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. Elder Nathanyel

    Deuteronomy 28:48 "Therefore shalt thou serve thine enemies which the LORD shall send against thee, in hunger, and in thirst, and in nakedness, and in want of all things: and he shall put a yoke of iron upon thy neck, until he have destroyed thee."
    From 1619-1823 the blacks of the slave trade had yokes of iron on their necks and were mentally destroyed as a nation of people.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-j7Gl7_nyE

    August 28, 2011 at 6:26 pm |
  2. Jim K.

    Recommended book – 'Religious Literacy' by Stephen Prothero. I am mostly agnostic but it provides some interesting insights to the American Christian culture and the amazing degree of ignorance most Americans (including me) have about the various world religions.

    August 28, 2011 at 6:05 pm |
  3. Debi K Baughman

    It is so true that so many phrases are quoted that are not in the bible verbatim. And a lot of singular passesges are used to get a point across...what does not seem to be understood is that, though you can and often may-be should, if you are going to follow scripture, use singular passeges, but on the whole, it is the larger context of the bible concepts that need to be sought, and this is often done by pulling out the spirit instead of the letter of the law; ie. “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.” still boils down to 'pride goes before a fall' ; in other words, what is the lesson that the author is teaching here? that a proud and haughty person will eventually face a fall BECAUSE of his/her haughty pride; so who cares if it is exactly spoken in the same usage,, it is the concept that is important. And to do this, to come down to the concept, one usually has to LOOk at the larger picture, combining one or more verses together, or even one or more concepts together. This could be considered a shortcut to cut to the chase of the matter instead of the nitpicking of exactness in translation (although I do not deny the importance of exact translation, but often when just one scripture at a time is translated, something does get lost in translation).

    August 28, 2011 at 5:38 pm |
  4. Gavin

    What about the biggest misconception of them all: Popular religion's perception of Hell that was ripped from the pages of Dante's Inferno?

    August 28, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
  5. John


    August 28, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
  6. William R. Everdell

    The things that you're liable
    To put in the Bible
    They ain't necessarily there
    -WE (apologies to Gershwin & DuBose Heyward)

    August 28, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
  7. pitboss

    Mr. Hazen's summation at the end is hilarious: Go ahead and read the Bible, but we're going to tell you what it means.

    August 28, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
  8. urshadow

    Two things: Religion IS based on a set of unquestionable beliefs AND most Americans don't read books – put it together and you wind up with a bunch of fools who want to be told what to do and think. Thank the Founders for separation of Church and State!!!!

    August 28, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
  9. Lucas

    Wow, its incredible the number of people who havent even read the Bible and then try to make a claim about it. ACTUALLY READ IT FIRST!!! As someone pointed out earlier Genesis 3: 1-6

    August 28, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
  10. hadeze

    calculating from the number of existing suns this one galaxy we end up with 10 to 30 billion exoplanets, many of the orbiting in the sweet zone around their warmth giver .... so, what a human brain-overload one has to have suffered to carry on about the non-fictional value in the myriads of verse variations in the 250 thousand different biblical texts in existence.

    August 28, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
    • urshadow

      Now that's funny! : ) Sounds like a line from Sheldon on Big Bang Theory!

      August 28, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
    • urshadow

      But seriously, I do see your point. The strong possibility of other intelligent life in our galaxy makes all religious claptrap completely mute.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
    • FatFreddy

      Let God be true, and every man a liar.

      August 28, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
  11. bob

    All right, no one is to stone _anyone_ until I blow this whistle. Even... and I want to make this absolutely clear... even if they do say, "Jehovah. "

    August 28, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
  12. ken

    A bible loving friend of mine often quotes the non-existent bible verses from "Second Opinions" and about 99% of the people don't catch it. He can say just about anything and they buy it because of the approach used. "In Second Opinions...."

    Truly a wonder to watch...

    August 28, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
  13. Thumper

    Actually... Jesus does say as Jonah was in the belly of the WHALE...Matthew 12:40

    August 28, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
    • Allison

      Actually, my New International Version says "great fish". In my Greek (non-translated version) Bible it also says "large fish" . This just proves the point the author of the article was trying to make about there being lots of translations that are not always true to the original text!

