Billy’s mom asked him what he learned in Sunday school that morning. All excited, Billy replied, “It was a great story, Mom!” She asked him to tell her all about it.
“It was about Moses and Egypt. You see, Moses’ people were trapped in Egypt, and Moses was sent to rescue them. He went to the Pharaoh and demanded that he let the Hebrews go free. But he refused.”
Billy continued, “So, Moses rallied the people and they escaped at night. Then they got stuck at the Red Sea. So, Moses called up the Israeli army and they put pontoon bridges down over the water so that they could get across. As the Egyptian army started to cross, Moses radioed the Israeli Air Force who bombed the bridges while the…”
“Wait, wait. What?” his Mom interjected. “Did your teacher really teach you that?”
“No,” he replied. “But you wouldn’t believe it the way she said it.”
Many Christians have learned all sorts of lessons in Sunday school and church that are not necessarily accurate or even biblically true. Nevertheless, many of these erroneous teachings continue to be promoted as biblical truth.
In this article I wish to address three of common errors I call “Sunday School Bible Myths.”
Sunday School Bible Myth 1: There were three wise men (or three kings)
Matthew records the visit of the magi from the east in his gospel; he also states that they brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matt 2:1, 11). He does not, however, state how many magi were there. While there were at least three gifts, he only lists “magi” in its plural form (Gk, magoi), indicating at least two.
So, where do people get three wise men? Well, it’s from the three gifts. However, two men could bring three gifts just as easily as three men or even thirty men. Scripture, however, does not say how many magi came to see Jesus, yet the mythical three-magi team continues to be taught.
Regarding the issue of “three kings,” that comes from the popular carol, “We Three Kings.” However, Scripture calls them “magi,” which means astrologers or magicians, not kings.
Sunday School Bible Myth 2: Paul changed his name after his conversion
I remember being taught about the “Saul-Paul conversion.” I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard people say that Saul changed his name (or that God changed his name) following his conversion. This, like the number of magi, doesn’t withstand biblical scrutiny, or even a casual reading of the book of Acts.
Paul’s conversion is recorded in Acts 9. Interestingly, Paul is called “Saul” for quite a while after his conversion. In Acts 11 when Barnabas seeks out Saul. In Acts 12:26, Luke states that “Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem.”
In Acts 13, God called the missionary “Saul” when he instructs the believers to “set apart for me Barnabas and Saul” (Acts 13:2).
As one reads Luke’s second work, one notices that the apostle is called “Saul” when the audience is primarily Jewish, and he is called “Paul” when the audience is Gentile. Why? Because Saul is his Hebrew name while Paul is his Greek name.
There was no name change related to Paul’s conversion. Nevertheless, Christians continue to talk about the Saul-Paul conversion and teach about the non-existent name change.
Sunday School Bible Myth 3: Thomas was the disciple who doubted
Speaking of misunderstanding an apostle, Thomas is also often mischaracterized. Many people are familiar with the “doubting Thomas” metaphor based on Jesus’ apostle. Why? Because it’s know that Thomas was the doubter of the bunch, right? Yes and no.
As it’s taught, many are either told that Thomas was the disciple who doubted, or that is strongly inferred. Regardless, people are left with the belief that, of the twelve, Thomas was the lone doubter.
Did Thomas doubt Jesus’ physical resurrection? Yes (John 20:24-25). But so did the rest of them.
Luke records that the women, when they saw the empty tomb, were “perplexed” or “at a loss for words” (Luke 24:4). They didn’t believe Jesus rose from the dead as he has already prophesied would happen. Rather, according to John, Mary Magdalene reported to Peter and John that someone stole the body (John 20:2).
Luke further records that, after delivering the angels’ message of Jesus’ resurrection to the disciples, their message “appeared to them [the disciples] as nonsense, and they would not believe them” (Luke 24:11).
Nevertheless, Thomas was the doubter of the group despite Scripture teaching that they all doubted.
Some might say that Thomas was the one that had to see Jesus’ physical body. However, John records that when Jesus appeared to the disciples who were in hiding, “He showed the both His hands and His feet. The disciples then rejoiced when they saw the Lord” (John 20:19, emphasis added).
Did Thomas doubt? Yes. Was he the only doubter? No, because they all doubted. Thomas was the only openly honest doubter, willing to verbally express his resistance to believe. Despite this, many people still teach about Thomas the doubting disciple rather than Thomas a doubter among a bunch of doubters.
Why Sunday School Bible Myths Matter
Some may wonder why any of this matters. They are minor issues that don’t affect the gospel message. True, but addressing these and other commonly believed Bible myths matter for two reasons:
First, we are called to deal with God’s Word accurately and faithfully.
Paul wrote to Timothy that Christians are to be followers of Jesus “accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). If we misrepresent or casually accept factually wrong teachings regarding Scripture, then we are not only inaccurately handing God’s Word, we are promoting untruth.
Second, it impacts our credibility in the eyes of the world.
The non-believing world is always looking for reasons to discredit Christianity—and we’ve given them plenty of ammunition over the centuries. We do not need to provide more reasons for them to dismiss what we say. Yet, by teaching clearly inaccurate information, or worse, dismissing such as insignificant, only raises questions about everything else we teach, including the gospel truth.
If Christian teachers and leaders get these simple biblical facts incorrect, then their ability to accurately handle more complex issues such as the nature of the atonement, prophecy, or other issues is subject to question. We cannot tell the world we teach the truth when we get even the simplest of information wrong.
We have a duty and a calling to be God’s messengers and disciple makers. While there are areas of honest disagreement, there are some things that are clearly outlined in Scripture, yet Christians teach lessons contrary to the Bible.
Interestingly, Paul criticized the church of his day (and I believe today’s church is just as guilty) of being spiritual infants incapable of handling the “meat” of Scripture. Rather, they were stuck on milk. Today, many Christians are no better. While simple facts area casually misrepresented, many Christians are not ready to teach what Paul considered the “milk” of theology: Jesus’ priesthood, the nature of the atonement, sanctification, the relationship between Old Testament sacrifices and Jesus’ death, the meaning of repentance, works, washings, laying on of hands, resurrection, and eschatology (cf. Heb 1-6, esp. 5:12-14).
We are to teach God’s word accurately and faithfully, moving from the basic things to the more mature things of Christ. “This we will do, if God permits” (Heb 6:3).