Biblical myth

Is there myth in the Bible? While that might strike some as a rhetorical—and indeed superfluous—question, there have been biblical scholars who have answered it, in effect, in the negative. Such scholars collude with popular misunderstandings of myth and the strong aversion to recognising myth in the sacred scriptures among Christian believers. Frei denies that the Bible contains substantial mythic elements. He argues that the concept of 'narrative meaning' avoids the dilemma of choosing between the literal meaning and a mythic meaning (Frei, 1974, pp.270, 280). He claims that to acknowledge biblical myth would be to locate the meaning of the Bible beyond the text in universal timeless truths. Thus he asserts in The Identity of Jesus Christ that 'the Gospel story's indissoluble connection with an unsubstitutable identity in effect divests the saviour story of its mythical quality' (Frei, 1975, p.59; cf. Watson, 1994, p.23). So Frei recognises that there is a certain truth of myth, but it is not one that is appropriate to the Gospels. He does not believe in the possibility of mythic realism, that myth can convey the universal significance of particular historical events and persons through symbolic narrative. Frei does not raise similar questions about narrative, which he seems to regard as unproblematic. As Francis Watson points out, Frei does not attempt to establish the truth of narrative but treats it as an irreducible datum (ibid., p.25).

I find Frei's position peculiarly elusive: it is difficult to see what could be entailed in a narrative meaning that related neither to history or to myth, but only to the positive world of the text itself. Frei states: 'The direction in the flow of intratextual interpretation is that of absorbing the extratextual universe into the text, rather than the reverse (extratextual)

direction' (Frei, in McConnell, ed., 1986, p.72). For Frei, the text is self-referring and self-sufficient. There is nothing to be explored beyond the text. Sense and reference are one. Meaning and subject-matter coincide (for exposition and critique of Frei, see Fodor, 1995, pp.258-330).

Frei's hermeneutic appears to be an attempt to insulate the meaning of scripture from public canons of truthfulness. No wonder his narrative approach is so appealing to conservatives: they can take refuge in the notion of 'realistic narrative' and bracket out the intractable problems of myth, history and truth. Appealing to narrative brings no escape from the hard questions raised by the presence of myth in the Bible. Narrative and myth are actually correlative concepts. When archetypal, numinous symbols, with a cosmic, universal reference, are incorporated in narrative, we have myth. To take flight from myth into narrative is illusory.

A more apposite question than whether there is myth in the Bible, would be whether there is anything but myth in the Bible. As J.C.L.Gibson insists, the people of the Old Testament not only breathed the general mythological atmosphere of their time, 'they themselves also became mythmakers' (Gibson, 1998, p.91). Edmund Leach has written in the essay 'Genesis as Myth': 'All stories which occur in the Bible are myths for the devout Christian, whether they correspond to historical fact or not' (Leach, 1969, p.7). Elsewhere, Leach amplifies this provocative assertion.

In saying that the Bible is not a history book but a mythology, I am not arguing that the events it records could not possibly have happened in real time. It is simply that spatial and chronological relations within biblical texts always have symbolic significance whether or not they happened to correspond to reality as ordinarily understood. The patterning is determined by literary-aesthetic considerations rather than by historical or geographical facts.

In the Old Testament, Leach continues, at every stage events are presented as the fulfilment of what has come before and as the foreshadowing of what will follow. The symbolic unity of the Bible is like that of a Shakespearean tragedy or a novel by Tolstoy. Leach, a Fellow of King's College, Cambridge, with its magnificent choral tradition and breathtaking chapel, concluded that the Bible should be read 'as a total work of art, much as one listens to choral singing, echoing from the vaulted roof of a gothic cathedral' (ibid., p.597). Thus it was the unity, symmetry, harmony and teleology of the Bible, expressed through the medium of its governing symbols, that led Leach to call the Bible a mythology.

Now the same unity, symmetry, harmony and teleology that impressed the social anthropologist are also brought out by Von Balthasar and by Karl Barth. To immerse oneself in their work, especially to the extent that it is conducted by means of an ongoing exposition of vast areas of biblical typology and symbolism, is to be made aware of the symbolic character of scripture. But it requires a further step to designate this as myth. Barth is notoriously cavalier about questions of genre and related problems of historicity. For him, the Bible is a given narrative world, the only sphere of revelation. Von Balthasar acknowledges the similarities between the myths of pagan antiquity and the symbolic narratives of the Bible: they both give shape to the divine in response to revelation. The Bible is both the definitive revelation and the fulfilment of non-biblical aspirations.

Christian revelation will, it is true, empty the myths of the 'world's archons' of all power, replacing them with the glory of God's true epiphany, just as the distance between myth and biblical revelation can be so emphasised that its original meaning and content is reversed. But this does not alter the fact that biblical revelation occurs in the same formal anthropological locus where the mythopoeic imagination designed its images of the eternal.

If Barth could be blithely neglectful of questions of myth because of his complete absorption in the hermeneutical circle (reinforced by his naive realism in biblical epistemology), Von Balthasar could be equally relaxed owing to his Platonic assumption of the unity of mythos and logos (reinforced by his Catholic doctrine of the mutual directedness of nature and grace). Von Balthasar recognises that the language of myth is 'nothing other than the common fund of images understood by every human being'. While he acknowledges that classical myths have 'no vision for the sin of the world and for the humiliation of divine love even unto death', he insists that, in seeing the world as a sacred theophany, the mythological understanding of the world has an intimation of the eschatological vision of the Christian faith—of the world as the 'body' of God (ibid., vol. 1, pp.144, 608, 677, 679).

