the Bible’s mythic worldview and why you should care (a brief review of a new book)

biblical cosmosDo you want a book that describes how the biblical writers themselves actually understood the cosmos? Of course you do. What a dumb question.

Well, do you want that book to deal honestly with ancient data instead of “defending” the Bible, while at the same time being sensitive to more conservative readers? Sure you do.

And would you want that book to be actually short (about 200 pages), readable, with pictures, and even a bit funny now and then? “Yes of course, Pete. Who wouldn’t? But how can this be? Such a thing has never been done.”

And now what if I told you that a book like this actually exists? You’d be so happy, you couldn’t even. You’d gladly sell half your library in order to buy it.

Well, the book does exist and it doesn’t cost half your library. It’s called The Biblical Cosmos: A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Weird and Wonderful World of the Bible by Robin A. Parry (Ph.D., University of Gloucestershire), whose previous books include LamentationsThe Evangelical Universalist (under the pseudonym Gregory MacDonald), Universal Salvation?: The Current Debate (ed.), and Deep Church Rising (with Andrew G. Walker). He is also featured in Kevin Miller’s documentary Hellbound?

I read the book in prepublication form last year, was proud to endorse it, and couldn’t wait for it to see the light of day. A book like this is sorely needed because it does what no other book I know of does, at least not nearly as well and with as much transparency.

Parry walks his readers through a tour of the ancient cosmos–the cosmos as it was understood by the Old Testament writers–and he does so fully availing himself of the current state of modern critical scholarship. (He has an admirable ability to explain complex issues clearly and quickly.)

On this point, many treatments within evangelicalism falter because, sooner or later, they hit a doctrinal ceiling and arc toward an apologetically oriented engagement with the ancient Near East, wishing to keep some distance between the biblical presentation of the cosmos and those of Israel’s contemporaries and predecessors.

But Parry doesn’t arc toward apologetics. At all. But neither is he in your face. He writes with sensitivity for conservative readers who are not as far along in processing this information as he is.

This would be enough to make me want to assign this book at both the Christian college and seminary levels.

But what makes Parry’s book even more valuable is how he brings forward this contextually informed reading of the Old Testament into a deeper understanding of the theology of the New Testament and how Christians today can “enter” this biblical cosmos for themselves.

The key for Parry is in seeing the ancient Israelite depictions of the earth (chapter 1) and the heavens (chapter 2) as reflective of God’s Temple, which is further concretized in the person and work of Christ (chapter 3). That is ultimately the “biblical cosmos” that scripture offers Christians today.

If Parry’s audience and his intentions are kept in view, no who understands representations of the cosmos in antiquity will have much if anything to quibble with. And those who might have asked in the past whether there is ever any practical theological payoff for understanding the ancient world of the Bible will do so no longer.

The ancient Near Eastern context of the Old Testament is not a mere incidental covering to be removed and discarded to reveal the true divine message beneath. Rather, that context forms the very substance of how the ancient biblical writers understood their world and the God they worshipped.

The ancient context touches the theology of the biblical writers not here and there, but at every point. And any serious theological engagement with scripture will have to embrace that contextually driven ancient message–not only for describing the theology of the Bible but for capturing the imagination of Christians today as they seek to live truly biblically.

Parry pulls this off.

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  • gingoro

    Pete if Genesis is just a story, as your Jewish friend said, that has been riffed on down thro the ages what difference does it make? Why understand the context of a man made story without divine significance? Sure specialists care but why should the ordanary Christian? Any way it is too expensive and would take up precious shelf space as it is not available in Kindle format. DaveW

    • AHH

      If you read that post, Pete’s Jewish classmate did NOT say “just a story”. He said “a story”. There’s a world of difference between “just a story” and an inspired story (however we understand inspiration to work). We would not, for example, dismiss Jesus’ parables as “just a story”.

    • http://labreuer.wordpress.com Luke Breuer

      Pete if Genesis is just a story, as your Jewish friend said, that has been riffed on down thro the ages what difference does it make?

      What difference does it make that Genesis 1 has all of mankind being created in God’s image, both male and female, in contrast to competing ancient Near East traditions? I would say “a tremendous amount”; how about you? For more, see Enns’ Inspiration and Incarnation, where he not only discusses the matter but references sources for deeper investigation:

      Middleton, J. Richard. The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2005.

      Middleton looks at the idea of the “image of God” in Genesis 1– 11 in the context of ancient Near Eastern religions. He concludes that Israel’s theological traditions are articulated in conscious opposition to the ideological categories of Mesopotamia. In contrast to Mesopotamian ideology, Israel’s story promotes the dignity of all humans, not just that of the royal or priestly classes. Middleton also outlines some ethical implications for today. (Kindle Locations 1231-1236)

      • Giauz Ragnarock

        All of that may be true, but “in the image of god” could also be “in the image of the gods” (male and female sexual characteristics and genitalia).

