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Benjamin Smith

Excellent. When I began to think about these issues I worried that I'd be constantly wondering 'did this really happen?' while reading the Bible. But now I find that quite the opposite takes place: the approach you outline frees me to enjoy the truth of the narrative in a much more significant way than before.


Hi Benjamin,

You will appreciate this back-and-forth, with the theologian Pope Pius XII (1876-1958) called the most important since Thomas Aquinas.

Q: Was the snake who spoke to Eve a *literal* snake?

A: Pausing, the happy theologian replied, “If zeh snake vas a leet-eral snake? (pause, then suddenly)!—”Zeh more imporeent qvestion iss: But vhat vas it zhat zeh snake said?” (audience guffaws)

Three guesses as to who the theologian was.


Lamont Goodling


You are saying, in your snake story, that the principles in the scripture stories are more important than the historicity of these stories. Is that correct?



Hi Lamont,

No, I am saying that the snake story is profoundly historical. I know this snake personally, after all: don't you?

That is how the genre God inspired the scripture author to use works.

Yes, I am saying that the principles in the scripture stories are more important than the exact sense in which the stories are historical. We can disagree about the latter without disagreeing about the former.

I hope that helps.

Lamont Goodling


Two thoughts:

1) to say that the snake story (the genesis one, now, not the theologian one) is historical is to turn the definition of 'historical' on its head. That's ok, if you clarify your understanding of 'historical.' What is your understanding of 'historical?'

2) there's lots of literature in which the preinciples are more important than the historicity of the story. Why is this set of principled stories (scripture) more important?



Hi Lamont,

I have written a lot on these topics. Two brief starting points, with bibliography:

In short, you are bringing a definition of "historical" to the text that is inappropriate. Once you learn to read the text on its own terms, you will see that it is deeply historical, and deeply existential as well.

As for your second question: you tell me if the story speaks to you. Do you know this snake or not?

If you don't, I doubt the story will mean much to you.

The set of stories that goes from Genesis to the end of the Hebrew Bible for Jews and from Genesis to Revelation for Christians is uniquely important to them because they hear a voice calling to them in and through its words, a voice that sums up somehow all that is good and true and beautiful.

Do you hear this voice? Millions and millions of people have, but that doesn't mean you do.

Lamont Goodling


I'll look through your other posts for your understanding of 'historical.' You've climbed the ladder of inference pretty quickly about my definition of 'historical.' Based on what i've written here, what do you think my understanding of 'historical' is, and how is it inappropriate for this story? Does each genre of texts have its own definition of 'historical?' This seems to me to be what you are implying here.

I misspoke before. I said 'important,' and your answer is clear. I really meant to ask about value: in what way does this set of principled stories (scripture) have more value than other stories about principles?



Hi Lamont,

I'd rather that you tell me what your definition of "historical" is. That's easier than guessing around about it.

In order to have a fruitful discussion, furthermore, it is helpful for the conversation to be two-way. I would appreciate it if you responded to the questions I ask. Maybe the question about knowing the snake seems off the wall to you, but it is not.

Yes, different genres embody history in a different way. History by definition is made up (you know what I mean by this if you read my links). Different genres make it up in different ways.

The value of *this* set of principled stories over another set of stories is in the eyes of the beholder. If you find the storyline of the Quran, the Bhagavadgita, or Huxley's Brave New World more convincing, then you also, I assume, find it more valuable.

What metanarrative do you live by? Everyone lives by a metanarrative, but not everyone has thought the story they live by through. How about you?

Lamont Goodling


I’ve looked at those other posts, and here’s what’s up:

First off, my understanding of ‘historical’ is 'narrative of an experience,' plus 'rooted in an actual real event,' plus 'an interpretation of that event.' (I’m using concepts from the posts in this understanding.)

My understanding of myth (taken from those posts, which were good material for this, I think) is narrative of an experience, with a ‘this could happen to anyone’ feel, that is cross-culturally translatable (and hence of potential cross-cultural value; it could be of value outside its intended audience or context. This, by the way, is what I mean when I talk about the value of principles and narratives and beliefs. Not personal value, rather cross-cultural value, or cross-paradigm value).

