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My Take: The 3 biggest biblical misconceptions
The Bible presents us with an evolving story, writes John Shelby Spong.
December 29th, 2011
09:10 AM ET

My Take: The 3 biggest biblical misconceptions

Editor’s note: John Shelby Spong, a former Episcopal bishop of Newark, New Jersey, is author of "Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World."

By John Shelby Spong, Special to CNN

The Bible is both a reservoir of spiritual insight and a cultural icon to which lip service is still paid in the Western world. Yet when the Bible is talked about in public by both believers and critics, it becomes clear that misconceptions abound.

To me, three misconceptions stand out and serve to make the Bible hard to comprehend.

First, people assume the Bible accurately reflects history. That is absolutely not so, and every biblical scholar recognizes it.

The facts are that Abraham, the biblically acknowledged founding father of the Jewish people, whose story forms the earliest content of the Bible, died about 900 years before the first story of Abraham was written in the Old Testament.

Actually, that's not in the Bible

Can a defining tribal narrative that is passed on orally for 45 generations ever be regarded as history, at least as history is understood today?

Moses, the religious genius who put his stamp on the religion of the Old Testament more powerfully than any other figure, died about 300 years before the first story of Moses entered the written form we call Holy Scripture.

This means that everything we know about Moses in the Bible had to have passed orally through about 15 generations before achieving written form. Do stories of heroic figures not grow, experience magnifying tendencies and become surrounded by interpretive mythology as the years roll by?

My Take: Bible condemns a lot, so why focus on homosexuality?

Jesus of Nazareth, according to our best research, lived between the years 4 B.C. and A.D. 30. Yet all of the gospels were written between the years 70 to 100 A.D., or 40 to 70 years after his crucifixion, and they were written in Greek, a language that neither Jesus nor any of his disciples spoke or were able to write.

Are the gospels then capable of being effective guides to history? If we line up the gospels in the time sequence in which they were written - that is, with Mark first, followed by Matthew, then by Luke and ending with John - we can see exactly how the story expanded between the years 70 and 100.

For example, miracles do not get attached to the memory of Jesus story until the eighth decade. The miraculous birth of Jesus is a ninth-decade addition; the story of Jesus ascending into heaven is a 10th-decade narrative.

In the first gospel, Mark, the risen Christ appears physically to no one, but by the time we come to the last gospel, John, Thomas is invited to feel the nail prints in Christ’s hands and feet and the spear wound in his side.

Perhaps the most telling witness against the claim of accurate history for the Bible comes when we read the earliest narrative of the crucifixion found in Mark’s gospel and discover that it is not based on eyewitness testimony at all.

My Take: Yes, the Bible really condemns homosexuality

Instead, it’s an interpretive account designed to conform the story of Jesus’ death to the messianic yearnings of the Hebrew Scriptures, including Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53.

The Bible interprets life from its particular perspective; it does not record in a factual way the human journey through history.

The second major misconception comes from the distorting claim that the Bible is in any literal sense “the word of God.” Only someone who has never read the Bible could make such a claim. The Bible portrays God as hating the Egyptians, stopping the sun in the sky to allow more daylight to enable Joshua to kill more Amorites and ordering King Saul to commit genocide against the Amalekites.

Can these acts of immorality ever be called “the word of God”? The book of Psalms promises happiness to the defeated and exiled Jews only when they can dash the heads of Babylonian children against the rocks! Is this “the word of God? What kind of God would that be?

The Bible, when read literally, calls for the execution of children who are willfully disobedient to their parents, for those who worship false gods, for those who commit adultery, for homosexual persons and for any man who has sex with his mother-in-law, just to name a few.

The Bible exhorts slaves to be obedient to their masters and wives to be obedient to their husbands. Over the centuries, texts like these, taken from the Bible and interpreted literally, have been used as powerful and evil weapons to support killing prejudices and to justify the cruelest kind of inhumanity.

The third major misconception is that biblical truth is somehow static and thus unchanging. Instead, the Bible presents us with an evolutionary story, and in those evolving patterns, the permanent value of the Bible is ultimately revealed.

It was a long road for human beings and human values to travel between the tribal deity found in the book of Exodus, who orders the death of the firstborn male in every Egyptian household on the night of the Passover, until we reach an understanding of God who commands us to love our enemies.

The transition moments on this journey can be studied easily. It was the prophet named Hosea, writing in the eighth century B.C., who changed God’s name to love. It was the prophet named Amos who changed God’s name to justice. It was the prophet we call Jonah who taught us that the love of God is not bounded by the limits of our own ability to love.

It was the prophet Micah who understood that beautiful religious rituals and even lavish sacrifices were not the things that worship requires, but rather “to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” It was the prophet we call Malachi, writing in the fifth century B.C., who finally saw God as a universal experience, transcending all national and tribal boundaries.

One has only to look at Christian history to see why these misconceptions are dangerous. They have fed religious persecution and religious wars. They have fueled racism, anti-female biases, anti-Semitism and homophobia.They have fought against science and the explosion of knowledge.

The ultimate meaning of the Bible escapes human limits and calls us to a recognition that every life is holy, every life is loved, and every life is called to be all that that life is capable of being. The Bible is, thus, not about religion at all but about becoming deeply and fully human. It issues the invitation to live fully, to love wastefully and to have the courage to be our most complete selves.