      • gingoro

        That is a good point, I had forgotten about Middleton’s book and how it draws on the image of God.

      • Peter_Franks12

        In contrast to Mesopotamian ideology, Israel’s story promotes the dignity of all humans, not just that of the royal or priestly classes.

        Yet the bible also okays slavery, the killing of people just because they are homosexuals, and the selling of one’s daughter(s) into sexual slavery – and these were all condoned by God. Let’s also not forget that the Israelites wiped out entire towns just to get their land. It doesn’t sound like the bible promotes the dignity of all humans.

    • Frank McManus

      That Genesis is “just a story” (or more accurately, stories) is precisely why it DOES have divine significance. In other words, God speaks through normal human history — we encounter God incarnationally. We therefore don’t need Genesis to have floated down from heaven on a golden parchment. That’s not what our God is like. Our God is a God who is down in the dirt, the muck, the confusion and uncertainty with us. And somehow, God has revealed himself through these human documents we call the Bible.

      • gingoro

        I was not talking about a golden parchment floating down from heaven. But (as I understand) Pete talks about the Bible being composed of religious peoples stories composed from their reflecting upon their own life and cultural experiences and their inherited religious writings and traditions. In my opinion there must be at some level inspiration and some level of historical background or how does Christianity differ from other philosophy and religions? It is like what holds up the world, “It is turtles, all the way down”. Is it riffing (midrash) all the way down? If not how do we tell the difference?

        • Paul D.

          “…how does Christianity differ from other philosophy and religions?”

          That’s a worthwhile question. I think another one is, “why do we need Christianity to be distinct from and superior to all other philosophies and religions?” Wouldn’t it be nice to discover we had *more* in common with the rest of our global family and its ancient traditions, instead of less?

  • Hazuki Azuma

    Any Christian who lived “truly biblically” would be insane, in jail, or both. Dr. Enns, much as I respect that you aren’t a flaming fundamentalist monster, you MUST understand that your Jesus’ ethics were both apocalyptic and based in Divine Command Theory, which is untenable and must steal the very concept of morality from a naturalistic worldview in order even to speak of it.

    I am not an atheist, but I know enough of ancient hitory, comparative religion, koine Greek, apologia and counter-apologia, etc. to see that the Abrahamic religions are a memetic plague. Your Jesus is not “meek and mild,” nor was he original, nor was he even particuarly sane. His language in all the Gospels (and by implication in the Pauline Epistles, the ones that Paul actually DID write…) indicates that he expected the end of the world Any Day Now (TM). 1900+ years later, here we are, and you know what Deut. 18 says about false prophets…

    Please abandon this hideous, evil religion, responsible for so much bloodshed, with its pornographic Hell and zombified Heaven and genocidal egomaniac of a God, a jumped-up Ugaritic idol, and become a full humanist. Frankly, as a “liberal” you’re 4/5 of the way there already…

    • Andrew Dowling

      Your hyperbole is as overtly exaggerated as Pat Robertson’s drunken ramblings . . .

  • Bill Carsley

    Sounds like this would be a helpful companion book to John Walton’s “The Lost World of Genesis One.” That too is sensitive to conservative readers while taking seriously the immersion of biblical literature in the ANE cultural context and world-view. I learned a great deal from it.

  • AHH

    Pete, how does this book compare to John Walton’s Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament which appears to cover similar ground? Is Parry’s book (besides being shorter and more expensive) written at a more popular level? Is it more narrowly focused on the cosmos? Does Walton get stopped by that “doctrinal ceiling” that you mention?

    • peteenns

      More popular/engaging, doesn’t stop short (so to speak), and does biblical theology.

    • Daniel Fisher

      Ok, so based on a few of the comments I bought the Walton book mentioned here – Ancient Near Eastern Thought (it was available on Kindle and was half the cost of the Parry book – which is currently unavailable on amazon in any case)

      Could anyone give any particular insight or critique I might pay attention to as I read it? So far it seems both well balanced and quite thorough, but I’d be interested of any specific criticisms or shortcomings

  • MacPeter

    Thanks Peter, this looks like a good read. Do you have any suggestions for a work that might do the same thing–offer a “practical theological payoff”–for the Canaanite conquest narratives?

    • Paul D.

      You might want to look at The Human Faces of God by Thom Stark.

  • Daniel Fisher

    Maybe it doesn’t cost literally half my library, but at $24.30 and without a kindle edition, I’ll have to see if my local library can get a copy…

  • AlanCK

    Excuse me while I quote some Karl Barth from CD III.2 (which every student of theology and the Bible should read so as to not lose any more sleep over this issue):

    1. “It cannot fail to strike us that the faith which grasps the Word of God and expresses it in its witness, although it has constantly allied itself with cosmologies, has never yet engendered its own distinctive world-view, but in this respect has always made more or less critical use of alien views.”

