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Actually, that's not in the Bible
Satan tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden right? Nope. That's one of many phantom passages that people think are in the Bible.
June 5th, 2011
01:00 AM ET

Actually, that's not in the Bible

By John Blake, CNN

(CNN) – NFL legend Mike Ditka was giving a news conference one day after being fired as the coach of the Chicago Bears when he decided to quote the Bible.

“Scripture tells you that all things shall pass,” a choked-up Ditka said after leading his team to only five wins during the previous season.  “This, too, shall pass.”

Ditka fumbled his biblical citation, though. The phrase “This, too, shall pass” doesn’t appear in the Bible. Ditka was quoting a phantom scripture that sounds like it belongs in the Bible, but look closer and it’s not there.

Ditka’s biblical blunder is as common as preachers delivering long-winded public prayers. The Bible may be the most revered book in America, but it’s also one of the most misquoted. Politicians, motivational speakers, coaches - all types of people  - quote passages that actually have no place in the Bible, religious scholars say.

These phantom passages include:

“God helps those who help themselves.”

“Spare the rod, spoil the child.”

And there is this often-cited paraphrase: Satan tempted Eve to eat the forbidden apple in the Garden of Eden.

None of those passages appear in the Bible, and one is actually anti-biblical, scholars say.

But people rarely challenge them because biblical ignorance is so pervasive that it even reaches groups of people who should know better, says Steve Bouma-Prediger, a religion professor at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.

“In my college religion classes, I sometimes quote 2 Hesitations 4:3 (‘There are no internal combustion engines in heaven’),” Bouma-Prediger says. “I wait to see if anyone realizes that there is no such book in the Bible and therefore no such verse.

“Only a few catch on.”

Few catch on because they don’t want to - people prefer knowing biblical passages that reinforce their pre-existing beliefs, a Bible professor says.

“Most people who profess a deep love of the Bible have never actually read the book,” says Rabbi Rami Shapiro, who once had to persuade a student in his Bible class at Middle Tennessee State University that the saying “this dog won’t hunt” doesn’t appear in the Book of Proverbs.

“They have memorized parts of texts that they can string together to prove the biblical basis for whatever it is they believe in,” he says, “but they ignore the vast majority of the text."

Phantom biblical passages work in mysterious ways

Ignorance isn’t the only cause for phantom Bible verses. Confusion is another.

Some of the most popular faux verses are pithy paraphrases of biblical concepts or bits of folk wisdom.

Consider these two:

“God works in mysterious ways.”

“Cleanliness is next to Godliness.”

Both sound as if they are taken from the Bible, but they’re not. The first is a paraphrase of a 19th century hymn by the English poet William Cowper (“God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform).

The “cleanliness” passage was coined by John Wesley, the 18th century evangelist who founded Methodism,  says Thomas Kidd, a history professor at Baylor University in Texas.

“No matter if John Wesley or someone else came up with a wise saying - if it sounds proverbish, people figure it must come from the Bible,” Kidd says.

Our fondness for the short and tweet-worthy may also explain our fondness for phantom biblical phrases. The pseudo-verses function like theological tweets: They’re pithy summarizations of biblical concepts.

“Spare the rod, spoil the child” falls into that category. It’s a popular verse - and painful for many kids. Could some enterprising kid avoid the rod by pointing out to his mother that it's not in the Bible?

It’s doubtful. Her possible retort: The popular saying is a distillation of Proverbs 13:24: “The one who withholds [or spares] the rod is one who hates his son.”

Another saying that sounds Bible-worthy: “Pride goes before a fall.” But its approximation, Proverbs 16:18, is actually written: “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.”

There are some phantom biblical verses for which no excuse can be offered. The speaker goofed.

That’s what Bruce Wells, a theology professor, thinks happened to Ditka, the former NFL coach, when he strayed from the gridiron to biblical commentary during his 1993 press conference in Chicago.

Wells watched Ditka’s biblical blunder on local television when he lived in Chicago. After Ditka cited the mysterious passage, reporters scrambled unsuccessfully the next day to find the biblical source.

