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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. Choad

    How about misconception number one; the bible is factual.

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

      That actually is his first point.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:37 pm |
  2. Deborah

    As always it's another so called "man of God" who continues to dash faith and integrity contained in the Holy Bible. It's amazing to me that these people who call themselves "preachers of God's word " continue to give more and more nominal Christians more reasons to not believe the word of God. This is exactly what the Bible it self said would happen. That so many would come forth claiming to love and beileve in God and yet they would prove false to is't power. No wonder so many people both in and out of christendom have no real reason to put faith and trust in the word of God. Now they are even making silly and biased claims concerning Christ himself and his followers. I just hope that more people read the Bible for themselves and allow themselves the opportunity to get a feel and sense of what God has allowed to exit for so long, and not fall victim to those "false prohets" that want to have their "ears tickled". I do not understand why this man or any so called "man of the cloth" would bother to even say they believe in God or his son Jesus or for that matter, call themselves christians at all, since they clearly do not put any of their own faith and trust in the word of Jehovah God.

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

      Yeah, reality sucks huh? Also, Santa Clause and fairies don't really exist.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:37 pm |
  3. ashrakay

    Wow... CNN's religosphere finally gets something right. I'm actually a little bit shocked and speechless. If I have any criticism, it is that it falls short by not explaining why anyone in their right mind would choose to buy into this biblical nonsense in the 21st century. Though as a Realist, I think CNN deserves kudos for letting this opinion get published.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:34 pm |
  4. JC

    1 Corinthians 1:18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
    --------------------------–
    1 Corinthians 1:21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.

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

      @ JC

      Oh, thank you! I'm a fu_king believer now!

      Quit quoting fictional material - it serves no purpose here.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:36 pm |
    • awaysaway

      In order to defend a book, you are quoting from the book. That is a losing tautology. "I am right because I say I am right" – yep that is totally convincing.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:57 pm |
    • Noura

      what sort of gear did you use, were you self-sufficient? Do you have a blog or junaorl covering the trip and what gear you used in more detail? I am thinking of doing a tour through Scandinavia next year and am trying to work out what gear I'll need.

      March 1, 2012 at 9:36 pm |
  5. Iqbal Khan

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fGTp1Q162Gw&w=640&h=360]

    December 29, 2011 at 10:33 pm |
  6. Dink

    Nothing new. CNN is always attacking the Bible. I wonder what they're trying to justify.
    I also wonder why they never attack the Koran.

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

      It's not Muslims, but Christians who are in our country denying equal rights to others and trying to force their religion on others. Try again.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:35 pm |
    • ashrakay

      You obviously haven't clicked on any of the other stories in the belief section. They even have a story about how the Twilight movies are examples of god's love. Usually CNN's belief section is a total god o-rgy.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:36 pm |
    • Asklepios417

      "I also wonder why they never attack the Koran"

      Who never attacks the Koran ?

      Prominent atheists like the recently deceased Christopher Hitchens have nothing good to say about Islam.

      Author Sam Harris, a very prominent atheist ("Letter to a Christian Nation") calls Islam a cult of death.

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

      Observer. How are Christians denying anyone their rights? And 2, you do understand that Christianity can't be forced on anyone right? It is by definition, a choice.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:45 pm |
    • PleezThink

      No answer Observer?

      December 29, 2011 at 10:55 pm |
    • RSiebel

      PleezThink & Observer. I don't know about this Country, but definitely Religion (Christianity) is imposed/forced/brainwashed/convinced on some/many people who are week/poor/with-health-problems in most of the Poor and developing countries. I know one one case (in my own family) where this person(XY) was suffering from curable disease, but was suffering from for a long time as there was no access to modern ("English" or Western) medicine in our village. XY is uneducated and a simple person. Then came the first Doctor & the Nurse who started treating XY. This Person (XY) was first treated with ineffective/Low Dose/expired western medicine which really didn't help that much to cure her(XY) disease. Then the NURSE introduced XY to the Bible (and Christinaty) and the insisted XY to practise Christinity and see if her disease was cured after following the Bible/God. XY decided to give it a try as her Nurse insisted. And, from then onwards XY got good dose (& the Right) medicine for her disease. Miracle! Her (XY) disease is cured and XY started to believe that she was touched by GOD and so she was cured now. Later, XY enjoyed many financial/material/other benefits (from Church) and XY thinks that it all happening because of her conversion and following new religion. (it was the Money and Material Goods did the trick here, as we know it. But, If we see the Big-Picture it all a dirty game played by a few individuals.)
      I am not not against Christianity. But I am against such Religious-Conversions. This is a true story happened in my village. This incident is the proof for me and its proved for me. You don't have to believe me if you don't want to.

