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Letters with Bishop John Shelby Spong
By: Erick Nelson
Last Updated: November 22, 2001
1. Is This your view?
November 21, 1995
Dear Bishop Spong:
I had a great conversation with Rev. Mark Lewis yesterday, and Mark suggested that I write you. I am a member of Wallingford United Methodist Church, which is a reconciling congregation in Seattle. In our Adult Ed classes, we were introduced to two of your books and two books by Marcus Borg. Because of the interest generated by these classes, I recently read "Born of a Woman" and "Resurrection: Myth or Reality."
The thing that struck me most prominently was the directness and clarity of your viewpoint. For several years I have wondered:
"Is it the considered view of NT scholarship that the New Testament writers intended to portray their material as 'non-factual' (metaphorical, spiritual, etc.) truth, and that their original audience understood this material as 'non-factual' truth?"
To both parts of this question, you responded with a resounding YES.
I asked Mark Lewis some fundamental follow-up questions (via email) regarding your books, and after talking, he thought that you would welcome my questions. That is why I am writing.
 About ten years ago, I took a class at CGS with John Hick, and wrote a paper critiquing a viewpoint he was developing for a book. He said that he especially appreciated my paper because I was one of the few people who took the trouble to understand his position before trying to critique it.
Similarly, at work here at Airborne, when I work on a problem, I try to analyze it before rushing to solutions. In doing so, I often have occasion to interview other programmers and ask them questions about how their systems work. I then draw up diagrams based on these conversations and meet again to go over the diagrams. I am at that point, essentially, explaining their systems to them. When they spot flaws, we correct the diagrams and my understanding becomes clearer. When they finally say "Yep, you've got it," I know that I understand their system pretty well.
And so I would like to try to tell you what I think you said, including some examples I am making up, to see if I'm on target.
 The second thing I would like to do is to get a sense about how your views represent the "findings of New Testament scholars." You are obviously attempting to communicate the views of current scholarship to a popular audience, and therefore it's important to me to know which of these views are simply your own, which are "up-and-coming" and somewhat untested, and which are "tried and true", the result of centuries of intensive scholarship!
I remember in the 70's and early 80's that NT scholarship appeared to be in disarray. Books such as Morton Smith's Jesus the Magician, Hugh Schonfield's Passover Plot, John Allegro's book about Jesus and a Sacred Mushroom cult, etc. arrived at mutually-exclusive positions via purportedly scholarly means. You had the "Death of God" theologians, John Hick editing the Myth of God Incarnate collection, conservative scholars such as F.F. Bruce and moderate scholars such as W.D. Davies quietly going about their business, and sometimes surprising works that transcended party lines, such as John A.T. Robinson's Redating the New Testament. And so, I'm wondering whether New Testament studies have settled down, and a general consensus has been reached (This seems to be the implication of your books).
I had envisioned doing this with someone who could represent you in such discussions, rather than to bother you, and to do so via a series of short email messages. But the path open to me is to write you a letter, and this is it! [I will also send a cc: of this to Mark Lewis, so he'll know what I wrote to you.]
If you can spare the time, I would like to first know if I have understood you correctly, and whether you are willing to answer some follow-up questions. If your schedule doesn't permit such correspondence, I would appreciate it if you could direct me to someone who could help me.
P.S. My background: I have an M.A. in Philosophy from Claremont Graduate School (did my thesis on Plato's concept of thumos), have done some reading in philosophy and New Testament (and discussed NT issues at times with John Hick, Robert Hammerton-Kelley, W.D. Davies, Donald Guthrie, and F.F. Bruce).
I now work as a Sr. Systems Analyst (glorified computer programmer) at Airborne Express. I found you by looking for you on the Internet, and discovering Mark Lewis' church.
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!
Dear Erik Nelson -
Thanks for your letter. I doubt if I can give the time your questions require but I will make a stab at it at least once.
(1) 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) 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.
(4) Correct but modified by next book Aug 96.
(5) Have revisted this - result in book out Aug 96.
(6) Again much better spelled out in Aug 96 book.
(7) Still correct
(8) Still correct
Not Spong's Views -
(1) General 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) 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) Even more convinced - See Aug 96. No longer believe there was a Q M or L.
(4) Addressed in Aug 96 Book.
