Are the Gospel Stories a Myth?

"Christ and the Woman of Samaria" by Paolo Veronese

“Christ and the Woman of Samaria” by Paolo Veronese

One of the most common pronouncements by the atheists is that “Christianity is a myth.”

When they say “myth” what they mean is “fairy tale” or “silly story everyone knows is untrue.” They use the term “myth” to indicate a funny story about gods and goddesses that simple people made up long ago. When they say “myth” what they really mean is that “this is a made up pretend story which has no basis in history or scientific veracity.” When they say “myth” they mean “this is not a story like they read in the newspaper or in the history books.”

Indeed, this is one definition of the word “myth”. The most popular usage of “myth” is that it is a fabricated tale. It is a fiction. At worst it is simply a lie which gullible people believe and manipulative people promulgate. For those who are only interested in facts, this means that it is worthless, or at best, interesting as a folk tale or a fable might be interesting.

The term “myth” however, has far deeper levels of understanding. The “mythologist” Joseph Campbell in his seminal work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, shows how one particular story (which he calls the mono-myth) recurs in many different ways in virtually every society. The mono-myth is the story of how a hero leaves his ordinary world and sets out on an adventure to overcome great evil and claim a great prize before returning home to save his people.

Campbell recognized that “myth” in this sense is a story that connects individuals and groups with the deepest themes within the collective mind, and that through the re-enactment of myth and the re-telling of stories individuals identify subconsciously with the hero and go on the quest with him.

Furthermore, while the hero’s mythic journey is a visible and outward journey, the outward story is reflective of the inner journey towards enlightenment and redemption. As the audience member participates in the story they face the dangers with the hero and are faced with the same moral choices that the hero must make – thus the power of “myth” within human culture and the human experience is powerful and profound.

The term “myth” in this sense can refer to any story that works on us in this vicarious, “mythical” manner. We think of the classical myths of Greece and Rome operating in this way, but almost any story from any culture might work on the audience as a myth. A supernatural story of gods and goddesses, which has no basis in history or fact might function as a myth, but so might a work of fiction which takes place in a realistic world. Thus many movies – and not just fantasy or science fiction – work as myths. In fact a template for a typical Hollywood script very often follows the hero’s quest as outlined by Campbell.

Furthermore, a story which is factual can also operate on a mythic level. When Grandad tells how he left home at eighteen to fight in the Second World War, and recounts his adventures and tells how he came home a changed man and did his part to save the world, Grandad becomes a mythic hero and his story operates as a myth.

This brings us to the gospel account. Are the gospels a myth? Yes and no. If “myth” means a made up story with no basis in history or fact, then “no,” the gospels are not myth. However, if “myth” means a story that functions as a myth, then “yes,” the gospels (along with a good number of other Bible stories) function as myth. Through them a hero leaves his ordinary world and comfort zone and sets out on a great adventure to overcome evil and return victorious with a great prize for the salvation of his people.

Two of the twentieth century’s greatest myth makers – C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien – had a famous conversation about this very topic. Lewis was, at this point, not a Christian. Tolkien, as a Catholic, had engaged him in a discussion about the topic of myth and how it functions. Lewis said that the Christian story was a myth a lie, but a lie “breathed through with silver” – in other words, a beautiful and useful fiction. He then went on to understand that the gospel story works on us just like the other myths, except that this myth was true and historical.

Does the gospel story connect with the myths of other religions? To some extent it does–but that’s because it is dealing with the same themes and symbols of dying and rising, light and darkness, good and evil. Does the similarity of the gospel story mean that it is therefore just a made up fairy tale or fable? No. The historical evidence for the essential facticity of the gospels is sound – what it does mean is that this story of Jesus Christ (because it is historical) not only works like a myth and connects with the deepest, shared aspects of humanity but it also gathers up all the myths that came before it and followed after it and fulfills and completes them.


