I’m currently working on a project called Urban Legends of the New Testament. The basic goal of this project is to look at commonly misunderstood passages in the New Testament. I’ve worked carefully through about twenty-six of these Legends and I’ve found that three issues are involved in the creation of an urban legend. Identifying these issues can help us teach biblical interpretation better, which is really the underlying goal of this book.
What do I mean by “urban legend”?
There are many myths that circulate in our culture. Sometimes these myths get circulated so often that the culture at large assumes they are true. For example, did George Washington chop down that cherry tree? Or, an urban legend related to church history: did St. Francis of Assisi really say, “Preach the gospel at all time. Use words if necessary”? Probably not.
This happens in certain texts in the New Testament as well. Somehow something false is stated and it gets heard and passed down without someone checking all the facts. For example, was there a gate in Jerusalem called the “Needle Gate” (cf. Mark 10:25)? I’ve heard this preached numerous times. The origin of this Legend is hard to track down. Some scholars trace it back to the fifteenth century, others say the ninth century. It appears that Theophylact (died 1107) advocated it. Regardless, we can be confident that Jesus was not referring to the “Needle Gate” in Mark 10:25.
What has caused these Legends?
I have isolated three issues that give rise to the different Legends. Many times Legends arise from two or three of these issues. Once the problem is discovered, then solutions can be implemented.
1) Context: By context is meant the literary context, the words, verses, paragraphs, and chapters around the Legend being studied. Sometimes the context is simply not studied enough. Sometimes it’s ignored. Other times it is analyzed incorrectly.
2) Greek: The original language the New Testament was written in was Koine Greek. There is a danger in studying Greek just a little, like taking one or two semesters in seminary. Some pastors have a vague knowledge of the language, but they do not know how to use it effectively and correctly in exegesis. Others have no knowledge of Greek and simply ignore it altogether.
3) Backgrounds: This refers to the historical context of the passage: events, culture, society, and items relevant to the original biblical audience. While many times we simply don’t have access to background information that would be helpful in interpreting certain passages, the greater problem is utilizing poor background information.
What is the solution?
1) Context: Read the passage you are interpreting carefully! Read it over and over again. Sometimes I have to read through a passage thirty or forty times before I notice something that should have been obvious.
2) Greek: Learn Greek and use the best, up-to-date resources. I know: easier said than done!
3) Backgrounds: Study the background and use the best background resources. When in doubt over whether the information is relevant to the text being interpreted, use caution.
Where is the main problem?
After mapping out twenty-six Legends, I’ve found that, for the most part, the problem is not paying attention to the context. Sure, knowing Greek and background information can be extremely helpful, but twenty-four of the twenty-six Legends analyzed so far could have been fixed if context was studied more carefully. Here is what the results look like so far:
How the Legend Could Have Been Resolved
Purely context: 8
Mostly context, some Greek: 2
Mostly context, some Backgrounds: 3
Equally context and Greek: 4
Equally context and Backgrounds: 3
Some context, mostly Greek: 4
Purely Greek: 1
Equally Greek and Backgrounds: 1
David Croteau (PhD, The Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Professor of New Testament and Greek at Columbia International University in Columbia, SC. Some of his B&H publications includePerspectives on Tithing: Four Views (B&H Academic, 2011), Which Bible Translation Should I Use? (B&H Academic, 2012), co-authored with Andreas J. Köstenberger, and a forthcoming work entitled Urban Legends of the New Testament (2015).
Check out the links below for previous Aleph and Omega Posts: