In This Article Myth in the Hebrew Bible

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Myth Theory
  • Anthologies and Translations of Ancient Near Eastern Myths
  • The Combat Myth in the Hebrew Bible
  • The Flood Myth
  • Divine Kingship (Human)
  • Rebellion in Heaven, Satan, and Fallen Angels
  • Additional Mythological Passages (Job, Daniel 7)

Biblical Studies Myth in the Hebrew Bible
by
Bernard F. Batto
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 May 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0125

Introduction

Myth in the Hebrew Bible is a complex and controversial topic, depending on how one defines myth and sometimes on one’s religious orientation. In everyday usage today, myth carries a meaning of something untrue, a fable, a fiction, or an illusion. That usage has a long history, traceable back to certain Greek philosophers. Anthropologists and historians of religion, however, use the term “myth” with a quite different meaning. For them myth refers to a traditional story, usually associated with the time of origins (e.g., creation or some important institution) that has paradigmatic significance for the society in which the story is operative. In this latter meaning, myth is characteristic of every traditional society; some would argue that myth continues to be operative even in modern, scientific society, camouflaged under other terms, including science itself (e.g., the big bang theory). Persons who hold that the Bible has been infallibly revealed by God and those who consider myth as something untrue may well find it offensive to posit that myth is present in the Bible. By contrast, those who see myth as one of the ways that a traditional society expresses it most profound truths may find inspiration in seeing biblical narratives as myth.

General Overviews

A diversity of opinions about myth and its functions is evident among specialists in the field of biblical studies, as noted in the lengthy monograph of Rogerson 1974 and more briefly in the accessible surveys of Batto 1987 and Oden 1992 (see also Oden 1987, cited under Israel’s Uniqueness in the Ancient World). The folkloristic approach of Gaster 1969 is considered too undisciplined by most biblical and ancient Near Eastern scholars and has fallen out of favor. By contrast, the question of whether the ancients operated with a radically different thought process (i.e., involving a mythic mind) from that of the Greeks and the Israelites (i.e., primarily historical thinking) continues to be the subject of much discussion. On this topic, see Ricoeur 1987, Roberts 1976, and Wyatt 2008; the latter is frequently assumed to be superior and the predecessor to our modern mode of thought. This discussion is continued in Israel’s Uniqueness in the Ancient World. Rather than something to be eschewed, Fishbane 2003 finds in biblical myth a heuristic tool for later generations of sympathetic Jews.

  • Batto, Bernard F. “Myth.” In The New Dictionary of Theology. Edited by Joseph A. Komonchak, Mary Collins, and Dermot A. Lane, 697–701. Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1987.

    E-mail Citation »

    A concise, accessible overview of theories of myth and how myth may intersect with theology.

  • Fishbane, Michael. Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    DOI: 10.1093/0198267339.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    Difficult for undergraduates. A new understanding of how myth and mythmaking function in the Bible (Part 1) and the reuse of the same texts in the Midrash and Talmud (Part 2) and in medieval Jewish mystical literature, especially the book of Zohar (Part 3). Rejects the view that myth is a feature of polytheism and foreign to monotheism of the Hebrew Bible and Judaism.

  • Gaster, Theodor H. Myth, Legend, and Custom in the Old Testament. A Comparative Study with Chapters from Sir James G. Frazer’s Folklore in the Old Testament. New York: Harper & Row, 1969.

    E-mail Citation »

    Easy to read, this massive volume should be used judiciously. Proceeding verse by verse, Gaster lists and comments on every passage in the Hebrew Bible for which there may be mythological or folkloristic background or a parallel of any sort from anywhere in the world, Eastern or Western, ancient or contemporary, and including primitive cultures. Many examples are controversial. Subsequent editions are published in two volumes.

  • Oden, Robert. “Myth and Mythology: Myth in the OT.” In The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 4. Edited by D. N. Freedman, 956–960. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1992.

    E-mail Citation »

    A concise but competent overview of the application of myth theory within biblical scholarship beginning with the 18th century. No longer possible to separate the biblical world from the larger mythical world of the ancient Near East.

  • Ricoeur, Paul. “Myth and History.” In The Encyclopedia of Religion. Vol. 10. Edited by Mircea Eliade, 273–282. New York: Macmillan, 1987.

    E-mail Citation »

    A helpful examination of the relation of mythical and historical modes of thinking in ancient Greece and in ancient Israel. Greece and Israel represented an epistemological break from myth to history. Greeks and Hebrews each developed a historiography comparable to that of moderns. Other researchers, however, challenge the view that Israel represents a radical break with the ancient cultural world. Available online for purchase.

  • Roberts, J. J. M. “Myth Versus History: Relaying the Comparative Foundations.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 38 (1976): 1–13.

    E-mail Citation »

    The contrast between myth in extrabiblical ancient Near East and history in Israel has been overstated. Calls for a new approach that begins with careful analysis of individual texts before moving to broad generalizations. One must be aware of possible mythological use of history as well as the historical use of myth. Accessible reading. Available online by subscription.

  • Rogerson, John W. Myth in Old Testament Interpretation. Beihefte zum alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 134. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1974.

    E-mail Citation »

    Scholarly monograph on the concept of myth in Old Testament interpretation since the 18th century. Examines all major philosophical, theological, anthropological, and linguistic approaches. No single theory is sufficient although some theories are patently false. The ancients were not inferior to moderns in logic or mental ability; myth is partially the result of limited information about the physical world.

  • Wyatt, Nick. “The Mythic Mind Revisited: Myth and History, or Myth Versus History, a Continuing Problem in Biblical Studies.” Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 22.2 (2008): 161–175.

    DOI: 10.1080/09018320802661168E-mail Citation »

    Expands on the author’s thesis in The Mythic Mind: Essays on Cosmology and Religion in Ugaritic and Old Testament Literature (London: Equinox, 2005) concerning a false opposition between myth and history. Claims about the historical character of biblical narrative being incompatible with myth seem to have hardened, while new questions concerning the historical character of biblical narrative have proliferated. Examines recent tendencies in each camp and proffers suggestions for bridging the divide. Acquaintance with biblical studies suggested, but accessible to all. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.

Article

Up

Down