Bible 'Stories' Everyone Gets Wrong
Considering the fact that the Christian Bible is the most popular book in human history, it's surprising how little people know about what's actually in it. Or maybe not -- it's a complicated text compiled over thousands of years, and it's as long as the first five Harry Potter novels combined. Even for an expert, there's a lot in there to process ... and a vast ocean of stuff that isn't in there.
You see, as we've discussed, a whole lot of the stories and characters people associate with the Bible were actually cobbled together from centuries of pop culture and garbled readings of the original. Go grab a Bible from your bookshelf or your nearest hotel nightstand, and you won't find ...
Sodom And Gomorrah Getting Destroyed For Homosexuality
If you ask someone to point out a part of the Bible where God specifically condemns homosexuality, they're likely to refer you to Genesis 19, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, the San Franciscos of the ancient world. The popular story is that God destroyed these two cities due to rampant homosexuality (in fact, that's where the word "sodomy" as we know it today comes from) and sent two angels like a heavenly SEAL team to extract Lot, the only non-gay citizen, and his family before the wrath came down.
Compared to the military precision of Lot's extraction, this seems like overkill.
The only problem is that there is absolutely no reference in the Bible to anyone in Sodom being gay, and even if they were, that's never given as one of the reasons God wanted to wipe the place out. If anything, the biggest sin of the people of Sodom was that they really hated foreigners.
In the story, God sends two angels in human form into Sodom to visit Lot's house and inform him that he might want to pack his bags because some serious Old Testament shit was scheduled to happen the next day. This was because the people of Sodom were "wicked" and their sins were "grievous" -- they didn't get more specific than that. But when Lot's neighbors caught wind of the fact that he had out-of-town visitors, they gathered their torches and pitchforks and paid him a visit, demanding to be given a chance to give the foreigners some old-fashioned Sodom hospitality (read: beating and raping them).
Now, it is true that the Sodom lynch mob issues a clear rape threat against Lot's (male) visitors. The quote from the King James Bible is, "Bring them out unto us, that we may know them." In Bible talk, "knowing" someone doesn't exactly mean meeting them over coffee. Many interpret this as evidence of how crazy they all were about gay sex, that the very fact that there were dudes in their city who they hadn't sexed up yet drove them to violent insanity.
But one rape threat against anyone doesn't make someone gay so much as an asshole (see: any prison) and that one line is the only reference to any kind of sexual activity in the whole story. When the Bible clarifies later what Sodom had done to piss off God, it says it was the fact that people of Sodom were lazy, arrogant, and uncharitable. Here's the quote from the King James version:
Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom, pride, fulness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and in her daughters, neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy. And they were haughty, and committed abomination before me: Therefore I took them away as I saw good.
Whether or not he thought too many people were doing it in the butt isn't given so much as a footnote in the list of God's grievances. But the only thing anyone remembers about the sins of Sodom is that one guy who shouted out that he wanted to pork some angels -- to the point that this is how "sodomy" wound up in modern language. So here's a fun exercise: The next time your Christian friend refuses to give money to a poor person, say, "Hey, you just sodomized that guy!"
The Seven Deadly Sins
You probably learned the "seven deadly sins" from the movie Se7en, even if you've never set foot in a church. These are supposedly the seven worst sins that you can commit: gluttony, pride, lust, greed, wrath, sloth, and envy. If you're flipping through your Bible looking for them, you'd maybe expect to find them right after the Ten Commandments (the part where the Bible has all the rules listed, right?). But flip all you want; they're not in there. If somebody had just told that to Kevin Spacey's character at the start, it would have saved him months of work.
If you really think about it, these seven sins seem awfully broad, almost like pretty much any kind of wrongdoing that you can think of falls into one category or another. And, in fact, that's exactly the point -- the seven sins, officially known as the cardinal sins, aren't a list of rules taken from the Bible, like the Ten Commandments. They were actually formulated by the medieval Church as an easy way to categorize all sins.
Rather than a simple how-to guide dictated by God, they were intended more as a kind of Cliff's Notes for the Bible to make its 10-billion-strong list of rules a little more digestible for the general public, almost none of whom owned an actual copy. Remember, the idea of everyone actually having a copy of the Bible only goes back a few hundred years -- before that, books were painstakingly inked out by hand, one at a time. They had to have a way to boil things down, verbally.
So, the cardinal sins were first dictated in the sixth century by Pope Gregory I, whose intention was to come up with a short list of basic sin elements, kind of like the Periodic Table Of Pissing Off God. Then, as with a whole bunch of stuff you wrongly assumed came straight out of God's holy ink well, the seven deadly sins made the transition from obscure mythology to Bible canon when Dante wrote his epic poem The Divine Comedy, best known for its most popular and most metal chapter, "Inferno." It divides Hell into seven circles based on which of the seven deadly sins the damned fell afoul of. Those seven circles, of course, are also nowhere to be found in the Bible.
Purgatory is supposed to be the place that you go to if you're not wicked enough to deserve Hell, but also not quite holy enough to ascend to Heaven. It's kind of like an airport boarding lounge on your way toward salvation -- if God's not quite confident that you're not packing a shoe-bomb full of sin, then you need to get a full pat-down by the TSA of righteousness before you board that flight to eternal happiness.
In reality, purgatory isn't something that the Bible literally describes; it's more something that Catholic doctrine suggests must exist in order to solve the problem of where people go after they die if they haven't fulfilled the entry requirements of either Heaven or Hell. According to official Catholic doctrine, the existence of purgatory was decided upon during the Council Of Florence in 1431, because the Bible didn't specify its terms clearly enough.
