"Myth and the Bible" by Jeffery Small
When you hear the word “myth” associated with the Bible, what is the first thought that comes to your mind? Do you define the word “myth” to mean that the stories described are not factually true?
My reading of the Bible has undergone an evolution over the years. As a child, I was taught the various stories as if they were actual historical events. As my understanding of science and the world began to broaden, I saw that a literal reading of many of these stories was impossible. I came to view the Bible as myth, by which I meant non-historical stories that contained a moral message. Today, my understanding of the Bible as myth has taken another step. Although I still do not believe that many of the stories are historically or factually accurate (although they may be anchored in historical events), I view “myth” in a broader and more meaningful sense. Mythology is a form of literature that expresses fundamental truths in a way that ordinary discourse is inadequate to describe. Mythology adds a richness of detail and a concreteness to metaphorical language. Now when I refer to the stories in the Bible as mythology, I do not intend to do so pejoratively. Reading these stories as myths gives me the freedom to understand their underlying meaning in a way I never could before.
Why specifically did I abandon the historical view of many of the writings in the Bible I was taught as a child?
1. From a scientific standpoint, many of the “facts” in the Bible were simply wrong. One of many examples: according to Genesis, the universe is just over 6000 years old. According to physics, the Big Bang occurred 13.7 billion years ago.
2. Also from a scientific perspective, many of the stories were impossible. Within this category, I put most of the miracles. The story of Joshua stopping the sun moving across the sky is an example. First, the story assumes (as was the thinking then) that the earth was flat and was at the center of the universe. We simply know this to be false. Second, for the sun to stop would mean that the earth would have to cease rotating on its axis—an event which would destroy the planet.
3. For many of the miracle stories, natural explanations exist, especially considering they were written in a time when the authors believed that solar eclipses were divine omens, disease was divine punishment, and mental illness was caused by demon possession. In the case of Jesus, I do believe that he was a faith healer and that healing was an important part of his ministry. However, today we can find faith healers in Haiti who practice voodoo and in tribal Africa who practice witchcraft. Many of these modern-day faith healers have patients who are actually healed by these practices. Doctors call this the placebo effect, an effect so powerful that drugs must undergo double blind experiments.
4. Some of the mythological stories in the Bible are not original, but were borrowed from other traditions. The Epic of Gilgamesh—a Sumerian poem detailing the creation of the universe that predates the writings of Genesis by many centuries—contains a flood story whose plot points are almost identical to the story of Noah.
5. The other world religions also contain rich histories of mythology and fantastical sounding (to us) stories. On what basis can we Christians claim that our miracle stories are legitimate, yet theirs are flights of fancy? The mythology surrounding the Buddha, who lived 500 years before Jesus, includes tales of how he healed the sick, walked on water, and flew through the air. His birth was foretold by a spirit (a white elephant rather than the angel Gabriel) who then entered his mother’s womb! At his birth, wise men predicted that he would become a great religious leader.
6. The Bible itself is full of inconsistencies. How can it be an accurate historical record, when the various books contradict each other? Here is UNC Religion Professor Bart Ehrman: “Just take the death of Jesus. What day did Jesus die on and what time of day? Did he die on the day before the Passover meal was eaten, as John explicitly says, or did he die after it was eaten, as Mark explicitly says? Did he die at noon, as in John, or at 9 a.m., as in Mark? Did Jesus carry his cross the entire way himself or did Simon of Cyrene carry his cross? It depends which Gospel you read. Did both robbers mock Jesus on the cross or did only one of them mock him and the other come to his defense? It depends which Gospel you read. Did the curtain in the temple rip in half before Jesus died or after he died? It depends which Gospel you read…Or take the accounts of the resurrection. Who went to the tomb on the third day? Was it Mary alone or was it Mary with other women? If it was Mary with other women, how many other women were there, which ones were they, and what were their names? Was the stone rolled away before they got there or not? What did they see in the tomb? Did they see a man, did they see two men, or did they see an angel? It depends which account you read.” (http://www.bringyou.to/apologetics/p96.htm)
Despite the above points, millions of people still read the Bible literally. Other than the inherent problems associated with closing our minds to science and the reality of the world, I see other problems in literal interpretations of the Bible. I believe that such a reading limits the Bible. Rather, than expressing universal truths, a literal interpretation limits the actions of God to certain events in history. Yes, there are many rules articulated and lessons expressed, but God’s actions on the world become finite, confined to certain historical events: like the chess master making individual moves on a chessboard frozen in time two thousand years ago. Reading these same stories mythologically, however, can bring forth their universal qualities.
Second, encouraging a literal reading of the Bible alienates much of our society. In an age of science and technology, too much of the Bible is simply unbelievable to today’s mind and can turn people away from the underlying messages. I fear that an insistence on a literal or historical view will ultimately lead to the irrelevance of Christianity. Furthermore, because the stories were written in a different age with very different views on social justice—an age in which slavery was legitimate, an age when discrimination based on race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation was the norm—the Bible can also be used to justify intolerance today.
