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. Elliott Carlin

    Spong calling himself a Christian minister is like a surgeon who doesn't do surgery.
    What's the point if you don't believe in what it says?

    December 29, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
    • ImWithJeebus

      That's not what he is saying at all. He is meerly pointing out the fact that the Bible is a collection of stories passed between early Christians, then eventually written down and translated. So he is not disputing the message, rather pointing out not to take everything in it as historical fact.

      December 29, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
    • The Maurey Povich Bible Show

      THAT"S the problem here. He is pointing out, (just as he did in his book, "Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism), that in the end the fundies actually rob the scripture of it's ultimate meaning, by pretending it was written with a literal 21st Century world view, when it was written with a Bronze Age world view. If you don't get the difference, you seriously need an education.

      December 29, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
    • jj

      ...Bible is a collection of stories passed between early Christians...
      And stolen from earlier beliefs. There were dozens of religious storylines that were taken over by christians. Virgin birth – at the solstice, coming back from the dead, son of god...

      December 29, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
  2. Kate

    I am not a believer,yet I am not an athiest. I don't identify religiously or.spiritually at all. And this is this is the most beautifully written and eloquent piece I have ever read on the subject of biblical interpretation. I wish today's more severe and militant Christians could read this and be open to its message, as well as the most stringent athiests. We CAN just all get along 🙂

    December 29, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
    • TRH

      Well-said. You are an agnostic I would guess. As you have seen by the vast majority of the responses in this forum, most of which have been by theists, it's easy to see that there is a problem with Christianity as it is practiced today. Mr. Spong is being essentially pilloried by believers. His interpretation as you have pointed out, seems to be to "soft" for their liking. Amazing isn't it?

      Then they take issue with Mr. Spong's 'facts' in a very detailed fashion...each one claiming to KNOW the TRUE meaning of scripture. It's all quite silly and laughable. They don't even seem to know how absurd they all sound. They even name-call one another.

      But here's what isn't funny: Christianity seems to be preaching a message of hate, bigotry, intolerance, and the suppression of common sense. The theists' opposition ON THIS VERY FORUM to Mr. Spong's gentle message seem to validate that concern in my mind.

      A belief that whose bible interpretation can lead to even ONE hate group is just WRONG. I cite the Westboro Baptist Church as a prime example. And take my word, there are others.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
  3. mb2010a

    I like this guy...his interpretations of the Bible are just a believable as any of the arguments the "churches" put out there.

    December 29, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
  4. backmac

    If "The Bible is, thus, not about religion at all but about becoming deeply and fully human." Then it should fit well in "our increasingly non-religious world.".

    December 29, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
  5. Jack

    This "discussion" of the Bible surpises me not one bit coming from an Episcopalian bishop. The Episcopalians are North American Anglicans. Read "Amazing Grace" about William Wilberforce's efforts in the late 1700s/early 1800s to eliminate the slave trade. That book describes the Anglican clergy of that period as completely ignorant of real Christianity and as secular toadies to the debauched rich and powerful of England. Not much has changed in 200 years.

    December 29, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
    • Binky42

      My Brand of Christianity is better than your Brand! Nanny nanny boo boo!

      All Christians come from the Catholic Church, and the Catholics have done some of the most horrendous things in history.

      December 29, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
    • DamianKnight

      Wasn't it the Episcopalian church that was designed by Henry VIII so he could divorce Catherine and marry Anne Bolyn? I can't remember.

      "All Christians come from the Catholic Church, and the Catholics have done some of the most horrendous things in history."

      Isn't that like saying if you're of German heritage, you're responsible for the Holocaust? If we're held to this standard, then we're all guilty of some pretty horrendous things. After all, all cultures have had quite a few brutalities in their past.

      December 29, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
  6. Tony

    Its like listening to Star Trek fans argue about whether Captain Kirk ever said "Beam me up Scotty". At the end of the day its fiction and really doesn't matter.

    December 29, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
    • ImWithJeebus

      Except we can prove that Star Trek is fiction. Whether or not you believe in God or follow Christianity, nobody can prove God's existence. That's why we say we have FAITH.

