Urban Bible Legends: Seven Myths of Biblical Yore

1656319_686936921357575_1005321205_nThere are interpretations of the Bible that have surfaced in pulpits for generations. These are often presented as “facts” that provide important background context for understanding the Bible. The problem, however, is that these are myths, are fanciful interpretations that have been attached to particular passages, but have no basis in history.

 Here is the list:

1. The “eye of the needle” refers to a gate outside Jerusalem.

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God,” says Jesus in Mark 10:25. Maybe you’ve heard of the gate in Jerusalem called the “eye of the needle.” The camel could pass through it only after stooping down and having all its baggage taken off.

The illustration is used in many sermons as an example of coming to God on our knees and without our baggage. The only problem is… there is no evidence for such a gate. The story has been around since the 15th century, but there isn’t a shred of evidence to support it.

2. The high priest tied a rope around his ankle so that others could drag him out of the Holy of Holies in case God struck him dead.

Various versions of this claim have been repeated by pastors, but it is a legend. It started in the Middle Ages and keeps getting repeated. There is no evidence for the claim in the Bible, the Apocrypha, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus, the Pseudepigrapha, the Talmud, Mishna or any other source. Furthermore, the thickness of the veil (three feet) would have precluded the possibility of a priest being dragged out anyway.

3. Scribes took baths, discarded their pens, washed their hands, etc. every time they wrote the name of God.

As a way of getting across the reverence of the Jewish and Christian scribes toward God, preachers like to describe the honor given to God’s name. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that scribes did these sorts of rituals every time they came across the name of God.

4. There was this saying among the sages: “May you be covered in your rabbi’s dust.”

This is one of the most pervasive and fast-spreading stories to flood the church in recent years. The idea is that as you walked behind your rabbi, he would kick up dust and you would become caked in it and so following your rabbi closely came to symbolize your commitment and zeal. Joel Willitts explains:  “There was this saying among the sages: “May you be covered in your rabbi’s dust.”  If you were the best of the best of the best and a rabbi took you into His flock to be schooled in his “yoke”, or teachings, then you literally and physically followed closely behind your rabbi as he traveled from one town to the next, teaching.  And as you walked behind the rabbi, he would kick up dust and you would become caked in it and so following your rabbi closely came to symbolize your commitment and zeal. And then Bell points out the one thing that is all “wrong”, upside down and strange about the rabbi Jesus.  He skipped the seminaries, and places of power and goes straight to the fishing docks and factories. Jesus begins calling blue collar “joes” to drop what they were doing and follow Him.  Simon Peter, and the Zebedee brothers, to name just a few, were fishermen and Jesus simply comes up to them and say, “Follow me and be my disciples.” These blue collar “joes” had long since given up being smart enough and sharp enough to follow a rabbi.  They were holding down steady jobs, living for the weekends, when Jesus swings by and says, “I want you to follow me.” 

This is powerful stuff isn’t it? Well the only problem is that it just isn’t true… The context in which it is given in Mishnah Aboth 1:4 is expressly not what is assumed by those who promulgate this idea.

5. Voltaire’s house is now owned by a Bible-printing publisher.

Voltaire was famous for saying, “One hundred years from my day there will not be a Bible in the earth except one that is looked upon by an antiquarian curiosity seeker.” There is a myth out there that within 50 years of Voltaire’s death, his house was owned by a Bible society that used his own printing press to make Bibles. Sounds like a great story, but it’s not true. Regardless, Voltaire’s prediction of the demise of the Bible was vastly overstated.

6. Gehenna was a burning trash dump outside Jerusalem.

I’ve used this illustration many times. But there isn’t evidence to support this idea. Still, because it seems like a reasonable explanation for the origin of the Hinnom Valley as “hell,” commentators and preachers have accepted it. It’s possible that the verdict may still be out on this one, but not if Todd Bolen is right:

“The explanation for the ‘fire of Gehenna’ lies not in a burning trash dump, but in the burning of sacrificed children. Already in Old Testament times, the Valley of Hinnom was associated with the destiny of the wicked. That the valley was just outside the city of Jerusalem made it an appropriate symbol for those excluded from divine blessing.”

7. NASA scientists have discovered a “missing day” which corresponds to the Joshua account of the sun standing still.

Please don’t repeat this myth. There has been no “missing day” discovered, and the legend has been circulating longer than NASA has been in existence, with different scientists playing the part.

Written by Trevin Wax

One thought on “Urban Bible Legends: Seven Myths of Biblical Yore

  1. I was intrigued by #4, and would love to know more about the facts and research behind that.

    I was once intrigued with Rob Bell’s imaginative and compelling presentations of usually orthodox Christian ideals through the outside-the-box style of his Nooma videos. Then Love Wins came out, and chilled my ardor considerably. (#6 was a piece of this consternation.) Then he ‘came out’ in open support of so-called “gay marriage”, and I had to push away from the table before did more than just FEEL ill….

    Anyway, I have a good friend who’s a savvy researcher and student of biblical topics who’s latched onto this whole ‘dust of the rabbi’, and yoke=rabbi’s package of teaching thing. He’s become quite invested in and animated by it. And while I have long been an avid student of everything I can discover about the CONTEXT of Jesus in His (earthly) time, and of the early church (and would therefore usually relish such a ‘new discovery as this’, if it were true), I’ve never heard even a whisper of any of this ‘dust of the rabbi’/yoke stuff. My friend insists he sees it EVERYWHERE as he examines the history of the time, etc.

    While I can’t quite put my finger on the WHY, as I’ve ruminated on the ‘dust of the rabbi’ idea, I get this vague, uneasy feeling that the core of this teaching somehow cheapens and diminishes the uniqueness of Jesus, and the profound majesty of who He was/is. I wish I could grasp more clarity on why because as I struggle to explain it — but do so poorly — it has created friction between my friend and me.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who finds it difficult to accept such an unfamiliar and history-changing theory upon the apparently flimsy ‘evidence’ I’ve seen…

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