It's no secret that biblical literacy is at an all-time low. This is not surprising, given that cultural trends show many people leaving Christianity for atheism, and many others embracing a "spiritual but not religious" mindset. You probably can't fool the average Christian into thinking that the Bible says, "God helps those who help themselves," or "Cleanliness is next to godliness." BUT there are some common "facts" and stories that regularly make their way into sermons, Bible studies, and conversations among otherwise biblically literate Christians. Here are 6 facts you think are in the Bible but aren't:
1. Mary Magdalene was a prostitute.
Undoubtedly one of the most important figures in the New Testament is Mary Magdalene. She was a friend of Jesus, one of the faithful who stayed by Him during His crucifixion, and the first person to whom Jesus appeared after His resurrection. From historical art pieces to the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar to the best-selling book The DaVinci Code to modern movies and television, she is almost always portrayed as a former prostitute. There is one problem with this assumption: the Bible never identifies her as such.
It's difficult to determine where this faulty characterization came from, but it was most likely from a confused reading of Luke 7:36-50. This passage describes a "sinful woman" who breaks a jar of expensive perfume on Jesus' feet, wipes them with her hair and kisses them. Although the Bible never gives the woman's name or even implies it is Mary, the two women have become conflated throughout church history. (1)
Mary definitely had a rough past— she was delivered of seven demons, according to Luke 8:1-3. However, of the twelve times she is mentioned in the Gospels, not one suggests that she was a prostitute. (2)
2. Satan was the worship leader in heaven.
If you grew up in church and went to youth group, you most likely heard this one somewhere along the way. The problem is that it isn't in the Bible. This misunderstanding probably comes from Ezekiel 28:13, in which the king of Tyre (whom many theologians believe is describing Satan) is characterized as being covered with many precious stones and gold. The New King James Version mentions "timbrels and pipes" as well—although the exact meaning of this text is a bit uncertain.
There are only a few passages of Scripture that are believed to describe Satan (3), and this is the only one that mentions what might be interpreted as musical instruments. Although Satan is described as being "the anointed cherub," and "the model of perfection" before his fall, there is no reason to assume he was a musician...let alone the worship leader in heaven.
3. Jesus was born in a stable.
I know I know...now I'm messing with virtually every Christmas pageant, greeting card, and nativity scene you've encountered since childhood. But there's that pesky little fact that the Bible doesn't actually mention a stable, or a cave, as early church tradition suggests.(4) The second chapter of Luke tells us that there was "no room at the inn." The Greek word that we translate as "inn" in English can also be translated as "guest room." In fact, Jesus uses the same word in Luke 22:11 in reference to the Upper Room, the site of the Last Supper.
The Bible mentions that that Jesus was laid in a manger (a type of feeding trough for animals.) So it had to be in a stable, right? Actually, it would have been customary for Mary and Joseph to stay with Joseph's relatives in Bethlehem rather than an inn. With the "guest room" occupied, Jesus was probably born on the lower level of the house, where animals were brought in at night to be kept safe and warm. (5)
4. Moses was a stutterer.
Much ink has been spilled over whether or not Moses had a stutter or some other kind of speech impediment, or if he was, in fact, quite a profoundly talented orator. This speculation all revolves around Exodus 4:10 in which Moses questions his own competency: "Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue.” We must bear in mind that Moses was expressing his own insecurity—not necessarily reflecting the reality of his abilities. In fact, just prior to his death at the hands of an angry mob, the martyr Stephen described Moses as "mighty in his words and deeds" in Acts 7:22. Good cases can be made on both sides, but the Bible never explicitly states that Moses was a stutterer.
5. Jesus was 33 years old when He died.
You've probably always believed that Jesus was born in the year 1 AD, but this is based on a mistake scholars made when they originally came up with the BC/AD system. Matthew 2:1 tells us that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great, but Herod died in 4 BC, so Jesus would have been born before that—somewhere between 6-4 BC. This made Him at least 4 years old by the year 1 AD. (6)
The Bible doesn't actually state that Jesus was precisely 33 years old when He died. The age of 33 is often assumed because Luke 3:23 tells us that Jesus was "about" 30 years old when He started His ministry, (which could be rounded down from anywhere in His early to mid- thirties.) Most scholars agree that He died in 30 or 33 AD, and that His ministry lasted about 3 1/2 years. So He was probably somewhere between 36-39 when He actually died.
6. Jesus changed Saul's name to Paul.
From time to time throughout biblical history, God changed people's names. For example, he re-named Abram as "Abraham," and Jacob as "Israel." Jesus changed Simon's name to Peter. Sometimes in sermons and Bible studies, it is noted that Jesus changed Saul the persecutor's name to Paul, the Apostle, as some kind of a symbolic declaration of Paul's new status in God's kingdom. However, that's not quite how it happened.
Spoiler alert. It wasn't Jesus who changed Saul's name...it was Luke. The physician, meticulous historian, and writer of the Gospel of Luke and Acts is the one responsible for first referring to Saul as "Paul." Jesus did say, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?" when Saul was on his way to Damascus in Acts 9:4. But Acts 13:13 is the first time the new name is used, and Luke notes in Act 13:9 that "Saul is also sometimes called Paul." In other words, Luke didn't actually change the name—Saul and Paul were used interchangeably to describe the same man. "Saul" was derived from the Old Testament Saul—the first king of Israel and "Paul" was simply his Greek name. It's likely that Luke switched to using the Greek name "Paul" once Paul's ministry among primarily Greek-speaking Gentiles began.
What other "facts" are often misattributed to the Bible? Please comment below!
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(1) The first person to identify Mary Magdalene as the "sinful woman" in Luke 7 is probably Pope Gregory in his Homily XXXIII around 591 AD.
(2) Luke 8:1-3; Mark 15:40; 27:56; John 19:25; Mark 15:47; Matthew 27:61; Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:1; John 20:1; Mark 16:9; John 20:18; Luke 24
(3) Also Isaiah 14:12-15; Revelation 12:4; Jude 9
(4) Justin Martyr, Dialogue of Justin, Philosopher and Martyr, with Trypho, a Jew, LXXVIII.
(5) John McRay, Archaeology & the New Testament (Baker Academic, 1991) p. 80-82; Kenneth Bailey, The Manger and the Inn, 2008.
(6) Alden A. Mosshammer, The Easter Computus and the Origins of the Christian Era (Oxford University Press, 2008) p. 319-356.