Anthony Jaramillo: Cultural Myths and Christianity?
I must preface this short article by mentioning that the following text is a collection of brainstorming ideas and assumptions from my current limited knowledge that I have yet to fully research. The conclusions drawn from these assumptions are far from being set in stone and will most likely be altered as I continue my research. That being said, I have done much research in the past on these issues prior to writing this.
The vast array of interpretations on the Old and New Testaments have been widely influenced by culture, especially by North American culture. Interpretations of Jesus turning water into wine have been largely influence by the Prohibition Act in America in the 1920s. Many of the apostle Paul’s decrees to cultivate a reasoned faith are largely ignored because of the anti-intellectual climate within many mainstream Christian circles. Many of our church’s operations reflect the big business model of corporate America rather than ancient biblical community models. Recent issues of gender, sex and racial identities have certainly revived alternative interpretations of relevant biblical texts. The list of modern cultural influences goes on.
It's nothing new to assert that the Christianity doesn't exist within an isolated bubble divorced from outside influences (though many interpretations from the pulpit seem to assume the opposite). This is also true in ancient times at Christianity's inception. Scholars have done extensive research investigating the cultural influences on the Christ movement from the first century (1). As well as the ancient cultural influence on Judaism (2). It seems, however, that these findings are largely overlooked in our modern mainstream American Christian culture. I find the implications of the research uncovered by these scholars extremely liberating in that it conveys that the Christian movement was deeply involved with and relevant to the popular cultural trends of the day. This is true also for ancient Judaism as evidence has revealed the Tanak to contains many similarities, in terms of style and content, to other extant myths.
It is clear that the function of many ancient myths is to illicit a certain behavioral conformity in accordance to the given culture’s values and beliefs. The islander myths of Maui promoted the ethic of self-sacrifice. The Beowulf myth of western Europe propagates the heroic code of conduct that outlined how a noble person should behave. Odysseus embodies the virtues of nationalism in Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey. These myths also seek to answer questions of origins and meaning, while some are merely interested in examining the human condition.(3) This was a world that revolved around oral traditions and storytelling. These myths created communities and bonded people together around shared values and beliefs. The myth of David and Goliath within the Hebrew community presents the value of worshipping and glorifying Yahweh and making his reputation known among all nations.
This is also true in the case of the oral traditions of Jesus’ ministry that circulated in the first and second centuries within the Christian community. My aim here is not to present an exhaustive investigation on the parallels of Jesus’ life and ministry and those of opposing religions, but to simply state that Jesus traditions existed within a world that was saturated in myths that served similar functions in society. Though the gospels do appear to contain the conventions to be categorized as ancient historiographies there does seem to be elements of the mythic influence that was embedded in the culture during that time. This is not to say that the entire accounts of the gospels should be interpreted as myth. Far from it. But one should not be stumbled by the ancient cultural similarities of other myths found in these ancient texts.
Much of our misunderstandings of religion are rooted in our cultural milieu that have roots embedded in the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution. After the monumental discoveries and advancements made in the fields of science and technology a shift in our understanding of truth had changed. Truth began to be understood as that which can only be empirically verified through our senses.(4) It is an empirical truth, different from the concept of truth understood by the ancients. While there is no cut and dry definition, the concept of truth (alethia) held by the ancient Greeks had to do with unconcealment and unveiling and was associated with appearance as well as historical events. On the other hand, modern notions of truth are more concerned with tangible concepts that can be subjected to scientific analysis through our senses, that which exists in our physical world. As a result of this shift, many scholars and theologians have subjected their biblical exegesis to this empirical model of truth.
I will liken our biblical interpretive bents to language. When a native-English speaking person hears a non-native English speaker speak English, one of the most noticeable traits of their speech is their accent. When someone from a different native tongue speaks a foreign language, they tend to follow the habits of pronunciation patterns of their native tongue, creating the different sound of their accent. They place emphasis on different syllables of words and alter word order in sentences that confuse meaning. Whether the speaker realizes it or not, they are imposing their native tongue’s language laws onto a foreign language which can frustrate communication. In the same way, we must realize that we have the tendency to interpret ancient texts by imposing our modern philosophical views upon them and alter their meaning.
The takeaway from this article is to expose the false underlying assumptions that fuel popular Christian evangelicalism and the negative implications it can hold for future generations. There is imposed a false dichotomy upon Christians that communicate literal interpretations of the Bible are faithful and questioning its historical accuracy borders on the line of heresy. The truth of the matter is that the biblical authors are completely indifferent to the scientific measures of truth and logic we impose on their writings. I can’t imagine Moses being particularly concerned with accurately depicting a world within a heliocentric universe. So no, I don’t think that considering parts of the biblical stories as cultural myths to be heretical. And those who may hold those views should not be deemed as such. It seems possible that some aspects of the Old and New Testaments may have been merely stories to encourage faithfulness to Yahweh and Jesus. Though the bible is very much rooted in historical events, the resurrection of Jesus to name one, its authors or not at all concerned with presenting these events in a way that can be neatly verified by archaeology or other empirical means. Apparent contradictions within the accounts are of no concern to ancient cultures and in no way diminish its truthfulness. Instead, people are urged to discuss the events with others in order to uncover (or unveil) the Christ who has risen.
- E.P. Sanders, Daniel Boyarin, and Albert Schweitzer to name a few scholars. M. David Litwa seems to deal with this issue directly in his latest work: Litwa, M. D. (2014). Iesus deus: The early Christian depiction of Jesus as a Mediterranean god.
- Collins, J. J. (2014). Introduction to the Hebrew Bible and Deutero-Canonical books and Coogan, M. D. (2013). The Old Testament: A historical and literary introduction to the Hebrew scriptures.
- George states this in his introduction to the text of Gilgamesh. George, A. R., & Rogers D. Spotswood Collection. (2003). The epic of Gilgamesh: The Babylonian epic poem and other texts in Akkadian and Sumerian. London: Penguin Books.
- It is not often acknowledged that our senses limit our experiences with reality. Our eyes can only view a very small threshold of the large spectrum of light and our ears can only hear a small amount of frequencies. Relying on our senses actually limits our understanding of reality.