in Greek) is the body of traditional narratives
associated with Christianity
. Many Christians
believe that these narratives are sacred
and that they communicate profound truths
. These traditional narratives include, but are not necessarily limited to, the stories contained in the Christian Bible
Many Christian denominations have emerged over the centuries, and not all denominations hold the same set of sacred traditional narratives. For example, the books of the Bible accepted by the Roman Catholic Church include a number of texts and stories (such as those narrated in the Book of Judith and Book of Tobit) that many Protestant denominations do not know or accept as canonical.
In canonical scripture
Myths fall into many subcategories. These are a few of the types of myths found in Christian scriptures:
- Cosmogonic myths describe the creation of the world. As noted above, the two creation myths in the Book of Genesis, the story of the Garden of Eden, and the story of Noah's Ark are seen by some as being cosmogonic myths.
- Origin myths (also called etiological myths) also describe how the world came to have its present form. However, while cosmogonic myths describe only the creation of the universe, origin myths build upon the cosmogonic myths, describing the creation of natural phenomena and human institutions within the universe. The Book of Genesis is a major example of what some see as Christian origin mythology.
- Eschatological myths describe the afterlife and the end of the world. The Apocalypse of John (Book of Revelation) is a popular example of Christian eschatology; other examples of eschatology (inherited from the Old Testament) appear in the Book of Isaiah and the Book of Ezekiel. The last six chapters of the Book of Daniel also involve apocalyptic descriptions.
- Legends are stories that take place recently (relative to the mythological age of origins), that generally focus on human rather than supernatural characters, and that are usually based on historical figures or events. Some scholars, particularly folklorists, strictly distinguish legends from "true" myths (which focus on the supernatural and the beginning of the world), although other scholars do not apply this distinction. Legends are actually much more common than "true" myths in Christian scripture. Most Old Testament stories occur after the creation of the world and have humans, rather than God, as their main protagonists.
In the culture of the ancient Semitic and Mediterranean worlds in the context of which early Christianity and its literature arose — even up to the European Middle Ages when further traditions and legends were developed — there often did not exist the separation that exists for many societies in the modern period between fields of history and mythology, or the attempt to discern between objective truth and spiritual truths.
Early Christian writers often avoided applying the label "myth" to stories in canonical scripture. By the time of Christ, the Greco-Roman world had started to use the Greek word muthos (which evolved into "myth" in English) to mean "fable, fiction, lie". Saint Paul warned Timothy to have nothing to do with "godless and silly myths (muthos)" (1 Timothy 4:7). This meaning of "myth" passed into popular usage. However, some modern Christian scholars and writers have attempted to rehabilitate the term "myth" outside academia, describing stories in canonical scripture (especially the Christ story) as "true myth"; examples include C. S. Lewis and Andrew Greeley.
In non-canonical tradition
Christian tradition contains many stories that do not come from canonical Christian texts yet still illustrate Christian themes. These non-canonical Christian myths include legends, folktales, and elaborations on canonical Christian mythology.
Christian tradition has produced a rich body of legends that were never incorporated into the official scriptures. Legends were a staple of medieval literature. Examples include hagiographies such as the stories of Saint George or Saint Valentine. A case in point is the historical and canonized Brendan of Clonfort, a 6th century Irish churchman and founder of abbeys. Round his authentic figure was woven a tissue that is arguably legendary rather than historical: the Navigatio or "Journey of Brendan". The legend discusses mythic events in the sense of supernatural encounters. In this narrative, Brendan and his shipmates encounter sea monsters, a paradisal island and a floating ice islands and a rock island inhabited by a holy hermit: literal-minded devotés still seek to identify "Brendan's islands" in actual geography. This voyage was recreated by Tim Severin, suggesting that whales, icebergs and Rockall were encountered.
Folktales form a major part of non-canonical Christian tradition. Folklorists define folktales (in contrast to "true" myths) as stories that are considered purely fictitious by their tellers and that often lack a specific setting in space or time. Christian-themed folktales have circulated widely among peasant populations. One widespread folktale genre is that of the Penitent Sinner (classified as Type 756A, B, C, in the Aarne-Thompson index of tale types); another popular group of folktales describe a clever mortal who outwits the Devil. Not all scholars accept the folkloristic convention of applying the terms "myth" and "folktale" to different categories of traditional narrative.
Christian tradition produced many popular stories elaborating on canonical scripture. According to an English folk belief, certain herbs gained their current healing power from having been used to heal Christ's wounds on Mount Calvary. In this case, a non-canonical story has a connection to a non-narrative form of folklore — namely, folk medicine. Arthurian legend contains many elaborations upon canonical mythology. For example, Sir Balin discovers the Lance of Longinus, which had pierced the side of Christ. According to a tradition widely attested in early Christian writings, Adam's skull lay buried at Calvary; when Christ was crucified, his blood fell over Adam's skull, symbolizing humanity's redemption from Adam's sin.
