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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. Joshua

    @JohnQuest Honestly, yes i do find that as the wrong approach. Christianity is a simple message of God loving everybody regardless of if u are Christian or not. Please dont take their harsh approach too harshly. I believe that their passion for our Beliefs' energy was converted in a negative way. Honestly i wish that you would find the opportunity to learn more about Christiniaty and how it could change your life like it did mine. May God Bless you.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:59 pm |
  2. 1ST st

    History what a spoof. You compare history and the Bible and say the Bible is wrong, well let look at history for a minute. As being in the army for several years I found out first hand that what happens in the field and what is recorded usually are two different things. History is full of misgivings that we are day by day find to be incorrect. So before you can compare the two books you are using it might be a good idea to make sure the book you are using is correct and not what someone said happen like the history book do.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:59 pm |
  3. tdave

    Spong is definitely an "emperor has no clothes" guy for those who buy into a given interpretation of the Bible, but for agnostics (like me), it's a refreshing take on what is and isn't there by someone with a lot of cred. Open your minds.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:58 pm |
  4. M. A. Believer

    See, this is how it works. You accept Christ as the Messiah and your savior. You accept Him by faith. You accept all scripture because it says ALL scripture was God Breathed. Men wrote it with the Holy Spirit's guidance. So it doesn't matter how long it was before scripture was actually written. God wrote it using faithful men. No errors if God wrote it. Archaeology supports ALL scripture references from the Old and New Testaments. See, you believe it by faith and then the Holy Spirit makes it all make sense...every word. But you need the faith first.

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

      There are, among many other "anomalies," some interesting inconsistencies that suggest a less than divine authorship. See, as one example, II Samuel, 24:1-25, and compare it to I Chronicles, 21:1-26.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:16 pm |
  5. Matt

    Biblical inerrantists are some of the most delusional people on this planet.

    Please find a new religion, inerrantists. You're embarrassing the intelligent Christians.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:58 pm |
  6. Deacon Fred

    1 and 2 Peter, Ephesians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Timothy were not written by Paul, even though they claim that they were. This makes them forgeries by definition.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:58 pm |
  7. Anna

    This article is completely inaccurate about what the Bible says. How can CNN allow a guy who doesn't BELIEVE THE BIBLE to write this article??

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

      He doesn't "believe in" the Bible the way you do. There is not "only one way" to read the Bible.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:26 pm |
    • Peppermint Patty

      The Bible is a book of human literature. It belongs to everyone who cares to study about it. It's not just for the deluded.

      December 29, 2011 at 11:02 pm |
  8. Rider

    Spong is a left wing liberal quack who even denies that Jesus atoned for the sins of mankind. He is debunked here:
    http://www.christian-apologetics.org/html/Whats_wrong_Spong.htm
    He is one of the wolves in sheep's clothing that Jesus warned people about. But true to form, CNN continues with their anti-christian nonsense.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:57 pm |
    • Peppermint Patty

      Jesus never said he "atoned" for anything. Paul made that up. If Jeebus was the "savior", why did he never claim to be ?

      December 29, 2011 at 11:03 pm |
  9. Andrew

    The biggest problem I have with this article is that the writer seems to infer that all of his beliefs are held in unison by all serious scholars (i.e. not scholars who hold a conservative view of scripture). This simply is not the case. Even his dating of the gospels is in debate by secular and non-secular scholars. There are plenty of scholars who think that Mark was written before AD 70. Also, he has no concept of genre, so that where he sees an evolution of the story of Jesus coming across from Mark to John could actually just be different literary techniques in telling the story. Mark did not end his gospel with the appearance of Jesus because the readers would know the rest of the story. Mark was having his readers interact with the story they heard and put themselves in the next part of the story.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:57 pm |
  10. El Kababa

    The Bible is a compilation of nonsense. The backward middle eastern cultures of the time knew nothing. Nothing they believed about human nature or the universe was true. They were 100% delusional. They did not understand tooth decay. They could not figure out that 388 / 16.5 = 23.51. They did not know what planets were. They thought that the sun went around the earth. Their dingbat theology of two cranky old bachelors named Yahweh and Satan fighting over the souls of humankind was goofy to say the least.

    The Catholic Church, at the order of Emperor Constantine assembled the Bible three centuries after Jesus was killed. The thinkers of the early Catholic Church then spent centuries trying to make sense of the collage of nutty manuscripts and they came up with a brilliant teaching: love one another. Care for one another. Help the weak, the pregnant, the young, the old, the sick, the weak, the stupid, the unlucky, and the crazy. Treat others the way you would like to be treated. Don't lie, cheat, steal, or kill. Be a good person. Don't be selfish; be generous. Forgive others. Ask for forgiveness. If a man asks you to go half a mile with him, go a mile. Don't be thinking about ipods, jewelry, and cool clothes. Think about how you can become a better person. Think about helping others.

    What a wonderful philosophy!

    It did not come from the Bible. It did not come from Jesus. It came from the Church.

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

      I would politely like to disagree with your view. I have no idea where you have found those "facts" that you claim are true, but i believe that if what u said was true Christianity would have been single handedly been dismantled as a sham years ago.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:04 pm |
    • Asklepios417

      Astrology is still around too.

