Were the shepherds at the birth of Christ really despised, social outcasts? This popular story makes for a great Christmas sermon message, namely that lowly, poor shepherds, having the social reputation equivalent to prostitutes, were given the honorary privilege of giving testimony to the birth of the Messiah. Though well intended, it turns out that this is largely an urban legend.
Evangelical Bible scholar, David Croteau, the Dean of Columbia Biblical Seminary, and author of Urban Legends of the New Testament, acknowledges that many other scholars over the years have commented on the supposed despised nature of 1st century Jewish shepherds, citing sources like Aristotle and the Babylonian Talmud, for support. However, Croteau points out that Aristotle was not a Jew, and lived several hundreds of years before Christ, and the Babylonian Talmud was not produced until several centuries after Christ. Furthermore, British Bible scholar Ian Paul notes that the Babylonian Talmud’s denigration of shepherds might have been shaped more by an anti-Christian polemic, rather than the actual historical context. In other words, these are not the best expert witnesses as to how shepherds were viewed by 1st century Jews.
As it turns out, Croteau cites the best evidence that counterbalances this legend directly from the New Testament itself. Luke 2:18 tells us that “all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them,” when speaking of the appearance of angels. But the people were not amazed by the supposed fact that these were “lowly” shepherds. Rather, they were amazed by what the shepherds were talking about, that of the birth announcement of the Messiah.
Instead, the Bible holds the profession of shepherding in high respect. For example, Genesis 13 notes that Abraham had much livestock, herds, and flocks of sheep. Also, Exodus 3:1 tells us that Moses was a shepherd, and that before David was king, 1 Samuel 17 tells us that David himself was a shepherd. Jesus himself speaks of being “the good shepherd [laying] down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).
True, shepherds were not wealthy, and belonged to the lower class, and thus represented the poor and humble, but they were hardly the social equivalent to prostitutes. With such an established pedigree, from Abraham to David, to ultimately Jesus, the traditional story of the “despised” Bethlehem shepherds simply does not fit the actual data.
How Many Urban Legends Do Christians Continue to Hold?
How about the following urban legend? Ever heard of this one?
Have NASA scientists confirmed a “missing day,” as taught in Joshua 10:12-15?
Most definitely not. But that does not stop a lot of Christians from believing falsehoods like this.
The Urban Legends series of books, regarding “40 Common Misconceptions” of various topics, of interest to students of the Bible, are eye-opening yet really fun reads. For example, in Urban Legends of the Old Testament, scholars and authors David A. Croteau and Gary E. Yates, take on the old NASA/Joshua’s Long Day urban legend. Beginning with a brief paragraph description of what the urban legend is, Croteau and Yates go onto show how even today’s supercomputing technology would have no means of discovering a lost day, thousands of years ago, using astronomical calculations.
However, Croteau and Yates do not stop there, as they give us the latest scholarship to try get at better answers to what the Bible is actually teaching, in some of these difficult Bible passages. Was the miracle at Joshua’s battle, in the Valley of Aijalon, when “the sun stood still,” really a case where God stopped the earth from spinning on its axis, or somehow a divine endorsement of the ancient geocentric view of the solar system, with the earth fixed at its center, with the sun orbiting the earth?
Or was the event a supernatural manipulation of light instead? Or was it an eclipse? I am personally convinced by another possibility advanced by Old Testament scholars, such as John Walton, who contend that the miracle of the sun and moon in alignment was actually an omen, that frightened Joshua’s enemies, which fits in perfectly with the Ancient Near Eastern context of the Old Testament. The standard English translation of that passage in Joshua 10 does not match precisely, but that is because the Hebrew language is heavily dependent on context, more so than modern English. Most Bible translators tend to stick with more traditional readings of certain texts, leaving pastor/teachers in the local churches to explain the nuances of the text to their flocks. Nevertheless, the original Hebrew is flexible enough to support the omen interpretation, which fits better with the ancient context of the Old Testament itself.
