|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
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 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 argument
Every term and calculation used in science must be as precise as
possible. There 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
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 may differ.
Any scientific claim to truth must be opened up and offered for
examination. 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
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
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
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 human
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
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 predictable.
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".
But 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 this day.
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 Criticism.
The work of Rudolf Bultmann
(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 faith.
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
existential 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 only by 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
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
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
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 inseparable.
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