Christian Mythology – I Beg to Differ with C.S. Lewis

Christian Mythology – I Beg to Differ with C.S. Lewis

“The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact.” – C.S. Lewis

Introduction

The purpose of this essay is to provide the reader with a cursory understanding of not only what constitutes myth proper, but of how the narratives which form the basis of the Christian religion fit into this category we call myth.  Myth, as distinct from mythology, refers to the body of traditional tales told by a given culture, or religious group.  Mythology on the other hand connotes the theoretical study of that body of traditional tales, or myths.  Quite often these terms are used interchangeably and thus have become conflated to such a degree that one can use either term and be understood.  To be perfectly accurate, however, mythology, like any other ‘ology,’ refers to the study of myth.
In this essay I will be employing the characteristics of myth as defined by one of the world’s foremost scholars of Classical mythology and literature, Professor Elizabeth Vandiver. [1] In her lecture series entitled ‘Classical Mythology,’ Prof Vandiver sets out a number of criteria for identifying myth.  This essay will rest upon the six main criteria described in the second lecture of the series.

They are as follows:

1.   Traditional Tale
2.   Change over time
3.   Set in the Extraordinary (remote) Past
4.   Myths as True Accounts
5.   Functions of Myth: Instruct, Explain, Justify, or Warn
6.   Supernatural and/or, Divine orientation [2]

I will analyse each of these elements and compare them to the myths which form the foundation of the Christian religion. Before doing so, it would be both useful and prudent to briefly sketch out the distinction between traditional tales that can be classified as myths, as opposed to other related and often overlapping categories of narratives, i.e. folk tales and legends. Professor Vandiver distinguishes between these three categories – myth, legend and folk tale, by explaining that myths refer exclusively to narratives about gods whereas legends involve traditional tales built upon historical facts and characters, to varying degrees.  Folk tales are primarily focused on entertainment and contain exaggerated characterizations of both people and animals, like ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ or ‘Goldie Lox and the Three Bears’, for example. [3]

Having set out the distinctions between these three kinds of tales it must be acknowledged that the lines between them can become blurred and a traditional tale may involve one, two, or all three of these categories, interwoven into the one narrative or collection of narratives.  Such seems to be the case with the Christian myths.  On the one hand we have historical characters like Pontius Pilate, Emperor Tiberius, the Roman Governor of Syria Quirinius, and possibly even Jesus himself.  And on the other we have the mythical narratives of the four anonymous gospel authors, who describe unreal, supernatural and divine events, set on the backdrop of real history, making these stories a combination of both myth and legend.

1.   The Traditional Tale
According to Professor Vandiver, a myth must be a traditional tale that follows a narrative schema.  It cannot be a series of lectures, dot point instructions, a recipe, etc. – it must be a tale.  In other words, if it is not a story, it is not ‘myth proper.’  Further, according to Vandiver, the original author(s) must be incapable of identification, so the author of a myth is someone who is unknowable; they are, and always remain, anonymous. [4]

Without spending too much time and space on such a self-evident element of the Christian myth(s), let us agree that the stories of Jesus in the gospels are just that, stories.  They follow a narrative formula describing his birth, life, death, and resurrection.  Also, the gospels were written by anonymous authors and later falsely attributed to authors who did not write them, thus, the authors remain unknown. [5] I think that is all that needs to be said on this criterion.

2.   Change over Time

The second element in Vandiver’s definition of myth is change over time.  Like the beings that created and propagated these tales, myths change over time – they evolve in response to their social, political and philosophical environments.   Here we need to draw one of the first distinctions, or seemingly distinct characteristics of Christian myths.   In pre-literate societies and even within literate ones, the details of mythical tales tend to develop and change with time.  In pre-literate societies, the details of a given myth may have been generally more fluid and prone to change, for when we write something down the details generally become more fixed, relatively speaking.   Take the myth of the Egyptian god Osiris, for example.  Even though Egypt was a semi-literate society, various details of the myth of the death of Osiris changed over time.

In one of the more popular renditions of the Osirian myth, Seth tricks Osiris into laying inside a coffin that Seth nailed shut and then cast into the Nile, or ocean.  Following this, Isis went in search for her husband and eventually found him in a Syrian city called Byblos, within an Erica tree that had grown up around his coffin.   Isis brought Osiris’s body back to Egypt. Whilst hunting in the moonlight, Seth discovered that his brother was alive and back in Egypt.  Seth then cut Osiris into pieces and scattered his remains across Egypt.  Many of the details of this myth changed over time as the society developed.  Some versions of the myth relate that Osiris was mutilated and cut into pieces by his brother Seth, whilst other, earlier versions described Seth as merely scattering his bones.  Even the number of pieces varied, ranging from 14 to 42, the number of administrative regions (Nomes) throughout most of the dynastic period of ancient Egypt.

With regards to the fluid nature of the mythos surrounding Osiris’ death, ‘The Cambridge Ancient History Series’ relates:
  The older sources are less explicit. According to the Pyramid Texts Set struck his brother down in Nedyt, wherever that may be, and on the British Museum Stela, No. 797, a late production, but based on documents of the Pyramid Age, Osiris is represented as having been drowned.[6]

 

Even the nature of Osiris himself was subject to change over time.  Edward I. Bleiburg, Associate Curator of Egyptian Art at Brooklyn Museum tells us that Osiris was not originally seen as a positive character – in fact, within the very ancient pyramid texts he was depicted as a dog, or with a jackal head, and that, both his form and nature changed over time. [7] Thus, we see that myth is subject to change over time and if one is to survey the entire spectrum of Classical and other ancient mythical systems, it becomes evident that such change was common in both literate and pre-literate cultures.  Speaking on the subject of change over time within Classical mythology, Morford and Lenardon say that the beauty of Classical myths is that they are:
  …retold and reinterpreted with infinite variations, repeatedly and continuously…[8]

So, ancient and Classical myths changed over time, but the myths of Christ haven’t changed, have they?