      December 29, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
    • Tony

      Precisely my point. Why all the bickering over something that can't be proved and isn't tangible. You are right; Star Trek fiction actually has a leg up on the fiction discussed here because we can actually go back and review what happened without having to take someone's word for it in a book that has had more edits than any thing Hollywood could do.

      December 29, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
  7. Nicole Chardenet

    When Moses was trying to get Pharaoh to release the Jews from bondage in Egypt (yeah yeah, I know this it's quite questionable historically whether the Jews were ever enslaved in Egypt), God "hardened Pharaoh's heart" and made him reneg on his promise to release the Jews. Why would God do that? If he could "harden his heart", why didn't he soften Pharaoh's heart instead? Just one of the many stories in the Bible that doesn't make sense. The God of the OT is waaaaay nastier than the God of the NT...

    December 29, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
  8. bird

    More BS. Saying someone is a "Biblical scholar" is like saying I am a "Mad Magazine scholar". What does it mean? How can you study / have "scholarship", of something that has no empirical proof? Other than the author(s), who knows what they meant to say? Why would the people "involved" in the story, write it in a language they themselves did not speak? Like most fiction / propaganda the true answer died with the authors, and anyone claiming to know different is a liar.

    December 29, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
    • Binky42

      Put the Biblical scholars aside for a minute, and look at Historians. These are the guys who study the facts. Find me a single historian who looks to the Bible for historical facts. Biblical scholars take their historical cues from historians, not on blind faith.

      December 29, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
    • OK


      December 29, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
  9. Edward

    "First, people assume the Bible accurately reflects history. That is absolutely not so, and every biblical scholar recognizes it."
    The Author knows full well that every biblical scholar does not agree with this statement or most of the other claims he makes in this article.
    "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." I have read every book in the bible several times and I absolutely claim the Bible is "the word of God"
    If the author reads the word of God more closely, he may discover that Jesus states that in the last days there will be false teachers and wolves in sheep's clothing.

    December 29, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
    • Binky42

      Yeah, if you consider Billy Graham a "scholar"

      December 29, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
    • Nicole Chardenet

      You're right, what Bishop Spong should have said was "any RESPECTABLE Biblical scholar" recognizes that the Bible doesn't accurately reflect history. I mean, c'mon, so much of it is *clearly mythology*! Only a brainwashed rigidly dogmatic "Biblical scholar" would claim otherwise. The evidence simply isn't there to support otherwise.

      December 29, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
    • mb2010a

      The Bible is not the "word of God"...it is the word of man merely claiming it is the Word of God.

      December 29, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
    • Zingo

      But did Jesus predict that his followers woould be jackasses in dorks' clothing?

      December 29, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
    • One one

      Which one are you Edward, the sheep or the wolf?

      December 29, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
    • Stan

      Thanks for one of the only reasonable responses to this article. His statement about EVERY BIBLICAL SCHOLAR is nonsense! That is like saying EVERY scientist agrees with Catastrophic man-made global warming. I am a research meteorologist and I know of MANy fellow scientists who do not agree with that area. (I know that statement will get the cnn readers in an uproar). But someone like the author says ALL to make readers believe there is 100% consensus on his view which there is not.

      December 29, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
  10. jimeny

    Stories have been handed down for years by word of mouth and cultures have believed many as truth. Greek, Native American, etc... Why would someone believe one over the other?? There is no proof in any of them. If you want to say you take it on faith then that is fine but don't claim it as the WORD.

    December 29, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • Binky42

      Agreed. They thought the Illiad was a fairy tale, until Schliemann found the city of Troy. However, just because Troy did turn out to be a real city, doesn't mean that Achilles is the son of a god.

      December 29, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
    • SeanNJ

      @Binky42: Every tendon will rupture and every tongue confess, "OW, I just tore my damn Achilles! Damn you Son of God!!!"

      December 29, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
    • ImWithJeebus

      Most level-headed Christians do acknowledge most of being a Christian is relying on faith. As a Christian, I get really annoyed with people who claim the Bible is the direct word of God...especially an English-language Bible that has been translated in a way to promote an agenda (i.e. the King James Bible).

