|A PLAIN GUIDE TO
A common accusation for some
two centuries has been that Christianity is untrue because it is only a
"myth". In particular, the material in the Hebrew Scriptures and
the gospels of the Christian Scriptures are mythical - such as miracles
and other stories. There is some truth in all this. But the concept of the
mythical is both more complex and more useful than the accusers generally
The word "myth" has been used and misused in a number of
ways since it first became current. Most important, however, is the
meaning generally attached to it nowadays.
Most commonly, if I describe a
statement as a "myth" I usually mean that it's untrue. By that
most people would mean something like, "It's untrue because it can't
be proved." In doing so they are taking up a meaning which has become
current over the last two or three centuries.
A good example might be the
"myth" of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. In previous ages, this was
regarded as an account in story form of what had actually happened soon
after God created the world. This
opinion could be held because the Bible was regarded as God's
"word" - that is, God's revelation
to mankind of absolute truth. Truth which comes from God, either directly
to us or via the spoken or written word, can't by definition be wrong.
Anyone who contradicted this absolute truth was by definition wrong.
Since then, Western measures of
truth have swung more or less completely away from revelation to what is
broadly termed "reason" as the primary source of truth. The
scientific method is usually regarded as our most
rigorous form of reasoned thinking. This perception has led to a shallow but widespread
distinction between myth (untrue) and science (true).
The scientific method allows us to agree - albeit sometimes only
after considerable debate and controversy - about "what really is". We all have differing perceptions of the
world around us. Sometimes the difference is great, sometimes small. Every
person is unique. The scientific method has been evolved over some
centuries as a means of narrowing and reconciling those differences.
Those who use the scientific method tend to find it difficult or
impossible to easily conceive of the kind of knowledge embodied in a myth
as true. Likewise,
those who use myths tend to regard scientific "truth" as sterile
and limited. Some contrasts may help illustrate:
A scientific statement must be logical and rational . It is logical if it
obeys the rules governing the use of
language. It is rational if it fully and deeply questions its own foundations. The
rules of logic don't necessarily govern the mythical form. It is as
rational as science, but uses rationality in story form rather than in
Every term and calculation used in science must be as precise as
is no resort to vagueness, and steps in calculation and argument are
not missed out. A myth relies on allusion and "vagueness" for
its effect. It calls upon people to use their imaginations about life
and its deepest meanings. Precision is not the point.
Every scientific truth must be
expressed in terms which can be examined and tested. A
myth is not offered for testing in this way. It is to be received and
reflected upon. Its truth is tested by life as a whole, not by narrow
argument or cold fact.
In science, it must be possible to duplicate any conclusion by using the identical, well-defined steps
by which it was first reached. In myth, conclusions reached may differ.
The myth sets out to make a point for the community, but individual interpretations
Any scientific claim to truth must be opened up and offered for
Anyone - and particularly by those who have the skills, equipment and
credentials - is free to test any claim to truth. Secret or partially explained truths are
by definition excluded from this criterion. Myths are as public as
scientific truths. But they circulate only amongst those who find them
meaningful. In the scientific sense, a myth can't be falsified.
Any scientific claim to truth containing an unexplained gap must be viewed with suspicion.
This criterion applies particularly to claims which are very close to the
frontiers of knowledge, or are based on incomplete findings or knowledge.
A truth claim based upon incomplete evidence is to be dismissed until the gaps are closed. Myths,
on the other hand, survive and maintain their attractiveness partly because they
don't pretend to be comprehensive. Gaps and inconsistencies tend to be
of relatively little importance.
Any scientific claim to new knowledge requires caution. Before it can be taken too seriously, it must be tested to the full. And
if a claim is extraordinary, it must be backed up by extraordinary
evidence. Myths are meaningful because they are to some degree fantastic.
They attract because they are stories which, although they did not actually
happen, nevertheless say something deep about the lives of ordinary people.
Claims issuing from inspired conviction are not scientific truth. Because
every claim is
approached with scepticism as a pre-condition, any "truth"
must be revised whenever solid evidence contradicts it. All
scientific conclusions are therefore necessarily provisional. Myths are
what they are because they issue from inspired conviction - often a
conviction which can't be expressed in strictly logical or rational
Coincidence is never acceptable as scientific evidence. It can be used as evidence only when
it is shown by sound statistics to be the result of more than
chance. In myth, coincidence is not only permissible,
but an important device. It is a mechanism for adding force and colour
to a story deliberately designed to convey deep human meaning.
