Urban Legends of the New Testament: 40 Common Misconceptions. By David A Croteau. Published by B&H Publishing Group (1 Aug. 2015).
This book discussed 40 misinterpretations of New Testament passages. Strictly speaking, only some of them could be regarded as ‘urban legends’ (i.e. they are misreadings that have passed uncritically into public consciousness). Others are passages which are liable to interpretations that simply add something to the text that isn’t really there, or subtract something that really is there.
I’m going to have a go at summarising, in as few words as possible, the main thrust of each chapter in the book:-
- ‘There was no room at the inn’ (Luke 2:1-7). The legend says that Joseph and a heavily pregnant Mary arrive in Bethlehem, and are sent by the inn-keeper to the only accommodation available – a stable. The text mentions neither inn-keeper nor stable. The ‘inn’ was very probably the guest-room of the house. This room was already occupied, and so Mary had to give birth in the family room, and lay her new-born baby in the feeding trough that would likely have been in the corner of the room.
- ‘We three kings of Orient are’ (Matthew 2:1). The text does not say that these visitors were kings, nor that there were three of them. They were ‘magi’ – astrologers – and would probably have undertaken such a long journey (from Arabia or Babylonia) in a much larger caravan.
- ‘Shepherds were societal outcasts’ (Luke 2:8-12). Shepherds were neither social nor religious outcasts. A 1st-century reader would think of Abraham, David, and God himself as shepherds. However, they do represent the poor and the humble, and it is significant that God chose such to share the wonderful announcement of the birth of his Son.
- ‘Jesus was a carpenter’ (Mark 6:3). This legend is not so much mistaken, as misleading. It leads to excessive allegorisation on the part of imaginative preachers and Sunday School teachers. The Greek word ‘tekton‘ has a more general meaning than ‘carpenter’. It can refer to a builder or craftsman who uses stone, metal, or wood.
- ‘Jesus died when he was thirty-three’ (Luke 3:23). Given that the text says that Jesus was ‘about’ thirty years old when he commenced him public ministry, and taking into account other historical factors, it is likely (Croteau claims) that Jesus was nearer to thirty-seven when he was crucified.
- ‘All giving must be done in secret’ (Matthew 6:3). Taking account of Jesus’ use of hyperbole, he means that our giving should not be ostentatious: giving for the purpose of being seen to give.
- ‘Do not judge others’ (Matthew 7:1). What Jesus is warning against is an over-critical, judgemental attitude towards others. He is not prohibiting us from warning, criticising, or seeking to correct the sins or faults of others.
- ‘Jesus’ most famous quote is John 3:16′. This is one of those places where ‘red-letter’ Bibles get into trouble. It is not possible to certain whether these words were spoken by Jesus or are a comment by John, the author of the Gospel. In fact, the latter is more likely.
- ‘Hell referred to a first-century garbage dump near Jerusalem’ (Mark 9:47). The legend is re-cycled by Rob Bell: ‘The next time someone asks you if you believe in an actual hell, you can always say, “Yes, I do believe that my garbage goes somewhere”.’ The evidence for the place called Gehenna ever having been a rubbish tip is very slender. However, it is a site used for worship of the god Molech (which included human sacrifice). The name then transferred to the underworld of Molech, and consequently as a place of eternal torment.
- ‘The Gospel of John never refers to repentance’ (John 12:40). If repentance is so important in the Synoptic Gospels, why is there no reference to it in John’s Gospel? But although the word may not occur, the concept does – see, for example, Jn 3:19-21; 5:14. In fact, a less usual word for repentance (‘strepho‘) does occur in Jn 12:40 (in a paraphrase of Isa 6:9f).
- ‘The “Eye of a Needle” was a gate in Jerusalem’ (Mark 10:25). This idea leads to some neat allegorising: if we want to enter God’s kingdom we must shed our burdens and get down on our knees. But there is no record of such a gate. Jesus’ expression is a hyperbole. The disciples’ astonishment is due to the fact the riches were regarded as a sign of God’s blessing – and Jesus seemed to be turning this on its head.
- ‘Where two are gathered in prayer, God will be there’ (Matthew 18:20). Let us unite in prayer (goes the legend) and, be we only two or three in number, God will bless us. But Jesus, in this passage, is not even talking about prayer. He is talking about discipline. The expression “in my name” refers to authority, rather than to petition. The context has to do with confronting a brother with his sin: Jesus is saying that the decision of two or more representatives of the church will be ratified in heaven.
- ‘Jesus sweat great drops of blood’ (Luke 22:44). This legend is used to underline to enormous agony that Jesus suffered on our behalf. Actually, the text actually says that his sweat became like great drops of blood – and indication, most probably, of the size of the drops. It should also be noted that there is disagreement about whether this verse is authentic.
