Nowhere is it more apparent that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” than in the realm of the Bible and its interpretation. Many non-Christians have been frightened away from taking the Bible seriously, and many Christians have had their trust in its reliability shaken or even destroyed, by some information about the Bible that appears to be damaging but that would, with more complete knowledge, be revealed as misleading or false.
An example is the widespread habit of loosely speaking of “myths” or “mythical elements” in the Bible. When we ask “To what extent does the Bible contain mythical elements or represent a mythological point of view?” we are confronted first of all with the problem of definition: what do we mean by myth and mythical? Then we have to examine the Scriptures of the two Testaments to see whether, or to what extent, mythical elements can be found in them, and if found, what their purpose and function are.
Theologians have a habit of using certain common words in a special, technical sense. They are not the only ones who do this; every guild has its own trade language, so to speak, and often this language includes special uses of terms from common speech that would be misunderstood by laymen. But theologians are often addressing themselves to laymen. Their words are likely to sound familiar enough, and the layman is not always aware that a particular word or expression is being used to mean something quite different from what it means in ordinary usage. If a nonscientist overhears two physical chemists talking about “free radicals,” he will quickly recognize that they are not talking about political extremists. But when theologians use the word “myth,” it is often not so obvious to a nonspecialist that in their usage the word has a special meaning.
In common speech, when we say that something is a myth we mean—among other things—that it is not true in a literal sense. In everyday conversation we might apply the word myth to different kinds of concepts (e.g., “the myth of Horatio Alger,” “the myth of American military invincibility”), but in all cases the implication is that what is mythical cannot be true in a literal or historical sense. Scholars in literature and comparative religion make a technical distinction between myth on the one hand and saga or legend on the other. Myth, dealing with the gods, does not refer to historical persons and events; the saga or legend, although seldom strictly true, does refer to actual historical persons and events. In Homer’s Iliad, the account of the Trojan War is legendary (there was certainly at least one war fought between the Greeks and Trojans), but the stories of the direct intervention by certain gods in the battles involve unreal persons (the gods) and unreal incidents (their intervention) and therefore represent mythical elements. This example also shows how myth differs from fairy tale: the fairy tale has a time all its own, not related to our historical time (“Once upon a time there was a king …”), but the myth has a contact point in history. Creation myths describe the beginning of our time; the Germanic Götterdämmerung myth describes its end. A myth may be tied to a real place, as the pagan festival at Eleusis in Greece, celebrating the mythical visit there of the goddess Demeter.
Since most of what is called mythology describes a plurality of gods, myth would appear to be at home in the realm of polytheism. There are nonpolytheistic stories that can be called mythical, such as the famous Gnostic text The Hymn of the Pearl. But even such a Gnostic text, while not mentioning a plurality of gods, moves in a world of tremendous complexity animated by a plurality of mysterious divine forces. The Bible, both the Old and the New Testament, is strictly monotheistic, and its theological universe, by contrast with that of Graeco Roman paganism, Gnosticism, or Hinduism, is extremely simple. In fact, the Bible itself deliberately distinguishes the apostolic message from “cleverly devised myths” (2 Pet. 1:16): the Bible is simple, straightforward testimony.
But contemporary theology, and especially Rudolph Bultmann, introduced another definition of myth, one that does not imply polytheism: myth is that which speaks of the transcendent or divine in terms of the immanent, the things of this world; in brief, it portrays God, who is by definition transcendent, totally beyond this finite world, as involved in it (see Bultmann’s contributions to Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate, edited by Hans W. Bartsch, Harper, 1958; an illuminatting discussion is offered in Wolfhart Pannenberg, The Idea of God and Human Freedom, Westminster, 1973).
Bultmann’s approach, which is common in theological circles today, creates two problems. First, if one asserts that anything that speaks of God as acting in history is mythological, then of course the whole Bible is mythological by definition, without further discussion, from cover to cover. It is universally understood that the teaching that God intervenes in human history is precisely what distinguishes the Bible from many other religious texts. To call the Bible mythical, if by myth we mean what Bultmann does, is to ignore the question of whether the biblical (or “mythical”) events ever actually happened in history; merely to speak of such events as having happened is all that is needed to make the Bible mythical. This does not of itself imply that the Bible’s stories are untrue. However, Bultmann himself believes that God cannot or at least does not intervene in space-time history, and so for him to call a story mythical is also to stamp it as untrue, just as most ordinary users of English would understand him.
