Christians have a weird relationship with myth.

On the one hand, we love it, or at least the churches I’ve come from love it.

Modern day myths make some of the best sermon illustrations. I mean who hasn’t heard references or seen clips from Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, or one of the numerous superhero movies to come out in the past decade or so (with Superman and Captain America offering up some of the best material).

In the case of epic fiction, Christians are usually happy to affirm the truth these stories point to in spite of their being works of fiction.

On the other hand, however, Christians are terrified of myth, at least insofar as it relates to the Bible.

Worries of slippery slopes abound as the prospect of Jonah’s fish story, Noah’s Flood, the plagues of Egypt, Adam and Eve, the birth narratives of Jesus, and more being mythical constructions or embellishments begs the question as to what other biblical narratives might be mythical in nature and whether the Bible contains any truth at all.

So what is a faithful Christian to do, especially if said Christian has – for many of the reasons already discussed – decided that the Bible can longer be seen as flatly inerrant?

Well, the first order of business is to get a proper understanding of the word myth.

Many just assume that a myth is a fictional story, a legend, or a tall tale, perhaps one that reflects an ancient or pre-scientific understanding of the world (as in the cover photo for this post).

But that doesn’t quite get to the truth of it. God – and by extension, truth –  and myth need not be at war.

In fact it’s truth that, in contrast to the critics, that myth is most concerned with conveying.

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Anthropologist Paul Hiebert suggests that,

“a myth is the overarching story, bigger than history and believed to be true, that serves as a paradigm for people to understand the larger stories in which ordinary lives are embedded,” adding that, “myths [then] are paradigmatic stories, master narratives that bring cosmic order, coherence, and sense to the seemingly senseless experiences, emotions, ideas, and judgements of everyday life by telling people what is real, eternal, and enduring” [1].

Robert Antoine builds on Hiebert’s definition by saying that,

“myths are not lies or second-hand, ‘unscientific’ approaches, but a sui generis (adjectiveclass unto itself, unique) and irreplaceable method of grasping truths which otherwise would remain closed to us. The language of myth is the memory of the community, of a community which would its bonds together because it is a community of faith” [2].

Similarly, renowned New Testament scholar Rudolph Bultmann argues that,

“myth is not primarily a primitive scientific world-explanation that could be criticized by a more highly developed science […] In truth myth expresses how human being understand themselves in their being in the world; it expresses this by conceptualizing out of the longing of human beings a picture of their dreams and desires […] Myth expresses the insight that human beings are strangers who are lost in the world and cannot find their bearings, who cannot secure themselves as authentic beings through rational reflection” [3].

So what does all this mean? David Congdon helpfully synthesizes some of these ideas when he says that,

“the attempt to criticize myth on the basis of modern science misses the true nature and meaning of myth, which brings to expression the truth of the human predicament. Myth speaks of something far more profound and significant than science’s attempt to understand the nature of the world” [4].

And so to say that the Bible contains myth is not to take the historically liberal route of tossing out the archaically embarrassing renderings of the world while preserving what remains conceptually modern, but rather to place the text of the Bible in its proper mode of meaning.

Therefore when Rudolf Bultmann says something as seemingly audacious as, “the world picture of the New Testament is a mythical world picture” [5], we needn’t immediately assume the fetal position.

Instead we must understand that, as Congdon suggests “Bultmann does not say that myth is false or that it is antithetical to faith; he says, in effect, that it is culturally foreign. Myth belongs to an alien time and place. Myth was […] a form of expression that the biblical writer used to understand revelation in their particular context” [6].

The key point here is the cultural and contextual distance between the world of the text and our world as modern readers/interpreters.

Bultmann himself uses the language of ‘world-picture’ which at least roughly amounts to what we today mean when we say ‘culture’.

As Congdon then notes, “we live in a radically different – even incommensurable – cultural context from the authors of scripture, though this does not preclude intercultural communication since […] we are not reducible to our cultural situation” [7].

