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MYTH, MYTHOLOGY (μυ̂θος, G3680, myth, fable, story). Stories about gods (less characteristically, if at all, about God) which have been narrated in a communal setting as occurrences of permanent significance, and which normally presuppose a given view of the world. (But see “Problems of Definition” below.) The term “mythology” frequently denotes any body of myths, although more strictly it refers primarily to the study of myths.

Problems of definition

Definitions of myth are notoriously controversial, and remain acutely relevant to questions about the relationship between myth and the Bible.

The modern discussion.

Recognizable characterisics of myth.

Some features of myth are less controversial than others, and most writers agree on the following points:

a. Content and narrative form. Myths may be distinguished from legends, in that they depict gods, rather than men, as their central figures. On the other hand, some writers admittedly blur this distinction (e.g. M. Dibelius). There is total agreement, however, that myths use only narrative form. They express ideas or events as tales which embody imaginative features; they are never abstract generalizations or analyses.

b. Communal setting. Myths emerge from within the life of a community. They answer to some significant feature of its common belief and culture.

c. Supposed truth-status. In their own community setting, myths possess, or at least once possessed, the status of believed truth. The popular notion of myth as fabricated fiction is strictly secondary, stemming from the fact that all but their earliest narrators regarded, say, the myths of ancient Greece, as notorious falsehood. (Cf. esp. M. Eliade, Myths, Dreams and Mysteries 23ff.)

Disputed characteristics.

a. Relation to polytheism. O. Eissfeldt contends that “a real myth presupposes at least two gods” (The OT: An Introduction [1965], 35). But to Emil Brunner (The Mediator [1934], 377-396), John Knox (Myth and Truth) and other writers, “myth” remains compatible with Biblical monotheism. The issues at stake, however, are chiefly (1) whether polytheism constitutes an essential, or merely a usual, feature of myth; and (2) whether, given either definition, writers use it consistently and unambiguously.

b. Relation to cultus and to primitive attitudes. Myth presupposes a particular understanding of the world. But is this worldview exclusively the expression of pre-scientific notions? Positive answers were given in the 18th cent. by Lowth, and in the 19th cent. by Heyne; and G. Hartlich and W. Sachs have shown how deeply their answers influenced 19th-cent. work on the OT from Eichhorn onward (Der Ursprung des Mythosbegriffes in der Modernen Bibelwissenschaft [1952], esp. 6-19 and 148-164). In this cent., apart from the questions raised by Bultmann, the philosopher Ernst Cassirer has elaborated a view of myth as a distinctively pre-philosophical tool of knowledge and communication. On the other hand, Mircea Eliade follows Jaspers and Jung in insisting that myth remains fundamentally relevant to modern man (op. cit. 23-56 and 232-246. Cf. also K. Jaspers in H. W. Bartsch ed. op. cit. ii 144). To Eliade, it is certainly not the notion of a three-story universe that constitutes the essence of myth. Rather, it is the mythical concept of time, whereby the great archetypal events of the past can be “repeated” to give fresh shape or meaning to the present (cf. his book, The Myth of the Eternal Return).

Myth, in practice, is an extraordinarily complex phenomenon (cf. Eliade’s definition in Aspects du mythe 14, 15). B. S. Childs is almost certainly correct in his general analysis of mythical attitudes to space and to the cultus, as well as to time (Myth and Reality in the OT, 17-21 and 73-94). Normally it is specifically in the drama of the cult that primeval events are supposedly actualized in the present (ibid. 19). Contentions about myth and cult in Biblical thought justly encounter controversy. Few Christians would deny that God’s saving acts of the past become “contemporary” in the sense of shaping, and giving meaning to, the present; but when Eliade speaks of “reactualizing” the Passion of Christ specifically in liturgy, this is a different matter altogether (cf. Myths, Dreams and Mysteries, 27-31. See also II B. l. b. on Hooke and Bentzen, but esp. III A. 1 and III B. 2 on Bultmann’s view and its difficulties).

c. What kind of truth is claimed? While most writers agree that myth has been narrated as truth, some view this as factual truth, and others as existential truth. The difference is significant. For example, if creation-myths are given “factual” status, most of them would logically exclude the truth-claims of the others. But, if they are merely concrete expressions of man’s finitude, one cosmogony may be said positively to complement another. Some writers illustrate this difference by comparing the “truth” of a map with the “truth” of a painting. Admittedly a concept emerged in developed Graeco-Rom. thought of things which “never happened but are eternally true” (e.g. Sallustius and Julian on Attis mythology). Many writers doubt whether earlier cultures were also conscious of this distinction. Knox insists that “it is precisely this distinction which in mythology is obscured or drops from sight” (op. cit. 23). On the other hand, if this is so, it is not an outlook which characterizes the OT, with its emphasis on historical event (cf. G. E. Wright, God Who Acts, 116-128).

Greek literature.

Varying uses of the term “myth.”

The ambiguity of the term is not modern. Cf. G. Stählin, and C. K. Barrett (in loc.). Originally μυ̂θος, G3680, could mean “thought,” “account,” or “account of the facts” (e.g. Homer, Odyssey iii. 94 and xi. 492). Quickly, however, the term came to mean “story” or “tale,” without implying any particular judgment of its truth. It then functioned increasingly as an antonym of λόγος, G3364, to mean either “myth” in a fully technical sense, or “fiction,” “fable,” “allegory” or “fairy-tale.” Two specialized uses significantly developed. First, it came to denote the plot of a drama. The importance of this is that just as a plot dictates its dramatic action and the drama enacts its plot, so myth dictates a ritual, while ritual supposedly actualizes its myth. Second, the term could also denote pictorial or imaged thinking. Thus Suidas describes it as λόγος ψευδής, εἰκονίζων τὴν ἀλήθειαν.

