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. nominal

    Too little too late for the non-religious world. They (non-believers) actually couldn't give rat's a... about the meaning of the bible.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:34 pm |
  2. E. Galois

    Opiate for the masses.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:34 pm |
    • PleezThink

      Mmmm, good stuff Galois. You should try it.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:04 pm |
  3. KL

    I must commend all of the atheists posting on here for their extreme faith! These people show remarkable dedication to the idea that somehow, through extreme odds, the Universe, with all of its complexities, created itself. Then, Earth was just the right distance from the sun and had just the right chemical makeup to be able to support life- all through chance! In addition, they hold fast to the absurd idea that life somehow got started when lightning struck the ocean, making microscopic compounds that somehow formed into cells without being destroyed, which somehow survived long enough to evolve, ever slowly, into organisms as simple as amoebas, and that these organisms likewise survived long enough to eventually become human. Such a fanatic belief that a string of such extremely low-probability events occurred in sequence denotes an absolutely amazing amount of faith- maybe even more faith than believing in God at all! These Atheists would make excellent Christians.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:34 pm |
    • nominal

      Sure, it's much easier to believe in god that created it all. And who created god?

      December 29, 2011 at 9:35 pm |
    • KL

      God is eternal, not created.

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


      Even if all of your assumptions about a cause for everything is true, it in NO WAY proves the existence of God. Everything you say is equally valid if the universe was created by a committee of zombies. As always, no proof of God at all.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:38 pm |
    • Gadflie

      Sure, it take so much less faith to imagine that there just happened to be the most complex possible being who just happened to create everything. Never mind that the entire universe is less complex than this supposedly omniscient, omnipresent, omni everything else being. You imagine that this is a more likely explanation? I suspect that you think that Rube Goldberg's designs were the easy way also...

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

      Eternal? So is the universe, what a funny coincidence! So god waited twelve billion years before he created life, two billion years ago, and then a man, about 6000 years ago? Lazy SOB.

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

      And KL believes in a talking snake, talking donkey, the flood, the whale, and on and on. Stop trying to talk science and go back to the Bible. You don't know your science stuff and you look ridiculous.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:23 pm |
  4. Russ

    @ George: m.a's.s hysteria is certainly well doc'umented & has occurred before. but how many times do such folks claim all to have had the exact same experience?

    Paul's point: 500 people agreed on what they saw. People on an ac'id trip don't do that.

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

    You will never see anything about a certain religion or a certain church in the Bible, thats mans doing! God is in the wind a soft breeze when I want to speak to my maker, I walk out in the back yard and speak to a breeze, a soft cloud. Religion was started by man as a way of making money from the poor. The rich had money, that was thier God!!!!

    December 29, 2011 at 9:33 pm |
  6. Aryan

    Why would a god create nigras? There is no god.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:33 pm |
  7. Tom

    It is my humble opinion that Christian fundamentalists, as well as extremists of any religion, are completely out of touch with reality.

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

      Right, Tom, but you're more than willing to admit that blacks are, on average, less intelligent than Whites and Asians. No? Then drop that stone.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:36 pm |
  8. Sam Brannon

    I can tell you from personal experience that Bishop Spong is a really good man who seeks God's will. Maybe he's totally wrong. Maybe he's more on target than some want to admit. Believe what he says or don't; but don't be mean. My guess is that he would be the first to tell you that he could be wrong on all accounts. After all, God, Faith, Christianity...all of it is ultimately a mystery to me, and way above my pay-grade.

    Some of us here, well-meaning I'm sure, just aren't being very good to each other. If you haven't met the man in person it might be best to keep your angry judgments to yourself.

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

      In the simplest of terms (based on how you interpret scriptures) the bible has overlapping contradictions throught it. That said, IMO the bible is not to necessarily taken literally but rather to be used as a guide. The second greatest gift God gave man was a mind and the ability to think for himself. To interpret and make decisions for himself. That would include deciding to follow the same beliefs as various groups of people or not. It is every persons individual decision to make. In reading through the bible there are thousands of instances that can be applied as point and counter-point to virtually every given situation you can imagine. It all depends on how you make your interpretations. People tend to follow various faiths because they tend to align more towards their personal beliefs. Is this right? Is it wrong? What man is to say it is or is not? Does anyone out there honestly believe that the religion you follow is God's one and only religion and beliefs? That everyone who does shares a different belief than you or your particular church, will not be allowed into God's house? Does anyone really believe there is only one magic key that gets you into heaven and everyone else goes to hell? IMO, the most important thing to do is completely believe in whatever it is you believe in, based on how you nterpret the scriptures. Do not persucute those who may not believe something different. That is their right, it is their decision and it was God who gave all of us the ability to think for ourselves. IMO God has room for all of those who follow whatever it is they truely believe in their heart. Afterall, the heart is the truest form of human truth and only two people completely understand what is in your heart. You and God. All of that said, when I read this article I take it exactly for what it is, one mans opinion based on his (and maybe the supporting research of others). It doesn't matter if it is a reflection of what I personally believe or not. What matters is that I respect it for what it is and leave it at that.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:11 pm |
    • asrael

      Two reasonable, adjacent posts. Sam and Tony: thanks to both of you...

