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.
Jesus Christ was a Communist who found against bankers, money changers, and Imperialistic Oppression.
He paid for it with his life.
There can be only one and he is .....CTHULHU!!
HELL YEAH! HAHAHA
The bible has proven to be historically accurate. Stop trying to manipulate the facts. This article is worthless. Stop spreading lies about what the bible says. Try reading it.
i read the cliff notes version. it still sounds like bs to me.
This article brings the Bible back to earth, demonstrates that it is mostly a fictional account based loosely on actual history. To take it literally is a mistake.
The bible is an account of many people who have attempted to understand God. The perception of who God is, was an evolutionary process based on trial and error. This explains why God is initially portrayed as a tyrant and much more loving in the end. God hasn't changed - people have.
The truest part of this article is the disclaimer that follows it: "The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Shelby Spong."
Unfortunate. I also had trouble with understanding the Bible as the inerrant, inspired Word of God early in my walk. Perhaps the Holy Spirit will help the Bishop find his way.
wow, you actually believe that huh?
I do not understand this article. Is he saying that the Bible is un-reliable but yet holy? Does God have anything to do with the Bible? We cannot call the Bible a holy and inspired book and deny its divinity at the same time. We do not have that option. Bill Maher makes more sense then this guy and he should be ashame of himself.
He believes more in the lessons it teaches than the 'factual' history people try to attach to it.
I think this is proof that even the people who believe in God are starting to question its actual existence. If we wrote about things 100 plus years ago from heresy then their is no actual historical evidence. Probably some things happened back then and the story was told and eventually it became something that it was not. So is it true? I dont think so. I don't think anyone really believes their was a crazy flood and Noah put 2 of every animal on a boat. (We could not even do that if we tried today) Or Mary got pregnant without intercourse. If you only read what could be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt in the bible, then you probably would not have much left. Everyone can be a good person without religion. Grouping ourselves into these old fads create animosity and jealousy. Hey even if I am wrong, I think I have been a good person all my life. Why would God punish me for not believing? He probably wouldn't because I was good without the need for support from an outside source.
Right on Ray! I like to think this god would understand our doubt with no proof. christians use that flabby excuse the he doesn't need to prove anything to us, well, the hell he doesn't! This jesus came to a sand lot to live with a bunch of rag-heads that spend every minute trying to kill anyone near them, he didn't come to the Indians in America, he didn't go to Africa, now England, now China, no, he spent a mere 30 odd years with a pack of killers that are still doing it today, I for one, WANT that man to show his butt HERE and tell me who, ant what I am!!!!!!!!!!!
Very nicely said, Ray!
No, no, no! The biggest misconception is that it's true.
"...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...."
Like hell!! "...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..."
Who on earth would give this book one second look after reading what a cruel sob god was! Just sayin'.
I give up this site is hopeless. True christians waste their time on here. That's why God will let all know who he is when the time comes, and woe for the earth and the sea!
good take a hike...and next time you are sick pray and don't seek medical attention. idiot.
Yeah, please go hang out with "true christians" so the rest of us won't have to read what a moron like you writes.
The fact that I took the time to read this article might prove that I am as dumb as the author! What a piece of unchecked and agenda-filled garbage!
This is your chance, point out the flaws.
So what agenda do you think this bishop has?
Yes Phil, you will "look back" at your life and say you made a mistake...and you'll be on your knees when you say it.
i bet you're on your knees a lot...and i'm sure it has nothing to do with this article.
If you want to read some real good fiction, pick up J.K. Rowling's books.
True... The bible is very poorly written fiction...
Wow. A priest doesn't get it? Does he really believe God isn't in control of his message? Does he really believe a few years passing is just too much for the Creator? That by the time God had someone record the history poor God was confused because of the passage of time? LOL, well that is just silly and sad for man of God. God unfolded the message in His own way in His own time and in a language of His choosing... He is just like that.
priests do get it...usually from little boys in the back of the rectory.
Stop drinking the koolaid, Sara.
Stop believing what preachers tell you is the truth. They are all psycotic liars.
Not from the original Reality.
Let's see....seems he wrote a controversial book on the topic. Is he trying to educate or make money? I will go with the latter. May we assume this is a self serving view from a man who has an axe to grind?
They call it faith for a reason. I believe the bible is the word of God not dictated but inspired. I believe Jesus Christ is the only begotten son of God, the promised messiah come in the flesh. I dont care what anyone else in this world has to say to the contrary, I believe it, that settles it for me. PP
and i believe that you are full of poo.
And I believe that there's a noodly being floating in the sky that keeps us on earth by pushing down on us with his noodly appendages ... I have EXACTLY as much evidence as you do to support the theory and just as much "faith" in the matter. What makes you so right and me so wrong in your mind?
Republicanwhineypoo, that's real classy.
Hey Tom. Eat me.
Why does the Bible have to be historically "accurate" to be true or inspired? The Bible, at best is collections of myths, allegories and tales which cobbled together over thousands of years and by tens of thousands of men to tell us the story of and nature of God. That is how it affects me and my faith. Trying to force the Bible to be factual rather than simply inspired seems to make no sense. We know that the Bible is not factual, do you know if God is real, or powerful enough to use myth and allegory to explain himself to us?
So even if it was proven that the bible was entirely made up, you would still choose to believe because your afraid to die. I think that's called being a coward.
I agree with everybody here who says this article is ridiculous. His explanation of how scripture was written, and when, is not mainstream. In fact, it seems like pure fiction.
Actually, he's pretty factual. It's those who choose not to challenge what their superiors (aka "The Church") are telling them who have a problem with FACTS. Go check any historian on this issue. Go check any archeologist. You people are such SHEEPLE to believe this junk.
Misconceptions about the bible? No kidding!!! Until somebody can explain to me how a baby born in the middle of dark skinned/dark haired people pops out a blue eyed blond I will go read something else to entertain myself.
Well, the Bible never describes Jesus' skin or hair color. And, the area was literally the crossroads of the world back then, pretty much every hair/skin combination at least passed through.