What Is the Bible?—Truth or myth?

Many people dismiss the Bible as myth, but the historical materials within the Bible are quite different to other literature we normally refer to as myth. There is good evidence for the historical reliability of the Bible, and if it be allowed that there is an all-powerful God Who is capable of creating the world, then the notion of miracle is not of itself so surprising. This is not to say, however, that all the Bible is literally true. Some of it is written in parable, poetry, imagery and symbol. The alert reader of the Bible will always pay careful attention to what kind of material they are reading in the Bible, and interpret it accordingly.

There’s no doubting it – the Bible was written a long time ago. Even the most recent parts (the New Testament) are almost 2000 years old. But it’s important not to confuse age with irrelevance.

The fact is that God doesn’t change. On the surface, the world changes considerably. Someone from the Middle Ages would scarcely recognise the human society of today. But what human beings are basically like – their needs, their wants and fears, their strengths and weaknesses – all these have not changed. And neither has God. Though He has gradually revealed more about Himself and His plan in the Bible and through His activities in history, what He essentially is and stands for is unchangeable. And the characteristics He wants people to develop and show in their lives are unchanged, because He wants us to reflect Him. New readers and students of the Bible are constantly surprised at how relevant, timely, and practical its message is.

But is it true?

But that still leaves a big question. Did the things recorded in the Bible – like Jesus’ miracles, the parting of the Red Sea, the creation and the Flood – really happen? Can one seriously expect people in the modern world to believe such accounts?

Well, first of all it’s very clear from the New Testament that Jesus himself believed the record of Bible events recorded in the Old Testament like the creation of the world, Adam and Eve, the Flood, and so forth. The same can be said of other New Testament writers like the apostle Paul. We might be tempted to think of these accounts as myths and legends, but it is pretty clear that Jesus himself didn’t take them that way.

The question of whether or not miracles could have happened is largely a question of whether you can believe that God would temporarily alter or interfere with the laws of nature. But if you believe that He chose to put those laws in place as Creator in the first place, then this isn’t really such a big deal.

The so-called ‘laws’ of nature are so much a part of everyday life that it is tempting to assume that they are completely without exception, and unable to be overwritten. Yet if a creator-God exists at all (One Who put those very laws into motion), then it is entirely consistent to assume that He is above them and could choose to override them for specific purposes if He so chose.

The Bible clearly records miraculous events, and claims that God has acted to interfere with the ‘normal’ laws of nature to bring about His purpose. It’s His world, after all, and if He made it and established those very laws then it is His right to interfere with them, if He chooses! Interestingly, though, God often works with the ‘natural’ processes of nature, timing them with ‘miraculous’ precision to bring about events that appear to human beings as miracles. God seems to use the natural phenomena He has created in His service to bring about His purpose.

Think of it another way. Because modern science has revealed and explained so much, it is tempting to believe that it can explain everything, and anything that we cannot explain (like a miracle) must be false. By contrast, however, it’s often the case that as we discover more about our world we simultaneously increase our ignorance. We may have explained one thing, but in doing so, we have opened up many more questions that we hadn’t even thought to ask before. Science has not disproved the existence of God, and there are hundreds of scientists who find that their researches only strengthen their faith in the concept of an Almighty Creator. If such a being exists, then He can probably do miracles if He wants to!

Miracle and myth

Would it not be possible to eliminate the miraculous and seemingly ‘mythical’ elements from the Bible’s message, and believe in the rest? Though it might seem like an attractive proposition, the enterprise is doomed to failure. You simply can’t separate the two. A Jesus who was not conceived miraculously by the power of God or who did not rise from the dead is not a Biblical Jesus. Such an un-Biblical Jesus is but a talented public-speaker who may have said a few wise things. But he would not be and could not be the Saviour that the Bible claims he is.

