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. CoCoDol52


    January 18, 2012 at 12:51 am |
  2. Sasha

    This man has presented an argument, which may be flawed as many arguments are, but he presented it in a non-offensive, respectful manner, clearly indicating that much of this is opinion.
    I fail to understand why people can't comment with the same amount of thought, respect and tolerance that this man has presented in this specific article. (I don't know his full view points, I'm simply referring to this article).

    With that said, I think he makes a lot of claims, such as the years and historical accuracy of the bible, that he doesn't back up with fact. Not that he's lying, I just think he'd be more plausible with a more concrete argument, especially since he acknowledges that he's presenting the bible to a less and less religious world, meaning the whole "It's the Bible, therefore it's true" argument won't fly.
    Although the idea of progression in the bible is one I really agree with. Because all too often, I feel that the Bible's main message, in my opinion, of love and tolerance for EVERYONE is overlooked by specific and menial things in the bible or stories that have been taken out of context. If we look at the book as a progression and as one written by humans (who definitely make mistakes), then perhaps we won't be so picky at the bible and find less justifications for what Spong accurately calls the "cruelest kind of inhumanity".
    I think people need to look at the bible as a text which many people base live their lives according to. And if good people can live productive lives in which they go above and beyond the norm of charity and kindness AND they believe in the bible, can't we appreciate that? Although of course, we also need to be aware of those who do terrible things in the name of the bible.
    But as with any text, you can't blame the text for the actions that an individual commits. Individual responsibility can't give way to the excuse that "Well, it was in the bible!". It just doesn't hold. Good things and bad things come from the bible, it's all up to the reader and I think that the best way to combat ignorance is through reasonable, respectful, and civil debates/lectures.

    January 17, 2012 at 11:10 pm |
    • buddhabill

      Why did God develop an interest in one particular bunch of goat-herders when there were far more advanced civilizations in Asia, South America and India? Why does God play favorites? Why did God suddenly decide that he didn't need animal sacrifices anymore? Why does God tolerate so many different versions of his Word? Why did God doom hundreds of millions of people, for scores of generations to limbo, purgatory or hell because the Word of Jesus hadn't gotten to them? When Moses parted the Red Sea, did he also pave the bottom or was it rocky, muddy, steep and irregular in places? Was it jesus or God who decided there should be a Pope? So many questions for Religion when one cannot be Spiritual, which is the one-on-one connection with God. No dogma required.

      January 17, 2012 at 11:35 pm |
  3. G. Zeus Kreiszchte

    Only THREE misconceptions? Hmmm....there are SO MANY holes that can be poked into that poorly fabricated mythology it's sad.

    If the Judaic creation story is correct, and "god" didn't put "lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night" until the 4th day, then where did the "light" come from on the first day?

    Where did all those extra people come from who were automatically just THERE outside the "Garden of Eden" when the allegedly "only people in the world" were thrown out of the "Garden"?

    Did Noah collect all the microorganisms in existence before the "Great Flood"? Did Noah painstakingly put them all in separate petri dishes, saving all those goodies for all of us future generations to enjoy? HIV, HPV, ebola, etc.? I would mention MRSA but then that only just EVOLVED in the 20th century due to overuse of antibiotics! Oh wait! That's right! They didn't KNOW about microorganisms back then! Furthermore, VIRUSES, as we know NOW, are technically not even life forms, so there is NO WAY any biblical apologist can claim that the authors MUST HAVE MEANT viruses too! Are we to believe that by some extremely improbable chance that Noah unknowingly chose just the right combination of infected MACRO animals just to provide hosts for the entire gamut of microorganisms to continue into the future? Regardless, did Noah also go around making sure he gathered representatives of all the parasites that we have to deal with now? Ticks, lice, leeches, bedbugs, tapeworms, mosquitoes, etc., etc., etc.? What a gentleman! Thanks Noah! Anyway, the point is moot because Noah is totally copied from the Babylonian story of Gilgamesh which preexisted this Jewish version by about 1100 years!

    The concept of "hell" evolved over the biblical timeline. It started out merely as Sheol, an underworld not unlike the Greek Hades, to which ALL the dead went regardless of their moral character during this physical life. It was not until much later that the fire and brimstone, eternal punishment crap was added. Read the book from the beginning with the purpose of discovering this one fact and you will see.

    The list goes on and on but I get tired of typing.

