Mythology’s Rightful Place in Biblical Criticism

While watching the address of Pope Francis to our lawmakers in Congress yesterday, I was impressed by how deftly he invoked the figure of Moses to point out that, as a lawgiver at the earthly level he brought justice to people, while at a higher level he led them to God “and thus to the transcendent dignity of the human being.” Later in the day, at St. Patrick’s before lunching with the homeless, he also reminded us that the Son of God came into this world as homeless (see Luke 2:7). In pointing to these stories, he reminded us of how Bible stories still resonate with people across the world after so many centuries. His speech touched us all, most visibly with House Speaker John Boehner, who was brought to tears (see photo). Yet the scholarly literature recognizes that the story of Moses and the infancy narratives of Jesus are largely mythical, like much else in the Bible. Is this combination of historical non-fact and psychic reality incongruous?

No, actually. In my view, much of the Bible’s power comes because so much of its message is conveyed as myth. As my fellow mythologist Phil Cousineau once observed, “myths are lies that tell the truth” (p. 10). Myths are stories that convey sacred truths, which is precisely what the Bible does. It conveys its truths through the telling of myth because that is the most natural and effective way to do so. Myths resonate with the human psyche, which, as scholars recognize, has a naturally “religious” component, and so are a product of it. As Thomas Mann wrote, “Myth is the foundation of life. It is the timeless pattern, the religious formula to which life shapes itself.” This is because, as Alan Watts (who for some time was an ordained Episcopal priest) explained, “myths are not the deliberate inventions of individuals. They arise in the mind of man as spontaneously and naturally as his dreams, to represent, as psychoanalysis has shown us, things that are going on in the very depths of his psychic life” (pp. 10-11). Myth and religion have a natural and essential connection. As Joseph Campbell observed, unfortunately mythology is often defined as “other people’s religion,” but at the same time he stressed that “religion may, in a sense, be understood as a popular misunderstanding of mythology” (p. 8). In pointing out that popularizations are typically degraded forms (a rather obvious fact visible in many areas of life), he was still attesting to the fundamental link between myth and religion, and we can see this at work in the Bible.

Pope Francis speech at Congress

House Speaker John Boehner is emotionally overwhelmed by the Pope’s words, which he told as stories. Did this impact the timing of his resignation, and thus the course of our country?

In light of this, we should expect that mythological studies will have taken its natural place within the discipline of biblical studies, much as the Bible has long had its natural place in the field of mythological studies. But in figuring out how to read and analyze the Bible, the discipline of biblical studies has had trouble grappling with the fact of biblical myth: Its presence is like the proverbial elephant in the room that nobody wants to acknowledge and talk about. Instead, biblical criticism is divided into other traditional categories such as historical criticism, form criticism, source criticism, as well as some newer ones such as rhetorical criticism, reader-response criticism, and (a favorite of mine) psychological biblical criticism. As a separate and additional overlay, biblical scholars analyze the texts in terms of their many genres (e.g., historical narrative, epistles, poetry, wisdom literature, law, prophecy, apocalypse, etc.), because knowing how a genre generally works can indeed be a key to understanding texts with particular genres. But myth is a genre too.

In none of the above approaches (except for psychological biblical criticism) have myths been recognized and mythological studies been given a place, even though some biblical scholars have recognized this incongruity. For example, the leading biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan called for biblical studies to become a “field of disciplines” into which the traditional methods of the discipline of biblical studies should be incorporated, and observed that, for example, a study of biblical texts should entail much use of Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk-Literature (Crossan, pp. 42, 45).

Crossan made that plea almost 40 years ago. The time has come to include myth among the recognized genres in the Bible (just as it is so recognized in literary criticism), and to engage the relevant texts through what I call “mythological biblical criticism.” Religious conservatives need not fear this: This approach takes no view on whether the stories are factually true or not. Rather, it looks at how these stories are told, which is in the manner of myth, using mythological symbols as their building blocks in order to tell truths. This inevitably entails looking at how the symbols are derived from and resonate with the human psyche, and so considers the perspectives of both the biblical writers (and earlier oral tradition) and the reader. It also entails a comparative approach to the Bible in which we engage with similar myths and motifs from other relevant cultures. Religious conservatives as well as regional specialists often resist a comparative method, usually citing differences in the host cultures and warning against “parallelomania,” but their argument is conceptually flawed because it fails to recognize the common source of mythological motifs in the archetypes of the human psyche. Thus, of the existing forms of biblical criticism, psychological biblical criticism comes closest to what is needed here (see, e.g., Rollins and Kille).

I can illustrate what I mean by reference to three Bible stories:

The first is the Garden of Eden story (Genesis 2:4b-3:24), which I analyzed in my own recent book, The Mythology of Eden, using this mythological approach. This story employs archetypal mythological symbols (serpent, sacred trees, the garden itself, sword, etc.) as its central building blocks. Thus, the biblical scholar James Charlesworth recognized, “The archetypal symbols are the [Eden] story, not its embellishment” (p. 282). Reverend John Sanford, who also had the distinction of being a certified Jungian analyst, went further to emphasize the psychological dimensions: “A myth is the product of the unconscious mind…. When the symbolism of the myth is understood, meanings that were hidden become conscious. The story of Adam and Eve partakes of the genre of myth and so must be approached symbolically” (p. 116). Consequently, Joseph Campbell could observe, “This story yields its meaning only to a psychological interpretation. . . . The Garden is a metaphor for the following: our minds” (p. 50). As Campbell explained, the garden was an undifferentiated unity of which Adam and Eve were a part, but once they acquired the knowledge of good and evil they could differentiate and see opposites (i.e., gained a fully developed ego consciousness), and thus were ready to leave the garden and live in the real world. Notwithstanding the dramatics of their “expulsion,” effectively they walked out on their own. As Jung, Erich Neumann, and Marie Louise von Franz have all explained, creation myths are ultimately linked to the coming into prominence of ego consciousness.

