Were the Miracles of Jesus invented by the Disciples/Evangelists?


Updated: October 5, 2001 | Back to the Miracles Index | Summary



1.       Did the authors consciously intend to create myth (anthropologically speaking), in which the miraculous elements were NOT intended to be taken literally by their readership? A mythic authorial intention would assume that their readership would understand this, of course, and suitably 'parse' the miracles stories for their intended, symbolic, or constitutive meaning. Under this scenario, any modern discussion of the miracles as historical facts/events would not just be inconclusive or difficult, but also be nonsensical and an example of a huge category mistake (like asking questions--to use Veyne's example--of "whether the adventures of Tom Thumb took place before or after Cinderella's ball" [HI:DGBM:74]). This would also be indicated by deliberate shaping of the material (miraculous and non-miraculous) to conform to some mythic structure, either Jewish, Greco-Roman, or hybrid.



This actually has two separate issues in it: (1) is the entire gospel story intended as myth; and (2) are elements within the story intended to 'map back to' some mythic scheme.


One contemporary expression of the first issue (i.e., the entire gospel story intended as myth) I found recently was this one:


"The third argument [against the historicity of the miracles] involves the recognition that the genre of the gospels is myth, that their meaning is quite penetrable using familiar techniques of analysis from anthropology, and that once this meaning is understood (as it would have been by the intended audience), it will be apparent that the message is deeply significant, rational, germane to the context of composition--and that literal readings utterly miss the point." [Evan Fales, in "Successful Defense? A Review of In Defense of Miracles", in Philosophia Christi, 2:3:1:p.18 (2001)]



Fales is a philosopher, not a classicist, historian, or anthropologist, so we should be inclined to cut him some slack about this statement. However, the fact that he cites anthropology resources later and refers to a couple of classicist uses of embellishment (e.g., Vespasian, Augustus, and Alexander the Great) leaves him somewhat open to a couple of basic criticisms.



First of all--anthropologically speaking--the gospels cannot be put into the genre of intentional myth. If you examine a basic definition of 'myth' in anthropology you can easily see this first major problem:


"Myths have been studied by cultural anthropologists, classicists, theologians, historians of religion, biblical scholars, psychologists, and folklorists. Unfortunately, one effect of this interdisciplinary interest has been a proliferation of definitions, all purporting to define the term "myth" and yet each different from the others. To confuse matters even further, many of these are not really definitions at all, but rather implicit theories about the functions of myth or about the ways in which myths have come into existence. The simplest way to proceed in the face of this definitional morass is to avoid it entirely and to focus instead on the things that these scholars have called "myth." When we do so, a "myth" would appear to have three characteristics. Taken collectively, these three characteristics provide a rough-and-ready definition of "myth" that should suffice for most purposes. First, a myth is a story. Second, this story is concerned with the sacred in Emile Durkheim's sense of the word, that is, with persons or things surrounded with reverence and respect in the society where the story is told. Third, the events described in this sacred story are set initially in a previous age that is qualitatively different from the present age." [NS:ECA, s.v. "Myth"]



This distance between the primordial time and the present world is one of the basics of mythic literature, and can be seen in ANE literature as well. For example:


"Just such a distinction between a mythical and a historical age, however, is implied in the Mesopotamian tradition." [HI:HAF:9]


"That same resolve may be discovered in Hittite literature, which treats contemporary or recent public events quite differently from the age of timeless myth and the more distant past" [HI:HAF:12]



Greek myth even had a specific date when the primordial era ended and modern history began!


"These suggest that the notion of a benchmark, a specific point in time when mythology ended and pragmatic historiography began was then widely accepted. Hecataeus himself was hardly breaking new ground when he presented a specific occurrence, and even a date, to mark the turning point between myth and history. Ephorus' benchmark was the return of Hercules' offspring to the Peloponnesus, where their ancestor had once held sway. Traditionally this was the way of referring to the arrival of the Dorians in the peninsula, c. 1070 B.C." [HI:HAF:37]




Thus, myth occurs in "sacred pre-history", in the times before the present, in the era before NOWFor the gospels to have been anthropological myth--at the time of their writing--they would have to have placed Jesus somewhere back in or before Genesis 1-6 (although see the comments below on the lack of Israelite pre-history), not in the reign of Augustus. The gospels do not satisfy anthropological descriptions of myth, and this category is generally of no use to New Testament studies (unlike possible cases in the Hebrew bible):


"In current study of religion the usage of myth tends to be restricted to the following sense: a narrative of origins, a study of the beginning of all things, a story of primordial time. If that is taken to be the primary meaning it obviously will have little or no relevance to the study of Jesus and the Gospels." [NT:DictJG, s.v. "Myth"]


[Note that the gospels possibly could be understood as "myth" to much later readers, such as ourselves, who would be separated in time from that 'originating event of Jesus' or some such understanding. Modern readers could conceivably approach the Jesus narratives as 'myth', but the first-century recipients of the gospels could not--the required 'distance' between the sacral pre-history and their own time (part of the anthropological definition of myth) was totally absent.]



