Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy (John Spong) — A Review

by Bob Cornwall

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared in “Ponderings on a Faith Journey,” Bob’s personal blog, on March 7, 2016.

Used with permission.]

SpongThe charge of heresy is a strong one. In the past charges of heresy could get one thrown out of the church if not worse. It’s probably not a word to be thrown around lightly. So, when a book arrives carrying the title Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy one will want to proceed with caution. When the person writing the book has been called a heretic himself, we might wonder what we’re in store for as we read. The question raised by the title concerns the way we ought to read the Bible. If to read the Bible literally is a Gentile heresy, what does that mean? In what ways did Gentiles introduce heretical ideas into the Christian community? In other words, how did Gentiles mess things up?
The author of this book with a provocative title is John Shelby Spong, the long retired Episcopal bishop of Newark, New Jersey. Spong has long been a provocative voice within the Christian community. He has regularly pushed boundaries with a “take no prisoners” attitude. On the positive side he has pushed the cause of women in ministry and welcoming LGBT persons into the life of the church. On the other hand, he has often used his position in the church to disparage those with whom he disagrees. And we see some of that in this book. Those who would hold the Bible, for instance, to be Word of God (a theological term) are said to be illiterate. He also suggests that ending the reading of Scripture in worship with the oft-used phrase “this is the Word of the Lord” is, in his words, “little more than the perpetuation of religious ignorance and religious prejudice” (p. 11) It would seem that his purpose in writing this book (and previous books) is to save Christianity from itself by making it intellectually acceptable.
In many ways Spong is a restorationist. Like other Restorationists (my own tradition has a restorationist element), he wants to restore “true Christianity” so that it will be attractive to those who cannot abide a supernaturalist religion. In some ways Spong reminds me of Schleiermacher’s speeches to the “cultured despisers” of religion. But, whereas Schleiermacher’s vision of Christianity had a romanticist element, Spong at times seems closer to Enlightenment rationalists like John Toland and Matthew Tindal. While Spong embraces a Modernist vision, it has become apparent that we have entered a postmodern age that is better able to hold faith and reason in tension in a way that Spong doesn’t seem to embrace
At the heart of this book is Spong’s rather eccentric reading of the Gospel of Matthew. It needs to be noted that Spong is not a Bible scholar, though he seems to want the reader to grant him that role. Rather, he is a popularizer of biblical scholarship. It appears that he is well-read in the biblical scholarship of the age and is a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar (one needn’t be a scholar to be a fellow). There’s nothing wrong with being a popularizer. Like most preachers, when I enter the pulpit I do so as a popularizer of biblical scholarship.  I take biblical scholarship and bring its rewards to a congregation through teaching and preaching. I’ve even written a couple of books that exposit and interpret the Bible, but that doesn’t make me a biblical scholar (I do not have advanced degrees in the study of the Bible). With that said, we turn to Spong’s premise. That premise is that Gentile readers have misread the Gospels. They have read them literally, when the Jewish writers and recipients of the Gospels never would have understood them in that way.
In many ways Spong is engaging in the never ending quest for the historical Jesus. The question is whether he has uncovered the historical Jesus or has simply looked down that proverbial well and has seen his own reflection. The way in which this reflection is cast will change with time, but the Jesus seen reflected in the waters of that well will likely be in sync with the vision of reality held by the one doing the looking! John Spong is no different than the rest of us.
At the heart of the book is Spong’s desire to undo what he believes is an unwarranted and even dangerous atonement theology that emerged after Christianity became a Gentile faith. It is true that the atonement is a subject of deep debate in the present era (and really always has been). Nonetheless the cross remains central to the Christian faith, so the question that faces us is the role it will play in the life of the church. In order undo the harm he believes is perpetrated by an atonement theology that denies human worth, he wants to recast our reading of the Gospels.
Those who have studied the Gospels likely know that they emerged late in the second half of the first century, decades after the death of Jesus. The only New Testament texts that predate the Gospels are the letters of Paul, which say very little about Jesus’ earthly life. The cross and resurrection are central in Paul’s thought, though there is little narrative given to these two key points. It is true as well that there is divergence in the Gospel narratives that must be accounted for. Scholars have been busy seeking to explain the points of agreement and disagreement.
Spong offers us one particular take on this effort. He does so by popularizing a theory introduced in the 1970s by the British biblical scholar Michael Goulder that the Gospels are Jewish liturgical texts, which offer up the story of Jesus in terms of Goulder’s reconstruction of a Jewish liturgical year. It should be noted that Goulder’s theories have never been accepted by mainstream biblical scholars. Part of the problem with Goulder’s reconstruction, and thus Spong’s popularization of it, is that we simply don’t know enough of what occurred in synagogues to say anything definitive about how scripture might be interpreted. We especially don’t know how Jesus would have been understood in that context—except for what seems to be revealed at points in the Gospels. But, for me a more pertinent question that never gets answered is why Jewish synagogues would have been reconstructing the story of Jesus in the form of a Jewish liturgical calendar.
