Anthony Jaramillo: Cultural Myths and Christianity?

Anthony Jaramillo: Cultural Myths and Christianity?

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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.

Endnotes

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
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3 Comments

  1. You have brought up many things that are necessary to wrestle through. So, lets wrestle! Here are some questions and concerns that came to mind while I read your article—which I enjoyed.

    First, the term myth is quite ambiguous. I am curious to know how you are using it in this article since it comes up a number of times. I see that you refer to the function of myth as, “to illicit a certain behavioral conformity in accordance to the given culture’s values and beliefs.” If the term myth is reduced to a purely functional definition how does it relate to history? Can a myth be both historically credible and fulfill its functional purpose? I agree that the Bible contains mythic material (i.e. made up stories—this might not be what you mean by the term) but I see them as being clearly marked out by various literary features. For example Jesus’ parables are clearly non-historical but I believe that Jesus historically told those parables.

    Second, you wrote, “Much of our misunderstandings of religion are rooted in our cultural milieu that have roots embedded in the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution.” I agree with you whole heartedly, however, a lot of what you have proposed here is also a product of Enlightenment ways of thinking. It was the idea that the Gospels are full of myth that lead Bultmann to demythologize the Gospels in the first place. Form criticism posed the idea that the Gospels were products of stories generated by the needs of the early Christian communities which is again a product of the Enlightenment. You also wrote, “the Christian movement was deeply involved with and relevant to the popular cultural trends of the day.” This is a sweeping statement, certainly Christians were not deeply involved in Emperor worship.

    Finally, I hate to bring up something akin to the slippery slope argument but… If the Gospels contain myth, how do we discern what is and is not myth? As you wrote, “the bible is very much rooted in historical events, the resurrection of Jesus to name one.” But why the resurrection? What rules or guides do we have that can help the reader discern what is historically true? This is important because, as you know, the Christian faith is rooted in historical events. God is revealed in space and time so that his essence can be known by the historical revelation of his energies.
    You made some excellent points here and I agree that the authors of the Bible weren’t concerned with scientific accuracy; that apparent contradictions do not invalidate the truth of the Bibles historical accounts; we shouldn’t be calling people heretics over this; that paragraph seven is an awesome illustration and much more!

  2. I can hardly believe I just came stumbled upon this article and website. My husband tonight was talking about this very thing and I was struggling with it. This article is helpful, though.

  3. Thanks for your push back on some of the issues I covered, Dan. Looking back in retrospect I probably should have clarified my definition of myth as you pointed out. I was using the definition of myth as a traditional story with a collective meaning. By stating the mythic qualities of certain passages of the Bible I am not making claims to their historicity, I am making claims about their function within the Christian communities. What I really wanted to point out is that the author’s of the New Testament seem to not be concerned with the empirical accuracy that we as modern readers often seek to find and scrutinize. In terms of its relationship to history, myths reveal more about the values, beliefs and the state of a given culture than on the actual events they depict. My conclusions may have come about through empirical means but my focus was not on the content of the texts as much as it was on the context of its composition and the attitudes early Christians may have had towards them.

    My statement of Christians being “deeply involved with and relevant to” popular culture was not meant in a participatory manner but to say that Christians were engaged in the lives of people who were part of those traditions in an effort to spread the gospel of Christ. Their involvement with their surrounding communities conveyed how relevant the message of the resurrected Jesus of Nazareth was to their situations. I certainly did not mean to say that Christians participated in the popular practices of their surrounding cultures such as emperor worship.

    I mention the event of the resurrection of Christ being historical first and foremost because it is the platform upon which the apostles base their theologies as is evident in the writings of Paul, Peter, James and John. Paul assures the Corinthian church of Jesus’ physical appearances to the apostles, himself, and five hundred others in 1 Corinthians 15. It seems that the apostles go to great lengths to verify this penultimate event over others. Whole books have been written on the structures and formulas used in the biblical texts that signal parables and historical events which is much more evident in the NT writings than in the OT making it easier for hearers to identify. To explain these literary signals in detail would be to beyond the scope of my initial post. In any case, the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8 (though widely accepted as a later addition from a scribe and not the original author) does shed some light on the issue of the popular circulating Jesus stories.

    The OT is much more ambiguous in my opinion in this area. Hans J. L. Jensen comes to this conclusion in his article, The Bible Is (Also) a Myth Lévi-Strauss, Girard, and the Story of Joseph:

    The Bethel story is a myth; the Hebrew Bible is full of such myths. These myths are not identical with other cultures’ myths, but neither are they totally different. These connections and similarities are an argument not against but for the Hebrew Bible’s humanity, relevance, and actuality (2007).

    Many of the OT stories, especially from the Pentateuch, are much more difficult to sift through in terms of determining them as cultural myths (stories) and historical events, though I believe that much of the Hebrew scriptures are historical.

    I agree wholeheartedly that the Christian faith is rooted in historical events as I mentioned above. Very much in line with the ancient concept of truth of unveiling, Christianity makes bold truth claims that God has revealed himself to his people in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Yahweh, who largely confined himself within the Tabernacle has now unveiled himself in the most shocking way through the death and resurrection of Jesus. The full disclosure and revelation of himself through Christ is what constitutes as truth in the first century mind and all expositions through the apostles writings can be seen to support this view.

    I know I didn’t answer every objections thoroughly, but I hope this colors in a little bit more of the context of my thinking on this topic. And I’m sure my conclusions will continue to be further informed as I am exposed to more research on this issue.

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