I’ve long wanted to do a series exploring the various misunderstandings about the relationship between the Bible and myth. In particular I’ve done quite a bit of study about the works of Joseph Campbell. But over time, I have expanded these studies quite a bit to other areas. I’ve decided to write something about atheist misunderstandings of Christianity and myth as a jumping-off point. Here is a modest first installment that sets up the premise.
A few years ago, as I was following one of those interminable discussions about movies on an Internet message board, I read a post by a fellow with a startling theory: that the popular maudlin romantic book/film The Notebook was a mere rip-off of an older story: none other than the classic American novel The Great Gatsby. “Look,” he said, “it has a poor boy in love with a rich girl. It’s obviously exactly the same story!” He actually suggested that the F. Scott Fitzgerald estate ought to sue the makers of The Notebook for plagiarism.
Of course, his theory is laughable. Yes if you disregard the fact that the two novels have completely different plots, dialogue and characters, not to mention different themes, moods, settings and time periods; that they use language in different ways and also differ enormously in their scope and general writing competence, (not to mention the fact that in The Great Gatsby, the poor boy is no longer poor at the time the story opens), well yes, they do have a poor boy and rich girl in love in them. But once you are finished adding up the differences, that original similarity pales into nothingness.
I was reminded of this incident not long ago when I was watching the first in a series of videos on the development of the Bible called Testament, provocatively titled “Once Upon a Time,” which dealt with the the relationship between the book of Genesis and the Babylonian /Mesopotamian epic of creation. Here I was treated to the sight of archeological expert John Romer, right at the point where the hero god Marduk murders a goddess and cuts her body up to form the earth and sky, waving a copy of the Old Testament around as he cried, “Yes, the first chapter of Genesis is the same story as that Mesopotamian murder!” To him, Genesis is a mere imitation of the older pagan story. Except, of course, for the fact that there is no goddess, no murder and no bodily mutilation in the first chapter of Genesis.
Romer’s idea didn’t come out of nowhere. Abraham, and therefore the Hebrew people, originally came from Mesopotamia and would have had contact with the mythology there. Later, in 586 B.C., the Israelites were taken into captivity in Babylon, at a time when the Babylonian creation story would have been circulating, and the final version of Genesis was composed shortly after the return from exile, so the Israelites could have learned about the Babylonian myth there. But that doesn’t really tell us anything about the relationship between two very disparate stories.
In the same way, the resemblance of much else the Old Testament and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus themselves to the pagan myths of antiquity, provides the origin of one of the most frequently used arguments against the Christian faith, by sneering atheists and sincere skeptics alike.
There are a number of approaches to this question. There is the argument from general historical implausibility – for once thing, the Israelites, who were fierce monotheists, were perhaps the people in the world least likely to imitate polytheistic myths. Many authors have pointed out that the similarities between the death and resurrection of Jesus and the “dying and rising gods” in other religions are greatly exaggerated. And in the end, as C. S. Lewis has pointed out, the Christian story has one great thing going for it that the others don’t — it actually happened historically, no matter how much the “Jesus as myth” theorists try to claim it didn’t.
All the same, the literary approach seems to me to be a promising one. What likenesses do the Christian stories and pagan myths really have as stories? How are they different? How do their authors differ? There are different aspects of literature to consider, so I thought it might be useful and even somewhat entertaining, to use the Great Gatsby /Notebook comparison and — since I don’t know how far these two works will take me – perhaps discussion of other well-known works of literature as a guide in discussing the literary aspects of the stories. Since — believe it or not — I have read both those books, and even seen the movies based on them, and in view of the upcoming new film adaptation of The Great Gatsby with Leonardo DiCaprio, this might be very interesting.
The area of myth is complex, so rather than tackle the question of the Babylonian vs. Genesis stories right away, I’ll start on a more general level: the question of scope.
Both The Great Gatsby and The Notebook can be fitted into the genre of “novel,” but that isn’t much help, since “novel” contains a wide variety of kinds of stories. One of the main differences is in scope. The Notebook can readily be classified as a romance – that is a self-contained story, the meaning of which is encompassed in the relationship between a man and a woman. Not much happens outside the love story, and the outside material is there in service to this story, which the audience enjoys simply for its own sake, that is, for the sake of vicarious identification with Noah and Allie and their love.
In The Great Gatsby, however, the love story is only a part of the novel’s greater design. It is a central point around which things revolve, but the things that revolve round it are much larger than the two people involved, and it is these things that are the real point of the story, and actually give the love story its point. It is a story about the corrosive effects of the sudden explosion of wealth in the 1920’s on American society, about the rise and fall of one man’s fortunes, and along with it, the rise and fall of the American dream, above all, perhaps about the desire for unobtainable dreams itself.
This observation about scope isn’t a judgment on the quality of the story or the writing, of course. To be kind, I won’t say anything about The Notebook in this regard. But a focused love story like Romeo and Juliet can be a great story and great piece of literature without focusing on the rise and fall of the Prince of Verona, or the general malaise of society at the time. There is abundant thematic reflection in the play, but it is mostly about love itself, and grows directly out of the situation of the two main characters, rather than some greater design concerning the larger society or a more sweeping history. The Great Gatsby is also a great piece of literature, but of a different scope; it is not just the story of Gatsby and Daisy, but the story of a country – which is why it is often thought of not just as a great novel, but the great American novel.
