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. Matt

    How sad that this former bishop is heading down such a dark spiritual path. I reject claims that the Bible is "wrong" merely on the basis that what is written does not sound rational to Mr. Spong. The fact is, there is plenty of historical and archeological evidence supporting biblical accounts. But my biggest admonishon for him comes from the Bible itself, that he claims to revere and yet trashes at the same time: "Trust in the Lord with all of your heart and LEAN NOT ON YOUR OWN UNDERSTANDING..."

    December 29, 2011 at 9:23 pm |
    • RD

      Saying to not believe 100% everything you read isn't something I would count as trashing. Yes, there are historical facts in the Bible. But, at the same time you have to take everything in the Bible with a grain of salt, and understand that they are the works of someone else. Most of them many years after the actual events took place. Thus, one has to believe that the stories were elaborated a bit. Same concept as the telephone game.

      Myself? I don't allow Constantine to tell me what books I should follow and what books I shouldn't. I read all the books. Mark, John, Luke, Matthew, Mary, Thomas, and even Judas. And he does make a point, there are a lot if differences between the recognized gospels anyway. Is Mark's interpretation the correct one? Or is Luke's? This is why there are 4 recognized gospels, so that you can develop your own ideas about Jesus, who he was and what he did. Do I believe he was the son of God? Yes, but I also believe that we are all sons and daughters of God.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:31 pm |
    • RD

      Oh and one other thing, is isn't it possible that the way people take the bible to be the way the Holy Spirit wants them to take it? Just a thought.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:13 pm |
  2. DE

    Here are 3 more misconceptions: There was no Noah's ark, Moses and the Israelites did not cross the Red sea and Mary was not a virgin.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:23 pm |
    • RD

      Actually, your Moses phrase has been proven to be true in both historical and archaeological ways. Moses and what he did is referenced not only in the Bible but also in Egyptian writings as well. Also, there have been chariats from the time of Moses found at the bottom of the Red Sea. Did it happen the way the Bible said it did? Possibly not, but the fact does remain that this has been proven to be some what of a true story.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:36 pm |
    • Ibelieve

      Do you then believe that the flood never happened? Here’s some facts that may put doubt into that clam.
      Fossils, as we all know, are created when a living organism dies and is buried under layers of sediment and then after a thousand of years, you get a fossil. When an animal dies, usually, the remains are consumed and the bones are scattered, thus giving incomplete fossils. But, there are many fossils containing the whole animal with a complete imprint of the muscle/skin/whatever the animal had on top of its bones. In order for that to happen, there needs to be a sudden burial of sediment. Noah's flood does provide that.
      Now on sediment. Evolutionists would believe that sedimentary rocks were formed with many years of layering of tiny bits of rock. After many years, a strata, a layer of sedimentary rock on some rock formation, is formed. However, it has been proven that strata can be created quickly with several small and large scale testing. Here’s a link to a video. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eQ5yJeSrzyw Watch from 3:30.
      If you have any more questions, just respond with your question.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:40 pm |
  3. luvcomments

    As I see it, the only misconception – literally – is this bloke, Spong. Never mentions Paul or the Gospel given to him for non-Jews regarding the crucifixion and resurrection. What an idiot. And God laughs at those impressed with their own "wisdom"........ and that's part of the bible Spong had better believe.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:23 pm |
    • RD

      "Impressed with their own wisdom"

      Huh, you must be one of those, it says so in the Bible so it must be true people. Let alone the fact that you are actually allowing someone else to tell you what you have to believe in. Did God tell Luke, James, John, Matthew, Mark, etc... to tell the world about him? Sure. But, the fact remains that there are differences in their books. And this is only because everyone tells a story slightly different.

      The Bible is open to one's own interpretation. Just because John's interpretation is different from yours you call him an idiot?
      Wisdom is a gift from God. And personally I believe the wisdom to understand the Bible is given to everyone differently. Which is why everyone views the Bible differently.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:46 pm |
  4. joe beef

    I wish CNN would do a rebutle to this story with someone like Al Molher. Let's hear the other side to this.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:22 pm |
  5. dsptchr645

    The Bible was not written by GOD. It was written by various men at various times who gave their story of historical events. That's why there are Books in the Bible. There has been translation over centuries. There has been editing over the centuries. That's why there are various versions of the Bible for different Christian churches. There have been whole books removed from the Bible. There is a great deal of wisdom in the Bible. There are some items that should have no significance in the modern world, especially in the old Testament. The Bible gave a framework for western civilization.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:22 pm |
    • Lennyb0b

      But it was inSPIRED by God.....BTW, WHAT is God's NAME????

      December 29, 2011 at 9:26 pm |
    • Lennyb0b

      Actually, DA, the 10 Commandments WERE written by God!!!

