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. D. Bleak

    So much anger over scripture. Are many missing what God is trying to teach them? Don't question what God wrote, for he put much to confound the so called wise. What you think you might see is not really there , but much is there for the believer . Seeing is not always believing, but it is believing and seeing. So to those who do not believe you will not see and all your arguing is in vain.

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

      The stupid making stupid comments. That is you.

      God not able to give everyone a uniform and simple message? So hilarious.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:14 pm |
    • warinheaven

      the state church try to sell salvation if you donate money etc you go to heaven..the reality is you offend the gods, you will be punished..or killed.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:14 pm |
  2. Zon

    What I try to tell both my religious and non-religious friends. But not nearly so well.

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

      tell you friends if they offend the gods, they die! there is no forgiveness for your sins. you cannot buy forgiveness..all crimes must be paid.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:13 pm |
  3. bryan

    All other religions leaders is dead, JESUS is ALIVE. JESUS is the only person who died in my place that I might have life. This man has warped scripture and took it out of context to meet his agenda. He Will know the truth one day I hope its not to late. The city of Sodom learn the truth but to late. You might check out what happen to Ninnevah. Check out what Charles Darwins last words were. He said He would give worlds if he could if only he hadn't came of with the myth of evaloution.

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

      "evaloution"...is that the accepted home skool spelling in the South?

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

      Jesus has his divinity insured by his writers by acts of magic that have no originality beyond their era. if he would have aligned the stars to say, "I am the son of God", then I would take it seriously. Instead, he reportedly did acts of magic that were only as good as the imagination of people 2000 years ago. Not original or unique.

      Sorry, I don't buy it.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:16 pm |
  4. warinheaven

    the wonders of the universe is beyond the intelligence of moron humans.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:11 pm |
  5. Machine

    HAhaha Christain storys from a Jew owned Media thats funny.Can somebody tell me what biased means please?All of the Jew owners don't belive in Christ anyways lol.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:11 pm |
  6. achepotle

    I remember reading Dr. Seuss as a kid...great books! Glad I didn;t base my life on them and loudly insist that the Lorax was real and my friend...that would have just made me look stupid...the Bible isn't as good as Dr. Seuss, though.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:10 pm |
    • Greg

      Not a Christian, not a believer in a higher power, but I liked this article because it points out quite plainly that Americans are basing their belief in 'god' on pure, fabricated, unadulterated BS.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:14 pm |
  7. warinheaven

    God created elephants and dolphins....and flowers...

    December 29, 2011 at 10:10 pm |
  8. Joe

    2 + 2 = 5

    The stork brings babies.

    Water flows up hill.

    See. It's really easy to write stuff that isn't true. Don't believe everything you read.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:10 pm |
    • Machine

      Hey your the one going to Hell pal not me lol.Life is not created out of nothing.Everything in this World has a creator.

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

      Mr. Machine – do you have any proof that hell exists? Sorry, that story doesn't scare me anymore.

      And do you really believe that some guy living in a cloud created all this? And so who created the cloud he lives in?

      December 29, 2011 at 10:19 pm |
  9. Big Man

    "lip service is still paid in the Western world." The funny thing is that biblical stories and so-called prophesies have ZERO bearing on western society. They are stories from the middle east – why should Europeans, Americans, etc. feel any connections.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:09 pm |
  10. Bryce

    The Bible is a long winded rationalization of the two great unknowns of mankind. Where did we come from – the Old Testament and what happens to us when we die – the New Testament.

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

      The Big Bang.

      No place.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:12 pm |
  11. fda

    Turn in next week for the 3 greatest misconceptions about gay marriage.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:09 pm |
  12. warinheaven

    5 year olds cannot comprehend the science behind the creation of the unverse beginning and end of the unverse..it's beyond human comprehension.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:09 pm |
  13. forsingle

    You can share your life and love with friends online. - Bigtálls。C0M - it is a nice dating service for t all guys or girls to find their romantic love. Maybe you will like it. Join it and find your girl or guy

    December 29, 2011 at 10:09 pm |
  14. Aryan

    No god would create nigras. There is no god.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:08 pm |
  15. warinheaven

    the bible is meant for kids..hence the 7 day to create the universe..etc.

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

      Yes....and, unfortunately, 99.9% of the adults in this world are no smarter than kids. Thus, they believe in all the fairy tales. At LEAST, this relgious man tells the truth that the bible is nothing but fairy tales.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:15 pm |
  16. warinheaven

    the ten commandments, geneiss and revelations is all there is t o read in the bible...the rest is just poems and story of life of jesus.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:07 pm |
  17. Klaark

    You can't tear the Bible down out one side of your mouth then say it's somehow beyond our comprehension from the other. It's a book edited for a political purpose and that's it. That we still "pay lip service" to it is a sign we have a long way to go.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:07 pm |

    I am so thankful someone has come out and said what I have believed to be the truth all my life. It IS the truth. You religious zealots have to get off the condemnation! What are you all? Catholic? (I was raised catholic bty).

    The Bible is a literary representation of the beginning of life and a moral guide FOR your life. It was written by monks, the same guys who invented beer. Later it was continued by Christian zealots looking for ways to condemn, ie get rid of, kill, others who believed would gain control politically and religiously (within which was a very thin line at that point in history) if they were not stopped. Catholocism is riddled with advertising and marketing propaganda, as many other factions of Christianity are today, ie. "born again", some evangilist tribes, etc. It's still going on via the pope and the Vatican.

