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The Bible is no myth

(Courtesy of Robin Schumacher)
(Courtesy of Robin Schumacher)

Atheists and skeptics have consistently asserted that the Bible is nothing more than a collectivized set of fairy tales whose historical validity is on par with Aesop’s fables. But is this the case?

Pushing aside the bias that exists between those holding a wholly naturalistic vs. supernaturalistic worldview, is there a neutral, historical way to examine the Bible to determine whether it fits within the purview of legend and myth?

The Differences Between the Bible and Myth

Historian and Old Testament expert Dr. John Oswalt thinks that there is. In his book, The Bible Among the Myths: Unique Revelation or Just Ancient Literature, Oswalt builds a case for the Bible not being myth by carefully identifying and comparing the characteristics of mythology and Scripture. Oswalt says, “If one simply lists the component parts of a dog alongside those of a man, one might conclude that they are essentially the same. But if one takes ‘dog’ as a whole and ‘man’ as a whole, what can one conclude but that they are in their essences different? So also, if we look at the Bible as a whole, where else is there anything like it in its world, or indeed, in the world?”[1]  

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One must be careful, says Oswalt, of confusing essentials and accidentals when looking at the Bible and mythology. Accidentals involve similarities in two things that are not of major importance where the essence of a thing is concerned, whereas essentials are the exact opposite. So, for example, hair might be an accidental and self-consciousness an essential for human beings.

In chapters three and four of his book, Oswalt carefully chronicles various differentiators between the Bible and myths, and leaves little room for doubt about how they diverge from one another. He sums up his analysis by stating, “Whatever the Bible is, it is not myth. That is to say, I have concluded that the similarities between the Bible and the rest of the literatures of the ancient Near East are superficial, while the differences are essential.”[2] This conclusion echoes Harvard professor G. Ernest Wright who said, “The God of Israel has no mythology.”[3]

Three other observations by Oswalt are worth noting. First, although the idea of one God is dominant today, this has not always been the case. Noting the uniqueness of the Bible, Oswalt declares: “The single most obvious difference between the thought of the Old Testament and that of Israel’s neighbors is monotheism. How many monotheistic religions are there in the world today? There are only three: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And where do these three get their monotheism? All from one source: the Old Testament.”[4]

The second thought emerges from the first. Oswalt identifies the Bible as belonging to a category of transcendence, while myth – given its characteristics – is assigned to a class called continuity. He says, “I have called the Bible’s view transcendence and the other one continuity. In the first, the divine is other than the cosmos; in the second, the divine is inseparable from the cosmos. This difference is so significant that even today there are only three religions that believe in true transcendence . . . and all of them have derived that conviction from one source only: the Bible.”[5]

Lastly, Oswalt is quick to mention that just because the Bible does not belong to the genre of myth, that doesn’t make its claims true.[6]

The Myth that Jesus is a Myth

Because skeptics have viewed the Bible as myth, they oftentimes also attempt to paint Jesus of Nazareth as a legendary figure. While the controversial figure Bruno Bauer (1809 – 1882) put forward a series of widely-disputed works nearly 200 years ago arguing that Jesus never lived, today the myth that Jesus is only a myth has received the equivalent of the death penalty in historical and scholarly circles (although various internet atheist haunts still try in vain to resurrect the charge). As Princeton professor Bruce Metzger wrote decades ago, “Today no competent scholar denies the historicity of Jesus.”[7]

Among the many issues confounding the ‘mythological Jesus’ hypothesis, is the fact that the time between Jesus’ death and the writing of his biographies leave too little room for legend to creep in. This point has been attested to by A. N. Sherwin-White in his work Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament. It’s important to note that Sherwin-White wasn’t a Christian, but a scholarly historian of the ancient world.

Using the writings of Herodotus, Sherwin-White maintained that it takes the passing of at least two generations before myths can develop, be introduced, and remain in the record of a historical figure. When Sherwin-White considers the New Testament gospels, he says that for the gospels to be fables, the rate of legendary accumulation would have to have been "unbelievable." [8]

Why? Simply because living eyewitnesses can refute distorted claims of a known individual and bring any false stories down in flames; the legend is unable to “take”. For example, it took centuries after Arrian and Plutarch’s biographies of Alexander the Great before miraculous stories of the great conqueror began to circulate.

What Did the Bible Authors Think of Myth?

