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. Confused in Cleveland

    Fr. José Gabriel Funes, S.J. (born January 31, 1963 in Córdoba), an Argentine Jesuit priest and astronomer, is the current director of the Vatican Observatory. He has a master's degree in Astronomy from the Universidad Nacional de Córdoba in Argentina and a doctorate from the University of Padua in Italy. He has also a bachelor's degree in philosophy from University del Salvador in Argentina and a bachelor's degree in theology from Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. A member of the Society of Jesus, he was ordained a priest in 1995. He joined the Vatican Observatory as a researcher in 2000, and was named its director on August 19, 2006 replacing Fr. George Coyne.

    January 6, 2012 at 8:46 am |
    • Lil Wayne has the HIV but thats still underwraps.

      The Vatican is worse than a public toilet.

      January 6, 2012 at 8:49 am |
  2. Confused in Cleveland

    George V. Coyne, S.J. (born January 19, 1933) is a Jesuit priest, astronomer, and former director of the Vatican Observatory and head of the observatory’s research group which is based at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona.
    Professor Coyne completed his bachelor's degree in mathematics and his licentiate in philosophy at Fordham University, New York City, in 1958. He carried out a spectrophotometric study of the lunar surface for the completion of his doctorate in astronomy at Georgetown University in 1962. He spent the summer of 1963 doing research at Harvard University, the summer of 1964 as a National Science Foundation lecturer at the University of Scranton, and the summer of 1965 as visiting research professor at the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (UA LPL).

    January 6, 2012 at 8:43 am |
  3. Debra Martinez@ Marisol

    Stop calling the old Testament old!! It should be called the Hebrew scriptures where it was founded by thy God! I am is not happy about the world today!! For the treasure is written in His name!! Go seek and you will find!!!!

    January 6, 2012 at 8:38 am |
  4. Confused in Cleveland

    Monsignor Georges Henri Joseph Édouard Lemaître:
    17 July 1894 – 20 June 1966 was a Belgian priest, astronomer and professor of physics at the Catholic University of Louvain. He was the first person to propose the theory of the expansion of the Universe, widely misattributed to Edwin Hubble. He was also the first to derive what is now known as the Hubble's law and made the first estimation of what is now called the Hubble constant which he published in 1927, two years before Hubble's article[1][2][3][4]. Lemaître also proposed what became known as the Big Bang theory of the origin of the Universe, which he called his 'hypothesis of the primeval atom'

    January 6, 2012 at 8:20 am |
  5. Confused in Cleveland

    Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)
    Pascal was a French mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer and theologian. In mathematics, he published a treatise on the subject of projective geometry and established the foundation for probability theory. Pascal invented a mechanical calculator, and established the principles of vacuums and the pressure of air. He was a Roman Catholic, but in 1654 had a religious vision of God, which turned the direction of his study from science to theology. Pascal began publishing a theological work, Lettres provinciales, in 1656. His most influential theological work, the Pensées ("Thoughts"), was a defense of Christianity, which was published after his death. The most famous concept from Pensées was Pascal's Wager. Pascal's last words were, "May God never abandon me."

    January 6, 2012 at 8:15 am |
  6. Confused in Cleveland

    Stanley Ladislas Jaki (Jáki Szaniszló László), a Hungarian-born Catholic priest of the Benedictine Order, was Distinguished Professor at Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. With doctorates in theology and physics, for more than forty years he specialized in the history and philosophy of science. The author of over fifty books and over four hundred articles, he served as Gifford Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh and as Fremantle Lecturer at Balliol College, Oxford. He lectured at major universities in the United States, Europe, and Australia. He was honorary member of the Pontifical Academy of Science, membre correspondant of the Académie Nationale des Sciences, Belles-Lettres et Arts of Bordeaux, and the recipient of the Lecomte du Noüy Prize for 1970 and of the Templeton Prize for 1987.

