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. Veritas

    According to Pew Research, 45% of Americans don't "believe" in evolution. People in this nation are more stupid than any European or Asian nation. We're a nation of ignorant delusional religious nuts. It's really quite sad...

    June 5, 2011 at 6:50 pm |
    • Veritas

      ..and to make matters worse, according to a Gallup study in 2008, 44% think the Earth and its creatures has existed in its present form since the beginning 10,000 years ago. (as opposed to the correct age of the Earth, 4.7 billion years)

      June 5, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
    • lotus

      Many Christians realize that God used evolution to create the earth.

      June 5, 2011 at 7:07 pm |
    • JustJosh

      @ lotus – where does it say that in the Bible? The reason Christians believe the Earth has always been in its present form for only 10,000 years is BECAUSE that's what they read in the Bible. If you believe otherwise, you are clearly adding your own pre-assumed opinions into the mix. The Bible mentions nothing about evolution, period.

      June 5, 2011 at 7:21 pm |
    • Robert

      Don't forget... when it comes to polls, most of us who are NOT religious, political or consumerist wackos generally hang up the phone and go back to whatever it was we were doing before we were interrupted. Most so-called scientific polls are conducted with against a population of willing participants. Those participants are, with generality, missing a screw or two. So when a poll comes out that says 45% of Americans do not believe in Evolution, that number is skewed to the point where, really, America should just stop taking polls and let things fall where they may.

      June 5, 2011 at 7:29 pm |
    • J K Mark

      Don't forget the flat earth Christians. There are lots of them out there as well. Science is evil, science is bad, but when they get sick who do they see? A doctor, and they use modern medicine. Hippocrates.

      June 5, 2011 at 8:52 pm |
  2. Mark

    These phantom passages include:

    “Spare the rod, spoil the child.”

    unbelievable; THIS IS WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS

    The Bible Says:
    "He who spareth the rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him correcteth him betimes" (Proverbs 13:24) and "Withhold not correction from a child: for if thou strike him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and deliver his soul from hell." (Proverbs 23:13-14)

    It means the same thing, geesh CNN is looking hard to discredit Christians!!!!

    June 5, 2011 at 6:50 pm |
    • Robert

      Some of us think those who follow religious teachings this closely - any religion mind you - have maybe been beaten with the rod a few times too many to begin with...

      June 5, 2011 at 7:31 pm |
    • J K Mark

      Nothing is being discredited here except the numerous false sayings that are attributed to the bible. You sound like a preacher who says "if you don't believe what I believe then you deny the resurrection." That is so lame. Don't you want to know what is truly accurate and in the Bible? I suggest you read Bart Erhman and find out.

      June 5, 2011 at 8:54 pm |
  3. Jeffision

    Pray for a post-religious era

    June 5, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
    • Mark

      You had better pray for your soul, the end is near, read the bible and you will see

      June 5, 2011 at 6:52 pm |
    • hugethorn

      amen brother. Oops, i mean, right on, man!

      June 5, 2011 at 6:53 pm |
    • Veritas

      @Mark: Didn't the end of the Earth already happen on may 25th or something? The stupidity of people in this nation is mind boggling.

      June 5, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
    • lotus

      Thank God religion is dying... now maybe we can get back to building relationships with Jesus Christ, as was originally intended.

      June 5, 2011 at 7:09 pm |
    • David Johnson


      You said: "Thank God religion is dying... now maybe we can get back to building relationships with Jesus Christ, as was originally intended."

      Some think Jesus never actually existed. He was just a composite of the Sun Gods. And even if Jesus did exist, why would you want a relationship with a corpse?


      June 5, 2011 at 7:21 pm |
    • James Quinn

      @Mark... I think you mean in your heart of hearts you HOPE like heck that those who do not share your faith will suffer endlessly and you'll be there to see it. How very christian of you:P

      Pagan jim

      June 5, 2011 at 7:22 pm |
    • JustJosh

      @ lotus – You TRULY believe you're somehow "not religious" because you're a Christian instead of a Jew or Hindu? How can one be so naive? Tell you what... As soon as your church starts paying taxes and stops hiding behind the exemptions granted to RELIGIOUS ORGANIZATIONS, I'll believe you. This shouldn't be a problem if you're truly not religious.

      June 5, 2011 at 7:24 pm |
    • KeithTexas

      I don't pray for things for myself but I surely hope that there comes a time of reason and as you stated a post-religious era.

      June 5, 2011 at 11:08 pm |
  4. Mark T.

    Does anybody actually believe that the "phantom passages" listed here actually appear in the Bible? These are pearls of wisdom in the Christian tradition, but who has ever said that any of these actually appear in the Book? I want my 5 minutes of reading time back.