That is why I treasure this book and why I struggle to reclaim its essential message for our increasingly non-religious world.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Shelby Spong.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Bible • Christianity • My Take • Opinion

soundoff (6,068 Responses)
  1. Dr Michael Foster

    In the first gospel, Mark, the risen Christ appears physically to no one, but by the time we come to the last gospel, John, Thomas is invited to feel the nail prints in Christ’s hands and feet and the spear wound in his side.

    The end of Mark assumes the resurrection appearances and Paul enumerating the Resurrection appearances in 1 Cor 15, was writing at least 10 years before Mark's Gospel. Paul's account is the very earliest account. The numbers of witnesses in the first eight verses of 1 Cor 15, approaches 600. Liberal Christians simply quote only the texts which are convenient to their arguments! Spong has got it wrong – there is no inflation of the resurrection accounts as time goes on – if anything, when the Gospels are compared to the first account in Paul, it is the other way around!

    December 26, 2013 at 5:49 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Spong, who has spent his lifetime researching the bible, has got it wrong? According to you? Hmm. Interesting how a person's interpretation of scripture always lines up with his prior opinion of it.

      December 26, 2013 at 5:53 pm |
  2. bromans

    "The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Shelby Spong."

    The only true statement here.

    September 18, 2013 at 3:13 pm |
  3. Latanya

    The biggest misconception is that John Shelby Spong is a Christian. He is not. He is an self-proclaimed atheist. Anything he says is a lie, so as is with other articles he writes, this is fiction written by a typical Christian hating CNN reporter.

    March 1, 2013 at 6:08 pm |
  4. Chachy

    WOW, a total fabrication.
    Have you seen a man who seems to himself to be wise? There is more hope for the foolish than for him.

    November 17, 2012 at 11:25 am |
  5. Chapman

    I've learn some great stuff here. Worth bookmarking for revisiting. I wonder just how much effort you'd put to build this type of magnificent useful web site.

    April 29, 2012 at 11:09 am |
  6. WASP

    main problem with the whole "god" thing is if he is a perfet being how can he have emotions? we have emotions and we're imperfect, love can turn to jealousy or even to violent terriorialism; anger can be used as a tool to help push you through hard times or used to abuse others. it's our emotions that leave many humans often confused and at a loss. so if god has emotions wouldn't he have the same emotional problems we have? think about it, this all powerful being spend who knows how much time secluded away with no other contact with anything else so he created humans. his toys displeased him so like a child in a fit of rage he broke them, then felt regret for his actions afterwards promising never to do it again..........only to do it again and again. he takes pleasure in violence as any emotion driven person, hell in the bible it seems he loves wreaking havoc. and for those saying humans don't like violence, turn on your television watch the news, sports show or movie; they all are violent yet we claim to abore violence. it is our minds that we use to rise above our emotional failings, not the heart or any other portion of the body. religious people claim god loves you; how can a being that hasn't experienced love understand how to give and recieve love? they can't. the god in the bible is either an over grown socially depreived child that has homicidle tendences or he is a lie made up by emotional power driven humans.

    April 26, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • Lorraine

      WASP, YHWH, which is His true Hebrew name, gave us His love when He created us in His image, in Genesis 1, and with this He gave us free will as well. To choose for ourselves what we want to do, and this is love by its own right, for this He did not have to do. One's own actions, ours, from generations to generations are the results of what we have here today, and it is mayhem, in difference, hate, poverty, and greed. This all came about from not following the 'law' of YHWH, Deut 5, and Exodus 20, and Leviticus 23; how to eat properly in Deut 14, and Leviticus 11, straying away from Him, and His law; worshiping idols, whether they be material things, or religions, for YHWH does not condone religions, they are pagan. His first request of us was to not put nothing over Him, but we do. Therefore, yes He is angry with our choices, for all He ask is that we return to Him in Isaiah 44v22, from our sins that He has already redeemed, and has forgotten; He ask us to return in Malachi 3v7, but we don't. And, the blame is ours for not living righteously, and in peace, with love among each other, doing right by one another, leading to generational curses, is why we have struggles, for His way is the only way out of all this trouble for us, because He knows just what we need, and man does not yet we follow in his directions, and not give all the praise unto the true Creator YHWH. Until we all do give praise to YHWH, this is, and has been our fate for more than 2000 years now according to Daniel 2v40 of the 4th kingdom being the vision prophesied, and is going on right now about the 10 horns, the different centuries of (governmental rulers), and the new strange gods, (religions), prophesied in Daniel 11v39-43, that we would be doing today, of Christianity, and Islam, and all the others, also prophesied also by Moses in Deut.32v17, that we will do in the 'latter days'. So, here we are hard headed, selfish, and all, don't blame the creator for any of this, it was our choice, and with choices there are heavy consequences. Do the law, statues, ordinances, judgments as Abraham , Genesis 26v5, and Job, and Noah did, and this life of ours would be better. Job lived four generations of a fulfilled life doing the law of 'life' in Deut. 32v45-47.

      April 27, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
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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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.