Are the Gospels a Myth?

One of the most common pronouncements by atheists is, “But the gospels are just a myth!”

In one sense they are correct. The gospel story does operate like a myth. Before anyone gets upset we have to ask what a myth really is.

Most people do not have a very knowledgeable understanding of myth and how it works. They don’t seem to understand the richness and the ambiguity of the term “myth”. When they say “myth” what they mean is “fairy tale”. Even the term “fairy tale” has far deeper and richer levels of meaning than they are aware of. They use the term “myth” to indicate a funny story about gods and goddesses that simple people made up long ago.

When they say “myth” and mean “fairy tale” what they really mean is that “this is a made up pretend story which has no basis in history or scientific veracity.” When they say “myth” they mean “this is not a story like they read in the newspaper or in the history books.”

Indeed, this is one definition of the word “myth”. The most popular usage of “myth” is that it is a fabricated tale. It is a fiction. At worst it is simply a lie which gullible people believe and manipulative people promulgate. For those who are only interested in facts, this means that it is worthless, or at best, interesting as a folk tale or a fable might be interesting.

The term “myth” however, has far deeper levels of understanding. The “mythologist” Joseph Campbell, in his seminal work, The Hero With a Thousand Faces shows how one particular story (which he calls the mono-myth) recurs in many different ways in virtually every society.

The mono-myth is the story of how a hero leaves his ordinary world and sets out on an adventure to overcome great evil and claim a great prize before returning home to save his people. Campbell recognizes that “myth” in this sense is a story that connects individuals and groups with the deepest themes within the collective mind, and that through the re-enactment of myth and the re-telling of stories individuals identify subconsciously with the hero and go on the quest with him.

Furthermore, while the hero’s mythic journey is a visible and outward journey, the outward story is reflective of the inner journey towards enlightenment and redemption. As the audience member participates in the story they face the dangers with the hero and are faced with the same moral choices that the hero must make–thus the power of “myth” within human culture and the human experience is powerful and profound.

The term “myth” in this sense can refer to any story that works on us in this vicarious, “mythical” manner. We think of the classical myths of Greece and Rome operating in this way, but almost any story from any culture might work on the audience as a myth. A supernatural story of gods and goddesses, which has no basis in history or fact might function as a myth, but so might a work of fiction which takes place in a realistic world. Thus many movies–and not just fantasy or science fiction–work as myths.

In fact a template for a typical Hollywood script very often follows the hero’s quest as outlined by Campbell. Furthermore, a story which is factual can also operate on a mythic level. When Grandad tells how he left home at eighteen to fight in the second world war, and recounts his adventures and tells how he came home a changed man and did his part to save the world, Grandad becomes a mythic hero and his story operates as a myth.

This brings us to the gospel account. Are the gospels a myth? Yes and no. If “myth” means a made up story with no basis in history or fact, then”no” the gospels are not myth. However, if “myth” means a story that functions as a myth, then “yes” the gospels (along with a good number of other Bible stories) function as myth.

Through them a hero leaves his ordinary world and comfort zone and sets out on a great adventure to overcome evil and return victorious with a great prize for the salvation of his people.

Two of the twentieth century’s greatest myth makers–C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien had a famous conversation about this very topic. Lewis was, at this point, not a Christian. Tolkien, as a Catholic, had engaged him in a discussion about the topic of myth and how it functions. Lewis said that the Christian story was a myth a lie, but a lie “breathed through with silver”–in other words, a beautiful and useful fiction. He then went on to understand that the gospel story works on us just like the other myths, except that this myth was true and historical.

Does the gospel story connect with the myths of other religions? To some extent it does–but that’s because it is dealing with the same themes and symbols of dying and rising, light and darkness, good and evil.

Does the similarity of the gospel story mean that it is therefore just a made up fairy tale or fable? No. The historical evidence for the essential facticity of the gospels is sound–what it does mean is that this story of Jesus Christ(because it is historical) not only works like a myth and connects with the deepest, shared aspects of humanity but it also gathers up all the myths that came before it and followed after it and fulfills and completes them.

Fr Dwight Longenecker blogs at Standing on My Head. Connect with his blog, browse his books and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com

image: Book of Kells, Folio 32v, Christ Enthroned.

 

Fr. Dwight Longenecker

By

Fr Dwight Longenecker’s latest book is The Romance of Religion—Fighting for Goodness, Truth and Beauty. He blogs at Standing on My Head. Visit his blog, browse his books and be in touch at www.dwightlongenecker.com

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  • clintoncps

    The essay leaves unanswered many questions that it implicitly, if not explicitly, raises: did Jesus actually — factually — rise from the dead? Did he actually — factually — perform miracles? Was he — and is he — actually and factually the Son of God living in Heaven with the Father and in the Holy Eucharist for us?

    I must say that this essay built up to quite a pitch but then ended abruptly without giving any reassurance that the Son of God is more real than our skepticism or our biases toward sociological musings and scientific materialism. If the essay’s intention was to re-affirm our faith in the supernatural and transcendent coming of the Son of God in the flesh, it certainly did not achieve its goal. It leaves me with the rather weak savour of having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof, and it reveals, I think, a deficiency many Christians, including myself, often experience: an certain shame or embarrassment that is felt when talking about prodigies like the Virgin Birth, walking on water, the multiplication of loaves, etc. Will Christ be ashamed of us before his Father?