(5) That is NOT my issue.
Illustration - This is an interesting approach and basically I like it.
My work since Resurrection Myth or Reality has deepened the Jewish background of the Gospels. I have been deeply shaped by English NT Scholar Michael Goulder. The New Book is tentatively entitled "Reading the Gospels with Jewish Eyes." Out Aug 96 from Harper Collins - Hope it will continue the Dialogue -
December 12, 1995
Dear Bishop Spong:
I greatly appreciated your reply to my letter of 11/21. A short point-by-point comment was exactly what I needed, and more than I had reason to expect! I am intrigued by your new book of August '96 and will definitely be on the lookout for it.
It seems to me that a crucial component of this theory, or position, is a plausible account of the literalization of the NT midrash accounts. You have agreed that there is a world of difference between the 'midrash' and the 'literal' interpretations, and it is not easy to see how one could gently slide into the other without being noticed.
It is clear that Irenaeus and Justin Martyr are 'literalizers', for they argue for the factual truth of the stories.
You have mentioned Polycarp as a literalizer. I would think he is an interesting case, since (assuming he died at 86+ years old around 155) he learned his Christianity as a youth during the 70-100 midrash period. Similarly, Ignatius of Antioch was probably a Christian, and Clement of Rome was head of the church in Rome, during this period.
Could you recommend the best account of the literalization process during this essential period (Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp)? Or can you give me your opinion?
(One last question that has nothing to do with the above, but I thought you might know: You mention John A.T. Robinson with great admiration. I remember that his book Redating the New Testament was especially unusual because Robinson dates all the NT books prior to 70 AD. I expected this to cause quite a stir, but am not aware that it changed anyone's minds or that anyone endeavored to refute the analysis in it. But, then again, I'm out of the loop in many of these matters! Do you know how this book was received? Any impact?)
Thanks. I appreciate your help,
Spong Reply #2
December 22, 1995
Dear Mr Nelson:
Thank you for your letter of December 12th. 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.
In regard to John Robinson's book Redating the New Testament, it was an absolute bomb and the world of New Testament scholarship simply dismissed it as not worthy of much consideration. It gave some comfort to some biblical fundamentalists who were strangely comforted by the man who had disturbed them the most a decade before. I never hear that book referrred to today, and I think that it was regarded as something of an embarrassment in John Robinson's career.
This comes with my best wishes.
John S. Spong
January 3, 1996
Dear Bishop Spong:
I appreciate your letter of Dec 22, especially the background info about Bishop John Robinson's Redating the New Testament. And I'll be looking forward to reading your August book when it is available! I would recommend (for what it's worth) to explicitly cover Clement, Ignatius, and Papias, as they are the difficult cases.
I have enjoyed looking into some of the newer developments in New Testament criticism, and have appreciated your two letters. I have been robbing time from my own career pursuits to look into these things, and so probably will not be able to continue in any significant way. And so, I would like to ask you one final question before I turn my attention to other pressing matters!
If the viewpoint you put forth were new or idiosyncratic, I wouldn't necessarily expect all the fine points to be ironed out yet; but since it is pretty much the established view, I am confident that there are by now stock answers for some of the most obvious questions.
I would greatly like to hear what these answers are, and to be directed to books or articles which deal with this issue in more depth.
Thanks for your help and best wishes for your upcoming book. If there's any way I can be of help, please let me know.
[Meta-Gospel Discourse as exegetical technique]
How do we tell from a writing whether the author intends it to be construed factually or figuratively? It is easy to see that saying that "Jesus is the door" does not mean he is made of wood, or saying "I am the True Vine" does not mean Jesus is green. But how about statements that appear to be plain factual claims, such as "Thomas touched Jesus' hands" and "They walked to Jerusalem"?
If the authors intended a great deal of the material to be midrash as is maintained , they would include a lot of stories that appear on the surface to be simple straightforward accounts but are not.
So, how can one do the proper exegesis? How do we know , for example, that Irenaeus was a "literalist"? Because he use meta-gospel discourse. He talks ABOUT the gospel. He explicitly says that the miracles, deity, suffering, teaching, and resurrection of Jesus are factual - not myths, not appearances, not stories that were made up.