Secondly--classically speaking--the gospels cannot be put into the genre of "myth", because there is no such genre. Genres are forms like epic poetry, historical prose, biography, encomium, comedy, etc. Myth (Greco-Roman) was written in a genre, and in the case of myth, only written in poetic/hymnic/dramatic genres, never prose/history/biography (until after the gospel literature emerged), and the 'ruthless readership' would be quick to point out any boundary violations:


"But Greek myths in general, as we meet them in poetry from Homer to Attic tragedy and beyond, are stories of some complexity and subtlety, and they are the form in which the poets choose to express their ideas. A striking thing about Greek myth is the importance attached to it by the Greeks up to the end of the firth century. But in the course of that century, the medium for serious thought came to be prose. Out of the mythical genealogies of gods and heroes arose the concept of history; similarly, the cosmological myths shaped the speculations that led eventually to the rise of science and philosophy. Both history and philosophy were written in prose. Myth continued to be of significance in poetry and art as long as it was of religious importance for cult and ritual, but as Greece moved into the Hellenistic age it became more of a decorative element and less intellectually and emotionally charged." [HI:COCCL, s.v. "Myth"]


"With the invention of writing, epic poetry seems to have gone into decline; poets composed epics, to be sure, but the fragments that remain reveal inferior poems. In the fifth century tragic drama and historical narrative came about, partly in response to needs that epic poems had once satisfied. Tragedy mythologizes epic action; history endows it [i.e., epic--NOT myth] with motives, space, and time. Tragedy uses a highly stylized poetic language; history uses prose." [HI:AGLS:198]


"Secondly: these people seem to be ignorant of the distinction between the professions and rules of poetry and poems on the one hand, and of history on the other. Poetry enjoys unqualified freedom. Its sole law is the poet's will. He is possessed and inspired by the Muses. If he wants to harness a team of winged horses, or make people run on water or over the top of the corn, nobody complains. When the poets' Zeus suspends earth and sea from a single chain and swings it around, people aren't afraid of the chain breaking and the universe crashing to destruction. If they want to praise Agamemnon, there is no one to prevent them saying his head and eyes are like Zeus, his chest like Zeus' brother Poseidon, his belt like Ares; the son of Atreus and Aerope, in fact, has to be a compound of all the gods, because no one of them alone, Zeus or Poseidon or Ares, suffices to fill the demands of his beauty. If history admits any flattery of this sort, it becomes a sort of prose poetry. Without the grandiloquence of poetry, it presents all its monstrosities in an unmetrical form, and thus more conspicuously. It is a great, indeed an enormous mistake not to understand the distinction between poetry and history, but to try to introduce into the latter the embellishments of the former--fable, encomia, and all their exaggerations. It is as if one were to take some very tough, rugged athlete, dress him up in pink, and all the gear of a high-class prostitute, and rub red and white on his face. What a hideous and ridiculous figure he would cut in his finery!...There is more to be said. In history, anything really fictional does not even give pleasure; while any element of encomium is obnoxious to the reader, whichever way it goes--if you are thinking, that is, not of the common mob but of those who will listen judiciously or even with malevolence. Nothing will escape these people. They see sharper than Argus, and have eyes all over. They weigh up every sentence with the precision of a money-changer, so as to reject the counterfeit and accept only the true, lawful currency, with its proper mark. This is the audience to have in your mind's eye when you rite history. Never mind about the rest, even if they burst themselves with praise. If you neglect the real critics and season your history too highly with fables and encomia and such flattering stuff, you will soon make it look like Heracles in Lydia." [Lucian, How to Write History, HI:ALC:537-9]


Indeed, poetry and hymns were meant for such fanciful elaboration and mythic tales:


"The first point to note about 'invented' hymns is that they cannot easily be written for the famous gods, whose origins and power are well known, but usually relate to minor gods or demigods...the fiction must be constructed in a facile, elegant, and by no means disagreeable manner...For some inventions are disagreeable even to hear, for instance that Athena sprang from the head of Zeus. This may indeed do very well in some other circumstances, if it is meant allegorically, but the invention is plainly disagreeable. Thirdly, in all our fiction we should take proofs from reality...excessive length and elaboration are to be avoided. Some recent writers, having invented the new demigod Jealousy, make Envy her head-dress, and Strife her girdle. Pausanias has a particular inclination to this sort of elaboration...The style for such hymns should be chosen with an eye to the subject. If you invent a human story, it should be simple and neat--by 'human story', I mean something not terrifying or supernatural: Poverty or Insomnia or the like. If it is something supernatural, adopt a more solemn style. This kind of hymn, it should be noted, shows great talent and is a sign of inventiveness." (Hermogenes, on types of style [HI:ALC:579] "on invented hymns")