Another aspect of Goulder’s view, which Spong takes up, is his rejection of the existence of “Q,” the sayings source that biblical scholars believe Matthew and Luke used in tandem with the Gospel of Mark to create their versions of the Jesus story. While there are a few scholars who reject what has become the accepted theory (sort of like the theory of evolution within biological sciences), it remains the accepted theory. In Spong’s view Matthew uses Mark, but then rewrites it in line with a Jewish liturgical year. He then suggests that Luke took Matthew and revised it for a more cosmopolitan Jewish audience. suggested that while Mark is the earliest Gospel, he rejected the idea of the existence of a sayings source (Q) that was later used by Matthew and Luke. Spong takes up Goulder’s view and suggests that we should reject Q and assume that Matthew was written in the context of the synagogue liturgy. He then suggests that Luke took Matthew and revised it for a different synagogue context. If we accept this theory, then we will read the Gospels through Jewish eyes. And here’s the kicker. If we adopt Spong’s view, then no Jew would have ever read the story of Jesus literally. That means there are few if any historical elements to the story. Of course, this leaves us with a largely mythical Jesus. There may have been a historical Jesus at the bottom of this story, a Jesus who did end up crucified, but beyond that we know very little, because Jews didn’t take such things literally. Or so, he says. In some ways Spong goes even further than most Jesus Seminar participants.
I have to hand it to Spong, he is quite creative. His use of a liturgical calendar to create the story of Jesus seems rather ingenious, but for me he makes too many leaps of logic. While I think we do need to read the Gospels through Jewish eyes, I’m not sure that Goulder is our best guide. And while it’s clear (to me) that the Gospel writers did interpret Jesus’ life through an Old Testament lens that made use of figures such as Moses, I’m not sure that this requires us to make nearly everything metaphor. This is, in my mind, the heart of the problem in current discussions of the story of Jesus. It seems as if we face a choice between taking everything as literal history or everything is to be taken metaphorically. I’m also concerned that Spong shows no awareness of the power of oral tradition in the ancient world. The fact that the Gospels were written decades after the death of Jesus doesn’t mean that they do not reflect stories that were passed on with great care from the time of Jesus. If we reject the value of oral tradition we’re left with a Jesus who has very little to say to us. After all, these parables that mean so much to so many, have no connection to this character of Jesus. So why bother with him? In the end Spong did nothing to convince me that the long rejected Goulder thesis should be resurrected.  While we need to be careful with the influence of later traditions, I’m not so sure that we should call a literal reading a Gentile heresy.
Yes, Jesus was Jewish. His teachings would necessarily align with Jewish thought. His earliest followers would have been Jewish, but over time the church took root within a Gentile context. It was natural for the church to recast the story in a way that would make sense, even as Spong himself seeks to do in order to make Christianity palatable to a modern skeptical audience. Besides,  I’m just not sure John Spong is the best guide to a modern reading of Jesus. While he offers a lengthy bibliography at the end of the book, he shows little engagement with an of these resources, most of which support the current theories of transmission. For a Jewish reading, maybe we would be better served by reading Amy Jill Levine than John Spong.
I know Spong gets lots of attention. And that’s okay. The tent is broad. The Episcopal Church for that matter has always been rather broad theologically (and that goes back into the seventeenth century). Before Spong there was James Pike. He will have his day, but I just think there are better places to go if one wishes to find a balanced picture of the Gospels. For me, Spong’s book offers a rather sad picture. We’re not left with much to build a faith upon when everything becomes metaphor.
I’ll admit that I’ve never been a fan of Spong’s. This book did nothing to convince me otherwise. I have no desire to separate him from the Christian community, but I do find his attitude toward those with whom he is at odds to be disappointing. Many of us seek to read the Bible in a critical but appreciative manner. We struggle with texts that espouse violence and oppression, at the same time many of us have found the Scriptures to be a place where we encounter a word from God. Thus, to say of those who speak of the Bible as the Word of God are “illiterate” is unnecessary. At the same time, if Spong can elicit from us a serious conversation about how we read the Bible, and read it responsibly, then perhaps he has done us a service.
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One Comment

  1. Bob: I really appreciated this thoughtful review. I am smack in the middle of reading this AND his book on John. I just heard him speak here in CT a few weeks ago. I have long tended to have a favorable opinion of Bishop Spong, but I find your critique of him thoughtful and based on excellent knowledge. I appreciated what you pointed out regarding Goulder. Thanks,

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