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. mza

    Grow up! Think for yourselves! The Buybull is an ancient, outdated book written by mortal men.

    June 5, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
    • John

      So, people should think for themselves by thinking about what you think they should? Maybe you should "grow up" and leave people to their own freedom of thought. Go back to burning books with all the other "ancient" thinking people.

      June 5, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
    • RightturnClyde

      It is a good book and a holy book. Dickens is out dated but good. James Fennemore Cooper and the leather stockings are outdated. The Journals of Lewis and Clark are written in colonial style and grammar (not text bytes). Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Elizabeth Barret Browning are all out dated. All written by mortal men. It's a safe bet that you have not read any of them. It's a safe bet that you do not understand poetic meter, rhyme, prepositional phrases, gerunds, infinitives or the indefinite article. So what do you know about books?

      June 5, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
    • BHSIAH

      Someday you will know the truth. I hope and pray it will not be too late for you then.

      June 5, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
    • RAWoD

      @ BHSIAH
      If you are lucky, within your lifetime, you'll come to realize that nothing fails like prayer.

      June 5, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
  2. RightturnClyde

    Wow .. lots of unfocused rambling in this article. It seems like the author is trying to say the bible is misquoted because the bible is not a good book OR unlettered cobblers and bakers need to have a professor read it OR it is generally misunderstood. In any case it is rather elitist to say that only some people ought to read the bible. There is a myriad of reading materials that are read in varying levels of understanding (newspapers, magazines, novels, encyclopedia) .. is there going to be a "reading license" required before we can partake of the 1st Amendment? The average high school student ought to be able to read well but most apparently cannot read at a high school level and need remedial courses (at least at Cal-State Fullerton) to do freshman work (term papers and readings). If there is a "dumbing of America" it is not caused by the books that we read. (but by the book we fail to read)

    June 5, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
    • holycow

      I find your paragraph insightful, but I fail to detect the main/thesis sentence that unifies your numerous points.

      June 5, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
    • RightturnClyde

      There is a tendency these days to kick the chair when we stub our toes. It is commonplace to blame the inanimate object. The blame game. So if Ditka misquotes the Bible then either the Bible is wrong for having been misquoted or football coaches should leave bible reading to professors and focus their energy on football. Well that is the opinion that was offered by the author. I would favor taking the risk that it will be improperly read and misquoted than to create restrictions on the 1st Amendment. Not everyone would agree, of course, and some would rather suppress the 1st Amendment. That may have been true in 1787 but fortunately there were (past tense) ten amendments.

      June 5, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
    • CalgarySandy

      You are taking it to its illogical conclusion. No one is suggesting that it be forbidden to quote or misquote. Rhetoric needs to be viewed for what it is an not as an injunction against the entire society. People are forever ordering commenters to stop living the way they want and start to live like the poster.

      June 5, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
  3. judith

    actually it is:
    And there was war in heaven
    And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent,
    called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world Rev 12:9
    the grand opus which begins in the garden comes to a close in Revelation.
    it's an unfolding story...a great mystery

    June 5, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
    • Tom

      The great mystery is why people put any stock in 2000+ year old scribblings from ancient desert people.

      June 5, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
    • MikeTheInfidel

      Care to point out where, exactly, the serpent _in the garden_ was mentioned in that passage?

      June 5, 2011 at 3:03 pm |
  4. Searcherseeker

    The fruit from the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil is the tree the serpent tempted Eve to eat. God cast out Adam and Eve from the Garden before they could get to the tree of Life. As usual in these modern times, fact checking is lacking in an otherwise interesting article.

    June 5, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
    • Really?

      Uuuummmmm...check again. 🙂 I think you just proved the author's point.

      June 5, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
  5. eamon sheeran

    Most people have never read even a passage from the Bible or the Quran or Don Quijote or King Lear or The Magic Mountain. Most people have never read more than comics. That may explain ,in part, why certain people get elected in the USA and elsewhere. Illiteracy is rife; that´s life. Now,if you love something you have never read, then you have a problem. The rest is silence.

    June 5, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
  6. wilson


    June 5, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
    • RAWoD

      You managed to enter your name in lower case. Why are you yelling stupid things in all upper case?

