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The Bible and Myth

Bronze Figurine of Baal
Musée du Louvre, Département des Antiquités orientales, AO 17329 – –

Are there myths and legends in the Hebrew Bible? For a long time, most scholars would have said no. For some, this was because myths were supposed to be something “pagans” had, in contrast to biblical “scripture.” For others, the problem was the still-common idea that a myth is “a story that is not true,” something many scholars were not prepared to say about biblical stories. And for a few, the problem was technical. Myths have sometimes been defined as “stories about gods” in ways that supposedly left out the (largely) monotheistic Hebrew Bible. As the definition of myth has expanded in recent years, however, the question has been revisited, too, in ways that have helped us better understand the Hebrew Bible.

Why Not Biblical Myth?

It was not until the late eighteenth century, or even the early nineteenth century, that scholars began to consider studying the traditions of the Hebrew Bible the way one would study the traditions of any other nation. This opened the door to the possibility that the ancient Israelites had myths, just as the Greeks, Romans, or Mesopotamians did, some of which might survive in the biblical text. Yet, early modern scholars were still limited by the idea that there was a contrast between biblical narratives and myth—a reality reflected in the fact that it is still common to refer to Greek and Roman “mythology” but biblical “traditions.”

Indeed, well into the twentieth century, scholars argued that myth might exist in the Hebrew Bible, but that biblical authors were largely trying to write something different from and even struggling against the myths of their neighbors. Many of the most influential studies on the topic took this insight as their starting point. In the early part of the century, a German scholar named Hermann Gunkel acknowledged that Gen 1–11, with its fantastical accounts of the flood and the garden of Eden, might contain myths, but he argued that most of the rest was “legend”—which, in his view, meant that it was based to some extent on real events. Later in the century, Frank Moore Cross highlighted the similarities between some of the traditions in the narrative that spans the first five books of the Hebrew Bible and Canaanite myth but claimed that there were enough differences to regard the biblical traditions as “epic,” like the Homeric epics—the Odyssey and the Iliad—even to the point of believing the pentateuchal narrative was based on an early oral poem. In both of these cases, and others like them, inquiries into biblical myth actually ended up reinforcing the supposed uniqueness of biblical traditions instead.

Are There Myths in the Hebrew Bible?

Today, few scholars would define myth either as “stories that aren’t true” or, as Gunkel and Cross did, “stories about the gods.” There is no consensus on how exactly to define the term, but most would agree that a wide range of stories about figures (or deities) who are larger than life fit the bill. Some have argued that myths must explain something or take place in a world that is not quite real, while others have emphasized the political dimensions of myth—that they are stories meant to do something. Arguably, the feature most consistently cited as a key element of a myth is that they are important. Myths are culturally important stories about central figures and events of the past. As a result, even something like the story of King David could be considered a myth, even if he really existed. After all, it is one thing to say there was a King David and another to say that he defeated a giant in single combat with nothing but a sling while he was still a young man.

As a result, if there is a trend in the contemporary study of biblical myth, it is the reverse of what previously guided inquiries. Scholars now recognize that identifying various biblical traditions as myth opens the door to comparative investigations. Today, many scholars lament the fact that the study of biblical narratives has so often occurred in a vacuum and been little affected by discussions in other fields. As a result, embracing—rather than rejecting—the similarity between biblical traditions and others on the level of myth now seems like the starting point for learning more about how ancient Israel understood its world and its deity.

Did You Know?

• The term myth goes back to ancient Greece. Plato was one of the first to offer a definition.

• The definition of myth as “stories about gods” goes back to the Brothers Grimm, who defined myth in contrast to “legends” and “fairy tales.” They also thought that myths were always older than other kinds of stories.

• We have many stories that have long been thought of as myths from ancient Mesopotamia that seem to have influenced biblical traditions in various ways.

Image Credit: Bronze Figurine of Baal, the Ugaritic Storm Deity. 1550–1150 BCE. Ras Shamra. Courtesy The Louvre.

  • tobolowsky-andrew

    Andrew Tobolowsky is an Assistant Professor in the Religious Studies department at William & Mary. He is the author of The Sons of Jacob and the Sons of Herakles: The History of the Tribal System and the Organization of Biblical Identity (Mohr Siebeck, 2017).