What about the fact that modern science seems to disprove the Old Testament stories?

…Does that mean they’re just myths?

I’ve heard this type of question a lot, and my perception that modern science had proven once and for all that those Bible creation stories were “just myths” was one of the things that prevented me from taking Christianity seriously when I was an atheist. Recently I got a good email from a reader on this subject. She writes (I’m paraphrasing for brevity):

I am a Catholic homeschooling mom who has been reading your blog for a while. One thing I have been wondering is this: how did you come to terms with the argument that Christianity is merely an anthropological construct? So many of the Old Testament stories seem to have parallels in ancient mythology. My kids are now asking these questions as we cover ancient history in our schooling.

This is an important question, so I promptly answered it with: “Phhhft dhurr goo-goo.” (I’d had another long night with the baby and seemed to have misplaced my brain that day.) Thinking that that might not be an entirely satisfying answer, I did what I often do when I’m not able to articulate an answer to a question as I’d like: I emailed regular commentor Steve G. As usual, he had a great answer. He writes:

First of all, read the post Adam, Noah, and Science by Jimmy Aiken. He does a far better job of handling the historicity issue better than I ever could, but I am not so sure that really addresses her question. It gives some context that is needed for further discussion though. Reading the comments to this post might also be helpful.

To answer the question more broadly, however, let’s start with discussing mythology in general. I think it’s important to keep in mind the context of what mythology really is. Ancient mythology is not the equivalent of modern day fantasy. Mythology was not simply a set of fantastic stories meant to entertain. They were vehicles by which societies passed on the truths they believed. They were stories that explained how the world worked and why it was the way it was. Most, if not all, ancient societies had these mythic explanations for the basic understanding they had of why we existed, how the world came into being, etc.

The ancient Hebrews were not different in that regard, and I think we have to read parts of Genesis (especially the early parts) with that in mind. These chapters were events that occurred before Abraham and in many regards are the mytho poetic telling of the Hebrews regarding the creation of the universe, man, and why the world was in the state it was (the fall).

It shouldn’t surprise us in the least that the mythic telling of different cultures have commonalities. If God truly created us and we have a common humanity, many of the truths we discover should be common as well.

Think of it like this:

Let’s say the Catholic faith is advanced Calculus in terms of mathematics. Part of the base mathematics that are used are very simple operations. Adding, subtracting, multiplication.

Now, if we encounter another society that has a much more primitive understanding of mathematics, maybe pre-algebra level…should it surprise us when we look at that basics, that they too use adding, subtracting, etc? Should that fact give us any concern that perhaps our math is wrong because of the commonality?

I don’t think so. I think we should rather expect such things if man is man, and if man is made in God’s image. ALL men, even those who haven’t had access to the gospel would be able to get at least some of the fundamental human truths correct and those truths would be part of what we hold true. Just as any society could get the basics of mathematics even if they haven’t gotten to the point of doing advanced calculus.

So, if man is fallen, we’d expect to see stories in one form or another of the fall of humanity, and the ‘breaking’ of original creation. And in fact that’s what we do see.

If there was a HUUUUGE flood in the known world of the writers (the Ancient Near East) in which only a few survived, we should expect to see that story common to the cultures of that area.

Let’s keep in mind here also as we talk about mythology, that mythology doesn’t necessarily imply untruth. If we say that the story of Adam and Eve is told in mythic language, that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. It may mean it isn’t literal in every detail, but the essential truths being conveyed to the hearer/reader are meant to be taken seriously.

That the universe was created by God (does six days or six million years really matter?). That man was created by God in His image. That man by his free choice broke his relationship with God and wounded himself and creation. These are the essential truths we are being taught. They are, or should be, discernible to all who read these books.

