Peterson’s “Darwinian truth” makes no sense for the New Testament

Peterson’s appeals to a mythological interpretation of the New Testament are fundamentally at odds with the historical evidence we have of how New Testament authors viewed what they were writing.

This essay is most likely of zero interest to Christians, but it may be of interest to atheists who have found Peterson’s mythological discussion of the New Testament interesting.

In justifying how different layers of truth (historical, metaphorical, archetypal, etc.) are imbued into a single great text, such as the Bible or the Mesopotamian mythos, Jordan Peterson is wont to appeal to the expanding “penumbra” of knowledge [1]: there is a core circle of things that we clearly understand, there is a huge ocean of things that we don’t understand at all, and then there is a penumbra of things between the circle of things we know and the ocean of things we don’t know that we are attempting (badly) to understand. In Peterson’s understanding, this penumbra is the realm of myth—we cannot consciously explicate (for instance) what the optimal response to uncertainty is, so we instantiate the optimal response in myth so that we can attempt to understand the myth, which is more comprehensible than the uncertainty itself.

Jordan Peterson speaking with attendees at the 2018 Young Women's Leadership Summit hosted by Turning Point USA at the Hyatt Regency DFW Hotel in Dallas, Texas.
Photo: Gage Skidmore, here.

This essay is not intended as a criticism of this model. Certainly the model appears prima facie plausible for myth that began as oral tradition, and if we are willing to entertain some Jungian archetypes then it appears plausible even for narrative more generally. I merely want to point out that this model only makes sense when the author of a great text is intending to write a narrative, not when they are intending to convey a history of things that actually happened. There is obviously a great deal of interpretative work to be done in, for instance, a history of the First World War, but that interpretative work is constrained by the actual events that occurred: the interpretation is legitimate only to the extent that it admits Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination on 28 June 1914 and the armistice’s being signed on 11 November 1918.

The problem then, possibly for Peterson and certainly for many of his followers, is that the historical record (i.e. the record that we can obtain on the historical evidence alone without any special pleading to divine revelation) clearly depicts the New Testament’s authors as believing the events they describe­ to have actually happened—they did not appear to believe they were writing myth [2].

The New Testament can be roughly divided as follows:

  • To begin are the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), which function essentially as histories of Jesus’ life, followed by Acts, which is essentially a history of the early Church. It’s generally believed that these were written somewhere between 30 and 80 years after Jesus’ death.
  • To end, we have the Book of Revelation, which is a prophetical book that most major denominations do not believe should be interpreted in a straightforwardly literal way and therefore doesn’t concern us here.
  • Between these are the epistles, which are actual letters that actual Christians wrote to actual other Christians or to be read aloud to actual Christian congregations. They are generally (as with most letters now) are intended to convey some information or exhortation to the recipient. The best historical evidence we have dates most of these as having been written earlier than the Gospels (starting from roughly 20 years after Jesus’ death).

To be clear, there is abundant purely historical evidence that most of these epistles were real letters written by real Christians to other real Christians, and not simply edited or cobbled together at a later date to reinforce an extant Christian mythology. For a start, Biblical scholars generally concede where sections were likely added in by later scribes (for instance, 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 is generally believed to have been added later), and while there is scholarly division over whether some epistles were written by their purported author (e.g. whether the Epistle to the Colossians was written by Saint Paul), there is no such division over other epistles (e.g. whether the Epistle to the Romans was written by Saint Paul). Indeed, even where there is division about whether an epistle was written by its purported author, the alternative author is generally proposed to be a contemporary admirer of the purported author, not some clergyman several hundred years later. In other words, the epistles are likely a very good reflection of actual Christian beliefs in the time shortly after Jesus’ death. And if we take that seriously, then the idea that the referents of the letter are intended primarily as mythological rather than historical is… bizarre.

Take, for instance, Chapter 15 from the First Epistle to the Corinthians, which according to scholarly consensus was indisputably written by Saint Paul. Emphasis is mine; it’s worth reading in full:

1 Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, 2 through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain.

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. […]

12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; 14 and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. 17 If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. 19 If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.

(1 Cor 15:1–20)

Note the underlined bits here. In the first, Paul is explicitly saying: “If you do not believe that the historical event of Christ’s resurrection happened, you can go and verify that it happened by speaking to those before whom Christ appeared after he was resurrected”. In the second, Paul is explicitly saying: “If you do not believe literally in the historical event of the resurrection—i.e. if you believe in a mythologised version instead—then your faith is in vain”. In the third, just in case he hadn’t already made it clear, Paul is explicitly saying: “But this historical event did happen, and will happen again when we Christians are resurrected”. Again, this was an actual letter that was written by an actual Christian to be read out before an actual Christian congregation that really existed. There is straightforwardly no way to interpret the above other than to say Paul is insisting on the utterly non-mythological historicity of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

In other words, even if we thought for some reason that the more narrative gospels were fundamentally intended as mythological in nature (which, incidentally, we also have no real evidence for), we could not possibly believe that the epistles—which broadly precede the gospels—were intended as fundamentally mythological. I am not trying to get into whether the resurrection actually did happen here—and others elsewhere have made persuasive cases that early Christians could believe that the resurrection actually happened without its having happened. My point is solely to say that Peterson’s (and others’) insistence on looking at these first and foremost as mythologies is utterly anachronistic and entirely unsupported by the historical evidence we have about the epistles’ authorship and audience.

This isn’t to say it’s illegitimate to read the New Testament as mythological—it’s simply illegitimate to read it as mythological unless you’re a Christian. I, as a Christian, can believe that Scripture is divinely inspired and therefore operates at all levels simultaneously—historical, mythological, eschatological all at once. If a non-Christian, however, wants to read them as mythological, they have to form a case whereby the books of the New Testament were not intended as myths at the time of their authorship, were canonised by the early Church understood explicitly as historical and not as myths, and have been affirmed by Christians throughout the ages explicitly as historical and not as myths, while the whole time were actually just an exploration of the “penumbra of the unknown” in spite of a complete lack of evidence for this.

Peterson, to his credit, refuses to rule out the historical interpretation [3]—he simply says he’s first and foremost interested in the mythological lens. His argument, if on shaky foundations, is therefore not technically unsound. Other scholars of mythology would do well to follow his lead, or to simply affirm the New Testament as historically false instead of affirming it as myth.


[1] See, for instance, the first lecture of his Biblical series: https://youtu.be/f-wWBGo6a2w

[2] To be clear, I am not arguing for the truth claims of the New Testament in this essay. Independently, as a Christian, I do believe the New Testament is true, but this essay is only intended to show that the authors believed what they were writing to not be mythological in nature.

[3] See, for instance, his interview at Transliminal Media: https://youtu.be/YC1pvjyKYr4?t=5690

“Well, Christ’s spirit lives on. It’s had a massive effect across time. Well, is that an answer to the question, “did his body resurrect?” I don’t know. I don’t know. The accounts aren’t clear, for one thing. What the accounts mean isn’t clear. I don’t know what happens to a person if they bring themselves completely into alignment. I’ve had intimations of what that might mean. We don’t understand the world very well. We don’t understand how the world could be mastered, if it was mastered completely. We don’t know how an individual might be able to manage that. We don’t know what transformations that might make possible.” (transcript here: https://www.jordanbpeterson.com/transcripts/transliminal/)

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