Whether the gospels are indeed midrash, or are rather essentially factual accounts, can perhaps best be decided by the META-GOSPEL statements that are found in the New Testament itself.
The surprising thing is that we do not find (to my knowledge) any clear meta-gospel statement verifying midrash ("this is figuratively true, not factually true - these are spiritual creations - remember that the man Jesus and the Christ of Faith are not the same ...") [perhaps you could point out some I have missed].
What we do find are some surprisingly direct and explicit meta-gospel statements that support the "factual" view. I will present the two strongest examples:
(I am not proof-texting here. I am not saying here that what the authors claim is TRUE, only that these constitute clear meta-gospel statements which support the "factual" interpretation.)
(1) The prologue to Luke could not be clearer in stating the author's purpose: many people had endeavored to write accounts of what had happened in Jesus' ministry; Luke knew what the eyewitness disciples had declared; he investigated these things thoroughly and set down the accounts.
(2) "Deutero"-epistles. It is held that 1-2 Timothy, 2 Peter, and possibily 1-2 John were written by disciples of the apostles Paul, Peter, and John, respectively, addressing current community issues "as if" their apostles were writing.
Here we have a double-metaphor theory: not only is the content of the gospels metaphorical, but the authorship is metaphorical as well! We have therein meta-gospel statements which:
(a) explicitly say five times that the good news does NOT consist of myths or "stories that were made up" (1 Tim 1.3, 4.7, 2 Tim 4.4, 2 Peter 1.16, 2.3), but were things the the authors' "eyes have seen, hands have touched" (1 John prologue)
(b) explicitly say that there should be no division between the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith: the "Liar" is the onewho denies that Jesus IS the Christ (1 John 2.22) and the one who denies that Christ has come in the flesh (1 John 4.2, 2 John 1.7).
What could a writer of a deutero-epistle - whose gospel consists of stories that were created by midrash and clearly was composed of mythical content - possibly be trying to express when he explicitly denies these things? I can't even guess.
It would be naive, I suppose, that the prologue to Luke is indeed an attempt to set forth his purpose in writing, and then to say that what it really means is the opposite of what it appears to mean. I can only guess that it exists, not to express Luke's purpose, but as a stylistic creation, for verisimilitude.
Any help you can give is greatly appreciated.
April 25, 1996
Dear Bishop Spong:
I have been asked to write an article for a Web page sponsored by a group that is concerned with reasoned approaches to Christianity (http://www.power.net/users/aia/). Since this article has arisen in part from our mail conversations, and of course from your books, and since your views are important to the topic of the article, I am sending you my first draft.
The article is called "The Metaphorical Gospel Theory." I want to personally thank you for having the courage and straightforwardness to clearly articulate this view (the lack of such clarity has been a frustration for me with other authors). The point of the paper is to (1) describe the theory, (2) show that NT scholars affirm it and that it is thus an important and influential theory, (3) present evidence which explicitly contradicts the theory, and (4) conclude that the theory is false.
I plan also to write an "abbreviated" version for the Web, so that people can start with the short version and hotlink to the fuller discussion, and will add an introduction and conclusion during the final draft.
I am sending the paper to you for two reasons. First, as a courtesy to you - if you think you have been misrepresented, you have an opportunity to correct it. Second, as a way of improving the article - any clarification of your view or comments on the article itself will only make the article better; I will either adjust the article according to your comments, or at least try to include them in the text of the article. And so, feel free to comment on anything.
I realize you are extremely busy, and I wish you well on your upcoming book. My "publishers" are anxious to get the article on the Web site, and I can only give you until May 13 to respond. If you have access to email, or if you can get someone to send me an email (such as Martha Lewis), that would be quickest! Thank you.
May 1, 1996
Dear Mr. Nelson:
Thank you for your letter. I regret that I do not have time to read your material before the deadline. I never object to people misinterpreting me. It has happened so many times. The one thing I would say is that I would never use the word "metaphorical" to describe what I am talking about. You feel free to use whatever words you wish, but that would not be a word that would be adequate in my vocabulary.
This comes with best wishes,
John S. Spong
October 28, 1996
Dear Bishop Spong:
You may remember that I wrote to you several months ago with questions about your views about midrash, etc., as found in your books. You kindly replied to several of my questions (and I appreciate that), and expressed the hope that you'd be addressing others in your newest book.
