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. Spot on

    The day man becomes a moral compass himself is the day he doesn't need to be told but rather he is so becos he believes in it. 

    Believing in god doesn't make you moral for a fact that people still do evil things with their faith. Believing in being moral makes you moral.

    July 7, 2011 at 12:19 am |
  2. KnuckleHead

    If god asked you to kill to test your faith. Whose side are you on? God or man? My moral compass tells me that I will be on the side of what is morally right. I am not a robot.

    July 6, 2011 at 11:50 pm |
  3. KnuckleHead

    Religion cannot be the most perfect moral compass for the reason that mankind will kill, lie, hurt and scheme for their religion which makes it morally wrong to begin with.

    July 6, 2011 at 11:45 pm |
  4. KnuckleHead

    If god only decided to make good everything towards the end. It only shows that whatever is happening now is all his mistakes. U dun need to correct anything unless it is a mistake.

    July 6, 2011 at 11:39 pm |
  5. JamesT297

    Guess what – if it's NOT in the bible it is more credible than if it is in (whatever version) the bible. What makes anyone cling to the notion that the bible sustains itself as a true and correct guide for personal behavior or as a guidepost for a god dictate on how to properly worship/ If I live to be nine years old, I will never ever understand how folks can believe this in the second half of 2011. What a load of hooey.

    July 6, 2011 at 7:36 pm |
    • Nikhil

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      April 3, 2012 at 11:45 pm |
  6. Loren Sanders

    @Caitlin – "a God of love will NOT reward Satan with people to torture and burn the rest of their 'lives'."

    Perhaps you'd be wiser to spend more time in studying the Word yourself, rather than attempting to correct others about what they may or may not know/understand within scripture. Absolutely NOWHERE within the confines of scripture (old or new testament) does it ever say, teach, or imply in any way that satan rules over hell now, that he ever has, or ever will. GOD rules over all of creation including hell, and if you read the texts you will see that hell was created specifically to hold satan and his angels (a prison), not as a sort of "dark kingdom" for satans benefit.

    You should also notice that no one in the Bible spoke more often about hell than Christ Himself, and that in doing so He also quoted the old testament and stated that the unrepentant would suffer eternal damnation where the fires are not quenched, and their worms never die (slight paraphrase else I start quoting verse at length). Annihilation theology is exceptionally weak, and easily disproved by a careful reading of the texts; it is every bit as much heresy as it's sibling universalism theology.

    What you are espousing is nothing more than what Hollywood and other fiction writers have long indoctrinated people to believe: that satan is a red guy with horns and a pitchfork who rules over hell. Apparently, in your case, they've done their work well.

    July 6, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
    • Muneef

      Agree with that it is the correct thing....Satan and who followed him from mankind and jinn will end up in hell for their wrong misleading from the straight path of the righteous...

      July 6, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
  7. ReneB

    a lot of it is not in the bible in those same words, but the concept is the same. (I didn't read the whole article, but at least the beginning of it is biblical.. example: “Spare[misspelledfor 'spare'] the rod, spoil the child.” this is found as a mix of Proverbs 13-24 with other verses that implies the affect of not disciplining a child with the rod when necessary. Spaking a child with love is one of the most affective way to discipline intentional bad behavior.

    July 6, 2011 at 10:16 am |
    • tableround

      The Bible, written by shepherds with a shepherd background, uses the word rod. The rod is used as a "steering wheel" not a punishment stick. If you place the rod on the sheep's right side – they go left. Place at their backside they go faster – put it in front of them – they stop. Spoiling the rod means not giving your child direction (guidance). When the Bible was written the people who read this statement regarding the rod, they knew this is what was meant –

      July 6, 2011 at 10:57 am |
    • Tony


      July 6, 2011 at 11:05 am |
    • Tony


      I appreciate your analysis. It is comforting that some people are versed well enough in history to be able to understand what was written. I'm not saying that I know very much about this whole ordeal, but I do think that far too many people "interpret" the Bible as thet see fit, not as it was meant.

      July 6, 2011 at 11:08 am |
    • JamesT297

      Who ever in the world told you that was one of the most effective ways to discipline a child. One may be (rightly, as it came to pass) put to death in certain modern cultures for beating a child.

