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. mission422

    Actually, it often IS in the Bible! What must be understood is that the exact lexicography may not appear but the underlying precept does. For example, the concept underlying the statement, "God works in mysterious ways" is found through the most rudimentary search of a basic book store Concordance; I've just found five references within a few minutes! Folks, Sacred Scripture has been translated from Ancient Hebrew and Greek, then Latin, etc., so that we must not get bogged down in arguments of exact syntax. Rather, the precept of God's mysteries and unfathomable ways forms the basis for the colloquialism, "God works in mysterious ways."

    June 8, 2011 at 10:09 am |
    • Free

      Inference can also lead to warping the original, intended meaning of verses to suit a person's own ideas of what they think the Bible 'ought' to have said, yes? More reason to defer to the findings of qualified biblical scholars in such matters, right?

      June 8, 2011 at 10:34 am |
    • laura

      Well said – for example, I found the "spare the rod, spoil the child" reference while looking at another verse this morning – Proverbs 13:24 (NKJV) says: "He who spares his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him promptly." You say tomato, I say mater 😉 I don't think that the well-known version "perverts" the scripture in any way, it's just an easy to remember quote that a lot of people have handed down over the generations.

      June 8, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
  2. Griffin

    Quoting from the Bible: Proverbs 29:15 "The rod and reproof give wisdom but the child left to his own way brings shame to his mother."

    June 8, 2011 at 10:03 am |
  3. Jennifer

    This saddens me to think that Biblical truths are getting mixed up with Biblical verses and then because of that being slandered. Many, if not most, of the sayings quoted on CNN just now with Kyra (except "this dog won't hunt" – don't know where the heck that came from) are actual Biblical truths or concepts. It is just as inaccurate to say they are not truths found in the Bible as it is to say they are verses found in the Bible. Take for instance "God works in mysterious ways." No, this is not a verse in the Bible, but most of what is in the Bible screams out mystery, and it specifically talks about the mystery of Christ (Eph. 3:4), the mystery of the gospel (Eph. 6:19), and the mystery of faith (1Tim 3:9). And the saying, "God helps those who help themselves," comes from many places in the Bible, one of those being Prov 6:1-5. What this whole debate shows me is that t is evident people need to go to their Bibles and read God's Word to really know what's in it instead of trusting what they hear from people.

    June 8, 2011 at 9:58 am |
  4. Bruce

    While it's true that the Bible does NOT say "The Lord helps those that help themselves," it DOES say, "He who does not work, let him not eat." In other words, while we are called to help the helpless and support those in need, We are not called to support those that choose to be lazy and rely solely on others to provide for them.

    Sometimes it's a matter of interpreting a phrase and only getting it 80% right, but the Bible doesn't offer us a free ride in this world. Eternal life and salvation are the message of the Bible.

    June 8, 2011 at 9:51 am |
  5. Cactus12

    Actually the serpent in Genesis 3 can be identified as Satan the Devil. This affirms the point that is in the article that many don't read the whole Bible or only use parts that they want to use.

    (Revelation 12:9) . . .So down the great dragon was hurled, the original serpent, the one called Devil and Satan, who is misleading the entire inhabited earth; he was hurled down to the earth, and his angels were hurled down with him.

    Here Satan is compared to a great dragon but clearly states that he is the 'original serpent'.

    Sorry if somebody already pointed this out.

    June 8, 2011 at 9:48 am |

      What version of the Bible is this in? You say "Here Satan is compared to a great dragon but clearly states that he is the 'original serpent'." I've looked at several versions and none of them include that he was original serpent.

      June 8, 2011 at 10:20 am |
    • Cactus12

      Hi Just wondering

      In other translations it states 'old serpent' or 'ancient serpent'
      I use various translations – my quotation is from The New World Translation.
      Take a look at this link for many other translations and Bible notes. Barnes Notes on the Bible there is interesting, here's an extract:

      That old serpent – This doubtless refers to the serpent that deceived Eve (Genesis 3:1-11; Revelation 20:2; compare the notes on 2 Corinthians 11:3); and this passage may be adduced as a proof that the real tempter of Eve was the devil, who assumed the form of a serpent.


      I hope this helps.

