December 29th, 2011
09:10 AM ET
My Take: The 3 biggest biblical misconceptions
Editor’s note: John Shelby Spong, a former Episcopal bishop of Newark, New Jersey, is author of "Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World."
By John Shelby Spong, Special to CNN
The Bible is both a reservoir of spiritual insight and a cultural icon to which lip service is still paid in the Western world. Yet when the Bible is talked about in public by both believers and critics, it becomes clear that misconceptions abound.
To me, three misconceptions stand out and serve to make the Bible hard to comprehend.
First, people assume the Bible accurately reflects history. That is absolutely not so, and every biblical scholar recognizes it.
The facts are that Abraham, the biblically acknowledged founding father of the Jewish people, whose story forms the earliest content of the Bible, died about 900 years before the first story of Abraham was written in the Old Testament.
Actually, that's not in the Bible
Can a defining tribal narrative that is passed on orally for 45 generations ever be regarded as history, at least as history is understood today?
Moses, the religious genius who put his stamp on the religion of the Old Testament more powerfully than any other figure, died about 300 years before the first story of Moses entered the written form we call Holy Scripture.
This means that everything we know about Moses in the Bible had to have passed orally through about 15 generations before achieving written form. Do stories of heroic figures not grow, experience magnifying tendencies and become surrounded by interpretive mythology as the years roll by?
My Take: Bible condemns a lot, so why focus on homosexuality?
Jesus of Nazareth, according to our best research, lived between the years 4 B.C. and A.D. 30. Yet all of the gospels were written between the years 70 to 100 A.D., or 40 to 70 years after his crucifixion, and they were written in Greek, a language that neither Jesus nor any of his disciples spoke or were able to write.
Are the gospels then capable of being effective guides to history? If we line up the gospels in the time sequence in which they were written - that is, with Mark first, followed by Matthew, then by Luke and ending with John - we can see exactly how the story expanded between the years 70 and 100.
For example, miracles do not get attached to the memory of Jesus story until the eighth decade. The miraculous birth of Jesus is a ninth-decade addition; the story of Jesus ascending into heaven is a 10th-decade narrative.
In the first gospel, Mark, the risen Christ appears physically to no one, but by the time we come to the last gospel, John, Thomas is invited to feel the nail prints in Christ’s hands and feet and the spear wound in his side.
Perhaps the most telling witness against the claim of accurate history for the Bible comes when we read the earliest narrative of the crucifixion found in Mark’s gospel and discover that it is not based on eyewitness testimony at all.
My Take: Yes, the Bible really condemns homosexuality
Instead, it’s an interpretive account designed to conform the story of Jesus’ death to the messianic yearnings of the Hebrew Scriptures, including Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53.
The Bible interprets life from its particular perspective; it does not record in a factual way the human journey through history.
The second major misconception comes from the distorting claim that the Bible is in any literal sense “the word of God.” Only someone who has never read the Bible could make such a claim. The Bible portrays God as hating the Egyptians, stopping the sun in the sky to allow more daylight to enable Joshua to kill more Amorites and ordering King Saul to commit genocide against the Amalekites.
Can these acts of immorality ever be called “the word of God”? The book of Psalms promises happiness to the defeated and exiled Jews only when they can dash the heads of Babylonian children against the rocks! Is this “the word of God? What kind of God would that be?
The Bible, when read literally, calls for the execution of children who are willfully disobedient to their parents, for those who worship false gods, for those who commit adultery, for homosexual persons and for any man who has sex with his mother-in-law, just to name a few.
The Bible exhorts slaves to be obedient to their masters and wives to be obedient to their husbands. Over the centuries, texts like these, taken from the Bible and interpreted literally, have been used as powerful and evil weapons to support killing prejudices and to justify the cruelest kind of inhumanity.
The third major misconception is that biblical truth is somehow static and thus unchanging. Instead, the Bible presents us with an evolutionary story, and in those evolving patterns, the permanent value of the Bible is ultimately revealed.
It was a long road for human beings and human values to travel between the tribal deity found in the book of Exodus, who orders the death of the firstborn male in every Egyptian household on the night of the Passover, until we reach an understanding of God who commands us to love our enemies.
The transition moments on this journey can be studied easily. It was the prophet named Hosea, writing in the eighth century B.C., who changed God’s name to love. It was the prophet named Amos who changed God’s name to justice. It was the prophet we call Jonah who taught us that the love of God is not bounded by the limits of our own ability to love.
