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Urban Legends

By WizenedSage (Galen Rose) --

While reading the Wikipedia entry on ‘urban legend’ recently, I was struck with how well the Bible illustrates all of the basic defining properties of the term. I think it could fairly be said that the Bible is, in fact, a large and poorly organized collection of urban legends.

According to Wikipedia, “An urban legend, urban myth, urban tale, or a contemporary legend, is a form of modern folklore consisting of apocryphal stories believed by their tellers to be true.” The point here is that folklore and urban legends are basically the same thing, it’s just a matter of timing; what starts as urban legend becomes folklore with age. So what started as urban legends in Biblical times became folklore with the passage of time. Such legends or myths are typically either wild embellishments with a kernel of truth or pure fiction.

Let’s take a look at the ‘urban legend’ entry and see how the Bible can be used to illustrate the various features of the term. The passages below which are inside quotation marks are from Wikipedia.

“Few urban legends can be traced to their actual origins, and even in these cases, the connections are often obscured by later embellishment and adaptation.” No one knows the source of any of the Biblical stories such as Jonah and the whale, Noah and the ark, Lot’s wife and the pillar of salt, etc., etc. etc. As for “embellishment and adaptation,” it’s not hard to see the Biblical claims about 900 year-old men and virgin births were embellishments.

“Many urban legends are presented as warnings or cautionary tales, while others might be more aptly called ‘widely dispersed misinformation,’ such as the erroneous belief that a college student will automatically pass all courses in a semester if her or his roommate commits suicide.” Other examples which might have been used are Jesus’ statements that prayers are always answered, or the belief that one can live forever if he ascribes to certain beliefs and rituals as prescribed by the Bible. Notice that in our scientific age the concept of “everlasting life” is itself an oxymoron; life, by definition, is temporary, always and without exception.

“One of the classic hallmarks of false urban legends is a lack of specific information regarding the incident, such as names, dates, locations, or similar information. For this reason, it is characteristic of groups within which a given narrative circulates to react very negatively to claims or demonstrations of non-factuality; an example would be the expressions of outrage by police officers who are told that adulteration of Halloween treats by strangers (the subject of periodic mass panics) is extremely rare, if it has occurred at all.” This type of indignant reaction is very closely paralleled by Bible believers when it is suggested that some of the Bible might be exaggeration or downright false.

“Some urban legends are morality tales that depict someone, usually a child, acting in a disagreeable manner, only to wind up in trouble, hurt, or dead.” The main characters in the Bible frequently refer to their “father in heaven,” and those “acting in a disagreeable manner,” such as the man picking up sticks on the Sabbath, or those contesting King David’s right to whatever or whoever he wants, generally end up dead or wishing they were.

“Regardless of origins, urban legends typically include one or more common elements: the legend is retold on behalf of the original witness or participant; dire warnings are often given for those who might not heed the advice or lesson contained therein… and it is often touted as "something a friend told me," while the friend is identified by first name only or not identified at all.”

So, “…the legend is retold on behalf of the original witness” as in the Gospels which were written 35 or more years after the events they are said to chronicle, and almost certainly not by the original “witnesses” (if indeed there were any). “Dire warnings are often given for those who might not heed the advice or lesson contained therein;” and the Bible reader is warned of eternal torture in a lake of fire if he doesn’t heed the advice of the Bible. And the legend is “often touted as ‘something a friend told me,’ while the friend is identified by first name only or not identified at all.” The first-name-only authors of the Gospels are said to be Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. No last names were ever provided.

Despite the enormous advances in science accruing over the past few hundred years, urban legends are as popular today as ever, as attested by TV shows such as “Urban Legends,” “Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction,” and “Mostly True Stories: Urban Legends Revealed.”

“Since 2004, the Discovery Channel TV show “MythBusters” has tried to prove or disprove urban legends by attempting to test them or reproduce them using the scientific method.” As yet, however, the Biblical stories about the resurrection of a man who had been dead for several days, a man walking on water, and a man healing blindness or disease with a touch have not been investigated on MythBusters. This may be because such things are so obviously scientifically impossible that the outcome is certain and programs featuring these myths would be very boring (as well as dangerous to the show’s survival).

It appears that the major difference between the tales of the Bible and more modern urban legends is age. Another notable difference, however, is that most urban legends are actually more believable because they are not so obviously scientifically impossible, such as shepherds’ staffs turning into snakes, talking jackasses, and demons being the source of disease. It’s a frightening thought, but it seems man’s gullibility quotient has changed very, very little over the past 2,000 years.