Mythical Theory

Mythical Theory an attempt to destroy the sacred character of Scripture by considering its contents as myths similar in their nature and origin to those of ancient mythology. It is the result of the theological systems of Kant, Hegel, Semler, Eichhorn,Woolston, and has found its fullest development in Strauss's Life of Jesus, and his Old Faith and New. The only question we can consider here is whether the sayings of the O. and N.T. can or cannot reallv be considered as myths. In the first place, it is worthy of remark that the word μῦθος, derived from μύω, to close the eyes, has the same root as mystery and mystic, and points to the shadowy conceptions of the soul, the thoughts which find next an expression in words. Hence it represents not merely the expression, but also the narrative, especially such as finds its origin in the vague ancient times, and consequently fables and sayings undeserving of belief (1Ti 4:7, γραώδεις μύθους παραιτοῦ ; comp. 2Ti 4:4, where it is opposed to the ἀλήθεια ; Tit 1:14, Ι᾿ουδαϊκοὶ μῦθοι), and generally every tradition unworthy of being believed (1Ti 1:4; μῦθοι σεσοφισμένοι, 2Pe 1:16). The ancients called untrustworthy sayings μυθολόγημα, and the narration of them μυθολογία. But by the word myths was formerly, and until of late, understood not only the history of the gods, but also many other traditions which rest on but slight or sometimes no historical foundation. Here we have, then, to establish the difference between myths and tradition. The latter is the verbal relation of a fact, at first very correct, but generally becoming obscured in the course of time by additions and embellishments added to it. In modern times the distinction has become still more marked; as myths are made to be fables resting on an idea only, and developed as if they were truth, though generally connected either with persons, places, or circumstances which have really existed, while by tradition is understood the transmission of real facts or events connected with an idea. Strauss, in his Liif of Jesust defines myths as "the historical garb (of the original Christian ideas) used in the aimless poetical tradition (of the early Church) which composes the whole of the Gospel." It is in the nature of myths to be often a sort of symbol of the thoughts from which they sprang. This connection between them is well established in Ullmann, Historisch oder Mythisch (Hamb. 1838, page 56 sq.). Both are realizations of an idea; in the symbol by signs, in the myth by words. "The symbol expresses the immediate and permanent connection between the supernatural and the physical. The myth can take its rise in historical elements which it assimilates, or simply in the thoughts; this establishes the distinction between historical and philosophical myths, between which extremes, of course, there are many intermediates." Both myths and tradition are, then, distinct from history, but form the vague mist out of which history steps forth. This leads to a distinction between the historical period of a people's existence, or that when tradition commences to be certain, and the mythical period. Now to the Bible student and to every Christian arises the question, first clearly proposed by Herder, whether in the original history of mankind, and especially of the chosen people, the same rule holds good that the time of tradition was preceded by a mythical period. This proposition may probably be admitted in a modified form; but the expression myths must be rejected, as many erroneous views would otherwise become entangled with it, and because "we are used to hear it especially applied to the fantastic produsctions of the poets of heathen religions" (Ullmann. page 58). Yet it cannot be denied that the O.T. contains passages the sense of which is traditional and mythic, and that acute criticism is required to get at real historical events in their true order, not only in the apocryphal books, but even in those recognised as canonical. The necessity of such criticism, which in former times was altogether neglected as useless, has become evident after the attacks of freethinkers and deists, and especially since the rationalists have brought forth their theory of myths and traditions to attack the reality of miracles, "as these are never to find a place in history." Dr. M'Clintock (in the preface to his translation of Neander's Life of Christ, N.Y. 1848, page 14 sq.) has thus sketched the origin and progress of the mythical process of criticism, as the natural outgrowth of the rationalistic form which infidelity assumed in Germany:

"The declared aim of the rationalists was to interpret the Bible on rational principles; that is to say, to find nothing in it beyondc the scope o.f human reason. Not supposing its writers to be impostors, nor denying the recoi d to be a legitimate source, in a certain sense. of religious instruction, they sought to fiee it from everything supernatural; deeming it to be, not a direct divine revelation, but a product of the human mind, aided, indeed, by Divilne Providence, but in no extraordinary or miraculous way. The Miracles, therefore, had to be explained away; and this was done in any mode that the ingenuity or philosophy of the expositor might suggest. Sometimes, for instance, they were no miracles at all, but simple natural facts, and all the old interpreters had misunnderstood the writers. Sometines, again, the writers of the sacred history misunderstood the facts, deeming them to be miraculons when they were not; e.g. when Christ 'healed the sick,' he merely prescribed for them, as a kind physician, with skill and success; when he 'raised the dead,' he only restored men from a swoon or trance; when he 'subdued the storm,' there was simply a happy

'coincidence,' making a strong impression upon the minds of the disciples; when he' fed the 'five thousand,' he only set an example of kindness and benevolence which the rich by-standers eagerly followed by opening their stores to feed the hungry multitude, etc. But even this elastic exegesis, when stretched to its utmost capacity, would not explain every case: some parts of the narratives were stubbornly unyielding, and new methods were demanded. For nen who had gone so far, it was easy to go fartherthe text itself was not spared: this passage was doubtful, that was corrupt, a third was spurious. In short, 'criticism,' as this desperate kind of interpretation was called, was at last able to make anything, and in a fair way to make nothing, out of the sacred records. But still the rationalist agreed with the orthodox supernaturalist in admitting that there was, at bottom, a basis of substantial truth in the records, and asserted that his efforts only tended to free the substantive verity from the envelolpments of fable or perversion with which tradition had invested it. The admission was a fatal one. The absurdities to which the theory led could not long remain undetected. It was soon shown, and shown effectually, that this vaunted criticism was no criticism at all; that the objections which it offered to the Gospel history were as old as Porphyry, or, at least, as the English Deists, and had been refuited again and again: that the errors of interpretation into which the older expositors had fallen might be avoided without touching the truthiand inspiration of the evangelists; and, in a word, that there could be no medium between open infidelity and the admission of a supernatural revelation. During the first quarter of the present century the conflict was waged with ardor on both sides, but with increasing energy on the side of truth; and every year weakened the forces of rationalism. Still, the theological mind of Germany was to a considerable extent ulnsettled: its Tholuck and Hengstenberg stood strong for orthodoxy; its Twesten and Nitzsch applied the clearest logic to systematic theology; its Marheineke and Daub philosophized religiously; its Bretschneider and Hase upheld reason as the judge of revelation; while not a few maintained the old rationalism, though with less and less of conviction, or at least of boldness.

"It was at this point that Strauss conceived the audacious idea of applying the mythical theory to the whole structure of the evangelical history. All Germany has been more or less infected with the mytho-mania since the new school of archaeologers have gone so deeply into the heathen mythology. 'A mythis onmis priscorum hominum cum historia tum philosophia procedit,' says Heyne; and Bauer asks, logically enough, 'if the early history of every people is mythical, why not the Hebrew?' The mere application of this theory to the sacred records was by no means original with Strauss: he himself points out a number of instances in which Eichhorn, Gabler, Vater, etc., had made use of it. His claim is to have given a comlpleteness to the theory, or rather to its application, which former interpreters had not dreamed of; and, to tell the truth, he has made no halting work of it. That Jesus lived; that he taught in Judaea; that he gathered disciples, and so impressed them with his life and teaching that they believed him to be the Messiah — this is nearly the sumn of historical truth contained in the evangeiists, according to Strauss. Yet he ascribes no firaudulent designs to the writers; his problem is, therefore, to account for the form in which the narratives appear: and this is the place for his theory to work. A Messiah was expected; certain notions were attached to the Messianic character and office; and with these Christ was invested by his followers. 'Such and such a thing must happen to the Messiah; Jesus was the Messiah; therefore such and such a thing must have happened to him.' 'The expectation of a Messiah had filourished in Israel long before the time of Christ; and at the time of his appearance it had ripened into full bloom; not an indefinite longing, either, but an expectation defined by many prominent characteristics. Moses had promised (De 18:15) "a prophet like unto himself," a passage applied, in Christ's time, to the Messiah (Ac 3:22; Ac 2:37). The Messiah was to spring of David's line, and ascend his throne as a second David (Mt 22:42; Lu 1:32); and therefore he was looked for, in Christ's time, to be born in the little town of Bethlehem (Joh 6:42; Mt 2:5). In the old legends the most wonderful acts and destinies had been attrihuted to the prophets: could less be expected of the Messiah? Must not his life be illustrated by the most splendid and significant incidents fromu the lives of the prophets ? Finally, the Messianic sara, as a whole, was expected to be a period of signs and wonders. The eyes of the blind were to be openeed; the deaf ears were to be unstopped: the lame were to leap, etc. (Isaiah 35:etc.). These expressions, part of which, at least, were purely figurative, came to be literally understood (Mt 11:5; Lu 7:21 sq.); and thus, even before Christ's appearance, the ima'e of Messiah was continually filling out with new features. And thus many of the legends respecting, Jesus had not to be newly invented they existed readymade in the Messianic hopes of the people, derived chiefly from the Old Testament, and only needed to be transferred to Christ. and adapted to his character and teachings.'

