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.

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