    January 6, 2012 at 8:01 am |
  7. Confused in Cleveland

    Gregor Mendel, Catholic priest (1822-1884)
    Mendel was the first to lay the mathematical foundations of genetics, in what came to be called "Mendelianism". He began his research in 1856 (three years before Darwin published his Origin of Species) in the garden of the Monastery in which he was a monk. Mendel was elected Abbot of his Monastery in 1868. His work remained comparatively unknown until the turn of the century, when a new generation of botanists began finding similar results and "rediscovered" him (though their ideas were not identical to his). An interesting point is that the 1860's was notable for formation of the X-Club, which was dedicated to lessening religious influences and propagating an image of "conflict" between science and religion. One sympathizer was Darwin's cousin Francis Galton, whose scientific interest was in genetics (a proponent of eugenics – selective breeding among humans to "improve" the stock). He was writing how the "priestly mind" was not conducive to science while, at around the same time, an Austrian monk was making the breakthrough in genetics. The rediscovery of the work of Mendel came too late to affect Galton's contribution.

    January 6, 2012 at 7:58 am |
  8. Confused in Cleveland

    Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543)
    Copernicus was the Polish astronomer who put forward the first mathematically based system of planets going around the sun. He attended various European universities, and became a Canon in the Catholic church in 1497. His new system was actually first presented in the Vatican gardens in 1533 before Pope Clement VII who approved, and urged Copernicus to publish it around this time. Copernicus was never under any threat of religious persecution – and was urged to publish both by Catholic Bishop Guise, Cardinal Schonberg, and the Protestant Professor George Rheticus. Copernicus referred sometimes to God in his works, and did not see his system as in conflict with the Bible.

    January 6, 2012 at 7:57 am |
  9. Confused in Cleveland

    René Descartes (1596–1650) – Descartes was one of the key thinkers of the Scientific Revolution in the Western World. He is also honoured by having the Cartesian coordinate system used in plane geometry and algebra named after him. He did important work on invariants and geometry.

    Giovanni Battista Riccioli (1598-1671) – Italian astronomer. He was a Jesuit who entered the order in 1614. He was also the first person to measure the rate of acceleration of a freely falling body.

    January 6, 2012 at 7:55 am |
  10. Confused in Cleveland

    The names for three different kinds of electrical measure: amps, volts, and coulombs, come from the surnames of three Catholic scientists who were each pioneers in their respected fields.

    January 6, 2012 at 7:53 am |
  11. kanga

    Here I will enlighten you, I grew up with deep christian roots and today after much research and factual evidence I have finally come to a conclusion that is 100%. I was lied too by my pastors at the time because they did not know any better themselves, I was angry at all the nonsense and beliefs that were pushed on myself by the congregation. I will tell you this, there is a God, but not the God that is misrepresented by religions around the world. A lot of facts from the Bible are true with undeniable evidence to prove it. I have been doing research for 10 years on putting the puzzle pieces together and will have a book out next year, not science fiction but with real facts that one can see and even in some cases touch. Christians around the world are partly right and Atheists need to open their eyes and use their brains if they claim to be more intelligent. Please look for the book end of 2012 called Finally. It will truly give you understanding and peace of mind to all the questions humanity has been asking and fighting about and no it will not cause wars or deter you from your beliefs, but instead give answers that could better your understanding, also in my research I found that there is no possible way the truth could have been discovered or revealed until this day and age. So please don't ridicule Christians, Muslims, Islam and other religions, because everyone is partly right.

    January 6, 2012 at 2:01 am |
    • 0G-No gods, ghosts or goblins

      You've convinced me! I don't want to waste any time by waiting for your book. Please tell me which one of the 30,000+ christian cults I should join so I can begin my journey soonest.

