Bible Myths and Mythbusters

Since its pilot in 2003, the Discovery Channel's Mythbusters science edutainment show has been a worldwide success. The co-hosts are special effects experts and engineers Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage. Hyneman and Savage apply basic science to test the validity of rumors, myths, movie scenes, old wives tales, news stories, and internet videos.


Some scientists criticize the show for casual methodology, inadequate controls, and poorly supported conclusions. Of course, you cannot go in to much detail in a fast-paced half-hour show aimed at a broad audience.

In spite these concerns, the overall value of the show in promoting science education was recognized in 2006 when the California Science Teachers Association named Hyneman and Savage honorary lifetime members. That same year the co-hosts also spoke at the annual convention of the National Science Teachers Association. Hyneman and Savage have lectured at colleges throughout the United States, including Georgia Tech, Michigan Tech, and MIT.

Each Mythbusters episode focuses on various popular beliefs, internet rumors, or other myths. According to Savage the two-step method for testing a myth is to "replicate the circumstances, then duplicate the results." By the end of each episode, each myth is either rated busted, plausible, or confirmed.

Mythbusters and demythologizers

In the academic discipline of biblical studies, mythbusters are known as demythologizers.

To demythologize, as defined by Mirriam-Webster, means "to divest of mythological forms in order to uncover the meaning underlying them."

Demythologization is an important tool for literary scholars, which...

...strips a text or work of art of mythological or legendary attributes or forms so as to permit clearer understanding (a musicologist might demythologize the operas of Richard Wagner for modern listeners)

...makes a text or a tradition less mysterious or mythical so as to give a more human character to something (a political scientist might demythologize the presidency)

...separates mythological, legendary, or apocryphal elements from a writing, work of art, historical figure, etc.

Bible mythbusters are scholars who examine various uncritically held beliefs about the Bible, mythic elements within the biblical texts, or other Ancient Near Eastern myths that may have influenced the biblical writers and redactors (editors).

The articles linked to this page will examine various aspects of myth and demythologization in biblical studies. When appropriate myths are either rated busted, plausible, or confirmed.

Is Jesus Christ a myth? Rudolf Bultmann suggests the gospel records are a collection of myths portraying truths about man's existence rather actual historical events.

A superstition is any blindly accepted belief or notion. What does the Bible teach about superstitions?

What is the relationship between the stories of the Bible and Egyptian mythology? Did the Egyptians and the Hebrews borrowed from one another's myths and culture?

Did the ancient Egyptian myth of Osiris and Isis influence the writers of the New Testament as a source to explain the Christian ideas of the Messiah and his resurrection?

Meet the Bible mythbusters

Many scholars classify parts of the Bible as “mythology.” On the one hand, this notion in rejected entirely by those who take an uncritical fundamentalist approach Bible study. On the other hand, those who embrace an ultra-critical liberal position over emphasize the use and influence of myth in the Bible and over extend the method of demythologization. Balance biblical mythbusters take an approach I call critical conservatism.

There has been extensive debate concerning the definition of mythology and its role in both ancient society and literature. The critical scientific study of myths in general, including the possible presence of mythical materials in the Bible in particular, began in the 19th century.

However, the application of the fruits of this study to materials in both the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and the New Testament began long before the modern period.

Bhagavad Gita

Above: Manuscript illustration of the Battle of Kurukshetra from the Hindu epic Mahabharata (400 BCE-200 CE)

The early Church Fathers belittled the myths of other religions that reflected the deification of their ancient cultural heroes. Such as the mythic figures of Krishna, the avatar of Vishnu, and Prince Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, which is part of the Hindu epic the Mahabharata, composed between 400 BCE and 200 CE. At the same time they allegorized the mythic elements in the Bible.

Robert Oden

Dr. Robert A. Oden, Jr., retired president of Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, author of The Bible without Theology, and expert in Near Eastern languages suggests several reasons for the increased research in to mythology in the 19th century among biblical scholars.

* The Romantic Movement’s emphasis on the role of imagination promoted an interest in the earliest sources of man’s poetic expressions in early myths.

* The results of historical criticism suggested that some of the stories in the Tanakh the New Testament "are a result not of anything like eye-witness testimony but rather of a long process of community tradition."

