December 29th, 2011
09:10 AM ET
My Take: The 3 biggest biblical misconceptions
Editor’s note: John Shelby Spong, a former Episcopal bishop of Newark, New Jersey, is author of "Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World."
By John Shelby Spong, Special to CNN
The Bible is both a reservoir of spiritual insight and a cultural icon to which lip service is still paid in the Western world. Yet when the Bible is talked about in public by both believers and critics, it becomes clear that misconceptions abound.
To me, three misconceptions stand out and serve to make the Bible hard to comprehend.
First, people assume the Bible accurately reflects history. That is absolutely not so, and every biblical scholar recognizes it.
The facts are that Abraham, the biblically acknowledged founding father of the Jewish people, whose story forms the earliest content of the Bible, died about 900 years before the first story of Abraham was written in the Old Testament.
Actually, that's not in the Bible
Can a defining tribal narrative that is passed on orally for 45 generations ever be regarded as history, at least as history is understood today?
Moses, the religious genius who put his stamp on the religion of the Old Testament more powerfully than any other figure, died about 300 years before the first story of Moses entered the written form we call Holy Scripture.
This means that everything we know about Moses in the Bible had to have passed orally through about 15 generations before achieving written form. Do stories of heroic figures not grow, experience magnifying tendencies and become surrounded by interpretive mythology as the years roll by?
My Take: Bible condemns a lot, so why focus on homosexuality?
Jesus of Nazareth, according to our best research, lived between the years 4 B.C. and A.D. 30. Yet all of the gospels were written between the years 70 to 100 A.D., or 40 to 70 years after his crucifixion, and they were written in Greek, a language that neither Jesus nor any of his disciples spoke or were able to write.
Are the gospels then capable of being effective guides to history? If we line up the gospels in the time sequence in which they were written - that is, with Mark first, followed by Matthew, then by Luke and ending with John - we can see exactly how the story expanded between the years 70 and 100.
For example, miracles do not get attached to the memory of Jesus story until the eighth decade. The miraculous birth of Jesus is a ninth-decade addition; the story of Jesus ascending into heaven is a 10th-decade narrative.
In the first gospel, Mark, the risen Christ appears physically to no one, but by the time we come to the last gospel, John, Thomas is invited to feel the nail prints in Christ’s hands and feet and the spear wound in his side.
Perhaps the most telling witness against the claim of accurate history for the Bible comes when we read the earliest narrative of the crucifixion found in Mark’s gospel and discover that it is not based on eyewitness testimony at all.
My Take: Yes, the Bible really condemns homosexuality
Instead, it’s an interpretive account designed to conform the story of Jesus’ death to the messianic yearnings of the Hebrew Scriptures, including Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53.
The Bible interprets life from its particular perspective; it does not record in a factual way the human journey through history.
The second major misconception comes from the distorting claim that the Bible is in any literal sense “the word of God.” Only someone who has never read the Bible could make such a claim. The Bible portrays God as hating the Egyptians, stopping the sun in the sky to allow more daylight to enable Joshua to kill more Amorites and ordering King Saul to commit genocide against the Amalekites.
Can these acts of immorality ever be called “the word of God”? The book of Psalms promises happiness to the defeated and exiled Jews only when they can dash the heads of Babylonian children against the rocks! Is this “the word of God? What kind of God would that be?
The Bible, when read literally, calls for the execution of children who are willfully disobedient to their parents, for those who worship false gods, for those who commit adultery, for homosexual persons and for any man who has sex with his mother-in-law, just to name a few.
The Bible exhorts slaves to be obedient to their masters and wives to be obedient to their husbands. Over the centuries, texts like these, taken from the Bible and interpreted literally, have been used as powerful and evil weapons to support killing prejudices and to justify the cruelest kind of inhumanity.
The third major misconception is that biblical truth is somehow static and thus unchanging. Instead, the Bible presents us with an evolutionary story, and in those evolving patterns, the permanent value of the Bible is ultimately revealed.
It was a long road for human beings and human values to travel between the tribal deity found in the book of Exodus, who orders the death of the firstborn male in every Egyptian household on the night of the Passover, until we reach an understanding of God who commands us to love our enemies.
The transition moments on this journey can be studied easily. It was the prophet named Hosea, writing in the eighth century B.C., who changed God’s name to love. It was the prophet named Amos who changed God’s name to justice. It was the prophet we call Jonah who taught us that the love of God is not bounded by the limits of our own ability to love.