The account of Adam, Eve, and the snake is mythical. The account is not historical.

But I think I see what you’ve done to pull mythical into historical. You used the term ‘corresponds to reality’ several times in your comments on the one post. It seems to me that you’ve decided ‘corresponds to reality’ equals ‘historical.’ I disagree. Historical is a subset; ‘these sorts of situations come up all the time,’ which is what I think one of the things the the Adam/Eve/snake account is about, does ‘correspond to reality.’ It’s about a widely held understanding of the ‘human condition.’ But what it isn’t is historical. Your understanding of ‘historical,’, while interesting (because it raises the idea of ‘when and how does narrative correspond to reality?’) is not normative.

Do I know this snake? At this point in my life, my assensus is very much grounded in science and scientific reasoning and enlightenment ethics, so the short answer is no. I don’t know this snake. The story doesn’t speak to me. But it does to a lot of people I know and love, and so knowing what the myth says to these people (and others), and how they ‘know the snake,’ is important to me.



Hi Lamont,

I don't want to be dogmatic about the terminology. This matters less than the substance. If you want to reserve the term "myth" for a text like Genesis 3 and the term "history" for ... The Documentary History of such-and-such, be my guest. I would still go on to point out that a "myth" is inevitably the text with added value (so Doniger as well).

The trouble with "myth" as a term is that so many people take it to mean something that is untrue. Not just Doniger but Bruce Lincoln and many others serve to debunk the puerile binary.

I respect your particular assensus and hope you are making good use of it for the common good. A number of great scientists are so inclined; though not Freud, Levi-Strauss, and many others, of course.

The risk of a scientific outlook in the sense you use it is that all the really interesting questions become imponderables: things like subjective experience, the self, free will, conceptual meaning, knowledge, and morality.

So Steven Pinker, a top-notch scientist of course.

Lamont Goodling


Just a point of clarification: myth does not rule out historical. I think the four gospels are myths that are are also historical. I understand that many people think of 'myth' i\as 'not historical' but I'm not one of them, and your cited authors and commentors on the othet threads don't think the terms are exclusive either.

The question is, is the understanding that myth is non-historical a normative one?



Hi Lamont,

No, I couldn't care less about normative vs. non-normative usage. As far as I can see, arguments of this kind are a kind of intellectual suicide. What is normative terminological custom one day is non-normative the next.

Rather, let's think the substance through. If myth does not rule out the historical, this is another way of saying that a text like Genesis 3 may very well contain more history, in the sense of the deep structure of history, than chronicle.

That, I think, needs to be the focus of the debate.

As for the gospels, the genre of these texts is not comparable to Genesis 3. A separate discussion would be necessary. Or do you sense no difference between the two?

Without knowing for sure, I would guess that you are intent on dismissing the gospels' truth claims from the get-go, by calling them myths.

If so, I suggest you are are taking a short cut to nowhere. You might do well to try a thought experiment. What if it were all true? What then?

If you feel that would make you lose your sense of balance, I would counter: yes, of course.

Justin Richter

Hi John,

If I understand Barth right, he believes the essence of a myth is that it points to general truths, where as Biblical stories point to historical realities. In a Barthian sense, would you say the creation narratives are myth? That they only represent basic truths apart from historical realities?


No, I would say they point to both ontology and history. If I remember right, Barth in his exegesis thereof concurs.

One example of a feature of Genesis 3 that points to historical realities: original sin. There is nothing more obviously true than the doctrine of original sin, namely that sin is passed on from one generation to the next, biologically (the Fathers were not wrong about this) and socially. The reality in question is historical in the strict sense.

I would also say this about the snake (see above). Do you know this snake? A lot of people do.

Put another way, the question, "is the snake real?" had an obvious answer for the text's author. Of course it is real. The snake however exists or finds its domicile in the duct work of the soul: he is a reality in a psychological sense, but not perhaps in a strictly historical sense.


who told you that


Who told what to whom? Explain yourself, JD.

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