This may not matter to most people, as sadly few Christians today actually read and study the Book of Joshua. But skeptics of the Bible will often cite the NASA urban legend, to mock how gullible Christians are, who actually believe the Bible. The Urban Legends series sets matters like this straight. In reading these books, I came away less ashamed of the Bible I love, more confident that the Scriptures actually make good sense, and more excited about sharing what I learn from the Bible with others.
Do You Know Any Urban Legends of the New Testament?
Here is another one, from Urban Legends of the New Testament, by David A. Croteau, the first book in this series: Is “hell” referred to as a first-century garbage dump, just outside of Jerusalem?
A lot of sermons over the years like to convey that story, but it is misleading. The Greek word for “hell” in Mark 9:47, “gehenna,” as claimed by some well-intended Christians, suggests that the Valley of Gehenna, just southwest of the Old City of Jerusalem, was once a burning trash dump. Croteau tells us that this legend goes back to a famous 13th century rabbi, Rabbi David Kimhi, without having any archaeological or literary support. So, this urban legend has been around for centuries! Perhaps Rabbi Kimhi had access to historical sources that contemporary historians lack, but the lack of even archaeological evidence casts significant doubt on the matter. But Croteau does not leave the reader hanging here, but in this succinct chapter, we learn that this same valley was known in Jeremiah’s day (Jeremiah 7:30-34), as a place where followers of Molech would practice child sacrifice, presumably by burning their bodies, something that the ancient Hebrew people rejected as immoral (2 Kings 23:8-10). This understanding of the text more adequately connects the concept of “hell” with something that the first centuries Jews in Jesus day would have immediately recognized as being an unthinkable horror: child sacrifice.
I have already written about the supposed idea that Paul misogynistically forbade women from wearing any jewelry … (SPOILER ALERT: Paul did NOT), and the supposed idea that God hates the lukewarmness of the church, as taught in the Book of Revelation, preferring people to be either on-fire for the Lord (Hot) or being against God (Cold)…. (SPOILER ALERT: That is not what being “lukewarm” means), as well as the misguided notion that agape love is a superior form of love, as compared to phileo love.… (SPOILER ALERT: Sermons that always link “agape” love with God’s unconditional love lead people to misread their Bibles… Just read 2 Samuel 13:1,4 and 2 Timothy 4:10 to be cured of that fallacy). Exposing these urban legends in this book series moves people away from ear-tickling, sound bite theology, towards a meaty, substantial diet of deeply biblical thinking, without having to drudge yourself through a highly technical, academic tome.
There are some humzingers in Urban Legends of the New Testament that I have unknowingly adopted, and sadly, have passed onto others. For example, I was always taught that the “go” of the Great Commission, in Matthew 28:19, as in “go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” really is not a command. Instead, it should be understood as “as you go,” like “as you go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” In other words, Christian do not need to make evangelism and discipleship an intentional part of their Christian practice, according to this urban legend.
Unfortunately, the effort to make the Great Commission “command-less” is a misleading way of understanding the Greek language. Sadly, many pastors learn enough Greek to be dangerous, but not enough Greek to understand it that well. Instead, Croteau argues that the context of Matthew 28:19 requires the “go” of the Great Commission to be an intentional act, not something we do in passing. We are to make disciples of all nations, and that requires the intentional activity of “going” to reach out to our neighbors, and those in far away places, too, with the Gospel.
Do You Know of Any Urban Legends of Church History?
In Urban Legends of Church History: 40 Common Misconceptions, authors Michael Svigel and John Adair tackle some of the big confusions that have drifted into common thinking, among some Christians these days. For example, are the Seventh Day Adventists and certain Hebrew Roots Movement people correct, when they say that the earliest Christians worshipped on Saturday? Does that mean that Christians who worship on Sunday have abandoned correct Scriptural practice, as to when we are supposed to worship, on what day of the week?