When historical prose had to deal with myth, it had to distance itself from it:


"It is a tribute to the influence of Thucydides that after him myth could only with difficultly be rescued or redeemed. In later historians we can see only three possibilities: avoid mythos altogether; try to 'rationalize' or 'de-mytholigise' them; or, as Lucian suggests, include them but leave their credibility to the reader to decide. If one included them, one had to defend oneself. Eventually--we cannot pinpoint exactly when--mythical material was seen as a suitable element in digressions, where the reader might be diverted in loci amoeni from the more serious material of history" [HI:ATAH:118]



Only after the gospel story had become circulated in Rome, do we begin to see prose paraphrases of the myths of Homer. G. W. Bowersock, for example, in the Sather Classical lectures in UC Berkeley for 1991 (published as Fiction as History--Nero to Julian, UCpress:1994, [HI:FAHNJ]), points out that Homeric revisionism (as part of a burst of new fictional literary types) became almost a 'fad', during the reign of Nero [54-68 AD]. He makes a persuasive argument that several new motifs in Roman literature are directly dependent upon the gospel literature (in either oral or written form). A few quotes from his work will indicate this:


"If we step back to take a broader view of the fictional production of the Roman empire, it becomes apparent that this vast output encompassed four major types: fantastic tales, Homeric revisionism, tragic or romantic novels, and comic or satiric novelsBut there can be no denying that the explosion of fiction in the Roman empire represents something quite newThe beginning of the massive proliferation of fiction can be assigned pretty clearly to the reign of the emperor Nero, in the middle of the first century of the Christian eraRewriting the Homeric stories was to become a fad." [HI:FAHNJ:21ff]


"Among the most conspicuous features of the fiction of the Roman empire, not only the prose romances but the mythological confections as well, is resurrection after death in the original body. Much of the time the resurrection is explained by theatrical and often bloody deaths that turn out not to have been deaths at all. The Scheintod, as the Germans call it, the "apparent death," allows for all the excitement and tragedy of extinction and resurrection without unduly straining the credulity of the reader. The German scholar Erwin Rohde, whose interpretations of the Greek novel must even now command respect, identified the earliest appearance of apparent death and resurrection in the novel The Wonders beyond Thule by Antonius Diogenes. Rohde was perhaps the first to see that, after the work of Diogenes, Scheintod and resurrection became among the most beloved of themes in the Greek romances. Since the fiction of Antonius Diogenes seems clearly to belong to that initial burst of creativity that we can trace from the reign of the emperor Nero down to the end of the first century of our era, the appearance of this motif concurrently with the development of the genre itself is not likely to be without significancethe whole concept of resurrection, although attested among other peoples, was altogether alien to Graeco-Roman thoughtPaul went to Athens just a few years before the accession of Nero. From that time forward the Greeks and the Romans acquired a lively interest in anastasis or, as pagan writers sometimes said, anabiosis ('return to life'). Rohde was absolutely correct when he observed that the subject of resurrection, with its attendant rationalizing explanation of apparent death, makes its earliest appearance in ancient fiction in Antonius DiogenesAfter Antonius Diogenes the resurrection stories become ever more elaborate and luridThe widespread use of the resurrection motif in many forms of Roman imperial fictional writing--erotic romance, hagiography, mythological revisionism, and satire--suggests an unusually great interest in this subject, far beyond any interest documented for earlier periodsYet from the mid-first century onward the empty tomb and all that it implies becomes a conspicuous theme in both Chariton and Xenophon of Ephesis" [HI:FAHNJ:99-116]


"Parallels in form and substance between the writings of the New Testament and the fictional production of the imperial age are too prominent to be either ignored or dismissed as coincidental. Both Celsus, in his attack on the Christians, and Origen, in his defense of them, recognized the similarities, particularly, as we have seen, where apparent miracles--such as the open tomb or resurrection of the dead--were at issue. It is, furthermore, a plain fact of chronology that the distinctive fictional forms of the Roman empire begin, on present evidence, no earlier than the reign of Nero and proliferate conspicuously soon thereafterThe tendency of Christian interpreters to look for the pagan origins of Christian rites, utterances, and images has all too often obscured influences in the reverse direction. This is particularly true for late antiquity, but to some extent also for the earlier imperial period. The story of the eucharist had, by the time of Achilles Tatius, been available in all the canonical gospels as well as Saint Paul's First Letter to the CorinthiansAchilles Tatius therefore invented something new and exciting when he transferred the revelation of wine from Attica to Tyre. The most plausible source for his invention is the Gospel story. It makes far more sense to postulate a direct influence upon the Greek novelist than to suppose that the writer innocently preserved an otherwise unknown tradition of great antiquity that was the source that inspired Jesus himself." [HI:FAHNJ:124-128]


