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. Greg Doublas

    Mr. Spong, you are not a believer in Jesus Christ and thus completely unqualified to write about the Holy Word of God, the Bible. First of all, the Bible was not meant for those who don’t believe. Second, believers receive the knowledge of the Word of God by revelation, by the Holy Spirit. Thirdly, In II Timothy 4:16, we read “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God…” Who are you to question God?
    I have a couple of questions for you: How did you ever make it to become a bishop? Your article causes me to seriously question the commitment of the leaders of the Episcopalian Church to their people when they elevate someone like you to this position. If this is what you believe Mr. Spong, how could you have stood before the people on Sundays? What did you tell them? It appears that you have led a lot of people astray, away from the truth, while you were a bishop and now with this article. Yes, you are free to write what you want in a free society but you are writing about issues that may affect one’s eternal destiny. People should completely disregard this garbage that came out of you!

    December 29, 2011 at 10:23 pm |
    • Sir Craig

      Yes, heaven forbid he should suggest something that runs completely counter to your beliefs and opinions and might, oh, I don't know, make you THINK just a little bit?

      December 29, 2011 at 10:27 pm |
    • Nonsequitariat

      You have to believe in that unhappy horse poop in order to be qualified to write about it? Seriously? I just felt the collective human I.Q. drop twenty points. On behalf of the team, thanks for that.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:28 pm |
    • otomakascram

      I don't know much about your religion but it does strike me as odd that your God would grant you the right to pass judgement on the qualifications of other to discuss the Bible. What makes you more qualified than Mr. Spong to discuss what the Bible means since, at least on paper, he seems more qualified than most. Unless of course you and your God have a direct connection and he speaks through you.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:34 pm |
    • neutral

      You are so arrogant. I bet the bishop has studied the bible longer than you.
      I realize that this idea is so radical, even a willingness to ponder it could shatter your understanding of everything. I guess you'll stick to your beliefs and I'll stick to mine and hopefully we'll never have to fight to the death.

      December 29, 2011 at 11:17 pm |
  2. Tony

    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

    December 29, 2011 at 10:23 pm |
  3. jubei3

    After looking at what the writer stated i beleive his perception to be "accurate" for his manner of gleaning the scriptures.If your looking at the scriptures as inspired writings of authors who penned thier understandings of events as they unfolded as such, then the only ogical "rational" conclusion has been made. With that said he has done something that every single one of the doctrines of fallacy have done and fallen into error.

    (NEVER cross dispensations) and on that note he has errored

    December 29, 2011 at 10:22 pm |

    YAWN......this entire discussion reminds me of the religious leaders who used to argue over how many angels could fit on a pin head.......too many pinheads in this discussion.......yawn.

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

    state religion is political force...with the pople endorseing the emperor he has power..same in Islam countries..the islamica church in saudi arabia supports the saudi king vice versa..state religion is politically motivated.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:22 pm |
  6. Remnant of God

    The sower soweth the word.

    And these are they by the way side, where the word is sown; but when they have heard, Satan cometh immediately, and taketh away the word that was sown in their hearts.

    And these are they likewise which are sown on stony ground; who, when they have heard the word, immediately receive it with gladness;

    And have no root in themselves, and so endure but for a time: afterward, when affliction or persecution ariseth for the word's sake, immediately they are offended.

    And these are they which are sown among thorns; such as hear the word,

    And the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things entering in, choke the word, and it becometh unfruitful.

    And these are they which are sown on good ground; such as hear the word, and receive it, and bring forth fruit, some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some an hundred. ~ Mark 4:14-20

    December 29, 2011 at 10:21 pm |
    • Nonsequitariat

      So what about the sower of complete nonsense?

      December 29, 2011 at 10:24 pm |
  7. Aryan

    God bless Adolf Hitler!

    December 29, 2011 at 10:21 pm |
  8. Larry Moniz

    With all sincerity I must say "Hallelujah!" to the bishops comments. Every religious sect tries to claim their version is the bible is more accurate and that the bible is the "word of god." I've long believed it was anything but, for many of the same reasons that Bishop Spong cites above. The bible is sometimes referred to as an anthology. As a former Public Relations executive in New York, the bible's epistles have long seemed to me to be nothing more or less than press releases of the time hyping Christianity to parishioners. Also,, as all of the new testament was written decades after Jesus' death, it could hardly be considered accurate reportage. Rather, with each generational distortion it became further exaggerated. Were the bible to be initially written and published today, booksellers would likely place it in the fiction section. Actually, the bishop adds more detail to my arguments. Delighted to see such rational arguments.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:21 pm |
  9. warinheaven

    The roman emperor create christianity to unit the roman empire have one religion or state religion..or divinity rule of the emperor....state religion like christianity is creation of the state.....before christianity...there was no christmas holidays. etc. everybody worship their own god...state religion was to unite the people. within the country sneak y politicians

    December 29, 2011 at 10:20 pm |
  10. gp

    CNN shouldn't let anyone quote "facts" unless they check them first. There are many sweeping generalities in this piece that should have been deleted and never been read by the public. It's OK to state opinions, but to call his assertions "facts" – that's sad.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:20 pm |
    • Bob

      I completely agree

      December 29, 2011 at 10:37 pm |
  11. Nonsequitariat

    Remember that all of us are atheists with regard to most of the gods man has created in his childish need to answer the hereto unknowable. Atheists like me just go one god further. Christians are no more fortunate to have been born into their faith than Buddhists, Jews, or Muslims. They just believe a different primitive narrative which ignorantly attempts to explain the world and give them hope of a prize after death. Religious folks believe in life after death. I believe in life after birth.