Varying attitudes to mythology.

Greek lit. reflects a phenomenon roughly parallel to more modern notions of demythologization. Many thinking men criticized the ancient myths as insults to intelligence and ethics. (Cf. Plutarch, Euripedes, and Aristophanes.) Others believed that the myths reflected certain insights, and could be of educative value in communicating them in concrete images. The Stoics viewed myths as early philosophy in historical dress, and subjected them to reappraisal by allegorical interpretation. Plato carried the process further, although he himself and esp. Aristotle express simultaneous criticism of the traditional myths (cf. Stählin; Sallustius, “On the Gods and the World” in G. Murray, Five Stages of Greek Religion [1935], 200-225; and J. A. Stewart, The Myths of Plato [1905]).

Ancient near-eastern mythology and the OT

Questions about specific OT passages.

In addition to other foreign creation-myths, two particular epics of the Near E have invited considerable comparative study. The Babylonian Creation Epic, commonly known by its opening words as Enuma elis, was discovered during the 19th cent., and published in 1875 (cf. ANET 60-72; and A. Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis). Its main concern is to depict relationships between deities of the Babylonian pantheon. It includes a cosmogony, in which Marduk utilizes the body of Tiamat for creating the world. There is not yet unanimity about its dating, and W. G. Lambert recently concluded that it is not a genuine norm of Babylonian or Sumerian cosmology (JTS ns XVI, 291). In spite of these and other difficulties, it has been argued repeatedly that Genesis reflects borrowings from this source. The other writing is the Babylonian Epic of Atrahasis. Only about a fifth of it was known before 1965 (cf. ANET 104-106); but up to four-fifths of it can now be recovered (cf. A. R. Millard, Tyndale Bulletin XVIII, 3-18, for sources in Cuneiform Texts). It recounts mythical acts of gods which include both a creation and a cosmic flood. It cannot be dated later than 1630 b.c. For examples of other creation-myths, cf. ANET 3-155.

Questions about the relationship between Genesis and these foreign myths turn mainly on the following points:

a. A questionable argument from etymology. In Genesis 1:2 תְּהוֹם, H9333, “the deep,” suggests an etymological connection with Tiamat, the Babylonian goddess or personified sea monster. Many have cited this point to support the view that Genesis draws on foreign myth (cf. B. S. Childs, op. cit. 37-39). But how direct is the connection, and what significance is to be attached to it? It has been pointed out (1) that in OT poetry, תְּהוֹם, H9333, is used indiscriminately with יָם, H3542, “sea”; and (2) that both terms prob. constitute independent derivations from tiāmtu, “ocean” (cf. W. G. Lambert, op. cit. 293; A. Heidel, op. cit. 98-101; D. F. Payne, Genesis One Reconsidered, 10; and A. R. Millard, op. cit. 7). No firm inference can be drawn from this etymological argument.

b. Contentions about a primeval chaos. As part of the Tiamat nexus of ideas, Babylonian myth contains the notion of a primeval chaos existing alongside the creator, and prior to creation. Other mythologies reflect similar ideas. But can the same be said of Genesis 1:2? Three issues must be considered. (1) The words tr. “without form and void” (תֹ֨הוּ וָבֹ֔הוּ) could admittedly denote confusion and waste, or a trackless wilderness. But there is no evidence that they ever signified something personal and active (cf. BDB 96 and 1062; G. von Rad, Genesis [1961], 47, 48). (2) In terms of syntax, it is possible to tr. Genesis 1:1, 2 as “When God began to create..., the earth was without form...,” thus implying that “the void” was prior to creation. Apart from its being unnecessary, the construction raises difficulties (see E. J. Young, WTJ XXI 133-146, and XXIII 151-178. For bibliography ibid., and Childs, 31-43). (3) In addition to its allusion to “the deep,” Genesis 1:2 also explicitly mentions “water(s)” (הַמָּֽיִם). The prominence of “primeval water” in Babylonian mythology has been overestimated (see W. G. Lambert, op. cit. 293).

Two conclusions deserve respect. B. S. Childs argues that Genesis transforms myth into “broken” myth. The purpose of this is to contrast creation, not with “nothingness,” but with active chaos. On the other hand, E. J. Young argues that in Genesis 1:2 it would be wiser to abandon the term “chaos” altogether, since the terms in question simply mean that the earth was not yet ready for man (but cf. D. Kidner, Genesis, 45).

c. Theories about primeval conflict. If Genesis had genuinely borrowed from the myth of Tiamat, why does it not seem to reflect a conflict theme? In 1895, H. Gunkel suggested an answer, and modifications of his theory have been widely held. The OT reflects the conflict, he suggested, primarily in its poetic books. Allusions to Rahab, Leviathan, and “dragon” (תַּנִּין, H9490) all look back to the primeval battle. The passages are cited below (under 4.), but here it is perhaps sufficient to point out that none of the passages sets the conflict before creation.

d. The order of creation. Although the parallels are not exact, the order of creation is roughly the same in Genesis as in Babylonian myth. Opinions vary as to whether this correspondence necessarily indicates some kind of relationship. No inference e.g., can be drawn from the creation of dry land before the appearance of vegetation, which could not otherwise exist. More has been made of the mention of light before the existence of luminary bodies. On the other hand, in many religions “light” is hardly contingent on sources within man’s world. See Cosmogony.

e. Acts of \"dividing.\" In the Babylonian Creation Epic Marduk “divides” the body of Tiamat (IV. 136-8). In Genesis God “divides” light from darkness (1:4) and heaven from earth (1:6-8). But the giving of form to creation inevitably involves differentiation. Hence, similar “dividings” also appear in Egyp., Hitt. and other mythology.

