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. John

    Religion is merely a form of sociopathy in disguise, for it recognizes the inevitability of engaging in sin without having to take ultimate responsibility for it and the act of forgiveness but the doorway back to the front of the line.

    January 5, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
  2. RudyV

    I love "listening" to debates like this one. Hell, if it weren't for Constantine (or historical figures like him), you'd all be offering donations and propitiations to Zeus or Rah or some other 'magic' god in the sky!! For all I know, you all subscribe to Maimonides' teachings as well as his "Guide to the Perplexed". It's too bad that religious thought, philosophy or teachings never include admonishments regarding 'critical thinking'.

    January 5, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
    • o.k.

      Its funny that you don't understand the fallacy in your argument. Your reference to Constantine in no way diminishes God's existence. God uses individuals to do great things. You could have easily said Paul or John or Peter or Jesus or named any of the old testament prophets or Moses or Abraham or Noah, etc. Where would the civil rights movement by without Mr. King. Would we still be in the dark without the help of Mr. Edison? The fact that Constantine accepted Christianity is as much proof (if not more so) of God's existence than his non-existence.

      January 6, 2012 at 11:49 am |
  3. SDSU

    I'm in shock... is this a serious article? This must be a joke. "Every Biblical scholar recognizes" that the bible is wrong? Excuse me? I have yet to meet a Professor or Biblical scholar who thinks that the Bible is unreliable, and I am a graduate of San Diego State's Religious studies department, which is extremely liberal.
    No person with even basic intelligence or education can take any claims of this article seriously, unless out of a desperate need to believe them for personal reasons, like the author apparently does.

    January 5, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
  4. Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Let me point out one irony here. We are in the midst of a presidential election campaign in which one of the candidates, Mitt Romney, is accused of not being a Christian because he is a Mormon. Yet I can attest that Romney, like othe Mormons, believes deeply in the essential truth and accuracy of the Bibleas the Word of God, and in the reality of the miracles of Christ's resurrection and ascension into heaven.

    On the other hand, we have a man in Bishop Spong who was a leader of the Episcopal Church who is routinely assumed to be and accepted as a "Christian", even though he believes that much of the Bible story is essentially fictional, especially the part aboout Jesus being physically resurrected and being seen, and felt, by ordinary people.

    Any standard that calls Spong a Christian and Romney NOT a Christian is one that discounts as unnecessary actual faith in the reality of Christ as the Son of God and belief that the Bible testimony is true. Mormons stand alongside those who really believe in the Bible and its teachings about morality. They are allies of all Christians in affirmiing the truth of Chrsit as the Savior of mankind. Our theological differences do not reach those truths, and should not divide us when we need to unite in defending the Bible's morality.

    January 5, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
  5. Raymond Takashi Swenson

    The beautiful evolutionary progression of Christianity as an oral tradition is ruined by the inconvenientnly early letters of Paul, which were clearl; written no later than 45 to 60 AD and contain the explicit affirmaiton of the most startling claims about the resurrection of Jesus and his appearing to literally hundreds of people after his resurrection, including Paul, which was the entire reason for his conversion from a persecutor of Christians into a missionary.

    Exactly how Bishop Spong figures that neither Abraham nor Moses actually wrote down any of their experiences with God is puzzling. It is not like there was some objective written record from 1800 BC which attests that Abaham, son of Terah, was "like, totally illiterate. I asked him to read something, and he was incapable." How do you get to such certainty in the total absence of any objective evidence?

    Clearly, Bishop Spong's idea of the ideal God and the ideal Bible are so inconsistent with the real Bible and the real God who is described there that he has adopted a paradigm that lets him edit the Bible the way Thomas Jefferson did. Those inconvenient bits–snip snip!–are gone and don't have to trouble us anymore.

    I do not doubt that the current available texts of the Bible are less than a perfect copy of the original texts as written by their authors, and there are rteferences in the Bible to books that are missiing from the present compilation. But the more we find older texts, the more we discover the basic integrity of the Bible we have. The Dead Sea Scrolls gave us a Hebrew Old Testament that was a thousand years older than the medieval Hebrew manuscripts that were used to make the King James Bible. Yet the great majority of the text was the same.

