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. Jason

    There are no surviving primary sources regarding Alexander the Great. Does that mean his story of conquering the "known world" a complete myth? I'm just saying this because it seems that historical characters in the Bible (particularly Jesus) face much more scrutiny compared to other historical figures. I'm not necessarily implying anything, but putting the shoe on the other foot. Also, atrocities have been committed in history in the name of science or "human progress."

    December 29, 2011 at 9:42 pm |
  2. klam

    Other theologians critized Spong's work as "confusion and misinterpretation". CNN is trying to confuse its readers of what is Christianity.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:42 pm |
    • B. Reiter

      so true

      December 29, 2011 at 9:44 pm |
    • JM

      CNN is presenting a well regarded bishop whose books have sold millions the opportunity to present a liberal approach to Christianity in a public forum. There are plenty of articles from all kinds of religious people on this site.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:51 pm |
  3. chris

    The frustrating thing for me is that the 3 points that Spong names as misconceptions are conversely some of the most important tenets of the Christian faith. The Bible is true. The Bible is the word of God. The tenets of the Bible are unchanging. When you go against these things, you take glory away from God because He is exactly who He says He is ... All powerful, all knowing, all wise, all loving, all just. As humans we doubt Him in these areas because we are unable to be like Him so we can't imagine how a being could simultaneously completely fulfill all these traits. But that's why He is God and that's why it's called faith ... All He asks of us is to listen to, obey, and trust Him. When we replace any of those things, we are falling into the same trap that Eve fell into ... Listening to what seemed to make sense from what the serpent told her instead of simply obeying what God told her. God has allowed and continues to allow so many great and terrible things to happen in this world so that we can continue to see why, for better or for worse, its important to listen to, obey, and trust him. Trust and follow the Bible and God above any source on earth. And when you read the Bible and you find yourself reading something you disagree with, don't worry or feel bad... It will (or has) happen(ed) to all of us. Take time and pray about it ... God will give you an answer, though be prepared because it may not be the answer you're ready for. But the Bible tells that whatever we ask for in Faith, we will receive.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:42 pm |
    • Brian

      accept the world for just what it is, and not what we would like it to be – the Universe doesn’t care about our existence, or our welfare, and epitomized the realization that our lives have meaning only to the extent we give them meaning.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:48 pm |
    • Brian

      try reading some Joseph Campbell just so you can find out how repeated and worn these mythologies are – played over and over – do you think the bible is unique?

      December 29, 2011 at 9:51 pm |
    • JM

      There are ways to understand the Bible, and many Christians who do so, as something other than the literal word of God. Because people reject a fundamentalist approach to Scripture does not mean they are rejecting God.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:53 pm |
  4. TG

    Abraham was born in 2018 B.C.E., living to be 175 years old and dying in 1843 B.C.E.(Gen 25:7) The history of Jehovah God's dealings with Abraham was written down by Moses in 1513 B.C.E, when writing and compiling the book of Genesis, some 330 years after Abraham's death.

    Moses also wrote about his oversight of the nation of Israel as the one chosen by God to so (Ex. 3:10), completing the Pentateuch or 1st five books of the Bible in 1473 B.C.E., just before the Israelites entered the land of Canaan. Moses was told to "go up from the desert plains of Moab into Mount Nebo" to get a view of the land of Canaan before his death in 1473 B.C.E..(Deut 34:1, 5)

    Hence, the Israelites had a written record concerning Moses directing them or their forefathers while of the 40 years in the wilderness and up to the moment of their entering into the "land of the promise".(Heb 11:9; Ex 6:1-8)

    December 29, 2011 at 9:42 pm |
  5. Zarith

    Well, today I will throw away my Bible. Yipee, no more conscience, no more sin, I will do as I please... but then I will be in Hell with Bishop Spong!!!!!

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

      Nothing in Bishop Spong's writings even begins to endorse an abdication of human responsibility, morality, or conscience. Quite the opposite. And in you worldview, Jesus himself would be in hell, as he was a Jew and not a Christian.
      Funny that your God is a cosmic Hitler...

