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. moebar

    quick question for someone who is a devout christian and someone who studies the bible...in the bible it says that Judas took the silver and bought potters field and then he feel into a ditch where he died....in another part of the bible it says that he gives the silver to the Jewish clerics who then buy potters field, then he hangs himself....my question is who got the silver in the end, who bought potters field, and how did Judas die?

    December 29, 2011 at 9:54 pm |
    • Peppermint Patty

      And when they're done explaining that, ask them to explain why the gospels can't decide what day Jesus died on, (Passover, or the Day of Preparation ??)

      December 29, 2011 at 11:05 pm |
    • Brad

      Hope this helps. Matthew 27:7 and Acts 1:18

      The Jews (Matt. 27:7-10) – "And they counseled together and with the money bought the Potter’s Field as a burial place for strangers. 8 For this reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. 9 Then that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled, saying, "And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of the one whose price had been set by the sons of Israel; 10 and they gave them for the Potter’s Field, as the Lord directed me."
      Judas (Acts 1:18) – "Now this man acquired a field with the price of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out."
      The Jews bought the field in Judas' name, on his behalf. It was with the money that had been given to him for his betrayal of Christ and was the same money he threw back at them. The Jews could not use the money since it was blood money and they bought the field in his name. This is why it says that Judas acquired the field.

      It would be like me giving money to my daughter to buy an apple at the store. It could legitimately be said that I bought the apple since I gave her the money with which to purchase the fruit. Also, she is the one who actually purchased the apple. This idea is found in the Bible. For example, In John 19:1 it says, "Then Pilate therefore took Jesus, and scourged Him." But we know that it was not actually Pilate who did the scourging. Rather it was he who handed Jesus' over to the Roman soldiers to be scourged. They carried out his orders.

      December 30, 2011 at 8:03 am |
  2. Aryan

    How many nigras could dance on the head of a pin if you encouraged them with watermelon?

    December 29, 2011 at 9:54 pm |
    • Truth Hurts

      We all get it Aryan – you're a racists. Now how about getting a life?

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

      funny side note Iran means land of the Aryan people....

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

      Hey, Truth: Why do nigras have monkey faces?

      December 29, 2011 at 10:00 pm |
    • Truth Hurts

      Donno Aryan, but underneath the black fur, Monkeys are actually white.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:01 pm |
    • Aryan

      Truth, why do nigras pretend to be human?

      December 29, 2011 at 10:05 pm |
    • Peppermint Patty

      Too bad you have such a small dick that you are SO jealous of other races.

      December 29, 2011 at 11:07 pm |
  3. TWA1959

    As for Pascal's Wager, this has nothing do with Pascal or any wager.....if all this Jesus Christ and God stuff is so much B.S. than why all the hand wringing and teeth gnashing? If it's all fake, then just ignore all of those judgmental hypocrites and get on with your life.

    And if you think this is about religion, then you totally miss the point. Religion has nothing to do with God but everything to do with man.

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

      And, Pascal didn't go far enough. If he had actually believed what he said, obviously he would have strongly believed in every God we humans have created and followed every religion.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:57 pm |
  4. Dylan

    He spouts off a lot of things for which he provides no evidence. In one breath he states that the miracles of Jesus was an 8th century invention. In another breath he says that the Gospels were written between 70 and 100 CE. The Gospels contain accounts of the miracles of Jesus. C'mon man, seriously?

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

      Where is your evidence that what the bible says is true?

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

      No evidence, really? There is no evidence for any God, only faith that there is one.

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

      Bishop Spong has spent a lifetime studying the Bible. And he claimed the miracle stories were written around 80 AD, not in the 8th century. Which they were.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:22 pm |
  5. Tom


    He says that bible 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.

    And 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 9:53 pm |
    • sciguy

      How is it possible that you can use such good reasoning to doubt the article and yet fail to see it applies equally as well to the bible itself?

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

      Actually, and from a Christian veiwpoint, he is totally correct about the Bible. The author clearly believes that the Bible is God's word and that, it is just as important today as it ever has been. He is just pointing out the obvious that the Bible is, on its face, errant. That does not mean it does not contain truth and/or is not God's word to man. Putting your entire faith in a book instead of God is not a wise decision. I love the Bible and read it daily, but wouldn't think for a second that it is, as some claim, inerrant.