Congdon suggests that the question for us modern readers of the Bible is whether the saving proclamation of the biblical text must be packaged with the ancient w0rld-picture of the authors, or whether we can instead translate it into our own cultural conception [8].

And to be fair, there is disagreement among scholars on this point.

Some argue that the saving proclamation of the text is in the narrative, the story itself. To then receive it properly we must maintain the world-picture of the text in some sense.

The more conservative folks in this group would go so far as to argue more maintaining the pre-modern world-picture of the text in most or all facets of life. The more progressive might simply settle for focusing on the text itself.

In contrast, other scholars (and both Bultmann and Congdon fall into this camp) argue that we must indeed translate the saving proclamation of the text ever anew, just as we would do in cross cultural missionary work today.

But, as already noted, this camp stands in contrast with a stereotypical liberal reader who is looking to pick and choose from the text.

To translate anew is the take the whole of the text in it’s world-picture and to understand its proper aim and subject for our time and place.

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My aim here today isn’t to exhaustively discuss myth in the Bible, be it the Old or New Testament. And to be clear, both contain myth insofar as it has been define above.

I’m not going to go through, passage by passage, and tell you which ones I think are myth and which ones are historically accurate.

In fact, the distinction between historical and non-historical is somewhat arbitrary when it comes to the Bible and even the category “historical” is often applied anachronistically (i.e. imposing modern categories onto ancient contexts) to the biblical text.

To a large degree, questions like those miss the point. There are scholars and theologians in both camps described above who come to radically different conclusions on how to properly translate (or not) the subject and cultural content of the biblical text.

And I’m not here to definitely pronounce judgement on either side (though I do have an opinion).

Instead, this discussion of myth is meant to convey two key insights.

The first is that claiming the Bible contains myth – or that it is grounded in a mythical world picture –  is not to say that it is outdated or obsolete. But rather it’s to acknowledge the alien cultural world from which it comes and to whom it was originally written.

Second, and building off that first point, the discussion of myth is also not an attempt to pick and choose which parts of the Bible to keep and which to toss out.

Instead it’s a means of taking the whole of the Bible seriously and faithfully by allowing the ongoing work of the Spirit of God, in and through the text, to speak to us in a contextually appropriate way.

It’s not categorically different than they way persons across different cultures must translate meaning between themselves in ways that go beyond the mere translating of languages.

Furthermore and finally, the discussion of myth goes hand in hand with what is, in my opinion, a proper understanding of divine revelation.

Myth serves as a vehicle for revelation but it cannot be directly identified with or as revelation itself. To put it another way, revelation grasps myth (or language). But myth (or language) does not grasp revelation.

I’ll be expanding upon this idea in the next post.

But for now, those of you experiencing angst over my position should take heart in the fact that the acknowledgment of myth in relation to the Bible, properly assessed, serves as a defense of divine revelation and, therefore, the text itself.

It is a friend of those who wish to preserve the power and authority of scripture, not an enemy.

As always, I’d love to hear how these ideas strike you. Keep the conversation going by wrestling, commenting, and passing the discussion along.

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[1] Hiebert, Paul G. 2008. Transforming Worldviews: An Anthropological Understanding of How People Change. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic. Kindle Edition. Loc. 1352.

[2] Antoine, Robert. 1975. Rama and the Bards: Epic Memory in the Ramayana. Calcutta: Thompson. Page 57.

[3] Bultmann, Rudolf. Theologie als Kritik. Page 214.

[4] Congdon, David W. 2015. Rudolf Bultmann: A Companion to His Theology. Eugene: Cascade Books. Kindle Edition. Loc. 1974.

[5] Bultmann, Rudolf. 1941. New Testament and Mythology: The Problem of Demythologizing the New Testament Proclamation. Page 1.

[6] Congdon, David W. 2015. Rudolf Bultmann: A Companion to His Theology. Eugene: Cascade Books. Kindle Edition. Loc. 2007.

[7] ibid. Loc. 2029.

[8] ibid. Loc. 2040.