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Appreciating the Myths of the Bible

When I came to see that there are mistakes in the Bible, I did not jettison it all as a waste of time.  Not at all.  On the contrary, I continued to value and cherish it, as a book that could reveal truths about God.  Yes it had discrepancies, contradictions, historical errors, glaring scientific mistakes, and so on.  Of course it did.  But that for me was not the ultimate point.  The Bible It was a product of its own time, a very human book.   Even so, it was a book through which God continued to speak.

I came to think that the Bible was more important for the valuable lessons it conveyed than for the factual (or problematic) information it contained.  This view worked on two levels.  For one thing, I came to see it was important to realize that even for ancient readers what mattered about the Bible was not its factual accuracy in its details, but for the ideas that it was trying to present.  And for me personally, it was important to see how the Bible could speak to the issues of my own day, as those ideas could be translated to my own life and time.

To get a sense of how the first point works, I lift here a section from my book The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction, where I explain to my readers how the Bible’s opening chapters (Genesis 1-11), called the Primeval History, can be understood not as a lesson in history or science, but as a meaningful set of myths.

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The Primeval History as Myth

From a literary perspective, it should be clear that it is a real challenge to consider the Primeval History either as science or as history, in the normally accepted meanings of the terms.  But that is not to denigrate the narrative.  Not in the least!  These are terrific, moving, and powerful stories.   But they are probably best understood to be stories, not scientific explanations or historical accounts.   More specifically, these stories can be best appreciated when they are recognized as “myths.”

The term myth should not be taken in a negative sense.  It can be used in a very positive sense.  A brief working definition of myth would be…

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Can Myths Be True and Meaningful?
Becoming a Non-Fundamentalist Christian

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    godspell  May 18, 2017

    But of course, Genesis is just the first book of the Bible (and not, of course, originally written with the idea it would be anthologized in such a way as to become a sort of mythic history of the Jewish people and their relationship with God and their neighbors.)

    You can pretty much always find a counterpoint to every point made in any part of the bible. For example, the story of Jonah suggests that God cares just as much about animals as people, and that animals (such as the great fish/whale that swallows Jonah) are more faithful servants to him–that nature is the truest reflection of God’s being.

    The thing about truth–anybody’s truth–is that truth is not the same as fact. There are rival truths, always. As Susan Sontag once write, “The opposite of fact is fiction. The opposite of one great truth may be another great truth.” Comprehending this necessary duality of truth is the first step towards tolerance. And it’s a very very hard thing for some people (theists and atheists alike) to comprehend.

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 18, 2017

    P.S. I know this is a harsh thing to say, but I have read the whole Bible a half dozen times, including the New Testament in Koine Greek, and, actually, outside the four Gospels and the 13th chapter of First Corinthians, I find almost all of the rest of the Bible to be terribly boring with each book being fairly unconnected to the other books so I deduced that God certainly could have inspired something better than this. It’s just hard to read it and deduce that it is the “Word of God.” I wish I could, but just cannot…. I understand that, like with most everything else, if I knew more I could appreciate it better, but ….

    • Bart
      Bart  May 19, 2017

      Ha! Why do you keep reading it then? 🙂 (There are other really good books out there! :-))

  3. Avatar
    searchingfortruthineverything  May 18, 2017

    The problem is the way people have been taught to interpret the Bible. Most of the problem is the interpretation and the way people perceive the Bible.

    For example most people claim that the parable of the Rich man and Lazarus refers to the rich man’s torment in hell fire and Lazarus being in heaven. However others find a different meaning for the following reasons:

    The Bible is full of parables that are basically analogies.

    Christ often quoted Scriptures from the part of the Bible that was originally written in Hebrew and used those revenues to make different analogies or parables. He used analogies tp compare people to i.e. sheep, fishermen, he used the reference to Isaiah chapter 5 that compared the House of Israel to a “vineyard”and used that comparison in his parable of the “husbandmen” of a Vineyard and applied this parable or analogy when speaking to the Pharisees, referring to the Pharisees as the “husbandmen” of the parable.

    For this reason and a careful comparison of different scriptures in the Bible something explain the parable of the Rich man and Lazarus as having a different meaning than provided in most Bible commentaries.

