Fishbane on Mythmaking and the Bible

W Scott Taylor of ideoamnostoutheou posts a quote from Micheal Fishbane on the Facebook group The Open Theist Reformation: Biblical Open Theism:

Myth, Anthropomorphisms, Cosmic Plenum and Ancient Near Eastern ‘tendentious and presumptive dismissal of biblical language about God’. *
“A striking feature of contemporary attempts to differentiate ancient Israel from myth often depends upon definitions that first define myth in terms of polytheistic paganism, and thus juxtapose this definition to features of biblical monotheism—concluding thereby that ‘myth’ is absent from the latter. For example, on the argument that an essential variable of ancient Near Eastern paganism is the origin of the gods in a cosmic ‘plenum’, from which substance: they emerge as differentiated personalities, but upon whose elemental character they are necessarily and inherently dependent, the figure of a singular God with a transcendent will, who is (apparently) distinct from the natural world to which He gave created form, is of a fundamentally different sort. Hereby, myth is linked with the natural gods of polytheism and totally dissociated from supernatural monotheism. Accordingly, it is presumed that any hint of myth as recognizable from the ancient Near East (in terms of divine action, imagery, or personality) can only be harmless vestiges of a figurative (or metaphorical) sort and thus neither true nor living myth.

But this is a self-serving and fallacious line of argument. Whether or not these characterizations of polytheistic paganism or monotheism are in any way accurate, the exclusive identification of a literary phenomenon (myth) with a specific religious cultural form (natural polytheism) is both tendentious and tautological: the first, because the defintion is arbitrary and selective; and the second, because the identification is always self-confirming, and without any means of checking its circular or redundant character. Such argumentation is also based on certain essentialist views regarding polytheism and monotheism, though it generally avoids this stigma through the pretense of comparative historical study, and conceals an old cultural animus against brute ‘myth’ (the heir of Hellas) under the cover of an analytical phenomenology of religion. [22] Nevertheless, such intellectual practices reveal just how much the category of myth still serves as a container for all the cultural forms of ideologies that one has purportedly transcended (like irrationality, polytheism, and paganism) — for the sake of others assumed to be superior in kind (like reason, monotheism, or historical inquiry) and with which one identifies.[23] The result is a lamentable impoverishment of the notion and nature of myth, and its formulations within biblical monotheism; but it is also a schematization of monotheism that equally impoverishes its inherent and complex features. Indeed, the upshot of much recent writing is to claim differences between monotheism and polytheism that are arguably more polemical than propeadeutic, and that need to be thoroughly reconsidered.[24]

Equally tendentious is the presumptive dismissal of certain apparently mythic features of biblical language (its unabashed and pervasive deptions of God in anthropomorphic and anthropopathic terms) that blatantly occur in the monotheistic canon of Scripture—as if these were merely due to ‘the inadequacy of human language’ and ‘limitation of human thought’, or to some sort of necessarily ‘indirect grasp’ of ‘spiritual concepts’ by ‘images…that emphasize the sensual’.[25] But on what grounds are such assertions made? Surely there is nothing in Scripture itself that would point in this direction, or suggest that the representations of divine form and feeling in human terms are anything other than the preferred and characteristic mode of depiction. [26] Moreover, on what basis should one assume that the plain sense of Scripture is some (quasi-allegorical) approximation of a more spiritual or purely metaphorical content? And would would that content be, we may well ask, and is it even possible to get past the thick immediacy of biblical language and its concrete and sensible accounts of God? [27] One can only conclude that the evasion of the direct sense of Scripture that such attitudes represent are attempts to save Scripture from itself—for oneself, and must be considered a species of modern apologetics.[28]

[26.] Cf. the judicious concern of Jame Barr, ‘Theophany and Anthropomorphism in the Old Testament’, Congress Volume, Oxfort (SVT 7; Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1960), 33, who urges the interprete to shift from the question ‘Is God conceived of as essentially in human form”‘ to ‘When he does appear in a forma at all, is it thought that the human form isthe natural or characteristic one form him to assume?’ ”

* NOTE: the previous paragraphs (not the title) were taken from the Introduction :

“Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking”, by Micheal Fishbane (see free preview via Google search on the title.

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