Important examples of Christian mythology
The Christian mythological history
Important events in the mythological history that are accepted (with variations) by many Christians:Myths shared with the Hebrew Tanakh
- The Gospel accounts of Jesus Christ, his life and death. Here the narrative is combined by the author with a story of how all Christian theology "came to be". For example the story of Jesus as the "word" or "Logos" (John 1:1), the Incarnation of the Logos or Son of God as the man Jesus (e.g., Luke 1:35), and Christ's atonement for humanity's sins (e.g., Matthew 26:28). Important narratives within the Gospel accounts include:
- The Acts of the Apostles - the story of the Early Christian church, the ministry of the Twelve Apostles and of Paul of Tarsus.
Examples of (1) Christian myths not mentioned in canon and (2) literary and traditional elaborations on canonical Christian mythology:
- Versions of Christian mythology used by Gnostic Christianity
- Literary treatments of Christian canon or theology
- John Milton's Paradise Lost, which describes Satan's revolution against God and the Fall of Man, and his Paradise Regained, which describes Satan's temptation of Christ
- Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy, a literary allegory that describes a visit to Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven
- John Bunyan's ''Pilgrim's Progress, a Christian spiritual allegory
- C.S. Lewis's The Pilgrim's Regress, a more modern Christian spiritual allegory
- According to some interpretations, C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe allegorically represents Christ's death and resurrection (although Lewis denies that the story is a direct allegory; see section on "Mythopoeia" above).
- Legends about Christians saints and heroes. Examples include Abgarus of Edessa and Saint George. Legends about saints are commonly called hagiographies. Some such stories are heavily miraculous, such as those found in Jacobus de Voragine's Golden Legend; others, less so.
- Stories about artifacts such as the Holy Grail, Spear of Destiny and Shroud of Turin.
- Names and biographical details supplied for unnamed Biblical characters: see List of names for the Biblical nameless
- The legends of King Arthur and Charlemagne as Christian kings, notably the Quest for the Holy Grail.
- Legendary history of the Christian churches, such as the tales from the Crusades or the paladins in medieval romance.
- Legends of the Knights Templar and the Priory of Sion.
- Medieval Christian stories about angels and guardian angels.
- Non-canonical elaborations or amendments to Biblical tales, such as the tales of Salomé, the Three Wise Men, or St. Dismas.
In-depth discussion of representative examples
Academic studies of mythology often define mythology as deeply valued stories that explain a society's existence and world order: those narratives of a society's creation, the society's origins and foundations, their god(s), their original heroes, mankind's connection to the "divine", and their narratives of eschatology
(what happens in the "after-life"). This is a very general outline of some of the basic sacred stories with those themes.
The Christian texts use the same creation myth
as Jewish mythology
as written in the Old Testament. According to the Book of Genesis, the world was created out of a darkness and water in seven days. (Unlike a Jew, a Christian might include the miracle of Jesus' birth as a sort of second cosmogonic event.) Canonical Christian scripture incorporates the two Hebrew cosmogonic myths found in Genesis 1-2:2 and Genesis 2:
In the first text on the creation (Genesis 1-2:3), the Creator is called Elohim
(translated "God"). He creates the universe over a six-day period, creating a new feature each day: first he creates day and night; then he creates the firmament to separate the "waters above" from the "waters below"; then he separates the dry land from the water; then he creates plants on the land; then he places the sun, moon, and stars in the sky; then he creates swimming and flying animals; then he creates land animals; and finally he creates man and woman
together, "in his own image". On the seventh day, God rests, providing the rationale for the custom of resting on the Sabbath
The second creation myth in Genesis differs from the first in a number of important elements. Here the Creator is called Yahweh
(commonly translated "Lord" or "") instead of Elohim
. (In later parts of the Old Testament, Yahweh
are used interchangeably.)
This myth begins with the words, "When the God made the earth and the heavens, and no shrub of the field had yet appeared on the earth and no plant of the field had yet sprung up ..." (Genesis 2:4). It then proceeds to describe the Lord creating a man called Adam out of dust. The Lord creates the Garden of Eden as a home for Adam, and tells Adam not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge in the center of the Garden (next to the Tree of Life).
The Lord also creates animals, either before or after man (see section on "dual or single account" below), and shows them to man, who names them. The Lord sees that there is no suitable companion for the man among the beasts, and He subsequently puts Adam to sleep and takes out one of Adam's ribs, creating from it a woman whom Adam names Eve.
A serpent tempts Eve to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, and she succumbs, offering the fruit to Adam as well. As a punishment, the Lord banishes the couple from the Garden and "placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden the cherubim with a fiery revolving sword to guard the way to the Tree of Life". The Lord says he must banish humans from the Garden because they have become like him, knowing good and evil (because of eating the forbidden fruit), and now only immortality (which they could get by eating from the Tree of Life) stands between them and godhood:
"The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever" (Genesis 3:22).
The actual text of Genesis does not identify the tempting serpent with Satan. However, Christian tradition equates the two. This tradition has made its way into non-canonical Christian "myths" such as John Milton's Paradise Lost.
Dual or single account
Scholars disagree about whether these creation myths give a single harmonious account or two contradictory accounts. The first myth says God created plants and animals before man. However, the second myth can be interpreted as putting the creation of man before
the creation of the plants and animals.
