Are the Gospels a Myth?

One of the most common pronouncements by the atheists in the combox is that “Christianity is a myth.”

In one sense they are correct. The gospel story does operate like a myth. However, most of the atheists making this comment do not seem to have a very knowledgeable understanding of myth and how it works. They don’t seem to understand the richness and the ambiguity of the term “myth”. When they say “myth” what they mean is “fairy tale”. Even the term “fairy tale” has far deeper and richer levels of meaning than they are aware of. They use the term “myth” to indicate a funny story about gods and goddesses that simple people made up long ago. When they say “myth” and mean “fairy tale” what they really mean is that “this is a made up pretend story which has no basis in history or scientific veracity.” When they say “myth” they mean “this is not a story like they read in the newspaper or in the history books.”

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

The term “myth” however, has far deeper levels of understanding. The “mythologist” Joseph Campbell in his seminal work, The Hero With a Thousand Faces shows how one particular story (which he calls the mono-myth) recurs in many different ways in virtually every society. The mono-myth is the story of how a hero leaves his ordinary world and sets out on an adventure to overcome great evil and claim a great prize before returning home to save his people. Campbell recognizes that “myth” in this sense is a story that connects individuals and groups with the deepest themes within the collective mind, and that through the re-enactment of myth and the re-telling of stories individuals identify subconsciously with the hero and go on the quest with him.

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

The term “myth” in this sense can refer to any story that works on us in this vicarious, “mythical” manner. We think of the classical myths of Greece and Rome operating in this way, but almost any story from any culture might work on the audience as a myth. A supernatural story of gods and goddesses, which has no basis in history or fact might function as a myth, but so might a work of fiction which takes place in a realistic world. Thus many movies–and not just fantasy or science fiction–work as myths. In fact a template for a typical Hollywood script very often follows the hero’s quest as outlined by Campbell. Furthermore, a story which is factual can also operate on a mythic level. When Grandad tells how he left home at eighteen to fight in the second world war, and recounts his adventures and tells how he came home a changed man and did his part to save the world, Grandad becomes a mythic hero and his story operates as a myth.

This brings us to the gospel account. Are the gospels a myth? Yes and no. If “myth” means a made up story with no basis in history or fact, then”no” the gospels are not myth. However, if “myth” means a story that functions as a myth, then “yes” the gospels (along with a good number of other Bible stories) function as myth. Through them a hero leaves his ordinary world and comfort zone and sets out on a great adventure to overcome evil and return victorious with a great prize for the salvation of his people.

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

Does the gospel story connect with the myths of other religions? To some extent it does–but that’s because it is dealing with the same themes and symbols of dying and rising, light and darkness, good and evil. Does the similarity of the gospel story mean that it is therefore just a made up fairy tale or fable? No. The historical evidence for the essential facticity of the gospels is sound–what it does mean is that this story of Jesus Christ(because it is historical) not only works like a myth and connects with the deepest, shared aspects of humanity but it also gathers up all the myths that came before it and followed after it and fulfills and completes them.

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  • Matt R

    It’s too bad Joseph Campbell left the Catholic Church, for his ideas are really interesting, but he needed to think with the Church, for much of it goes off the heretical deep end if followed to its conclusion. He would have complemented Tolkien greatly. Sigh.

  • http://none iggy o donovan

    Yes Fr the Gospels are in great part myth but nonetheless, TRUE

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    Campbell was reconciled to the church at the end of his life.

  • Glenn Juday

    The gospels are the template for essentially all mythology, they encompass so much so exquisitely. The gospels are perhaps the best window we have into the mundane world of classical antiquity, and an amazingly accurate guide to who and what was where and when in the Holy Land before it was upended and then leveled at the end of the Second Temple period. But at multiple levels stacked upon each other, the gospels recapitulate the people, places, and themes of the multiple Old Testament books and weave them together in amazing harmony and depth in what might be called a mythological narrative strictly understood. A simple appreciation for this should terminate the unaccountably popular line that the gospels are a set of confused writings by people seeking to find their way in a dark and uncertain world to an ideal they project upon a manufactured god-figure. The slightest appreciation of subtlety and mythological and theological craftsmanship should make the faces of people who promote such things burn with shame. If they wish to remain non-believers, well who can stop them? But they must then account for something equally astounding – the spontaneous eruption of coordinated and harmonious literary genius in different cultures over a period of a millennium. Sure, it happens all the time, doesn’t it?