No, the Bible presents its miracles as historical reality. It’s important to stress this point: the Bible is not ‘myth’ in any conventional sense. Anyone who has read ancient myths as a student of ancient civilisations will immediately recognise the difference between the Biblical accounts and the mythic and epic traditions of ancient literature. Those accounts are of a particularly literary genre – they contain myriad gods, demons and spirits, and they describe the interaction between that divine and meta-divine world and the world of man. By contrast, the Bible comes to us as history – most of it (the parts with the miracles in at least) is presented as historical narrative, not as myth. It’s very easy to dismiss the Bible as ‘myth’ but most people who do have probably not read either the Bible or myth (or perhaps both!). We can debate whether the Bible accounts are true or believable, but they are not anything that might be regarded as being analogous to ancient myth in their literary form. The Bible’s spiritual message and the hope it presents is completely intertwined with its historical message. A Bible without its history and miracle is no Bible at all.

You may find it difficult to believe in some of the miracles the Bible describes (the resurrection of Jesus, say, or the plagues on Egypt), but as your understanding and trust of the Bible grows, and as you explore the evidence in greater detail you may find your perspective beginning to change. Keep an open mind – if you can believe that there is a God who has created the world and has a purpose for it, then it is perhaps not too big a step to believe that such a God may choose to ‘change the rules’ from time to time in order to accomplish His plans.

Symbolism and metaphor

This is not to say that everything in the Bible is literally true, however. The Bible uses symbolic language, story and parable to communicate its message with maximum power, and we must be careful not to confuse such use of language with a presentation of reality. It is important to be sensitive to what we are reading – whether it is a symbolic passage or a historical narrative, whether it is poetic expression or literal truth. Many people have confused themselves in the book of Revelation, for instance, by trying to interpret dragons, frogs and prostitutes-on-horses in a literal way when the book tells us very clearly that it is a book of symbol! God wants people to be smarter readers of His word than that.

This process is largely common-sense, and it’s pretty easy to avoid making large blunders just by having an awareness of which part of the Bible one is reading. The historical books contain (surprise, surprise!) lots of historical accounts. The prophetic parts tend to contain much more heavy use of symbolism and metaphor, and the poetic parts similarly. When we read the gospels, the basic narrative structure and the reported words of Jesus are presented as historical reality. But in the words that Jesus spoke there are many accounts of parables and metaphor which are meant to be cashed out and interpreted rather than taken as literal depictions of ‘what really happened’.

Historical accuracy

We’ve spent a good bit of time on this page talking about miracles and whether or not they can happen. It’s worth also saying a few words about the historical events the Bible describes. This takes us into the field of archaeology. There is clearly overlap between the Biblical accounts of the history of the Ancient Near East and the records of other ancient civilisations which we can read on tablets and stele. Both can also be tested by what has been unearthed by the archeologist’s spade.

Broadly speaking, there is strong corroboration from archaeology of the historical accuracy of the Bible account. That doesn’t mean that everything has been confirmed (there’s still debate, for instance, about just which period of Egyptian history it was when the Israelites escaped from captivity), but the level of harmony – and the detail of that harmony – is significant.

There have even been occasions where critics of the Bible have alleged that incidents and historical details recorded in the Bible could not be accurate because there was no archaeological support. In some of these cases, evidence has since come to light which has proved the critics false.

For instance, it was once claimed that Moses could not have written the Penatateuch (the first five books, traditionally ascribed to Moses) because writing had not been invented in his day. What proponents of that view ought to have said was that we had not yet discovered writing dating back to that time. Subsequently many examples of writing which significantly pre-date Moses have been unearthed which completely destroy the argument.

Three examples

The correspondence between the Bible and archaeology which supports its historical claims would require much more space than is available here and you can find more on the page Is it accurate? in the History Matters section. Here are three examples, nevertheless, which illustrate the kind of evidence that is available.

<<Three examples to be added in due course.>>

While archaeology can never prove the Bible to be true, and while there are many unresolved questions about the harmonisation and interpretation of archaeological evidence, in general it is fair to say that archaeology has frequently confirmed the historicity of the Bible accounts – and often in the face of scepticism. The Bible has everything to do with history and very little to do with myth.

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