      December 29, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
  11. JustPixelz

    Taking the Bible literally is the best way to get the least of what it offers. As a non-Biblical example, we all understand the wisdom of "the boy who cried wolf" without needing to believe that incident ever actually happened.

    Outside the Bible, God always obeys the laws of physics and probability. People don't live 900 years, the Sun doesn't stop in the sky (or more accurately, the Earth doesn't stop rotating), water doesn't turn to wine (sigh).

    December 29, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
  12. Tao of Jester

    "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 B.C., or 40 to 70 years after his crucifixion..."

    Shouldn't that be "written between the years 70 to 100 A.D."? Actually, it should be B.C.E. and C.E., but no reason to get really picky with a major news site.

    December 29, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
    • ImWithJeebus

      The disclaimer at the bottom of the essay stated the writings are solely the opinion of the author. Not to get too picky with an obnoxious commenter.

      December 29, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
  13. tv

    In refence to Mr. Spong's claims on the gospels; Since when does leaving something out about the life of someone in their biography mean that it didn't happen? And when someone else includes it in their biography, it is an embellishment?

    December 29, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
    • Binky42

      If it is a supposed miracle and one of the main points of Christianity, it does seem a bit odd when the four Gospels can't agree on it. Right?

      December 29, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • frank

      To say 'they don't agree' you would have to show actually discrepancies, not merely that they are not carbon copies of one another.

      Any TRUE bible scholar can discuss at length why a physicians account of Jesus would differ form a tax collectors account of Jesus.

      The author of this article looses all credibility when he claims Malachi was the first "who finally saw God as a universal experience, transcending all national and tribal boundaries", completely ignoring Paul's writings to the Gentiles.

      I am astonished by the author's 'third grade' understanding of the Bible.

      December 29, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
    • Aces2Jokers

      Embellishment is part of the oral tradition. What makes a potentially boring story better? A little pizazz on the facts. After a few decades of passing stories down orally that little pizazz added here or there has now become a full on myth.

      Yes Paul Bunyan was the size of a mountain and could fell 20 trees with one swing.

      December 29, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
  14. Mark

    comments don't work

    December 29, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
    • LinCA


      You said, "comments don't work"

      CNN uses automated censoring that looks for words, or fragments of words, that are considered offensive. My guess is that your post had had a forbidden word in it. Posts that contain too many URLs will also get rejected.

      Repeat posts, even those that were previously censored and not displayed, will show a message stating that you posted it before.

      The following words or word fragments will get your post censored (list is incomplete):
      wonderful us (don't ask.....)

      To circumvent the filters you can break up the words by putting an extra character in, like: consti.tution (breaking the oh so naughty "tit").

      December 29, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
    • The Maurey Povich Bible Show

      Seriously, what IS wrong with that "wonderful" phrase ? I don't get that one. Just a clue please.

      December 29, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
    • LinCA

      @The Maurey Povich Bible Show

      You said, "Seriously, what IS wrong with that "wonderful" phrase ? I don't get that one. Just a clue please."

      I don't know what is wrong with it. It was reported as tripping the filters. I just added it to the list. I haven't the slightest clue as to why that would have to be banned.

      December 29, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
    • The Maurey Povich Bible Show

      Oh OK. It DOES trip the filter. Just thought you knew, as you KNOW EVERYTHING. 8)
      Thanks. I also cannot for the life of me, figure that one out.

      December 29, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
  15. Shawn

    Misconception #1 – God is real. (so is Santa and the Easter Bunny)

    December 29, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
    • Jeff

      amen and amen

      December 29, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
  16. jerryg

    If a God had wanted us to believe the Bible was inspired, he could have caused several unrelated writers to produce the same writing at the same time. Instead all we have to establish the "divinely inspired" claim is the word of the (human) writer – which can not be taken at face value.

