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.
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.
So I say this. God may kill anyone since all have sinned and all deserve death. (even kids like me) So why are we alive today. Because while God is just, He is merciful. "ALL have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God". God is ultimate and there is nothing above Him so neither are anyones opinion about Him above Him nor do they matter about him.
You're living in a fantasy world,kid.
Nocordoba, if that is the highest idea of God that your mind can conceive of, then may God appear to you just in that way. And may God appear to us all just in the way we have understood. Then God is not to blame if anyone's idea of God is horrific....and God appears horrific, since we have all wished our Gods to be as they appear to us.
Well said Nocordoba.
What an infantile author. I wrote clearer and more amusing scribbles when I was 12. Oh, and I'll bet my socks he's gay.
what is infantile about what he writes?
hmmm. based on your post, you seem to lack the erudition you claim to have.
And what if he is gay? Are you another hypocritical Christian that picks on gays?
did you take to name calling when you wrote those great dissertations at the age of 12 as you do now
Now why would the CNN censors not put up my comment? I didn't use any offensive language. I used the same words that Observer did. I wasn't being mean,,, unless you think that a differing opinion is mean. What gives?
Well he's made a fortune on his books. I don't think we've ever heard of you, dear.
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!!!).
John Smith was a convicted con man. always running fro the law
And Jesus wasn't a con man? They all were. Plus, at least John Smith actually existed. Jesus himself is a creation, written about about 80 years after his supposed death.
The Bible was rewritten/translated from its original language. That alone provides enough justification for one to question whether today's current version of the Bible is word-for-word factually true in its meaning and intent. Outside of that, it has long been thought (perhaps known) that the events described in the Bible took place years, perhaps decades, before they were ever recorded. In addition, the Catholic Church purposefully altered the text to suit their wishes (picking and choosing what to include from the Old Testament).
I honestly do not care whether the Bible is fact or fiction; It teaches great morals and directs people to live their life. That's right, it teaches you how to live YOUR life... not how others should live their's.
The whole idea is that the bible was written when God was young. As She has matured, She has outgrown the psychological crutches contained in it. Now God has realized the unity of all in all. No more God and Man, good and bad, heaven and earth. Its all one. OM
Projection on an industrial level.
Read 'The God Delusion' by Richard Dawkins. Incredible, honest, humbling, logical book, and 'spot on'!
It's OK. Not great. Dawkins is a boring writer.
Rubbish, pure and simple
Religion is a form of magic and magic is power without explanation.
Science is power with explanation.
I vote for science.
Bryce, the entire universe is a magic show. You hit the nail on the head. Its an very detailed projection from the cosmic mind. No creation ever happened, just like your dream world is not created, it is projected. So this world seems to be very real, like your dreams when you are in them, but as soon as you wake up, the memory fades. This world is beautiful and perfect, but a dream. Just like the little ripples on a hot road. When you approach them, they are never there, and suddently disappear.
Why...? Because he is thoughtful and intelligent? I am pretty sure he has much deeper understanding than you.
How silly. The bible is interesting reading but that's about it. Take miracles. Why so many? If god is perfect he would only need one miracle for all people for all time. Imagine a book that anyone could understand without interpretation, that 2 people with different languages could both read the same book and understand it, or that a blind man could read. 1 book available to anyone that sought the truth, that did not need interpretation, that could not be destroyed, that everyone agreed on what it's meaning was, now there's one perfect miracle if there's a god out there interested.
@ JH: interestingly enough, some would argue that as the most read book in history, the most translated & a culturally transcendent text (worldwide engagement), the Bible is what you are asking for.
John, ponder some things in the next few days. Is there such thing as light without dark? Love without hate? Health without sickness? Knowledge without stupidity? Or finally, Life without Death? No.
Anger abounds in these posts in regards to facts noted in the above text. You would of thought he stated that 'there was no God", yet he is only stating facts that we Christias must face when debating with non believers. Face it, the Bible can be confusing and needs to be studied, not just read. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John differ greatly in thier accounts of our Savior. So? My love for my God is not dependent upon others belief or disbelief. God is Love. We focus so much on the nonessential issues, that we foget what an incredible and awesome God we have. Now get over yourselves and start loving in a God like way. Harder then it seems. Peace
Bible doesn't need to be studied, it needs to be dumped.
