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. JC

    "John Shelby Spong" is full of dung." – J.C. Smith

    January 9, 2012 at 4:37 am |
  2. Tocky

    Why doesn't he just become an atheist? He's better off that way because he's using their arguments. Jesus didn't speak Greek? Really? What language did he speak to Roman officials with? It's not like they were learning Aramaic or Hebrew. The entire land of Palestine spoke multiple languages. Jesus's virgin birth and ascension came almost nine centuries later? False. Who is fact checking this guy? Revisionist history should NOT be okay just because it's religion-based.

    If CNN is allowing this, they might as well give voice for Holocaust deniers, white supremacists, and loose-changers.

    I would like to write an article for CNN. If this guy can do it, I might as well get my chance.

    January 9, 2012 at 2:40 am |
    • Reading Comprehension 101

      Tocky, "Jesus's virgin birth and ascension came almost nine centuries later? False. Who is fact checking this guy?"

      The article does not say 'nine centuries' - it says 'nine decades':

      "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."

      Please don't bother trying to be a fact-based writer. You suck at it.

      January 9, 2012 at 2:50 am |
    • Steve

      Tocky - ever hear of a translator? Only the educated elite of the area would have learned Greek, most likely. I wouldn't call fishermen members of the educated elite. I think if they were educated, they would have written books of the New Testament themselves.

      January 13, 2012 at 7:57 pm |
  3. PleaseUseLogic

    I've come to expect these "faith" based articles to be written in such a way that it is comical to a literate reader, religious or not. This one was nearly as bad as the last one that I read. Not funny at all. What happened?

    Also, I will never understand why religious folks are so greatly concerned with what other people are doing. Even in kindergarten most people should be taught to keep their hands to themselves and not bother other people.

    January 8, 2012 at 10:20 pm |
    • InvaderZim

      Hear hear! I have no problem with "people of faith" as long as their views don't impact me or my family. Unfortunately, that's not how fundamentalism works. It's my way or the highway.

      January 9, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  4. Bibletruth

    What is the gospel....the everlasting gospel? It is salvation from sin and the vindication of God.

    What was the sanctuary service (outer court, holy place, most holy place; slaying of the animal, the ministration of the priests, the day of atonement) all about? the sanctuary service was Gods lesson book on the plan of salvation.

    God (the God of the bible, for there is no other) is indescribably good, loving, kind, compassionate, just, a God of Judgement...Everlasting Father.

    January 8, 2012 at 8:59 pm |
    • Rick

      Not to most of the world.

      January 8, 2012 at 9:34 pm |
  5. OBAMA IN 2012

    Mormonism is a racist, dangerous cult. We can only afford one First Lady – and that is the beautiful Michelle! The classiest first lady since Winnie Mandella, and wat better than that slave-owning blue eyed devil, Martha Wasington oh how she would crack that whip a nd get service with a smile / meanwhile she was getting s little kunta kinte on the side. That girl wad ecoeriencing the whole things. We just saw Lot of whiter cute guys with really round buts and unfer sized but defect Cod pieced. There war my 18 yt old boy, fully a msn nowx. ..ready to play done football and then have s free for esnn . Bottom
    Line is, the treens had great sec egg eschothrr

    January 8, 2012 at 8:15 pm |
    • OBAMA IN 2012

      J hotel missing a lot of sausage. Wheee ar the boys now. Need a big banger down here tintremember the old days

      Mote black. Immune whitebhousr

      January 8, 2012 at 8:44 pm |
  6. OBAMA IN 2012

    Please vote for OBAMA. We can't allow a Mormon to become president!

    Obama 2012

    January 8, 2012 at 7:59 pm |
    • GodPot

      This, like all the others, will be an election decided by those voting for the guy they dislike less.

      January 8, 2012 at 8:08 pm |
  7. Gawd

    Rick, how dare you to think you know what is best for everyone. Hubris, I believe, is the term you used against the President. You're a joke.

    January 8, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
    • Sven

      Who the heck is Rick? And what the F are you talking about

      January 8, 2012 at 7:56 pm |
  8. BC Hughes

    The Bible isn't factual? Shhh! Please don't tell the archaeologists. They think all that stuff they're digging up is real.

    The Bible is God's Word, not God's words. The concepts set forth therein were written by men under the inspiration of God. While every event may not be literally true, the underlying truths spoken are real.

    Remember the Bible was written at a time and in a language not familiar to us in our daily lives. We lack both the cultural and the linguistic vocabulary to understand everything in it correctly. Case in point: the eye of the needle. Taken literally - well try taking it literally! but in fact the "Eye of the Needle" was a gate in the city wall, so low that the camel had to kneel and be divested of its load before it could go through. What a wonderful lesson for me and for you!

    January 8, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
    • Sven

      Hey you. If you don't take the bible as 100% infallible history, science, geography, astronomy, etc. than how can I trash your beliefs. And therefore, I declare that you MUST accept the bible on those terms – the terms that were taught to me as a child – or I say 1) no fair, or 2) you're not really a Christian and you only prove my point that there is no god

      January 8, 2012 at 7:47 pm |
    • GodPot

      " in fact the "Eye of the Needle" was a gate in the city wall, so low that the camel had to kneel and be divested of its load before it could go through. What a wonderful lesson for me and for you!"

