Evidence for Myth-making

Hi Ian,I heard that the Christian story was just a mashup of myths that were around at the time. Virgin birth, miraculous healing, rising from the dead – all in the air waiting to plucked and placed into the perfect religion. One of my super-Christian acquaintances at college said if that the devil wanted to counterfeit the truth he would tell a credible lie. He didnt seem to realize that argument cuts both ways. I think the devil made him say it. Got anything to add?


Hi Max,

This has been a theme in religious studies for some time, influenced by the new field of anthropology. A guy named Joseph Cambell perfected the art of describing every religion in terms of symbolic myths, because of cause there cant be any real truth in it…  Well it suits anthropology to narrow its gaze like that, but reality is bigger than any one field of enquiry. This guy takes a torch to look at the claims of myth-making. Follow the links if you want to follow his argument:

How Is Ancient Myth-Making Tested? Part 1  Posted: 20 Feb 2013 06:00 AM PST  Post Author: Bill Pratt , from Tough Questions Answered

The stories about Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection, as reported in the 27 New Testament documents, were all written down within 70 years of Jesus’s death. In fact, most of the documents were written within 50 years of his death. Given that average life expectancy in first century Palestine was around 30 years, this means that, conservatively, most of these documents were written within two generations of Jesus’s death.

Many skeptics of Christianity claim that even 50 years is enough time for myths and legends to completely obscure the central facts around the life of Jesus. Skepticism runs the gamut from “Jesus never existed” to “we know only a few trivial facts about Jesus and nothing more.”

Can we test the rate of myth-making in the ancient near east? Maybe we can. The famous historian A. N. Sherwin-White addressed the issue of whether the central facts around a historical event could be obscured by myth-making in his book Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament. Sherwin-White identifies the work of ancient Greek historian Herodotus as a means to test myth-making. Why Herotodus? Sherwin-White explains:

In his history, written in mid-fifth century B.C., we have a fund of comparable material in the tales of the period of the Persian Wars and the preceding generation. These are retold by Herodotus from forty to seventy years later, after they had been remodeled by at least one generation of oral transmission.

Is if fair to compare Herotodus to the Gospel writers?

The parallel with the authors of the Gospels is by no means so far-fetched as it might seem. Both regard their material with enthusiasm rather than detached criticism. Both are the first to produce a written narrative of great events which they regard as a mighty saga, national or ecclesiastical and esoterical as the case may be. For both their story is the vehicle of a moral or a religious idea which shapes the narrative.

Can modern historians extract accurate historical facts from Herotodus?

The material of Herodotus presents no intractable difficulty to a critical historian. The material has not been transformed out of all recognition under the influence of moral and patriotic fervour, in a period of time as long, if not longer, than can be allowed for the gestation of the form-myths of the synoptic gospels.

How, then, can we use Herotodus to test the tempo of myth-making? We’ll cover that in part 2.

Related Posts

1. Did Ancient Non-Christians Write about Jesus? Part 1 – Post #4 of 2010

2. Was Individual Resurrection a Common Belief in the Ancient World? Part 1

3. How Do Other Ancient Texts Compare to the New Testament? #10 Post of 2012

4. Did the New Testament Writers Record Fact or Fiction? Part 7

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