Formation: The Bible - How myths can be true

There are some curious stories in the bible, and it can be hard to know how to approach them. Some people want to take a very literal approach, and so when Adam and Eve are in the garden talking to a snake, this is obviously a time when snakes could talk (or at least this particular snake could talk).

Then other people look at a story like this and think, what a ridiculous idea; a talking snake, whoever thought of such a thing?! These are just silly old ancient myths and the bible is clearly a ridiculous piece of literature; anyone who believes those silly tales are morons.

But are these the only two options? Or is there something else going on these stories that might be available to us, and if so, what do we do about that? To think more deeply about this we need to think about the way ancient people interpreted, understood and communicated reality. Our temptation when we read the bible in the modern world, is that we apply modern literature categories to ancient writings. 

So, for example, one of our big questions of “truth” in modern history is about how accurate the details are. So when we ask – is it true – we’re asking that from a modern perspective, with a certain set of “truth” criteria in mind. But this is not the only way we understand truth to be communicated. We may talk, for example, about the way a poem communicates truth. It might not be scientific or historical from the way we understand modern historical method, but it can still communicate profound truth to us.

Similarly, in the Ancient Near Eastern world modern historical method was not the way of talking about origin stories, of the big questions of life, meaning and history, of the experiences of a community. So if we bring those modern assumptions to the text, we end up falling into an either/or mentality. And often the way that ancient peoples told their stories, and especially their origin stories, was to use mythological elements to communicate theological ideas. We can call this “mythicised history” or “theological history”.

In other words, the question is often not – “did this happen exactly this way?”, but rather, “what do we learn about the way they see God and reality?”

So here are some questions for these ancient mythological stories:

·     What purpose is there in telling this story? 

·     What does this story tell us about how they understood God and humanity?

·     Is this similar or different to those in neighbouring nations?

·     Where does this story fit in the evolving idea in scripture of who God is and what God is like?

If we take the Genesis creation story as an example, firstly we can accept that modern science clearly demonstrates that this is not the literal “how” of the creation of the world, human beings and other creatures. But we also discover that the way ancient Israel told their story of creation had similarities and differences with their neighbours. Ancient Babylon and other surrounding nations in the Mesopotamian region had creation mythologies that involved war and violence between many gods, and creation was an outpouring of divine conflict. Humans were created as savages, tasked with doing the work of the gods so that they might “be at ease.” 

In this context, the creation story of ancient Israel takes on profound meaning. They imagined a world that was created from divine harmony rather than warfare. They conceived of all human beings as created in the divine image, rather than Kings and emperors. They told a story that described the purpose of human beings as fruitfulness and partnership with God, rather than slavery and savagery.  

So while the creation story might not be scientifically or historically “accurate” from a modern point of view, it still contained potent and transformative theological insight that was revolutionary in the ancient world. And these insights continue to give us thought in the here and now. Do we see the world as an inherently violent and untrustworthy place, or is there something more beautiful going on? Do we see human beings with the potential for goodness, beauty and love rather than simply evil, depraved sinners? Do we see the divine as the promoter of competitive warfare between nations, or is God a more universal reality that pulls us in to something in which we see ourselves as brothers and sisters?

In this way, the ancient mythologies of scripture can still contribute to vital conversations about the nature of God, reality and the human experience. They can still be “true” even if they are not “history” in the sense that we now understand it.