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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. Curious

    From his essays I gather that John Shelby Spong is, at once, a believer (in God) and not a theist. I know that this could simply mean that his cat's name is God, but could there be something more to Spong's God? What sort of God is he talking about?

    January 7, 2012 at 10:15 am |
  2. Kebos

    My appreciation of humanity definitely does not have the bible, Talmud or Koran on the Required Reading list. Quite the contrary. These books do show what humanity need not repeat.

    January 7, 2012 at 9:28 am |
  3. MIke

    You sir are a fool. Placing yourself above God you reason you are superior in your intellect. You have quite a shock coming.

    January 7, 2012 at 6:47 am |
    • Kebos

      Mankind and it's achievements can easily place themselves above god. God is such a minor player and under-achiever, it's a joke. Much finer works have been written by man than what can be read in the "divinely-inspired" bible, Talmud or Koran.

      God, if he existed, I would ask, step up to the plate, guy. You're a procrastinator, fickle, a coward, temperamental. And a downright idiot. Shape up or ship out. Actually, just ship out.

      January 7, 2012 at 9:34 am |
    • Larry

      I very much agree with your assessment of this "priest's" opinions. He denigrates God and His book, says nothing about Salvation, and generally relegates it to just being "a good book". There's alot about the liberal bias of the episcopal church that wouldn't stand up under Biblical scrutiny. This just gets added to the pile.....

      January 7, 2012 at 9:45 am |
    • Rick

      More blather coming from the theists. You have no KNOWLEDGE as to what is coming, you only have FAITH, Mikey

      January 7, 2012 at 9:59 am |
  4. Freethinker

    In the Bible, God also ordered the killing (Stoning) of rebellious children (Deuteronomy21:18-21), he ordered Moses to take revenge leading to the killings of men, women, children and babies but allowed the “sparing” of virgin girls used for the enjoyment of his soldiers for his priests (Numbers 31:1-47), he punished a mother by making her eat her own baby because she did not follow his command (Deuteronomy 28:45-57)…If the Bible is the inspired words of God, I don't want to be part of it.

    January 7, 2012 at 2:07 am |
  5. Freethinker

    There were a lot of quotes from the Bible. Here's another one: In Numbers 31:1-47, Moses, following God's command to punish the Midianites, ordered his troups to kill all men, women (Including pregnant ones), children, elderly people, new born babies BUT specifically told them to spare the virgin girls/young women for themselves and for the priests' enjoyment. The Bible specifically states 16,000 virgins were “spared”. How on earth can any book be holy with stuff like this in it. And there are more than a 1000 (Yes, thousand) similar instances in the Bible. Please make it your 2012 new year resolution to read the whole Bible cover to cover and set yourself free.

    January 7, 2012 at 2:03 am |
  6. Big Tex

    All you need to know is at www (dot) whywontgodhealamputees (dot) com.

    January 7, 2012 at 12:31 am |
  7. ikeganush

    What the Pastor forgot to appreciate is that The Bible is the Word of God and every word written in the Bible is inspired by God. Mr. John Shelby Spong, I completely disagree with you. Please check the following verse in The Bible and tell me they are wrong:

    2 Timothy 3:16- All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.

    2 Peter 1:21- For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.

    Romans 16:26- But now is made manifest, and by the scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, made known to all nations for the obedience of faith.

    January 7, 2012 at 12:16 am |
    • Kebos

      If I were writing a book claimed to be written by god, I'd make sure to include that somewhere in the text. Pathetic.

      January 7, 2012 at 9:29 am |
    • Larry

      Amen!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      January 7, 2012 at 9:46 am |
    • Rick

      "What the Pastor forgot to appreciate is that The Bible is the Word of God and every word written in the Bible is inspired by God."

      Wow, divine inspiration. What a claim. Support it

      January 7, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  8. frank sol

    What you have read on this is very clear and I congratulate Mr. Shelby for it.
    Read the KORAN, do it with an open mind. And Mr. Shelby's points will be clearer.

    January 6, 2012 at 11:22 pm |
  9. vi

    God's mystery is not revealed to unbelieving/proud spirits. The TRUTH will set us free with sound faith and reason. The Bible comes from the Greek word-biblios which means collection of books being inspired by the Holy Spirit. Bible, Tradition and Magisterium of the Church should be understood fully by true Christian witnesses.