    June 5, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
  5. frank

    I'm a little curious–please be honest now–how many of you people ate paint chips when you were little kids?

    June 5, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
    • Sean

      I did, because someone told me that the Bible said I should.

      June 6, 2011 at 7:10 am |
  6. AnnieCee

    I think this article is a little OUT THERE. There's a strong emphasis on ERROR here, where I don't see ANY. There are lots of things Christians say and teach that aren't in the Bible specifically, but they are IN THE BIBLE. Such as the Trinity of God: the Bible clearly speaks of three persons of God who are in perfect Unity so they are One God but three persons. The Bible describes this but does not give it the name of TRINITY: it's Christians who did that, sort of in an effort to sum it up.

    Which is what a lot of these phrases are about. They're simplified forms of Bible verses. Somebody thought up a catchy short way of referring to a Bible verse and it caught on!! "Spare the rod and spoil the child" refers directly to the Bible verse in 13:24 where it says, "Those who spare the rod of discipline hate their children. Those who
    love their children care enough to discipline them." If you google for "Spare the rod" then you'll get that specific verse so even GOOGLE sees the connection!!

    Or, the one about "This too shall pass." It's certainly in the Bible, in Mark 13:31 where it says, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away." So when Christians say that "This too will pass" what they mean is that all these trials are temporary and we look forward to a better future with Jesus.

    MOST of the phrases quoted up there have a SOLID SCRIPTURAL BASIS and the implication that the scriptures have been mis-used or re-interpreted somehow is very annoying. It's annoying because of the negative approach that was used, because the author seems to be inferring that the Bible has even been misquoted, when in fact using those phrases is NOT misquoting or misusing the scripture at ALL.

    June 5, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
    • Debating Fiction

      What the article should have addressed is how internally inconsistent and irreconcilable the "bible" (e.g. stories written over hundreds of years and bound together in books) really is. If most people actually read the bible, they would see that. All of the major doctrines of monotheism are espoused in the two books and neither has any basis in fact.

      June 5, 2011 at 7:00 pm |
    • KeithTexas

      No the Bible doesn't teach the Trinity in any place.

      June 5, 2011 at 10:20 pm |
  7. David

    My favourite biblical quotation is: Psalms 23 The Lord is my shepherd and the gun is my weapon

    June 5, 2011 at 6:45 pm |
  8. Robert Hagedorn

    But what exactly WAS this strangely named tree of knowledge of good and evil? Do a search: First Scandal.

    June 5, 2011 at 6:44 pm |
  9. Collin

    It is popular to say that the saying "God helps those who help themselves" has no biblical basis. To me, the biblical basis from that is found in many proverbs: Proverbs 13:4 The soul of the sluggard desireth and hath nothing: but the soul of the diligent shall be made fat. (from that proverb it could be inferred that the Heavenly Father is making the soul of the diligent fat due to the Heavenly Father's approval of the diligent person's behavior).

    Then there is Proverbs 21:5 The thoughts of the diligent tend only to plenteousness; but of every one that is hasty only to want.

    There are several other proverbs that promote diligence.

    June 5, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
    • Oso

      And yet you can bust yo ass working three jobs and still lose it all through no fault of your own.
      There you go. More passages proved to be BS.
      The Bibble is filled with em.

      June 5, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
  10. God

    If I am not too late, here's another one. People have gotten it in their heads that the Bible says that Jesus is the Son of God. In the Bible, however, Jesus only claims to be the Son of Man.

    June 5, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
    • Collin

      John 10:36 Say ye of Him, Whom the Father hath sanctified, and sent into the world, Thou blasphemest; because I said, I am the Son of God?

      June 5, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
    • KeithTexas

      You must not belong to any main line church. They also preach that Jesus was God incarnate on earth. You see most churches have abandoned the bible and believe what some hillbilly in Tennessee decided that bible meant, just as the last paragraph or two talked about they decided what the bible meant without knowing anything about the history of the book it self.

      You are on the right track, the Christos is of God, bestowed on Jesus at his baptism by John, Jesus was the son of man as he claimed.

      June 5, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
    • hosj

      Actually, Jesus makes the claim that God is his father quite a few times in John's gospel. It's also in Matthew; ch. 11 and 21 are a few that come to mind.

      June 5, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
    • Believer

      John 3:16 "For god so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son. Whosoever believed in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life."

      John 3:17 "For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved."

      Two consecutive verses that refer to Jesus as God's son. There are more.