Svigel and Adair observe that Dan Brown’s 2003 book The Da Vinci Code put this urban legend in the mainstream. For Dan Brown, as well as others, it was Emperor Constantine who forced Christians to abandon worship on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, and instead worship “God” on the day of the sun; i.e. Sunday, to conform to the pagan’s veneration of the sun. But as Svigel and Adair tell us, by AD 95, within a few decades near the completion of the New Testament, the phrase “the Lord’s Day,” referring to the day Jesus rose from the grave, on Sunday (Revelation 1:10), had become the common terminology referring to when Christians would typically gather for worshipping Jesus. True, many of the earliest Christians, being Jewish, did worship on Saturday, but they typically did not do so, to the exclusion of the common practice of gathering together on “the first day of the week” (Acts 20:7).
Then there are a couple of extremely useful chapters that challenge the popular idea today that “substitutionary atonement first appeared in the Middle Ages.” …. Whoa! This is one of those urban legends that is embraced by some “progressive Christians”….. This urban legend contends that the 11th century Anselm of Canterbury invented the concept of penal substitutionary atonement; that is, the teaching that Jesus’ death paid the penalty for my sins, through his death on the cross, taking our place, on our behalf. Svigel and Adair straighten the matter out by saying that substitutionary atonement had been thoroughly supported by the early church fathers. Popular critics of Anselm say that Anselm sought to erase the classic understanding of atonement, namely that Jesus’ work on the cross was the expression of God’s victory over sin, death, and evil.
However, what was new with Anselm was his philosophical argument for Christ’s atonement, in that Jesus’ death on the cross satisfied the loss to God’s honor, due to human rebellion through sin. Far from attacking the early church view, Anselm was trying to make his argument based on a rational, thought experiment, as an apologetic for Christian teaching, without having to appeal directly to the Bible. Medieval Europe was a more honor-based culture than our Western secular world, so it would make sense for Anselm to reach for an argument that could better explain the atonement for his medieval readers. So, while the language of “satisfaction” for sin was new with Anselm, the notions of “substitution” and the concept of sin as debt were not, as they go back to the early church, and the Bible itself. These two chapters on the atonement are worth the price of Urban Legends of Church History alone.
These books, far from making sensationalist claims that “everything you have heard about the Bible is wrong!,” is really about encouraging Christians to engage in more critical thinking skills when it comes to evaluating popular claims, made by both believers and non-believers. Sometimes, all we need is at least some minor readjustments to our thinking, so that we can become more responsible students of Scripture.
Do You Know of Any Urban Legends of the Old Testament?
One chapter in the Urban Legends of the Old Testament tackles this: “Isaiah 9 Contains a Prophecy against Post-9/11 America.” A popular Christian book from a few years ago, Jonathan Cahn’s Harbinger, misidentifies part of Isaiah 9 as a direct reference to America, as being the modern day equivalent of Old Testament Israel. Claims like that may sell a lot books, but their ideas tend to fade with time. The Urban Legends series directs the reader to more closely examine the original historical context for Isaiah. The prophecy in Isaiah 9:11 was not fulfilled in modern times (Isaiah 9:11… and America’s 9/11…. get it??), as the original prophecy was actually fulfilled previously in the 8th century BCE, as a result of God’s judgment against Israel, through the agency of the Assyrian conquest of the Northern Israelite Kingdom. What makes this claim by Jonathan Cahn even more suspect is that the chapter divisions in our Bibles did not exist before the 13th century A.D. and the modern verse numbering scheme was not introduced until the 16th century A.D.! Nevertheless, Isaiah’s prophecy does have a contemporary application, but it is a lesson for all nations today, not simply just for America.