      December 30, 2011 at 12:06 am |
    • RSiebel

      PleezThink & Observer. I don't know about this Country, but definitely Religion (Christianity) is imposed/forced/brainwashed/convinced on some/many people who are week/poor/with-health-problems in most of the Poor and developing countries. I know one one case (in my own family) where this person(XY) was suffering from curable disease, but was suffering from for a long time as there was no access to modern ("English" or Western) medicine in our village. XY is uneducated and a simple person. Then came the first Doctor & the Nurse who started treating XY. This Person (XY) was first treated with ineffective/Low Dose/expired western medicine which really didn't help that much to cure her(XY) disease. Then the NURSE introduced XY to the Bible (and Christinaty) and the insisted XY to practise Christinity and see if her disease was cured after following the Bible/God. XY decided to give it a try as her Nurse insisted. And, from then onwards XY got good dose (& the Right) medicine for her disease. Miracle! Her (XY) disease is cured and XY started to believe that she was touched by GOD and so she was cured now. Later, XY enjoyed many financial/material/other benefits (from Church) and XY thinks that it all happening because of her conversion and following new religion. (it was the Money and Material Goods did the trick here, as we know it. But, If we see the Big-Picture it all a dirty game played by a few individuals.) This is a true story happened in my village.

      December 30, 2011 at 12:07 am |
  7. marie vasqu

    God never changes he is always perfect and can not except anything less than perfection he is also loving merciful and forgiving. however the author is wrong about the Bible. The Bible is Gods plan of Grace through the death of Jesus on the cross the forgivness of sins as he was perfect and the reconciliation to a perfect holy unchanging God that loves us and will never accept sin. Jesus is what the Bible is about nothing else he is returning in judgment and i for one know that wht the Bible says contrasted to what goes on around me can not be denied as truth.

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

      You are right on!!! These Godless liberals are showing how dumb and shallow they really are.
      Liberals are haters and unwilling to think outside the box.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:41 pm |
    • nominal

      Romney, our would be future president, believes in some garbage based on egyptian cuneiform tablets (interpreted by Joseph Smith – before they could actually translate the writings. Guess what? It was accounting of some debts, not holy scripture!!!).

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

      @TD – for goodness sake. You believe in Christianity because your parents indoctrinated you. I am afraid it is you who cannot think outside the box that your upbringing put you into.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:51 pm |
    • Asklepios417

      "Jesus is what the Bible is about nothing else"

      Well I hate to tell you, but Jesus didn't even understand the Bible.

      He may have been history's greatest narcissist, but he lacked elementary Biblical knowledge.

      For example...

      Jesus set out to fulfill Zechariah 9:9:

      "Behold, your king is coming to you,
      humble, and mounted on a donkey,
      and on a colt, the foal of a donkey"

      Scholars of the Hebrew Bible recognize this kind of poetic prophecy: the third line of the text restates what is said in the second line. This is called “synonymous parallelism”—where two lines of poetry say basically the same thing in different words.

      But Jesus and his followers did not understand this poetic convention, and thought two different animals were being spoken of..

      In Matthew, Jesus’ disciples procure two animals for him, a donkey and a colt; they spread their garments over the two of them, and Jesus rode into town straddling them both (Matthew 21:7). It’s an odd image, but Matthew made Jesus fulfill the prophecy of Scripture quite literally."

      Bart Ehrman, "Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don't Know About Them) "

      December 29, 2011 at 10:53 pm |
  8. Anton

    Wow! It seamed, as a surprise, that the author's treatise was deconstructive of the Christian narrative, but alas in-the-end, was contrived.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:32 pm |
  9. nominal

    The Bible is nothing but a pathetic little piece of bad literature. Religion is not based on reason, logic, evidence, facts, and probability. What is it based on? Not much at all – the only thing that remains is creative story writing. But JK Rowling and others are so much better at it!

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

      I'm not a Christian either, but the fact that you prefer Harry Potter over the bible really says something about your intelligence, or lack thereof.

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

      Drew – only a fool would prefer the Bible.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:40 pm |
    • Drew

      Really? You'd prefer a trashy little tome of mass-culture to one of the most influential metaphysical treatises ever written?

      December 29, 2011 at 10:44 pm |
  10. Asklepios417

    The one and only argument if favor of Christianity is the pragmatic one given by Voltaire and by George Washington:

    That if the common man believes in its teachings, he's less likely to break the law and commit crimes against his neighbors.

    But opening the pages of the Bible to learn about real history or real science, would be so silly that it should only be done in a comedy film.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:31 pm |
  11. Actually read your bible

    One of the best articles I've read recently in support of non-belief. The author is correct in the information that he provides about the time-frames of when the Bible was written and the transitional tone of its primary deity character. But the problem is, that all this does is support the fact that the Bible is a human conceived and written/repeated/translated book. Therefore it reinforces the lack of a god figure behind all of it. Read you Bible with an eye toward studying what it ACTUALLY says, and also learn a little something about the actual ancient time periods the Bible was written in. An honest, and intelligent, conclusion is that the Bible is a very human creation – no God required (because ancient humans created him too).

