Myth and Mythology (in the Bible)

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The affirmation of the presence or absence of myth in the Bible depends largely on the definition of myth. In the light of modern Biblical research, if the term is correctly understood, there is no reason why it could not be legitimately used in reference to the interpretation of a number of Biblical passages. On the definition and nature of myth, see myth and mythology above.

In the Septuagint the Greek word μ[symbol omitted]θος (myth) occurs only in Sir 20.19, where, however, it has the meaning of proverb. The NT condemns myths (μ[symbol omitted]θοι) as so many "fables" (1 Tm 1.4), "old wives' tales" (1 Tm4.7), "commandments of men," incompatible with the truth (2 Tm 4.4; Ti 1.14), and "fictitious tales" (2 Pt1.16). Consequently, until recently scholars generally tended to exclude myth from the Bible. It was alleged that Israel's staunch monotheism was incompatible with the polytheism essential to myth, that its linear approach to historical phenomena ran counter to the cyclic pattern of myth. Biblical authors had, indeed, sometimes utilized mythical motifs for the sake of poetic ornamentation (Is 14.1215; Ez 28.1219); one might even grant that occasional myths had found their way into the Bible together with something of the mythical mentality that had inspired them (e.g., in Gn 2.4b3.24), but these had been so purged and transformed in the process that they hardly deserved the name of myth.

With a reappraisal of the nature of myth, however, and a growing tendency to consider polytheistic elements as accidental to mythopoeic mentality, more and more authors have begun to affirm the presence of myth, or something akin to myth, in the Bible. They refer to passages such as the yahwist's creation story and his account of paradise and the fall of man, of the deluge, and of the tower of babel, the many references to Yahweh's slaughter of, or domination over, the primeval sea monster, etc. (see abyss; chaos; leviathan; dragon.) These passages, it is argued, are neither historical (i.e., derived from human testimony based on direct observation of the events) nor properly theological (i.e., deduced by discursive reasoning process). They take place in primeval times; their main actors share many of the characteristics

of mythical personages; and they constitute an attempt to explain contemporary phenomena. Yet one hesitates to apply, without reservation, the term myth to these passages because of the important differences between them and their counterparts outside Israel. There is no doubt that the purging of all polytheistic traits (and consequently of all theogonies and theomachies) and the incorporation of these narratives into a basically historical pattern make myth in the Bible something quite unique. Furthermore, the existence of a religious festival in Israel that might have served as the cultic context for the reenactment of these myths is doubtful. Recent efforts on the part of the Scandinavian School to make of the Hebrew Feast of the new year and the Feast of booths (Tabernacles) the occasion for the recitation of Biblical myths [see S. Mowinckel, Psalmenstudien (v.2 Kristiania 1922)] have not found general acceptance. However, whether or not one admits the presence of myth in the Bible depends largely on how one defines it. If myth is taken to mean no more than a popular explanation in figurative language of certain natural phenomena, there is no reason why the term cannot be applied to a number of Biblical passages.

See Also: demythologizing.

Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963) 158488. h. cazelles andr. marlÉ, Dictionnaire de la Bible suppl. ed. l. pirot et al. (Paris 1928) 6:246268. g. lanckowski and h. fries, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d new ed. Freiburg 195765) 7:746752. s. mowinckel and r. bultmann, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 195765) 4:127482. g. stÄhlin and g. kittel, Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament (Stuttgart 1935) 4:769803. h. frankfort et al., The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man (Chicago 1946), later pub. as Before Philosophy (pa. Baltimore 1959). c. hartlich and w. sachs, Der Ursprung des Mythosbegriffes in der modernen Bibelwissenschaft (Tübingen 1952). e. o. james, Myth and Ritual in the Ancient Near East (New York 1958). b. s. childs, Myth and Reality in the O.T. (Naperville, Ill. 1960). j. barr, "The Meaning of Mythology in Relation to the O.T.," Vetus Testamentum 9 (1959) 110. j. l. mckenzie, "Myth and the O.T.," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 21 (1959) 265282.

[l. f. hartman]