 

Christian Myths – Change Over Time

We have as a result of various socio-political factors only four official sources for the myths surrounding the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Four falsely named works called The Gospel “According to Mark,” which the majority of modern scholars agree was the earliest of the four. [9] Then there is The Gospel “According to Matthew,” The Gospel “According to Luke” and The Gospel “According to John.”  These are our primary sources for the myths/legends surrounding the alleged life of Jesus Christ.  Being this is the case, we need to briefly examine the origins and development of these manuscripts to ascertain whether or not the Christian myths changed over time.  In what manner were the stories in these gospels originally transmitted?  Who told them?  Can we find within them evidence of change over time?  These are the issues we need to address.  According to the Professor of New Testament Studies Bart D. Ehrman, the gospels were originally written well after the date of the alleged events they describe.   For decades the stories contained within these gospels were transmitted via oral traditions, that is, by word-of-mouth. [10]

Theologians Gregory A. Boyd and Paul R. Eddy, in their book ‘Lord or Legend,’ concur with Ehrman’s majority opinion on the issue and add that first century Jewish culture was dominated by what scholars refer to as an ‘orally dominant’ culture, with most of the population illiterate and therefore dependent upon the oral transmission of history and theology. [11]  As mentioned, those myths communicated orally tended to be more prone to change and variation, generally speaking, than those fixed on paper, parchment, papyri, or stone.  Evidence of this can be seen in the variations and contradictions in the narratives found in and between the four official gospels of the New Testament. Mark, the earliest of the four gospels, contains no details of Jesus’ miraculous conception, his virgin birth, his flight to Egypt, nor any event prior to Jesus’ baptism.  The later Gospel of Matthew does contain a narrative of Jesus’ miraculous conception (Matthew 1:18-2:11), his virgin birth (Matthew 1:18-23), his flight to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15), and other miraculous and mundane events from Jesus’ youth, up until the age of twelve, anyway.  Luke also describes Jesus’ miraculous conception and his virgin birth, but this anonymous author’s version contains quite a few key contradictions to “Matthew’s.” Here is a short list of some of the key variations:

  1. Where did Joseph and Mary live before Jesus was born?
    lLuke 2:4 – City of Nazareth in Galilee.
    l   Matthew 1 – Bethlehem.2.   Where was Jesus born?
    l   Luke 2:7 – Manger (stable)
    l   Matthew 2:11 – House

    3.   When was the divine announcement of Jesus’ birth?
    l   Matthew 1:18-21 – After conception
    l   Luke 1:26-31 – Before conception

    4.   Who was the divine announcement made to?
    l   Matthew 1:20 – Joseph
    l   Luke 1:28 – Mary

    5.   What happened when Jesus was born?
    l   Luke 2:13-14 – Angels sang praises to God.
    l   Matthew 2:1-9 – A star appeared and stood in the heavens above him

    6.   Who visited baby Jesus?
    l   Matthew 2:1-11 – Wise men (Astrologers) from the East.
    l   Luke 2:8-20 – Shepherds from a neighbouring field.

    7.   Was Jesus in danger of being killed by King Herod?
    l   Matthew – Yes.
    l   Luke – No.

    8.   Did King Herod slaughter the children of Bethlehem?
    l   Matthew – Yes.
    l   Luke – No.

    9.   Did Jesus’ parents take him in his infancy to Egypt?
    l   Matthew 2:13-15 – Yes.
    l   Luke 2:22-52 – No. (they stayed in Palestine)

    10.   What was God’s mode of communication?
    l   Matthew 1:20, 2:12-13, 19, 22 – Dreams.
    l   Luke 1:11, 26, 2:9 – Angels

    11.   Did Joseph and Mary know of their Son’s divine nature?
    l   Matthew 1:18-21 and Luke 1:28-35 – Yes
    l   Luke 2:48-50 – No

The variations and contradictions listed above relate only to Jesus’ early life.  If we were to look at the total number of contradictions and variations within the narratives of the four gospels in their entirety, we would find many more, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of minor and major variations that exist between the tomes of manuscripts that form the New Testament. Another interesting discrepancy between the birth narratives we have today versus a much older second century one can be witnessed within the writings of the second century Church father and apologist Justin Martyr, who described Jesus’ birth as having taken place in a cave. [12]

So then, the myths of the Christians did change during the formative years of the religion, possibly due to the fact that their transmission was largely oral in nature.  But did they continue to change after they had been written down?  The answer to this question is yes, they did.  Some of the myths found within the official gospels were later interpolations (additions/forgeries), added to the existing narratives centuries after they had been originally written. One of the most famous Christian tales found within the Gospel of John – the story of the woman taken in adultery – is an example of this change over time.  According to the majority of bible scholars, the story of the Woman Taken in Adultery was added to the Gospel of John centuries later. [13] Within all of the earliest and most reliable manuscripts of which “John’s” Gospel is comprised, this story makes no appearance. [14] The earliest manuscript to contain the story (‘Latin Codex Bezae’) dates from around the late fourth to the early fifth century, hundreds of years after the gospel’s original production.  Prior to this, there was no mention of the story within any of the earliest and most reliable Eastern manuscripts, those being the ‘Codex Sinaiticus’, the ‘Codex Vaticanus’ and the ‘Codex Alexandrinus’ – nor is this story found in the earliest papyri of John, known respectively as ‘P 66’ and ‘P 75.’  As mentioned, the story first makes an appearance within the Western, or Latin Codices, which many biblical scholars agree are later and less reliable than their earlier, Eastern counterparts. [15]

