|John Shelby Spong's Liberating the Gospels: A Critique|
John Shelby Spong, the Episcopal Bishop of Newark, New Jersey, has been a figure surrounded by controversy for most of his ecclesiastical career. In the past decade, his prominence on the international religious scene has reached new heights, thanks to several very popular books, including Born of a Woman and Resurrection: Myth or Reality? In these books, Spong asserted that both the infancy and resurrection narratives were not intended to be literal history, but belonged to a Jewish category of literature called midrash. Liberating the Gospels is the culmination of this thesis, as he seeks to apply this method to the entire gospel narratives. (The gospels have been Ďmade captive" to Gentile eyes, says Spong, and this has blinded Christendom from understanding their true meaning.) It is also an attempt to popularize the writings of Michael Goulder, a former Anglican priest who first made these assertions nearly two decades ago. Spong has a rapt admiration for Goulder; he writes of him:
It is fair to say that Michael Goulder is not a power in religious or ecclesiastical circles. Indeed, his work is generally ignored by that world. One reason is that his books are not written for popular consumption. They will never be part of the table talk of ordinary folk. They are closely argued...They are also challenging to the orthodoxy of the contemporary religious consensus. Since they are not likely, therefore, to come to public attention, the traditional theological "defenders of the faith" do not have to deal with Goulderís arguments and insights." (p.xi-xii)
This sort of chauvinism is trait of much of Spongís writings. Somehow traditional Christian scholars are all quaking in their boots and keeping hush-hush about what he and the rest of his ilk are spilling out. There is, of course, another possibility, and that is that Goulderís ideas are nonsense and serious scholars donít want to waste time, paper, ink refuting them. This we will be examining in due course. However, it does need to be pointed out that Spong is incriminating himself by making this statement. Conspicuously absent are any mention, let alone refutation, of scholars like N.T. Wright and James D. G. Dunn, who have refuted Goulder (and Spong). And why has Spong ignored them? Because they are not likely to come up in table conversation for the politically correct media-culture types that he caters to, and so he ignores them.
Spong begins his work in this book, at any rate, with a tortured history of Western thought, making the familiar assertions that the discoveries of Galileo and Newton destroyed the supernatural world view. This, of course, would come as a shock to both of these men, who remained "Biblical literalists" to their dying days. In turn, Charles Darwin's work suggested that perhaps mankind was not the work of a creator, but just an accident. What was left was a divide between those who said that the events in the Bible really happened, and those who said they didn't. But according to Spong, this is the wrong question. He says, "I no longer ask, 'Did it really happen?' or 'Is it true?' Rather, I ask, ĎWhat does it mean? Why was this image chosen to convey this insight?í"According to Spong, the liberals have answered "no" question and conservatives have answered "yes." Each answer is adequate to save Christianity. While a reader may not be surprised to find him making the usual put-downs and charges of ignorance towards conservatives, it is surprising to hear him say:
I do not believe that Christianity will be saved or even well served by what has come to be called the liberal approach to the Bible. That approach seems to me rather to remove from the Christian faith all of its power and authenticity by looking for natural explanations for apparently supernatural events.(p.17)
What is the answer then? First, he says, we need to realize that Christianity was born out of Judaism, which has a different mindset than the West, which has always concerned itself with the real, factual, empirical word. This mindset has taken the Gospels captive. And according to Spong, 70 AD is the decisive year when Christianity began to lose touch with itsí Jewish roots. How did this come to pass?
Departure From the Synagogues
As an answer, Spong then launches into an almost completely undocumented "historical reconstruction" (and I use the term very loosely) on how this might have happened that fails to distinguish between historical fact and his own wild-eyed speculation. According to Spong, 70 AD is the decisive year when the Gospels lost touch with their Jewish roots:
Prior to that fateful year 70 AD, Judaism had been able to tolerate varieties of opinions within its household of faith. Pluralism is always a by-product of security. But when the survival of this faith tradition....was at stake, their level of toleration began to dissipate perceptibly. (p.46)
Spong then goes on to portray early Christianity as basically being nothing more than another Jewish sect, and then:
Prior to the year 70 AD, within the synagogues, they were at best an enriching new tradition and at worst a minor irritation." (Ibid)
At this point, we smell a rat already. What Spong is doing is looking at first-century Judaism through his own blinders, those of a politically correct idealogue living in the 1990ís. While itís true that the ancient Jewish mindset does have significant differences from modern Western thought, concern for the real, factual world, and more specifically, concern for their God acting in that world, is one of the things that they have always held in common. Josephusí Antiquities draws on the scriptures extensively. Why? Because, he, as a first century Jew, believed that it contained a factual record of Israelís God acting within factual history. Secondly, while Judaism did allow significant variations in thought within its own pale, it is flatly ridiculous to portray it as the paradigm of "tolerance" or "pluralism" as we define it today.
On the contrary, Christianityís beliefs, that the law and temple sacrificial system were inadequate to be made right before God, along with the teaching that God would now reach out to the Gentiles, would have aroused great hostility. Now Spong realizes this (p. 48-49), but he believes that this didnít result in any substantial hostility until after the fall of Jerusalem. One would never get this impression by reading Paul, who wrote: "You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it." (Gal. 1:13) A minor irritation at worst? Even if we were to assume that every word in the book of Acts is fictional, there is no doubt that many Jews were violently opposed to the Christian church. This is not to say that this treatment was universal (as Gamalielís speech in Acts 5 shows), but clearly, early Christianity was seen from the very beginning as a threat, and it was something that the Jewish leadership and people, by and large, were not "tolerant" of.
