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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  • Nick G

    it’s a sign that we should be spending more time teaching people in our churches how to think

    Hmm. That would be very risky – they might actually start doing so!

  • Rudy Schellekens

    Enjoyable read! Nice to read someone making same arguments for/against some of these habits! Abba = Daddy has been a personal affront for years. When Abraham and others fall on their face, seeing God – and here we have people talking about jumping in His arms, and sitting on His lap??

    Mary and the Samaritan woman are in the same predicament. Bad reputation based on gossip through the ages, I guess.

  • Walter Hudson

    interesting blog except for not adressing just who is doing the framing: this “we” who tells these fibs is not us, but rather the historical and cultural apparatus of the church whose mess we inherited,
    yes the “legend makers”, who allow approximations of the story to seep in and become part of the acceptable whole. And extend it to those who feel too damn comfortable with these lies.
    In 35+ years as an adult christian I have never told these fibs as pastor, teacher or chaplain, mostly because I went to seminary and listened to the text.
    Point by point here is why these 3 fibs have entered the western christian mainstream:
    1. the general meme of “jesus changed me” was reverse engineered to fit Saul/Paul, and folks were encouraged by our greco-friendly leadership to accept that Jesus had commanded Saul to drop the jewish thing and embrace his greco Paul-ness. Why? because as you read Acts and later the Epistles you see Saul/Paul go deeper into the grecoRoman world; inside the church he went as either but to press his identity as a Roman citizen (in the last 8 chapters he uses this 3 times to stay out of prison and gain a hearing with the local magistrates) but he does it to advance the cause of the Gospel of Jesus. However, the collectors of the texts in the following centuries “smerged” his identity to follow the separation from our Jewish following the two Jewish-Roman wars and the chiasm between the synagogue and church that followed. see Amy Jill Levine for hints on how to counterattack!
    2. sure some folks are unhappy with the free translation of Abba with Daddy, especially those with oedipal complexes, but if you read Jeremias’ responses to Barr and Shelbert you will see that his emphasis for the use of the term (which reappears four times in the letters) is not cloying affection but intimacy within a household/home. for me it was brought home when i was finally (in my 30s!) able to talk with my father face=to=face about Important Stuff and find the person behind the persona. I remember that whenever I really need to get real with the Lord and it helps
    3. the confusion of Mary of Magdala with a prostitute is a pathetic mix of Roman Catholic mythmaking of the 4-6th century (the “either a whore or a madonna” complex) with the popularization of this meme via the Victorian Brits desire to sanctify their need to control sex workers through the means of evangelical “outreach”. it has been debunked so many times i have lost count yet it continues as a cultural commonplace
    Walter in San Jose CA
    PS have you shared why you chose John A. T. Robinson’s famous title for your blog? love to hear it

  • cgosling

    How soon we forget that the bible was not written by the claimed “god inspired” authors. The scriptures are a result of arguments, voting, copying errors and contrary interpretations by error prone humans. There is nothing infallible about it. Nevertheless, we must ask ‘Who has the right to indoctrinate children into a particular religion if not their parents or legal guardians? I was indoctrinated into Christianity as a child, but as I discovered science, I also rejected the actual existence of Santa and supernatural religious beliefs. Humans must be free to accept or reject religion for themselves and their children. Hopefully children will grow up to reject the supernatural and use reason and science to guide themselves in life.

  • ashpenaz

    Abba not Daddy? Mamma Mia! 🙂

  • Rudy Schellekens

    I love it when people like you make such statements with a 100% conviction that you are right! Not only about the background of the bible, but how science seems to contradict the bible… And that science is the only answer.
    You are INDOCTRINATED that science is the one and only truth. Hopefully, you will find some people that will be able to help you out of that mistaken notion

  • Linda Coleman Allen

    Thank you for such an interesting article. I occasionally correspond with a friend who is a retired UMC minister. I must pass this on to her just to see what she has to say!

  • Linda Coleman Allen

    Actually, science is proving the existence of some stories in the Bible. I hope that you will allow your children to have an open mind.

  • Jayson, your blog is inaccurate and I only got to the first fib.

    “As the legend goes”…At that moment Saul was blinded, converted, and his identity was changed to Paul, the apostle.”
    If you call this account from the bible a “legend”, then you probably should not bother reading the bible. Fairy tales are for children.
    The bible does not say his identity was changed at that time.
    In fact The Lord refers to him as Saul.

    Acts 9:4 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” but later,
    Acts:13:9 Then Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit.
    Plenty of time between these versus to note the change.

  • Nick G

    Science isn’t needed to prove “the existence of some stories in the Bible”. We can just read it, and see that it contains stories. Which of these stories are intended to be factual, historical accounts is a matter for textual criticism. Science can sometimes throw light on which of those so intended are actually historically accurate – and for those where it provides an answer (often it does not, the relevant facts are simply unrecoverable), that answer is “very few”.

  • Nick G

    Science doesn’t know everything. Religion doesn’t know anything.

  • Lark62

    Archeology can locate places. It cannot “prove” that the events reported to have occurred actually happened.

    In the same way, proving the existence of Kings Cross Station does not prove the events associated with Harry Potter.

    And I encourage my kids to read the bible. This is usually met with a puzzled “Do people actually believe this? You’re joking.”

  • Mr. James Parson

    How about the oldest complete versions of the Bible date from the 4th century. Lots of time for editing and errors.

  • kebilfree

    You should have read the entire article

  • The NT was canonized by John before he died.

  • Clay Anderson

    Um, Bob. You entirely missed the point of the article.

  • Which was?

  • Jon-Michael Ivey

    As a Roman Citizen by birth, Shaul would have been registered with the Roman authorities using a Roman name, or at least a Greek one that Romans could pronounce and decline. Paulus was a common Latin and Paullos a common Greek name. Shaul contained a phoneme that neither Greeks nor Romand could pronounce.

  • Fellow Dying Inmate

    Excellent. Thank you!