    To believe that the words we read in the bible, which I have read cover to cover for my literary education, MA & PhD, are that "of God" is just ..well frankly, naive.

    However, many themes in the bible should be a moral guide, which is it's purpose. It is all metaphor to help people over the ages, make better decisions, live better lives and be better people, the best version of themselves. It was teaching people to live an "authentic" life way before Oprah, before it became a hip expression and current vernacular. It is not without it's charms and purpose. Personally, I believe everyone should read it. Kids should be given a religious education, a basis from which to grow. As parents, we are obliged to do this. Now if they grow up and decide to become Protestant, Buddhist, or God Forbid Scientologists, you have given them the basis of religious knowledge from which to make such a decision.

    I am raising my children Episcopal. My mother was episcopalian and my Dad catholic. The family joke was the chose the religion of we children because the catholic church was closer. Well it was. And we got there more often. So often that my Protestant Mom taught Sunday School/CCD there. She was a teacher by profession.

    When I had my first child, I decided to raise her in my Mother's faith, a close relative of Catholicism. Religion without the guilt, hellfire and damnation. And you know what? I LOVED it. I found a wonderful church with super people. My daughter loved going as we all did every Sunday morning. So much so that I later became the Christian Education Director. So I am not without faith and belief.

    However, I do not believe that the Bible is the direct dictation of God. I thoroughly enjoyed this article and am very happy that CNN had the good sense to post this. I intend to go and get this guy's book from the library tomorrow as well.

    That's my 2 cents.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:07 pm |
    • Peppermint Patty

      Thank you. Ditto. I have read all his books. He is full of great wisdom. Thank you for the great article, "Father" Spong.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:12 pm |
    • Leslie B

      I find it hard to believe that someone who claims to have been a director of religious education at an Episcopalian Church could believe that the Bible is the literal dictation from God. Those two things simply don't go together.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:18 pm |
  19. william fitzwater

    Tje Bible is ispired word of God. Working thru a failed medium namly Man. God can't help is some one write its ok to smash Babloyn kids heads toaghter . So what this aouthor states it to throw the Bible as suspect. Yes it is a oral crongy it does state event and can be traced thru Achoogy. Yes I do agree the idea of postdict the act of where a scholoar pens a idea in the past & present authors try to make sense of it by making "thier" Revlation fit what a prior author penned. That is also part of the Bible. Lastly the Bible is also in the eve of the holder or believer . its what you make of it some oby the dark voices and impuses to justify every carnel impuske and desire there is scriptures every where that allow this & yet many more rational intreptations that urge believers to live by thier better selfs. thta is part of modern life every one has choice in belif or not and living in harmony and by your better nature for some small majotiyu notyl idyening ot action thier evil desires .

    December 29, 2011 at 10:07 pm |
    • Peppermint Patty

      Can you tell us what language you speak, so we can put that through our Google translators?

      December 29, 2011 at 10:13 pm |
    • Mark9988

      Please stop typing on your phone. Your post is atrocious.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:14 pm |
    • Nursehope

      Which God? There are at last estimate >1,000 gods worshiped on this planet. To assign one specific god to this tenet would be disingenuous.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:14 pm |
  20. bigjumpus

    The most important part of this article is in the Editor's note: "John Shelby Spong, a FORMER Episcopal bishop . . . " Does anyone care what a FORMER doctor thinks of Grey's Anatomy or what a FORMER jurist thinks of Blackstone's Commentaries? Regardless of your belief system, why should anyone care what a FORMER theologian thinks of the Bible?

    December 29, 2011 at 10:07 pm |
    • clearfog

      I care. That is at least one. I'll bet there are more. Perhaps FORMER means that after years of investigation, meditation, and logical thought, he finally figured it out.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:10 pm |

      Yeah, he's retired. Now he's an author and travels to lecture. Perhaps one should find out the truth before one bashes another for no reason. Gosh there's definitely something about that in the bible. Perhaps YOU should read it before you cast the first stone.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:11 pm |
    • Peppermint Patty

      He's retired, idiot. And he's made more money on his books than you will ever see.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:15 pm |
    • Fish Flakes

      Not sure I get yout point. I think that while he is a former bishop, that does not make him a former theologion. And why would I care more what a current doctor thinks of Grey's Anatomy (assuming the book, not the series) than a former one? I assume they are both equally educated in anatomy, and nothing has changed in quite some time on that subject.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:22 pm |
    • BibleStudent

      Thanks for pointing this out so eloquently. It is clear that he never really studied the bible, but is wise in his own eyes. This man has his own agenda, which is to dilute the bible and totally misrepresent it in the most dishonest way, by claiming to love it. Really sickening. Nothing you said Mr Spong, supports your claim that you love or admire the bible. You must certainly want to defame it, and CNN has given you a worldwide platform to do so.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:28 pm |
    • Peppermint Patty

      Ya ya ya. How tired. He is wise ONLY if he agrees with ME. Next.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:53 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72 73 74 75 76 77 78 79 80 81 82 83 84 85
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.