      People still believe in astrology, despite it's having been exposed as a sham years ago.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:11 pm |
  11. Asklepios417

    "The Bible, when read literally, calls for the execution of children who are willfully disobedient to their parents"

    Indeed it does.

    And Jesus Christ denounces the Pharisees for giving up this charming practice.

    Mark 7:9-13: "And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)— then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother .Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that."

    December 29, 2011 at 9:56 pm |
  12. Eric

    I would have no problem with the article if he admits that he is really not a Christian.

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

      agreed.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:03 pm |
  13. BK

    Dumb dumb dumb dumb, dumb dumb dumb dumb. Dumb dumb dumb dumb, dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb. Dumb dumb dumb dumb. Dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb, dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb. Furthermore, dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumbdumb. However, dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb. Moreover, dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb.....da...dumbdumb. In conclusion, dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb. Don't ya think?????

    December 29, 2011 at 9:56 pm |
    • Asklepios417

      No, I wouldn't say the entire Bible is dumb. Maybe about 94% of it, but not all of it.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:08 pm |
    • TruthandBeauty

      Repeating the word "dumb" over and over again is dumb.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:38 pm |
  14. Mark Harris

    I am fine with people having their opinions but to express their opinions as historical fact that every "scholar" (i.e. thinking person) recognizes as true, when the opinion expressed flys so blatantly in the face of historical evidences is ludicrous. How does something so shabby make it to the front page of the news? Seems to me that CNN has an agenda here.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:56 pm |
  15. Aryan

    Did God send the Flood to wipe out the nigras?

    December 29, 2011 at 9:55 pm |
  16. steve moore

    It is by far the greatest novel ever written but, thats all it is, a novel. A collection of short stories by unknown authors written in unknown times.

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

      Agreed. And also it's been edited numerous times, hence the numerous editions.

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

      Not a novel. Just simple nonsense. The Jews in control needed to control their own people so they concocted all this god nonsense a long time ago. Then there was a split in the hierarchy of Jew power and then 'behold' Jesus was born. Then later another split and Mohammed was born. It has happened in fairly recent times. Joseph Smith is one that gathered a large following. The cults we see today strive for the same thing that was accomplished 2000+ years ago. Get as many believers as possible in their own cause. Big difference today is the ability to uncover all the nonsense of cults rather quickly. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are just cults.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:12 pm |
  17. Francois

    Frankly, the misstatements and areas where one of many views is presented as the only thought, makes this article come off as more of a political message, than one about faith and belief. 1) Every biblical scholar recognizes the Bible does NOT accurately reflect history. FALSE – unless he gets to personally select who qualifies as a Biblical scholar, certainly some share his view but NOT EVERY. 2) Neither Jesus nor any of his disciples spoke or were able to write in Greek. FALSE – unless he gets to specifically select who counts as a disciple. Paul wrote in Greek and he counted himself as one of and was accepted by Peter as a disciple. We know Jesus, when questioned by Pilate, answered in Latin (much to Pilate's surprise). Who is to say that he didn't also know Greek. 3) The first story of Abraham was not written down until 900 years after his birth. FALSE – Evidence has been discovered, including fragments of the Old Testament mentioning Abraham, which dates much, much closer to the time he lived. This is one of the problems with the Internet; Anyone can post an editorial disguised as a news story and it goes up, unchallenged by internal fact-check or review.

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

      Everything that I read on the internet is unequivocally truthful. Even your assertions that are backed with no references.

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

      He said false in capital letters. How could he possibly be wrong?

      December 29, 2011 at 10:08 pm |
    • Righto

      Francois, are you planning to cite your sources? It seems to us that you have none to little proof to back what you write and I believe that puts you in the same situation as the author of this article.

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

      Thank you for that reply. It seems that if people want to believe something false all they have to do is pick and chose who best fits their beliefs without regard to the truth.

      December 30, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
  18. Iqbal Khan

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DoeOVpC0O0w&w=640&h=360]

    December 29, 2011 at 9:55 pm |
  19. Brandon T

    He hit the nail right on the head here "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.". We cannot even begin to possibly comprehend what unconditional love and forgiveness means.

    People, of all races/colors/creeds from every corner of the earth, are selfish and greedy. Think the death penalty. That is a natural human gut reaction to something horrible, to get back at your enemies. Do you think that God feels the same way towards the condemned as the judge/jury/executioner does?

    The many negative responses to this article are just a natural human reaction. A natural reflex when you feel you're under attack. People, just take the article for what it is: if you gained some insight into the true historical context of the bible great! If you can't see past the stories you were told since you were a child, great!

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

      Brandon even you have a bias twist to your comment and I quote." if you gained some insight into the true historical context of the bible great! If you can't see past the stories you were told since you were a child, great!". The guy is far from being historically accurate in his posting. As for stories told to me when I was a child, well I came to a saving faith later in life and did the research necessary to see if the Bibles claims were accurate and historical.

      Thank you for your post.

      December 30, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
  20. Man created God in his image

    The Bible was written (and rewritten) by humans. It's so silly other humans think it's the "word of God" anymore than a Denny's menu. Grow up.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:54 pm |
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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.