Friday, August 21, 2009

Misconceptions About Biblical Content

Misconceptions about the content of the Bible seem to be widespread within the world of Christianity and society in general. This common lack of knowledge about what the Bible actually says is something that I have always found ironic among Christians. Many Christians, of course, believe that the Bible is the Word of God – the literal words of the literal God of the universe to all of humanity so that we can know and worship God. If they truly believe that about the Bible, one would expect that they would be literally gobbling the Bible up. I know I would be. Yet many Christians seem profoundly uninformed about the content of the Bible. Most of what they know about the Bible they have absorbed through worship services, Sunday School, and pop culture. It sometimes seems that many Christians don’t spend much time actually reading the Bible.

This, of course, isn’t meant as a universal condemnation of all Christians – there are plenty of Christians who read and are knowledgeable about the Bible. But it seems that the majority probably spend very little time in Bible study and harbor many misconceptions about what the stories of the Bible actually say. There are no doubt many reasons for this, the primary being that a lot of Christians are only “in it for the prize.” They aren’t that concerned with actually becoming educated Christians, following the lifestyle of the man they call Lord; instead they just want their free ticket to heaven.

Whatever the various reasons, it seems apparent that many Christians have profound misconceptions about the content of the Bible. I would like to look at a few of the more prominent ones.


If you were to ask Christians to describe the setting of the birth of Jesus, you would no doubt receive a hodgepodge of stories about angels, shepherds, wise men, frankincense, mangers, Bethlehem, cattle, and perhaps even a little boy with a drum. Regardless of the precise variety of answers you received, one element that I am certain would be present in just about every account would be that of the stable.

Jesus was born in a stable. Everyone knows that, right? We see it in our nativity scenes. We see it in our church plays. We hear references to it in our Christmas sermons and our Christmas songs. Together with the manger and the city of Bethlehem, it is perhaps the most recognizable aspect of the Christmas story.

Some readers may be surprised to discover that there is not a single mention, in the entire Bible, about Jesus being born in a stable.

Only the Gospel writers of Matthew and Luke mention the details of Jesus’ birth. In neither of these accounts is there any mention of a stable. Matthew tells us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and says that when the eastern Magi came to see Jesus, they visited him in a house there in Bethlehem. It is not made clear exactly when the Magi came – right at the time of the birth, or several months later. Either way, the only mention of a specific location is the house of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem where the Magi came to see the baby.

Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph traveled to a crowded Bethlehem to register for a census. Mary and Joseph had no place to stay (“there was no room for them in the inn”). So, Luke tells us, they placed the newborn Jesus “in a manger.” A manger, of course, is a feeding trough.

This image of the feeding trough is what has led to the idea of Jesus being born in a stable. Stables, however, would not have existed within the city limits in the ancient world. The Jews in particular were very concerned about uncleanness. In the 1st century, for instance, graveyards were not permitted to the west of Jerusalem because the winds blew predominately from that direction and would blow the uncleanness of death onto the city. Sacrificial animals were kept in small pens or stalls in the Temple, but cattle and beasts of burden were kept outside the city limits. Even today, how many stables do you typically find within the city limits of a town? Cattle are kept on farms, where they can graze in the fields. The idea of a stable behind a city inn in ancient Bethlehem simply does not make sense in context.

What does make sense in context is that of a roadside feeding trough. Within city limits, feeding and watering troughs were frequently placed on the roadside along city streets, where animals could be refreshed.

Flowers now adorn the feeding trough in front of this ancient Jewish structure

Like cowboys in the Old West, ancient Jews would tie their donkeys up in front of a city building where the animal could eat and drink.

More than likely, this is the image implicit in Luke’s statement that they laid Jesus “in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” Joseph and Mary, by Luke’s account, were camped out on the sidewalk, with their new baby lying in an emptied out feeding trough, because the lodging places were all full.

That doesn’t quite have the same charm we have come to love in the nativity setting inside a stable, but the roadside setting is the one implied by Luke’s account.


Another famous story from the Gospels is the account of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane prior to his arrest and subsequent crucifixion. Again, like in the birth scenario above, if you polled Christians and asked them to describe what happens in this scene, you will likely get a hodgepodge of answers involving sleeping disciples and groups of torch-bearing Roman soldiers. Most would no doubt also include the image of Jesus praying so earnestly that he literally sweat blood.