    December 29, 2011 at 10:30 pm |
  12. Phil

    @ Bob

    If you like the "Religion. It's like history class, without the facts". - you can get that on a shirt or bumper sticker. It's not original material...whoever thought of it was brilliant though.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:30 pm |
  13. † is THE way.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:30 pm |
    • Answer

      Certainly .. and staking yourself to it with a stake between the eyes for added effect.

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

      Really? A mid-evil torture device is the way? That's exactly what you just said.

      Open your eyes to reality and have a relationship with it instead of a fictional character that will never exist.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:33 pm |
  14. Dee2010

    It sounds like former Bishop Spong has started his own religion. The nonsense he spouts cannot be inferred from reading the Bible. His reasoning is that God must be the way I think he is, therefore the Bible doesn't mean what it says. Those who are non-believers are, at least, sincere in their beliefs about the Bible. Spong is a wolf in sheep's clothing.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:30 pm |
    • Aneriz

      Agreed.

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

      He chooses not to embrace hate, persecution, killing and genocide. That is normally a good thing. Why do you see it as acceptable? Because "your God" says so? Then your God is unacceptable.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:41 pm |
  15. Jon

    Of course CNN rolls out a bible "expert" who denies virgin birth, and Christ's resurrection. I sort of thought that Jesus was the basis of Christianity, but then again I'm not an expert.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:30 pm |
    • ------

      obviously

      December 29, 2011 at 10:36 pm |
    • Aneriz

      There is no Christianity without Christ.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:41 pm |
    • awaysaway

      You're not even an amateur

      December 29, 2011 at 10:41 pm |
    • Mishiko

      Carol Thank you for your addition. I alepcielsy relate to forgiving those who do not have the ability to be positive at this time. This season can be a time of sorrow for many.

      March 3, 2012 at 9:20 pm |
  16. Pentecostal

    This article was clearly written by a humanist whom has obviously not experienced the results of obeying the gospel of Christ. His attempt to reduce the Holy Scripture to mythical commentary is a waste of his time to write this and publish it. He seems to have either forgotten, or purposely ignored the most important and significant component of the word of God ... and that would be God Himself. The abilities of man, the rhetoric, the memory, and the historical accuracy that man is able to remember or hand down thru generations, is of no consequence ... God Himself, His divine intervention, and His divine protection of His Word transcends the limits of our humanity. You may get mad at the mathematician and you can disagree with him all you want, but two plus two still equals four. And this man can write whatever his heart desires, but the truth of God still stands, whether it is believed by one, none, or millions. I invite him to experience New Testament salvation, and only then will he begin to have a comprehension of God's Word and His Spirit. Try again Mr Spong. Meanwhile I will lift you in prayer. Every tongue shall confess, whether that be now, or in the judgment to come. My choice is now. Jesus Christ is Lord.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:30 pm |
    • awaysaway

      Absolute gibberish.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:42 pm |
  17. Chris Carlson

    Dear CNN,
    Now that you have allowed Mr. Sponge to share his opinion, I would hope that you will allow a rebuttal from a history scholar.

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

      What would such a history scholar say, something that pleases you?

      December 29, 2011 at 10:35 pm |
    • Choad

      An honest one would say that the bible's all b.s., too.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:40 pm |
    • awaysaway

      I think he gave the historical perspective. The bible is basically nonsense as a work of fact or an account of history but you can glean some lessons to live by.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:46 pm |
  18. NSL

    Have you people ever read the Old Testament in its original language instead of a translation of a translation and see what it actually says? Have you people ever read the ancient Hebrew text of the first five books of Moses and immediately realized that it was clearly written by multiple authors and clear had an editor, actually most likely editors? Have you people ever read the text in its original form to see just how many conflicting passages there are in it, and how multiple passages telling such stores as the creation of Eve tell of totally different creations, so different they have hugely different consequences and effect on beliefs? Have you ever read the original Greek of the New Testament to see what it actually says?

    I thought not, for if you had you wouldn't be making such idiotic absurd statements, and be so intolerant of people not exactly like you.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:29 pm |
  19. DCE

    If this man claims the Bible has even a shred of inaccuracy, he doesn't get my attention.

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

      It's full of errors, contradictions, hypocrisy and nonsense beside the morals.

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

      So for you, the bible IS god. God is contained in an old book. How spiritual of you

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

      @ DCE

      The bible is a work of fiction. There is some good common sense material for the average person - but for the most pa rt, the book is full of crap with tons of contradictions.

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

      You mean a talking donkey is accurate???

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

      @DCE

      Do you understand how ignorant your stance is?

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

      Hi Brett. If there is a God, you don't think that he could make a donkey talk?

      December 29, 2011 at 10:37 pm |
  20. KansTroy

    I have the same theories for years. My History Professor in college pionted out the fact that the story of Jesus was written so long after his crucifiction. Just the fact that the story was written back when so few things were gave the story power. But before that it was told around campfires much like we watch TV. The story teller could not help but ad his own modifications to make the story he was telling better. Seriously, If someone told such a story now days even the most devout christian would not have the faith to believe it.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:29 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.