After reading your newest offering, these questions remain, and so I would like to make another attempt to see if you can clarify one of these things for me.
Gentile Christians of 70-100 C.E.
One thing I noticed was that you tightened up your theory a bit by saying that Luke was a Jewish Christian, not a Gentile Christian (as you had said in earlier books). This maintains a cleaner Jewish/Gentile distinction between those who understood the gospels "midrashically" and those who literalized the gospel message. In fact, it almost seems as if the following is the scenario you propose:
Jewish Christians 70-100 C.E. wrote the gospels with midrashic understanding, and their readers/hearers, also Jewish Christians understood them "midrashically."
Gentile Christians 100+ C.E. literalized the gospels. Being separated both by time and culture, they unintentionally misunderstood the message, through ignorance.
However, this leaves out a major group of Christians, the Gentile Christians of 70-100. I don't think you would dispute the fact that in each church of gospel origin (Rome, Antioch, Ephesus, ..) Jewish and Gentile Christians co-existed. So the question is: in your theory, did these Gentile Christians of 70-100 (in general) understand the gospels midrashically or literally? I don't see how you can affirm either option.
(1) If you say they understood the gospels literally, because they lacked the necessary cultural (Jewish) awareness, how could this be so concurrent with the midrashic understanding of their Jewish fellow-believers? It couldn't have been mere ignorance in this scenario. Since the midrashic and literal understandings are diametrically opposed, they would have been the source of great conflict, if they actually existed side-by-side. Yet we see no evidence of such conflict.
(2) However, if you say that the Gentile Christians understood the gospels as midrash, you have weakened the argument that midrashic understanding of the gospels was foreign to later Gentiles by virtue of their Gentile-ness. It would more then be merely a separation of time, rather than time and culture, that caused the misunderstanding But, at any rate, I think that this second option is more plausible.
You reiterated in your book that Polycarp was a literalizer. I had asked you about the other two "Apostolic Fathers", Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch. You never mentioned them in your book (that I could find). It is clear, however, that if Polycarp is judged a literalizer by his extand works, then Ignatius is ten times the literalizer, judging by his letters. If Polycarp and Ignatius were literalizers, then it is quite plausible, and even likely, that Clement was.
But we now have three examples of Gentile Christians of 70-100 that were literalizers. Polycarp, born by most estimates before 70 AD, learned his Christianity in this period and rose to prominence in the church of Smyrna by the end of it. Ignatius and Clement were adult Christians during this entire era, and were bishops by about 90-100.
And so, this would seem to force the first option I mentioned, that the Gentile Christians of that era were literalizers.
Could you please tell me your view about the status of the Gentile Christians of 70-100 C.E.? It makes a great difference which way you choose. Has anyone else asked you about this question?
Hope that things are going well for you. Thank you for your help.
November 6, 1996
Dear Mr. Nelson:
Thank you for your letter of October 28th.
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,
John S. Spong
November 19, 1996
Dear Bishop Spong:
Thank you for your recent reply to my questions of Oct 28. Your answer caught me completely by surprise. I had thought that I understood your basic position and just wanted some clarification. I had, in fact, expected that this would wrap it up and that I wouldn't need to bother you again. Now I find that I have not understood you at all!
I thought that a significant part of your intent was to provide a plausible account of the first "literalization" of the gospel. Now it appears you have no interest in giving such an account, nor do you profess to have any knowledge of how this literalization first came about. You want to keep a narrow focus on the "gospel origins" side of things. That changes everything. It now seems that my interest in your views is centered precisely in topics with which you're not concerned! Please just confirm that this is so, and I'll gladly let it drop.
By the way, I would very much like to share your short responses (this this and previous letters) with others who are interested in your views. To get clarification first-hand can only help people to avoid misunderstanding, and for many, will increase appreciation of your work. If you would rather I maintain confidentiality about these communications, please tell me.
If the above is unclear, then please read on. Please understand that all I wish to do is to understand the very basics of your position. I include the following, if somewhat long, for clarity's sake. You can clear this up, if you'll spare the time, in just a few phrases.