f. The creation of man. In The Epic of Atrahasis man is created by Nintu’s mixing clay with the blood of a god, and by the gods’ then spitting on the clay. God forms man of dust, and breathes life into him (Gen 2:7). But the parallel does not arise from a common mythological setting. Rather, it expresses the basic recognition that man stands in solidarity with creation, and yet also transcends it.

g. The sabbath. In many Akkadian or Babylonian myths the creation of man brings rest to some of the gods (e.g. Creation Epic VII. 27-30). God rests from His work on the seventh day (Gen 2:2, 3). But the context of ideas is radically different. In Babylonian myth the gods are relieved of routine chores such as providing food for the pantheon. In Genesis God “rests” only from the work of creation (but see under Sabbath).

h. Further note on the Enuma elish epic. Valid assessments of the relationship between Genesis and foreign myths cannot be made by comparing pre-selected parallels only. By contrast, the following will indicate the main outline of the Babylonian Creation Epic, which often has been cited in this selective way: The epic depicts domestic tensions between the pantheon, with extreme anthropomorphism. The older gods are given sleepless nights by the noise of the younger (I. 22-50). Gods use deceit and spells (I. 60ff., 152ff., II. 42), and have petulant moods (II. 75, 117). The high point of the epic is where Marduk slays Tiamat with the support of winds, a bow and arrow, and a net (IV. 35-103). Tiamat’s corpse provides materials for creation (IV. 137ff.). And the creation account takes very little space, chiefly introducing the ascription of honorific titles to Marduk (VI. 45-VII end).

Paradise and the Fall.

Myths of paradise occur here and there all over the world, and often reflect such features as harmony with heaven and absence of death (cf. M. Eliade, op. cit. 57-71). Hence discussions about Eden in Genesis (2:8-17) less concern specific myths than more general mythological patterns. Mythology often embodies the Urzeit-Endzeit pattern, according to which primeval conditions reappear at the end-time (cf. B. S. Childs, op. cit. 75-84). In Genesis, however, Eden remains “part of a traveled road that cannot be traversed again” (G. von Rad, op. cit. 73). Biblical eschatology uses the imagery of a renewed nature (Isa 11:6ff.) and sometimes may depict redemption as a reversal of the fall (see under Son of Man). As Childs rightly argues, the new creation contains an additional content above and beyond the original Urzeit (loc. cit. 90). In this sense, Eden cannot be regarded as myth.

The serpent has been connected with various myths (Gen 3:1-5). H. Gressmann associated it with a mythical god of the underworld, on the basis of its “eating dust,” and its connection with death. Others have viewed it as part of the general dragon mythology of the E, associating it with Tiamat, Leviathan, or the Ugaritic Tannin (see below). One difficulty about all these conjectures is that the serpent in Genesis 3 enters the scene as a created animal; but chiefly the emphasis of the whole narrative is on man and his responsibility, rather than on the serpent.

The Flood.

Allusions to a great flood appear not only in mythology, but also in the ancient Sumer. king list (ANET, 265). Probably the Epic of Gilgamesh constitutes the best-known parallel to the Flood account (Gen 6-8). It was published in 1872, and is dated by Speiser and Heidel at about 2,000 b.c. (cf. ANET 72-99; A. Heidel, The Gilgamesh Epic and OT Parallels; and N. K. Sandars, The Epic of Gilgamesh [1960]). Much of it tells of ordinary human life, and might better be called legend than myth; but the famous tablet XI tells of a cosmic flood in the setting of polytheistic myth. It includes the following similarities with Genesis: (1) a divine decree is revealed (XI. 187; Gen 6:13); (2) a boat is built according to careful measurements, and sealed with bitumen (XI. 24, 50-69; Gen 6:14-16); (3) the family and many animals enter (XI. 84-5; Gen 6:18-20); (4) the flood rises (XI. 96ff.; Gen 7:11ff.); (5) birds are sent out three times and these include a dove and a raven (XI. 147-154; Gen 8:6-11); and (6) a sacrifice is made at the conclusion (XI. 155; Gen 8:20). Finally, recently recovered material in the Epic of Atrahasis adds a further parallel which is lacking in the Epic of Gilgamesh (cf. A. R. Millard, op. cit. 11-14). Atrahasis, the Babylonian Noah, is saved for his distinctive piety.

Estimates of the significance of these parallels vary. Here we have space to make only a general comment. In terms of history, the similarities are more striking than the differences; in terms of myth the differences are more striking than the similarities. For example, the sequel to the Flood in Genesis is a solemn covenant (8:20-9:17). the mythical sequel in Gilgamesh is that Enlil is rebuked for having jeopardized the gods’ food supply, while the other gods crowd “like flies about the sacrificer” (XI. 161ff.). On the other hand, the many similarities of narrative detail, together with the inclusion of a cosmic flood in the Sum. king list may suggest the possible survival of reports and memories of the Genesis Flood (but cf. D. Kidner, op. cit. 95-97).

Other OT passages.

Lack of space prevents more than a bare mention of other passages which have been said to reflect foreign myth. Perhaps the most difficult is Genesis 6:1-4. B. S. Childs argues that it embodies what was originally a Canaanite aetiological myth explaining the origin of “giants.” Biblical writers, he believes, subsequently transformed it into no more than an example of increasing sin (op. cit. 50-59). The enigmatic character of such terms as “nephilim” (KJV “giants”) and “sons of God” tends to obscure all but the final significance which Childs suggests, and various explanations of the terms have been put forward (see articles under those titles).