Anecdotes are unacceptable as scientific evidence. Conclusions drawn from a single instance can't be called scientific,
because [a] they can't be deliberately duplicated and [b] they can't
be compared with other instances (usually using statistical methods). Myths,
in contrast, are by nature
anecdotal. That is, they use specific, often fictional, elements of
life as the essence of their method.
Scientific criteria are the only known way of
eliminating human differences of perception and our natural tendency
to assert what we need to believe is true or what some
"authority" tells us is true. This is not to say that something
cannot be true which has not been tested in the above manner. But it is
to say that every truth, including scientific truth, is open to doubt and scepticism and may
Myth is used to express truths which are not scientifically testable. They are in essence a fictitious or imaginary tale, narrative or
explanation. So we might talk of "Norse myths" in reference to
the tales told about Nordic heroes and monsters. Another usage would be to refer to
a "myth of national superiority", for example. In this case, the
"myth" would be a false explanation based on either spurious or
insufficient data about human characteristics
In the New Testament the Greek muthos
is used in direct contrast to logos or "word." The
"myths" referred to in 1 Timothy 1.4 and 4.7, for example,
indicate that God's logos is true while the myths about other gods are false.
More technically, the term is
used by those who work in a branch of anthropology called mythology. These
experts would usually call a story, tale or narrative a "myth"
when it deals with the origins or foundations of a culture, religion or
god. These myths are often about a time before "now" or before
some point at which known history began.
In one sense, therefore, what we
think of a myth depends a good deal on what we think of history. The more
weight is placed on the value of "what really happened" the less
weight can be placed on "what didn't happen but is in some sense
true." The more objective data is assembled and analysed to form what
is called history, the less room there is for metaphorical, mythical expression of
The concept of myth relates to
the Bible in the sense that the latter is often regarded as a mythical account of the
beginnings of Christianity in a similar way that folktales tell of the
beginnings of a culture or nation. The great debate today, as for the past
two hundred or more years, concerns how much of the New Testament in
particular is "myth" and how much is history. The word
"myth" is, however, used in this context rather differently from
its common usages.
A focus on the "myths"
in the Bible began with the rise of Newtonian physics in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The new science affected every part of Western
society. The promise of physics seemed then to be that we would quite
shortly penetrate the depths of the physical universe and discover laws
which would allow us to manipulate nature completely. Nature was thought
to work according to rules which made it potentially completely
The question naturally arose
amongst Newtonian scientists and those who read their work,
"Why, if miracles are events which contradict the physical laws of nature, do
they occur in the Bible? This is supposed to be revealed truth direct from
God. How come this revelation goes against the physical laws we have recently
learned about? Which is true - the Bible or physics?"
As the debate raged on in Europe,
the philosopher and theologian D F Strauss
(1808-1874) used the term "myth" to specifically refer to biblical miracles. He
thought that the miracles of the Bible are narrative stories used to express certain ideas.
This was the only way, for example, to express the conviction that Jesus was the Jewish
Messiah - a claim which is not open to scientific investigation. He supposed
that there is some sense in which miracles could be called history, some
sense in which "something happened".
if so, whatever had happened had been built up into something which could not have happened exactly as it had been told.
This resulted in a rash of "explanations" of miracles in terms
of "what actually happened, even though the Bible says a miracle
happened". So, for example, some suggested that Jesus didn't walk on
water as the Bible says he did. What
"actually happened" is that he was walking on a bar of sand
hidden beneath the water. What the critics thought of as the simple and
ignorant peasants who later became the
Apostles would have taken this as a miracle. (And,
although it is seldom mentioned, Jesus would have been content to play
this trick on them.)
This questioning, scientific approach meant that God's
intervention into nature - a cornerstone of traditional Christianity - was
put in question. Science was providing fascinating and completely
"true" information about the world. Traditional Christianity's
claims were quite clearly "false" because they could not
withstand scientific investigation. The debate about which approach should
rule our minds continues to
For some it seemed as though the
early part of the 20th century delivered to them a technique of analysing
the Bible which reduced the
extreme tensions which had been produced by Strauss and many others - Form
The work of Rudolf
(1884-1976) in developing Form Criticism proved crucial in moving the debate along.
It is an analytical method which
focuses on sub-units of biblical text. It tries to identify the
development of the New Testament from initial oral forms. It attempts to
trace the development of these forms through to the
final written documents we now have in the Gospels and letters of the New
Testament. The world view
which produced those texts was, thought Bultmann, radically different from the
scientific worldview we hold today.
