Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Myth and the Garden of Eden

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"...If we still had to believe that Adam and Eve were the first man and woman on earth, the whole story would be hopelessly discredited...And for the ordinary person to call something a myth is simply to say that it is not true...[Adam and Eve] are real, not because they were actual people, but because they tell us something profoundly true about ourselves. After all, Adam is just the Hebrew for Man with a capital M. He's all of us. The Genesis story simply holds up a mirror to life, so that we can see ourselves in it."

--Bishop of Woolwich, John A.T. Robinson, But That I Can't Believe!, 38-39.

To non-specialists, the term "myth" carries a negative meaning: something that is told (and re-told), but did not "actually" occur. The word "myth" is thrown around in common language to mean "falsity." However, in the study of religion, "myth" can be quite useful if we really try to flesh out the meaning. In this sense, what J.A.T. Robinson is trying to convey, "myth" conveys a certain metaphysical truth about reality and the human experience. Myth is not concerned with what "really" happened or didn't happen. How do we ever know something happened? We don't, unless we experiened it ourselves (and even then it's open to speculation and perspective). Rather, myths get a deeper meaning in a narrative, a deeper truth than the story at hand. Let us suppose, for a moment, that the creation story is a functional myth, a story told with a greater truth underneath. What would it look like?

The Garden of Eden, presented as myth, would mean that we used to have communion with God. At one time, we were not estranged from God. And yet, something went awry. That something was in us - and we call that "sin." Adam (or males) and Eve (or females) walked in the presence of God. But now, because of human frailty, we no longer walk with God. The creation story takes on a new narrative: a narrative of God's interaction with humanity - and the beginning of the plan of salvation. God is presented as Creator - the Creator. This shows us a metaphysical truth of God - that God is active in human history, creating and willing things into existence. But there is more: God allows humanity to struggle. Why? Adam and Eve gain strength in this struggle, though it is not readily apparent in the text. What J.A.T. Robinson is showing in his use of the "myth" to explain the creation story is that we all embody this particular story. The narrative of creation is embodied in us; we have all fallen short of the glory of God. But, God is re-creating us in God's own image. We are all Adam; we are all Eve. That is point of creation as myth: the story's functional method, myth-as-narrative, enjoins us into the story. We are apart of the whole of creation.

Now, that's an appreciation of J.A.T. Robinson's theology, but not a critique. I'm no strict literalist, but I can't help but feel that something is lost in this story. There's no nitty-gritty - the Genesis narrative talks about Adam struggling with the earth to grow food and Eve struggling in child-birth. Creation as myth doesn't always embody the humanity of the narrative. The focus is so much on the metanarrative that the human side is lost. That said, is it possible to regain the humanity in myth? Perhaps, but I'll return to that in a future post.

The strength of looking at a narrative as a myth is twofold: first, as aforementioned, there are higher truths that are best explained with simple truths. A story engages our imagination in a way that encourages to find the metaphysical truth. And second, a myth doesn't discount the possibility of literal, factual, "historical," truth. More clearly, a myth says that a story could have happened that way, but it didn't necessarily happen that way. So, there is value to expressing such a story as myth - so long as we define what we mean by "myth."

What do you think?


At 7:57 PM, Blogger Looney said...

I like your post, particularly as it calls into question the adequacy of presenting the Garden of Eden as a myth only.

At 10:03 PM, Blogger e. said...

Nice post, James. I agree with your balanced assessment of Robinson's myth explanation.

It's helpful to note, also, the during the time which the Creation myth was probably written, writers were surrounded by other myths of creation (i.e. Marduk of Babylon, etc.). So, it makes sense that a story in similar fashion would be written to explain the origins of man, yet with a partcularly monotheistic slant and fewer anthropomorphic descriptions of the god at the center of the story.

Too often, we place our scientific view of history as literal/factual description upon people of an earlier time, forcing them to follow the same guidelines as we post-Enlightenment folks follow.

Let us reinvigorate and redeem the original meaning of the word "myth"!

At 1:43 AM, Blogger Looney said...

