3 Stars Out Of 5
Interesting read, as long as the reader acknowledges the intention(s) of the author
July 24, 2015
Urban Legends of the New Testament: 40 Common Misconceptions by David A. Croteau
I would like to express my thanks to the B&H Publishing Group for providing me with a review copy of the book and giving me the opportunity to review.
In the 21st century, the Bible is often upheld as a divinely inspired book that is meant to have authority over a Christian's daily life. Of course, Christianity extends far past a simple reading of 'what the Bible says' and includes ever-changing traditions and customs from its two-thousand-year history. Along with providing a great deal of diverse thought and experience for generations of Christians, some of these traditions can also mislead devotees and provide misinformation to congregants. These 'urban legends' circles around Christian communities in preachers' sermons and eisegetical readings of the New Testament narratives. In his recent book, David A. Croteau tackles forty of the most common urban legends that exist in Western Christian churches. Croteau writes from the perspective of an evangelical Christian, who is intent on providing a historically and theological correct interpretation of New Testament texts for a lay audience. He clearly distinguishes between mistaken legends (legends that contains no correct information) and misleading legends (legends that are simply incomplete or are partially incorrect). In each mini-chapter, Croteau establishes the urban legend as if he himself believed it, so that the audience might be fully immersed in the assumption and wrestle with the root of the misconception. He then attempts to unravel each urban legend by providing historical context, Greek exegetical work, or backgrounds (which, for Croteau, usually involve respected commentaries). Finally, Croteau concludes each mini-chapter with application of the corrected interpretation to an everyday Christian's lifestyle.
The most convincing arguments provided in the forty mini-chapters usually center on historical context and knowledgable application of ancient Greek. A few examples that I found most helpful for the lay audience include the "there was no room in the inn for Mary" myth and the "hell was a first-century garbage dump" myth. In unraveling the inn legend, Croteau appeals to archeological evidence in first-century Palestine in order to prove that the "inn" () was actually the guest room of a house, which might have been filled at the time of Mary and Joseph's arrival. Instead of an outdoor manger being the birthplace of Jesus, Croteau argues that mangers were often placed in the larger family room or the smaller animal room. In either case, Mary and Joseph would have remained within the household, but would not have found lodging in the . When discussing the garbage dump, usually referred to as Gehenna, Croteau appeals to writings in the Hebrew Bible that describe Gehenna/The Valley of Hinnom as a horrible place used by worshippers of Molech. Croteau understands Jesus to be using Gehenna in a fashion that mimics prophetic texts and hyperbolizes Gehenna into a place of desolation. Croteau rightfully urges his audience to prioritize context when interpreting Biblical passages, so that misinformation can be eradicated or dismissed quickly.
On the other hand, since Croteau is unraveling these urban legends from an evangelical standpoint, his writing may not appeal to audiences outside of Christian boundaries or to those that take a more liberal position within the study of early Christianity. Any audience must understand that this sourcebook for New Testament urban legends is intended for more evangelical communities, who wish to inch closer to an original and correct interpretation of their canonical texts. However, Croteau does make some bold statements that might surprise an inquisitive reader. For example, Croteau sometimes assumes that situations would be difficult to imagine (such as the rejection of Mary and Joseph when they first enter Bethlehem), yet he does not provide much evidence as to why this might be difficult. Croteau also takes a major stance by claiming that Jesus was born around late 5 BCE/early 4 BCE, had a two-year ministry, and died on April 3, 33 CE. These bold stances on such a highly debated chronology might be seen as overconfident and misleading to a lay audience. Finally, those who are invested in Middle Eastern politics might find Croteau's usage of "Israel" distasteful, since he uses the term to describe first-century Judea (and Galilee, to an extent). Since Israel fell in the 8th century BCE to the Assyrians, many scholars avoid conflating Israel with first-century Judea, due to modern political claims that attempt to connect "Biblical Israel" to "the State of Israel."
Overall, Croteau encourages his lay audience to stay cautious during sermons and conversations concerning the New Testament. Each mini-chapter ends with further resources that one might use in order to dig deeper into exegetical, theological, and historical contexts. Croteau's book urges readers to seek context whenever Biblical passages are used in a theological or historical claim, so that more Christians might become informed concerning these popular legends and the effects of their misinformation. In order to put these urban legends to rest, lay audiences must follow in Croteau's footsteps and continually examine contexts behind and throughout the Bible.