The following biblical images will probably be familiar to you, either as word pictures or actual drawings and artwork. You’ve heard them described in sermons. You’ve seen them depicted in picture books, greeting cards, and artwork. You may even think you know exactly where to find them in the Bible.
There’s one problem. They’re not actually in the Bible. At all.
So how did these ideas and images get started and gain traction? Let’s find out.
1. Eve Eating an Apple
The Bible doesn’t say Eve ate an apple. In fact, God’s Word doesn’t give a physical description of the fruit at all, except to say that it was edible and attractive (Genesis 2:9, 3:6).
So how did this mysterious fruit come to be universally depicted as an apple? One theory is that the idea stems (no pun intended) from the similarity of the word evil used in the name of the tree, and the word apple used to describe, well, apples in other books of the Bible. In the original Hebrew, the words for evil (rah) and apples (tappuwach) aren’t similar at all. But when the Bible was translated into Latin in the 4th century, the Latin words for evil (mali) and apples (mala) is indeed similar. Could this have led to confusion in people’s minds?
However it started, the idea continued to gain momentum until today it’s a common portrayal. In 1508, for example, when Raphael painted Adam and Eve into the ceiling fresco as part of the Stanze della Segnatura in the Vatican, it looks as if Eve is about to eat a fig. But in 1550, when the Venetian artist Titian portrayed Eve in the Fall of Man, the tree of knowledge of good and evil still has fig leaves, but the fruit definitely looks like an apple. Today, of course, we’re used to seeing images of Eve holding a Golden Delicious.
It’s possible that the tree of knowledge bore fruit unlike any fruit known to mankind today. In Genesis 1:29, God tells the new couple, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.” Yet the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was not on the approved food list. Is it possible that it did not have fruit with seeds? We’re speculating here, but it kind of makes sense that the forbidden delicacy was a type of fruit—perhaps seedless?—unlike fruit as we understand it today. (Besides, if the forbidden tree bore seeded fruit as we know it today, wouldn’t the garden soon have been filled with sapling trees of knowledge?)
The point is, we understand the creative challenge of drawing a mysterious, unfamiliar, undescribed fruit—so anything an artist might put in Eve’s hand is mere speculation.
And as long as we’re on the subject of “What’s Wrong with This Picture?” of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit, let’s talk about that wily serpent. You’ve undoubtedly seen plenty of illustrations showing Eve being tempted by a slithering snake. Is that an accurate image? In Genesis 3:14 God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life.”
But if the serpent began life on his belly after Eve ate the fruit, it makes sense that it didn’t crawl on its belly before the fall. Before the curse, did the serpent walk upright? Did it have legs or even wings? We’ll never know until we get to Heaven and but, if so, the depiction of a legless serpent tempting Eve would be wrong.
And don’t even get us started on paintings and illustrations that show Adam and Eve with belly buttons!
2. Long-Haired Samson Destroying the Philistine Temple
Here’s another well-known image that isn’t supported by facts in the Bible.
You’ve probably seen illustrations of Samson, his long hair restored by the passage of time and his strength reclaimed, destroying the Philistine temple. And while the Bible says that Samson’s hair began to grow again after it had been shaved by the Philistines, it certainly doesn’t say or even suggest that he had long hair again at his death, or that regrowing his hair gave him his strength back.
In fact, Scripture suggests a very different scenario.
Let’s start by figuring out how long Samson’s hair probably was when it was shaved off by the Philistines. Hair grows about six inches a year, and a follicle will grow a strand of hair for four to six years before that strand falls out and the follicle begins to grow a new strand. This is the reason hair—even hair that has never been trimmed—only reaches the length it can grow in four to six years (sorry, Rapunzel!). In other words, Samson’s hair would likely have been two or three feet long, and regrowing it to that length after being shaved would have taken another four to six years.
And yet nothing in Scripture suggests that years passed between the shaving of Samson’s hair and the famous scene where he is braced against the pillars, bringing down the Philistine’s temple in the middle of the their victory celebration.
In fact, the Biblical account in Judges 16:23-25 makes it sound as if the Philistines held their celebration fairly soon after Samson’s capture:
Now the rulers of the Philistines assembled to offer a great sacrifice to Dagon their god and to celebrate, saying, “Our god has delivered Samson, our enemy, into our hands.”
When the people saw him, they praised their god, saying,
“Our god has delivered our enemy
into our hands,
the one who laid waste our land
and multiplied our slain.”
While they were in high spirits, they shouted, “Bring out Samson to entertain us.” So they called Samson out of the prison, and he performed for them.
This doesn’t sound like a response to something that occurred four to six years earlier, does it? How long did it take for news of Samson’s capture to travel throughout the land, and for the Philistines to convene in the temple of their god to celebrate that news? A few weeks? Maybe a month or two? It’s likely, then, that when Samson was bracing himself against the temple pillars, he had short hair. Maybe very short hair. Maybe something more like a crew cut or buzz!
Here’s another reason that the Bible story images of long-haired Samson destroying the temple are misleading. Scripture tells us exactly how Samson regained his strength, and it had nothing to do with the length of his hair, and everything to do with reconciling his relationship with his God.
The return of Samson’s strength began when, weak and shackled, he prayed these words: “Sovereign Lord, remember me.”
The secret of Samson’s great strength had always been rooted in his relationship with God (and not in his, you know . . . roots). In fact, he describes the true source of his strength—his dedication to God—when he finally tells the truth to Delilah: “No razor has ever been used on my head because I have been a Nazirite dedicated to God from my mother’s womb.” (Judges 16:17).
Samson lost his strength when he chose intimacy with Delilah over loyalty to God, and the Lord left him. (Judges 16:20) He regained his strength when he asked the Lord to remember him, and the Lord did. (Judges 16:28).
Sure, there’s something appealing about the image of Samson, having regained his flowing locks and epic powers, wreaking revenge on the Philistines. It’s also a good way to keep thinking that Samson’s power came from his ‘do rather than his God.
How much more powerful is the following image, which is probably closer to what God’s Word seems to be describing anyway: Samson, his head newly shaved, braced against the pillars, bringing down the temple through the power of the Living God and nothing else. In that moment, his hair didn’t matter. His ability to keep a vow didn’t matter. The final image of a blind and nearly-bald Samson destroying the Philistine’s temple is a picture of reconciliation, forgiveness, and what the power of God can accomplish through ordinary, broken people whenever we yield our hearts and lives to Him.
(Want to learn more about Samson? Check out the blog post 7 Things You Didn’t Learn About Samson in Sunday School.)
3. Daniel as a Strapping Young Man Facing the Lions
It’s easy to imagine Daniel as a strapping young man facing down the lions in their den. Indeed, it’s an image many writers and artists have committed to ink and paint. But Bible scholars tell us that, based on the dates of historical events in his lifetime, Daniel was actually in his early 80s when he was thrown in with the hungry beasts.
Perhaps a reason we picture him younger has to do with the ages of his three friends when they faced similar persecution for their faith.
Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, along with Daniel, were taken into captivity by King Nebuchadnezzar when he captured Jerusalem in the year 587 BC. According to Bible scholars, the young men were very likely around 13 or 14 at the time. Nebuchadnezzar renamed Daniel’s friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and, at some point when they refused to worship a golden image, the angry king threw them into a fiery furnace. Because Nebuchadnezzar’s rule lasted 36 years after the fall of Jerusalem, we know that when God spared them from the fiery flames, the Hebrew men were most likely in their 20s or 30s (or in their late 40s at the oldest), which are the ages we tend to see depicted in illustrations of the event.
Is that why we imagine Daniel around the same age?
It’s tempting to lump the experiences of these four friends together, since they went through many similar events and challenges. But the truth is that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were thrown into the furnace when they were in their 30s (give or take a decade), while Daniel was thrown into the lions’ den many decades later.
(Want to learn more about Daniel? Check out the blog post 7 Fascinating Facts That Will Change How You Read the Book of Daniel.)
4. Jesus with Western Features, a Flowing Robe, and Long Hair
It’s likely that some of the mostly widely-circulated drawings of Jesus are inaccurate in, well . . . pretty much every detail.