    January 6, 2012 at 9:31 pm |
    • Rick

      wow, you have to believe to believe. sounds downright circular

      January 7, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  10. Miss Priss

    And I am also getting sick of all these atheist charitable organizations, likes schools, hospitals, and homeless shelters, always asking for money

    January 6, 2012 at 8:50 pm |
  11. Miss Priss

    You must all accept that when a scientist comes up with a totally unprovable statement, it's called a "theory," or a "hypotheses", but when a person of faith does the same thing it's called a "delusion" or "kookery."

    January 6, 2012 at 8:35 pm |
    • Roach McKrackin

      By definition a scientist wouldn't come up with a "totally unprovable statement". Science is the pursuit of the truth, which is why it's in a constant state of flux. Religion espouses to already know the answers, but does not modify for evidence. This is the fundamental difference, and flaw, of religion.

      January 6, 2012 at 8:54 pm |
    • Libby

      Yes and one can prove with out any doubt or uncertainty that the bible is the word of god and not written by men with agendas.

      January 6, 2012 at 10:06 pm |
    • Miss Priss

      Actually, I would say that most people have been brow beaten at public schools into believing that, for example, the "Theory of Evolution," and the "Big Bang Theory," are indeed facts, scientifically verifiable, and that one dare not ask uncomfortable questions about them! However, anyone with half a brain, to include honest zoologists, biologists, and astronomers know that the aforementioned are only theories, albeit with a lot of scientifically proveable supports, but in their totality are just theories, nonetheless: unproveable, unobserved, unrepeatable in a lab.

      So the term "theory" in those instances has morphed into "fact" the sake of convenience, and perhaps an agenda on the part of some!

      Just a thought.

      January 7, 2012 at 9:31 am |
  12. Miss Priss

    I'll be checking all entries on here for speling and grahmer. And errors, and you lose the entire argument.

    January 6, 2012 at 8:05 pm |
    • Keith

      Oh no you won't. THAT'S tom, tom the piper's son's job. Spelling/grammar nazi extrordinaire.

      January 6, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
    • Miss Priss

      Don't you call me' a Tom, you nasty dijk!

      January 6, 2012 at 8:31 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      Miss Priss, please look in a mirror, as in check your original post.

      January 6, 2012 at 8:34 pm |
    • Keith

      Sorry. Not calling you tom, tom. I wouldn't insult you like that. Just sayin' the position's been filled.

      January 6, 2012 at 8:35 pm |
    • Keith

      Ugh, HAA, I think she did that intentionally....

      January 6, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
  13. George

    I don't know about you, but I am so sick and tired of living in a country where people who believe that some non-corporeal being/essence actually may have anything to do with life itself. Science has already PROVEN that the matter that existed just prior to the Big Bang came from nothing. That nothingness created something. It's so obvious!!! And yet these whacko who ignorantly "believe" that something can't come from nothing get to vote, and display decorations, and actually get elected to lead the rest of us cognoscenti. It's sooo wrong!!!

    January 6, 2012 at 7:54 pm |
    • Miss Priss

      I think you meant to say "whacko's"

      January 6, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
    • Keith

      Read an article yesterday about Stephen Hawking. He believes there's E.T.'s out there, but it would be too dangerous to attempt communicating with them?! That's funny stuff. Where did they come from Stephen? What makes them soooo dangerous? I'm curious what atheists think about this? I would think some of you would call him a nut-job?

      January 6, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
    • George

      Where did god(s) come from? And who made that?

      It's turtles standing on turtles standing on turtles, all the way down.

      January 6, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
  14. El Flaco

    Even if 95% of the Bible is faithfully transmitted from ancient sources ... so what? It was nonsense in the beginning and it is still nonsense. Most of Christian theology is an effort to make sense out of nonsense.

    The original teaching of Jesus had entirely to do with enticing God to come to earth, establish His kingdom on earth and throw out the Romans. Jesus fully expected God to do just that when he entered Jerusalem in his mock parade. He must have been more surprised than anyone when he was summarily executed.

    Then the first Christians taught that Jesus was returning within the lifetimes of those who had known him, and Christianity became a religion of piously waiting for the Kingdom of God on Earth. After a few centuries that idea wore out. It became clear that He was not coming back.

