I’m reading The Power of Myth, an extensive interview with Joseph Campbell by Bill Moyers. It’s currently my bathroom reading, meaning it’s handy for those daily sit down situations that come with being human. In this morning’s reading, it became clear that Campbell believes that religious books such as the Bible were understood by ancient peoples to be intended as allegory rather than as fact. In other words, to Campbell, these ancient folks were wiser than many people alive today.
That the Bible and other ancient religious texts should be read as allegory and metaphor certainly seems clear to me. And even the most ardent literalists of today do read sections of the Bible in that way. Consider. “You are the salt of the earth,” from Matthew 5:13. Doesn’t everyone read this as metaphor? From this, you may take that I consider an absolutely literal reading of the Bible to be a mistake. It can’t be taken that way.
On the other hand, were ancient peoples wiser than many folks today? Somewhere buried in history are the folks who “first” told these stories. I have always imagined that they knew the tales were not literally true, but they believed them to be symbolically or spiritually true. I cannot rule out two other possibilities, though. First, they may not have believed the stories to be true in any sense, but were only making them up for entertainment value. I’m sure that humans have been telling ‘whoppers’ ever since our race started. However, I’m personally skeptical of this scenario. Second, it’s also possible that the people who first told these tales had hallucinatory or dream experiences that convinced them the stories were literally true. I think this is more likely than the former possibility.
But what about the people who first “heard” these stories? Did they think the tales were to be understood as allegories, or did they think they were fact? My personal opinion generally disagrees with Campbell, although neither of us has proof of our speculations. I imagine that there were three types of folks in that first audience for these tales. First, there were those who took the tales as literal truth, perhaps given to them by an authority, or because they jibed with what these folks already were thinking to be true. Second, I also suspect that other members of that original audience didn’t buy the tales as literal at all but felt them to have a resonance and deeper meaning. Third, there were probably those who didn’t believe a word they were hearing but didn’t say anything because of the social pressure of those around them.
In other words, I suspect that first audience was pretty much the same as modern audiences, although the percentages of the three groups may have changed over time. This has been, Deep Thoughts on the John, with Charles Gramlich.