First of all, the place is called “Gethsemane” in only Mark and Matthew. Luke identifies the location of the prayer and subsequent arrest as the “Mount of Olives.” John, on the other hand, does not include the scene with Jesus praying fervently while the disciples sleep. Instead, Jesus prays with all of his disciples at the table of the Last Supper, then leaves and crosses the Kidron Valley to an olive grove, where he is arrested. These different accounts are consistent, however, because “Gethsemane” is derived from an Aramaic word that meant “oil press” and John’s olive grove clearly connects to Luke’s Mount of Olives. Furthermore, John mentions that the area was a place frequented by Jesus and his companions, and many stories from the Gospels take place at the Mount of Olives. It is interesting to note, however, that the actual phrase “Garden of Gethsemane” does not exist in any Biblical text.

The modern Garden of Gethsemane

Secondly and more importantly, is the question about the sweating of blood. Only Luke includes this story. Matthew and Mark assert that Jesus was praying earnestly, but include no account of sweating blood.

I recall seeing images of Jesus’ anguish in Sunday School art when I was a child. Instead of drops of sweat, little beads of blood stood out on Jesus’ forehead, foreshadowing the blood that would drip from his head later when the Roman soldiers fitted him with a crown of thorns.

In recent years, I have read Christian apologetics arguing that the sweating of blood in extreme moments of stress is biologically possible and has been medically observed. Though rare, this condition even has a name: hematohidrosis. Under extreme stress (such as impending death situations), people have been known to sweat blood. It usually occurs in folks with high blood pressure. Faced with a traumatic crisis, small blood vessels near the surface of the skin can contract and begin to hemorrhage. Since sweat glands activate during high stress events, if these vessels are near sweat glands, the blood can mix with the sweat, giving the appearance of sweating blood.

This has been used to argue that Luke’s account of Jesus sweating blood is historically accurate, since the ancient world certainly had no concept of the medical condition known as hematohidrosis. I have also seen it used to support the authorship of Luke’s Gospel – tradition attributes the text to Luke, a companion of Paul mentioned in several of Paul’s letters. In one of these letters, Paul mentions that Luke is a doctor. Apologists have argued that the issue of Jesus sweating blood would have been of interest to Luke, since he was a medical professional. This, according to the argument, is the reason why only Luke mentions the event.

The problem, however, is that Luke doesn’t actually say Jesus sweat blood, which makes all the arguments above rather moot. Instead, Luke says: “…his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.”

Luke is simply writing descriptively in this passage. He is using a basic middle school descriptive technique – a simile, likening Jesus’ sweat to blood. Jesus was sweating so greatly because of his earnest praying that his sweat was like big drops of blood. There is nothing in this passage to imply that Jesus was actually sweating blood itself.

Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, the verse in question does not even exist in the earliest manuscript fragments of the Gospel of Luke. Many modern English translations, such as the NIV and NRSV, even mention this in footnotes. It appears to be a later addition to Luke’s original text, added perhaps by an overzealous scribe wanting to embellish the story and make it more dramatic and descriptive.

In the end, whether the verse is original to Luke’s Gospel or not, the story does not tell us that Jesus sweat blood. Instead, it simply makes a descriptive simile, comparing Jesus’ sweat to great drops of blood.


The Ten Commandments are the foundational list of rules for both Jews and Christians around the world. They are to the Judeo-Christian tradition what the Noble Eight-Fold Path is to Buddhist tradition. While many Christians would perhaps struggle to name all ten off the top of their head, most could probably provide at least five or six at a moment’s notice. Don’t kill, don’t covet, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t lie, and so on.

The Ten Commandments frequently have caused divisions in society in recent decades. Court battles have been waged over posting the Ten Commandments in courthouses and on other government buildings and properties. The list has become a defining part of the battle over the separation of church and state. Proponents will argue that the list is “non-denominational” and simply provides a moral standard that most people – Christian or otherwise – can agree with. Opponents argue that it is an entrenched part of a specific religious tradition, and our constitution disallows the government to support one religion over another.

But is the list familiar to us as the “Ten Commandments” actually the heavenly-ordained list of rules given by God to Moses and ultimately everyone on earth?

There is no question, of course, that the list most Christians know as the Ten Commandments exists in the Old Testament. Both Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 give more or less identical lists of these commandments. What many Christians don’t realize is that these commandments were later done away with and replaced by God.

Many Christians are familiar with the story of Moses breaking the first set of tablets that God gave him. This is a story frequently told in Sunday School classes and parodied in comedies like Mel Brooks’ “History of the World Part I.”

Exodus chapter 32 tells us that when Moses saw that the Israelites had built a golden idol in the form of a calf, he threw the tablets to the ground and destroyed them in anger. Later, in chapter 34, Moses is instructed to replace the broken tablets and bring them to God so that God can re-inscribe them.

What most people don’t realize is that when God replaced the tablets Moses had broken, he changed the commandments too.

