Excursus on Creation of Life and Biological Diversity (Part 17): The Genre of Mytho-History

June 19, 2019     Time: 35:53

The Genre of Mytho-History

Last time we looked at the genealogies in Genesis 1-11 and saw the way in which they serve to provide a chronological framework for the primeval narratives that turn them into a primeval history. But I argued despite the interest in history that these genealogies evince, we shouldn't press them too hard for their literal interpretation. We saw, for example, that in the genealogy in chapter 10 – the so-called Table of Nations – that despite words of “begetting” and “son of” and so forth that these are not actually lines of blood descent but group people on the basis of geography, ethnicity, political considerations, and so forth so that this isn't a literal genealogical table. Moreover, we saw that the artificial symmetry between the antediluvian and the postdiluvian ancestors suggests that this is an artificial construction arranged so as to have ten antediluvian ancestors from Adam to Noah and then ten postdiluvian ancestors from Shem to Abraham. Finally, I argued that the abnormally long lifespans of the antediluvians suggests that these are not to be taken literally but, on the pattern of the fantastic reigns of the ancient Sumerian kings, have some other purpose than to give a literal historical account.

Just this past week I was at a conference at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School on the Creation Project and had a chance to talk with a few Old Testament scholars about some of these issues. I spoke at some length with John Collins, who is a professor of Old Testament at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis, and also with Richard Averbeck, who is a professor of Old Testament and ancient languages at Trinity. I asked them what they thought of these long lifespans of the antediluvians. Collins said to me that nobody knows what is going on here. Everybody is convinced there's something going on here, but nobody can figure out exactly what it is. Averbeck suggested that perhaps the point of having these abnormally long lifespans was to show the tremendous antiquity of the figures involved. Whether in the Genesis genealogies or in the Sumerian king lists, the abnormally long reigns or lifespans was meant to indicate how deep in the prehistoric past they were. But, again, this was just a suggestion. Nobody really knows for sure exactly the reason for these long antediluvian lifespans.

I argued that while these genealogies do evince a historical interest on the part of the author of Genesis, we need to be careful not to press them too woodenly for literality.

So I think Genesis 1-11 are plausibly to be understood as Hebrew myths with an interest in history. The eminent Assyriologist Thorkild Jacobsen proposed that we recognize a unique genre of literature which he called “mytho-history.” On the basis of three fragments of different dates, Thorkild Jacobsen was able to assemble an ancient Sumerian story. Sumer was the Mesopotamian civilization prior to Babylon. He was able to assemble an ancient Sumerian story which he called the Eridu Genesis. Eridu was a Sumerian city. The Eridu Genesis is a story which deals with the creation of man, the institution of kingship and the founding of the first cities, and then the Great Flood. Jacobsen thinks that Genesis similarly describes the creation of man and animals, it lists the leading figures after creation, and then narrates the Flood. His reflections on this sort of literature are worth quoting at length. He says, “These three parts . . .” That is to say, the creation account, the account of the lists of antediluvians, and then the Flood itself. “These three parts moreover are in both traditions . . .” That is to say, both in the Eridu (Sumerian) Genesis and in the Hebrew Genesis.

These three parts, moreover, are in both traditions combined simply by arranging them along a line in time and not according to the most usual device for connecting separate tales or myths: grouping them around a single hero. . . . In the ‘Eridu Genesis’ moreover the progression is clearly a logical one of cause and effect: the wretched state of natural man touches the motherly heart of Nintur, who has him improve his lot by settling down in cities and building temples; and she gives him a king to lead and organize. As this chain of cause and effect leads from nature to civilization, so a following such chain carries from the early cities and kings over into the story of the flood. The well-organized irrigation works carried out by the cities under the leadership of their kings lead to a greatly increased food supply and that in turn makes man multiply on the earth. The volume of noise these people make keeps Enlil from sleeping and makes him decide to get peace and quiet by sending the flood. Now, this arrangement along a line of time as cause and effect is striking, for it is very much the way a historian arranges his data, and since the data here are mythological we may assign both traditions to a new and separate genre as mytho-historical accounts.[1]

It might be seriously questioned whether the conditions identified by Jacobsen for a narrative’s qualifying as even quasi-historical in nature, namely, they arranged causally connected events in chronological order, is really sufficient to indicate a genuine historical interest. By this standard, the myth Enuma Elish (which we've discussed in this class; this is the myth of the ascendancy of the god Marduk to a place of supremacy in the Babylonian pantheon) ought to qualify then as mytho-historical since the story of Marduk's conquest of the dragon goddess Tiamat most certainly relates chronologically ordered, causally connected events in time. He builds the world – the heavens and the Earth – out of the carcass of the dragon goddess Tiamat whom he has slain – clearly a chronological event of cause and effect. But that would be absurd to think that the Enuma Elish is therefore some sort of quasi-historical account. But I think it's important to realize that Jacobsen is talking about an ordering in real time, not merely the fictional time of a myth or fable. The second part of the Eridu Genesis is modeled on the Sumerian king lists, and Jacobsen credits the inclusion of this section in the tale to “pure historical interest on the part of the composer.” So it is this interest in genuine chronology that sets the stories apart from pure myth:

