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. Rob

    "What kind of God would that be?"

    I don't know, one that floods the world, tosses someone out of paradise for eating an apple, allows Satan to visit tortures on a true believer...

    What a load of bollocks.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:18 pm |
    • jerry

      Well said!

      December 29, 2011 at 10:26 pm |
  2. Ronald

    Here is a well written rebuttal to the views of Mr. Spong

    December 29, 2011 at 10:18 pm |
  3. John Faile

    El Kababa

    Do you ever wonder why no one likes you?

    December 29, 2011 at 10:17 pm |
  4. warinheaven

    90% of the bible is state religion propaganda or story telling, poems and verses..and politics in religion...

    December 29, 2011 at 10:17 pm |
  5. Jean

    Many people seem to want to believe that God dictated the Bible. This view raises an important issue. If it was indeed dictated, isn't it rather odd that the different books and letters have different styles and different sentence structures. When a writer writes a book with different chapters, the style and sentence structures don't change from chapter to chapter. If those doing the writing of the Bible weren't recording the actual words as dictated by God, but instead were writing their own thoughts or interpretations of God, then how can the Bible be taken literally as the word of God?

    December 29, 2011 at 10:17 pm |
    • Peppermint Patty

      Hey Jean. Great point. But do they even know what they are saying when they say "word of god" ?
      "The Greek: λόγος (logos) is an important term in philosophy, psychology, rhetoric and religion. Originally a word meaning "a ground", "a plea", "an opinion", "an expectation", "word," "speech," "account," "reason," it became a technical term in philosophy, beginning with Heracl'itus (ca. 535–475 BC), who used the term for a principle of order and knowledge." -Wikipedia.
      The only reason Christians use that phrase "word of God", is because the Greek Gnostics came to have great influence in the Ancient Near East, years after the execution of Jesus, but during and after the Roman occupation. Jesus never said he was the "word". Only the Greek followers slapped that label on him. It's not a Jewish concept AT ALL, and can be understood ONLY in it's historical context. 😉

      December 29, 2011 at 10:31 pm |
  6. Don Camp

    Any thinking person should be skeptical of Spong's assessment of the Bible and faith. Over his career he has represented the church while considtently attempting to undermine it. With that kind of ethical history, how reliable can he be? So I have to ask what does he have to gain personally from the position he has taken. Book sales I would say, if I were a cynic, but it is more likely about ego. In any event, anyone truly interested in the issues Spong raises should know that there are equally intelligent and educated scholars who take a decidedly different position. Search for the truth.
    Don't take one man's word for truth. Question. Let the Bible speak for itself. It will.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:17 pm |
    • jerry

      There are lots of other people who would take argument against Mr. Spong. we call those people brainwashed christians lol

      December 29, 2011 at 10:30 pm |
  7. warinheaven

    the ten commandments, genesis, revelations...nothing else to read...

    December 29, 2011 at 10:16 pm |
  8. clearfog

    My experience is that most fundamentalists believe that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were actually written by them. When they are confronted by the facts, they deny the facts, attack the messenger, and, after the temper tantrum, claim that it does not matter because god inspired those who did write it.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:16 pm |
  9. Ronald

    Here is a great honest rebuttal of Mr. Spong's theology and the point made in the above article.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:15 pm |
  10. John


    December 29, 2011 at 10:15 pm |
  11. Greg

    I'm 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 10:15 pm |
  12. Ken

    You miss one major point...the Bible is not for the Non-Religious world. There is never anything to reclaim. The Bible is for Christian's and not unbelievers or the non-religious that you're peddling a pointless book for. Folks, don't waste your money on this trash.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:15 pm |
    • Peppermint Patty

      So it's delusions for the deluded. Couldn't agree more.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:33 pm |
  13. warinheaven

    The truth and reality doesn't sell. thous shall not lie..a man who lies should die!

    December 29, 2011 at 10:15 pm |
  14. Chris

    Lots of defensive responses to this article. If you are convinced the bible is the word of God, no need to belittle the author. You believe the bible is the word of God and some, like myself, believe it is not. I'm not an Atheist, I'm what some refer to as Agnostic, which means I don't pretend to know if there is or isn't a "God" or "Gods". I just know I personally do not buy into any of the religious views up to this point. But I also believe in "to each his own" and find it unnecessary to criticize others for their beliefs.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:15 pm |
    • david

      Good for you, Chris, that you find it unnecessary to criticize others for their beliefs. Pity that you fail to see that that is exactly what Spong is doing with this opinion piece - and what the editors of CNN are doing by placing it so prominently on the front page of the website.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:18 pm |
  15. jerry

    its funny that most Atheists already know this lol at least i did. Using logic and reason you can find all sorts of inaccuracies in the bible including contradictions especially between the new and the old testament. The bible has all sorts of advice for us, some good, some bad. (the bad is ridiculously bad tho) its best to use your brain to make important decision instead of relying on a book that is obviously made up.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:14 pm |
  16. CanadianLeftist

    A Christian that recognizes the Bible as historically inaccurate and full of unjust condemnation? There's a first. People like him are just deluding themselves into thinking that they really believe in the Abrahamic god and any religion, but at least he's taking the first step towards atheism, now to see if he'll take the next one. Judging by his age, however, I highly doubt that he ever will.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:14 pm |
  17. Eric

    Aliens baby yea.....

    December 29, 2011 at 10:13 pm |
  18. Garland Proco

    Anyone who reads the Bible with his brain on can tell that an all powerful God would not have written such a collection of contradictions, exaggerations, and prejudices. The courageous clergyman (Spong) tells what so many of us have concluded independently.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:13 pm |

      Thank you! Another intelligent reader at last!

      December 29, 2011 at 10:15 pm |
    • sun

      Then why read it? Why not read any other religious book?

      December 29, 2011 at 10:17 pm |
  19. Tony

    In the simplest of terms (based on how you interpret scriptures) the bible has overlapping contradictions throught it. That said, IMO the bible is not to necessarily taken literally but rather to be used as a guide. The second greatest gift God gave man was a mind and the ability to think for himself. To interpret and make decisions for himself. That would include deciding to follow the same beliefs as various groups of people or not. It is every persons individual decision to make. In reading through the bible there are thousands of instances that can be applied as point and counter-point to virtually every given situation you can imagine. It all depends on how you make your interpretations. People tend to follow various faiths because they tend to align more towards their personal beliefs. Is this right? Is it wrong? What man is to say it is or is not? Does anyone out there honestly believe that the religion you follow is God's one and only religion and beliefs? That everyone who does shares a different belief than you or your particular church, will not be allowed into God's house? Does anyone really believe there is only one magic key that gets you into heaven and everyone else goes to hell? IMO, the most important thing to do is completely believe in whatever it is you believe in, based on how you nterpret the scriptures. Do not persucute those who may not believe something different. That is their right, it is their decision and it was God who gave all of us the ability to think for ourselves. IMO God has room for all of those who follow whatever it is they truely believe in their heart. Afterall, the heart is the truest form of human truth and only two people completely understand what is in your heart. You and God. All of that said, when I read this article I take it exactly for what it is, one mans opinion based on his (and maybe the supporting research of others). It doesn't matter if it is a reflection of what I personally believe or not. What matters is that I respect it for what it is and leave it at that. Let every man make his own decisions. God will have the final say.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:13 pm |
  20. wisdom4u2

    If God’s own Son, Jesus the Christ, quoted from the Scriptures….then that’s good enough for me!

    "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come."

    "You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being."

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

      Yep. Jesus was much more liberal than God in the Bible.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:14 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.