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.
I have a series of questions for Christians here. I was hoping for some answers, and I would prefer logical explanations please.
1. If God is infinitely powerful, how can anything finite be made in his image? And what does that mean? What exactly that “we are made in his image?”
2. If God wants us to be Christians then why are there so many other religions? Also, does it matter which denomination you pledge your sole to? What about Mormons, Baptists, Jehova’s Witness? And what’s with all the factions? If one denomination is right, then why is there a need for so many?
3. What about people who've lived before Jesus? Are they doomed to spend eternity in Hell for not picking a religion that didn't exist at their time of existence?
4. What about people born in the Middle East? Most people follow the religion they were either born into or that is part of their ethnicity. The odds are good that if you were born in Saudi Arabia you’d be a Muslim. Very few people actually explore other religions (sadly).
5. Why does someone deserve to go through the pain of being burned alive for all eternity for not picking one religion out of many? All religions have equal proof or lack thereof for their claims. It reminds me of those guys on the streets who have the three cups on a table and one of them has a ball underneath, and you have to pick the cup with the ball. The only difference is that instead of 3 cups you have dozens of religions, and if you pick the wrong one, then you have to suffer pain equal to being burned alive for all eternity?
6. Also, why is it justifiable to burn someone alive for all eternity for not picking the right religion? Have you seen someone burned alive? I have. It’s horrifying? Think about it: 999,999,999,999,999,999,999,999,999,999,999,999,999,999,999,999,999,999,999,999,999,999,999,999,999,999,999,999,999,999,999,999,999,999 millennia isn’t even 1% percent of eternity. Hitler was evil, but people only suffered for years under his wrath, not even for one millennia did he cause such suffering? I guess God is more cruel than Hitler if this is true.
7. If God is infinitely powerful why does he have such petty emotions such as jealousy?
8. Why wouldn’t God–who is infinitely intelligent value the intelligence of those who don’t believe in things that have no evidence? It is impossible to know if Christianity is the one true religion, so why would he punish those with such critical thinking skills, and reward the sheep?
9. Also, what kind of loving God would make people just so they would get on their knees and worship him? It sounds kind of narcissistic to me.
10. Why is it that so many followers of Christ killed so many innocent people throughout history? If they were being inspired and led by the spirit and love of Christ, would they have done such unspeakable acts? Christians are guilty of the Dark Ages, the Crusades, the cultural destruction of all tribal spiritual practices of Europe, North America, and South America, and the genocide of North and South America.
11. How can you trust the King James Bible that was made at the turn of the 17th century? With so many interpretations, language transfers, various books being denied or accepted by flawed powerful leaders of the church who had an agenda for power, and had others killed for standing in the way of their conquest. How can you trust a selection of stories that have been carefully selected by questionable people, and have been tinkered with and manipulated by powerful people for over a thousand years? Remember when your teacher would have you play that game where the students were in a circle. Someone would say something, the message would get passed around, and by the time the message went to the tenth person the message became something completely different?
Maybe I missed something in my thoughts and analysis? Please provide answers, or perhaps provide some other good questions to ask Christians.
Thank you for your time.
What does 42 mean Thomas?
Prepare to be avoided by the Christians who can't face the hard questions, dude.
And any answers will probably be the usual BS Christian-type answers and not honest ones.
Why not ask for proof? They love that one.
No answers. No surprise.
It's late (East Coast) and this thread has been going on all day.so the responders are predictably fewer. But to add to your list: why is God always He and His in most religions? Because men were "created" first would be the predictable answer, but why should an omnipotent deity have gender at all?
@el duderino... http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phrases_from_The_Hitchhiker%27s_Guide_to_the_Galaxy#Answer_to_the_Ultimate_Question_of_Life.2C_the_Universe.2C_and_Everything_.2842.29
I will try my best to answer your questions for you. I am no expert and will do my best.
1: God has infinite power, and in having he can create a human, walk on water, heal etc...
