Are Bible Stories “Myths”?

I would like to post part of Fr John Breck’s latest “Life in Christ” column. Fr Breck suggests that the Bible does reflect “certain universal mythical themes,” but claims that these themes have been “transformed by the essentially historical interest of its various authors.” While Bible stories must reflect some “kernel” of historical reality in contrast to other “myths,” the use of mythical themes shows that the biblical writers’ concern was not merely to tell us “what really happened.” The writers, inspired by God, do not mean to communicate what is definitively past and gone, but rather what must be reactualized to be spiritually experienced once more in the immediate present. If this intention sounds rather opaque, please forgive my brief summary and read these paragraphs:

This primary concern of the biblical authors led them to modify traditional mythical motifs in very significant ways. Most importantly, the chief actor or subject of the biblical writings is God, rather than multiple gods, a hero or a king. As with much ancient mythology, Israel’s popular stories are often etiological: that is, they explain the occurrence of specific actions or things in the life of the nation such as ritual celebrations or natural phenomena (the autumnal New Year festival, for example, or the pillar of salt, Genesis 19:26). In any case, the presumed historical events behind these accounts are presented in such a way as to offer a theological interpretation of those events. A good example is the Exodus tradition(s) [compare Exodus 1-15 with Psalms 77/78 and 80/81]. Here, underlying mythical elements (conflict, destruction, rebirth) have been reshaped to proclaim through the written account the truth of God’s saving activity in and for His people Israel. The result is a ritual retelling, and thus a reactualization, of what actually occurred in the framework of Israel’s salvation history.

We take it for granted that historiography will record for us an accurate picture of “what really happened,” events that are demonstrably factual. To the Israelites, however, the aim of written “history” is not primarily to record facts or provide a record of actual past events. Their sagas, for example, convey above all theological and spiritual meaning for the present. Those epic stories (e.g., of Noah or the Patriarchs) are built on an indispensable, if irrecoverable, kernel of historical reality. Their true significance, however, lies in their ability to relate that past event to the present life of the people. History for the ancient Israelites is meaningful only to the extent that it is living history, extending, as it were, from the past into the present life of the people. Accordingly, the Hebrew concept of “remembrance” signifies reactualization: to remember the past is to experience its conditions and challenges in the immediate present.

This perspective is troubling to many people because it seems to throw into question the “historicity,” the historical reality, of much of the biblical tradition. Yet the reason it does so is because we misunderstand the true meaning and function of myth. In today’s parlance, the term myth implies “fable,” “folklore” or “legend”: a story with no historical underpinnings that serves to convey a moral lesson or simply to amuse. Applied to Scripture, however, the term myth properly describes a tradition that uses human language and images to express the ineffable interaction between the immanent and the transcendent, between God and His human creatures. The myth, rooted in actual historical occurrence, interprets that occurrence (an element of salvation history) so as to convey its meaning for us in our own life and experience. This does not mean that we have to call into question the historical grounding of that event. It means, rather, that the ultimate significance of an event lies less in its being a fact of the past than in its continuing influence in our life and faith today.

To give an example, the accounts of Jesus’ birth (which differ considerably between Matthew and Luke) clearly reflect ancient traditional, and arguably mythical, themes. These include the appearance of the star (the heavenly portent), the Magi and angelic host (representing powers of earth and heaven), even the virgin birth (a phenomenon not limited to the Gospels). This does not mean, however, that those accounts are to be dismissed as non-historical. It means, rather, that what is historical is interpreted by the very shape of the stories, so as to proclaim the gospel. The meaning expressed by those canonical stories is unique. It was unique for the earliest followers of Jesus, and it remains unique for us today, as a promise of God’s full presence in the person and future ministry of the Christ-child,

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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