- ‘Jesus was flogged once’ (John 19:1). A comparison of John’s account with that of Matthew indicates that Jesus was flogged twice. The first flogging (Jn 19:1) was a ‘fustigatio‘, a relatively light flogging. The second (Mt 27:26) was a ‘verberatio‘, a brutal flogging.
- ‘”Agape” is a superior love to “phileo“‘ (Jn 21:15-19). According to the legend, Jesus asked Peter if he loved him with a deep, sacrificial, ‘agapeo‘ love. Peter responded by saying that he regarded Jesus merely with friendship love – ‘phileo‘. But these two words are used interchangeably in John’s Gospel (compare, for example, Jn 3:35 with Jn 5:20).
- ‘”Go” is not a command in the Great Commission’ (Matthew 28:19). Some preachers point out that the relevant word in the original Greek is not an imperative, but a participle (‘going’). They then infer that Jesus is not calling for intentional evangelism and overseas missions, but rather for making disciples ‘as you go about your daily lives’. But usage and context (‘…making disciples of all nations’) indicate that the participle implies a command.
- ‘”Repent” means “to change your mind”‘ (Acts 2:38). According to the legend, to suggest that it means more than this (‘turning from your sins’) amounts to salvation by works. But in biblical usage, ‘repentance’ clearly entails a change of behaviour; see Mt 3:7-9; Mt 12:41; Acts 26:20. However, Scripture, is also clear that the power to turn from sin comes from God, Acts 5:31; 11:18; 2 Tim 2:25.
- ‘The Philippian jailer “just believed” and was “saved”‘ (Acts 16:31). In order to receive salvation, according to the legend, one is required simply to ‘believe’. There is no requirement to turn from one’s sins. But the content of the account itself, together with its context, indicates that the jailer knew more about Paul and his message than is directly stated in the text. Luke is providing a summary of words and actions.
- ‘Paul was a tent maker’ (Acts 18:3). According to the legend, the idea that Paul worked to support himself suggests that modern Christian workers should do the same. Actually, Paul would best described as a ‘leatherworker’. Regarding the supposed implication, we should recognise that ‘description does not equal prescription’. Paul makes it clear in 1 Cor 9:6 that he and Barnabas had a right to refrain from working, as indeed some other ministers had done.
- ‘Jews (and Jesus) primarily spoke Hebrew in Jesus’ day’ (Acts 26:14). In New Testament times, Hebrew had been dying out, and Latin would have been used mainly by the Romans. The main languages were Aramaic, followed by Greek. It is likely that Jesus taught mainly in Aramaic, but also was able to converse in Greek (as in Mt 8:5-13; 27:11-14).
- ‘The gospel is dynamite’ (Rom 1:16). The word translated ‘power’ is ‘dunamis‘. Since this is the word from which we get the word ‘dynamite’, we may (according to the legend) reasonably describe the gospel as ‘the dynamite of God’. The English word actually comes from the Swedish word ‘dynamit’ (itself derived from the Greek word) by Alfred Nobel in 1867. To imagine Paul thinking in terms of ‘dynamite’ is, then, an anachronism. Even to mention ‘dynamite’ in connection with the gospel is inappropriate, since it obviously implies violent destruction. The real meaning of ‘dunamis‘ is ‘the ability to accomplish something’.
- ‘Just say you believe in Jesus and you will be saved’ (Romans 10:9f). Some people make the gospel too difficult or too complicated. Just say you believe, and you will be saved, eternally. So runs the legend. Actually, the passage in question refers to two things: confessing and believing. But it does not describe a two-stage process of salvation. The confession is believed and the belief confessed. That confession is not a prayer, but a declaration of loyalty, and Tit 1:16 makes it clear that it cannot co-exist with salvation in the absence of a transformed life.
- ‘Synagogues had men and women seated separately’ (1 Corinthians 14:34f). The legend says that Paul’s teaching in this passage should never be directly applied to the modern church, because it is based on the Jewish practice of making men and women sit on opposite sides of the synagogue. If a woman spoke to her husband during the meeting, this would have a disruptive effect. But the available evidence does not support the notion that women and men were seated in different parts of the synagogue. It is clear from 1 Cor 11:5 and 1 Cor 14:31 that women and men were actively involved in public worship. The present passage deals with the evaluation of prophecy: if a man prophesies and a woman evaluates, that would reverse the order of Gen 2:20-23.
- ‘Grace is unmerited favour’ (Ephesians 2:8). So runs the cliché. It is not so much mistaken, as inadequate. The context makes clear that God’s grace is not merely unmerited (we did not deserve it), but demerited (we deserved the opposite).
- ‘Good works are optional for Christians’ (Ephesians 2:10). Although it is certainly true that we can never earn our salvation by works, those translations that suggest from this verse that good works are desirable (should do) rather than essential (will do) miss the point. The NIV is correct in rendering this as a purpose clause.
