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Epistles: Myth vs. Fact
By: Erick Nelson
Last Updated: Monday May 24, 2004
What is a "deutero-" epistle? Some scholars believe that several of the New Testament letters commonly attributed to Paul, Peter, and John were not written by them, but in fact were composed their followers, "in their name", as if the apostles were writing. These pseudonymous letters are called "deutero-" epistles to emphasize their derivative nature. Among such letters are generally included: 2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Timothy, 2 Peter, and 1-3 John, and sometimes 1 Peter.
Norman Perrin explains this view in relation to Paul:
"The writers were most probably pupils of the apostle who consciously imitated their teacher, wrote in his name, and totally identified themselves with him. This was permissible in the ancient world, indeed, in that world it was an accepted literary practice. (The New Testament: an Introduction, p 119)
A major aspect of the importance of deutero-Pauline Christianity is that it shows the influence of the apostle living on in the church. These are Paulinists who were taught by their master, who possessed and meditated on his letters, who developed further some of his ideas, who carefully and conscientiously attempted to meet in his spirit the challenges and needs of the churches, and who wrote formally in his name. (The New Testament: an Introduction, p 134)
While this 'deutero' view is disputed, for the purposes of this study it doesn't matter whether these letters were penned by apostles or by their followers. For the sake of argument, I will grant the point. The important thing is that their writings contain meta-gospel statements, that try to explain the meaning and intent of gospel.
Deutero-Epistles and the MG Theory
To review the MG claim: The contention of the MG Theory is that the writers of the New Testament did not intend to portray the deity and resurrection of Jesus as literal truths, nor did they view many of the gospel stories - especially those with miraculous elements - as historical accounts.
Since these letters are part of the N.T., it is to be assumed that their authors, too, held the MG view. Thus, they would consciously believe that the key gospel stories were not accounts of events that occurred, but were imaginative stories or tales, metaphorically true, pointing to spiritual truths.
Note. John Dominic Crossan would probably agree with the points made in this section, but would not agree that they count against his version of the MG Theory. He dates the deutero-epistles very late (120-150), during (for instance) Justin Martyr's lifetime. They would presumably be part of the 'literalizing' period. Crossan's position actually contributes toward the case against Spong's form of the theory; otherwise, these comments don't apply to him.
The Gospel Stories as Accounts of What Happened
Do we find indications that these letter-writers believe that (many of) the gospel stories were not accounts of events that occurred, but were imaginative stories or tales? Or do we find the reverse?
First, we have the author of 1 Timothy, supposedly a disciple of Paul writing in his name and authority. This writer is counseling the reader to resist false doctrines, which are taught by "deceiving spirits." The thing that most characterizes these doctrines is that they are myths. The author says:
"As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies." (1 Tim 1:3-4)
"The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. . . . Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives' tales" (1 Tim 4:1, 7)
The natural opposite of "myth" would be "fact", that is, things that were not just made up. And the author does urge Timothy to stick with the "true doctrines", which comprise "the faith", and which are not made up. What do the commentaries say?
First, what does the writer mean by 'myths'? Whatever they are, they are part of the false doctrines being opposed by Paul; he goes so far as to say that they are demonic deceptions. There seems to be no doubt about the fact the concept of 'myth' is indeed antithetical to 'fact', what happened.
By calling them 'myths', Paul is pointing out their legendary and untrustworthy nature and is implicitly contrasting them with the gospel that is rooted in historical events. Many compare the myths and genealogies to Jewish allegories of creation of interpretations of the OT patriarchs and their family trees such as are found in Jubilees or Pseudo-Phil Biblical Antiquities ... [To several citations,] add the possibility of speculative rabbinic exegesis. Some see a mixed background of Judaism and Gnosticism ... who includes stories about Jesus. The word [muthoi] occurs five times in the NT, four in the PE [Pastoral Epistles]. Elsewhere Paul calls the myths profane, silly, and Jewish (Word 20)
'Myths' are a regular target, the term already familiar in the sense of 'untrue story, fiction', as opposed to historical truth, and always used negatively in the NT. (New 790)
'fables and endless genealogies' seems to refer to legends and fictitious genealogies of OT personages in the manner attested to in Jub. (Jerome 353)
In every occurrence, 'myth' is used in a negative sense (Word 21), it is contrasted with godliness (in addition to factuality) (Word 250), and "The immediate contrast is between 'the faith' and 'deceitful spirits and teachings of demons.'" (New 812)
If we are trying to read this epistle with MG lenses, we run up against an obstacle in the very introduction. In fact, when I first heard of the MG theory, this relatively obscure passage was one of the first things that came to mind. Right away, I wanted to ask, "What about 2 Peter?"
