Tuesday, June 25, 2013

10 Common Biblical Misconceptions

1. Jesus was born in a stable.

Only two biblical writers mention Jesus' birth, and one of those - the writer of Matthew - tells us that Jesus was born in a house.  This makes sense because for Matthew, Jesus and his family lived in Bethlehem.  It was only much later, according to Matthew, that the family moved to Nazareth.

Luke is the biblical author who tells us the family lived in Nazareth and only traveled to Bethlehem, where Jesus was ultimately born.

However, even Luke doesn't mention a stable.

Luke tells us only that Mary gave birth in Bethlehem, and because the guest houses were all full, she had to lay her newborn in a feeding trough.

This statement could imply a stable, but a brief study of historical setting suggests otherwise.  In 1st century urban Judea, animals would have been either tied along the street (where mangers were frequently erected), or kept in the courtyard of larger homes and buildings.  There wouldn't have actually been a stable - at least nothing like what our religious art, plays, and songs like to imagine.

2. Moses wrote the Torah

The Torah, also called the Law of Moses or the Pentateuch, is made up of the first five books of the Old Testament - Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

And Moses didn't write any of it.

Despite both Jewish and Christian tradition attributing these books to Moses, historians have actually identified at least four different authorial strands within these books, with each strand representing not just a different historical era, but even more than one author within each strand.  And none of the strands is as early as the life of the historical Moses, who probably lived three hundred years or more before the first word of the Torah was ever written.

3. The gospels were written by the disciples of Jesus

Although this is a common belief among Christians, even Christian tradition only attributes two of the four gospels to actual disciples of Jesus - Matthew and John.  The books of Mark and Luke have always been attributed to men who never knew Jesus: Mark, the one-time companion of Paul and later secretary of Peter, and Luke, a missionary companion of Paul and also his personal physician.

However, even the gospels of Matthew and John were not actually written by the disciples known as Matthew and John.

Historians date Matthew to sometime during the 80's CE, and John about a decade later, near the turn of the second century.  This means both gospels were written more than fifty years after Jesus died, with John closer to seventy years.  The likelihood that any of Jesus's companions were still alive and lucid enough to write deeply theologically-developed books in highly literate Greek is virtually non-existent.  In fact, the chances that any of Jesus's poor, rural disciples were literate at all, even in their own native language of Aramaic, is highly unlikely, much less in the Greek language in which the gospels were written.

4. The Third Commandment refers to using God's name as a curse word

In the familiar King James Version, the Third Commandment tells us not to "take the name of the Lord thy God in vain."

Despite widespread belief that this verse is talking about the use of God's name as a swear or curse, it is actually referring to hypocrisy.

The original Hebrew phrase "take in vain" means to accept something falsely.  (Source: Biblical Hebrew Lexicon.)

Thus, the commandment warns against falsely accepting the name of God - that is, it warns against claiming to be Godly when you aren't really Godly.  It's a prohibition against hypocrisy.  It has nothing to do with speaking certain exclamations.

5. The Bible teaches that humans either go to heaven or hell when they die

In the Old Testament, hell does not exist at all, and heaven is simply the place where God and God's retinue live, not a place where humans go after death.  Instead, for these ancient Jewish writers, human beings simply enter the grave upon death.

In essence, there is no afterlife in the theology of the Old Testament.

By the time the New Testament was written, afterlife theology of heaven and hell had become common within Judaism, and these beliefs therefore made their way into early Christianity as well.  However, according to the various writers of the New Testament (especially Paul and the writers of 2 Peter and Revelation), heaven and hell await us not at death, but at the end of time.

At death, we humans simply go into the grave.  There we stay until the end of time, when we are resurrected into new life.  At that point, we either get cast into hell, or we are invited to live eternally on a renewed earth.  As such, humans don't actually go to heaven in New Testament theology either.  Instead, they are raised into new life to live in God's kingdom here on earth.  Essentially, heaven comes to earth instead of humans going to heaven.