      December 29, 2011 at 9:29 pm |
    • RD

      Actually, I think the 10 commandments were inspired by God and written by Moses.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:48 pm |
  6. Lennyb0b

    the " CROSS " didn't come about until the 4th century CE, You DO know that, right? You can't even get the instrument on which he was IMPALED correct so haw can anyone believe anything else you are babbling about? Oh. and Tom, you got it right!

    December 29, 2011 at 9:22 pm |
  7. lacoaster

    I am Atheist, but I have to admit that Mr. Spong has some objective points and I enjoyed what I learned from this article today. His preferences in what he believes are part of his freedoms and even though I might have a different perspective, I respect he dedicated time to research and present this article. It feels good to know that there are still religious people that can display some kind of objectivity even though his expressions might be unpopular between the religious. Thank you for the article and I hope the new year brings you many great things. Looking forward more articles in which I can actually learn some facts. Great style. I respect his opinion because I am under the impression that, at this time, I am not just dealing with the typical ignorant fanatic.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:22 pm |
  8. BankerGolfer

    One of the most intellectual, objective treatises on the Bible that I've ever read. Very thoughtful and thought-provoking. This article should be on the front page of every newspaper in the English-speaking world.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:22 pm |
  9. Chad

    I'll add to the oral tradition aspect. I've studied genealogy in remote tribes in areas of Africa and many can name their male ancestors back 60 to 100 generations. It has been found that different tribes have been linked based on common lines back 30 generations. We just do not care in our current technologically advanced world, heck few now can name their great-grandparents. Based on this issue the genealogy chapters make a lot of sense. Also find in fascinating the lists of those who returned etc as a census in Ezra and Nemiah (I believe that is the book it is in). The "names" of the people in the Bible and their regions they lived fit all discovered data as well.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:22 pm |
  10. Thom

    Of course, one has to believe in this fairy tale for it to be reality in their life. if you do believe, than you have to use a few brain cells and see that it was written more as "laws and beliefs" of the religious people, rather than something God came down from heaven and wrote. There are many laws that the spiritual/religious/church going/believers follow and many they discard because they don't work in their life. The bible and church is used more as a control mechanism rather than some truthful work of God. Most Christians don't even know what is in the bible, but they recite what the preacher or priest tells them to say and they push their own beliefs and views upon everyone else – while condemning those who don't narrowly see the world as they do.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:22 pm |
  11. J

    I can understand why those who take the bible literally would be slightly offended by the implications of this bishop, but it really is disheartening to know just how far those that have strong "faiths" will go to ruin the message a "nonbeliever" is trying to send. He is simply saying, backed up with logical arguments, that believing the bible is 100% historically correct is far-fetched. Consider the simple game of telephone; by the fifth person, the sentence is already messed up. How can we be certain through word of mouth that everything is completely accurate?? We can't. That is the point he is trying to make. There's nothing wrong with reading and following the messages of the bible, but c'mon people, take the stories and vehement rules with a grain of salt. Do you really think a man should be able to murder his wife if she is unfaithful? No, of course you don't believe that; unless your obsession with a religion which found its roots from multiple other pre-existing religions outweighs your common sense.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:22 pm |
    • CaptainObvious

      I can (and have) read the Bible is more than one language. I testify that it is God's word. However, it is NOT without error in translation, misinterpretation, inaccuracies, exaggerations and, yes, even the prejudices of men. Chrstians need to wake up and recognize that the prophets were MEN, not gods. They were imperfect and flawed and rely on the mercies and grace of the Lord Jesus.

      That said, love the Bible and study from it daily - (I know I do). But there is nothing faith shattering about the fact that the Bible is both errant and incomplete. As the author pointed out, that is just basic common sense. Focus on your faith in Christ and trying to live his example.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:42 pm |
  12. Turtle Boy

    I like turtles ...

    December 29, 2011 at 9:22 pm |
    • Random


      December 29, 2011 at 9:37 pm |
  13. Dave

    What is the definition of "religion"?

    December 29, 2011 at 9:22 pm |
    • tkessler45

      Organized belief.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:26 pm |
    • Dave

      Open your dictionary tkessler45...

      December 29, 2011 at 9:28 pm |
    • tkessler45

      I did...and I'm right. You don't need a belief in a "God" to be religious about something. In fact, you might as well just call it "irrational organized belief." It just turns out that religious people use "God" and other deities to further their belief system.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:33 pm |
  14. Ron

    Well for starters, he is an x bishop, and he has a book to SELL ! Someone needs to explain to him the meaning of faith. What was it Jesus said to the hawkers outside the synagogue when he caught them selling on the sabbath. I think one of them was selling a book!!!!!

