Are theologians rationalizing myths and miracles as ancients rationalized their myths?

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by Neil Godfrey

The Red Sea Exodus certainly did not happen as the Bible relates it, but many find a way to keep the story as “true” by rationalizing it: a smaller number of Israelites waded through at low tide, for example.

King David may not have ruled over a great kingdom as the Bible tells us, so he was probably a local bandit warlord at the very least.

Jesus surely did not heal merely with a command, so we believe he healed by means of ancient rituals which had some psychosomatic power.

The disciples obviously could not have literally seen Jesus alive after his death, so we must conclude that they had either some sort of hallucinatory experience or an inner conviction that convinced them he was resurrected.

In such ways many of us today find ways to cling to mythical tales. We discard anything that is contrary to our everyday experience and find a natural way to more or less explain how less sophisticated people came up with such mythical tales that are so important to us.

One example of an ancient philosopher doing just that very same thing is Palaephatus, someone who had been taught by Aristotle.

Look at how he rationalized the myth of Pandora:

The story about Pandora is intolerable — that she was fashioned out of earth and imparted her shape to others. It hardly seems likely to me. 

Pandora was a wealthy Greek woman: whenever she went out in public, she would dress up in her finest and rub her face with a cosmetic made of earth [i.e. white lead that Athenian women used to whiten their faces]. It was she who first discovered how to apply such cosmetics to her skin. Nowadays, of course, many women do so, and none of them gains any special renown because the practice is so common. 

This is what happened; but the story was twisted in an impossible direction. 

(Palaephatus, 34.Pandora, in J. Stern (1996), translator and commentator, On Unbelievable Tales / Palaephatus. Wauconda, IL, Bolchazy-Carduzzi.)

Only a fool would believe a human being could literally turn to stone:

They say that Niobe, a living woman, turned into stone on the tomb of her children. Anyone who believes that a human being turned into a stone or a stone into a human being is a fool. The truth is as follows. 

When Niobe’s children died, someone made a statue of Niobe out of stone and set it on the tomb. Passersby would say: “A stone Niobe is standing on the tomb. We saw her ourselves.” . . . . That is how it was, but Niobe herself did not turn into stone. 

(Palaephatus, 8:Niobe)

And so on and so forth.

Interesting to note the assumption that there must have been historicity, something historical, behind the myths. It is as if it were inconceivable that anyone would “just make up” such stories. Some form of evolving “social memory” is surely the source of significant cultural heritage. A wise man like Palaephatus would analyse the narrative and “discern” the most plausible “historical reconstruction” behind it.

And theologians have continued the tradition up to the present day, yes?



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Neil Godfrey

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19 thoughts on “Are theologians rationalizing myths and miracles as ancients rationalized their myths?”

  1. What you say does make sense, but with the proviso that’s no more invalid to “cling” to the notion of some sort of original historicity than it is to insist that all myths are “just made up”. After all we do know that myths can accrete around historical events and personalities like pearls round grains of grit.

    In II Kings 18-19, we read of how Sennacherib beseiged Jerusalem but ultimately spared it. One stratum seems to attribute that solely to a payoff; another suggests that he retreated for military reasons; the third stratum narrates a sudden angelic intervention. That last obviously mythological stratum doesn’t invalidate the possible historicity of the others. Sennacherib did indeed beseige Jerusalem but didn’t destroy it and we know this because we have Sennacherib’s own (sketchy) version.

    You can’t generalise and need to be judge each case on its own merits. Shakespeare’s Macbeth story is a dramatic fiction. But Macbeth existed, along with Duncan and Malcolm. So we can no more insist that there cannot have been a historical “pre-David” any more than we can insist there must have been. His story is hardly more outlandish than Macbeth’s.

    And I rather like that Niobe theory. A sort of folk tale that went viral. Who knows?

    1. Yes, there are several layers of meaning to the word “myth” — and there were several layers of meaning among the ancient Greeks in certain eras, too. But you have touched on the critical point when it comes to arguing for historicity. You point to independent testimony and external evidence that gives rise to different interpretations. That’s not the situation when all we have is “myth all the way down”.

      Historical events that leave records can be tested against the myths that are generated from their memories.

      In cases where we have nothing but myth or tales without any independent corroboration then we really do have absolutely no reason to believe they ever happened. BUT that is not to say they did not happen. It means we have no evidence either way.

      And when we are in that situation, it is a good principle to fall back on Occam’s razor. If we can see literary or ideological explanations for the origin of a story and at the same time there is no NEED to introduce the possibility of historical memory that has left no evidence, then it is fair and right to assume as a tentative hypothesis, pending any new evidence in the future, to assume that the story was entirely imaginative in origin, that there was no historical core.

