The biggest difference between myth or legends and sacred scriptures is that the latter are selected legends, called "divinely inspired or spoken" by their believers, which have been carefully guarded and edited to pursue the continuous but also continually changing religious goals of their custodians. Myth and legends, not so regarded, or whose line of custodians died out, were left like abandoned children to wander through time as casual history and unconstrained imagination, until caught up by scientific mythological studies.
Giambattista Vico was the first modern scholar to perceive this process when, two centuries ago, he wrote:
"The fables in their origins were true and severe narrations, whence mythos, fable, was defined as vera narratio (a true account).. But because they were originally for the most part gross, they gradually lost their original meanings, were then altered, subsequently became improbable, after that obscure, then scandalous, and finally incredible. . . These are the seven sources of the difficulties of the fables..."
One of many debts that we owe to Plato is his respect for myth and legend. He, too, fulminated at those who dismissed or, worse, corrupted history by their misuse of legends. In my skeptically minded exploration of the story of the destruction of Atlantis, the attitude of Plato mitigated my doubts. Plato goes out of his way to insist that the story be taken seriously, despite its prehistoric origins. Critias, his protagonist, is given to claim repeatedly that he heard and learned the story from his grandfather as a true and exact account. Significantly, to a modern mnemologist, Critias declared that although he had forgotten much of what he had heard of the previous day's discussions, he had forgotten none of what he had learned as a child about Atlantis.
The Atlantis story is generally disbelieved, yet if an educated unbeliever were to compare it with the story of the Deluge of Noah in the Bible, it would appear to be just as (im) plausible. It is no less specific. The "author" of one is Plato, of the other, Moses; who is more reliable? True, Atlantis is no longer to be found, above or below the sea, and therefore presumed not to have sunk; but the flood that climbed to great heights all over the Near East has vanished, too. Objectively, one would have to be as skeptical (and no more so) about the one account as about the other. The difference is that a great many millions of people believe in the Noachian Deluge because they believe in its sacred format, while the Atlanteans are long dead and the moral of their story - that Zeus destroyed them because he found their squabbling and vices intolerable - no longer lives in people's minds.
A legend is history which has been largely unconstrained by realism and objectivity since the happenings that it describes. The boundary zone between legend and history is, of course, thickly populated. Thus, we have the well-known legend of the founding of Rome by close descendants of Aeneas, exiled prince of Troy, who settled in Latium. Many ancient scholars believed the story. Most Romans accepted it as true. The actual beginnings of the legend occur before Virgil, who related it in his epic poetry. If historical, the legend should go back to the also legendary beginnings of Rome, in the Eighth Century B. C. Then it was that Romulus and Remus, grandsons of Aeneas, built the town.
But while scholars have accepted the legend's time of the founding, the Eighth Century, they have rejected the Aeneas story because the last war of Troy was placed in the Twelfth Century or earlier. However, recent studies have emptied Greek chronology of four to five centuries of time, which would permit placing Aeneas within a century of Romulus and Remus. To confirm the connection is a task of future research, but in support of it is the important fact that when faced with a collection of practically all the evidence of art, archaeology, inscriptions, stories and ancient comment about the earlier times of Rome, one finds a striking gap in the collection extending between the 13th and 8th centuries, as was manifested in the great Bimillennial Exposition of Virgiliana held at Rome in 1982.
Another case of the interplay among history, legend, and scripture may be offered. It concerns the Christian Gospels of the life and work of Jesus. These are four in number, all written some years after the death of Jesus, under circumstances that have never been clear. Furthermore, as the reader will acknowledge, attitudes towards the Gospels and Jesus have ranged from the denial that he ever existed, passing through an acceptance of the Gospels as generally or exactly true, to other extreme ideas such as that Jesus was a Jewish radical rebelling against Roman rule, whose story was censored in the Gospels.
Dr. Livio C. Stecchini, both an ancient historian and a historian of science, for several years before his death taught a college course on the trial of Jesus. There he developed a theory that Seneca, the Stoic philosopher, dramatist, and Roman statesman, was the basic source for the Gospels. His brother met Saint Paul of Tarsus when Paul was imprisoned in Rome awaiting trial and execution, and Seneca himself could have interrogated Paul at will, given his high state position. That the Stoic and Christian positions on many ethical issues were similar - more so than the Mosaic-Christian position - has been often remarked upon. That Jesus follows the birth history of many Greco-Roman heroes is manifest: His father being divine, his mother human.
Seneca, said Stecchini, composed a great tragedy, later lost, and upon its manuscript and/ or performances the Gospels drew very heavily. Thus it happened, as Stecchini has elaborated, that the plot of the trial and execution, the actions of the characters, and the timing and scenes of the Gospels are framed in the traditional structure of Greco-Roman drama.