Problems of a more general kind

Divergent results in modern research.

Modern writings suggest a bewildering variety of conclusions on the present subject. However, their divergences often are due to differences in method and approach, some of which may be distingushed as follows:

a. Early comparative investigations. Toward the end of the 19th cent., three archeological events gave a new impetus to OT studies. (On earlier work cf. C. Hartlich and W. Sachs, op. cit.) The publications of the Gilgamesh Epic in 1872 and of the Creation Epic in 1875 were followed in 1887 by the discovery of the Tell-el-Amarna tablets, which suggested close cultural interchanges between ancient Near-Eastern peoples. These discoveries seemed almost to recast the OT as one of many perhaps similar Near-Eastern writing. In the enthusiasm of such inquiry, overstatements often were made. H. Winckler and A. Jeremias tried to explain too much in terms of Babylonian ideas. Robertson Smith and J. G. Frazer investigated a wide range of primitive cultures, but they were hampered both by the anthropology of the time and by inadequate archeological knowledge, and Frazer sometimes sacrificed accuracy and relevance for sheer quantity of comparative material. Little from this early period is of unqualified value today, although many see a turning point in the more cautious work of H. Gunkel.

b. Myth and ritual: Mowinckel, Hooke, and Bentzen. In the 1920s myth figured notably in S. Mowinckel’s studies in the Psalms. Noting that certain psalms implied liturgical settings, he claimed that they also involved a ritual which, in turn, looked back to ancient myth. This applied esp. to the “coronation psalms,” which represented, he believed, an annual reënactment of God’s mythical victory over primeval forces. S. H. Hooke is perhaps the best-known writer for wider work on myth and ritual. His symposium Myth and Ritual (1933) suggests that given patterns of myth and ritual recurred throughout the ancient Near E. In his own words, “The mythology of Israel was largely drawn from Canaanite..., Mesopotamian, and Egyptian sources,” although “it was modified by the outlook inherited from the nomads of preconquest days” (op. cit. 173. Cf. also The Labyrinth [1935], and subsequent works). Finally, A. Bentzen spoke of a renaissance of myth in the context of ideas about the Royal Messiah. This Messiah, he believed, fights in the ritual combat of the Creation Drama, eventually becoming the primeval Man and primeval King of mythology (King and Messiah, 77-79). Above all, great moments of mythology are “re-lived” in the cult (72ff.).

c. Newer questions in Biblical research. For many years it had been assumed that external rituals functioned as accurate guides to religious thought, but J. Pedersen and W. Eichrodt already had demonstrated other ways of assessing Hebraic thought. In the 1940s and 1950s writers inquired increasingly about the inner character of Hebraic thinking. Work by W. F. Albright was soon followed by H. and H. A. Frankfort’s The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man (1946). The authors made a close study of mythopoeic thinking in the Near E.; but they also spoke of “the abysmal difference” between the Heb. and the normal Near-Eastern viewpoints (op. cit. 242). P. S. Minear’s Eyes of Faith (1948), and G. E. Wright’s The OT Against its Environment (1950), and God Who Acts (1952) are further examples of this newer approach. Wright asserts in the former work that “the God of Israel has no mythology” (ibid. 26). Controversy between such writers as T. Boman and J. Barr underline the recognized significance of Heb. semantics. Meanwhile comparative studies continue; but they seldom reflect the same presuppositions as those which shaped the methods of earlier years (cf. works by S. G. F. Brandon, K. A. Kitchen, and W. G. Lambert, cited in the bibliography).

Recurring difficulties.

a. Myth or metaphor? The question already has arisen over allusions to “Leviathan” or to “the Dragon” (II. A. 4). However, the problem is broader than this, depending on conclusions about the logical capacities of Hebraic thinking. Hebrew law, poetry, historiography, and theology show a logical range and flexibility which modern writers have generally ignored until very recently (cf. W. F. Albright, New Horizons in Biblical Research, 17-35). This includes differentiation between the literal and the metaphorical. Albright insists that the Biblical writers no more thought of heaven as literally “up,” than modern man thinks of the sun as literally “rising.” (See also III. B. 1.) There is no conclusive evidence to challenge the conclusion that mythical imagery features in the OT only as metaphorical coloring.

b. Dependence or parallel? Problems of dating. Similar concepts in different writings do not necessarily imply either direct borrowing or a common origin. E. A. Gardner cites an illuminating example from the field of art forms. In early Europe and America, identical decorative patterns arose quite independently, presumably from a similarity of technical conditions (E. R. E. IX. 118). Uncertainties of dating add further complications which make suggestions about borrowings often hazardous. Theories about Biblical borrowings from developed Gnostic mythology provide a well-known example of this difficulty (see Gnosticism).

c. Vocabulary or language function? Linguistic philosophers have convincingly shown that terminology alone may serve as an unreliable guide to the meanings of words (cf. L. W. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations [1953/1967]; applied sympathetically in W. Hordern, Speaking of God [1964]). The decisive factor is how given words function within the total real life setting of a community which uses them. In the context of the present subject, this means that the theological presuppositions of the OT writers are of greater significance for assessing their attitudes to myth, than are mere terminological parallels with foreign myth. The insights of linguistic research have yet to filter through to Biblical studies.

d. Time and salvation-history. A radical cleavage between the Bible and mythical thinking emerges in their strikingly different notions about time and history. The Biblical view was dictated chiefly by Israel’s experiencing progressive and purposive unfolding of God’s saving acts in history (cf. G. E. Wright, God Who Acts, and G. von Rad, OT Theology II [1965], 99ff.). Mythical views are characteristically connected with the community’s experience of recurring cycles of events in nature, and often suggest cyclical views of time (cf. M. Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return, 86ff., and Aspects du mythe, 54-70, 95-115; partly against B. S. Childs, op. cit. 75-77). Recent criticisms of Cullmann’s Christ and Time are directed less against this fundamental contrast than against unduly pressing too broad a generalization (cf. O. Cullmann, Salvation in History [1967]). In cyclical notions of time, the mythical “recall” of ancient realities is apparently vindicated in the repetition of natural events. By contrast, in Biblical thought, salvation depends on acts of God which are historically unique. Thus the view of time which is most conducive to mythopoeic thought stands in tension with Biblical attitudes to history (see History).

