The word "myth" (Gk. muthos [μῦθος]) only appears five times in the Bible, all in the New Testament, and all but one in the pastoral epistles (1 Tim 1:4; 4:7; 2 Tim 4:4; Titus 1:14; 2 Peter 1:16). All of these were translated in the King James Version as "fable." More recent versions (such as RSV, NASB, NEB, and NIV) have almost uniformly used the word "myth."
In all of these occurrences, the context makes it plain that Paul and Peter are using the term in its common sense of something false. Thus, it is what is contrary to sound doctrine (1 Tim 1:4), particularly in relation to asceticism and spirit-worship (1 Tim 4:7). Those who leave the Word of God and its sound teachings will choose myths and not truth (2 Tim 4:4). If people are to have a sound faith, they must not listen to myths taught by those who reject the truth (Titus 1:14). Finally, the gospel narratives are not fictional tales, but actual eyewitness reports (2 Peter 1:16). In each case, muthos [μῦθος] is used to describe something that is contrary to the truth, whether that truth be the doctrines relating to Christian behavior or the accounts of Christ's life, death, and resurrection.
What is not clear is whether any of these references have in mind the ancient legends of the gods that we commonly think of in reference to the term "myth." With regard to the references in the Pastoral Epistles, the answer seems to be no. In fact, in one case (Titus 1:14), they are specifically labeled "Jewish myths, " which certainly did not include any legends of the gods. While it is possible that 2 Timothy 4:4 may speak of Christians who will abandon the truth of their religion and turn to the pagan religions, the two references in 1 Timothy (1:4 and 4:7), along with the one in Titus, seem to be referring to the kind of Jewish mysticism described in Colossians 2:16-23. This was an elitist kind of piety that emphasized secret religious knowledge and rigorous self-denial. Part of the secret knowledge involved knowing the secret names of a whole hierarchy of angels (Col 2:18; 1 Tim 1:4, "genealogies" ). This concept of a hierarchy of angels was almost certainly the result of the contamination of Jewish thought by pagan thought, but there is little reason to think that Paul was thinking of that derivation when he called these ideas "myths." It appears that he is only describing them as falsehoods. So, in Goodspeed's version of the New Testament the translation used is "fictions."
It is somewhat more likely that Peter does have in mind the classical myths when he says that the Gospel accounts are not myths, but eyewitness reports. On this reading, he would be saying that the gospel narrative is not like the pagan myths. The myths are merely fictional and fantastic tales, but the gospel, while it incorporates the miraculous, actually took place. At this place the New International Version has "stories" and the New English Bible has "tales." But even here where there may be some connotation of the pagan stories of the gods, the chief emphasis is upon falsehood versus truth.
This unrelenting use of "myth" by the Bible as a synonym for lies and falsehood is ironic, given the present positive valuation put on the term. While the common person still uses the word as the Greeks did, to describe something that is untrue, this is not the way sociologists of religion use it. With the rediscovery of the ancient world, especially in the nineteenth century, there arose a certain fascination with the stories of the gods and with the power of those stories to convey a meaningful vision of reality to those who accepted them. A number of studies of myth were undertaken, one of the most famous being Frazier's The Golden Bough. These studies suggested that myth should be understood as a vehicle by which extrascientific truth may be expressed. Of course, this represents an almost complete reversal in the understanding of myth. Instead of being false because of its failure to conform to a scientifically derived view of reality, it is true precisely because it does not!
According to this view, whenever a people express their views of reality in other than mechanistic and naturalistic terms, they are speaking mythically. Thus, to speak of God as a person who causes the rain to fall is to speak in mythical terms. While the statement may be "true" in some sense, it is false, scientifically speaking, because it cannot be verified. Used in this way, "The resurrection of Jesus Christ is a myth" would say that while the body of Jesus remained in the tomb and was not seen by the disciples, the narrative serves to express the Christian conviction that the human spirit perseveres after the death of the body. This point of view would argue that ultimate truth has no connection with historical facts.
As this way of defining myth has become more popular, it has become increasingly common, even among some Christians, to refer to the Bible as part of the world's great mythic literature. The reasons for this are not hard to find. First, there are the questions about the historical reliability of the Bible. If it can be granted that historical reliability is really of no consequence to the meaning or value of the Bible, those questions are no longer troublesome. A second reason is the growing distaste for exclusivism of all sorts. If the Bible can be defined as one more of the world's religious tales, then its embarrassing particularity can be disposed of. Finally, although the death of the enlightenment is frequently announced, the idea that there is a personal deity who transcends all our means of containing him, and to whom we are accountable, is still unacceptable to many. If the language can be reduced to a merely figurative expression for a generalized life force that inhabits the universe, it is more palatable.
The response of Paul or Peteror Isaiah—to the idea that the Bible is myth is unmistakable. They insist that their theology is true precisely because it has been validated in the world of time and space, the world of facts. They would vigorously resist any attempt to make their assertion about what God has done in this world merely figurative. But beyond this, the Bible is at odds with the ancient stories of the gods at every point. This is not an enclosed, cyclical existence where the forces of nature have been turned into deities. It is not a shadowy stage where timeless, placeless stories of the gods must be acted out in order to appropriate divine power for an otherwise meaningless existence. Rather, God has broken into the world of time and space in unique, nonrepeateable events that have revealed his character and his grace. Real human persons have seen the evidence, have received divine interpretations of that evidence, and have recorded it all under supernatural guidance. As Peter would tell us, these are not myths; they are the reports of people who have been visited by the holy God. Whatever the Bible is, it is not a myth.
John N. Oswalt
Bibliography. B. Childs, Myth and Reality in the Old Testament; T. H. Gaster, Myth, Legend and Custom in the Old Testament; G. Stahlin, TDNT, 4:762-95.