December 29th, 2011
09:10 AM ET
My Take: The 3 biggest biblical misconceptions
Editor’s note: John Shelby Spong, a former Episcopal bishop of Newark, New Jersey, is author of "Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World."
By John Shelby Spong, Special to CNN
The Bible is both a reservoir of spiritual insight and a cultural icon to which lip service is still paid in the Western world. Yet when the Bible is talked about in public by both believers and critics, it becomes clear that misconceptions abound.
To me, three misconceptions stand out and serve to make the Bible hard to comprehend.
First, people assume the Bible accurately reflects history. That is absolutely not so, and every biblical scholar recognizes it.
The facts are that Abraham, the biblically acknowledged founding father of the Jewish people, whose story forms the earliest content of the Bible, died about 900 years before the first story of Abraham was written in the Old Testament.
Actually, that's not in the Bible
Can a defining tribal narrative that is passed on orally for 45 generations ever be regarded as history, at least as history is understood today?
Moses, the religious genius who put his stamp on the religion of the Old Testament more powerfully than any other figure, died about 300 years before the first story of Moses entered the written form we call Holy Scripture.
This means that everything we know about Moses in the Bible had to have passed orally through about 15 generations before achieving written form. Do stories of heroic figures not grow, experience magnifying tendencies and become surrounded by interpretive mythology as the years roll by?
My Take: Bible condemns a lot, so why focus on homosexuality?
Jesus of Nazareth, according to our best research, lived between the years 4 B.C. and A.D. 30. Yet all of the gospels were written between the years 70 to 100 A.D., or 40 to 70 years after his crucifixion, and they were written in Greek, a language that neither Jesus nor any of his disciples spoke or were able to write.
Are the gospels then capable of being effective guides to history? If we line up the gospels in the time sequence in which they were written - that is, with Mark first, followed by Matthew, then by Luke and ending with John - we can see exactly how the story expanded between the years 70 and 100.
For example, miracles do not get attached to the memory of Jesus story until the eighth decade. The miraculous birth of Jesus is a ninth-decade addition; the story of Jesus ascending into heaven is a 10th-decade narrative.
In the first gospel, Mark, the risen Christ appears physically to no one, but by the time we come to the last gospel, John, Thomas is invited to feel the nail prints in Christ’s hands and feet and the spear wound in his side.
Perhaps the most telling witness against the claim of accurate history for the Bible comes when we read the earliest narrative of the crucifixion found in Mark’s gospel and discover that it is not based on eyewitness testimony at all.
My Take: Yes, the Bible really condemns homosexuality
Instead, it’s an interpretive account designed to conform the story of Jesus’ death to the messianic yearnings of the Hebrew Scriptures, including Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53.
The Bible interprets life from its particular perspective; it does not record in a factual way the human journey through history.
The second major misconception comes from the distorting claim that the Bible is in any literal sense “the word of God.” Only someone who has never read the Bible could make such a claim. The Bible portrays God as hating the Egyptians, stopping the sun in the sky to allow more daylight to enable Joshua to kill more Amorites and ordering King Saul to commit genocide against the Amalekites.
Can these acts of immorality ever be called “the word of God”? The book of Psalms promises happiness to the defeated and exiled Jews only when they can dash the heads of Babylonian children against the rocks! Is this “the word of God? What kind of God would that be?
The Bible, when read literally, calls for the execution of children who are willfully disobedient to their parents, for those who worship false gods, for those who commit adultery, for homosexual persons and for any man who has sex with his mother-in-law, just to name a few.
The Bible exhorts slaves to be obedient to their masters and wives to be obedient to their husbands. Over the centuries, texts like these, taken from the Bible and interpreted literally, have been used as powerful and evil weapons to support killing prejudices and to justify the cruelest kind of inhumanity.
The third major misconception is that biblical truth is somehow static and thus unchanging. Instead, the Bible presents us with an evolutionary story, and in those evolving patterns, the permanent value of the Bible is ultimately revealed.
It was a long road for human beings and human values to travel between the tribal deity found in the book of Exodus, who orders the death of the firstborn male in every Egyptian household on the night of the Passover, until we reach an understanding of God who commands us to love our enemies.
The transition moments on this journey can be studied easily. It was the prophet named Hosea, writing in the eighth century B.C., who changed God’s name to love. It was the prophet named Amos who changed God’s name to justice. It was the prophet we call Jonah who taught us that the love of God is not bounded by the limits of our own ability to love.
It was the prophet Micah who understood that beautiful religious rituals and even lavish sacrifices were not the things that worship requires, but rather “to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” It was the prophet we call Malachi, writing in the fifth century B.C., who finally saw God as a universal experience, transcending all national and tribal boundaries.
One has only to look at Christian history to see why these misconceptions are dangerous. They have fed religious persecution and religious wars. They have fueled racism, anti-female biases, anti-Semitism and homophobia.They have fought against science and the explosion of knowledge.
The ultimate meaning of the Bible escapes human limits and calls us to a recognition that every life is holy, every life is loved, and every life is called to be all that that life is capable of being. The Bible is, thus, not about religion at all but about becoming deeply and fully human. It issues the invitation to live fully, to love wastefully and to have the courage to be our most complete selves.
That is why I treasure this book and why I struggle to reclaim its essential message for our increasingly non-religious world.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Shelby Spong.
About this blog
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.
Some people have said there is more evidence to support the existence of aliens than there is to support the existence of god. Or at least, some would say that aliens are more plausible than god.
A fair amount of money is spent goes to SETI projects every year. I donate to them myself because the ideas are testable and I think a positive finding would have important implications.
You are so misinformed beyond belief; ...not funny, given that you claim to be a Christian priest.
"You are from your father the devil and you wish to do desires of your father the devil. That one was a manslayer and did not stand fast in the truth...." You clearly fall into that category, an offspring of vipers.
heh.. somewhere you can find a christian who would say that about your beliefs. For every christian there's another one who thinks that christian is completely wrong, and there's no method by which you can determine who is right and who is wrong. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?
Right. God descends to earth, knocks up a poor carpenter's wife, they all manufacture a story of immaculate conception (virign birth?), and then God throws his only begotten, illegitimate son under the bus when he turns out to be a liberal...
Seems like God must be a Republican to me....
Some stuff (not sure where the stuff came from) collides and explodes. Over billions of years as the stuff moves away from the blast sight it evolved into the known universe. On earth lightning hits a swamp creating the first living thing which over billions of years evolved into humans.
The Immaculate Conception is Mary being conceived without original sin, not Christ's. Further, God can't "throw his 'illegitimate' son under the bus" since the Son of God is God. "In the beginning there was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." ( Probably not word for word, since that was from memory but it's John 1). If you are going to try to be witty about something that many people hold dear to them, then at least have a basic understanding of what you are trying to make fun of.
“Miracles are not contrary to nature, but only contrary to what we know about nature.”
Dear Mr. Spong
God loves you. God wants you to love him. God wants you to enjoy his blessings here on earth. God wants you to live forever with him in heaven. No human can understand the mind of God. God is the same today, yesterday, and forever. The Bible is the Word of God. Jesus is the Word of God who came in human form to redeem all humans. Humans can't understand the Bible in the flesh. God is a spirit and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and truth. The truth in God's Word can only be understood by those in dwelt with his Holy Spirit. To receive God's Holy Spirit you must be saved. To be saved ask God. He will give you a measure of faith to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. Then you will be able to understand. Then you can write the truth.
May God Bless You.
Dear Mr. Brown
My penis loves you. My penis wants you to love it. My penis wants you to enjoy it's blessings here on earth. My penis wants you to live forever with it in heaven, aka the closet. No human can understand the mind of my penis. My penis is the same today, yesterday, and forever. The Dribble is the Word of My Penis. Cheeses are the World of My Penis who came in human form to redeem all humans. Humans can't understand the Dribble in the flesh. My Penis is a spirit and those who worship it must worship it in spirit and mouth. The truth in My Penis's Word can only be understood by those who dwelt with it's Holey Underwear. To receive My Penis's Holey Underwear you must be shaved. To be shaved ask My Penis. It will give you a measure of faith to believe on My Penis. Then you will be able to understand. Then you can write the truth.
