I think distinguishing an actual, historical event from a mythological event is important, because it tells me whether I should use the literary present tense or the historical past tense. There is just one problem. How do I tell the difference between what is real and what is legendary? What if a story has some teensy-weensy grain of truth in it but the overall story sounds like a mythological folktale, such as Beowulf? Now what? Do I assume everything to be mythological, or do I assume that everything in the Bible actually, historically, really happened in a literary or literal sort of way? Or maybe this is one of those things that needs to be judged on a case-by-case basis?

Historical tense: Jesus resurrected.

Literary present tense: Jesus is resurrected.

I think it may be safer to assume that all stories in the Bible are mythological. Making historical claims is too iffy. Plus, this website is really a secular website, hosted by a secular company, so it may be best to avoid explicit or implicit doctrinal presuppositions.

  • 2
    Why is this a Meta question?
    – James T
    Feb 10, 2014 at 15:08
  • @JamesT Because knowing whether or not something is historical or mythological can directly influence whether or not I should use the historical past tense or literary present tense in my answers. So, basically, this question is discussing how to phrase my answers properly and avoid Christian/doctrinal biases.
    – Double U
    Feb 10, 2014 at 16:09
  • I see, thanks. I did not understand that "how to phrase my answers properly" was the motivation.
    – James T
    Feb 10, 2014 at 16:36
  • Well, I did say, "I think distinguishing an actual, historical event from a mythological event is important, because it tells me whether I should use the literary present tense or the historical past tense." I should have added at the end "in my answers".
    – Double U
    Feb 10, 2014 at 16:58
  • "... avoid Christian/doctrinal biases." - You're walking in a mine field when it comes to literalness. I'd say that you're walking in a mine field even among pastors of the same doctrine. Feb 12, 2014 at 14:11
  • @Anonymous, you really should take this question to the main site, because Meta is all about discussing how the site operates. Your question OTOH, asks about how should we interpret the Bible, so it definitely belongs to the main site.
    – Graviton
    Feb 26, 2014 at 6:14
  • @Anonymous, also, what you want to do after you got your answer ( use historical or literary present tense) is not a justification enough to ask a question on meta, if it belongs to the main site.
    – Graviton
    Feb 26, 2014 at 6:16
  • @Graviton At the time, I had a tendency to assume everything expressed in past tense to mean something historically happened, and in present tense to mean something has no time span. Literature has no time span. Although it may be set in the past, the characters come alive in the present, as you are reading the work of fiction, unless the events actually happened.
    – Double U
    Feb 26, 2014 at 12:56
  • @Graviton The question may be too broad on the Main SE, because there are so many areas in the Bible that can be interpreted as "historical" or "mythological" due to the narrative nature of the work. Mythological does not mean something is not real or true, as cultures may use real, historical events as the basis of their folktales in such a way to make their stories meaningful to their intended audience.
    – Double U
    Feb 26, 2014 at 13:02

1 Answer 1


I'm not convinced that the verb tense, on its own, distinguishes between whether the described event is "real" or "unreal". We often use a "historical present" for describing things that really happened, in a more vivid way, as well as for things that only happened on paper. One of my Latin teachers at school had the quirk of almost always using a present tense (in English) when talking about the classical era, in order to lessen the historical distance between then and now, without implying that Caesar was mythological. Also, Latin authors frequently do the same thing. The last sentence was an example of me using the historical present to describe the past actions of real people. In the same way, the sentence "Grendel came, bearing God's hatred" (Grendel gongan, Godes yrre baer) doesn't commit me to believing in the reality of Grendel, or even of God.

In relation to Scripture, answers which are from a particular perspective ought to treat the text consistently with that perspective. If you are troubled by having to speak from a perspective that is not your own, then it is typically safe to retreat to a neutral position. If you don't want to say that "Jesus wept" historically, you might say "John wrote that Jesus wept (John 11:35)". If you don't think John wrote that, you could retreat further to "The gospel attributed to John states that Jesus wept (11:35)". Believers can always interpret that the gospel is attributed to John because he actually wrote it, and he wrote that Jesus wept because Jesus actually did; and unbelievers have nothing to quibble about.

In terms of avoiding doctrinal presuppositions (as in your question) this is a safer option than always treating the Bible account as unreal. That is also a doctrinal position. Simply stating how (identifiable groups of) Christians have received and interpreted the Bible is not doctrinal but historical, and sidesteps the question of whether you personally agree with them.

  • I guess you're right. I just want to write in a textbook-like, formal manner, so the information is more important than actual beliefs held. I think I'd choose the neutral position. I recently answered a question on the Biblical Hermeneutics.SE, assuming that God created the world in six days, simply because the Bible says so, and it corresponds well with the Jewish Sabbath ritual.
    – Double U
    Feb 11, 2014 at 1:03

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