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Can Myths Be True and Meaningful?

Yesterday I received this interesting comment on my most recent post.  It embodies a view that a lot of other members of the Blog have, and so I thought I should respond to it.  It is about whether there can be meaningful myths in the Bible.  Here is what the reader says.

Imaginative stories by definition are false. To say something is myth and by extension imaginative, is asserting that it is false. For us to say something is a myth, we have to be sure that it is entirely false. Or is it not the case?

I addressed a similar issue in the conclusion of my most recent book Jesus Before the Gospels.  There I take a different stance on whether non-historical accounts (which would include myths) can be meaningful to us or not, whether they can be “true” in any sense.  Here is what I say there (with respect more to the NT than the OT, but the same reasoning applies.


Like most authors, I get a lot of email from people who have read my books.   One of the comments I repeatedly receive is that if there is something in the Gospels that is not historical, then it cannot be true (in any respect), and if it is not true, then it is not worth reading.  I myself do not agree with this view.

It is true that to do the work of the historian requires one to be extremely critical about the sources of information available from, and about, the past.   Some readers seem to think this approach to sources is taken only by atheistic, hard-headed, liberal historians with anti-supernaturalist biases who are out to destroy religion.   But in fact, it is the approach all historians take to all of their materials.   The reason some readers find this approach to the Gospels objectionable is that they simply aren’t accustomed to dealing with the Bible as history.

But even though I do deal with the Bible as a historian, I do not personally think that is the only way to deal with the Bible, and I find it unsettling when readers think that once the Gospels are shown to have discrepancies, implausibilities, and historical mistakes, we should just get rid of them and move on to other things.

I do understand that Christianity is widely seen as a “historical” religion, and that if there are historical problems with Christianity, then Christianity has problems.  I understand that very well indeed.   But  …

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How Does A Book Become A Bestseller? Readers’ Mailbag April 21, 2017
Appreciating the Myths of the Bible



  1. Avatar
    pruffin  May 19, 2017

    Bravo, sir. So you can be a scientist and an artist.
    Thank you.

  2. Avatar
    tomruda  May 19, 2017

    What is interesting when you speak of memories, is the science of memory. Basically we are told our memories are unreliable. None of us sees fully the way things really are. A mindset opens us up to see things from a perspective that may be extremely far from reality. How many people believe the mythical Eve ate an apple? Yet the words do not indicate this. There are a great many misconceptions we have when we read the bible because of how our minds were shaped to perceive it. The Nativity stories of Matthew and Luke are very different but most christians will see it as seamless. Dr. Ehrman, I really appreciate your scholarship on the bible, it helps shake us out of our mindset and opens us up to a new way of seeing.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 22, 2017

      Thanks. Yes, that was the topic of my book Jesus Before the Gospels.

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  May 19, 2017

    Even if Plato’s dialogues aren’t accurate historical accounts of real conversations between Socrates and others doesn’t mean we can’t learn anything from them. Even if the Buddha’s purported dialogues in the Suttapitaka aren’t accurate historical accounts of real conversations between the Buddha and others doesn’t mean we can’t learn anything from them. Even if Confucius’ dialogues in the Analects aren’t accurate historical accounts of real conversations between Confucius and others doesn’t mean we can’t learn anything from them. Even if Krisha’s dialogue with Arjuna in the Bhagavadgita isn’t an accurate historical account of a real conversation between them doesn’t mean we can’t learn anything from it. Even if Job’s purported dialogue with his friends is not an accurate historical account of a real conversation between Job and others doesn’t mean we can’t learn anything from it. Even if Jesus’ preaching is not an accurate historical account of the real words of Jesus doesn’t mean we can’t learn anything from it.

    Once we appreciate that all religions are basically human creations, in which the supernatural is merely the vehicle through which humans grapple with the human condition, that’s when the utility of such “myths” becomes apparent.

  4. Avatar
    godspell  May 19, 2017

    I don’t often say this–to anybody–but I couldn’t possibly agree more. And this really ought to be the middle ground on which we all can stand, but sadly, a lot of people–and not just one particular identifiable group of people–find this insight hard to swallow. The divide, I think, is between those who want to know the truth–which is always a journey, that has no end–and those who want to define it, control it. POSSESS it. That is the source of fundamentalism–and not just religious fundamentalism.

