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Spong and the Literalization Process

By:  Erick Nelson
Last Updated:  September 11, 2002

Apostasy Theories

Many people have attempted to outline "apostasy" theories. An apostasy theory is the claim that Christianity "fell away" from some original position. This sort of claim is nearly always accompanied by some explanation of the falling away.  Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses, for instance, claim to be the restoration of the original Christian message.  Since you can't have a restoration without a prior falling away, they try to show that an apostasy occurred.

In exactly the same way, the Metaphorical Gospel theory claims that Christianity fell away from an original position:  the metaphorical understanding of the gospel stories and claims about Jesus. Since we all agree that Christianity eventually came to understand the accounts and claims factually, some kind of "falling away" is logically entailed by the theory. 

Dr. Crossan, to my knowledge, does not attempt to give us an account of how, or precisely when, this came about. 

Dr. Borg has a fairly vague and general notion of a time when the earliest fathers were naive, "natural  literalists" but were not concerned with defending the literal truth; and about those who soon followed (Justin and Irenaeus) - whose apologetic was rooted in a "literal" understanding - he confesses ignorance (and, implicitly, apathy) on this point.

To Bishop Spong's credit, he at least tries to give a general account of the "literalizing" process.  In fact, he not only tries to explain this process, but is supremely confident of his answer.  There are no caveats, hesitations, or tentativeness with Spong.  He speaks as one with authority.

Let's be clear about what such an account would be. It would answer the following questions:

Who were the first Literalizers?
Why did they Literalize?

I intentionally say "first" literalizers, because it doesn't matter who continued the literalization in later years.  The issue is how the literalization came about in the first place.  And so, for instance, if I contend that the literalization occurred in the second century, my commenting on Origen (third century), or Athanasius (fourth century), or Augustine (fifth century) is entirely irrelevant to my account.  I must talk about second century Christians! - such as Justin, or Irenaeus.  Similarly, if I contend that this literalization occurred in the late first century, any comment about second century (such as Justin or Irenaeus) or later writers is simply beside the point.

The second question ("Why?") consists of:  (a) did they do this on purpose, or through an innocent misunderstanding? (b) if a misunderstanding, how is it that they misunderstood?

We will try to discern Spong's answer to these two questions.


There is no doubt in anyone's mind that mid-second century writers, such as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, thought that the gospel stories were factually true accounts, and that they interpreted Jesus' deity and resurrection in the most "factual" ways possible.  We know this because they not only mention these things, they argue for them. Bishop Spong therefore rightly places Justin Martyr in the "literalizing" camp.  And of course since that time, "Historic Christianity" has uniformly continued this "factual" interpretation. No one questions this

Before we continue with Spong's literalization account, let's be clear on our chronology (since that's an important part of his case).  Let's focus on the late first and early second centuries, for if a literalizing did take place, this is where it must have occurred.

(Again, we use the dates accepted by Borg, Crossan, and Spong for the composition of the gospels, which is roughly 70-100 AD. For the sake of argument, to give them every chance to prove their case, we will accept these dates for now. They are represented by "Gosp" box in the chart above.)

Look at the three earliest of the Christian leaders - Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp.  You can see by the chart that (given the 70-100 dates for the gospels) they were exact contemporaries with the gospel writers. Polycarp and Ignatius were also friends, and it is very possible that they and Clement knew each other to some degree.

The next two Christian leaders are Justin and Irenaeus. They are the two most prominent writers called the "Apologists", because they conducted a defense (apologia in Greek) of the gospel. Irenaeus is particularly interesting because he was a pupil of Polycarp.

With this in mind, it is important to Spong's position to be able to say who the first literalizers were.  Were they the Apologists (Justin and Irenaeus)?  Or were they the Apostolic Fathers (Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp)?  Were they some other group?  Or were they individuals?

Spong's First View

I must reiterate here that Spong presents his views in a strong, confident way.  He gives every appearance of knowing when, and how, this literalization first occurred. Here are some of his clearest quotes:

"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." (Born of a Woman p84-85)

"So it was that Christianity entered its gentile exile, denied its Jewish roots, ignored its Jewish womb, and, in the process, distorted its own deepest insights. In time this resulted in extravagant literal claims for the historicity of what were in fact midrashic retellings of ancient themes in new moments of history." (Resurrection: Reality or Myth? p17)

"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)

"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)

"Before the end of the first century all the Gospels had been written, each deeply shaped by the midrash tradition. But beginning in the second century, these Gospels were interpreted almost exclusively by non-Jewish people who knew nothing of midrash." (Resurrection: Reality or Myth? p16)

Let's try to gather together the points he makes. There appear to be two components to his claim. 

  1. The basic claim is that the gospel writers - and original gospels readers - were (primarily) Jewish and understood that the gospels were "midrash" (that is, understood them as metaphorically true). 
  2. The literalizers were Gentiles in the second century who did not understand midrash, and therefore inadvertently misinterpreted the Gospels (by thinking that they were simple factual accounts).
  3. They did this because they were Gentile and lived in a later generation.

Most of Spong's contentions regarding literalization are extremely vague, but he does get around to naming names (emphasis mine):

"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)

" 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." (Dec 6, 1995 letter)

These statements give us a fairly definite answer to our two questions.  Spong names three of the first literalizers.  He says that they literalized because they were culturally removed from midrash (by being Gentiles) and were chronologically removed from the first century period of gospel composition (by living in the second century).

Who were the first Literalizers? - Polycarp, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus.
Why did they Literalize? - The were second-century Gentiles, not first-century Jews.

Consistency Problems

Aside from any examination of evidence to the contrary, there are serious consistency problems with each of these answers. The first has to do with Spong's loose sense of chronology. The second has to do with his own statements undermining the necessity of Jewishness in correctly understand the gospels.

Problems with "Who" (Chronology)

The first issue is that, while Spong typically says that the literalization occurred in the second century (Justin and Irenaeus), he also once makes the extraordinary claim that the literalization occurred hundreds of years later ("Only to a generation living hundreds of years later, separated from their Jewish religious roots and clinging to a peculiarly Western mind-set ...").  This sort of misleading generality occurs more than once in his books.  We can probably chalk this up to rhetorical exaggeration, and won't press him on this point.

Spong makes a much more serious mistake when he explicitly names Polycarp as a literalizer (so now the three people in yellow are literalizers, and the two in white are . . . "unknown" (Spong hasn't said).

Bishop Spong is obviously thinking of Polycarp as a second-century Christian writer and martyr (notice that Polycarp was martyred around 156 AD), and he fails to realize that Polycarp was also a first century Christian (who would have been 30 years old by the end of the first century), whose views regarding the gospel were formed precisely during the "metaphorical" era.  This causes real complications in his theory.

Problems with "Why" (First Century Jews and Gentiles)

Spong undercuts his argument in a second way. He emphasizes again and again that the gospels were written as midrash, and that the primary reason the first readers understood them correctly was that they were Jewish, or at least heavily influenced by Jewish thinking.  But in Resurrection: Reality or Myth? he tells us that Luke's gospel was written by a gentile, and explains this by saying that such metaphorical stories were entirely in harmony with gentile thought of the time.  So, we are to understand that both Jews and gentiles in the first century understood the gospel metaphorically.

Yet Spong takes a hard turn here, and introduces another serious chronological inconsistency.  In the bulk of his statements Spong indicates that Jewish thinking prevailed in the church up through the end of the first century.  That's how John's gospel, for instance, could have been written and understood as midrash in 100 AD.  But here, he seems to contradict this by saying that the "gentile direction" was "in full control" exactly mid-way through the 70-100 AD period.

"Before Luke's story was complete [90 AD], the gentile direction was not only established, it was in full control... when we consider Luke's account of Easter, we discover that quantitative leaps have occurred in the tradition...'rapture model' .. 'divine man image' ... Mythical stories about Romulus, the founder of Rome, employed this divine man model." (Resurrection: Reality or Myth? p74-76)

Given the statement above, there is only one way to reconcile his statements about the "gentile" Luke of 90 and the "Jewish" John of 100, and that is that by about 90 AD, ALL first-century Christians - both Jews and Gentiles -  understood the gospel message metaphorically - and second-century Christians (such as Justin and Irenaeus) literalized it. 