Nevertheless Bultmann is not saying what the historian of religion would say about a pagan myth, that it is mythical because it did not happen (e.g., no such person as Demeter ever existed to visit Eleusis); he is saying that it is mythical because it could not happen: by definition, God does not act in history. The Bultmann approach would have a far less destructive impact among readers of the Bible if it were recognized that scholars who take it are not proving anything but presupposing everything. Unfortunately, many people, Christians and non-Christians alike, think that Bultmann is talking about evidence and conclusions, rather than about presuppositions of his own peculiar sort. As a result they understand him to be saying that the Bible is mythical in the common sense of the word, i.e., untrue, and therefore not a “perfect rule of faith and practice.” Bultmann’s subsequent attempts to explain how the Bible, though mythical (in his sense), is nevertheless of the utmost value to us, consequently fall mostly on deaf ears except among theologians who can follow his language and accept his presuppositions.
A second problem involved in using “myth” and “mythical” in this special sense is that this usage is contrary to the sense in which the words are used in secular studies of religion. Secular scholars in the field of myth find very lean pickings in the Bible precisely because even those stories that have most in common with myths from non-biblical sources are presented by the Bible as tied to real history. For instance, Adam and Eve, who might otherwise easily be interpreted as mythical figures, are tied, by specific genealogical references in both Testaments, to ordinary chronological time. They are presented as real, historical persons. We know that the Old and New Testament genealogies beginning with Adam are not complete, but it is evident that they are meant to describe a true family succession of real, historic individuals, even if not every generation in the succession is specifically mentioned. The same holds true for the story of Noah and the Flood: there are flood myths in many cultures, but the biblical account of Noah ties him into what is presented as a sequence of historical events; in addition, his ark as it is described corresponds to a floatable craft. Consequently, the secular scholar looking for mythical material in the Bible, finds little, even in the story of Noah.
It is of course possible to claim that the complex, often fantastic stories of Babylonian mythology, for example, were taken over by the Hebrews and “cleaned up”; that is, they were simplified and purged of their polytheistic references in order to be usable by the monotheistic Hebrews. But this goes against the commonly observed trend for myths to become more, not less complex in the process of transmission. In any case, it is not very fruitful for the scholar trying to study myths to study the Bible, because he must first hypothetically reconstruct all the mythical and polytheistic elements supposedly once there but later purged. But then he will wind up studying the product of his own imagination.
Another approach that would permit one to designate much of the Old Testament as myth is that of Norwegian scholar Sigmund Mowinckel, who, after admitting that the Old Testament contains nothing that would tradiditionally be understood as mythical, redefines the word his own way: “Myth in its essence relates, in epic form, the ‘salvation’ which is made present and experienced again in the religious cult” (Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, third edition, Vol. IV, col. 1,275). What this means is that the Bible, as Mowinckel sees it, consists of stories created to form a backdrop to the religious experience that the Jews had in their worship. But interestingly enough this approach would stamp as mythical the biblical event that is most clearly tied to history, namely, the Exodus. Others, such as the stories of Adam and Eve, of Noah, and of the Tower of Babel, although they more clearly resemble pagan myths, play no role in Old Testament worship. Needless to say Mowinckel’s theory is generally recognized as fanciful by those who are not predisposed from the outset to call the Bible myth.
With respect to the New Testament, Bultmann himself admits that myth is not present there as poetry—as in the Iliad—or as theogonic or cosmological speculation, as with the Gnostic texts. The mythical character of the New Testament, he says, lies in its vision of the future: “In that the future is not seen as the result of a historical development, but is expected as God’s new creation, the future is understood mythologically.” Jesus himself, Bultmann says, was a historical figure but quickly became a mythical figure to the church:
It rapidly became the conviction of the early church that Jesus’ own coming was the decisive event which brought about a change in the world-age. “When the time was fully come, God sent his Son” (Gal. 4:4). Thus the figure of Jesus was understood mythologically [Ibid., Vol. IV, col, 1278. 1280].
