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. JD

    Iddn't it funny how all the believers in the Bible get all hot n' bothered when somebody points out what it actually SAYS. All Spong is doing is applying some incredibly basic logic (like the fact that stories often change when retold over hundred of years, and that the different Gospels do not agree on the events of the crucifixion) to the story and drawing his own conclusions. I actually don't agree with his conclusions, either. But it's refreshing to see a believer who is willing to take an honest look at the actual material, rather than forcing it to fit into his personal worldview.

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

      He's not a believer! as a matter of fact, he's worse than an atheist.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:51 pm |
  2. W.G.

    Opinions are like noses , everybody has one . John Shelby Spong forgets about the "Holy Spirit" and the ability of Him
    to teach us and guide us . While many of the stories MAY have been passed on "orally " Mr. shelby forgets that Hebrew
    was one of the first languages to have an alphabet . The dead sea scrolls differ very little from their more contempory
    writings because of scribes and the precise way they were taught to write . The greeks had scribes that were Jewish
    writing for people that did not speak Hebrew or Aramaic , so ? To say that the Gospels were NEVER written down
    before 100 A.D. is wishful to say the least . Christians could read and many people at the time of Paul wwho witnesses
    the miracles of Jesus were still alive at that time . Also for a Jew to give up his religion as did Peter and James and Paul
    and so on did , there must of been something pretty convincing . Such as the miracles Jesus performed .

    December 29, 2011 at 10:38 pm |
    • Bryce

      Ancient people were more comfortable with lies than not knowing. Science says it is okay to question and not know, religion says our knowledge is absolute.

      Ancients told tales of the stars being the campfires of the Gods. A beautiful interpretation that was absolutely wrong.

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

      Writing existed, yet noone wrote down that there was this awesome son of God walking around until decades after he died. Just get over the fact that Both the New and the Old Testaments are the words of MEN not something dictated by God. It was rewritten and edited over and over by men who twisted the messages into the rules that they wanted people to follow. They turned women into subhuman servants of men. There are great messages in the Bible, but they have been twisted and used to justify some of the most horrendous and inhumane mass murders and enslavements the world has ever seen.

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

      Wrong. The oldest alphabets date from around 2700 BCE, almost two thousand years before the Hebrew alphabet ()which is actually derived from the old Aramaic script) appeared.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:46 pm |
  3. steve-o

    Every Christian (or Muslim or Jewish) fundalmentalist is a fool, grasping a straws and fables. You people are the biggest threat to society. Home school your little ones, shelter them from reason and honesty. Raise them to think they are better than anyone.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:38 pm |
  4. Lydia

    This is an excellent article that is getting people to discuss it. Now if only some people would learn to have the discourse with civility then you would know they are truly Christian.

    But by attacking the author and claiming he doesn't know or is false or is stupid or any other hateful word described, is small minded of those critics.

    The point is to open the Bible and read it. You don't have to believe him. Check out the facts from different and varying sources. There are many good books out there from theologians and many touch on the same subjects.

    Open your minds, read about how books were printed or not. Find out how did the gospels come about and how they could have been written so many years after events occurred.

    Think about it? Try writing down by your own hand how difficult it is and what it must have taken to write such gospels without the pencils, pens, typewriters, printing presses, computers we are fortunate enough to have now?

    And then to carry the tablets or papyrus from one village to another on foot or cart exposing everything you have to the elements? When men and women only reached old age by 25-30?

    We ourselves lose books, magazines, diaries and these are items stored in protective homes and apartments. How did these gospels survive? And in which language did they originate in? Or languages?

    Even today if you tell a friend or family member a story, how it changes from one day to the next?

    So before each of the naysayers criticize this person for what they think are untruths, just try to think a little bit yourself how the Bible came into being? Better yet, go to a library and do some research. Not info from friends via the internet which is usually 99% wrong because someone changes the content to suit their needs but from reliable resources.

    Ask your minister, rabbi, priest and you'll find a very intelligent person who will guide you. Ask many questions and be prepared for all answers. No one is right or wrong but this article serves a larger purpose.