      P.S. The New Testament was written in Greek, not Hebrew or Aramaic.

      August 28, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
  14. Ossie Ronen

    Actually, “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” is from Proverbs 13, 24:
    ,חוֹשֵׂךְ שִׁבְטוֹ – שׂוֹנֵא בְנוֹ, וְאֹהֲבוֹ – שִׁחֲרוֹ מוּסָר

    August 28, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • Troy

      Kevin Dunn, chair of the department of religion at Tufts University in Massachusetts. Revlation 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. Now answer that since you say the serpent is not the devil! Dont worry ill wait

      August 28, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
    • Jo

      THANK YOU!!!!! Ugh! So frustrating

      August 28, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
  15. Joseph

    I just like how this "professor of religion" goes off on some rant about the "God helps those that help themselves" quote. As if the quote is trying to tell people to be selfish and greedy. If you seriously think that's what it's saying, you have no right teaching religion to anyone. Yikes.

    August 28, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
    • benjamin

      He was just saying that the Bible is misquoted. Most Christians, I'd venture to say, haven't read it, really. A professor of religion is more of an authority on the "Good Book" than devout Christian. After all, the Bible is the guidebook so if you're not following it correctly or if you're misinformed because of "personal beliefs" that differ from its teachings, can you call yourself a Christian?

      August 28, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
    • JM

      He doesn't 'think' that, but people interpret it that way. He goes on to point out clearly, so that people like you don't get confused because you don't read carefully

      August 28, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
    • Joseph

      "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."

      He very much DOES say that. Thanks for "reading carefully." And yeah, that was a bit more sarcastic than I should have been. I apologize.

      August 29, 2011 at 9:55 am |
  16. Asher

    Not only does teh Biblical account not mention Satan, it also says nothing about an "apple". It refers to the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, but never says what that fruit is. The "apple" comes – not from any Biblical account, but from a medieval painting of the scene which shows an apple....

    August 28, 2011 at 11:50 am |
    • Alf

      but Revelation declares who is that old serpent in Revelation 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.

      August 28, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
    • merez

      We need many more secular artists, poets,writers, philosophers, against religion. Men and woman who think mankind should start standing on its own two feet to make something of the world. I tink Jesus was very nearly an atheist
      see website: http://www.laplaceartwrite.co.uk and http://www.artbank-laplace-rpf.vpweb.co.uk

      August 28, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
  17. Andy

    spare the rod is not a misquote:
    Proverbs 13:24
    Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them.

    August 28, 2011 at 11:39 am |
    • Alexander Christian

      That is right. There is also some other words about it, like '...if you beat him with the rod, your son shall not die, and you will save his soul from hell...'. But today such way sounds like a scandal in a neighborhood. However, proper lesson should not be confused with some violent madness caused by parental mental chaos.

      August 28, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
    • Jo

      Actually, you just verified in your answer that it IS a misquote. It does say "Whoever spares the rod hates their children" but does not use the line "Spare the rod, spoil the child" which was the point of the statement.

      August 28, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
  18. Andrew

    what ignorance.

    Genesis 3: 1-6.

    August 28, 2011 at 11:36 am |
  19. Robert O'Hare

    I love the topic and I'm surprised the author didn't site the most misquoted verse: Timothy 6:10 "The LOVE of money is A root of all evil." Nor is it mentioned that the '7 deadly sins' aren't from the Bible. Odd that the article begins with a Ditka's misquote and then fails to mention the much more prevalent malapropisms.

    August 28, 2011 at 11:06 am |
  20. James in Canada

    When I think of the bible and religion...I am called to remember these fine words..."I think he (Jesus) said 'Blessed are the cheesemakers...not to be taken literally of course, he's referring to all dairy workers.".

    August 28, 2011 at 11:04 am |
    • benjamin

      now that's a teaching I can get behind. lol

      August 28, 2011 at 1:26 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.