And so, this is a very clean distinction.  First century = metaphorical.  Second century = literal.  This can be pictured as follows:

How are we, then, to understand the answers to our two questions?  Given this exceedingly clean scenario, we now have:

Who were the first Literalizers? - Polycarp, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus.
Why did they Literalize? - The lived in the second-century, not the first.

Spong's Most Current View

But the "cultural" rationale is now a bothersome issue.  It seems that a great deal of Bishop Spong's effort has been spent trying to show that a cultural difference (Jews vs gentiles) is largely responsible for the literalization mistake - and with his Luke/gentile comments he appears to throw all that away.

As we'll see below, he tries to remedy this defect.  Bishop Spong has followed up this collection of books with a new one, Liberating the Gospels : Reading the Bible With Jewish Eyes. In this book, he modifies his view somewhat.


Back in December of 1995, and in the early months of 1996, I corresponded briefly with Bishop Spong about his views.  I asked him pointed questions about the issues raised in this article.  I especially requested that he flesh out his view about the literalizing of the gospels, and that he show how this relates to the earliest church fathers Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp.  They are indeed the test-bed for his theory.

Spong's only reply to this was to assure me that he would put forth a better explanation in his new book. In a letter dated Dec 22, 1995, he said (italics mine):

"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." (Dec 22, 1995 letter)

I noticed that his chronology was, again, a bit puzzling. He says that "by the end of the first century" (presumably just before 100 AD) the "whole Christian movement" was anti-Jewish.  But, surely, he contends that the gospel John was written 100 AD, was Jewish and incorporated midrash, and John's original audience understood this - the most highly symbolic gospel - metaphorically.  How can this be consistent with his statement?

Leaving that aside, it was intriguing to guess what Spong could possibly say to bolster his position regarding the first literalizers. After all, he had promised to "trace the development" of the literalization process.  Since the principal question is "Who were the first Literalizers?", it seemed to me that he would either have to put Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp in the literalizer camp or in the Metaphorical Gospel camp.  Either way, it seemed to me he would have difficulties.  There is no way he could side-step this issue.

The Book

From the perspective of my expectations (which had been fueled by Spong's assurances), the book was a disappointment.  He did not address my issues at all.  He mentions Polycarp only once - he reaffirms his contention that Polycarp was a literalizer, but doesn't explain further.  He never mentions Clement or Ignatius.  He actually gives no account of the literalizing process. The entire book is an exercise in what I call the Argument from Theory Intersection.

There was one major change in his position, however.  Now he says that all the gospels (including Luke) were written by Jewish Christians.  He appears to backtrack on his previous statements that the first-century gentile world-view well accommodated metaphorical gospels, thus rescuing his points about midrash from irrelevancy. 

This actually makes his view tidier.  But it only addresses one part of the issue.  I wondered if Spong had come to realize that Polycarp was a first-century literalizing gentile.  While he does not explicitly say that the first century Gentiles were literalists, maybe that's what he thinks.  Thus, perhaps this is the picture in his mind: 

This is not a trivial question.  It completely determines Spong's answer to the question "Who were the first Literalizers?", and has significant implications for the second, "Why did they Literalize?"  His whole account depends on this issue.

Who Were the First Literalizers?

View 1.  Let's say that the first-century gentiles understood the gospel metaphorically (as Spong has implied earlier). Then Justin and Irenaeus would be among the first literalizers, and the reason they were literalizers would have nothing to do with Jewish vs. Gentile understanding.  This is how the scheme would look:

If that's Spong's position, he will have to retract his contention that Polycarp was a literalizer, or else explain how Polycarp could be "metaphorical" for the first half of his life and a "literalizer" for the second half.  And, of course, he would have to explain away the Internal and External evidence provided by this article.