A great deal depends, of course, on one's definition of myth and one's evaluation of myth. These issues will have to await further clarification in Part III of this book. But there is a prima facie case for allowing that the Bible contains at least reconstructed or transfigured myth. Gibson describes the first creation account, that of the six days and the Sabbath (from the priestly tradition) as 'a particularly cool example of myth' in that 'it avoids the wilder mythology of the creation references in Israel's poetic literature' (Gibson, 1998, pp.91f.). Gibson elaborates:

The priestly authors of Genesis did not like the more lurid furniture of myth in composing their careful account of how the world began, though they still spoke mythologically in what they considered a more fitting way. But in their almost modern delicacy of taste they stand nearly alone in the Old Testament.

This qualified acceptance of myth in the Bible is as far as some scholars are prepared to go. Brevard Childs argued in Myth and Reality in the Old Testament (1960; second edition, 1962) that the biblical understanding of reality, grounded on the redemptive activity of God in history, came into conflict with the inherited mythic conception of reality where Nature was regarded as active, living and powerful, communicating her vitality through dreams, visions and apparitions. It seems that Childs is operating with a distinction between an immanent profane and a transcendent sacred, but that antithesis will not do to demarcate natural religion from biblical revelation. Nevertheless, Childs is right to advocate that the Old Testament reflects the presence of myth, though of 'broken myth', and to insist that the Old Testament worldview is not constituted by the mythic— that is to say, pagan, naturalistic, immanental—understanding of reality but by divine revelation. But he is wrong to call a halt to the presence of myth in the Old Testament at that point. His 'broken myth' is actually a Trojan horse.

Pannenberg offers an important discussion in 'Myth in Biblical and Christian Tradition' (Pannenberg, 1973, vol. 3). Like Leach, he accepts that time and space in the Old Testament are significantly mythical, as are the cultus and monarchy, but he asserts that the demonology of the New Testament and its cosmology (the 'three-decker universe') are not inherently mythical, though they do represent an obsolete worldview. Furthermore, according to Pannenberg, the apocalyptic account of eschatology in the New Testament 'cannot be understood as mythical without qualification' (ibid., p.67). On the other hand, Pannenberg affirms that the creation of myth by the early Church cannot be ruled out and he suggests that 'the function which the figure of Jesus came to have for the Christian Church is reminiscent of the archetypal elements of myth' (ibid., p.68). The crucial problem is created by the way the originally non-mythical story of the man Jesus of Nazareth could have turned into the characteristic mythologisation of his person which is found as early as Paul. The Church generated a 'new myth', that of the Redeemer coming down from heaven, which has parallels with the mythic world of antiquity (ibid., p.69). The identity that early Christian theology postulated between this mythical figure descending from heaven and the unique historical event of Jesus of Nazareth strained the limits of myth and Pannenberg concludes that 'the function of the mythical language remains only that of an interpretative vehicle for the significance of a historical event' (ibid., pp.70-4).

I must confess that I find these attempts to apologise for the presence of myth in the Old and New Testaments unpersuasive. Myth is reluctantly admitted on the condition that it is entirely subservient to something other than myth. I do not believe that there is something other which can be postulated in abstraction from myth, or at least from the symbolic in its broad sense. Let us take Childs first: how is the understanding of reality that is grounded in divine revelation expressed, if not in myth? How are the redemptive acts of God in history recounted, if not in myth? Where is the biblical worldview located, if not in myth? It must subsist in the mythic realm because only this has the capacity to articulate symbolic narrative with sacred meanings. As often as not these myths of the redemptive acts of God in history, etc., are reconstructed and transfigured versions of earlier, less appropriate, less theologically profound myths.

Now let us turn to Pannenberg: he seems to assume that the mythical was the contingent or accidental form which the significance of Jesus assumed—as though his unique status as the embodiment of God's revelatory and redemptive act could be articulated and elaborated, theoretically, in some other way. The formula 'Jesus Christ' contains a fact and an interpretation—but they are inseparable, inextricable and indissoluble. There never was an historical Jesus of Nazareth who did not already have interpreted significance (just as there is no bare sense-datum that is not already in some sense an interpreted perception); there is no interpreted significance that is not already part of a symbolic narrative, and there is no symbolic narrative that does not have mythic features which it shares with its mythic milieu.

As Fawcett has argued, it is a fallacy to set myth and history in sharp antithesis. The

Old Testament and the New offer ample evidence of both the historicisation of myth, as mythic elements are assimilated to a more sophisticated understanding of salvation in history (eg. the Exodus theme), and also of the mythicisation of history, as actual events are assimilated to archetypal symbols (e.g. New Testament Christology). Thus 'historicization made myth relevant while mythicization made history meaningful' (Fawcett, 1973, p.30).

My approach, in contrast to the reluctant mythographers, is to accept that the Bible contains substantial mythic components (as do Christian beliefs, for that matter). But I go further and claim that all stories about the interaction of God and the world—stories that transcend the diurnal framework of space and time by speaking of the remote past (origins) or the remote future (destiny) or historical purpose (teleology)—have the status of myth as a narrative genre. But of course Barth and Von Balthasar, Childs and Pannenberg have the heart of the matter in them: their priority is to let divine revelation stand forth in its integrity. It is an aspiration that I share. But I believe that they are misguided in thinking that the integrity of revelation is compromised by its mythic form. However, I can only substantiate that claim by developing a 'mythic realism' before I finish.

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  • lina
    What is Mythicization of history in the old testament?
    3 years ago

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