"Petronius's treatment of this motif [cannibalism and eucharist] is not only the most brilliant in extant fiction but also, as we have observed, the earliest. Like so much else in the history of imperial fiction, it dates from the reign of Nero. It was a portent of the impact that the tales of the evangelists were to have on the imagination of writers and readers in the Graeco-Roman world for several centuries to come." [HI:FAHNJ:138]


"But in the course of these six chapters the connection between imperial fiction of various kinds and the Gospel narratives has grown ever stronger. The stories of Jesus inspired the polytheists to create a wholly new genre that we might call romantic scripture." [HI:FAHNJ:143]


What this means is that prose paraphrases of myth (esp. Homer) came after the gospel stories were composed, and NOT before. Indeed, it was the reign on Nero that saw the "increasing crossinfection of style between prose and poetry" [HI:RLCCA:166].


In fact, the later examples of prose 'versions' or paraphrases of Homer are exactly that--later. For example, all the stand-alone literary samples adduced by MacDonald in [NT:HEGM:p205, note 14] date no earlier than late second-century AD, easily supporting Bowersock's thesis.


So, the gospel literature simply cannot be a 'medium' for myth--at the time it was created.





Thirdly, the genre of the gospels has been shown to be that of ancient biography (bioi, "lives"):


"Richard Burridge's chapter takes up the argument of his own earlier study, which is now quite widely accepted: that the genre of the gospels is that of ancient biography" [NT:GAC:5]



So, it should be clear that the gospels are NOT in any sense 'in the genre of myth'--at least not Greek myth.




But what about Roman myths--are they different from the Greek models? Could they be expressed in Greek prose?


Actually, no. Mythic ideas could be discussed, but not "presented as symbolic truth" any differently than the Greek ones were. In fact, most of Roman mythic systems were derivative from/based on Greek ones (but were STILL poetry or drama):


"Roman and Italian myths which antedate contact with Greek literature can hardly be said to exist. That of Romulus is the best-known. The old Italian gods are vague personalities, and barely anthropomorphic; they are not actuated by human motives, they do not marry or fight or have love affairs with mortals. The myths that the Roman poets and antiquarians attached to them were borrowed from Greece (e.g. by the process of identifying Roman deities with Greek), or invented, largely under Greek influence." [NT:COCCL, s.v. 'myth']


"Already in the ancient world there were those who remarked upon the supposed lack of Roman mythit was precisely their high opinion of Roman piety that led both Greek and Roman intellectuals to stress and praise the Roman lack of such [violent] mythsThe apparent lack of a native Roman equivalent to Greek mythopoesis has spurred many modern scholars into 'looking (harder) for Roman myth'" [HI:LRR:48]


"The Augustan Age, in its aim of giving new spiritual foundations to Rome, changed the status of myth. Vergil, in his Aeneid, expanded the Greek myth of Aeneas into an attempt to give a mythico-religious legitimation to Augustan Rome. The myth itself had been known in Italy in the 6th cent. B.C., in Latium in the 4th cent. B.C. as foundation-legend of a local cult at Lavinium... Ovid, though he was a poet without any belief in mythical normativity, explored the psychological aspects of myth in his Metamorphoses with a depth and skill theretofore unknown; myth became a mirror of human behavior. Thus Ovid succeeded in giving myth a new, though precarious, relevance: to European culture up to the present day, the Metamorphoses were the main source for Greco-Roman mythology." [REF:ABD, s.v. "myth"]



Rome's mythical (pre-Imperial) time, it should be noted, was the time prior to, and surrounding, the founding of the city:


"His sources led Livy to divide Rome's past into three periods. From the time before the foundation of the city, 'inspiring deeds (decora) were handed down in poetic fables rather that sound historical records,' leaving Livy with no desire to 'either affirm or refute them'. This was mythical prehistory, and Livy devoted to it just a handful of paragraphs at the beginning of his first book, before reaching the tale of Romulus, the founder of Rome." [HI:HAF:47f]


"It is the privilege of pristine times to mingle things human and divine and so add luster to the origins of cities. Now, if any nation can claim the right to hallow its own beginnings and record gods as its founders, such is the martial glory of the Romans that when they profess that Mars himself was their first parent and the actual father of Rome's founder, the nations of the world will have to accept this as calmly as they accept Roman rule." [Livy, cited at [HI:HAF:48f]]




Well, what about Jewish myths and/or ANE myths? Could the gospels be such a myth?


