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. ali

    the one and the only god is our creator (not human nothing like god) , regardless of the bible being truth or not.or being fiction or not LOVE GOD FROM ALL YOUR HEART.

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

      God is a figment of your imagination.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:30 pm |
  2. Seth

    Unreal that in this day and age, 2000 years after the good man lived and tried to teach the message of love, there are people that believe that the 75% of people in this world who are non -christhians (that is about 4 billion people that are living now) are going to be torched and burned for ever. Already this version of God has burnt many billions that have already died not beleiving this crap. Wow, that is a lot of burnt people...Saddam, Hitler, LEnin, Marx appear far more benevolent....

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

      That's right Seth – we make God out to be what we want him to be. Surely, God couldn't condenm anyone, because we don't condemn anyone, and God must surely reflect what our 21st century mindset asserts. If a God exists, he must surely be bound by our human Western ethical system. It is the only logical assumption.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:31 pm |
    • Bryce

      More human beings have died in the name of religion than any other cause.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:31 pm |
    • Gadflie

      Actually, old age and disease have the records.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:33 pm |
  3. nominal

    Religions have deceived people for so much for so long with a pathetic little piece of bad literature it does reflect badly on mankind. Bernie Madoff's accomplishments are like peeing in the ocean, compared to the religious establishments.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:28 pm |
  4. ThirstyJon

    Don't be fooled by this article. Please note that Spong makes all these assertions without offering evidence or reason or even explaining WHY he believes these things.. He expects to be taken at his word.

    I do not accept his claims. Not at all.

    "First, people assume the Bible accurately reflects history. That is absolutely not so, and every biblical scholar recognizes it." Really? EVERY Biblical scholar? Are you certain of that Mr. Spong?

    "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." Based on what reasoning Mr. Spong? The Biblical Account of Moses claims that Moses himself wrote the first five books of the Bible. That is nice that you can just claim otherwise, but why are you making that claim?

    I don't know if the author has reasons or not, but he certainly did not share them in this article.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:28 pm |
  5. Sally

    I think Shelby Spong is God based on his complete understanding of everything in, about, and regarding the Bible. He also must be God since he knows without a doubt events that happened centuries ago, like whether or not Moses wrote anything. Surely he must have been there to speak with such authority. He must also be God, because he is somewhat mysterious, like when he says "The ultimate meaning of the Bible escapes human limits" but then goes on to tell us what the ultimate meaning is, "It issues the invitation to live fully, to love wastefully and to have the courage to be our most complete selves." What? I thought the Bible just told us to go smash babies heads on rocks and such – is that what he means by loving wastefully? Oh that divine Shelby Spong, speaking to us as clearly as the Scripture he mocks speaks to us, in riddles and obscurity!

    December 29, 2011 at 10:27 pm |
  6. Tripper

    If y'all would invest 1/2 the time you spend arguing about lofty theological truths in rolling up your sleeves and serving your neighbor, this world would be a much better place! Instead, people see arguments like this and turn their backs run the other direction (understandably).

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

      Right on!

      December 29, 2011 at 10:33 pm |
    • ThirstyJon

      @Tripper It's not an either/or but rather a both/and. We can seek Truth while also Loving Our Neighbor. In fact, the two are inseparable.

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

      @ThirstyJon. Sure...it's both/and. That's why I suggested diverting only 1/2 the time spent arguing–LOL!

      December 29, 2011 at 10:39 pm |
    • Tripper

      Seriously, though... The world's apathy toward Christian spirituality/faith is understandable. Why? Because modern Christians have misrepresented the faith as the intellectual understanding of certain knowledge and agreement to a moral code. This knowledge-based approach is actually very Gnostic. In addition to being heretical, a Gnostic approach sets the stage for hypocrisy, because the chasm between head knowledge and heart knowledge cannot so easily be spanned. In its essence, Christian faith isn't about agreeing or being good, rather it's about being loved and forgiven. Moreover, in the information age, any knowledge-based approach is doomed to be lost in the sea of information in which we all swim–it will be as unique as a grain of sand on a large beach. How can Christianity be relevant today? I believe through relationships and experience. Christians need to "do God" to others rather than "explain God" to others. It is the "doing of God" that is needed by our increasingly virtual world, and it is also what promises to make Christianity wonderfully unique today.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:42 pm |
    • Seth

      as Melissa said – right on.

