Monday, November 2, 2009

The Bible is a Myth & Other Things You Will Never Here in Sunday School

Some people will find this statement shocking: The Bible is a myth.

I remember one of the first times I actually heard someone say this was a teacher in college; he said it to get everyone’s attention and to sound controversial. It worked. Several people sat a little straighter and one even raised their hand to object. It was the first time I had heard someone say it, but not the first time I had heard about it—I had read several authors make this same point, which is why I knew nothing about the statement was even remotely controversial. If anything it was a cheap trick.

A myth is not fiction, and yet for some reason the word implies this to many people. A myth is a legend. Out of my own laziness, I’ll skip putting a scholarly definition here and in its place insert one from the Internet which is basically the same definition you will find anywhere:

Myth: A body or collection of myths belonging to a people and addressing their origin, history, deities, ancestors, and heroes. (Source:

Simply put, a myth is a legend that is passed down, and that’s essentially what the Bible (at least the Old Testament) is: a passed down legend.

I wish they would teach the Bible as a myth in church, because studying the Bible as a myth will take you down a path that is even more incredible and even life changing: studying the Bible as a literary work.

The Bible is also full of parallels and symmetry. My favorite book is Genesis which has the craziest literary construction of any book ever wrote. What do I mean by parallels? Look at the "Tower of Babel" (Genesis 11:1-9) and match up the letters—see how they link up:

a. introduction: all the Earth had one language (11:1)
b. people settle together in Shinar (11:2)
c. resolution of people "come let us..." (11:3-4)
d. CENTER OF STORY: God discovers the plot (11:5)
c. resolution of God "come let us..." (11:6-7)
b. people disperse from Shinar (11:8)
a. conclusion: all the Earth now has many languages (11:9)

Do you get the feeling that person who wrote the book knew what they were doing? Then there's also the creation account; look at the order of how it says things were created:

a. light
b. sea and sky
c. dry land
a. luminaries
b. fish and birds
c. land animals and humans
d. Sabbath

Here's's the story of Abraham and the promise of a son (Genesis 12:1-21:7):
a. introduction
b. Abram lies about Sarai
c. Lot settles in Sodom
d. Abram intercedes
e. promise of a son
f. Ishmael's birth
g. CENTER: God's covenant
f. Ishmael and Abraham circumcised
e. promise of a son
d. Abraham intercedes
c. Lot flees Sodom
b. Abraham lies abouut Sarah
a. conclusion

Entire books have been written about the literary structure of Genesis alone; if you really wanted to dissect it, it would take years of scholarship--and it's a pretty short book.

It’s just Genesis though, right? Nope. You could do a parallel like that of the ENTIRE Bible. You can even do it of the least read books. Take Deuteronomy…

a.       God’s Awesome acts at Mount Sinai (Deut 4:1-40)
b.      Given of the first tablet (Deut 4:41-5:33)
c.       Lessons from God’s past and future care (Deut 6:1-25)
d.      CENTER OF STORY: Completely destroy the Canaanites (Deut 7:1-26)
c.   Lessons from God’s past and future care (Deut 8:1-20)
b.   Given of second tablets (Deut 9:1-10:11)
a.   God’s Awesome acts in Egypt and wilderness (Deut 10:12-11:32)

There are hundreds of books out there if you want to know just how intelligently constructed the Bible is. I recommend The Literary Structure of the Old Testament: A Commentary on Genesis – Malachi by David A. Dorsey to give you a start. What the Bible says is important, but how it says it is important too—which is why just once I’d love to hear a preacher give a sermon on it.


  1. Rather than see how much more we can learn from the Bible by studying it as literature as well, I guess many are worried that the main message might be diluted or missed.
    But in the effort to remain 'true' to what they consider to be what the Bible is (the book dictated by God, intended to be taken literally in every word), they themselves manage to miss much of the richness and knowledge it contains. (Please pardon my generalizations in that statement.)
    I think many find it easy and convenient to only see two possibilities in how to see the Bible (infallible, inerrant, dictated by God; or just some collection of fictional stories) and thereby cast 'the other side' as the enemy. Instead, as you have shown us, we can add to our understanding of the value and wonder of the Bible by recognizing the literary devices used, the place of divine inspiration, the various kinds of writing involved (historical narrative, poetry, allegory, etc.), the overall themes, and other things that help us value it more while not worshipping it.

  2. You misspelled there in the last paragraph.

  3. A myth is not fiction, and yet for some reason the word implies this to many people. A myth is a legend.

    Would you acknowledge that there are elements of fiction within a myth?

    The fear then for the average Christian (and leadership) is that if there are 'parts' of scripture which are not literally true, first off how do we know which parts... and second how do we trust any of it as being true?

    For instance, the story of the Exodus is debated because archeological evidence doesn't fully support it... are parts of this story then simply Jewish 'myth'? I would say yes... and say that 'myth' can sometimes contain and sometimes be fiction.

    My response may seem dreary... so allow me to add another thought... consider how the intended 'audience'of these books would have perceived them... I don't think for them there was such a huge distinction between 'truth' or 'fiction'... myth had an edifying purpose. Google Joseph Campbell.

  4. Myth can have elements of fiction, yes; but does all myth have fiction, no. Nor do I think the Bible has to be completely true to be inherently true. Is Job, for instance, true? Well I happen to believe that there was a man who lost all his children; but how about that opening? That God was talking to satan? There was no reference to a prophet who saw this conversation and dictated it, so how did that come about? Did it happen? Who knows. Whether or not it happened does not change the truth of the message or story, however--at least for me. I believe the Bible is 100% how God wanted it, but I don't think that means some of the stories in them have to be all true...if that makes sense.