Taking the ‘Myth’ out of the Bible

By Wendy Thomas Russell | November 15, 2012 | 10 comments

Oh, Bible. You do confound us so.

You are so very dense, complicated and repetitive, not to mention confusing, contradictory, outrageous and far too long-winded to actually read. And yet you are so wise, textured and powerful. You are surprising and exciting and flush with cultural references. In fact, you make it almost impossible for any of us to understand who we are as a civilization without at least getting your Cliffs Notes.

As author E.D. Hirsch Jr. tells children in The First Dictionary of Cultural Literacy:

The Bible is by far the best-known book in our culture. Hundreds of its sayings have become part of our everyday speech. Biblical stories are frequently referred to in books, newspapers, and magazines, and on television. Many paintings and other works of art portray people or scenes from the Bible. Furthermore, the Bible is the basis of some of our most important ideas about law and government. Because it is such a basic part of our culture, it is important for you to know something about the Bible, regardless of your individual religious belief.

 Unfortunately, when it comes to talking with kids about the Bible, some nonreligious parents categorically dismiss the entire the thing by calling it “a book of myths” — akin to Greek and Roman mythology — which is both short-sighted and completely inaccurate. (Ironic, as most these parents seem to value broad-mindedness and truth so very highly.)

The Bible’s focus is a single god (AKA God) and, as such, is used as scripture for the three main monotheistic religions — Islam, Christianity and Judaism. And, yes, there are myths in the Bible. But there is quite a lot of history there, too, and some really great stories about how to live that have been handed down from generation to generation. Certainly, we can tell kids that the Bible has lots of fiction inside it, but we must tell them, too, that it contains truth — and interpretations of truth. And there are many things whose historical accuracy is simply unknown because the stories were corroded by time and endless retellings. It’s a like the game of telephone; something always get changed from one end to the other.

It’s for this reason that the first three gospels of the New Testament — Matthew, Mark and Luke — all contain the “same” story of Jesus’ life, and yet all of them are different — sometimes strikingly different. [Warning: This next part is a bit of a tangent] History tells us that the Gospel of Mark was written first, and that Luke and Matthew borrowed from Mark in telling their own versions. History also tells us that there was another, unknown source of information about Jesus’ life — sometimes called Q — which is why Luke and Matthew have some overlapping stories that cannot be found in Mark. (There’s a great diagram here that explains this much better than I do, if you’re interested.)

Anyway, I think it’s best to describe the Bible as a book of many genres. It’s fiction, nonfiction, biography, genealogy, letters, poetry, wisdom, proverbs, songs, prophecy and apocalypse. It’s also one of the world’s most important works of literature. Right up there with Shakespeare’s stuff, if you ask me.

Did Jesus really exist? Yes. Did Moses really exist? No one is quite sure. Did Moses introduce the 10 Commandments to the Jewish people? Not likely. Did Jesus feed 4,000 people with seven loaves of bread and a few fish? Not on your life. Is the following verse one of the most beautiful ever written?

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

— 1 Cor 13:4-13

You bet it is.



  1. Heather says:

    I consider myself Catholic and I don’t agree with everything you say in your blog. But I like to follow it because I tend to be more rational about my faith. I agree with most of what is said in this post. The main difference is while you say, “There is no God, and I am going to live my life as if he does not exist” I say, “There may be one, and I am going to live my life searching for Him.” Very good post.

  2. Rich Wilson says:

    I guess I shouldn’t say ‘contrary evidence’ so much as ‘lack of evidence’. I think the question of the historical Jesus is largely assumed, by both believers and non-believers. And I think I’d have describe myself as truly agnostic on it. It’s not a question I care a lot about.

    If I had to pull up one thing that made me question my own assumptions it would be David Fitzgerald’s “Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed at All” although I certainly don’t think that’s any kind of slam dunk, especially against Historical Jesus vs. Magical Jesus.

    Also Dr. Bart Ehrman, who feels strongly that a single Jesus existed http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zdqJyk-dtLs but sheds light on how fragile the Gospel history is.

  3. Danny Ray says:

    Allow me to quote a song:
    “I was raised on the good book Jesus, Till I read between the lines.”-lyric from “Stoney End” by Laura Nyro.

    In separating the wheat from the chaff, perhaps we need to learn to “read between the lines” instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater in terms of ancient religious texts?

    For those of you unfamiliar with Laura Nyro, check out YouTube. Many of her songs made the group Blood, Sweet, and Tears famous.

  4. Chris Bartley says:

    Have you read any of Bart Ehrman’s stuff? I can’t recommend them highly enough. I’ve listed to audiobook versions of the following (having a long commute isn’t all bad), and loved them all:

    * Misquoting Jesus
    * From Jesus to Constantine: a History of Early Christianity
    * The Historical Jesus
    * God’s Problem
    * The History of the Bible: the Making of the New Testament Canon
    * Forged : Writing in the Name of God : Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are
    * Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible

    Next in my queue is his New Testament course: http://www.thegreatcourses.com/tgc/courses/course_detail.aspx?cid=656 …though I’ll probably actually do the Old Testament course first (different author: http://www.thegreatcourses.com/tgc/courses/course_detail.aspx?cid=653)

    For anyone new to Dr. Ehrman’s work, see his Fresh Air interviews for a good teaser. Listen to them (and a ton of other stuff) at http://www.bartdehrman.com/multimedia.htm

    Love that guy!


  5. Rich Wilson says:

    I wouldn’t go so far as to say Jesus definitively existed. I’ve seen enough contrary evidence to be pretty agnostic on that question myself. I think there’s a strong possibility that there was at least one person the stories are based on, but also a pretty good chance that more than one person is involved.

    Maybe “Jesi”?

    • You really think so, Rich? What evidence are you pointing to? Curious now.

      • Derek says:

        I think I understand what you’re driving at “there is some truth in the bible as well as a lot of untruth” but I’m not convinced by your overall argument.

        Why is calling the bible a book of myths “completely inaccurate”? If you look up what myth and mythology are the bible fits to a T. “A sacred narrative usually explaining how the world or humankind came to be”? Sure. “Sacred stories often endorsed by rulers and priests and closely linked to religion or spirituality” Yep. “A body or collection of myths belonging to a people and addressing their origin, history, deities, ancestors, and heroes.” Spot on. That’s the bible all right.

        You seem to be arguing that because the bible contains some history it’s not a mythology. But it’s not clear if there is any actual history in the bible. Virtually all of the historical biblical claims have been disproven or are at best unproven. For example, as pointed out by others, It’s not clear that Jesus truly existed.

        Also you seem to be saying that because it contains some truth or even some beautiful words it is not mythological. The Illiad and the Oddysey contain poetry, history and mythology. They are books of myths yet we still study them and they still have value. The bible is the foundational work of the christian mythos. I do not see any error in claiming therefore that it is a book of mythology and do not see it as disparaging to say so. It has cultural significance, sure, read it for that, but still doesn’t change its mythological status.

        The only people who feel disparaged by the claim it’s mythology are those who believe it is fact and that, I think, is why you are circumspect about calling the bible a book of mythology. To me, not calling the bible mythical because it would upset christians is a logical reason. Not calling it mythical because it has some poetic bits and contains some truth isn’t.

        Let’s talk to our kids about what’s in the bible. Let’s not shy away from it. But we also should not pretend that it is more than it really is. If we think it’s fact we’ll tell our children that. If we think it’s mythology with social importance we should tell them that.

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