Your Old View (as I understood it)
I thought that your view prior to your newest book consisted essentially of four theses:
1. The gospel redactors intended (many of) their stories as midrash, not to be understood has factual accounts.
2. The original audience, for the most part, correctly understood these stories as midrash.
3. Soon after 100 A.D., the Christian audience (mistakenly) understood them as factual accounts ("literalized them").
4. The reason for this accidental literalization was two-fold: (a) the literalizers were Gentile, not Jewish; and also (b) they were removed by many years from the gospel writings themselves.
Of course, your book emphasizes #1 as its major thesis. Nothing new there.
The facts represented by thesis #3 are, I would agree, common knowledge: these Christians did indeed understand the accounts factually. If thesis #1 is correct, then the term "mistakenly" is a given. That's obvious. Actually, I see that your view of literalization is more like the following: Since #1 is true and #3 is true, it follows logically that literalization must have occurred. Perhaps that's all you are saying (and not #4).
In your new book you have changed #2 slightly. Now you claim that the original Jewish audience understood the stories midrashically but do not mention what you think about the Gentile audience. Your letter to me clarifies this well by saying that you not only have no position relative to the Gentile audience of this era, but that you simply do not know. Your reason for this is that you are not interested enough in church history (in particular Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp) to have formulated an informed opinion. You wanted to stay on track regarding gospel origins. Fair enough.
Given this, thesis #4 cannot now be your considered opinion, and perhaps (since this question is a matter of church history as much as the other issue) you really have no interest in #4. The reason it cannot explain the first literalizers' mistake hinges on the Gentile Christian question I asked about. Think of it this way:
(a) If the Gentile Christians of 70-100 were "literalizers", it is their mistake, not the views that later generations inherited from them, which is the real issue; thus, any explanation of the literalizing process must explain how they, not their successors, went wrong. To talk about people living nearly a hundred years later (Justin Martyr, for instance) is of no more help than to talk about Augustine or Athanasius. The plausible explanation would of course be "because they were Gentiles, not Jews." The second second assertion ("because they lived a long time after the gospel writings") would not, in this scenario, be a possible explanation.
(b) On the other hand, if the Gentile Christians of 70-100 were "midrashers", we have exactly the reverse case. They would not be the first literalizers; it would be the next generation that first made the mistake. And the plausible reason for that could never be "because they were Gentiles", since up to that time all Christians - Jews and Gentiles - had undestood the gospels as midrash. The reason could be "because they lived a long time after the gospel writings."
And so the explanation might possibly be one or the other ("Jew/Gentile", or "after the fact"), but could not possibly be both:
If Gentile Christians 70-100 were literalizers, it couldn't have first happened because of what happened in the second centruy.
If Gentile Christians 70-100 were midrashers, literalization couldn't have happened because the first literalizers were Gentiles.
Therefore #4 as it stands is clearly wrong. And, since you do not choose between these two explanations (they hinge on the Gentile Christian issue), you are prevented from having a definite position at all.
After your comments about the three most probable "first literalizers" (Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp), it is possible that the comments in your earlier books were perhaps speculative, and that you never intended to present a view you would be willing to defend.
Your True View
I am trying to be very clear about this, so that you can briefly give me an answer. I think that your real view is the following:
1. The gospel redactors intended (many of) their stories as midrash, not to be understood has factual accounts (same as before).
2. The original Jewish audience, for the most part, correctly understood these stories as midrash. You do not claim know, nor to be interested in, the view of the Gentile audience of that time (because that is church history, not gospel origins).
3. Soon after 100 A.D., the Christian audience (mistakenly) understood them as factual accounts ("literalized them"). (same as before)
4. Although one might speculate about how this literalization might have occurred, the establishment of #1 and #3 would guarantee that the literalization did occur. You do not have a considered view about how this literalization specifically came about.
For an extra clarification, I would invite you to agree that the "old" thesis #4 ("The reason for this accidental literalization was two-fold: (a) the literalizers were Gentile, not Jewish; and (b) they were removed by many years from the gospel writings themselves") is not possible, for the reasons I mention above.
I appreciate your help in this matter. I, too, am enormously busy, finishing up a year-long project at work and taking care of a new baby. But I think this is an important issue, and honestly want to understood your position (which you'll agree is not a courtesy you always receive).
P.S. Quotes from your last letter to me follow, for reference:
Quotes from your last letter (for context)
"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 prupose 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."