Mythology in the Bible

I originally wrote the following essay about seven years ago.  At that time, I was wrestling with just exactly where I was on the spectrum of belief on the issue of biblical inerrancy.  On one side are Christians like C.S. Lewis who once called various portions of the Old Testament the “Chosen Mythology”.   These Christians simply discard the sections of the Old Testament that are difficult to defend from a rational perspective.  On the other side are conservative Christians who believe that every word of the Bible is literally true and that there are no errors in it at all.  It was among such Christians that I found myself when I originally became a believer in a small conservative church in Los Angeles in 1994.

Reading this essay over again now, I see something that I would call intellectual dishonesty if I saw it in someone else.  My attitude toward the Bible then was that there are certain sections that have been edited over the years by believers who wanted to “improve” the word of God.  I don’t believe these sections are literally true and I have always had extreme doubts about them.  (I am specifically speaking here about passages pertaining to the Nephilim or giants and the Samson passage.)  Because I wanted to avoid offending my friends and fellow Christians,  I was not intellectually honest about my beliefs in this essay.  I left the issue “up in the air” when I had in fact concluded that there really are errors in the Bible.  I will share my beliefs on this issue more fully in a future post entitled “Biblical Reliability”.

A Rational Faith Section 10.21.1 What about the mythological elements of various Bible passages?

Some of the hardest verses of the Bible to reconcile to a rational world view are the passages that seem mythological. The verses aren’t exactly physically impossible, but their resemblance to fairy tales or legends from polytheistic cultures is so striking that it is virtually impossible to take them seriously. Let us take, for example, the case of Samson:

Finding a fresh jawbone of a donkey, he grabbed it and struck down a thousand men. (NIV Judges 15:15)

Any person who says they have no doubts as to the literal veracity of this story is either highly gullible or lying. Samson killed one thousand men with a donkey bone? Not nine hundred and eighty-seven or one thousand and fifteen but one-thousand exactly? The fact that God’s Holy Spirit comes upon Samson and causes him to become a killing machine complete with sprays of brain and blood is bad enough, but the story itself seems like it should begin “Once upon a time”. Like Hercules slaying the hydra or Zeus wrestling with the Titans, these stories seem to come right out of mythology. How can we take such verses seriously?

If we can overcome the mythical elements of the verses, the other obstacles are not too horribly difficult. When we examined the nature of death, we saw that God had the right to stop doing the work necessary to maintain the human lives taken by Samson at any time. If God chose to end their lives down here at that time and in that fashion because he considered it best, then those of us who believe in the goodness of God must trust in his wisdom and his goodness despite the readily apparent ugliness of the story. The even number of soldiers killed could come about because soldiers in ancient history served in units that had even numbers. A centurion, for example, was in command of one hundred Roman soldiers. Maybe the Philistines had a unit of a thousand men and Samson defeated the unit? Maybe God wanted him to do it with a small bone in order to prove that the deliverance came from him and not from Samson? Without the mythical elements, these verses are no harder to understand than many other verses in the Old Testament.

When one considers the mythical elements of these verses, the key thing that one needs to remember is the people that God was dealing with at the time. To these barbaric and primitive savages, their God didn’t seem very great. As modern people, we might believe that creating the heavens and the earth is more impressive than killing a few people with a metal stick, but this would not appeal to the imaginative and story-telling cultures of that time. “I was listening to a Persian story teller the other day and he told about a great Persian hero who slew a hundred men with a sword and killed a dragon. All Moses ever did was throw down a staff or let God part the Red Sea for him. I guess this Persian god is greater than Jehovah because this hero is greater than Moses.” God may have had to act in ways that seem to us mythical in order for the people of that day to respect and reverence him. In just this same way, God might have to embellish modern miracles with special effects because people of our age have grown up watching Hollywood movies. To people from our time, miracles without the flashing lights or the strange blue glow just wouldn’t seem miraculous.

Another possible explanation for the mythical elements in these verses is that these stories were embellished by Jewish scribes during the process of copying the texts over multiple generations:

How can you say, “We are wise, for we have the law of the LORD,” when actually the lying pen of the scribes has handled it falsely? (NIV Jeremiah 8:8)

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. (NIV Revelation 22:18)

These verses seem to indicate that the human propensity to exaggerate has been a problem in the transmission of God’s word. What else could it mean if the pens of the scribes made the word of God a lie? Why warn people against adding to the words of the prophecy of Revelation if it had not occurred before? The image that these verses produce in my mind is that of a scribe who would be a Hollywood producer if he lived in the modern era. After he finishes reading over the scrolls that he is supposed to copy, he begins to make his pitch:

“Well, you’ve got some good material here Lord. No doubt about it. On the other hand, some of the stories left me a little flat. Do you know what I am talking about? Some of those stories need a little more flash, a little more pizazz! You see what I mean? Take that Samson story, for example. Kills 10 guys with the jawbone of a donkey? Come on! How heroic is that? I see Samson killing a hundred, no a thousand men with that jawbone! And Goliath as seven and a half feet tall? What kind of a giant is that? I see David facing off against a fifteen footer using a tree for a spear and he has armor weighing three hundred pounds! That is the kind of thing that brings in the crowd.”