This interest in numbers is very curious, for it is characteristic of myths and folk tales that they are not concerned with time for all. . . . No!– interest in numbers of years belongs elsewhere, to the style of chronicles and historiography. In Mesopotamia we find it first in date-lists, lists of reigns, and in the Kinglist, later on in the Chronicles, but to find this chronological list-form combined, as it is here, with simple mythological narrative, is truly unique. . . . The assignment of the tale to a mytho-historical genre is thus further confirmed.

I realize that classifying Genesis 1-11 as mytho-history is doubtless disquieting for many evangelical Christians. But evangelical laymen would probably be surprised at how widely accepted Jacobsen’s classification of Genesis 1-11 as mytho-history is among evangelical Old Testament scholars. The case of Gordon Wenham, who is a highly respected Old Testament commentator, is instructive. Wenham is the author of the commentary Genesis 1-15 in The Word biblical commentary series. Of Jacobsen’s classification of Genesis 1-11 as mytho-history, Wenham remarks, “This is a sensitive analysis of both texts.” That is to say, both the Eridu Genesis and the biblical Genesis. “But,” and here comes the caveat, “myth is a loaded term which leads to misunderstanding. That is why I prefer Proto history.” So instead of mytho-history, Genesis 1-11 is proto-history. What is that? Wenham says, “It is Proto in that it describes origins and sets out models of God and his dealings with the human race. It is historical in that it describes past realities and the lessons that should be drawn from them.”[2] This is a distinction without a difference. Wenham’s characterization of proto-history aptly describes mytho-history. Wenham says, “The genealogical framework . . . of chapter 4 as well as the introductory formula” – in chapter 2 and verse 4, there he's referring to that formula (toledoth in Hebrew) these are the generations of which then will have a genealogical account – “shows that the editor considers his account proto-historical: as describing real individuals from the primeval past whose actions are significant for all mankind.”[3]


The narratives put profound theological truths “in vivid and memorable form in an absorbing yet highly symbolic story.”[4] If we take these stories as straightforward history, Wenham cautions, “we may be forced to conclude that Genesis is trying to relate history but not succeeding, which would be a rather negative conclusion.”[5] That's why Wenham prefers proto-history. It’s evident, I think, that there is no material difference between proto-history and mytho-history. Wenham simply declines to use the word “myth” because of the connotations which the word has in popular parlance.

By contrast, Bill Arnold is an evangelical Old Testament scholar at Asbury Seminary in Wilmington, Kentucky. Arnold has more temerity than Wenham. He opines,

These chapters are no simple history or example of ancient historiography. At most, we may say that mythical themes have been arranged in a forward-moving, linear progression, in what may be considered a historicizing literary form, using genealogies especially, to make history out of myth.[6]

Not that myth has been lost: rather myth is combined with history. Accordingly, Arnold believes, Jacobsen’s nomenclature should be adopted:

The Primeval History (Gen. 1-11) addresses the origins of the universe, the creation of humanity, and the first institutions of human civilization. We retain the term ‘history’ in the title of this first unit of the Bible–the Primeval History–because, on the one hand, it arranges themes along a time continuum using cause and effect and generally uses historical narrative as the literary medium for communication. On the other hand, those themes themselves are the same ones explored elsewhere in the ancient Near East in mythological literature  . . . . The Primeval History narrates those themes in a way that transforms their meaning and import, and for these reasons we may think of these chapters as a unique literary category, which some have termed ‘mytho-historical.’

Although Wenham is doubtless correct that the classification of Genesis 1-11 as mytho-history is prone to misunderstanding, I do not think that we who are scholars should revert to vague euphemisms like “proto-history” that tend to conceal rather than to disclose the literary character of Genesis 1-11. I think we simply need to be careful to explain our meaning to laymen in the way that I have tried to do in this class over the last several months.


Student: I want to come back to the definition of “myth.” Should we just not believe Genesis 1-15 because it's all made up?

Dr. Craig: No. You highlight a good point. “Myth” – we're not using it here in the popular sense like a falsehood. We are using it in the sense in which folklorists use it. Do you remember way back when we started this study, we saw that folklorists distinguish three types of folklore: myth, folktales, and legends. The distinguishing qualities of myths as a literary type is that they seek to ground present realities that are determinative for a society or culture in primordial events in the distant past. So they will treat grand themes like the origin of the world, the origin of humanity, the Flood, and so forth. That's the sense in which we're using this term, and it is neutral with respect to truth.