Bible scholar James M. Robinson, in his book ‘The Gospel of Jesus: A Historical Search for the Original Good News,’ agrees that this story was not part of the original New Testament and that the oldest and best manuscripts do not contain this provocative charter myth. The reason for its popularity, Robinson says, is that it ended up in the medieval manuscripts used by the King James translators, and so it was incorporated into one of the most influential textual traditions.  Robinson also informs us that most modern translations of the bible either leave it out or indicate in some way that it is not a part of the original texts. [16]  The Gospel of John itself, being the latest of the four gospels to have been written, [17] is also of interest to us here because, like Osiris, the very nature of Jesus was updated and advanced from the time of the composition of the earlier gospels.  In John’s’ narrative, Jesus is imbued with highest level of Christology (divinity) of all of the four official gospels.  Within the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) Jesus is depicted as the Son of God, whereas the author of John’s gospel implied that Jesus was God, thereby changing (upgrading) his divine status.

The author of John emphasized Jesus’ cosmic mission and this is illustrated not only in the prologue of the gospel, but by Jesus saying things like, “my kingdom is not of this world” (see John 18:36) and by identifying himself as “I am” (see John 8:58), which was Yahweh’s title in the Old Testament (see Exodus 3:14).  The author of John was saying that Jesus was not just a messenger, nor a mere prophet, nor just the Jewish messiah, nor even the mere Son of God, but God himself.  In “John’s” gospel, Jesus is alleged to have openly described himself as having “come down from heaven” (see John 6:51).  Such open declarations of divinity are in stark contrast to the earlier gospels, like Mark for instance, in which emphasis is placed on Jesus’ human qualities.

A final example of scriptural change over time within Christian myth relates to the final twelve versus of Mark, which have been shown beyond any reasonable doubt to have been a later interpolation, added by dishonest Christian forgers. [18] The original ending of “Mark’s” Gospel finishes with the resurrected Jesus telling some of his female followers to go and tell everyone he had been resurrected, at which point they ran away in terror and told no one (“Mark” 16:8).  This narrative was eventually expanded and changed over time to include Jesus meeting up with his disciples again and promising them that those who believe in him will be able to work miracles in his name, like handling deadly snakes and drinking deadly poisons (“Mark” 16:17-18). The late Bruce Metzger, bible scholar and Senior Editor of the NRSV Bible, said of this interpolation:
  Four endings of the Gospel according to Mark are current in the manuscripts. (1) The last twelve verses of the commonly received text of Mark are absent from the two oldest Greek manuscripts, from the Old Latin codex Bobiensis, the Sinaitic Syriac manuscript, about one hundred Armenian manuscripts, and the two oldest Georgian manuscripts (written A.D. 897 and A.D. 913). Clement of Alexandria and Origen show no knowledge of the existence of these verses; furthermore Eusebius and Jerome attest that the passage was absent from almost all Greek copies of Mark known to them. The original form of the Eusebian sections (drawn up by Ammonius) makes no provision for numbering sections of the text after 16:8. Not a few manuscripts which contain the passage have scribal notes stating that older Greek copies lack it, and in other witnesses the passage is marked with asterisks or obeli, the conventional signs used by copyists to indicate a spurious addition to a document.[19]

 

For the sake of brevity I have forgone discussions on the apocryphal (unofficial) texts, along with the various interpretations of Christ that developed and changed over the entire span of Christian history.   If, however, one were to add these excluded variations to the investigation at hand, much more weight would be added to the argument that the Christian myths have changed over time.

 

  1. Set in the (remote) Past
    Vandiver says that myths are frequently set in the remote past and that we never have myths that describe current times and events. [20] What constitutes the remote past? What is the possible purpose for setting a myth in the remote past? And can we say that Christian myths, being recorded relatively quickly, were set in the remote past? The word, ‘remote,’ as it relates to the term ‘remote past,’ is defined by the ‘World English Dictionary’ as being:•   ‘Distant in time’[21]

This is a rather vague definition and doesn’t really help us define what Vandiver meant when she said, a myth is often set in the remote past.  The etymological root of the word remote may be of more assistance.  The English word ‘remote’ stems from the Latin ‘remotus,’ being the past participle of the word ‘remove.’[22]   So then, the remote past is a time in the past which is removed from the present.  If one accepts this definition of the phrase ‘remote past,’ then we could say that myths are often set at a time in the past which is removed from the present.  This makes sense when we look at the creation myths of the Egyptians, Babylonians, Hebrews, and many other cultures – it also fits the descriptions of myths such as Hercules/Herakles and his twelve labours, Demeter and Persephone, Osiris and Isis, and even Noah and his Ark, all being set hundreds and sometimes thousands of years from the time they were initially constructed.  But the Christian myths were written down just over half a century after the alleged events they allegedly record.  Is this shorter span of time long enough to qualify as ‘remote?’  Keep in mind our definition; ‘a time removed from the present.’  To provide some context here we should acknowledge that what qualified for the remote past 2000 years ago is different from what we would consider the remote past today.  The reason for this difference is that in relatively recent history there has been a proliferation of chroniclers and chronicles.  Since the advent of Gutenberg’s printing press in the fifteenth century, history has been increasingly and more accurately documented.   Thus, fifty years ago, say during the 1960’s, would not be considered the remote past, because we are not removed from it.  We have video footage, newspaper archives, books, poems and a plethora of various forms of media that serve to keep us in touch with that time.  2000 years ago, however, this was not the case.