You’ve probably already suspected that the lily-white, brown-haired, sometimes blue-eyed Jesus depicted often in art and literature may not be an accurate representation of a 1st century Jewish man living in Judea.
But did you know there’s also a good chance he wore a knee-length tunic rather than a long robe? In Jesus’ day, ankle-length robes were worn by wealthy men. In fact, in Mark 12:38-40 Jesus decried the hypocrisy of those who wore flowing robes, seeking respect and honor, while taking advantage of widows. Jesus did not align himself with this group, nor with the wealthy. He came from a blue-collar family and hung out with fishermen. It seems likely that the man who taught, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes,” (Luke 12:22-28) would have dressed in the manner of the common man in his day.
It’s also unlikely that Jesus had long hair and a long beard. In the Roman times in which He lived, the accepted style for men was to be clean-shaven and wear their hair very short. An exception was made for philosophers, who got away with a slightly scruffier look (as they were considered too busy thinking about important things to trim their hair and facial hair as often). Still, even for philosophers the style was fairly short and trimmed.
Paul reflects the fashion at the time when he writes to the Corinthians, “Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him” (1 Corinthians 11:14).
An exception was made for Jews who took a Nazarite vow, which consisted of following a specific code of behavior to show their dedication to God. A Nazarite could not cut his hair, had to abstain from drinking alcohol or consuming anything made from grapes, and had to avoid touching dead bodies. Samson was a Nazarite, as was John the Baptist.
All indications, however, are that Jesus had not taken the Nazarite vow, as he did not avoid the dead, nor did he avoid wine. How do we know? We see examples of both of these in the 7th chapter of Luke. In the town of Nain, when Jesus saw a young man who had passed away being carried on a bier (most likely laid on a board and covered with a shroud), Jesus did not shy away but approached the body. Laying his hand next to the man, Jesus commanded him to get up. (Luke 7:11-14).
And later in the same chapter, Jesus can be found speaking to a crowd of people and describing what his critics had to say about what he ate and drank: “For John the Baptist came neither eating bread or drinking wine, and you say ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’”
Regardless of how Jesus has been depicted through the centuries, He most likely looked like typical Jewish man of his day, dressed in a knee-length tunic and mantle, with short hair and a clean-shaven face or, at most, with shortish hair and beard.
5. The Lion Lying Down with the Lamb
This familiar image is meant to show how different things will be during the future reign of the Messiah—but it’s not actually in the Bible! The Bible passage from which this image is derived never actually pairs a lion with a lamb. Here’s the verse:
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. (Isaiah 11:6)
We’ll be the first to admit there are a lot of animals mentioned here, but it’s pretty clear that the lamb is hanging out with a wolf, and the lion is lying down with the calves. Nowhere does Scripture include a phrase about a lion and lamb lying down together.
So why is an image of a reposing lion and lamb so stuck in our collective memories?
Well, there is a passage of Scripture that refers to Jesus as both the Lion of the tribe of Judah, and the Lamb slain for our sins. You can find it in Revelation 5:5-6:
Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”
Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. The Lamb had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.
The idea of two passages of Scripture being combined in our minds and eventually turning into something familiar—but inaccurate—isn’t as farfetched as you might think. In fact, it’s exactly what happened to create the next well-known—but factually wrong—biblical image.
6. Three Wise Men Visiting Baby Jesus in the Manger
It’s common to see Nativity scenes and Christmas pageants portraying shepherds and wise men worshipping a newborn baby Jesus in a manger.
Yet when you read the account of the visit of the Magi in the second chapter of Matthew, it’s easy to see that the shepherds and Magi never celebrated together. In fact, the Magi probably met Jesus as a toddler, rather than a newborn. Here are the clues:
According to the Bible, the Magi visited Jesus in a house. Okay, this is bigger than a clue. More like an out-and-out statement. The shepherds found Jesus in the manger (Luke 2:16) and the wise men found him in a house (Matthew 2:11). Case closed. Despite the word “stable” not being used in any Bible translation to describe where Jesus was born, we can conclude that Jesus was probably not born in a house (where the Magi found him), unless that house just so happened to have a manger in it… Weird place to feed your livestock, but we’ll keep an open mind so we can check out the other clues.
