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John Shelby Spong
By: Erick Nelson
Last Updated: Monday December 03, 2007
Bishop John Shelby Spong
Bishop John Shelby Spong is the now-retired Episcopalian Bishop of Newark, New Jersey who periodically took time off to do research and work on his books. In these books, he attempts to convey the results of current, state-of-the-art New Testament scholarship to the popular audience.
See Diocese information page regarding Bishop Spong.
See Letters with Spong for our dialog.
He has sometimes been criticized for not being a "true" scholar, and some reviewers of this article have suggested that I'm presenting a straw man for refutation. Not so. At least that's not my intent. I include Bishop Spong for several reasons:
- First, he's the writer who most clearly and directly - and explicitly - presents the MG Theory (although he doesn't call it that).
- He's the only writer (of the three) who attempts to explain how the gospel got 'literalized.'
- He was kind enough to correspond with me, and therefore I was able to clarify his views and personally test them a bit.
- Although he is not a New Testament scholar, as such, he draws upon scholars whom he considers to be state-of-the-art, such as Raymond Brown (in Spong's earlier books), and Michael Goulder (in his more recent works).
- He sees himself as a translator of scholarly material to popular audiences and he has been tremendously influential throughout the United States and abroad. He has been in demand as a speaker, and his books have been well received for over a decade. As Bishop in the Episcopal Church, he has courted conflict and taken strong stands on subjects of interest and importance, and even has a book devoted to the recommendation that Christianity must change or die.
Last - I am not a New Testament scholar either, but that doesn't stop me from trying to grapple with these issues and find truth.
I start now with Bishop Spong because, of the three scholars, he sets forth the Metaphorical Gospel Theory in the clearest and most direct manner. Spong's mechanism for such an understanding is the concept of "midrash."
I think his pithiest quote on the subject is as follows (I already used this quote earlier in the article):
"As I sought to explain this biblical background, my friends around the room looked increasingly incredulous. 'You mean', one of them said, 'that maybe these things did not actually happen?'
'No', I suggested. 'What we have in the Gospels is an interpretive narrative based on an earlier part of the tradition and designed to enable the reader to see the reality of God in Jesus and to be drawn to this reality in faith.'
'This means', my questioner continued, 'that you are saying that Luke was lying. He told these things as if they were true when he knew they were not!'
The luncheon would not be long enough to address these issues, I thought to myself in despair. This woman believed that the Gospels were something like a television documentary or a researched biography. She knew nothing about the style of writing that was in vogue in the Jewish world when the Gospels were written." (Born of a Woman p 17-18)
Summary of his View
- Midrash (inventing stories about Jesus where he "re-enacts" Old Testament stories) was common practice in the first-century world.
- The New Testament writers were of Jewish background, and freely created stories about Jesus, including the resurrection accounts.
- They intended for these stories to be understood as spiritual, theological, metaphorical statements of faith - of Jesus' meaning in their spiritual lives, rather than as accounts of events that occurred.
- The original readers/hearers, predominantly Jewish, understood the texts in this way, too.
- However, Christian Gentiles living much later took the accounts literally. (This began at least with Polycarp and Justin Martyr.)
First, Spong says that the authors invented stories and intended to portray the stories and claims about Jesus' deity and resurrection as metaphorically, not factually, true.
"This author [of Matthew] neither suggested nor believed that everything he wrote was factual." (Born of a Woman p 62)
"It was designed to portray a truth that could not be captured in the vocabulary of time and space but that employed this vocabulary in the hope that the meaning would be understood, because there was no other vocabulary at their disposal." (Resurrection: Reality or Myth? p 21)
"To force these narratives into the straitjacket of literal historicity is to violate their intention, their method, and their truth." (Born of a Woman p 19-20)
"Midrash" is the key to Spong's view. According to him, midrash was a technique of Jewish Scripture reading and composition. He explains it in more elegant terms, but the basic ideas come down to this:
- reading Old Testament stories of heroic, miraculous, or divine acts
- wishing to honor Christ
- inventing stories in which Jesus "does" those kind of acts (although they know he didn't really)
- without intending to make the reader think that the man Jesus really did exactly these things
- to inspire the reader and connect Jesus conceptually with these mighty stories of faith.
This explains how stories, sayings, and claims about Jesus could have been made up, and made up in good faith. If they were intended only symbolically, metaphorically, they are not lies. And, according to Spong, the writers of the gospels and their first readers were Jewish Christians who were completely tuned in to midrash. It was so much a part of their world-view, that they quite naturally interpreted the New Testament metaphorically. Everybody was aware of this at the time.