May My Penis Bless You.
Dear Mr. Bombed
I think my post made about as much sense to you as yours did to me. Someday, when you are a little older and have matured some, I hope mine makes some sense to you.
“This is the very perfection of a man, to find out his own imperfections.”
"Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you.”
Today's moment of science (copy and paste)
This is a great example of how even religious liberalism distorts and misrepresents the views of those it disagrees with. His statement about every biblical scholar recognizing the historical inaccuracy of the bible sets the tone. That is patently false...what he should have said is "Every biblical scholar who agrees with me recognizes..."
Any "scholar" who claims the bible is historically accurate either hasn't read the bible or ignores (willingly or otherwise) history. Perhaps you could find someone who would claim that 1 + 1 = 17, but claiming that they are a mathematician doesn't make it so.
Keep in mind that Biblical studies as an academic discipline is something quite different than reverence for the Bible as a believer. As an academic discipline the same methodology and tools are used as in any other investigation of a historic text. Historic and textual criticism, linguistic analysis, comparative religion and mythology, archeology, anthropology, psychology, etc.
Unfortunate, the bishop states the Bible is for spiritual insight but offers none. I feel he is trying to appease those who are not familiar with the faith-based understanding of the bible. This is a shame because the bible as read is to show a way for us to understand the word of God by relying on faith to understand its precepts. It is not a scholarly text but a sacred text. Sacred meaning – we need to understand through prayer and pondering how to apply, then apply, the learned principles in our lives. Shelby is changing the text to make it fit worldly standars which are ever-changing and emotive. The Lord is not ever-changing, he is perfect and commands us to learn obedience to better understand what He is saying. Using the worldly guidelines to understand the Bible leads to misconception and Shelby is perpetuating these misconceptions.
Notice how a few sweeping assumptions lead to all kinds of errors! If he could support his assumptions, then this article might be worth considering, but as it is written, Spong's stab in the dark is no better than anyone else's. Personally, I find it easier to believe the very things that he (Spong) is writing against, because of his unsubstantiated assumptions.
Unsubstantiated by scientific inquiry? Science has yet to explain how life occurs and proof of this is the inability to create life without the tools God has given them.
We cannot create a star. Does that mean that science can't explain how stars are created. Logic Fail.
Actually science is flawed without experimentation or observation. In order to observe (since admittedly we cannot create a star experimentally) star formation, we would "theoretically" need millions to billions(start to finish of formation) of years to do so. Scientists and thus only theorize how stars are formed. Science can offer explanations but cannot truly, scientifically by definition explain star formation.
i am very disappointed in this. the man who wrote this doesn't believe in the Bible, yet he writes about it as if he understands it and is now misleading others 🙁
He's been researching it for years, and as a retired Bishop, I would at least give what he has to say a chance.
He says the Bible is a book that escapes human limits and calls us to a recognition that every life if holy–sounds like a reasonable interpretation. He does point out the inconsistencies and problems with the evolving conception of God over centuries–read the passages he quotes. You might be challenged to a deeper spiritual understanding. Humans have used Biblical passages to justify the slaughter in the Crusades, the killing of heretics during the inquisition, and slavery. The author urges a broader interpretation–the work as a whole–to give a message of love to all human life–not so bad.
Jim, gave him a chance. Read the whole article. Read how he didn't believe the Bible. Game over for me. Sorry. It doesn't take a bishop to know we should all play nice.
It is sad that someone who claims to preach the word does not believe in the the word.
While I agree that the bible (especially the first five books of Mosses) is not a literal history, I disagree strongly with many of the conclusions you draw from this, as well as several of your claims to support them. For instance
"they [ The Gospels] were written in Greek, a language that neither Jesus nor any of his disciples spoke or were able to write."
How do you know that Jesus or his disciples could not speak even a smattering of the lingua franca of their time? Paul, a contemporary as I am sure you are well aware, spoke easily in Greek and could even write a bit as well. Further, the 70 years between the crucifixtion and the Gospel of Mark is not that long of a time. Perhaps a few details got exaggerated, but people who witnessed the event were still alive. Not to mention that the oldest New Testament literature, (the Pauline letters) already point to miraculous events surrounding Christ, akin to the Gospel accounts, especially the resurrection where Paul cites some 500 plus believers who saw the risen Christ.