    Morality is not owned by religion either. Ancient humans required varying levels of empathy and cooperation with their neighbors in order to survive. If these kinds of traits weren't beneficial, even lower order animal species would have murdered themselves out of existence by now.

    And to those claiming historical truths are in the Cristian Bible, I would say that there are a great many Stephen King novels that also contain truths. These ancient, primitive people had completely incorrect notions about the most fundamental concepts of life; a common cold was demonic possession, for example. But that does not mean that they couldn't mix in the occasional historical truth.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:19 pm |
    • xnmt

      There is an enormous difference between one god and no gods, much greater than the difference between various conceptions of god(s).

      December 29, 2011 at 10:24 pm |
    • Nonsequitariat

      Not if the other guy's god is the right one.

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


    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 10:19 pm |
    • Observer

      "A loving Creator is not a foreign concept to the law of Moses:"

      It's estimated that the Bible lists God supporting the death of over 1,000,000 people not counting the Flood..
      At one time,God torturously killed virtually every man, woman (pregnant or not), child, and fetus on the face of the earth.

      Loving? lol.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:24 pm |
    • raggedhand

      And your proof that you know better is?......

      I'm Jewish and from my perspective as a member of the tribe that had to remember all of the stories and wrote the book in the first place, the bishop is quite right.

      The book was written by human beings and human beings are fallible.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:28 pm |
  13. Lori

    Oh Boy!!!! Hang on to your britches all!!!

    December 29, 2011 at 10:19 pm |
  14. John Allen

    This guy needs to turn in his frock. He's in the wrong business.

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

    Typical CNN penchant for controversy (Hey, why not, it sells). The "catch" is "Bishop". But Mr.Spong continues to conveniently wear the veneer of religiosity and the vestments of ecclesial authority while denying even the most basic of Judeo-Christian tenets. What chutzpah ! What a hypocrite ! Why not be totally honest, with himself and others ? So why not drop the pretense ? Simple, we already have the answer in this piece itself: Lets hear it for Mammon.

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

      Exactly correct. It's a sad spectacle.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:20 pm |
  16. Antonio

    Certainly this guy has never experienced God, and His overabundant grace. Shame!

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

      Oh yeah, because you need a book for that. I forgot. Why not just call the bible "enlightenment for dummies?"

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

      You haven't either. He is not real. I think it is truly pathetic that people can't even think for themselves. Believers have no reason or logic. Christians are scared to read history other than the bible because it might actually teach them something. You have as much belief in God and follow his rules as I believe in some God like Jupiter. Nobody actually follows the bible. They only pick and choose what they want. Go ahead and forget all the evil things in the bible; or have you actually read it? If you really followed the bible you would be a sick and twisted person, period.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:25 pm |
  17. Andrew

    Before Jesus, the chosen people were the "Jews". I believe they did go to heaven well depending on how far back we are talking about. Like back far as Joseph or few hundred years before Jesus.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:18 pm |
  18. Ronald


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

      I'm glad someone else posted this – I was thinking of it too!

      December 29, 2011 at 10:40 pm |
  19. Godstorm

    Spong is not a believer and is one of the most notorious heretics of our day, so I don't agree with him, but am appreciative of allowing him to able to speak freely because he is an American. I just wish as well that I could speak as freely as he and not be condemned for it, still also being American.

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

      If you feel looked down on for your beliefs, that's your problem. I'm not a Christian, and I've never said an unkind word about anyone for what form of religion they follow. Also, freedom of speech doesn't mean people can't "condemn" you or what you believe. Though it may not be very nice to do so, it's 100% part of the American tradition of freedom of speech.

      December 29, 2011 at 11:07 pm |
  20. RedRussian

    i disagree with Spong, it is you Spong who actually spread misconception and myth regarding the Bible as the inspired Word of God. If you truly believed in the God of the Bible, then you would accept that God can and does things that are beyond human comprehension and limitations, you actually limit God by placing Him in your "small little box of intellectual reason" do you really think that God would limit Himself under the constraints of human existence on this planet, under this plane of existence? it is you Sprong who is a small minded man, because you can't accept that God could actually bring the Bible to us mere mortals that portray man as lost and in need of salvation.

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

      If god is beyond Spong's "small little box of intellectual reason," isn't he also beyond some book that was written and compiled by men? Some of these men were very wise, but some had political motives and only wanted to be in charge of the church.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:21 pm |
    • squelch

      That's funny, RedRussian. Your god is "beyond human comprehension and limitations", therefore, impossible to understand, but SOMEHOW you are able to claim that your god "could" have meant that "men [is] lost and in need of salvation" How the F do you know that? Your god may be impossible to comprehend but our human logic requires a little something called logical consistency.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:30 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.