      June 8, 2011 at 10:46 am |
    • Janaina

      Cat, I'm sorry - I didn't mean to make you write a follow-up post! 🙂 But I tolatly understand what you mean. One of the things the Waldorf school does is devote a whole year to Biblical stories (and a whole year to Norse stories, and a whole year to Greek stories...). It's been great for the kids to be exposed to it in-depth, and it was also fascinating to compare their responses to the stories from year to year. I'll always remember, mid-way through the Bible year, my oldest daughter asked, "Why couldn't the people just BE GOOD??" That took some answering - but it was SO worthwhile.And you can be Christian if you want. Some of my best friends are Christian. Ok, well, most of them. 🙂 And I do believe in Jesus - even in Jesus the Son of God. But I also believe in a bunch of other gods, and they tend to talk to me a lot more than Jesus does.

      September 6, 2012 at 8:58 pm |
  6. Marie Kidman


    June 8, 2011 at 8:38 am |
  7. MC

    I do wish John Blake and others who write columns like this would at least learn to write more intelligently. You let yourself get so caught up in the emotion of it all, you apparently don't pay attention to what you're writing. How can anyone take you seriously, when you can't even write a decent article?

    June 8, 2011 at 8:22 am |
  8. The Dynamo

    Could “God helps those that help themselves” have French or Greek origins? http://www.lafontaine.net/lesFables/afficheFable.php?id=123 Aide-toi..: Ce proverbe existait sous différentes formes bien avant La Fontaine. Pierre Millot dans son livre « Les Fables d’Æsope, traduites fidèlement du grec » datant de 1646 écrit « Aide-toi et Dieu t’aidera ». Jeanne d’Arc reprendra d’ailleurs ce dicton lors de son procès. Nous retrouvons ce proverbe « Aide-toi, le ciel t’aidera » dans l’« Étymologie ou explication des proverbes français » par Fleury de Bellingen en 1646. Mathurin Régnier (1573 – 1613), dans ses « Satires », XIII écrit « Aidez-vous seulement et Dieu vous aidera ».

    June 8, 2011 at 6:14 am |
  9. Nicko

    Remember the nutters saying the Book of Revelations said "a black man from the east will be sent by Satan to destroy America"? Just as the presidential election campaign was going. What a joke. Most bible bashers don't know one thing about the book, and haven't read it.

    June 8, 2011 at 4:57 am |
  10. N8akiss Maximus

    jesus does'nt want any of you for a sun-beem.

    June 8, 2011 at 3:12 am |
  11. Steve*

    Ya... it's not in the bible that Jonah was swallowed by a whale.

    Jonah 1:17 "Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights."

    Ya! It was a fish... not a whale! It is a good thing that we have this story to correct everyone or we might mistakenly believe something CRAZY!

    June 7, 2011 at 11:56 pm |
    • believer

      See Mathew 12:40 KJV.

      June 8, 2011 at 5:47 am |
    • Jeff M

      I think Steve* was being sarcastic.

      June 9, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
  12. gatersaw

    Proverbs 13:24
    New International Version (NIV)
    24 Whoever spares the rod hates their children,
    but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them.
    The author is being more immature than the preachers making the quotes more present-day digestible. Now get off your high horse, heathen/agitator/Obamist.

    June 7, 2011 at 11:54 pm |
  13. VAV

    Ok. just remember you are Human! you are small and insignificant when it comes the the size of the universe. most of you take for granted the very air you breathe. such a gift that we can experiance life and that we can feel the warmth of Love. such a beautiful and precious place this earth is. and yet most of you treat it like garbage you take for granted all that was given to you and yet at least you have food when there are so many out there who have nothing so I SAY THIS TO ALL OF YOU APPRECIATE WHAT YOU HAVE AND BE THANKFUL FOR YOUR BLESSING AND QUIT ARGUING OVER THE SMALL STUFF AND MAKE THIS PLANET HOW GOD INTENDED IT TO BE! YOU WILL NOT KNOW THE KNOWLEDGE OF THE UNIVERSE AND OF THE CREATOR UNTIL YOU HAVE LEARNED THE POWER OF TRUE LOVE. and you argue with each other over the bible and Jesus when you wernt getting the MESSAGE and the message is Love for one anyother Love over all things because Love is the true power it is the true size even when we are so small!

