Posted by: religionthink | December 9, 2007

History Verses Tradition: The Creation of The Myth

History Verses Tradition: The Creation of The Myth

A. D. Wayman

Within belief systems many have a traditional view of accounts of how texts were written and how events took place. Then, when archeology, literary criticism, and other fields of study propose theories or come to conclusions that may oppose these traditionally held beliefs, resistance from those of the traditional at times can be fierce. In this essay we will look at a few ways of dealing with such issues and possibly be able to enjoy both the traditional and historical aspect of religion. The writer of this essay is more familiar with biblical texts and so we will be drawing examples from them to support some of the views expressed.

Many times issues arise due to the problem of misunderstanding of literary styles and how they were used. When the writers of the biblical texts were putting accounts into written word, the main focus was not an exact history but rather, at times a moral lesson. These examples can be found from the text of Genesis through the text of Kings and more. Even when retelling the historical accounts of the Kings the writers were trying to convey a moral message behind the retelling of history. In Jewish literature this technique was called “Aggadah” which were stories or lessons that taught a moral objective about the texts and law codes.

The writers of Judaism seen the importance of this literary technique and used the literal and the allegorical, and seen the two as compatible as a teaching method of the law.

In an essay by Abraham Joshua Heschel it is pointed out how the two are compatible and how the Aggadah, and the literal law codes known as “Halakhah” are used to reinforce each other.

“Halakhah, by necessity, treats with the laws in the abstract, regardless of the totality of the person. It is aggadah that keeps on reminding that the purpose of performance is to transform the performer, that the pur­pose of observance is to train us in achieving spiritual ends.…” 1

So that brings us to the issue of the raging debates that occur between science and evangelical biblical literalists. At times they refuse to see texts such as creation, the flood, and other accounts as Hebrew aggadah. Aggadah is the structure of the sacred myth that binds the legal literal texts to lessons on morality, community, and the covenant. These stories in the Jewish Tanach, Talmud, Midrash, and other texts show how the oral tradition has been used to strengthen the literal and add meaning to daily life application.

So how dose one handle research that may go against ones traditional views of belief or religion? Here are a few tips that may be helpful.

1. It is important to understand tradition as tradition and historical as historical. There are many traditions concerning the same elements and also many interpretations of the historical concerning such elements. It is important to see both views and consider the intended meaning of each.

2. Remember that if scholars go against traditional views, that they may not be out to “disprove” or to “ minimize” the importance of the traditional faith based views. They may be just doing their job researching and offering theories that may or may not be correct.

3. Separate the historical from the traditional if possible. This requires a person to use a “schizophrenic” approach to the issue. If one is able to compartmentalize the two, when traditional labeling it “traditional” or “belief” and when scientific labeling it “scientific” or “historical”. An example of this would be the statement:

“Traditionally it is thought that Moses is the author of the Torah. However, there are some literary critics that are of the opinion that many writers may have taken part in its writing.”

This last statement recognizes both the traditional and the scientific approach to the texts without the issues of debate. The traditional beliefs have a totally different function and meaning then the scientific and historical and it is possible to see both and still be a Jew, Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist.

The traditional belief performs as the metaphor while the scientific is searching for facts. It is the opinion of this writer that both are needed to understand and appreciate the texts. Also, there is no need to battle scientific research and literary critics every step of the way. They both can be composed into one element with many different parts, and become multi-functional as intended by the authors of the texts.

1. Heschel, Abraham Joshua. “Halakhah and Aggadah”


  1. […] Anyway, In this article the writer looks at the traditional and the academic interpretations of myth and religious scripture. […]

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