It was the prophet Micah who understood that beautiful religious rituals and even lavish sacrifices were not the things that worship requires, but rather “to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” It was the prophet we call Malachi, writing in the fifth century B.C., who finally saw God as a universal experience, transcending all national and tribal boundaries.
One has only to look at Christian history to see why these misconceptions are dangerous. They have fed religious persecution and religious wars. They have fueled racism, anti-female biases, anti-Semitism and homophobia.They have fought against science and the explosion of knowledge.
The ultimate meaning of the Bible escapes human limits and calls us to a recognition that every life is holy, every life is loved, and every life is called to be all that that life is capable of being. The Bible is, thus, not about religion at all but about becoming deeply and fully human. It issues the invitation to live fully, to love wastefully and to have the courage to be our most complete selves.
That is why I treasure this book and why I struggle to reclaim its essential message for our increasingly non-religious world.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Shelby Spong.
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.
If Jesus were alive today he'd be a Secular Humanist living in Guantanimo Bay prison, shuffling around in one of those orange jumpsuits, having been deemed a national security threat (our modern crucifixion).
Of course some things aren't to be taken literally! We are talking about comparing modern laguage and our way of communication to the way people spoke back in those times. One word can have several meanings, we can't take every word in the bible LITERALLY but STUDY the context of the entire story before assuming a meaning. We have to consider the culture too, some things and customs are used as symbolism. There is a lot in history resulting from events in the the bible and a little research and comparing will prove that. I don't understand how people always have something to say about something they don't even take the time to understand and jump to have an opinion based on other people's opinions.
The Bible says "Only stupid people don't believe in God and they are going to hell." - as a Christian living in Texas, I agree 100% with God's sentiment!!!
Only stupid people believe this dumb book written by a bunch of idiots is the word of a god.
Might as well not believe in anything, right @SCAtheist?
The Bible also says that anyone working on the Sabbath should be killed (it's in the same area as the Ten Commandment it refers to). I'll guess you don't follow the Bible on that.
either you can't read or you didn't understand the article.
Pot meet Kettle
"Might as well not believe in anything"
If you're dim enough to make your original statement, the above comes as no surprise.
Are you going to use your razor intellect to next ask 'if humans came from monkeys, then why are there still monkeys?!'
Please don't put words in God's mouth, we, Christians, already have a bad rep of being close minded. The bible has a lot of information and explains every bit of it, including how to treat other people and not judge. A lot of "Christians" only choose to follow part of the word and are giving off a bad impression of all of us to non-christians.
Exactly where is that passage in the Bible?
You are proof that thee are stupid people who do believe in God. Did you not even read the article? The Bible is not to be taken literally.
Maybe you ought to read your bible, because the original comment is strongly supported by scripture.
Psalm 14 and Matthew 10:33 right off the top of my head.
Your name is Faisal and you live in Texas?
That must be like being called Adolph and living in Te lAviv
In reply to Observer, there are many things in the old testament that have changed throughout time. Although the old testament explains a lot about history and the beliefs back then the reality is that most things have changed with the new testament. Please don't take one sentence of what you have read and jump to conclusions. Just replying not trying to start an argument with you. Thanks.
Andy, I don't understand why you are coming off so angry towards me but in reply to your post: the entire context has to be taken into consideration. Obviously the religion is based on the belief that if you don't believe in God you are going to hell. I was mainly referring to the way the post was written. It can be taken offense to and cause other people to get angry, there are better ways of speaking to people.
Well, Faisal, since you seem to be the resident expert on "stupid people" and the Bible, perhaps you could mention the chapter and verse for your quote?...
Only stupid people come from Texas.
Maybe you ought to read your bible, because the original comment is strongly supported by scripture.
Psalm 14 and Matthew 10:33 right off the top of my head."
What part of the above could be labeled as 'angry'? Please point it out. You'll probably take this as an 'attack' too, but I think that by suggesting that anything I say is 'angry' you're attempting to poison the well, and that's intellectually dishonest. Your argument is theologically weak, to boot.
That's not anger, just reality.
This is a very interesting take for a Christian leader. But I like it. One more thing that he neglects to mention. There are only the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the New Testament. What about the gospels of the other disciples? They were excluded centuries ago when councils of men (under the direction of the pope) sat down to decide what fit the narrative they wanted. In other words, to the author's point, the message was shaped by man.
Now behave, Phil. Facts are dangerous things when discussing religious topics...
Actually...many of the other "gospels" were written so much later than M,M,L,J that they really couldn't be put in. We are talking centuries here and not even decades.