It was the prophet Micah who understood that beautiful religious rituals and even lavish sacrifices were not the things that worship requires, but rather “to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” It was the prophet we call Malachi, writing in the fifth century B.C., who finally saw God as a universal experience, transcending all national and tribal boundaries.
One has only to look at Christian history to see why these misconceptions are dangerous. They have fed religious persecution and religious wars. They have fueled racism, anti-female biases, anti-Semitism and homophobia.They have fought against science and the explosion of knowledge.
The ultimate meaning of the Bible escapes human limits and calls us to a recognition that every life is holy, every life is loved, and every life is called to be all that that life is capable of being. The Bible is, thus, not about religion at all but about becoming deeply and fully human. It issues the invitation to live fully, to love wastefully and to have the courage to be our most complete selves.
That is why I treasure this book and why I struggle to reclaim its essential message for our increasingly non-religious world.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Shelby Spong.
About this blog
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.
The other day my wife said to me "I love you!" I bellowed back, "PROVE IT." She then started to tell me how she loved me, all the things she does for me, and I cut her off. I said "all that's very subjective. I want you to prove to me, in a scientifically verifiable way, and through air-tight logical statements, that any disinterested third party could accept, that you love me. In fact, I want you to prove that such a thing as "love" even exists." She ran out crying.
While that "cool story" of yours might actually have played out in some people's lives, I very much doubt that it happened in yours.
And what about you, "cool story bro named 'confused in cleveland'"?
Can you prove your "love" exists? Can you define it without going to a dictionary?
Can you prove that you feel "emotions" at all?
Of course you can. You can prove them with enough technical jargon and scientific instruments and a thorough knowledge of neuropsychology.
We all know emotions exist.
The problem here is that you are attempting a false analogy / argument from ignorance in your lame attempt to parody what you view as some atheists' stance regarding love and other emotions.
Emotions do not prove a god exists. Emotions only prove that our brains experience emotions according to several different factors and variables not limited to brain chemistry.
You think atheists would act like you envision in your post. Why would they do that? They aren't interested in making a useless demand for something irrelevant that I've ever seen. Why would anyone demand proof that someone loved them?
Did someone do that to you, poor child? That's pretty sad.
The hardest thing to belive in Confused's little story is that he has a wife!! lol
So have at Taiping. Prove to one and all that love exists.
If you have any left over time, can you throw in the good, the true, and the beautiful
So you admit your post was a badly-thought-out parody? Well how about that.
"the good the true and the beautiful"? So you admit I proved that love and emotions exist? Well how about that, too!
Taking the easiest first, let me just say that there are few things as easy to prove as the truth.
As for goodness, it is all relative, since we all use moral relativism. If there were moral absolutes, they wouldn't need to be explained or written down, would they? Now explain why we need a Bible written by clueless and misogynistic primitive peoples thousands of years ago if there were any "moral absolutes" contained therein?
And beauty is "in the eye of the beholder" for some, yet we have instinctual reactions to certain "aesthetically pleasing" things, also.
Or I could give the dictionary definitions for all of these words, including "love" but I'm sure you wouldn't understand that old dictionary stuff. Too hard for people like you to think any farther than your schnozz. Now prove you have a schnozz by sticking it in your own business and staying out of the personal lives and business of others who do not share your racist, bigoted, indefensible religion and we can live in peace together until you break another law.
I'm not sure what that's supposed to prove, other than that you're sort of an @ss.
bits in motion, are you speaking to me?
Wow! Another hate-filled, enraged atheist. Imagine that? So who physically or emotionally abused you as a child, a church going relative, or your minister? Just curious.
Wow, just another tone-troll using ad hominem attacks instead of discussing things like an intelligent, emotionally-stable person!
God is real. Jesus Christ resurrected and He stands at the doors of everyone's heart because He loves us. We should let Him in because He is the only way to our Heavenly Father. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are One Lord.
"God is real" ... ok, that's a definitive statement. Prove it. Without the use of your bible. Give us all something that could be used in court using the rules of evidence.
Absolutely not all scholar agree. More than half of all Christians belong to literalist church bodies. Dear sir, I have but one question, why would a benevolent God give a holy scripture so fraught with errors of which thousands of years would be taken to discern the truth. Fully true or fully garbage you luke-warm water.
Wow Spong! Your lack of faith is so evident in this article. Do you consider yourself still a Christian? It sounds like Christopher Hitchens or Dick Dawkins wrote this article! Wow!
