NT Wright: Mythic meaning of Genesis is far more important than historical nitpicking

This is seriously worth watching:

British author, pastor, and theologian Rev. Dr. N.T. Wright suggests that Genesis is both a mythic text as well as the “inerrant Word of God”. This may require a leap of faith for some — the mythological part has been misunderstood and discarded by many evangelicals in favour of a reading based entirely on questions of historicity.

Rev. Wright argues that “to flatten that [the text of Genesis] out is to almost perversely avoid the real thrust of the narrative … we have to read Genesis for all its worth and to say either history or myth is a way of saying ‘I’m not going to read this text for all its worth, I am just going to flatten it out so that it conforms to the cultural questions that my culture today is telling me to ask’.”

Many might wonder—but isn’t this pursuit of contemporary context a good thing? Not so, Wright replies, “I think that’s actually a form of being unfaithful to the text itself.”

In this video clip, “Adam, Eve, and the USA”, Wright suggests that questions concerning the historicity of Genesis and the historicity of Adam and Eve get caught up in contemporary cultural issues and miss the larger story [of God making Earth as a home for humanity, where he can also dwell with us, and the Fall as an archetype of the state of man].

Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles for evangelical Christians who are resistant to the idea of evolution is a literalist reading of scripture –– in particular, the text of Genesis 1-3, which details the creation of the earth and its inhabitants.

While most biblical scholars would likely advocate a literary reading of Genesis, as opposed to a literal one, the characterization of Genesis 1-3 as a “mythic” text can make some people uneasy. This is largely due to the fact that in contemporary culture, “myth” has become synonymous with “not true”. From its Greek origin, however, myth is simply defined as a story or legend that has cultural significance in explaining the hows and whys of human existence, using metaphorical language to express ideas beyond the realm of our five senses.

Extracts from: http://biologos.org/blog/meaning-and-myth/, hat-tip David Opderbeck.

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11 thoughts on “NT Wright: Mythic meaning of Genesis is far more important than historical nitpicking

  1. I watched the Wright video. I agree that myth can be used to inform how to view ourselves without being literal and stuck on details. I get how one can look at the “thrust” of the Myth — as Wright says. In fact, I just posted about a Hindu myth in the Mahabharata.

    But Wright seems to want it both ways. He wants us not to judge his myth so that he can have it claiming “truths” that he wants it to say. He wants it “true” in many ways. So, he is willing to let the details go, just as long as he gets to decide what the “thrust” of the myth is.

    He tells us that he believes that Genesis tells us the truth when it says that something like “a primal pair getting it wrong did happen.” And that Genesis makes a true claim when it says this world was made to be God’s dwelling and he shared it with humans. [whatever that means?]

    Point is, Wright seems to me to want his Bible myths to be true in very strong ways. He wants to say, “Well, not literally true” which I get, but he does want to decide exactly what part we should hang on to as true.

    So if we get a list of true claims that Wright wants the Bible to say, then we can discuss it. I get how it is important to look for the “thrust” or themes of a text, but that doesn’t mean we can’t completely disagree with those meanings too. But unless one writes down the claims you think are made by the myths, conversations will slide all over the place as people keep moving the meaning to avoid detection. Instead they want to use it as a sacred tribal flag.

  2. Sabio, we may find several layers of meaning and interpretation from the ancient Hebrew scriptures – this is the case for many poems, songs, novels, and ancient fables. To write down a list of supposed claims or doctrines is to construct a systematic theology, which is an altogether different kind of literature.

    Details about the construction of the cosmos, although fascinating and picturesque, are there to show God’s hand at work … not provide a scientific account. I think Rev. Wright is hinting that spiritual / moral truth is the lesson here, separating Yahweh from all pagan deities of the ancient world.

    I think you’re a bit harsh on Rev. Wright when you say “he is willing to let the details go, just as long as he gets to decide what the “thrust” of the myth is” … it’s not only him “deciding” what the meaning is, you forget he is just one of many bible scholars trying to faithfully render the text for modern understanding.

    I don’t think Jesus was overly concerned for literal readings of Scripture either when he said “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life”

  3. The Bishop appears to be trying to please everyone by not rejecting anyone’s view and seeming like he agrees with all viewpoints. The real question is whether he trusts in God or man. Does he raise the science and philosophy of man up to such a level that he allows it to call into question the validity of the statement of God? It is clear to me that he does in fact raise the works of man up to the level of the statement of God, and unless he can rework his argument to make man always and entirely subservient to God then it holds no water.