We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased." We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain." (2 P 1:16-18)
"But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. . . In their greed these teachers will exploit you with stories they have made up. " (2 P 2:1, 3)
The writer seems to be saying that the message about Jesus was specifically not something that was freely created, but was an eyewitness experience regarding the man Jesus. And he follows this up by warning against the false teachers, who turn out to be the ones who do make up their own stories.
Now what could he possibly by trying to convey by this? He appears to be explicitly contradicting the ideas found in the Metaphorical Gospel theory. Perhaps the commentaries yield a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding.
Whereas the letter to Timothy counsels to resist the myths of the false teachers, in this letter the author at first seems to be countering the charge that he is a follower of myths. (point made in Word 213) What is meant by 'myth'? There are three identifiable senses, according to the commentators: (1) a story not literally true but having deep moral, philosophical, or spiritual meaning; (2) a story that's simply not true; (3) a fable or fairy story.
What did they mean by this charge? The connotations of the term muthos in the first century A.D. were almost as various as those of the modern English 'myth.' The old Greek myths, the stories about the gods, could be seen as stories which were not literally true but expressed religious, moral or philosophical truth in pictorial form. They could be subjected to allegorical interpretation, as by the Stoics. The Hellenistic age was in many respects one which showed a 'growing preference for muthos [myth] over logos [rational argument] as a means of expressing truth. This preference is characteristic of gnosticism: the saving gnosis is often cast in the form of a myth' (C.K. Barrett). (Word 213)
On the other hand, there was a strong tradition of criticism and repudiation of myths, as morally unedifying, or as childish, nonsensical or fabulous. Here muthos can come, like 'myth' in much modern English usage, to mean a story which is not true, a fable or fairy story (again in the derogatory senses). (Word 213)
'cleverly concocted' corresponds to the common description of myths as 'invented', 'fabricated', but is more expressive in incorporating the idea of 'cleverness' in a bad sense. (Word 214)
The writers of that era clearly understood the difference between myth and 'history', and consciously separated them:
Strabo and Diodorus of Sicily oppose myth to history; Plutarch contrasts a myth and a true account. (Word 213)
Surprisingly, it is characteristic of Philo to distinguish the biblical history from myth, as truth from fiction. His concern is not only to reject the pagan myths, but to repudiate the suggestion, no doubt made by Hellenized Jews as well as by pagans, that the biblical stories were mythical. (Word 213)
The phrase 'following myths' is used by Josephus in contrasting Moses, who did not invent fictional stories, with other legislators, who followed fables (Ant 1.22, cf. 15-16) (Word 214)
And the writer explicitly contasts the claim of 'myth' with the factuality of his own claim. He appeals directly to his own (and his companions') personal experience, in this case their witness of the Transfiguration described in the gospels. He stresses not only 'eyewitness' but hearing the 'voice' on that mountain.
Refutation of accusations against Christian doctrine often emphasized apostolic eyewitness testimony to historical events. (New 342)
It is sometimes said that an emphasis on eyewitness testimony is characteristic of the later NT documents. What the evidence adduced really proves is that a stress on the apostolic eyewitnesses occurs when there is a need for apologetic defense of the Christian message in some way be reference to its historical basis. (Word 216)
stories they have made up
And, finally the writer turns the argument full circle against his opponents - they are the ones peddling myths!
