3 Reasons Why ‘Myth’ is a Unhelpful Biblical Category

Derek Ouellette —  September 10, 2011

More and more books I read by biblical scholars – even many of my favourite authors – are employing the term ‘myth’ to portions of the biblical text, especially Genesis. Such use of the term has been widely accepted by those academically interested young minds like myself who tend to allow ourselves to cling to every scholarly voice that narrows the gap between Christian and secular scholarship without compromising biblical fidelity. Myth is not a bad word after all! Then we begin to chatter among ourselves and other less academically interested hearers over hear our chatter and react strongly to our use of the word ‘myth’ when applied to the Scriptures. “The bible is not myth, it is truth!” they exclaim in protest. This results in the difficult and confusing conversation of trying to explain to the average person on the street that ‘myth’ and ‘truth’ are not necessarily opposed to one another which introduces my first reason why ‘myth’ is an unhelpful biblical category:

The dictionary definition of the word ‘myth’ as it is understood and taken for granted on the street is “a purely fictitious narrative usually involving supernatural persons, actions, or events and embodying some popular idea concerning natural or historical phenomena.”[1]

Now of course if ‘myth’ was clearly a biblical category than rather than avoiding the term for fear that we might be misunderstood we should try and reclaim it and explain why it is okay to use as a biblical category. But this begs the question, is ‘myth’ a biblical category? And by that I mean is it a category that the bible writers themselves applied to the scriptures. The Greek word mýthos was understood by the ancient Greeks to describe “a false legend of the gods”, it stressed the falsity of the thing being described. When the word mýthos is used in the New Testament it is always “in the context where the writers are at pains to insist that the teachings of the gospel are true accounts and not false ‘myths’”.[2] This brings attention to my second reason why ‘myth’ is an unhelpful biblical category:

The bible writers never use the term in a positive light and never apply it to the scriptures. Where it is used it is done so as to contrast the truth of the Gospel.

But what about narratives in the scriptures like Genesis 1-11 where more and more biblical scholars – and those academically interested young minds like myself who have been directly influenced by them – believe that this narrative does not necessarily describe historical events? Can we not properly speak of these portions of the biblical text as having “mythical” elements, the same mythical elements found in other Ancient Near Eastern literature? Finally we have come down to the thorny question of how to properly define the word “myth”, because in recent decades ‘myth’ has undergone a broadening in its definition, mostly to accommodate the bible.[3] John Oswalt, research professor of Old Testament at Wesley Biblical Seminary, writes:

“Fifty years ago there would have been little debate on this issue. Scholars on both Old and New Testament studies would have agreed with Harvard professor G. Ernest Wright when he said, ‘the God of Israel has no mythology.’”[4]

So how should we define ‘myth’? After untangling what Oswalt refers to as “the problem of definition”, and drawing out the fact that most attempts to define ‘myth’ are too broad to be of any real help, he concludes that the common characteristic of all myths is “continuity”.[5] In most ancient cultures there was no passage of time, no concept of a future or a past, no real distinction between humanity, nature and the divine, all things were continuous and circular. This was the worldview in which all mythologies of the ancient world shared. It also happens to be the precise point where ancient Israel parted ways with the worldviews of its neighbours.[6] The Jews, and thus the scriptures, have a completely different way of viewing reality from that of their neighbours, and so the genre of myth, as just defined, does not apply to the Judeo-Christian scriptures. A more nuanced definition of ‘myth’ is given by Brevard Childs:

“Myth is a form by which the existing structure of reality is understood and maintained. It concerns itself with showing how an action of a deity, conceived of as occurring in the primeval age, determines a phase of contemporary world order. Existing world order is maintained through the actualization of the myth in the cult.”[7]

This leads to my third reason why ‘myth’ is an unhelpful biblical category:

A definition of ‘myth’ that is narrow enough to give the ‘word’ meaning – as opposed to a broad definition to accommodate it to the bible yet suck its substance from it – effectively renders it into a non-biblical category. As Oswalt says, “whatever the Bible is, it is not myth.” This is because ancient myths began with the supposition of “continuity” (some sort of variation of panentheism!); these cultures had a fundamentally different way of viewing reality and thus expressing it in their myths.

Of course we could continue to press for the broader definitions of myth (not explored here) and then insist that the bible contains mythical elements. But I believe that to do so is unhelpful because it confuses conversations by convoluting them with complicated discussions of wiry definition problems that take the conversation way off course.

[1] The English Oxford Dictionary.

[2] Oswalt, John N.,The Bible Among the Myths, p.35. Cf. 1 Tim. 1:4; 4:7; Tit. 1:14; 2 Peter 1:16.

[3] Ibid, p.31

[4] Ibid, p.29.

[5] Ibid, p.43 ff.

[6] “This great, overwhelming movement, exemplified in the stories of Avraham (sic) and Moshe (sic), makes history real to human consciousness for the first time – with the future really dependent on what I do in the present. This movement is the movement of time, which, once past, becomes history. But the movement is not like the movement of a wheel, as all other societies had imagined; it is not cyclical, coming around again and again.” Thomas Cahill, Gifts of the Jews, p.239 ”

[7] Childs, Myth and Reality, p.27-28; quoted in Oswalt’s The Bible Among the Myths, p.45.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Tom Eggebeen

    If not myth,do you have another word to describe the material in question? I realize that “folks on the street” hear the word “myth” rather differently than “professionals,” but it’s a helpful category, and I’ve used it, I think, rather well, in teaching adults throughout 41 years of ministry. I don’t know of another category substitute. What do you use to refer to the Genesis material?

    • http://vagantepriest.blogspot.com/ FrGregACCA

      My question as well, Tom.

      However, one alternative might be “inspired fiction” although this is appropriate, I would think, to Job or Jonah. It perhaps applies to the Genesis creation stories, but I too think “myth” is a better word for these.

      BTW, “mythos” is only used five times in the New Testament, and, indeed, it is used in these instances to denote something that is opposed to the Christian Gospel in terms of truth, largely, I think, in order to defend the absolute historicity of the death and resurrection of Christ. The KJV translates it each time as “fable”.

      While the English “myth” is indeed derived from “mythos”, I’m not sure that the current technical definition corresponds to what the Biblical writers were talking about as something negative.

    • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

      Tom, when I teach from the Genesis account I prefer to speak in terms of a “literary narrative” because “myth” is too often contrasted with “truth” or “reality” (like it’s use, for example, in the TV show mythbusters). Yet the article I’ve written is generic (or, if specific, it is referring to “chatter” as in non-teaching informal dialogue). This is to say that if while teaching you have been using the term “myth” and it has been working in that context (presumably because you have been explaining that “myth” as you are using it does not mean that the biblical narrative is “untrue”), then I have no problem with that.

      Greg, I like the term “fiction” much less than the term “myth” because it is stronger and less precise. At least “myth” when used as I think Tom (and perhaps yourself) use it (non-literal story pointing to truth) at least says that this non-literal story is pointing to truth. The term “fiction” does not capture that necessary qualification.

      For my own part, as i said, I prefer “literary narrative” because it is less bias in that to refer to the Genesis account as “fiction” (or perhaps sometimes, even “myth”) broadly renders the whole story (every detail) as non-literal history. But a great deal of Christian theologians still believe in a literal Adam and Eve and a literal historical Fall (and a literal Noah). “Literary narrative” allows for across-the-board discussions on the subject of Genesis 1-11, without assuming one position or another. Thats my take anyways.