To be made in his image, We look like him. God appeared to Moses and spoke with him like a man face to face.
2: First it is good to understand that we all have our free agency. God lets us choose what we want to do. If we did not have agency we would not be happy. God wants us to be happy. So if someone wants to take a few good things and call it a church they are free and able to create a church. This is why the Lutheran church is named after Martin Luther. He had some fundamental things he wanted to change about the catholic church. So people started a church after him because they liked what he had to say.
3: God has provided a way for all people to be saved no matter when they were born or where. ( I hope this helps its 2am and I want to go to bed lol) Hell is only reserved for the worst of people who rebel agenst God. Every one will be punished for what they do not repent for. But all will receive a place in Heaven and will be happy in a place better than hear on earth. (I feel like you have honest questions so this is why I am taking the time to help) Most people know right and wrong and will try and do what they think is good. So people who lived before Christ or not in his area will be given a chance to accept him and follow his teachings of good. A better person will attain a higher degree of glory than say someone who did not do much good in there life (much is required when much is given)
4: 3 answers most of this question.
5: God will not burn anyone for all eternity. This was a way they could describe what it will feel like. In reality we will feel so much guilt and anguish for doing what we inside our self knew was wrong that we will feel so bad we did not choose to do a good thing. For instance if a person hurt another person. They could repent and try and make it right, or when they are judged they will know they did wrong and they will feel bad about what they have done In front of a loving Heavenly Father we will feel so bad that we have let him down in our test here on earth to do good.
6: You have a good point here. This question is answered above. Hitler will go through so much internal pain and anguish when he sees all the harm and hurt he has done it the world.
7: I am not sure I understand your question here. but you may be thinking about how he douse not like or gets jealous about people worshiping things other than him? Well its because it hurts us to worship meaningless things. He wants the best for us and to waist our time worshiping a movie star and trying to be like the movie star waists our life trying to be like someone who is living the way the world lives. When we could try and live like God and worship him. As a Mormon or member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day saints we do not count beads or say hail marry etc… we worship by trying our best to be like Jesus Christ. This is true worship.
8: God loves us to learn and improve our selves. This is why when ever I have a question or do not understand something about my church I am taught to learn for my self. Find the answer. If something is not sitting right with me find out why. Mormon’s push school and questions.
9: Yes I agree, you will not see anyone on there knee’s in our church. We pray on our knee’s at home out of respect.
10: Yes your point is very true. This ties back to free agency. And these men where not following what Jesus taught. There leaders where miss using the power they had to do evil things.
11: Yet again a very good point. As for the stories etc… the story is not so much important as what principle is being taught. The stories etc… are an added bonus. You know a lot about the bible and how it came to be, that is good. Because you see how there is a need for a book that is more pure and from God. This is why God delivered another book to his prophet Joseph Smith that is called The Book of Mormon and it is another testament of Jesus Christ. (oh wow its now 2:30 I really hope I am making sense answering your questions.) This book is the most correct book in the world and I know it is a correct translation from the prophets who wrote it about 600 ad to 400 bc. You can read it and find out for your self that it is the word of God. Evil works from the outside in. God works from the inside out. You can read this book, Pray to God and ask him if it is really from him and you will find out as I did that it truly is. And the God has restored his church back to the earth today called The church of Jesus Christ of Latter day saints.
As for your p.s. I have many great questions you would love and it has taken me years to find the answers to them myself. But if you read the book of Mormon(they are easy to find, it is one of the most printed books of all time, I think right behind the bible) Earnestly pray to know if it is true you will find as I did that God loves us and wants us to know him.
Thank you and good luck on your quest for truth. From one truth seeker to another I can tell you when you search for truth you find it.
For those of you who do not believe in God or abhor religion, why is it you feel the need to keep coming on message boards and disrespecting other people's faith? Such a spirit of anti-Christ. I'm calling it like I see it.
