Christian Factoids: The Top Ten
I should say first, though: I’ve circulated almost all of the below at various times, so I’ve been as guilty of this as anyone. On one very humiliating occasion, I had just been teaching a group of leaders about the importance of not misquoting the Bible - using a “how many of these are in the Bible” test, including “oh, how the mighty have fallen”, “save the best for last”, “God loves a hilarious giver”, and so on - and then proceeded to do it myself, by mistake, two minutes later. One of them immediately pointed it out, I looked profoundly foolish for a few seconds, and then Yohaan Philip gleefully quoted, in his inimitable Mumbai accent, “Oh, how the mighty have fallen.” Physician, heal thyself.
10. The camel and the eye of the needle. I imagine most readers will know that the popular explanation of this saying, that the “eye of the needle” was a gate in Jerusalem that camels had to kneel to get through, is completely imaginary. Jesus is saying that rich people entering the kingdom is impossible - but with God, all things are possible - not just that it requires kneeling. There are a lot of urban myths of this type (ah, but the obscure Jewish background which nobody can corroborate shows that this challenging text really meant this), but this is the most well-known.
9. “Jesus loves me this I know.” Karl Barth is often said to have been asked what the most profound theological truth he had ever learned was, and to have replied, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” The thing is, as Roger Olson has recently pointed out, it is extremely difficult to find a conclusive trail of evidence that it ever happened, and it is often said to have taken place in a variety of different locations (Princeton, Chicago, Richmond, and so on). We may never know whether it happened or not, but the variations and lack of corroboration give it the feel of a friend-of-a-friend sort of story, and its wide circulation merits it a place in the top ten.
8. The dynamite of God for everyone who believes. Did you know that the Greek word for “power” is dunamis, from which we get our word “dynamite”? So you see, Paul was effectively saying that the gospel was the dynamite of God for everyone who believes. (Significant pause.) Right - except that he wasn’t. Dynamite wasn’t invented; it blows things up rather than building them up; etymology isn’t the same thing as meaning; and so on. Don Carson has a good selection of these etymological blunders in his scintillatingly entitled Exegetical Fallacies; hilarious givers are also in this category.
7. NASA has confirmed the sun stood still in Joshua 10. Bunk.
6. G. K. Chesterton’s letter to The Times. They say that a competition took place in the early twentieth century in which The Times invited responses to the question, “what’s wrong with the world?” And they say Chesterton wrote back the shortest letter ever published in that newspaper: “Dear Sir, I am. Yours faithfully ...” According to the archives, however, no such letter was ever published, and no such competition ever took place. Remarkably, even the American Chesterton Society thinks the story is true.
5. Darwin’s deathbed conversion. This one gets a place in the top five, not for extensiveness (others have reached further) nor indefensibility (there is a source for the story, although a very unreliable one which Darwin’s family refuted), but for negative apologetic impact (it makes Christians look like we will seize on any rumour, no matter how implausible, to back up our beliefs). Of course, we cannot know the state of Darwin’s soul when he died. But the common story that he became a Christian and even recanted his evolutionary beliefs is based on inaccurate information, which can be traced back to a certain Lady Hope.
4. Frogs boil to death if gradually heated in water. Christians are like frogs: if our environment adjusts slowly enough, we don’t notice it, and we eventually die (so watch out for cultural change!) This one gets everywhere, but it is based on a couple of nineteenth-century experiments that modern scientists are generally very sceptical about, and is broadly agreed not to be the case. I’m not sure the theological point it makes is right either, but that’s a different issue.
3. The four Greek words for love. Well, there’s some truth in this one. Eros, particularly, refers to a different kind of “love” than the others. But the preacher’s point about agapao and phileo being sharply distinct, with the former meaning God-love and the latter meaning friend-love, is hugely overstated, and faces numerous counterexamples in the New Testament itself (Carson’s commentary on John goes into some detail on this point). It catches out the unwary, though; if you read John 21 thinking that the two words have a clear (although inaccurate) distinction in meanings, you will end up with a clear (although inaccurate) interpretation of the text. Odds are, there is no more significance in John’s different words for “love” than there is in his different words for “feed/care for” or “lambs/sheep”.
2. The rope for pulling out the high priest. I nearly gave this one top spot just because I myself had circulated it, based on being told it by someone, who was told it by someone, and so on and so on. The story goes that the high priest used to go into the holy of holies wearing bells on his garment (which is true), and that when these bells stopped ringing, people would know he was dead (er ...), and that he also wore a rope so that they could pull him out in case he died (!?!!?) There is, quite simply, no evidence in any ancient literature - Jewish, Christian, pagan or otherwise - that this ever happened. The bells were part of the high priest’s garment, along with the pomegranates, and (like a number of other ceremonial requirements) could lead to the death of the priest if they were not used. But there was no cluster of priests waiting outside, listening for the bells, and bursting in anxiously if they stopped jangling. The pomegranates didn’t go squelch if the high priest snuffed it, either.
1. Gehenna was a rubbish dump. Tom Wright is a much bigger cheese than me, so his factoid gets the number one slot over mine. Despite its frequent appearance in commentaries, study bibles and even the works of everybody’s favourite former bishop, the idea that Gehenna was a rubbish dump outside Jerusalem is not supported by any ancient evidence at all. The first source to mention the idea was apparently a commentary on Psalm 27 by Rabbi David Kimhi in the late twelfth or early thirteenth century; prior to that, Ge-hinnom was a valley next to Jerusalem (as it still is), a place in which Ahaz and Manasseh offered human sacrifices (2 Chronicles 28:3; 33:6), and a place where Judah was to be judged by God for this (Jeremiah 7:31-32; 19:6). The image of a Gehenna in which the worm did not die and the fire was not quenched, as Jesus talked about it, was far more likely based on the eschatological vision of Isaiah 66 than on a burning landfill site that we have no reason to believe existed.
Any other big ones?