  • Mr. Patton

    Knowing that the Gospels are a myth is only “half the battle”…;)

  • Hart Ponder

    2Timothy 3:16! Amen.

  • Dn. Dennis Dolan

    To see how the Gospels are precisely “anti-myths” and are, in fact, what destroyed myth in the western world, read Anthropologist (of myths!) Rene Girard’s work. It will blow your mind and give you a new appreciation for what the Gospels are and how they are still changing the world.

    Written for non professionals so easy to understand. Start with his last book “I See Satan Fall Like Lightning”. The preface contains his whole theory in a nutshell.
    Prepare to be amazed! (really)

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    Thanks! I’ll get it. Sounds fascinating.

  • FranR

    Interesting… We’re to ubderstand that the Holy Spirit is in the “myth” business?

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    Yes, when ‘Myth” is properly understood.

  • Ted Seeber

    What they fail to see is that the newspapers, the history books, and most of the science is also myth. In fact, the only sort of knowledge human beings have that isn’t myth, is direct first-hand experience. As soon as the story becomes second hand, it is myth.

  • Reverend Robbie

    Do you feel that there are any other true stories outside of Jewish or Christian beliefs that would qualify as myths?

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    yes. Many of the tales we tell within our communities and families function on a mythological level as do patriotic stories, faith stories of saints and cultural heroes and folk tales that are based on historical figures, but which may have become legends.

  • Reverend Robbie

    Well I’m not sure that folk tales based on historical figures are actually true, and faith stories of saints are part of Christian beliefs. I’m wondering if there are there any specific, historically factual stories, even patriotic ones, outside of your religion, that you would call “myths”?

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    Your excellent question prompted today’s post. I invite you to check it out.

  • reverend robbie

    Neat! Thanks. I still feel that you are equivocating on the definition of “myth” and I don’t personally find the argument you present for the accuracy of the gospels to be sufficient to support the remarkable claims like virgin birth and resurrection, but I apologize that I won’t be able to follow up in depth. I won’t be able to educate myself in new testament scholarship any time soon. Anyway, I forwarded your posts over to two bloggers I enjoy reading who discuss these topics and perhaps they may continue the conversation. Thanks again.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    I don’t know in what sense you think I am “equivocating” about myth. Anyone who has studied literature at any depth or looked into primitive religions or studied the development of religion will understand the mythic nature of stories, the varied types of stories that are out there and how they often intermingle. Myths, folk tales, legends, family stories, may all have elements of genuine historicity to them–without always being completely factual in a history book or newspaper report way. I haven’t made this up–read up on the workings of myth in Joseph Campbell, Jung, Bettleheim and others.

    Myth is more than simply a made up story about supernatural events that never happened. As to the resurrection and Virgin Birth–the accounts of the resurrection do not sound like mythology. Instead they sound more like the family experience of my grandfather’s death when he saw the angels: in other words, an inexplicable experience of the supernatural realm which made sense once everything else was taken on board.

    The Virgin Birth, by virtue of it’s intimacy and invisible character would seem to be more ‘mythological’ and more easily ascribed to the later invention of someone who wanted to magnify Jesus Christ with a miraculous birth. That doesn’t mean I agree with this explanation, but I understand the argument and can see from a particular point of view it seems more plausible than saying the resurrection is mythological.

  • Reverend Robbie

    Well, I probably do owe you some clarification. And thank you again for the attention you’re giving to my objections. First, on equivocation. Perhaps you are not committing equivocation, but I feel like you’re describing a definition of the word “myth” that is irrelevant to the discussions that occur between believers and nonbelievers when atheists say that they do not believe because they feel that “Christianity is a myth”. As you spell out in your post, people are unfamiliar with the richness and ambiguity of the term, so it can be assumed that they are using it in a colloquial sense. If this is understood by both parties, the colloquial meaning can be the basis of the conversation without confusion.