One cannot and must not respect idiocy. Ever.
Because belief in an invisible super hero in the sky without any evidence to support it is a form of insanity that we wish to cure for our future generations' success.
Ah...wash day.................nothing clean........
Yeah, but your rudeness and sarcasm are unwarrented. You not believing in something does not explain such a great motivation to be hurtful and disrespectful of another's faith. I'm not going to argue with you guys; I'm just pointing out that there's an intensity in most of these posts against the belief in God. If you're not a Christian, that's fine. But don't think for a second that these responses are not motivated by hate and disrespect, which should never be tolerated. Stop making excuses for foul behavior. Period.
Why do so many Christians have no respect for other people's "religious" rights and try to force their religion onto them in schools and other government locales? Why do so many Christians have no respect for the EQUAL RIGHTS of others? Why do so many Christians trash doctors and nurses as "murderers" when they are doing nothing illegal.
Answer those questions and maybe you'll see the answer to your own questions.
@Rags, Ignorance should be the enemy of us all
Because in the United States, Rags, we have this nifty thing called the Consti/tution, which guarantees us the right to free speech. Our founding fathers thought so much of this right that they made it the very first Amendment. Therefore, when non-believers are given the opportunity to comment on things that we find irrational, offensive, or just plain dangerous to the good of the nation as a whole, we will comment as we see fit.
Sorry if it hurts your feelings, but heck, religion has been hurting a lot of good people for a long time. Maybe you'll learn some empathy.
Once I ran out of toilet paper, so I had to use my Bible. I still keep a copy of the Koran as a backup in case I run out again.
Grow up and stop being so hateful.
Is the ink washable or permanent?
People growing up in different cultures under different religions believe that they were fortunate enough to be born into the true faith. When the primary reason your faith is the right one because that was how you were raised, any religion can be the "right" one. We accept what our parents and teachers tell us as children, and it is very hard to engage in critical thinking about those accepted beliefs. We look back at the myths of the Greeks and Romans, and enjoy them for the stories they are. Someday people will look back at the stories in the Bible in the same way.
That's why the religious brainwashing of children needs to be stopped.
How can all religions be the right one if some of them claim that they're the only right one, and all others are false? That's a paradox.
Faith , either you have it or you do not have it. This is what the bible represents to people. It doesn't matter if it is the truth or not if you have FAITH. This is a yes or no question. It is as simple as that.
Gullible. You either are or you aren't. It's that simple.
It is easy to understand why John Shelby Spong is a FORMER Episcopal bishop of Newark...need one say more? Oddly enough, science is discovering new modes which allow physics and the Bible to live in COMPLETE harmony. Why must people reject that which they cannot readily comprehend? I have no problem believing the Bible and don't feel like I have to understand it ALL to believe in Jesus Christ. When CNN continuously pumps these "articles" out, it almost makes you wonder if there is an ulterior motive behind such postings... Why must people continuously take jabs at the Bible when the New Testament preaches LOVE and COMPASSION? Do I have some questions? Sure I do...but that doesn't mean one cannot believe in the Gospel. -Peace
"science is discovering new modes which allow physics and the Bible to live in COMPLETE harmony" = what a bunch of nonsense!
There is this little thing called wiki: John Shelby "Jack" Spong (born June 16, 1931) is a retired American bishop of the Episcopal Church. He was formerly the Bishop of Newark.
He's retired, you idiot.
@Chris:” Why must people continuously take jabs at the Bible when the New Testament preaches LOVE and COMPASSION? “
Isn’t it a bit disingenuous to try and excuse the entire bible based only on the NT?
@Chris:” Why must people continuously take jabs at the Bible when the New Testament preaches LOVE and COMPASSION? “
Because it is not true
It’s doesn’t have much love or compassion for gays
Lots of different religions preach love and compassion and most Christians love taking jabs at them
Russ, you are confusing Communism and simple attempt to understand why religion exists (opiate like mental drug to escape reality). The two don't mix.