    Indeed, it appears that in the New Testament, it is the most miraculous events–specifically the resurrection and the visions received by Peter and Paul–that are most well attested in the manusripts, and are most borne out by the simple historical facts of Christianity. It is presumptuous of Bishop Spong to think he can edit out the commandments of God.

    January 5, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
  6. o.k.

    I'm not sure if Spong still believes God exists (former priest–what does that mean now?). If he does believe God exists, does he believe God is unable to get his Word out? That God is incapable of making sure the oral history remains correct through multiple generations? The Bible wasn't meant to be "man's word" thus capable of deceit and error. If we are to believe God exists, and that he loves us, surely he would be capable and loving enough to make sure we all get the correct information.

    January 5, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
  7. Greg

    The author claimed that neither Jesus nor any of his disciples were able to speak Greek. This is absurd. It is a widely recognized historical fact that Israel during the time of Jesus was a tri-lingual country (Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic). Even in Galilee, a Jew would need to be able to speak Greek in daily life. Even after Latin became more prominent, many of the ancient archaeological remains including synagogues are filled with Greek inscriptions. I am in Israel at the moment, and I continually see Greek inscriptions all over the place.

    January 5, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • Charles Zuver

      Sorry, but Bishop Spong is one of the most revered scholars of the bible. I'll stick with his interpretation

      January 5, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
  8. k

    God speaks to the whole humanity through His book Quran..

    “Proclaim, He is the One and only GOD. The Absolute GOD. Never did He beget. Nor was He begotten. None equals Him." [112:1]

    “They even attribute to Him sons and daughters, without any knowledge. Be He glorified. He is the Most High, far above their claims.” Quran [6:100]

    “The example of Jesus, as far as GOD is concerned, is the same as that of Adam; He created him from dust, then said to him, "Be," and he was.” Quran [3:59]

    “…anyone who murders any person who had not committed murder or horrendous crimes, it shall be as if he murdered all the people. And anyone who spares a life, it shall be as if he spared the lives of all the people....." Qur'an [5:32]

    Most exalted is the One in whose hands is all kingship, and He is Omnipotent.The One who created death and life for the purpose of distinguishing those among you who would do better. Quran [67.2]

    Subsequent to them, we sent Jesus, the son of Mary, confirming the previous scripture, the Torah. We gave him the Gospel, containing guidance and light, and confirming the previous scriptures, the Torah, and augmenting its guidance and light, and to enlighten the righteous. Quran [5:46]

    Thanks for taking time to read my post. Please take a moment to clear your misconception by going to whyIslam org website.

    O people of the scripture, do not transgress the limits of your religion, and do not say about GOD except the truth. The Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, was a messenger of GOD, and His word that He had sent to Mary, and a revelation from Him. Therefore, you shall believe in GOD and His messengers. You shall not say, "Trinity." You shall refrain from this for your own good. GOD is only one god. Be He glorified; He is much too glorious to have a son. To Him belongs everything in the heavens and everything on earth. GOD suffices as Lord and Master. Quran [4:171]

    What is Islam in few lines is something everyone deserves to know, it is to believe and obey only one God. Every time humanity deviated from this path, God sent down His of prophets (Noah, Ibrahim, Mosses Jesus and Mohammed were among thousands) who carried this single message to the whole humanity (And they all had the highest moral standards). That is the message of Islam.

    January 5, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  9. scrollman

    What if...a quantifiable truth that directly contradicts current mythology were discovered? My novel, The Fallujah Scrolls addresses that scenario. Read the synopsis on Amazon.

    January 5, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
  10. Myto Senseworth

    People wrote the books of the bible and the Catholic church decided which books to keep. I see it as a poorly written history book with some make believe mixed in.