In the case of the ANE myths, no. The ANE myths are the oldest ones in the world, and fit the "sacral, pre-history" models best. They are also known now to have substantially influenced the Greek myths. The stories of Creation and Flood in Mesopotamian and Egyptian literature are the quintessential examples of myth--and Jesus is not seen interacting in the gospels with ANY of those characters (as would be required for the NT documents to be 'anthropological ANE myth') nor is the setting 'up in heaven'. And, since the Greek mythic figures did not play in the gospels, any ANE influences on the Greek figures are by definition likewise missing.


In the case of the Jewish mythic systems, there is the problem of whether the Jews actually HAD something that could correspond to Greek or ANE notions of a 'mythic period':


"While Greek historians and intellectuals distinguished the mythical periodfrom the historical period Israelite historians made no such distinction. [NTLE:110]


"The narrative forms of myth that existed in the ancient Near East and in ancient Greek culture do not exist in the Bible. Comparative studies may show the influence of the ancient mythological world, but the dissimilarity of the biblical narratives from ancient mythological thought overshadows any similarities. Influences of ancient mythological thought can readily be adduced, but any conceptual borrowings have been profoundly modified by ancient Israelite and early Christian thought." [ISBE, s.v. "myth"]


And, again, the setting of the gospels is in present time, not back in 'sacred time' per se. The essential distance is missing again.




Okay, so--to the best of our knowledge--the gospels are NOT in a "genre" of myth, nor do they have the required elements of mythic narratives. But what about intentional mythic elements within the gospels? Could the miracles (for example) be intended to be read 'as myth' in the middle of a genre that was NOT mythical?


At first blush, the same 'primordial time' problem would exist for any specific event within a gospel. You might be able to 'import' that primordial time via the appearance of a 'primordial person' (e.g., Elijah and Moses at the transfiguration) or 'extra-historical agents' (e.g., Satan in the wilderness temptation), but this would be a stretch of the definition of 'myth'.



Secondly, we might remember that even the theory that aspects of Jesus' life 'alluded to' the various other divine figures of the time seems contra-indicated by the comparative data (see copycat.html)



Thirdly, we might note that the NT actually distances itself from 'myth' and certainly includes no OBVIOUS Greco-Roman mythic objects:


"We saw previously that the OT has been influenced by ancient Near Eastern mythology. The NT, through its use of the OT as Scripture, has, therefore, been indirectly influenced as well. Although the NT might also have been influenced by ancient Greek mythology, nothing comparable to Greek mythology occurs in the NT In fact, the NT uses the term myth (mythos) pejoratively to mean untrue story or fiction. Myths in the NT most probably refer to a mixture of Jewish and Christian Gnostic speculations that are to be rejected because they are contrary to the gospel. The negative meaning of the NT term myth is comparable to the later meaning that the ancient Greeks developed for it when they became critical of their own myths, and came to see mythos as the opposite of truth (aletheia), as that which was not in accord with reality. It is natural, then, that the NT would not use Greek mythology as the OT does ancient Near Eastern mythology." [ISBE, s.v. "myth"]



Fourth, the genre of Bioi certainly is broad enough to include elements that are fictional (some of the bioi are actually about fictional characters), but this doesn't equate to being mythic by any means.


Let me explain this a bit. The terms mythic, miraculous, and fictional are not synonymous. When Zeus sits down to have a meal with Hera this event is mythic (occurring in sacred pre-history), but not miraculous. On the other hand, when some traveling magician or sorcerer performed a healing or cursing for someone in first-century Rome, the event would generally have been considered miraculous but not mythical. And fictional could apply to things which were neither mythical nor miraculous, as in a novel or historical romance.


The Greeks and Romans had three different words for the 'historical status' of events:


"According to Sextus [Empiricus, 2nd century AD] there are three kinds of such narratives: history, fiction (plasma) and myth. History, he says, is the presentation (ekthesis) of truths and of what actually happened; plasma, of things that did not happen but resemble things that have happened; myth, of things that did not happen and are false (pseude), such as stories of the Titans, the Gorgon, or Hecabe turning into a dog" [HI:FAH:10]


"No doubt on the basis of precedents derived from Greek methodology of history, Cicero proposed three divisions of narrative, which he called fabula, historia and argumentum. Fabula he defined as the account of 'events that are neither true nor resembling the truth'; historia as 'actions belonging to a time preceding contemporary recollection'; and argumentum as 'an event that is freely invented but might, nevertheless, have happened'The three categories of events that happened, did not happen, and might have happened probably originated in Greek historical though. Sextus Empiricus, writing in about 180-200 A.D., had found them in Asclepiades of Myrleia (first century B.C.) and in turn labeled them historia, mythos, and plasma." [HI:HAF:59-60]


Fictional events, then, were different from mythic events (plasma versus mythos, argumentum versus fabula). A biographical work (in the Bioi sense, not as in modern biography) could thus contain fictional events without being 'mythological', in the technical sense we are using 'myth' in this article.