Some scholars (particularly those who support the Documentary hypothesis, which proposes that the Pentateuch had multiple authors) interpret Genesis as clearly containing two contradictory creation myths. This interpretation has become increasingly accepted among Biblical critics, even in some conservative Christian circles. It is especially common among scholars who do not believe in a literal or conservative interpretation of Genesis: one example is The Skeptic's Annotated Bible, which argues strongly for two distinct creation myths in Genesis.
Other scholars argue that the two Genesis creation myths fit together to give a single account. For example, some Christian apologists say the second creation myth does not put the creation of plants after the creation of man. (If it did, it would contradict the first creation myth.) According to this view, when Genesis 2:4 states that "no shrub of the field had yet appeared" before the creation of man, the words "shrub" and "field" refer not to plants, but to cultivated plants: this would remove the apparent contradiction, because plants could be cultivated only after man's creation.
Some Bible translations, such as the King James Version, describe the creation of man and then say, "and out of the ground the God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air" (Genesis 2:19, KJV). This suggests that the animals were created after man, creating a contradiction with the first creation myth. Other translations, such as the New International Version, describe the creation of man and then say, "Now the God had [emphasis added] formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air" (Genesis 2:19, NIV). This suggests that the animals had already been created before man.
Christian mythology of their society's founding
would start with Jesus and his many teachings, and include the stories of Christian disciples starting the Christian Church and congregations in the first century. This might be considered the stories in the four canonical gospels and the Acts of the Apostles
. The heroes of the first Christian society would start with Jesus and those chosen by Jesus, the twelve apostles including Peter, John, James, as well as Paul
and Mary (mother of Jesus)
Narrative of Christ and the atonement
The theological concept of Jesus being born to atone
for "original sin
" is central to the Christian narrative. According to Christian theology, by Adam disobeying God in the Garden of Eden, humanity acquired an ingrained flaw that keeps humans in a state of moral imperfection, generally called "original sin". According to Saint Paul
, Adam's sin brought sin and death to all humanity: "Through one man, sin entered the world, and through sin, death" (Romans 5:12).
According to the Orthodox Christian view, Jesus saved humanity from final death and damnation by dying for them. Most Christians believe that Christ's sacrifice supernaturally reversed death's power over humanity, proved when he was resurrected, and abolished the power of sin on humanity. According to Paul, "if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God's grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many" (Romans 5:15). For many Christians, atonement doctrine leads naturally into the eschatological narratives of Christian people rising from the dead and living again, or immediately entering heaven to join Jesus.
What follows is a brief survey of the myth of humanity's atonement through Christ's death and resurrection.
Note that, by some academic definitions, a traditional story about a historical human character like Jesus would be a "legend", not a "myth".
Atonement in canonical scripture
Saint Paul's theological writings lay out the basic framework of the atonement doctrine in the New Testament. However, Paul's letters contain relatively little mythology (narrative). The majority of narratives in the New Testament are in the Gospels and the Book of Revelation.
Although the Gospel stories do not lay out the atonement doctrine as fully as does Paul, they do have the story of the Last Supper, crucifixion, death and resurrection. Atonement is also suggested in the parables of Jesus in his final days. According to Matthew's gospel, at the Last Supper, Jesus calls his blood "the blood of the new covenant, which will be poured out for the forgiveness of many" (Matthew 26:28). John's gospel is especially rich in atonement parables and promises: Jesus speaks of himself as "the living bread that came down from heaven"; "and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world" (John 6:51); "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (John 12:24).
Atonement in non-canonical literature
The sacrifice and atonement narrative appears explicitly in many non-canonical writings as well. For instance, in Book 3 of Milton's Paradise Lost
, the Son of God
offers to become a man and die, thereby paying mankind's debt to God the Father
The Harrowing of Hell is a non-canonical myth extrapolated from the atonement doctrine. According to this story, Christ descended into the land of the dead after his crucifixion, rescuing the righteous souls that had been cut off from heaven due to the taint of original sin. The story of the harrowing was popular during the Middle Ages. An Old English poem called "The Harrowing of Hell" describes Christ breaking into Hell and rescuing the Old Testament patriarchs. (The Harrowing is not the only explanation that Christians have put forth for the fate of the righteous who died before Christ accomplished the atonement.)
In modern literature, atonement continues to be theme. In the first of C. S. Lewis's Narnia novels, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, a boy named Edmund is condemned to death by a White Witch, and the magical lion-king Aslan offers to die in Edmund's place, thereby saving him. Aslan's life is sacrificed on an altar, but returns to life again. Aslan's self-sacrifice for Edmund is often interpreted as an allegory for the story of Christ's sacrifice for humanity; although Lewis denied that the novel is a mere allegory.
The End: eschatological myths
myths include stories of the afterlife: the narratives of Jesus Christ rising from the dead
and now acting as a saviour
of all generations of Christians, and stories of heaven and hell. Eschatological myths would also include the prophesies of end of the world
and a new millennium in the Book of Revelation
, and the story that Jesus will return to earth some day.