    I am reminded of St. Paul’s saying that if Christ has not been raised, then our faith is only a vanity — a mere (yes, mere) projection of the will and aspirations of man in his sinfulness, his brokenness. But we are creatures; we generate nothing. Our pretensions about “the human spirit” — as if such a thing could be great an noble in itself — only obstruct our capacity for receiving the revelation and gift of the Holy Spirit: in the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh, God is sharing something of His omniscience with us, as well as His very own redemptive suffering . . . His love. We are eternal in Him. Let’s not reduce this wondrous reality to a “myth” — by any definition.

  • Dhaniele

    I am afraid that this effort of yours will fail to convince. It would have been much better
    to begin with what you state towards the end: “If “myth” means a made up story
    with no basis in history or fact, then”no” the gospels are not myth. However,
    if “myth” means a story that functions as a myth, then “yes” the gospels (along
    with a good number of other Bible stories) function as myth.” Having rejected
    the first meaning, you then could have explained the second part of the phrase.
    Really dictionaries don’t solve the problem of what words mean in the real
    world. The question is how do normal people (not scholars) understand and use
    the words. The ordinary person understands a myth precisely as “a made up story
    with no basis in history or fact.” There is nothing you or anyone else (no
    matter how scholarly) can do to change this way of thinking. Thus, when we get
    around to your second assertion about the Gospel functioning as a myth does in some
    cultural setting can be explained along the lines you have proposed– remembering,
    however, that very often those who use myths are precisely using it for
    religious purposes precisely in the way that you reject. In short, the emphasis
    has to be on your first observation, “no.” That way, our lazy modern (normal) readers
    (raised watching television), will at least come away with the basic truth even
    if they only read the first few lines.

  • accelerator

    “Are the gospels a myth? Yes and no. If “myth” means a made up story with no basis in history or fact, then”no” the gospels are not myth. However, if “myth” means a story that functions as a myth, then “yes”…

    IOW. NO, the are not myths, though they may still function as myths do in some regards The verbal back and forth here is wrongheaded. The bottom line is the gospels are true history, and not myth. Why is that so hard to say, Joseph Campbell be damned? Another example of watered-down Catholic apologetics. Man up, Fr. Dwight!

  • fredx2

    Unfortunately, for Joseph Campbell, everything is a myth. So his work is essentially worthless.
    Example: Abraham Lincoln is a myth – poor boy without shoes, reading by candlelight in a cabin, went on a journey to become a lawyer, congressman, President, killed a Great evil and saved his nation. Is Abraham Lincoln a myth? No. Of course not. Same with George Washington. Martin Luther King and a thousand other historical figures. What Campbell has identified are merely the elements of a story worth listening to. That’s why Hollywood movies often follow his prescription.
    Are the Gospels a myth? No, they are not. Let’s look at the figures in myths: Hercules, Odysseus, etc. There is no historical evidence for their existence. None whatsoever. Everyone understands they are made up figures that exist only in the mind.

    Jesus, on the other hand, is an historical figure. Most scholars agree on that now. We have documents written close to his time telling us what he said, etc. Sham scholars may invent all sorts of clever little ideas to get around this, but this is the fact. This is the same level of evidence that exists for other historical figures such as Alexander the Great.
    Only by stretching the word Myth to mean anything that is inspiring and lifts us up and ennobles us can you say the Gospels are a myth. But that is simply a mendacious misuse of the language. Atheists tend to do that. They are irresponsible in the very thing they claim to love: evidence. They slant the evidence all the time to suit their purposes.

  • fredx2

    I understand your point but I think you are being a bit too tough. There is room for exploring the nuances around an idea, and I think that is what Father Longenecker has done here. The only point is a stylistic one, that his conclusion should have been more prominent. The round about way he gets there might make it seem to some that he is tepid on this point, but I doubt that is what he intended.

  • pnyikos

    There is much else: the willingness of the Apostles, including St. Paul, to die rather than renounce the myth that they said was indeed fact. St. Paul focused on the resurrection and the Eucharist and staked his entire reputation, and the reputation of all Christians, on the truthfulness of the resurrection. And some of his epistles were written less than two decades after the death of Jesus.

    Does this prove the resurrection? Of course not; but the formula “no evidence whatsoever” goes too far in the opposite direction. So does “chock-full of inconsistencies”–there are a few, but they are troublesome only if you take the expression “inspired of God” in an extreme way. They are (usually secondhand) reports of events by human beings. It’s a well known fact that two witnesses of the same events seldom agree in all details.

  • Paul

    Many people have been willing to die for ideas, many of them ridiculous (the people and the ideas) some of them heroic and also all shades in between. Willingness to die for an idea is no demonstration of an event’s veracity. The fact that Paul waited at least twenty years further along into his own life to then stake it on the truth of the resurrection says a certain amount about his dubious claims to its truth and commitment to the wager. However, the larger point is that even if Jesus did come back to life, there is certainly no outside evidence, beyond hearsay and secondhand reports recorded in a book, that he was the son of a diety, much less the son of the one true diety.

  • Howard

    There are many myths that (nearly) everyone accepts as history. The sinking of the Titanic is perhaps the best example; it is almost a modern version of the Tower of Babel. The American Civil War is a myth (actually, it is so for both sides); even the death of Abraham Lincoln at the end of it has resonances in many myths and folktales. The Holocaust is a myth — so much so that Prince Harry got in much worse trouble for dressing as a Nazi than he ever would have if he had dressed as Satan, and a Satanist black mass is tolerated in a way a neo-Nazi rally never would be. In fact, we imbue a large portion of our history with mythology: the Great Depression, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Apollo Moon Landings, 9-11, Watergate, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Neville Chamberlain yielding on the Sudatenland, the House Un-American Affairs Committee, etc. Maybe what is more interesting is the lack of mythic resonance in other parts of history, such as the assassination of William McKinley, the Spanish-American War, and any of the depressions of the 19th century.

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