Reading the Bible as mythology is not a new concept. Two of the early Church Fathers, Origen (185-254) and Augustine (354-430), both interpreted Genesis metaphorically, rejecting literal interpretations. Early in the 20th century, German theologian Rudolf Bultmann called for a “demythologizing” of the New Testament for many of the reasons I have given above. Rather, the movement in many fundamentalist circles today to read the Bible as inerrant (an extreme form of literalism, in which every word of Bible is viewed as true) is a late development from the 19th century as a response to the chipping away at the historicity of the stories since the Enlightenment.
By throwing off the shackles of having to believe in the historicity of the Bible, we are free to interpret the stories as a testament to the religious experiences of people from a different age—a testament that communicates a meaning about their experiences of Ultimate Reality, of God. I understand that their experiences of the divine ground were interpreted through the lens of a pre-modern view of the world, and my own religious experiences will take on a different form today. In my next post, I will examine how I interpret a few of the key Biblical stories in a metaphorical way that helps me to understand the meaning of God.
THE BIBLE AS MYTHOLOGY, PART 2: GENESIS
What can the stories of the Bible teach us about our own experiences of the divine? In my last post, The Bible as Mythology, I discussed my problems with a literal interpretation of the Bible. Reading the Bible as mythology, however, does not mean that all of the stories are historically untrue. Many are, in fact, based on real historical events and people. Others are purely fictional, and yet others are a blend of history and imagination. In this post, I will demonstrate how unlocking the handcuffs of historical truth from the Bible can free us to experience the universal themes present in the stories.
Let’s start at the beginning: Genesis. A source of ongoing debate, this story is often read by creationists as a literal description of how God created the world in 6 days 6000 years ago, forming man from the dust as a potter might create a pot. Atheists like Oxford Biology Professor Richard Dawkins see the story as not much more than a primitive people’s attempt to explain the workings of the universe without the benefit of modern science. On the other hand, I (along with many others, including the early second century church father Origen) read it as a metaphorical commentary on the relationship between God, humankind, and existence itself.
Whether the original authors of these stories believed in the accounts literally or not is irrelevant to how we read them (Chapters 1 and 2 actually present two different accounts of creation, written not by Moses but by at least two authors during the 6th century BCE—one of the later texts of the Torah—who borrowed imagery and themes from the much older Mesopotamian creation story, the Enuma Elish). If we read the Bible as the encounter of a pre-modern people with the divine, we would expect their interpretations to be written in a way that conformed to their cultures and their understanding of the workings of the world, which is a very different understanding than we have today. But the underlying thematic message of the stories can still contain universal truths that hold just as much meaning for us. Just as our scientific laws change over time as we gain knowledge of the universe, why shouldn’t our theological interpretations of scripture likewise evolve?
From the opening lines of Genesis, we can thus see God as creator. But today we might choose to interpret God not as a supernatural being sitting outside the universe commanding it into existence, but rather understand God as the source of existence itself—an existence that flows forth from God. We can understand God as the creative power that supports existence. This creative power was not a one-time event, but it occurs continuously—underlying the space-time framework of the universe, the matter and energy that make up its content, and the physical laws which govern its actions. This creative power is also that which animates life itself as we see with the image of God breathing the breath of life into Adam. The Hebrew word for “breath,” nephesh, also means “soul.” God is thus the center of our being. (For more on this view of God, see two of my earlier posts: Rethinking God and Symbols.)
Similarly, we can read the Garden of Eden as representing an ideal: the essential underlying connection between God, nature, and humanity. However, we do not live our lives in this ideal essence. Instead, our actual existence is characterized by a distance between us and the divine ground that is the power behind creation. This separation (the “Fall&rdquo and our own further distancing from our divine centers in which we elevate our egos over God (“sin&rdquo is what results in our suffering. (See my earlier post on The Problem of Evil that explores this issue further.)
We also see in this story that although God is the creative source of existence, we have freedom—just as the theories of quantum mechanics, chaos theory, and evolution all posit the importance of randomness, probability, and freedom in the laws that govern existence. God creates, but a key mechanism in the process of creation is freedom of the created.
The metaphor of the Fall and the separation of humanity from our divine ground can also be seen in the metaphorical language of sexual awakening. Just as a child transitions through puberty to adulthood (symbolized by the recognition of Adam and Eve of their nudity and their sexual union) and this transition also coincides with both a loss of innocence and a corresponding increase in wisdom (symbolized by the eating of the fruit from the knowledge of good and evil), humanity has transitioned from our pure essence to our actual existence. The question then becomes how can we reconnect with the divine ground, with God?
Rereading Genesis in this way allows us to see both the creative role of God and the human existential situation within a framework that is consistent with modern science. In a later post, I will similarly address the mythological meaning behind the resurrection.