Michael Heiser, Myth, and My Evolving Approaches to Study of Ancient Scripture

Michael Heiser, Myth, and My Evolving Approaches to Study of Ancient Scripture

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Recently, Michael Heiser placed online (temporarily) a first draft of his book, “The Myth That Is True”. Among Biblical Studies circles, Heiser is well known for his scholarship concerning the Divine Council in the Bible. He was made more well known in Mormon academic communities by his somewhat lengthy exchanges/debates with LDS Scholar David Bokovoy.

Having a bit of interest in the development and interconnection of OT theology, myth, and history, I excitedly placed the digital draft of Heiser’s book on my Kindle, and began to read.

When I first began, I was devastatingly frustrated with it. I was amazed at how much this book appeared to be designed around forcing the issues to correspond with preconceived theological conclusions – conclusions I disagreed with, and weren’t interested in. I saw Heiser beginning by saying he wants the Bible to speak for itself, but ended up making what looked to me like unwarranted conclusions and connections based simply on dogma. While I was sure his scholarship was very good when presented as-is,in a scholastic venue, the book’s constant theological assertions and question-begging became increasingly more painful to read as it went on.

The scope of the book appeared to be huge – tying in all major theological points/questions/answers into the context of a cohesive single and consistent mythology/narrative. It seems more designed to impose a particular branch of theology than explain a history.

It took standing back a moment for me to think, first, Of course, that just may be what he intended to do.

I thought back to what the book reminded me of. While his is much larger and scholastically documented, the closest book that comes to mind in terms of tone and structure is actually the Watchtower didactic publication “What Does the Bible REALLY Teach?”

While that comparison may be seen overly negative, it wasn’t mean that way, and it actually began to shift how I saw the utility of Heiser’s book. As much as I disagree with much of Jehovah’s Witness practice and theology, I find that they as an inerrantist/sola scriptura faith have somewhat succeeded in one specific area where many others have , to my experience, lagged behind: the articulating of a coherent, cohesive biblical mythological narrative that actually takes into consideration most of the biblical text – especially the Old Testament – attempting to fit in and explain the eccentricities and obscurities in the text. I found their book What Does The Bible Really Teach, as well as their book of the life of Jesus, “The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived” extremely helpful in understanding their worldview, and how it fit in with their overall mythological and cosmic in scope scriptural story. All while being frustrating to me based on the key assumptions behind the assertions.

With that context in mind, I will say that as a work of constructing a single narrative Biblical mythology while maintaining conservative principles of inerrancy, Heiser’s book is far and away the most impressive attempt I’ve seen. He had a difficult job, and I think he pulled off what he set off to do admirably, if that’s the case.

What I realized is that this just was not the book I wanted. I couldn’t blame him for that. But it wasn’t written for me – it was written as a popular work designed to introduce important ideas and concepts that, while in many cases familiar to scholastic circles, are almost completely unknown inside your general Church-goer’s idea of thought. Heiser sets out to make obscure Ancient Near Eastern mythology not only accessible, but relevant. That is impressive. And I think, for his specific audience, this book could potentially be important in doing that.

The book begins with assumptions of reliable historicity, and inerrantism. It takes the writings attributed to the prophets’ understandings and worldviews at direct face value in regards to objective truth. In this tradition, If a Bible writer wrote something, it is factually True, and must be accounted for. This includes as an essential part of the story the accounts of Angelic-Human intercourse, resulting in races of Giants dispersed over the face of the earth.

Two quotes which kind of give a good idea of the interpretive logic Heiser utilizes: “To deny the supernatural view of Genesis puts one in the position of suggesting that Peter and Jude, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, misunderstood this passage. This is a dangerous threat to inspiration and inerrancy” and, in reference to some textual issues, Heiser states that ” an appeal to scribal stupidity or naivete seems to ignore the fact that the phrase is in biblical text by inspiration. Any such gloss must be viewed as the process of inspiration, else we have material in the Bible that really doesn’t belong there.”

Therefore, even if the original book author didn’t write it, the appearance of a phrase in the Received Bible is evidence that it must be inspired anyway.

It is logic that bothers me as a believer in inspiration and divinity who does not also believe that Biblical inerrancy is warranted or necessary. But, again, I remind myself that the book isn’t written for me. It is written for a community where that is a priori assumption.

It would be silly and a waste of time for Heiser to argue for this belief, as much as it would have been a waste for Brant Gardner to argue for why he believed the Book of Mormon was translation literature in the beginning of his The Gift and the Power: Translating the Book of Mormon. An assumption is made based on the audience, and the theses being explored and explained.

My view and understanding of scripture and inspiration as it stands currently does, at times, make the Old Testament difficult to approach as face-value devotional literature. The seams are very prominent, and I’ve come in the habit of approaching them in terms of contrasting documented history with the literary and polemic (and didactic) explanation and utilization of history.

