Opinion Columns & Blogs

Is myth a dirty word?

Bill Cummings
Bill Cummings

My wife and daughter have watched the “Hallmark Series” on TV for many years. All these stories have the same four parts: The expectation, the failure, the success, and the promise of a “happily ever after.”

For example, here’s the expectation of a single girl who wants to start a small business. She loses everything unexpectedly in a storm and her failure is complete and devastating. Then a young man appears with the money and the two of them save the business in a brilliant success move. The show ends with wedding music and the promise of a “happily ever after.” This is what we call the standard story format.

But when we add a supernatural overlay to this format we have a myth. Many of you have read, “A Christmas Carol,” by Charles Dickens and most of you have watched the yearly TV show, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Both scripts have the four standard parts plus some “helpful ghosts” who appear and re-appear at will. If you read other mythical legends or see them on TV you’ll usually find these four parts plus an element that supersedes our natural possibilities. You’re looking at a myth. Storytellers have been telling stories in myth form – forever.

Did the evangelists who wrote the story of Jesus do the same thing? The expectation is clearly stated in a booming voice from the skies, “You are my beloved Son; I take delight in you.” The failure can’t be more serious: “They crucified him.” The success element comes unexpectedly: “He appeared first to Mary Magdalene.” And the promise of a “happily ever after” is given as his disciples continue his mission: “They went out and preached everywhere.”

I know many people think myth is a dirty word when applied to the gospels. They think it’s OK to talk about myths if we’re discussing Luke Skywalker, but don’t mention myth and Jesus in the same sentence. These people would get furious if they heard the famous scripture scholar, Dr. Bob Price and the thousands of “Mythicists” explain at great lengths that Jesus never existed.

They have a right to get furious about that. I don’t want to think the historical Jesus never existed; or there never was a Galilean peasant who walked the dusty roads of Galilee, pumping new life and enthusiasm into the discouraged hearts of his fellow Jewish followers. However, I cannot deny that the gospel stories are formatted exactly like the typical mythical stories of their day.

But wait a minute! Our gospel writers were not lying if they wrote myths. For example, Matthew saw Jesus as the “new Moses,” and he felt his readers would understand if he described the birth of Jesus by pulling five quotes from the Old Testament and re-applying them mythically. Luke wanted to show Jesus as the “new David,” and he felt comfortable moving the census of Quirinus ahead 10 years to enable Jesus to be born in Bethlehem. Mythical stories can do that, you know.

These are not lies. They are mythical descriptions of beliefs. From 40 to 70 years after Jesus died, the early Christian myth-makers began formulating these stories to pass on their beliefs to others. They couldn’t pass on concrete, historical data, because, in most cases, they didn’t have any. They were passing on a whole new belief system, encased in beautiful, mythical language.

The gospels give us a Christ of faith, not necessarily a Jesus of history. I don’t think, like the Mythicists, this means the Jesus of history never existed. But I also don’t believe the descriptions and quotes from the Christ of faith in our gospels are always historically accurate and I feel certain they were never intended to be.

That’s just my opinion, of course.

Contact me: drc@billcummings.org.