The first time I heard the Bishop speak I realized he doesn't lack faith as you believe, I'll share one of his phrases from from that lecture and maybe just maybe you'll understand a little more about life is about
...the idea that anybody is Gods chosen people is a strange idea, because it means that anybody who is not apart of your people becomes God's unchosen people... and it's a very short step before those that God has not chosen, becomes those that God hates... therefore you can justify your own hatreds, and your own prejudices. ~ John Shelby Spong
Maybe he, unlike you, is smart enough to realize that the Bible isn't meant to be taken literally, regardless of what some half-wit preacher told you.
The example given by Jesus was that God is Love, Mercy, Kidness, Compasion, Understanding and Peace. In Essence, God loves us All. God give us Knowledge to earn our living and help other with all those good virtues mention here.
Don't you know there ain't no Devil, that's just God when he's drunk.
To love God is something greater than to know Him.
Sometimes, I wish I was a black lesbian – a triple minority. I could sue anyone and get free scholarships to any college.
You know da*m well no matter what that you don't want to black – lesbian or otherwise.
@Confused in Cleveland, Wow, prolific postings, but have you ever met an Atheist or studied science? All I see is sheer misunderstanding on your part. Or is it an effort to explain the "Confused in Cleveland" handle? If so, I can direct you to some resources to help ya out.
"The ultimate meaning of the Bible escapes human limits and..." Whoa! Just stop there! If this first part is true, there is no "and." You've said all you can about it. Furthermore, after talking about how horrible the god of the Bible is, how do you go from there to "a recognition that every life is holy"? That is a non sequitur (does not follow) provided what information was provided.
In the beginning there was nothing, which exploded.
Atheist's don't exist! If you ask anyone why they are an atheist they will proceed to explain their religion of non belief.
“In fact, "atheism" is a term that should not even exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a "non-astrologer" or a "non-alchemist." We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and their cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.”
Hi Confused in Cleveland,
I love it when believers try to drag non – believers down to their level by calling atheism a religion. Atheism is a religion like baldness is a hairstyle. Does not believing in leprechauns and unicorns qualify to you as a "religion" too? Nice try.
An atheist's most embarrassing moment is when he feels profoundly thankful for something, but can't think of anyone to thank for it.
So, do you actually have a thought of your own? All I see are bunch of other peoples thoughts that, evidently, you claim as your own. This one is by Mary Anne Vincent...
An atheist is a man who looks through a telescope and tries to explain what he can't see.
To be an atheist requires a greater measure of faith than the receive all the great truths which atheism would deny.
Atheism is a disease of the mind caused by undercooked philosophy.
...Austin O'Malley (misquoted)
Fervid atheism is usually a screen for repressed religion.
I found this interesting, a reminder for the literalists. My husband I recently went to the Creation Museum and were amazed by the 'facts' that were put forth that just negate any science or individual reason. We fear the zealots, both Christian, Muslim and so on. When I was a child I came to believe that being a christian meant having christian values of how to relate to others, kindness, caring, giving of yourself to others, tolerance and so on. But I also believed and now more than ever, that you do NOT have to believe in the resurrection of Jesus to be a Christian in that sense; rather Jesus was a prophet who taught how to live a good life by example. If you emulate that 'good' life that is all you need, and if you have faith in Jesus as a savior or even in God so be it. BUT blind unquestioning faith is the seed of so much evil today and a tool that politicians and extremists use to manipulate the unquestioning masses..
Kathy, you are so misguided. Jesus himself tells us that NO ONE comes to the Father but thru him. He is the way, the truth, and the life, Any other attempt to accomodate a relationship with God is pure nonsense. I pray you come to that realization and accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior so you don't have to find this out the hard way, when it it too late. God Bless You, my friend.
Replying to Dee: I don't share your view obviously, but I do respect that it is YOURS. Again, intolerance and religion are bad companions. Your belief concludes that:no one but Christians will receive the grace of God-that isn't the God I believe in.
Kathy, my believe is like yours, my higher power sees that there are many, many paths, not just one.
"Eric G said:
@AwatchmanforGod: I am sorry, but you have provided no evidence that your god even exists. Please do so, and then we can discuss the evidence you have as to the stories in the scriptures you follow. Without proof of your gods existence, you cannot make claims of truth about your Bible. I am waiting for your evidence for verification."