ANY literature can contain allusions or reference to mythic figures, events, etc--and good literature often does this--but this doesn't make those references 'pieces of inserted myth'. For example, I could quote a selection from Homer here, and then try to explain its meaning, without me intending for it to have its 'mythic force' on my readers. As I incorporate the material, it now subserves MY authorial intent and MY overall genre.


Sometimes the referenced material can even be in an oppositional relationship too! When the Roman emperor Julian (the Apostate) outlawed Christians from teaching in the schools, a Christian lady named Proba wrote a cento (i.e. a literary work composed of the pieces of another, like assembling a mosaic out of stones) out of Virgil's work, into something supporting the Bible:


"One of the few literary works to come down to us from the pen of an early Christian woman author is a work of this kind: Proba's cento, using Virgil's works to provide 694 lines for a Christian poemtells the 'overarching story' of the Bible as perceived by the early Christian tradition--the creation and fall, the birth of Christ and some episodes in his life, and his death and resurrection." [HI:BEFCC:19f]


Virgil, of course, created the main mythic structures for the Augustan age in the Aeneid, and Proba's work can be seen as a 'conquest' of the biblical message over the Roman founding myth (perhaps in protest to Julian's decree). Her entire work consists of lines from Virgil, but they are used in a completely different way than mythic support of the established imperial order! Just because some literary or mythic elements appear in a work doesn't imply that the work 'buys into' the literary message or mythic scheme--as Proba shows quite well!



On the other hand, if a gospel author had a scene in which Jesus wrestled with Zeus, or had a conversation with Marduk, or healed a wounded lion of Cybele, we would have a very definite mythical element--functioning as such. However--apart from contexts of visions and revelations--it would not be mythical if it were still situated in non-mythical time (e.g., first-century Palestine).


But the simple presence of miracle, magic, or prodigy would NOT render a passage mythic--in the Classical or anthropological sense.



Since the literary form of the gospels is not the 'right one' for myth, and since the settings/contents of the gospel narratives do not reveal 'anthropological' myth, and since we know them to be cases of the bioi genre instead, can we go even farther and show that they were NOT understood AS MYTH by their readership?


Actually we can show this, from the 'ripples' in history--especially in the interchanges between pagan critics and Christian apologists.


First, we might note that the New Testament is self-conscious about this issue. It presents itself as historia, and when it is accused of being a type of 'myth', it explicitly rejects this assertion:


For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty [2 Pet 1.16]


For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. [2 Tim 2.2]


instruct certain people not to teach any different doctrine, 4 and not to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies that promote speculations rather than the divine training that is known by faith. 5 But the aim of such instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith. [1 Tim 1.4]


Have nothing to do with profane myths and old wives tales. [1 Tim 4.7]



The summary in TDNT is noteworthy:


"The firm rejection of myth is one of the decisions characteristic of the NT. Myth is a pagan category. Though it may be seen in rudimentary form in many parts of the OT, and in metamorphic form in the NT, myth as such has no place on biblical soil either 1. as a direct impartation of religious truths, 2. as parable, or 3. as symbol.


1. As a Form of Religious Communication. As in the secular world the fairy story is for childhood, and the novel, the fairy-story of adults, for the age of maturity, so in the religious development of the non-Christian world myth is for the age of childhood and then, after a period of disparagement, it arises afresh at a later stage as myth interpreted by philosophy and the mystery religions. In the Bible, however, we have from first to last the account and narration of facts. This may undergo certain changes in form and consciousness from the childlikeness of many of the ancient stories to the maturity of the Johannine view of Christ. But the essential theme is the same throughout, namely, what God says and what God does.


2. As Parable. In the later stages of paganism myth is often no more than a parable for deeper and intrinsically inexpressible truths. No religious proclamation can dispense with these illustrations. In the Gospel they belong directly to the very essence of condescension. But the NT uses genuine parable rather than myth. What mu`qo" (mythos) is in the Greek world, whether as the fairy-story or fable for children or the myth in the moral and religious education of adolescents and adults, parable is in the Gospels. Parable is from the very first thought of as a transparency. It makes no odds whether it is historically true. Because it is like things which happen in this world, and consequently has the stamp of truth as a simple story, it is adapted to reflect parabolically the events of Gods world. Jesus Himself, however, looks forward to a stage of proclamation when the parable can be dispensed with (Jn. 16:25).