      December 29, 2011 at 11:07 pm |
  9. Alice

    Ditto to Chris at 9:23

    December 29, 2011 at 9:33 pm |
  10. Maxx

    Just a comment or two;

    First, it makes no sense to say that the ultimate meaning of the Bible is escapes human limits and then posit that the Bible is about becoming more fully human. Is that its ultimate meaning? If not, then what good is the Book if understanding it is beyond our means. Is not God capable of granting us understanding or writing a book we can understand?

    Secondly, I will take issue about the statement concerning the Gospels and the idea that eyewitnesses were not involved. Mark was Peter's traveling companion and it is absurd to posit that Mark fails to appeal to eyewitnesses. No, Mark was not an eyewitness but Peter was. The explanation given for the writing of Mark in this article essentially defines the Gospel as a myth. I lost interest at this point. I can just barely hear the heavy breath of a liberal wolf wrapped in a conservative sheepskin.

    Good evening.

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

      Feel free to take issue with whatever you like, but there is nothing in the Gospel of Mark that claims it was actually written by Mark.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:36 pm |
  11. Christ Ver 2.0

    You love it..you hate it...Jesus and Christianity sell better than anything...entire article is only targeted to get more publicity

    December 29, 2011 at 9:32 pm |
  12. Jim

    A well written article. It is interesting that the arguments he presents here include many of the historical inaccuracies of the Bible that fueled my eventual rejection of the religion.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:32 pm |
  13. PleezThink

    So, according to Bishop Spong, his beliefs must be so because the opposite just can't be true. And how do we know that, because Bishop Spong say so.

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

      A perfect description of Biblical "reasoning": it's true because the Bible says so...

      December 29, 2011 at 11:09 pm |
  14. 310299

    The Bible doesn't call you to be "deeply and fully human"! It starts with the fall of humanity! How many stories highlighting the sinful nature of human beings does it take to see that? The bible is about Jesus saving the human race from being human. We just need to look at human history, especially more recent parts, to see that it's just not working out when humans just try to be "deeply and fully human".

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

      Not working out in spite of the Bible? That doesn't sound good...

      December 29, 2011 at 11:10 pm |
  15. Curt Dotson

    It seems many are missing the last paragraph of John Spong's article. 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."
    No matter how you read the Bible, this is the message of the Gospels.Jesus taught us to love with all we have. Why waste energy arguing when we could be out there loving?

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

      True Curt and nicely said but Jesus boiled it down to two points. 1. Love God with all your heart & 2. Love your neighbor as yourself. You bet, we need to do #2 but what about #1?

      December 29, 2011 at 9:34 pm |
    • Sam Brannon

      Thanks Curt.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:35 pm |
    • Curt Dotson

      We love God by loving our neighbor.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:37 pm |
    • Sam Brannon

      Are they not both different sides of the same coin? How I treat others is how I treat God and visa versa. Loving God is probably more difficult because we cannot see the Creator and get all sidetracked on theological mumbo-jumbo; but we can see others and I am quite concerned about how others are treated.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:45 pm |
    • PleezThink

      Agreed. We do love God by loving our neighbor. But, if one loves his neighbor and denies God or His attributes, while we may still be doing #2, are we "loving God"?

      December 29, 2011 at 9:50 pm |
    • boggerhead

      A very beautiful and perfect reply. Thanks Kurt!

      December 29, 2011 at 9:56 pm |
    • PleezThink

      I would have to disagree with Bishop Spong's conclusion of the "ultimate meaning of the Bible". While we are to love our neighbor, no doubt, thereby emulating Him, the ultimate meaning of the Bible I would say is: There is a God. I'm not Him. We are to love and honor our creator and the foremost way to do this is to love our neighbor. I'm sure that this will upset someone but I don't know why it would and I would be interested in their thoughts.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:57 pm |
  16. nominal

    Basically, the guy is an atheist dressed up as a clergyman. I've heard many an atheist conmen (including the pope) find it fun to fool the "believers". Easy money.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:29 pm |
  17. Cuervo Jones

    the OT or as i like to call it the history of the Hebrews is just that. then we have the history of an activist out to change the absurdities/hypocrisy of that theocracy in the NT. m ostly it's about doing the right thing. if you have to be scared of hell to do that, fine by me.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:29 pm |
  18. 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 probability of you being right is far less than the probability that you are somewhat right but ultimately wrong.

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

      You suffer from grand delusions. Please seek help.

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

      Wouldn't it be amazing to see CNN do a cynical perspective on the 3 greatest misconceptions of Gay Marriage.

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


      December 29, 2011 at 9:40 pm |
    • Cuervo Jones

      "Don't believe everthing you read." except the bible right?

      December 29, 2011 at 9:44 pm |
  19. Andy

    OMG, Christians are having a crap fit over this article. I think you called their baby ugly. I love this guy.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:29 pm |
  20. trollol

    Bibles serve a purpose in my life; to remind me of how gullible humans can be.

    Religions exploit a an inherent flaw in human learning. We learn lies, perceive it as true, and then retell the lie without knowing it is a lie.

    The human learning process has it strengths and weaknesses.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:29 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.