A story, usually originally transmitted orally, that has as its main actors superhuman beings and that is typically set in otherworldly time and space. Historians of religion, while often differing on how to interpret any specific myth, tend to agree that all myths, through the use of symbolic language, communicate transcendent meaning within a culture, revealing its cosmic dimensions. In the New Testament, however, Greek mythos (Engl. “myth”) is used negatively to mean an invented story, a rumor, or a fable (1 Tim. 1.4; 4.7; 2 Tim. 4.4; Titus 1.14; 2 Pet. 1.16).
At first glance, there seems very little narrative in the Hebrew Bible that can, on the basis of the definition above, be classified as myth. Only Genesis 1.1–2.4a, the story of creation, is set in cosmic time and space and features a superhuman being, God, as its main actor. Elsewhere biblical narratives ostensibly focus on human actors living on earth during historical time. Still, it can be argued that Genesis 2.4b–11.9, including the stories of the garden of Eden (Gen. 2.4b–3.24), Noah (Gen. 6.5–9.17), and the tower of Babel (Gen. 11.1–9), is myth. Humanity's first home in Eden and the plain of Shinar, where the tower of Babel is built, cannot really be understood as this‐worldly locations; the date of the expulsion from paradise and the year of the Flood are not points that can be fixed on a historical time line. Moreover, while Adam, Eve, Noah, and the people of Babel are not gods, their existence is surely not limited by the kinds of constraints that define normal human experience: they have extraordinarily long life spans, and God makes clothes for Adam and Eve and speaks directly to Noah.
This conclusion concerning the mythic nature of Genesis 1–11 is enhanced by looking at the mythologies of Israel's ancient Near Eastern neighbors: Egypt, Canaan, and, in particular, Mesopotamia. The story of creation in Genesis 1.1–2.4a, which begins with the wind of God hovering over a watery chaos (Hebr. tĕhôm), finds parallels in the Babylonian creation myth, Enuma elish, which describes a primordial battle between a goddess of watery chaos, Tiamat (etymologically related to Hebr. tĕhôm), and Marduk, a god of wind and storm. The story of Noah should be compared to a fragmentary third‐millennium flood myth from Sumer, the myth of Ziusudra, and to two later Akkadian versions of the same myth found in the epic of Atrahasis and in the epic of Gilgamesh. Both the Atrahasis and Gilgamesh epics also contain parallels to the story of Eden: in Atrahasis, as in Genesis 2.7, humans are molded from the clay of the earth (this tradition can also be found in Egyptian myths about the potter god of creation, Khnum); in the Gilgamesh epic, as in Genesis 3.22, there is a magical plant that, once eaten, yields a godlike state of immortality. The story of the tower of Babel similarly finds its roots in Mesopotamian sources, as the very name Babel, the Hebrew equivalent of Babylon, suggests.
While it is difficult, beyond Genesis 1–11, to speak of myth as such in Hebrew Bible narrative, scholars have identified ways in which the language and patterns of myths from the ancient Near East are present even in seemingly historical accounts. Most significant is the common Semitic myth of a fight between a storm deity and a sea deity, the Babylonian exemplar of which, Enuma elish, is described above. The same basic plot is known from second‐millennium BCE Canaan, in Ugaritic texts depicting a battle between a god of the waters of chaos, called both Yamm, “Sea,” and Nahar, “River,” and Baal, the god of the storm. In the Hebrew Bible, while the overt polytheism of these Mesopotamian and Canaanite prototypes is rejected, scholars have argued that the ancient mythic conception of storm versus sea stands behind Exodus 15.1–18, an account of the Israelite Exodus from Egypt that culminates with God routing the Egyptians by sending a storm to drown them in the Reed Sea.