    June 7, 2011 at 11:29 pm |
    • D

      The message is that the media sources are twisting the scriptures and Christians SHOULD stand up against these liars. Setting the record straight is a show of love. Denouncing those that do this is love. As long as we don't stand for the truth in the scriptures, the more we distance ourselves from God.

      June 7, 2011 at 11:35 pm |
  14. D

    Chair of the department of religion? What's he reading?

    Rev 12:9 And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.

    Rev 20:2 And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years,

    2Co 11:3 But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.

    June 7, 2011 at 11:25 pm |
    • Lisa

      Did you read the article? He said that the book of Genesis doesn't mention Satan, not the Bible as a whole. No wonder people quote the Bible wrong, they can't even read this article properly.

      June 8, 2011 at 1:09 am |
    • A

      @Lisa...but the author implies that it's some great blunder to say it was Satan who tempted Eve, when the bible clearly shows it was. So what if Genesis doesn't specify...later books identify "the original serpent...the father of the lie".

      June 8, 2011 at 9:52 am |
  15. Actually It Is

    Actually the Bible does say something similar to many of these passages. Remember it was not originally written in English but Hebrew and Greek so translations will vary somewhat. For example: Proverbs 13:24
    "Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them." So it doesnt say spoil it just says you hate your child if you do not discipline them.

    June 7, 2011 at 11:08 pm |
    • Good job, moron.

      That's what the article said, moron.

      June 8, 2011 at 2:14 am |
  16. AVA


    June 7, 2011 at 10:57 pm |
    • Helpful Henry


      If your post is "awaiting moderation", it will never be posted. You need to go back over it for the trick words which fire up the nanny filter.

      June 7, 2011 at 11:18 pm |
  17. Go


    June 7, 2011 at 10:49 pm |
  18. XCellKen

    Is this in the Bible: Cleanliness is next to KENliness? Of course not, because I invented that saying!!!

    June 7, 2011 at 10:00 pm |
  19. Marie Kidman


    June 7, 2011 at 9:35 pm |
    • Ashley

      I have a BA in Biblical Studies and know Scripture fairly well. I am shocked by some of the common proverbs/adages people think are actually Scripture
      PS-Matthew 12:40 refers to the story of Jonah and says he was in the belly of a whale.

      June 7, 2011 at 10:00 pm |
    • Nicholas Lekopites

      can't believe the ignorance of people who say they know the bible and its not in there
      Spare the rod spoil the child PROVERBS 13:24 READ THE BIBLE PEOPLE!!!!!!!!!!

      June 8, 2011 at 9:37 am |
    • Free

      Proverbs 13:24 actually says
      "Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them."
      which is a paraphrase of the folksy saying about spoiling kids. The point is that people take the paraphrases as the actual, literal Bible saying. If you're basing your beliefs on what the Bible actually says in a legalistic way then it's best to be clear on such things, yes?

      June 8, 2011 at 10:28 am |
    • Free

      What translation are you using? The ones I usually use all still say "large fish" instead of whale.

      June 8, 2011 at 11:15 am |
    • Jeff M

      Original Greek says "For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth."
      Please remember, the word "whale" wasn't in existence until the 1780-1790's.

      June 9, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
    • Jeff M

      When I reference "original Greek", I'm referring to the Greek version available through the Codex Sinaiticus, circa 350's AD.

      June 9, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • I Don't Get It

      Jeff: "Please remember, the word "whale" wasn't in existence until the 1780-1790's."

      And the omniscient "Holy Spirit" who 'inspired' this book didn't know that this new word (and another entire nature of the creature) would come into being in the future?

      June 9, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
  20. Gadadhoon

    Everyone is jumping on this guy for saying that Genesis doesn't say the serpent was Satan when Revelation confirms it. However, the point of the article was that specific things don't say what people think they do. Genesis itself does not say the serpent was Satan, that's shown through other verses.

    June 7, 2011 at 9:26 pm |
    • Free

      And, again, Revelation describes Satan as a snake, but doesn't actually identify him as the snake of the Garden. People seem to forget how God cursed all snakes for their part in this one's deception. So, unless all snakes are still Satan to this day, John was just drawing upon the ancient fear of snakes mythologized in Genesis as part of his characterization of Satan, kinda like how a jilted woman may call her ex a 'snake' these days.

      June 8, 2011 at 10:09 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.