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. If you are closed minded

    For further reading on topics brought up in this article and this thread, I recommend "Discovering God: Exploring the Possibilities of Faith". It is only about 70 pages long, and is less than a dollar on Amazon.


    January 7, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  2. Confused in Cleveland

    To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible. ~ Thomas Aquinas

    Beware of the person of one book.
    Thomas Aquinas

    Sorrow can be alleviated by good sleep, a bath and a glass of wine.
    Thomas Aquinas

    January 7, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • Confused by Confused in Cleveland

      Faith is defined as a belief not based on proof or evidence. This would indicate that there is a disregard for everyday reality, that which we can verify through evidence. Psychosis is defined as a mental disorder characterized by symptoms, such as delusions or hallucinations, that indicate impaired contact with reality. Interesting...

      January 7, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
  3. Confused in Cleveland

    My longing for truth was a single prayer.
    Edith Stein

    Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat.
    Mother Teresa

    January 7, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • Confused by Confused in Cleveland

      So you can Copy/Paste quotes from web-sites. Do you have any original thought regarding the article above? Why not voice an opinion of your own?

      January 7, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  4. Confused in Cleveland

    Seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand.
    Saint Augustine

    Lord, grant that I might not so much seek to be loved as to love.
    Francis of Assisi

    January 7, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  5. Confused in Cleveland

    If we did not have rational souls, we would not be able to believe.
    Saint Augustine

    January 7, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  6. Confused in Cleveland

    A thing is not necessarily true because badly uttered, nor false because spoken magnificently.
    Saint Augustine

    January 7, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
  7. Confused in Cleveland

    God is not what you imagine or what you think you understand. If you understand you have failed. ~Saint Augustine

    January 7, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
  8. Confused in Cleveland

    "Religion. Opium of the people? A true opium of the people is a belief in nothingness after death – the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders we are not going to be judged."
    — Czesław Miłosz

    January 7, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • Jesus

      Naturally a Polish "philosopher" would have spewed that nonsense. How many Poles does it take to put in a lightbulb?

      January 7, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • Atheist by Choice

      Milosz was my friend and graduate advisor at Cal in the late 70's. He was one of the great minds of the 20th century, or probably of always. Certainly the most intelligent human I have ever met. He understood the horrors of religion more than most – he survived Nazi and then Soviet prison camps (see his "A Captive Mind"). BTW – Although most of his poetry is in Polish and his prose in English, he was actually Lithuanian.

      January 7, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • o.k.

      I am doubfounded–you actually call the the Nazi and and Stalin regimes a horror of religion? It was hatred of religion (Judaism) that sat as the root of the holocost. Stalin, as an atheist, did not pusue his blood thirst againt those of fath (and so many others) because of his religion, but becuase he saw religion (as influenced by Marx) as the opium of the people. I don't dispute that there are many horrors in the name of God–that's man's fault, not God's. But please don't suggest, as so many others here often do, that religion alone is the cause of horror in this world. There is plenty of blame to go around.

      January 7, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
  9. Confused in Cleveland

    Maybe the atheist cannot find God for the same reason a thief cannot find a policeman. ~Author Unknown

    January 7, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • Eric G

      Please provide any evidence that your god exists.

      January 7, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
    • Jesus

      I've been ;looking for God, heaven, and angels...does anyone have an address? Used to be that 2000 years ago, the numbskulls of that Bronze Age thought He lived in the clouds. Well, we know that's wrong. Later versions of various religions put God on the Moon or another planet, thinking that the farther away we go from Earth, the more unlikely that the peasants will soon discover His address to also be a scam.

      January 7, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • Jesus

      Hey, I've been ;looking for God, heaven, and angels...does anyone have an address? Used to be that 2000 years ago, the numbskulls of that Bronze Age thought He lived in the clouds. Well, we know that's wrong. Later versions of various religions put God on the Moon or another planet, thinking that the farther away we go from Earth, the more unlikely that the peasants will soon discover His address to also be a scam.

      January 7, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • o.k.

      @Eric...your asking for something that is admittedly very difficult to prove (and more so in particular to the person who is not seeking God). I will offer only this...the law of cause and effect, going back each step, will inevitably draw you to the conclusion that there must be an exception to the law. That exception, for the believer, is God. We know you can't get something from nothing. The only way past this is a supernatural exception–I can't explain to you how that is–how God himself can defy cause and effect other than to be its creator–but I know it must be–that truth is inevitable. Perhaps He will reveal how that neat little trick happened to those of us who he accepts into his Kingdom. For now, I can only conclude that He is real.

      January 7, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
    • o.k.

      Sorry–I keep typing that mistake. "Your should by You're"

      January 7, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
  10. Confused in Cleveland

    The laws of nature are but the mathematical thoughts of God. ~Euclid

    January 7, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
  11. MennoKnight

    What makes me laugh at guys like John Shelby Spong is that they think that so much smarter than anybody else in history. In the 1700's Voltaire said that Christianity would be finished in 25 years. How did that work out?

