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Is the Christmas Story a Myth?

Is the whole Christian story a myth?   It probably depends on what you mean by myth.

For a very long time now, scholars of religion have had hard and protracted debates on what the term “myth” means, or should mean.  I won’t be going into any of that here.  Instead I’ll begin by talking about two teaching experiences, one negative and one positive.

Negative experience: my first teaching job was at Rutgers University, where I was asked to fill in for a professor of New Testament who had to take an emergency leave of absence in the middle of the spring term in 1984.  Her husband had been diagnosed with cancer, he was dying, and she could not continue teaching after giving the midterm exam.  Would I be willing to take over her class for the second half of the semester?

Absolutely I was willing.  And I did so.  It was really hard.  I had to pick up wherever she left off.  Among other things, she was using a textbook that I did not like at *all* (written by the great New Testament scholar at the University of Chicago, Norman Perrin).  Among other things I did not like how he used the term “myth.”  I don’t remember now (I’m abroad and don’t have access to any of my books) if he actually defined the term for his undergraduate readers: I suppose he did.  But he used the term to mean something like “a narrative that conveys a fundamental religious truth, independently of whether it happened or not.”

OK, fair enough.  But he used the term to talk about things like “the myth of Jesus crucifixion and resurrection.”  My students were not as a rule devout conservative Christians (this was New Jersey! We’re not talkin’ Bible Belt here…).  But still it was jarring to them.  And to me.  I knew what he meant: the accounts of Jesus’ death are principally concerned to convey the deep theological significance of the event.  Still, calling them “myths” was off-putting, given the typical connotations associated with the word.

With that definition, though, certainly the Christmas story would also qualify as a “myth.”

Positive experience: these days, at UNC (where most of my students *are* conservative evangelicals!), I teach about how scholars have studied the Gospels over the centuries, and I make a particular point of talking to them about David Friedrich Strauss, whose 1835 book Das Leben Jesus (“The Life of Jesus”) turned New Testament research on its ear.  Strauss argued that the Gospels are not historical accounts interested in showing what actually happened in Jesus’ life.   Many of the stories of the Gospels are not historical in any sense.  They actually didn’t happen.  But they aren’t intending to convey what happened.  They are intended to teach truths about Jesus.  That kind of story – an account that is intending to convey a true idea, but that itself never happened, is for Strauss a “myth.”

In other words, for him, a “myth” is a true story that didn’t happen.   My students have a very hard time understanding how something could be true if it didn’t happen, but in no small measure that’s because even though many/most of them are committed evangelicals, and know it, they are also even more, and more deeply, children of the Enlightenment, and do not know it.  For them something can’t be true unless it happened.   Until I explain to them and show them that in fact they really don’t think that, since there are all sorts of things all of us agree are “true” that are not events that happened in history.

I don’t agree with almost any of the details of Strauss’s very long book on Jesus, but on this basic point, I agree.  The Gospels are full of stories that did not happen but that are attempting to convey truths about who, in the authors’ views, Jesus really was.

Still, I have always hesitated to use the term “myth” for this kind of story, simply because it conveys precisely the wrong connotation.

Oddly enough, coming into this Christmas season I have found myself more open and accepting of the term.   I think maybe it’s because as I get older and as I do more and more research into the views, beliefs, and narratives of ancient peoples (Romans, Greeks, Jews, Christians) I see more and more and more stories that people told that encapsulated for them religious/theological “truths,” even though no one today would give a moment’s credence to such stories.  We have no trouble calling such wild accounts myths.  Should we be reluctant to call them myths if they are in the Bible?

I’m not proposing that we do call them that.  I’m saying that I’m finding myself increasingly open to calling them that in my own head.  In this season, I’m thinking of the stories of Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke.  As a critical scholar of the Bible with very serious historical interests, I have no trouble at all saying with heart-felt assurance and emphasis that these stories did not happen.   I don’t believe Jesus was born of a woman who had never had sex, or that he was born in Bethlehem.  I don’t think there was a world-wide census for which Joseph had to return to Bethlehem to register under Caesar Augustus.    I don’t think any of it happened:  “No room in the inn,” the worship of the shepherds, the coming of the wisemen, the slaughter of the innocents.

But I can see how these stories seem “common sense” to Christians and provide meaning for them as they reflect on the season and its importance.  These stories provide a kind of framework for them, not just in the weeks and days and hours leading up to the morning of December 25, but for their entire way of looking at God and his relationship with humans.

That would be probably what most people would call “myths” if such stories occurred in some religion other than their own.  And it’s what people in non-Christians would call “myths” when looking at these stories in the Christian religion.  I guess I’m increasingly aligning with that view.