      July 6, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
  8. musings

    I think the author is on soundest ground when he disqualifies false, but useful proverbs like "Cleanliness is next to godliness." I think there is even a film in which one character says: "God works in mysterious ways" and in response, as at a religious service, the other character intones "His wonders to perform." I wonder if the screenwriter knew that he quoting poetry and not scripture? Be that as it may, the condensed proverbs like "Spare the rod and spoil the child" and "Pride goeth before a fall" are much easier to digest than the longer scriptural versions, but no different in meaning. In fact they are easy illustrations for Sunday school tracts (which is where I first, at the age of five, encountered the pride goeth one). An uneducated person or one early in the process are not going to be able to understand the longer versions, which are hardly quotable at all.

    Whether we are quoting Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard or Methodist founder John Wesley, the original source can be replaced by saying it came from the Bible quite the way lines are widely attributed to Mae West which were said by other women. This is the effect of a sort of gravitational field by a large body, drawing everything to itself which kind of flies around untagged. Most people do not know about Wesley and in a multicultural society fewer think of Franklin as a tribal wise man. But everyone has a Bible in the drawer at the motel.

    July 6, 2011 at 9:21 am |
    • JamesT297

      Mae West WAS a large body, wasn't she? Thanks to you, I now understand the gravity relationships of certain biblical citations

      Thanks and thanks again – .

      July 6, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
  9. John Marshall

    " Not only do they get the interpretation wrong " Thats what keeps clerics in positions of power. See they have to keep the rest of us convinved that only they can understand the Bible and tell you what it really means. They've been doing it to us since there was religion of any kind. My way is the only way, everybody else goes to hell. How many religions say that?
    No one religion has a corner on the truth. So I'll just be a good human, hold to the very basic truths, hope for the best and stay away from religion.

    July 6, 2011 at 9:19 am |
    • Caitlin

      There is not a place burning forever where people will be tormented. That is also a twist on The Bible. The only people who live forever are the ones that follow Christ. The Bible does not contradict itself. If you look at what language The Bible was written in and compare ALL the texts regarding hell fire and eternity, you will find that the people who 'burn' will be ash under our feet, and DESTROYED. Not living forever in torment. God=love, and a God of love will NOT reward Satan with people to torture and burn the rest of their 'lives'. Get a Strong's concordance and STUDY The Bible.... I do agree that they make it sound like you need a biblical professional to read The Bible, and that is not true. ALWAYS pray for and ask that the Holy Spirit guide you into all truth everytime you pick it up, and He will.

      July 6, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
  10. Goals to live by

    What Motivation

    Surely our world is above petty lies and corrupt dealings. Who is behind the grief and suffering and what are benefiting by doing so? These are the words. Follow the money. So often heard but seldom processed. Analysis of how Christian churches make a buck show that if you repress the people and take away the fun you can torment them and make them believe anything loco story behind locked doors. We need freedom from religion. What basis are we working on? Gold standard didn't work. Church standard isn't working unless you are a pedophile pope or priest. Or if you enjoy being a nun at an all girls high school germinating lesbians. Who cares how much the Vatican, the Catholic Church pays off the world. Their order is wrong for the world. Stop the feasting and beasting on old time religion. It isn't good enough for you or me. When you do the math the bible is not historical. Just attend the best Christian college in America called Princeton Theological Seminary. If you preach religion you need to go their to realize that you are a hypocrite and you are spreading the wrong message. Find motivation in logic and science not from fiction in the bible.

    July 6, 2011 at 8:12 am |
  11. Shasha

    If god created everything including snakes and now u tell me the Serpent is evil. Did god create evil as well since a serpent couldn't have existed if it wasn't created by god.

    July 6, 2011 at 6:44 am |
    • JamesT297

      In one brief sentence, you have reached the core of one of the unexplainable explanations religionistas can never get beyond. The great creator who is all knowing, all powerful, omniscient and has always been and will forever be, must have created eveil and must have known what he was up to when he did it – thus intentionally inflicting misery on the ones he professes to love. Oops 🙂

      July 6, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
    • Ray

      God created lucifer as the one of the highest angels but soon lucifer became very prideful thinking he was like God and thus he fell from heaven. Later on he took on the form of one of God's beautiful creatures (aka the serpent) and tempted eve with words such as " IF you eat this fruit you will be like God." and she took it.

      God wanted his creations to have a free will. He wants us to choose him if all we have to choose from is him then their really isnt a choice. So he allowed satan to become this way because he loves us he wants us to want him of his own will, he allows evil to be around, because if he didn't he would be forcing Himself on us and He doesn't want to be the God who makes us do things.

