The past two days I wrote posts about the Columbine shootings that took place 13 years ago this week. Part one was about nine commonly-held misconceptions about the tragedy; part two was about the story of Cassie Bernall and the legend that has arisen about her death.
One of the lessons of Columbine that is overlooked is that it illustrates in real-time how a myth is created. I use “myth” here in the modern sense, to mean something that isn’t true. Without going off on a tangent, the actual definition of myth, according to the late Joseph Campbell, is “truth speaking to us as metaphor.” Although I prefer Campbell’s usage, I’ll succumb to modernity for this post and use the word to mean a falsehood.
Within minutes after Cassie’s death, the rumor began that she had died as a martyr for Christ and because of her mother’s book and the song by Michael W. Smith, the odds are that most people today who know of Cassie believe in the literal truth of her martyrdom. Think about – it’s been only 13 years, with all the modern technology we have and people still believe a legend rather than the factual account. (Perhaps it’s BECAUSE of modern technology, but that’s another subject…) Now, go back in time to the desert of the Middle East 2000 years ago. Bart Ehrman has written extensively about this subject; most of the information below is from Jesus Interrupted: Revealing The Hidden Contradictions In The Bible (and why we don’t know about them).
The year is approximately 30 A.D. (or 30 CE as it’s now called). There were no recording devices, not even pencil and paper. Let’s assume Jesus did live (even though there’s no record of his existence other than the Biblical account and the manuscripts that didn’t make it into the Bible). The disciples and the others who followed him didn’t write down his words; most of them were illiterate fishermen or other laborers. After Jesus died and his followers dispersed, how do you think his story was recorded? That’s right, by word of mouth. For almost forty years, the story of Jesus was passed around his groups of followers and early converts verbally. Imagine the children’s game of telephone for over a generation. How accurate is it going to be?
Around 70 CE the early Christians decided to write down the legend of Christ. Of the four Gospels we have in the New Testament, Mark, the second in order, was the earliest written. Then Matthew and Luke were written, borrowing heavily from Mark. Matthew and Luke also appear to have borrowed heavily from a theoretical Gospel, known by historians as “Q.” Matthew, Mark and Luke are known as the synoptic Gospels. Finally, the gospel of John was written. It’s very different from the other three.
In fact, there are many differences between the four Gospels. What were Jesus’s last words on the cross? It depends on which Gospel you believe. Literalist Christians believe that Jesus uttered all seven of the different statements recorded, but in order to believe that, you have to create a fifth gospel of your own by overlaying the others on top of each other. Not one of the Gospel authors included all seven statements. So…did Jesus say “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” or “Father into thy hands I commend my spirit?” or “It is finished”? It depends on whether you read Mark, Luke or John. Likewise, did Cassie Bernall say “Yes,” that she believed in God just before she died?
According to Erhman, Jesus probably lived. He may even have said something during his crucifixion. His words recorded in the gospels have significant meaning, as described here on the LGBT-BJU website before Easter. But it doesn’t matter whether he actually said them or not, because he almost certainly did NOT say them, definitely not all of them (a man dying from asphyxiation couldn’t have said all those words moments before death). Their value comes from what they mean to you, as you read them now and apply them to your life. THAT is mythology. So, Cambpell was right after all. Myth = Truth, speaking to us as metaphor. After all, Jesus gave us his greatest lessons in the form of parables. If myths were good enough for Jesus Christ, shouldn’t they be good enough for today’s Christians?