There were real people writing down real words, then being commendably gathered as a whole over the years. Taking it from there, it's up to every person if they want to take the word for it, and what the book (bible meaning book) says. Within, there are people seeing more than this world does. Arguing about what the bible says is valid: it is a real book.
Yeah, like Harry Potter.
Your gullibility must make your pastor smile when he / she sees you.
Anyone can write down a lie, you simpleton.
Eric G said:
@AwatchmanforGod: I am sorry, but you have provided no evidence that your god even exists. Please do so, and then we can discuss the evidence you have as to the stories in the scriptures you follow. Without proof of your gods existence, you cannot make claims of truth about your Bible. I am waiting for your evidence for verification.
Ah-h-h ... it is always interesting how the "away team" bristles at the Truth, just like Eric; it doesn't bother me mind you, it actually saddens me. Eric, you made issue of several things … you said:
1. I am sorry, but you have provided no evidence that your god even exists.
(My Response): Nice try Eric; that is the oldest “unbeliever” con line; understand that you will never know the Truth, until you respectfully acknowledge the Source of All Truth; and His name is God Almighty, and not disrespectfully, god. First, the statements I made previously were reflective of the Episcopalian bishop in the story, and how he was stating many heretical and un-Biblical things; my response to him was not about proving or disproving the existence of my God. But, since you brought it up, let’s take a swing at it. All the evidence in the world wouldn’t make one bit of difference to someone that neither cares to “hear” the Truth, nor cares to “know” the Truth; so what evidence would you like to have Eric; or, how much of it would it possibly take, in order to make you a believer? 1 Truth, 10 Truths, 1 million Truths? See, the schools of America tell you that Charles Darwin gave humanity the truth; that man came from the Ape, Chimp, and Monkey world; and that, you believe, hook line, and sinker; yet, there is absolutely no evidence to prove any of that; in fact, in Darwin’s own writings, he claims that his findings merely reflect “his opinion” on this matter, and if there were ever “better and truer information” to the contrary, that it would “trump” his findings; did you know that Eric? So thus evolution, by the very ‘god’ you choose to follow (Charles Darwin), is all based on massive conjecture on his part; pure speculation; only a theory, and not real truth; and just so you fully understand the gravity of all that, it wasn’t Charles Darwin who actually first came up with that whole theory, it was in fact, his grandfather who taught him all that, and he simply duplicated the myth. His grandfather was both an anthropologist and, and Egyptianologist; and his main study was centered in part, around the Egyptian god, Thoth (Thoth was considered one of the most important deities of the Egyptian pantheon. He had the body of a man, and the head of a “Baboon” … ergo, there is your real truth behind the “origins of the (actually his grandfather’s) species.” So, did man really come from baboons? My guess is yes, but only the ones that choose to believe that nonsense; you see, I’m not an expert on baboons Eric, just the Word of God.
You must realize that science, in their quest to set themselves totally “apart from” the Creator God of the Bible, simply adopted evolution as “their” truth, and then ran with it. We can find that “root action” in God’s Word, in the Book of Genesis; God said, “Let Us make man in Our Image,” … but the Charles Darwin ilk came back and said; “Oh no, let us make God in our image;” and there, you have the seeds of rebellion for what ails this world today; and all that ailing in the world will be settled very soon. God will not be mocked Eric; in 2012 and going forward, the US, and the world, is going to see what God will “allow” to happen, in a world that continually tells Him to get lost, and leave us completely alone.” God is still in charge mind you, but He will “allow” another “personage” (the very one that the world has chosen for themselves) to run things here on Earth, until He sends His Son to put an end to all of the rebellion; in the meantime, I hope you enjoy what is coming; but remember during it all, it was never “God’s Choice” for man; but rather, it was “man’s choice” for man; so no blaming God when it all collapses please. Fortunately, I and others of my ilk won’t be here for all that; only those that hate God will.
But, just so you can’t claim I didn’t try to give you some facts, here goes Eric. The One Personage prophesied in the Old Testament Scriptures; the One that would claim to be God Himself, in human flesh; the One that would claim to be the Son of God; the Messiah; the very One that would someday either Save mankind from his sins, or convict him of the same; for “That One person” (be it Jesus, or anyone else); there are over 300 prophesies about “That One Person,” and the prophesies about “That One Person” are spread across 39 (separate) scrolls of the OT; penned by 33 completely and separate authors; living in different parts of the middle East world; in 3 different languages; over a period of (more than) 1,000 years; without the aid of TV, cell phones, land line phones, the Internet, email, twitter accounts, Facebook, Google searches, magazines, newspapers, and the list goes on and on, to enable them to cross-check against each other’s actual accounts on those 300 prophesies ; yet, over all 39 (separate) scrolls, the prophesies completely and accurately match each other in (complete) context, dates of occurrence and prophetic timetables, actual family lineages, actual towns, actual countries, actual claims that would be made, how this person would die, who would kill Him, things they would say and do, even as He was hanging there dead; and, also how He would fulfill His Divine Destiny based on those 300 prophesies.