The second is the story of Jacob wrestling with … himself.  Jacob’s conscience was haunted by his having tricked his brother Esau out of his inheritance, and in consequence he had fled for his life. Years later, Esau is on his way to meet Jacob, who does not know what to expect. At night Jacob encountered a “man” (ish), with whom he wrestled until dawn, at which point that figure blessed him and departed. Esau arrives, forgives Jacob, and the brothers are reconciled. The surface interpretation set out in the text is that Jacob encountered God (perhaps through an angel), did well, and thus earned the name Israel, as a worthy patriarch of the people. A psychological approach recognizes that Jacob was struggling inwardly with his internalized brother Esau and his own shadow, which blesses him and leaves as the sun dawns (Wink; Sanford). This internal reconciliation is symbolized through that with Esau. If the God-Image lies at the center of the unconscious Self as Jungian psychology holds, then in psychic terms Jacob indeed encountered God, and his internal reconciliation and spiritual development were what enabled him (his ego) to trust himself and lead the people. While on the surface this approach is somewhat at odds with authorial intent (which is to say what the author understood without the benefit of modern psychology), at a deeper level it sheds light on what in fact is happening in such situations, which is important for readers to understand.

The third is the figure of Christ as developed in the four gospels and by St. Paul. Jung recognized that the Christ figure exemplifies and symbolizes the archetype of the Self and of wholeness (and thus the God-Image at its center) (CW, vol. 9.2, pp. 36-71), which gives a new perspective on many of the concepts, parables, discourses, and episodes in the New Testament, for example the Holy Spirit entering a person, the Kingdom of God (which Luke 17:21 says is within us), and the very idea of the God-Man. To my mind, the resonance of such a Christ image within the human psyche also helps explain the appeal and growth of the new Christian religion among people living in the Roman Empire, and the continued vitality of the religion over the ensuing centuries.

As a final point, we also must recognize that we never encounter pure myth. To quote John Sanford again in the case of the Eden story, that story “is not pure myth because [the author] . . . had a conscious intention in mind when he used it. Therefore, to do justice to the story we must keep in mind not only its symbolic structure, but also [the author’s] intention” (p. 116). Biblical authors have conscious agendas tied to contemporary questions and controversies, so their writings have a polemical character. As part of their effort, the writers deploy existing mythological symbols that will have meaning to their audience and persuasive value, because the symbols are experienced at a subconscious level. In my view, for such texts the field of biblical studies and biblical criticism in particular need to develop a greater understanding of what I call “mythopolemics,” and use that framework of analysis when interpreting polemical biblical texts that deploy symbolic mythological content.

In making this plea, I don’t mean to claim that mythological biblical criticism and an understanding of mythopolemics should be dominant in the field of biblical studies, but only that they should take their natural, rightful places among the other methodologies used in the discipline when mythological material in the Bible is being interpreted.

Sources Referenced:

Campbell, Joseph. Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor.  Novato, California: New World Library (2001).

Charlesworth, James. The Good and Evil Serpent: How a Universal Symbol Became Christianized. New Haven: Yale University Press (2010).

Cousineau, Phil. Once and Future Myths: The Power of Ancient Stories in our Lives. Boston: Conari Press (2001).

Crossan, John Dominic. “Perspectives and Methods in Contemporary Biblical Criticism,” Biblical Research 22:39-49 (1977).

George, Arthur, and George, Elena. The Mythology of Eden. Lanham, Maryland: Hamilton Books, 2014.

Jung, Carl. Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self, 2nd ed., Collected Works 9.2. Princeton: Princeton University Press (1969) (cited above as “CW”).

Kille, D. Andrew. Psychological Biblical Criticism. Minneapolis: Fortress Press (2001).

Rollins, Wayne. Jung and the Bible. Atlanta: John Knox Press (1983).

Sandmel, Samuel. “Parallelomania,” Journal of Biblical Literature 81:1-13 (1962).

Sanford, John. The Man Who Wrestled with God: Light from the Old Testament on the Psychology of Individuation. New York: Paulist Press (1987).

Watts, Alan. Easter: Its Story and Meaning. New York: Henry Schuman (1950).

Wink, Walter. “On Wrestling with God: Using Psychological Insights in Biblical Study,” Religion in Life 47:136-47 (1978).

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4 Responses to Mythology’s Rightful Place in Biblical Criticism

  1. Shari Tarbet says:

    I have to say I agree with you. In particular, I remember my teacher at Pacifica who taught Christianity. I asked her if I could approach the walking on water story as myth in my paper She heartily encouraged me. I was very excited about this as it was the first time I approached the Bible as myth, even though I’ve been saying that it is for over 20 years. Secondly, with all the Christian extremists who cite as their source for their bigotry and hatred passages only from the Old Testament, never the New, I was glad to see you cite from the New Testament. This of course, is not to say the OT isn’t worth approaching as myth as well, because, well, it is. Good article.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. 1weaver says:

    fantastic post in these swirling times


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