As evidenced by the comments on this article, there is a broad spectrum of opinion concerning the fallibility/inerrancy of this book. Some believe it's all a load of crap; others believe every word is true. Neither of those positions can be proven, and it is far more likely that reality lies somewhere in between: some of what's in there is true, other parts are embellished truth, and still others were crafted to illustrate a point or lesson. It is this middle ground to which the author speaks, and I for one find it refreshing to hear a member of the religious community take the middle ground.
When it comes to matters of religion and faith, nobody can prove that their chosen belief system is 'true". Those of you who are being all dogmatic about this should really just back up and quit trying to out-shout one another about the "truth". Believe what you want to believe, let others do the same, and shut the h*ll up already. Of course, then we wouldn't have this entertaining discourse going on, would we?
All of the Bible stories are taken from other, earlier cultures. It's as if everyone forgot that there were religions before Judaism.
Humans existed before Biblical times? Say it isn't so, Jojo...
Christianity is just a rehash of Mithraism. Messianic martyr cultures come and go throughout history. Jesus is just the most recent one.
Not really, on the most recent comment.
Mr Spong reminds me of the folks that go into the seminary believing in God and come out doubting God, the Bible and the whole purpose of it all. This is a concerted effort from the Left to distort and dilute all that is sacred from the inside out. It's one thing to talk about God a whole other thing to experience his presence for yourself. After this, there will be no doubt's left.
The strongest arguments against the Bible come from reading it.
"A Man With an Experience is Never at The Mercy Of a Man With an Argument"
John, the author of this story just proved his point
with your response.
You just spouted off from the Conseravtive "I AM RIGHT:
YOU ARE WRONG, side of it.
You either cant comprehend the message, or refuse to do so.
I find it fascinating that most evangelicals "believe" in a personal relationship with God but deny all possibility that the individual perception of such relationship has genuine and acceptable differences necessary for different perspectives to relate.
That said, to me it's all nonsense.
@Jessica, you can witness that the editor 'doesn't believe' based on one little essay. What a cute little hateful sinner.
Excellent article, excellent observations. No hidden agenda. KUDOS, Mr. Spong!
I laugh at people who, in order to try and "prove" the bible is true, will quote passages from the very same book intelligent people argue is fiction.
Stop quoting the book of lies and show me a home video, then I might take your story as half true.
There are literally millions of people who are intelligent and study the bible. Your ignorance is showing
Correct. I shouldn't have used"intelligent". I know many intelligent people with zero common sense. How they are still alive baffles me,
I study the Bible, among other writings having to do with religion, and of the Bible I believe little of it to be factual & none of the supernatural aspects.
Youre absolutely not as smart as you think you are, and its embarrasing just readin your "i have 99 percent of this world solved" opinion. You are so lost its immeasurable. Good luck
Your words are a beautiful extension of this articles's author's words. Thank you..
It is obvious to all who read scripture and study the bible that this man is a fool. His arguments have no validity. His claims that Abraham could not have written the first five books of the bible called the Torah is total fabrication. It has been proven that writings by peoples in Abraham's time is possible. The Torah did not rely on oral tradition. As for his argument that the oral tradition was used for most of the old testament is correct but review of ancient Hebrew texts such as the Dead Sea scrolls along side with more recent copies of Isaiah show no change in the context and meaning of the scriptures.
His comments on the fact that God required the death of certain peoples in the old testament is correct. The reason was because the moral state of the people in the land. Yes, God also commanded the stoning of those caught in adultery, incest, bestiality. He ordered this because it would be a snare to his people in the land. God is sovereign and can do with his creation as he will.
The God of the old testament and the New Testament is the same. The author states that Micah gave a transcendent view of God by quoting
,"It was the prophet Micah who understood that beautiful religious rituals and even lavish sacrifices were not the things that worship requires, but rather “to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.”
Taken separately," justice not only for those that do rightly but on those who disobey, read on in the passage and you see God judging the sin in the life of those in Micha's time. Love mercy, God wants to be merciful on us and wants us to emulate him. Yet we have no mercy and therefore judgment looms and is near read; on in Micha. To walk humbly with your God- humility toward God would have us recognize that he is, and acknowledge of sinfulness and humbly submit to him.
The word of God says this:
Rom 1:20 For the invisible things of him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being perceived through the things that are made, even his everlasting power and divinity; that they may be without excuse:
Rom 1:21 because that, knowing God, they glorified him not as God, neither gave thanks; but became vain in their reasonings, and their senseless heart was darkened.
