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. John

    Interesting disection of the Christian Holy Book, now let's see if CNN will do the same with the Koran and the Torah. Only casting a critical eye towards Christians is the easy road, and the only one the media are willing to take these days.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:49 pm |
    • ari

      they pick on judaism sometimes, in the context of the bible (the old testament). they will not and cannot pick on the qu'ran due to the fact that they would get death threats.

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

      I don't see him picking on the Bible. He clearly believes it is God's word. He is no less Christian than you or I. The author simply does not accept the rediculous claim that the Bible is inerrant (i.e., without error, misinterpretation and flaw). Neither do I.

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

      CaptainObvious if you think the author believes the bible is the word of god, you really need to work on reading comprehension.

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

      Followers of the Koran are not in this country denying equal rights to gays and trying to force their religion in our schools like many Christians.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:02 pm |
  2. Joe

    Mr. Spong had better watch out. It sounds like a few of these people might be getting ready to go out and gather some firewood.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:49 pm |
  3. Iqbal Khan

    Read Quran The Only Word of God Al-Mighty....

    December 29, 2011 at 9:49 pm |
    • Peppermint Patty

      Bullsh1t. May Allah bless my name.

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

      I'm more than willing to read the Quran – and you read the Torah. I think we would, in all likelihood, find more in common than one might think.

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

    Greek mythodology is NOT a myth..The myth is your STATE religion....State religion is the scam or fraud. or religioius fraud. selling forgiveness and sellling slavation..sins are not for sale...all crimes must be punished...the will of the Gods.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:48 pm |
  5. Texanonymouse

    Oh, my. Another 'former' priest has determined the Bible isn't valid. Except, so much of it has been proven correct, within the last couple of centuries. But - to believe Jesus' message means to accept that mankind sins, falling short of being what God set as their goal. Odd, too, that it was religious leaders of His time who fought against His message. Today there are similar religious leaders still trying to turn His message into nothing. For their lives, perhaps it is. For billions, it is really something!

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

    What a wonderful article! This applies to not only the Christian Bible, though, but to every religious text. If we would all be willing to heed the words and TRUTH spoken by John Shelby Spong, this world would be a much better place. Shoot, I am Jewish and I would go to a congregation Mr. Spong was leading...

    December 29, 2011 at 9:48 pm |
    • Native2aT

      I just said the exact same thing to my Mother!What a REFRESHING thought that we should read these texts through the SPIRITUAL eyes rather than the LITERAL Eyes!Shalom!

      December 29, 2011 at 10:06 pm |
  7. Morpheus239

    That was powerful. Beyond what I have ever heard from a Bishop (former or present). I have never thought of the Bible as something that read literally. But I never went too much futher than that. I like the way the John speaks of it as showing growth and the way that God turned to love in the writings. That was powerful stuff and makes me think a lot about how people interpet the good book. Meanwhile I have to deal with people like Dorkus who wants it to be re-written AGAIN to suit his (or her) own veiw of the Bible. This time to hate the poor I guess. At the Dorkus rate of change the Bible will become renamed... Genocide for dummys!

    December 29, 2011 at 9:48 pm |
  8. 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 by bible unbelievers that have not been proven.

    Clearly though, the things he says about the bible ARE NOT TRUE.


    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 9:48 pm |
    • Peppermint Patty

      So you can pick out a few verses that contradict his. So what ? All that proves is, it's full of contradictions.

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

      I agree with Tom, he is making assumptions without a shred of evidence, I have read the Bible many times through and he is off base with alot of what he is saying, just because the gospells were not officially written until 50 or 60 AD does not mean it was passed by word of mouth, the scribes identify themselves in some of the gospells, back in the time of Moses how does he know if they didn't have the ability to record events, how old are the dead sea scrolls, as Felix says on the odd couple, when you assume.....

      December 29, 2011 at 10:18 pm |
  9. Matt

    This wolf in sheeps clothing claims to hold a high regard for the Bible; but his words betray him.

    Jesus Christ pointed out the clearly that the heart is desperatley wicked, stained with the cancer of sin. He made statements pointing out how adultery is committed through lustful looks (Matthew 5:28), how hating someone is as murder in the heart (Matt 15:19) How religious people pay good lip service, but their hearts betray them (Matthew 15:8)

    Our good works do not justify us or earn us good regard with God; but are as filthy rags. (Isaiah 64:6). Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life, and no man comes to the Father but through him (John 14:6)

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

      The one who is called "Jesus Christ" was never called "Jesus" when he walked the earth. "Jesus" is a Greek name. His last name was not "Christ." "Christ" is a God consciousness that one aspires to as "Jesus" was that God consciousness. Do your own research.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:14 pm |
  10. Newsraider

    To the author - Isaiah 55:8&9.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:48 pm |
  11. Casey

    Praise God!

    December 29, 2011 at 9:48 pm |
  12. revelations

    The Gods of all Gods===? who is that ...The God of destiny is the god of all Gods.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:47 pm |
  13. radlandon

    This article is just shameful CNN...why do you have a man who doesn't believe the Bible trying to explain the Bible? That's pretty dishonest...It's like asking a cat what it's like to be a dog. This article is worthless!

    December 29, 2011 at 9:47 pm |
    • Truth Hurts Donut

      Analogies aren't your strong suit, I guess?

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

      He doesn't believe the Bible in the way you do. He has said many times, including in this article, that he loves the Bible. You are slandering.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:18 pm |
  14. lex

    Its mythology please, probably with some tidbits of factually accuracy. .

    December 29, 2011 at 9:47 pm |
  15. RAY

    and so the myth goes on and morphs

    December 29, 2011 at 9:46 pm |
  16. revelations

    you demons have offended the Gods. no there are many Gods...it takes army to win war....on God cannot do all the work of the universe..the Greeks are right God of war. This is the Gods domain..The God of all Gods

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


      December 29, 2011 at 9:47 pm |
  17. pulsars

    This is why all of you should put your bibles down and join me in worshipping the talking head of lettuce in my refrigerator – my church has no bible and no misconceptions. The head of lettuce only asks its followers to enjoy sauerkraut hotdogs or cole slaw during Sunday football or baseball games. All praise the talking head of lettuce!

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

      The Bible has much more to say about human existence than a head of lettuce.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:19 pm |
  18. Steve the Goat

    The biggest misconception with the bible is that it's actually in any way based in reality. You start with "First, people assume the Bible accurately reflects history. That is absolutely not so, and every biblical scholar recognizes it." yet you don't address the fact that the bible is a plagiarism of older mythologies. It is a book of stories, written by man. In no way influenced by some space ghost. The sooner humanity accepts that all of the religious books were written by man and serve only to control and subjugate people. We need to grow up and discard these books like we grow up and learn to discard other fairy tales such as the easter bunny, santa, and tooth fairy.

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

      actually most historians believe it's the other way around–that it is based on history (most of the torah is just a history book with nothing even mentioned about any god) but that it contains mythological elements.

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

      No way. Santa is cool. And there is *way* more evidence supporting his existence than gOD's

      December 29, 2011 at 9:56 pm |
  19. Cuervo Jones

    more praying less preaching , let's try that?

    December 29, 2011 at 9:46 pm |
  20. BK

    This article was really lame

    December 29, 2011 at 9:46 pm |
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