There is as much evidence for the existence of God as there is for the existence of the Great Pumpkin or the Tooth Fairy. Please do not comment about the bible unless you have read it. Deuteronomy 13:6, 8-15 reads as follows: "If your brother...or your son, or your daughter, or the wife of your bosom, or your friend...entices you saying, "Let us go and serve other gods...you shall kill him...you shall stone him to death..." Such a god is a murderous, maniacal, sadistic, genocidal fiend worthy not of worship but of hatred and rejection.
Blasphemy! How dare you defile the Great Pumpkin! You'll burn in the great Witch's cauldron for eternity!! The Great Pumpkin loves you. WWGPD?
The Catholics like to eat Jesus' flesh and blood. Cannibalism?
@ nominal: not a Catholic, but once Jesus taught on these things, 1000s stopped following him (end of Jn.6). Seems the Catholics are pretty close to the truth...
Jesus was a zombie and a necromancer. He loved raising people from the dead. Head shots are our only hope.
@ashkaray: zombies are the walking dead. Jesus raised a very few people back to life. They died again. But he was raised to permanent life, and promised all of his followers the same would happen if they trusted in what he did on their behalf (life/death/res), not their own works.
@Russ, Romans 8:11 "But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you." So it clearly states that he was dead and that a spirit raised him.
Matthew 27:52-53... "And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many." This says nothing about their deaths afterward.
Wanna try again?
i asked this question a few pages ago and no one replied i really would like an answer.......quick question for someone who is a devout christian and someone who studies the bible...in the bible it says that Judas took the silver and bought potters field and then he feel into a ditch where he died....in another part of the bible it says that he gives the silver to the Jewish clerics who then buy potters field, then he hangs himself....my question is who got the silver in the end, who bought potters field, and how did Judas die?
We really don't know if this even happened because the New Testament gospels weren't written until 70-100 years after Jesus's traditional death, by different people who never met him; people who spoke Greek, which Jesus did not understand.
thank you for the post because that answers how Judas died but it does not answer who got the silver and who bought potters field....any ideas on that?
@ Einstein: except that the authors display knowledge of Jerusalem prior to its widespread destruction in AD 70... and speak of things that were destroyed then as though they are still standing... (Jn.5, Pool of Bethsaida, for instance)
Thanks Russ that was hilarious. An excellent example of the torturous mental contortions Christian will go through in order to justify an obvious biblical contradiction
@Russ: “except that the authors display knowledge of Jerusalem prior to its widespread destruction in AD 70... and speak of things that were destroyed then as though they are still standing”... (Jn.5, Pool of Bethsaida, for instance)”
Of course, that was all part of the oral tradition they were using as a bases for their writings
The buddhist monks or shaolin monks in China invented Kung Fu....moved kung-fu fighting to the 'spiitual 'level. powerful punches. and kicks. die demons!
Read the article again. These truths should be for all who wish to live life more abundantly!
If you are coming on here for spiritual direction you have come to the wrong place. Check out the new book THE HARBINGERS.
If you are reading a blog to gain spiritual direction, then you probably aren't the sharpest tool in the shed in the first place.
I tried googling my way to spiritual enlightment, but all I found was p0rn.
Atheists are intellectually superior to people of faith, and ironically know more about religion. It takes intellectual courage to stand up against a monolith like the church. It's easy to conform and believe, which is why many believers tend to be intellectually lazy and weak.
Not their fault, they were brainwashed that way.
about the most ignorant comment i have seen here except for mine for even responding to your drivel.
Perhaps many believers are intellectually lazy, but not all. If you are seriously interested in rigorous dialogue with a believer, do a little research. If google doesn't work for you, ask me at biblicalmusing on blogspot.