      1. “O, reason not the NEED! Our basest beggars
        Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
        Allow not nature more than nature needs,
        Man’s life is cheap as beast’s…”

        Occam’s Razor is not an instrument I’m agreat fan off and in this context I don’t think it does has any special privilege. And I’m not a fan, because it seems to me that the approach you suggest has a negative outcome: it essentially CLOSES OFF avenues – investigative, imaginative (that’s not out of place here at all) before it is right to do so, when we should be leaving options open, until we are absolutely sure they have to be closed. In truth, I can’t see why we need to pretend the case is (even temporarily) closed. Why not acknowledge the gap in our knowledge and embrace a RANGE of potential narratives which that gap allows?

        But it’s difficult to talk about this in an abstract, generalised way, because it may be that you and I are, tacitly, thinking in terms of particular cases, and as a result are misunderstanding each other. What it really comes down to is how we apply these principles to particular cases; that’s the proof of the pudding. Often what we say we do and what we actually do aren’t the same at all.

        I have a belly-ache and I’m not sure if the above means what I mean it to mean, but perhaps you’ll get my drift.

        1. Maybe, as you suggest, we are talking past each other. By Occam’s razor I simply mean that we do not gratuitously introduce factors to help explain Christian origins if there is no need for them. If the evidence we have quite adequately tells us that a narrative has a literary or theological source then let’s just leave it at that. No need to add historical memories as another factor if we have no evidence for historical memories being part of the equation.

          That does not mean we rule out the possibility that historical memories were indeed a causative factor. It simply means we shelve the possibility until we have evidence to support the claim.

          Nothing is shut off. No closed gates. But we try to abide by the rule to follow an idea if and only when we find a piece of evidence that gives us a reason to follow that idea. Other ideas are not ruled out. They simply have to wait for a piece of evidence to beckon them and then they have their time on the field.

          That should be noncontroversial. But it is surprising how often biblical scholars really do, seriously, just make up stuff and seem oblivious to sound historical methods and elementary logic.

  2. When theologians begin to try to rationalize biblical tales that, on the surface are preposterous, they often edge toward looking for a natural explanation, which then removes the ”God” involvement and thus rather spoils the entire point for them, don’t you think?

    1. Yes I do think so, very much. Thomas L. Thompson (who is a renowned “minimalist” scholar and Roman Catholic, I believe) said it best when he pointed out that by removing the miraculous from such stories we are in fact removing the central point of those stories. We don’t get any closer to historicity. We simply destroy what we are trying to explain.

      It’s like as Adams said, If you take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing you get is a non-working cat.

      1. That argument may be a good riposte to theologians who defend historicity while kicking God out of the narrative, which is indeed totally self-defeating, but would it bother an entirely non-theological approach? The miracuolous may be the point of the narrative but it still needn’t be the origin of the story. We may be no closer to historicity, but we are no further away either.

        Whether there was an historical origin to the Iliad is an interesting case. Ancient Greeks believed it was mythologised history, but in later centuries the consensus was that it was entirely mythical. But now the tables have turned again. The war over Wilusa, involving Alaksandsu king of Ahhiyawa, as related in a Hittite text, is now seen by many as the historical origin of the Trojan war stories – providing the geography, some names etc. and who knows what other unknowable details?

        Of course, the question “did it really happen?” can become meaningless eventually. There comes a tipping point, beyond which the mythical narrative has become so removed from the historical circumstance that originated it, that there is no meaningful connection between the two: saying “it happened” no longer making sense because the “it” of the narrative and the “it” of history are too far apart to be considered one and the same.

  3. We see this three-step cycle repeating throughout history:
    1. Someone invents a miraculous story about a hero or god who lived in the past
    2. Over time, the story along with the hero/god becomes entwined with ethnic or national identity
    3. At some later date, the miraculous aspect becomes embarrassing or untenable. But to throw away the *entire* story and the hero/god with it would cause too much damage to ethnic or national identity. So the story is rationalized or modified so that it isn’t embarrassing.

    You already see this happening with the Presocratic philosophers. Today’s theologians are doing the exact same thing. The latter undoubtedly feel more secure in their rationalizing only because Biblical figures are said to have existed in real, historical time, while the Greek and other hero/gods are said to have existed in some primordial or “sacred” time.