The major features of Christian eschatological mythology include afterlife beliefs, the Second Coming, the resurrection of the dead, and the final judgment.
Immediate afterlife (heaven and hell)
Most Christian denominations hold some belief in an immediate afterlife when people die. Christian scripture gives a few descriptions of an immediate afterlife and a heaven and hell; however, for the most part, both New and Old Testaments focus much more on the myth of a final bodily resurrection than any beliefs about a purely spiritual afterlife away from the body.
Much of the Old Testament does not express a belief in a personal afterlife of reward or punishment:
"All the dead go down to Sheol, and there they lie in sleep together–whether good or evil, rich or poor, slave or free (Job 3:11-19). It is described as a region "dark and deep," "the Pit," and "the land of forgetfulness," cut off from both God and human life above (Pss. 6:5; 88:3-12). Though in some texts Yahweh's power can reach down to Sheol (Ps. 139:8), the dominant idea is that the dead are abandoned forever. This idea of Sheol is negative in contrast to the world of life and light above, but there is no idea of judgment or of reward and punishment.
Later Old Testament writings, particularly the works of the Hebrew prophets, describe a final resurrection of the dead, often accompanied by spiritual rewards and punishments:
"Many who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake. Some shall live forever; others shall be in everlasting horror and disgrace. But the wise shall shine brightly like the splendor of the firmament, and those who lead the many to justice shall be like the stars forever" (Daniel 12:2).
However, even here, the emphasis is not on an immediate afterlife in heaven or hell, but rather on a future bodily resurrection.
The New Testament also devotes little attention to an immediate afterlife. Its primary focus is the resurrection of the dead. Some New Testament passages seem to mention the (non-resurrected) dead experiencing some sort of afterlife (for example, the parable of Lazarus and Dives); yet the New Testament includes only a few myths about heaven and hell. Specifically, heaven is a place of peaceful residence, where Jesus goes to "prepare a home" or room for his disciples (John 14:2). Drawing on scriptural imagery (John 10:7, John 10:11-14), many Christian narratives of heaven include a nice green pasture land and a meeting with a benevolent God. Some of the earliest Christian art depicts heaven as a green pasture where people are sheep led by Jesus as "the good shepherd" as in interpretation of heaven.
As the doctrines of heaven and hell and (Catholic) purgatory developed, non-canonical Christian literature began to develop an elaborate mythology about these locations. Dante's three-part Divine Comedy is a prime example of such afterlife mythology, describing Hell (in Inferno), Purgatory (in Purgatorio), and Heaven (in Paradiso). Myths of hell differ quite widely according to the denomination.
The Second Coming
of Christ holds a central place in Christian mythology. The Second Coming is the return of Christ to earth during the period of transformation preceding the end of this world and the establishment of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. According to Matthew's gospel, when Jesus is on trial before the Roman and Jewish authorities, he claims, "In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.
Resurrection and final judgment
Christian mythology incorporates the Old Testament's prophecies of a future resurrection of the dead. Like the Hebrew prophet Daniel (e.g., Daniel 12:2), the Christian Book of Revelation (among other New Testament scriptures) describes the resurrection: "The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. The righteous and/or faithful enjoy bliss in the earthly Kingdom of Heaven, but the evil and/or non-Christian are "cast into the lake of fire".
The Kingdom of Heaven on earth
Christian eschatological myths feature a total world renovation after the final judgment. According to the Book of Revelation, God "will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away". According to Old and New Testament passages, a time of perfect peace and happiness is coming:
"They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. One nation will not raise the sword against another; nor will they train for war again.
Certain scriptural passages even suggest that God will abolish the current natural laws in favor of immortality and total peace:
- "Then the wolf will be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the kid. The calf and the young lion will browse together, with a little child to guide them. [...] There will be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with knowledge of the Lord as water fills the sea.
- "On this mountain, [God] will destroy the veil that veils all peoples, the web that is woven over all nations: he will destroy Death forever.
- "The trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.
- "Night will be no more, nor will they need light from lamp or sun, for the Lord God shall give them light, and they shall reign forever and ever.
Millennialism and amillennialism
When Christianity was a new and persecuted religion, many Christians believed the end times were imminent. Scholars debate whether Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher; however, his early followers, "the group of Jews who accepted him as messiah in the years immediately after his death, understood him in primarily apocalyptic terms". Prevalent in the early church and especially during periods of persecution, this Christian belief in an imminent end is called "millennialism
". (It takes its name from the thousand-year reign of Christ that, according to the Book of Revelation, will precede the final world renovation; similar beliefs in a coming paradise are found in other religions, and these phenomena are often also called "millennialism".)
Millennialism comforted Christians during times of persecution, for it predicted an imminent deliverance from suffering. From the perspective of millennialism, human action has little significance: millennialism is comforting precisely because it predicts that happiness is coming no matter what humans do: "The seeming triumph of Evil made up the apocalyptic syndrome which was to precede Christ's return and the millennium.