All of the context I’ve laid out here doesn’t to me make this any less the inerrant word of God, it’s just that we need to understand these books in their proper context. Again, I think Jimmy’s article hopefully does an excellent job of handling that. It may be that the Hebrews, as the chosen instrument of God, shared some common mythology, that was ALSO informed by their special relationship with God. I just don’t see the two as mutually exclusive. I definitely don’t think we should be troubled to find the common elements that are referred to.

Thanks to my reader for the good question, and to Steve G. for taking the time to compose an answer.

UPDATE: Here is a Part II to this post.

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Enter the Conversation...

10 Responses to “What about the fact that modern science seems to disprove the Old Testament stories?”
  1. Anna says:

    I’m trying to remember which book it was that C.S. Lewis addressed this question. I think it was in Mere Christianity. His take on it was quite good.

  2. Melanie B says:

    Another great response from Steve G.

    Sadly, when I was teaching at our local state college some of my students came into my class one day confused on the same issue. However, in their case I believe the history professor was deliberately confusing the issue and purposefully sowing doubt in the Old Testament. Of course one of the great benefits of homeschooling is that you can teach your children how to seek out answers to such questions so they won’t fall prey to such underhanded teachers.

  3. Literacy-chic says:

    You know, I actually enjoy some of the biblical archeology documentaries I’ve seen–not all, mind you, but the ones that actually seem to take the OT seriously instead of trying to explain it away. Those others are fun when you want to yell at the TV–a favorite pastime of my husband & I, actually! ;) Before he went all anti-Christian, I enjoyed Jacobovici’s “Exodus Decoded” and some of the other better made ones. Some of the stories are more difficult to sort through than others, but I’ve never understood a Catholic to argue that the OT was completely literal… or am I missing something?

  4. Literacy-chic says:

    Ancient mythology is not the equivalent of modern day fantasy. Mythology was not simply a set of fantastic stories meant to entertain. They were vehicles by which societies passed on the truths they believed. They were stories that explained how the world worked and why it was the way it was.

    I just had to add that Tolkien would certainly have taken issue with this definition of “modern fantasy,” as he saw the goal of fantasy (his fantasy, certainly) as doing exactly this: “passing on the truths he believed”–hence, mythopoeia. But as that is not the subject of this post, I give Jen leave to moderate this comment away! ;) I just happen to be teaching this right now & couldn’t resist. Sorry!

  5. Theocoid says:

    You might check out some of the articles here: http://www.bede.org.uk/jesusindex.htm

  6. Martin says:

    Steve G’s thoughts on whatever subject are always well written and insightful. Great job.

  7. SteveG says:

    Literacy-chic
    I just had to add that Tolkien would certainly have taken issue with this definition of “modern fantasy,” as he saw the goal of fantasy (his fantasy, certainly) as doing exactly this: “passing on the truths he
    believed”–hence, mythopoeia.

    I agree with your assesment of how Tolkien would have viewed this. He would have certainly understood that the ancients took mythology seriously in the way I described in the post.

    I was speaking more of the general attitude of modern Western society which fails to distinguish between entertainment fantasy and real mythology.

    I think most folks would lump such fantasy in the same category as mythology, and see both as fanciful stories meant to entertain. They don’t realize what real mythology was/is.

    That lumping together is, I think, at the heart of why people think they can easily dismiss the Judaeo-Christian mythic tellings as ‘just’ myth.

    It’s my thinking that understanding what myth really is/was is might be the first step towards seeing and understanding what Tolkien himself called Christianity….True Mythology.

  8. Literacy-chic says:

    Steve G.,

    I agree with you–I was just being tangential!! Like I said, it was what was on my mind right now! Tolkien would have agreed with your assessment of the mythology, while trying to convince people that the way they viewed fantasy was limiting.

