My Take: The 3 biggest biblical misconceptions
The Bible presents us with an evolving story, writes John Shelby Spong.
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.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Bible • Christianity • Opinion

soundoff (6,068 Responses)
  1. tony

    What does an all-powerful god do with all the collection plate money that he clearly needs so badly to continue? And how? Is it sacrificed on a fire, or stabbed to shreds on an altar? Where's all that key information that in the Bible?

    December 29, 2011 at 8:54 pm |
  2. James

    This is where people get wrong ideas....NEVER take the word of what someone says about the Bible...Read it for yourself....The Bible says, the Berens were of nobel character because they didn't take the word of what someone else said about the Bible...They read it themselves to draw a conclusion....

    December 29, 2011 at 8:53 pm |
    • Steve

      He's telling you about how it was written. I say, inform yourself through scholarly literature. Don't believe everything that you read – including the Bible!

      December 29, 2011 at 8:58 pm |
  3. UMMMM

    I thought this was actually pretty well written-He is coming at it with a Deist point of view-Although, I love seeing all the "Christian Taliban" come out in rage against their own.

    December 29, 2011 at 8:53 pm |
  4. Horus

    Bishop Spong is one of the few Christians who could convince me to convert! If Christianity wants to stay relevant in the 21st century, adopting, in part or whole, a good number of his ideas would be a start.

    December 29, 2011 at 8:53 pm |
  5. Josh

    The author of this article writes,

    "Can these acts of immorality ever be called “the word of God”?"

    If you are a Christian, and the Bible is your basis for morality, then who says that it is immoral for God to commit those acts? Are you–a Christian–judging your God? Does God not say explicitly that "I kill, and I make alive; I wound and I kill; neither is there any that can deliver from my hand" (Deut. 32:39). In fact, doesn't the God you pretend to believe in say that He causes everything that happens to happen? "For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things" (Romans 11:36).
    You're a theological lightweight, too engrossed with our backwards culture to have any measure of conviction, so you come up with these non sequiturs to reinforce that tiny thread you're trying to hang on to that dangles from your religion.
    Just admit it, you don't believe the Bible. You'd rather everyone get along than tell the truth.

    December 29, 2011 at 8:53 pm |
    • Steve

      He's establishing a timeline, which does (and should) call into question some tenants of the bible. The truth hurts sometimes, I know.

      December 29, 2011 at 8:59 pm |
    • bv

      sound bitter josh, sounds like you got some verses under your belt and convinced yourself you know everything

      December 29, 2011 at 9:00 pm |
  6. ForReal?

    And the biggest misconception of all is: IT"S REAL!

    December 29, 2011 at 8:51 pm |
    • republicanwhineypoo

      real fake that is

      December 29, 2011 at 8:54 pm |
  7. pat carr

    Funny to watch the anger of all the Bible Bangers on here

    December 29, 2011 at 8:51 pm |
    • buffalo

      Amen..oops! sorry! How true. I am always amazed at the viciousness with which these so-called God inspired thugs retaliate with when you pull their chains and point out the inconsistencies in their make-believe "religion".

      December 29, 2011 at 8:58 pm |
  8. Donovan

    The bible is an interesting story .... but it's a 2000 year game of telephone. Any "original" meaning has been lost many centuries ago. For those who believe the bible as "Truth", I ask you this ..... Which VERSION of the bible is "Truth". There have been many. There have been whole gospels added, dropped, altered for political reasons, etc. The King James version isn't the ONLY version used even in today's world. So, my christian friends ... which VERSION of the bible is truth? I will wait ....

    December 29, 2011 at 8:51 pm |
    • Perry

      You are right Donovan on the version question. In fact, I question King James itself as he influenced the translators to write that version for his own gain. The only true version that can be accurate, in my eyes, is the original manuscripts in their own language. There is loss of meaning when translated in other languages. With that though, I still personally believe the Bible, as it is available today, is the "Word of God" and will read and use it for guidance along with prayer. For me, what is the alternative? Nothing?

      December 29, 2011 at 9:06 pm |
    • callnews

      There actually is only one text of the original Old Testament , the Masoretic (Hebrew) text that was preserved from the time of Moses by the priestly tribe of Levi. This is one reason why Jesus said. "salvation is of the Jews" in John 4:22. Especially during the 400 years of time between the Old and New Testament scriptures, this same priestly tribe preserved. this original text. The versions that men have concocted in the past 150 years, beginning with the non-Christian critics Westcott and Hort, are perversions created from an eclectic mass of unsubstantiated texts, that please many pocketbooks. Everytime someone changes a so-called bible by 10%, they can copywrite it, and profit from its printing. But, God said, " Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away." Check it out. God loves to be tried.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:33 pm |
    • sciguy

      @Perry, even the "original manuscripts" were written decades or even centuries after the events they are supposed to portray. If you don't believe the 'later versions' of the bible, because you believe they're not trustworthy, why would you believe the "original manuscripts" when the authors weren't even alive when the events were supposed to have happened?