Rom 1:22 Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools,
Many reason in their own mind in order to excuse themselves, to free themselves and live unfettered lives devoid of the knowledge of sin. They justify themselves and therefore by free will make a choice to seperate themselves from God. He will not push himself on you but will make known the gift of God which is peace with God. He will also give you eternal life which is not only free but also quality of life in this world.
2Co 5:20 We are ambassadors therefore on behalf of Christ, as though God were entreating by us: we beseech you on behalf of Christ, be ye reconciled to God.
Holy Moly are you indoctrinated!
God is above his morality? Sherlock NOTHING is soverign, hell even the concept is designed to keep sheep in their pens!
In other words morality is subjective and you are moral simply due to fear of reprisals?
You Christians are one sick bunch of Mo Fo's!
I have read your rag, and it is obviously a tool to indoctrinate idiots and you are proof it is working.
"The Torah did not rely on oral tradition." -- Prove it.
"As for his argument that the oral tradition was used for most of the old testament is correct but review of ancient Hebrew texts such as the Dead Sea scrolls along side with more recent copies of Isaiah show no change in the context and meaning of the scriptures." -- No. All that "proves" is that there were few changes from the time which it was actually written, (which is well known to scholars and archeologists), to the time of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which was only a few hundred years. Fail. Isaiah was written BEFORE the Dead sea scrolls. Where are your older copies of Isaiah ?
There is no hope for you. Too bad you wasted your college money
The kool aid is poison Ozzy, please stop drinking.
I ... love ... Ozzy's unshakable rebuttal: I'm right, you're wrong. So simple!...
Jeesh....got some angry anti-religous ppl on here today. Shame on ozzy for commenting without the approval of the ATL atheist troll league.
"It does not jibe with what I believe; therefore, it must be false." tl;dr
Right on Salvador. Mr Spong can still be taken to school.
So can you – here, let me help you out right now: use the reply link.
I'll stand by and watch as you explain your opinion to the Almighty Creator of the universe. That should be interesting to watch to see if you are smiling then as you are in this blasphemous report.
Your fear of "what if I don't believe" isn't faith. It is just cowardice.
Hey true believer,
it will be god who will be smiling, because'
somebody is on the right track.
Constantine and the council of Nicea
decided to make a "one size fits all" book for the massess
by sticking square pegs into round holes.
The bible is a complete mess.
Take what comfort you wish from it,
but dont use it to legislate my life,
God wont be very happy with you.
Always happy to welcome another representative of the Smugly Self-righteous Brigade...
"Ooh, you gon' get it!"
The whole thing is one big misconception..should we say bronze age misconception..
Religion is a two-sided coin. Beginning in an unenlightened world... One side attempted to provide a methodology to appeal to "higher powers" to insure fertility, good crops, successful hunts, etc. And- the 2nd side was a policing method to control the behavior of the individual / family / tribe / city / nation, in a world without police or an independent rule of law.
Having said that- there appear to be some non-religion-based human truths... Do unto others as you would have them treat you- Humans are essentially all the same- We are all part of everything, and everything is part of us- and... Love is paramount.
Way too reasonable...
No complaints about this article. Seemed thoughtful and rational, to me. Unfortunately, from the COMMENTS IT'S RECEIVED, it's pretty obvious (once AGAIN) that religion, faith, belief (whatever you want to call it) often brings out the most evil and most stupid, idiotic human behaviour and utterances. Just mention the Bible or God or Jesus, and every developmentally-challenged halfwit with a keyboard and an Internet connection seems to come out of the woodwork.
So after what the article says you think that ninsense is the word of a god? You're such a genius.
Keefster, you shouldn't talk about believers that way!
@Keef- I agree with you.
You got it!
Why I love the Bible...
Talking Donkey – Numbers 22
Don't forget the talking serpent and the unicorns.
Or that burning bush...
Ugly sucker; only says 'ficus'.
The Bible is hokey old garbage. How people can believe it is beyond me.
I always keep a copy of Gideon in the bathroom, in case I run out of TP.
So why don't you read and write in the atheist blog... this is a blog dedicated to Belief.
People believe in god, and read the bible. People dont "believe in the bible".. Start there
By the way, atheism is one the strongest growing religions of the century. You have become what you despise the most.
We have beliefs as well. Ours are based on facts, yours on horse manure from the Bronze age.
This site is OURS. As for you, please join your fellows zombies in rioting over your pathetic holy land, and leave the internet to the rational.
The real john .. your people are so in need of religion you can't even conceive of what is obviously non religion.