Student: Can we believe the themes, or do we just disbelieve the numbers and ages? What part of Genesis 1-15 do I . . . ?

Dr. Craig: That’s the million-dollar question. I will address that next week.

Student: It seems like the effort to synthesize this with other legends of the time is where this idea of trying to de-historizing these verses comes from. But I would submit that if this was true history (like Genesis 1-11, which I would believe) then in false renditions of this in the non-believing communities and so forth that people would have developed these other types of stories that have similarities but are exaggerations or folklore. They would introduce other things into the stories. You have the same thing with the New Testament. You have all kinds of literature that wasn't included in the canon that's very spacious. Some of it’s good and like The Didache that wasn't included in the canon but then you have things that are very bizarre – tales of Jesus killing people as a young person or being offended or doing strange things. All these types. There's many different pseudepigrapha out there that are not included in the canon. So I don't think you can say I want to categorize the Scripture in a certain way because there's other communities and unbelieving communities that have established different ideas and that we somehow need to synthesize these.

Dr. Craig: All right. Let me refer back to the lessons that we spent on the nature of Genesis 1-11 where I pointed out, as I believe appealing to Wenham, that the first eleven chapters of Genesis are very, very different from chapter 12 to the end of the book. The first eleven chapters bear close resemblances to the themes and literature of ancient Mesopotamian mythology, whereas from the call of Abraham on there aren't these sort of resemblances. So the argument is that when you read Genesis 1-11 in its historical context there are, I think, a couple of earmarks that suggest we're not dealing with just straightforward history here. One would be that the common themes that are treated in ancient mythology and in Genesis. The second would be this interest, remember, in etiology. Etiology is the attempt to ground present realities in the primordial past. At some length I tried to show that that also characterizes Genesis 1-11. On these grounds I think that we're on pretty good basis in saying that it has the folklorist’s interest in myth that would cause one to classify these as myths in the folklorist sense, though the genealogies then definitely show an interest in history as well.

When it comes to the Gospels, I think the relevant comparison is not later apocryphal Gospels that know the biblical canonical Gospels and then try to import Gnostic mythology into them or philosophy. It would be whether or not the Gospels can be explained on the basis of prior literature, for example the myths of Greece and Rome which were contemporaneous with the Gospels. Here I am so thankful for the work of New Testament scholars who were able to show that that hypothesis is false. The same sort of hypothesis that does seem to be true of Genesis 1-11 was tried in the late 1800s for the Gospels. You still find this on the Internet – that the accounts of the life of Jesus are predicated upon Greco-Roman or Egyptian mythology and therefore Jesus is a mythological figure or he's influenced by myth. That has been exploded by 20th century, and now 21st century, New Testament scholarship which has established that the supposed parallels between the Gospels and mythology are first of all spurious (they're bogus) and then secondly there's no causal connection between these myths and the Gospels. Rather, scholars like Richard Burridge have changed the course of New Testament scholarship by convincing historical Jesus scholars that the genre of the Gospels is that of ancient biography like The Lives of famous Greeks and Romans by Plutarch. These ancient biographies definitely have a historical interest. So we shouldn't think that because Genesis 1-11 do resemble in their etiology and their grand themes Ancient Near Eastern myths that that's also true of the Gospels. Because it's not true; it is false. When you're dealing with the Gospels, you're dealing with a historical genre.

Student: I'm wondering if you found in any of the commentaries you've read on the subject here whether there is any internal evidence within the rest of Scripture that they might have referred to those early chapters of Genesis as this kind of mytho-history.

Dr. Craig: I have focused all of my attention over the last year on these eleven chapters. My next step will begin to look at what is called inter-textual references. Certainly both Jesus and Paul refer to Adam and Eve, and there are other New Testament references to Noah and the Flood. Those need to be taken up next, but I haven't done that yet.

Student: Just to tag onto that, I feel like we're approaching the early chapters of Genesis as if we read them as myth but somehow we have to prove them as history. I wonder if there's a way of looking at it the other way around where . . . I guess what I'm wondering is, would the authors of the Old Testament have just not even thought twice about how they would have represented those early stories in Scripture? Were they actually thinking, We’re going to do it in this kind of artistic sense of using the genealogies and these even numbers, or would they have just thought, This is the way we do history?

Dr. Craig: Obviously, these classifications of genre are modern categories. Right? These are categories of modern folklore and literature and so forth, not categories that the original authors would have been thinking of. So I think there the relevant question is: did they intend for their narratives to be read in a sort of literal way? I've already argued, when we looked at Genesis 1, that I think there are indications in the text itself that they didn't intend it to be read in a kind of literal fashion. We will talk more about that, as I say, next week.

