The following is an excerpt from David Croteau’s recently released volume, Urban Legends of the New Testament. In his Introduction, Croteau defines and illustrates the nature of urban legends and briefly explains how such common misconceptions, or myths, also characterize interpretations of various biblical passages.
In 1876 a whaling ship named Velocity was sailing off the coast of Australia near New Caledonia. Those on board saw some rough water and thought they saw something sandy. They marked the area on their map charts and named the island Sandy Island. After that other map makers saw Velocity’s map, and Sandy Island started making its way into maps. In 2012, if you had looked at the midpoint between Australia and New Caledonia on Google Maps, you would have found the island. A scientist in Australia thought the water was too deep at that location for an island to be present. So he decided to search for the island. But when he arrived at the location, there was no island. The whaling boat in 1876 made a mistake, and everyone afterward has copied the mistake for over 130 years. No one had double-checked Velocity’s map for 130 years. We don’t know how they made the error. Perhaps they were mistaken about their location. Regardless, the island’s existence has become an urban legend. An urban legend is a commonly circulated myth, repeated throughout the culture as common knowledge, but which isn’t true.
Interpretations of certain passages in the New Testament have fallen victim to this. Somehow something false is stated, and it gets heard and passed down without someone checking all the facts. Was there really a gate in Jerusalem called the “Needle Gate” (cf. Mark 10:15)? I’ve heard this preached numerous times. But what is the evidence for this supposed gate?
The New Testament commands us to be “approved to God, a worker who doesn’t need to be ashamed, correctly teaching the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). The question we will be asking is not whether you have heard some of the supposed legends I will be unraveling, because you might have heard the questionable interpretation repeated five, ten, or twenty times! The real question is this: can the interpretation be justified? Is there a good reason this interpretation has been passed down and taught this way?
You may find that I disagree with an interpretation you have heard from your pastor or favorite preacher. This does not, of course, mean they are bad preachers. I am simply disagreeing with their interpretation of a specific passage. In fact, many of the people who have promulgated these legends (and I won’t necessarily tell you who they are) are pastors and scholars I highly appreciate and love. Let’s focus on the correct interpretation of each passage and not on who has taught a legendary interpretation.
About the Author:
David A. Croteau (Ph.D., Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) is professor of New Testament and Greek in the Seminary and School of Ministry at Columbia International University. He is co-editor (with Andreas J. Köstenberger) of Which Bible Translation Should I Use? (B&H Academic, 2013) and author of Tithing after the Cross (Energion, 2013).
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