      What a wonderful lesson if that were in fact, a fact. To bad you are just repeating an old myth. And as to your larger point, where is all this stuff they have dug up that confirms Jesus existed or any miracles occurred or that Adam was the origin of our species? I'm glad that many of the places and locations named in the bible have been confirmed which would put it right up there with many other ancient written histories from the Sumerians to the Greeks and Romans. Hooray! There is as much evidence that Hercules may have existed as there is Jesus.

      "The "eye of a needle" has been interpreted as a gate in Jerusalem, which opened after the main gate was closed at night. A camel could only pass through this smaller gate if it was stooped and had its baggage removed. This story has been put forth since at least the 15th century, and possibly as far back as the 9th century. However, there is no evidence for the existence of such a gate." – Wiki

      "Tacitus records a special affinity of the Germanic peoples for Hercules. In chapter 3 of his Germania, Tacitus states:
      ... they say that Hercules, too, once visited them; and when going into battle, they sang of him first of all heroes. They have also those songs of theirs, by the recital of this barditus[7] as they call it, they rouse their courage, while from the note they augur the result of the approaching conflict. For, as their line shouts, they inspire or feel alarm.
      In the Roman era Hercules' Club amulets appear from the 2nd to 3rd century, distributed over the empire (including Roman Britain, c.f. Cool 1986), mostly made of gold, shaped like wooden clubs. A specimen found in Köln-Nippes bears the inscription "DEO HER[culi]", confirming the association with Hercules." – Wiki

      January 8, 2012 at 8:03 pm |
    • Rick

      Divine inspiration? Seems like an awfully bold statement to make. I had divine inspiration after injesting a bellyfull of magic mushrooms. Mine dd not have some guy having his kid whacked

      January 8, 2012 at 9:40 pm |
    • jim

      So by your definition of the 'eye of the needle', it was a needle that a camel could go through, but Jesus' disciples response to the reference to the eye of the needle implied something that was impossible to get through. They were so shocked by what he said to them that they responded that no one could get in, also implying that they thought wealth could buy one's way in. It was not just the wealthy that could not get through that eye in Jesus' illustration, yet the church has assumed for years that Jesus was only referring only to the wealthy.

      January 13, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
    • jim

      @ GodSpot, Sven:
      It's my experience that those seeking to prove God exists do so because they are in a desperate situation, and will accept any evidence at all of God's existence. Those who are desperately trying to prove God doesn't exist are trying to appease their conscience about something and therefore refuse to accept any evidence at all of God's existence. Perhaps you don't fit the stereotype in the case of the latter example, however, I wonder why you would be commenting on this blog spot if you don't fit that stereotype.

      January 13, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
  9. Sven

    I've come to believe that if something isn't understood by the average high school graduate atheist, or his more evolved cousin, the college graduate computer science major, it's probably not true. Won't you join me in my new belief?

    January 8, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
  10. michel

    I normally do not comment online, but, with all due respect to the fmr. bishop, I hope his views are not representative of the Episcopal Church.
    He states that the Bible is not a source of history, not a factual account of the human journey. How can anyone maintain a Christian faith if you do believe that the Bible is more inaccurate than accurate? How can anyone believe in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ without confident reliance upon scripture as a source of factual and spiritual truths?
    He states that the Bible is not the Word of God. Well, that is what it claims to be, and what believers have accepted it to be. If it is not the Word of God, why would anyone bother to preach it? If one truly believes that the Bible is not God's word, what is it, if not lies, contradictions, and drivel?
    He states that the truth of the Bible is ever-changing. Yet, God does not change. The Bible tells that He is the same from age to age, unchanging. It is not God who changes, but mankind whose perspective changes, whose knowledge of God increases. But I suppose it becomes easier to believe in an evolving, capricious God if one can ignore what is in the Bible, since it's not God's Word nor His people's history.

    If the Former Bishop wants to say, and meant to say, that the Bible should be read in a manner more accommodating of metaphorical and non-literal meanings, I support that. But if the Bishop really wants to say, as he has written, that the Bible is not a reliable and holy cornerstone of Christian faith, then I can only disagree. The Bible is God's Word; the Bible is timeless in its application to life, though it is a product of history, and as such should be the source of faith in God.

    January 8, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • Sven

      The bishop stopped believing in the historical Christian faith a long time ago. Round the same time he stopped believing that the Bible was anything more than a quaint vestige of bygone era.

      January 8, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
    • Archangel

      Wow... a lot of people missed the point, and proved this authors claim about biblical misconceptions.

      January 8, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
  11. OBAMA IN 2012

    And if you don't believe in God, Obama's the next best thing – the closest thing we have on earth. Trust me, you won't be disappointed if you vote for him. He understands you.

    Vote for Obama!

    VOTE OBAMA 2012!

