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. GOD


    January 11, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
    • JESUS


      January 13, 2012 at 10:54 am |
  2. JL

    I knew I should have stopped reading after "John Shelby Spong, a former Episcopal bishop of Newark,"
    How far this church has fallen from the word of God. There are so many errors in this blog, that it is not even worth refuting. One thing I can say, is this guy has fallen way off track, if he ever even was on track. His utter lack of a gospel message and his desire to be "deeply human" rather than holy and conformed to God's show what side he's on.

    January 11, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
  3. Recovering Republican

    Bishop Spong completely gets it right. Unfortunately, he is but one calm loving voice in a sea of Christian zealots with personal agendas. Nice to know Christians like Bishop Spong exist. There is hope for Faith in the wolrd, but it will have to wait until all the zealots kill one another, collateral damage to be extensive.

    January 11, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
    • Douglas

      Your signature is "Recovering Republican" OK... I can challenge this by simply calling myself another "recovering republican" and then redefine what that means in a contrary manor to how you meant it. If you disagree, you must be a zealot. If Christians believe the bible to be true and historical, to say that they should believe otherwise would in fact mean that they do not meet the traditional definition of a "Christian". If someone supposedly representing Christianity takes a contrary position to it, clearly he is not a reliable spokesman for Christianity. In fact, this author appears to claim to he a historian as well, though doesn't bother to give proof of this either. Therefore, it is simply another opinion and should be treated as such. Opinions come and go. If you chose to have faith in them, it's up to you. But we chose to believe God and His immutable truth.

      January 11, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
  4. Todd

    If the bible was wriiten today, it would be a Mythogical fiction. Religion was designed to control the weak!

    January 11, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
  5. Baxter

    I am a firm believer that there is a God, I was raised Greek Orthodox but have more agnostic beliefs. I feel that the teachings of the bible and Jesus have some great value and people can learn a lot from reading the Bible. My only problem is too many people put so much stock and take a lot of what is written as law and truth. Like many on here have said the Bible was written by men and these men lived in a time where lightning and thunder were acts of God and the Earth was the center of the universe. You take those same people and put them in todays world they would view a simple act of turning on a light as a miracle. Also SOME of these same people are writing about accounts that they heard second hand and we all know a lot can be lost and be embelished when hearing from another person. Who is to say the ones who did witnessthe acts of Jesus didn't embelish what they saw. Fact of the matter is none of us were there when any of these stories happened or written by a primitive age of humans. The Bible has some valuable teachings but to put the blinders on and look at what was written as law then that is plain ignorant.

    January 11, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
  6. OGR99

    "The Bible is, thus, not about religion at all but about becoming deeply and fully human."

    No. The bible clearly teaches us to become more Christ-like. We tried being fully human. Hasn't really worked out the way God intended it. See Genesis 3.

    What a bunch of humanistic drivel.

    January 11, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • not so mr joe

      I agree with you wholeheartedly. He doesn't appear to truly give credit where credit is due. The Bible is "God-breathed" and the Gospel accounts are exactly that....accounts, of what Jesus did, who He was and Is. Paul and Peter also have accounts, which are written after the crucifixion, but they only add to the love, mercy and hope Jesus gives each of us. I'm fairly certain Peter was not only AT the crucifixion, but he was in the 'front row' so to speak. And Paul was no second-hand reporter; he helped to stone Steven, the first Christian martyr, and went on several missionary journeys. He was also VISITED BY CHRIST. Unless the Bible is full of deceitful characters, which if it is we had all better just give up now, CHRIST IS WHO HE SAID HE IS, and we have cause to PRAISE HIM and seek to be like Him.

      January 11, 2012 at 11:55 am |
    • rick

      As opposed to religious drivel?

      January 13, 2012 at 4:59 am |
  7. messenger

    what a nut

    January 11, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  8. Greg Jobe

    He is wrong on all 3 points. This is America and he is free to believe what he wants, but his views do not reflect the commonly held views of Biblical scholars. He is not terribly consistent either. If he is correct, there really is nothing left of value in the Christian faith. So he should just close up shop and go home.

    January 11, 2012 at 10:07 am |
  9. John Creamer

    I think Bishop Spong is brilliant and I appreciate his effort to reconcile a colllection of ancient stories–some written millennia ago–with our modern spiritual struggle.

    January 11, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  10. Jeremy

    The Bible and the Old testament is the history of the Jewish people. This man should never have been a bishop. He obviously is not even a Christian, because Christians believe in the Word of God.

    January 11, 2012 at 9:46 am |
    • theonioneaters

      what word of god is that exactly? the one written down by man? the MP3 you downloaded from your church website? whose god are you talking about? yours? mine? that one guy that lives in the deepest jungles of New Guinea.

