David Croteau has written a unique book with a sneaky purpose: to teach good hermeneutics. Many hermeneutics textbooks spend hundreds of pages on theory with some examples here and there. But not many books have been written with only examples of good exegesis for the purpose of teaching good exegesis.
This book looks at 40 of what Croteau calls “urban legends” of the NT. From browsing through the table of contents, you will see many urban legends you’ve heard taught or preached in your churches (at least here in America): Hell is (just) the absence of God; money is evil; Christians are commanded to tithe; the Gospel is dynamite; repent means “to change your mind”; the “eye of a needle” was a gate in Jerusalem; agapao-love is a superior love to phileo-love.
These sorts of legends have a way of perpetuating themselves, especially since many of them are passed along as “golden nuggets” that make the Bible more interesting and seem to make people more enlightened when they discover them. Unfortunately, while many of them preach well and seem to enlighten, many of them are less than true, and some are completely false.
So to introduce Croteau’s book, here are five urban legends (or, myths) about the NT you should re-examine, as explained by Croteau.
- The “eye of a needle” was a gate in Jerusalem with a very low opening. This myth says that in order for a camel to get through, it must bow down to its knees, remove its burden, and bow its head. Likewise, the rich must do so to be saved. However, there were no such gates in Jerusalem. Rather, Jesus is speaking of a little needle and using hyperbole, which he frequently does throughout his teachings.
- 1 John 1:9 is a formula for salvation. According to this myth, one must confess one’s sins to be forgiven and saved; if any sins are not confessed, they are not forgiven and one is held in guilt until they are confessed. But this ignores that John’s criterion for salvation is belief, not confession. It also misses the fact that the conditional statements in 1 John 1:5-10 work better as evidence-to-inference conditionals rather than cause-to-effect conditionals.
- John’s Gospel has no concept of repentance. Supposedly, because John’s Gospel has no words for “repentance” or “to repent” in his Gospel, he does not include the concept in the process of salvation. But this is a simple confusion of word and concept. Just because a word does not occur does not mean a related concept is missing. In fact, just after John 3:16, we see that the unbelieving are called such because they have not turned from their wicked ways. In other words, they have not repented.
- Jesus spoke the most famous Bible verse in John 3:16. This myth holds that the red letters in modern Bibles indicate that Jesus spoke John 3:16. The fact that they are Jesus’ words make the verse even more significant. First, it is unlikely Jesus spoke these words. The language is more typical of John, 3:16 would be redundant for Jesus to speak just after he spoke 3:15, and 3:16 speaks of Jesus dying in the past, which makes it more likely for John to have spoken it. In the end, it doesn’t matter who spoke the words, though, they are equally inspired.
- Nobody should judge anybody, ever. Jesus said “you shall not judge” (Matt 7:1), so we can’t judge anyone for their behavior, right? That’s how many people use it, and that’s why many people think Christians are hypocrites. But the word judge used here means to condemn or be severely critical. We are still called to be discerning (wise as serpents), and Matt 18:15-20 even tells us to rebuke fellow Christians when they sin. So Matt 7:1 is only telling us not to have an overly condemning attitude, which is God’s role.
These five urban legends are only a sample of the forty that Croteau discusses. His typical means of argumentation is close attention to literary context, much more than historical context (e.g., citation of second temple Jewish sources). For that reason, this work would be accessible, fun, and effective for beginning Bible students who need to learn how to interpret passages in (their literary) context. I would possibly use this as one of my textbooks in a hermeneutics class, or at least assign part of it.
If you don’t teach, this would also be a fun book to read through. Find some urban legends you’re familiar with, read about them, and have a good source to share with people next time they come up. Hear more about the book in this interview with Croteau below, and find the book on Amazon here.