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.
We are no longer herds of ignorant beasts to be herded around by organized religion, exception: 50% of the muslim world. How can a god that is supposed to be all knowing and all powerful continue to allow what happens on this planet? What lesson is supposed to be learned by all this? Sounds like god used to strike down cities that angered him with regularity, so what's stopping him/her from dropping a few lightning bolts and maybe a flood or two?
The evangelicals are always blaming floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, etc. on the anger of their god.
Some people craft such crazy tales to explain that which can be explained with modern knowledge.
God is doing none of the things to the plant .... human are!
At 10:00 PM tonight, Gerorgie will explain to us how humans cause lightning, and tsunamis. Stay tuned.
George, you have never claimed that your god is punishing earthlings using what educated people refer to as natural disasters? Perhaps you have not – I have a hard time remembering what crap you spout and what comes from Keith (NotTexas).
Americans do not require canadians to remember anything about our conversations because they are none of your business hotairace.There's your sign
I love this guy! He sees the bible as it really is!
"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." – John Shelby Spong
I have been telling goofy Evangelicals this for months now. It is so simple: You start out with a name... no one in particular, and then you make Him a legend! No real person needed! Many historians and archaeologists doubt Moses or the Exodus actually existed / happened.
Why not join me as a Humanist. We will take care of each other. We will live by the Golden Rule – which the Gospel writers attributed to Jesus. It actually preceded the time of Jesus by hundreds of years, in different forms.
Stop wasting your time praying to thin air. You are talking to your own brain.
I'm thinking the Golden Rule predates written history by many tens of thousands of years. Even cavemen likely had manners.
So true. And instead of big shiny churches and pope hats, we could take those funds and actually (gasp) help our fellow humans....what a concept. Probably blasphemous.
You're a humanist, I am an atheist. Together, we are realists. The most decent people I have meet are the secular and the non-religious.
I claim myself as a compassionate anti-theist who has hope for humanity but increasing pessimism in our ability to achieve our potential as a species.
What ? No pope hats ? I have a pair of red "cardinal socks" from the tailor shop in Rome where they get their "get ups". They were expensive, but I am very proud of them.
I can hardly describe what I heard and saw yesterday, much less 50 years ago. (I'm almost 60 now). I doubt that more than 10% of the Bible is accurate. Anyone that has participated in an exercise to demonstrate how facts can be modified as they are "retold" even a few times and within an hour of the original observation..understands how stories can change dramatically resulting in complete falsehoods. And after 70 plus years.... My religion is based more on hope than faith (wishful thinking) and certainly not on any written words by people that believed the earth was flat and the center of the universe (very ignorant people). I doubt we have any idea what the truth is regarding Jesus's life and words he spoke. I honestly do not know what to believe, I wish I did, but I am hopeful.
Bible never says the earth is flat nor does it say it is the center of the universe ....
You are wise. You have not drank the Kool Aid. You can still tell the difference between reality and delusion. There is no soul or afterlife. But be of good cheer! You friends and family will keep your memory alive.
True, the bible never says that, but the keepers of the religious power esposed these concepts. Isn't it about time for another full out translation of all the ancient texts just to see what they really say? Does anyone really believe the KJ versions are literal translations?
– 1 Chronicles 16:30 “The earth is set, and it cannot be moved.”
– Psalm 93:1 “The world is firmly set in place. It can't be moved.”
– Psalm 96:10 “The world is firmly set in place. It can't be moved.”
– Psalm 104:5 “He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.”
One of the Author's beginning statements "First, people assume the Bible accurately reflects history. That is absolutely not so, and every biblical scholar recognizes it." is a statement he knows is absolutely false. He makes this statement to establish credibility. He does not state that every every biblical scholar he knows recognizes it, or every RESPECTABLE. biblical scholar recognizes it, or even most every biblical scholar recognizes it. When the foundation for your argument is not correct, the argument as a whole is always questionable.
"stopping the sun in the sky to allow more daylight to enable Joshua to kill more Amorites" Read the text with a correct translation ... this is not what the text says in the context.... Some idiot priest made it up to be more dramatic
What is the 'correct' translation?
But parting the Red Sea was the more plausible tale?
The King James Version is not well translated .... but even reading this text .... the earth was "not stopped rotating" ... That statement simple is not in the bible!
You asked: "What is the 'correct' translation?"
"More daylight was needed, so Joshua could kill more Amorites so god stopped the sun in the sky."
This correct translation makes all the difference. God hardly seems like a blood thirsty monster at all, now.
Since there is no evidence for this delusion known as religion, the whole story is irrelavent. Its pointless to debate the bible because it WAS written after the fact. The bible is not a history book nor is it something to live by 100%.