As important as Stecchini's theory may be, we cannot treat it here as more than a conjecture. The conjecture, however, allows us to make a point about legend and scripture. To the studious non-believer, sacred scripture is forever the source of historiography and the analysis of myth and legend. Scripture may be dissected from as many perspectives and in as many ways as the creative and scientific mind can imagine and instrument. On the other hand, to the studious believer, sacred scripture is first of all literally true, and all that the creative mind can imagine must be consistent with the literal truth. Even if, by every empirical test that is respected by historical and natural science, Jesus were deemed to have never existed (an unlikely prospect), the believer can continue to believe in the holiness of his mundane being and therefore in the literalness of the gospels, just as the Roman Catholic believer asserts in the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the veritable body and blood of Christ in the Holy Communion.
What we should then, by scientific standards, possess would be an entirely fictional and mythical complex contained in identical form in millions of cerebro-neural systems governing a host of behaviors. The reality of these systems and behaviors cannot and would not be disputed by science. Science would say, here we have a purely delusional system to accompany the larger delusional system that is a mixture of history, legend, myth, and non-reality known as the Old Testament or Mosaic system. And if all of the Old Testament were empirically disproved (also very unlikely), the scientist would then retire to the same position, namely treating the total New Testament - Old Testament complex as a purely delusional system with behavioral consequences.
Myth may be defined as a religious and aesthetic interpretation or story based upon legend and history. Its goal is to serve essentially non-historic functions while reminding its audience of a significant historical happening. Myth is closely related to rituals and sacrifices, which have the same goal, but, like sacred scriptures, are under severe theocratic constraints.
Myth is often indistinguishable from legend, but this occurs in part because the original culture to which a myth and legend belonged no longer exists to explain to us the difference between the two; myths and legends intermingle in a flow through time which we experience much later and find indistinctly composed of both. The famous myth of Phaeton, who drives the Sun's chariot, burns up the Earth, and is destroyed by a thunderbolt of Zeus, is by common standards today an entertaining myth, but appears upon investigation more and more as a legend supporting an historical intrusion of a cometary body upon the Earth's atmosphere.
Sacred scripture consists of authoritative prescriptions of various compounds of legend and myth, frequently describing rites and commands for their recital, together with moral judgments. All legends and myths of the most ancient kind contain some sacred quality, but scriptures enhance sacrality by ascribing their own origin to divine or divinely authorized sources.
Debating sacred scriptures is deemed to be arguing with god, which is not only useless but sacrilegious as well. One effect of this view is to allow only such discussions and research whose intended effects are to prove the scriptures correct in morals, rites, and history.
This situation is antithetic to scientific method, which permits only hypotheses, never absolute and eternal truth. Nevertheless it often happens that believers in holy scriptures, when justifying and proving them, cast many bones from their campfires into the darkness where the jackals of science prowl. The very insistence of literal Biblicists has driven scholars to test the authenticity of some reported events, thereupon to learn to their surprise that these can in fact be confirmed.
One of these was the dropping of manna among the hungry Israelites in the desert. Fitting precisely the details provided in the Bible and legendary sources to the conditions under which manna-like confections could be manufactured - electrical discharges, high temperatures, strange atmospheric gases, molecular compounding, etc. - a considerable degree of confirmation can be accorded to the Biblical story, enough to swing the scientific balance in its direction. Once more, however, I would stress that by proving the capability of natural causes to have produced the Biblical "miracle," ordinary science erodes sacred scripture. It removes Yahweh from the manufacturing process and the product, and tends to make him a deistic god, that is, an ultimate cause or designer of manufacturing machinery.
Here, to be sure, Yahweh is still very close to events, according to Moses. But we recall that Moses is under suspicion of hallucinating; that is; another science, psychology, is working to erode the sacredness of the scripture, even while providing another form of natural explanation which authenticates in its own way the actions and speech conveyed in the scripture.
Sacred scriptures will always contain a high proportion of vague, indecipherable, incomprehensible, contradictory, and substantially untestable material. They will also have lost much, as historiographic methodology increasingly shows, owing to the alteration and accidents of their form of transmission, through cultural miscegenation, by reconciliation of older history with later history, by imposition of patterns of integration and new styles, by the collective amnesia that seeks both to forget actually and recall symbolically the traumas provoked in terrible ancient catastrophes, and by other changes in referents to accommodate ancient to present conditions, as a comet becoming a star, or as invisible electrical discharges which are now referred to as purely symbolic manifestations. Therefore there are limits to the scientificity that can be granted to the Rig Vedas, Bible, Eddas, Book of the Dead, I Ching, Popul Vuh, and other scriptures.
Nor can it benefit the credibility and influence of believers in sacred scriptures to be relegated by general consent, including their own, to the nonsensical remnants of the works. For example, many Biblical scholars refuse to employ or give credence to Talmudic commentaries and ancient legends of the Jews, when these documents will often testify to the authenticity of Biblical statements and elaborate them in a way that enhances their credibility. Ominous conclusions emerge from these several pages. There is much history in myth, legend and scripture everywhere in the world. In a sense, all religions are desperately honest in their fundamental statements. Yet it is appreciated that, in a memory choice between a delusion and an historical fact, a religion will prefer the delusion. An attempt to "clean up" an historical religion by eliminating historical and empirical errors cannot succeed. Meanwhile we affirm that a religion cannot subsist on delusions alone: it must make historical and empirical statements. Are we to believe then that historical religion must be abandoned? We are not yet ready to answer this question.