Word Study #189 — Myth

The term “myth” has been seriously misunderstood, and consequently misinterpreted, in Christian circles along the entire “conservative-liberal” spectrum. Some folks find its application to Biblical study highly offensive, assuming the word to be derogatory; others totally fail to see why there should be any problem with it, since they neither make that assumption nor are particularly bothered with it.

Historical scholars made a grave error when they labeled their research of both Old Testament and New Testament archeology as “de-mythologizing” the Biblical narratives without explaining their definition of the word. Giving these folks all possible benefit of any doubt, I suspect that at least some of them did not intend to cast aspersion upon the factual accuracy of those records, but rather to place them carefully in their historical context. I am equally certain that others, some of whom I have encountered personally, did have much more destructive intent. The furor which arose as a result, however, probably was caused primarily by a failure to understand that the vocabulary of the disciplines of anthropology and archeology is descriptive, and not necessarily derogatory.
To the cultural anthropologist, “myth” simply denotes the narrative, either historical or fanciful or some combination thereof, upon which the members of a specific cultural group base their self-understanding, their mores, and their very existence as a people. Their use of the word “myth” itself, makes no judgment as to the historical veracity of the events to which the “myth” refers.
It is the function of the narrative that is in view: whether it describes the emergence of humankind from a hole in the ground or the world on the back of a giant sea turtle, the glorification (and sanitization of the behavior) of the “founding fathers” of the U.S., the antics of assorted pagan deities, or the treasured narratives of the Christian (or any other) faith tradition. ALL are “myths”, in the anthropological sense, since their function is to define the society in question, with total disregard to the opinions of scientists, pseudo-scientists, historians, or anyone else.

This is in harmony with the oldest definitions of muthos listed by L/S: Homer used it of “any public word or speech; a fact, threat, or command; counsel or advice; reasoning, saying, or rumor”. Only much later did muthos morph from the sense of “a tale, story, or narrative” into “fiction: the opposite of historic truth, which is represented by logos; legend, myth; the (literary) plot of a comedy or tragedy.” By the first century, the sense of “fiction” had become predominant.

The five uses of muthos in the New Testament clearly intend the latter sense. It appears in I Tim.1:4, 4:7; II Tim.4:4, Titus 1:14, and II Pet.1:16, always in a negative light. It does not occur at all in the LXX.
Interestingly, in his letter to Titus, Paul warns specifically against “Jewish fables [myths],” connecting them with people’s man-made regulations, and “turning away from the truth”. Folks who have been encouraged to supplement their understanding of New Testament teaching with the fanciful conjectures of earlier and contemporary Jewish writers would do well to heed this warning.
Peter is even more specific, as he emphasizes to his readers that the burden of his teaching about “the power and presence of the Lord Jesus” was NOT based upon “cleverly-devised myths”, but rather upon his own personal experience! Peter often did lean toward the practical, as he sought to understand and to follow the Lord. And the sharing of actual experience was always – and is still – the most valid “evangelism!”
Paul seems to have discerned that Timothy was facing similar dangers. In I Tim.1:4, he connects “myths [fables]” with “interminable genealogies”, the preoccupation with which threatened to distract people from simple obedience to the truth. There are still groups that want to check a person’s “pedigree” before accepting the veracity of his commitment. (I have been their victim!)

In I Tim.4:7, “bebelous (L/S: irreligious, scornful, profane) and graodeis (a derogatory term for old women) muthous” most likely refers to any notions that would interfere with the immediately following advice: “Discipline yourself toward godliness!”

Paul’s second letter to  Timothy (4:4) describes people who simply avoid or ignore the truth, in favor of muthous ektropesontai – “turning aside to myths.” Might this apply to folks who feel a need to obsess over figuring out elaborate explanations for every un-answered question? Speculation can be so much easier and more entertaining than simple obedience!

So yes: it it absolutely clear that “myths” – in the literary sense – can present a grave danger to faithfulness. We need to take the apostles’ warning quite seriously.
But let us also avoid getting hung-up on the technical vocabulary of a scholarly discipline from which we could gain valuable historical insight. Evaluate the effects of their “discoveries”, rather than rejecting them out-of-hand because of the terminology they choose. (And if you are an historian, please find or invent a less-threatening word!)

To all the faithful, be sure to choose carefully which will be the “myths” (in the anthropological sense) that will inform and govern your life, behavior, and indeed, your very being!

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