Three Fibs We Keep Telling about the New Testament

Three Fibs We Keep Telling about the New Testament April 5, 2018

It’s time we shook off some of the myths that we’re regularly taught in the church. Don’t worry; I’m not talking about prominent doctrines. I’m just talking about the funny little fibs we’ve heard so often that we simply accept them as being scripturally accurate.

1. Jesus didn’t change Saul’s name to Paul

As the legend goes, Saul—the maniacal persecutor of Christians—was on his way to Damascus when Jesus knocked him into the dirt. At that moment Saul was blinded, converted, and his identity was changed to Paul, the apostle.

Most of that’s true—except the name change (and probably the horse). I get it. If you keep hearing pastors tell you that it happened, it’s easy to believe. I mean, it’s not like there isn’t a precedent for dramatic name changes. There is that time Jesus did that DMV miracle, changing the name on Simon’s driver’s license to Peter.

But Saul is still called Saul after his conversion. When Ananias draws the short straw and has to go minister to the scary new convert, he uses the name Saul:

Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 9:17)

Grab a concordance, and you’ll find Saul referenced quite a few more times. In fact, when the Holy Spirit sends him out on his first missionary journey, she uses the name Saul:

While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said,“Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” (Acts 13:2)

You’d assume that sending the guy out for his first trip as an evangelist/church planter would have been a poignant time for a dramatic name change—but it doesn’t happen. It could be that the Trinity has a terrible HR department and the request for a name change is still sitting on someone’s desk.

We don’t see him start using the name Paul until he’s outside of Jerusalem, and the reason is not very dramatic. Paul, like many people in the first century, was known by two names. To the Jews he was Saul, and to the Gentiles, he was known as Paul, from the Latin Paulus. That’s why Luke tells us:

Then Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked straight at Elymas and said. . . (Acts 13:9)

It’s the same name. When Jesus changed Peter’s name, it was a dramatic revision of his identity. In Saul’s case, it would have been as anticlimatic as Jesus changing a Spanish guy’s name from Mateo to Matthew*.

2. Abba doesn’t mean “daddy”

One popular piece of New Testament folklore is the idea that Jesus used a term for God that a small child might use for their papa. “Abba,” we’re often told, is a more casual but deeply intimate term that’s comparative to “daddy.”

I have to admit that the idea goes down like a warm cup of cocoa on a cold night in November, but it’s probably not true.

The origin of this tidbit seems to be a 1971 book by Joachim Jeremias entitled New Testament Theology. Jeremias calls abba “the chatter of a small child.” And goes on to claim that it was “disrespectful, indeed unthinkable to the sensibilities of Jesus’ contemporaries to address God with this familiar word.”

Contemporaries latched onto this idea, and it seemed to grow. By the time it hit pulpits, it was the kind of word a child uses while sitting on their father’s lap lovingly stroking his beard.

Like a lot of extra-biblical things that church members believe. The origin of this idea is the equivalent of a game of telephone. Someone draws a conclusion about a word in an ancient language, and then, as it’s passed from pulpit to pulpit, it gets sensationalized and trivialized.

The truth is that even Jeremias’ interpretation was challenged relatively early on. In an essay from 1981, professor Georg Schelbert (University of Fribourg) challenged Jeremias:

In the Aramaic language of the time of Jesus, there was absolutely no other word available if Jesus wished to speak of or address God as father. Naturally such speaking of and addressing thereby would lose its special character, for it is then indeed the only possible form!

An essay by James Barr in the Journal of Theological Studies confirmed this interpretation. Of abba, Barr said, “If the New Testament writers had been conscious of the nuance ‘Daddy’ they could easily have expressed themselves so; but in fact they were well aware that the nuance is not that of ‘Daddy’ but of ‘father’.”

3. Mary Magdalene wasn’t a prostitute

Imagine if you played a prominent role in Christ’s ministry. Even better, imagine that it was you he chose to reveal himself to after his resurrection. But every time you’re mentioned for millennia afterward, you’re referred to as “the former prostitute”—even though you never were. That would seriously suck.

If Mary Magdalene is among our great cloud of witnesses, she has to be so friggin annoyed by now.

Magdalene is mentioned about a dozen times in the New Testament. And if any biblical character passes the Bechdel test, it’s her. She doesn’t exist in the New Testament as someone’s mother, sister, or wife. She’s just Mary from Magdala—a prominent follower of Jesus. And when the disciples all scatter after the crucifixion, she’s there, still faithfully tending to him.

It seems that Mary has become associated with the woman in Luke 7 who washes Jesus’ feet with her hair. And this association has stuck even though it never identifies this woman as Mary or even identifies the woman as a prostitute.

The connection gets made when people confuse Mary of Bethany (the sister of Lazarus) with Magdalene. Mary of Bethany also anoints Jesus’ feet with oil (and her hair) in John 12. Maybe the fact that Mary of Magdala also carries perfume to anoint Jesus’ dead body makes her guilty by association?

The only thing we know about Mary of Magdalene’s past is that she had seven demons cast out of her (Luke 8:2). But the assumption that this has to do with sexual sin or promiscuousness is maddening. It’s just as likely that she had a physical or mental illness. Frankly, it seems that we can’t help but sexualize women in the Bible. While we see men as capable of a variety of sins, women, on the other hand, are reduced to seductresses and harlots.

In 1969, the Vatican went out of the way to publicly denounce the idea that Mary was a prostitute, but for some reason, evangelicals can’t seem to let the idea go.

Why do these things matter?

It’s easy to look at these things and say, “These aren’t doctrinal issues. Why do they matter?” I think it matters for a couple of reasons.

Anyone with a Bible can check two of these fibs. That means that they’re being passed around as legends by pastors, authors, and teachers whose job it is to say, “Let me double check that.” On top of that, these ideas are perpetuated by people in the pews who shouldn’t be passively soaking up everything they’re told.

The cumulative effect of passing legends off as truth is dramatic. And it’s a sign that we should be spending more time teaching people in our churches how to think instead of just filling their minds with things we’ve heard other preachers tell us. Learning how to think is the way people renew their minds—it can’t be merely a matter of filling their minds with other people’s content.

*Dear critics, I know that Saul isn’t to Paul what Matthew is to Mateo. I kind of said it more for comedic effect than linguistic accuracy (and I like it enough that I’m not removing it).

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