Preaching Articles

Those of us who are entrusted with the task of expositing the Scriptures in a local church must take care to verify our sources, illustrations, and stories. No matter how helpful an illustration may be, it is dishonoring to God if it is untrue.

Here are seven urban legends that get repeated in sermons. Some are more pervasive than others, even appearing in commentaries and scholarly works.

1. The “eye of the needle” refers to a gate outside Jerusalem.

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God,” says Jesus in Mark 10:25. Maybe you’ve heard of the gate in Jerusalem called the “eye of the needle.” The camel could pass through it only after stooping down and having all its baggage taken off.

The illustration is used in many sermons as an example of coming to God on our knees and without our baggage. The only problem is … there is no evidence for such a gate. The story has been around since the 15th century, but there isn’t a shred of evidence to support it.

2. The high priest tied a rope around his ankle so that others could drag him out of the Holy of Holies in case God struck him dead.

Various versions of this claim have been repeated by pastors, but it is a legend. It started in the Middle Ages and keeps getting repeated. There is no evidence for the claim in the Bible, the Apocrypha, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus, the Pseudepigrapha, the Talmud, Mishna or any other source. Furthermore, the thickness of the veil (three feet) would have precluded the possibility of a priest being dragged out anyway.

3. Scribes took baths, discarded their pens, washed their hands, etc. every time they wrote the name of God.

As a way of getting across the reverence of the Jewish and Christian scribes toward God, preachers like to describe the honor given to God’s name. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that scribes did these sorts of rituals every time they came across the name of God.

4. There was this saying among the sages: “May you be covered in your rabbi’s dust.”

This is one of the most pervasive and fast-spreading stories to flood the church in recent years. The idea is that as you walked behind your rabbi, he would kick up dust and you would become caked in it, and so following your rabbi closely came to symbolize your commitment and zeal.

5. Voltaire’s house is now owned by a Bible-printing publisher.

Voltaire was famous for saying, “One hundred years from my day there will not be a Bible in the earth except one that is looked upon by an antiquarian curiosity seeker.” There is a myth out there that within 50 years of Voltaire’s death, his house was owned by a Bible society that used his own printing press to make Bibles. Sounds like a great story, but it’s not true. Regardless, Voltaire’s prediction of the demise of the Bible was vastly overstated.

6. Gehenna was a burning trash dump outside Jerusalem.

I’ve used this illustration many times. But there isn’t evidence to support this idea. Still, because it seems like a reasonable explanation for the origin of the Hinnom Valley as “hell,” commentators and preachers have accepted it. It’s possible that the verdict may still be out on this one, but not if Todd Bolen is right:

“The explanation for the ‘fire of Gehenna’ lies not in a burning trash dump, but in the burning of sacrificed children. Already in Old Testament times, the Valley of Hinnom was associated with the destiny of the wicked.  That the valley was just outside the city of Jerusalem made it an appropriate symbol for those excluded from divine blessing.”

7. NASA scientists have discovered a “missing day” which corresponds to the Joshua account of the sun standing still.

Please don’t repeat this myth. There has been no “missing day” discovered, and the legend has been circulating longer than NASA has been in existence, with different scientists playing the part.

What are some other urban legends we should avoid as pastors?

Trevin Wax is first and foremost a follower of Jesus Christ. His wife is Corina, and they have two children: Timothy (7) and Julia (3). He is an editor at LifeWay Christian Resources of a resource titled TGM—Theology, Gospel, Mission, a gospel-centered small group curriculum focused on the grand narrative of Scripture. He has been blogging regularly at Kingdom People since October 2006. He frequently contributes articles to other publications, such as Christianity Today. He received his bachelor’s degree in Pastoral Theology from Emanuel University of Oradea in the country of Romania, where he was involved in mission work in several village churches from 2000–05. He received a Masters of Divinity at Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY. He spent several years serving the wonderful people of First Baptist Church in Shelbyville, TN as Associate Pastor. His new book, Counterfeit Gospels: Rediscovering the Good News in a World of False Hope, was released in April.

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Gregory Fisher

commented on May 11, 2011

My all time favorite: Madalyn Murray O'Hair is working with FCC to ban Christian broadcasting on TV, Radio, and the internet. (Evidently she doing all of this from beyond the grave!)

Alexander Shaw

commented on May 11, 2011

I have been 12 times to Israel leading Pilgrimages and Tours - yes there is a 'needle eye gate' - we have gone through it either approaching or leaving the Temple Area. It is painted green and is the small 'door' in the corner of the larger gate.

Tracy Mcintyre

commented on May 11, 2011

I've heard many times that the veil was 3 feet thick, as mentioned above. Where is that in the Bible? I don't recall every reading that. Is that another Urban Legend? I've heard it so many times, it must be in the Bible or some other historical material, can anyone out there help me find that? Thanks.

David Nolte

commented on May 11, 2011

Another is the erroneous quote from the Koran predicting the 9-11 event and the response of the "eagle" or USA.

Chaplain Shawn Kennedy

commented on May 11, 2011

I have used the folded cloth in Jesus' tomb as proof that, according to Jewish dinner habits, Jesus "wasn't finished or satisfied or was coming back. I should have checked

Gregory Fisher

commented on May 11, 2011

My all time favorite: Madalyn Murray O'Hair is working with FCC to ban Christian broadcasting on TV, Radio, and the internet. (Evidently she doing all of this from beyond the grave!)

James Shelton

commented on May 11, 2011

I too have preached about the folded/rolled cloth mentioned in the Gospel of John. But I stated that this is not necessarily found in Jewish tradition/culture but could possibly be practiced or found by some of the Eastern culture.

William Keith Hatfield

commented on May 11, 2011

I'm tired of the one about Martin Luther going down and getting his music from the "bars". He did not. German music is constructed in "bars", a musical term. He did not get his music from bars, he wrote it in bars.

Thom Turner

commented on May 11, 2011

I just used the one about "the rope around the priests waist" this last week. Oops. Could've sworn I heard it on one of Luther's "Bar" songs!

Richard D Springer

commented on May 11, 2011

I couldn't agree with your article more. I have been doing some recent research on illustrations told by preachers. It is amazing and disheartening to see all of the various untrue, inaccurate, or unverified stories told in "preacher-world." For example, the story about Paderewski and the little boy at the piano is not true. The story about the woman in the lifeboat on the Titanic who went to get 3/5 oranges [or was it a Bible?] is unverifiable. The oft repeated list of "One Votes" that supposedly changed history is also untrue. There are many other examples out there in "preacher-world!" In fact, it seems to me, that the most unreliable source for illustrations is from other preachers!

Charles Gentry

commented on May 11, 2011

I had to stop telling a story I used for an illustration about a man who raised the trestle for the train. His young son, so the story went, was playing in the gears when the train was approaching and the father had to choose betwen his son and the hundreds of people on the train. Sounds good but was not true. Thanks to my brother, who is not a Christian, by the way, for enlightening me! I felt foolish.

Paul Martens

commented on Apr 8, 2018

The story which you heard was "not true" was about a man named John Griffith. He lived in Oklahoma in 1929 and lost all he had in the stock market. He moved to Mississippi where he took a job as bridge tender for a Railroad trestle. The accident happened in 1937 as the Memphis Express train approached. His son's name was Greg.

James Dale

commented on May 11, 2011

Interesting points and I tend to agree with what you have said, but it would have been nice if you would have recited sources for your refutations. Otherwise you are doing what you say others should avoid. I can hear it now, "Gehenna was NOT a burning trash dump outside of Jerusalem." I know this to be true because I read an article by Trevin Wax where he quoted Todd Bolen and he said it wasn't. If we have proof that something is inaccurate we should provide the source of that proof. Especially if we have historical proof.