I agree with your basic intention, to make the Gospel relevant in a post Christian world, but diluting the message and "de mythologizing" the Bible does not accomplish that ( and is not even a new idea, see the Jefferson Bible, or enlightenment portrayals of Jesus as a great moral teacher). Throwing out the baby with the bath water does nothing to further reverence for the Bible, rather it just confirms the irrelevance it already has to many secular people.
Just several things to ponder :
1. "miracles do not get attached to the memory of Jesus story until the eighth decade." – Mr.Spong stated that the gospels were written between 70 A.D. and 100 A.D. Then, the first gospel, gospel of Mark must have written earlier than 8th decade. If you look into 1st chapter of Mark's gospel, Jesus is driving out demons (verses 23 – 34) and healing people.
2. "In the first gospel, Mark, the risen Christ appears physically to no one" – This assertion is based on the fact that in the gospel of Mark, the final chapter, 16, the verses 9 – 20 are not found in "some copies". Remember, the new testament was not written in one nicely leather-bonded copy. It was a collection of more than 20,000 copies (some complete, some parts) that were circulating from the early church (latter half of 1st century). Dominantly more copies of Mark's gospel have verses 9 – 20 and they state that Jesus appeared in person to his disciples.
3. "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" – this is because Mark was a nephew of the apostle Peter. Mark wrote down what Peter narrated to him. The fact that Mark recorded Peter's memory of Jesus is found in writings of early church letters.
I think there are stretches of logic found here and there in this article – trying to paint a certain picture.
It's always wise to hear balanced assertions from both sides – I personally suggest books from Josh McDowell (e.g. "evidence that demands a verdict") and Lee Strobel ("the case for Christ). All these books are based on research and facts.
Given that the point you made in #2 is correct, and there were thousands of copies of Marks gospel at one point, how is it that you can say #s 1 and 3 are correct without addressing any differences the thousands of copies may have had? Also since your entire premise in #2 is based on verses 9-20, you stated that more copies had those verses than not. How would that be cause to think the one with more is correct?
As long as all the copies of Mark's gospel have the same chapter 1 (or overwhelming majority), my argument in #1 should hold, correct?
From the books that I recommended, I found that the major inconsistencies found among the copies of Mark's gospel is the presence of verses 9 – 20. I'm not a Bible scholar, but as a student who researched on this topic, I never found a single claim that doubts consistency of chapter 1 of Mark's gospel. Moreover, from the books that I recommended, you can find that the consistency among the new testament copies are quite impressive. Certain scholars such as Nix & Giesler claim that the current 27 new testament books show higher than 98% consistency among the copies that are currently available.
I think my point in #3 is totally unrelated to #2 since I merely said the Gospel of Mark was written by Mark who put down what Peter told him. Since Mark was not the eye witness at the crucifixion scene, the gospel of Mark may not sound like eye witness accounts. But, the content is coming from the eye witness Peter and thus, it is reliable.
Actually, I read Mark chapter 15 again (crucifixion scene) and in my opinion, it didn't sound like "non-eye witness", as the article suggests.
in terms of "more copies being the right copy", you definitely could argue that few copies started out right without verses 9-20 and then, more started to become wrong by adding new contents later. But, what evidence can we find to support that claim?
Rather, I found that the oldest copy of Mark (code name Papyrus 45) contains verses 9-20.
Even if we don't have that verse in the final chapter of Mark, I wanted to point out to the author that there's a stretch of logic to conclude that later gospels added that part just because they were written later. By the same logic you used, there's a chance that later writing could be right, couldn't it?
Actually, some Bible scholars claim that the gospel of Matthew was written earlier than Mark's and the debate is far from over since they are so close (AD 50-70). And the early church unanimously held that Matthew's gospel was the first.