One of the reasons we should distinguish between what constituted the remote past 2000 years ago from what we would consider the remote past today, is that, besides the lack of technology, literacy rates were much lower then.  There were less people to record history or keep people in touch with the past during the first part of the first century, especially in such a rustic and remote location such as Palestine. According to Ehrman, illiteracy was widespread throughout the Roman Empire, with about 10% of the entire population able to read and write, and this 10%, according to Ehrman, was the wealthy class, or else they were the slaves of the wealthy who were trained to read and write for the benefit of their masters. [23] Such extreme illiteracy, coupled with the lack of media technology meant that there was comparatively less means of chronicling events, resulting in a situation in which many things would go unrecorded, especially outside of the major metropolises of the Roman Empire.  This brings us to an additional aspect of remoteness.  The myths described in the gospels were set not only in the remote past, but in a remote location.  Unlike many of the Classical myths, which described a dreamlike world, almost entirely dominated by supernatural forces, events and people, the Christian mythographers localized their supernatural fictions around a small insignificant figure who lived in a small insignificant region, at a real definable point in history.  For this reason, many scholars refer to the stories about Jesus as legends rather than myths.  They are comprised of unreal events superimposed onto a historical canvass.   Despite the legendary components of the Christian narratives, they also contain many mythical qualities, remembering that a traditional tale can contain elements of legend, myth and folk-tale, combined.  The myths underscoring the Christian religion are multifaceted, as we have seen, and will see – they contain all the hallmarks of myth, peppered with historical events and characters.

Returning to the issue of the remoteness of the location, Christian apologists love to hide behind this when sceptical inquirers come knocking.  Apologists often argue that Jesus’ contemporaries did not mention him in their voluminous chronicles because he was an insignificant figure, living in an insignificant region of the empire.  He was, in other words, a nobody from nowhere.

Regarding Jesus’ obscurity, Ehrman says:
 

  What do Greek and Roman sources have to say about Jesus? Or to make the question more pointed: if Jesus lived and died in the first century (death around 30 CE), what do the Greek and Roman sources from his own day through the end of the century (say, the year 100) have to say about him? The answer is breathtaking. They have absolutely nothing to say about him. He is never discussed, challenged, attacked, maligned, or talked about in any way in any surviving pagan source of the period. There are no birth records, accounts of his trial and death, reflections on his significance, or disputes about his teachings. In fact, his name is never mentioned once in any pagan source. And we have a lot of Greek and Roman sources from the period: religious scholars, historians, philosophers, poets, natural scientists; we have thousands of private letters; we have inscriptions placed on buildings in public places. In no first-century Greek or Roman (pagan) source is Jesus mentioned. [24]

The popular apologetic opinion on this issue is that Jesus was an insignificant figure of his time, whom the great recorders and commentators would have had no reason to record.  One of the most popular apologetic websites on the internet, ‘Tektonics,’ says:

As far as the historians of the day were concerned, he was just a “blip” on the screen. [25]

Let us now look briefly at a possible reason why mythographers employed the devise of remoteness to their tales.  Why did they set their tales in the remote past, and in the Christian’s case, in a remote region of the empire, far back in time enough to be separated from the present? Looking at the issue critically, and rationally, it is likely that these tale-tellers set their fictitious stories in the remote past and in remote locations for the sake of apologia (defense).  In so doing they could defend the alleged truth of these tales within the obscurity afforded by a lack of witness with fallacious arguments from ignorance. Imagine if someone were to tell you that two years ago the earth was covered with a great flood, and that a six hundred-year-old man was told to build a giant boat, upon which he took two of every kind of animal, from polar bears to kangaroos?  Following this, the storyteller claimed that this very old man succeeded in achieving this miraculous task and subsequently the flood covered the earth and only he, his family, and the animals were saved.  First of all, you were alive two years ago and can probably remember many of the events of that time.  Surely you would remember a global flood, or would not have been around to hear the storyteller’s tale.  Furthermore, you would question the storyteller with regards to the age of the man.  Humans do not live that long, let alone build giant boats at such an advanced age.  Also, you may, with your knowledge of geography, see the ridiculous nature of the claim made by the storyteller that this old man managed to herd two of every animal on the earth onto this ark in such a short period of time.  You would also question how on earth he could have built the kinds of refrigeration and heating systems required to keep the polar bears cool and the tropical animals warm.   Ultimately, you would come to the conclusion that this storyteller was not telling the truth, and that what you were hearing was nothing more than unadulterated fiction.  But what if, as a storyteller, you localized your fiction?  You could subtract the dreamlike state of a remote and fantastic ancient earth and replace it with a more recent yet localized supernatural event, one which could not be easily observed.  You could set the tale as far back in time as necessary to separate the audience from the time of the tale’s alleged occurrence.  You could say that the miracles occurred around one little obscure man, a “blip on the screen,” in an equally small and obscure location.  This way your tale would be relatively safe from immediate dismissal and refutation.   Finally, you could initially relay it to the meek, unlearned and illiterate masses, people prone, through no fault of their own, to credulity – whose hopes could be easily fanned by flagrant fantasies – those who would not know that Quirinius could not have been governor of Syria at the same time as Herod the Great’s rule.  You could sell your tale, not only upon the grounds of remoteness as it applies to both the location and the obscurity of a single insignificant figure, but also, upon the basis of the intellectual remoteness of your audience.  This is precisely how I see the element of remoteness as it applied to the development and propagation of the Christian myths.

