Myth and the Gospels

In my previous post, I wrote about myths in the Hebrew Bible, and also about contemporaneous Greek myths. There are also what we can call myths, I believe, in the Gospels, and here I’m suggesting an example in John’s gospel. By ‘myths’, I mean imaginative stories which include supernatural beings and events.

The fourth gospel, written up to 70 years after his death, describes a very different Jesus from the earlier three. The Jesus of this gospel discards his short parables about God’s fast approaching earthly kingdom. John’s readers, by the end of the 1st century, knew that this had failed to materialise. So in this gospel Jesus talks chiefly, at considerable length, about himself, including several “I am ..” statements (“the way, the truth and the life” etc) which entail a claim to deity. He’s less of an everyday flesh and blood man, with an urgent message for his fellow Jews, and more of a divine being who’s temporarily ‘descended’ from heaven to ‘save the world’ before re-ascending to where he’d come from. We’re in the realm of myth.  

In John’s gospel, prior to an account of Jesus’ final visit to Jerusalem and his crucifixion there, there’s a lengthy description (chapter 11) of how Jesus restored to life, a man who’d been dead for 4 days. There are many who regard this as a historical fact such that, if a BBC outside broadcast team had been present, they could have captured, on video, a breath-taking ‘scoop’ for the national 6 o’clock news. I think not, for various reasons.

As presented, this is a most stupendous event, and clearly of paramount importance to people intent on ‘proving’ the divine nature and mission of Jesus. Why then, if it happened as described, did the first three gospel writers make no mention of it whatsoever? I find that inexplicable, unless it didn’t actually happen. In John’s gospel, Jesus claims that, “I am the resurrection and the life” and, in my view, John has imagined and crafted this story as an ‘acted out’ parable, or graphic representation. I say “crafted” because I see John as an accomplished creative, literary practitioner, who ‘pulls out all the stops’ to increase the drama and impact of his story (which, with over a thousand words, beats any of mine). It also ‘softens up’ his readers for the fast approaching story about the resurrection of Jesus himself.

From a literary angle, there’s personal interest. The dead man’s sisters are supporters of Jesus who’ve entertained him in their house. He “loved” them both, one of whom had “anointed the Lord with perfumed oil and wiped his feet dry with her hair”. So one good turn deserves another. There’s threat of danger. The dead man’s home is in Bethany, very close to Jerusalem where, Jesus disciples remind him, “the Jewish leaders” were “trying to stone you to death! Are you going there again?” Jesus is unflinchingly, unselfishly brave. There’s heightening of the drama. As if the mere raising of a dead man wasn’t sufficiently stupendous on its own, Jesus delays his visit for four days. Decomposition isn’t delicately ignored, and the King James version is suitably blunt – “by this time he stinketh”. No problem! There’s a build up to the climax. A crowd gathers at the tomb. Jesus says, “Take away the stone”. Nothing happens. Jesus then, “shouted in a loud voice, Lazarus, come out!” After another heart-stopping moment, the dead man, “his feet and hands still tied up” emerged! Jesus said, “Unwrap him and let him go.” High drama indeed!

More could be said, but space, as ever, rapidly runs out. I’m not a rubbisher, but a regular reader of the gospels, on which I place the highest value. I simply think we do them an injustice if we read them in what is, to me, a crudely literal way. Insistence on literalism may be one cause of emptying church pews. I take the analogy of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Should we ask ourselves if things really happened that way? Should we engage with Scottish history to check things out? Should we write off the play if it proves to be fictionalised history, or historicised fiction? Or should we simply take it as it comes, and discover that its rich and deep contents invite us to come back to it over and again, each time to gain new insights and levels of understanding. That’s how we should read, and keep on reading, the four gospels.

4 responses to “Myth and the Gospels”

  1. John is a writer I profoundly respect. Keats rightly says we suspect writers who have designs on us. Ray on the contrary presents John as a “writer who pulls out the stops” and even more crudely a writer who “softens readers up”. If he did so one would rightly despise John. I get the impression Ray can never understand the impact the Resurrection makes on the disciples- it transforms every thing for them. There is no question then of John, standing outside the experience of the Resurrection and being a manipulator or propagandist or deployer of cheap literary techniques. Whether it is a factual account or a vision John is so totally immersed in the reality of what he is describing that his only interest is being true to that which he has so powerfully imagined.