    2. “The reason why there is no revealed or biblical world-view characteristic of and necessary to the Christian kerygma is that faith in the Word of God can never find its theme in the totality of the created world. It believes in God in His relation to the man who lives under heaven and on earth; but it does not believe in this or that constitution of heaven and earth. If in handling its own proper theme it could not help formulating certain theories about heaven and earth, it always formulated them provisionally. And if in its formulations it used material derived from certain modes of conceiving the world, it could never identify itself with these views in any true or essential sense. It could not make them the true content of its own witness and confession.”

    3. “From the fact that faith, committed to its own special theme, can give only incidental attention to creation as a whole, it follows that its relation to the cosmological presuppositions and consequences of its witness and confession could and can only be supremely non-committal. It never accepts the material of changing world-views for its own sake. Sometimes it uses it at one point only to discard it at another. It can pass from one world-view to another without being untrue to itself, i.e, to its object. It is always free in relation to all such conceptions.”

    4. “Even where (in certain types of though among certain Christians and movements) we think we detect an absolute union of faith with this or that world-view, we are not really dealing with faith at all, but with a partial deviation from faith such as is always possible in the life of the Church and of individuals. Hence it is not legitimate to infer from this process that this kind of absolute assimilation of faith to alien world-views is characteristic of or necessary to Christian faith itself.”

    5. “In so far as faith itself is true to itself, i.e., to its object, and in so far as its confession is pure, its association with this or that world-view will always bear the marks of the contradiction between the underlying confession and the principles of the system with which it is conjoined. If there can be no confession of the faith without a cosmological presupposition or consequence (however tacit its acknowledgement), faith can always guard itself against the autonomy of its alien associate. Thus even in these conjunctions of faith with alien world-views its opposition to the latter will always find expression.”

    The Word of God holds to an ontology of humanity living under heaven and on earth, but simply does not have an ontology of heaven and earth themselves.

    • http://www.pseudepigriphalphilanthrophy.com/ Johannesclimacus

      thanks for the quotes!

  • Ross

    (I’m not sure if I’m really responding to the post, but I can certainly recommend Australian red wine in a box).

    I suppose, looking at some of the posts lower down, that there is a bit of a problem of how to deal with the “mystery” of God and how he deals (or doesn’t) with us. In Fundamental Evangelicalism (or is it Evangelical Fundamentalism?) v Anti-theism, we see the two ends of the polarised thought-form characterised by “binary thinking” which seems, sort of based on “non-mystery”. Either there is a God, or there isn’t. The bible is given from God or it’s written by people. You’re either saved or not, good or bad…….

    I think this is because we want concrete answers and hate insecurity or “mystery”. Unfortunately it leaves us wrestling with God. “Why Oh why can’t you just give us an answer? (you sadist(oops sorry))”. I think that somehow the bible was written by people, with input (inspiration) from God. So has much other stuff. Jesus was man, but also God. He and it wasn’t one or the other, but somewhere in-between. That is just so frustrating! How can we be sure the bible has any authority? How can we be sure my vicar has any authority? How the hell can I actually know anything?

    Well ultimately we can’t know anything really, not truly utterly really know. So let’s stop pretending we do.

    The older I get, the less I realise I do know (particularly where my spectacles are). Which is a bit of a disappointment because I’ve actually learnt a heck of a lot since I was a teenager and I nearly knew everything then!

    Is it possible that if we aren’t wrestling with these issues and “wrestling with God”, then we aren’t going anywhere or learning anything?

    • Jazmin

      Wise words. Thank you.

  • Robin Parry

    Hi. Some folk asked about the epub and kindle editions. They are on their way. There was a delay because of problems with diacritical marks in transliterated Hebrew, meaning that it would not translate into the e-editions. However, those problems are now resolved and the e-versions are in process. They will be a lot cheaper than the print edition.

    Robin Parry

    • Daniel Fisher

      Sir, thanks for the update, I’ll be sure to keep on the lookout for it.

  • Robin Parry

    The Kindle edition of the book is now available

  • https://sites.google.com/site/apocalypticwisdom/ Alan Fuller

    Accurate data?

    From pages 20-21 of the ebook.

    “In our cosmology the sun lies at the center of the solar system and the earth orbits it. But of course, such an idea was undreamt of before Nicolaus Copernicus (1453-1543).”

    * Aristarchus of Samos (c. 310 – c. 230 BC) was an ancient Greek astronomer and mathematician who presented the first known model that placed the Sun at the center of the known universe with the Earth revolving around it. He was influenced by Philolaus of Croton, but he identified the “central fire” with the Sun, and put the other planets in their correct order of distance around the Sun.

    Aristarchus suspected the stars were other suns that are very far away, and that in consequence there was no observable parallax, that is, a movement of the stars relative to each other as the Earth moves around the Sun. The stars are much farther away than was generally assumed in ancient times; and since stellar parallax is only detectable with telescopes, his speculation although accurate was unprovable at the time.