If you liked this article, please share it with your friends and family using both the Recommend and Social Media buttons below and via email. We value your comments and encourage you to leave your thoughts below. Thank you! – The Editors

Print this entry

About the Author

Fr. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. He conducts parish missions, retreats and speaks at conferences across the USA.

His latest book is The Romance of Religion - Fighting for Truth, Goodness and Beauty. Visit his blog, listen to his radio show, and browse his books at dwightlongenecker.com.

Catechesis teaches us what to believe and how to behave, but Catholics also need down to earth advice for putting their faith into action. For help in your practice of the Catholic faith sign up for FaithWorks! -- Fr Longenecker's free, weekly newsletter on the practical practice of the Catholic faith.

Visit Fr. Longenecker on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/frlongenecker.

Fr. Dwight Longenecker is an American who has spent most of his life living and working in England. Fr Dwight was brought up in an Evangelical home in Pennsylvania. After graduating from the fundamentalist Bob Jones University with a degree in Speech and English, he went to study theology at Oxford University. He was eventually ordained as an Anglican priest and served as a curate, a school chaplain in Cambridge and a country parson.

Realizing that he and the Anglican Church were on divergent paths, in 1995 Fr. Dwight and his family were received into the Catholic Church. He spent the next ten years working as a freelance Catholic writer, contributing to over twenty-five magazines, papers and journals in Britain, Ireland and the USA.

Fr. Dwight is the editor of a best-selling book of English conversion stories called The Path to Rome - Modern Journeys to the Catholic Faith. He has written Listen My Son - a daily Benedictine devotional book which applies the Rule of St Benedict to the task of modern parenting. St Benedict and St Thérèse is a study of the lives and thought of two of the most popular saints.

In the field of Catholic apologetics, Fr. Dwight wrote Challenging Catholics with John Martin, the former editor of the Church of England Newspaper. More Christianity is a straightforward and popular explanation of the Catholic faith for Evangelical Christians. Friendly and non-confrontational, it invites the reader to move from 'Mere Christianity' to 'More Christianity'. Mary-A Catholic Evangelical Debate is a debate with an old Bob Jones friend David Gustafson who is now an Evangelical Episcopalian.

Fr. Dwight’s Adventures in Orthodoxy is described as ‘a Chestertonian romp through the Apostles’ Creed.’ He wrote Christianity Pure&Simple which was published by the Catholic Truth Society in England and Sophia Institute Press in the USA. He has also published How to Be an Ordinary Hero and his book Praying the Rosary for Inner Healing was published by Our Sunday Visitor in May 2008. His latest books are The Gargoyle Code - a book in the tradition of Screwtape Letters and a book of poems called A Sudden Certainty, Adventures in Orthodoxy and The Romance of Religion.

Fr. Dwight has contributed a chapter to the third volume of the best selling Surprised by Truth series and is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine, St Austin Review, This Rock, Our Sunday Visitor and National Catholic Register. Fr. Dwight has also written a couple of children’s books, had three of his screenplays produced, and is finishing his first novel. He’s working on a book on angels and his autobiography: There and Back Again.

In 2006 Fr. Dwight accepted a post as Chaplain to St Joseph’s Catholic School in Greenville, South Carolina. This brought him and his family back, not only to his hometown, but also to the American Bible belt, and hometown of Bob Jones University. In December 2006 he was ordained as a Catholic priest under the special pastoral provision for married former Anglican clergy. He is the Administrator of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina, and an oblate of Belmont Abbey.

Fr. Dwight enjoys movies, blogging, books, and visiting Benedictine monasteries. He’s married to Alison. They have four children, named Benedict, Madeleine, Theodore and Elias. They live in Greenville, South Carolina with a black Labrador named Anna, a chocolate lab called Felicity, cat named James and various other pets.

Author Archive Page

1 Comment

  1. A good read, although I think at some point, in most people’s minds, as well as in this article, “myth” is confused with “legend.” When the story is feasible, but cannot be verified, or has elements of truth and elements of fiction, it’s a legend, not a myth.

Post a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *