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. mejazzbo

    It's all fiction anyway. What difference does it make if quoted from the Bible or Mother Goose. The reference still fits the situation.

    June 5, 2011 at 10:13 am |
    • Joe

      You're right.. we should all just quote you instead.. that is.. as soon as you say something intelligent.

      June 5, 2011 at 10:23 am |
    • Good Try

      Joe, calling people "stupid" in response to well thought out comments doesn't do much for you buddy.

      June 5, 2011 at 10:26 am |
  2. Sol

    The author of this article is very clever in the way he uses the bible to mock the followers of the bible. Yes, there are those who take snippets and use them to incite, as there are those who have not been fully exposed to the entire bible, who make errors. However, it does not take a scholar to read and understand the scripture. When one reads the bible in its entirety, one cannot help but understand its message. It is then that the free will given to us by our creator allows us to use the knowledge gained. Unfortunately, we often willfully use that knowledge in a negative way.

    June 5, 2011 at 10:12 am |
    • Joe

      Same as it ever was. See ya in heaven buddy 🙂

      June 5, 2011 at 10:24 am |
    • BradLW

      How arrogant to think that anyone can read the xtian bible and immediately understand its meaning without reading what bona fide biblical scholars have spent a life time studying from the closest they are able to get to original sources!

      BTW; what "free will"?

      June 5, 2011 at 11:45 am |
  3. Saintvalentine

    Like it says in the bible "A penny saved is a penny earned"

    June 5, 2011 at 10:12 am |
  4. humberto

    As for wicca, a sword is just as usefull as a shield.

    June 5, 2011 at 10:12 am |
  5. Lea

    This article is doing exactly what it is trying to claim it is not. Jonah WAS swallowed by a big fish...to say it was not a whale and then leaving it at that, is equally confusing. Satan is described as a serpent and a great deceiver in the Bible..it is obvious who we are seeing in Genesis, no, it may not have been an apple, but there was a fruit..and God does talk about sparing the rod. The Bible is so easy to look up now with the internet..you can just type part of it in and scripture will come up at many Bible sites. This article is honestly pathetic..professing wisdom here yet still leaving all in the dark.

    June 5, 2011 at 10:11 am |
    • Good Try

      Lea, that's great. Where's the evidence? Oh right, you believe and have faith. Think about that for a minute... how is that different from making something up and then calling it 'real'. What is your basis for belief? your family told you so? you were raised and people around you told you? THINK about it. Don't ignore facts to support your belief... oh wait... that's what most of the people on here are doing. Delusional and sad really.

      June 5, 2011 at 10:28 am |
    • BradLW

      Was the “serpent” really “Satan” or was it a number of things depending on what the “Lord” decided to make it at various times? A rod? A number of rods? Dan?

      Also, did "God" originally create the "serpent" with legs? Wasn't the serpent originally "created" to "crawl" upon the ground?

      Just a few minor issues on the root word "serpent" through Deuteronomy using the 1611 KJV.

      Please explain these apparent discrepancies w/r to what the "serpent" was.

      June 5, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
  6. w7rkd

    Being a hypocrate 6 days of the week and going to church on the 7th day is not in the bible either.

    June 5, 2011 at 10:11 am |
    • humberto

      It's better than nothing.

      June 5, 2011 at 10:17 am |
    • Sean

      If you think those are the only two options, that says a great deal about you.

      June 8, 2011 at 10:32 pm |
  7. syzito

    Exactly why the Catholic Church with over 2000 yrs of traditon and experience interprets the Bible for the stupid lay masses that haven't a clue as to what they are reading or talking about.

    June 5, 2011 at 10:10 am |
    • humberto

      For your eyes only, right noodle head.

      June 5, 2011 at 10:15 am |
  8. Kuddln

    This is SO SO TRUE ! The phrases are most definitely NOT from The Bible !

    June 5, 2011 at 10:10 am |
  9. iamprettysure

    "Tho mother-in-law is evil, throw her out of the house and you will be divine" is NOT in there?! damnit!!!

    June 5, 2011 at 10:09 am |
  10. Jim

    The Bible is a book about "Phantoms", so what difference does it make how it is misquoted?

    June 5, 2011 at 10:09 am |
  11. Ted Linguini

    It's a cookbook! It's a cookbook!

    June 5, 2011 at 10:08 am |
    • Bob

      LOL, it literally is, quite a few people have been burned alive just because of it. Now it primarily cooks brains.

      June 5, 2011 at 10:27 am |
  12. nettech

    Passage Proverbs 13:24: King James Version

    24He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.

    Spare the rod, spoils the children, in long form.

    June 5, 2011 at 10:08 am |
  13. Rich

    Athletes sweat and smell. Be a thinker, not a stinker. Apollo Creed:1976

    June 5, 2011 at 10:07 am |
  14. John

    This is not surprising as most people who go around spouting the bible are ignorant and have no idea what is in it or have taken the time to look into the history of who wrote it, when and for what reason. Why anyone in the year 2011 would even bother with it as anything other than what it is a 1500 yr old work of fiction is beyond reason.

    June 5, 2011 at 10:06 am |
    • Rich

      I personally prefer to quote Zeus.

      June 5, 2011 at 10:09 am |
    • Sweetheart

      I'm actually 22 yrs. Old still read the bible. Some of the sayings like the whale and the great fish are dumb. People are over analyzing it. Who cares what type of creature just think of the message and learn from it.And Its not all people its just some.

      June 5, 2011 at 10:22 am |
  15. Mike

    Proverbs 13:24
    "Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them"
    doesn't say "spoil" but it is rather close... of course I think I'll pass on the rod.

    June 5, 2011 at 10:06 am |
    • Sean

      Close but not quite, right? Kind of like"winning isn't everything, it's the only thing". Wasn't the exact quote. And the author does make that point, anyway. I find it's best today to say, stop letting your kids run the house...

      June 5, 2011 at 10:09 am |
  16. James Walsh

    It's a shame that one of the worst books ever written gets so much attention.

    June 5, 2011 at 10:06 am |
    • Mark

      It is awesome that the best book ever written gets so much attention.

      June 5, 2011 at 10:22 am |
    • BradLW


      Certainly you're intelligent enough to not be calling the xtian bible "the best book ever written"?

      June 5, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
  17. Andrew

    Jonah says a great fish swallowed him, so big fish, big whale, it was a large fish-like creature that swam in the water
    it could have been a whale, but the Hebrews could have called it fish, whales, I'm pretty sure the the prophet Jonah
    wasn't aware of marine biology, and scientific definitions. great fish, was probably a whale, however, the book of Jonah says
    fish not whale.

    June 5, 2011 at 10:05 am |
  18. Sarah

    You will not find the phrase "personal savior" in the Bible either. Go ahead and search.

    June 5, 2011 at 10:05 am |
  19. Im in Him

    Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life ; no one comes to the Father but through Me.
    John 14:6

    Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature ; the old things passed away ; behold, new things have come. 18 Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, 19 namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
    II Corinthians 5:17-21

    June 5, 2011 at 10:04 am |
    • Horus

      Utter nonsense. God does not exist.

      June 5, 2011 at 10:05 am |
    • Ted Linguini

      "Jughead, what are you doing with Veronica's history book?" – Archie comics, 1967

      June 5, 2011 at 10:10 am |
  20. PlayfulDreamer

    So this whole article was really just a ruse to get religious conservatives to care more about the poor and outcasts (read: illegal immigrants)? Clever, CNN. Clever.

    June 5, 2011 at 10:04 am |
    • Bob

      Or possibly to show all the bone heads how big of hypocrites they truly are.

      June 5, 2011 at 10:07 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.