It is evident that this is a peculiar use of language in which the point is to define the Christian hope as mythological rather than to know whether the coming of Christ actually was the decisive event.
It is significant that the Bible’s own approach to myth often receives little attention from modern scholars. The first-century Jew Philo correctly pointed out that the Old Testament, unlike the Greek myths, deals with history. Even more explicitly, the New Testament mentions myth in order to reject it (cf. 2 Pet. 1:16). Ethelbert Stauffer writes in Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament:
The firm rejection of myth is one of the decisions characteristic of the New Testament. Myth is a pagan category.… Myth as such has no place on biblical soil, either (1) as a direct impartation of religious truths; (2) as a parable; or (3) as a symbol.… In the Bible, however, we have from the first to last the account and narration of facts [article mythos, IV, 793].
(Of course Stauffer is not unaware that Scripture does contain non-factual writing of various kinds, including parable, poetry, and prayer. What is to be stressed is that what the Bible presents as factual is to be understood as factual.)
Summarizing, then, we can see that the Bible has very few points of contact with what comparative literature and religious studies call myth, precisely because it purports to be about real persons in the context of real space and time. To accept the Bultmann approach to mythology instead seems fruitless as an academic exercise, since it requires abandonment of the scholarly language already in use, and harmful as a theological one, since it turns the unique value of the Bible, as a record of the words and acts of the transcendent God in real space-time history, into a unique liability that must be purged before the Bible can be of value to us. It is this very “mythical” quality, the report that God does act in history, that is of inestimable value to us, and it is this that Bultmann would “demythologize.”
In view of the markedly anti-mythical character of the Bible, it seems pointless to try to make much use of the concept of myth in understanding it. We can, of course, redefine myth to mean a deeper, more ultimate truth than the merely historical truths of the biblical account. And all Christians would agree that while the Bible conveys historical truths, it is more than mere history. Bultmann’s concept of myth does not totally exclude this interpretation (although his view of the universe does). Against this possible advantage, we should observe once more that the very word “myth” is so deeply associated in the popular mind with things that never happened and are therefore untrue that such a redefinition would be more likely to mislead than to help.
Another suggestion has been made by scholars in literature and religion (e.g., C. S. Lewis, R. C. Zaehner, F. A. Schaeffer). They suggest that at least some mythical material represents a memory of man’s unfallen state or an anticipation of his salvation in Christ, and in this sense the study of mythology, like that of non-Christian philosophy, may be useful for pre-evangelism or apologetics. In this sense, we could say that the Bible is a fulfillment of which myths are only anticipations. But this undertaking is, of course, quite different from the widespread attempt to interpret much of the Bible as mythical and thereby change it from a description of what God has actually said and done to a wistful longing for what he might do or have done.
In conclusion, we can state that it is both incorrect and useless to attempt to understand the Bible, in any significant way, as mythology: incorrect, because the Bible sets itself against all myths and presents itself as the real, lived-out history of God acting and speaking in our world of space and time; useless, because we must so remake the concept of mythology in order to apply it to Scripture that rather than helping us to understand Scripture it only misleads us.
It remains true that just as biblical language has a secular history, there are secular parallels for biblical stories and concepts—parallels in law, religion, philosophy, and even in mythology. A discovery and examination of the parallels, including the relatively rare mythological ones, may well help us understand and interpret some biblical texts. But we should remember that the value of the Bible lies in a claim to present, not unique, original, or unheard-of stories, concepts, and hopes without parallel in non-biblical sources, but true ones. Where accounts of historical events are involved, this means that the events actually took place.
Whether we mean by myth what popular usage does, or think of it in the more technical sense of Bultmann, of Mowinckel, or of comparative religious studies, the question of mythical elements in the biblical texts is well answered in Second Peter, to which we have already alluded: “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Pet. 1:16). Any approach to the understanding of Scripture that fails to recognize that, as Stauffer says, “from first to last the account and narration of facts” is sure to lead its users into intellectual errors and possibly into spiritual danger as well.
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