January 2016 – Shepherds in the Bible were despised, outcasts.
Repent means to change your mind.
Eye of the needle referred to a small gate in the Jerusalem wall.
These errant ideas may come up in a sermon or other discussion, but there is a problem with these interpretations of biblical passages: They are based on misinformation that has little or nothing to do with biblical accuracy.
Instead they are among 40 popular but incorrect teachings on Scripture that Bible scholar David Croteau discusses in a book titled Urban Legends of the New Testament. Croteau is a professor of Greek and New Testament who taught at Liberty University for seven years before coming to his current position at Columbia International University in South Carolina. In his book, he clarifies misguided biblical interpretations that we may have “learned” from Sunday school, the pulpit, or inspirational Christian writing.
The Bible is clear
“I hope people take misconceptions about what the Bible says – their ‘I thought the Bible said this or that’ – and come to the conviction that the Bible is clear and can’t be made to mean anything you want. But you can get it right and have high confidence in understanding,” he told AFA Journal.
Viewing Scripture properly matters because the way it is interpreted informs theology, then evangelism.
“If someone gets the text of Scripture wrong, it definitely impacts the view of God or salvation, and the way of doing evangelism and living the Christian life,” Croteau said, pointing to two examples that illustrate these issues.
▶ Eye of the needle, a matter of theology – “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” (Mark 10:25).
The legend is that “eye of a needle” refers to a gate in Jerusalem so small that a camel had to get on its knees, have all its trappings removed, and crawl with head low in order to fit through. The message presented is that one must be humble and willing to give up everything to be saved.
“The problem with this interpretation is that it says the camel could get through the gate, which would illustrate that being saved is difficult but something man can accomplish,” Croteau explained. “That is the exact opposite of what Jesus was saying, which was that it is impossible for a camel to fit through a needle’s eye, just as it is impossible for any man to save himself. Salvation is impossible apart from the work of God.”
▶ Repent, a matter of turning – “‘Repent,’ Peter said to them, ‘and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’” (Acts 2:38).
The frequent incorrect teaching on this verse is that repentance means a change of mind, because the two parts of the Greek word mean “after” and “thought.” That interpretation implies that repentance does not require turning from sin, only changing what is believed about Jesus.
“The problem is the parts of a word do not always equal what the word means: think of the English word butterfly,” Croteau said. “The right way to define a word is to analyze it in several contexts. The word “repent” occurs over 50 times in the New Testament, and is used to describe changing ways or turning from sin. That does include a change of mind, but that’s not all. Without sharing the concept of turning from sin, people are not going to know the proper response to the gospel. Jesus’ first command in Mark 1:15 was to repent, and it’s important to understand it correctly.”
The Bible is approachable
Arriving at the meaning of Scripture is not a task only New Testament scholars can master. The words of the Bible do not present a mystery that demands a college degree or special art to decipher.
“Most legends about Scripture can be corrected just by reading with care,” Croteau explained. “When people read the Bible carefully and in context, they can get the original meaning communicated by God. Then they can live in obedience to Scripture.”
Croteau gave another example demonstrating the simplicity of discerning reading.
▶ Shepherds, a matter of context – Traditionally, shepherds have been considered outcasts, looked down on and unclean, as would be a prostitute. The announcement of Jesus’ birth to shepherds first is said to show that Jesus came even for the lowliest and most degraded.
“All you have to do is step back – you don’t have to be a scholar to see the legendary teaching is false, if you just pay attention,” Croteau said. “Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus, and pastors are all referred to as shepherds. If you think about the biblical view of shepherds, it is positive throughout Scripture. So why say first century Jews thought poorly of shepherds?
“What happens is people use background information or Greek in a way that doesn’t really fit the context, but allow it to trump context. Context is king. Follow the context: that’s the number one principle for interpretation.”
The Bible can be comprehended
Croteau advised simple steps to ensure reading that properly uses context:
▶ “Never read a single Bible verse; always read the paragraph, chapter, or section under each heading.
▶ “Don’t read the section just once or twice; read four or five times, over and over, day after day.
▶ “Don’t read everything the same way; rules for interpreting the Gospels are different than rules for epistles or Old Testament narratives.
▶ “Use excellent resources and study tools; Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary is free at mywsb.com, bible.org has free study tools, and Journey into God’s Word instructs on biblical interpretation.”
And his final suggestion for clear reading is to ask questions that can help one form a good grasp of doctrine and pinpoint error.
“There is nothing wrong with asking questions,” Croteau said. “Before accusing anyone of being a heretic or losing the faith, make sure to understand what is said, but if someone interprets a passage in a way that changes who God or Jesus is, a red flag needs to go up. The Bible is extremely clear on central doctrines of the gospel.”
Good daily reads for 2016
Start the new year on course for diligent Bible study by choosing a devotional guide that will help understanding, reflection, and staying on track with daily Bible reading. AFAJ staffers recommended some of their favorites:
▶ Randall Murphree: This Day With The Master, Dennis Kinlaw
▶ Rusty Benson: New Morning Mercies, Paul David Tripp
▶ Teddy James/Anne Reed: My Utmost For His Highest, Oswald Chambers
▶ Stacy Long: Take Heart, Diana Wallis
▶ Debbie Fischer: Jesus Calling, Sarah Young
▶ Rebecca Davis: Morning and Evening, C. H. Spurgeon
▶ Nicholas H. Dean: Common Prayer, Shane Claiborne
▶ Urban Legends Of The New Testament by David Croteau bhpublishinggroup.com
▶ How To Read The Bible For All It’s Worth by Gordon D. Fee zondervan.com
▶ Grasping God’s Word and Journey Into God’s Word by Scott Duvall and Daniel Hays zondervan.com
▶ Behold Your God: Rethinking God Biblically 12-week multi-media Bible study afastore.net
▶ Logos Bible Software logos.com/afr (15% discount for AFA: use AFR6 at checkout)
▶ bible.is – the Bible in 1,681 languages