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. roger

    Well thought and well written by a liberal theologian (not meant as a disparaging label). However, there are other equally well thought and well written views. So, though he is a very competent theologian and writer, remember there are others just as competent with different compelling thoughts.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:28 pm |
  2. johnutah

    "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."

    The above is exactly why the Holy Quran is the only word of God that is still unchanged from its original form. Not one single letter has been changed, the same cannot be said about the many versions of the Bibles. Even a Christian cannot argue that.

    "Does man think that we will no assemble his bones, yes indeed we are able to even proportion his fingertips" 1400 years ago the creator of the heavens and universe is telling mankind about the unique features of fingerprints. One of the many miracles of the Quran.

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


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

      Not one word has ever been changed in published form of many, many, many works. Big deal.

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

      Proving that smug superiority knows no religious boundaries...

      December 29, 2011 at 10:45 pm |
  3. dj

    How long does it usually take for a comment to post on here?

    December 29, 2011 at 9:28 pm |
    • Rockets Redglare

      Milliseconds. If it did not, then you have a naughty word hidden inside one of your words. If you tried to write "Constitution", the "tit" will cause the post to vanish. If you wrote "circumstance, then just like pregnancy, the "cum" was the culprit.

      Put a space or a period or a dash in the word and it will come out legibly enough, like Consti_tution or circu.mstance

      To answer your next question, I am using a trick to make those words appear unalterred.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:50 pm |
  4. ReasonAndLogic

    That is an excellent analysis by a logical person. You only need to go one step further and realize that there is absolutely no evidence of supernatural powers out there that are watching us, controlling us and waiting to judge us to eternal pleasure or damnation. When you make that last mental leap, you will be free.

    This problem within religions is not uncommon. Even Buddhism practiced in many parts of the world involves praying to a God-like being and supernatural forces are present, even though Buddha himself specifically told people not to pray to such a being and that the main point is to work on oneself to gain truth about the world around you, using a process that is very similar to the scientific process and involves critical thinking. Obviously, Buddha was thousands of years ahead of his time.

    Since Christianity now recognizes over 33,000 denominations where each of them disagree with the others, most of the time to such a point where they feel the other groups are going to hell, it can be easily observed when looking from the outside that the mental hoops required to jump through to believe that such a small percentage of people on earth are correct, and that 99.9 percent of the rest of the world's religions are wrong, including all the non-believers which include most of the world's smartest scientists, it must be accepted that the human mind is easily manipulated to believe just about anything, regardless of the mountains of evidence that fly in the face of that belief. Truly amazing.

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

      Your mere existence is evidence enough of his existence!!

      December 29, 2011 at 9:30 pm |
    • Ky

      Man is easily manipulated to believe the unbelieveable for the simple reason that he fears death above all else. Those individuals that manage to get beyond that fear also manage to get beyond religion, as you obviously have. As you mention, traditional Buddhism isn't a religion, it's a way of looking at yourself and the world around you, aka a philosophy. Can you imagine what a different world it would be if we woke up one day to find that all the Christians, Jews, and Moslems in the world had "converted" to traditional Buddhism? Wow (to quote Steve Jobs).

      December 29, 2011 at 9:56 pm |
  5. Ken

    You don't read the bible with your logical mind, the right heart condition is needed. Was this article written by a crazy person? It is not even readable, fluent, or accurate. It is so out of context within itself, I can't intelligently start to correct it. How did it make past the editors at CNN? I guess anything anti-bible will pass at CNN. I know God hides the secrets of the bible from nobles but I didn't think they could be that blinded. I really am in awe of the creators ability to do this. If someone doesn't want to search for God, the heart will find a million reasons the reject the creator and his word. Just read blogs on from this article. You'll hear about fairy tales, allegorical interpretations, etc., I think the same atheist respond and gravitate to these articles.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:27 pm |
    • Observer

      The author became enough of an expert in his religion to become a bishop. You have apparently become enough of an expert in your religion to become a blogger.

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

      It's perfectly readable. The problem is on your end. I'd suggest remedial reading courses at your local community college.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:37 pm |
    • JohnR

      No, you can't intelligently start to correct it because you have nothing intelligent to say.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:37 pm |
    • Gary

      I couldn't agree more with Ken

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

      Actually, I should say, if you can read and understand this article you are groping in the dark and won't understand anything about the bible. You'd be better off counter how many words start with the letter "S" and drawing scientific and theologian conclusions from that. Nuff said, I leave you to it.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:28 pm |
  6. David

    #1 misconception- that quoting the bible to "win" an argument or to make you seem morally superior will only make you look like an ignorant as shole.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:27 pm |
  7. fda