    Then Constantine got sick of all the debating so he ordered a Bible assembled and a church established, so Christianity became Catholicism – a whole new faith with startling new concepts like the infallibility of the Pope, the trinity, salvation through membership, etc.

    Then, Martin Luther got sick of Catholicism so we got Protestantism, which is a watered-down, disorganized version of Catholicism.

    Then, Protestantism morphed into televangelism where ministers learned how to really make the celestial cash register ring for them. They don't handle serpents any more, but they cast out imaginary demons and heal the healthy bodies of their hired shills.

    Now Christianity is a hundred different religions. The only things they have in common are the names of their gods: Yahweh, Satan, Jesus, Christ, and Satan.

    January 6, 2012 at 7:40 pm |
    • El Flaco

      The last sentence should read:

      Now Christianity is a hundred different religions. The only things they have in common are the names of their gods: Yahweh, God, Jesus, Christ, and Satan.

      January 6, 2012 at 7:43 pm |
    • El gordo

      Flaco – you're a typical, undereducated, brown skinned illegal who has more fake green cards than brains

      January 6, 2012 at 7:58 pm |
    • El gordo

      @flaco

      Ps – I'll give you $10 to clean my pool and clip my hedges

      January 6, 2012 at 8:01 pm |
  15. Emory

    This is bunk. I am a grad student and if I turned in something this week I would suffer dearly. See the following link for a well cited and sophisticated argument against this factually week author.
    http://creation.com/whats-wrong-with-bishop-spong

    January 6, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
    • Rick

      Hey Grad Student, you misspelled "weak"

      January 6, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
    • Prometheus

      We are supposed to take the word of brainless creationist at a creationist web site with zero credibility? Religion preys upon the naive and stupid. That you could be a "grad student" is absolutley frightening. Are you going to some online factory? Or, are you going to some b.s. seminary or divinity school? You offer no proof, only pointless criticism. There is and never has been any god, and the bible is a hideous piece of drivel and hate. I truly worries me that I have to share a planet with people like you.

      January 6, 2012 at 7:40 pm |
  16. dockrat18

    All the scripture he quoted comes with a BUT. one of the the biggest things i have learned when you come across a passage like that is to read around it find the BUT and there is always one. It works great when trying to prove a point because as seen above you don't have to put the BUT in and people will think you are a genius.

    January 6, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
  17. Silly Spong

    Spong has a right to his opinion, but he really doesn't have a right to re-define Christianity as to make it unrecognizable. Since he likes Tillich, I thought it would be good to let an atheist (Chris Hitchens) take to task another "Christian" minister who is a fan of Tillich. Spong is just a humanist/atheist. He should "come out of the closet" and simply say so rather than confusing the issues at hand.

    Here is the YouTube link...

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A7lPoGO7y8k&w=640&h=360]

    January 6, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
  18. TiredODaCrap

    Can't imagine why any believer would question how others can't believe what we know to be true. With people holding "positions of power in the church" (har har) coming up with articles such as this, it's no wonder those who choose not to believe make that decision.

    January 6, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
  19. Mr. Harrisburg

    "First, people assume the Bible accurately reflects history. That is absolutely not so, and every biblical scholar recognizes it."

    When I read this, I knew this article would be as disconnected from reality as he claims the Bible is. I was right.

    January 6, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
  20. G.Wicks

    Biblical scholars and even non-religious historian scholars actually DO believe the Bible is historically factual, so I don't know what this dude is talking about, or where he gets his facts. The author of this article is making stuff up or is seriously misguided. Here's an awesome book, based on historical data and reasoning, that proves it:

    http://www.amazon.com/Evidence-Demands-Questions-Challenging-Christians/dp/0785242198/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1325881704&sr=8-1

    It's a pretty tough read but I encourage people who are trying to either strengthen their faith to read it, as well as people who don't follow Jesus but have wondered whether there is any factual evidence for miracles, eyewitness accounts, and historical significance.

    January 6, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • E. Kaufmann

      Seconded. I'm not sure where this gentleman has gotten his "facts," but in my long history of Biblical research, MANY (if not MOST) accredited scholars that I have read and listened to DO hold the view that the Bible is historically accurate. My favorite is Chuck Missler from khouse.org. He has studied both the Greek and Hebrew translations, and is an expert on Middle Eastern history (former CIA), so he is able to cite a wide range of varied sources when he makes his arguments for Biblical inerrancy.

      January 6, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.