This same notion of a battle between Yahweh, the god of Israel, and some sort of watery enemy is also alluded to frequently in poetic passages, particularly in prophetic texts (e.g., Isa. 27.1), in certain psalms (e.g., Ps. 89.9–10), and in Job (e.g., Job 26.12–13). In these texts the foe is most often described as a primordial water monster. Again, the myths of Israel's neighbors provide crucial comparative data: the biblical sea monster is at points called yam, “sea,” and nāhār, “river” (e.g., Hab. 3.8), the same names given to Baal's watery foe at Ugarit; also in Ugaritic myth Yamm/Nahar is called Lotan, cognate to Hebrew Leviathan, and Tannin, cognate to Hebrew tannîn, “serpent,” both terms used in biblical poetry of the primordial monster (e.g., Job 41.1; Isa. 51.9). And, as in Psalm 74.13, both Ugaritic Yamm/Nahar and Tiamat, the watery enemy of Enuma elish, are depicted as multiheaded dragons.
Among poetic texts the theme of Yahweh's battle with the dragon often occurs in apocalyptic literature, both poetry and prose, in which mythological language and imagery are common. For example, the collection of apocalypses found in Daniel 7–12 is full of mythological allusions: Daniel 7.9–10, 13–14 reflects, it has been argued, myths concerning a younger god who assumes power from an older deity; also mythological is the notion that the divine patrons of the nations fight in the heavens while their earthly counterparts battle below (Dan. 10.10–21). Mythic motifs manifest themselves similarly even in protoapocalyptic texts from the exilic and postexilic periods (e.g., Isa. 24–27; 34–35; 40–66; Zech. 9–14). One notable example comes from Isaiah 25.7, which describes how Yahweh, at the eschatological banquet at the end of time, will swallow up death forever; this is an allusion to a passage found in the Baal myth from Ugarit, in which it is said that the god of death, Mot, will swallow up Baal into the underworld. Yet simultaneous with allusion, there is reversal, for in the Canaanite myth, the god of storm and fertility, Baal, is rendered a prisoner through the power of death; in Israel, however, Yahweh, who shares with Baal attributes of fertility and storm god, vanquishes death through swallowing rather than being swallowed up.
The observation concerning attributes Yahweh shares with Baal suggests one final way in which older mythic traditions are reflected in biblical literature: the characteristics of ancient Near Eastern gods, in particular the gods of Canaan, are used in Israel to describe the character of Yahweh. Thus, like Baal, Yahweh is said to ride in a chariot of clouds (Ps. 68.4), to speak with a voice of thunder (2 Sam. 22.14), and to appear in a theophany of storm (Exod. 19.16–18; Judg. 5.4–5). Yahweh is also depicted as creator and a granter of children (Deut. 32.6), as lawgiver (Exod. 33.7–11), as judge among the divine council of the gods (Psalm 82; see Sons of God), and as a deity of graciousness and compassion (Exod. 34.6), language reminiscent of El, the high god of the Canaanite pantheon.
While, as noted above, the term “myth” is used in New Testament literature with negative connotations, much in the New Testament is in fact mythic in character. The New Testament, for example, inherits from the Hebrew Bible a mythological conception of the universe as having three tiers: heaven, earth, and underworld. Each of these three regions, according to New Testament thought, has its proper denizens (God and the angels, humanity, and Satan and the demons, respectively), and this notion of divine and demonic forces also has its antecedents in mythological patternings found in the Hebrew Bible, especially in apocalyptic literature. Apocalyptic also infuses New Testament thought with a mythological view of time, in particular with a belief that time has reached its fullness and the eschaton is imminent.
Moreover, the fundamental narrative that inspires the New Testament, the story of Jesus, could be understood as mythic in character. Thus various New Testament writers, although they differ in details, depict a Jesus who is superhuman in nature, the product of a miraculous birth, able to effect healings and exorcisms, and, most important, a being resurrected on the third day after his death (see Resurrection of Christ). Moreover, according especially to Paul and to the author of the gospel of John, there is found in Jesus even before he is born a cosmic dimension that transcends this worldly space and time (see Logos). Thus the Jesus of Paul and John is described as one who was preexistent, present in the heavens with God from the beginning of time (John 1.1–18; Phil. 2.5–11). Paul, along with the author of the book of Revelation and others, adds an eschatological, even apocalyptic component to this cosmic description of Jesus by arguing for the return of Jesus as heavenly judge at the end of creation.
See also Israel, Religion of.