      June 5, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
    • Kevin

      seems like someone is a tad upset and needs therapy.... Wilson? How are you feeling today? Angry?......hmmm... I wonder why. Get a life.... and a new set of moral values, you may need them come the next rapture.... sorry, did you miss the last one? Don't worry, so did I.

      June 5, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
  7. Tom

    God helps the ones who help themselves. Isn't that like not helping someone? What if i help myself to a candy bar in line at the grocery line?

    June 5, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
    • Gedwards

      Those with IQs over 50 understand the context and aren't confused by it.

      June 5, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
    • DrDarin

      Tom: The passage speaks to self-efficacy, not stealing. But, you knew that already...

      June 5, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
  8. Vadad

    Maybe Craig Hazen isn't as arrogant as his quote makes him sound, but only having others tell you what the Bible means hasn't proven to preserve the truth better than the home Bible studies he seems to mock.

    June 5, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
  9. Jessica

    Maybe I am among the few, but I feel like all that man tried to do through religion (the attempt to control people by saying a creation will punish them) would still exist with or without religion. Religion was simply the best tool for trying to make that happen. Without it, we'd still be fighting over whose morals were correct, rather some fictional god came into it or not.

    June 5, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
    • Dr. Welch

      Jess.... You are not among the few, America is no longer a Christian nation. That idea has rapidly depleted from the mid 90's til today. I would count you among the majority now. Of course, that would depend on what part of the country you live in.

      June 5, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
    • Scott

      The most heinous and the most cruel crimes of which history has record have been committed under the cover of religion or equally noble motives.
      -Mohandas Gandhi (Young India, 1927)

      Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.
      -Blaise Pascal (Pensees, 1670)

      June 5, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
  10. Campbell

    Unless you're studying abnormal behavioral psychology or the history of English literature there's real reason to study the Bible.

    Christianity itself is an ancient game of telephone, what this article is arguing is merely its latest metamorphosis. If people want to believe what they want to believe... Go right ahead.

    If you want to argue what scripture is accurate you might as well learn greek and only read the Codexes.

    June 5, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
    • Campbell

      [there's *NO reason]

      June 5, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
    • Dr. Welch

      Ahh Campbell you are correct... Finally someone who makes since. I find the Bible interesting and perhaps may even believe in it, but yes! I constantly convert scripture into it's original Greek and Hebrew to get it's true meaning!

      June 5, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
  11. Dee

    Matthew 12:40 states that Jonah was in the "whales" belly

    June 5, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
    • Rev. B

      "Whale" is a modern translation of what the original Hebrew text said. The original story contains a "Big Fish" not a whale. The whale element of the story is a modernized idea. Just like the "apple" in the Garden of Eden where in Genesis no such mention of an apple but a "fruit" are mentioned.

      Rev. B

      June 5, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
  12. Dave H

    Only fools believe in this stuff anyway. This so called good book is nothing more then hate and more hate. Who needs it and who wants it? Grow the hell up!

    June 5, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
    • raka

      Only a fool continualy debates against what they believe to be mythological beings. I bet ur a hoot around Easter time. You probably go around enlightening all the fools who believe in the Easter bunny. grow the he'll up.

      June 5, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
    • Gedwards

      Two types of people obsess over the Bible and religion:
      – Religious fanatics
      – Anti-religious fanatics

      Both are abnormal and a bane on society.

      June 5, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
    • Rev. B

      It is natural to fear and outcast what one does not understand.

      June 5, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
    • ItsAbout Love

      Dave, I believe that I can safely guess that you have never read the Bible. I think you might be surprised, the whole thing is about love. Not some of it... all of it. Several times it is stated that the whole Bible can be summed up as loving God and loving people. It is flawed Christians (all of us) who confuse you into thinking that it is about hate. The purpose of the Bible is to tell the story of God's love for people.

      June 5, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
    • Scott

      @Rev.B: In WWII we were afraid of and cast out Nazism. Does that mean we didn’t understand it?

      June 5, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
    • Gedwards

      @ Scott, that would be bizarre logic.

      Another example of your type of backwards reasoning would be: "I don't eat what I don't like. Therefore I don't like what I don't eat."

      June 5, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
  13. mensaman

    Midunderstanding the Koran has led to the creation of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Reading comprehension is important after all.
    Any religious book is interpreted based on individual motive. It would be healthier if people didn't take Holy books as the true word of God. After all, the books were written and edited over thousands of years by mere humans – with an agenda. That's why the Gnostic Gospels are not in the Bible.

