One of the great dividing lines between Christian denominations is how each reads and understands the stories in the Old Testament. For the more fundamental sects, a literal understanding is mandatory, while other, more liberal denominations think of the contents as symbolic – that is, stories that are allegory or metaphor, but not necessarily historical, factually true accounts.
Most Christians of whatever stripe generally agree on the historical record of the New Testament. While gospel writers differ with one another in some of the details, and different denominations might not agree on the notion of, say, the virgin birth (to name just one example), the primary story of Jesus’ life and mission, the miracles he performed, his death and resurrection, and his nature both human and divine, are broadly accepted by most who call themselves Christians.
Get into the Old Testament, however, and it seems everything is up for grabs. Was the universe created in six days? Was there really a Garden of Eden? And did God destroy nearly all living things with a worldwide flood?
Many believe these stories to be literally true, while others call them “myth” – and by calling them myth attempt to reduce them to the category of fairy tale – stories told for a moral purpose, with psychological insight perhaps, but without historic content. Such tales would thus be seen as something akin to Jesus’ parables; fictional stories Jesus used as powerful tools for teaching moral and spiritual principles.
We can accept that Jesus created the parables, and understand why he used fiction as a teaching tool. But who created the stories of Creation, Eden and the Flood? These are laid out in the OT text as historic fact, and tradition suggests the stories were given by God with the double intention of instructing us not only morally and spiritually, but also factually, as well.
Mystical Judaism views Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) intrinsic to the Creation. Some see the text as the Word – a single word of 304,805 Hebrew characters, without spaces or punctuation – spoken by God to bring the world into being.
Since the Enlightenment, textual students of the Bible claim to have uncovered various writing styles and sources for Genesis (such as scribes during David’s time) that, if proven true, would force the faithful to conclude that God guided the hands of these writers. Otherwise, why should we believe the Bible to be anything more divinely instructive than, say, the Iliad, the Odyssey, or the Sumerian legend of Gilgamesh? Is there anything in the text to prove the divine origin of Scripture?
Now here is where we need a more profound understanding of the word “myth.” To that end, I would define myth as “deep truth,” and by deep truth I mean truth that can stand up to all levels of scrutiny, both spiritual and scientific, and still prove to be intrinsically correct.
I would argue that is what we have in the Old Testament story of Creation. Better than my arguing, however, is the argument made by Gerald Schroeder, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-trained scientist whose discoveries I’ve discussed before in this column.
Schroeder combined Einstein’s laws of time and space with the Creation story to demonstrate the first 15 billion years within our Big Bang universe literally equated to six days worth of time outside that time-distorting explosion. (For those wanting to know more about this, I would recommend Schroeder’s book, “The Science of God.”)
Or take the discovery of the physical location of Eden, as derived from the details in Genesis. There is a configuration of rivers described in Genesis 2:10-14 that baffled researchers for years, until satellite photography uncovered the bed of an ancient fourth river that correlated with the description in Genesis.
Or take statements in Genesis not yet verified by science, but which might yet prove to be true. God tells Adam not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, for if “thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die.” (Genesis 2:17) Today’s science may well identify a food that triggered a genetic change in us, leading to cell decay and death. And scientists are hard at work looking for the magic bullet that will stop that decay – that chemical in the fruit of the tree of life that might grant us immortality.
Or take the story of Noah and the ark. How in the world could Noah get two of every creature onto one boat? Well, one of the discoveries of nontraditional archeology is evidence of technological advances in the past, advances we have lost sight of because of cataclysmic and man-made disasters. But consider: in the last 100 years we went from horse-drawn buggies to men on the moon. Technology can come and go very quickly, given our genius for invention – and for self-destruction. So instead of imagining Noah in a bathrobe, leading two camels up a ramp, put him in a lab coat as he loads a ship with the stored DNA of different species. You could get a world’s worth of life on board one large ship, with the right technology.
Don’t get me wrong. Scripture cannot be reduced to science, and science definitely should not be made into scripture. But truth is truth, and I believe the truth of this world – God’s spiritual truth and the world’s scientific truth – ultimately will not be at odds: the physical will mirror the spiritual. And the true nature of myth as a storehouse for deep truth through all ages will become more apparent as we grow in wisdom before God.
Lee Witting is a chaplain at Eastern Maine Medical Center and pastor of the Union Street Brick Church in Bangor. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.