    Isaiah 55:8-9:
    8 ¶For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD.
    9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.

    Deuteronomy 12:32:
    What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it.

    2 Timothy 3:16-17:
    16 All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:
    17 That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.

  4. Vincent, you seem very certain of your binary view of the world.
    But who decided what writings qualify as Canon? Humans.
    What tools do we have at our disposal to relate to God? Human hearts and minds.
    How do we discern God’s authoritative statements in scripture from hyberbole or allegory? With the help of Bible scholars such as NT Wright.
    How can we be 100% confident that our reading of scripture is infallible? We can’t.
    How did God provide the Scriptures? Through the mediation of imperfect humans.
    How does God convey the Gospel? Through people.

    We aren’t subservient to God, we are fellow labourers in his grand redemptive project. The Scripture is not God’s final perfect message to the world. Muslims worship a book, but Christians worship Jesus… his life was the message.

  5. Thank you ropata; you have set me straight on some important points. Yet, I feel that amongst your points are some things I perhaps do not understand sufficiently to be able to accept, and thus am unable to accept the approach taken by NT Wright.

    I really valued your point that we are aided by Bible scholars such as NT Wright in understanding the nature of the particular part of the text; whether hyperbole, allegory or another type of writing. I do wonder however whether that is what NT Wright is doing here, for it seems that he is singularly failing to express an opinion on what type of text it is but rather trying to be agreeable to, but not agree with, any particular reading. It is a terribly post-modern approach to an argument to try to adjust the definition of the words to reach consensus, rather than changing the words used to reflect reality. He tries to invent a new category of Biblical literature, the ‘shapeshifter text’, a passage that can shift from being irrelevant allegory to being a doctrinal foundation depending on the will of the reader.

    You did suggest that human hearts and minds are at our disposal to relate to God; yet those are exactly the tools that were used in the Fall:

    Genesis 3:6 And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat

    Eve had allowed her heart (desire) and her mind (saw) to call into question what God had said (2:17, thou shalt not eat of it).

    I would suggest that the way Eve should have used her heart was rather to love God, and the way she should have used her mind was to remember his command. She did think on the command of God, but by not starting with the assumption that it is correct, her sinful nature quickly placed her heart and mind equal to or above the word of God. When modern Biblical scholars critique the Bible, I fear that they often take the approach of Eve, questioning the actual word of God rather than seeking to understand what the word of God says and means.

    You also wrote we are fellow labourers with God, yet servanthood of man to God is commonly expressed in the scriptures, e.g. “The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you (John 15:20)” or ” I am thy fellowservant, and of thy brethren the prophets, and of them which keep the sayings of this book: worship God (Rev 22:9)”. See also Gen 26:24, John 15:20 John 18:36, 1 Tim 4:6, Tit 1:1, Heb 3:5, 1 Pet 2;16, Rev 1:1 etc..

    I know some recent translations have used that form of words for II Cor 6:1, yet this wording is less than explicit in the Greek. In any case, it is still a minority description, so to say we are not subservient to Christ is, I suggest, reading too much into that phrase? Have I missed an explaination of this elsewhere in the Bible? It is quite possible and indeed probable I have missed something.

    You are entirely right that we do not worship the Bible, and further right that we worship God. Yet, the Bible is “breathed out by God (2 Tim 3:16)” and our primary means of knowing God and the work of Christ. That is why I believe we have to step back into the text, and consider the words and meaning of the text, that we might come to a more perfect knowledge of God therein, and be able to explain the scriptures to others.

    It is my observation that whenever the word and authority of scripture itself is forced into the debate it distracts us from God and the worship of God; we end up wasting time and scholarly effort trying to deconstruct inspiration rather than using what has been inspired by God for the worship and service of God.

  6. Hi Vincent,
    You say it is wrong to critique and question the Bible; so you are using your critical reasoning faculties to advocate not using rational reasoning!?! You proceed to liberally sprinkle bits of the KJV about. This old translation, though it reminds me of Shakespeare, was based on fewer manuscript resources, less Bible scholarship, and certain English cultural attitudes of the time.