    January 8, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
    • Sven

      Yeah, he hates white evangelicals almost as much as most of you atheists do. He's your guy.

      January 8, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
  12. augustghost

    incredible how some of you losers can turn this into a political argument...get a life you angry little sub humans

    January 8, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
  13. Kessi

    Thank you. This is the sort of Christianity I admire in my parents.

    January 8, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
  14. Obidiah

    Just read in the Guardian, Peter Hitchens is quoted as saying his brother became a believer about 11 days before he died. Ha! Another angel gets his wings.

    January 8, 2012 at 11:55 am |
    • Sven

      No way! Really??? This is the first I'm hearing of this.

      January 8, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
  15. OBAMA IN 2012

    President Obama is a man of faith; a deeply committed Christian, who clearly understands the "wall of separation" between church and state. His church is also inclusive, and open and affirming, with a heavy emphasis on the social dimension of the gospel.

    January 8, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • Yo Yo Yo Ma

      Is that what Rev Wright preached all those years to Barack Hussein Obama?

      January 8, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
  16. OBAMA IN 2012

    Greetings bloggers. If you're interested in honest, transparent, common sense government, vote Obama in 2012. He's just begun to fix the mess that previous adimistrations left him. The green shoots are starting to sprout. Get all your family and friends to vote OBAMA IN 2012.

    January 8, 2012 at 9:54 am |
  17. JohnRalph

    Obama's brand of socialism, which is an amalgamation of the Nationalist and Communist varieties despises America and religion.

    Except Islamic America, which is an excellent example of both types since it is a religion that through Sharia Law controls every aspects of one's life. Virtually enslaving the believer.

    National SOCIALIST German WORKERS Party, referred to in English as the NAZI Party (Hitler's socialism for the German 'Teutonic' Race). In reality though no different than the left's socialism.

    Like Stalin, for the white Russians, or Pol Pot, for the Khmer Rouge, or Ho Chi Minh, for the Viet Minh, or Mao, for the Han Chinese.

    Socialist Gods that brought death and misery to tens if not hundreds of millions of humans.

    Let us not forget our SOCIALIST God, Mein Lord God High Führer Obama, for America’s liberal elite, Muslims, OWS and welfare voters on the dole.

    January 8, 2012 at 8:32 am |
    • Mark

      Shame on you! You're off your meds again, aren't you?

      January 8, 2012 at 9:40 am |
    • Ma

      Well said!,,, Obama needs to go

      January 8, 2012 at 11:17 am |
    • Kessi

      Obama is one of the few politicians I consider a real Christian. He tries to be kind and fair. He is loyal and supportive of his family and friends. He tries to be a good custodian of God's creation (ecology). He supports universal health care and education. Compassion, loyalty, kindness, intelligence and nurturing. That is what Christianity is supposed to be about. Not sanctimony and hate mongering.

      January 8, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  18. Khalil

    All is on the Old testaments. And Jesus makes the old testament's laws void and null -which is good. The old testaments law is to kill those who commit sin. Jesus re-news the law on which Moses have re-interpreted. God speaks with authority. Jesus tells who God really is in the new testament. Knowing Jesus is knowing God. One thing Jesus does not invalidate is the 10 commandments which God Himself wrote on the tablet. God bless us all and Godspeed!

    January 8, 2012 at 7:53 am |
    • Ruby Tewsday

      Well said! Bless you.

      January 8, 2012 at 8:42 am |
  19. Me

    OOpss! I meant my last response for another topic! Bishop "Spong-bob-square pants" got rocked by William Lane Craig in a debate you should all check it out on youtube. The "Bishop" is known for watering down the Bible. His mission is to reduce the Word of God to one sentence that reads.... "awwww just do what cha want ya'll "!!!. Oh and Taiping... Exlax might help...relax. / http://www.lordspromise.blogspot.com

    January 8, 2012 at 7:37 am |
  20. Me

    Believe me, no intellectual explination will ever change the heart of a person who isn't willing. I believe most people believe there is a God but they keep themselves distracted with life, the world, as well as their sins in order not to think about it. It's the simpliest explination in comparison to the LEAP of faith the humanist propose and so much so that the Bible states "The Heavens declare the glory of God". However, God is the only one able to transform the heart and the mind if only by humility and simplicity, we come to Him truly seeking honest answers. Peace to all! http://www.lordspromise.blogspot.com

    January 8, 2012 at 6:40 am |
    • Taiping

      I don't believe you. Ironic, isn't it? Why should I take your word for it? Who are you? Why don't you give us your address so we can give you our rebuttals in person? Are you skeptical of my peacefulness? Why? You don't take my word for it? Really?

      January 8, 2012 at 7:08 am |
    • Clueless in Cleveland


      Don't take Taipings rantings personally. He was abused as a child.

      January 8, 2012 at 10:03 am |
    • Christopher Fox

      Very well said Kahlil. You spoke truth without attacking, and without hate. Strong words from a strong soul. Thanks!

      January 8, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • Rick

      Perhaps we believe there is a god, but we do not believe it to be the same god that you believe in.

      January 8, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
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