Student: I just wanted to say you're so brilliant, you answered the question before I asked it! [laughter] I was going to ask about the reference by Christ of Adam and Eve, Noah, and so forth, and how that might be understood – this approach. You said you were going to look into that further. So I felt like you answered it.

Dr. Craig: Well, I didn’t answer it – I begged off answering it. [laughter]

Student: The other is: I'm assuming that what was written in Genesis 1-11 prior to it being written was a compilation of sort of an oral tradition or that was compiled in the writing of the Scripture.

Dr. Craig: Doubtless.

Student: So it could then be more of the way people at that time communicated their understanding or what they feel was revealed to them about their lineage and their origins.

Dr. Craig: Right.

Student: And that might affect how our modern-day view of that type of expression seems foreign or in the sense of it not being necessarily a historical reflection on everything they knew. But it was their dealings with the subject. Is that sort of correct?

Dr. Craig: Yes, I think that's right. We want to try to get inside their horizon, so to speak, and put ourselves in their footsteps. That's the danger that we spoke of earlier – of concordism – where you try to read modern science into the narrative and say, “A-ha! This is the Big Bang!”

Student: As if they knew that and were trying to give us hints.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, right, or that God has hidden it in between the lines. We want to try to avoid that sort of hermeneutic by putting ourselves in their shoes and seeing how they would have understood it.

Student: Would an example perhaps of what you're talking about how a society grounds itself in primordial events be maybe here in our society we value honesty and strength, so we take George Washington (who's a historical character) and then we create what from everything I've heard is a myth – he cuts down the cherry tree of his father and then his father says, Did you do this?, and he said, I cannot tell a lie? Or there's also a myth that he skipped a silver dollar across the Potomac River to illustrate strength. Are those examples of the kind of thing that you're talking?

Dr. Craig: Yes. Or perhaps legends. But that is the idea. Right, we would try to ground our present beliefs in honesty and uprightness in this event in the past. But I think that the only thing there is that it's not really primordial. It's not prehistoric. That's within relatively recent past, and so that might be better described by a folklorist as a legend rather than a myth.

Student: I'm worried for, let's say, apologetic reasons of using this word “mytho-history.” Is it conceivable to view, let's say, things that would be more I guess based off of naturalism or naturalistic views of let's say the genealogies. I noticed that you mentioned the justification for having the name “history” at the end was the genealogies. But in between some of the genealogies there's certain miracles that may be referenced here.

Dr. Craig: Are you talking about the Old Testament?

Student: The Old Testament; not necessarily Genesis, but the Old Testament as a whole. Is it conceivable that these miracles that occur can actually be historically 100 percent accurate but the genealogies itself could be mythological? The reason why I ask is not so much for . . . because it seems as though the name “mytho” only applies to the things that are supernatural and historical only applies to the natural aspects of it.

Dr. Craig: No, no, I wouldn’t want to say that. I would say the “mytho” part applies primarily to the stories – the narratives. And then the genealogies serve to order these historically and I think show that these are taken as being about real people and real things that happened. Though even the genealogies, as we've seen (or as I've argued anyway) can't be pressed for a kind of wooden literalness.


Let me conclude by summing up.

In sum, the shared themes and interest in etiology of Genesis 1-11 and Ancient Near Eastern myths leads us to think of the primeval history as composed of Hebrew monotheistic myths whose primary purpose is to ground realities present to the Pentateuchal author and important for Israelite society in the primordial past. At the same time, the interstitching of the primeval narratives with genealogies terminating in real people evinces a historical interest on the author's part in persons who once lived and wrought. So it seems to me that the classification of Genesis 1-11 as mytho-history is a plausible genre analysis.

Now, if Genesis 1-11 belongs to the genre of mytho-history then the question arises: Is the primeval history to be understood as literally true? That's the question that we will take up next week.[7]


[1]           Thorkild Jacobsen, “The Eridu Genesis,” [1981], in “I Studied Inscriptions from before the Flood”: Ancient Near Eastern, Literary, and Linguistic Approaches to Genesis 1-11, ed. Richard S. Hess and David Toshio Tsumura, Sources for Biblical and Theological Studies (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1994), p. 140.

[2]           Gordon J. Wenham, “Genesis 1-11 as Proto-history,” p. 87; cf. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, p. 54.

[3]           Wenham, “Genesis 1-11 as Proto-history,” p. 117.

[4]           Wenham, Genesis 1-15, p. 55.

[5]           Wenham, “Response to James K. Hoffmeier,” p. 62.

[6]           Bill T. Arnold, “The Genesis Narratives,” in Ancient Israel’s History: An Introduction to Issues and Sources, ed. Bill T. Arnold and Richard S. Hess (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014), p. 31.

[7]           [7]Total Running Time: 35:57 (Copyright © 2019 William Lane Craig)