However, as time went on, millennialism lost its appeal. Christ had not returned immediately, as earlier Christians had predicted. Moreover, many Christians no longer needed the comfort that millennialism provided, for they were no longer persecuted: "With the triumph of the Church, the Kingdom of Heaven was already present on earth, and in a certain sense the old world had already been destroyed." (Millennialism has revived during periods of historical stress, and is currently popular among Evangelical Christians.)
In the Roman Church's condemnation of millennialism, Eliade sees "the first manifestation of the doctrine of [human] progress" in Christianity. According to the amillennial view, Christ will indeed come again, ushering in a perfect Kingdom of Heaven on earth, but "the Kingdom of God is [already] present in the world today through the presence of the heavenly reign of Christ, the Bible, the Holy Spirit and Christianity". Amillennialists do not feel "the eschatological tension" that persecution inspires; therefore, they interpret their eschatological myths either figuratively or as descriptions of far-off events rather than imminent ones. Thus, after taking the amillennial position, the Church not only waited for God to renovate the world (as millennialists had) but also believed itself to be improving the world through human action.
Time in Christian mythology
Linear, historical time
The religious historian Mircea Eliade
argues that "Judaeo-Christianity makes an innovation of the first importance" in mythology. In many other religions, all important events happened at the beginning of time: after those initial events, everything was fixed. In contrast, "in Judaeism, and above all in Christianity, divinity had manifested itself in History". The myths and legends in the Bible are not limited to a far-off primordial
age: instead, they form a long series of events stretching "out of the far past into an eternal future". According to the Near Eastern specialist William A. Irwin
, the Hebrew historians who authored the writings in the Old Testament saw history as "a comprehensive reality" raised "to the highest importance".
In contrast, the myths of many traditional cultures present a cyclic or static view of time. In these cultures, all the "[important] history is limited to a few events that took place in the mythical times". In other words, these cultures place events into two categories, the mythical age and the present, between which there is no continuity. Everything in the present is seen as a direct result of the mythical age:
"Just as modern man considers himself to be constituted by [all of] History, the man of the archaic societies declares that he is the result of [only] a certain number of mythical events.
Because of this view, Eliade argues, members of many traditional societies see their lives as a constant repetition of mythical events, an "eternal return
" to the mythical age:
"In imitating the exemplary acts of a god or of a mythical hero, or simply by recounting their adventures, the man of an archaic society detaches himself from profane time and magically re-enters the Great Time, the sacred time.
According to Eliade, Christianity shares in this cyclic sense of time to an extent. "By the very fact that it is a religion", he argues, Christianity retains at least one "mythical aspect" — the repetition of mythical events through ritual. Eliade gives a typical church service as an example:
"Just as a church constitutes a break in plane in the profane space of a modern city, [so] the service celebrated inside [the church] marks a break in profane temporal duration. It is no longer today's historical time that is present—the time that is experienced, for example, in the adjacent streets—but the time in which the historical existence of Jesus Christ occurred, the time sanctified by his preaching, by his passion, death, and resurrection.
However, the world-shaping mythical events that Christians celebrate are not limited to a primordial age. This doesn't mean that all historical events are significant, but significant events are interspersed throughout the length of history, and they are not simply repetitions of each other: "The fall of Jerusalem does not repeat the fall of Samaria: the ruin of Jerusalem presents a new historic theophany, another 'wrath' of Jahveh. In the Christianity, "time is no longer [only] the circular Time of the Eternal Return; it has become linear and irreversible Time".
Christian mythology and "progress"
A number of scholars believe that the Bible's sense of linear time promoted the notion of "progress". According to this view, if primordial events haven't permanently determined the world's condition, mankind can be "saved" and progress
is possible. According to Irwin, from the perspective of the Hebrew Bible
(Old Testament), "history is a tale of progress". Christianity inherited the Hebrew sense of history through the Old Testament. Thus, although most Christians believe that human nature is inherently "fallen" (see original sin
) and cannot become perfected without divine grace, they do believe that the world can and will change for the better, either through human and divine action or through divine action alone.
is the study of similarities and connections between the myths of different cultures. For instance, the Judeo-Christian story of Noah and the flood has similarities to flood stories told worldwide. (See Jewish mythology
for greater detail.) This section contains a brief survey of some major parallels between Christian mythology and other mythologies. For the sake of brevity, myths that Christianity shares with Judaism (e.g., Old Testament stories) are not covered here. For comparative mythology related to Judeo-Christian myths, see Jewish mythology
Christ and the "Dying Gods"
Many world myths feature a god who dies and is resurrected
, or who descends to hell and comes back—the mytheme is called the descent to the underworld
. Such tales are very common in the Near East: "It is simply a fact—deal with it how you will—that the mythology [...] of the dead and resurrected god has been known for millenniums to the neolithic and post-neolithic Levant. For example, the Phrygian
castrates himself and dies, but Zeus either resurrects or eternally preserves the body, and in some versions the resurrected Attis ascends to heaven. Similar myths exist in other parts of the world: a myth from Ceram
features a miraculously-conceived girl named Hainuwele
who is unjustly killed but is resurrected in the form of tubers, which the Ceramese see as Hainuwele's flesh and eat as their staple food.