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

      Either you're exemplifying Poe's Law or you're none too bright.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:01 pm |
    • Mike

      Denial is a serious thing.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:02 pm |
  6. Aryan

    Do nigras have souls, or just "soul" that enables them to dance well?

    December 29, 2011 at 9:52 pm |
    • Peppermint Patty

      You really are totally, completely obsessed with your tiny dick, aren't you ?

      December 29, 2011 at 11:09 pm |
  7. Just wondering...

    I know many of you will just tell me to read the bible, but for those of you with rational thought and a true belief, what can you show me as proof for your religion? Not trying to be sarcastic or cause a war, just wondering what is such a strong argument for those of you who have unwavering faith. Besides that whole, "have you ever seen a sunset?" crap. I want something that can either make or break my belief system.

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

      You really can't have this conversation with a religious person. They get way too emotional about it and lose the ability to make rational arguments. However, I really liked what this guy had to say. He seems like he is trying to understand God, not just follow him blindly.

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

      You can't reason with a religous person. Religion by definition requires faith, which is blind acceptance without proof. It isn't rational.

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

      Here is one for you: have you ever studied the replication of cells in a human body? When the DNA divides, first a DNA polymerase moves up and down the DNA strand, joining appropriate nucleotides together. At this point, I'll give atheists the benefit of the doubt and say, for purposes of argument, that this could happen by chance. However, afterwards, other polymerase enzymes DOUBLE CHECK the work of the first, making sure that the DNA replicated correctly. I call the fact that cells can divide at all a miracle, but the fact that cells double check themselves when replicating DNA, to me, is God's design.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:01 pm |
    • Javier, Philadelphia, PA

      I really don't need to prove my faith to you nor do I care if you believe or, if you are saved or not. My faith is mine alone and so is my salvation and it is no one's business why I believe. It is pretty arrogant of you to ask Christians to prove their faith when you know full well that because of the "word" faith it will be impossible for anyone to prove theirs. Mind your business and I'll mind mine. Attack my faith and I'll attack your arrogance. In other words, you do you and don't worry about how I do me.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:02 pm |
    • KL

      If you really take time to think about the complexities of nature (and I have, through extensive studies in college of biology by some very anti-religious teachers), you really start to see that all things point to the existence of God, to purpose- we just have to be open enough to see it.

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

      KL, the idea of God is nothing but a stand in answer that we use until science advances enough to determine the correct one. Your arguments so far are nothing but a logical fallacy known as an "Argument from Ignorance". You really need to try harder.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:05 pm |
    • iWitness

      1 John 1:3 That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.

      I have known the Lord my whole life. I have seen my own hand, crushed and nearly severed healed with my own eyes. I have seen hundreds of people born blind healed instantly, deaf, deaf mute, crippled, all healed instantly in the name of Jesus. I have seen people with aids healed, people with cancer healed, and the dead raised. Jesus is real, He is alive, for by no other name in heaven or in earth can these miracles be done. Sure science and medicine can help – for some. But those born in a condition are often unchanged no matter the science or medicine. Only Jesus can heal the body and save a sinner.

      I have *never* posted before here, and this is my first post. You asked, and since this testimony is first hand, I thought I might share it.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:09 pm |
    • KL

      Gadflie- I suppose that's just a matter of interpretation of science. My old college Biology I teacher presented our class with a semester of proof that God didn't exist, and to me, as we studied the complexities of life, I came away with a stronger belief in God than ever before! To me, there is PLENTY of proof in science and math that God exists. Atheists simply won't open their eyes and see the obvious, despite how highly they think of themselves and their learning.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:13 pm |
    • JM

      Religion, and especially Christianity, is not about "believing" things.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:23 pm |
  8. Remnant of God

    2 Timothy 3:15-17 ~ And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.

    All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:52 pm |
    • Peppermint Patty

      Yeah verily, and wherefore thou hast spoken it in such an oldish way, thou verily forsooth must be speaking the truth, whereof.
      Delusions 1:1

      December 29, 2011 at 11:14 pm |
  9. Randy

    These arguments against Christianity are nothing new and have been around for years. Books like "Evidence that Demands a Verdict" and "Who Moved the Stone" to name a few were the result of the extreme critiquing and questioning of Christianity that occured in the 1960's when many claimed that "God is Dead".

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

      I have read both of the above. There is no "evidence" in either book that is not either a logical fallacy or a simple misunderstanding of statistics.

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

      He isn't arguing against your religion. He's simply stated that man has twisted God's word throughout the bible.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:56 pm |
  10. Adin of Colorado

    These responses are hysterical. This is a very well written and articulate article that seeks out objectivity over blind naivety.

    You people really crack me up. You race to defend words that were written down thousands of years ago as if they were... well, gospel. THEY WERE PENNED BY MEN!!!! HUMAN BEINGS LIKE YOU AND I!!!!! THEY WERE NOT PENNED BY GOD ALMIGHTY!!!

    Let's be serious... do you really think God needs anyone defending him? You're an ant. A speck. He doesn't need you to come to his aid to defend what you think is his word. HE'S GOD!!!

    Get some perspective for pity's sake. Your blind adoration would disgust any intelligent being... and believe me if a higher consciousness will reality into being you're making it laugh with your outlandish need to condemn others for expressing an idea that is simply different than yours.

    Sorry. That's probably just too broad for you.

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

      So it's wrong to defend one's religion when perhaps the greatest news organization in the World attacks it?

      December 29, 2011 at 9:55 pm |
    • Holland

      I agree. I really liked this article.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:55 pm |
    • CaptainObvious

      He did not attack our religion. He is clearly a beliver in Christ and the Bible. He is just pointing out the Bible is NOT inerrant. Of course there are errors and many of them. Of course anyone who knows a history of the Bible knows it cannot be complete. That does not mean it is not scipture or God's word. I sincerely hope that my fellow Christian's faith in the Son of God is not solely depedent upon whether or not the Bible is 100% perfect and beyond reproof, omission, or inacuracies.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:03 pm |
  11. henry

    I liked this article.Very refreshing. A priest that realizes one can use the brain God gave to him and still realize that truth is not static it evolves. I mean how can one justify God telling people to kill their enemies, brutally and mercilessly mind you, in one part of the bible and the same god later in the form of Jesus telling them to love their enemies. obviously we as humans are created to evolve on all fronts and the bible reflects are struggles and triumphs as well as the miraculous and tells us to grow not hate and condemn, boy even Jesus said as much. but so many Christians are filled with hate and condemnation EVOLVE like this guy I say. Praise God for our brains. Really I think, all religions will eventually either evolve or perish including christianity, but not God because God is Love and love is eternally evolving. Just like we evolved from nothingness into humans. The bible and life shows us that evolution of life and our souls is what its all about.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:51 pm |
  12. Dr Bill Toth

    wow, what a shocking revelation – the bible contains inaccuracies and is the subject of much debate.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:51 pm |
  13. Holland

    BRAVO! As a non believer, this man has actually reached me more than any of the bible thumpers out there. He is being honest about the state of the bible. The fact that it's stories have been manipulated by time only makes sense. Ever played telephone? Nothing ever comes out right. I think that I'll read his book and see what he has to say. I'm sorry that so many of you are upset by his theory, but you really need to be practical about the book. Use common sense.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:51 pm |
  14. jos


    December 29, 2011 at 9:50 pm |
  15. Chedar

    The only way to transfer from scripture the right way is to meditate and attain enligtenment. Without meditation, writing the scripture from remembering is impossible. One can not hold their thoughts for so long to have the same intention what the original thought come from. This is the cause of many religion's imistake nterpretation and eventually becomes a cult.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:50 pm |
  16. sciguy

    May you all be touched by His noodly appendages and see that He is the Light and the Way. Ramen.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:50 pm |
  17. BK

    Thanks CNN for showing me that I too can post articles online about subjects in which I know nothing. Common degenrative processes in the human brain, here I come!!!!

    December 29, 2011 at 9:50 pm |
  18. Robin

    Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Wouldn't that be nice.

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

    Satan is the God of punishment..Welcome to hell sinners hahahaahah

    December 29, 2011 at 9:50 pm |
  20. Aryan

    Why are nigras so ugly and stupid? Are they devil spawn?

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

      They have bigger dicks than you, and you can't stand that.

      December 29, 2011 at 11:16 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.