We use the term “myth” to refer to things that are not true, but this is not the literary definition. Myth is a genre of literature that, like all ancient literature, focuses on the significance of an event rather than the event itself. The difference between an ancient myth and an ancient history is the degree to which the event recorded has been interpreted.
I’m sure I’ve talked about ancient histories here before, but let’s go over it again briefly. Our modern notion of history is that we attempt to write an objective and accurate account of events in order to preserve those events for future knowledge and analysis. For a modern historian, video clips are a wonderful invention: they preserve the events just as they happened, without obvious interpretation (media majors can argue about interpretation’s presence within a photograph some other time 😉 Modern history wants to see what really happened, in minute detail.
Ancient history, on the other hand, is much more concerned with interpreting events rather than recording them accurately. Sure, they record events, but they tell the story of those events in a way that includes their interpretation of those events. They feel quite comfortable assigning meaning to the events, and even portraying the events in certain ways so as to really bring that meaning or significance to the forefront. They might even embellish the story, quite liberally, to really highlight the significance of the events. An ancient history is thus not an objective account of historical events, but rather a people group’s account of their history for their purposes.
Myth goes even further, using symbols and imagery to describe “events” that may not have actually happened at all in a physical, modern-historical sense, but represent the meaning and significance that the writer wants to portray. This is probably why there are so many creation myths: nobody was actually there for creation, so there’s no chance of having a modern-historical account of the events, or even an ancient-historical account with its interpretation embedded in the story. The writer of myth has to start with the significance, rather than the event, and write about an event that represents the significance. Or, it may be that the writer of the myth started with an historical account that has been so heavily interpreted over such a long period that the details have been altered or have even disappeared.
Let’s be clear about something: this does not mean that the events described in a myth never happened! We can’t actually know. All it means for sure is that those events have been so heavily interpreted that the details that a modern historian would look for are long, long gone, leaving only the interpretation of the events behind. Powerful interpretations do not appear out of nothing, and we know that there is a basis in historical events for many myths, so that even if an ancient writer were to start off with the significance and craft a tale to describe that significance, that significance still came from the interpretation of an event at one point. An important point to remember is that ancient writers never intended to write modern histories, and they saw their own stories as true – mostly, I think, because the truth they were trying to communicate was not the events themselves, but the significance of those events as they had been interpreted.
Confused yet? Let’s think of a compass, with one axis forming a spectrum between “fact” and “fiction”, and the other forming a spectrum between “objective” (without bias and interpretation) and “subjective” (with obvious bias and interpretation).
Forgive my crude drawing, and please note that this is based entirely on my own understanding. Feel free to refute my placement of any of the dots! The point is that our understanding of history comes from the Modern era, which tried to be completely objective and factual (and for a while, they thought there actually were). Modernists saw myth as completely fictional and subjective, and ancient history as only slightly less so. What’s important for us to understand (and isn’t represented on the chart) is that ancients weren’t concerned with objectivity or subjectivity at all; I’m not even sure they had such categories. So in a sense they were totally subjective, and didn’t care! And as for the genre of myth, it doesn’t actually attempt to be “factual”. At times, it’s not even sensical! But in the sense that it is true, it is completely true – and that’s the only sense it’s concerned with.
Now picture another spectrum, with one end being “Biblical Myth” and the other being “Biblical History.” At the “myth” end, we’ll find texts that are full of significance, but light on actual historical accuracy; on the “history” end are texts that are telling us about real events, but with some interpretation embedded in the story itself; and in between we’ll find stories that probably refer to real events but may have been embellished for the sake of the significance of the story. There are some parts of the Bible (such as Genesis 1) which is quite obviously myth, and there are other parts (such as the accounts of the kings) that are quite obviously ancient history. But there are other parts that are much more difficult to place! For example, where do we put the book of Jonah? It’s written as a straightforward, mostly literal account of a series of events featuring the prophet Jonah – but it’s also written in the apparent style of an ancient novella, with a very clear moral to the story. Is it entirely fictional, entirely factual, or some mix of fact and fiction? See below as I’ve placed some Bible stories on the spectrum (fully my own opinion!):
Sorry the text is so small, but I think you can get my drift. This is how I would classify these particular Bible stories, and to some extent where I put these stories on this spectrum says as much about me as it does about the texts themselves. For example, we can tell just from the text itself that Genesis 1-11 is in the genre of myth, just by its very style, so in this case my choice to put it on the “myth” end comes from the text itself; similarly, the kings lists in the Bible fit in perfectly with those of other nations at that time, and are way too dry to be called “embellished” in any real sense. The novella-style of Jonah and the Joseph story in Genesis suggest that they may be fictional, yet I’ve put Joseph far closer to history than Jonah, which I’ve put firmly as myth. I placed Joseph there because the Joseph story is somewhat integral to the history of Israel, whereas the history of Israel is unaffected by Jonah, whether he existed or not – and there is no other record of Nineveh’s repentance, so obviously it didn’t affect their history either. So in this case, my choices are mostly based on the text, but also on my appraisal of it.
