The Bible: Myth or History?PETER KREEFT
"Yes and No" is Peter Kreeft's answer to so many religion texts which leave students thinking of religion as little more than a dull and boring rehash of things everyone already knows. Kreeft's book asks hard questions, great questions, and then answers them convincingly.
Chris: Go ahead,
Chris: No, not at all. I'm just an ordinary person.
Chris: No ...
Chris: No, Sal. Actually, what I know about God for sure comes from just one book. In fact, what the whole human race knows about God for sure, and not just as a matter of speculation and guesswork, comes from just one book.
Chris: All the facts? Of course not. How could we ever have all the facts about the Infinite One? None of us can have complete knowledge of God, any more than a clam could have complete knowledge of us. Less so, in fact, because the difference between us and clams is only finite, but the difference between us and God is infinite.
Chris: Yes, what he told us.
Chris: I don't know what you mean by "hard facts".
Chris: No. Science measures things. We can't measure God.
Chris: No, it's truth.
Chris: No. That's poetic language. But you can tell the truth in poetic language, you know. God really is exalted — though not physically, in space, in the sky. God really does rule the universe, though not from a physical golden throne. God really does have all power, though he doesn't have the same kind of strength as Muhammad Ali had in his right hand. And God really does want us to do good and not evil, though he doesn't get hysterical and red in the face.
Chris: But true symbolism. Not just a made-up story, like Santa Claus.
Chris: No, I didn't say that. I said that the language it uses to describe God has to be symbolic. God can't be described literally because we can't see him. He doesn't have a physical body. But there are a lot of things in the Bible that are described literally -things we can see.
Chris: No, there's an objective standard.
Chris: It's quite simple, really. Language about visible things is meant literally, language about invisible things is meant symbolically.
Chris: But before the creation of Adam and Eve there was no human eye around to see it. So the account isn't an eyewitness account. It's true, but not literal. The "6 days" of creation, for instance, don't have to be 24 hour days.
Chris: Right. That's symbolism. But it's true. It'll happen, just as the creation happened.
Chris: Well, prophecies of the future can be literal. You could predict something literally. Some passages in the Bible do. For instance, the Old Testament predicts dozens of specific details about the Messiah that happened, literally, to Jesus, like being sold for 30 pieces of silver, and having his clothes gambled for.
Chris: If they're meant literally, yes.
Chris: Don't what?
Chris: You're confused, Sal.
Chris: No, I mean you're confused. You're confusing two different questions: interpretation and belief
Chris: The question of interpretation is: What did the writer mean? The question of belief is: Do you agree with him? The question of interpretation is: What does the Bible claim to be true? The question of belief is: What do you believe really is true?
Chris: But that's your confusion,
Chris: But about what Hitler meant.
Chris: If you want to make a speech yourself, yes. If you want to choose what to believe in, yes. But if you want to know what Hitler meant, no. That's your confusion. You think the Bible's stories of miracles are false. Why not just say so, clearly? The miracle stories are either lies or true history. They're not myth. They're not meant mythically, or poetically, or symbolically.
Chris: I agree. But that doesn't mean they aren't literal too. They're signs. But if a sign isn't really there — if there's no literal piece of wood on a pole — then it can't symbolize anything, can it? So if Moses didn't really cross the Red Sea, it's not a real sign of anything. I believe the miracles are signs and symbols, all right. But I also believe they really happened. They're not just stories, myths. You think that's all they are, right?
Chris: So you agree with the demythologizers.
Chris: The word was made popular by a German theologian named Rudolf Bultmann. It means that the miracle stories are only myths, and that we should believe the rest of the Bible, but not the myths. A lot of theologians believe that. Many rabbis and priests and ministers do too. Some writers of catechism textbooks too.
Chris: No, in numerous company. Truth isn't found by counting noses. I'd rather agree with God even if only a few human beings agreed with me, than agree with millions of humans but disagree with God.
Chris: Technically, yes. If they disagree with essential teachings of the Bible. But the word heretic isn't used much any more.
Chris: Of course not. You can label an idea accurately without wanting to burn the people who hold it.
Chris: Then you have your reasons for disagreeing?
Chris: I think you can guess what my next question is going to be.
Chris: Yes. You see, everything is connected. If there's no supernatural God with the power to work miracles, then miracles can't happen. If miracles can't happen, then Christ didn't really rise from the dead. If Christ didn't really rise from the dead, the story is only a myth, and the demythologizers are right. (Though they're still confusing the two questions of interpretation and belief; they should say the story is a lie, not a myth.) Do you have any other reasons, any new reasons for being a demythologizer of the Bible?
Chris: Go ahead. What are they?
Chris: That's a good principle. So apply it to eyewitness descriptions too, and historical narratives, and interpret them literally, just as you interpret symbolism symbolically. The miracle stories have the form of history, not myth.