      December 29, 2011 at 11:13 pm |
  7. Calvin

    Spong is an idiot.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:27 pm |
  8. Lainie

    This is precisely why the Bible must be interpreted in authoritative hands only. The Catholic Church holds this authority, and Catholics are not free to interpret themselves. They must understand the Bible in terms of what the Church claims. Otherwise, you have everyone interpreting the Holy Scriptures for themselves, with millions of "opinions" coming forth. Most are wrong.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:26 pm |
    • Bryce

      And the Catholic Church, which threatened Galileo with torture if he did not recant his support of the Copernican System, is a trusted interpreter of truth. Yea right.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:29 pm |
  9. dainks

    I am amused, but not surprised, by both the fact that CNN, which consistently exercises an anti-Christian bias and editorial policy, chose Spong, who holds to virtually no orthodox Christian beliefs, to pen an article on the Christian Scriptures, nor should anyone be surprised by his degrading and devaluing of them. He has made a career of taking money (in the form of salary and benefits) from those whose faith he was insidiously working to undermine. He is the worst form of a liar and deceitful person, posing as one helping those he is attempting to destroy. A wretched man he is. CNN is about as unbiased as Spong, and, as an organization, is comparable in character to him.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:26 pm |
    • Mark Taylor

      II don't necessarily see an anti-Christian bias and I am a dedicated follower of Jesus and a Worship leader. Sure, there are articles that question but we also see articles that affirm. Asking questions is a good thing. We should all ask a lot of questions before we come to Faith, otherwise, how could it be genuine to the person claiming belief? I do in fact see an anti-right-wing-evangelist bias but I don't think those folks are practicing/living what Jesus taught anyway.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:32 pm |
  10. jesse

    yaaaa, if this guy was representative of main stream christianity maybe it all wouldnt drive me so crazy

    December 29, 2011 at 10:25 pm |
    • david

      Yes Jesse, because your sanity and your desires are the measures by which all of us should live.

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

      Dave, i wouldnt care how you lived if you and most of christianity didnt spend so much time and effort trying to impose on my life

      December 29, 2011 at 10:32 pm |
    • Liutgard

      Actually, Episcopalians are pretty mainstream. It's just that the fundies and evangelicals are a lot noisier.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:38 pm |
  11. bible

    kids don't understand the bible and most peasants don't understand it eitther...the poems and writing is more unreadable than legal gobble do goop...and was written so normal peasant don't understand only preiest with years of 'bible study' can interpret it (hogwash)

    December 29, 2011 at 10:25 pm |
  12. EatYouAlive

    Why does this blog even exist. What an embarrassment to humanity that this is on a news site.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:25 pm |
  13. NeilPeart


    December 29, 2011 at 10:25 pm |
  14. Nanda

    Hmm. Looks like a bunch of Chick tract enthusiasts pinged each other on the internet to all come out and lambaste the author, instead of writing their own well-reasoned articles and possibly engaging in any sort of intelligent intellectual debate.

    One could write a large psychological volume on people (including religious extremists of ANY stripe) who not only feel a fearful need to huddle inside their own tiny, narrow literalist world-view, but also feel it must always be loudly imposed upon everyone else. The fanatical fringe-y types do not, however, actually have the right to claim to speak for the majority of Christians, etc., and they simply serve instead to give the rest of us a bad name.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:25 pm |
    • EatYouAlive

      The bible is NO basis for rational conversation.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:26 pm |
    • Michae, Chapel Hill

      The Word of God cannot be discerned by the wise or the carnal. While the wise who cannot understand the Word with their wisdom perish, the Word will last for ever. Voltaire once said that no Bible will be left on the face of the earth after fifty years. His residence is the office of the Bible Society of France.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:40 pm |
  15. TrueReality

    Several things he says are entirely unproven and have not a single shred of evidence, or are completely false.

    1) The purported writers of the gospels didn't speak Greek, nor did Jesus? False – they may have used Aramaic or Hebrew among themselves or with other Jews, but Greek was the lingua franca and trade language of the entire Roman empire. When Jesus speaks to gentiles, including Pilate, it would most likely been in Greek. Also, of the evangelists, Luke would certainly have known Greek, being an educated physician and lived in the Greek-speaking city of Antioch. The writing styles of the gospels reflect this: John is fairly elementary, even childish Greek, as if by a less-educated former fisherman, while Luke and Acts are quite literary and polished.

    There is absolutely zero evidence in any textual source of any evolution of the gospel accounts, such as adding in Jesus' miracles or virgin birth, and some evidence to the contrary. Additionally, these would have been written when eyewitnesses were still alive and could contradict false accounts.