I read them in terms of “what actually happened”, and often very intentionally look past the mythic and polemic language. It’s a utilitarian approach, with my devotional intention striving to understand the nature of revelation and the interaction with the Divine and humanity. While it has been a powerful and actually quite practical (and inspiring) experience for me, it really has changed the way I can even read the Old Testament. And even, to a degree, the New.

Heiser actually helped me to look at the Bible again from the perspective of the storytellers. In doing this, it actually brought some new insights to light that I hadn’t noticed before.

The way Hesier described the cosmic events of the New Testament presented it, to me, as a fascinating collapse of the most bizarre Mythic aspects of the Old Testament mythology he presented, into what I would view as a normalization.modernization. While I don’t think he views it that way, to me it stood out as being fascinating.

Heiser’s Old Testament world has as cosmic and literal reality and significance the reality of a World of divided nations, each under literal supernatural demonic/elohim control. Giants as the offspring of angelic-human interbreeding roamed the earth, The Babel event was real and cosmically significant with the division of language and nations. Animal sacrifice and purity laws are standard and had real cosmic effect. Nationalism is very specifically tied to Chosen status. There is a single authorized and localized Temple for a very specific purpose . One King is over the nation as the visible ‘Son of God’.

Heiser’s continuation of the Epic into the New Testament, for all intents and purposes clears the world of many of those ‘strange’ things. By the end of the New Testament story, divinely appointed national boundaries are moot, with the demonic leaders cast down from their leadership roles. Giants were annihilated through divinely directed genocide. The Babel event was reversed. Animal sacrifice and purity laws are likewise moot. Nationalism in generally is insignificant. Instead of a single king, all mankind are equally given an opportunity to become divine kings, rulers, and children of God.

While there is still a division between the new community of adopted Children of God and the rest of the World who are intended to become adopted into the worldwide cosmic Eden/Kingdom/Divine Council, the presence of much of the mythological and archaic cultural elements were surprisingly de-fanged, and taken out of the picture. While they still were considered as historical realities, they were no longer of practical consideration at the then-present day.

It surprised me by tying into (albeit in a different way) a theme I had already begin considering, with prophets of succeeding generations recontextualizing the earlier scriptures and myths, seeing a fulfillment of them in a cataclysmic world event, and then giving them new context and historic cosmic meaning and significance. A New History begin written, so to say, using the fabric of the old taking into consideration the new worldview, and new knowledge in general.

While certainly not in his intended way, Heiser’s book has definitely given me some new ways of thinking of some things, which had lead me to ask different questions. I feel I can reapply the words Margaret Barker used in the preface to her own book The Revelation of Jesus Christ concerning a work of scholarship she had read: “[The Book] had the courage to suggest a new approach…although there are many points on which I would disagree with [him], [he] sowed ideas in my mind, the sure sign of a good book.”

While Heiser’s book was not the one I wanted, perhaps it ended up being the one I needed, even though not necessarily in the way he may have hoped it would have been.

2 thoughts on “Michael Heiser, Myth, and My Evolving Approaches to Study of Ancient Scripture

  1. I haven’t been able to get back to it (reading Peter Enns’ Evolution of Adam), but appreciate your thoughts.
    There’s an interesting observation in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch:”Sons of God, daughters of men” that applies, I think.

    “Initially interpreters did not balk at a mythological interpretation of the Bible because it coincided with their own worldview. Today interpreters do not balk at a mythological interpretation of biblical passages because they believe Israel’s worldview was little different from its neighbors. In the intervening period interpreters neither had a mythological worldview themselves, nor did they believe that the Bible represented such a worldview. Lacking correlation to either world, they rejected the identification.”

  2. That’s a great quote. Especially since today, there are still many who are hanging around the ‘intervening’ period. LDS tradition is fascinating, because in some degree it ‘normalizes’ the myths (such as in the sons of god passages), and in other cases it literalizes and expands upon them to more deeply mythologize them.

    My deal is I’ve spent so much time recently trying to divide between the myth and the reality that I haven’t focused much on what purpose of reality was trying to be explained by the myth. I do think Heiser did succeed in helping me view the “Sons of God” myth in a different light than I had before. Barker initially turned me onto an interpretation of the 1 Enoch version of the legend as a polemic against the Jerusalem Priesthood. For that time period, and its popularity in Qumran, it rings as very helpful. Heiser expressed an alternate view, which probably did coinside with another and perhaps earlier strand of understanding on that tradition.

    One of my favorite discoveries are alternative meanings and understandings of common mythic stories, and why and by whom they are passed on. I find it especially helpful in regards to multiple usages, applications and interpretation in LDS tradition and practice of the Eden Garden Story.

    Thanks, Ben.

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