      December 29, 2011 at 9:41 pm |
  9. person

    Given all the misconceptions in this "article", what exactly are the true concepts again? This is pure fluff and a weak salespitch for his book. Nonsense.

    December 29, 2011 at 8:51 pm |
  10. Don'tBelieveTheLiesOfReligion

    I only disagree with Spong in his statement that the Bible's meaning somehow "escapes human limits" and shows us how to be better humans. The Bible is irrefutably and completely a human product. Everything in it was conceived of by humans and therefore is within human "limits". In its best sense, and only in certain places, the Bible provides some guidance for living a "good" life. But, it is definitely not unique in this. I wonder why Spong doesn't simply admit he's an atheist and the Bible a historical relic of a failed and deeply destructive worldview.

    December 29, 2011 at 8:50 pm |
  11. polycarp pio

    Ever learning, never comming to the knowledge of the truth. PP

    December 29, 2011 at 8:50 pm |
  12. Mark Taylor

    The "bishop" (and many others here) completely missed the point. The Old Testament exists in the Christian Bible purely to give context to the "good news" of the New Testament. It's easy to see why he is a former bishop, he doesn't understand the Faith.

    December 29, 2011 at 8:49 pm |
    • Donovan

      Actually, the more you truly understand the bible .... the more you wouldn't want to be a "bishop".

      December 29, 2011 at 8:54 pm |
    • Steve

      Oh, baloney. You are cherry-picking. Want us to believe fundamental truths in the New Testament, but ignore the Old? Doesn't make a lot of sense, unless you are searching for something that IS NOT THERE.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:01 pm |
    • Observer

      So do the Ten Commandments stay in effect, but killing people for a long list of reasons go away? Do we get to pick and choose what we like from the OT?

      December 29, 2011 at 9:03 pm |
    • Mark Taylor

      II didn't say anything about picking and choosing, truth or untruth of the Old Testament. THINK about the point I've made before responding

      December 29, 2011 at 9:05 pm |
  13. Robert

    How very wrong he is and he continues to spout garbage.

    December 29, 2011 at 8:48 pm |
  14. David

    The Bible is the inerrant word of God. Many things happened in the Old Testament that are no longer applicable in the New. This guy is supposed to be some sort of minister? or former pastor? He is a disgrace, and understands nothing about the scriptures.

    December 29, 2011 at 8:48 pm |
    • Gadflie

      Inerrant? That's kind of funny actually.

      December 29, 2011 at 8:53 pm |
    • pat carr

      Inerrant – LOL. more like irrelevant – and phony

      December 29, 2011 at 9:06 pm |
    • El Duderino (if you're not into the whole brevity thing)

      Well if God's word is inerrant, then why is so much of "God's word" not applicable to this day? Why can't I commit genocide or kill nonbelievers, or stone gays to death as he so commanded? I wish I could do bad things and then say, "oh, it was okay because it wasn't wrong to do it at that time."

      December 29, 2011 at 9:13 pm |
  15. opinion8it

    Thank you Mr. former Episcopal bishop of Newark - your faith waivered and now it is your mission to have everyone else stumble with you.

    December 29, 2011 at 8:48 pm |
  16. Jay

    This is a very poorly written article from a very liberal point of view and contains mainaccurate facts, especially around time and authorship. The author disparages the claims of the bible, cherry picking the verses about love and respect for life while inaccuratly contextualizing verses (which always distorts the meaning). I am always surprised by people who claim to love the bible but then seek to delegitimize entire swathes of the bible that they disagree with. If You do not believe that the bible is the written word of God that is your choice, but please know that you can not argue that the bible itself makes the claim that it is the true and inspired word of God. Jesus teaches that many will try and distort his word, even former members of the clergy.

    December 29, 2011 at 8:47 pm |
  17. Grant

    For crying out loud – The biggest misconception of the bible is that it is the word of god!

    December 29, 2011 at 8:47 pm |
    • NotABandwagonist


      December 29, 2011 at 8:54 pm |
  18. Joe Blundo

    "Bishop" John Shelby Spong disagrees with Orthodox Christianity and should be taken with a grain of salt. He frequently stretches the truth to get believers to doubt God's Word.

    December 29, 2011 at 8:47 pm |
  19. Patricksday

    Religion is Awesome, and think of the People who are preaching this crap to the masses in 2011. They cant even get Love one Another down in the Christian Bible, we still have Hatred and Division because of God's fine Management Team. Profit over Humanity always rules these "Holy Men".

    December 29, 2011 at 8:47 pm |
  20. xnay

    1) Not Jewish but I think a Rabbi would be more qualified to interpret their own religiion.

    2) If the Bible is a fake why was he a Bishop?

    3) All religion requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief.

    December 29, 2011 at 8:46 pm |
    • Gadflie

      If the Bible is fake, why was he a Bishop? There are high ranking leaders in all religions. At the very best, all but one are fake.

      December 29, 2011 at 8:52 pm |
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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.