They should have consulted Wells, who is now director of the ancient studies program at Saint Joseph’s University in Pennsylvania. Wells says Ditka’s error probably came from a peculiar feature of the King James Bible.

“My hunch on the Ditka quote is that it comes from a quirk of the King James translation,” Wells says. “Ancient Hebrew had a particular way of saying things like, ‘and the next thing that happened was…’ The King James translators of the Old Testament consistently rendered this as ‘and it came to pass.’ ’’

When phantom Bible passages turn dangerous

People may get verses wrong, but they also mangle plenty of well-known biblical stories as well.

Two examples: The scripture never says a whale swallowed Jonah, the Old Testament prophet, nor did any New Testament passages say that three wise men visited baby Jesus, scholars say.

Those details may seem minor, but scholars say one popular phantom Bible story stands above the rest: The Genesis story about the fall of humanity.

Most people know the popular version - Satan in the guise of a serpent tempts Eve to pick the forbidden apple from the Tree of Life. It’s been downhill ever since.

But the story in the book of Genesis never places Satan in the Garden of Eden.

“Genesis mentions nothing but a serpent,” says Kevin Dunn, chair of the department of religion at Tufts University in Massachusetts.

“Not only does the text not mention Satan, the very idea of Satan as a devilish tempter postdates the composition of the Garden of Eden story by at least 500 years,” Dunn says.

Getting biblical scriptures and stories wrong may not seem significant, but it can become dangerous, one scholar says.

Most people have heard this one: “God helps those that help themselves.” It’s another phantom scripture that appears nowhere in the Bible, but many people think it does. It's actually attributed to Benjamin Franklin, one of the nation's founding fathers.

The passage is popular in part because it is a reflection of cherished American values: individual liberty and self-reliance, says Sidnie White Crawford, a religious studies scholar at the University of Nebraska.

Yet that passage contradicts the biblical definition of goodness: defining one’s worth by what one does for others, like the poor and the outcast, Crawford says.

Crawford cites a scripture from Leviticus that tells people that when they harvest the land, they should leave some “for the poor and the alien” (Leviticus 19:9-10), and another passage from Deuteronomy that declares that people should not be “tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor.”

“We often infect the Bible with our own values and morals, not asking what the Bible’s values and morals really are,” Crawford says.

Where do these phantom passages come from?

It’s easy to blame the spread of phantom biblical passages on pervasive biblical illiteracy. But the causes are varied and go back centuries.

Some of the guilty parties are anonymous, lost to history. They are artists and storytellers who over the years embellished biblical stories and passages with their own twists.

If, say, you were an anonymous artist painting the Garden of Eden during the Renaissance, why not portray the serpent as the devil to give some punch to your creation? And if you’re a preacher telling a story about Jonah, doesn’t it just sound better to say that Jonah was swallowed by a whale, not a “great fish”?

Others blame the spread of phantom Bible passages on King James, or more specifically the declining popularity of the King James translation of the Bible.

That translation, which marks 400 years of existence this year, had a near monopoly on the Bible market as recently as 50 years ago, says Douglas Jacobsen, a professor of church history and theology at Messiah College in Pennsylvania.

“If you quoted the Bible and got it wrong then, people were more likely to notice because there was only one text,” he says. “Today, so many different translations are used that almost no one can tell for sure if something supposedly from the Bible is being quoted accurately or not.”

Others blame the spread of phantom biblical verses on Martin Luther, the German monk who ignited the Protestant Reformation, the massive “protest” against the excesses of the Roman Catholic Church that led to the formation of Protestant church denominations.

“It is a great Protestant tradition for anyone - milkmaid, cobbler, or innkeeper - to be able to pick up the Bible and read for herself. No need for a highly trained scholar or cleric to walk a lay person through the text,” says Craig Hazen, director of the Christian Apologetics program at Biola University in Southern California.

But often the milkmaid, the cobbler - and the NFL coach - start creating biblical passages without the guidance of biblical experts, he says.