Myth and the NT: the debate about demythologization

Bultmann’s contentions about myth in the NT.

Rudolf Bultmann first used the term “demythologize” in 1941. His classic essay “New Testament and Mythology” began the debate of which samples occur in Kerygma and Myth (=KM). In Jesus Christ and Mythology (=JCM) he writes for the non-specialist, and he offers replies to recent comments in C. W. Kegley (ed.) The Theology of Rudolf Bultmann (=TRB).

The “mythological” world view of the NT.

Bultmann contends that the NT reflects a world view which is now obsolete. It depicts a three-story universe, peopled by angels, men, and demons, in which supernatural forces enter human affairs for good or for ill. It speaks of gods as if they were men, and portrays divine transcendence as spatial remoteness “up in heaven.” All this, Bultmann believes, is merely the stock in trade of pre-scientific thinking. With the dawn of modern science, it has become incredible. Radio and modern medicine have eclipsed spirits and miracles (KM I. 1-5; JCM 19-21; 35ff.).

Supposed examples of myth in NT theology.

Not only the world view of the NT, but also its account of the event of redemption is classified by Bultmann as mythological. Myth supposedly involves the following areas of its theology:

a. Eschatology. If heaven can no longer be viewed as a spatial actuality, how, Bultmann asks, can the Son of man be said to come “on the clouds of heaven,” or the faithful be said to meet Him “in the air”? (cf. 1 Thess 4:15ff., and KM I. 4). Similarly, he contends, the continuing course of world history refutes the myth of the kingdom of God, which otherwise demands an eschatological setting (JCM 11-17). So also the Last Judgment merely expresses a mythical method of “objectifying” human responsibility in relation to God (TRB 264; 267).

b. The atonement and the resurrection. Modern science supposedly contradicts the Biblical doctrine that death is the punishment of sin (KM I. 7). Bultmann argues, “What a primitive mythology it is that a divine Being should become incarnate, and atone for the sins of men through his own blood!” (ibid.). Citing such passages as Colossians 2:13-15, Bultmann claims that the NT combines imagery from law and cult to depict “a mythical process wrought outside of us” (KM I. 35, 36). The resurrection is also “mythological.” Faith in the resurrection means neither more nor less than faith in the saving efficacy of the cross (KM I. 41). It can no longer mean, in the modern world, a release of supernatural power (KM 8)

c. Christology. Bultmann argues that the Person of Jesus Christ combines history uniquely with myth. The man Jesus, who lived at Nazareth, and who certainly was crucified under Pilate, was without question a historical figure. But according to Bultmann little else can be said of Him which does not belong to mythology. Such titles as “Messiah,” “Son of man,” “King,” or “Lord” are supposedly Christological myth; and this applies esp. to the concept of a pre-existent divine Being, sent into the world as “Son of God” (KM I. 2, 8; 34, 35; JCM 16, 17).

d. Miracles and supernatural conflict. Bultmann regards miracles themselves as part of the essence of primitive mythology. Since notions about demonic activity come also in this category, this assessment applies to all language about present conflict with supernatural powers (cf. 2 Cor 4:4; Eph 2:2, and 6:12ff. See III. A. 1.).

“Demythologization” in Paul and John.

Bultmann stresses that the NT invites demythologization, first by contradictions, and second by its own conscious example. Contradictions are symptoms of myth. For instance, the death of Christ, Bultmann claims, cannot be simultaneously both a sacrifice and a cosmic event, unless it is in the realm of mythical thought. Similar telltale “contradictions” exist between “Messiah” and “Second Adam,” or between freedom and predestination. However, at least in eschatology, he argues, Paul and esp. John began to become alert to the situation. Paul endeavored to tr. the myth of apocalyptic into the existential lang. of Christunion. John transposed eschatology entirely into the present. As a concrete example, Bultmann suggests that John reinterpreted the mythological Antichrist into a historical series of “false teachers” (JCM 32-34).

Modern demythologization.

a. Premises about the function of myth in the NT. Bultmann claims to the very end that his proposals follow only what the NT genuinely suggests. But he admits, in effect, that his claim rests on premises about the purpose and function of myth. The purpose of myth, he assumes, is not to portray the external world, but “to express man’s understanding of himself in the world in which he lives” (KM. I, 10). It constitutes a means of arriving at, or expressing, self-understanding. But second, Bultmann suggests, myth functions with an undesirable effect. It obscures and impedes the very purpose which it exists to serve (KM. I, 11). In addition to involving “contradictions” such as we noted above, it does appear, after all, to describe external, extrinsic, or “objective” realities. This is perhaps the deepest reason why Bultmann cannot leave “myth” as it is. In his view, it positively demands existential interpretation.

