The word “myth” gets a bad rap.
Particularly among lovers of Scripture when the word is applied to one of their favorite Bible stories.
This is understandable. Depending on what you think the Bible is and how we should be using it, words like “mythological”, “legendary”, and even “story” can evoke the idea that the content is not true.
But, this need not be the inference that is made.
Do you remember some of the Greek, Roman, or Norse mythology you learned in high school? Those stories of the gods and demi-gods like Zeus, Hercules, Thor, and Mars going on adventures and interfering in the affairs of the human heroes?
Are those stories true?
If by “true” we mean that it reports the way events unfolded in our actual history, then we have some good reasons to think “no”, they aren’t true.
But, you and I both know true can mean much more than this. Truth has valence beyond historical accuracy. Morally true? Psychologically true? Theologically? Anthropologically?
Figures like Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and Jordan Peterson have helped articulate how myths themselves are true in virtue of them playing out or manifesting in the lives of people. You may have heard the term archetype and some classic examples like the Hero, The Great Father, the Trickster, and the wise old woman. These are types of stories that repeat themselves in the lives of most people. The stories are true on this level of analysis.
Consider the Hero’s Journey. There’s a pinnacle moment when that which is most desired, say the damsel in distress or treasure, is guarded by that which is most challenging or harmful, say a dragon or atop the peak of a treacherous mountain. The above thinkers would argue that this is true - at least psychologically. The archetype of the hero communicates a truth about human psychology - something to the effect of “what is most valuable is only accessible through overcoming challenge.” And that really is true, right? You can learn about the way the world is, and in particular the workings of your own mind, by saturating yourself in the world of myth.
Myths hold deep truths. So, I am not worried or disappointed or angry to discover that a biblical story is mythological. Rather, I’m excited! There are good reasons these stories have endured thousands of years. They communicate deep truths about the divine and human experience.
So, is the story of Jonah true?
Great question! How would you go about answering that? What do you mean “true”? True how?
I say yes. The story is absolutely true.
Tony and I talk all about the trend of demythologizing biblical stories - removing the mythological elements of a story to hone in on an important truth. We talk about when this seems appropriate and when it doesn’t. As always, we don’t have all the answers, but we’d love for you to join the conversation.