“You can see this manifest today in living room Bible studies across North America where lovely Christian people, with no training whatsoever, drink decaf, eat brownies and ask each other, ‘What does this text mean to you?’’’ Hazen says.

“Not only do they get the interpretation wrong, but very often end up quoting verses that really aren’t there.”

- CNN Writer

Filed under: Belief • Bible • Books • Christianity • Faith

soundoff (8,604 Responses)
  1. Samantha

    While everyone may hate that people are fighting over religon, (I hate hate as much as the next person) doesn't it feel good to know we have the right to freedom of speech and freedom of religon?

    June 6, 2011 at 6:47 am |
    • j.del

      It does feel good Sam, yes :)

      June 6, 2011 at 7:44 am |
  2. Rick

    Proverbs 13.35_ Lie..Lie..Lie to the Muslim, Then stab him in the back, Then afterwards cut his head off and place it at ground Zero.....One of my favorite Bible quotes.

    June 6, 2011 at 6:46 am |
  3. theydontkno

    Proverbs 13:24 is one that this writer missed. It says He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him. I agree with part of this article. The Bible is also a culture book remember some of those things are going on today. Just because it is not in America does not mean it is relevant. Also Why is this writer getting scholars and Jewish teachers to talk to. Many scholars do not believe in the Bible, and Jews are in different field many of them do not believe Jesus is the Son of God(actually God). Also many things of the Bible you have to study upon, not everything is common knowledge in the Bible. For unbelievers there are some parts of the Bible that they will take the wrong way and blow it out of context.

    June 6, 2011 at 6:46 am |
  4. furpurr

    Mr. Ditka did NOT say "this too shall pass" was in the bible; he said “Scripture tells you that all things shall pass,”...He was saying that this situation, too, shall pass. & he did not say it was "an exact quote" either. It was OBVIOUSLY a paraphrase. Why do people like to put words into other people's mouths??
    Because Matt. 24:35 DOES say, "Heaven & earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away."

    June 6, 2011 at 6:43 am |
  5. David

    Why is it that people do not want to accept the fact that God created everything? Evolution? no that is old stuff and really there is no evidence, they are a live in a beautiful place called earth in the middle of the nowhere in a universe and they don't get it. Here is actually why you do not want to accept the truth:

    18 “He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. 19 And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. 21 But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God.”

    June 6, 2011 at 6:42 am |
    • Woody

      "Why is it that people do not want to accept the fact that God created everything?"

      Simple answer; total lack of evidence. Not a single shred of indisputable evidence has ever surfaced to support the existence of your god or any other god. Bronze Age fairy tales handed down by word of mouth for thousands of years before being written down by unknown people are far from being hard evidence. What you believe in is simply an old story. No proof whatsoever. You sit in front of a computer that science and technology created and badmouth science and technology.

      June 6, 2011 at 7:09 am |
  6. Hadassah

    It was The Tree of Good and Evil ..... NOT the Tree of Life......

    June 6, 2011 at 6:33 am |
  7. Food for thought...

    According to the Bible,

    "And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover." [Mark 16 :17 & 18]

    Therefore a True Believer in Jesus could drink a deadly poison and nothing will harm him/her.

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aBFXajsIaSk&w=640&h=390]

    June 6, 2011 at 6:31 am |
    • furpurr

      That is incorrect. A "true believer" would NOT drink the poison to begin with, because in so doing, they are testing God; that is wrong! Not even Jesus dared do that. Matt. 4:7 states: Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

      June 6, 2011 at 6:47 am |
    • Hmm...

      But who is testing who in this verse?

      Your creator mentions "and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them" where in this verse does it say do not drink the poison because doing so would mean you are testing your creator?

      It seems like Christians are putting forward excuses, because they know they would drop dead instantly if they did ever decide to chug a pint of cyanide.

      June 6, 2011 at 7:05 am |
  8. Dafyd

    At the risk of repeating what someone else may have already said, identifying the serpent with Satan is a very old, pre-Christian notion, not something some Renaissance artist cooked up for shock value. It's in the apocrypha (which no Protestant reads - shame on them!). Wisdom of Solomon 2:23-24 – "For God created man to be immortal, and made him to be an image of his own eternity. Nevertheless through envy of the devil came death into the world: and they that do hold of his side do find it."