    I did a short paper in grad school on Herbert Butterfield–that’s not your area, but perhaps you’re familiar anyway? He wrote something called The Whig Interpretation of History, in which he suggested that the study of British politics was inclined to be teleological–that is to say, it looked at what happened, and assumed nothing else could have happened. That the Whig Party in Parliament–basically what we’d call liberals now, though they might not seem that way to us now–were the force for progress, and the Tories or conservatives were the anti-progress party. And he suggested this was a sort of national myth, as was the notion that England always stood for Democracy and forward-thinking ideals. That even very knowledgeable historians, with a very deep grasp of the facts of British history, were guilty of skewing their work to agree with this myth.

    This was a very influential book in many historical circles, not just in the case of specifically English parliamentary history. And many historians took Butterfield’s thesis to mean patriotism, love of country, had no place in historical writing.

    But it was later pointed out that during WWII, Butterfield had written a book called The Englishman and his History, that said national myths had a very important and useful place in the scheme of things. That we need myths, creative and constructive myths, to sustain us in times of crisis, to unite us against shared threats. They can be twisted, used for false and destructive purposes, but so can basically anything that has any real power behind it. Nothing is incorruptible in this imperfect world of ours. But all the more reason for men and women of good will to not neglect or actively reject these things–which makes it all the easier for those of bad will to coopt them, and twist them into a tool for their own purposes.

    Which does not, of course, excuse us from trying to see behind those myths sometimes, study them more closely, question them, avoid the very serious mistake of taking them literally, and refusing to let them change and adapt to new times, new circumstances, new information. And for different types and levels of believing.

    Religion doesn’t have to be a divisive thing. It’s only that way sometimes because we make it that way. We can choose to make it something else. As we can with patriotism. As we can with anything. It’s what you do with it that counts.

  5. Avatar
    Stylites  May 19, 2017

    I do not recall who it was, but a very wise person once said, “Now this never happened, but I know it is true.”

    Thank you for a truly beautiful, totally profound, and very true analysis.

    • Avatar
      joncopeland  May 21, 2017

      The quote is from Black Elk. “This they tell, and whether it happened so or not I do not know, but if you think about it, you can see that it is true.”

  6. Avatar
    nichael  May 19, 2017

    Might I suggest that at least part of the problem is the differing, and conflicting, usages of the word “True”?

    That is, some folks in this (eternally recurring) discussion use the word “True” to mean something like “Strictly Factual” (or “historical”, etc). While others use the term to mean something like “Deeply Meaningful” (or “beautiful”, etc)..

    Both usages are valid, and, I would argue, correct. The conflict comes when, in discussions such these, the conflicting usages are pitted against one another. Whereas in reality both sides are simply arguing past each other. by using different, and contradictory, criteria to determine the truth or falsity of their opponent’s claims.

    As a specific example, I deeply love my family. I assert that is absolutely true. And I would dismiss out of hand any claim that what I say isn’t, or can’t, be true because I can offer no factual or physical basis for my claim.

    (Or as suggested elsewhere, asserting that a text like the Bible can have no validity simply because it is not historically accurate is as valid as claiming that Einstein’s paper on Special Relativity can not be correct because its text does not scan. To make the obvious point, both sides are using inappropriate “measuring sticks” for their tests.)

  7. Avatar
    Boltonian  May 19, 2017

    True indeed: with some caveats. I enjoy much of the poetry, some morality tales and many of the stories in the Bible, especially the KJV. Almost without exception I love the music, art and architecture that Christianity has inspired. It has also inspired some great poems: GM Hopkins’ Windhover to name but one. But, and you refer to it yourself, Christianity depends to a large degree on its origins and history being factually correct because it is a doctrinaire religion. It needn’t have been (Therevada Buddhism isn’t, for example) but that is how it has developed. As my Lutheran friend puts it: you buy the whole package or none – Christianity is not a ‘Pick ‘n Mix’ sweetie shop (or candy store, as you would say).
    But just because its belief system cannot be supported by history does not mean that it has no value. There was a debate recently in the UK about the origins of our (Western-influenced society’s) moral code: liberal, democratic, tolerant, free-market and charitable; between the historian Tom Holland, who argues that Christianity is the foundation, and the philosopher, A.C. Grayling, who regards Christianity as a perverse distraction and that our whole ethical approach comes from Classical Greece and Rome. Both are atheists. There is little doubt in my mind that Holland is in the right: no Christianity, no Reformation; no Reformation, no Age of Reason; no age of Reason, no Enlightenment; etc – cause and effect. Obviously, we don’t know how the world would have developed had Christianity not existed but it does and we are where we are largely because of it, in my view.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 21, 2017

      I’m afraid your friend does indeed engage in “Pick ‘n Mix.” Every Christian does — whether they realize it or not.

