People think about the Bible in two general ways, traditionally called rationalism and mythic thinking. Although lay people may not realize it, these two ways of thinking have a history in academic study.
It is easy to distinguish these two forms of thinking by their names. Rationalism means that events described in the Bible can be explained rationally. In other words, however unbelievable an event may seem, there is a rational explanation for it.
Christian fundamentalism, even though it seems like a collection of farfetched beliefs, is based on a “rational” understanding of the Bible. The foundational belief in Christian fundamentalism is that whatever happened in the Bible is true. It measures up to reason. The difference is that prior to fundamentalism, eighteenth-century rationalists assumed that biblical events were true but misconceived. Whatever happened must have been a reasonable thing, but clearly it did not happen the way the Bible describes. Modern fundamentalism lacks the nuances of the earlier rationalists but still maintains the belief that what the Bible says must be true.
The other way of thinking about the Bible is called mythic because it is the belief that the Bible does not relay true or reasonable stories. The Bible relays myths like the creation story or miracle stories. When taken to the extreme, the mythic understanding of the Bible can be used to dismiss the Bible with a phrase like “it’s all myth” or “only myth.” While the mythic understanding is what most scholars of the Bible hold today, they do not hold this position to dismiss but rather to understand the Bible. Let’s take a closer look.
From about the eighteenth century to the nineteenth century, the understanding of the Bible shifted from rationalism to mythic. In the eighteenth century, theologians commonly tried to rationally explain supernatural events found in the Bible. Theologians of this era were not modern Christian fundamentalists. They did not think that supernatural events really happened; they thought that such events had reasonable explanations.
For example, a rationalist explanation for the story of Jesus walking on water was that it only appeared like Jesus was on the water because of mist. He really was on the shore. Or he knew where a sandbar was. Or he was walking on rocks hidden beneath water level. A popular rationalist explanation for Jesus’ resurrection was that he recuperated in the cool cave and recovered enough to emerge three days later.
These rational explanations assumed that the Bible relayed real history, but that misconceptions or faulty observations were recorded by the writers. Heinrich Paulus, who lived from 1761 to 1851, is often regarded as a classical rationalist. He exemplifies the spirit of rationalism in biblical studies due to his claim that Jesus survived his ordeal on the cross.
In the nineteenth century a sort of revolution occurred, the consequences of which are more or less assumed today. The revolution was to accept that ancient people had a mythic mindset. This did not mean that ancient people did not know what truth was. It meant that ancient people thought about things and explained things in mythic ways.
According to the mythic view, stories in the Bible about miracles are not the consequence of misunderstood factual events. Jesus walking on the water is not due to an ancient person being fooled by a sandbar. Rather, miracles like this display how ancient people thought about the world. They used heroic forms of writing. They did not have “facts” in the modern sense. They talked about someone like Jesus or one of the prophets in literary ways. The ancients, in other words, did not take things literally. Taking things literally is our problem, not theirs.
David Friedrich Strauss
David Friedrich Strauss was important in biblical studies because he was among the first to use the mythic understanding. He demonstrated meticulously how the Bible cannot be understood using rationalism. Miraculous events arose from the ancient worldview that assumed a three-tiered universe and that used “story” (mythos) to represent the social and political dynamics of their day. To understand the Bible mythically is to understand the Bible “really,” that is, to understand it in context. When it comes to biblical studies, mythic thinking is good thinking whereas rationalism is misleading.
To employ mythic thinking to understand antiquity does not mean to conclude that nothing in the Bible is historical. There is reason for lots of doubt, but some things certainly happened and some certainly did not happen.
There was a Jesus of history, but it’s not easy to discover who he was. There was a King David, but it is almost impossible to recover the historical figure. Was there an exodus? Yes and no. The exodus is clearly mythic, but there could be some historic truth behind it. Did John the Baptist announce Jesus was the lamb of God? Highly unlikely. Did Jesus really walk on water. No. In other words, certain things can be given historical credence while other things are fictional. Was Jesus crucified? That seems certain. However, his rising from the dead is really a pronunciation, not a historical event.
Much of the Jesus story is mythic. It is wrong to read it all as literally true. Not even the ancient writers understood it all as literally true. When it comes to the mythic understanding, the questions always concern meaning. What does the story mean? Then, you can go one step further and ask how does one participate in the myth (how in ancient times, how today)?
Employing a mythic imagination is just how ancient people operated. We have to get used to it today and take account of it. If we don’t, we’ll assume that Bible stories are either factually true or a lie. Those two options do not fit into the ancient way of looking at the world.
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