b. Mythology and existential interpretation. Existentialism serves as an ambiguous label for a number of individual philosophies. Bultmann draws his existentialist categories almost entirely from Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time. But he insists, “I learned from him not what theology has to say, but how it has to say it” (TRB 276, Bultmann’s italics; cf. 273-8; KM I, 22-33; and J. Macquarrie, An Existentialist Theology [1955]). There is certainly a common emphasis, both in Heidegger and in the NT on individual challenge and decision, and on human finitude with its consequent pressures. Heidegger, Bultmann argues, speaks also with the voice of modern secularism, and thereby provides categories of expression which must be exploited. Thus the NT, “myth” of the imminent End can supposedly be tr. by taking up Heidegger’s language about the pressures of earthly cares, and the engulfing onrush of time (cf. JCM 24-29). The “myth” of the new creation can be cashed as letting go the false securities of the “old” and known, to yield oneself to whatever new future God may give (cf. JCM 31; TRB 268-271).

c. Contrasts between Bultmann and earlier liberalism. Bultmann notes that the earlier liberals used different methods from his own of dealing with myth. Most of them hoped to extract “timeless truths” from the historical or mythical husks which they freely discarded. Bultmann strongly insists that his own approach differs from theirs in two decisive ways. First, he does not propose to jettison mythology without trying to replace it with something better. He aims to interpret myth, rather than to eliminate it. Second, he does not regard the Gospel as a system of timeless truths; it remains, he stresses, the proclamation of a unique event. He consistently defends these two points, whatever his critics may have said (KM 12-16; TRB 258, 271).

Difficulties about Bultmann’s contentions

Assumptions about the Biblical worldview.

Although Bultmann treats this issue as virtually self-evident, writers have drawn attention to the following difficulties:

a. Myth and metaphor. We earlier noted W. F. Albright’s timely warning against underestimating the logical capacity of the Heb. mind (II. B. 2). P. S. Minear similarly insists that even the Apostle John did not believe naïvely in a three-storied universe (W. Klassen and G. Snyder, Current Issues in NT Interpretation [1962], 34). Examining Bultmann’s assumptions, G. R. Beasley-Murray asks whether the “horses” of Revelation 19:14, 18 had really been groomed in heavenly stables, and how the wife of the Lamb could be a city whose height was 12,000 furlongs, but whose wall, in any case, was a mere 144 cubits (Th. T. xiv, 66). G. B. Caird concludes that while Revelation utilizes mythical imagery, it does so with the insight of a political cartoonist (Exp. T. 74, 103). Facts such as these cast serious doubts on Bultmann’s assessment of the NT world-view.

b. Myth and miracle. Many have questioned whether a belief in miracles has anything at all to do with an obsolete world view. J. Macquarrie, whose criticisms of Bultmann are normally moderate, argues that his notion of miracle comes from an outdated pseudo-scientific view of the universe as a closed system (An Existentialist Theology, 168). The criticism is developed by D. Cairns, who consistently reserves the term “prodigy” to designate Bultmann’s “miracle,” because he believes that it has little in common with the concept in the NT and in current thought (A Gospel Without Myth? 112-135. For a strong attack from the conservative viewpoint cf. P. E. Hughes, E. Q. xxx, 184-195; Scripture and Myth 19f.; and BDT 368-371).

c. The NT and Gnosticism. According to Bultmann, the NT borrowed much of its myth from Gnostic sources. But quite apart from serious problems of dating, a comparison with Gnosticism serves all the more to bring into relief the studied restraint of the NT in avoiding cosmological naïvities. (Lack of space prohibits a development of this point, but see under Gnosticism.)

Ambiguities in Bultmann’s concept of myth.

The linguistic philosopher R. W. Hepburn goes to the heart of the matter when he points out that Bultmann defines myth in two very different ways (“Demythologizing and the Problem of Validity,” 229, 230. See Bibliography). One of Bultmann’s definitions is purely formal: “the use of imagery to express the other worldly in terms of this world...” (KM. I. 10n). The other is in terms of content: “supernatural forces intervene...miracles are by no means rare...” (ibid. 1). The formal definition, Hepburn reminds us, makes “demythologizing” “a logically impossible task” (loc. cit. 229). For, clearly, it must include symbol and analogy in general, but on Bultmann’s own inevitable admission, language about God remains “certainly analogical” (KM I 197). Hepburn concludes that the two definitions are incompatible, urging Bultmann to “greater logical rigor” (ibid. 230).

Each type of definition has also invited its own criticisms. Clearly on the basis of the formal definition, H. Thielicke protests that we can no more abandon myth than we can cease to think in space-time categories (KM I, 141); while H. Gollwitzer asserts that Bultmann vitiates his own discussion by a clumsy confusion between myth and analogy (The Existence of God, 43, 44). J. Macquarrie examines this question with greater sympathy, but he also concludes that Bultmann’s position is unsatisfactory (The Scope of Demythologizing, 202-206). A defense, however, comes from S. M. Ogden (TRB 108-116). “Myth” in Bultmann, he claims, is not merely analogy, but a mode of thinking which conceptualizes the divine as though it were an object of scientific observation. Ogden’s clarification shows the doubtful relevance of certain criticisms, but it also pinpoints a difficulty about the “narrower” definition of myth. Why does Bultmann refuse to take at face-value language which “objectifies” spiritual realities? For as both Schniewind (loc. cit.) and Owen (TRB 47) point out, it is impossible to believe “in” unless one first believes “that” and to have “objective” concepts about a person does not at all imply that one is viewing him as an “object,” rather than as a person. Yet Bultmann explicitly declares, as Owen points out, that any cosmic process which is said to happen objectively “outside” us would be “nothing other than a myth” (45; see also below).