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

      Some would say that you're already there, Zarith, but not for the reasons you might think...

      December 29, 2011 at 11:33 pm |
  6. cameo35

    ................. OPINIONS, OPINIONS,OPINIONS...................JUST ONE MAN WHO INTERPET THE BIBLE IN HIS OWN WAY..........

    December 29, 2011 at 9:41 pm |
  7. AB

    If you fallow the Bible correctly, the Bible simply never lied whether the world like it or not.. Regardless what the fancy scholar thinks. The words of the Lords will never die or vanish. The Bible will come to fruition regardless what men or the rest of the world thinks.
    Yes, almost everyone has mistaking the True Bible for mix in garbage of today’s world religion. Why there are many religions claim to be Christians twisted the truth from garbage, it is because they do not know the Lord Jesus as their personal savior. The only way to know the truth is to accept the Lord Jesus Christ as you personal savior. Because they have not accepted the Lord Jesus as their personal savior, they can never experience the truth. Their eyes are still closed and they can’t see the truth. There is a lot of hype of who is the Lord Jesus Christ. The truth is once you know who the Lord Jesus Christ is; you don't have to worry about all the hype from some confusing fancy schooling scholar from Harvard. Everything will automatically become very clear to you. The Lord will reveal everything to you and you never have to listen to useless garbage from fancy college education. Like the Lord Himself said, you need to learn like a little child from the beginning, only if we can remember that time. The Christians are not crazy as everyone thinks, they have experience the truth, they have feel the true present of the living One like everyone one of us. This is the reason they can't deny the truth about Christianity. They continue to do what the Lord Himself asked us to do. Proclaiming the good news to the rest of the world, and as Christians we will do as the Lord Jesus Christ asked us to do. It is our job and we will see to it.
    Clear your head and get ready for the truth and once you hear the truth; you will understand the truth about Christianity. It seems simple but there is a lot more to it than what a regular person in the western world see and call themselves Christian, for they failed to understand what a true real Christian is about.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:41 pm |
    • Indep3

      t"...he Bible simply never lied whether the world like it or not." I hope you take that literally and treat your slaves as the Bible directs you to do so.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:51 pm |
    • Brian

      Religion depends on unchallengeable statements, dogma and faith. Believers are only certain of the principal of uncertainty, manmade delusions including false counseling, claiming to know the mind of God and the origination and destiny of the universe. But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Explanations that explain everything, explain nothing. This is a basic principal at even the lowest level of human cognition.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:53 pm |
    • JM

      Your continuous assertion of prefabricated inaccuracies about the Bible's origins does not make them more true, they only look you look more foolish. Nor do they make you any closer to God.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:57 pm |
  8. PGraves

    For the thinking person, a blessing. Love and a deep purpose of life are the message at least I carry from the bible. Thanks.
    I hope many more do as well.

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

      nothing more than delusional wish thinking

      December 29, 2011 at 9:54 pm |
  9. JD

    It's a book of stories passed down generations with a healthy dose of what what would be called "Hollywood" nowadays....dramatic, fill in the blanks, etc. Add in the fact that we know what shooting stars, comets, eclipses, etc. are now, back then they were "signs" of something. But hey, those that want to follow it as a life guide...more power to them. Just remember that saying..."religion is a fine thing when taken in moderation".

    December 29, 2011 at 9:41 pm |
  10. shadraq

    cnn can you please hire a journalist with some interesting articles like space, instead of slamming God thats why everything on Earth is messed up you have continuosly taken God out of Everything even Christmas. stop taking God's Legacy out of the homes of families parents tech your children about God and keep the legacy in the family thats what is going to keep your family not teacher, police fireman or you trying to be a good parent Be a Great Parent and teach them God's word.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:41 pm |
  11. Jason

    There are no surviving primary sources regarding Alexander the Great. Does that mean his story of conquering the "known world" a complete myth? I'm just saying this because it seems that historical characters in the Bible (particularly Jesus) face much more scrutiny compared to other historical figures. I'm not

    December 29, 2011 at 9:40 pm |
    • JM

      That's because Jesus is much more important to billions of people than other historical figures.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:59 pm |
  12. revelations

    so many evil people in this planet...evil exist. pure evil man!