    It helps to open up discussion and perhaps we can learn from each other.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:38 pm |
    • Phil

      I have read the bible...from beginning to end. And when I put it down, I was an atheist at last!

      I'm a former catholic. I'm now much better off knowing there is not a god...there is no heaven, no hell - no anything. And I'm perfectly content and happy knowing that. I can now live my life without boundaries.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:42 pm |
  5. brett

    Those who believe a donkey can't talk obviously have never seen Winnie the Pooh.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:37 pm |
  6. majohns66

    It's sad to see an Episcopal bishop so messed up in his theology. Perhaps he should actually read his Bible.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:37 pm |
    • ellid

      Has it ever occurred to you that Bishop Spong may actually know more than the average televangelist or megachurch preacher? Or that he's actually read the Bible in the original Greek and Hebrew? Or that maybe, just maybe, he's right?

      December 29, 2011 at 10:47 pm |
    • Edsar

      Well said.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:48 pm |
  7. Remnant of God

    By Their Fruits ye Shall Know Them

    December 29, 2011 at 10:37 pm |
  8. NeilPeart


    December 29, 2011 at 10:37 pm |
  9. Jean

    Based on the responses, it seems that some people feel threatened by information that the Bible may not be 100% historically accurate. Why is that? Why is their belief in their God so dependent on that book? Could they not still believe without that Bible? It would appear not. Interesting.

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

      Well, being a Christian kind of requires believing the Chrisitan Bible is valid. Could one be a buddhist and believe the Buddah was a fraud? I don't require the Bible to be 100% accurate, but I do require the major aspects (e.g. the resurrection) to be held as so.

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

      So one needs belief in a resurrection in order to follow Christ and his ways? I wonder how Christ ever found disciples to follow him while he was still alive.

      December 29, 2011 at 11:09 pm |
  10. barriacade

    Wow. An Episcopal priest who doesn't believe the bible. How completely unshocking..

    December 29, 2011 at 10:36 pm |
    • Peppermint Patty

      He said it was the "reservoir of spiritual insight". How is that not belief in the Bible ? Just because he doesn't buy the Sunday School version, means nothing. Grow up.

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

      He does believe in the Bible, did you even bother to read the article? Believing in the Bible does not mean blindly picking and choosing passages in order to justify your own narrow minded wishes. You can study the history and know the true origins but still believe in the messages within it. And people who have educated themselves and studied and still believe have a much deeper connection than people who just blindly spout what they have been told to believe.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:49 pm |
  11. Matt

    I disagree and at the same time, in some sort of paradoxical sense, feel a certain agreement with this article. First off, the laws of the Old Testament, according to the major Jewish sect, Rabbinical Judaism (which undoubtedly has its flaws I may add), were also given with an oral law on how to practice the aforementioned laws that were written therein. So, in knowing this, there should be no doubt that many of the ideas that discuss the death penalty in the original scripture were meant more lightly than as they were written which is justified by a very lengthy discussion in the Babylonian Talmud. The same can be said about laws pertaining to just about anything else mentioned within the Old Testament which would void any exact literal interpretation. The problem I see, does not pertain to a great time difference within the books but the void within many sects of Christianity to see that the words of the Bible, or at the very least the Old Testament, are at times metaphorical and more extreme than actually intended. I can say, after a certain amount of study on the Talmud's interpretation of repentance, that man to man interactions greatly outweigh the interactions between man and God but are not always interpreted that way by many who claim to believe in the book. To conclude, the idea is that every word of the scripture, especially the Old Testament, is important but, however important those words are, the whole story is not understood in knowing just the words– one must also understand the connotation desired with each of the words therein.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:36 pm |
  12. meh

    Apparently this guy thinks the Bible's full of **it, why did he aspire to be a leader in a religion that's based exclusively on it?

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

      Extortion, power and control. That's all religion is based off of. There is no love for one another - it teaches us to hate those who are different than what we believe in.

