Can The Bible Contain Myth But Still Be True?

Greetings all,

Specifically I am thinking of Genesis 1-11, The story of Jesus as a child, resurrected Saints walking throughout Jerusalem (maybe), Jesus referring to Adam and Eve as historical people, etc

Do the answers to such questions depend on your hermeneutics, and how could I know which hermeneutic is the faithful one?

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Short answer: yes :slightly_smiling_face:

Slightly longer answer: It depends on how you define these words. Some people read the word ‘myth’ and hear the word ‘untrue’. But myth has another meaning, with a basic idea of ideas communicated in a non historical form. To take an example from a completely different tradition, Aesop’s story of the boy who cried wolf is surely fictional, but its theme that lying leads to mistrust is just as surely true.

So the first question to ask for any biblical text is, what was the writer trying to say? Truth needs to be seen in that context. I believe that the bible is true, but it’s true according to the form of its various writings. A poem in the bible is a true poem. A parable in the bible is a true parable. A historical section in the bible is true history. And so on.

When it comes to particular texts, working out the intentions of the original writer can sometimes be hard and controversial. The best approach here is to read widely and to be gracious towards the views of others.


I have accepted that significant stories in the OT are not factual representations of actual history.

For example, two magic trees and a talking serpent are clear indications to me that we are reading a story and not actual history.

Another example, I would say the Noah story is based a real catastrophic flood but has been modified by storytellers over time to what we have now. I cannot accept that God gets mad and drowns all creation. The half breeds or giants that are part of the story appear to be mythical at least to me.

I also think the Exodus story may have been based on a historical event but nothing like we have in the Bible.

I suggest Genesis for Normal people by Pete Enns.


I don’t think the Bible can contain myths but still be seen as inerrant. I’m not comfortable with the level of mental gymnastics that entails.

I find a lot of value in mythological stories but myths are not like parables where the audience knows the stories are fictitious but correspond to everyday life. Many things we now call “myths” were probably believed to be things that actually happened by many of our ancestors. Etiologies try to explain some aspect of the world with a story. Claiming thunder and lightning stem from an angry Zeus is just silly now.

I find many of these stories to be a window to God and something God uses to make Himself known to us. In many cases these ancient authors struggled with the same questions we do. Beyond that, asking if the flood account is true would be like asking if Moby Dick was true. What does that even mean?

I think one problem is how unaware most Christians are of how little history there actually is in the Bible. Mythological narratives run all throughout it. It’s not Genesis 1-11 but probably most of the Pentateuch (which has multiple traditional versions of the same stories throughout), including the patriarchs, the Exodus etc. Then Jonah, Daniel, Job etc.

I believe Jesus was God incarnate. He came to earth to save us. Not to change his opinion of us but for us to recognize and change our opinion of Him. Nothing else matters to me in Christianity besides the moral teachings of Jesus and the Divine Condescension. The Bible is true insofar as God uses it to mediate the sacred and teach us about Himself.

If we want a magical hermeneutic that allows us to unlock the meaning of a perfectly true and inerrant text, I think we are living in a fantasy land. Science and critical scholarship have ruled out that model of Scripture. Instead we should be humbly and prayerfully wrestling with these narratives and asking what they teach us about ourselves and what we can learn from them.

Did Israel really fall away and worship a golden calf so easily after witnessing 10 wild plagues and walking across a parted sea? Probably not. But how often do I fall away and rely on myself? How often do I stumble? I can relate to this story because God has bestowed many great gifts and blessings on me and I still often fall and do the opposite of what I should. I can relate to the story because I am Israel. Liberated from bondage by God, yet prone to sin. The story speaks to me on a spiritual level so much deeper than “facts” about history ever could.



For those sections written as myth or as mythologized history, of course it’s still true – “true” is a statement about the message, not about having to write scientifically accurate details to pass twenty-first century muster.

While technically there are other literary genres in Genesis 1 - 11, most of it can be treated as myth. For the New Testament about the only thing I can say with confidence is that the Gospels qualify as Greco-Roman ‘bios’ (bee-ohss), a type of biography.

Of course the answers depend on hermeneutics. The first step is always to ask what type of literature the inspired writer chose (from that period of history!) and what his worldview was, and thus figure out what he intended his audience to understand.

“Jesus referring to Adam and Eve as historical people” points to something that has to be kept in mind: quoting an account does not mean the person doing the quoting regards the account as history, it only means they regard it as authoritative. We may consider something to be authoritative because it gets its facts right, but in ancient times authority rested on the source of the work. So a story we would call fiction was perfectly acceptable as telling truth if it came from an authoritative source such as from God.