    June 6, 2011 at 6:31 am |
  9. Tim

    I disagree with some of the comments, Genesis 3:1-3, the serpent talked to the Woman......that is clear.....where did that conversation happen?....Kevin Dunn. As we try to understand scripture......cross referencing is important.

    June 6, 2011 at 6:16 am |
    • Kelly

      I agree with the other posters that there are a number of errors in this article. I specifically remember reading a lot of advice in the Book of Wisdom which all but flat out says "Spare the rod spoil the child" I read it myself along with a few other things that this author says are not there.

      June 6, 2011 at 6:34 am |
    • Noel

      of course, a serpent spoke to her. but who said serpent = satan?

      June 6, 2011 at 6:37 am |
  10. What's this about?

    I think a more important question is why do people quote the christian bible at all? They use it to win arguments as if they are quoting "god". Well, then wouldn't everything in the christian bible be used, even the really abhorrent stuff. Actually it is. This is what gives fanatics (in their mind) the right to commit their crimes.

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DfoMbg7UfUU&w=640&h=390]

    June 6, 2011 at 6:12 am |
  11. Fox Mulder

    Eve had a nice rack!

    June 6, 2011 at 6:03 am |
  12. More like...What's this about?

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NgWn7zbgxZ4&w=640&h=390]

    June 6, 2011 at 6:03 am |
  13. Brian

    "Two examples: The scripture never says a whale swallowed Jonah, the Old Testament prophet, nor did any New Testament passages say that three wise men visited baby Jesus, scholars say,"

    While you are correct about the number of wise men seeking Jesus, you have erred in your Jonah story. While the book of Jonah never mentions a whale and refers to a "great fish", Jesus provides clarity on the subject: Mat_12:40 For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

    June 6, 2011 at 6:02 am |
  14. Famous Person #11

    LMAO, Proverbs 12:23

    June 6, 2011 at 6:01 am |
  15. mr believer

    Wow. When did you need "training" to drink decaf, eat a brownie, and discuss scripture?

    June 6, 2011 at 5:56 am |
    • Malisteen

      While one doesn't need training to discuss scripture, training is certainly helpful in identifying false passages, or recognizing a translation and knowing its history and accuracy, or understanding the historical context within which the passage was written and to and of which it spoke.

      June 6, 2011 at 6:48 am |
    • Sean

      Because you can't be trusted to interpret it for yourself. Only we can do that. For a donation.

      June 6, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
  16. Hugh Smith

    The fact that lots of people either don't read the Bible or misquote it has nothing to do with whether it's true or not. And those who seriously believe that a huge explosion in the distant past somehow through the "laws of nature" resulted in butterflies, eagles, elephants, and people who can build things like space shuttles... well, those people have a lot more faith than I do. That doesn't answer all our questions about the meaning of our lives – but it should at least motivate us to look at the various explanations, including the Bible, more seriously.

    June 6, 2011 at 5:55 am |
    • Malisteen

      The universe is indeed a strange, old, and wondrous place. Far more so, on all those accounts, then a literalist interpretation of the Bible (or any holy book, for that matter) could convey. While I appreciate the Bible as a cornerstone of faith and testimony of the bond between God and humanity, when it comes to understanding the depth and bredth of God's universe, I would rather turn to science, which explains the mysteries of the universe through direct study, rather then fundamentalism, which merely explains them away by saying 'God did it'. God did indeed do it, but that's no reason to reject the study of the universe, or deny what simple observation tells us. Indeed, if we truely have faith in god, then a wholeharted and joyful acceptance of the majesty of his creation as it is, and not merely as our ancesters were able to envision it, can only enhance our appreciation of God's wonder.