  9. Mojo says:

    The scary fact is, and I say this from experience with a diocesan Catholic school in the US, there are teachers at many Catholic schools and so-called Catholic universities bent on teaching a revisionist and ‘enlightened’ theory of our Faith and Holy Scripture. If one takes time to Google ‘the myth of Adam and Eve,’ a frightening and controversial world will open, which can be followed (if you dare) from link to link. I have done so, and found myself immersed in a world of Gnosticism, goddesses, Adam being androgynous, mentions of Mother Earth, New Age, “Divine Sophia, the feminine hypostasis of the supreme Godhead,” references to The DaVinci Code, and other very disturbing gobbledygook. Perhaps “Et tu?” readers have done much the same..that is, looked into this “myth” teaching issue. It was shocking when my husband and I, and other parent peers of ours, first began this quest 3 yrs ago. We all became fond of saying, “Our kids wouldn’t be getting this stuff at XXX.” (The Protestant school down the street.) One can easily imagine our anger when we learned this was being taught to our children from unapproved texts used in the classroom by the teacher. And, subsequently, nothing was done about it when we took it all the way to our diocesan schools superintendent and bishop. :(

    No, we were only told “these things have been debated for centuries.” While that is actually true, the Church HAS spoken (read Pope Pius XII’s encyclical from 1950, Humani Generis.)

    I am not a consistent commenter on here (although I do lurk daily because I am addicted!), and I am certainly not one who has developed an on-line relationship with any of you (but I have come to respect many of you from afar!) But, in case any have noticed, I’ve mentioned twice that we removed our children from one ‘Catholic in name only school’ and placed them under the tutelage of the Nashville Dominicans of the St. Cecelia Congregation. We took seriously our obligation to guard our children’s catechesis and the entire ‘myth’ issue was the catalyst.

    I only know that adults who plant seeds of doubt in our children’s minds are opening them to a potential crisis of Faith when stating any Scripture is mythical or fanciful or imaginative (all words used in our children’s classrooms before we changed schools.) Indeed, a Pandora’s Box is opened. And the door quickly widens onto a world of troubling agendas.

    Maybe my children will research those scary worlds when they are older, as I have done. Hopefully if/when they do, they will be both mature and secure in their Faith already. I do see value in the knowledge that a debate exists. I just don’t want the debate introduced to my children while they are still in their formative years, thank you very much.

    Extracted from a site I visited long ago…sorry, didn’t note from where:
    “Actually, churches depend for their existence on the orthodox Myth of Eve. Take away the snake, the fruit-tree, and the woman from the tableau, and we have no fall, no frowning Judge, no Inferno, no everlasting punishment – hence no need of a Savior. Thus the bottom falls out of the whole Christian theology.”

    Another “found” nugget on some site, long ago:
    “How can anyone rely on the Bible for answers, if it’s just a loose translation of ancient myths anyway?”

    Caution: Slippery Slope. And one upon which adults potentially don’t possess more sure-footedness than children.

    As members of the Body of Christ, we should each care what is being taught to children, the future of our Church. And, not to resurrect a tired discussion about The DaVinci Code, but if one paid any attention to the objections voiced about it, by both Protestants and Catholics alike, they centered around the doubt the book and movie caused about the Truth of Christianity. The DaVinci Code truly is an imaginative work. Are we aware how many lost Faith as a result of that fictional book and movie? Allowing the assertion to be made that any of Holy Scripture is mythical or imaginative potentially leads children, and adults alike, down the very same, treacherous slope.

    I concur with and understand Steve G’s skilled explanation. But, ask any child if a myth is true or false and most will tell you that by definition, myths are not to be taken literally. They would likely say ‘myth’ and ‘fable’ are synonomous words. I choose not to inject any doubt about Holy Scripture or the Catholic Faith into my children’s minds. If I do, the millstone around my neck is surely fastened and will be my demise one day.

    Pardon my lack of brevity. I’ll go back to lurking! :)

  10. Anna says:

    Mojo,

    The DaVinci Code truly is an imaginative work. Are we aware how many lost Faith as a result of that fictional book and movie?

    Which, ironically, just goes to show how powerful myths are. We believe what we imagine, and fiction often affects what we imagine more strongly even than logical debate.