      January 11, 2012 at 10:22 am |
    • not so mr joe

      @theonioneaters- there is only one God; His name is YHWH, the holiest name. He is Justice, Mercy, Wrath, Grace, Love, Peace, Alpha, Omega, Father, Son, Holy Ghost. You will meet Him one day though you partake of His blessings each day. Christ died for you and me and everyone else. We will each of us be held in account of what we have done with His blessings. May you answer His call before it is too late.

      January 11, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • rick

      notso: you do realize that warning people about retaliation from beings in which they do not believe is only so convincing, don't you?

      January 13, 2012 at 5:02 am |
  11. christ-like

    When it's all said and done, the bible will prove itself and its value. Therefore, there is no need to defend the bible; just to realize that those things written thousands of years ago has lined up with today's society....(I wonder why)

    The bible has had an affected on everyone, you can not ignore what it says. Either you believe in it and live accordingly, or you don't and you are fighting to make it seem fictional either way it is effecting you.

    What it boils down to is you are wrong and the Word of God is true can you accept your consequences; If you are right and the bible is not true will boasting about being right change anything in your life??

    January 11, 2012 at 8:34 am |
    • Son of a Preacherman

      The argument about guessing about the consequences of whether you are right or wrong to suggest one should lay odds on belief or faith is weak and narrow minded. Read about the gospels, and the gnostic gospels, why many religions share the same biblical stories but brach off in different paths, how the Bible came to be, (more politics than religion, although some could argue that God used those politics to shape his ultimate Word). Do you even question why your faith is the exact, only true way and others are misguided, at best?

      January 11, 2012 at 9:09 am |
    • bioman

      Did you even read what the article said? Anyone who believes that the bible was inspired by a devine power is an idiot.

      January 11, 2012 at 9:38 am |
    • OGR99

      Bioman- A book comprised of 66 letters written over a 1500 year span by both paupers and princes, men and women, is discounted as fable without divine guidance.

      But, we're supposed to believe that the works of Shakespeare and others are true because of what? Do we even have an original copy to compare with? Do we have witnesses to the event of the writing?

      January 11, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • somewhere in amaerica

      That is why it is called "faith."

      January 11, 2012 at 11:39 am |
  12. Danbug

    The writer of this article is obviously ignorant of many facts. Fristly, the biblical scholars of Jesus' days study the Bible using the Greek language. Ever heard of the Septuagint? Therefore it stands to reason that the New Testament would be written in Greek.
    Also, he claims that those who consider the Bible historical have never read it. I've read it many times over and consider it historical. The book of Daniel accurately predicted the rise and fall of the Grecian and Roman empires.
    He also discounts all of the extra-biblical writings that verify the Bible.
    Is this a hit piece or what?

    January 11, 2012 at 7:15 am |
  13. this3ndup

    Perhaps Mr. Spong is not the authority he would have us believe. The truth is, much of what he claims is mere speculation. Worse, other statements either reveal his own ignorance or a desire to exploit the ignorance of others who are eager to accept his "scholarship" as ammunition to undermine the Bible's authority. It is true that there are difficult passages and concepts in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament. But the statement that "all scholars" agree with this perspective is narrow-minded and patently false. Many respected conservative scholars take a literal approach to the Bible and defend the historicity and validity of the text against critics such as Mr. Spong. There is not a universal "scholarly" perspective on the Bible, and there are many schools of thought.

    But there are even blatant misrepresentations of actual statements in the Biblical text. For example, Mr. Spong takes issue with the guidance given to Christian slaves to submit to their masters or to women to submit to their husbands; yet he neglects the commands given IN THE SAME PASSAGES that slave masters must treat their slaves with respect and husbands must love their wives as Christ loved the church, being willing to sacrifice themselves for her. The Bible commands mutual love and respect; Mr. Spong's one-sided representation clearly demonstrates his bias.

    The prophets he mentions were not the first to expound on such particular attributes of God; for example, Hosea was not the first to assign love to God. Likewise, Amos didn't "change" God's character to justice. Such themes run throughout the Old Testament. The bottom line is that while Mr. Spong is correct in identifying certain difficulties in Biblical scholarship, he is far from even-handed or even particularly knowledgable in his statements about the Bible.

    How do I know? I've read it. All of it. As an aspiring Biblical scholar myself, I've also examined the wide spectrum of opinions on the difficult themes Mr. Spong presents and have arrived at very different conclusions. I would suggest that anyone do the same before accepting such brief, biased and unfounded "scholarship." I recognize that many will disagree with my belief in the literal truth and historical validity of the Bible, but they certainly should not do so based on comments like these from Mr. Spong.

