The question of whether the Bible contains pagan myths is different than the question of whether the Christian god copies pagan gods. In fact, there’s a whole hub on copycat concepts of god(s) for investigating the comparison between the Christian god and pagan gods.
But it’s possible the god and the book are not that connected. So, does the Bible contain pagan myths? The answer is yes. And also, no.
Creation, Flood, Dispersion
The Chinese record a flood-type legend, as do the Canadian Mi’qmaq. Thinkquest has a list of summaries from around the world. Perhaps the most famous is the Gilgamesh Epic. Flood legends are often intertwined in cosmogonic records, as even a brief browse shows. Daphne Odjig’s mural, The Creation of the World, in the Manitoba Museum in Winnipeg shows both common themes and unique elements of legend.
Building An Honest Investigation
The question is, have we asked the right question? When we write up a question, it often points us in a preconceived direction. In this case, the question assumes something about the antiquity of the Bible’s story versus the antiquity of others. It also contains assumptions about how the Bible was assembled, and the “truthiness” quality of its text. In fact, I would say this type of question is actually a composite of three others:
- Is the Bible a mythological text?
- Is the Bible is a relatively recent text compared to other beliefs?
- Is the Bible is based on older mythologies?
The underlying questions might also be less purely academic and more personally serious, such as:
- Does the Bible pretend to an authority it doesn’t deserve by tricking people into superstition?
- Have I been subjected to fraud (well-meaning or otherwise), having been raised on Christianity?
- Is the Bible an aggressive text which has co-opted older, more peaceful beliefs into an oppressive program of fear and control?
One way to sum these up is, “Does the Bible contain pagan myths?”
Correcting For Today’s Cultural Influence
In examining any other culture or any other time period, we have to be careful not to impose our ideas on the materials as if we hold the obviously right, absolutely accurate perspective. In the United States particularly, but in the secular west at large, a set of politics has arisen around evolution, creationism, science and mythology. For modern-day pagans, there is a politics to the question of the Christian religious right’s influence and its potential for incursion into freedom of alternate beliefs.
But in order to determine what’s relevant to investigating the Bible’s nature, it’s important to set aside the political in favour of the historical. Whether the final question is one of developing one’s own personal convictions due to faith questions, or developing a case for the damage done by religious politics, if we don’t know history we’re condemned to repeat it. We’re best to start by setting aside the present and examining the attitudes and issues from which our historical material was birthed.
If one wants a quick conclusion, particularly if it was already the preferred one, it’s as simple as the “yes and no” I opened with to conclude that these parts of the Bible are not a unique text — in fact, its older contents are present around the globe. However, this tells us nothing about why this would be the case. It only prompts further questions.
- Why would similar ideas of cosmogony and deluge — or any such ideas at all — persist on a global scale, given that we evolved by random chance and have spread out as distinct populations over tens of thousands of years?
- What got this started, and why is it so pervasive?
- Why do world cultures share a common trait of treasuring their ancestral myths so reverently? Why is myth considered wisdom, or are we missing something by regarding it through a colonial mindset?
Creating a Custom Filter
It seems wise to begin with known and corroborated history, and use what can be shown as reliable to filter more indeterminate material and concepts. For a history of the manuscript development of the Bible, this site contains comprehensive information.
However, we can even more quickly and reliably start at the records relating to the life of the person known as Jesus Christ than we can with the records relating to the first moments of humankind. All we know by eyewitness of our origins is that they must have occurred — since here we are. But no human record can definitively be corroborated as an eyewitness account.
The Roman Empire is one of the most well-documented civilizations in history. Its writers and chronologists remain well-known. Its leaders and events still stand as landmarks in today’s cultural heritage. Until as recently as my mother’s generation, Latin remained a required subject in secondary school.
It stands to reason that if the claims regarding Christ fall down, the New Testament falls down. Christianity’s point of view is removed from the question. If the claims regarding Christ fall down, the Old Testament’s myriad forward-looking passages fall down (the word Christ means Messiah, the Jewish saviour, and the coming Messiah is the central theme of the Old Testament). If it all falls down, that would tend to suggest in favour of a Bible composed hodgepodge out of older myths.
Respect for Other Cultures
One important fallacy to avoid is the idea that because we’re more “modern,” we’re entitled to look down on ancient cultures as unenlightened and superstitious. This was a popular Victorian attitude, and mainstream Canadians are only beginning to shed it. When we do, we must be careful we don’t also shed the standards of investigative inquiry and hands-off recording that predated both the Victorians and the postmodern era.
Even as we seek new ways to value myth and folklore, our attitude often stems from an assumption that I know best. We can look at the myth, or merely for how it benefits our personal experience and sense of the universe. It’s easy to shut off questioning which would delve deeper into the reasons for a people-group’s beliefs and customs. It’s easy — and lazy — to make a scoffing dismissal by saying, “Oh, well, they used to believe lightning bolts were thrown from the sky by invisible super-beings.”
We don’t actually know what people believed about, for instance, the scientific nature of lightning. We know that they assigned spiritual meanings to natural occurrences. Given the sophistication of thought among ancient minds, such as Plato and Aristotle, Tacitus and Julius Caesar, and the fact that many ancient histographers had the integrity to simply record what was told them about older myths without forcing interpretations, we owe the ancient world due respect.
Where paganism is concerned, it’s important to remember that the present-day, North American concept of paganism is substantially different from that of the ancient Near East. Modern paganism is informed by very old influences, but they do not necessarily manifest in contiguity with their original context. For example, empiricism and its connection to environmental science have altered ideas of earth worship into a political formulation out of step with that expressed in ancient texts. It’s one area where we’ve appropriated what seems to benefit us — whether for political gain or individually feeling good about household plastics use.
Always and ever, in studying ancient history, we have to be vigilant about the imposition of our presuppositions. In reading the ancient texts, I take deep interest in seeing strong indicators that the people-groups of the world do remember a shared history. The mere existence of this history, alongside many other corroborating evidences, strengthens rather than undermines my confidence in the genuineness and veracity of the biblical text. In a naturalistic, randomly evolved world, it would be surprising to see even a few such legends, let alone such a wide basic consensus on them.
Besides asking whether the Bible contains pagan myths, an alternate question which deserves asking is, Why does ancient myth reflect so much of the Bible’s earliest chapters? Put together, the two questions point to a legendary scope of adventure in inquiry.