The leading atheist and anti-religion societies are certainly superior and inspired. Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, Maoist China, Khmer Rouge-Cambodia. The intellectual might and activism required to create those societies–and CNN–are surely beyond those under the influence of religion. But, hey,
The best religion is that of the Aztecs. They would "sacrifice" their victims by ripping their hearts out, cut out with a stone knife (took a while) while alive, then chop them up, and cook and eat the flesh. They estimate about 10000 each ear. That included a bunch of Spaniards.
God told them so, that's why they did it.
proverbs 26:4,5 Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him.
5:Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.
More theologians, if they want to be taken seriously by 21st century thinkers, would be wise to emulate Bishop Spong's courageous example and ideas.
@ Horus: but Spong is admitting he doesn't believe the field is "theology" (the study of God) but is really "anthropology" (the study of humanity). And therein lies all the difference...
Thank you. Your comments reflect a refreshing sense of reason. True religion come from an internal core found in us all which needs neither magic nor miracles to promote it. Fairy tales are for children. Those who understand quietly seek without wearing religion on their sleeve. Religious zealots of all denominations are just that, zealots. Sadly their misguided pursuit of God is a center source of evil found in the world today. Even sadder, they are incapable of recognizing this to be so.
Religion, in my opinion, is a sort of mental opiate drug. It allows the believers to escape reality and create thier own.
Well, we all create our own realities.
@ nominal: how did that notion work out for Marx? didn't he kick his pregnant wife down the stairs? but I guess that's ok as long as you can say everyone else is on drugs...
what if it's not the opiate, but the mirror? Intervention is never a popular idea for the addict.
Russ, straw man much?
@ squelch: just tired of the same old Marxian straw man being thrown into the conversation. It's like people citing the Crusades. Stalin did as much if not more killing – but he wasn't going against his philosophical underpinnings. At least Christians are rightly called hypocrites when they do that...
@Russ, actually the straw man fallacy is a logical error and has nothing to do with Marx. Also, why limit yourself to the crusades? Killing in the name of religion is perpetual.
Russ, you are confusing Communism and simple attempt to understand why religion exists. The two don't mix.
@squelch: your religion is whatever you build your life around.
Biblically speaking, Christians are building their life around a God who gave his life to save his enemies. Even if you find Christians to be hypocrites, hopefully you see the inherent contradiction.
@nominal: so you don't think communism (and its anti-religious state) was a product of Marx?
@Russ "so you don't think communism (and its anti-religious state) was a product of Marx" You just replied to me saying that religion is anything one builds their life around (I do not agree with such a definition). Then, you go on to say that communism is anti-religion. How is that possible? Unless in the latter sense, religion means belief in the supernatural. In that case, that is a problem of equivocation. I am sure you can see the contradiction I just presented to you.
@ squelch: those are two different conversations. in my conversation with you, i was using 'religion' in the broader sense (as I defined it). in my conversation with 'nominal', i was using it as Marx did. i was not trying to equivocate; i was holding two conversations at once.
William Temple defined it this way: religion is what a man does with his solitude. how do you feel about that?
@Russ, I feel that the more arbitrary the meaning of a word can be, the less value they hold. I can understand the differentiation between the two distinctions you intended and I can be fine with that. Anyway, this conversation has become completely detached from the original topic, so, I will not follow this thread any longer.
@Russ, Intervention is difficult for the addict. It's funny that you say that because it's exactly what I think when I hear religious people jumping through hoops to justify beliefs that are beyond belief of any reasoning person. All I hear is, "this is out of context", "there really aren't inconsistencies", "you have to prove to me that god doesn't exist"... I've dealt with a lot of addicts in my time. Something they all share, is a flawed logic system and lack of personal responsibility.
The Bible was a very interesting read. But so are other great works of literature. I didn't believe it any more than the others.
“The Bible interprets life from its particular perspective; it does not record in a factual way the human journey through history.”
All histories are interpretive. None are purely factual.
He's not talking history as in Davy Crockett was at the Alamo. The Bible is more like the Disney version of the man, inspirational, but not to be taken as serious fact.