by Jay Johansen | Dec 26, 2015
In the last couple of days I've read two documents that make the same claim about the Bible. And I've read similar things a number of times before.
The claim is this: Many of the stories in the Bible are "myths". Then they hastily add that when they say the Bible is a bunch of myths, they don't mean that it isn't true. Rather, by "myth" they mean a story that explains mysteries of life or culture, ranging from "What is the purpose of life?" to "Why do we celebrate such-and-such a holiday?" Sometimes they conclude by saying that whether these stories are literally, historically true is a separate question that should be investigated, and that they are certainly not saying that they aren't true. Other times they say that whether they are literally true doesn't matter, that the important thing is that they provide "bigger truths". Either way, they assure us that Bible-believing Jews and Christians should not be offended when they call the Bible a bunch of myths. They are using this word as a description of a literary style, not as an insult.
Sorry, but: No.
For starters, that is just not what the word "myth" means. When someone today says that a story is a "myth", they mean "fiction", or even "lie". When you see an article in a magazine or on a web site with a title like "Seven Myths About Losing Weight", do you understand that to mean "ideas that may or may not be true"? No, you understand it to mean "ideas that are completely false". Or if you read an editorial that began, "The idea that this tax cut will lead to economic growth is a myth", would you understand that to mean that the author doesn't know or care whether it is true or false? Or would you expect the editorial to go on to say why it is provably false and how the politicians who say it is true are fools or liars?
Yes, words can have more than one definition. Specialists in a technical or scholarly field often use common words with a specialized meaning. Like physicists use words like "energy" and "work" with meanings quite different from the common meaning. But I simply don't believe that that's what's going on here. If this was simply scholars seeking a suitable word to describe a literary form, why would they choose a word that is universally understood to mean "false" to describe stories that they think are or might be true?
I think this is a propaganda ploy, a trick to get Jews and Christians to sit silent while they call the Bible a myth, maybe even to get us to agree to call it a myth ourselves.
Suppose someone called your girlfriend a "cheap slut". And when you protested, he said, "Oh, I didn't mean that in a negative way. By that phrase I mean women who go to bars or night clubs, with no assumption about their moral behavior." Would you say "oh, okay then", and start calling your girlfriend and other women "stupid sluts" yourself? Or would you punch him in the face for insulting your girlfriend's morals and your intelligence?
Even if we accept the definition of "myth" that they are trying to get us to use, the claim is still fanciful and insulting.
They say that stories in the Bible were invented to explain some mystery. For example, one writer said that the Genesis account of creation was invented to explain why child-bearing is painful and why people wear clothes. The book of Exodus was written to provide a heroic tale of how the nation of Israel came to exist, when the real story is obviously that they were simply a Canaanite nation that grew over time to dominate the others.
They routinely say that various Bible stories were invented centuries after the fact to explain where a holiday came from. Like, Exodus was invented to explain why Jews celebrate Passover.
Need I point out the obvious flaw here? If a story explains something, it is possible that it was just made up to explain something for which the true explanation is unknown. But the obvious alternative is: It might be the true explanation.
Logically, there must have been some point in time when Jews did not celebrate Passover and Purim. There must have been some event that they decided was worth celebrating and worth having a holiday for. How do you know that the Biblical accounts are not the real reason? Except, that is, for an irrational bias against the Bible?
They love to play this game where the more a story explains, the more they say this proves it is fiction. I read a discussion of the book of Esther that claimed it is a fiction invented to explain why Jews celebrate Purim. The clinching argument was that Esther explains why some Jews celebrate Purim for two days while others celebrate it for only one. Obviously, this writer said, that part was invented in to explain this curious feature of the holiday. His underlying theory is apparently that a true story about the origins of a holiday would have no relation to how and when the holiday is celebrated, that the fact that a story makes logical sense proves that it is false. Only a confusing, non-sensical story could be true. Well, except that if the Biblical account failed to explain important elements of the holiday, that would surely be taken as proof that is fiction unrelated to the true origins.
I can't help but wonder if historians hundreds of years from now with a similar mindset will say that the American Revolution is a myth invented to explain why Americans celebrate a holiday on July 4, and to provide a heroic tale of how the United States came to exist, when obviously it was just a Native American tribes that grew over time to dominate the others.
© 2015 by Jay Johansen