"These extracts contain the substance of Strauss's theory; his book is little more than an application of it to the individual parts of the history of Christ as (riven in the evangelists. A few instances of his procedure will suffice. He finds the key to the miraculous conception in Mt 1:22: 'All this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying,' etc. 'The birth of Jesus, it was said, must correspond to this passage; and what was to be, they concluded, really did occur, and so arose the myth.' The account of the star of the Magians, and of their visit from the East, arose from a similar application of Nu 24:17; Ps 72:10; Isa 60:1-6, etc. The temiptation of Christ was suggested by the trials of Job; its separate features helped out by Ex 34:2S; Le 16:8,10; De 9:9, etc. The transfiguratioin finds a starting-point in Ex 34:29-35. So we might go through the book.

"The appearance of the work, as we have said, prodiced a wonderful sensation in Germany; greater, by far, than its merits would seem to have authorized. It was the heaviest blow that unbelief had ever struck against Christianity; and the question was, what should be done? The Prussian government was disposed to utter its ban againust the book; and manuy evangelical theologians deemed this the proper course to pursue in regaardd to it. But Dr. Neander deprecated such a procedure as calculated to give the work a spurious celebrity, and as wearing, at least, the aspect of a confession that it was unanswerable. He advised that it should be met, not by authority, but by argument, believing that the truth had nothing to fear in such a conflict. His counsel prevailed; and the event has shown that he was right. Replies to Straus poured forth in a torrent; the Gospel histories were subjected to a closer criticism than ever; and today the public mind of Germany is nearer to an orthodox and evangelical view of their contents than it has been for almost a century.

