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. revelations

    you have offended the Gods and therefore you must DIE for your sins!

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

      So funny.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:46 pm |
    • David

      Nice. An omnipotent and omniscient god kills people for trying to think critically. Sign me up for that religion.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:00 pm |
  2. bananaspy

    So he goes into a rant of saying you can't take the Bible as the word of God because it condones slavery, etc. but then ends with "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." Well, clearly it doesn't call us to that recognition. That would require we absolutely ignore all the terrible parts of the Bible to focus on the good. Well, what for? If we're going to pick up and choose what's morally sound to us anyway, why use the Bible at all? Just use the Golden Rule (which predates the Bible anyway)

    December 29, 2011 at 9:45 pm |
  3. DJ

    The writer of this article makes me sick.
    Why claim to be a Christian if you don't even believe the biblical accounts? If you believe the Bible is a lie, why bother paying lip service to what it teaches?
    Because of a lack of understanding of why God did or allowed things as described in the article are in the Bible, the writer simply wants to ignore them and pretend they didn't happen because they don't fit into his idea of what God should be.
    Isaiah 55:8: "For the thoughts of YOU people are not my thoughts, nor are my ways YOUR ways".

    If you call yourself a Christian or a Jew, everything you know about God comes from the Bible. Whatever ideas you've come up with or heard from someone else apart from the Bible is their conjecture. If you believe the Bible is a lie, you have no foundation whatsoever for any belief in God, so why are you pretending to believe?

    In that case, the God you worship is not the God of the Bible, but is the same as people who would carve a god out of stone or wood and make it whatever they wanted it to be. That is not the true God.

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

      True God? That's right up there with "military intelligence" as an oxymoron.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:47 pm |
    • JohnQuest

      That's no different than any other Christian, do you really believe the universe is only 6000 years old and that all of mankind first came from Adam and Eve then Noah and his family, seriously do you really believe that?

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

      I'm not a Christian, but I was under the impression that faith was about a personal relationship with god. If this is the case, why do you need to believe everything in some book? Isn't god bigger than a book?

      December 29, 2011 at 9:54 pm |
    • JM

      When Jesus left he didn't say he was going to send us a book, but a fresh impartation of God's Spirit. I feel really sorry for you if you think that nothing can be known or experienced about God apart from a fundamentalist reading of the Bible.
      To quote Bishop Spong, your comment is exemplary of "why christianity must change or die."

      December 29, 2011 at 10:07 pm |
  4. Joshua

    Christianity is about faith. Its your choice to believe in it or not. Personally to have a relationship with Christ is something that can not be forced. Neither is believing in what Christians believe in. If u do believe in it, do whatever u can to strengthen your own relationship with God instead of being critical toward people who doubt Christianity or the existance of God. ALthough im not a pastor or a Christian leader, i think that if u dont believe in what I as a Christian believe in have a good day and i hope one day you will take the chance to experience what i wouldnt trade anything in this world for. Lets Please stop the hate and ignorance on this wall please.

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

      Joshua that would be fine if believers stop trying to put their religious morals on the rest of us.

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

      Christianity is not about believing metaphysical statements that you happen to believe come from the mouth of God. This is not the Bible's or Jesus' definition of salvation.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:09 pm |
  5. HenryB

    What the author of this piece describes is the bible I know. It is not some literal "word of God". Each time something happens that sheds more light on a biblical subject these literalists go crazy and attribute it to the devil or to liberals.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:44 pm |
  6. revelations

    bow down to the Gods or die humans...ahahah

    December 29, 2011 at 9:44 pm |
  7. Da

    Plain and simple truths were lost in the Bible...so God has restored his church on the earth again

    December 29, 2011 at 9:44 pm |
  8. cameo35

    ....................OKAY JOHN SHELBY.........NOW DO A REPORT ON THE MUSLIM RELIGION............................YOU'LL HAVE A FIELD DAY.............

    December 29, 2011 at 9:44 pm |
  9. revelations

    revelations in the bible..all you demons are going to DIE!!! and the gods laugh ahahahah

    December 29, 2011 at 9:44 pm |
  10. Frank

    I recommend reading anything and everything by Bart Ehrman, professor of religion at Chapel Hill, and then draw your own conclusions. http://www.bartdehrman.com Fascinating!

    December 29, 2011 at 9:43 pm |
    • JohnQuest

      I read Forged and thought it was interesting.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:45 pm |
  11. tomn8r

    jesus da man. that is all.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:43 pm |
  12. revelations

    all man are not 'created' equal..all mean equal under the laws...some men are geniuses some are retards....humans are 'infrerious to the Gods...mankind is just one many species in the universe..there are more advance beings in the universe

    December 29, 2011 at 9:43 pm |
    • David

      "Humans are 'infrerious to the Gods." Whatever that is, that sounds bad. I don't want to be "infrerious" to anybody. Note to self: squiggly red lines mean something. Just don't know what.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:59 pm |
  13. 1954Nana

    LOON ALERT – I can't wait until this nut stands before the one and only God and has to try and explain this to Him.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:43 pm |
    • themiddleman67

      The definition of "the pot calling the kettle BLACK", LOL!

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

      Well, it is clear the author did not convince you, eh! No problem

      December 29, 2011 at 9:58 pm |
    • JM

      Wishing hell on someone else does not make you any closer to God, only farther.

