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.

Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race

Image for Exhibit

Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race

Exhibition runs December 13, 2010 through March 13, 2011
Main Library, Fourth Floor

«Nazism is applied biology.»
— Rudolf Hess, Deputy to Adolf Hitler

The Jacksonville Public Library, in partnership with United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Remembering for the Future Community Holocaust Initiative, is honored to present Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race. Through compelling images, Deadly Medicine examines the Nazi regime’s collaboration with medical professionals to develop a racist ideology intended to cleanse German society of those viewed as threats to the health of the nation. A powerful visual testament to the atrocities of the Holocaust, this traveling exhibition illustrates how German doctors, scientists and public health officials legitimized persecution and genocide through pseudo-scientific eugenics programs.

Deadly Medicine is based on an acclaimed 2004 exhibition of the same name that opened at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. Since then, versions of the exhibition have traveled to Canada, Germany and across the United States. Deadly Medicine has been made possible by The Lerner Foundation and Eric F. and Lore Ross.

Visit the online companion to Deadly Medicine at

The local exhibition is sponsored by the Jacksonville Public Library, Friends of the Jacksonville Public Library, Fanny Landwirth Foundation,
Mr. Jay Stein/Stein Mart Inc. and Remembering for the Future Community Holocaust Initiative.

Location and Hours

Time: Daily, during regular library operating hours. Closed for major holidays.
Location: Jacksonville Main Library, 303 N. Laura Street, Jacksonville, Florida
Lecture Series, Presented by Remembering for the Future Community Holocaust Initiative

Deadly Medicine’s companion lecture series extends the exhibition’s dialog into our community, bringing together experts and thinkers to explore issues that are still as relevant as ever. The lecture series includes presentations at the University of North Florida, Jacksonville University, Florida State College at Jacksonville, the Schultz Center for Teaching and Leadership and Florida Coastal School of Law.

Schedule of Events

Thursday, February 17, 2011
Panel: Complicity & Resistance in a Controlled Society—This discussion explores the decision to comply with and the decision to resist the established order from the perspectives of business, sociology, literature, philosophy, the military, and the sciences.
Moderator: Douglas M. Hazzard, Ph.D., Dean, College of Arts & Sciences, Jacksonville University
Time: Program at 7:00 p.m.
Location: Terry Concert Hall, Jacksonville University
Business: Joe Buck, Ph.D.
It’s Only Business: Cooperation & Denial in International ConflictSociology: Nathan Rousseau, Ph.D.
The Intrinsic Dangers of BureaucracyLiterature: Jorge Majfud, Ph.D.
The Technology of BarbarismPhilosopy: Scott Kimbrough, Ph.D.
The Capacity for EvilThe Military: Captain Lee Steele, USN
Abu Ghraib – What Went WrongHistory: Lois Becker, Ph.D.
Everyday Complicity & Resistance in Stalinist russiaThe Sciences: Andy Ouellette, Ph.D.
DNA Profiling and a Universal DNA database
Monday, February 28, 2011
Stand Up/Speak Out: Dismantling Structural and Institutional Racism in Healthcare
Time: Reception at 5:30 p.m., Program at 7:00 p.m.
Location: Florida State College at Jacksonville, Downtown Campus, Advanced Technology Center, T-140
Reservations required due to limited seating.
To RSVP, contact Brenda Sapp at (904) 899-6300 X4113 or
Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Panel: Neo-Nazis and Others: the Hate Continues—Hatred and persecution did not disappear with the defeat of Hitler and the end of World War II. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are 932 known hate groups operating across the country, including neo-Nazis, Klansmen, white nationalists, neo-Confederates, racist skinheads, black separatists, border vigilantes and others. And their numbers are growing. Panelists will discuss Jacksonville’s need for a campaign of awareness and action that will unite our community to confront prejudice, hate speech and violence, promote democratic ideals and strengthen pluralism.
Time: Reception at 6:00 p.m.; Program at 7:00 p.m.
Location:Atrium, Florida Coastal School of Law
Moderator: Joanmarie Ilaria Davoli, Associate Professor of Law, Florida Coastal School of Law
Robert Tanen
Associate Regional Director, Florida
Anti-Defamation LeagueMark Brutnell
Special Agent Supervisor
Jacksonville Regional Operations Center
Florida Department of Law EnforcementAlex Silverstein
Special Agent
Federal Bureau of InvestigationBobby Lyle
Intelligence/Special Investigations Unit
Jacksonville Sheriff’s OfficeNareissa L. Smith
Assistant Professor of Law
Florida Coastal School of Law
Informed Consent in Research and Mental Health Medicine

Details TBA

About Remembering for the Future Community Holocaust Initiative

Remembering for the Future is a collaborative partnership of community organizations and individuals that has promoted Holocaust education and remembrance in Northeast Florida since 2004. For more information, call (904) 246-0457.

The Holocaust Collection
Jacksonville Public Library
“Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race” Exhibit
Bibliography With Links to the Jacksonville Public Library Online Catalog


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The Walled Society

A dune in Sossusvlei, Namibia

Image via Wikipedia

The Walled Society

The Walled Society

With the passing of the years, and thanks to attentive observation of his clients, Doctor Salvador Uriburu had discovered that the majority of the population of Calataid lacked the European origin of which it boasted. In its eyes, in its hands, persisted the African slaves who repaired the walls in the nineteenth century, and surely the older slaves who built the wells in the times of Garama. In its ritual gestures persisted the followers of Kahina, the priestess of the African desert who converted to Judaism before the arrival of Islam. Within the white minority, diversity was also noteworthy, but this had been suspended while they were busy considering themselves the representative (and founding) class of the town. The same blue eyes could be found behind Russian eyelids or behind other Irish ones; the same blonde hair could cover a German cranium or another, Gallegan one. How is it possible, Salvador Uriburu had written, that such a diverse town could be so racist and, at the same time, so overflowing with patriotism, with so much fanatical love for one and the same flag? How can the whole be worshiped and at the same time the parts that comprise it disdained? It can’t. Unless patriotic reverence is nothing more than the necessary lie nourished by one part in order to use the other parts for its own benefit.

In one of his final public appearances, in May of 1967 in the hall of notables of the Liberty Club, Doctor Uriburu had attempted an exercise that bothered the new traditionalists, once they were able to decipher how it questioned things. Salvador Uriburu had drawn, on a blackboard, a series of at least fifteen triangles, circles and squares. When he asked those present how many kinds of drawings they saw there, everyone agreed that they saw three. When he asked that they select one of those three types, everyone chose the group of triangles and the doctor asked them again how many groups they saw in the group of triangles. Everyone said that there were at least two groups: a group of isosceles triangles and a group of right triangles.

“More or less isosceles and more or less right-angled” said one discerningly, noticing that the drawings were not perfect.

“The figures aren’t perfect,” confirmed Salvador Uriburu, “just like human beings.” And like human beings everyone saw first the differences, those that made the figures different, before seeing what they had in common.

“That’s not true,” said someone, “the triangles have something in common among themselves. Each one has three sides, three angles.”

“The circles and the squares also have something in common: they are all geometrical figures. But nobody observed that there was also one unique group of drawings, the group of geometrical figures.”

Salvador Uriburu neither made accusations nor clarified the example, as was his custom. But after months of arguing about the strange and pedantic exposition of the doctor’s little figures, the pastor George Ruth Guerrero arrived at the conclusion that this kind of thinking came to the little doctor from the sect of humanists and, most certainly, the Illuminati.

“The group of geometrical figures,” concluded the pastor with his index finger in the air, “represented humanity and each group of figures represented a race, a religion, a deviation and so on and so forth. The humanists would like to make us believe that the truth does not exist; that the faith of the Moors and of the Jews is the same as the true faith of the Christians, the race of the chosen ones and the race of the sinners, the morality of our fathers and the sodomy of the moderns, the garments of our women and the indecent nudity of the Nigerians.”

They accused the doctor of being a gnostic. It was known, by rumors and magazines from France, that the Heterodox one had conquered the rest of Europe with an extraordinary belief: the truth did not exist; any heresy could be taken as a substitute for the true faith and logical reason. And it was said that someone was trying to introduce all of that in Calataid.

The allusion was direct, but Doctor Uriburu did not respond. The last time he entered the hall of notables, in August of 1967, it was expected that he would say that he was for or against this superstition, that he would define, once and for all, which side he was on. Instead, he came out with another of his figures that had nothing to do with his profession as a scientist, much less as a believer, which demonstrated his irremediable descent into mysticism, into the sect of the Illuminati who, it was said, assembled every Thursday in an unknown chamber of the old cisterns.

“Once there was a man who climbed a mountain of sand,” he said, “and upon arriving at the peak he decided it was the only mountain in the desert. Nevertheless, right away he realized that others had done the same, from other peaks. Then he said that his mountain, the one beneath his feet, was the true one. Then the man, or perhaps it was a woman, decided to come down from his dune and he climbed another one and then another, until he understood (perhaps from atop the highest dune) that there were many dunes, an infinite number relative to his strength. Then, tired, he said that the desert was not one sand dune in particular, but all of the dunes together. He said that there were some tall dunes and other smaller ones, and that just one fistful of sand from any of them didn’t represent one dune in particular but the entire desert, and that nobody, like none of the dunes, was the desert, completely. He also said that the dunes moved, that the true dune which allowed the unique perspective of the desert and of itself changed again and again in size and place, and that to ignore that was to deny an inseparable part of any unique truth.

“Unlike another exhausted traveler, this discovery did not lead him to deny the existence of all of the dunes, only the arbitrary pretense that there was just one in the immensity of the desert. He denied that a handful of sand had less value and less permanence than that arbitrary and pretentious dune. That is to say, he denied some ideas and affirmed others; he was not indifferent to the eternal search for truth. And for that reason he was equally persecuted in the name of the desert, until a sand storm put an end to the dispute.”

An indescribable silence followed the doctor’s new enigma. Then a repressed murmur filled the hall. Someone stood to announce the end of the meeting and reminded everyone of the date of the next one. The bell sounded; everyone rose and left without acknowledging him. He knew that they were also bothered that he would doubt the tolerance and freedom of Calataid, making use of metaphors as if he were a victim of the inquisition or living in the times of the barbarous Nero.

Uriburu remained seated, watching through the window the old men and young lads who rode by on their bicycles and could not see him, with his hands in the pockets of his suit coat, playing with a handful of sand. He lost his mind twenty days later. A strange diagnosis, written in his own hand, concluded that Calataid suffered from “social autism.” Autism, according to the books, is a product of the accelerated growth of the brain which, instead of increasing intelligence reduces it or renders it useless due to the pressure of the encephalic mass against the walls of the craneum. For Doctor Uriburu, who was more concerned with architecture than with biology, the walls of Calataid had provoked the same effect with the growth in the population’s pride. Therefore, it was useless to pretend to cure individuals if the society was sick. In fact, to suppose that society and individuals are two different things is an artifice of the view and of the medicine that identifies bodies, not spirits. And Calataid was incapable of relating two different facts with a common explanation. Even more: it was incapable of recognizing its own memory, engraved scandalously on the stones, in the dank voids of its interiors, and denied or covered over by the most recent invention of a tradition.

Jorge Majfud is a Uruguayan writer who received his Ph.D. from the University of Georgia, and who currently teaches at Lincoln University of Pennsylvania. His essays, story collections, and several novels have been translated into Portuguese, French, English, German, Italian, and Greek. His latest novel is The City of the Moon (Baile del Sol, 2008).