“Noah’s Flood is a myth.”
How many people think calling a biblical story a “myth” means–it isn’t true?
The word “myth” (like the word “theory”) has a far different meaning in different circumstances.
“The story about finding a mouse inside of a Coke bottle is a myth.”
“Myth” in this case means the story is a common one, known to many people, but it isn’t factual–it isn’t true.
“The story about the Tower of Babel is a myth.”
Using “myth” in reference to the Bible has a far different meaning. It means: the story is not
factual–but it IS true!
Many people find this idea as difficult as grasping smoke: how something can be fiction–and yet still be true? Especially when reading the Bible. It’s called the “Holy” Bible. People tend to think “holy” means: uncorrupted–pure–reliable–true. There simply can’t be anything fictional in the Holy Bible!
First of all, many people misunderstand the word “holy.” The biblical definition of “holy” doesn’t mean “good” or “pure.”
“Holy” means–“separate.” In the story of the Battle of Jericho, the Hebrew fighters are told to devote the conquest of the city to God. That means, “separate” it for God. How do they do that? They KILL every man, woman, child and animal! “Good” or “pure” is not what is meant by that which is separated for God–that which is “holy.”
The Bible is called “holy.” That doesn’t mean: It has no errors–and everything is factual. The Bible is holy because it is separate from all other books. It is the lone book that Christians use in worship. It is the greatest authority in explaining the identity of Jesus: He is both human and divine. In these senses, the Bible is “unique” (another word commonly mis-used). It exists in a class by itself. It is “separate” from all other books. It is–“holy.”
One other obstacle stands in the way of the right understanding of “myth” in the Bible (how something can be non-factual but still be true). The obstacle is the naivety of so many believers. Most Americans, for example, know very little history. They have difficulty knowing what is factual–for example, when watching a movie. They tend to think that what they see in a movie really happened.
In 2000, I travelled to Europe in order to visit the D-Day beaches. It was the 46th anniversary of the Normandy invasion. (The French, however, call it not “the invasion” but “the landing.” They don’t like the idea that their country was invaded by Allies).
I latched on to a tour that was led by a Dutch man who was an expert in all things D-Day. At one stage in the day-long tour (the D-Day beaches stretch for 60 miles–it takes an entire day to see the landing zones adequately), he took us to the American Cemetery, which overlooks Omaha Beach. The American Cemetery is where the movie “Saving Private Ryan” begins and ends. This Dutch guide told us, “American tourists always ask me, ‘Where is the grave that was visited by Private Ryan?’ ”
Many Americans can’t tell fact from fiction. They know so little history! They lack knowledge not only about history but about the way much of history has been written.
For most of humankind’s existence, there were no movies, no videos; what few illustrations people saw were primitive compared to today’s drawings you might see in a book. With so little visual aid, a writer needed to get across a point in a way that it would be remembered. Thus, the writer exaggerated. Today it’s called “hyperbole.”
George Washington cut down his father’s cherry tree–George Washington hurled a silver dollar across the wide Potomac River–George Washington slept here. They are all exaggerations. But hyperbole has been an acceptable tactic for writers to use. Because their main goal has been: to engage the reader completely–mind, body and soul.
An exaggerated story is–for one thing–easier to remember. How many people can quote even one line from George Washington’s inaugural addresses? But everybody remembers being told about his cutting down the cherry tree.
An exaggerated story is–for another thing–emotionally engaging. We’re INTO the story:
The kid is in big trouble–he chopped down his father’s priceless cherry tree! (Today, we would read about George Washington wrecking his father’s Mercedes.) We’re INTO it!
The stories are not factual–they never happened. But they ARE true. They express truth about George Washington: his honesty, his strength (physical strength–throwing a silver dollar across the Potomac–translating into character strength).
THIS is what is meant by–“myth.”
“Myth” serves the purpose of telling a story in a way that will be remembered from one generation to another; telling a story that engages the readers emotionally; AND explaining the way life is viewed.
The way Americans view life–our Founding Father never lied–has been a source of pride in every American’s childhood, learning about our birth as a nation. This view of our founding can be used to hold today’s politicians accountable.
Myths can open us up emotionally to a truth. People simply need to get over the fear that this kind of writing can be found in the “Holy” Bible. There IS fiction in the Bible. Myths abound. They are not factual–but they ARE true.
Take the story of Adam & Eve in the Garden of Eden. They are told, You can have everything–except for just this one tree. Don’t touch!
Anybody with a 2-year-old knows what’s going to happen!
The story of “Don’t touch that tree” is not factual–but it IS true: We are being told a truth about our human nature. (We don’t like boundaries.)