      • Avatar
        nichael  May 21, 2017

        Or perhaps stated a step further, all Christians (or, indeed, members of any religions) _must_ engage in this sort of “Pick ‘n’ Mix”.

        The point is that the texts or belief systems of every religion, when taken as a whole, contain contradictions and inconsistencies. If one claims that their religion lacks such inconsistencies it means only that they have already selected which set of beliefs or concepts to accept, and which to ignore or harmonize –whether they acknowledge this or not.

        (Coming full circle to the notion that any religion, “True” or not, is ultimately a human –or, perhaps better, a cultural– construct.

      • Avatar
        godspell  May 22, 2017

        Every human does.

        Whether they admit it or not.

        It’s unavoidable.

  8. Avatar
    stokerslodge  May 19, 2017

    Thank you Bart, that is excellent, very well expressed. I’m very greatful.

  9. Avatar
    rburos  May 19, 2017

    The Harry Potter books do a great job telling us there is magic in the world–and the greatest magic of all is a mother’s love for her child. It’s a great use of fiction, and a profound truth indeed.

    Conversely, the myth of invincibility due to the shared US victory in WWII has actually done damage.

  10. Avatar
    UCCLMrh  May 19, 2017

    In explaining myth, I have gotten looks of recognition when I talked about music. Is “mommas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys” true? How?

    Does it interfere with your understanding of the song when you realize that Johnny Cash’s father did not actually give him the name, Sue? Do you enjoy that song? Is it a waste of time because it is myth rather than history?

    How about the Star Spangled Banner?

  11. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 19, 2017

    I think your concluding chapter of “Jesus Before the Gospels” is really your writing at its best. I have reread it several times. My struggle with it is probably predictable: If so much of the Bible has so many problems, not just a few, how can we trust anything it says about the core of Christian theology, namely the existence of God, the Resurrection, the atonement, and the divinity of Jesus? This theology has to have some historical foundation. It needs more than saying that the Resurrection is a myth that means such and such as Spong does in his books.

  12. Avatar
    flshrP  May 19, 2017

    Nobody doubts that we can learn a lot about ourselves and others via mythical characters that are dreamed up by the authors of great (or not so great) literature. And we know without doubt that King Lear, David Copperfield etc. are fictional characters, i.e. that these characters did not really exist.

    The characters found in the Bible present a different problem–how to separate the historical characters found therein, for whom we have more or less convincing information that they actually existed, from other characters who lack this type of information.

    For example, if the two creation stories in Genesis are mythical, i.e. the events described in these stories never happened, and the characters of Adam, Eve, Cain, Able and the talking snake are also mythical, i.e. never existed, then we can legitimately question whether the Creator God of Genesis is a mythical character also. Why? Because Genesis is an entirely human literary creation, the same way that the “Tale of Two Cities” is entirely a creation of a human named Charles Dickens. The difference is that we do not know the names of the authors of Genesis (which is the case for most of the 66 books of the Bible).

    • Bart
      Bart  May 21, 2017

      Yes indeed, we can certainly question that. But we the answer doesn’t depend on whether there really was an Adam and Eve. I would argue that the two questions have nothing to do with each other.

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  May 23, 2017

        You have pointed out how creation stories in Jewish scripture contradict each other. Do you think the compilers of the Jewish bible didn’t know there were differences? I believe that the compilers of the OT were well aware of these differences and they were offering these alternatives for study, debate and possible resolution. There is a kind of parallel in the OT stories of King David. While he is presented as a hero, his weaknesses and in some cases evil acts are also described. The writers/compilers didn’t try to gloss over the hero’s flaws–they showed us the whole human being. The conflicting stories of creation (which was probably metaphorical anyway) are presented without an editorial “scrubbing.” The same idea might explain the contrasting stories of Job. The writers/compiles were saying, “Look, this question of perfectly decent human beings being treated by “life” as villains is pretty difficult to explain. Here are some alternatives for you to consider.” Of course, the same reasoning can be applied to the NT, reconciling the gospels, etc. Most of the problems arise when we seek to assert, “this is the word of God, and if you find errors and contradictions, that’s your problem.” What is your opinion, Bart, about the OT writers/compilers? Do you think they didn’t recognize the contradictions–perhaps simply trying to gull us?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 23, 2017