 

4. Myths Are True
C.S. Lewis studied many of the ancient pre-Christian myths, and finding a wealth of parallels to the later Christian ones, he concluded that Christianity, although being founded upon myths that were in some cases identical to earlier ones, must be based on “true myths.”  But what was it that led C.S. Lewis to arrive at this conclusion?  C.S. Lewis was a devout Christian, something he, with his astounding wit and prized intelligence could not seem to fathom. Discussing this aspect of myth, Vandiver says that within the society or religion, myths present themselves as true accounts of the past and that only objective observers view these fantastic and superstitious tales as being fictitious myth. [26] Those within the matrix of the belief system see such tales as true accounts of the past.  Hercules twelve labours, the tales of Asclepius’ magic healing powers, Persephone and Demeter’s trials and separation, all these were believed by those within the relevant cultures and religions to have been actual accounts of the past, they were “true myths.”  Such is the case not only with these Classical religions and Christianity, but all religions, especially the Abrahamic ones, which have attempted to weave myth into the very fabric of human history.  Ask a true-believing Christian whether or not they believe the gospels describe real history and they may respond with any of the following remarks:

 

  …historicity, however, should be determined not by what we think possible or likely, but by the antiquity and reliability of the evidence. As we shall see, as far back as we can trace, Jesus was known and remembered as one who had extraordinary powers. [27]
~Father Raymond E. Brown (Catholic Bible Scholar)
  The Gospels follow no order in recording the acts and miracles of Jesus, and the matter is not, after all, of much importance. If a difficulty arises in regard to the Holy Scripture and we cannot solve it, we must just let it alone. [28]
~Martin Luther (Founder of the Protestant Church)
  We look at the New Testament documents and, yes, they have an agenda: they’re affirming that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.  But they also make all kinds of statements that can be evaluated. Are they culturally accurate? Are they true to what we know from other historical sources? Were they written in a time and place that has proximity to Jesus’ life? The answers are yes. [29]
~Craig A. Evans (Bible Scholar – Professor of New Testament Studies)

 

However, should you ask a non-Christian this same question, you may hear remarks along the following lines:

  The prominence, therefore, of the sun and stars in the Gospel story tends to show that Jesus is an astrological rather than a historical character.  That the time of his birth, his death, and supposed resurrection is not verifiable is generally admitted. This uncertainty robs the story of Jesus, to an extent at least, of the atmosphere of reality. [30]
~M.M Mangasarian (Theologian turned Freethinker)

 

It is, however, not difficult to account for the credit that was given to the story of Jesus Christ being the Son of God. He was born when the heathen mythology had still some fashion and repute in the world, and that mythology had prepared the people for the belief of such a story. Almost all the extraordinary men that lived under the heathen mythology were reputed to be the sons of some of their gods. It was not a new thing at that time to believe a man to have been celestially begotten; the intercourse of gods with women was then a matter of familiar opinion. [31]
~Thomas Paine (Philosopher)

 

  The Jesus of the New Testament is the Christ of Christianity. The Jesus of the New Testament is a supernatural being. He is, like the Christ, a myth. He is the Christ myth. [32]
~John E. Remsburg (Rationalist)

Non-Christians refer to the miraculous stories of Jesus as being little more than myths, and in my opinion they should be forgiven for doing so, because people are not born of ghosts and virgins, they cannot walk on water, nor turn water into wine – they do not return from the dead once three days has past and they certainly do not float into outer-space.  Christians, on the other hand, take it on faith that these things happened in an isolated region, in a time long ago, and to a person who was otherwise a “blip on the radar” – a figure whose remoteness has served to spawn justified criticism on the one hand and credulous defense from ignorance on the other.

 

  1. Function of Myth

Myths, according to Professor Vandiver, will often serve one or more of the following functions within a given culture or society.  They will explain (explanatory/etiological myths), warn (warning myths), instruct (instructive myths) or they will justify (justification/charter myths). [33] Let us now look at how this aspect of myth applies to Christianity.

 

Christian Myth as Explanatory

The Christian body of myths, notwithstanding the first few verses of the Gospel of John (see “John” 1:1-5), are not so much etiological in their own right, but they were built both exoterically and later esoterically upon a portion of the Hebrew etiological myth found in the book of Genesis (see Genesis 2 &3: ‘The Fall of Man’). In the book of Genesis we are told that the human condition, specifically the existence of evil, sin, suffering and death, stems from Adam’s (man’s) “original sin,” although the Old Testament does not expressly support the doctrine of original sin, being a sin which is universal and inherent, yet a few passages throughout the Old Testament, aside from those in Genesis 3, may be seen as implying it (see Jeremiah. 5:23; 17:9-10; Ezekiel. 36:26 and Isaiah. 29:13).  Naturally, the doctrine of original sin and the story of the Fall of Man are important etiological myths for Christians, as their entire foundation rests upon them.  Jesus, we are told, was born the sinless son of Yahweh, the great saviour and redeemer, sent by his father/himself to save and redeem his creation in the face of a sinful existence, which, Christians believe, stems from the initial fall of humankind.  Without the original Hebrew etiological myth found in Genesis, the Christ myth would make very little sense.  Why would we need a redeemer if we had not fallen?  Thus, we are begged to believe that Jesus is the yin to Adam’s yang, and his virgin mother Mary, the “most blessed female” (“Luke” 1:28) is the pure virgin in place of Eve, the first temptress to be cursed by Yahweh (Genesis 3:16).  In the words of the second century Church father Irenaeus:

  As Eve was seduced by the word of an angel and so fled from God after disobeying his word, Mary in her turn was given the good news by the word of an angel, and bore God in obedience to his word. As Eve was seduced into disobedience to God, so Mary was persuaded into obedience to God; thus the Virgin Mary became the advocate of the virgin Eve.  Christ gathered all things into one, by gathering them into himself. He declared war against our enemy, crushed him who at the beginning had taken us captive in Adam, and trampled on his head, in accordance with God’s words to the serpent in Genesis: I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall lie in wait for your head, and you shall lie in wait for his heel…That is why the Lord proclaims himself the Son of Man, the one who renews in himself that first man from whom the race born of woman was formed; as by a man’s defeat our race fell into the bondage of death, so by a man’s victory we were to rise again to life. [34]