Now, when the prophecy of the Messiah’s death by crucifixion was written by the prophet Isaiah (circa 700 years before Jesus was born); crucifixion wasn’t even around. The Persians were first (circa 600 years before Jesus was born) with impalement on a single pole (not a cross); the Greeks were second (circa 500 years before Jesus was born), with the crude beginnings for the use of a pole and cross beam); but, it was the Romans that “perfected” the cruel and sadistic use of “hanging someone totally naked” on the cross (to humiliate them); “flogging them to near death” beforehand (as a message to all others that would think to try to disobey them); and, to cause as excruciating a death as possible, because the Roman were extremely sadistic; then, they would follow all that by breaking their legs if the hung person somehow managed to remain alive beyond a set period of time.
Now, the prophet Daniel prophesied (from God), (circa 550 to 586 BC) that the “future” Messiah that would be “crucified” by a race of “specific people” [the Romans] that were still not even historically born, or on the earth at that time; so there you even have the prophecy of a very “specific people” to boot. Daniel stated that the Messiah would be beaten in such a way, that He would not even be recognizable as a human being; and He (Jesus) took all that punishment, even for people who disrespect Him, like you Eric, when you address Him herein, as ‘god’... rather than God. And here is some math data for you as well Eric. To fulfill just 3, 6, and 9 prophesies to the “exact” person, year, day, timetable, town, country, lineage, etc., etc.: for just 3 prophecies: 1 in 10 to the 17th power (10 plus 17 zeros); for just 6 prophecies: 1 in 10 to the 27th power (10 plus 27 zeros); for just 9 prophecies: 1 in 10 to the 54th power (10 plus 54 zeros); so what would 300 prophesies mean mathematically speaking Eric? See, to someone who doesn’t want to know the Truth, no amount of Truth will matter; to those that do, every Word He gives us “is” Truth. So, does God exist? One second after you die Eric, and that could even be today, you will get to meet Him face to face … and you will either remain with Him in Heaven, or, you will be quickly escorted off the premises, for eternity … no do-overs; if you’re reading this, you still have a chance to change from Darwin to God.
2. Please do so, and then we can discuss the evidence you have as to the stories in the scriptures you follow.
(My Response): READ ABOVE … I’m ready to “discuss” … are you?
3. Without proof of your gods’ existence, you cannot make claims of truth about your Bible. (My Response): READ ABOVE ... as for making any “claims” … Eric, it’s not "my" Bible, it God’s Holy Word.
4. I am waiting for your evidence for verification.
(My Response): READ ABOVE ... and wait no longer.
Have a great day...
Wow! Now that's a rambling rant that would make Chad proud.
Amen, bro! Some just won't accept that the evidence is there all around us. God bless you for your faith. And may God have mercy on those who reject the perfect gift of Jesus Christ........................
@AwatchmanforGod, Thanks bro. I am really glad that I read your explanation, that is a wisdom from God. I have copied it I hope you don't mind. For those that disregard our God and ready not to change, we only have to pray for them since they will not have any excuse during the time of judgement. Lets talk about salvation to them.
I do love story time...
IMHO, I think the message is lost a bit when trying to decipher the "proof" of whether god exists. Truth is our interpretation of our observations. I personally believe there is a god, but the construct that I follow does not collapse if someone disagrees with me nor is it proven if another agrees. At the end of the day it really doesn't matter if you believe in a god or not. Be a good person, love and be happy. It is somewhat funny to me that humans care what they think god will do to them if they don't believe in xyz – it so does not matter.
It's a well organized explanation not a rant, best i've seen in a while
What a ridiculous response by "AwatchmanforGod".
Quoting and paraphrasing scripture neither advances the discussion or provides any proof of "god", so why don't you just print it out and make enough copies to give to all your fellow believers when you go to church tomorrow. Let them see your inability to have a sane discussion. Let them be the ones to point out your lack of intelligence.