Such pagan myths seemed to suggest that the Christ story was simply the latest version of a widespread pagan myth. Some early Christians responded by arguing that Satan had inspired pseudo-Christian myths before Christianity had even appeared, to mislead pagans into disbelieving in Christ when he arrived:
"They admitted, indeed, that in point of time Christ was the junior deity, but they triumphantly demonstrated his real seniority by falling back on the subtlety of Satan, who on so important an occasion had surpassed himself by inverting the usual order of nature.
, one of the early church Fathers, makes essentially this argument in his First Apology
The more recent writer C. S. Lewis regarded the pagan "dying gods" as premonitions in the human mind of the Christ story that was to come. Pope Benedict XVI expressed a similar opinion in his 2006 homily for Corpus Christi:
"The Lord mentioned [wheat's] deepest mystery on Palm Sunday, when some Greeks asked to see him. In his answer to this question is the phrase: 'Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit' (Jn 12: 24). [...]
Mediterranean culture, in the centuries before Christ, had a profound intuition of this mystery. Based on the experience of this death and rising they created myths of divinity which, dying and rising, gave new life. To them, the cycle of nature seemed like a divine promise in the midst of the darkness of suffering and death that we are faced with.
In these myths, the soul of the human person, in a certain way, reached out toward that God made man, who, humiliated unto death on a cross, in this way opened the door of life to all of us.
There have been some modern attempts to discredit the notion of a general "dying god" category of which Christ is a member.
The Cross as axis mundi
According to some scholars, the Cross functions in traditional Christianity as a mythological "axis mundi
". The axis mundi
, or cosmic axis, appears in many mythologies. It is the highest spot on earth, the place where heaven and earth meet. Often a sacred tree, mountain, or building acts as the axis mundi
. Fittingly, a tradition within Christianity identifies Mount Calvary
, the place of Christ's crucifixion, as the highest point on earth and the burial-place of Adam
, the first man. Moreover, Christian iconography
symbolically identifies the Cross with the Tree of Life
Some scholars have suggested that the Christian story of the Cross influenced the Norse myth of the cosmic tree Yggdrasil, on which the god Odin hung himself.
Connections with Zoroastrianism
Some scholars believe that many elements of Christian mythology, particularly its linear portrayal of time, originated with the Persian
religion of Zoroastrianism
. Mary Boyce, an authority on Zoroastrianism, writes:
"Zoroaster was thus the first to teach the doctrines of an individual judgment, Heaven and Hell, the future resurrection of the body, the general Last Judgment, and life everlasting for the reunited soul and body. These doctrines were to become familiar articles of faith to much of mankind, through borrowings by Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Mircea Eliade believes the Hebrews had a sense of linear time before Zoroastrianism influenced them. However, he argues,
"a number of other [Jewish] religious ideas were discovered, revalorized, of systematized in Iran". These ideas include a dualism between good and evil, belief in a future savior and resurrection, and "an optimistic eschatology, proclaiming the final triumph of Good".
In Buddhist mythology
, the demon Mara
tries to distract the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama
, before he can reach enlightenment. Huston Smith
, a professor of philosophy and a writer on comparative religion, notes the similarity between Mara's temptation of the Buddha before his ministry and Satan's temptation of Christ before his ministry.
In the Book of Revelation, the author sees a vision of a pregnant woman in the sky being pursued by a huge red dragon. The dragon tries to devour her child when she gives birth, but the child is "caught up to God and his throne". This appears to be an allegory for the triumph of Christianity: the child presumably represents Christ; the woman may represent God's people of the Old and New Testaments (who produced Christ); and the Dragon symbolizes Satan, who opposes Christ. According to Catholic scholars, the images used in this allegory may have been inspired by pagan mythology:
"This corresponds to a widespread myth throughout the ancient world that a goddess pregnant with a savior was pursued by a horrible monster; by miraculous intervention, she bore a son who then killed the monster.
In literary classics
Some novels and narrative poems centered on Christian themes have come to be regarded as literary classics. In a broad sense, these may also fall within the category of Christian mythology. These classics include Pilgrim's Progress
by John Bunyan
and The Divine Comedy
Some works of the Christian authors C. S. Lewis
and J. R. R. Tolkien
have been described as both Christian and "mythic" or "mythopoeic
" ("myth-making") literature. Tolkien described his own fiction writing as an effort to create "myth and fairy-story". Tolkien actually coined the term "mythopoeia
" for modern literature that features a mythical tone and/or mythological themes. The Lord of the Rings
is Tolkien's most famous example of mythopoeia.
Tolkien and Lewis regarded their writing as essentially Christian. Tolkien emphatically denied that his fantasy novels, the Lord of the Rings
series, were in any sense "allegory", but he admitted that they were "a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision". Similarly, many of Lewis's works borrowed extensively from Christian narratives: one of the clearest examples is the Chronicles of Narnia
, which has been interpreted as an allegory for certain Biblical stories, namely one of the central stories is of a great king
who is sacrificed to save his people and is resurrected after three days
. In the case of the Narnia
series, Lewis denied that he was simply representing the Christian story in symbols. These works of Christian "mythopoeia" may, along with other Christian literary classics, be classed as "Christian mythology" in a very broad sense.