As for Joshua-Judges, they are important for the history of Israel, and I’ve placed them where I have partly because of that and partly (I admit) because I want to believe that they are factually and not just symbolically or thematically true. Modern historians would tear me apart on that point (probably quite rightly). The Gospels are documents that we know an awful lot about, and though Gospel is a different genre than ancient history, we know that it’s quite similar and that they are quite reliable. At the same time, the four gospels each present the events in different order, include different stories about Jesus, and show very obvious intent to present a particular image of Jesus. Modernists would say that the Gospels are full of miracle accounts, which obviously must be mythological because miracles are impossible; I believe that miracles are possible, and so I don’t feel the need to classify miracle stories as myth, and thus the gospels can be much closer to history than myth.
What prompted this reflection is that I’ve read a little bit of Rudolph Bultmann recently. I was warned off of him in Bible college because he doesn’t believe that the resurrection of Christ (or the miracles of Christ) was a historical event – for a Pentecostal, this was tantamount to atheism! Over the years I didn’t think much about him, until earlier this year when a Seminary professor described Bultmann as a Christian of very deep conviction who cared passionately about preaching the gospel. My atheist picture of Bultmann was rocked.
What’s fascinating about Bultmann is that he held a theology that interpreted all miracle stories in the Bible as myth, but did so in a way that had not been done very well before. A century before Bultmann, modernist scholars had rooted out all of the “myth” in the Bible and simply discarded it as superstitious nonsense, and were left with a few moral sayings and not much else. Bultmann, on the other hand, recognized that myth was an ancient way of explaining significance and interpreting historical events. “Basically, the mythological talk seeks to do nothing other than to express the significance of the historical event” (New Testament & Mythology and Other Basic Writings, 1984, p.35). He lived in a thoroughly modernist, scientific society in which stories of miracles were simply unbelievable – so in service of the church and a desire to make the Bible relevant to the modern era, he set about finding the significance of all of those stories in order to still be able to preach the gospel – whose spiritual significance was still quite true! – to the modern world. In Bultmann’s theology, it really didn’t matter that he believed that none of these miracles – including the resurrection! – occurred; the significance was true, and dearly important to the world.
I disagree with Bultmann on a lot of things. I live in the post-modern era, where we don’t believe that objectivity really exists in a meaningful way, and we don’t believe that science always gets things right. I have no problem with the notion of miracles, even if science says they can’t happen. That’s simply what makes it a miracle 😉 I don’t always agree with all of Bultmann’s existentialist readings, and I don’t think he gives proper credit to all of the books of the New Testament, and I think he’s wrong to think that we can only interact with Jesus through the text (as a Pentecostal with somewhat incarnational ecclesiology and an appreciation for the sacraments, I believe that I interact with Jesus through the Holy Spirit, the Church, and the Eucharist in significant ways quite regularly). But even though we don’t see eye to eye on so many important issues, I’m tremendously grateful to Bultmann for his work: he’s shown me that there is more than one level of truth (literal/historical and spiritual/existential/symbolic) and that all levels of truth are incredibly valuable! He’s shown me that having a historical understanding of the resurrection is not enough on its own to generate real faith in Christ.
If Bultmann were alive today, I’d say to him “I’m glad to know that the truths of Scripture do not depend entirely on their historicity; but nevertheless, I believe that their historicity gives them a powerful, concrete element that adds so much value and strength to my faith, and moreso to my relationship with the God who truly and literally became like me so that I could really know Him and become in turn like Him. I do not need to be physically resurrected in order for the significance of my life and death to be complete, yet nevertheless I long to see the end product of God’s salvation in the restored world to come. I do not need to see miracles to understand and appreciate God’s nearness to me, and yet I know that my concrete experience of God through the miraculous has forever changed me.” In short, thanks for revealing another layer of meaning that is sufficient for faith; but the fullness of Christ is far more than just sufficient!