    God did not want us to understand the entire universe. He just meant for us to be like children, who learn right from wrong.
    Only a faithful person can say this, but when we hear that our sun is one of the smaller stars in our galaxy: The milky way. When we hear that there are 200 billion stars in our galaxy. When we hear there are thousands of galaxies in the universe. God truly is the example that all things are possible.
    So if things are all possible, what scholar has the right to say that our earth is older than 5000 years. Is it not possible that God created the earth to include archeological artifacts that were simply planted to look like they are millions of years old. Perhaps God took a few of his favorite artifacts from past worlds and threw them in ours.
    The truth is, history is not a true representative of anything. Its our best guess. Scholars are simply men that read alot and come up with the occassional thought just like everyone else.
    Don't believe everything you read. When you compare what God knows to what YOU know, you will begin to realize how ignorant you are and that the probably of you believe right is far less than the probability that you are somewhat right but ultimately wrong.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:27 pm |
    • bitsinmotion

      Uh actually dimwit, they know a lot more than you do. The age of the earth is irrefutably billions of years.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:30 pm |
  8. Yarah

    Here are 3 more truths: There was a real Noah's ark, Moses and the Israelites did really cross the Red sea and Mary was a virgin.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:27 pm |
    • bitsinmotion

      Get help.

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

      I'm sure they crossed the red sea, but perhaps they used a boat 🙂

      December 29, 2011 at 9:59 pm |
    • UncleBenny

      1) There's no evidence – none – of a real Noah's Ark. Nor is there any evidence of a worldwide cataclysmic flood. Lots of massive regional floods at different times, which might have been perceived by the locals as being worldwide.

      2) There is no evidence of a mass migration out of Egypt anywhere near the period in question. Th expulsion of the Hyksos comes closest. Furthermore, there is no evidence of hundreds of thousands of people stomping around Canaan. They would have left some trace. There is none.

      3) It is quite well known that the prediction in Isaiah translated as "Behold, a virgin shall conceive etc." is a mistranslation. The original Hebrew uses the word "almah," which only means a young woman of marriageable age, not necessarily a virgin. When the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek, the translators chose the Greek word "parthenos," which specifically means virgin. Hebrew has another word – bethulah – which means virgin. The author of Matthew would have read it in the Greek. Furthermore, Isaiah was not making a prediction about some event 700 years in the future, he was talking about imminent events during the reign of King Ahaz. And furthermore, why do Matthew and Luke present two lengthy (and contradictory) genealogies of Jesus which trace his ancestry back to David or Adam through his father Joseph if he was actually the virgin-born Son of God? Virgin birth narratives were very common in ancient times and used as a means of glorifying the subject. Finally, if Jesus's virgin birth was factual and well known at the time, why do Mark and John never mention it? Why does Paul never mention it?

      January 29, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
  9. Ryan

    Does this "bishop" know what he is talking about? I went to a Christian university and even my profs acknowledge nearly all of what he is saying but that does not make the Bible false, or any less truthful. Who cares if the story of Abraham was written generations after he died. I've seen a spot in Iraq where he stopped for water on his way to Canaan from his home, even the Iraqis say that is where he stopped and the place is nowhere near any large city or town but it is ACKNOWLEDGED, and even was by Hussiein as a stop by Abraham. Does this guy not think that maybe, oh, someone could have written stories down at some point and passed them on?
    Besides, stories get written YEARS after the fact even today based on very little evidence and oral history. We know that Jesus lived from around 6 or 4 BCE to around 30 CE, but the stories were in fact written by his disciples several years after his resurrection. And as far as I know, Moses never claimed to have written the first five books (the Pentatuch) of the Bible.
    And to all those non-believers, GET A FREAKING LIFE! You tell us Christians to stay out of your lives yet it is perfectly fine for you to come in to our and tell us how wrong we are. Can't have it both ways.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:27 pm |
  10. joel

    Why do we presume that neither Jesus nor his disciples could speak Greek, which was a common language in the area, a vestige of the Greek Empire? I think he spoke street Greek, and Aramaic, and Hebrew - not unlike South Americans who commonly speak English, and Spanish, and some rarer tribal language. I get the "former" part, as in "former bishop." If this guy has lost faith, why does he wear a collar? Because he can pass himsef off as a religious scholar, like so many ex-clergy before him. How very pop. To borrow his own verbage, only someone who has never read the Bible could think that this man has any special knowledge of the Bible.

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

      He may have spoken some street Greek, but Aramaic was the common language of the region, and he almost certainly would have spoken Aramaic to his followers. And no one spoke Hebrew anymore outside of the priests in the Temple. So we have a New Testament written entirely in Greek purporting to present the words of Jesus, who would have spoken them in Aramaic.