The bible is a collection of fairy tales, written generations after the so-called events occured...it has been responsible for numerous wars and deaths (the Inquisition and the persecution of virtually every native American in north and south America comes to mind)...organized religion is nothing more than legalized extortion. The earth is 6,000 years old...ABSURD. The flood and the Arc...no factual basis at all...the size of the arc in the bible would accomodate less than .1 of 1% of the animals on earth...MUCH less...it is ridiculous...absurd..for any intelligent individual to believe the literal word of the bible...oh yeah, we live in the United States where intelligence is in short supply.
it would benefit you to know these things from personal knowledge, not what you have heard or believe to be true without studying the Bible. God impressed the Bible upon the hearts of near 40 of his followers over several decades, yet if you were actually to read it, instead of listening to a few incorrect interpretations of it as fact, you would see that never is there any contradiction in the Bible of any event, principle, or prophecy. there have been numerous, numerous, numerous discoveries of artifacts and places that confirm the Bible, such as Biblical landmarks, the Ark itself, and cities described in perfect detail in the Bible. concerning the age of the Earth, every aging process and artifact meant to prove the age of the earth is based on assumption, as man hasn't been around long enough to test any of it over the real time periods described. the flood, by the way, has left peculiarly placed fossils, such as running dinosaurs (obviously a dino that died running would fall over if it wasn't subjected to a very, very quick fossilization), huge whales in the middle of the desert, and the like. as for the creatures in the ark, i could explain it, but this video does it very neatly. I will say that God didn't ask for every species to be taken onto the ark, only every kind, which was their common term for what is now called a family or genus classification. if you wish to see the actual numbers, the link is below. obviously, i can't force you to watch it or even read this, but if you want to know what you're talking about i suggest it. as for the deaths, the Bible itself isn't responsible for that, but i'm sure you've misspoken and meant to imply that God is responsible for that. the races killed were not innocent people. God specifically asked the Israelites to make war on those who were wicked and rejected the truth after knowing about it. these people worshipped false gods, who they sacrificed their children to, and were involved in unspeakable wickedness. once in the Bible, in fact, Abraham asked God a question about a city that he wanted to destroy "Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing – to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?"
– Abraham (Gen 18:23-25).
God's answer to this was that if he found even five righteous people in the city he would spare it for their sake, but not even five were to be found. if i were you, i wouldn't speak in ignorance. i'm sure that when you see Bible teachings, even false interpretations of them like this article, it sets you off and you want to convince everyone of what you feel to be the truth. however, we are not blind followers who believe things with no fact. the Bible is historically accurate, scientifically accurate (for example, before even the scientists of old knew this, as many believed that the earth was suspended by their gods and the like, God told his people that the Earth is suspended in space, where he holds it in his hands) and constant. what you believe is always changing, should you be an atheist. i cant say if this will help or just further irritate you, but here is my response to your carelessly thrown remarks.
however, i must add that i am a christian, and make no claims for the catholic Bible, which ive never read. there are added books to it, and God said never to alter his word in any way. i've been told by my parents, who grew up catholic and then converted, that there is inconsistency there, largely in the addition of purgatory, which is not mentioned in the original Bible. by the way, i'd like to add that the Bible hasn't been changed over the generations. when it was translated to different languages ORIGINAL, handwritten manuscripts were used that survived every effort political leaders and others made to destroy them , up to even burning the Word. however, God would never let any of His Word be lost or destroyed.
They found Noah's Ark? What???
Running dinosaur fossils, found standing up? What???
40 authors over several decades? What???
Perfect scientific accuracy? What???
–Bats are birds?
–Rabbits chew their cud?
–Pi is 3?
–The Earth is on pillars?
–Dipping a live bird in the blood of a dead bird cures leprosy?
There is not a shred of verified evidence for the supernatural beings or events in the Bible.
I hope that you are only 14 years old (you do write fairly well for one, though) - you have a LOT to learn about that book. Best wishes to you if you are interested in realism.
The bible is spiritually discerned and man's interpretation will always lead to a dead doctrine.
Yet not a single believer can prove that his magic decoder ring (spiritual discernment) is "valid" by any method whatsoever–so it all comes down to individual people's claims that their interpretation is right. Right back where you were. Each believer believing he is right simply because he believes he is right.
