Hello, I’m Josh Way, and welcome to a BOOK Podcast Supplement.
I want to talk a little bit about MYTHS today. Myths in the Bible, myths in general, and contemporary myths about myths. Please remember that this show isn’t about apologetics or “proving,” “defending,” OR “debunking” the Bible. We’re just looking at the content of the Bible in the light of HISTORY and LITERATURE. And that’s the context in which I want to talk about mythology. Unfortunately, modern usage of the word “myth” is so far from its literary and cultural heritage that I feel a few remarks are in order.
Today, a MYTH is typically understood to be a demonstrably false assertion which is believed by some section of the population. This is how the popular media uses the term, for example. “Ten Myths About Nutrition,” or “Debunking Exercise Myths,” or something like that. So as soon some part of the Bible is identified as a “myth,” the response from many is to immediately dismiss it, burn it with fire, and expunge it from memory. Meanwhile, reactionary Christians hear the word “myth” in relation to the Bible and immediately take up arms, ready to defend the sacred book against the attacks of the heretics.
Both reactions are misguided and somewhat hypocritical. The automatic rejection of anything identified as “mythological” reveals a narrow-minded modernism, as if “facts” and “data” had the exclusive corner on truth, or as if human imagination had been silenced by the Enlightenment. Meanwhile the religious counterattack is little more than a power play, revealing a superstitious view of scripture and a willful ignorance of the literary heritage of the Bible and the cultural reality of the world which produced it.
This, friends, is my humble plea for reason and thoughtfulness.
Myths are stories. Stories shared, told, and retold by a particular group of people which express common beliefs or assumptions. They may – or may NOT – be “true” in the modernist sense of a verifiable fact. But they are all an attempt to get closer to some “truth,” something fundamental and basic and unifying. All of us, without exception, believe in myths. Our view of our own history, (hopefully) grounded in facts but inevitably projected through a lens, is a myth. Some myths are smokescreens for otherwise unbearable realities, like the so-called “war on terror,” or “drugs,” or “poverty.” Our political affiliation, our social views, our understanding of where we came from, biologically and spiritually. We have all chosen to participate in the stories which make the most sense to us out of the chaos of the world.
Other kinds of myths bypass the “real world” altogether, yet still manage to get at something true. Spider-man, a work of fantasy, nevertheless communicates basic truths about the experience of becoming an adult. Hollywood movies have become the great recycling bin of world mythology. Myths are humanities way of telling our own story.
Biblical myths are no different. Some use fantastical images and events to express shared beliefs and worldview (like the Adam and Eve story). Others appear to be based on historical realities but are viewed through a particular prism (like the book of Judges, Kings, and Chronicles, and in a different sense the gospels of the New Testament). Others are somewhere in between (such as the flood story which builds a fantastical/theological story on top of a world event).
My point is not to identify this or that passage of the Bible as mythological or non-mythological. Scholarly debate will continue in that vein, to be sure. My point is that to dismiss and deride an ancient text for being mythological is just as obtuse as insisting that it must be “literally true” when such a thing cannot be easily known. Whether the Bible is a collection of mere “myths” or an utterly original and factual work of literature, or some kind of hybrid, so what? What does it say? What are the stories? What did they mean? What do they mean? Why are they collected together in this way? Identifying a myth is only the beginning of our work.
Consider for a moment the popular claim that the New Testament biographies of Jesus are just a “clone” of the ancient Egyptian myth of Horus. You may have seen this on Facebook or in the movie “Zeitgeist.” Basically, Jesus and Horus are compared via a dozen or so carefully worded bullet-points, the conclusion being, “Look! The Bible ripped off Egypt! Christianity is a lie!” The premise and execution of this comparison are insulting to the rich of traditions of both Egypt and the Bible. Details have been cherry-picked and mangled from many different Egyptian sources to make the comparison with the Bible appear more stark, the result of which is a neutering of the Horus figure and a loss of the story’s distinct “Egyptianness.” As for the Bible, the gospel authors and Jesus himself actually did call heavily upon mythological material, but it is distinctly, essentially, undeniably JEWISH material. Jesus’ story and his words make no sense outside of the shared story of Israel, and Christian interpreters are largely to blame for screening that out. (Much more on this later!)
The point is simply this: myths have a great deal to say about the humans who tell, share, and believe them. They are powerful, and whether we embrace or reject them, it should be on the basis of what they tell rather than what they are. The post-enlightenment “debunking” of myths is, in its own way, a myth which we have bought into. Perhaps the biggest myth we all share is the one that says we’re too smart for mythology. We haven’t really moved beyond the need for myths, we’ve just privileged some over others.
That’s really all I wanted to say today. This has been a supplement of BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody. Check out more content and get in touch with me at book.joshway.com. I’ll catch you later, pals!