    January 7, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  12. Gerald ( Jerry) Perrin

    Ican only say, Stope trying to didis prove so much and simply beliefe by faith that the bible is the word of God, God so loved the world he gave his only son for the redemption of our sisn turn from the world and all it does and believe in Crist the LordThe world has nothing to offer that will last for ever God has every thing to offer that will last for ever

    January 7, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
  13. Gerald ( Jerry) Perrin

    Ican only say, Stope trying to didis prove so much and simply beliefe by faith that the bible is the word of God, God so loved the world he gave his only son for the redemption of our sisn turn from the world and all it does and believe in Crist the Lord

    January 7, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
  14. Cynthia Riley

    Great article!!!!!! It really would be wonderful if all of these fanatics would learn something from your article instead of judging everyone, and thinkig they are the only ones going to heaven. I read where Jesus supposedly talked about reincarnation, but many Christinas today would shiver at the idea. Thank you so much for clarifying the real truth in the Bible.

    January 7, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • think it through

      I'd really like to see where he get's his information, he sounds more like he's got a grudge, especially since most of his dates aren't accurate. Jesus didn't teach about reincarnation because the historical evidence (Biblical and not) doesn't show that he believed in it. People think that the Bible is closed-minded and so they try to dismiss it, like the Bishop, and say it has a nice overarching message. But who is to say that because society today is inclusive of EVERY faith and worldview, that everyone should be correct, or included? Look, if Jesus was lying, than he's the biggest jerk ever, don't beat around the bush. But if he wasn't, than he's right, and the ONLY right one. THAT is what Christians believe, and if they throw it in your face, than they're not living like Jesus taught they should. But one shouldn't be deemed a "fanatic" because they believe in something, after all you believe in something too, and probably under just as much evidence as everybody else.

      January 7, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
  15. ruemorgue

    Three biggest Biblical misconceptions:

    1) It's divinely inspired by god. No, it was written by Humans.
    2) It's consistent. The ante-bellum South used the Bible to *prove* slavery was good and the North used the Bible to "prove" slavery was evil. It looks like: let slavery = S, then ((not S) AND (S)) to me. 🙂
    3) The Bible is Trus since the Bible says the Bible is True. You got to be kidding on this one?

    January 7, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • think it through

      haha someone needs to rethink his argument. obviously, if its God-inspired, you aren't going to know about it are you? You didn't write it, nor do you believe in God, and the Bible doesn't claim that God took out a divine pen and scrolled it, He used people–who in fact DID write it.

      um, your second point doesn't make much sense, but we'll see here. people's abuse of the Bible doesn't mean that it's wrong. yeah people are stupid and bend the Bible to do what they want–that's called religion. But anyone with a brain knows that that in and of itself doesn't say anything about the text. That aside, what does slavery have to do with consistency, especially in your argument?

      Thirdly you misappropriate the idea that people think the Bible is true "just cause it says so." No. You may be an idiot but not all Christians are. If we believed THAT we wouldn't have colleges, and seminaries, and apologetics. In fact the Bible speaks highly of testing your faith, and how people in the early church questioned what was taught and it was seen as GOOD.

      Think it though man, don't just regurgitate what you've been told.

      January 7, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  16. Hypatia

    One of my fave college courses was The Bible as Literature. It was so refreshing to read such familiar material with a new perspective. It's much better literature than history or morality.

    January 7, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • John

      This is the truth. It's a multi-thousand year old book... before science, before any sort of awakening or civil rights or anything that makes us so much more successful and prolific today. It's the history of the recent human existence, and they believed some CRAZY stuff.

      January 7, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
  17. gerald


    January 7, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  18. TC

    The author does have somewhat of a point from certain aspects but the Bible is not changing and evolutionary – people are and it is found in the animalistic behavior of the ancient peoples described in the Bible. God's message is clear throughout the Bible and He works in the current existing human condition of our free will. In some ways humans are better today than those of the OLd Testament but in many ways we are just as bad if not worse.

    January 7, 2012 at 10:36 am |
  19. Richie

    It really is amazing how so many people read this article, disagreed, and shoved their own beliefs back into their ears, despite the reality that the bible is, only at an absurd stretch, "historically accurate." I mean, look, the books of the bible were compiled over hundreds of years in a mostly illiterate part of the world among animal herders, roughly 1,900 years ago. Just how accurate can you bend that into being?

    January 7, 2012 at 10:21 am |
  20. Miss Priss

    I have finally come to experience how fun it is to spell god in lower case! It feels like I'm insulting god, AND GETTING AWAY WITH IT!!! Which only underscores to me that since no body parts have fallen off, or I haven't been struck dead by lightening, .... or turned into a pillar of salt, that there can't possibly be a god. But coming to that conclusion kind of takes the fun out of being sacrilegious. Oh, well, I'll do it anyway.

    January 7, 2012 at 10:16 am |
    • fritz

      It is kinda fun, isn't it? Folks on my father's side spell god as G-D, and if a gentile-goyim like myself spelled out the judaic tetragrammotom, y.h.w.h. ...I'd be commiting a religious crime. My mother's people, native americans, the folks christians call 'indians' or 'injuns' just believed in the great spirit without spelling anything. Probably because they didn't write anything. :op. As for me, I'm not smart enough to know what god means but it's sure good to be able to spell it in lower case without fear of being struck down by lightning. Being free of these archaic religious scruples is a new kind of freedom.

      January 7, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
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