    December 29, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
    • jj

      Or god could have appeared in front of every individual person and told the stories. And left a few signed books behind, for the readers. The very fact that most cultures have gods, 'holy' books and miracles, and they aren't the same, clearly tells every thinking being that these are all myths.
      Was it Twain that said religion was started when the first con man met the first gullible stooge?

      December 29, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
    • frank

      How about discovering a thousand year old copy in a cave and comparing them to current versions? The Dead Sea Scrolls are those exact copies.

      December 29, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      "Exact" copies? Are you sure?

      December 29, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
  17. Nicholas Voss

    I read, digested, and then found out that it is....what is that I am trying to say...darn it, those voices in my head just disappeared.

    December 29, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
    • ImWithJeebus

      Most of us don't claim to have direct conversations with God, fyi. In fact, a lot of us think the people who think God talks to them are crazy too...

      December 29, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
  18. DW257

    Spong is at it again. We can not allow culture to change biblical standards. There are absolute truths.

    '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?'

    Absolutely. Because it isn't one person telling it. If 600 people are telling the same story (and more than 600 were involved in this case), then any changes in the narrative would have been called out by the other 599 because the story and historicity of Abraham was told to the Israelite's to be preserved.

    Spong needs to stop writing one sided articles and go back to debating James White of aomin.org. At least then people can understand both sides and see Spong's lies for what they are.

    December 29, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • Binky42

      Culture has already changed Biblical standards...unless you still believe in the Flat Earth theory.

      December 29, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
    • Nicole Chardenet

      The four Gospel writers couldn't even agree on the Jesus history. I'm supposed to believe 45 generations of people who may or may not have good memories all got it right?!?!

      December 29, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
    • DW257

      @Binky...and where does the Bible mention anything about Flat Earth Theory? I assume you reference Revelation 1:7 in regards to the four corners of the earth? It actually refers to the four cardinal directions of N, S, E, W. In fact, the Bible speaks more of the earth being spherical than anything else. Check this out...


      December 29, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
    • Great Lakes

      God is a myth. Religion is lies.

      December 29, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
    • DW257

      @Nicole: I'd ask for specific examples here. The truth is that the Gospel writers are extremely accurate in what they wrote, especially in regards to the history of Jesus.

      December 29, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
    • DW257

      @Great Lakes: And yet you come to the religion blog on CNN. Trolling Fool.

      December 29, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
    • Grant

      Can you provide genuine research that supports your opinion of oral histories? Oral histories by their very nature are very fluid and change over time. This fact does not prove his argument true but your argument is not supported by fact.

      December 29, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
    • Great Lakes

      And you responded. So who's the fool?

      December 29, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
    • The Maurey Povich Bible Show

      You have an "an_al retentive" personality disorder. You REQUIRE ABSOLUTE facts. Everything will be ok.
      I bet your groceries are in alphabetical order in the cupboard. If you let that "absolute" BS go, you won't be so uptight.
      There are meds that can help.

      December 29, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
    • frank

      Grant: Research the Dead Sea Scrolls

      December 29, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
    • DW257

      @Grant: Some basis for determination can be found here:


      December 29, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
    • DW257

      @ Maury: Requiring Absolute truths and believing that there are absolute truths are 2 different things. Either something is moral or it isn't. It should not be allowed to change.

      December 29, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
    • DW257

      @ Great Lakes: Who is the fool? The fool has said in his heart 'There is no God'. Thanks for proving my point.

      December 29, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
  19. Marc Perkel

    Who cares? It's just a dumb book.

    December 29, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • Jamie

      There is a lot of wisdom in that book. It is one of the human race's greatest achievements in literature.

      December 29, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
    • ImWithJeebus

      Who cares if you care? Certainly not me!

      December 29, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
    • jj

      Maybe it's a great accomplishment, but it's just stories, parables and guidance. The bibles weren't written by god, told by god, approved by any god. They are like the Dear Abby of their times, telling illiterate people how to live – or you will be smited and the Devil will getcha!

      December 29, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
  20. enigma65

    It's so clear that Jesus is here with us today... in the flesh. And his name is Kim Jong Un!

    December 29, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
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About this blog

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