    January 5, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
  11. Aezel

    Biggest biblical myth: That anything in the Bible is even remotely accurate or real.

    January 5, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
  12. jobeycarl

    I rest my case!!!

    January 5, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
  13. The Woof

    He lost me at his description read, "a former Episcopal bishop". Is he still a bishop of any type? And if not or if so what has happened in his life that has made him reverse everything that he has preached in his time as a religious teacher?

    January 5, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
    • RogDav

      Former = Retired He is not saying anything different now. Read any of his books. He has an inspiring knowledge of the Bible

      January 5, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
  14. Mike from CT

    hopefully didn't get paid for this

    "That is absolutely not so, and every biblical scholar recognizes it."
    That is absolutely not so. Nice to not name names but over generalize

    "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?
    1. Yes
    2. What does "at least as history is understood today" mean
    3. Way to not answer the question for your readers

    "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."

    Bull Moses is clearly the author of most of the first five books and docu.ment hypotisis has long been put to shame

    "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."

    All of the NT was written before 90, the earliest being about 45 AD (1 corinthians)

    Can I get a job at CNN to randomly make stuff up?
    Can you find no one better with 10% unemployment

    But congrats you got 53 pages out of it and probably a lot of ad hits

    January 5, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • backup666


      Your tiny Christian mind will not let you comprehend the words of Spong's blog. Yes, Spong did state, "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." Which means the crucifixion occurred around 30 A.D. if you would do the math. Your rambling don't make any sense, "All of the NT was written before 90, the earliest being about 45 AD (1 corinthians)," in your account, this places all the NT being written 15 years and later after the death of Jesus. Please unplug yourself from Matrix and get a life.

      January 5, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • Mike from CT

      Backup I don't understand your point and thank you for understanding mine. All scripture was written within the first century what is the issue.

      Peter spoke some Greek but had scribes to write 1 Peter to the gentiles. What is the issue?

      Spong is saying 1 Corinthians was not until 70, and then does not back the statement up.

      What about the other three points?

      Please provide

      January 5, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • backup666


      If the bible was written either in the 1st century or 40 to 70 years after the crucifixion, it is still not accurate and that's Spong's point. If Moses clearly authored the first five books, how did he write his own death? If the immaculate conception is true, then why does Matthew start with the genealogy of Joseph? These are just a few questions that you might want to ask yourself and maybe research them. There are many more contradictions and errors in the bible. I feel that God, if there's a God, would had sent US a perfect book. The bible is not perfect.

      January 5, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
    • Thom

      @Mike from CT and @backup666. Spong was saying that the Gospel narratives, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were written from AD 70 to 100, not all of the New Testament, which is pretty accurate for even a conservative scholar.

      @backup666, in case you misunderstood Mike was trying to say that many portions of the New Testament, which is comprised of Gospels, letters (epistles), a history, and a book of prophetic literature, were written before AD 70, specifically Paul's letters. Those are different from the gospel accounts.

      January 5, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • Mike from CT

      @Thom, thanks for clarifying our positions

      @Back, re-read the original post I said MOST of the five books.

      As for genealogy, Matthew who targeted the Jewish audience would write the genealogy from Joseph in a male denominated society.But you can follow your own advice and research Jewish culture and not try to put it in a western context.

      Saying well I would have done it different, doesn't make it errant.

      Finally, what bases do you have for how God would act and what he would and would not do for us?

      January 6, 2012 at 9:34 am |
  15. Pete

    Quite the apologist.

    January 5, 2012 at 11:06 am |
  16. Steve M

    The focus of the life of Jesus was "exhibiting compassion and being compassionate as God is compassionate", this is truely being perfect. Instead of trying to be pure, and holy, and discriminating against the poor, the maim, those with defects, not washing hands before eating, afraid to eat with "sinners –the impure" , Jesus says reach out your arms and embrace these because God loves them, and if He loves them, do as He does. Just because a person doen't agree with the chronology of the Bible (when events happened or who all wrote it) doesn't mean the message is not true. God doesn't need a "pure" church congregation, he wants congregations where all are welcomed, all sinners-the impure, and will be embraced and loved because God loves them.