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If using our modern definition of “history”, such sections are virtually nonexistent – all of the books were written to convey theology first and anything else only second. A great example of that is the books of Chronicles which strop out any bad press about good/faithful kings and pull no punches with bad/unfaithful kings.

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As far as I’ve been able to figure after reading several thousand pages of scholarly material is that there were two Exodus events, one of Semitic folks and another of Levites. Between them it seems that there were eight tribes that came up out of Egypt; at least four tribes have been shown to match the people actually living in the Holy Land before any Exodus. Other work shows that there were already Semitic folks living in some of the hill country before the Conquest.
It’s actually a very Gospel sort of story when pieced together: some loosely-related Semitic folks migrated out of Egypt and took over parts of the Holy Land, then the Levites came up; they banded together with some populations already in place, welcoming them as cousins. Then someone took their history and linked it to the stories of the Patriarchs and thus made all of them Israel, not just those who had come from Egypt. This pegs Israel as doing what Abraham’s descendants were supposed to do, being a beacon and gathering others to Yahweh.

That account is better understood now; the traditional interpretation does seem a tad difficult. Research indicates that the calf wasn’t meant as a god; calf and bull “theology” posed bovine “thrones” for deities, so the probability is that they didn’t really fall away, they just didn’t know how to deal with a deity with no visible representation and the golden calf was most likely meant to serve as the invisible Yahweh’s visible throne. In ancient near east terms that would have been a sort of invitation to Yahweh to take up residence with them, a panic response when their divinely-appointed leader seemed to have disappeared.

The extremely negative reaction from Moses would have been because where they were going for the ba’als, the chief deities, a calf or bull wasn’t just a throne, it was considered to be an idol – though an idol wasn’t considered to be the god it/him/her self, it was a figure where the actual deity was meant to put some of his/her/its spirit. So the calf had to go even if it was intended innocently because its message was unclear: only what pointed to Yahweh was acceptable.

That’s what the Ark of the Covenant – which is practically a copy of some Egyptian “religious furniture” – did for starters; it was an authorized “throne” using what were recognized not as deities themselves but servants/messengers of deity on top. The Tabernacle completed the idea by using a copy of a pharaoh’s war tent compound re-explained as Yahweh’s “war tent”; between them these provided a way to recognize that Yahweh was invisible but was nevertheless with them – they were “preaching” in solid form.


In my humblest opinion majority of the Old Testament about 80% is myth. The other 10% are parables and the other 10 are history . It’s not unheard of in the times they were writing.

The bible itself is a strange book because we have so little evidence to work with.

Now does it make it false? Not quite really.

I tend to see it the other way around: could a book full of words inspire the recognition of such high truths without containing mythos?


Mark, could you explain more what you have in mind?

I think it’s wrong to equate Myth with Untrue. Many biblical scholars have come to the idea that myth is about drama and experience of life, and attempted explanation of what we experience and why we do so. It’s about motivations and existence rather than history, So yes, the bible can contain myth and still be true for us in what has been revealed.

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I’m thinking that explicit language is not adequate for conveying some realizations where poetry and narrative might come closer … depending on the listener. Also, to think you’ve pinned down the sacred in a straightforward manner, is almost certain to cause confusion rather than to edify. Besides “getting it” isn’t the same thing as repeating the words.

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I think the amount of poetry and parables in both OT and NT support your view to some degree.

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  • So where’d you go, Kyle?

  • You’ve started three threads and not responded to any responders yet, have you? Do I detect a pattern?

A myth accusation can be based on an actual happening but handed down through oral tradition that was published after the event, eg Genesis Flood.

A myth can be based on an actual happening where knowledge and understatnding was unavailable to the writers at the time. Genesis 1

The Bible says it was inspired (2 Timothy 3:16-17). It never said it was without error (inerrant). Genesis was written by Moses and the Priestly and Yahwist writers who wrote from their understanding at the time. The basics of the story could be true.

In my book on this topic I site an example of a trip from your house to grandmas. The directions today are different than those in 1900 but the destination is the same. New interstates and modes of transportation were not forseeable by the people of 1900.

Another thought is that Genesis was less likely to have been written at the time of events where the New Testament was. We have the testimony of Jesus in many evidential forms and reasons.

Because there might be an error or myth in the Bible does not dicount its main message that id well documented. Jesius suffered and died for our sins.

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I never heard that before. Intrigued for sure but the account seems to narrate the traditional interpretation?

“Come, make us gods[a] who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”

Anymore info on this?