Theologians and Church fathers like Irenaeus have even gone so far as to attempt to tie Jesus directly into a part of the Hebrew book of Genesis, claiming that he was mentioned, albeit esoterically, by the author “Moses,” an assertion which carries insurmountable evidentiary problems. This alleged reference to Christ has been dubbed ‘The Proto-Evangelium,’ and is asserted to apply to the following passage in the book of Genesis:

 

  And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.                                                                                    Genesis 3:15

 

The verse above relates to the walking and talking snake in the magical Garden of Eden that tempted the rib-woman, who in turn tempted the dirt-man, to eat the magical fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, thereby condemning our species to misery and suffering, which Christians believe Jesus came to redeem us from.   So, we have the etiological myth of the Fall of Man, which serves to explain the presence of suffering, hardship and ultimately, human mortality, and we have the later Christian myth which has been tied into that myth as a kind of promise, or ‘Get Out of Jail Free Card,’ attempting to offer (false) hope in the face of this (untrue) fallen state of affairs.  This is one of the ways in which Christianity has endeavoured to entrench itself within the etiological myth of the ancient Hebrews, and it serves as an example of how the Christian myth is, at least in part, semi-etiological in nature.

 

Myths that Warn

  And woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days! But pray ye that your flight be not in the winter, neither on the Sabbath day: For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be. And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened.                             Matthew 24:19-22

 

This is just one passage from a multitude within the canonical (official) texts of the New Testament, not to mention the various passages found in the apocryphal (non-official) works, which forewarn its audience of the terror and hopelessness that awaits non-believers.  I could run through all of the various canonical and non-canonical passages that demonstrate this function of the Christian myth, but I think most people are familiar with the Christian myth of the future ‘Apocalypse,’ and ‘Armageddon.’  The question is, however, what function do such warnings really serve? Following the Apocalypse many Christians believe that the final judgement will take place and those who believe in Christ will be taken up into the clouds to enjoy eternal bliss in heaven (space).  How anything eternal could remain blissful forever is beyond me, however, that is not the point to be addressed here.  Non-believers, as opposed to believers, will not be so lucky come the catastrophes that await us all.  They, according to both scripture and tradition, will be cast into the fiery pits of hell to suffer eternal torment.   Ah!  So if I want to come out of this impending doom in good shape, I should believe in Christ and submit to the Church, his body here on earth, for if I do not, I will be tortured by the all-loving and forgiving god for an eternity without parole. I see!

These warnings are a form of mind control, manipulating the audience via two common and semi-related fears, the fear of the unknown and the fear of death.  By employing these fears in conjunction with one another in the warning, the creators and administrators of these myths have had a high level of success in not only maintaining their flocks, but gaining new cattle, who, like Blaise Pascal, do not wish to gamble against such an overconfident yet myopic and ill-thought-out wager.  It comes down to a simple carrot and stick incentive scheme.  Join and follow us (quickly), believe as we believe and you will live forever in bliss.  Refuse to submit to both us and our god-belief and you will die horribly and suffer an eternity of torment.  Thus, the function of the warning myth in Christianity appears to be to gain and maintain converts.  The only problem is that Islam, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and various other apocalyptic religions carry the very same warning, leaving the open-minded and humble thinker scratching their head and wondering whether they should just join them all to cover all of their bases, or simply pay such salacious manipulation no mind.

 

Charter Myths: Myths that Justify

The body of Christian tales contain quite a few charter myths, or tales that justify many of the ecclesiastic (church) rituals, along with many Western, Christian social institutions.  The Eucharist is one such rite which derives its legitimacy from traditional interpretations of the Christian myths found in the gospels. The Eucharist entails the symbolic cannibalism and vampirism of eating the flesh of Jesus and drinking his blood.  Over and above the more ancient Egyptian Osirian Eucharist, one of the most popular religions of the Roman Empire which also preceded Christianity, was a religion known as Mithraism.  This religion worshiped a demiurge (divine intercessor/god-man) called Mithras, who was a sun-god. [35] Long before the tale of the Lord’s Supper was invented by the mythographers of the Christian religion this pagan religion was already practicing its own Eucharistic rite.  Initiates into this religion would eat the body of their earthly incarnated god-man in the form of bread and drink his blood, symbolised by sacramental wine. [36]  In the Gospel of John, Jesus is alleged to have said:

 

  Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you.  Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.  For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.                                         John 6:53-55

 

The Eucharist is echoed in the earlier gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke (See Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:14-22 & Matthew 26:26-28) and also supported by Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (see Corinthians 11:23-26). From these various passages within these ancient texts can be found the justification for the Christian Eucharist, demonstrating how charter myths form the constitution of certain rites and practices within a religion. Another Christian charter myth worthy of mention is the story of Christ declaring the sanctity of the institution of marriage between a man and a woman (see Matthew 19:3-12, Mark 10:2-12, for example).  This declaration has permeated not only the religion of Christianity, but Western society and its laws.  Such laws, we are assured by other laws, underscore a legal and political system that is separate from the superstitious reach of the Church.  So, how is it that the Church’s laws, which derive from various charter myths, have become the rule for those who neither believe in this particular myth nor its teachings?  When I first moved to the bible-thumping state of Tasmania (Australia) in the 1990’s, homosexuality was still a crime. It was illegal for a man or a woman to have sexual relations with another person of the same sex, the consequence for which was imprisonment.  It is absurd when we consider that this law was built upon a Christian charter myth, along with dictates from the Hebrew Bible (Leviticus 20:13).  As ridiculous as this situation is, the foundation of most societies’ laws and customs are built upon myth, to some degree.  There are still many states in the U.S that do not recognize gay marriage and other Christian and Islamic countries still have not been able to ascend beyond the tremendous pressure of myth-based tradition to allow consenting adults to formalize their love for one another in marriage.