    December 29, 2011 at 9:40 pm |
  13. John Q

    Spong is an atheist...clear and simple ! He will know the truth when he meets his Maker and let's see how smart his views look then....ha ha......have fun in hell Spong !

    December 29, 2011 at 9:40 pm |
    • revelations

      What is an atheist.? don't they don't know taht humans are inferior to the Gods? humans are low lifes in the universe....the universe is the reality..

      December 29, 2011 at 9:42 pm |
    • JM

      Bishop Spong is not an atheist. Perhaps you will be in hell for slandering your brother. (Matthew 5)

      December 29, 2011 at 10:00 pm |
    • asrael

      Thank you, God, for making it possible to tell others to go to hell for disagreeing with me...

      December 29, 2011 at 11:37 pm |
  14. uponthisrock

    The Bible opens with "In the Beginning"......... 'the Beginning" of what ? Certainly not man and not time and not the creation of Earth. No one knows the date of the Earth. So what is it the beginning of? The expalnation of the existing Earth already here and now inhabaited by angels. Again NO ONE kknows how aold the Earth is. Humans? Yes, human life is approximatley 6,000 years.

    The Book of Revalation closes with "Come quickly Lord Jesus". And between these pages of the Bible, Geneisis and Revelations is not the explanation of all that was done nor is it the history of man. It is the Story of how God put us here
    to live out our lives in awe of His Majestic Creation, to look around and behold the Sun,Moon Stars and Galaxies and confess how small we are compared to His Glorious Prescence and just maybe be reminded that he humbled Himself
    and came to earth through a Virgin Birth and has invited us all to Heaven. Some are going and others are not but whatever
    you choose is yours and yours alone to decide. That is what Christmas and then Passover is all about. Amen and Amen.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:40 pm |
    • JM

      Christianity is not about going to heaven.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:01 pm |
  15. Brian

    We have the same job that we have always had, to say as thinking people and as humans that there are no final solutions, there is no absolute truth, there is no supreme leader, there is no totalitarian solution that says if you will just give up your freedom of inquiry, if you will simply abandon your critical faculties, a world of idiotic bliss will be yours – Hichens

    December 29, 2011 at 9:40 pm |
  16. revelations

    morals and ethics is what religion is about...demons and witches and evil spirits will be killed...in every religion whether it's christianity, judaism,buddhist or allah and other shaman-commmon theme is war in heaven...war between good and evil.. the demons will be killed.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:40 pm |
    • Brian

      to believe that religion is some how a prerequisite for morality, well, it's simply moronic. Morality is innate in our species or we wouldn't be here to begin with

      December 29, 2011 at 9:42 pm |
    • LinCA


      You said, "morals and ethics is what religion is about...demons and witches and evil spirits will be killed...in every religion whether it's christianity, judaism,buddhist or allah and other shaman-commmon theme is war in heaven...war between good and evil.. the demons will be killed."

      Please evaluate the morality espoused by religion.


      December 29, 2011 at 9:52 pm |
    • Muneef

      Very interesting to watch that it is exactly proves that Quran came to correct those conflicts ;

      He has ordained for you of religion what He enjoined upon Noah and that which We have revealed to you, [O Muhammad], and what We enjoined upon Abraham and Moses and Jesus – to establish the religion and not be divided therein. Difficult for those who associate others with Allah is that to which you invite them. Allah chooses for Himself whom He wills and guides to Himself whoever turns back [to Him]. (42:13)