    December 29, 2011 at 9:22 pm |
  15. JDM

    Really Spong? Why not just quote Bertrand Russell and be done with it?

    December 29, 2011 at 9:21 pm |
    • Dave Davis

      I think that you have probably put things pretty near where the rubber meets the road. If a person REALLY wants to know when the Bible's individual books were written, they should read the book "Has God Spoken?", by the Rev. Hank Hanegraff(Bible Answer Man). Be ready to settle in for a very long and thorough study. This man can prove his case both historically and archeologically. Another fine (and accurate) author is Josh Mc Dowell author of the book " More than a Carpenter."

      December 29, 2011 at 9:33 pm |
  16. CaptainObvious

    It would be foolish to claim that the Bible is something that it is not. On its face, the Bible is not perfect, nor complete, nor inerrant. Inaccuracies, exagerations, misconceptions and, yes, misinterpretations and prejudices abound in its pages. Many Christians forget that the Bible was not written by God. Rather, it is a conpilation of sacred texts that were largely written by (a) known prophets or (b) followers of the prophets. The prophets and their devout followers were not gods, but were mere men (like you and I); all rely on the grace and mercy of the Lord.

    That said, the author's point is well taken. The Bible is no less God's word nor important just because it contains inaccuracies, exagerations, and prejudices. It is no less the word of God even though (on its face) it is incomplete. The Bible is just as important today as it was 1,600 years ago.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:21 pm |

    As Paul told Timothy, "Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths." (2 Timothy 4:2-4 NIV)

    December 29, 2011 at 9:21 pm |
    • JPopNC

      Perfectly put Mr. Diaz. Perfectly put.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:22 pm |
    • tkessler45

      "Only fools use quotes to explain their ideas." (tkessler 1:12)

      December 29, 2011 at 9:25 pm |
  18. JPopNC

    I'm so done with CNN...they'll post anything from anybody that criticizes the Bible and it just makes me sick.

    Any idiot with half a brain would easily realize that the Jewish people at that time were the most accurate record keepers of all history, so yes there were written records of Moses, Abraham, and every other record in the Bible.

    And that crap regarding killing children, whether or not it was taken out of context is one thing, but the fact of the matter is that we're now under the New Covenent and none of that applies any longer, so it is and will always be totally irrelevant to us. Yes, it provides history to how those before Christ had to live, but it's all simply history to us now.

    So, grow a brain CNN and post something from a TRUE Biblical scholar, someone who actually knows what they're talking about and NOT someone who simply yaks something up to appease the hating, atheist out here. Because if you're working to push the Christian readers away, you're doing a fine job of it.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:21 pm |
    • CaptainObvious

      I am a Christian and I belive the Bible is the word of God. However, that does not mean it is not errant on its face. One can still be a Christian and believe deeply in Christ's sacrifice. One can rever and respect the Bible as holy scripture and study from it daily without claiming it is inerrant. I think far too many Christians these days put their faith in a book rather than in the living Christ. Take the Bible for what it is worth: an incredible compliation of holy scripture that has largely (though, albeit, not entirely) been preserved through the centuries.

      The Bible is still the word of God and Jesus is still the Christ. The various inaccuacies, exagerations, misunderstandings, and mistranslations do not negate the fact that the Bible is still God's word. We Christians need to stop putting our blind faith in a mere book and focus instead on our own personal relationship with the resurrected Lord.

      You can still love and study the Bible daily without saying that every word and story contained therein is the absolute gospel truth.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:34 pm |
  19. Yarah

    Spong doesn't know the Bible! Many people think they know what the Bible says, you need to know the historical back groung about the culture of the Bible. Spong knows nothing of this. He's so Liberal it's a joke. See you in Hell Spong, from Heaven.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:21 pm |
    • BoyohBoy

      Careful, Yarah. So hateful sounding, totally not reflective of the grace you should have if you claim to believe the Bible.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:41 pm |
    • RD

      I agree. And if you are going to refer to "Historical back ground" as you claim, then basically you are saying that Constantine had every right telling us what books to follow and what books to not. And Yarah, I am willing to guess you don't even know everything the Bible says.

      The Bible is all about one's own interpretation. That is why there are 4 gospels that tell the story of Jesus's life. And if you believe EVERYTHING in the Bible happened the way it did, then you are the one who knows nothing. The Bible is a book of stories. And stories have a way of always becoming over exaggerated. The Bible was inspired by God, but written by man. But that doesn't make it any more less the Word of God. That just makes it having the possibility of having errors.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:09 pm |
  20. tkessler45

    Leave it to an article like this to have people at each others' throats. It's like a Jerry Springer show.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:20 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.