"Besides the general impulse given by Strauss to the study of the four Gospels, he has done theology another good service. His book has given a deadly blow to rationalism properly so called. Its paltry criticism and beggarly interpretations of Scriptuire are nowhere more effectually dissected than in his investigations of the different parts of the history and of the expositions that have been given of it. In a word, he has driven rationalism out of the field to make way for his myths; and Neander, Eberhard, and others have exploded the myths; so that nothing remains biut a return to the simple, truthful interpretations which, in the main, are given by the evangelical commentators." In his New Life of Jesus (authorized translation, Lond. 1865, 2 volumes, 8vo) Strauss thus defines his modified and later position (page 213): "I have, mainly in consequence of Baur's hints, allowed more room than before to the hypothesis of conscious and intentional fiction. This may properly be called myth as soon as it has gained belief and passed into the legend of a people or a religious sect; for its having done so invariably shows at the same time that it was formed by its author not merely upon notions of his own, but in connection with the consciousness of a majority." He therefore still maintains that "the myth, in its original form, is not the conscious and intentional invention of an individual, but a production of the common consciousness of a people or religious circle, which an individual does indeed first enunciate, but which meets belief for the very reason that such individual is but the organ of this universal conviction" (page 206); and he proceeds to explain how in this way arose the account of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, and the disappearance of his body from the tomb. Yet he adds, "But when we thus point out that an unconscious invention of such accounts was possible far beyond the limits within which they are generally considered admissible, we do not mean to say that conscious fiction had no share at all in the evangelical formation of myths. The narratives of the fourth Gospel especially are for the most part so methodically framed, so carried out into detail, that, if they are not. historical, they can apparently only be considered as conscious and intentional inventions" (page 208). Accordingly he discards the Gospel of John altogether as being purely fictitious. This is the suicidal act of the mythical theorists; for once brought to the alternative of receiving or rejecting the Gospel records as a simple question of veracity, their battery is unmasked, and the argument becomes one of bold infidelity. Paley has proved, long ago, that the N.-T. writers had no possible motive or opportunity for either self-deception or imposture Certain critics before Strauss had attempted to apply the theory of historical mythus to the Gospel narrative. By historical mythus is meant the adornment of actual facts by the imagination. Strauss, however; went further than this, and adopted what he calls the principles of philosophical mythus, i.e., "the expression of an idea in the form of an imaginary biography." But the weak point in Strauss's system, at which it finally broke down, was that he did not assert the whole Gospel to be mythical; he admitted certain statements in the N.-T. histories as facts. Here, then, his system was as great a failure as any other. The very aim of his method was to exclude everything capricious or hypothetical; the result of its application was to leave the field as much open to caprice and hypothesis as before. Nor does his eventual denial of the truthfulness of John's Gospel mend his system; it only introduces a fresh element of discrimination and consequent perplexity. Late researches go much deeper into the idea of the myth and its application, particularly in the work of Schelling, Ueb. d. Alythen d. altesten Welt (in Paulus, Memorabilien); Creuzer; F. Baur, of Tubingen, Symbolik u. Mythologie, oder die Naturreligion d. Alterthums (Stuttg. 1824-25, 8vo); Ottfried Miiller, of Gottingen, Prolegomena zu einer Wissenschaftlichen Mythologie (Gltting. 1825); A. Batke, D. bibl. Theol. d. A. Test. (Berl. 1835). In the O.T. they consider as mythical the history of creation and of the fall of Adam, the consequent punishment, the flood, the origin of the various nations, and the election of the Jewish people, as well as their covenant with Jehovah; the history of the patriarchs, the stay in Egypt of a family which grew into a nation (although, as shown by remaining monuments, this is based on a fact), their egress from Egypt, the giving of the law on Mount Sinai, the forty-years' journey through the wilderness, the account of the manner in which the Israelites came into possession of the Promised Land. Then a great deal in the following books, as also in the later history of the people and of the kings, especially in the form as we find it in the Book of Chronicles, where all is made to promote the priestly interest; the greater part of the history of the prophets, and even passages in the latest history of the people, as the apocryphal books, contain myths concerning the Maccabees. All through, tradition is connected with the myths which form an important element in these narratives, and both are in the whole history of the Israelites connected, in true Oriental style, with the historical element. These views, but often still more sweeping and exaggerated, were at that time advanced cautiously, and used to explain many passages in Scripture with some show of reason; the more as. all line of demarcation being destroyed by the generalization of some assertions, everything came to be measured by the same standard. The absurdities of these views, and their impiety, called into existence anl opposite party which rejected the assertion of any myths being contained in the canonical Scriptures; and the views of the latter have gradually prevailed among the more candid and careful even of German critics. Traces, however, of this mythical theory in an obscure or subdued form are seen in Stanley's Lectures on the Hist. of the Jewish Church;

having evidently come over from Ewald's destructive and arbitrary method of treating Jewish history in his Israelit. Volk. A sounder and soberer criticism, however, has found means to restore the narratives of both the O. and the N.T. to their proper rank as genuine history. SEE RATIONALISM.

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