3. As Symbol. The final stage in the understanding of myth is that it is a symbol. In both ancient and modern idealism, which is congenial to paganism in the sense of having a common genius, myth is a symbol of eternal verities which are independent of all history and of all their individual proponents. In an ever new and deeper sense the mythical symbol can bring an almost inexhaustible answer to those who ask concerning ultimate unity. The central symbol of the Gospel, however, is the cross, and this embodies a hard and unromantic historical reality. No myth can be integrated into or imposed upon this symbol in any form, for the lovgo" tou` staurou` (the word of the cross) would be made of none effect hereby (cf. 1 C. 1:17). Nor can this symbol be separated from its personal representative or historical setting, for without Christ at Golgotha the cross is indeed a keno;" mu`qo", a meaningless symbol or pagan sign."



Secondly, the polemical exchanges between the hostile pagan readers and the defending Christian leaders revealed that there was no agreement between the Christian and the Pagan about it being myth. In other words, the Christian side consistently denied that their teaching was myth, whereas the pagan side tried a 'slur campaign' intended to discredit the NT stories by associating it with myths--myths both sides of the debate recognized were untrue, by the way!


"If pagan polemics eagerly sought to discredit the NT stories as empty myths, Christian authors were no less zealous to mock pagans for their own myths. Both sides rejected the right of the other to allegorise its own stories, and argued that it was motivated by shame or the immorality of the stories thus expounded. Yet both sides engaged cheerfully in extensive allegorisation, and the result was a genuine chaos of inconsistent polemics.


"The first to enter this unhappy polemical circle on the Christian side were the Apologists. Like their Jewish predecessors (cf. Jos. Ap., II, 236 ff.) they were only too ready to attack pagan myths (cf. Aristid., 13, 7), and in particular they disputed the right of allegorical exegesis, e.g., Tat.Or. Graec., 21, 2... They disparagingly contrast myths with the Gospel accounts, ibid., 21, 1, though they also allow themselves to compare, e.g., the divine sonship of Jesus with Gk. analogies (cf. Athenag., 10, 1) and can even make the exaggerated claim that many Gk. sophists perverted biblical truth into myths, Tat. Or. Graec., 40, 1.


"The great Alexandrians, Clement and Origen, follow the Apologists. Clement cannot abide mu`qoi (mythoi) (Prot., 2, 2); they are a[qeoi (atheoi) (13, 5). In answer to Celsus and his ridiculing of the biblical narratives as mu`qoi (mythoi), Origen argues that the ancient myths, being open to historical and religious question (cf. Celsus, 1, 16 and 23), cannot be combined with the Bible. Above all, they are inseparable from the pagan view of God, cf. 8, 66. Even though one interprets them allegorically, they remain what they are, i.e., myths, 5, 38. The ancient Church took the same view, as may be seen from the church order of Hippolytus with its ruling that schoolmasters, as teachers of myths, can be received into the Church only with great reserve. The same outlook is reflected in the common description of Gnostic teaching and stories as mu`qoi (mythoi), e.g., Origen's Comm. in Joh. 2:28; 13:27" [TDNT, s.v. "mythos"]


We should note that Origen and Clement of Alexandrian are outstanding Greek scholars and not ignorant of genre and mythic themes. Their explicit denial that the New Testament is myth is a strong witness that the 'intended readers' would not have understood the gospels as myth.



Thirdly, we might note that the early pagan polemic against the miracles of Jesus was not that they were mythical, but that they were magical. The only consistent non-Christian response to the miracles of Jesus was that He was a sorcerer, magician, and/or charlatan. This response is entirely inappropriate in the miracles were only to be taken 'mythically'.


Graham Stanton traces this accusation through the early Jewish and Christian literature, and summarizes:


"I have argued that the double allegation found in Justin's Dialogue 69. 7 and in the rabbinic traditions quoted above has deep roots. In his own lifetime Jesus was said by some to be a demon-possessed magician. It is probable, but not certain, that he was also said to be a demon-possessed false prophet.