    They explain that Christ was using the Rich Man and Lazarus to compare the Rich Man to the Pharisees and Lazarus was used as an analogy to refer to the common people. Both Lazarus and the Rich Man “died” to the former status. “Rich Man” or the Pharisees fell into a disfavored state while “Lazurus”, the common people came into a more favorable state. Then the “Rich Man” or the Pharisees were “tormented” by the “fiery” judgment messages of “Lazarus” or the common people. Etc…

    • Avatar
      searchingfortruthineverything  May 18, 2017

      Meaning some say those parables have a “deeper meaning” than obvious to most people who cannot perceive “deeper” than the surface of the Scriptures.

      Please delete the first posting of the earlier comment on the Rich man and Lazarus parable and leave the second one.

  4. Avatar
    gwayersdds  May 18, 2017

    I could not agree more. Now if we could just convince our fundamentalist brethren of these ideas!

  5. Avatar
    stuckyabbott  May 19, 2017

    In many ways I also appreciate Biblical myths and stories. It is confusing, though, that the same people that recognize these creation stories as myths also affirm that God did actually create the world and all that is in it. Is it viable to use myths to justify beliefs about ‘historical’ reality? Haven’t people throughout history done this, regardless of whether they saw the stories as myth or as historical accounts?

    I would guess that one of the primary purposes of myth is to give structure and order to humanity. One of the more sinister motives of these early myths seems to be to place women in a subsidiary role to men, and to make women more responsible for evil than men are. While both genders are included in each story, presenting woman as if she is born of man, rather than man coming out of woman’s body, is a myth that turns reality upside down. Like Athena popping out of Zues’s head, it seems that this myth is designed to subordinate women by denying the reality of one of the essential functions of women – the birthing of each and every human being. What do you say about this role of myth and the way myth is used in oral and written contexts?

    Was the myth of creation used to justify God’s image as the creator of the universe? Was it designed to marginalize women? Did it function in it’s cultural and religious contexts to place men in a superior role, not only over animals but also over women?

  6. Avatar
    John  May 19, 2017

    Hi Bart

    Ideas for posts.

    I know it’s not you particular area expertise but would be interested to hear your thoughts on the LXX translation especially when it’s then turned in English, compared with modern translations directly from the Hebrew.

    Are there any major differences or errors we know of today especially since the evangelists would have been using this as there guide.

    Thanks

    John

  7. Avatar
    toejam  May 19, 2017

    I’m looking for an English translation of the writings of Tertullian, as well as one for Irenaeus, that includes a scripture index and perhaps a mini running commentary. Something along the lines of the well known Hendrickson edition of ‘The Complete Works of Josephus’. Any recommendations?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 19, 2017

      Probably the best way to go are the first three volumes of the Ante-Nicene Fathers (done in the 19th century but available in reprint editions today).

  8. Avatar
    eliaseel  May 19, 2017

    I don’t believe we can ever fully get to the same level of understanding that the ancients had of the creation accounts simply because we are modern day thinkers.
    Our modes of thinking are just too far removed in time
    to relate to their modes of thought. Especially for those of us from Western cultures. Genesis is written from the perspective of an ancient Semitic mindset. To gain a greater perspective on what the accounts tell us and why, we must include in our studies the external Jewish writings in the Talmud (Mishna, Gemara), and Rabbinical commentaries of Rashi, Rambam, and many others. Overlaying and projecting the NT gospel theological myths and doctrines that were not formulated until thousands of years later onto the Jewish Tanakh (OT) with its own Hebraic meanings (both mythical, and historical) is horrifically erroneous. Its a Jewish book. Jewish sources must be consulted.

  9. Avatar
    iameyes137  May 20, 2017

    An ex-fundamentalist being facetious. The Ten Acts of Creation. Over the span of 4.5 billion years, the rotational speed of the Earth has changed from roughly a 5 hour day to our present 24 hour day. (4.5 divided by 19 hour difference equals 0.237 times 10 acts of creation equals 23.7 or roughly 24. Divine inspiration knew that the ability to comprehend all of the years involved in the “actual” creation would be very difficult so broke it down into the six days for our sake.

  10. Avatar
    searchingfortruthineverything  May 20, 2017

    God delegates authority. It is sort of like a hierarchy.

    God is at the top. He is a Spirit. Under him, number two in command is another spirit creature who is Jesus who was a spirit creature (the first born of all creation, or first born of every creature as Colossians 1:15 puts it) before God transferred him from heaven into the womb of the Jewish virgin named Mary.

    After Jesus completed his mission on earth he returned to heaven to be with God again and God rewarded him for his successful mission on earth and exalted him to a higher level of authority in heaven than he had before he was sent to earth for his mission.

    For this to happen it is required for God and the other spirit creature, whom was later known as Jesus Christ, to be separate beings.