The major problem with using this argument, of course, is where do you draw the line? If the story of Samson was exaggerated, then was the story of Moses also exaggerated? How much of the word of God will be left over when you are done removing the mythical elements? If there is error in the Bible, then how do we determine what it is? One could argue that God had preserved all the theologically important parts of the Bible and only allowed minor deviations from His truth. But how are we to tell which parts are theologically significant and which parts are in error? If God preserves some of His word from corruption, why not all?

Now every believer will have to come to their own conclusions, but my own opinion on this issue was formed by my early experience with these questions. When I first seriously considered these difficulties, part of me rejoiced when I thought I might be free of Jesus Christ and his cross. Part of me desperately wanted the Bible to be found false. When this part got the upper-hand because of my doubts over these passages, I was able to do things that the Bible says are sinful and it felt good. Do you know what I mean? I suspect that you do. The effect of the mythical seeming parts of the Bible, then, was to challenge my faith and force me to choose to believe in the truth of God’s word.

Now if the fantastic passages in the Bible had that effect on me, then it stands to reason that they could have the same effect on others. What was the result of this doubt? Speaking only for myself, the challenge presented by these verses refined my faith and made me a better Christian. In my mind, it is not unreasonable to believe that God would allow His word to be corrupted for this kind of purpose. On the other hand, this idea could also explain why God might intentionally act in a way that He knows later generations would interpret as “mythical”. It seems like we are back where we started.

So what do I believe? Did Samson kill one thousand men with the jawbone of an ass? Or didn’t he? I guess the bottom line for me is that I believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God. I further believe the authority of the Bible is to be preferred over every other authority. For this reason, I believe that Samson killed one thousand men with the jawbone of an ass. Not a man more and not a man less, warriors of the Philistines all. But would I be crushed and broken if God told me that a few theologically extraneous parts of His Word had been corrupted by human sin? No. I would not be crushed.

About Robert V

Former atheist currently living in Toronto.
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8 Responses to Mythology in the Bible

  1. Louis says:

    I certainly identify with your doubts. but I would disagree with you that C.S lewis simply thought certain portions of the Old Testament were fictitious because he had trouble with rationally believing it. in on of his essays “fern seed and elephants” he makes clear that he, as a literature scholar, thinks it clear that the gospels are not written with the earmarks of mythology but the book of Jonah is. there are similarly difficult texts in the Gospels that might seems as incredible as Samson killing a thousand philistines. but that isn’t, I think, why lewis believed the gospels and all the miracles described in them were historical whereas the book of Jonah is not. I don’t have a problem with accepting some of the books in the Old Testament are allegorical and not historical fact. in fact, there is an old Christian tradition of such interpretations of Bible.

    • Louis? Andrew?

      I appreciate your comment and I was guilty of oversimplifying the Lewis position. I was trying to give a quick flyby of my position on Biblical reliability and an accurate assessment of his views was a casualty of my brevity and ignorance. I would myself, however, have a hard time finding anything in the gospels that comes even close to being as difficult to believe as the Samson story. Do you have a particular verse in mind?

      I read over your blog and I found the Grayling review fairly interesting. I agree with your assessment of Harper in Canada and I hope that your sketch of modern Britain is erroneous. Is it really true that self identified Christians are less than 11%?

      Thanks for your comment and God Bless,

      rob

  2. Louis says:

    One could say that the virgin birth, the ressurection and the miracles in the gospels can be thought of as mythological if you have the predisposition to do it. The ressurection should be as incredible as slaughtering a thousand philistines with a jaw bone ( even more incredible). But both should be perfectly possible if we believe God would have an incentive to do it. I suppose one could say that the ressurection and the other miracles around Christ’s life are not as difficult to believe because God would have the greatest incentive to make his representative on earth stand out.

    Thanks for reading them! I appreciate your comments. As far as i can remember, the post doesnt say there are less than 11 percent self-identified Christians, but only that the number of people who identified as Christians dropped 13 percent between 2001 and 2011

    • Louis,

      I would agree that the resurrection and the virgin birth require more divine power. In no way, however, could I agree that the virgin birth or the resurrection is even close to being as hard to believe as the Samson story. A fornicating representative of incarnate love using divine power to slaughter exactly 1000 human beings made in the divine image with a piece of detritus? I am sorry. The virgin birth and the resurrection merely require belief in a being capable of supernatural acts. Other than the miraculous, the gospels are fairly easy to believe as the teachings of a loving God. While resurrection stories are not unique in ancient religions, the reporting style used in the gospels (as C.S. Lewis once noted) is very modern and Jesus Christ had the greatest impact on our ideas of love and morality of any teacher in history. The Samson story, on the other hand, brings the character of God into question and is written like other myths of the period. To see what I mean, ask yourself this question. If you could present the gospel to a stranger with the New Testament or with the Samson story, which do you think would make more sense to a person who did not believe?

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