Principal New Testament Myths

In writing about apocalypticism and the combat myth in the preceding post, I began thinking about how various mythical patterns intersect in the New Testament, producing distinctively potent effects on psychology and culture that we see in the history of the Christian religion. Most scholarship on Christian origins and the New Testament, past and present, has focused on questions that can never be answered conclusively or even persuasively, due to the incompleteness of our evidence and the ambiguity of our sources: who Jesus was, and, what are the origins of Christ worship. Historicity itself is a mythical component of Christianity, which is perhaps an effect of a distinctively Jewish mode of interpreting history theologically. The New Testament authors followed the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) in making history mythological.

My outline of the myth of apocalypticism is provisional and flawed, but then again, any scholarly outline or summary of a complex, archetypal myth embedded in a large body of scripture or literature or other media is bound to be sketchy and inadequate.

I see three main myths in the New Testament: the apocalyptic myth, the combat myth, and the myth of the redeemer. Although each has its specific shape and character, they overlap and intersect considerably. The first is essentially cosmic; the second is both cosmic and existential; and the third is mostly existential. By “existential,” I mean that quality of myth which allows a human subject to identify more or less with the hero. It is a familiar idea in Christianity that believers see themselves in Christ, and Christ in themselves. We can call this mode of religion existential, as a mode of thought, or mystical, as a mode of experience. Existential themes in the New Testament express hopes and anxieties of individual believers, whereas cosmic myths construct a more collective meaning about history and the divine plan for the whole world.

The Apocalyptic Myth

  1. The present world is horrific and intolerable.
  2. “The god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4) is Satan, an evil demon.
  3. We are children of a most high god who is pure goodness. “We know that we are of God, and the whole world is in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19).
  4. The cosmos is a battlefield between good angels and evil demons.
  5. Human beings can and must choose to fight either for the side of good or that of evil.
  6. Things will get even worse, far far worse, very soon. There will be a “great tribulation” (Mark 13:19).
  7. The savior will descend to earth and overthrow the ruling powers of darkness.
  8. The savior will resurrect the bodies of the dead.
  9. The savior will judge the righteous and the wicked and assign their due reward: eternal bliss or eternal torment.
  10. The next world will begin, in which the good and the evil will have nothing to do with one another.

The Combat Myth (based on Forsyth, Satan & The Combat Myth, Princeton, 1987, pp. 446-52)

  1. There is villainy.
  2. A hero emerges and prepares to act.
  3. A consultation with authorities.
  4. A journey.
  5. A battle.
  6. A defeat.
  7. The hero recovers.
  8. Battle is rejoined.
  9. Victory.
  10. The enemy is punished.
  11. Triumph.

The Redeemer Myth

  1. The redeemer is one with God.
  2. The redeemer is present at the creation.
  3. The redeemer is one with creation.
  4. The redeemer descends from heaven to earth.
  5. The redeemer dies.
  6. The redeemer is made alive again.
  7. The redeemer effects a reconciliation for humankind.
  8. The redeemer is enthroned in heaven.

The last of these, the redeemer myth, is the most precisely articulated in scripture. Its essential structure is mapped out by J.T. Sanders in The New Testament Christological Hymns (Cambridge, 1974), which brings together a handful of hymnic passages and finds that they share the same basic myth:

  • The Prologue of the Gospel According to John
  • Philippians 2:6-11
  • Colossians 1:15-20
  • Ephesians 2:14-16
  • Hebrews 1:3
  • 1 Timothy 3:16
  • 1 Peter 3:18-22

The redeemer myth is particularly familiar to anyone reared in one or another tradition of medieval Western Christendom, i.e. Chalcedonian or Constantinian Christianity, as is clear from the first part of the Apostle’s Creed:

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

The redeemer myth is both existential and mystical. It tells a myth that every human being can apply to their own existence as a mortal being endowed with self-knowledge and longing. Furthermore, apart from the New Testament’s historical framing of its mythology, it has nothing to do with the story of the Jews. Some consider it “gnostic,” although that term is more ambiguous than helpful. Sanders and other scholars have sought its origins in various Hellenistic mystery cults that were popular in the Mediterranean at the dawn of Christianity. However, texts such as the Odes of Solomon show that Jews of the time were deeply attracted to and involved in such spirituality. Paul was not the only one.

My goal for this post was to lay out these three important myths against one another with the suggestion that they are all profoundly interwoven in the New Testament. What they mean and how they are related to one another are important questions for interpreters of the Christian Bible and Christianity in general.