    God created the pre-human Jesus as a separate spirit creature before the rest of creation was created but God used the pre-human Jesus spirit creature as his agent to create the rest of creation after the pre-human Jesus was created. He was God’s first creation. (As Colossians 1:15 puts it “the first born of every creature or as some translations put it-” the first born of all creation!!!”) Therefore the pre-human Jesus, Jesus Christ, and the post-human Jesus is a created spirit creature whom is and was a separate creature than the only true God, YHWH. He cannot be God regardless of what people have been taught and what most Bibles say, there is a “counterfeit form of Christianity”

    (the Babylon church, complete with Babylon’s doctrines, festivals, customs, and holidays .
    Roman Emperor Constantine and other “false Christians” found “Christian” replacements for Babylon’s and Rome’s Trinity doctrine and also a replacement for the Roman Saturnalia and Babylon’s observance of December 25th as a holiday and the same was done with Babylon’s “Easter” holiday and Babylon’s “immortal soul” doctrine. People went through the Scriptures looking for “Christian” replacements for Babylon’s, and other then-existing belief systems doctrines to create a “hybrid” belief system everyone could accept, except those who wanted a “pure” Christianity.) and this is why most people believe this false Trinity doctrine.

    Christ remained his integrity to God while under trial unlike Adam did in the Garden of Eden and this proved that a perfect human (like Adam was before he sinned) can keep his integrity to God even if it cost him his life, so Christ could replace Adam and pay for the wrong Adam did in Eden

  11. Avatar
    searchingfortruthineverything  May 20, 2017

    Doesn’t the Bible say that there are false doctrines and the Devil has deceived the whole world?

    Didnt Isaac Newton say the Trinity doctrine was a false doctrine?

  12. Avatar
    searchingfortruthineverything  May 21, 2017

    The Bible is full of history and often there are symbolic parallels to these historical facts in the symbolic and prophetic books of the Bible.

    The understand the symbols scattered throughout the Bible one must understand the historical parallels elsewhere in the Bible.

    One part “unlocks” the other parts. I have often found this explains a lot of the symbolic language

  13. Avatar
    Ethereal  July 30, 2017

    Bart,
    This, by far – is my favorite post. It’s authorship certainly resonates to the tone of that pithy statement, attributed to Aristotle, that –

    “The mark of an educated mind is the ability to entertain a thought without accepting it”.

    i.e. empathize w/o necessarily agreeing. It did stimulate a bit of response here in the comment section.

    “Some myths are not known to be myths by the person telling them” – Is this an Ehrman original? lol
    & “unpalatable lessons” Ha!

    Anyways, now from an inevitably secular position, are you ever impressed or pleasantly surprised w/ the dimension or quality of understanding, suggested in the ancient authorship of scripture & some of its possible meanings/deliberations therein?

    As a piece of human literature that, h/e similar (the overlaps w/ other Mesopotamian/Egyptian/Hellenistic/ influences), has its novelty.

    • Avatar
      Ethereal  July 30, 2017

      Or what about the brilliant perspectives, that were forged in the minds of those who claim to have been influenced/inspired by meaning they’ve seen in scripture?

      Or is the authorship mostly seen as primitive or petty?

  14. Avatar
    Ethereal  July 31, 2017

    In regards to the perspectives forged in minds of those who claim to be influenced by scripture there are examples, Locke, Hegel (on “original sin”), Erasmus, etc. . .

  15. Avatar
    ksgm34  November 27, 2018

    As a new member I realise I’m very late to the table here but I’ve been reading through this thread on how your beliefs evolved once you accepted the many inaccuracies etc. in the bible and I’m wondering, when you came to see the bible as reflecting wider truths about God and the world, rather than as relaying historical facts, did you wonder why God would allow it to be so open to interpretation? I mean, he must’ve known that for centuries many people would accept it as transmitting scientific and historical information (even if they didn’t believe it was actually dictated by God to its writers) and he must also have foreknown the conflict this would cause – between the Church and individuals (e.g. Galileo), between different denominations (which exist precisely because the bible is interpreted in so many different ways) and within the minds of individual believers trying to reconcile what they read with their increasing understanding of how the world actually works. Did it ever strike you that this God who wanted to be known by all his creation was really unclear in communicating with them?!

    • Bart
      Bart  November 28, 2018

      Yes, that was a very hard and long thought process for me — and ended up changing my life. I talk about it in several books, such as Misquoting Jesus and Jesus Interrupted.

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