Fact-Checking Fables

Fact-Checking Fables May 10, 2015

fact checking

When the above cartoon appeared on Gavin Rumney’s blog, it struck me that it is a great depiction of the viewpoint of a variety of fundamentalisms. The cartoon captures as well the fact that, while the one who is fact-checking might believe themselves to be wise, they are in fact immature, and failing to appreciate the importance of genre.

Gavin also drew my attention to the following quote, which makes the same point:

“Both theists and most of today’s agitated atheists get a failing grade in literary criticism, the atheists by obsessing over the dogmas and the theists by mistaking metaphors for facts. Both miss the epic poetry that moves throughout the complex biblical literature.”

– Daniel Maguire, Christianity without God: Moving beyond the Dogmas and Retrieving the Epic Moral Narrative

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  • Rust Cohle

    Does the resurrection fall within the genre of fable?

    • No. There may never have been a resurrection, but that does not make the genre fable. Fables include talking animals.

      • Rust Cohle

        One could just as easily say “there may never have been a talking animal, but that does not make the genre fable.” How does one differentiate the fable-genre-worthiness of supernatural claims in stories?

        • As opposed to what? If there is a talking animal in a story, the range of possible genres is limited. Stories with only humans and supernatural elements, on the other hand, may be legend, myth, or several other possibilities.

          • Rust Cohle

            Are you suggesting all of the fables mentioned in the Bible are necessarily about a genre that include talking animals?

            1 Timothy 4:7 worldly fables fit only for old women

            2 Peter 1:16 cleverly concocted fables

            2 Timothy 4:4 shall be turned unto fables

            Titus 1:14 Not giving heed to Jewish fables

            1 Timothy 1:4 Neither give heed to fables and endless genealogies

          • Neither γραώδεις nor μύθους has anything to do with the English genre of fable.

          • Rust Cohle

            Multiple translations and concordances, what good are they?

            Englishman’s Concordance γραώδεις (graōdeis) — 1 Occurrence

            1 Timothy 4:7 Adj-AMP
            GRK: βεβήλους καὶ γραώδεις μύθους παραιτοῦ
            NAS: fables fit only for old women. On the other
            KJV: profane and old wives’ fables, and
            INT: profane and silly fables refuse

            Englishman’s Concordance μύθους (mythous) — 2 Occurrences

            1 Timothy 4:7 N-AMP
            GRK: καὶ γραώδεις μύθους παραιτοῦ γύμναζε
            NAS: with worldly fables fit only for old women.
            KJV: and old wives’ fables, and exercise
            INT: and silly fables refuse train

            2 Timothy 4:4 N-AMP
            GRK: δὲ τοὺς μύθους ἐκτραπήσονται
            NAS: and will turn aside to myths.
            KJV: shall be turned unto fables.
            INT: moreover fables will be turned aside


          • Conservative Christian and other non-scholarly resources are of limited value, since their content cannot be relied on to reflect mainstream linguistic and other knowledge.

          • Rust Cohle

            Multiple Bible translations and concordances are non-scholary? Who knew?

          • Using a concordance instead of a lexicon is of course non-scholarly, and consulting a lexicon isn’t going to help much if one does not know a language, any more than an English dictionary will be a good guide to the meaning of a word in a particular context to someone who does not know English.

            Consulting multiple translations is preferable to consulting only one, but offers little benefit if you only consult multiple translations with the same ideological bent.

          • Rust Cohle

            So what “scholarly” materials do you have that say the resurrection story can or cannot be included in the genre of fable?

            And didn’t you say that you didn’t have to provide scholarly material in a blog comment section? Why are you being a prick about it now?

          • Why would scholars discuss whether an ancient Jewish story about the purported inauguration of the age to come fits into a genre of morality stories featuring talking animals? And why do you want “scholarly” resources rather than scholarly ones?

          • Rust Cohle

            Who says “fables” have to include taking animals?

            If you have no scholarly sources that say so, just admit it.

            Do you really imagine when some people say “the resurrection is not a fable,” that they mean it contains no animals in the story?

          • TomS

            One of the fables in the Bible is the fable of the trees in Judges 9. See The Trees and the Bramble in Wikipedia.

            It does not have talking animals. 🙂

      • Giauz Ragnarock

        I was told in school that talking animals were not necessary. The story’s purpose just has to be to convey the practice or lack of practice (basically saying, “This is how the characters should have behaved instead of how they did behave.”) of some useful lesson or moral.