After seeing the star, the Magi didn’t bother going straight to Bethlehem (where these learned men would have known from Micah 5:2 that the Messiah would be born). Instead, they inquired about him six miles away, in Jerusalem. Why is that? Perhaps the Magi knew they were arriving long enough after the birth of the Messiah that the little family might have moved. They also seemed to have assumed they were arriving long enough after His birth for news of His arrival to have reached the nearby capital of the Jewish world.
Shortly after the Magi visited Jesus, Herod ordered the death of children Jesus’s age, which he calculated to be around two years, maybe younger. During the Magi’s visit to Jerusalem, Herod learned from them when the Messiah had been born. Shortly after the Magi left Jerusalem and found Jesus, Herod used that information to order the death of children around Jesus’ age, which he calculated to be around two years or younger.
Why is it safe to assume that Herod’s orders were given shortly after the Magi found Jesus? Couldn’t the Magi have visited Jesus as a newborn—and it took Herod two years to realize they weren’t coming back to tell him the location of the Messiah? Eh, probably not. As mentioned a few paragraphs ago, Bethlehem is just six miles from Jerusalem. Herod was undoubtedly on pins and needs waiting for their return. And when they didn’t come back within a reasonable amount of time, he took action.
It’s not hard to see how events from the first two years of Jesus’ life could be misconstrued to have occurred on the same night, especially since both passages describe worshippers led to Jesus by the same star. But the facts described in Scripture leave little doubt that they took place at completely different times.
7. David As a Scrawny Teen Battling Goliath
We know from Scripture that David was dwarfed by the giant Goliath, who was 9 feet 9 inches tall and protected by bronze armor that by itself weighed 125 pounds.
Whatever size David happened to be, he was no match for the angry, taunting giant.
That said, illustrations of David as a scrawny teen don’t do him justice. In fact, Scripture is filled with evidence that when David faced Goliath, while the size gap between the two warriors remained laughable, David was probably buffer and taller than most young men his age.
For starters, before David fought Goliath, he had already met Saul and had been selected to serve as one of the King’s armor bearers (1 Samuel 16:21), going back and forth from Saul to tend his father’s sheep (1 Samuel 17: 15). The fact that David was already Saul’s armor bearer suggests that David had some strength and size to him.
Another clue as to his size and strength: He had recently killed a bear and a lion with his bare hands. (1 Samuel 17:34-37).
Next, when David offers to fight Goliath, Saul gives his own tunic, and very likely his own armor, for David to wear into battle. The Bible tells us that Saul was taller than other men (1 Samuel 9:2 and 10:23), so the fact that he thought his gear would fit David says something about David’s stature. And when David declines, he doesn’t say it’s because the tunic and armor are too big, but because he’s not used to wearing them.
Finally, David pulled Goliath’s own sword out of its sheath and used it to behead the giant. Based on traditional sword proportions and the type of sword Goliath used, it’s possible that the weapon could have been close to half his height, or between four and five feet long. What we know for sure is that the sword, whatever its style and length, would have been challenging for David to wield. That fact that he was able to do was is further indication of his size and strength.
Whatever David’s size, it doesn’t diminish the fact that, in his own strength, he was outmatched by the war-seasoned giant. At the same time, there are indications that perhaps God had prepared David in some ways for this conflict. Above all, we see faith in action, and David’s own prophetic words to his enemy come true: “All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s, and He will give all of you into our hands.” (1 Samuel 17: 47)
So what does all this mean? We’re not saying you shouldn’t own a Bible storybook showing Daniel as a young man or Eve eating an apple, or that you should never send a Christmas card portraying the Magi arriving sooner than they really did. Biblical ideas, images, and themes can show up lots of places and provide neat visual reminders of the story of God’s great love for mankind. But when it comes to getting the facts and developing your theology, bypass the greeting cards and picture books and go straight to the source: study the Word of God and see what the Bible really says.
Which of the examples in this article did you find most interesting? Can you think of any other examples of Bible story “facts” that are commonly accepted, but wrong? What about commonly misquoted Bible verses? Are widely accepted inaccuracies like these a big deal, inconsequential, or something in the middle? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
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