6. God is judgmental and vindictive in the Old Testament, but loving and kind in the New

It may be true that "God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow," but human concepts of God are always changing, and that is as much true in the Bible as it is today.  The fact is, God is given both positive and negative attributes throughout both the Old and New Testaments.

For instance, in Psalm 86, God is described as "compassionate," "gracious," and "abounding in love."  In the prophetic writings of Hosea, God is said to "love freely."  In the book of 1 Chronicles, God's love is said to "endure forever."  In fact, throughout the Old Testament, God is routinely described as loving, faithful, merciful, and forgiving.  God does not banish anyone to hell, but instead is frequently portrayed as long-suffering and perpetually willing to overlook the failures and sins of his people.

In the New Testament, on the other hand, the gospel of Matthew refers multiple times to God damning sinners to hell, the book of Acts includes a scene where God strikes dead two Christians for withholding money from the Christian community, and the entire book of Revelation imagines God as an unspeakably angry deity of retribution and judgment.

7. In the Creation story, God created men first 

Actually, it depends on which creation story you read.  In the familiar creation story from the first chapter of Genesis, where God creates the world in six days, the writer simply tells us that God created "male and female" on the final day.  Neither gender is given priority over the other, and both are said to be created in God's own image.

It is not until the second chapter of Genesis, which consists of a completely different creation story written by a different person living in a different era, that "man" is said to have been created first, and "woman" created in man's image in order to be his "helper."

Scholars of the Bible have recognized for over a century that the account of creation found in the second chapter of Genesis (the story of Adam and Eve) is actually an earlier account than the one found in the first chapter (the six-day creation).  At some point in antiquity, the two stories were merged together onto the same scroll and became the first and second chapters of the books we call Genesis.

8. The Jews crucified Jesus

Though the gospels portray Jewish leaders in Jerusalem conniving to have Jesus arrested and crucified, it is an indisputable fact of history that only the Romans had the authority to detain, judge, sentence, and ultimately carry out the execution of criminals.  The gospels portray Jesus being arrested by Roman soldiers, tried before the Roman governor, sentenced by that same governor to death, and later executed in the Roman style on a Roman cross by Roman soldiers.

Even if one accepts the gospel portrayal of the scheming Jewish leaders as historically accurate (a point that is widely questioned by historians), the Jewish leaders hardly represent the entirety of the Jewish people.  In fact, the gospels portray the Jewish people as rallying around Jesus, following him throughout Galilee and into Jerusalem, and flocking to hear him teach.  Even when one crowd of Jewish people calls for Jesus' crucifixion, it is only because the Jewish leaders "stirred them up" (Mark 15).

Sadly, this misconception of Jews as "Christ-killers" has led to centuries of fierce antisemitism that continues unabated to this day.

9. The Vatican has all the original copies of the books of the New Testament 

No original manuscripts of any of the books of the New Testament still exist today.  With the exception of 2 Peter, the New Testament was written between 50 and 100 CE.  A few papyrus scraps of New Testament texts have turned up dated between 125 and 175 CE, but the oldest complete manuscript of a New Testament book goes back only to about the year 200, or more than a century after the original.  The oldest copy of a complete New Testament is the so-called Codex Sinaiticus, which dates to about 350 CE.

10. Mary Magdalene was a prostitute

Nowhere in the New Testament is Mary Magdalene ever said to have been a prostitute.  She and several other women are noted as followers of Jesus who "cared for his needs," and the writer of Luke states that Mary and the other women helped to finance his ministry.  

Luke also states that Jesus had cured Mary of demon possession, and this appears to be the basis for the belief that Mary was a prostitute.  This idea goes back a long way: Pope Gregory I, who became pope in 590 and is known as Saint Gregory the Great, seems to have been the first to make this suggestion, writing that Mary Magdalene is the unnamed "sinful woman" from the gospel of Luke who anoints Jesus prior to his arrest.  A similar story of anointing takes place in Mark, Matthew, and John as well, but only Luke implies that the woman was a prostitute.  Only John names this woman, and he gives her name as Mary.  This led Gregory to the rather spurious conclusion that the "sinful woman" and Mary Magdalene were one and the same.

Spurious or not, the idea persists.  

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