Actually, I am pondering a bit about the transition off the Bible from the Word of God to the Myth of God. The Myth of God theology was already well advanced in the mid 19th century. When Darwin (a theologian) came along and proposed evolution, it was immediately embraced by the theologians and later by the scientists.

150 years later, it seems to me that those who fight hardest to retain Darwinism and reject a historical Adam and Eve are the theologians.

At 4:46 AM, Blogger the lost message said...

Really interesting and balanced post James.

I have found the term "myth" is unhelpful to our more conservative friends. But I think it needs to be re-discivered, especially for writings like Genesis.

Have you come across the book "The Drama of Scripture" based on NT Wrights bible in 6 Acts. In this book the authors contend the creation account is mythical, however the fall of man is literal/historical. Strange?!

E: I also like your slant on the issues


At 12:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The pre-biblical origins of the Garden of Eden myth are explained in detail as reworked Mesopotamian concepts by Liberal PhD scholars following an Anthropological point of view (1862-2009) at the bibleorigins.net website hosted by Mattfeld y de la Torre. Eden's god is Ea and Anu, the Cherubim and Eve are Gishzida and Dumuzi, while Adam is a recast of Adapa and Enkidu. The Hebrews objecting to the Mesopotamian explanation as to why man does not have immortality, recast these fictional characters (Adapa and the South wind myth and the Epic of Gilgamesh),and repudiated the earlier explanations. Man was denied immortality because he obeyed his god and did not eat the food which would give him immortality (his god having lied to him, telling him it was the food of death and he would die if he ate, so don't eat). The Hebrews shifted the blame, man disobeyed his god and ate whereas Adapa obeyed and did not eat. Ea lied to Adapa, he did not want man to become a god because he had created man to care for his garden in the edin and present him its produce to eat. Who would feed the gods if man became a god? The gods would have to feed themselves and toil again in their gardens of edin and give up their eternal rest from earthly toil. A god (Ea) then, unrighteously denied man Adapa)immortality. The moral? Adapa scrupulously obeyed and attended Ea, God are not bound by mans' good behavior to act in man's best interests, they can act selfishly in thier own interests at man's expense.

At 10:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I never found The Bible satisfying.I read it front to back,in and out.God in it is both wrathful and merciful.Verses contradict each other.The Bible has to include unnecessary stuff like he'll because people like people suffering otherwise it would not be there.The Gospels contradict each other.Matthew claims Jesus body wads stole from the tomb while other account cannot agree on what happened afterwards.Disagree with me,Go ahead,Your right can make two wrongs.I agree with few.I find both Deism and Theism unfulfilling.

At 11:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Bible,The Koran and The Torah were wrote by me with agendas.If you want more facts Constantine made the Bible the Word of God by a vote.God did not come down and authorize it himself.Jews and all other peoples claim that they have Gods word.I do not really believe them.To Muslims Christians are Satan,To Christians Jews and Muslims are Satan and To Jews they do not like everybody.I do not really get their battles with each other.Maybe someday there will be just humanity,no Christians,Jews or Muslims at all then real peace wil be.

At 11:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I meant the Bible,the Koran and the Torah are wrote by men not God.God does not need a religion to get across to us.Only men want to keep us bond to it not free from it

At 2:28 PM, Blogger larry said...


In the Jewish Talmud, Yebamoth 103b we read:

“For R. Johanan stated: When the serpent copulated with Eve, 14 he infused her15 with lust.”

14 In the Garden, according to a tradition.
15 i.e.The Human species.

In Yebamoth 63a we read:

“R. Eleazar further stated: What is meant by the Scriptural text “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh?5 This teaches that Adam had sexual intercourse with EVERY beast and animal but found no satisfaction until he cohabited with Eve.”


5 Genesis 2:23 Emphasis on THIS IS NOW.

At 4:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent discussion, James. Thank you for your exploration of the word "myth". I found it very helpful.

At 3:46 AM, Blogger brian maregedze said...

Very good site with good discussions and analysis


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