Another lesson that Urban Legends of the Old Testament gives is regarding how the Old Testament views the afterlife. Many Christians just automatically assume that the entire Bible teaches a clear concept of conscious existence, after death. While this is certainly true about the fate of those whom God declares to be righteous, in the New Testament, the witness of the Old Testament is rather murky. The venerable King James Version frequently uses the word “hell” to describe the resting place of the wicked, in the afterlife. Unfortunately, the Hebrew word “sheol,” that generally serves as the basis for this translation, is more mysterious than that, more accurately described as a “shadowy place,” or simply “the grave.”
Much of the time, “sheol” is identified with the fate of the wicked, but not exclusively. Sometimes, the righteous end up there, too, such as when Job expresses to God the desire to be hidden in “sheol,” until God’s anger passes him (Job 14:13). However, you do get big hints that point towards eternal life for the righteous, in the Old Testament, as in Isaiah 25:7-8, which teaches that God will “swallow up death forever.” This ambiguity explains why the New Testament teaches that the Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead and the Sadducees did not. Jesus settles the matter by siding with the Pharisees on this theological question.
“Social Distancing” Yourself From Bad Ideas That Rarely Get Addressed in Church These Days
There are some “clickbait” chapters, too, but once you dive into them, you get a broader picture of what is going on. For example, in Urban Legends of the Early Church, we see the chapter title of this urban legend: “Women Never Served as Church Officers in the Early Church.” But when you read the chapter, a nuanced answer sets the record straight. True, women did not serve as elders in the early church. However, they most definitely served as deacons in the church, alongside other male deacons, all partnering together with the ministry efforts of the male elders. By the early medieval period, the practice of having women serve as deacons did go into decline, which probably explains why this urban legend has gained a lot of momentum, particularly in recent decades.
Other chapters will be sure to rattle some cages, but for good reason. In the church history volume, the authors tackle the claim that “The Medieval Catholic Church Completely Abandoned Salvation by Grace“, or how about “The Reformers Removed the Apocrypha from the Bible,” …. or even “Christians Took Genesis Literally until Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.” In the Old Testament volume, this one comes under scrutiny: “The Trinity Is Directly Taught in Genesis 1:26,” as well as “The Angel of the Lord Refers to the Preincarnate Jesus, Genesis 18:1-13.” In the New Testament volume, this one is sure to raise eyebrows: “Accept Jesus into Your Heart to Be Saved.”
What is so very helpful about this series is that you can simply skim through the table of contents of each book, and dive into a particular short chapter that interests you, without feeling the need to read everything from cover-to-cover. Each chapter has a brief bibliography that directs the reader to other resources for a deeper-dive in the selected topic.
I commend all three volumes:
- Urban Legends of the New Testament: 40 Common Misconceptions, by David A. Croteau
- Urban Legends of the Old Testament: 40 Common Misconceptions, by David A. Croteau and Gary Yates
- Urban Legends of Church History: 40 Common Misconceptions, by John Adair and Michael Svigel
Each book is fairly short, and a typical chapter can be read in less than twenty minutes. I will just pick and choose what chapter to read, if it looks interesting, as there is no narrative order associated with the arrangement of the chapters. I am adding this Urban Legends series of books to Michael Heiser’s “60-Second Scholars” series of short books, with quick and fun to read chapters, on topics that increase any Christian’s desire to dig deeper into the world of the Bible. In our day when “fake news” and falsehoods propagated on social media flood our minds with misinformation, I am glad to know that there are serious Bible scholars who are willing to take the time to explain these matters to normal people.
If you find yourself continually getting stumped, when an educated skeptic challenges you with “Why does your Bible say that?,” then these type of quick and easily read “urban legends” books will come in handy, to keep you from getting caught off-guard, and save you from frantically texting your pastor for answers, when you get challenged like this. Plus, it is simply a good idea to become well-informed about our Christian faith, and not simply swallow any and everything you hear in a Bible study, or even in a sermon, despite the good intentions behind it.
On Remnant Radio, one of my favorite YouTube podcasts, there is an interview with Dr. Michael Svigel, of Dallas Seminary, who breaks down some of the most common urban legends, from his book on church history. Enjoy!