          My sense is that compilers *often* don’t notice the tension between the two sources they put together. It still happens today, a lot, for example when producers of TV documentaries put together clips of different scholars commenting on a phenomenon, and they say just the opposite thing from one another (e.g., in the miniseries From Jesus to Christ)

          • Avatar
            llamensdor  May 26, 2017

            One thing I’ve learned is that we should take the word “documentary” with a grain of salt. Virtually all documentaries end up with a point of view, even when created by honest guys like Ken Burns, and their work is really a form of propaganda. It may be good propaganda (from our point of view) or bad propaganda, but it’s still propaganda. You’ve suggested that compilers may not recognize the tension between contradictory stories. Perhaps. There’s also another possibility: They recognize the contradictions, but hey, these are the words of God–who are they to criticize?

  13. Avatar
    mjt  May 19, 2017

    I agree with you in that myths can be valuable. But, later bible authors seem to use those ‘myths’ as premises to arguments. Paul talks about how sin entered the world through one man, Adam. That’s a theologically important claim, and I personally think Paul needs a historical Adam to make this argument. How might a liberal Christian respond to that?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 21, 2017

      Just because a later author whose book even later came to be thought of as Scripture took a story to be a literal description of reality doesn’t mean that we’re compelled to do so!

  14. Avatar
    john76  May 19, 2017

    “Truth” doesn’t just mean “Correct,” but also “Exemplary,” like when we speak of a “True Friend.” As Aristotle said, truth is sometimes best portrayed in ways other than just a bare-bones factual analysis, which is why we have things like Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.”

  15. Avatar
    joncopeland  May 19, 2017

    Fantastic post, Dr. Erhman. Very helpful. You make excellent points about memory shaping our lives, and the new testament as memory.

    As we know, some ancient texts are not written from memory, but as forgeries. For example, I think 2 Thessalonians is a forgery of 1 Thessalonians. Its christology and eschatology are a serious departure from 1 Thessalonians. It also makes a suspicious assertion of authorship in verse 3:17 (I think this is different than what Paul writes at the end of Galatians, which I regard as authentic). Anyway, I could go on about reasons I think 2 Thessalonians is deutero-Pauline.

    But I am having trouble shaking one argument for Pauline authorship:

    If there was a forged letter in circulation purporting to be the original letter, why didn’t anyone figure this out? Wouldn’t the early church have rejected it? If it was posing as the original, why was it later changed to a sequel to 1 Thessalonians?

    Could you please address this objection and other objections to theories of deutero-Pauline authorship of 2 Thessalonians? How did this letter come to be regarded as authentic?

    Thank you!

    • Bart
      Bart  May 21, 2017

      People often did try to figure it out! But they had limited ways of doing so. 2 Thessalonians is a good case in point. 2 Thess 2:2 speaks of a letter *allegedly* by Paul that the author warns his readers against. That means EITHER that Paul, as the author of 2 Thess, knew of a letter circulating falsely in his name OR that a later (different) author claiming to be Paul wrote 2 Thess warning the readers against a letter of Paul that in his view was not really by Paul. Whichever conclusion you reach, there was a forged letter of Paul — either hte one he mentions in 2:2 or 2 Thessalonians itself!

      • Avatar
        joncopeland  May 21, 2017

        Thanks for the reply! Makes a lot of sense. How likely is it that, assuming 2 Thess is dated early in his ministry, Paul’s letters are being widely circulated? At least enough that he’s giving warnings about it. By the time he writes to Corinth his letters seem to be making the rounds. Would that have been the case in the years 2 Thess, assuming it is written soon after 1 Thess? I doubt this is the case, but am curious if there are arguments for his letters being popular early on in his career.

        • Bart
          Bart  May 22, 2017

          One argument *against* it is that the author of Acts, whose hero is Paul, does not seem to know any of Paul’s letters — or even that he wrote letters!

  16. Avatar
    hasankhan  May 19, 2017

    The contention is not whether a myth is meaningful or not or whether we can learn something from it. The contention is that when we declare something to be a myth, we’re asserting that it is false. And to say something is false, we need to be sure that it is not true. Unless we go by the rule of saying everything is a myth unless proven to be a historical fact.