    2) The Bible can't be the Word of God because it says things we don't agree with? False – that is simply very poor theology. As Augustine said, "If you believe what you like in the Bible and reject what you don't like, you don't believe the Bible at all, merely yourself". The essence of faith is to admit that God is God, and you are not. The method of doing theology seen here is to bring your preconceived notions about God with you when reading the Bible, and when you find something that contradicts your own notions, to explain it away or dismiss it entirely.

    This guy is an American Episcopalian, a church body that is these days on the very far liberal end of churches (theologically liberal, I'm not talking politics). It holds opinions that many other church bodies consider false, heretical, and against the historical teachings of Christianity.

    The Bible, he says, is about becoming fully and deeply human – true, but the Bible also makes it clear that the only way to do that is through faith in Christ as the Son of God, who died for the sins of the world, that everyone who believes in him will be saved and empowered by the Holy Spirit to become, as he says, more fully and deeply human in obeying God.

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

      You are living in a fantasy world.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:26 pm |
    • Gadflie

      Have you ever read the two different accounts of the Nativity (Matthew and Luke)? If you had, it's hard to believe that think that "There is absolutely zero evidence in any textual source of any evolution of the gospel accounts, such as adding in Jesus' miracles or virgin birth," The two accounts do not agree at all.

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

      Agreed. And I'm a gay Episcopal! While there are always areas of scripture we all find uncomfortable at times (yes, even die-hard conservative fundamentalists don't want to stone their daughters or stop eating shellfish), I find it even more uncomfortable to suggest that just because one cultural view may disagree with another somehow negates the integrity of scripture. There will always be more Truth that we don't understand than we do. And perhaps that's a good thing. But even a gay Episcopal Christian, like myself, takes issue with this watered-down perspective of God's Holy Word. I don't see how a God who gave rise to the universe with a single word would have any difficulty giving rise to an incarnate messiah who could heal the sick, give sight to the blind, and command the lame to rise and walk. Let alone have that Messiah choose disciples who speak/write Greek. Yes, even today we have people who can speak more than one contemporary language. why would Christ's chosen disciples be any less capable?

      December 29, 2011 at 10:43 pm |
    • DVG93

      It is imho that epsicapals do not really embrace Christianity, but pervert it to their ends. At the end of the day, God exists or he does not. We all die. What is next........

      December 29, 2011 at 10:44 pm |
    • SixForty

      Gadflie – The 2 accounts agree in every single point upon which they both discuss. Do they match word for word – of course not! In the same way I wouldn't expect two different reporters to write the same news article about an event happening today. These are 2 different people, with 2 different backgrounds, from 2 different walks of life, with 2 different educations, writing to 2 different audiences – they are going to emphasize different aspects of the story. Anyone with even the slightest open mind can come to that conclusion without any effort at all. To say they don't agree is absurd.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:46 pm |
    • Peppermint Patty

      So there were eyewitnesses of the "virgin birth" ? Bwahahahahahahaha.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:48 pm |
  16. Sir Craig

    As much as I enjoy the rather liberal ideas of Fr. Spong, I have to disagree with his statement that anyone who believes the Bible is the literal word of God has never actually read the Bible. On the contrary, many people have read those very parts he condemns and use those words to base their worldview. (Hello? Fred Phelps, anyone?) To claim that the Bible is NOT the actual "word of God" is anti-thetical to the very core of christianity, because such beliefs would allow people to form God into whatever image they like, and based on what most people are like that could be either better but more likely far worse than actually exists.

    Religion is an antiquated anachronism, initially necessary to calm fears when early man had no idea how things worked, and then evolving into creating fear when man became 'civilized" in order to preserve society through often brutal means and threats. That is the function of your Bible and why it should be relegated to the dustbins of history.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:24 pm |
  17. joey b williams


    December 29, 2011 at 10:24 pm |
    • Sir Craig

      Then he'd better get busy, because I ain't slowing down for him.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:25 pm |
    • NeilPeart

      There is no such thing as 'sin'. Just right and wrong based on one's mores, culture, and innate ability to reason and learn.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:40 pm |
  18. Edsar

    This is the most RIDICULOUS, IDIOTIC and STUPID remarks I've ever read in my whole life.This guy is pretty screwed up
    and pathetic,maybe that is why he's special to CNN.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:24 pm |
  19. nominal

    Of course the Bible is hogwash. He is not the first one to discover that.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:24 pm |
  20. warinheaven

    the catholic church at one time has more money and wealtheir than some countries in europe and more power than the England King...England prospered and advance after kicking the catholic church out of england in 16 the century....and so did democracy and freedom of religion. etc. separation church and state..and now.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:23 pm |
    • nominal

      Bernie Madoff's accomplisments are like peeing in the ocean, compared to the religious establishments.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:26 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.