History, factuality, and language.

a. Criticisms and replies. From 1942 onward it has been urged repeatedly that Bultmann’s conclusions fail to do justice to the historical factuality of the Gospel. H. Thielicke declared that he had reduced it to the status of a philosophy (KM I. 141ff.). J. Schniewind’s criticisms were milder, but E. Kinder and W. Künneth repeated Thielicke’s censure. Finally, “demythologizing” was officially condemned by the United Evangelical Lutheran Church of Germany (cf. E. Kinder ed., Eng. title, Kerygma and History [1962]; and KM II 1-82). Bultmann replied that his critics had misread the issue, and F. Gogarten published a defense of his attitude to history in the well-known book, Demythologizing and History (cf. also TRB 258 and 260). Nowadays it is widely recognized that Bultmann did not intend completely to evaporate the Gospel’s factuality. Indeed this is the point at issue between him and his “left-wing” critics (discussed under c.). However, there are many who remain unconvinced that he has logically succeeded in his stated aim (see 3 c.).

b. Falsification and criteria of meaning. We have space only to refer to lit. on this subject. A trenchant exposé comes from R. W. Hepburn, who characterizes Bultmann’s position as a flight from the evidential (loc. cit. 230ff.; cf. also his Christianity and Paradox [1958]). In The Scope of Demythologizing J. Macquarrie is sympathetic, but nevertheless critical (op. cit. 81-101; 186-221; cf. TRB, 141). Heinrich Ott’s contentions about the problem of meaning and history are relevant to the concept of “eschatological verification” (TRB 51-64).

c. Event and interpretation. Bultmann is rightly concerned that nothing should obscure the existential thrust of the Bible. His account of the function of myth (see A. 4) tends too easily to suggest that it can be tr. into existential terms with almost no factual remainder. An example will serve to throw the problem into relief. How are we to interpret the “myth” of the doctrine of creation? Admittedly, Biblical writers intend that it should be cashed in existential terms (e.g. as thanksgiving for life, or stewardship of resources). But does this exhaust its significance? If both God and Creation are said to be realities, does this not also imply a relationship between them which is independent of the believer’s self-understanding? The Biblical doctrine gives certainly more than mere information; but it hardly gives less than this. One writer complains about the exclusiveness of Bultmann’s alternatives, when he speaks of either cosmology or anthropology, as if a mixture of both could never be found (P. S. Minear, TRB 77). In fact, the existential depends on the historical, as effect on cause. J. Macquarrie pertinently asks how does it make sense to talk of dying and being raised with Christ, unless we first have some assurance that Christ actually died and was raised (TRB, 141).

The problem is rooted in the larger question of the relationship between event and interpretation. Ian Henderson draws an illuminating distinction between two types of interpretation. Some interpretations, like the decoding of a message, will allow the subsequent disposal of their original source; others, like a commentary on a masterpiece, can never substitute for their original (Myth in the NT, 31). It is arguable that “demythologization” mistakes the second for the first, for there remains an inseparable relationship between the original events of Scripture and the original interpretations that came with them (cf. K. Kantzer’s excellent essay in C. Henry ed., Jesus of Nazareth: Saviour and Lord, 241-264).

Basic theological problems.

a. Theology transposed into a doctrine of man. Many have argued that if Bultmann’s notions of myth were right, the Gospel could give man news only about himself. It becomes virtually impossible to maintain the traditional distinction between knowledge of God and knowledge of man in theology (cf. H. P. Owen, TRB 49; P. E. Hughes loc. cit.). G. Bornkamm, however, emphatically defends Bultmann against this criticism, on the ground that he preserves at all costs the “offense” of the Gospel (TRB 15). Since both sides often appeal to the subsequent course of the debate, conclusions are perhaps best arrived at in that context.

b. Christology transposed into soteriology. Bultmann and his critics agree on the issue at stake: according to the NT perspective, does Jesus help the believer because He is “Son of God,” or is He “Son of God” because He helps the believer? If “Son of God” Christology is myth, it allows only the latter alternative. But many believe that the NT asserts the former (e.g. Karl Barth, K.M. II 96ff.; L. Malevez, The Christian Message and Myth; and R. Schnackenburg, KKM II 336-355). In the space which is available, we cannot do justice to the issues at stake, but Rudolf Schnackenburg sets out the case carefully and clearly. (See also W. Künneth, Theology of the Resurrection.)

The subsequent course of the debate.

If Thielicke and Kinder argued that Bultmann had gone too far, others maintained that he had not gone far enough. Fritz Buri expounded this view in 1952 (cf. Kerygma and Mythos II, 85-101), and S. M. Ogden developed it in Christ Without Myth, in 1961. Yet, in spite of their arriving at opposite conclusions, both sides, Ogden points out, share the common belief that Bultmann’s view is “an uneasy synthesis of two...incompatible standpoints” (op. cit. 115). If myth is to be interpreted in terms of human self-understanding, on what logical basis can faith be retained in the uniqueness of an event proclaimed in the NT kerygma? Jaspers describes Bultmann’s special pleading as “altogether orthodox and illiteral” (KM II, 174). Buri demands not merely “demythologizing,” but also “dekerygmatizing” as its logical conclusion. Similarly Ogden comments in a recent critique of Bultmann, “As I read the NT it knows of no basis for man’s authentic existence except the primordial love of God” (TRB. 121). Finally, Herbert Braun goes even further than Buri and Ogden. If the language of the NT is no more than a vehicle of self-understanding, cannot the same be said about its postulate “God”? (For a critique of Braun, cf. H. Gollwitzer, op. cit. 35-39.)

The claims of Bultmann’s “left-wing” critics tend perhaps to vindicate some of the criticisms of his more conservative ones. There have certainly been vigorous reactions against underestimating the Biblical concern about history, and these can be seen not only in New Quest School and in emphases on salvation-history, but also in the concerns of such writers as W. Pannenberg. (For a broad summary of such movements cf. C. F. H. Henry, op. cit. 3-22.)