    January 10, 2012 at 11:57 pm |
    • Robert Harris

      While I applaud your lucid, concise, and clear rebuttal, I think you unfairly dismissed one of Mr. Spong's points. The fact that God commanded the slave masters to "treat their slaves with respect " implies that this "god" was not only okay with slavery but actually condoned it and directed the slaves to obey. Really? Does that sound like a just and loving god...or the words of men who simply want to control others? You refer to these as "difficult" passages. I don't think they are difficult...they are quite clear. They simply can't be reconciled as the words of God.

      January 11, 2012 at 8:14 am |
    • Jack

      The act of slavery is hatred – the only way to show love and respect to a slave is to set him/her free. The fact is that people wrote the Bible and we have realized that some of the views they had (slavery, genocide against enemies) were evil. (Rev.?) Spong is pointing out that we should look at the Bible not as a set of rules say what is good but as a history of a people learning (incompletely) what is good and trying to improve their world with love, justice, etc, and thus a guide to show us how to look at injustice and improve our own world.

      Also, about the prophets he says are the first to say things: I'm not an expert, but I know that the Old Testament is not in exact chronological order, and maybe he means first in history, not first in the text?

      January 11, 2012 at 11:47 am |
  14. Marshall

    I personally know dozens of religious scholars including Al Mohler, Danny Akin, Richard Land, Trent C. Butler, and Timothy George. All of which are holders of mulitple higher level degrees that are fully accredited, and not be some independent fundamental organization, but by organizations that are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. All of these men would disagree at every level with this man at every level of his argument.

    January 10, 2012 at 11:35 pm |
  15. hilreal

    Remeber that the Bible was written by men that were just a few generations from cave men.....

    January 10, 2012 at 9:12 pm |
    • Btea

      The bible also says that, God chose certain people to convey his word, and that they had no control over what they wrote!

      January 11, 2012 at 9:44 am |
  16. shawbrooke

    Bishop Spong wants us to consider a book that he does not believe. That won't wash. And as for his knowledge about what went on in the first century AD, he's guessing. Presenting a guess as a theory is one thing, but presenting a guess as a fact is not acceptable. I am going to be ignoring the former Bishop and I think that his church should repudiate his comments.

    January 10, 2012 at 9:03 pm |
    • hilreal

      He didn't say he didn't "believe" it just that historically it is not very acurate....

      January 10, 2012 at 9:14 pm |
  17. Evangiline

    If ones mind stays closed to science, or anything else for that matter, the human race will not improve, but revert back to holocosts, inquisitions, wars over God. Opening your mind doesn't mean you have to believe everything, it just means you aren't blind.

    January 10, 2012 at 8:55 pm |
  18. uponthisrock

    The Bile is not a History Book about the human race.. The Old Testament is the History of the Jews, the Book of Acts is the
    History of the beginning Church. There is no other history about man recorded in the Bible that would show us how what where and when concerning human life. The Bible is more of a "Mystery" book than a History book, but then God Himself and the life Jesus lived is a mystery. "Now we see thru a glass darkly ......but then we shall see face to face",... Paul wrote to the Corithians.

    January 10, 2012 at 8:46 pm |
  19. GASocaler

    "First, people assume the Bible accurately reflects history. That is absolutely not so, and every biblical scholar recognizes it."
    LOL. By this fourth sentence if you don't understand that there will be more nonsense coming then I don't know what else to tell you. This is ridiculous: "BIBLE...REFLECTS HISTORY... ABSOLUTELY NOT SO... EVERY BIBLICAL SCHOLAR RECOGNIZES IT". My eyes haven't stopped rolling... Just think of all the readers that read this whole article and haven't even thought that four sentences into it a bologna sandwich is what they were eating. Oh... To tickle the ears of those that want to hear what they wanted to hear.

    January 10, 2012 at 7:46 pm |
    • bologna mann

      bologney mann really knows boloney–he even smells like it.

      January 10, 2012 at 8:46 pm |
    • jeff

      OK...So what's YOUR explanation?

      January 11, 2012 at 12:07 am |
  20. scientificpoetry

    The bible was a book written by men in a time of great ignorance of how nature worked. It should not be taken literally.

    January 10, 2012 at 7:43 pm |
    • GASocaler

      Oh you like bologna sandwiches too? This article was so hollow. Reread that fourth sentence and tell me this guy is going to tell you how it is? Come on and wake up already, such a joke. "EVERY BIBLICAL SCHOLAR" agrees that the bible doesn't reflect history. Oh my ... the world is in trouble if they are being lead by this that is for sure.

      January 10, 2012 at 7:50 pm |
    • hilreal

      GA....I am assuming that you have personally spoken to many religous scholars at various universities around the world and not just your local yokal holy roller preacher type? Can you give us the names of several scholars with whom you have persional communications with?

      January 10, 2012 at 9:11 pm |
    • Btea

      Well once again, the men who wrote the bible were under the influence God, and they had no control over what they wrote! That is written in the bible!

      January 11, 2012 at 9:47 am |
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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.