This difference could serve as a very rough guide for understanding some of the differences between pagan myth and the Christian story. Let’s look at them in this light.
Atheists commonly say that the Gospel story of the conception of Jesus is a mere rip-off from pagan myth: a sky-god impregnates a mortal woman who gives birth to a divine child: “It’s exactly the same story! You Christians are so credulous. A mere fairy tale. No one believes the pagan version, so why take the Christian one seriously”?
Well, some of us Christians do take these pagan stories seriously as literature. And the more seriously we take them, the more we have to say that they have as much in common with the story of the conception of Christ as The Notebook does with The Great Gatsby.
Yes, the story of Christ and the story of some of the Greek heroes who were born of gods and mortal women are similar. But like the two novels in question, the similarities are superficial ones. Let’s begin with the Greek sky-god Zeus, his love affairs and his children.
Zeus cheated a great deal on his divine wife Hera. His general purpose was lust; the children born were simply accidental by-products of that urge. Sometimes the women were goddesses or semi-divine; these represent the attempts to assimilate Zeus to the local sky god by pairing him with the local goddess. (He and his consort Hera were also taken over by the Romans as Jupiter and Juno). At times, a half mortal, half divine hero was born of Zeus’ rendezvous with a earthly maiden, such as Danae, who gave birth to the hero Perseus, or Alcmene, who gave birth to Hercules. Often these heroes accomplished great deeds, but you can’t argue that it was Zeus’ plan that they do so. He only had conquest of the woman in mind. He often plotted ingeniously how to surprise a woman or a nymph, but never made long-range plans. The woman’s consent, of course, meant less than nothing.
I suspect that in many ways, Zeus the patriarch was a man in the Greek style, one everyone could recognize, who had all the good points and faults of men in Greek culture, and that is why he was so popular. In the conception of the Greeks and most ancient peoples, the gods were simply man writ large, with all of humankind’s faults, including stupidity, cruelty and lust, intact.
The God of Israel was also a lover and a father, but with a difference. (In the early Israelite conception God, there were indications of God as vengeful, a conception altered over time, and there is a lot to be said about that, but that is not the part of the story I am concentrating on here).
After the period of monotheism began, Israel’s God had no heavenly consort. This idea was completely at odds with all other nations at the time, with their paired-off sky gods and their goddess wives. And it was accompanied by another strange phenomenon. The idea grew up that the God of Israel had his whole people as his bride; he loved his people with a passionate and jealous and glorious and faithful love, and entered into a solemn covenant bond with them. He was faithful even when Israel cheated on him by worshiping pagan gods. This is not just a chance word or a single idle simile. Witness to this is borne in some way by almost all the books of the Bible, though they were written at various times over a thousand years, from biblical poetry (the Song of Songs) to prophecy (Ezekiel 16; Hosea, Jeremiah 3:8).
As this chain of works was written over the centuries, it gradually became clearer and clearer that God had a long-range plan, a plan of sending a savior to earth, of sending his son to accomplish the redemption of humanity, which fell away from Him in the very beginning with Adam and Eve.
And at length he chose a virgin daughter of Israel to literally be his bride and bear His Son. He had prepared her from before her conception for this role as the sinless New Eve. Mary was neither tricked nor overpowered; in this story, unlike stories about Zeus, God uses no subterfuges.
And Mary had to give her consent. The fate of mankind literally hung on her reply, until she spoke the words “Let it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). And her son, in turn, confirmed God’s love for his people, by himself becoming their Bridegroom. On the cross, the Church, his bride, was born from his open side (as Eve was from Adam’s) and baptized in the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. This is the “great mystery” of God’s relationship with us (2 Cor. 11:2 and Ephesians 5).
It should be clear by now that the Greek story of any particular amor of Zeus and its outcome in the birth of a semi-divine hero, must be seen as a simple, isolated tale, whose meaning is self-contained, while the Christian story of the birth of Christ is a story of much wider extent whose roots lie in eternity. The difference of scope, as in our Gatsby-Notebook comparison, is a great one. But the question is wider than this.
The whole of the Greek myths about Zeus and his loves is a chain of repetitions of the same story, without any underlying plan. The various people from Hesiod to Appollodorus who compiled or anthologized the tales could not give much further meaning to Zeus’ actions as a whole. When Malory wrote Le Morte d’Arthur, he used various free-standing earlier tales, but had to rewrite, edit and compile them to give them the meaning he wanted.
But while the individual books of the Bible themselves were edited and compiled, the Bible as a whole was merely collected, the integrity of each individual work preserved with the greatest care. And it is here, from widely disparate works written at various times over hundreds of years, by various authors, with widely varying purposes, that the story of salvation proceeds over the centuries, and is fulfilled in history. Though no one human author gave it its shape, it is nonetheless as tightly plotted as the greatest novel with the widest scope ever was. Unlike the other works we’ve been considering, its ultimate scope and meaning was given to it from outside the books themselves, by God. No mythology of any other people has ever had that. So looking at a particular Greek myth about Zeus’s loves and looking at the conception of Christ are two very different things.
I think I’ve set up things well enough now to be able to talk about the nature of myth and its relationship to the Bible next. And of course, about Genesis and that Mesopotamian murder.