"The allegations of the contemporary opponents of Jesus confirm that he was seen by many to be a disruptive threat to social and religious order. His claims to act and speak on the basis of a special relationship to God were rightly perceived to be radical. For some they were so radical that they had to be undermined by an alternative explanation of their source: Jesus was a demon possessed magician and a false prophet. " [GTQ:163]


He also noted that Josephus' comment about Jesus as a worker of 'surprising/unexpected deeds' and that He 'brought trouble to' many Jews would likewise support this pattern [GTQ:157f]


This accusation is what we also see in Celsus:


"His attack on the gospel version of the life of Jesus is a masterpiece of diatribe, put together, it would seem, from bits of polemical traditions circulating amongst Jewish and pagan writers: hence, the story of Jesus' illegitimacy, the legend that he was the son of a Roman soldier, and that he learned magic spells in Egypt. All of these are paralleled in Jewish lore and go back to early prototypes." [COTTD:36]


"Celsus's discussion of Jesus' life centered on the following points: the virgin birth, the baptism in the river Jordan by John, his death and resurrection from the dead, his miracles and his teachings. His arguments concerning the virgin birth, the baptism, and the resurrection are chiefly literary and historical. He attempts to show that there is insufficient evidence to verify the accounts recorded in the scriptures. But as he develops his case, it becomes clear that his historical criticism is secondary to another interest-- namely, to show that Jesus' miracles prove he was a sorcerer, not a true sage." [CRST:109]


And, Lucian uses a similar accusation:


"There seems little doubt that the worst instincts of Peregrinus are contrived to invite comparison with the chicanery of Jesus, the deceiver who used magical arts to attract disciples and lead Israel into apostasy" [COTTD:26]



Finally, the most learned critic of Christianity in that period--Porphyry--did not understand the miracles of Jesus as mythic. Porphyry was a trained and brilliant philologist, and intimately familiar with the challenges of the biblical text. If ANYONE would have mapped the gospel genre and gospel stories over unto myth (with devastating success), it would have been him. But instead, he accepted the miracles of Jesus as historia, not as myth, and explained them as deeds done by the power of piety/wisdom:


"Porphyry, however [unlike Celsus], did not accuse Jesus of practicing magic. Instead he praised him as a 'wise man'Porphyry refuted those who say Jesus was a magician and sorcerer, for he showed, by appealing to oracles, that Jesus was 'pious and most just and wise and an inhabitant of the vaults of the heavens'" [CRST:159f]






So, the historical evidence demonstrates that the gospels (and gospel stories) were NOT understood as mythic by the readers most qualified to judge--the authors, the earliest well-educated critics, and the earliest well-educated defenders.


[Some readers might be interested to note that when Celsus produces his many mythic parallels to the events in the life of Jesus, almost none of them come from Homerif Homeric motifs really were "hidden" in Mark, then one would expect Celsus--who does cite Homer in his work--to at least suggest those parallels (it would have been quite effective in his argument about the 'unoriginality' of Christianity!). The fact that he didn't, but rather adduced non-Homeric parallels instead, should be pretty strong evidence that Homeric parallels were not somehow intended by the evangelists such as MarkNot to mention that the Classically-trained Church leaders were often apologizing for the un-literary character of the bible--funny how no one back then ever saw the Homer in Mark, or the Virgil in Lukeand adducing parallels has always been fun--Justin used "literary parallels to prove Plato had read Moses" [HI:BEFCC:53]smile]






1.        The gospel literature does not manifest the characteristics of anthropological myth, especially of the setting in some distant, sacred, pre-history.


2.        The gospel literature is not in the genre of 'myth' since there is no such genre in G-R lit at the time.


3.        The gospel literature is not even written in any of the genres that were used to express myth, at the time of their origination.


4.        The gospel literature is in the genre of bioi--ancient biography--and could be used for historical, fictional, or hybrid compositions.


5.        Just as the gospel lit was unsuitable for Greek myth, so it was also for Roman myth.


6.        The gospels are likewise not set in ANE mythic pre-history, nor are any of the ANE mythic figures present in the narratives.


7.        Jewish myth is a questionable category altogether, but wouldn't be close enough to Greco-Roman meanings of mythos to apply to our argument here.


8.        Not only are the gospels overall not myth in genre or character, but they also do not seem to include mythic scenes or elements which are explicit, recognizable, and functioning as myth.


9.        The New Testament epistles specifically distance the Jesus story from the word/concept 'myth', demonstrating that they never intended the gospels to be taken as myth.


10.     There is a difference between miraculous and mythical, in the sense being discussed here.


11.     The various "uses" of myth in literary settings are not visible in the NT: it is not used for doctrine, parable, or symbol.


12.     The early church and the early pagans ("intended readers") did not understand the gospel stories to be myth, as evidenced by their arguments concerning the truth of the documents.


13.     The earliest Jewish and pagan opponents of the gospel story all attacked the miracles of Jesus as being magical instead of mythical--they were assumed to have happened in historia, not in myth.


So, I think it is safe to conclude that the gospel authors did NOT intend their literary productions to be taken as myth (in the anthropological or Classical literary sense).


On to the next one


Glenn Miller

October 4, 2001

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