    January 5, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • EnjaySea

      Fascinating that this deity whose existence has never been established is also so familiar with you that you can tell us what he thinks. I'm gonna stick my neck out here and guess that you're putting words in this character's mouth, and that you don't known and can't know what it thinks without first knowing that it exists.

      January 5, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  17. StalkerJamfo

    I won't get into specifics and fan the flames except to say almost everything this guys says is completely wrong. Study for yourself. Seek truth and ye shall find.

    January 5, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • HellBent

      So, he's wrong, but you won't give us any evidence or reasoning. Thanks. I feel so enlightened now. *eye roll*

      January 5, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • EnjaySea

      "Ye shall find" huh? When were you born, 1611?

      January 5, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • Yeah

      I agree with HellBent – please provide your proof that the author is wrong. I have sought and found that most of what he wrote is true, especially with respect to the timelines of the gospels.

      January 5, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • Ryan

      Well StalkerJamfo, I agree with you. He says a lot of half-truths about lots of things which gets difficult because when someone says that he's wrong, and you go look up what he's saying he still seems right, but it says right at the end of the article, "The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Shelby Spong." This is just this guy's opinion and according to the Bible, he is saying things that are contradictory... 2 Timothy 3:16 says that all scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness. The things he said have the feel that he's denying the divine nature of the Word of God.

      And you can read the Bible literally without literally believing every single word that is in the Bible. Just because it says all those things he listed, does not mean we are supposed to do everything. If you haven't read for yourself the Bible, then just do it. You don't even know what I'm saying is true until you open the book up yourself and read what God left us.

      And what's wrong with wives being obedient to their husbands? Especially in the context in Ephesians 5:21-24 for the wives and then Ephesians 5:25-33 for the husbands. 5:25 says "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her", and 5:28 says " In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies..." I'm pretty sure plenty of wives would be obedient to their husbands if they knew their husbands loved them unconditionally and would die for them if it came to it.

      Just please read the Bible for yourself. Try to read it without a negative agenda and you'll find that people have been skewing it for a long long time. It's really there to connect you with God who created you and help you live the best life you have the capacity to live.

      January 5, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
  18. Scott

    More blabber from a liberal theologian....if you don't believe why are you in the ministry?

    January 5, 2012 at 8:34 am |
    • Yeah

      It's not that he doesn't believe – it's just that his belief isn't blind. He uses the reasoning mind that god gave him.

      January 5, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • Ryan

      @Yeah, his 'belief' is why everyone is so upset with Christianity today. It's because people teach a false doctrine and then people are lead to believe that that is who God really is and what the Bible really says out of context. It's I agree with you Scott, it's tough to see someone like this (John Shelby Spong, a FORMER Episcopal bishop of Newark, New Jersey) in ministry or still 'teaching'. People need to read the Word and critically think about it for what it's trying to say, not attack the Bible because someone else said a few things were wrong. Hear-say is destroying the original development of opinions and people need to not be lead down ANY path that they have not chosen to walk themselves.

      Be careful who you follow.

      January 5, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • rick

      Ryan: And you know who "God really is" how?

      January 5, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  19. Edwin

    Shut up! Wolf in sheep's clothing.

    January 4, 2012 at 9:45 pm |
  20. George

    Waited long enough. This never got interesting. I'm disappointed, but not surprised.

    January 4, 2012 at 8:54 pm |
    • Small 'c' christian

      Sorry, George. Some of us apparently tried to help the fundies see the error of their ways, but as usual, circular logic was always their fallback position and there are some who simply will not listen.

      January 4, 2012 at 11:31 pm |
    • Mike from CT

      But then again everyone who believes in a highest authority "falls back" to circular logic.

      Go ahead try it. Explain why rationalism is what should drive us without using rational arguments?

      Or Empiricism without appealing to the senses

      January 5, 2012 at 3:28 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.