The new commandments could not have been more different than the first set. In order, they go as follows:

1. Do not worship any other God.

2. Do not make a treaty with any foreigners in Canaan (i.e., the Promised Land).

3. Do not make idols out of metal.

4. Celebrate the Feast of the Unleavened Bread in the month of Abib (March-April).

5. The firstborn son belongs to God, including firstborn males of livestock. When you sacrifice your firstborn male donkey, you can get a lamb in return. If you don’t sacrifice your firstborn male donkey, break its neck. All firstborn sons should be given to God (into the priesthood).

6. Rest on the seventh day of the week.

7. Celebrate the Feast of Weeks during the wheat harvest and celebrate the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year. Also, all men should go to Jerusalem three times each year.

8. When sacrificing, do not mix blood and yeast and do not let any sacrificial food from the Passover feast remain until morning.

9. The first blooming of any crops must be sacrificed to God.

10. Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.

When you compare this list to the other one, the differences are pretty stark. Nothing about lying, stealing, murdering, coveting, committing adultery, etc. This is a very “Jewish” list, reflecting the strict orthodoxy of the post-Exilic period. In early eras, the Jews had the original Ten Commandments tradition. Time passed. Theological ideas evolved. The Jews were eventually conquered and sent into exile in Babylon. “New” commandments were envisioned, commandments designed to protect Jewish tradition and Jewish unity in the face of assimilation with Gentile Babylonian culture. Thus, the story of Moses breaking the original tablets and receiving new commandments from God was born and added to the developing textual tradition.

That’s all academic scholarship, however. The fact remains that the book of Exodus gives us two lists of the Ten Commandments. The first list was broken and therefore made invalid; so God gave Moses a second list. Yet Christians tend not only to focus on the first list, but many don’t even realize that second list exists.

The reason, of course, why the second list is largely ignored in Christian tradition is because of its stark Jewishness. It deals almost entirely with Jewish law and tradition – laws and traditions that Christians no longer follow. Why the laws and traditions of the earlier list are not also rejected as part of the Mosaic tradition Christians don’t follow is anyone’s guess. I would argue, however, that it is because Christian tradition has kept the parts of the Old Testament that are palatable to modern sensibility, and rejected the rest as invalidated by the resurrection of Jesus.


I have written before about issues surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion. Most Christians, if asked to describe the method of Jesus’ death, would tell you that he was nailed to a cross.

The very idea that Jesus’ death did not involve being nailed to a cross may seem to border on outright heresy. If there is anything that all Christians understand, it is that Jesus was nailed to a cross, died, and was resurrected on the third day.

I am not here to argue that Jesus was not crucified. I certainly believe he was. Instead, I simply wish to point out that no text in the New Testament ever tells us that Jesus was nailed to his cross.

None of the accounts of the crucifixion describe how Jesus was affixed to the cross. The accounts simply tell us that he “was crucified.” The Gospel of John, however, describes a resurrection scene that appears nowhere else, wherein Thomas demands to see the nail marks in Jesus’ hands (but not his feet). This, clearly, implies that Jesus was nailed to his cross, at least at the hands.

This story, however, comes in a resurrection scene, and seems to be directed at 1st century skeptics who argued that whoever it was that the disciples thought they saw, it was not Jesus. This story contradicts that skepticism – it says the disciples saw the wounds in Jesus’ hands, so it must have been Jesus and not an imposter.

There is a lot of debate in historical circles about how crucifixion was carried out in the ancient world. The Romans did not invent the practice; they got it from the Greeks, who appear to have taken it from the Persians. Sources from these ancient civilizations rarely describe how crucifixion was carried out, but when they do give a description, it usually involves tying the victim to the cross, not nailing them. In fact, there is no known account of a victim being nailed to a cross until the Jewish-Roman war of 66-70 C.E. The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that during this war, the Romans not only crucified thousands of people, but they even nailed some of them to their crosses, as a sort of vicious joke. The implication is that this was an uncommon and unheard of act of brutality.

Added to this is the fact that only one body of a crucifixion victim has ever been identified. This body, discovered in 1968 and dated to the 1st century, had a spike still sticking through the heel, but no obvious wounds to the hands, implying that the victim was nailed by the feet, but hung at the hands by rope. One has to wonder if this is not one of the crucifixion victims referred to by Josephus.

Either way, no other ancient crucifixion victim has ever been identified. If nails were commonly used in crucifixion, one would expect ancient bones to turn up now and then showing evidence of nailing. If crucifixion, on the other hand, was more commonly carried out with ropes, no physical evidence would exist in ancient bones – which would explain why only one ancient crucifixion victim has ever been identified.

Written several decades after the atrocity of the Romans nailing victims to crosses, it is easy to see why the writer of John presupposes that Jesus was nailed to his cross. By then, it would have been widely known that the Romans used nails in crucifixion. However, people such as the writer of John may not have realized that the Romans did not start this practice of nailing people to crosses until the Jewish war of the late 60’s – forty years after Jesus’ own crucifixion.