      January 6, 2012 at 2:13 am |
    • Debra Martinez

      I am so glad that you were researching alot and now you decided to right your own book... Well the book of TRUTH has been written!!
      There will never be a book made by God. That is why he inspired his Word The Holy Bible!! Just like man can cure sin or man in space can't reach the heavens .. . If people want to find the TRUTH!! Its not by man made thoughts !! There is one book in the World that is in every home in every religion and some don't have or make the time to read.. I am so concern of this world as each one has their own thought and inclinations !! Hand made thoughts , hmmm , maybe people might buy , your book but it wont make a difference, because its not inspired by GOD!! There is only One Book that could be put to the Test and its the Holy Bible, and still they dont believe!!

      January 6, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  12. D. Hardy

    Many false prophets shall arise in the last days, deceiving and being deceived. This deceiver is no bishop, and never was. He is headed to "Hell", and all who denie the truth. The "Bible" is "God's Word", we can not pick and chose which parts we like or dislike. Our enemy the "Devil", wants you to believe thats ok, but it's not. Please don't believe this man's lies. We all will have to stand before "God" one day, and account for our lives (how we lived, and what we have said).

    January 6, 2012 at 12:11 am |
    • Rick

      Or, there is no judgment and you are just blathering more empty proxy threats

      January 6, 2012 at 5:21 am |
    • Debra Martinez

      You are so right!! Yes the Father of underserving kindness willl be judging ALL !!
      Blesses is theFather of Heaven that supports men that are supporting the Words of HIS!!
      May you continue to believe that caused he will deleiver you out from among them!!

      January 6, 2012 at 8:43 am |
    • Mirosal

      Debra, your god needs serious therapy. If this being NEEDS us to give it praise and worship, then the deity suffers from one severe inferiority complex. If it needs its ego bnoosted that much, seek a shrink. If the opposite is true,meaning that if it made us so we must worship, or face the wrath, then your god is a megalomaniac who needs to be slapped down a peg or two.

      January 6, 2012 at 8:47 am |
    • Rick

      mirosal: absolutely. i wonder how many of the pious would actually want to spend eternity with the being they have described as a petty punk

      January 6, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • Debra Martinez @ marisol

      Marosol just a little FYI .. The is Only One TRUE GOD.. As far as your comment toward me regarding My GOD.. There is no other God thenOur One GOD !! I am so sorry you dont know the word of True God, you and others.. I dont have gods I Have One GOD and he is the creator of the Heavens and earth .. Why Don't you read Job 38. and 39-43 out of your Bible you mouth .. And look @ My GOD show Job ignorance of forces!!!

      January 6, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
  13. yikesboy

    It appears that Mr. Spong has taken almost all the necessary steps towards what I refer to as 'removing the heavy yoke of supernatural belief'. He quite correctly addresses the rampant inconsistencies and insane 'miracles' as the ravings of humans, written about people long dead (or perhaps never even alive). How this country can have a majority of its Christians believe literally in this at times beautiful and at other times violent and horrifically bad book is mind blowing.
    To those out there admonishing us all to read the bible: many of us nonbelievers have and frankly, that's why we don't believe in it.

    January 6, 2012 at 12:07 am |
  14. Rah

    Thank God for some sanity. We need more christian bold enough to examine their obsolete and distorted belief system and find something that makes sense. Unfortunately most of the christians I know are too busy trying to tell other how to live their lives.

    January 6, 2012 at 12:06 am |
  15. Gwendolyn

    Well, there is no escaping that we should love God, and love one another. Without that, the rest is bunk anyhow.

    January 5, 2012 at 10:42 pm |
    • 0G-No gods. ghosts or goblins

      The biggest load of bunk is the proposition that there are any gods to love.

      January 5, 2012 at 11:45 pm |
  16. losconinhum

    Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and the rulers as useful; Seneca (4BC-65AD)

    January 5, 2012 at 9:53 pm |
  17. orlando smith

    Just another false prophet more interested in pleasing men than obeying the will of God.