      A wholesale rejection of science turns a blind eye to the wonders of His Word made manifest reality, in favor of focusing solely on the Word as filtered through storytelling, tradition, parable, writing, translation and re-translation, interpretion and reinterpretion – divine inspiration filtered through hundreds of generations of fallible humanity, bent this way and that to serve the specific needs and desires of societies throughout the ages. The sheer plethora of fundamentally conflicting holy texts in existence today testifies to the fact that God does not, in fact, prevent his Word from being misinterpreted, whether through accident or deliberate falsification. The Bible (though which one I won't bother arguing) remains an essential starting point for a Christian's journey of faith, and the most important cornerstone of that faith, but as our human onderstanding of God's universe grows through direct observation, science can, and indeed must, have a place in that journey as well.

      Jesus spoke to his followers in parables – stories not meant to be taken literally, but rather to teach us about the human condition and of God's love for humanity. So to did the Father speak to his people, and through the written Word to all people. Getting caught up in purely literalist interpretations causes one to miss out not only on the majesty of God's reality, but also on the true meanings and significance of the stories themselves.

      A biblical literalist, searching the globe for evidence of Noah's Arc in a vain effort to disprove the scientific geological narrative of the Earth's history, is like a follower of Jesus who, upon hearing the parable of the Good Samaratin, searched Samaria the Samaratin of the parable in an attempt to prove that the story actually happened, never stopping to consider its true messages – that we are called to help all people in need; that good men can be found in all of God's people, regardless of where they come from; that individuals will be judged in the eyes of God by how they treat their fellow man and woman and not merely by the faith they profess.

      June 6, 2011 at 7:32 am |
    • Hugh Smith

      Believe it or not, I in no way want to promote a "wholesale rejection" of science. I know enough Ph.Ds, in various fields of science, who reject the theory of evolution without even needing to refer to the Bible. Evolution has turned into a dogma in the scientific world, and anyone who dares to question it is quickly ostracized from the scientific community, if not flat out fired. But it wasn't that long ago that "all serious scientists" believed that the sun rotated around the earth, and one or two brave men dared to question that – and now, of course, everyone knows they were right. Many of the basic tenets of evolution are wrong, but are used as the looking glass, through which all the data are evaluated. I myself used to be a firm believer in evolution, but have since discovered there are lots of very good scientific arguments against it. But thanks at least for a rational and thinking reply, and not the typical ranting and raving that unfortunately fill these columns so much...

      June 6, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
  17. Matt

    While I agree with the essence of this article, as the author mentions, there are direct quotes and quotes that sum up a concept. Spare the rod, spoil the child for instance. God works in mysterious ways is a concept from "my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither my ways your ways." Also, Revelation 20:2 says, "...the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil or Satan..." linking him to the serpent (not snake) in Genesis. Some other "passages" are merely imposing values onto the Scriptures. I don't think it is just because "uneducated" people read the Bible. There are many, many "trained" preachers who introduce poor teaching and because the "uneducated" take the preacher at his word, the inaccuracies perpetuate. Some good thoughts, though. Know what the Bible actually says.

    June 6, 2011 at 5:51 am |
    • JJ, India

      Great reflection.Thanks Matt.

      June 6, 2011 at 6:21 am |
  18. Bryan Hughes

    I think the Bible, for the people of the time that it was written, provided some explanation for why things came to be. Science was not remotely as advanced as it is at present. It was a form of law, based on providing guidance on how one should be, if they are to live a fulfilling life. Viewed in that context, it has never been important to me, to try to recall scripture. Just the tenants of the bible, as long as they don't incorporate bigotry, hatred, and espouse superiority over others, based on race, or gender. Believe as you like, but never force your religious perspective on others.

    June 6, 2011 at 5:51 am |
  19. Whats this about?

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E2s14T6x5AM&w=640&h=390]

    June 6, 2011 at 5:50 am |
    • Cthulhu

      http://tinyurl.com/62tcamt

      June 7, 2011 at 8:31 am |
  20. Jessie

    Proverbs 13:24 – Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them. OK, so it is not word for word "spare the rod, spoil the child" but it is in there!

    June 6, 2011 at 5:39 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.