"[midrash] ... style of writing that was in vogue in the Jewish world when the Gospels were written. (Born of a Woman p 18)
"The readers of the Gospels who understood this midrashic method of probing Scripture would understand. Only to a generation living hundreds of years later, separated from their Jewish religious roots and clinging to a peculiarly Western mind-set, would the choice appear to be between literal truth and overt lies." (Born of a Woman p 19)
"I am convinced that the original audience at this pageant, and its original authors as well, viewed it as a play that attempted to explain the source of Jesus' adult meaning [as opposed to the facts of his infancy]." (Born of a Woman p 110)
Letters with Bishop Spong
It was crucially important for me to make sure I understood Spong's view, even though it seems that he has clearly spelled it out in his books. So, in November of '95, I wrote him a letter which he answered with a month. In the letter, I tried to spell it out as clearly as possible. Here are my questions and his answers:
Bishop Spong's View (Gospels)
(1) The gospels were written from about 70 to 100 C.E. (I believe you place Mark at 70, Matthew at 80, Luke at 90, John at 100, all rough estimates).
The range of dates for the gospels for Mark 65-73. I date it just before the fall of Jerusalem 69-70 C.E. Matthew's range is 75-85. I date it in the early 80's ca. 82. The range on Luke is 85-90. I date Luke ca. 88 - John is more difficult. But as a finished work is dated 95-100. I date it 96.
(2) Each was a midrash work. The authors were not trying to present eyewitness accounts (whether second-hand, third-hand, etc.) of what Jesus and the disciples said and did. Although of course a few stories may point to things which actually occurred, the majority of the text was created to illustrate or embody the spiritual experience and understanding of the writers by making up stories (usually taken from Old Testament writings) with Jesus as the main figure. As you say in a nice phrase, "Above all it was language that could not be literalized being employed to process an experience that could not be denied." (Res, p21)
All gospels are midrashic in my opinion. But that does not mean they "made up" the stories. The task of identifying the original nugget is however not important to me. Originally I think the gospels were preached on the texts of the Torah and Prophets. More about this in the next book - Aug 96
(3) This midrash-consciousness, arising from Jewish tradition, became part of the spiritual and cultural milieu of Jewish-Christianity in the 70-100 period. "Because the Christian enterprise had its beginning in a Jewish context, this Jewish way of searching the Scriptures for clues that would interpret present events became the Christian habit." (BW p137)
(4) Also, as evidenced by Luke, by the 90's this midrash approach had taken on a decidedly Hellenistic flavor as well. "Before Luke's story was complete [90 AD], the gentile direction was not only established, it was in full control... (Res, p74)
Correct but modified by next book Aug 96
(5) The gospel writers indeed attempted to portray their works as midrash, and their original audiences (as their works were read in the churches of Ephesus, Rome, Corinth, etc.) understood that they were not to be taken literally (i.e. factually In fact, this midrash understanding was a central element of what it meant to be a Christian at that time. "I am convinced that the original audience at this pageant, and its original authors as well, viewed it as a play that attempted to explain the source of Jesus' adult meaning." (BW p110)
Have revisted this - result in book out Aug 96
(6) However, by the second half of the second century, Christian leaders such as Polycarp, Justin Martyr, and Ireneaus made a serious exegetical mistake: they honestly thought that the stories were to be taken as literally true! They believed that Jesus' body was revived, that Jesus was born of a virgin, that he walked on water, healed the blind, was truly God in human form. Being Greek (rather than Jewish), and removed by time from the midrash period, they were simply unaware of the true interpretation of the gospels. "This removal from and ignorance of the midrash tradition became commonplace among the early church fathers of the second and third centuries. Not one of them was Jewish. They were not familiar with the midrash tradition." (BW p75).
Again much better spelled out in Aug 96 book
(7) For centuries after that, literalizing Christians and their theologians systematically missed the point of the stories as they tried to defend their literal truth.
(8) To those who say "What difference does it make?" , we say "Plenty." Literalization guarantees (spiritual) death. "... the heart cannot finally worship what the mind has already rejected." (BM p176)
Not Bishop Spong's View
(1) Some people believe, or used to believe (to start with something obvious) that the gospels are, essentially, eyewitness accounts of what happened, and were written by apostles (Matthew and John) or associates of apostles (Mark or Luke). This is not Spong's view. (Although Bp. Spong might hold that John Mark, the companion of Paul, wrote Mark - don't know.)
Generally correct - I don't know who wrote the gospels - But certainly Matthew and John the Disciples did not. I suspect that all were products of a Community with one major editor
(2) Some people (such as Marcus Borg) think that a kernel of genuine teaching by Jesus has been overlaid by the church, and that we can and should go back to discover Jesus' teaching. As scholars have separated the Jesus of History from the Christ of Faith, a wheat-and-chaff situation is sometimes created, and intuitions differ about which side is valuable and which is not. Spong would not emphasize the man Jesus. (As Mark Lewis said to me, "My faith would not be substantially changed if I were to find out that Jesus never lived.")
I love the Jesus Seminar and have the greatest respect for Marcus - However I believe they represent the last gasp of 19th C. liberalism who really don't believe Sweitzer put an end to the quest for the historical Jesus.
(3) Some earlier views had the gospel writers as compilers, rather than creative redactors, of material. In this view, the "compilers" truly believed that the accounts were factual, but were too far removed in time to know that they were legends passed down orally. The compilers lived in a three-story universe and readily believed literal accounts of miracles, and so did the original audiences. This is not Spong's view.
Even more convinced - See Aug 96. No longer believe there was a Q M or L
(4) One possible view is a hybrid scenario, with a two-tier hierarchy (sort of an "elite vs. the masses" approach), with the spiritually sophisticated leaders of the church sponsoring such works as the gospels. These gospels are creative midrash, and of course the writers and leaders operate from within that tradition. However, the masses are not sophisticated, and easily fall into a literal understanding of the material presented to them. This could have two flavors, neither of which appears to be advocated by Spong:
(4a) Perhaps Midrash was not part of the overall culture, whether because of a Jewish-Gentile distinction or merely through lack of sophistication, although it was part of the educated or sophisticated ("elite") culter. Therefore the redactors and leaders failed in their honest attempts to present these spiritual stories as midrash. They intended to portray them as spiritual accounts, but their audience by-and-large did not understand what was being presented. This is not Spong's view, for he explicitly says (i) that the audience understood, and (ii) that later generations literalized.
(4b) Perhaps the redactors and leaders engaged in what has been called "pious fraud", intentionally deceiving their audiences for their own good. Knowing that their hearers would take the stories literally, they created accounts that would glorify Jesus and thus strengthen the faith of the community. They knew that these accounts were midrash, but portrayed the material in the most literal way possible, to create a belief in the facticity of the events. This is clearly not Spong's view.
Addressed in Aug 96 Book
(5) A very subtle hybrid scenario may be consistent with Spong's view, but is probably not. This is the view that the vast majority of Christian were in sync with the midrash view (it was "in vogue"), but that a small majority either misunderstood or tried to falsify the understanding by re-interpreting the midrash stories as factual accounts. That there must have been a few who did this would probably be accepted by Spong, but he points out that John seems to have acted to correct that misinterpretation by recasting the origins of Jesus ' life in a more abstract way than did Matthew and Luke. Thus we have, at the close of the first century, an efficient corrective of any such tendencies. And so, the view that a small minority were effective in advocating literalism by 100 C.D. is not a position held by Spong.
That is NOT my issue.
An Illustration of Spong's View
I will try to put this view into concrete, everyday terms, and imagine what it means in terms of life in the 70-100 period.
Illustration - This is an interesting approach and basically I like it.
(a) I can imagine myself being born (say) in 70 C.E., in Ephesus of Jewish-Christian parents. There is an ever-growing Christian community there. By the time I am five or so, I have learned that we pray, that my parents meet on the First Day for worship, that there is one God, etc. My parents have heard Paul's letters to churches read aloud (especially the one to our church!) at their worship gatherings for many years.
(b) But now (75 C.E), we have a new reading at our gatherings: new and exciting stories about Jesus and the disciples. It came to us from the church in Rome [gospel of Mark, presumably took five years to get distributed]. These stories teach us about who God is, and who we are, and how we are to live.
(c) By the time I am a questioning teenager (85 C.E.), another work has come to us [Matthew] which goes beyond the gospel which we've heard read in your church, but reflects many of the things that the adults are talking about! It is full of wondrous miracle stories, including one about Jesus' birth. But I wonder why we don't have miracles like that now, and ask my parents. They explain, "No, you don't understand. You're missing the point of the stories if you think they are accounts of things that happened before you were born. Jesus didn't really walk on water, we all know that - but we can overcome great obstacles if we follow him." And I begin to understand what Christianity is about.
(d) During this time I become aware of a small group of people who are followers of the Apostle John, who lived here in Ephesus for a time. They meet daily to pore over the scriptures and to pray. They are sometimes called upon to read the scriptures at our First Day meetings and to provide commentary. I am very impressed with them.
(e) By 95 C.E., I am an adult, twenty-five years old. I have by now learned a trade, and am known in Ephesus as a Christian. The gospel of Luke becomes available to our church, and I am sometimes allow to read it myself (in my native Greek). As I am semi-literate, I skip over the words I don't understand, and ask someone later - and my reading improves as I pore over Luke.
(f) Some of my co-workers, being Jews of the Dispersion or Greek worshippers of Diana, are offended by my Christian faith. They mock me, saying: "You Christians are so stupid, even evil. You have secret meals where we suspect you eat babies, you believe that your Leader's dead body came back to life (I don't see him anywhere!), you think that he did other impossible things like walk on water and who knows what else, you worship a human being (especially offending to the Jews), and so you won't give Caesar his due respect (offending to the Greeks), and you falsely claim that he fulfilled prophecies (another stickler for Jews).
(g) I reply "You could not be further from the truth. We don't eat babies - you're mixed up because we celebrate Christ with a meal of bread and wine, and because we talk about a "new birth"! We have never said that Jesus' body came back to life - in fact, we believe just the opposite, that his spirit went to heaven, as will ours. Stories of Jesus doing miracles aren't to be taken literally - they are stories that express how we can overcome, how we must forgive, and so on. We don't worship the man Jesus - we worship God alone by seeking fellowship with God through the Risen Christ. In fact, there is nothing to prevent true Christians from burning incense to Caesar, because a human leader (although metaphorically called a "god") can never be in competition with the Creator! And last, we don't pretend that Jesus actually fulfilled prophecies, we are re-using the Old Testament accounts and prophecies to honor him. We are doing the same thing that the Jews did in reworking their stories to glorify God! And so, your objections to The Way amount to nothing.
(h) By 100 C.E. I am thirty-five years old, and have become a deacon in the Ephesian church. Not only that, I am now part of the Johannine circle, and meet with them as often as I can to pray and discuss the scriptures. This First Day, there is a new gospel to be read to the church for the first time. (We are by now accustomed to new midrash appearing every so often, and are eager to see what this new product is about.) But there's a difference. This midrash creation is home-grown - the Johannine group has written it. Of course, this comes as no surprise to the church, since the effort has been a long and exciting one.
The reading dramatically opens with a discourse about the Word. The story of the Word first came to us when one of the Johannine circle had a dream or vision of God's Reason, or Logos, flying through the sky, slowly taking human form, and becoming flesh. Pretty soon we get to my contribution. Over years of discussion with unbelievers, I have often had to explain the "new birth", and wrote up a conversation between Jesus and one of the Jewish rulers explaining the "birth from above", which is now part of the gospel!
It was comforting to know that I was on the right track. For the entire correspondence, see Letters with Spong.
Powell's Comments on Spong's View
Mark Allan Powell, in critiquing an earlier version of this work, offered this summary of Bishop Spong's view and puts it in context with contemporary N.T. scholarship:
Midrash. This is primary for BISHOP JAMES SHELBY SPONG’s work. There is no doubt that “midrash” existed--and still exists today. The Jewish term “midrash” refers to fictional “expansions” on stories--sort of like “urban legends” that get passed on by word of mouth.
Let’s start with a few examples from the modern day:
a) the magi who come to visit Jesus in Matthew 2 are often identified as kings (as in the hymn “We Three Kings of Orient Are," though the Bible itself never identifies them as royal figures; likewise, in popular legends (midrash), they even have names (Caspar, Melchior, Balthasar) and one of them is a black man–but none of this is in the Bible;
b) Mary Magdalene is often identified as a converted prostitute, although the Bible never says this, nor does it even indicate that she had led a sinful life or been regarded as an outcast; some people even readily identify her as the “woman taken in adultery” in John 8 or as the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet in Luke 7–this does not come from the Bible, but from popular expansions on it (midrash).
No one is ever quite sure where these ideas come from, but they do become popular knowledge, such that some people find it difficult to separate what is historical fact from what is fictional midrash. We also know that the same thing happened in the early days because we have all sorts of fanciful legends about Jesus and his followers from the second century--for example, stories about things Jesus did as a child. So, the possibility arises--if the Gospels were not written until 30-50 years after Easter, couldn’t elements of midrash already have come into the tales before they were written down?
Obviously, they could have? But did they? There are scholars who have devoted their entire careers to studying midrash--how it develops, how long it takes, what its identifying characteristics are. This is not the place to go into a detailed report, but the general view of scholars of all persuasions (liberal, moderate, conservative) is that the amount of midrash in the written Gospels is slight. Some midrash-friendly scholars think that the stories of Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke may be midrash–in other words, they question the basic historicity of the virgin birth and think the whole shepherds/angels/ manger story in Luke (or magi story in Matthew) is fictional.
Some scholars also think certain elements of some miracle stories (e.g., the demon-possessed pigs running into the water to drown) might owe to midrash. Such views may be troubling to conservative Christians. But what is most important for the current argument is to note that virtually no scholar of any persuasion thinks that the miracle stories as such or the resurrection accounts as such are midrash through and through. Spong is simply not on secure ground here. He relies primarily on the work of a British scholar named M. D. Goulder, who is way out of the mainstream in terms of critical consensus. Virtually no one who studies midrash (not even Goulder) would use the category the way that Spong does--to dismiss the intended historicity of the bulk of the narrative material preserved in the Gospels.
Spong's Account of "Literalization"
If the gospel was originally Metaphorical, there logically must have been some transition to the view now held by "popular Christianity." For it is a matter of common knowledge that, starting at some point in time, Christian leaders and writers have consciously affirmed the factuality of the events in the gospels and the claims about Jesus. And therefore, in any Metaphorical Gospel theory an implicit charge of "literalization" must exist. Bishop Spong realizes this and makes this charge explicitly:
"But, beginning at least with Polycarp and Justin Martyr in the second century, the typical Christian understanding of this tradition was that the Jewish prophets had simply predicted concrete events in the life of the messiah who was to come, and Jesus had fulfilled these predictions in an almost literal way as a sign of his divine origin." (Resurrection: Reality or Myth? p5)
The reasons Spong gives for this literalization process are fairly general, sweeping assertions rather any specific evidence: (a) the literalizers were Gentiles, not Jews, and (b) the literalizers were separated from the origin of the gospels both by time and distance. He tells us,
"If the readers of his [Matthew's] Gospel ever ceased to be part of the religious heritage of the Hebrew people, or to have their religious memories shaped by that historic tradition, then misunderstanding and distortion would be inevitable. Without the background required to resonate with the story, literalizing would occur... When in the early years of the second century of the Christian era, the church ceased to be primarily Jewish and began the process by which it first became Gentile, then Greek, and finally Western, that is exactly what occurred. First, we did not understand, then we literalized, and finally, in this modern world, we rejected." (Born of a Woman p84-85)
"In my book that comes out next August, I will try to trace the development from midrashic Jewish gospels into Gentile literalistic interpretations of those gospels. I think the clue is in that people like Irenaeus, Justin Martyr and Polycarp are Gentiles and not Jews and that by the end of the first century the whole Christian movement was anti-Jewish in its flavor." (Letter, Dec 22,1995)
"My point in the book was that after 100 A.D. the Church was almost totally Gentile, and that these Gentile persons did not know the Jewish origins of the gospels, nor the background of the gospels, and so they read them in terms of history and biography. It is that reading that I contend is wrong." (Letter, Nov 6, 1996)
Spong's account is by far the clearest charge of "literalization" of the three scholars we're considering, and therefore his quotes are included here. The reader must remember that the charge of literalization is not an optional one for those who hold the Metaphorical Gospel theory. It must logically be an inherent part of the theory, whether spelled out or not.
I was able to ask him some interesting follow-up questions about details, along with his reasons and evidence. For more about this, See Analysis of Spong's Literalization Account .
As you can see from the above, there can be little doubt about Bishop Spong's Metaphorical Gospel Theory. He personally confirmed with me that the Metaphorical Gospel (as I've defined it) is indeed his considered view. He objected somewhat to the name "Metaphorical Gospel Theory" to describe his view, but did not offer a more suitable alternative.
But Bishop Spong is just one person. Do other scholars agree with him, or would the Metaphorical Gospel be just a "straw man" theory (one that is easy to refute and doesn't represent a prevalent theory)?