Charles Gibbs

commented on May 11, 2011

It's amazing to me how you can know something is not true because you can't find evidence for it. I think you would have to know everything or that to be true. I do believe we preachers are guilty of sounding more intelligent and studied than we are sometimes, and that we often don't do proper research. And i too have been embarrassed by assuming some great-sounding illustration was true. I suspect we get into trouble because of the demand for creativity three to five times a week. I try to get around this by not sounding so emphatic. Sometimes I add perspective by saying, "I know this must be true, because i read it on the internet." Always gets a chuckle. If a story illustrates a truth and i can't verify it, I simply tell it as a story that i can't verify, assuming it doesn't impune my integrity. No point in throughing the baby out with the bathwater,

Jason Williams

commented on May 11, 2011

As for many hymns being derived from 'bar tunes,' this is true in general, although I would classify them more as 'popular folk melodies' than bar tunes. As for Luther's tunes in particular, who knows? It's not a secret that Martin enjoyed his brew...and his songs!

Mark Jones

commented on May 11, 2011

Is the one about "The Beast" still floating around? That's the giant computer in Brussels Belgium that assigns every person on the planet a number. I heard that in the early seventies and heard it as late as the early 2000's, yes from preachers!

Stephen Aldrich

commented on May 11, 2011

I cannot disagree with your premise at all. I do, however, think it is interesting that you provide no substantiation for debunking these "urban myths." I agree with comment 12. "Trevin Wax says so" is not a terribly useful refutation to those who have heard these stories for years. :) How about a follow up article?

Rob Touchstone

commented on May 12, 2011

The expression "covered in the rabbi's dust" is verifiable. It is attributed to Rabbi Yose Ben Yoezer, a rabbi during the early Maccabean period. He said, "Let thy house be a meeting-place for the wise; powder thyself in the dust of their feet, and drink their words with eagerness." This is found in tractate Abot iv.4. The only debate here, according to an article by Alexander Guttmann, in the Jewish Quarterly Review (Vo. 41, No. 2, Oct. 1950), is over why this tractate was originally included in the Mishnah because of the literary differences that distinguish Abot from the rest of the tractes in the Mishah. But the fact is, it is there, so there should be no reason this quote from Rabbi Ben Yoezer should be called an "urban myth." The debate then could perhaps be whether or not this saying was widely circulated around the time of Jesus. The tractate's name, "Abot," or "Avot," means "fathers" in Hebrew and is a collection of the sayings and moral principles set forth by the rabbis. It is completely plausible that Ben Yoezer?s rabbinic saying to be "covered" or "powdered" in the dust of your rabbi could have been circulated and applied amongst rabbis who would have been extremely well versed in the Torah and the Mishnah.

Richard Springer

commented on May 13, 2011

It is not so much a question of sources to refute these bogus illustrations, as it is of one in which, if such illustrations are used, they should come with verifiable sources. For example, the Paderewski/littleboy/piano story: check out For the "One Vote" and Teddy Stallard/etc story check out For the Titanic/woman/oranges story - if you google it around, you will find various versions of it - did she have only a moment or 3 minutes or 5 minutes did she pick up 3 or 5 oranges or was it a Bible? This is an unverified story that shows up again and again in online sermons. As preachers, every effort should be made to make certain that the illustrations being used are truthful [verifiable], otherwise they must not be used.

Anonymous Contributor

commented on May 13, 2011

Story illustration are for making points, its not to say whether they are true or not. How do we know if Jesus was just using an illustration or telling a true story?.

Steven Cole

commented on May 14, 2011

Just something interesting about the Needles eye. I have an old Bible Dictionary by Zondervon called: The New Compact Bible Dictionary 21st print June 1977 on page 393 shows a picture of the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem wall with needles eye. In case anyone was wondering.

Johnnie King

commented on May 14, 2011

I have heard that about the eye of the needle before but the scriptures plainly states that it is not a small door that is made for a camel because they state that this is imposible and jesus replyies with man it is imposible but with god all things are possible

James Dale

commented on May 16, 2011

One other note - Consider the parables - were these literally true stories or actual events? Illustration do not have to be literally true to be used. I see nothing wrong with making up a generally true story to illustrate a spiritual message as Jesus did with the parables. For example, in a sermon on building strong marital relationships you might say something like..."Let's say a husband and wife are having an argument over finances, etc...." You then go on to explain the biblical way of handling that situation. True story? Well, I am sure that at some point in time a husband and wife have argued over finances, so my illustration, although not literally true is generally true, and thus I can make my point. Nothing wrong with that. But, I would caution that you not state an illustration is true if you cannot verify it.

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