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Scripture Illustrations and Urban Legends

Posted: November 5, 2009 - 21:29 CT

A good friend of mine is currently teaching a Bible Study class on the topic of shepherds and sheep.  While researching the subject, he came across a pastor’s sermon posted on the internet that included some interesting illustrations which he suspected might not be historically correct.  He emailed a request that I check it out and this post is a result of my findings and thoughts on the subject.

I read the pastor’s sermon on the 23rd Psalms which included several illustrations on shepherds and sheep during the OT period of King David.  In Psalms 23, we have two beautiful images picturing God caring for His people.  We see God as a Shepherd caring for His sheep (v 1-4) and God as a banquet Host caring for His guest (v 5-6).  The pastor had interpreted the entire chapter picturing God as a shepherd, and included illustrations pertaining to verse 5 involving the "cup overflowing" as a sheep basin and the "table" as an area of grass around a wounded sheep.  In technical terms, he was practicing eisegesis (reading his own interpretation back into the text) rather than exegesis (drawing out the original intent of the author and letting the text speak for itself).

In this particular case, perhaps no serious damage is done since both images (God as shepherd and host) refer to the same subject, God caring for His people.  I began however, pondering the question: How concerned should pastors, teachers and students of the Word be regarding the use of manufactured stories or urban legends in the illustration of Scripture?

Fictional Stories

We should first point out that there nothing inherently wrong with using fictional stories to illustrate a principle within Scripture.  In fact, this was Jesus’ favorite method of teaching.  He illustrated and clarified some of the greatest Scriptural truths using parables.  Therefore, it is the passing off of a fictional story as historical truth that is at issue here, not the use of fictional stories themselves.  We must also remember that we’re talking about the truthfulness of stories that are being used to illustrate the meaning of scripture, not questioning the inerrancy of Scripture itself.

When a writer or speaker treats a fictional account as a true story, he or she sincerely believes that it’s true in most instances.  I’m reasonably sure that I’ve probably repeated a few as fact at one time or another.  We hear or read an illustration or commentary from a trusted source and pass it on without independently researching it, often due to a busy schedule.  Once a story is repeated over a period of time, it often becomes accepted as fact.  Note that the story only becomes "accepted" as fact rather than actually "becoming" a fact, since truth is independent of our opinions.  We see this method of repetition constantly perpetrated by the secular media with statements that any thinking person would immediately recognize as a complete fabrication.  If these obvious falsehoods can eventually be accepted as fact, how much more can a believable tale which originates from a respected source.

In many cases (assuming, of course, that the Scripture text is being properly interpreted), it probably makes little difference whether the illustration is based on a true or a fictional story, since the primary purpose is to explain, simplify or illuminate a doctrine, principle or great truth within scripture.  There are circumstances however, when creating the impression that a fictional story is historical can have a negative effect on the listeners or readers.  Suppose a writer or speaker employs this method, thinking that this illusion will add additional weight or importance to the illustration.  If some in the audience realize the illustration is not based on true events, it may affect the credibility of the Bible text that is being explained.  Note that this loss of Bible credibility is in the subjective sense only (in the mind of the audience) since the Bible can’t objectively or inherently lose credibility.

Urban Legends

Before offering some concluding thoughts, I’d like to mention a few examples of accounts that have made their way into many sermons and commentaries over the years.  A couple of extra-biblical stories which come to mind involve the camel going through the eye of the needle and the profession of Mary Magdalene.  In Matthew 19:24 (also Mk 10:25), Jesus makes statement that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter Heaven.  This has sometimes been described as referring to a city gate in Jerusalem called the "Eye of the Needle" or the "Camel Gate", a gate so small that a camel could only pass though by kneeling or crouching.  Another version of the legend states that its rider had to dismount, thus becoming vulnerable to predators.  These false illustrations began about the eleventh century AD with no backing evidence.  The correct interpretation is that Jesus is using hyperbole to illustrate the impossibility of anyone obtaining salvation by trusting in riches or anything else other than Him.

In the second example, we frequently hear sermons stating that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute before meeting Jesus.  While this is possible, the Bible is silent on her former profession, so this would be speculation at best.  The first mention of this legend came in a sermon from Pope Gregory the Great in the late sixth century.

A Modern Repetition

To give one last example which occurred recently, many pastors took to the pulpit to correct the claim by the DaVinci Code book that Jesus was not considered divine until a close vote was taken at the Council of Nicea in 325AD.  Most correctly pointed out that the NT, written approximately 250 years earlier, clearly proclaimed Jesus’ divinity and that it was the standard belief of the Church from the beginning.  We've also witnessed a few articles stating that a vote was not actually taken, but a determination was made and  put forth that Jesus was indeed divine, and that it was signed by all but two of the attendees.  This statement, which I've heard passed along by several well-meaning pastors in their sermons, is correct with one major exception; the primary purpose of Nicea was to deal with Arianism, a heresy which taught that Jesus was God's first creation and thus, not co-eternal with the Father.  So the actual divinity of Jesus was never in question at the council (having been accepted since the first century), only His eternal existence was confirmed. 

Conclusion

This problem of urban legends and questionable illustrations is complicated by the internet.  So much information is easily available, and with our busy schedules, we sometimes pass on a story which has not been verified.  At the same time, the internet often makes it easier to confirm the validity of the illustrations.  Once again, there is nothing inherently wrong with using a fictional story to illustrate or clarify Scripture but we should not purposely attempt to imply that a fiction story is historical.  Probably the best rule to follow is that, if we are unable to validate our illustration to a reasonable degree, it is best to deliver it as a fictional story or parable.  This does nothing to lessen the truth of the illustration's point.  For the audience, the bottom line is that, with anything short of Holy Scripture, we must prayerfully use discernment with anything we hear or read.

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