- ‘Pastors are required to do the ministry of the church’ (Ephesians 4:12). The AV translates this verse as if ‘the work of ministry’ is the responsibility of church leaders. But the entire context stresses the importance of every-member ministry.
- ‘Jesus emptied himself of the glory of heaven’ (Philippians 2:6f). Correctly understood, Paul means that Jesus did not consider the fact that he was God to be something to be used to his own advantage, but rather as an opportunity to serve others unselfishly. He urges his readers to follow our Lord’s example.
- ‘We can do anything through Christ who gives us strength’ (Phil 4:13). This verse, as popularly understood, might be regarded as promising that God can make anyone into a Superman or Superwoman. But the context indicates that Paul is convinced that he (and, by implication, others) can be content in all circumstances.
- ‘Abstain from all appearance of evil’ (1 Thessalonians 5:22). Abstain not only from things that are sinful, but also from everything that appears to be sinful (lest you damage your Christian witness). So runs the legend. But the passage is not about lifestyle, but about false teaching. What Paul means is this: ‘Do not despise prophecies, but test them all: accept what is good, and reject everything that is evil.’
- ‘Hell is the absence of God’ (2 Thessalonians 1:9). God does not inflict eternal punishment on people (so the legend goes); he simply denies them his presence. The meaning of phrase ‘away from the presence of the Lord’ is disputed: it might mean either ‘away from’ or ‘coming from’. From the context, Paul’s thought is probably that it is the presence of God that brings destruction upon the wicked.
- ‘A divorced man cannot be a pastor’ (1 Timothy 3:2). ‘The husband of one wife’ does not refer to polygamy, or singleness, or to remarriage after divorce. It is an idiomatic expression meaning, ‘a faithful husband’.
- ‘Money is evil’ (1 Timothy 6:10). What Paul actually said was, ‘The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil’.
- ‘A pastor’s children must be saved’ (Titus 1:6). The word translated ‘believe’ can equally be translated ‘trustworthy’, and the context (which has to do with an elder keeping his family under control) requires that it be so translated in this instance.
- ‘Christians are commanded to tithe’ (Hebrews 7:1-10). The main point of this passage is to demonstrate that Melchisedek’s priesthood is superior to the Levitical priesthood. This is proven, in part, from Abraham’s giving of a tithe (one tenth of everything) to Melchisedek. Even if it be argued that Melchisedek is in this instance a type of Christ, mandatory tithing cannot be supported, since Abraham’s tithe was voluntary.
- ‘Christians are commanded to go to church’ (Hebrews 10:25). The context is all about drawing near to God, continuing in the faith, and promoting love and good works. Attendance as worship meetings is not simply an isolated command, but rather providing the means and context whereby we can escape our individualism and spur one another on in the Christian faith.
- ‘Women should not wear jewelry’ (1 Peter 3:3). Peter is thinking particularly of Christian women who have unbelieving husbands. He wants them to commend their faith to their husbands by not adorning themselves in an ostentatious or seductive way.
- ‘1 John 1:9 is a formula for salvation’. It’s simple (according to the legend): admit to God that you are wrong, and he will grant salvation to you.’ Note that John’s primary concern is not evangelism but edification. He is encouraging the regular confession of sin to God.
- ‘Christians should not allow cults into their homes’ (2 John 10). Find other ways to witness to a cultist (the legend goes), but do not invite him into your home. But John’s real meaning is that Christians should not provide support for anyone who is spreading a false gospel by, for example, allowing them to use your home as a base.
- ‘God would rather you be cold toward him than lukewarm’ (Revelation 3:16). Better be out and out against God than sit on the fence (says the legend). Now, there may be some advantage in being a decided atheist than a complacent agnostic, but that is not the teaching of this passage. Both hot and cold water are good: hot water has healing properties, and cold water is refreshing. But lukewarm water is good for nothing.
- ‘Accept Jesus into your heart to be saved’ (Revelation 3:20). It needs to be understood that Jesus is not addressing unbelievers with the offer of salvation, but believers (albeit ‘lukewarm’ ones) with the offer of fellowship. He does not say that he will come ‘into’ them, but rather ‘in to’ (‘pros‘) them.
There was not much in the book that was entirely new to me. But I did experience some real ‘Aha!’ moments – especially chapters 12, 33, and 39.
I can imagine that some Christians (if they read this sort of book at all) might be irritated and disappointed by it: ‘You’ve taken away some of my favourite Bible verses’. But if we have treasured for a whole lifetime a Bible verse that actually doesn’t mean what we thought it meant, then all we have lost is an unscriptural cliché, and what we are gaining (if rather painfully) is God’s word, the Bible.
The book is written in a popular style, but points the reader to further (sometimes more technical) sources of information. The aim is to get readers to set aside (as far as possible) their preconceptions about what the biblical text means, and to pay closer attention to what it actually says, with due regard to context and background.