In Bultmann's opinion, accounts
like the miracles of Jesus can't therefore be identified with history as we
know it. They are essentially about something else. This "something
else" is not so much a way of conceptualising the world as of
expressing the experience of those who came into contact with Jesus,
either first-hand or later through those who knew him in person. This experience, said Bultmann, we can call
the kerygma - that is, the good news proclaimed and experienced through
So for him myth is not something
false which has to be stripped away and replaced with historical truth.
His attempts to de-mythologise the New Testament wasn't what Strauss and
others were trying to do.
Rather, Bultmann attempted to
re-express Jesus in terms of how we encounter him in today's world and
through our contemporary worldview. The gospel is thus never something to
be merely studied. It always has to be experienced and re-experienced,
perhaps differently in different historical eras. Bultmann is known as an
theologian because his views required a complete re-visioning of existence
through the lenses of modern experience.
A central question which occurs
to me is to wonder if perhaps the "truth" of history - as an
account of "what really happened", an analysis of cause and
effect - might be somewhat limited in scope. What if there is another
kind of truth which, though it starts from history, can reach beyond it
means of myth?
The myth of Adam and Eve is more
than bad history - it's has no historical truth at all. This has been
clear to any thinking person since the publication of Darwin's The
Origin of Species. But what if it provides a
way of presenting a truth which, even if it's terms are mythical,
nevertheless tells us something about humanity and the way we are now?
What if it's attempting to describe how humankind continually, one way or
another, attempts to rebel against God, for example? What if such truths
can't be told any other way?
This is, I think, a viable way of
regarding myth. But it also implies that no myth is necessarily better
than any other. Just because a myth occurs in the Bible, it is nothing
special. Some may find the myth of Jonah useful. Others may find Norse
myths more compelling. The myth merely becomes a vehicle for expressing a
grade or type of truth which can't be expressed any other way.
But it seems to me false and
misleading to suggest that something like the resurrection of Jesus from
death can be called a myth. Or rather, if it can be so described then it
is replaceable by any other myth which makes the same point, no matter
what its origins. A Persian myth of a dying and rising god may suit some
people just as well as a myth of a dying and rising Jesus. That is, the
"truth" of a myth lies not in its details, nor in any analysis
of its content, but in the impossibility of using any other form to
express certain kinds of truth.
But if the resurrection is
proposed as a unique historical event,
then history and its analytical processes must swing into action. That is,
the meaning of the word "myth" can't be changed to equate
with the word "history." The problem is that the ways in which
myth has been described above are not compatible with what we today know
as history. In this context, myth and history are incompatible.
If an event is historical it
can't also be mythical. One commentator claims that the word
"myth" expresses a type of truth which is "more than
history." It turns out that the myth in his view includes history
but, as it were, extends beyond it . This is, I think,
perhaps possible but
hard to carry through. The reason is that the history in any "myth"
will over time become indistinguishable from
the mythical or story part.
To illustrate, let's assume that an
urban myth develops which gives an account of
Elvis Presley's final, drug-ridden days. The account may express
"more" than the bare facts of history. It may embroider them
with details of Elvis' final, inspiring words. It may recount how Elvis
touched a sorrowful fan who was instantly healed of her long-term
depression. Let's suppose the myth goes on to
describe in equally graphic and persuasive terms how certain fans saw
Elvis alive in Los Angeles three days after his death. "Elvis
lives!" they cry.
This may tell us  how gullible
human beings can be on occasion, and  how easily fans suffering from hysteria
can work themselves up into delusional beliefs. But the mythical part in
this case is always entirely separate from the historical part. It would
be history that Elvis died, that certain stories about his death were
created, and that certain fans experienced delusions of him being alive
after death. I suggest that the
"myth" of Elvis resurrection on one hand, and the history of his death and
the delusions of his fans on the other, have to some people become
In short, no attempt to meld
history with myth that I've ever come across (and there are many, some
extremely tortuous) has ever succeeded.
To summarise: for the past two
centuries or more, there has been an ongoing confusion between history and
myth in the Bible. Only recently has the fog which obscured the issue
begun to clear. The outcome of so much fierce debate has been twofold.
Truth is increasingly being stripped of any sense of absoluteness. And
both history and myth have been restored to their rightful places as
different but equally valid
ways of expressing human understanding.
 J D G Dunn, Myth
in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 1992