      June 5, 2011 at 7:04 pm |
    • Walter Weinzinger

      Nope. True, Jesus said it , as did Peter (Matthew 16:16) and all the apostles (Matthew 14: 33), people possessed with devils that He cast out (Matthew 8:29) and even a Roman centurion who witnessed the events at Jesus' crucifixion (Matthew 27:54). And that's all out of just the first book in the New Testament! And last of all, I can tell you because of God has answered my questions through the Holy Ghost, that Jesus Christ truly is the Son of God. And you will know that eventually, too (as will every single human being that has ever lived or who will live), either early, through Him revealing Himself to you as a result of your humble search for Him or late, on Judgment Day when you will be called forth to stand before Him and give an accounting of your life on earth. That can be a wonderful day but it can also be a terrible day. It's all up to you!

      June 5, 2011 at 9:05 pm |
  11. Steve

    Born Again Idiots and the Fairy Tale Based Frauds are just like the Islamic Idiots.

    June 5, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
    • KeithTexas

      Fundamentalist of every sort are dangerous.

      June 5, 2011 at 10:23 pm |
  12. billionsforthebank

    ...and here we go. "The the official church does not say it, interpret the passage, and guide us (stupid) goyum, shall we then be left to our own thoughts?" I jsut finished reading the KJV Genesis 3 and WOW...the women (not named by dam yet, probably) was having a conversation with the serpent, AKA the devil, AKA satan, AKA the evil one, AKA the master of ALL lies, just making things clear about death. Then ending in the eternal curse of all...blaming the next person in line. The best is yet to come mr. author.

    June 5, 2011 at 6:42 pm |
  13. Philip L. Nash

    It is true that "God helps those who help themselves" is not in the Bible. It is NOT true that the concept is unbiblical. All Benjamin Franklin was affirming was a Judeo-Christian work ethic principle, that if you were industrious and had faith both in God and in the abilities with which He blessed you and were diligent, you would reap the rewards. I'm not sure of the mental gymnastics Sidnie White Crawford had to undergo to arrive at such a bizarre conclusion, but it's wrong as anyone with the capacity to reason can surely see.

    June 5, 2011 at 6:42 pm |
  14. Jihad Joe - Arabian Hero

    The spirit of what I think Ditka was trying to say is very much in the Bible: "And the world is passing away, and its lusts. But he who does the will of God abides forever. " -1 John 2:17

    June 5, 2011 at 6:42 pm |
  15. HealthyMom

    For a nutritious snack try Gudernoobs made by WooHoo Foods!

    June 5, 2011 at 6:41 pm |
  16. To All Who Don't Believe....

    Choose today who you will serve....God or Man. Come to a knowing faith in the King. He will bring happiness to your life and love and understanding. Glory to God, our King!

    June 5, 2011 at 6:40 pm |
    • Eric G

      I already have happiness, love and understanding. What I would like from you is verifiable evidence that your god exists. That would be something that nobody has.

      June 5, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
    • rick taylor

      what utter rubbish!

      June 5, 2011 at 6:45 pm |
  17. mike Balloun

    what is more damaging to true Christian seekers are people who have some kind of Christian credibility that think by splitting hairs and correcting others who are less in error than they, as they somehow believe they are guarding God's Word,(or worse promoting their own interests by gaining some notoriety)... and are themselves ignorant of the Knowledge or Wisdom of God's Word....
    Genesis says the "serpent" asked Eve after her response to his subtile questions "......hath God really said?"
    Assuming that the author of this article and those he quotes are Christians then they would know that the Word of God is considered to be both Old and New Covenants....and its in the New that we find the Apostle Peter who both nailed satan as the serpent and revealed his tempting of her....."but i fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ"....
    The more serious issue than laymen who quote scripture imperfectly....is that those who consider themselves so learned in the scriptures that they are always quoting "true" scriptual facts....but have no idea of what "truth" is.

    June 5, 2011 at 6:39 pm |
    • billionsforthebank

      "the woman" not Eve yet. Adam names the woman Eve later in chapter 3? This is important enough the note because even G_d calls her the woman?

      June 5, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
  18. John Michel

    It's like the often quoted passage "money is the root of all evil" when in actuallity it's the "love of money" thats said to be evil. Seems like those who love to quote biblical passages have little regard for context.

    June 5, 2011 at 6:39 pm |
  19. Nacho1

    Lets take a REAL vote by comment....................ALL in favor of abolishing all religions say..........abolish..................those who wish to keep all religions say..........keep religions.............

    June 5, 2011 at 6:38 pm |
  20. Just Say No to WASPs

    Anyone who lives their life by a book should kill themselves and save everyone else the trouble.

    June 5, 2011 at 6:38 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.