    January 17, 2012 at 9:08 pm |
  4. G. Zeus Kreiszchte

    With most of this article being about discrediting the phony @$s bible, it's a wonder this author is trying to defend it in the end!

    January 17, 2012 at 8:55 pm |
  5. TJeff1776

    Josephus, the Roman General and historian, acknowledges the presence of Jesus and his followers. He considered them trouble-makers. One of the above writers falsely claims the Book of Revelations as "thats why there are no more additions to the Bible". Of course, in the present addition that is the case. HOWEVER, prior to the 14th century ALL the books were simply floating around individually. AND it is a proven fact, that REV. was actually written BEFORE some of the other books. Actually, the statement at the end of REV obviously ONLY pertains to the Book of Revelations. Biblical scholars have accepted the Book of Thomas, recently found under a large boulder along the Dead Sea. What we do ????? Act like this Book doesn't exist.

    January 17, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
  6. Dusty

    As a graduate student in seminary at a major university, I can say with certain fact that there are several things that this supposed expert has stated that are absolutely false in regards to the historicity of Scripture and it's content. Honestly, regardless of your opinion of the Bible, and whether you believe in God or not, that's not the point. This piece purely from a journalistic standpoint leaves a lot lacking and for that, it's frustrating.

    January 17, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
    • J.W

      I am not sure I understand exactly what you disagree with.

      January 17, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
  7. Did not

    Yes i did
    You're stupid!
    No, you're stupid
    Nuh uh, you are
    No I'm not, you are
    Yes you are
    No, you are
    You're going to Hell
    No I'm not
    Yes you are
    no I'm not
    Yes you are
    There is no Hell
    Yes there is
    no there isn't

    January 17, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
  8. Rico

    This guy who wrote this is an idiot,

    " and they were written in Greek, a language that neither Jesus nor any of his disciples spoke or were able to write."

    This is why God chose Paul ,he was highly educated for a man of that time ,he was a roman citizen and was fluent enough in Greek to write the new testament and to travel through Greece teaching and i don`t think all the Greeks he taught were fluent in Latin.

    January 17, 2012 at 10:29 am |
    • SeanNJ

      @Rico: You mean like when Heath Ledger got Paul Bellamy to create his patents so that he could joust on the tournament circuit?

      January 17, 2012 at 10:34 am |
    • DawgPoundMBA


      January 17, 2012 at 11:44 am |
  9. Did not

    Prove to me that god exists!
    Prove to me that god does not exist!
    I just did!
    Did not.
    Did to
    Did not
    Did to
    Did not
    Did to
    You prove it first
    I already did
    Now YOU prove your position
    I already did
    Did not
    Did to
    Did not
    Did to

    January 17, 2012 at 9:03 am |
    • Jelf

      You forgot to point out any spelling errors and typos – the ULTIMATE argument winner

      January 17, 2012 at 11:43 am |
  10. RLONG


    January 17, 2012 at 2:31 am |
  11. Illumination

    Man created religion. Every single one! Did Moses had a bible? Abraham? And why all religious bible stops at a certain point? Where are today's prophets? Why can the bible continue to be written for our future generation? All religions praise the same god but through ignorance of man we created a members only club...

    January 16, 2012 at 10:50 pm |
    • rick

      Todays prophets are more interested in profits

      January 17, 2012 at 8:55 am |
    • Ran

      Read the bok of revelation, the last verse. That's why there are no more additons to the bible.

      January 17, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
    • CoCoDol52

      Illumination, Yes man created religion, for YHWH the Creator of all the living is a Spiritual Strong One, of righteousness and of peace for all no matter the skin. And Abraham did have the law in Genesis 26v5, and Moses in Deut.31v24-26, and in vs.27-29 it was already known by Moses that the people will corrupt themselves in the 'latter days' this means the people in the beginning of the 4th kingdom through now days. The prophets that you speak of today will have to wait, although many people may call them prophets, and they can call him that but it is not until they hear from YHWH God then they can claim this so one would be pretty darn brave to just say they are a prophet they have to get sanctified by the Almighty first permission. And yes all religions are idolatry said by Moses in Duet.32v17 and Daniel 11v36-45 of strange gods that our fathers Abraham Isaac and Jacob knew not, YHWH is Spiritual and right and He did not change His Word nor His law of righteousness, man did over in the NT(not true). The book of remembrance, so called OT in Gen.-Malachi has the truth of YHWH. He named His book in Malachi 3v16. It was probably in more places but was taken out just as His name was to mislead the flocks. The OT is not old it tells the past the present and the future and many scholars are too baffled to understand it one needs more than the carnal eye you need spiritualityand love to read it. That nt began in the 4th cn when times got real ugly for the poor, the undesireables is what they call it, and minorities. Do not get on the good ship jesus the NT and the first slave ship.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
  12. Iqbal Khan


    January 16, 2012 at 8:26 pm |
    • Slappy

      Ron Paul is dangerously naive. He says what every liberal Democrat, and third world tyrant wants to hear.