Even so, I have to say that I absolutely adore these stories.  They are simultaneously so simple and so deep, so matter-of-fact and so unbelievably full of meaning.  As is this season.  Even for me as one who personally stands outside the Christian tradition.  Or do I?  I suppose I’ll always be inside it.  It’s in my DNA.  I completely resonate with it.  I relate to it.  In my own secular way I embrace it.  I’ll say more about that in my next post.

If you belonged to the blog you could read posts like this nearly every day!  It won’t cost you much to join, and every dime goes to charity.  So WHY NOT???


Christmas Reflection 2017
The Ethical Teachings of the Didache

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Comments

  1. tompicard
    tompicard  December 24, 2017

    In trying to enlighten your students regarding biblical ‘myths’, do you ever make use of Balaam’s conversation with his donkey or Jonah’s encounter with the fish?
    Maybe introducing those stories prior to discussion of Jesus birth or resurrection may help make a point.

  2. Avatar
    Seeker1952  December 24, 2017

    I think I understand how “myth” is used by religious scholars and have no problem with it. But I wonder if there’s a better word. In popular culture “myth” has such strong connotations of something that simply isn’t true.

    “Story” straddles the fence. It’s a term used both for things that did literally happen (as in journalism) and things that didn’t (as in fiction). But it’s kind of bland and doesn’t necessarily point to something beyond itself. Personally I like “symbol” but that doesn’t usually suggest a narrative. Maybe “symbolic story”? Others might be “allegory” or “parable” or “poetry.” Those usually suggest something that ddn’t literally happen but that’s not where the emphasis is. Rather it’s more on pointing to something beyond itself. But “parable” and “allegory” probably have quite specific meanings in scholarly/literary circles that are different from “myth.”

    Do any of these strike you as improvements on “myth” or can you suggest other candidate terms?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 26, 2017

      Yes, I tend to use “story.” Or sometimes “legend”.

    • Pattycake1974
      Pattycake1974  December 27, 2017

      I’m not particularly fond of the term, myth, even though I’ve used it myself regarding the NT a hundred times. The reason is, there are a number of ancient historians whose viewpoint is to lump all ancient stories in together. When they apply certain historical methods, they sometimes say that Jesus himself is a myth. They’re not using the criterion of dissimilarity, and they don’t think it should be used. I disagree with that. I don’t look at the Adam and Eve myth and try to compare it to the Gospel stories or compare Jesus’ birth narratives to the Denae myth. There may be common motifs and themes among them, but I don’t think we should lump the Gospel accounts in with other ancient Greek stories written by different authors with entirely different purposes.

  3. Avatar
    dankoh  December 24, 2017

    I do not “believe” that Jesus was crucified; I accept the historical evidence that overwhelmingly says that he was, by the Romans. (It’s unfortunate that we use “believe” in multiple meanings, but that’s the way the language crumbles.) However, I neither accept (in the meaning of being persuaded by the evidence) nor do I believe (in the sense of having faith) that Jesus rose from the dead to sit at the right hand of God, much less that he was God.

    Since you have discussed your acceptance of some of what is said about Jesus, I wonder if would share your thoughts on this part.

    Happy holidays!

    (PS: If it weren’t for a certain crusade against a non-existent “war on Christmas” I’d be perfectly happy to wish you a Merry Christmas.)

  4. Avatar
    Stephen  December 24, 2017

    Is it reasonable to imagine that there were probably other nativity stories being told about Jesus’ birth but that the two we have were just the ones that happened to have been written down and preserved?

    Thanks

  5. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  December 24, 2017

    How about just calling them “stories”?

  6. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  December 25, 2017

    There is a good article in today’s “Washington Post” entitled “Myths About Saint Nicholas” by Adam C. English. He describes how the life of a fourth century Christian pastor got embellished and adapted to suit cultural needs.

  7. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  December 25, 2017

    While I’m pretty much an agnostic I have always considered myths to be moral stories used to teach spiritual truths or principles by using stories that are not factually true. But with the Gospels there seems to be a mixture of historical events that did occur and historical events that did not occur. For example, it is historically probable/likely that Jesus was crucified, while it is improbable/unlikely that the resurrection occured. The task, it seems, is discerning what events occurred and which did not.

    With so many extraordinary fables attributed to the life of Jesus it does make me wonder if his life was out of the ordinary for so many people to write about him and make up extraordinary events about his life.

    Even though I am not a believer there is much of Christianity that does resonate with me, no much that does not. Christianity saturates our culture.

  8. Avatar
    TBeard  December 25, 2017

    I’m sure part reason you wouldn’t use the term myth is that you care about the feelings of your evangelical students, you’re careful not to offend them and that’s only the sign of a great professor and teacher.
    I’m guessing you went to England over the Christmas holiday. I have friends and family in Ipswich and Edinburgh and love visiting there every year myself.

    Merry Christmas Sir!