The final charter myth of the Judeo-Christian religion I wish to briefly discuss relates to the laws prohibiting murder; thou shalt not kill.  This particular law is one of my favourites, and helps balance our argument a little – that is to say, some laws and customs derived from ancient myths are useful to humanity, but even this one is quite nuanced, not only today, but when it was first allegedly written, if the dubious traditions surrounding its authorship contain any historical truth, which I strongly doubt. [37]  We are told that as soon as Moses returned from the top of Mt. Sinai he enunciated ‘The Ten Commandments’ to the Israelites, one of which was, do not kill (see Exodus 20:13). [38] This charter myth has been incorporated into the West via Christianity, but it is certainly not unique to Judeo-Christian societies.  This law’s somewhat pragmatic application reflects the tenuous nature of its application in the original charter myth of the Hebrews, as we find within both the original story and its modern application, many exclusion clauses.  Shortly after Moses exhorted YHWH’s rule not to kill, he commanded:

 

 Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, Put every man his sword by his side, and go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour.  And the children of Levi did according to the word of Moses: and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men.                                                                                                                               Exodus 32:27-28

 

Just as the case is today with capital punishment, laws of self-defence and provocation, military laws, laws governing deadly police conduct, etc., the rule against killing is not so much an immutable principle established to preserve the sanctity of life in all circumstances, but rather, a pragmatic one.

 

Myths that Instruct

Even though many of the instructive aspects of the Christian myths are geared toward persuading people to suspend their rational faculties, switch off their minds and believe without evidence, I thought I might balance this essay with a positive instructive myth from the gospels.

 

The Parable of the Good Samaritan

The author of the Gospel of Luke, or their source, constructed a dialogue between Jesus and the Jewish authorities concerning the idea of loving one’s neighbour, which, according to the somewhat xenophobic Hebrews at the time, was a concept generally limited to one’s immediate family, tribe, and nation.  Jesus, however, is alleged to have extended this definition by way of a parable – which is quite often his Platonic means of instruction – to humanely include anyone in need.  When asked by a certain Jewish leader what exactly a neighbour should be taken to mean, Jesus was alleged to have replied with the following parable:

 

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”                                                           Luke 10:30-37

 

This is a beautiful instructive parable, teaching an audience whose ears appear to be more often at attention when promises are made for their own salvation, to help the poor and the needy, to show mercy to those in need, and to assist strangers.  Of course, there are other beautiful parables and messages in the gospels, yet unfortunately, they have often been ignored, rationalized, re-interpreted and perverted by power-mongers, to the detriment of their true instructive beauty.  Also, we must recognize that such sentiments and teachings found within the Christian canon are not original to Christianity, and date many centuries before, amongst the Platonists and other so-called “pagans” of antiquity.  Nevertheless, this instructive myth is one of my favourites within the corpus of the Christian canon.

 

  1. Myths and the Supernatural

On this final element in professor Vandiver’s definition of myth, she says:

“Myths, very frequently involve gods and the supernatural.  They do not have to involve gods and the supernatural, but they very frequently do.”[39]

 

Unfortunately, Professor Vandiver hasn’t given us a definition of the term ‘supernatural,’ possibly because it is a word commonly understood by most people.  However, for the sake of prudence we should begin by defining the word ‘supernatural,’ and examine how such a definition might impact upon our understanding of what a myth is, and ultimately, whether or not the gospels fit the category of myth in this regard.

One online dictionary defines the word supernatural in the following manner:

  1. of, pertaining to, or being above or beyond what is natural; unexplainable by natural law or phenomena; abnormal.
  2. of, pertaining to, characteristic of, or attributed to God or a deity.
  3. of a superlative degree; preternatural: a missile of supernatural speed.
  4. of, pertaining to, or attributed to ghosts, goblins, or other unearthly beings; eerie; occult (hidden).[40]

And the Collins World English Dictionary defines it as:

  1. Of or relating to things that cannot be explained according to natural laws
  2. Characteristic of or caused by or as if by a god; miraculous
  3. Of, involving, or ascribed to occult beings
  4. Exceeding the ordinary; abnormal [41]

The word ‘supernatural’ relates to something ‘above and beyond nature and the natural,’ and is, generally, but not exclusively, related to a ‘god,’ which cannot be explained by natural laws, which exceeds the ordinary, and is miraculous.’  If we define the word supernatural this way, we find many supernatural aspects in the gospel tales, the epistles of Paul and the Book Revelation. I think no one, at least no one in their right mind, will see the impregnation of a virgin by a ghost, or angels visiting people in their sleep, or a star which breaks its regular orbit to travel east to Jerusalem, stopping there for a while, then going on to Bethlehem to signify the birth of a god-human-baby, as natural.  They might also be hard-pressed to find a natural explanation for this god-son walking on water and stopping a storm with his words, let alone instantly turning water into wine, a trick which we might assume many liquor companies would have seized upon if natural – the reanimation of the dead, the death and resurrection of this god-man himself, and his ascension into space, etc.. I think it is pretty safe to say that the stories in the gospels contain many supernatural qualities.