Chris: Do you mean to say no one ever really fasts forty days, and plagues can really come in any number but ten? Or that if Jesus had spent four days in the tomb you'd be more likely to believe it?
Chris: But the Bible's religion depends on history. Its God works in history. Your distinction between history and religion fits Oriental religions, but not Western religions. It's not important whether Buddha ever really lived; the only important thing is meditation and practicing Buddha's way. But Christianity is different: it's about Christ. If he never lived, or never died and rose again, then Christianity is simply a lie. Aren't you honest enough to call it that, if that's what you believe?
Chris: Everybody knows that already, even though they don't practice it. Remember our first conversation? If ethics is all that Christianity means, forget it.
Chris: Because then it's just copying all the other good philosophies and moralities. It claims to be different; it claims to be history, "good news", Gospel: that God came to earth and died on the cross and rose again to save us from sin and death and Hell.
Chris: That's simply what Christianity is, and always was from the beginning. If you don't believe that, you're not a Christian. Just agreeing with Jesus' ethics doesn't make you a Christian, any more than agreeing with Buddha's ethics makes you a Buddhist.
Chris: Good! That's the first step to becoming one.
Chris: Sorry. What's the fourth one?
Chris: Name one.
Chris: Why couldn't it be both? In any case Matthew didn't say Jesus said it all at once, he just said Jesus said it.
Chris: Why couldn't they all be right, but some are condensed, sort of Reader's Digest versions, so to speak? If the sign really read, "This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews", then the account that says simply "Jesus, King of the Jews" isn't false, just condensed. The essential point is the same. Show me a single contradiction about an essential point of substance, not just a matter of verbal style.
Chris: The very fact that the four Gospels tell the same story in different ways is strong evidence that the story is true — like four witnesses in court telling the story in four different ways. If they agreed word for word, you'd think they had made it up and collaborated beforehand. The differences don't amount to contradictions. And the four Gospels agree remarkably — more so, much more so, than any other set of ancient documents about any other ancient event.
Chris: That's why the Church wrote it down in the Bible, and preserved this book with infinite care.
Chris: That's the essential question about the Bible: Is it our ideas about God or is it God's ideas about us? Is it God's Word to us or our words about God?
Chris: Yes, and that's like the essential question about the Christian story too: Is it the story of our search for God or the story of God's search for us? Is it God coming down in Christ, the "one way" down, or is it us trying to get up to God, with Christ just one of the many human ways up, one of many manmade religions?
Chris: Did I fail to answer any of your reasons for not believing the Bible?
Chris: Then your reason for not believing it must be something else than what we've talked about. We've clarified the question, but not your real motive for answering it "no".
Chris: No, but I have a good guess, and I can only ask you to honestly ask yourself whether this guess is accurate or not. You want to believe the demythologizers, right?
Chris: Why? Because you don't believe in miracles, right?
Chris: And why don't you believe in miracles? Because if miracles happen, then Christ really did rise from the dead, and then he is not just a human ideal but he is really God — everyone's God, your God too, Sal. Then he has claims on your soul and on your life, right here and now. Then you have to face him and repent, turn around, beg forgiveness, let him be your Lord rather than you being your own lord. That's not an easy or comfortable thing to do, and I'm not trying to put you down for not doing it. I'm just trying to help you be honest with yourself and know yourself. Only you can answer the question: Is that really your motive for not believing? The reason I suspect it is, is because none of your arguments seem to stand up. The house of your beliefs doesn't stand on rational foundations. All your arguments can be answered. You just choose to believe there's no God, or no miracles, or no Resurrection, or no salvation.
Chris: That's a wonderful discovery,that you don't know. That's the beginning of wisdom.
Kreeft, Peter. "The Bible: Myth or History?" In Yes or No: Straight Answers to Tough Questions about Christianity (Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 1991), 83-94.
Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College. He is an alumnus of Calvin College (AB 1959) and Fordham University (MA 1961, Ph.D., 1965). He taught at Villanova University from 1962-1965, and has been at Boston College since 1965.
He is the author of numerous books (over forty and counting) including: The Snakebite Letters, The Philosophy of Jesus, The Journey: A Spiritual Roadmap for Modern Pilgrims, Prayer: The Great Conversation: Straight Answers to Tough Questions About Prayer, How to Win the Culture War: A Christian Battle Plan for a Society in Crisis, Love Is Stronger Than Death, Philosophy 101 by Socrates: An Introduction to Philosophy Via Plato's Apology, A Pocket Guide to the Meaning of Life, and Before I Go: Letters to Our Children About What Really Matters. Peter Kreeft in on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
Copyright © 1991 Peter Kreeft
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.