      And I daresay Bishop Spong knows a great deal more about the Bible than people who claim to have read it but who really don't pay attention to what they are reading or fail to think critically about it, believing instead what they are told.

      January 29, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
  11. Bob

    This should have the heading of an editorial or the Bishops personal opinion. I am a Christian and am the first to say that there is a lot that is had to understand in the Bible and that there is a lot of mystery in the understanding the ways of God. True Christianity isn't a philosophy, I don't even like calling it a religion. It is a relationship with God mad possible by the life and death of Jesus on the cross. The Holy Spirit is here now, in all who believe. It is about God reigning in our lives and sharing His Kingdom with us. All Kingdom matters are matters of the heart... To reduce this relationship to intellectualism is just sad.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:26 pm |
  12. big mack

    100% agree WOW!

    December 29, 2011 at 9:26 pm |
  13. Adey

    Wowwww... I have never posted a comment before but I just couldn't resist. I started my Christian journey just a short 4 years ago but I know enough to know that the article is not only full of misconceptions itself but egregious errors. As far as I'm concerned, if one says that the Bible is not the word of God then that's the end of the conversation. There is absolutely nothing to discuss after that because it would be pointless.

    May the Holy Spirit reveal the truth to us all.

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

      Amen to that.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:28 pm |
    • J80

      I'm just the opposite. If someone says to me that the bible is the word of God, they've pretty much lost all credibility as being a sane and rational person. That's when I nod, smile pleasantly, and make good on the first opportunity to escape.

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

      Wow, what a great argument you put forward here! "i don't agree with this article, so I'm not going to argue. So I'm gonna write the first comment of my life to emphasize that."

      Without fact checking the author's statements, I do think he's on the right track. And man, just deal with the Bible for what it is – a set of guidelines to live your life by. Not necessarily a set of strict rules to be read literally.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:03 pm |
    • asrael

      Adey: four short years and you're already an expert on misconceptions and egregious errors. What enviable progress!...

      December 29, 2011 at 10:57 pm |
  14. Jan

    In total agreement with the article. Thank you. Well done. I'm Roman Catholic and believe in God but not man's words without question. I don't see many Catholics stoning their children for disobeying as the the bible calls for. I do see people justifying inhumanity by cherry picking what is 'literal'. Of course it's not literal.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:25 pm |
  15. Eleftheria i thanatos

    Fundamentalist Christianity is destined for extinction. In this increasingly populated world of ours, improved literacy levels and critical thinking skills will be required to obtain a stable job. Fundamentalist Christianity, which is based heavily on the interpretation of authority figures rather than reason and evidence is less fit for the modern world. It's just a matter of time.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:25 pm |
    • boggerhead

      Absolutely! But, people will always have a yearning for the unknown and religion will always have a place in the human heart, it will just lose the authoritative power which will be wonderful.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:06 pm |
  16. david

    This is a vile, hateful article. Perhaps if Mr. Spong tried to humble himself like Moses, he might succeed in outgrowing his bigotry and find the G-d who is lost to him while he flails blindly in his dark, sad rage. What a lonely man he seems to be.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:24 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      The same could be said for your judgemental rant toward the man.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:27 pm |
    • bitsinmotion

      Vile and hateful? Wow, you really are a dolt. It's just the facts. Deal with them instead of living in your world of ignorance.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:27 pm |
    • sharkman

      well said......in the end....the Bible is the Holy "Inspired" word of God. I think Reverend Spong ignores this most fundamental
      of Christian tenets. As one of the current advertisements for the Catholic church illustrates...." we have the Bible, assembled with help from the Holy Spirit". To stray from this basic thought ignores what Christianity is all about, Christ centered, Biblically driven.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:42 pm |
  17. Believer

    What i find interesting is this article is written claiming the misinterpretations of the bible. Yet the writer is using his interpreatation to judge other interpretations. At the end of the day if you truely look at the prophecy of Jesus you will see that there are numerous accounts that are not linked to each other that share the same story. This is the same retoric that most of the current athiest's use to spin why there is no such thing as God. In My house we Choose to serve the lord!

    December 29, 2011 at 9:24 pm |
  18. Sandra

    The three biggest misconceptions about the bible is:
    It's real
    It's factual
    It wasn't stolen from even earlier cultures and complied by bronze age dessert nomads.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:24 pm |
    • omg

      Bronze-age desserts, like suet pie?

      December 29, 2011 at 9:31 pm |
  19. mack

    where did you find this turkey?

    December 29, 2011 at 9:23 pm |
  20. Chris

    Prime example of why the Episcopal Church has been losing membership and is nothing more than a feel good social club. People who want the truth of the Eternal God, who has revealed Himself through Jesus Christ have found other churches to minister to them.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:23 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.