An essay donated by Donald Stark
Mythologizing the Bible: an evangelical view of
origins, history, demon possession, miracles...
Mythologizing the Bible:
In his book, Jesus Christ and Mythology, Rudolf Bultmann, eminent New Testament scholar of the last century, said that “Myths speak about gods and demons as powers on which man knows himself to be dependent, powers whose favor he needs, powers whose wrath he fears,” (page 19). Innocuous enough if we are talking about myths in Cliff's Notes. Obviously the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Indians and Greeks devised narratives to help clear up the mysteries and riddles of life by attributing them to supernatural causes. But those are not the myths of Bultmann's concern. He says that if we understand Jesus “to have been begotten of the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin,” and understand him “to be the Son of God in a metaphysical sense, a great, pre-existent heavenly being who became man for the sake of our redemption and took on himself suffering, even the suffering of the cross,” then our conceptions of him are mythological.
Given Bultmann's definition of “mythological,” we evangelicals must confess to believing in myth. And if we believe in myth, in his opinion, we don't have faith in “modern science” and are not “modern men,” for all modern men are right to believe that modern science and the modern study if history preclude the possibility “that the course of nature can be interrupted or, so to speak, perforated, by supernatural powers,” (page 15). In our defense, “modern science,” in the short time since Bultmann lived, has become increasingly baffled as to what life is, how it began, and how it could possibly operate without intelligent direction given that it is so complex, resilient and prolific. For those who believe myth to be no more than fantasy, Darwin's pond is the most fantastic. The warm pond he imagined life to have begun in has evaporated into a huge question: Given a universe that has no life sustaining atmosphere in any direction for as
far as the telescope can see, how did Earth come by an atmosphere that thrives with life? Moreover, if big bang cosmology is right, as most cosmologist believe it to be, then unless something super-natural set things off with the big bang, modern science comes to an absurd conclusion—something came from nothing. Should we evangelicals then blush because we believe that the course of nature has been interrupted—believe in myth as Bultmann defines it—or modern man blush because he doesn't?
Many of the most popular modern scientists believe that life is an accident, it doesn't mean anything. History therefore doesn't mean anything, it simply is. Christians, on the contrary, believe that history, Biblical history especially, contains examples—sometimes allegorical—that affect our lives. For instance, the Apostle Paul explains to the Corinthians how the history of the journey of the children of Israel into the promised land was history, but symbolic history replete with examples for how they should live in the world and in Christ's kingdom (I Cor 10:1-11).
I have chosen Mark's account of Christ meeting a demoniac, Mark 5:1-20, to illustrate what “mythologizing” biblical history means to me. I don't compare Mark's account with that of other gospels, nor present much historical background. I only ask what this text, by itself, means to me. In fact, this particular story is special to me because, if far less harrowing, my story is the domoniac's story. There are stories in the Bible that are not written as historical fact, but whose truths are presented in symbols. This is not one of them. Mark has written this story as fact and we have no reason to accept it as otherwise, especially on the basis of an uncertain and ever-changing “modern science.” But if we are to get much spiritual help—and there is much spiritual help for us in this story—then we must not ask only what the facts are but what they mean; we must mythologize. If we do it right we will find that even though the facts familiar to
Mark are not facts with which we are familiar, their meaning is all too familiar.
Jesus meets a demoniac, Mark 5:1-20, a historical myth.
“In the evening [Jesus] said to his disciples, 'Let us go over to the other side,'” (4:35). The evening seems an unlikely time for a six or seven mile trip across the Sea of Galilee; did Jesus anticipated the storm at sea and the storm awaiting him on the distant shore? In any case, when they crossed over they crossed more than water, they crossed from Judaic culture and religion to Greco-Roman culture and religion.
The cultures and religions were different, the human condition the same: “When Jesus got out of the boat a man with an evil spirit came from the tombs to meet him,” (5:2 ). Accept this story as history and, according to Bultmann, you are mythologizing, for this man is possessed of demons whose wrath he fears and whose powers he cannot resist. To one degree or another, aren't we all.
5:3-5 This man, living in the hills and tombs, apart, alone, was dead while he lived. Contrast him with the crucified Christ. The women go to care for a dead man in a dead man's tomb. What they find, however, is an angel who asks them (Luke 24:5), “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” No mere myth can compare with this simple contrast; the living demoniac is dead; the dead Christ is alive!
How this man came to be possessed by demons we do not know. But if he bargained with evil, a part of the bargain he must not have understood was that once he possessed whatever he was offered, it would soon possess him. If indeed he bargained, it cost him a great deal of his sanity and freewill, for no man in his right mind would choose to be in the torture this man was in. Once possessed, however, he was no longer in his right mind, his freewill is no longer free. He could no longer simply choose not to be possessed. As is the case with most of our addictions and habits, once the demons possessed this man's soul, his “psyche” in Greek, they owned him body and soul, for no physical constraints could bind him (5:3,4). Moreover, by accommodating his demons he had become his own worst enemy; “he would cry out and cut himself with stones,” (5:5).
It is likely that the man did not choose to be possessed at all; that the demons forced themselves on him. To believe that evil comes only by choice, or because it is somehow deserved, is to believe that the world behaves logically and justly. Since the fall in the garden, it doesn't. The rain, which didn't fall at all before the fall (Gen 2:5,6), now falls equally on the just and the unjust—the innocent suffer with the wicked. We are not all equally blessed with fine physical bodies and minds, or born in a well governed country. We cannot think that we deserve all our blessings nor believe that those who suffer deserve their lot. The fact is, most of what we are and have was conditioned at birth. Because we are one with the human race, whether we like it or not, we who are blessed are responsible to those who are not. Christ's message is that from those who are blessed with much, much is required (Luke 12:48). But all the help that our fellow pilgrims
can offer is not enough to offset catastrophe forever. The only everlasting hope for humanity is not in time but in eternity; not in this world but from out of this world; not by merit but by grace.
