I have not been posting too much this month because I have been busy with other things. Nevertheless, in light of a recent extensive Facebook discussion (and since I had to get my mind off the Cubs meltdown in the World Series), I thought I’d write this quick post. Let me say up front, I know it probably is not completely thorough, but hopefully it is worth the read.
When using the term “myth,” you have to be clear on HOW you are using it. If you are using it in the modern-slang sense, then “myth” is going to mean whatever you want it to mean, and you’re going to use it liberally to as a way to disparage any story or claim you deem false or impossible.
But if you are going to seriously try and understand ancient literature, you have to use the term “myth” the way it is used in scholarship when discussing ancient literature. As far as that is concerned, the fundamental question for any ancient work is “What is its LITERARY GENRE?” When you ask that question, you realize that the term “myth” is simply a genre of ancient literature, as opposed to ancient law code, poetry, legend, biography, etc.
Generally speaking, the literary genre of myth (A) involves “the gods,” and (B) is NOT considered to be about historical events. The events of Marduk, Baal, Zeus, etc. all take place in a mythic realm, outside of time and space and history. The purpose of ancient myth is not to convey history, but rather to establish the basic “worldview” of that given culture.
In ancient pagan times, despite different cultures having different gods/goddesses and stories, the basic pagan worldview was the same: (A) the gods were associated with nature and were wholly unpredictable, immoral, and dangerous; (B) creation itself was made from the dead carcass of defeated gods (i.e. a rotting corpse); and (C) human beings were made to be worthless slaves of the gods, often created out of the blood or excrement of defeated gods.
Those myths taught and reinforced that worldview; they weren’t trying to convey historical events. Incidentally, that’s why ancient pagan cultures didn’t write “history.” Time was seen as cyclical, with events on earth just corresponding to the mythological stories of the gods. Even when ancient pagan kings wrote of their deeds in their annals, they were not written as “history.”
With the Old Testament, a radical shift in worldview and writing occurred. In the Old Testament, although we find similar mythological language in the early chapters of Genesis, as well as a few passages in Isaiah (27:1), Job (9:13; Ch. 41), and the Psalms (74:13-14; 77:16; 89:9-10; 104:7), the OT writers do something radically different: in Genesis 1-11 they actually blow up that ancient pagan worldview by insisting (A) there is one God, who is good and concerned with justice; (B) creation is good and orderly, and not the result of a battle between gods, with it being made out of the carcass of the loser; and (C) human beings are made in the image of the true God, and therefore have dignity and worth. And then they take that radically different worldview that is laid out in Genesis 1-11, and they proceed to tie it in to actual history.
That insistence on the dignity and freedom of human beings is what inspired the writers of the Old Testament to relate the history of their people. In fact, Robert Alter calls much of the Hebrew narrative “fictionalized history” or “historicized fiction,” meaning that the Hebrews’ insistence on the dignity of human beings inspired them to want to tell stories of the human beings in their history as a people. In that sense, it was the Old Testament that essentially created a whole different genre of writing by breaking away from the standard pagan writing of myth, and focusing on telling actual stories about human beings who are worth writing about. And when you consider that, it would be wrong to equate “myth” with “fiction,” because “fiction” is still nevertheless set within time and space and history. Pride and Prejudice is fiction; Atrahasis is myth.
The unique thing about the Old Testament is that, even though it starts out with its own mythological stories about creation and the reality of the human race (Genesis 1-11), it then weaves those early chapters into actual historical time and place, with real people and events. Although it still often uses certain mythological imagery when describing certain historical events, the stories from Abraham onwards are not considered “myth.” After all, they purport to be about historical people in actual history.
When you get to the New Testament, it would also be incorrect to describe the gospels as “myth.” Biblical scholars will tell you that they are ancient historical biographies (at least Matthew, Mark, and Luke…John is somewhat different). They are filled with historical people and places, and therefore are clearly purporting to convey real historical events.
Here is where the confusion comes. Skeptics point to the miracle stories and the resurrection, and say, “Those cannot happen, therefore the gospels are a ‘myth.” But what those skeptics are really saying is, “We don’t believe miracles or a resurrection are possible, therefore the gospels aren’t true.”
But a story containing a claim that one doesn’t think possible does not make that story a “myth.” The gospels are still ancient historical biographies, even if they contain some claims that one might think impossible.
Now yes, as with various passages in the Old Testament, the gospels contain a number of things that parallel certain myths. This is what makes them unique, for despite that, the writers are still purporting that these things actually happened in history, not some timeless mythic realm. This is the thing that ultimately helped convince C.S. Lewis to become a Christian. He was a literature professor, and he knew myth when he read it, and he knew a historical account when he read it. What struck him with the gospels is that they were claiming that these things really happened. It was “myth invading history,” if you will.
For example, in the Canaanite mythological Baal cycle, Baal at one point dies, then is brought back to life—this was understood, not as a historical claim, but as a mythical way to understand the change of seasons (think also of the Greek myth of Demeter). But in the gospels, the claim is that Jesus died and rose again in history; it wasn’t some mythical story to explain agriculture and harvest.
Having said all that, even if one doesn’t believe the claims made in the gospels regarding Jesus’ miracles and resurrection, one should not call the gospels “myth,” or the story of Jesus a “myth.” That would be mislabeling the genre of literature that it is. One can certainly say, “The gospels are historical biographies, and Jesus was a real person who seems to have led a messianic movement, but who was crucified by Pilate after he ran afoul of the Jewish religious leaders in the temple—but I just don’t believe those claims of miracles and the resurrection.” But one cannot be careless with the use of the term, and just label the gospels “myth” simply because you don’t believe some of the claims found in them.
So to sum up:
- Myths aren’t about historical events; they take place outside of time and space.
- Myths are intended to put forth the general worldview of a given culture. In regards to the Old Testament, if “all the world (and world history) is a stage,” the founding myths in Genesis 1-11 provide the backdrop to the stage of world history, so that the events and characters that come across the stage are viewed and understood against that mythic backdrop on the back curtain.
- Therefore, the stories of Abraham, the Exodus, the judges, and the kings are not “myth.” They purport to be about real historical people, albeit written as a highly creative story (i.e. “fictionalized history”).
- The gospels are understood to be ancient historical biographies about the real historical person of Jesus of Nazareth.
- Even if one does not believe the claims of miracles and resurrection, that does not change the fact that the gospels are not “myths.”
I’m sure much more can be said. This post is just a quick response to a discussion I took part in on Facebook. But hopefully this post has been able to clarify a few misconceptions about what “myth” means and about what the gospels are.