But theologians soon discovered another problem with scripture: Where do babies go when they die before they have a chance to be baptized? And what happened to the righteous who lived and died before Jesus was born?
Regular Catholic lore suggested that they went straight to Hell without collecting $200, but those who figured that God wouldn't be so cruel conceived of the concept of limbo, which, as distinct from purgatory, was the temporary holding cell of souls for those who deserved to go to Heaven but either died before Jesus' crucifixion or were too dumb (e.g. babies) to realize that they were born into sin.
And given that the concepts of purgatory and limbo were invented after the Bible was written, they never entered into the popular discourse until ... Dante wrote about them. Shit, at this point we're willing to suggest that Dante invented more of Christianity than Jesus did.
The Prostitute Mary Magdalene
Mary Magdalene is one of the most famous female characters in the Bible, yet only the second-most famous Mary. She was Jesus' only female disciple, overshadowed by 12 much more famous dudes. She was a prostitute whom Jesus forgave, and she proceeded to follow him around, washing his feet and redeeming herself from a life of sinful whoring. Some have speculated that she was secretly Christ's favorite, leading to conspiracy theories about the church covering up the fact that they got married and had kids (which obviously is what The Da Vinci Code is about).
But, according to the Bible, basically none of the above paragraph is true.
Sure, Mary Magdalene does appear in the gospels as a disciple of Jesus, but that's about it. She wasn't a prostitute and wasn't even the only female in his entourage -- Luke Chapter 8 lists his disciples, which include Magdalene; Joanna, wife of Chuza; and somebody named Susanna. Jesus was actually pretty popular with the ladies.
Basically, the myths surrounding Magdalene's life came about when people started confusing her with other people, on account of the fact that there are just too damn many women in the Bible named Mary. In fact, there are two other characters who have been lumped in with Magdalene just for sharing what was probably the most popular woman's name of the era -- Mary of Bethany, the sister of Lazarus, who cooked Jesus dinner because it seemed the polite thing to do after he resurrected her brother, and a woman "who lived a sinful life" who may or may not also have been named Mary, and whom Jesus forgives to the confusion of his apostles who are aghast that he let her filthy mitts touch him.
Both of the other Marys greet Jesus by dumping perfume on his feet and wiping it off with their hair, which was apparently just a thing people did back then (nobody in the story seems to think it's odd). But the medieval Catholic Church, presumably deciding that there were just way too many characters in the Bible and that people were likely to get confused by all these Marys, made an official decree that all three women were the same person. Just like future generations might simplify history by conflating Jennifer Lawrence and Jennifer Aniston.
The church retracted the claim in 1969, but because most people don't keep themselves up to date on the minutiae of Catholic dogma, the myth remains that Mary Magdalene is the "sinful woman" who scrubbed Jesus' feet with her hair. And even then, the Bible doesn't specify that "sinful" means she was a prostitute -- that much comes down to pure gossip. Though it's telling that people immediately made that leap.
And speaking of figures that are in reality mash-ups of unrelated characters ...
Satan, The Lone Enemy Of God
This is where we hit maximum controversy -- according to traditional Christian lore, Satan was one of the first angels and originally one of God's favorites, until he rebelled and was cast down to Earth, where he became not only the Prince Of Darkness and mankind's primary antagonist but the yin to God's yang and the guy everyone blames when things go wrong. Everyone who has attended even a single Sunday school session knows about Satan's war against everything that's good and his ultimate war against God and Heaven, so you assume he has a significant role in the Bible.
Well ... yes and no. Like your Facebook status with your on-again-off-again friend-with-benefits, God's relationship with Satan is complicated.
We've already talked about how Satan's popular appearance as a goat-horned, trident-wielding dude with red skin is just a product of pop culture, but that only scratches the surface. First of all, most of the Bible's references to the critter we think of as Satan are actually, probably, referring to completely different entities.
For example, the snake in the Garden Of Eden who convinced Eve to eat the forbidden fruit was probably referring to an actual talking snake rather than a shape-shifting devil, as evidenced by God cursing it to crawl on its belly for eternity. That wasn't Satan; it was just a snake who happened to be an asshole.
Then later in the Old Testament, the word "Satan" is just used to mean "adversary" -- the way "antichrist" was used to refer to anyone who hated Christians.
Strangest of all, in one of the very few times that Satan actually appears with a speaking role in the Bible, he's kind of God's adviser on human relations. In the story of Job, Satan is one of many angels who attend when God holds court in his heavenly kingdom. Job is God's favorite human due to his righteousness, but Satan suggests that maybe Job wouldn't be so righteous if God took away his wealth and family, so God decides he has a point and proceeds to do so. That's right -- God gets advice from Satan, decides it's a good idea, and follows through with it.
Then, someone refers to Lucifer in another book, commonly believed to be the Devil's real name. That turned out to be a simple misunderstanding -- the author of Isaiah 14 was taking the mickey out of a Babylonian king by comparing him to the descent of the planet Venus (it translates roughly to "bright morning star"). Later translators got mixed up and decided that this, too, was a reference to a single demonic being behind everything.
Finally, the character of Satan as the general in a great battle against God comes together in the Book Of Revelation, which says this:
And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: He was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.
That's right: "The great dragon." After going the whole book with no physical description of Satan (no horns, no red pajamas, no pitchfork), suddenly at the very end they just mention in passing that, oh yeah, he's a giant dragon. Holy shit, guys. It seems like you kind of buried the lede there.
For more required bible studies, check out 5 Real Deleted Bible Scenes In Which Jesus Kicks Some Ass and 5 Miracles Deleted From the Bible For Being Too Awesome.
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