Yep, you and I know that. But the Evangelicals would rule the land, using this book and their own interpretation of it. The Christian Right wants a Christian Theocracy, with Jesus as the Head of State. Only problem is, there is no Jesus. So some idiot Evangelical would be running the country, claiming he was getting revelations from god.
We must fight against this. The Evangelicals are not even real Christians.
Finally there is truth! Every ounce of my being tells me this is more in line of what God represents.
You said: "Finally there is truth! Every ounce of my being tells me this is more in line of what God represents."
Maria! Read my posts! I have been spouting the truth for months now! The Evangelicals have stolen Jesus and made him militant. He can't wait to get back to torture everyone who does not agree with them. They don't quote Jesus' words to the rich, or how we should treat the poor and the elderly (honor your father and your mother). Instead their Messiah is Paul. They believe in the Prosperity Gospel and Seed Faith.
Well written and I agree completely with the author.
God does not exist, if you believe in god, you are stupid and selfish
Well, that's not a very helpful declaration, and, as a non-theist, I would quickly disagree...
Thank you for this piece. I disagree with you whole heatedly. I read the Bible when I was at my lowest and it gave me faith. Well it actually did, now I consider myself a follower of Christ. I’m not going to be arrogant and tell anyone that doesn’t believe like me that they are wrong and going to hell for it, I'll just tell those with willing ears and heart what saved me from hell.
Whatever helps you sleep at night. Really all it did was take your mind in a direction it wanted to go. It's an emotional response triggered by chemical reactions in your brain to the stimuli of the book. You could've felt just as impassioned reading Harry Potter or Twilight.
Used to think like claiborne
"I read the Bible when I was at my lowest and it gave me faith."
Did it have to be literally true to lift up your spirits? Plenty of people have their spirits lifted by reading poetry and books labeled as fictional.
"I’m not going to be arrogant and tell anyone that doesn’t believe like me that they are wrong and going to hell for it, I'll just tell those with willing ears and heart what saved me from hell."
So, you're going to tell them first and check if they are offended before repeating your condemnation? How very considerate of you!
Yeah! You understand! Chemical Reactions in the brain. All members of every religion get those warm and fuzzy feelings. You could get them as you say, from reading Harry Potter or praying to a potato. All it takes is belief and faith.
I wish everyone understood as you do. God bless you!
"First, people assume the Bible accurately reflects history. That is absolutely not so, and every biblical scholar recognizes it."
This man is a lier and an apostate. It is well known that archaeologists have used the Bible in their searches for settlements and civilizations. In previous iterations of apostasy, it was said that the Bible mentions civilizations that never existed, so the Bible must be fiction. It turns out that these civilizations have now been found, with artifacts and locations matching the Biblical descriptions. A leading archaeologist has said that the Bible has never been contradicted by any archaeological discovery (See Josh McDowell-Evidence That Demands a Verdict, for all this & much more)
It was said that Moses predated writing. Well, now we know he didn't. But now supposedly he wrote from before his time. On what basis? What external objective source is there for this?
The common ancestry of humanity, the finite nature of time, the global shape of the earth hanging in space, the common source of language, I would say all this is pretty hard to fabricate and improvise all at once, but it is all in the Bible.
Mitochondrial DNA studies have indicated that the last common ancestors of the male and female lines of our species are split in time, with the female line being older than the male. Aha! The Bible is false, right? Not quite. If you check the Old Testament you will see that this info was there first. The history of Noah tells us that the blood line of humanity was split in time, with Noah being the last common male ancestor. Eve was the common female ancestor.
Like begets like. This is why CNN, the child of secular humanist/Christ hater Ted Turner, seeks out like-minded people such as Spong, who wear sheep's clothing but are actually bigoted wolves. CNN is hardly a credible source for religious journalism. It is a platform for a secular humanist world-view. Stick to reporting news, not fantasy and wishful thinking.
So Noah's wife wasn't a common ancestor? She did father Noah's 3 sons, correct?
and if you think time is infinite go take a physics class.
"A leading archaeologist has said that the Bible has never been contradicted by any archaeological discovery "
So is mankind millions of years old or 6,000? lol.
That's quite a collection of paranoid delusions you harbor there, mate. Ted Turner has exactly nothing to do with the current day-to-day operations at CNN, let alone this article, and any sane person can see that. Any sane person can also see that the sun does not revolve about the Earth, and that the universe is billions of years old. The Bible directly contradicts these, and is therefore not literal truth. Never mind the fact that talking about the Bible collectively, as if it were a single work rather than the amalgamation of barely-related works it originally was, is foolish. If you think the Bible is inerrant, you should be worshiping the monarchs that chose the canon, not Jesus, who had not one damn thing to do with it. Educate yourself, please. You're just making everyone around you dumber.
This is probably one of the dumbest things I have ever read on the internet, and I have read lots of dumb things on the internet. You really should spend more time reading facts from credible sources than listening to what your 8th grade graduate pastor tells you.