    This is similar in some ways to how there is a scientific definition of the word, “theory”, and there is a colloquial definition. If someone tells a biologist that they don’t believe in evolution because it’s just a theory, the biologist can and should explain the difference between the scientific definition and the everyday usage, because the ambiguity and richness of the word, “theory”, was at the heart of the dispute.

    The difference between the two situations is that the anti-evolutionist is often using the fact that evolution is a theory as *evidence* against evolution, arguing that even scientists agree that it is a theory, not realizing that when he heard that evolution was labeled a theory, the word was used in the scientific sense. On the other hand, the atheist may feel that the gospels are myths, but rarely believes so because she heard a preacher call the gospels a myth (in the scholarly sense) and said, “Ah ha! They said it’s a myth, which means it’s not true!”

    The atheist may argue that the gospels are mythical in two different ways. First, she may argue that gospel stories resemble stories from other cultures that both parties to the discussion agree are not factual stories, and which both parties call “myths”. She may be wrong in whole or in part about the similarities, and any similarities may or may not indicate that the gospels borrowed from them, but misunderstanding about the scholarly definition of the word “myth” clearly did not lead to the dispute, and providing the scholarly definition of the term wouldn’t contribute to the resolution, as that debate is simply about whether the gospels are accurate or not in light of perceived similarities to older stories. The second way that she may use the term myth is in a conclusion to an argument, as in, “I don’t find the evidence for Bible miracles compelling, so I find it more likely that the gospels are a myth.” In this argument, it would be abundantly clear what the atheist means by the word, and once again any misunderstanding of the scholarly definition neither contributed to the disagreement, nor is likely to cause any confusion in the discussion.

    That is why I, perhaps hastily, said that I felt you were equivocating. In essence, I felt that you were addressing an interesting topic, but one that does not actually relate to the arguments typically made by atheists.

    OK, second, on my statement, “I don’t personally find the argument you present for the accuracy of the gospels to be sufficient to support the remarkable claims like virgin birth and resurrection,” here’s the 30,000 foot view of my position. Given the claim that a person was born of a virgin, walked on water, raised the dead, and raised himself from the dead, I find it more likely that someone either made up those details or was mistaken, even if we can find reasons why we think they may have told the truth and why we think there were circumstances where those conveying the message had opportunity to get it right.

    We live in a world where some things have been demonstrated conclusively, for example: (1) on occasion people lie for a variety of reasons, (2) on occasion people make mistakes, and (3) we have countless examples of people reporting, throughout history and in our daily lives, for whatever reasons, things that are remarkable but just aren’t true. We also live in a world where some things have never been demonstrated to occur, among them: (1) people giving birth without being impregnated (barring some bizarre genetic defect I suppose), (2) people coming back from dead after three days buried, or (3) people walking on water in any literal sense.

    Considering these things, determining whether someone was in contact with a witness, whether they had motivation and opportunity to tell the truth clearly, or whether we fail to locate any particular reason why someone would manipulate their account, discussions along these lines fall a far cry from tipping the scales toward sufficient reason to believe the remarkable stories in our current day’s most popular myth.

    Thanks again for giving your attention to my comments!

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    I’m not sure your distinction about the popular use of the word ‘myth’ holds up because when atheists say the gospels are ‘myth’ they most often go on to compare the gospel to earlier pagan myths. So, they’re not just saying “the gospels are myth” and meaning that they are made up stories or community accepted fictions (like urban myths) They are comparing the gospels to pagan myths which means they are using the term ‘myth’ in a more complicated way. It is therefore, fair to ask what they mean by “myth” and to discuss how “myth” works in a literary and psychological way. The comparison between the gospels and pagan myths is useful. I just with those who made the comparisons indicated that they had read both the pagan myths and the gospels, because when one reads both one is stuck much more by their differences than their similarities. If the gospels are “myth” then they are a sort of myth that no one has ever heard or seen before or since. My point is that one cannot simply and blithely dismiss them as myth and therefore as silly made up pretend stories. The present differently than that and one has to give account for them.