    1. I think, Alan, you forget that I’m writing, not a text book, but a brief blog which is aimed, not at a specialised but at a general audience, and if I have “designs on them”, it’s to write in a way that’s simple, readable, engaging, sometimes amusing, and even hopefully enjoyable, whatever the subject (!), and so the language I use reflects that and, in my view, should be understood in that light. I don’t think we should read into it (as, for example, “rightly despising John”) more than, in my view, it merits. It may be that what you’re mostly ‘saying’ here is that you don’t agree with, and don’t like, what I’ve written, which would be why, in my view, you’ve over-egged the cake. But I could, of course, be wrong. We see things differently.

      John does have “designs on us”. He’s writing a religious tract “designed” to confirm existing believers and to convince current unbelievers. That’s fine by me, and he does it well. He is indeed an able “writer” and he makes use, in my view, of standard “literary techniques”. I don’t seem them as being, here, any more “cheap” than in their use elsewhere by innumerable other writers. You talk about what John has “so powerfully imagined”, and I regard the literary techniques he’s used to convey his “imagination” to have been quite “powerfully” employed. This is one of the world’s great stories.

      I regard your “impression” of me as being (which is, I think, often the case) inaccurate and unjust. I’ve written at least one blog on the need to “understand” the crucial importance of “the impact the resurrection made on the disciples”. The fact that a number of them fervently came to believe that they’d seen Jesus alive from the dead, explains why there is now a world-wide christian religion. I have not the slightest doubt ‘that’ they saw, but I do doubt ‘what’ they saw, as being the dead and decomposing body of Jesus restored to life. This does not mean that Jesus is not a ‘living reality’ to me. I’ve occasionally written about how he is, but not in the same way as for you. I may, again, be wrong, but I must be true to my own beliefs, while respecting those of others, which is what we all, I think, need always to try to do.


  2. I think my case remains. It cannot be a rich and deep story if within the context of his gospel John is simply “softening up ” readers for the resurrection. Manipulation and insincerity is not admirable in any writer whether it be Shakespeare, Dickens or John.( and we rightly condemn the “Make ’em laugh” make ’em cry approach” Dickens can adopt in his lesser work) I am delighted Jesus is a “living reality” to you but we are talking about the gospel writers and the way in which they create for us the Jesus we are given as a “living reality”.To say he is softening up readers is a quite false way of describing the kind of depth John is clearly developing his work. . By the way my criticism would not be that you write longer or that you should not write to the general reader.(in this case a little editing would be sufficient)


    1. I don’t, Alan, see the use of standard literary techniques designed to increase the impact of a piece of writing as having anything to do with “manipulation” or “insincerity” which, to me, is an overstatement that would damn a whole host of fine authors. Your objection, I think, is to how I have chosen to describe John’s use of such techniques, which seems to have disturbed your sensibilities, but I’ve given my reasons and I stick to them. I don’t accept your interpretation of what I’ve written and of how I’ve written it, but you’re fully entitled to your own point of view.

      John is not, in my view, describing a historical incident (hence the otherwise inexplicable lack of mention by the earlier gospel writers). I agree with you that this story is one which John has “powerfully imagined”. A written product of creative imagination, it seems to me, can only be regarded as “manipulation” or “insincerity” if it is disguised as, or misunderstood as, literalism. To me, John is telling a story which, understood to be like a myth, most certainly has a depth of meaning far beyond the words themselves, and his telling of it, in a ‘telling’ way adds, in my view, to its colour and drama. So, as far as I’m concerned, “I think my case also remains”.

      Differences of opinion help to make the world a lively and interesting place, provided that, as I say on the home page of my blog, “ideas are for playing with, not fighting over”. And, just for the record, the word “playing” has nothing to do with triviality. Ludwig Wittgenstein comes to mind.


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