In popular culture
Christmas stories have become prevalent in Western literature and culture, see Secular Christmas stories
, Christmas in the media
and Christmas in literature
From Roman Empire to Europe
After Christian theology was accepted by the Roman Empire, promoted by St. Augustine in the 5th century, Christian mythology began to predominate the Roman Empire. Later the theology was carried north by Charlemagne and the Frankish people, and Christian themes began to weave into the framework of European mythologies. The pre-Christian (Germanic and Celtic mythology that were native to the tribes of Northern Europe were denounced and submerged, while saint myths, Mary stories, Crusade myths, and other Christian myths took their place. However, pre-Christian myths never went entirely away, they mingled with the (Roman Catholic) Christian framework to form new stories, like myths of the mythological kings and saints and miracles, for example (Eliade 1963:162-181). Stories such as that of Beowulf and Icelandic, Norse, and Germanic sagas were reinterpreted somewhat, and given Christian meanings. The legend of King Arthur and the quest for the Holy Grail is a striking example. The thrust of incorporation took on one of two directions. When Christianity was on the advance, pagan myths were Christianized; when it was in retreat, Bible stories and Christian saints lost their mythological importance to the culture.
Since the end of the eighteenth century, the biblical stories have lost some of their mythological basis to western society, owing to the scepticism of the Enlightenment
, nineteenth-century freethinking
, and twentieth century modernism
. Most westerners no longer found Christianity to be their primary imaginative and mythological framework by which they understand the world. However other scholars believe mythology is in our psyche, and that mythical influences of Christianity are in many of our ideals, for example the Judeo-Christian idea of an after-life and heaven. The book Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X
by Tom Beaudoin
explores the premise that Christian mythology is present in the mythologies of pop-culture, such as Madonna's Like a Prayer
or Soundgarden's Black Hole Sun.
Modern myths are strong in comic book stories (as stories of culture heroes
) and detective novels as myths of good versus evil.
Certain groups within Western society still retain a strong element of Christian mythology in their understanding of life. It is also true that Christian myths often inform law and the ideals within different Western societies, but the idea of a Christendom that permeates all aspects of life is no longer applicable.
Influence on Western progressivism
Christian mythology, which presents a linear, progressive view of history, has deeply influenced the West's emphasis on progress. Even supposedly secular or political movements such as Marxism and Nazism "announce the end of this world and the beginning of an age of plenty and bliss". Mircea Eliade believes movements such as Marxism would have been impossible without the conceptual framework Christian mythology provided: "Marx turns to his own account the Judaeo-Christian eschatological hope of an absolute goal of History
Likewise, Joseph Campbell sees Marx's theory of history as a "parody" of Judeo-Christian mythology. According to Campbell, the Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian myth of the final triumph of good over evil appears repeatedly in Western intellectual, political, and spiritual movements:
"In the end, which is inevitable, the dark and evil power [...] is to be destroyed forever in a crisis of world renovation to which all history tends—and to the realization of which every individual is categorically summoned.
Robert Ellwood, a professor of religion, agrees. According to him, "Western modernism", with its belief in "emancipation through progress", is "to no small degree the secularization of Judaism and Christianity".
- Irwin, William A. "The Hebrews". (Frankfort et al. The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man. Chicago: U. of Chicago P., 1977. pp. 221-360.)
- Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology. NY: Penguin Compass, 1991.
- Severin, Timothy. The Brendan Voyage. April 1982. McGraw-Hill. ISNB 0070563357.
- Bierlein, J.F. Parallel Myths. New York: Ballantine, 1994.
- Eliade, Mircea
- Myth and Reality. New York: Harper & Row, 1963 and 1968 printings (See esp. Section IX "Survivals and Camouflages of Myths - Christianity and Mythology" through "Myths and Mass Media")
- Myths, Dreams and Mysteries. New York: Harper & Row, 1967.
- A History of Religious Ideas. Vol. 1. Trans. Willard R. Trask. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1978.
- The Sacred and the Profane. NY: Harper & Row, 1961.
- Patterns in Comparative Religion. Trans. Rosemary Sheed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996.
- Beaudoin, Tom. Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X.
- Boyce, Mary. Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979.
- Every, George, Christian Mythology. Hamlyn, 1968.
- Segal, Robert A. Myth: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004.
- Zong In-Sob. Folk Tales From Korea. Elizabeth: Hollym International, 1982.
- Lewis, C. S. The Essential C. S. Lewis. Ed. Lyle W. Dorsett. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1996.
- Zaehner, R. C. The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism. NY: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1961.
- McGinn, Bernard. Antichrist: Two Thousand Years of the Human Fascination with Evil. NY: HarperCollins, 1994.
- Ratzinger, Joseph. "Holy Mass and Eucharistic Procession on the Solemnity of the Sacred Body and Blood of Christ: Homily of His Holiness Benedict XVI". Vatican: the Holy See. 31 December 2007 .
- Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1986.
- "millennialism." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 31 July 2007 .
- Smith, Huston. Buddhism: A Concise Introduction. HarperOne, 2004.
- Ellwood, Robert. The Politics of Myth: A Study of C. G. Jung, Mircea Eliade, and Joseph Campbell. Albany: State University of NY Press, 1999.
- New American Bible. St Joseph Edition. NY: Catholic Publishing Co.
- The Epic of Gilgamesh. Trans. N. K. Sandars. NY: Penguin, 1960.
- Classical Hindu Mythology. Ed. and trans. Cornelia Dimmitt and J.A.B. van Buitenen. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1978.
- Magoulick, Mary. "What is Myth?" Folklore Connections. Georgia College and State University. 22 May 2008 .
- J.R.R. Tolkien, letter to Milton. Center for the American Idea. 22 May 2008
- Pearce, Joseph. "J.R.R. Tolkien: Truth and Myth". Lay Witness (2001). Catholic Education Resource Center. 22 May 2008
- "Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 - two creation narratives or one?" Bible Riches. 22 May 2008 .
- Jackson, Wayne. "Apologetics Press - Are There Two Creation Accounts in Genesis?" Apologetics Press. ApologeticsPress.org. 22 May 2008 .
- Holmes, Jeremy. "Genesis is a book". Catholic.net. 22 May 2008 .
- Wells, Steve. "The two contradictory creation accounts". The Skeptic's Annotated Bible. 22 May 2008 .
- "Why are there two different Creation accounts in Genesis chapters 1-2?" Bible Questions Answered. GotQuestions?org. 22 May 2008 .
- Mays, Charity. "Folktale, Myth, Legend and Fable". Internet School Library Media Center. James Madison University. 22 May 2008 .
- Coffin, Tristram. "Folktales". Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia. MSN Encarta. 22 May 2008 .
- Tabor, James. "What the Bible Says About Death, Afterlife, and the Future". The Jewish Roman World of Jesus. Department of Religious Studies, UNC Charlotte. 22 May 2008 .
- Robinson, B. "Eschatology, End Times, & Millennialism: Competing Theories: Competing Theories". ReligiousTolerance.org: Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. ReligiousTolerance.org. 22 May 2008 .
- Brown, Dave. "Real Joy and True Myth". Dave Brown's C. S. Lewis Page. 1997. Yahoo! Geocities. 22 May 2008 .
- Tortchinov, Evgueni. "Cybele, Attis, and the Mysteries of the "Suffering Gods": A Transpersonalistic Interpretation". The International Journal of Transpersonal Studies 17.2 (1998): 149-59.
- Holding, J. "Mithraism. Not an Influence on Christianity". Tekton: Building Blocks of Faith. Tekton Apologetics Ministries. 22 May 2008 .
- Gittins, Anthony. "Grains of Wheat: Culture, Agriculture, and Spirituality". Spirituality Today 42.3 (1990): 196-203.
- Brons, David. "Valentinus and the Valentinian Tradition". The Gnostic Society Library. The Gnostic Society. 22 May 2008 .
- "Manichean Psalm: Let Us Worship the Spirit of the Paraclete". The Gnosis Archive. The Gnostic Society. 22 May 2008 .
- Arendzen, John. "Manichæism." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 9. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 22 May 2008 .
- Welker, Glenn. "Stories/Myths/Legends". Indigenous Peoples Literature. 7 March 2008. Bravenet Web Services. 14 July 2008 .
- Degh, Linda. "Folk Narrative". Folklore and Folklife. Ed. Richard Dorson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972. 53-84.
- Sullivan, Lawrence. "Christianity." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 14 July 2008 .
- Wilson, C. Golgatha and the Holy Sepulchre. Ed. C. Watson. London: The Committee of the Palestine Exploration Fund, 1906.
- Guerber, H. Legends of the Middle Ages. 1896. Project Gutenberg. May 27, 2004. ibiblio. 15 July 2008 .
- Roesch, Michael. "Example of Etiological Myth". College of the Siskiyous - Eng 12 - Folklore. 2008. College of the Siskiyous. 16 July 2008 .
- Louis A. Markos in Myth Matters, from Christianity Today magazine Quote: "just as Christ came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it, so he came not to put an end to myth but to take all that is most essential in the myth up into himself and make it real."
- Mark Filiatreau in A Master of Imaginative Fiction, from BreakPoint Online Quote: "Classics of Christian Myth -- MacDonald’s key mythic works include five full-length books, which we’ll introduce here."
- Abstract of the Collected Works of C. G. Jung, from The CG Jung page Quote: "The astrological characteristics of the fish are seen to contain the essential components of the Christian myth."
- James W. Marchand in Christian Parallels to Norse Myth, from the Center for Advanced Study, University of Illinois. Quote: "This reluctance to weigh fairly the possibility of the influence of Christian myth on Norse myth has had a number of unfortunate consequences. The most unfortunate is the resolute refusal on the part of most students of Norse myth to look at medieval Christian myth."