The false teachers' claim that the apostles preached a myth has been turned back upon them. (New 344)
Just as the prologue to Luke spells out his purpose, the prologue to 1 John says a great deal about the author's intent. The author explicitly claims to base his teaching on that which he has personally experienced in the real world. Note the emphasis on the tangible: seen with his eyes, hands have touched. This is reminiscent of the Gospel of John:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched - this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it . . . We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us." (1 John prologue)
The commentaries agree that the author is indeed stressing the factuality, even the tangible nature, of the message; and not only that, but the personal, first-hand experience of the one who is testifying:
('we have heard ... we felt [with our hands]'). Perhaps for the benefit of those of his readers who were entertaining docetic (i.e. humanity-denying views of Christ's person, the writer stresses the reality of God's self-disclosure in time and space. (Word Vol 51, p 7)
Whereas John highlights the pre-existent glory of the Word who indeed became flesh, 1 John stresses the empirically verifiable reality of the Son, 'which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched.' (New 382)
the 'we' is a Johannine characteristic, referring to the apostolic testimony. ... The substance of the apostolic testimony remains what has been seen and heard; in turn, this rests on specific facts that were sensibly experienced (Jerome 406)
Objections and Answers
1. Only Certain Kinds of Myths
One might counter, however, that Paul, in 1 Timothy, is not opposing all kinds of myths, but only opposing certain kinds of myths (namely, "godless" myths) at variance with his own.
In addition, one would have to continue the argument by contending that the writers object only to:
- myths combined with genealogies (1 Tim)
- 'old wives' tales', as opposed to deep spiritual truths (1 Tim)
- cleverly invented stories, as opposed to sincere portrayals of myth (2 Peter)
- stories the false teachers have made up (2 Peter)
Answer. In these passages, the authors have a perfect opportunity to explicitly contrast the "bad" myths with the "good" myths of the gospel. They do not do so. Instead, Peter contrasts the myths with his own personal experience in the everyday physical world. John, in addition, stresses his personal, very tangible evidential view.
2. 'Eyewitness' Used in a Different Sense
It has been pointed out that 'eyewitness' may have a different meaning than the normal one. It could mean a person who has been initiated into spiritual mysteries - in Peter's case, the mystery of the Transfiguration vision.
It means 'observer, spectator' ... The term was also used technically for the higher grade of initiates in the Eleusinian mysteries, evidently as those who had seen the vision of the divine mysteries. Most commentators think that this technical usage is echoed in 2 Peter. (Word 215)
Answer. Even if this were granted, it would only apply to the Petrine witness, and even then, it would still refer to the author's own experience. That is to say - in this case (if we concede the point), it's true that the experience is not one of the everyday world, but a visionary one. But it is still something which (purportedly) happened, not something which was made up!
3. 'Cleverly Invented Stories' Refers to the Second Coming
To what do Peter's 'clevery invented stories' refer? Since the ending of the epistle focuses on the return of Christ, the second 'coming' [parousia] of the Lord, one could say that the 'coming' [parousia] referred to in this passage is also that future eschatalogical event. Thus,
The eschatological teaching of the apostles is held [charged] to be, not prophecy inspired by God, but the fabrication of merely human cleverness, doubtless with some unworthy motive. (Word 214; emphasis mine)
In this view, Peter is not talking about the gospel message of Jesus' life on earth, but to a future event. He is appealing to his experience of the Transfiguration to give authenticity to his claim to know the future (prophecy).
Answer. It is not clear from the context that the charge of cleverly invented stories refers to future events. For the wider context - at this point of the epistle, Peter has not introduced that controversy yet; he appears to be reminding his readers of some basic gospel elements. For the immediate context, he is immediately contrasting the 'invented stories' with past personal experience.
Second, even if the point is conceded, Peter is appealing to his own experience of the Transfiguration, which was a pivotal miraculous event in the life of Jesus.
Third, this argument only applies to the one example; it does nothing to refute the other examples.
It is actually surprising that these short epistles would provide any direct evidence one way or the other. They are concerned with their own issues. It just turns out that one of their issues appears to be something very like our Metaphorical Gospel question. In their view, it is the false teachers who create their own metaphorical stories.