Wow. You are incredibly stupid.
You need to stop reading fairy tales and evolve a little.
Bad, bad CNN! Forcing Costa to read your predictably offensive articles, forcing him/her to contribute the predictably offended commentary! Naughty, naughty CNN...
Harry Potter mentions London. Therefore ALL of Harry Potter is ALL "true".
Gone With The Wind and every other novel mentions places that exist now and in the past. Being fiction, does not mean they cannot place their characters and events in places that exist or have existed. It makes the story more believable. People sitting around a campfire would probably use places that existed at the time...and some that were made up. That's entertainment!
Josh McDowell writes for the choir. None of his arguments would convince a non-believer.
Moses, Abraham etc. were all word of mouth events. Jesus was a word of mouth Messiah. No one followed Him around writing things down. No contemporary writings about Jesus exist. What Spong says, is that Moses had been dead 300 years, before his story was recorded. It was told and retold but not written down. Understand?
Point being, stories get bigger in the telling. Check out Greek Mythology. Lots of gods invented. Lots of adventures. Lots of gods hooking up with humans and making demigods (like Mary and the Christian god. I thought the rule was nothing, 'till the 3rd date?)
I bet you would agree that Hercules and Zeus never existed right? But, stories began and were eventually written down.
The people of Jesus' time, believed the earth was flat.
Matthew 4:8 states that "The devil took him (Jesus) to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory." One could see "all" the kingdoms of the world from a very high mountain if the world were flat.
Don't you think Jesus / god or Satan should have known the earth was a sphere?
Clearly, the authors thought the earth was flat.
Job 26:7 – He stretcheth out the north over the empty place, and hangeth the earth upon nothing.
Yep, it would seem to point out that only gravity and inertia are holding the earth in space. But, you have to weigh this against the many verses that indicate the earth and heavens are held up by pillars: Job 9:6, Job 26:11, Psalms 75:3, 1 Samuel 2:8.
If the bible really was inspired by a god, why would these contradictions exist? After all, the bible is inerrant. Right?
You don't understand the Mitochondrial Eve and Adam studies. Please go to:
Also, do you have any proof the Christian god is the one true god?
You DO realize "Mitochondrial Eve" lived 200,000 years ago, in Africa ?
I'm not one for censorship in any form. But history would've been better served by censoring all religious texts. They've caused far more trouble than good historically and today.
Good article. Now lets act out some fantasy: Christians reanimate (make robot sounds as the dead come back to life). Jesus then yells: Kill everyone!! arrghhhhhh. People in heaven quietly watching, "oh poor misguided non believers all have to die'. Oh well lets play some Bocce".
Its obvious you have no clue as to what the scriptures say or convey. You should read it and give a better argument.
Dude. The WHOLE Bible is a misconception.
lol that would have been a better article if that was all he wrote
I have never read so much BS. He has not read the same bible I have or studied through the scriptures from the Torah through the King James and the countless studies about the historical factual truths. A great example would be "Walking the Bible" wrtten about the first five books. This man brought out his own interperatations and based on what? there is something about adding to or taking away from the bible he might check on.
"and based on what?"
b. form criticism
c. textual criticism
e. carbon dating
I prefer the scientific truth since that is more factual. No resurrection, no virgin birth, no original sin. It is great having science on my side.
Thanks for introducing everyone to confirmation bias. You say you read the Bible, and even though, in my experience, the vast majority of people who claim to have read the Bible haven't really, I'll grant you that. The problem is that you apparently missed the literally dozens of places where the Bible says things that are just plain BS. You only notice evidence that supports your conclusion, and miss evidence that refutes it. It is a natural human tendency to do this. This is why scientists try so hard to avoid forming conclusions about their work before they've run experiments, because it might cloud their interpretation of data. It's also why we require constant peer-review. You, on the other hand, started with the answer, and just looked for the question. That's backward, and no path to truth that lies anywhere outside your own head.
Wow!! Talk about taking the role of Job and questioning God about being in error about a great many things. Mr. Spong really fudges the facts to make points, particularly about scripture being written under the anointing of the Holy Spirit. All the geneology and history of ethnic people of the Torah/Genesis-Exodus...etc. is total fabrication and hear-say. That's an amazing stretch since over 20,000 archeological digs authenticates what was written. Personal perspective doesn't take the place of actual history...whether based on the current day measuring stick or not. The gospel of John Mark differs from John because John Mark never personally witnessed the events of the gospels and never claimed to do so. John, part of Jesus' inner circle and the only disciple who did not flee when Jesus was arrested and put to death, will have a different perspective than John Mark because he was there. To try to imply inaccuracy based on that is intellectually dishonest. John will have more insight than John Mark based on that fact, not some Watergate conspiracy attempt. Very suspect claims are shared by Mr. Spong.
its a shame that people still believe the bible to be literal. one day a new religion will appear and when they look back on the bible story's they will laugh, like we laugh at people who believed in Greek mythology. through out time people have believed in magic or gods and each religion and was believed wholeheartedly that it was fact, but they all faded away due to lack of substance
This is how religion, particularly OT believers, work. Think about it. What was the sin that needed Jesus to come and save us from? Eating an apple from the tree of knowledge? So, basically, it is a sin to learn. The only source of knowledge can be from the church. Learning is discouraged because to actually know truth would lessen the role of religion. It used to be forbidden to read the bible. Only clergy could interpret it for the people. Earth goes around the sun? Burn the book and imprison the discoverer. The church discourages knowledge to keep people dumb enough to seek the truth.