        • Animals are typical, but not always present. But I don’t see in the resurrection stories a simple morality tale of the kind that fables offer. They have to show a real-life kind of scenario and the happy ending that follows moral behavior. They are not entirely unlike fables, to be sure. But that still does not seem an obvious genre category in which to place them.

    • Gary

      Genre is a type of story. A resurrection, whether fact or fiction, is an event. If we were in a court, the event concerning a resurrection in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, would be considered circumstantial evidence. However, in the Gospel of Peter, a resurrection has hard evidence, a giant Jesus coming out of the tomb, and a talking cross. However, unfortunately for the court, the Gospel of Peter is a fable.

      Thank goodness that “The Greater Questions of Mary” is also a fable.

      • Rust Cohle

        > whether fact or fiction

        Actually, the two terms juxtaposed quite often, in arguments about the resurrection, are “fact or fable.”

        For example, this seminary:


        Are they, along with many other people, using the term “fable” incorrectly?

        • Gary

          Your link is broken, “404 error”.

          • Rust Cohle


          • Gary

            Actually, I don’t know.
            “The doctrine of the resurrection” is in the document.
            I still say fable is a story. Resurrection is an event. Doctrine of resurrection is a concept. If it is asked, “Fact or Fable?”, I’d ask, which fable are you taking about? Abbreviated Mark? Gospel of Peter? There are a multitude of fables about the event. I take it that the real question, is the event true?
            Beats me.

          • Rust Cohle

            The resurrection is not a fable. Because no animals. Q.E.D. 😉

          • Gary

            But talking crosses? Gospel of Peter. Close. Talking dead vegetable matter? Maybe that counts. But I have no idea.

          • Rust Cohle

            Talking flash-lights?

            Acts 9:3 …suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”


          • Gary

            “It’s a fable, stop fact checking.” I can’t help myself. Plus Peter’s followers have an irresistible attraction to resurrection, talking vegetable matter, and talking animals.
            Acts of Peter:
            XII. But Simon within the house said thus to the dog: Tell Peter that I am not within. Whom the dog answered in the presence of Marcellus: Thou exceeding wicked and shameless one, enemy of all that live and believe on Christ Jesus, here is a dumb animal sent unto thee which hath received a human voice to confound thee and show thee to be a deceiver and a liar. Hast thou taken thought so long, to say at last: ‘Tell him that I am not within?’ Art thou not ashamed to utter thy feeble and useless words against Peter the minister and apostle of Christ, as if thou couldst hide thee from him that hath commanded me to speak against thee to thy face: and that not for thy sake but for theirs whom thou wast deceiving and sending unto destruction? Cursed therefore shalt thou be, thou enemy and corrupter of the way of the truth of Christ, who shall prove by fire that dieth not and in outer darkness, thine iniquities that thou hast committed. And having thus said, the dog went forth and the people followed him, leaving Simon alone. And the dog came unto Peter as he sat with the multitude that was come to see Peter’s face, and the dog related what he had done unto Simon. And thus spake the dog unto the angel and apostle of the true God: Peter, thou wilt have a great contest with the enemy of Christ and his servants, and many that have been deceived by him shalt thou turn unto the faith; wherefore thou shalt receive from God the reward of thy work. And when the dog had said this he fell down at the apostle Peter’s feet and gave up the ghost.

            XIII. And Peter turned and saw a herring (sardine) hung in a window, and took it and said to the people: If ye now see this swimming in the water like a fish, will ye be able to believe in him whom I preach? And they said with one voice: Verily we will believe thee. Then he said -now there was a bath for swimming at hand: In thy name, O Jesu Christ, forasmuch as hitherto it is not believed in, in the sight of all these live and swim like a fish. And he cast the herring into the bath, and it lived and began to swim. And all the people saw the fish swimming, and it did not so at that hour only, lest it should be said that it was a delusion (phantasm), but he made it to swim for a long time, so that they brought much people from all quarters and showed them the herring that was made a living fish, so that certain of the people even cast bread to it; and they saw that it was whole.

            Thus in both XII and XIII, you have a double whammy of both talking dog, dying dog, and sardine resurrection. What more can anyone ask? If only this was accepted as canon, what fun we would have. Maybe this is the ancient “Peter Principle”.