    I cannot accept literalism, when current American interpretations have led to all sorts of errors. Nor do I accept the doctrine of inerrancy, when clearly the Bible contains errors (even in the original autographs).

    Were Luther, Calvin, Augustine, Aquinas wasting time (or Paul or Jesus himself for that matter) when they taught their revolutionary readings of the Scripture? The Bible is given to help the Church, not rule over it with an iron fist. The Bible is inspired of God but not perfect. It needs human action to complete the message.

    I am not a Bible scholar or trained theologian, but if you’re interested here’s a good summary of contemporary views on inerrancy.

    Thank-you for sharing your thoughts.

  7. Afterthought
    Free will != Subservience

    People may freely choose to “serve” God although he doesn’t need any help. There is no compulsion and no condemnation in the kingdom of heaven

  8. Vincent you write

    “Isaiah 55:8-9:
    8 ¶For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD.
    9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

    I note this text describes Gods thoughts as being higher above us than the sky is above the earth, doen’t this if taken literally imply that God is in space, and far away “up there”. But of course thats not what the text says, its using spatial metaphors to emphasis Gods transcendence. Similarly, a passage in Deuteronomy similar to the one you cite tells us not to depart from the law “to the left or to the right” now literally one can’t do this, the metaphor of staying on a path is used to convey the importance of obedience.

    So my question is to you, seeing you quite metaphors in the text, why does suggesting that Genesis might be using the picture of a working week and temple to describe the earth constituted denying the word of God? Why is accepting imagery in Isaiah faithful and doing so in Genesis unfaithful?

  9. Pingback: NT Wright on Myth in Genesis | MandM

  10. Sabio, the first poster says “Point is, Wright seems to me to want his Bible myths to be true in very strong ways. He wants to say, “Well, not literally true” which I get, but he does want to decide exactly what part we should hang on to as true.

    So if we get a list of true claims that Wright wants the Bible to say, then we can discuss it. I get how it is important to look for the “thrust” or themes of a text, but that doesn’t mean we can’t completely disagree with those meanings too. But unless one writes down the claims you think are made by the myths, conversations will slide all over the place as people keep moving the meaning to avoid detection.”

    I agree.

    I also liked alot of the things vincent had to say.

  11. When i read genesis, i understand it to be literal. But it should be known that when i read it “literally” that i keep my “radar” on …..trying to detect if a literary form/tool/method is being utilized or not! Discerning IF a literary tool is utilized … when? and which….I think …is the key to a proper interpretation of the text. I can take into account who the book is written to, the literary form used and yet…i still do not see the opening chapters of genesis as…myth.

    Is wright an evolutionist? Does he believe in a God who could create a primal pair in 60 seconds if he should choose to do so? Or is that too difficult for the God of the bible?

    I believe adam had a certain color hair and a certain color eyes. Same with eve. Does wright believe that? Adam is jesus’s great grandfather.

    I read genesis literally and by doing so i do not lose the spiritual message/meaning behind the events. It offends me to hear from those who take genesis as myth, saying that the “literalists” miss “the great meanings/teachings” because they have a “flat” interpretation and because they are “caught up in the details or are “too focused on the individual notes”” to see the “great symphonic backdrop.”

    Wrong!

    As I approach the first chapters of genesis , they come across to me as a religious, simple, divine, mysterious, primal and pithy account of God ,( by his divine “fiat”) speaking the cosmos, man and the animals, the laws of this universe INTO existence. Along with that…I see it conveying “the context” of the relationships between man and the world, god and man, man and beast, etc etc and the goodness of those relationships. It is not a highly DETAILED account but nevertheless provides some DETAILS! And WITHIN those details you also can find many lessons about God, man, sin, cosmos and the meaning of these as they relate to one another.
    If God really did create the world extremely quickly and created the first man quickly as well, and if he wanted provide us a explanation of who and what we are and where we came from…and if he utilized ancient peoples and writings to do so…if they were actual events but “breathed out” into a religious book, what might that account read like? I argue it reads just like what you find in the first chapters of genesis.

    I give this video a gentle and friendly “thumbs down” for slightly distorting the position of those who take genesis literally and for not providing us from the context of certain scriptures themselves…any real substantial reasons WHY we should accept genesis as a mythical account and NOT a literal account of events that happened recently.

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