      It's the longest running scam in history.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:38 pm |
    • sybaris

      You adeptly illustrate the flaw of religion...........that you have to remove logic and critical thinking to believe it.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:40 pm |
  13. payshentz

    Honestly there is really nothing to treasure in this book. As its misunderstandings have caused the world to live in fear of the unknown. An omniscient being would never attempt to communicate with humans in the ways depicted in the bible. I wrote a blog about what I think is the cause of all this misunderstanding.


    December 29, 2011 at 10:36 pm |
  14. Mikej

    Please this guy doesn't speak for me. His ideas are poo poo. Not good religion at all and not scholarly. Episcopal church is on the decline. Last one please lock the door.

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

      And which divinity school did you attend, pray tell? And how many times have you read the Bible in the original Greek and Hebrew? Come, tell us just how you know that Bishop Spong isn't "scholarly"!

      December 29, 2011 at 10:49 pm |
  15. Lou

    Amazing how every critic of this article resorts to Ad Hominem attacks on the author. If you feel slighted, why not turn the other cheek? Better yet why don't you address the main points of the article....

    December 29, 2011 at 10:35 pm |
  16. Funny Facts

    The biggest misconception about biblical texts is that god is real... He isn’t he's just the mythical monster they some use to run scared weak individuals the way that they want! Long before the Bible other "gods" were used in the same way just look at the big picture! You can live a honest and good life without someone telling you to, or at least some of us can…

    December 29, 2011 at 10:35 pm |
  17. NeilPeart

    Look, all you have to know is that MORTAL MEN, not some deity, conceived of and wrote ALL religious books, tomes, and manuscripts, including the Bible. Also, ethics and morality are not solely or exclusively originated from, predicated upon, or reliant upon religion. They can, and do exist independently thereof. Humans have this innate ability since birth called intelligence and logic, as well as love, empathy, and compassion (in most cases).

    December 29, 2011 at 10:35 pm |
  18. St Decker

    CNN is wrong again. Finding someone to put their point of view as fact. This is a black and white issue, not a grey issue.

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

      You're right. There obviously is no God. That's as factual as it gets.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:37 pm |
  19. Freethinker

    Before you vehemently defend the Bible, here're some of the things the priests/preachers never mention to you in Church:
    God's love?: "Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!" (Psalms 137:9)

    God will spreat s...t on your face if you don't glorify his name: "...Behold, I will corrupt your seed, and spread dung upon your faces, even the dung of your solemn feasts" (Malachi 2:2-3)

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

      @ Freethinker: glad you're reading so carefully. What if those are mirror statements... ways of expressing the depth of depravity of what we've already done to ourselves?

      December 29, 2011 at 10:39 pm |
  20. DanW

    I think Mr. Spong shows his hand when he asks "What kind of God would that be?" It's a bit presumptuous for any of us to make assumptions about the way God has to be. He's GOD! He has no obligation to be any particular thing to us. If Mr. Spong rejects parts of the Bible because he doesn't like to think of God in that way, he can certainly do so, but that bias makes the rest of his arguments suspect. Only the factual historical statements here should be taken seriously, and I don't have anywhere near the knowledge to know what in this piece is fact and what is not.

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

      but, somehow, you have reason to believe in your god, correct?

      December 29, 2011 at 10:38 pm |
    • Drew

      Fair enough, but does one really have to believe that everything in the bible is the word of god? You realize that the bible was compiled centuries after Christ died, by church leaders who chose which of the texts read by Christians of the time would be canonized? To claim that this editorial process was absolutely reflective of the word of god seems ridiculous

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

      And you Squelch have some reason to like the foods that you enjoy, and do the activities that enjoy as well. No explanation is needed here, DanW knows his God as do I, and you don't.

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

      Actually guys, I am not a believer, I was just responding to what I saw as a presumptuous statement by the author that indicated where he was coming from.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:50 pm |
    • Drew

      Fair enough, and I think you make a good point there

      December 29, 2011 at 10:54 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.