Amyer, I liked your post but have a question. You write that you 'have' God. Can you elaborate?
I read the first 5 books of the bible. I was nauseated and revolted at the abhorrent morals and behavior of its god and his people.
According to those books Charles Manson did a pretty good job of behaving in a god like way
The fact that the Author of this story is part of the now Heritic Episcopal church makes his opinion null and void IMO.
Martin Luther was a heretic. Hope you're not a Protestant.
Martin Luther is rolling over in his grave at what that church has allowed to happen to it.
@ERussell:”Martin Luther is rolling over in his grave at what that church has allowed to happen to it.”
Yes, but he must be very happy at all the grief the Palestinians are giving to the Israelis (take a look at his book “ the Jews and their lies”)
Here we go again with CNN. They pull out a religious "expert" dressed as a priest and says nothing but liberal crap. This is why CNN is way down in the ratings on tv and Yahoo is the number one online news source.
Just curious, what qualifies as "liberal crap"?
actually, last week they had the guy who said that the basis of all great societies was christian faith. I would argue that was a bit crazier than this one, who simply states what most Christians who really study the bible know to be fact
Hi Squelch. I would say that liberal crap is defined as: Self-serving drivel backed by nothing more than the populare opinion of the elites; made up feel good stuff that advances an opinion solely supported by the flavor of the month.
Wanna see a Christian angry? Quote the Bible to them! Nothing makes them turn more colors than to read their own book back to them. Don't know why that is....
Let's hear some Brett.
Interesting. Must be making some "free speech" liberal CNN censor upset because all of my posts are missing.
There they are. They're back now. Hey Brett, you still there? Let's hear some quotes.
Any quotes yet Brett?
CNN: how about a debate between scholars from opposing viewpoints? at least then there'd be some accountability... and you would still get the ratings you're looking for
CNN should be ashamed of this obvious ploy to trivialize Christianity. Use a large font on the home page to ensure that the so-called "bibilical misconceptions" gets noticed. Then follow that up with the ramblings of an obviously liberal theologian who long ago convinced himself that he knows more than God. Exactly the mindless pap that plays to an anti-Christian pagan culture. Silly me--what did I expect? A genuine attempt to educate and inform? Get real. It is, after all, CNN.
The author became a bishop. You are a blogger. Wonder who knows more about the Bible?
@ Observer: how about Spong's boss, then, the Archbishop?
I'm not personally a fan of Rowan Williams, but even he finds Spong's scholarship suspect.
[take the dash out of ec-umenical – CNN edit necessary]
You know, I'm just about sick and tired of everyone attacking the Christian faith. Every other religion is free to believe in whatever they believe in. But when it comes to Christians, everyone has something to say against its unexplainable birth and clearly misunderstood origin. The United States is supposedly a place of religious freedom. Thank you brother for not allowing me that freedom.
Because the so called 'christians' are fu_king morons. They won't leave anyone alone. They're as bad as the momos and jojos.
What do you get when you cross a mormon with an atheist? Someone who knocks on your door with nothing to say.
Just because you have a right to practice your faith doesn't mean that others don't have a right to ridicule it
This is for Phil. Don't worry. You'll be "left alone" soon.
@Drew: you obviously don't know what religion freedom is. It is freedom to practice my religion without persecution. Honestly that's all those attacks are at their core.
@Phil: I admit some Christians are annoying and do go to people's houses. But not of all us believe in that. Just like not all Islamic people are terrorists.
Actually no criticism is not the same as persecution. Its called freedom of speech, not freedom to say only nice things about people.
Ok then, tell me how it's different. If I get on a website or TV program and say that all Jews are stupid, and they don't know what they are talking about because I have freedom of speech, how is that different from attacking their belief system?
I for one do not believe in the theory of creation. I believe in the evolution of man . I can only take the bible as a collection of great fables and stories which is basically what you have said in this article.
this comin from a fudge packer....
My spelling was on poorpuss, so now tha we are done attacking the english language as your souperior argument how about we arguuu about you're total absents of faith being an issue instead of my blinding faith. Can you spell check and grammer check me again? Please.