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

      Thanks for the loon alert; get better soon...

      December 29, 2011 at 11:44 pm |
  14. sandalista

    another cherry picker

    December 29, 2011 at 9:43 pm |
  15. Chris

    I love the part about wives being obedient to their husbands. It also says that husbands should respect and honor their wives. Fascinating how "non-believers" use as much contextual evidences as believers do, as long as it fits their end. And if God and the bible tried to refute science so much, than why did God create it in the first place? I will admit that ignorance has been carried out on behalf of God. But let us not be judged by the actions of zealots. Christianity is all about faith, we can mire ourselves down in rhetoric and seemingly factual evidence of "this scrpture was written then and that scripture was written 40 years after Christ." But let us also remember that oral tradition was and still is here, whether it be from christians or Olmec, or Native Americans. As a people shouldn't we be less concerned about proving what we think is true or false (belief wise) and be more concerned about the world as a whole. Religious or not that basic tenant is the same, respect, not greed will save, and whether you use God to explain it or science in the end we are all ignorant to he real truth.

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

      Very well said.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:55 pm |
  16. Andrew Melcher

    Until you repent to Jesus Christ and receive the Holy Ghost, you won't be able to understand the Bible, and you would end up writing a baffled illeterate article like the article above. Baseless, meritless, and without purpose other than to destroy faith.
    God is going to punish the unbeliever, burn them in fire forever. Amen.
    I sound harsh, no. GOd is merciful, but there is no mercy for unrepentance

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

      And the Kool-Aid, don't forget, you have to drink the Kool-Aid!

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

      Yeah, I want to be part of a faith that has to threaten me with torture to get me to believe.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:47 pm |
    • David

      Do I need to point out the irony in you mentioning how this is an "illeterate" article? If you think that this is an illiterate article, then maybe you need to take a course on what literacy means. Clearly the writer can read and understand the Bible. You just don't like how the writer doesn't follow the Bible like a blind lemming.

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

      Before condemning illiterates, you may want to check your own spelling. Of all words to misspell, you misspelled illiterate.

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

      Your hateful comment is indicative of your distance from God, not the bishop's.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:12 pm |
    • asrael

      Andrew should be less concerned about sounding harsh and more concerned about sounding ... seriously... troubled.

      December 29, 2011 at 11:48 pm |
  17. Tom


    He says that books were penned too many years after the events occurred. He has no proof for this, so he assumes that we will believe him simply because he said it. This is based on assumptions about Hebraic literacy that have not been proven.

    But clearly , the things he says about the bible ARE NOT TRUE. HERE IS WHY:"

    Abraham's son Isaac loved his enemies by letting them steal 2 wells that he had dug. The Law of Moses teaches men to love their enemies in Exodus 23:4-5.

    The fact that our Creator inspired judgment on evil nations that were burning their sons & daughters in the fire to various idols does not make Israel a hater of their enemies. Rather, they were a tool of justice on wicked nations.

    A loving Creator is not a foreign concept to the law of Moses:

    Deut. 10:18 – "He administers justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing.

    Deut. 33:3 – Yes, He loves the people; All His saints are in Your hand

    This man, to his own shame, DOES NOT KNOW THE BIBLE. If he doesn't know about those verses, how can we trust the rest of what he says?

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

      Backing up the Bible with quotes from the Bible is not a new tactic. However, it is still one that doesn't work.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:47 pm |
    • Observer

      The "Loving Creator" torturously killed virtually every man, woman (pregnant or not), child, and fetus on the face of the earth at one time. lol.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:47 pm |
    • David

      How does whatever you wrote even come close to refuting what the writer says? It sounds like you're just mad and wanted to throw out verses from the Bible to prove how Christian you are. Good work.

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

      Circular arguments: The bible is the word of God. Well, how do you know? Well, the bible tells me so. Duh!

      December 29, 2011 at 10:04 pm |
  18. Logic

    Translation: The bible and all books like it, are written folktales that were passed on for generations by word of mouth first.

    Unfortunately, people actually think it is real.

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

      If you do not believe;

      Why are you here? I suppose unbelievers are free to comment, but there is nothing here for them to comment on; not anything they're qualified for anyway. It makes no sense to take a position against something you do not believe exists – it is illogical. Go home please; atheism is sooooooooooooo booooooooooorrrrrrrrrrrrriiiiiiiiiiiiiinnnnnnnnnnnnggggggggg....

      Good evening.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:47 pm |
    • bananaspy

      You make the assumption that non-believers don't read the Bible or other religious texts. Quite the opposite is true however, some of us study religious vigorously, which is why we don't accept them.

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


      If you do believe:

      Quit trying to force your beliefs on others and hypocritically use the Bible to deny others EQUAL RIGHTS.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:50 pm |
  19. JohnQuest

    I wonder if any Believers think that their God could survive without them believing in him/her/it? I would think not, God is not intrinsic therefor can not exist outside of thoughts.

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

    I wonder why he is a former bishop?
    2 Tim 4:3 For the time will come when people 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.

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

      He's a former bishop because he started to think.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:57 pm |
    • JM

      He's a former bishop because he served his church for decades with distinction, he's in his 80s now, and it was time to retire.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:14 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.