* The discovery by archaeologists of extra-biblical myths similar and even identical to some biblical narratives. For example, as historians read the Gilgamesh epic, they found in it a Mesopotamian account of the Flood almost identical to the biblical account in Genesis 6–9.

Oden concludes, "These discoveries would eventually force scholars to reconsider the relationship between mythology and biblical tradition."

Strauss The controversial German theologian David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874) was one of the pioneering mythbusters. His sensational The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined (published in German in 1836 and in English in 1846) scandalized Christian Europe. As a pioneer in the historical investigation of Jesus, Strauss argued that a many of the gospel stories such as the narratives of Jesus’ birth, the accounts of his baptism, the call of the disciples, as well as the feeding and healing miracles are mythical rather than historical.

One of the most influential of mythbusters was the German New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976), who applied a rigorous program of demythologization to the New Testament. For Bultmann, myths are the ways in which a culture symbolizes and objectivizes its entire world view. In his effort to appropriate the message of Jesus for modern man Bultmann does not dispense with biblical mythology; rather he attempts to translate this mythology, which reflects a worldview entirely different from our own.

Bultmann's demythologizing method was as controversial among scholars in the 20th century as Strauss' work was in the previous century. The notion that many biblical stories may not be historically “true” in the ordinary sense of the word, disturbed and even outraged fundamentalist believers. They are unsettled by the idea that the parts of the Bible may rest upon mythic rather than historical reality.

According to Oden, this has produced "an abiding hesitancy on the behalf of many biblical scholars to speak of the Bible and myth in the same breath, except to deny the presence of the latter in the former."

What is a "myth"?

Mircea Eliade

University of Chicago professor and leading historian of religion Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) admits the difficulty in formulating an a definition of "myth." He writes, “it would be hard to find a definition of myth that would be acceptable to all scholars and at the same time intelligible to nonspecialists.”

Our word “myth” is derived from the Greek term mythos. Originally this meant simply “something said” or “something told" - that is, a story. Later in Greek tradition, the word came to mean a false story or a fabrication, a meaning our word “myth” still has in some contexts. However, Oden points out "when modern folklorists began to study myth, they utilized that definition made generally known by the Grimm brothers: a myth is a story about the gods."

Oden identifies three elements that scholars and mythbusters generally agree qualify material as a myth:

1. It has to be a story.

2. It has to be traditional, meaning transmitted within a communal setting (usually orally).

3. It has to deal with a character or characters who are more than merely human.

In order to deny the presence of myths in biblical texts some scholars suggest a fourth element, that myths only refer to events in remote antiquity.

This fourth element limits the material in the Bible which might qualify as mythic to those passages obviously borrowed from the collections of Canaanite, Mesopotamian, and Egyptian myths such as:

* Gen 6:1–4, describing sexual relations between divine beings with humans

* Gen 6:5–9:17, the Flood narrative

* References to cosmic mountains in Ezekiel and the Psalms

* Depictions of Yahweh in a divine-council in Psalm 82; 2 Kings 22)

* References to a battle between Yahweh and a cosmic monster in the Book of Job.

However, the wider definition of myth indicated by Oden suggests that far more material than these selected borrowings in the Tanakh and the New Testament qualifies as mythic. This is the accepted view of most Bible mythbusters. Oden rightly adds, "not all biblical scholars will agree with this."

What is the function of mythic material?

Frtiz Graf

Fritz Graf, Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Department of Greek and Latin at Ohio State University argues that the relevance of myth in the Greco-Roman world "lies in its explanatory (etiological) and normative function." Graf identifies four important functions of mythic material:

* It makes intelligible, to the group it belongs to, the physical, political, and social order

* It defines man’s position toward the world and the gods

* It regulates religious and social behavior

* It does so by telling how the present order once came into being.

Careful mythbusters and biblical scholars will study mythic material in biblical texts within the framework functional framework proposed by Graf.

The uncritical rejection of the very idea of the mythic in biblical texts is often simply due to a failure to understand the function and value of myth. Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), who taught courses on comparative myth and religion at the US State Department's Foreign Service Institute, helpfully defines myths as having four basic functions:

1. The Mystical Function--experiencing the awe of the universe

2. The Cosmological Function--explaining the shape of the universe

3. The Sociological Function--supporting and validating a certain social order

4. The Pedagogical Function--how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances.

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