The Greek term for “myth” is very straightforward: mythos refers to a “narrative or story without distinction of fact or fiction; a fictional narrative as opposed to the truth of history”.[9]

What did the Bible’s authors think of myth? The term is referenced five times in the New Testament, primarily by Paul, and never referred to positively.

Paul says that his readers should “not pay attention to myths” (1 Tim. 1:4), “have nothing to do with irrelevant, silly myths” (1 Tim. 4:7), that there is a time coming when people “will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Tim. 4:4), and that no one should “devote themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth.” (Titus 1:14).

The strongest distinction between myth and historical fact where the gospel is concerned is made by Peter who, when laying out his message, clearly differentiates the eyewitness testimony of the disciples vs. myth: “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain” (2 Pet. 1:16–18).[10]

Peter’s statements serve two purposes where myth is concerned. First, it underscores the difference between fact and sheer fantasy – the latter being how skeptics attempt to label the Bible.

But second, Peter refers to something brought out by C. S. Lewis in his famous essay “Myth Became Fact”.  If anyone should know the difference between fantasy and truth, it’s Lewis who was the chair of Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge.

In his essay, Lewis asserts that myth isn’t devoid of truth, but rather embodies more than sheer abstract thought and fact. Referencing the sky as a myth, Lewis says that deeply experiencing something that truly exists allows it to become more than simple fact; it becomes a myth, perhaps in the same way a great figure such as Abraham Lincoln takes on mythical qualities because of how he embodies the American spirit. In Jesus, Lewis says, we have “the marriage of heaven and earth: Perfect Myth and Perfect Fact”[11], which is something that Peter experienced on the mountain with Jesus.

The Danger of Believing that the Bible is Mere Myth

What impact is felt on a society when the Bible is discarded as a fairy tale? Oswalt looks back on previous cultures to make predictions about our own. When God and His Word are looked upon as mere fable, the prognosis Oswalt delivers is troubling and (sadly) representative of what is happening today:

  • First and foremost, ethics as an internal compass will disappear from among us. Ethics will certainly remain as civic desiderata, and there will be various public attempts to enforce them, but in the society at large they will be meaningless.
  • “Truth” will progressively be replaced by power, since there is no standard of reliability outside of each person’s own needs and wishes.
  • “Right” and “wrong” will become increasingly useless terms as they lose any agreed-upon basis outside of those same wants and needs. The terms will continue to be used, but only as code words for those who can shout the loudest.
  • There will be a dramatic upsurge in interest in the occult.
  • Any attempt to control absolute freedom in any area and at any level will be labeled as “hate-mongering.”
  • Individuals will be increasingly devalued at the same time that “individual freedom” is more and more loudly trumpeted.
  • Altruism and other forms of self-denial for the good of others will steadily disappear.
  • Acceptance of responsibility for one’s own behavior, accompanied by appropriate changes of behavior, will be a rarity.
  • The study of history, except as an arcane antiquarian interest, will disappear.
  • The possibility of a genuine transformation of one’s character from the worse to the better will be dismissed out of hand.[12]

“These features,” says Oswalt, “in one form or another, are the common characteristics of those cultures where continuity thinking has prevailed.”[13]

For many reasons, the significance of properly or improperly labeling the Bible as myth cannot be overstated. Thankfully, the God of the Bible is not myth – He is real and can be encountered today for those who are willing.

[1] John Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths: Unique Revelation of Just Ancient Literature (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), Kindle Edition, Loc 3021.

[2] Oswalt, Loc 638.

[3] G. E. Wright, The Old Testament Against its Environment (London: SCM, 1950), 26.

[4] Oswalt, Loc 915.

[5] Oswalt, Loc 2894.

[6] Oswal, Loc 1174.

[7] Bruce Metzger, The New Testament: Its Background, Growth, and Content (New York: Abingdon, 1965), pg. 78.

[8] A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), pp. 188-91.

[9] Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed.) (660). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

[10] See also John’s clear declaration of eye witness testimony and encounters with Jesus, which he repeats seven times in 1 John 1:1-4.

[11] C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), pg. 67.

[12] Oswalt, Loc 3006.

[13] Oswalt, Loc 3009. 

Robin Schumacher is a software executive and Christian apologist who has written many apologetic articles, appeared on nationally syndicated radio programs, and presented at various apologetic events. He holds a Master's in Christian apologetics and a Ph.D. in New Testament.

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