Bible Myths

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
19th September 2008

Tagged: bible language scripture translation

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Most Bible “myths” are believed by so called “unbelievers”.

Believers in the Bible do not believe myths because the Bible warns against them. The Bible writers were not ignorant of mythology—they were against it. The ancient world had many myths, just as it had astrologers and mediums, necromancers and religious temples. The Bible was adamantly opposed to them all.

The word “myth” occurs five times in the New Testament. On each occasion it is negative. Myths are where you turn to, when you turn away from the truth (2 Timothy 4:4, Titus 1:14). They can be “cleverly devised” or “irreverent and silly” but they are not Christian (1 Timothy 4:7, 2 Peter 1:16). We are not to devote ourselves to them and their speculations (1 Timothy 1:4).

The Bible contains many literary forms and devices. Not everything in the Bible is “history”. There are proverbs and poetry, parables and prophecy. The apocalyptic literature has its own particular literary conventions. Though the Bible occasionally refers to some figures that some people say were mythological (e.g. leviathan and behemoth) it tells no myths about them.

So what are the Bible myths that so called “unbelievers” believe in? They are not ancient myths of the Bible but the modern myths about the Bible.

In the 1940's a famous German scholar Rudolph Bultmann, wrote a very influential paper calling upon modern people to “demythologise” the Bible. He sought to provide the essence of the Bible without the “myths” in which he said the Bible presented the truth. The mythical stories he tried to discard involved any supernatural or miraculous intervention of God. So the incarnation, the resurrection, the miracles of Jesus were all myths that taught great truths but did not actually happen.

The “myth” that Rudolph Bultmann believed in was that the ancient world explained Jesus mythologically but later centuries were confused and took the stories literally. Unfortunately for this theory, the apostle Peter wrote: “we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honour and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,’ we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.” (2 Peter 1:16-18).

A more common modern myth is that the modern Bible has been seriously tampered with and so is unreliable. This myth, like most myths, is based on little information, heightened imagination and wish fulfilment. People who oppose the Bible's message have manufactured this myth and disseminated it through endless repetition.

Undoubtedly as the New Testament was copied by hand, mistakes in copying happened—but the number of mistakes is much less than we careless moderns would imagine. The faithfulness of ancient scribes has been well demonstrated by the Dead Sea Scrolls. Prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls our oldest copies of prophecies like Isaiah were hundreds of years into the Christian era. But with that discovery we were provided with scrolls (e.g. of Isaiah) that were copied before Christ. So in a single discovery we could see how accurately the Christian scribes had preserved the text they were copying. The differences were minimal. They affected no serious or significant teaching of the prophet. All modern translations take the variations into account—usually with footnotes. They are so few and so unimportant you will be hard pressed to find them.

But that introduces the next modern myth—that the translations distort the meaning. This nonsense takes seriously the idea that humans cannot understand each other perfectly especially across the language divide. But it makes far too much of the imperfection of presenting the same truth in different languages. That we cannot speak with absolute precision is not the same as saying we cannot understand each other at all. There are better and worse translations. But the answer to the myth that translators distort the Bible is simple—offer to buy a copy of whatever translation the person promises to read. For it does not matter which translation a person reads—the level of inaccuracy in the poorest translation will not be able to significantly distort God's message to the earnest reader.

Another common myth is that Bible reading is all a matter of interpretation. Like all myths it is not true. Reading the Bible, like reading all literature, is not a matter of interpretation but comprehension. We read to comprehend what the writer wants us to understand. There is a myth going around that we can never understand another person's thoughts or words—that all reading is a matter of interpretation. This is a self-defeating myth, for the myth itself is written in words that require comprehension rather than interpretation! Such nonsense shows how far people will go to avoid listening to God.

Then there is the myth that the Bible is full of contradictions. The most famous one being “an eye for an eye” being contradicted by “turn the other cheek”. The fact that both these occur in the same passage and are being purposely contrasted by the Lord Jesus—is generally unknown to the myth believers. There is no need to let facts get in the way of a good myth.

Sometimes Christians are tempted to overstate the claims of the Bible. Our translations are not perfect. The transmission of the original texts to today is not without error. The authors were using the normal conventions of human speech including metaphor, hyperbole, imagery and analogy. They referred to the world of their time and literature and historical events known to them. The great miracle of the Bible is that God speaks to us in human language—so that in the words of men are the very words of God. As Paul wrote: “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” (1 Thessalonians 2:13).