      January 17, 2012 at 5:22 am |
  13. Gnosis

    I love all these nit wits who give themselves names like "666" and "burningones" and other so-called demonic and iconoclastic names. They really think they are moving heaven and earth – shaking up the angels; rallying the demons, and frightening the believers, when in fact they are simply pathetic computer geeks with a chip on their shoulder.

    Poor little devils!

    January 16, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
    • Gnosis

      Ps – at least they get to be somebody here!

      January 16, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
  14. Gnosis

    The Episcopal Church is losing 2.2% of their parishioners a year – that's compounded interest! They'll be oob in 40 yrs. Spong will be dead by then, but all the children of his current cheerleaders can thank him. They, of course, will all be post-Christian operatives of the Democratic party, which will be officially atheist by then.

    January 16, 2012 at 8:10 pm |
  15. b4bigbang

    The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Shelby Spong.

    and his little band of doubting pseudo-intellectuals....

    January 16, 2012 at 7:28 pm |
  16. Russell

    The Bible is the Word of God. It is "God breathed"
    I encourage the author of this blog to exercise at least some degree of journalistic integrity.
    God loves every single person that He has ever created more than we can even grasp. Regardless of what we "think".
    Taking the history provided in the old testament as "rules to live by" is ridiculous. God has been up front with us from
    Day 1 (When he created us). Using what we think (a creation) as a tool to measure God (creator and Lord) is crazy.
    We can not wrap our pea brains around "what God thinks" but by reading the Bible and looking for illumination from the Holy Spirit we can get a small/microscopic glimpse at how He feels about us.

    January 16, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
    • LinCA


      You said, "The Bible is the Word of God. It is "God breathed""
      Baloney. It's the fairy tales of sheep herders, afraid of the dark.

      You said, "God loves every single person that He has ever created more than we can even grasp. Regardless of what we "think"."
      Is that why virtually everyone that lives, or has ever lived, will end up in hell for eternity? Because he loves us?

      You said, "Taking the history provided in the old testament as "rules to live by" is ridiculous."
      As is anything else in the bible.

      You said, "Using what we think (a creation) as a tool to measure God (creator and Lord) is crazy.
      We can not wrap our pea brains around "what God thinks" but by reading the Bible and looking for illumination from the Holy Spirit we can get a small/microscopic glimpse at how He feels about us.
      You seem to think that you have this god of your pretty well figured out for someone with a pea brain (your words).

      January 16, 2012 at 8:27 pm |
    • 0G-No gods, ghosts or goblins

      Russel, how about *you* exercise some journalistic integrity. I suggest you start by proving that your god, or any god, exists. I look forward to reading the first successful proof – I won't be holding my breath while I wait.

      January 16, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
    • Mario

      @ Russell you are right, keep holding up the light. @ o-g sooner or later you will find out that God is real, but if you don't want to be wrong about how you think there are two thing you need to make sure never take place. 1: You can never die, and 2: you have to make sure Jesus never returns. @ LinCA study for yourself, both you two may never admit it but you have or will call me God for help or you pray(ed) one time in your life. HE IS REAL.

      January 16, 2012 at 8:58 pm |
    • 0G-No gods, ghosts or goblins

      Mario, it sounds like you are trying to convince yourself by simply repeating "god is real!" especially given that you offer no proof. But this is not unusual as there is not a single bit of verifiable, independent evidence for your absurd claims.

      January 16, 2012 at 9:05 pm |
    • LinCA


      You said, "@ o-g sooner or later you will find out that God is real, but if you don't want to be wrong about how you think there are two thing you need to make sure never take place. 1: You can never die, and 2: you have to make sure Jesus never returns."
      That sounds an awful lot like someone who hasn't figured out Pascal's wager. Not believing in Thor and facing his wrath should be taken into account when you gamble with your eternal life. The same goes for Zeus and about a million of other gods.