You are correct Tom. Hebrews 5:12-14
If the Bible is as you say it is, you have no basis for anything "Christian" that you believe. You said, "First, people assume the Bible accurately reflects history. That is absolutely not so, and every biblical scholar recognizes it." It is a complete lie that every biblical scholar recognizes the Bible is not historically accurate. The complete opposite is true. Since the advent of modern archaeology, every time a shovel goes into the ground a liberal gets buried. The more we dig, the more we find the Bible is accurate in every account. I would like to suggest to you that you quit reading books from the 1930's and start researching what has gone on in the past eighty years of archaeology and historical reasearch.
JohnM, you are totally wrong. If the bible is to be taken literally, it has been disproved over and over and over by thousands of archeological facts as well as the most basic science.
There is not a whit of verified evidence for the supernatural beings or events in the Bible.
Feel free to get back to us when this verified evidence is available...
The article is very insightful and comes from a wise understanding of the the incoherent search that underlies "religion". While the Gospels of the NT "do not accurately reflects history" (in the words of the article's author), it has to be accepted that a man named Jesus did live, some of his deeds were termed "miracles" beyond what common humans knew of as physically possible, and that his teachings had a huge impact on the peoples of his time, and well beyond.
The problems of today's "religions" are two-fold: one is the concept of a Creator-God outside of the universe, whose intentions and plan are the universe and its phenomena, and the second is the dogma of the "Word of God" as embodied in the holy book of the religion is the absolute truth for ever and anon. We as humans struggle with the "why" of the bad phenomena of our world. And equally, we squirm and rebel when we cannot question, examine, and re-interpret words spoken/written millenniums ago.
There's no such thing as a God that's separate from us. There's no such thing as "good" or "evil." These are simply concepts created by human ego that seeks meaning where there is none. There is no "why" of "bad" phenomena. The universe and everything in it is pure Awareness, Being, the Absolute (call it God if you like) in form, blinking in and out of existence in an eternal, timeless Now.
With regard to the previous post, by G. Kreiszchte, it is a sign either of a lack of understanding or outright intellectual dishonesty to pull verses out of context and bend them to suit an a priori. Likewise, it is obviously intolerant to mock and deride the closely held religious beliefs of others.
WIth regard to Bishop Spong's article, I would have prefered that he state up front, for those who may not know, that he adheres to a particular form of textual criticism that is not orthodox, and I would have prefered that he not state his opinions about times and dates (among other things) - and they are just that, opinions - as if they were objective truth, widely held. They are neither.
Isnt it funny how theists always state in one form or another that non-believers "don't understand". Of course, no external player understands–because ones belief is subject to the interpreter. It's also generally accepted by most scholars that that the gospels WERE in face written at least 50-100 years after Christ. You talk of of a lack of proof. Well then, do you have any proof that this is not that case? Theists calling non-theist intellectual cowards is just plain ironic.
Yahweh is shown in the OT to have created evil:
(Isaiah 45:7, KJV) – "I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, AND CREATE EVIL: I the LORD do all these things."
(Amos 3:6) – "Shall a trumpet be blown in the city, and the people not be afraid? Shall there be EVIL in a city, and the LORD hath not done it?"
And you want to trust this "god" to give you a "savior"? Hey, this is god. I'm going to create evil and then expect man to avoid it. And since I'm omniscient I created man knowing that man would not be able to resist turning to the evil that I created as a stumbling block for him. Oh but then, I'll feel sorry later (MUCH later) and give man a way to be saved from the eternal punishment I have in store for him for not resisting evil (and to h&|| with everyone else that lived before the time that I gave the world a savior, and to h&|| with everyone who lived in locations around the globe that were inaccessible to people spreading the message about "how to be saved" for say, 1500 years, like "native Americans").
What a wonderful story! I want to be a believer! Where do I sign up? I want to give away money to such organizations that promulgate this tripe!
Well stated. Thank you. I agree!
Your limited view (2 verses out of context) of the whole Bible does appear to make you an expert on an infinite God. Keep up the preaching.