    Whatever happened before the big bang cannot be verified. To categorically call it a myth, would be a stretch. The best we can say is, we don’t know if it happened or not. If we find two statements that are contradictory, we can say for sure one of them is false, but we can’t say which one is it. If a statement contradicts with historical fact then we can be sure that is for sure the false one. The one that does not contradict with any historical fact or established scientific fact then we can leave the possibility of it being false or true.

    Just like science cannot prove or disprove existence of God, since He is not part of this universe and cannot be observed via any scientific method. However we have literature from different religions that claim to have come from God. We can analyze and criticize them. If something is scientifically incorrect or contradictory to history, then that for sure cannot be from God. We can make claims about individual statements of a document but we can’t reject the entire document as a whole.

    It is possible that there was a scripture revealed from God, that people started adding to or subtracting from because they didn’t remember it correctly or had bad intentions or were deluded in some cases. It is possible that the entire document is forged and we’d have to prove that every statement in it is not from God because it has some sort of defect. Unless a person’s understanding of god is that he makes mistakes.

    In Islam, we believe God is perfect and his work is perfect. If something has errors and contradictions, then it is not from God. We do believe that part of oral traditions narrated in Bible could be from God, that align with Islam and Judaism and are not historically or scientifically incorrect.

    The general idea is that Qur’an as a scripture from God has some statements that we cannot verify via any scientific method i.e. what happens when we die or what happened before earth was created or even events in distant history that has no traces anymore. But there are other statements that can be verified. There are some scientific claims that can be scrutinized. And if the 80% of the book that can be verified is correct, we have faith that the part that cannot be verified would also be correct.

  17. Avatar
    seahawk41  May 19, 2017

    Well put! I think that part of the problem is that Christianity made “myth” a dirty word during its effort to wipe out paganism. I.e., the Greek, Roman, etc. gods were “only myths”, while Jesus, Moses, etc were real people.

  18. Avatar
    mwbaugh  May 19, 2017

    Very well said.

    It’s probably also worth noting that there is some level of imagination present in every work of history, no matter how objective the author tries to be. Imagination and the need to find meaning are such a basic part of human understanding that I don’t think it’s possible to remove them. And I agree that it is not desirable.

  19. Avatar
    Jason  May 19, 2017

    Of course, one major difference between the meaning the world sees as what Christianity derives from the Bible and what humanity gets from its great literature is that no one is going around proclaiming that same sex marriage should be illegal because Homer implied that a gay relationship with Achilles was the reason the Pantheon let or caused Hector to prevail over Patroclus.

    • Avatar
      godspell  May 23, 2017

      Nobody’s doing that because of the bible, either.

      They do it for the same reason so many atheists do–they’re homophobic. They would be homophobic without any religion at all. Sorry to tell you. Getting rid of Christianity would do nothing to get rid of homophobia, or any other nasty unfair prejudice.

      And you just proved that yourself. Homer wasn’t a Christian, now was he? No reason to think he knew anything about the Old Testament, and the New one hadn’t yet been written (and the New Testament has absolutely zero percent homophobia in it, in spite of the efforts of some fundamentalists to find it there, somehow).

      You’ve gotten it backwards, entirely. People aren’t homophobic because of religion. Religion is sometimes homophobic because of people. That’s where you need to change things.

      The Iliad and Odyssey are more than just entertaining stories. They have justified wars, and ideas of national supremacy (and they argue that deities do, in fact, take sides in wars). People can take anything, anything at all, and twist it to suit their purposes.

      Study harder. Stop seeing just want you want to see. If homophobia is losing now, it’s in no small part because of religious people, including the many religious people who are gay. Stop hating because you feel hated.

  20. Avatar
    NN  May 19, 2017

    Thank you Dr Ehrman for your insights and help in understanding the Bible (at least from a historical and contextual perspective). I think I am starting to better understand some of the Bible by reading parts of it as myths and metaphors (stories to convey deep essential truths). The book Kissing Fish by Roger Wolsey has helped me as well where he says something like: We tell the “story” of George Washington and the cherry tree, not because we think it really happened, but because we think it (the principal of telling the truth) is true. The story also has an agenda (“national” pride) and is probably not told in Tehran.

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