      There isn't a single shred of evidence even suggesting that your god exists. Any rational person will dismiss any gods, just as they dismiss the Tooth Fairy.

      You said, "@ LinCA study for yourself, both you two may never admit it but you have or will call me God for help or you pray(ed) one time in your life. HE IS REAL."
      I studied the matter myself. That's part of the reason I don't believe in that nonsense anymore. Even Santa Claus is more likely to exist than your god. The silly beliefs of a 5 year old are more rational than those of your average believer.

      Your Jesus, if he ever lived, was most likely the spawn of an adulteress or a rape victim. In either case, he's long dead, most likely never to return again.

      January 16, 2012 at 9:28 pm |
    • DawgPoundMBA

      Your understanding of old testament is not consistent with Christian mythology as the mythology clearly states that the old testament must be followed and is not open for interpretation. By the bible itself, the hate established in the old testament must continue.

      “For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:18-19 RSV) Clearly the Old Testament is to be abided by until the end of human existence itself. None other then Jesus said so.

      All of the vicious Old Testament laws will be binding forever. "It is easier for Heaven and Earth to pass away than for the smallest part of the letter of the law to become invalid." (Luke 16:17 NAB)

      Jesus strongly approves of the law and the prophets. He hasn’t the slightest objection to the cruelties of the Old Testament. "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest part or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place." (Matthew 5:17 NAB)

      "Know this first of all, that there is no prophecy of scripture that is a matter of personal interpretation, for no prophecy ever came through human will; but rather human beings moved by the holy Spirit spoke under the influence of God." (2 Peter 20-21 NAB)

      January 17, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  17. alkan2012

    Please help me out, I'm a little confused here about the author's point of view. If the Bible "calls for the execution of children who are willfully disobedient to their parents, for those who worship false gods, etc.", then how it can possibly be that "the ultimate meaning of the Bible is that every life is holy"?

    January 16, 2012 at 6:59 pm |
    • b4bigbang

      Good question. I suspect there are several possible answers. One that comes to mind is maybe since every life is holy, then if a person defiles the vessel containing that holy life, the holy life must be freed or released from the defiled body by execution.
      Just one of many possibilities....

      January 16, 2012 at 7:25 pm |
    • Sup bro?

      Reread the article. He goes on to describe how the bible and god evolves from a child-killing psychopath into a one that loves everybody. From this perspective any sayings in the later parts of the bible overrule the earlier parts. But at the end of the day its just B.S

      January 16, 2012 at 9:56 pm |
  18. richard

    Spong has been infamous in the Christian community for some time now, for exactly what he posts in this editorial. Interestingly, his opinion piece does not cite even one source for his historical/non-historical claims...

    January 16, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
  19. Randy

    Spong, a former Episcopal bishop of Newark.

    Need to add ", and a former Christian (if he ever was one)."

    January 16, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
    • MikeInMaine

      Well, please define "Christian" for us. Make sure its a universal definition that everyone agrees upon, e.g., "Apple – The round fruit of a tree of the rose family, which typically has thin red or green skin and crisp flesh." Otherwise you are just another bigot full of applesauce!

      January 17, 2012 at 6:33 am |
  20. truthsayer

    This author has no idea what the Bible talks about.
    When the books were written, they were written by the guidance of God (Holy Spirit). They are not just stories, passed down from generations, they were stories in which God instructed to be put into the Bible.

    January 16, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
    • Burbank Bob

      You believe the bible was divinely inspired because you were taught to believe that. You may have also been taught that Chrysler was the best auto company in the world, but that would not have stopped it from filing bankruptcy.

      I firmly believe we are all part of a much larger whole, and the bible in a sense may be trying to portray that, much like the Koran, Hindu, and Buddhist texts, which are also supposed to be given from God and divinely inspired, however I suspect you would reject those texts as inspired once again because of what you were taught.

      You are a seeker.. keep seeking, but you are looking in the wrong place.

      January 16, 2012 at 10:47 pm |
    • MikeInMaine

      Then you should follow all its rules, no? As soon as you dismiss some of the stories as humanly inspired, e.g., those supporting slavery, murder, etc., you have to admit they could all be humanly inspired – for political or even psychotic purposes

      January 17, 2012 at 6:37 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.