View 2.  Let's say, on the other hand, that the first-century gentiles understood the gospel "factually" ("literally").  Then they, not the second-century Christians, would have been the first literalizers.  The reason would clearly be that they lived in a later generation, not due to any difference between Jewish and Gentile understanding.  The scheme would look like this:

If that's Spong's position, any talk about second century Christians (such as Justin or Irenaeus), or Christians "hundreds of years" later are completely beside the point

Also, what about the Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp?  If the first-century gentiles literalized the gospels, we are actually in a position to name three of them:  Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp.  But Spong has never even mentioned Clement and Ignatius.  What is his position concerning them?

Letter to Spong

At this point, I have to admit, on a personal note, that I was somewhat frustrated.  By now I didn't care so much whether his view was this or that, I just wanted to know what it was!  I kept thinking to myself, "This shouldn't be so hard!  I'm going to have to mention this when I talked about "Definiteness of Articulation."

So I wrote Bishop Spong a follow-up letter, asking him once again about these issues.

Remember that Spong has given every impression that he knows all about the literalization process.  Here is Bishop Spong's reply (emphasis mine):

"I wish that I had time to correspond and deal with issues that all of my readers write, but I simply do not. I am well aware that there were Gentile Christians in the Church from 70 to 100, but that is not the focus of my book, and I would prefer not to be deviated from my task.

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.

What the Gentile Christians understood originally about the reading of the gospels, I do not know. It is also not my purpose to go into early Church history in this book. I wanted to limit my scope to the formation of the gospel tradition, so I am not terribly concerned about Polycarp, Clement or Ignatius. I share your sense of Ignatius as someone that I would not be terribly interested in studying in detail.

I wish you well. I am sorry that I cannot engage a serious discussion of this, as time simply does not permit.

This comes with best wishes." (Nov 6, 1996 letter)

Read this carefully.  He clearly and directly says that he does not know who the first literalizers were.  Perhaps they were first-century gentiles, perhaps second-century gentiles, it's all the same to him.  Furthermore, he is not interested in Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp, and appears to know little about them.  The reason for this is that they are part of "early Church history" and it was not a part of the purpose of his book to address church history issues.

The answer stunned me.  His answer was, simply put, that he didn't know or care.  How can this be?  He claims to have an authoritative account of the literalizing process, and then can't say who the first literalizers were or why they literalized!

I then (somewhat impolitely, I suppose) quickly sent him another letter, explaining why this was so amazing to me, and asked him to confirm that he has no considered view on this issue. To this he did not reply.


Bishop Spong has written several books in which he attempts to relate the results of modern New Testament scholarship to the lay reader.  The thrust of most of these books is to emphasize what I call the Metaphorical Gospel theory, although he does not give it a definite name.  In these books he also claims that the early "metaphorical" gospel understanding was lost and that later non-Jewish Christians "literalized" the gospel.  He thinks that this literalization is a tragedy of significant proportions, and is at least partly responsible for the possible downfall of Christianity.  He wants, thus, to "rescue" the Bible from fundamentalism.

In Spong's treatment of this literalization process, he gives every impression that he knows all about it.  He knows who did the literalization and why.  Yet his account is general, vague, and inconsistent regarding crucial issues.

These statements give us a fairly definite answer to our two questions.  Spong names three of the first literalizers.  He says that they literalized because they were culturally removed from midrash (by being Gentiles) and were chronologically removed from the first century period of gospel composition (by living in the second century).

But at the end of the day, when the dust has all settled, there is no definite rationale given for this charge of apostasy.

Who were the first Literalizers? - Can't say.
Why did they Literalize? - Can't say.

When pressed, he admits that he has not dealt with the External Evidence that bears on the subject, and that he does not even have a view about who the first literalizers were.

And so, we are left with a remarkable situation - one which I, at any rate, never would have expected.  One of the three MG scholars, Crossan, does not have a position.  Of the other two, Borg and Spong, we find in the last analysis that they confess openly to ignorance and apathy regarding this issue.