 

Conclusion

I have attempted to apply one of the best working definitions of myth to the narratives which underscore the Christian religion.  In so doing, I hope I have demonstrated that the stories of Jesus Christ are just that, stories, which were set in the remote past, in a remote location, and these remote accounts changed over time.  Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, these traditional tales were, and still are, believed by Christians to represent true historical occurrences, to varying degrees, and the tales serve the four primary functions of myth set out by Professor Vandiver.  Finally, they are built upon a supernatural theme and contain many accounts of miraculous and unnatural events that no sane person could, or should, believe.  I’ll conclude with a brief excerpt from Richard Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’:

The nineteenth century is the last time when it was possible for an educated person to admit to believing in miracles like the virgin birth without embarrassment. When pressed, many educated Christians today are too loyal to deny the virgin birth and the resurrection. But it embarrasses them because their rational minds know it is absurd, so they would much rather not be asked. Hence, if somebody like me insists on asking the question, it is I who am accused of being ‘nineteenth-century’. It is really quite funny, when you think about it. [42]

 

 

End Notes

 

  1. Professor Elizabeth Vandiver. Classical Mythology. The Teaching Company. (2002).
  2. Lecture 2: What is Myth?
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Bart D. Ehrman. Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend. (2006). Oxford University Press. pp. 8-10; John Barton and John Muddiman. The Oxford Bible Commentary. Oxford University Press. (2001). p. 886; Paul. J. Achtemeier. Harper-Collins Bible Dictionary Revised Edition. Harper Collins. (1989). p. 661; Bart D Ehrman. Jesus Interrupted. Harper Collins Publishers. (2005) p. 111.
  6. B. Bury, S.A. Cook & F.A. Adcock. The Cambridge Ancient History. Vol. 1: Egypt and Babylonia – To 1580 BCE. Cambridge University Press (1928). p. 332.
  7. Edward I. Bleiburg. World Eras Volume 5: Ancient Egypt. 2615-332 BCE. Gale Group. (2002) p. 243.
  8. Mark P.O. Morford & Robert J. Lenardon. Classical Mythology. Oxford University Press (2003).Preface xiii – xiv.
  9. John Barton & John Muddiman. The Oxford Bible Commentary. Oxford University Press (2007). p. 886.
  10. Bart D. Ehrman. Jesus Interrupted. Harper Collins (2005). p. 144.
  11. Gregory A. Boyd & Paul Rhodes. Lord or Legend? Wrestling with the Jesus Dilemma. Baker Books. (2007). p. 65.
  12. Philip Schaff. Ante-Nicene Fathers: Vol. 1: The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus; Against Heresies, Book 3. Grand Rapids. MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library. (1885). p. 383.
  13. J. Achtemeier. Harper-Collins Bible Dictionary Revised Edition. Harper Collins. (1989). p. 535.
  14. Carl R. Holladay. A Critical Introduction to the New Testament. Abingdon Press. (2005). p. 281.
  15. Bart D Ehrman. Misquoting Jesus. Harper-San Francisco. (2005). p. 72.
  16. James M. Robinson. The Gospel of Jesus: A Historical Search for the Original Good News. Harper Collins, (2005). p. 65.
  17. John Barton & John Muddiman. The Oxford Bible Commentary. Oxford University Press (2007) p. 973; Ismo Dunderberg. The Beloved Disciple in Conflict. Oxford University Press. (2006). p. 1, 117 &174; Louis A. Ruprecht Jr. The Tragic Gospel: How John Corrupted the Heart of Christianity. John Wiley and Sons. (2008). p. 34.
  18. Joel F. Williams. Literary Approaches to the End of Mark’s Gospel. Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. 42.1 (1999).
  19. Bruce Metzger. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. (1971). pp. 122, 126.
  20. Professor Elizabeth Vandiver. Classical Mythology. Lecture 2: What is Myth? The Teaching Company. (2002).
  21. Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition 2009 © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009; cited at: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/remote
  22. Ibid.
  23. Bart D. Ehrman. Jesus Interrupted. Harper Collins (2005). p. 105.
  24. p. 148.
  25. http://www.tektonics.org/qt/remslist.html
  26. Professor Elizabeth Vandiver. Classical Mythology. Lecture 2: What is Myth? The Teaching Company. (2002).
  27. Michael J. Wilkins & J. P. Moreland. Jesus Under Fire. Zondervan Publishing House. (1995). p. 5.
  28. Albert Schweitzer.  The Quest of the Historical Jesus. Adam and Charles Black. (1911). p. 13.
  29. Lee Strobel. The Case for the Real Jesus. (2007). p. 33.
  30. M. Mangasarian. The Truth About Jesus.  Is He a Myth? Independent Religious Society. (1909). pp. 37-38.
  31. Thomas Paine. The Age of Reason. (1796). pp. 14-15.
  32. John E Remsburg. The Christ: A Critical Review and Analysis of the Evidences of His Existence. The Truth Seeker Company. (1909). Preface p. 9.
  33. Ibid.
  34. Against the Heresies. Book 2.
  35. Roger Beck. The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire: Mysteries of the Unconquered Sun. Oxford University Press. (2006). p. 5.
  36. M. Robertson. Pagan Christs: Studies in Comparative Hierology. Watts and Co. (1911). p. 318; Paul J. Achtemeier. Harper-Collins Bible Dictionary Revised Edition. Harper Collins (1996). p. 723; Guy de la Bedoyere. The Romans for Dummies. John Wiley and Sons Ltd. (2006). p. 159.
  37. For a detailed discussion on the historicity of Moses and the surrounding issues, please read: D.M. Murdock. Did Moses Exist? The Myth of the Israelite Lawgiver. Stellar House Publishing. (2014).
  38. There were actually quite a few more than ten, and they changed the second time Moses was alleged to have gone up to re-write them, and yet again when the authors of Deuteronomy got to them; see Deuteronomy 5. Also, as discussed in the second volume, most of the popular Ten Commandments were probably copied from the earlier negative confessions of the Egyptians.
  39. Professor Elizabeth Vandiver. Classical Mythology. Lecture 2: What is Myth? The Teaching Company. (2002).
  40. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/supernatural
  41. Ibid.
  42. Richard Dawkins. The God Delusion. Bantam Press. (2006). p. 157.

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