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In the late '60s, American culture was all abuzz with the rumor, "Paul is Dead." The supposed fatality of the beloved member of The Beatles became a cultural phenomenon, leading many young people to analyze the band's artwork and lyrics for clues. The "fake news" of the day was that Paul McCartney had died, and been replaced by a look-a-like. The gossip finally died down when Paul was interviewed by Life magazine in 1969, and he later poked fun at the rumor himself by titling his 1993 album, "Paul is Live." Thus the tall tale faded into urban legend.
Just like our world has its fables like Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and a deceased Beatle, we Christians have our share of urban legends too. Here are 3 Christian urban legends that really need to die:
1. "Abba" means "Daddy."
At some point in your Christian life, you've probably heard that when Jesus used the word abba to address God the Father, He was using the Aramaic equivalent of the casual and child-like "Daddy," or "Papa" we find in English. It's a nice-sounding sentiment, but unfortunately, (don't shoot the messenger!) it's not true.
President of Wheaton College Philip Ryken wrote,
This particular legend can be traced back to a 1971 text by New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias. He wrote that abba was a "children's word" that was like "the chatter of a small child." (1) Although he never used the exact words "Daddy" or "Papa," his idea that abba was a diminutive of "baby talk" form was repeated over and over despite being heavily criticized by other scholars.
The Apostle Paul even used abba twice in the New Testament. But have you ever wondered why the English translators didn't just translate abba as Daddy? It's because that isn't what it means. If Jesus or Paul would have wanted to express something along the lines of "Daddy" or "Papa" in reference to God, there are Greek diminutives of "father" available like pappas they could have used....but they didn't.
Bottom line. Abba may not be a children's word, but Jesus did refer to God as "Father," which was a revolutionary idea in the ancient world. God as my Father? It was unheard of! Jesus showed us that we can have a loving, intimate, and secure relationship with God as His sons and daughters, and that fact should never be devalued or diminished.
2. St. Francis said, "Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words."
Although it sounds cool and is a fairly popular phrase to share on Facebook and Twitter, St. Francis never said it. Mark Galli, a biographer of Francis, notes that no biography written within 200 years of his life contains this quote. In fact, St. Francis was known to be quite a "fiery little preacher," who often preached up to five times a day. Sometimes he would become so animated that his feet would move as if he were dancing.
He is quoted as saying, "No brother should preach contrary to the form and regulation of the holy Church unless he has been permitted by his minister....All the Friars, however, should preach by their deeds." (2) This captures his deeply held belief that the gospel must be embodied as well as spoken. He was saying that our actions should match our words—not that words themselves are unnecessary.
In Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus commanded His disciples to "go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you." (Emphasis mine.) Unless His disciples had one heck of a mime routine, spreading Jesus' teachings across the nations would be next to impossible without words.
We must keep in mind that these were the original eye-witnesses to His resurrection. A careful read through the book of Acts tells us everything we need to know about how they went about fulfilling this "Great Commission." They didn't simply go from town to town loving on people, and feeding the poor (although they did that too!). Paul reasoned with the Jews in the synagogues, and conversed with secular philosophers in Athens. They spread the message of Jesus' resurrection everywhere they went—and this required a lot of words.
The Apostle Paul wrote,
In our culture, it can be intimidating to verbally share the gospel, because claiming to know the truth about spiritual matters can be seen as insensitive or offensive. This quote fits nicely within our postmodern paradigm, but to lay that postmodern filter over the gospel is to do violence to its message.
Aside from being unbiblical and falsely attributed to St. Francis, the quote is a bit ironic. Whomever did say, "Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words," had to use words to say it.
3. Peter was crucified upside-down
When I was a kid, I loved to think of brave Peter declaring himself unworthy of being executed in the same way Jesus was. Requesting to be crucified upside-down, I imagined how much pain and agony this courageous martyr endured for his Lord. The only problem—it probably didn't happen that way.
In the brutal Roman Empire, crucifixion was the most horrific way to die and was reserved for the lowest of the low—slaves and enemies of the state. As Sean McDowell noted, Roman guards weren't taking requests.
The earliest mention of Peter's death is from the first century in 1 Clement 5, 1-4, which records that Peter was martyred for this faith—but there is nothing written about him being crucified upside-down. The earliest mention of the upside-down legend is in a myth-filled book called The Acts of Peter written toward the end of the second century. In this account, Peter is turned upside-down as a symbol of how the world is turned upside down due to sin—and that his death will help turn things right side up as Jesus' death did. It wasn't until centuries later that the legend of Peter being crucified upside-down because of his humility was invented.
At best it's possible that Peter was crucified upside-down, but there is not sufficient historical evidence to conclude that he certainly was. But what is historically credible is this: Peter was martyred and did not recant his eye-witness testimony of Jesus’ resurrection even when threatened with physical suffering and death.
What other Christian urban legends need to die? Please comment below!
(1) Joachim Jeremias, New Testament Theology, (SCM Press, 1971) p. 67
(2) St. Francis, Rule of 1221, Chapter XII