Maybe of Genesis, but not of the entire OT; there’s very little myth in the Prophets or the Writings.

Correct. Though in the Old Testament there are really two types that qualify as myth: mythologized history, and “pure” myth (that we might call historical fiction, from one perspective).

That’s one of the pesky places where אֱלֹהִ֗ים is used to indicate idols. I think it’s necessary to dive into similar ANE material to get the context that leads to the newer interpretation, and I don’t have the resources to dig into that. Just one observation, though: אֱלֹהִ֗ים can be translated in the singular: “…make us (a) god”. If that’s how it was meant, then it is reasonable to conclude that they meant an idol for Yahweh.

I was seriously tempted to buy myself the latest Logos Bible software suite for Christmas; the price is high though and I decided my pocketbook couldn’t stretch that far. I mention this because the software includes references to a broad range of ANE sources and is kept up-to-date, and checking the latest info is made really easy (which is why the price is high; the scholarly effort put into each new edition is impressive).

edit: what I could find shows no variant in the Hebrew nor in the LXX; the latter has a masculine accusative plural, which fits the traditional understanding. Unfortunately I can’t find an LXX version that shows variant readings so I can’t check to see if any translation into Greek uses a singular instead (which IIRC that Logos software would tell me).

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I decided to consult the Jewish Study Bible (Berlin and Brettler 2nd ed) which is generally phenomenal:

31.18–32.35: The golden calf episode. The location of the Tabernacle instructions prior to the golden calf episode is puzzling (see introductory comments to 25.1–31.17). The present order, by giving precedence to the Tabernacle as the divinely authorized means of securing God’s Presence among the people, shows that the calf is a perverted, humanly devised means of doing the same thing (see 32.4 n.), already forbidden in 20.4–5, 20. The connection between the two pericopes is highlighted by the sequence of events in the calf episode that parallels God’s instructions for the Tabernacle and the people’s response: The people command Aaron to make them a god, Aaron responds with a public appeal for gold, all the people bring him the gold, he makes the calf with it, builds an altar and offers sacrifices, and the people celebrate (cf. chs 25–31; 35.4–9, 20–29; 36.8–38.20; Lev. chs 8–9). The people’s celebration of the calf also bears an ironic resemblance to the covenant ceremony in ch 24: An altar is built, burnt offerings and sacrifices of well-being are made, and the people eat and drink (cf. 24.4–5, 10–11). Their declaration that the calf is the God who brought them out of Egypt contrasts ironically with God’s declaration that it is through the Tabernacle that He will abide among the Israelites and they will know that He is their God who brought them out of Egypt (29.45–46). In fact, making the calf leads to the annulment of the covenant (v. 19 n.) and to God’s refusal to abide among the people (33.3, 5), and threatens their very existence (32.10). The present arrangement conveys these messages and shows that the people’s generous and obedient response to the Tabernacle instructions (chs 35–39, esp. 36.3–7; 39.42–43) is a sign of their repentance, while God’s Presence entering the Tabernacle (40.34–38) is a sign of His forgiveness. The narrative has similarities to the account of the golden calves that Jeroboam (the first king of the Northern Kingdom) erected in Bethel and Dan (1 Kings 12.25–33), and some scholars believe that the present Exodus narrative goes back to a putative northern legend that portrayed Aaron’s making of the calf in positive terms and served to legitimize Jeroboam’s calves by giving them an ancient and prestigious precedent, since Aaron was the archetypical priest. In this view, the original northern legend portrayed the calf not as an idol but as a pedestal or mount for God (see 32.4 n.; see also v. 24 n.). A Judahite writer who viewed Jeroboam’s golden calves as idolatrous revised the story about Aaron’s calf to characterize the phenomenon as sinful from the outset and, implicitly, to condemn the Bethel and Dan sanctuaries. In this view, that is the version that we find here. 31.18: The Jewish Masoretic paragraph system starts this episode here (unlike the medieval Christian ch divisions, which start it at 32.1), highlighting the outrage of the people’s behavior: At the very moment that God was giving Moses the Tablets of the Pact, which forbids idolatry (20.4–5), the people were demanding just that (see also Deut. 9.8–13). In modern terms, “the ink was not yet dry” on the covenant when the people violated it. 32.1: With Moses now gone for forty days (24.18), the people fear that he has disappeared, and since he had been their sole conduit to God they ask Aaron to make them a “god” to replace him (Radak at 1 Kings 12.28) and lead them. Although most commentators believe that they mean “god” literally, they more likely mean it as a metonymy for an object that would serve as a conduit for securing God’s Presence. See v. 4 n.

Fascinating stuff.