      July 6, 2011 at 10:54 pm |
    • Scott

      In short, yes.... Isaiah 45:7
      "I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things."
      Yes, He has created ALL things.

      July 7, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
    • Sam

      "Yes, He has created ALL things"

      So, he created Satan to trick adam and eve and condemn humanity, that's one nasty God. Oh...that's right you need to fear and tremble before him while claiming you love him. What a great fairy tale that has hurt so much of humanity through it's brainwashing nonsense, but it's a great business tactic that has made billions for those controlling it. LOL!

      July 7, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
  12. Dumbo

    God: why did u disobey instructions of eating from that forbidden tree.
    Adam and eve: We don't know.
    God: You have been told and there is no excuse!
    Adam and eve: Before we knew what good and evil was, how do we know disobedience is evil and the serpent is evil? What really is evil anyway? So is ignorance bliss? Now that we know, we cannot pretend we dun know and feel not a single guilt when I maybe doing something evil. I supposed when we dunno good and evil. Even doing an evil deed can feel innocent to us.

    July 5, 2011 at 10:14 pm |
    • JamesT297


      July 6, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
    • Ray

      God told them not to and they knew that. Adam wanted to obey as did eve but Satan lied to them.

      And to be honest this was very rude to post...

      July 6, 2011 at 10:56 pm |
  13. Elvin Orta

    "Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him." Proverbs 22:15, King James Version

    July 5, 2011 at 9:41 pm |
    • ouma

      Thanks. Shows that even the writer (who apparently claims to know the bible) is equally ignorant about the bible! Amazing ...

      July 6, 2011 at 7:43 am |
    • JamesT297


      July 6, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
  14. roberto53045

    Revelation 12:9 (KJV) reads: "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." so that serpent mentioned in Genesis 3 was satan. also in Ezekiel 28:12-19, the bible writer in the previous verses talks about the wicked king of Tyrus and then they go on to talk about the power behind the king of Tyrus in verses 12-19, that power was satan. in verse 13 it reads "thou hast been in Eden the garden of God;" the king of Tyrus was not in the garden of eden but the serpent was and is mentioned in Genesis 3. so that old serpent mentioned in Revelation 12:9 and Genesis 3 is the devil aka satan etc.

    July 5, 2011 at 8:18 pm |
  15. nurset

    Most biblical scholars, (Jews included) saw the serpent as variation of an older trickster. And Revelations is nothing more than the hallucinations of an old man living in a cave.

    July 5, 2011 at 6:37 pm |
    • Loren Sanders

      You cannot claim to be more intelligent than another when you cannot even name the book properly. It is The Revelation of St. John the Apostle", often shortened to "Revelation" – it is in no way pluralized.

      July 6, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
    • Ray

      You my dear friend are quite misinformed, John was not in a cave, he was on an island. And It wasn't hallucinations.

      July 6, 2011 at 10:58 pm |
  16. nurset

    Jonathan...The Serpent was never actually named "Satan"....

    July 5, 2011 at 6:30 pm |
  17. Marilyn Bush

    Please read scriptures Genesis:2:8, Genesis 2 15, and Revelation 20:2...

    July 5, 2011 at 6:14 pm |
    • JamesT297

      OK. Have done so and am still trying to discern your point. Can you please explain?

      July 6, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
    • Ray

      The two verses in genesis are talking about God placing adam in the garden and Revelation is talking about God locking Satan in the pit... but I don't see how these particular verses go hand in hand..

      July 6, 2011 at 11:03 pm |
  18. robert

    "that old serpant Satan"
    Tells us that the SERPANT is SATAN

    July 5, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
  19. Jonathan

    If you claim that Satan was not in the garden of Eden, then you haven't read either Ezekial 12 or Revelation 28.

    July 5, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
    • JamesT297

      If you claim satan was ever anywhere, you have not read anything seriously written since 1100.

      July 6, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
  20. JC

    "When phantom Bible passages turn dangerous..." I expected this section to point out the dangers of people imposing their radical or misinformed beliefs on others. I don't really see the danger in people helping themselves as the Ben Franklin quote apparently goes. Regardless of the source, it just seems like good advice–don't throw your hands up in despair when you encounter hardship; do something about it.

    Even experts disagree on the interpretation of Bible stories. So if that's the case, then why is it "dangerous" for Bible study groups to misinterpret passages? The danger comes when people are intolerant of other cultures and religions, and they use violence to impose their beliefs on others or punish those who don't align with their belief system, as they believe their God would have them do.

    July 5, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
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About this blog

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.