  • Maguire gets a failing grade in his understanding of atheists. Atheists don’t see biblical stories as “facts”. If they fact-check them, it is to demonstrate this to the Christians who use the bible to curtail human rights and deny history and science.

    And just because a story is taken as “fable”, it is not immunized to critique. I’ve always found this equating of atheists with fundamentalists vacuous and jejune.

    • Some atheists accept fundamentalist claims that stories are factual, and then having shown them not to be, are done with them. But a critique of a story as literature is more appropriate in some cases.

      • “Some atheists” is generalized as “atheists” far too often, and, even then – I doubt that most “atheists” are done with biblical tales, simply because they are not factual.

        In fact, most atheists are not “done with” biblical tales.

        If most Christians dealt with the bible as simply another piece of literature – I don’t think you would find many detractors among atheists.

      • David Evans

        Christians who regard those stories as factual are trying to sabotage the teaching of evolution and are arguing that we needn’t worry about climate change because of God’s promise to Noah, or because God has his own timetable for the end of the world which we can’t affect. Beliefs like that are dangerous. It’s not surprising if some atheists obsess over them.

        • Liberal Christians also oppose such dangerous beliefs, at times seeming comparably obsessed. The issue is that some obsess over them in ways that reinforce rather than challenge the fundamentalist viewpoint at its most fundamental(ist) level.

  • Remember the difficulty Joseph Campbell had convincing people that myths were not simply lies, and that metaphors are valid modes of expressing important things. The trouble is… the people most hotly devoted to maintaining traditional religions are least likely to embrace this perspective. Exceptions…people like Spong who embrace and explore the richness of myth and metaphor…are demonized by the conservatives.

  • Rust Cohle

    Are the Epistles fables? They have talking animals in them.

    But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ. –2 Corinthians 11:3

    And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. –1 Timothy 2:14

  • Rust Cohle

    Is the New Testament itself a fable? More talking animals…

    The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle. Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under its wings. Day and night they never stop saying: “‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty,’ who was, and is, and is to come.” –Revelation 4:7-8

    Or can we isolate the parts that are really embarrassing into some sort of a “genre cage?”

    • Apocalyptic literature. It may be embarrassing, but that is probably because it predicts the world ending in a certain period and getting it wrong, not because it uses animal features as part of its symbolism.

      • Rust Cohle

        I prefer to use the term “fable,” such as is found in scientific literature as a term to describe the Bible.

        “…an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by men…”

        Brandt, M. & Reyna, C. (2010) The Role of Prejudice and the Need for Closure in Religious Fundamentalism. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 36(5) pp. 715–725. psp.sagepub.com/content/36/5/715

        Of course, as the study shows, it is fundamentalists who choose to describe the Bible by using terms other than “fables.” “Liberals,” not so much.

        • That article, in the very words you quoted, indicates that the Bible is a compilation of a variety of different genres and types of materials. It would be great if you read the things you cited. Is there any chance that this trollish behavior will stop and that you will engage in serious discussion?

          • Rust Cohle

            Of course they used other terms. They also used “fables.” It would be nice if you actually read it, and quit falsely accusing me of not doing so.

            Whenever you’re shown wrong about something, you go on a name-calling binge, usually using “troll.” Your behavior is not scholarly at all.

          • OK, you had your chance to behave at least with a modicum of basic decency and respect, and are apparently unwilling to do so. You seem to take delight in insisting that, if someone says that X isn’t a fable, they are saying that there are no fables in the Bible, and if someone says that “born again” in context Y is not focused on eternal life, the person is denying that anyone has ever been interested in eternal life who is part of the tradition that produced the text in question. I’m not sure whether you do this just to be annoying, but if it is a result of a mental health issue, I hope you find the help that you need. Unfortunately, a blog cannot provide it.

  • John Thomas

    Totally agree. Personally I am still trying to understand deeper understandings of stories in the Bible rather than superficial understandings. For example, recently I found that Marriage at Cana story in John’s gospel could have deeper understandings than I thought earlier. It starts off with “on the third day” and third day is sign word used for resurrection. The older wine that is finished is Old Testament revelation that was finished during the time of Jesus. Jesus now starts a new revelation (new wine) through his ordinary disciples signified by water which is equally or even better revelation than older one. These type of deeper understandings is what I want to know rather than superficial readings of the text.