That the Romans would not have typically used nails for crucifixion makes sense in context. The Romans were nothing if not practical administrators. To use good and precious iron on a crucifixion victim would have been a wasteful extravagance. Crucifixion was reserved for the worst of criminals; it was considered the lowest and most inhumane form of execution. It had that reputation because it was humiliating (victims were usually crucified naked after being beaten), and it was a slow, torturous, excruciating death by suffocation (pressure on the diaphragm, caused by the unnatural angle of the limbs, would hinder and eventually halt respiration). Ancient accounts tell us that the Romans executed tens of thousands of people this way. It would have been too costly and too time consuming to use nails in these crucifixions.

So while we know that nailing was sometimes involved in crucifixion, and we know specifically that Romans nailed crucifixion victims in the late 60’s C.E., the wealth of information we have on this ancient practice implies strongly that crucifixion most commonly involved using rope, not nails. Added to that is the fact that none of the New Testament’s crucifixion accounts mention nails. Among the Gospels, only one Gospel – the latest to be written – gives any implication of nails being used in the crucifixion, and that was written in a resurrection account, not the actual crucifixion account. Finally, there is the fact that Jesus’ crucifixion would not have been anything special to the Romans carrying it out – it was just another execution like thousands of others they had performed. There would have been no reason, therefore, for them to break with custom and use nails with Jesus instead of ropes.

Thus, there is very little reason to suppose, either historically or even Biblically, that Jesus was actually nailed to his cross.

Most of the above, however, is historical analysis and interpretation. The fact remains that John’s Gospel does say, albeit in a resurrection account, that Jesus was nailed – at least in the hands – to his cross. Therefore, is it fair for me to say that the idea of Jesus being nailed to his cross is a “misconception” among Christians about Biblical content?

From one perspective, no. If a Christian believes Jesus was nailed to his cross, he or she can certainly support that by pointing to the Doubting Thomas story. So it is not the same, for instance, as the issue with the stable described above.

However, we already know that John gets some of his facts wrong – or, at least, his facts contradict many of those in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John, for instance, says explicitly that “Jesus carried his own cross” up to the place of resurrection. The other Gospels, however, all say explicitly that Jesus’ cross was carried by Simon of Cyrene, because Jesus was not able to carry it. John’s wording (“carrying his own cross”) almost sounds designed to contradict those earlier Gospel accounts that depict Jesus as being too weak to carry it himself. John’s Jesus was not weakened at all. And that depiction of Jesus being strong even in the face of death is carried on through John’s execution account. Unlike the earlier Gospels, Jesus does not openly “suffer” on his cross in the book of John. Instead, he ties up his personal matters by putting his mother into the care of one of his disciples, and then after asking for a drink, he dies with dignity. Compare that to Mark, for instance, where Jesus cries out to God “Why have you forsaken me!” and then gives another “loud cry” before dying. Remember, too, that John did not include the scenes included in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, where Jesus is praying in earnestness and fear in the Garden of Gethsemane. John’s Jesus, unlike those found in the other Gospels, is supremely confident, powerful, and calm all throughout his passion story.

Referring again to the contradiction between John and the other Gospels about Jesus carrying his cross, is it not also possible that John got his facts wrong when he presupposed that Jesus had been nailed, and not tied, to his cross? It seems likely, given the historical, contextual, and textual background.

Other misconceptions abound regarding Jesus’ crucifixion. I recently had a Christian tell me, for instance, that Jesus was beaten with a cat o’ nine tails on his way up to the hill where he was crucified.

While it is true that the Gospels depict Jesus as being beaten, none of the accounts mention a whip of any kind, and instead say that Jesus was beaten with fists and with a staff. Furthermore, none of the depicted beatings happen on the journey to the place of crucifixion. Finally, the place of crucifixion is never called a hill or a mound or a mountain or anything other than simply a “place.”


The problem that leads to misconceptions about Biblical content is twofold: first, many Christians frequently don’t actually read their Bibles; and second, they instead get much of their information by absorbing it through popular culture – television, movies, music, etc.

We imagine, for instance, three wise men on camels, a star, a stable, shepherds, angels singing in the heavens, and the baby Jesus surrounded by lowing cattle. Those images are conglomerations of two different accounts, effectively creating a third account that does not actually exist, and incorporating details that are wrong (for instance, the Bible never tells us how many wise men there were, says nothing about camels or cattle, and of course also doesn’t mention a stable). We also imagine Jesus being whipped, spit on, and jeered as he proceeds uphill through the gathered angry mob to his place of crucifixion, where he his nailed to a cross.

Many of these sorts of images come from art and pop culture, not the Bible.

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