It is a myth. A myth explains life. Myth explains life with colorful imagery. The story is easy to remember. It engages us completely–body, mind & soul. We are screaming “No–don’t touch! Don’t listen to the serpent!” We are emotionally involved in the story.
The story of Jesus’ birth–in both Matthew and Luke–likewise engage us emotionally. In Matthew, we witness the contrast between the reaction of King Herod to the news of the birth of the Child vs. the reaction of the Magi. We take sides. We feel emotions of fear (for the Child), anger (at Herod’s ruthlessness), admiration (for the Magi’s going the distance to find and worship the Child).
But the story is a myth. It uses typical hyperbole of that day.
* God speaks to Joseph in a dream. This is an echo from the Old Testament story of an earlier Joseph whom God spoke to in a dream (the Joseph who winds up being the No. 2 ruler in Egypt).
*The Virgin Birth. Ancient literature is full of stories of heroes who were born without being generated by normal sexual relations (Alexander the Great, the Pharaohs…).
*The star. How could something so bright in the night sky be seen ONLY by the Magi? Herod and his advisors can’t see it. Herod has to ask the Magi to return and tell him where the Child is. And how could even the brightest star lead the Magi to a specific house? Not even an object so large in the night sky as the Moon (and so much nearer to the Earth than any star) could shine with pinpoint accuracy on a specific address down here. The star is merely a literary device. Oddities of nature often accompany the lives of heroes. It happens all through accounts of Jesus’ life: A star announces the Birth. A dove descends on Him at baptism. The Sun turns dark at the crucifixion; the Moon turns blood-red. An earthquake signals the Resurrection.
It is the imagery of myth. The genre abounds in the Bible:
*the Flood covering the entire planet. (If Noah and his wife, their three sons and their wives are the lone ones being rescued, we would have to conclude that the children of Seth, Ham and Japheth weren’t allowed in the Ark. To assume that they HAD no children would have been unheard of in that day. Even if their wives were barren–as with Sarah and Hannah–God’s favoring of women is shown in the Bible by their having children. If Noah’s sons and their wives are favored by God, it would be unthinkable in that day that they would be childless.) Relax. We need not defend every detail as factual. The story is a myth.
*the swooping of the prophet Elijah up to heaven in a chariot of fire; Enoch never dies–he is taken right up to heaven. (Does anybody seriously think that Heaven is a physical PLACE–somewhere “up there” like a balcony above the universe where bodies could exist?)
*the parting of the Red Sea (Once the parting occurs, the floor of the sea is not even damp–it’s dry ground when the Hebrew people walk over it!)
Those believers who think they have to defend everything in the Bible as factual–they are usually so uptight because their task is impossible. And laughable. Did polar bears walk all the way from the Arctic, completely overdressed for crossing desert in the Middle East in order to arrive at the Ark?
But these believers insist: Everything in the Bible is factual. Because–for them–the stakes are very high. Their faith is at risk! They must believe the Bible word-for-word, or they are not true believers.
Relax. Enjoy the stories. They are poetically told, beautifully lyrical, and they give the us deep truths–about our human nature, about monotheism (one Creator vs. the many gods of ancient times), about God’s eagerness to embrace rather than to punish, about the identity of Jesus as not just a good man like Gandhi or Francis of Assisi…
Accepting myth in the Scriptures is not harmful to one’s faith. When myth is recognized as a legitimate, literary device commonly used in biblical times, we can appreciate how these colorful stories provoke us into emotional commitments for good vs. evil, for belief in God, for belief in Jesus.
Myth is not just for days of old. It is used today. And we have no problem with it. The usage of myth exists even in films that have a factual background: like the D-Day scenes in “Saving Private Ryan” or the very accurate movie about D-Day, “The Longest Day,” or “Apollo 13”.
I once had a chance to interview Gene Kranz, the real-life flight director who was portrayed wearing a white vest in “Apollo 13” by actor Ed Harris (who some years earlier played John Glenn in “The Right Stuff”). I asked Mr. Kranz, “How accurate was ‘Apollo 13’?” I was amazed at his reply. He said, “Ninety-percent accurate.”
Now, one thing is easy to recognize as non-factual in all three of these movies. The one thing we KNOW didn’t really occur is–the music! No music hovered over the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944. Yet movie-goers accept music as ESSENTIAL to the overall impact of a story. Awards are given for the music. But it wasn’t really there. Not a problem. The music is accepted. It is a literary device to get across a point, and to engage us emotionally in the story.
The same acceptance can be conceded to the way writers composed so many of the stories in the Bible.