    The really interesting part of these cycles is: why was the miraculous story never embarrassing to the original teller or audience? Could it be that, in many cases, the original teller and audiences knew that they were myths, and were therefore completely unconcerned with their outlandish nature, much the same way that creators and audiences today are completely unconcerned with the miracles performed in Super-Hero movies and comic books?

  4. Hence the goal is to construct a model that fits the available evidence, and can explain away apparently recalcitrant evidence, and we are left with an embarrassment of riches of “possible interpretations:” Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet, or charismatic healer, or Cynic philosopher, or Jewish Messiah, or prophet of social change, or mythical celestial being, or zealot.

    1. The model you outline is what we call ad hoc. It is basically a truism that anyone can construct a model to explain evidence and proceed to “explain away” recalcitrant data. Many of us have been applying that sort of reasoning to the world ever since childhood. We are very impressionable then and children can arrive at a plethora of different ideas about the world.

      The many contradictory models of Jesus suggest there is something ad hoc about them somewhere.

      No, the goal is to propose a hypothesis based on what we would expect to find and then look for evidence that disproves it. Put it to the test.

      Just beginning with the assumption that a story derives from historical events and never questioning or testing that assumption is not sound methodology. We need to ask ourselves what we would expect to find in the evidence if there were some historical core to a particular story. If we find ourselves making excuses for or explaining away the absence of any supporting evidence then we are engaging in ad hoc rationalizations.

      We need to be prepared to say “we don’t know” and even “we cannot know” and be comfortable with that, when the available data allows us to say no more.

      We also need to ask what we would expect to find in the data if there were some other source (non-historical event) for the story. And we need to go with the same testing process there, too.

      If we find we do have evidence supporting, say, a literary or mythical origin of a story, but none supporting a historical origin, then we need to have the courage to accept that Occam’s razor gives us no reason to postulate a historical origin.

      That is not the same as flatly denying the possibility of a historical origin. Research is all about embracing hypotheses with tentativeness, always aware that new insights and evidence might change our views.

          1. I am asking whether you think Mark’s gospel is of a similar genre to Philostratus’ “Life of Apollonius of Tyana.” If not, how are they different?

            1. I still don’t understand how the question relates to the rationalization of myths, evidence for historical sources, etc.

              There are many differences between the Gospel of Mark and Life of A. I’m not sure what your reason for the question is so am not sure how to respond in any detail.

              Do you really want me to set out a few obvious differences? Can you explain your point, please?

              Authorial and narrative voices, references to sources, flowing style and rich detail versus abrupt and unsophisticated pace and changes of pericopes . . . . .

  5. I have just recently read Did the Greeks Believe Their Myths?, by Paul Veyne (in translation from French), and the author makes some interesting points. The one insight that I most appreciated was his contention that the obstacle for people in antiquity dismissing myths and legendary figures as pure fabrications was that the stories were author-less. That is, they were derived from “tradition” or what “people say”. The idea is that a lie cannot be gratuitous, or motiveless; people lie for a purpose. “Tradition” this logic goes, has no reason to lie, and so how can it speak of nothing? Ergo, there was once something for the myth or legend to be based on, a kernel of truth, even if in the retelling it has become elaborated with fanciful additions and supernatural absurdities.

    It does seem similar to the “but why would anyone make it up” approach to the criterion of embarrassment or the “who would die for a lie” apologetic.

    1. There was a strong force of Agnosticism among the Greeks in antiquity.

      Pre Socratic Philosopher Protagoras (Πρωταγόρας; c. 490 – c. 420 BC) said in his lost work, On the Gods, : “Concerning the gods, I have no means of knowing whether they exist or not, nor of what sort they may be.”

      Socrates said In the Apology “‘To fear death, gentlemen, is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know.”

    2. In this context what is of possible relevance is the impersonal voice of the gospels. They are (originally) without author attributions and even with the author superscriptions their voice is that of the omniscient, disembodied narrator. This is the voice of many of the Jewish Scriptures. It lends them a sense of authority, a divine authority, even.

      As for scepticism on the gods, Plato certainly believed in the gods and portrayed Socrates as doing so, too. Piety was highly esteemed as a character trait by most.

    3. There was a rationalist streak in elite Classical and Hellenistic thought. Veyne’s focus is on legendary heroes more than the existence of the gods, but in both cases, he’s making the point that skepticism universally took the form of dismissing absurdities like the ones Neil sets out in the OP, supernatural transformations and the like. Ancients were comfortable dismissing these, but they could not go all the way toward rejecting the bare historicity of the central figures (heroes; ehumerized gods) because while the supernatural embellishments were due to human gullibility and error, the origin of the tales was “tradition” which could not lie gratuitously.

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