    June 5, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
  14. Ernie P.

    Chris..Revelation was written to warn mankind about the master plan of God. It was not written to scare anyone, it was written to reveal the future of mankind and there is nothing frightening because it speaks of new heaven and earth,and we could use that....

    June 5, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
    • Scott

      Revelation was written on drugs

      June 5, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
  15. Charles Leopardo

    Although the Book Of Genesis does not identify the Serpent with Satan, Christians do have a Biblical justification for doing so, because In the last book of the New Testament the connection is made fairly explicit.

    Revelation 12.9:
    The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.

    June 5, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
    • Cory

      I agree, what seems to big the bigger misnomer there is that people insist on calling it an apple when nothing gives any indication of what type of fruit it is or whether it i s figurative or literal.

      June 5, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
    • Chris

      Where, exactly is the explicit mention that satan is the same serpent that tempted eve?

      June 5, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
  16. Nacho1

    To Mike..................reference Church of God.....................thank you for your information.......................I had a feeling the passage had to do with the Father and the Mother.............simply could not adequately figure it out.............some of the passages are very ambiguous..............WE and US threw me to the point that I stopped reading it.............

    June 5, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
  17. Doug

    I find it amusing how upset the Christians are. Sorry that the author has pointed out places where you are wrong, if it bothers you so much then don't be wrong. I am an atheist but I know much more about the bible than most of my religious friends. So next time you get angry at a factual story about other peoples misuse of texts, make sure that you realize that it is accurate.

    June 5, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
  18. Sherri

    I was at a public meeting last night when a minister of some type gave a prayer. It started out saying how unworthy we are etc. Well, I don't want any part of any religion where believers are told that they are unworthy of anything etc. Then this guy went on for about 5 minutes, with the entire audience standing, being forced to listen. He also became very specific, mentioning Jesus dying for our sins etc, not caring if there were people there who were not of the Christian faith. Too bad I guess. I could hear people around me whispering about how 'long winded' this man was. Bore was more like it.

    June 5, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • Karen Flanders

      Hi Sherri–
      That man thought he was doing God a service. He was doing what he thought was right. I bet he went home that night felling pretty good about lambasting everyone. The end justifies the means, huh? Errr.... Well, let me tell you that was how I was raised up. I got so tired of listening to man. If you truly want to know God– well, you know the ending to that! 😉 We are all human! God uses us all differently. His sheep know Him and hear His voice.

      June 5, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
    • Scott

      But Sherri: when you die and go to heaven you get to spend the rest of eternity in church listening to stuff just like that

      June 5, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
  19. Simon

    One of the causes of these misquotes and misunderstandings, I believe, is the fact that the Bible is a very difficult text to read, but it is also a very popular book. The text and the book are not the same: as the article illustrates, many people do not know the text, but they do love the book, perhaps as a cultural symbol. There is nothing wrong with this picture per se. The problem is when people pretend to know the text. The article suggests this is a phenomenon that has emerged in the last 50 years, but before the advent of printing the same situation held true–for example, the Bible was the supreme source of authority in the Middle Ages, yet very very few medieval people actually read the Bible (very few medieval people even knew how to read). The idea that God, or the Holy Spirit, can "open the understanding" so that someone will understand the text of the Bible, is also medieval, and it also leads to all sorts of distortions. The popular interpretation of the Bible, the version that is taught to lay people in religious contexts, frequently has a very tenous connection with the text, and sometimes even if you point out the actual verse, a "believe" will still say that their interpretation matches the verse. This is conditioned reading–reading a text not for what it says, but rather for how you were taught as a child (or as a new believer). In my view, people who consider themselves to be religious must read the Bible as mature adults–using critical tools and challenging the text–not as children who read fairy tales and go on to invent all sorts of things.

    June 5, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
  20. Pam

    Did Adam & Eve really have belly buttons?

    June 5, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • Pam

      I was just curious – look at the illustration with this article.

      June 5, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
    • Sarah

      I think belly buttons are a result of Satan poking Adam and Eve repeatedly after they stole God's junk and wouldn't give him a cut of it. I think that was the most threatening thing he knew how to do but don't take my word for it. I just remember reading about it somewhere...

      June 5, 2011 at 3:26 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.