    January 5, 2012 at 9:25 pm |
    • Kathryn Watt

      Well said. I'm wondering why this man is a former Episcopal bishop?
      It is my belief that the Bible is, at it claims, to be the infallible Word of God.... that it was written under the direct "dictation" of the Holy Spirit... and that the same Lord capapble of Creation was / is / will be capable of ensuring that His Word says what it does. I also think that we need to use prayer and care when choosing which translation(s) to read. I think anyone can understand that the validity of the translation needs to be carefully vetted – "formal and thorough examination (usually by an expert) prior to grant of approval or clearance". I personally am in the habit of reading 3 translations simultaneously when I study, which, to me, gives a good understanding and is deeply satisfying – how better to get to know someone and what they think and feel by spending time with them and hearing what they say? I also agree that for those who believe no explanation is necessary; and to those who dont believe no explanation is possible. I don't see a conflict between science and the bible – one by faith the Creator communicates with His creations and one is a wonderful and exciting glimpse into how He chose to design things.
      I disagree with Mr. Spong, and to those who are curious or interested in this discussion, I would very simply suggest, Read the Book.

      January 5, 2012 at 11:39 pm |
    • Troy

      If the Bible is infallible, then what about the contradictions? What about the fact that it is a book of older stories made to fit the times. How can you be so blindly faithful to this? How can anyone?? The feeling I get when I see you lost people grasping at pages written thousands of years ago by a few other religious fanatics literally makes my stomach turn! I get the moral aspect of the Bible, but what is the difference if it is taught by a mythical story book or Sesame Street?? None I say! If there is a God, it is not the God in the Bible. You know this. It is time to get your head out of the clouds!!


      January 5, 2012 at 11:54 pm |
    • Rick

      Just another poster who feels that edited, translated Iron Age hearsay (written by man) represents "the word of god"

      January 6, 2012 at 5:25 am |
  18. devilish

    John S.S. well spoken. I hope more clergy would inform their sheep of the true meaning and history of Christianity. I pity the sheer ignorance of the U.S. christian community.

    January 5, 2012 at 9:02 pm |
  19. chastised

    This guy is just one of many of the up and coming false prophets mentioned in the Bible!!! I pray he comes to his senses and asks forgiveness!!! GOD BLESS YOU ALL.

    January 5, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
  20. Bill Campbell

    Once there were 7 blind men. Each felt different parts of an elephant. Each described the elephant as they knew it to be. Each was right, but all were incomplete. That is the way with all of us, with differing heredities and differing environments and especially with different languages. Remember that the Bible was written in Hebrew, Greek and Aramic, not English. And that there are 7 words in Greek translated into one English word: love.
    What we have here is a quarrel about timelines. The Bible was not meant so much as to be an exact history, but a general theme. The Bible was written to be a book of faith, nothing else.
    The exact history is unimportant. What is important is that one has a choice to believe (and act upon that belief) or not.
    After over 50 yrs. of Bible reading and companionship with Jesus, I arrived at the thought that all that is necessary to read in the Bible – that is the whole essence of the Bible can be summarized in 3 passages: God is Love, John 3:16, and 1 Cor. 13:1 -13th verses.
    To put it another way, in the early 1930s a persecuted Jew named Franz Werfel fled Nazi Germany, for France. While there he heard of 3 shepherd children having been met by the Virgin Mary years past from then. He, a Jew, was impressed. When the Nazis came for Jews to France, Werfel prayed to his God for deliverance. He promised God that if he could escape to America he would write the story. He escaped and wrote the story which became a best seller and a hit movie: The Song of Bernardette. In the opening passage he wrote: To those who believe no explanation is necessary; to those who dont believe no explanation is possible. I think this really applies to this current discussion.
    What the central message of the Bible is that God is love, and that we who care, must share that love with our fellow temporary earth dwellers. But being God, He gives each of us a choice.

    January 5, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
    • Troy

      That's a fantastic way to say nothing.

      January 5, 2012 at 11:57 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.