We can't assume that this man ran to Jesus because he knew who he was. Perhaps for the same reason that Jesus' presence terrified the demons, because they did know who he was, it gave the man hope. Even so, it must have taken every ounce of his remaining willpower to defy his demons and act on that hope: “When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him,” (5:6). Jesus did not immediately address the man but addressed the evil possessing him: “Come out of this man you evil spirit!” (5:8). With the man's voice the demon shouted in response, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? Swear to God that you won't torture me.” In acknowledging that Jesus was the Son of the Most High God, they seem to assume that his greater power equated with a greater ability to torture. Their frame of reference for the execution of power was to control, as their control over their host demonstrated, and their mode of control was torture. Having been a treacherous friend in the past myself, I know where these demons are coming from.
One may know nothing about demonology and know that this demon's conception of self hood is confused. Jesus demands of him, “What is you name?” singular, and the demon in fact confesses that he is a contradiction; he—singular—is not one but many. His very name is a contradiction: “My name is 'Legion,' for we are many,” (5:9). My human impulse toward these beings is pity. Knowing that they are not logical—they almost killed the man who was their place to live, and were obviously schizophrenic—and knowing that they were apt to cause their own destruction, I probably would not have given them the freewill they begged for. My pity is predicated on easy sentimentality; good for a movie or a home-coming, but hardly fit for magisterial duties. Mercy, however, is predicated on absolute justice. To have mercy on someone means to excuse that person from the condemnation he deserves. Unless justice first exists, there can be no mercy.
Christ, the creator and ultimate magistrate of creation, knows the heart and knows what condemns or justifies it. He executes justice or mercy as he sees fit. “The demons begged [him] again and again not to send them out of the area,” which was the same as their asking for free reign to posses some other poor soul in the area. “Send us among the pigs,” they begged. With our limited knowledge, we can't know for sure whether Jesus executed justice or mercy, but we do know that he acknowledged their freewill and granted their wish. They entered the pigs and the pigs “rushed down a steep bank into the lake and were drowned,” (5:13).
“Those tending the pigs ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened.” What they saw was the man who had been demon possessed “sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid,” (5:14,15). Their reaction to the power of Jesus was the same as that of the demons—fear, and a desire that he not change things. The demons had begged him not to send them out of the area; he didn't and they destroyed themselves. Now the people witness his having brought sanity and peace to a hopeless demoniac and are pleading with him to leave their region, (5:17). In essence they are saying, don't do for us what you have done for this demoniac. Don't curse us with too much sanity, for inherent in it is an uneasy burden of freewill and accountability. Leave us with the demons we know.
Compare that with Peter's reaction when Jesus miraculously filled his net with a wealth of fish. Like the demons and the Gerasenes, Peter was afraid and asked that Jesus leave him. But his reasons were exactly opposite theirs: “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8). Rather than seeing Jesus as a threat, or seeing in him the potential for great wealth, Peter identified Jesus' power with righteousness and felt that he was unworthy of his company. Jesus Messiah meek and lowly in heart, knows Peter better than Peter knows himself: “Don't be afraid,” he says, “from now on you will catch men.” (same as the demoniac)
One can understand the reasons the owner of the pigs might have wanted Jesus to leave. Jesus was responsible for his having lost a considerable asset. Mark first says that it was a “large herd of pigs” (5:11), then emphasizes this detail by giving the number: “about two thousand” (5:13). Obviously pork was popular among the Romans on this side of the lake. Only a thriving business would support such a large heard. But Mark emphasizes first, not the business aspect, but that the demoniac was healed. He gives the detail about the pigs as a secondary consideration: “Those who had seen it told the people what had happened to the demon possessed man—and told about the pigs as well” (5:16). Whatever the business man's story, it is not the story Mark is telling here. This story is about Jesus' healing of a man possessed by a legion of demons, and of a people possessed by a legion of reasons for wanting Jesus to leave lest he demand too much sanity of them and therefore too much responsibility. Reading about this former demoniac sitting there, dressed and in his right mind, one gets the impression that he is now the only sane one of the bunch.
And what does that mean to him? It means that he wants to be in the company of Jesus. But not in the way we think of being in Jesus' company. This man wants to be in the physical company of Jesus, which we cannot be because he is no longer physically here. He “begged to go with him” (5:18), to get into the boat with the Lord and cross to the other side. What a heartbreak when “Jesus did not let him, but said, 'Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” This former demon-possessed man did not let his savior down, but did more than was specifically asked of him. He told not only his family but “began to tell in the Decapolis [an area of ten Greco/Roman cities] how much Jesus had done for him” (5:19,20).
When Jesus got into the boat and watched this man's figure disappear in the darkness, no one on board with him knew what he knew, that soon, on the other side of the lake he would hang from a cross. The former demoniac must have been just as dismayed and heartbroken as the rest of the disciples upon hearing of his savior's crucifixion. Probably he eventually heard of his resurrection and ascension. But did he, in this life, ever think of himself as I think of him, a precursor to those to whom Christ gave the great commission, "Go into all the world and preach the good news"?
Originally posted: 2010-AUG-07
Author: Donald Stark