      And they did not become divided until after knowledge had come to them – out of jealous animosity between themselves. And if not for a word that preceded from your Lord [postponing the penalty] until a specified time, it would have been concluded between them. And indeed, those who were granted inheritance of the Scripture after them are, concerning it, in disquieting doubt. (42:14)

      So to that [religion of Allah ] invite, [O Muhammad], and remain on a right course as you are commanded and do not follow their inclinations but say, "I have believed in what Allah has revealed of the Qur'an, and I have been commanded to do justice among you. Allah is our Lord and your Lord. For us are our deeds, and for you your deeds. There is no [need for] argument between us and you. Allah will bring us together, and to Him is the [final] destination." (42:15)


      And it is not for any human being that Allah should speak to him except by revelation or from behind a part-ition or that He sends a messenger to reveal, by His permission, what He wills. Indeed, He is Most High and Wise. (42:51)

      And thus We have revealed to you an inspiration of Our command. You did not know what is the Book or [what is] faith, but We have made it a light by which We guide whom We will of Our servants. And indeed, [O Muhammad], you guide to a straight path – (42:52)

      The path of Allah , to whom belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth. Unquestionably, to Allah do [all] matters evolve. (42:53)


      December 30, 2011 at 5:02 am |
    • Harald

      Linking morality and ethics to religion is just another misconception. Moral has NOTHING to do with religion and everybody can easily figure that out on his own. There are countless "religious" people of any denomination with questionable morals and ethics and on the other hand you have (most) atheists behaving morally and ethical.

      December 30, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
  17. Brian

    We have the same job that we have always had, to say as thinking people and as humans that there are no final solutions, there is no absolute truth, there is no supreme leader, there is no totalitarian solution that says if you will just give up your freedom of inquiry, if you will simply abandon your critical faculties, a world of idiotic bliss will be yours

    December 29, 2011 at 9:40 pm |
    • Nate

      There are no absolute truths? Aren't you stating that that Is absolutely true? Your idea defeats itself.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:53 pm |
  18. Harald

    To most coherent people it shouldn't come as a surprise that the content of the bible can't be taken literally. Only a religious blinded person can see any value in the bible. The challenges of our real lives can't be tackled with the content of the bible. Believing so would be extremely naive if not outright dumb.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:40 pm |
    • Brian

      Religion forces nice people to do unkind things and also makes intelligent people say stupid things

      December 29, 2011 at 9:44 pm |
    • JM

      There is much value in the Bible for many people, including Bishop Spong, who do not treat it as an infallible record from the mouth of God. Treating it this way actually devalues its.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:02 pm |
  19. Chad

    It is also important to study 19th century German archeology that centered around disproving the Bible . For example the book of Daniel was the only source saying Belshazzar was ever in charge of the Persian Empire...no other records in hand during the 1800s ever stated he was ever in charge....yet years later ancient docs are found stating that Belshazzar was in deed in control in the times Daniel stated. Likewise many have made issue with Luke 2:2 about Cyrenius being govenor of Syria during the time Jesus was born. Cyrenius was not promoted to governor till 7AD or so....many people said gotcha with this fact saying the Bible was incorrect...but then manuscripts were found stating in fact that Cyrenius was the "interim" governor during the time frame that would fit with the birth of Jesus ...due to a shared power issue the Romans had at the time. Time after Time the Bible's facts are proven to be very accurate over and over....this is not coming from theology but archeology.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:40 pm |
  20. Muneef

    How Long Did Noah Live?
    In the book of Genesis 9:29, it is said that Noah lived for 950 years. Noah is credited with building an ark when he was told of a coming flood. He was 600 years old at the time. Read More »
    Source: http://answers.ask.com/Society/Other/how_long_did_noah_live

    And We certainly sent Noah to his people, and he remained among them a thousand years minus fifty years, and the flood seized them while they were wrongdoers.(29:14)

    December 29, 2011 at 9:39 pm |
    • Brian

      and Pinocchio begat Alice and Alice begat the muppets

      December 29, 2011 at 9:47 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.