Biblical Myths, Metaphors and Fairy Stories – Part 1

Since I became old enough to understand the differences, I have observed several distinct ways of reading the bible and interpreting the stories contained within it.

Old Testament

All cultures and religions, both current and extinct have some sort of creation myth behind them. Most crumbled under the pressure of science, many were never meant to be taken literally anyway but the origin myths of the Old Testament have hung around in popular belief longer than almost any other.

The first and most obvious way of reading the bible, the way I was taught in primary school, is that of a literal interpretation. The literal interpretation of the bible, which is still believed by some evangelical/fundamentalist Christians (and Muslims if using the Qur’an), is the belief that every word within the book is in some way special, that every story told is absolutely true, with nothing left out or added, that all the words written in a modern-day English translation of a collection of texts originally written in Hebrew or Greek (rather than the languages spoken by the characters in the stories) are utterly without fault and of divine origin. If you, as an adult, still believe this you may as well stop reading. Not because you’ll be upset or offended by my views (although you may be), not because I don’t think you’ll be able to understand the arguments against. I don’t think you should read this piece because if you still, despite all the evidence to the contrary, refuse to question the historical authenticity of a collection of books written thousands of years ago by people who had less scientific knowledge than the average modern eight year old, purely on the basis that you think they had similar religious beliefs to you, it is pointless for you to hear opposing opinions and arguments as you will never be able to see the truth for yourself.

The second and most common way of interpreting the bible involves using the term ‘metaphor’ a lot. It concedes to science, geology and archaeology the hard historical facts about our creation and early anthropological progress. In this view, we know that Adam & Eve weren’t ‘real’ in the sense of physically being the only 2 people on Earth from whom we are all descended, although the idea that god created the universe and our disobedience towards god’s laws is the cause of our suffering in both this life and the next is something that must be believed (especially as it’s been difficult for science to disprove). People of this viewpoint don’t generally believe that god actually killed all the millions he is credited with in the bible, although he may have killed many, it is the moral messages behind the stories rather than the pure factual content that is important (don’t make him angry, you wouldn’t like him when he’s angry).

The third way of reading the bible is purely as one would read a fictional novel written many years after the events were to have taken place. This interpretation sees any correlation between historical fact and biblical story as an intentional coincidence. The authors were writing stories about their tribe’s past and despite having no access to any sort of archaeological method, they could use stories passed down the generations verbally. Although there will always be a ‘Chinese whispers’ effect on stories handed down through the generations without a definitive and unalterable version being written and copied verbatim, it is not surprising that some of them seemed plausible. That a story such as Exodus sounded plausible to those it was written for in no way makes it important, valid or even worth hearing if you do not believe it has any truth or meaning behind it (unless you want to know the story so you can make up your own mind).

On reflection, I think there may be a fourth way of interpreting some of the texts in the Old Testament, especially the creation and foundation myths of the first two books. Given that when first formed they would have been orally transmitted from elders to children and the inevitable deviation this would entail (Chinese whispers), it is not surprising that the originally historical and explanatory tales became more superstitious with time, eventually fitting in with the belief system of the authors who first wrote them down. If one looks at the story of the Garden of Eden, thinks of the knowledge held in the fruit of the tree as that of farming and the lifestyle within the garden as a stylised hunter-gatherer one, the story begins to make sense. Once farming is discovered, despite the many long, hard and painful hours spent in the fields, a settlement that produces its own food will always be able to support far larger numbers than before. There is, in effect, no way back into the garden. If we look at the Binding of Isaac through these eyes, we can see a time when ancient tribespeople practised child sacrifice, followed by a time when their religious leaders told them it was no longer necessary, that an animal would suffice, told through the story of one man, Abraham. Indeed, the story has many hallmarks of one likely to be re-enacted in ritual. Similarly, the story of Noah may be a way of explaining the events following the LGM (Last Glacial Maximum or ‘Ice Age’), when the sea levels worldwide rose suddenly, with high-tide marks being much higher in a person’s adulthood than in their childhood. With many populations supplementing their diets with seafood and living on the shore, this would have been devastating. The early books of the Old Testament are littered with examples of this and many can be found in the more ‘historical’ Books of the Prophets. Given the amount of mythology used worldwide to explain the physical structures evident in nature, I do not think it unreasonable to suggest that the origins of many of the early biblical stories could have their roots in these types of historical explanations. I think the case is further strengthened by the clear similarities between the bible and another major origin myth text of the time and region: ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’. Clearly the two texts had a common source or sources with the time between the oral tradition and the beginning of literature explaining the differences between the details and emphasises.

Part 2 to follow soon.

Thanks for reading.

Rowan

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