The five allusions to “myth” in the NT.

Discussions about these allusions generally turn on (1) whether all have some connection with Judaism, or only the reference in Titus; (2) whether they can be directly associated with Gnostic speculations; (3) whether they might indicate a sincere but misguided attempt by Christians (or Jews) to allegorize pagan myths for homilitical purposes (see above, I.B.). G. Stählin considers it “highly probable” that the Pastorals refer to an early form of Gnosticism which flourished on the soil of Hel. Jewish Christianity, in some ways comparable with what is reflected in Colossians (TDNT IV 783); while C. K. Barrett views the third alternative as a strong possibility (Exp T. 68, 348). There is insufficient data, however, to allow firm conclusions. (Cf. G. Stählin, loc. cit. 781-791; C. K. Barrett, loc. cit. 345ff.; and D. Guthrie, The Pastoral Epistles [1957], 57, 58.) In the LXX, “myth” occurs only in the Apoc., and only twice (Wisd Sol 17:4; Ecclus 20:19).


E. A. Gardner, ERE IX (1917), 117-121; S. H. Hooke (ed.), Myth and Ritual (1933); A. Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis (1942, 21951); G. Stählin, TDNT, IV (German 1942, Eng. 1967), 762-795; H. Frankfort et al., The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man (1946) =Before Philosophy (Penguin ed. 1949); A. Heidel, The Gilgamesh Epic and the Old Testament (1946, 21949); P. E. Hughes, “Miracle and Myth,” E. Q. xx (1948), 184-195; ANET (1950), 3-155; G. E. Wright, The Old Testament Against its Environment (1950), 20-29; I. Henderson, Myth in the New Testament (1952), 116-128; M. Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return (Eng. 1954); F. Gogarten, Demythologizing and History (Eng. 1955); A. Bentzen, King and Messiah (Eng. 1955); R. W. Hepburn in A. Flew and A. MacIntyre (ed.), New Essays in Philosophical Theology (1955), 227-242; H. Riesenfeld in W. D. Davies and D. Daube (ed.), The Background to the NT and its Eschatology (1956), 81-95; G. R. Driver, Canaanite Myths and Legends (1956); G. V. Jones, Christology and Myth in the New Testament (1956); P. E. Hughes, Scripture and Myth (1956); C. K. Barrett, “Myth and the New Testament” ExpT 68 (1957), 345-348 and 359-362; G. R. Beasley-Murray, Th. T. XIV (1957), 61-79; S. H. Hooke (ed.), Myth, Ritual and Kingship (1958); L. Malevez, The Christian Message and Myth (Eng. 1958); E. J. Young, WTJ xxi (1959), 133-146; P. E. Hughes, in BDT (1960), 368-371; D. Cairns, A Gospel Without Myth? (1960); R. Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology (Eng. 1960); B. H. Throckmorton, The NT and Mythology (1960); H. Ridderbos, Bultmann (1960); J. Macquarrie, The Scope of Demythologizing (1960); M. Eliade, Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries (Eng. 1960); B. S. Childs, Myth and Rea lity in the OT (1960, 21962); E. O. James, The Ancient Gods (1960); G. Miegge, Gospel and Myth in the Thought of Rudolf Bultmann (Eng. 1960); E. J. Young, WTJ xxiii (1961), 151-178; H. W. Bartsch (ed.), Kergyma and Myth (Eng. I, 1953, 21964; Eng. II, 1962); T. H. Gaster and E. Dinkler, IDB 3 (1962), 481-489; G. B. Caird, ExpT 74 (1962-1963), 103-105; M. Eliade, Aspects du mythe (1963); S. G. F. Brandon, Creation Legends of the Ancient Near East (1963); R. H. Fuller, The NT in Current Study (1963), 9-32; A. N. Wilder, Early Christian Rhetoric (=The Language of the Gospel) (1964), 126-136; J. Knox, Myth and Truth (1964, 21966); D. F. Payne, Genesis One Reconsidered (1964), 9-14; W. Künneth, The Theology of the Resurrection (Eng. 1965), 40-107; H. Gollwitzer, The Existence of God as Confessed by Faith (Eng. 1965); W. G. Lambert, “A New Look at the Babylonian Background of Genesis” in JTS ns xvi (1965), 287-300; K. A. Kitchen, “Myth in the OT” and F. F. Bruce, “Myth in the NT” in Theological Students Fellowship Bulletin 44 (1966), 1-19; C. W. Kegley (ed.), The Theology of Rudolf Bultmann (1966), esp. 21-40, 65-82, and 257-287; C. F. H. Henry (ed.), Jesus of Nazareth: Saviour and Lord (1966); K. A. Kitchen, Ancient Orient and O.T. (1966), 87-90, 102-111; W. F. Albright, New Horizons in Biblical Research (1966), 17-35; K. Ward, “Myth and Fact in Christianity,” Scottish Journal of Theology 20 (1967), 385-396; J. Macquarrie, God-Talk (1967), 168-191; F. D. Kidner, Genesis (1967); A. R. Millard, “A New Babylonian ‘Genesis’ Story” in Tyndale Bulletin, 18 (1967), 3-18; J. I. Packer, “Must We Demythologize?” in TSF Bulletin 50 (1968), 1-5; W. Schmithals, An Introduction to the Theology of Rudolf Bultmann (Eng. 1968), 249-272. Additional minor works are cited in the text. See also articles and bibliographies under History, Genesis, Creation, Sabbath, Gnosticism, Mystery Religions, Adam, Son of Man, Leviathan, Rahab, and Dragon.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)


See Fable; Religion of Babylonia and Assyria; GREECE, RELIGION IN ANCIENT.