In my years as a pastor, I’ve noticed that certain confusions about the Bible pop up time and time again. Since your pastor might be too polite to correct you to your face, below is a list of ten of the most common confusions people have about the Bible, along with corrections:
1. The final book of the Bible is named Revelation, not Revelations. It consists of one “revelation” that Jesus gave to the apostle John while he was in exile on the island of Patmos.
2. Speaking of John, there are two very important people in the New Testament who share that name. The first one is John the Baptist, Jesus’ relative, the prophet who baptized Jesus and lived in the desert while eating locusts and honey. The second one is John the Apostle, often referred to in the Gospel of John as “the disciple Jesus loved.” That second John, according to tradition, wrote the Gospel of John, the book of Revelation (see #1 above), and 1, 2, and 3 John.
3. The book of Psalms is a collection of separate psalms, or songs, so it’s appropriate to use the plural noun when you are referring to the entire book. However, when you’re referring to only one of the psalms, it’s appropriate to say, “Psalm 63,” for example, rather than “Psalms 63.”
4. There are two important people in the New Testament named James (now you see why these things get confusing). First, there was James the son of Zebedee, who happened to be the brother of John the Apostle. Second, there was James the brother of Jesus. That second James wrote the book of James. He was also the first leader of the Jerusalem church, as recorded in the book of Acts.
5. The prophets Elijah and Elisha are often confused, and understandably so. I’m a pastor and I get them confused sometimes. Elijah came first. He’s probably best known for his showdown with the prophets of Baal, recorded in 1 Kings 18. He also went to heaven on a fiery chariot (2 Kings 2). Elisha then picked up Elijah’s cloak, and continued his prophetic ministry. Elisha is probably best known for his part in the healing of the Syrian official Naaman, recorded in 2 Kings 5. Naaman had leprosy, and Elisha told him to dip in the Jordan River seven times. After that, Naaman was totally healed.
6. When you’re reading the Old Testament, the names “Israel” and “Judah” usually refer to two separate nations. After the nation of Israel divided into two nations, there was a northern Kingdom (usually called “Israel” or “Ephraim”) and a southern kingdom (usually called “Judah”). This is particularly important when you’re reading the Old Testament prophets. For example, the prophets Hosea and Amos wrote to the northern kingdom of Israel. The majority of the prophets wrote to the southern kingdom of Judah, but they often mention the northern kingdom of Israel, so you have to pay close attention while you are reading.
7. There are two important people in the Bible named Joseph. One is found in the book of Genesis. He was the eleventh son of the patriarch Jacob. That Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers and eventually became the second most powerful person in Egypt. The other Joseph is in the New Testament, and he was the adopted father of Jesus. This one is especially confusing for young children, because most children’s Bibles include stories about both Josephs.
8. There are also two important people in the Bible named Saul. One was the first king of Israel. Most of his life story is found in the book of 1 Samuel. The other Saul wrote nearly half of the books in the New Testament, and he is usually referred to as Paul. But in the book of Acts, we learn that his original Jewish name was Saul. Just to confuse you further, the second Saul was probably named after the first one, since both of them came from the tribe of Benjamin.
9. If you hear your pastor talk about the “original languages” of the Bible, they are either referring to Hebrew or Greek (or occasionally Aramaic, but not often). The New Testament was written in Greek, while the Old Testament was written mostly in Hebrew, with a little bit of Aramaic. Incidentally, the Greek of the New Testament is called Koine, and it is quite different from the Greek language they speak today in Greece.
10. The names of some of Jesus’ disciples vary between the gospel accounts. First, Peter’s actual given name was Simon. Jesus gave him the nickname Peter, which means, “Rock.” After that, Simon preferred to be called Peter, because if your nickname were The Rock, you’d probably prefer that to Simon too. However, there was another disciple named Simon the Zealot, and that’s a different person from Simon Peter. There was also a man named Simon in the book of Acts who tried to buy the Holy Spirit from Peter and John. He wasn’t related to the disciples. Second, the apostle Matthew was also called Levi sometimes. Third, in the gospels of Matthew and Mark there’s a disciple named Thaddeus, who is called Judas in the book of Luke. Fourth, he is not the same Judas as Judas Iscariot. Judas Iscariot is the one who betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. Fifth, Bartholomew in the first three gospels is probably the same person as Nathaniel in John’s gospel. That is the gospel of John the brother of James, by the way, and not John the Baptist.
There you have it. Hopefully this short primer makes you just a little bit more literate with the people, places, and content of the Bible!