    • Bart
      Bart  December 26, 2017

      Ah, yes, I”m a stone throw away from Ipswich, in Woodbridge for three days! Great part of the world.

      1
  9. Avatar
    Eirini  December 25, 2017

    Merry Christmas Dr. Ehrman. Thank you for the blog.
    I think it’s a wonderful idea helping people in need by enlightening others.
    What kind of myth – ritual – tradition theory do you suggest a scholar could use when dealing with a question like this? The myth representative for ritual and tradition or vice versa?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 26, 2017

      My sense is that myth and ritual are in a symbiotic relationship, feeding off of one another, as both are handed down in the tradition.

      2
  10. Avatar
    dragonfly  December 25, 2017

    Any chance you could do a post specifically about the enlightenment?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 26, 2017

      Ah, interesting idea. I’m not a historian of modern intellectual history — but maybe at some point I could talk about how the Enlightenment impacted NT/Early Christian studies.

      2
  11. Avatar
    HistoricalChristianity  December 28, 2017

    For the gospels, the literary genre more appropriate than myth is ancient bios. Not modern history or biography, but stories told to show what the author believes his protagonist to be like. Diarists told a virgin birth story because of a mistranslation / misunderstanding of Isaiah, a young woman shall conceive. Well, that’s how nearly all humans begin their life. Exceptions (old women) are noteworthy. An author wanting to portray this idea let their imaginations run wild. Did they believe these stories were true? In bios, that’s not relevant. Did Homer think his mythologies were true?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 30, 2017

      I would differentiate between the literary genre of the entire work (“bios”) and that character of the individual stories found within it.

  12. Avatar
    Edward  January 15, 2018

    Question: Are the passages in Luke trying to frame Jesus’ birth and death as coming out of a pure womb, and also entering a pure tomb, i.e., the pure womb of death?

    I ask because the Gospel of Luke is the only Gospel that contains this purity pairing, starting at its beginning…
    “…how can this be, because I am a virgin [never laid with a man].”
    and at its end…
    “…laid Him in a tomb cut into the rock, where no one had ever lain.”

    Both statements ring of ancient purity codes. Jesus is portrayed as coming from a pure virginal womb, and being laid in a pure (never before used) tomb. And the latter statement about a tomb in which no one has ever been laid is found only in Luke (and in John who also mentions a tomb “in which no one had yet been laid,” but probably drawn from Luke).

    Does Luke-Acts contain added purity-based scenes peculiar to that author’s writings?

    Luke 23:29 sounds a little reminiscent of the purity code but in a reverse sort of way, “For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that NEVER bore, and the breasts that NEVER nursed.’”

    And there’s also by the same author…

    Acts 10:14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord, for I have NEVER eaten anything unholy and unclean.”

    • Bart
      Bart  January 16, 2018

      Interesting idea.

    • Avatar
      HistoricalChristianity  January 22, 2018

      I don’t think Luke 23:29 is about purity. AFAIK apocalyptic writing never included provisions that good people wouldn’t be harmed during the event. Mostly that they would be protected through the event. And usually not killed by the judgments. Compare Matt 24:19. Don’t be pregnant or nursing when you need to run for the hills.

      Luke 23:29-30 is more an expression of how bad it will be for the bad people. Compare to Revelation. You’ll want to die. You won’t want to see your children go through this judgment.

  13. Avatar
    madi22  January 20, 2018

    Hi Bart, i know you are a new testament expert but i have always had an issue with the dramatic difference between the God of the old testament and new testament Jesus. OT God seems so violent and has ridiculous expectations, yet Jesus is so peaceful?

    Do you think some of the OT stories such as God ordering the Israelites to slaughter villages including women and children, could possibly be a myth? Things like noahs ark, adam and eve are obvious, however some of the other violent stories seem just so extreme its almost unbelievable considering the nature of Jesus? I know conservatives will say all of Gods wrath was put on Jesus at the cross but it still seems really strange.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 21, 2018

      Yes, I think they are definitely myth — since I don’t believe there is a God, let alone one that tells his people to slaughter entire populations! But as to the “New Testament” God — don’t forget that he too is a God of wrath. Think: Book of Revelation!

    • Avatar
      HistoricalChristianity  January 22, 2018

      Legend, not myth. The Middle East is STILL saturated in a mentality of out-group enmity and hostility. Their legendary traditions always show them (the in-group) as so much better than all the others. It’s just that simple.

      The synoptic authors portray Jesus as a sage of Second Temple Jerusalem. That was never a militaristic role. All the behavioral standards in the Ten Commandments (including murder) applied only to fellow Jews. Later rabbinic authors made that very clear. Only Zealots considered Rome an enemy. Israel always required its members to show good behavior to fellow members. Sojourners had limited protections, but always second-class status. Outsiders had no protections. A value of empire was that no member state could go to war against any other member state. So that kind of war was never in question.

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