis. He says those who read Genesis literally must “either ignore evidence completely or present alternate “theories” in order to maintain spiritual stability.”13 A responsible interpretation of the biblical stories must deal with the scientific and archaeological facts, not dismiss them, ignore them, or manipulate them.14 This is why I believe that reading Genesis 1-2 as some type of mythic-history may be the best approach. At the end of the day I am still not sure what to do with the question of the historicity of Adam and Eve, but I do not think it makes or breaks the Christian faith one way or the other.15 The truth of Genesis chapters 1 and 2 is about more than their historicity or scientific accuracy, but about their ability to convey theological truths about God as Creator, the state of creation and humankind made in the image of God.
1 Mark S. Smith, “Is Genesis 1 A Creation Myth? Yes and No”, 71.
2 Wenham, 82.
3 Wenham, 82.
4 See Thorkild Jacobsen, “The Eridu Genesis,” Journal of Biblical Literature 100 (1981): 528 , reprinted in Richard S. Hess and David T. Tsumura, I Studied Inscriptions from Before the Flood (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1994), 140.
5 Sparks, 104.
6 Sparks, 122.
7 Sparks, 126.
8 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 3:1:81.
9 C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1964), 109.
10 Lewis, 110.
11 Lewis, God in the Dock, 66.
12 Peter Enns, 56.
13 Peter Enns, 137.
14 Peter Enns, 138.
15 Peter Enns and Lamoureux also deal with the question of Paul and Jesus assuming Adam and Eve were real historical people, but space does not permit me to go into that here.
Here is a visual bibliography for your enjoyment!