Former bishops spread demonic lies. Isn't that the apocalypse?
@John Shelby Spong
Mr. Spong, you are no Christian at all, but you have turned apostate from the Christian faith. You spread lies, which have nothing to do with the true doctrine of the Early Church, Augustine, Athanasius, John of Damascus, Sophronius, Hilarius, Cyprian, Ambrosius, the Ecu-menical Councils, Luther, Bonhoeffer, etc., etc.. You are totally out of line.
Pleas be aware of Judgement Day, when you will have to give account of every futile word, you have spoken.
The whole above article of Mr. Spong is a demonic lie and I condemn it.
Your response is a perfect example of what went wrong with Christianity. This article is right on the money. He used something called critical thinking/reasoning. Look it up! You are clearly lacking this skill and have been brainwashed beyond all reason. So sad!
The author demonstrated knowledge of the Bible enough to be elevated to a position as a bishop.
So are you an archbishop? pope? Or do you know more than the bishop because you are a BLOGGER?
lol... you condemn it! you must be awesome at parties.
Rainer Braendlein...there are no demons (at least not in my world). There are no gods, Jesus was a fraud, religion is corrupt, and evolution is a fact. Atheists don't worry about judgement day, because true hell is an eternity with whacked-out religious nuts...whew!
And this is my great disappointment with being a non-believer. If Christians are right, all us agnostics/athiest will know we chose wrong as we burn in the fires of hell. However, if we are correct, no one will ever know it. Christians won't suddenly realize that they have actually wasted their gift of life in hopes of some type of reward in an after life. We will never get the confirmation we were right. We will all just go back to cosmic dust.
Rainer condemns! Be afraid, be very afraid!...
I wouldn't be to worried if I were you. If the evangelicals are right then that would mean that Heaven if full of preachy doomsday converters with close-minded arrogance. Not a nice place to be in my opinion. I do what I can to be a good person and whoever is right is right I don't really care who it is.
Basically, Johnny is saying, "Oh, surely God has not said......."
hmmmm....that sounds familiar.....
Thank you for this piece. I agree with you whole heatedly. I read the Bible when I was a teenager (took me forever) and it almost ruined my faith. Well it kind of did actually, now I consider myself agnostic theist. I’m not going to be arrogant and tell anyone that doesn’t believe like me that they are wrong and going to hell for it, there is way too much of that going on in the world.
The solution is easy, Claiborne. It's good to see that you've not completely closed your mind, but you seem to have instinctively, unconsiously, determined that there's a difference between faith and dogma. Yes, the Bible is full of dogma, as are most religions. Those are the cultural beliefs that have been interwoven with the message. Toss em. What's Jesus say? Follow that and you'll find the Kingdom. Follow the dogma of man's spin and you'll only find misery.
why do people seem to believe that they need religion, god, and holy books to be good people? religion should die out there is no need for magic in a logical world
What's logical about our world? You people spend billions of dollars on phones that you can carry, access the internet, send photos, do email. Yet you allow your homes to be foreclosed on because you can no longer live with your means. All those little circuit boards are put together by robots, not humans, and have put millions of out work. You drink like fish, poison your minds with drugs, elect fools to run the country...because they'll do your selfish bidding, not what is right, spend billions to split a particle seeking a"God particle " in the explosion while people starve and you've spread disease all over the planet because you don't have the self-discipline to keep your clothes on.
What's logical about that?
Religion is not needed to be moral. By this I do not be atheism which is a form of religion but more the apatheism, agnosticism or or any other open/non-defined belief system. But with out religion it doesn't destroy the beauty and magic of the world and life. Scientists have long understood that the true magnificence of the universe isn't from faith but instead from understanding. I a fire not more spectacular when you realize that there is a chemical reaction in which carbon combines with oxygen and creates heat. Is the sun not more astounding when it's true scale is known and that the heat and light created by such a star is created during the transformation of hydrogen becoming helium. Is it not revolutionary to realize that all of the "heavy" elements in the universe are created through the destruction of star and that the matter that we are made of is star dust. The beauty of the universe is that it is one region in which the truths surpass the human imagination.