Spong, however, finds it inconceivable that anyone could be intolerant until their particular tradition is faced with extinction:
"Thus, relativity and open-mindedness can be tolerated only in times of religious security. When the very survival of a particular religious system is at stake, however, that spirit of toleration becomes anathema! Relativity and open-mindedness are transformed from being tolerable virtues into being life-threatening daggers aimed at the heart of the claims of religious certainty. (p.47)"
On the contrary, security is a by-product of intolerance. Did the Communist Bloc greet dissidents with only a raised eyebrow and a "well, now thereís an interesting idea" reaction until their ideas began to be taken seriously? No, it maintained itself by stamping out any dissenting thought as soon as it was uttered. Tolerance and open-mindedness resulted when the people rose up in such numbers that they couldnít be controlled.
It is on this already shaky pseudo-sociological foundation that Spong begins to build his house of cards. What happened next, we are told, is that the Christians were no longer welcome in the synagogue. The majority of Christians were still Jewish at the time, and they wanted to maintain their Jewish identity. So:
The Gospels were created by the need to put into writing the oral tradition in which Jesus had been defined inside the synagogue worship life....So the Gospels were born - not as chronological biographies describing literal events of history, but rather as collections of expository teaching or preaching that the rabbis would create what came to be called the midrash rabbah. They pored over the sacred texts of the past to discover new meanings be which they might understand and interpret experiences that were occuring in their present. (p. 52).
However, this meaning was quickly lost. The church began to become less and less Jewish, and:
...Gentile interpreters of the Gospels began to claim that both objectivity and objective truth were present in the words of these texts....Their authors would have been aghast at the suggestion that their narratives were objective enough to be identified as "eyewitness" accounts." (p. 54)
Now that we know all this, says the bishop, we can understand what the authors really meant. And with that, we launch into his theory of each gospelís purpose. Our analysis will sample some of his proposals, note problems with his arguments that are specific to a particular Gospel, and at the end we will analyze problems relevant to his entire thesis.
According to Spong, Mark came into existence in order to meet the liturgical needs of the early church. The Jews in the first century, we are told, had developed a liturgy for their worship services, and in order to keep that ritual going within the Christian tradition, the Gospels began to take written form, marked against the Jewish festival calendar. Rosh Hashannah was the Jewish new year, and it involved a call to repentance and the blowing of the shofar, the ceremonial ramís horn, and the Jews imagined a highway in the desert being opened for God. Along this highway would be unclean animals, such as the camel. This corresponds to the opening of Mark, in which John the Baptist acts as a human shofar, calling the people to repentance. And, he was preparing the way of the Lord, and also wore clothes made of camel hair.
Spong moves on to Yom Kippur, the next feast and also the Day of Atonement. On this day, the priest made atonement for the uncleanness of Israel. The healing stories in Mark that follow the John the Baptist story (of the leper, the paralytic, Peterís mother-in-law, etc.) reflect this theme of uncleanness and forgiveness. Other points of contact include the transfiguration, corresponding with Hanukkah (because this celebrated the return of Godís light to the temple) and the Passion Story with the Passover.
On this, we note several things:
Spong sees Matthew as the completion of the work that Mark began, covering the rest of the year. Since most of the arguments made against his Markan hypothesis apply to Matthew as well, and because Spong leans heavily on Goulderís work here, we will examine his theory of Matthew being based on the liturgical Jewish calendar. Here Spong launches into a spirited defense of Goulder:
"As is so typical of the vested interests of the recognized scholars of the field, his weaknesses apparent in the recreated Jewish lectionary were attacked vigorously while the magnitude of the insight he was offering was not adequately appreciated: namely that at least the Synoptic gospels were developed against the background of a Jewish liturgical year.....That insight has not to this day been discredited, nor is it likely to be. While many of the of the details in the reconstructed lectionary theory proved insupportable, the theory itself remains illuminating and potent." (p. 92) (Emphasis mine)
This is an interesting take, indeed. Scholars have attacked the weaknesses in his theory, many of the details are unsupported (i.e., Goulder did a lot of guesswork), yet the theory has not been discredited! How else is it that theories become discredited? :-) So letís take a look at some of the criticisms raised. D.A. Carson (Car.EXP, 24) notes:
We know very little about the patterns of worship in first-century Judaism...As for Matthew, we have no evidence of a fixed "festal lectionary" in the first century...
Not only is our knowledge of first-century Jewish liturgical custom very slender, our knowledge of Christian worship in the first century is even more slender. Thus we do not know whether Christian lectionary cycles-if they existed-developed out of Jewish lectionary cycles-if those cycles existed!
And more devastating is Dunnís criticism:
The theses usually presuppose that the early Christian churches wanted to continue celebrating the Jewish year. The evidence relating to the Pauline churches is to the contrary; Paul was distinctly unsympathetic to the view that his converts should observe the Jewish feasts (Rom 14:5ff; Gal. 4:10f; Col. 2:16f.)." (Dun.UDNT, p. 147)
Dunn goes on to note that Goulderís thesis requires a much more regular pattern of worship in the early church than the evidence shows. He quotes Justin Martyr (Apol., I. 67) "the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read as long as time permits. "(Dunnís emphasis)...Goulderís theory of a regular Christian lectionary patterned after a similar Jewish one must be judged as being highly unlikely. (In all fairness to Goulder, however, we do want to point out that while his lectionary theory donít wash, other parts of his work, such as his arguments against the "Q" hypothesis, have received high praise - see E.P. Sandersí favorable review in the 1977 Journal of Bible Literature).
Luke Latches On
Next, Spong proposes that Lukeís gospel was created to replace the (supposed) annual Jewish reading of the Torah in the synagogues, and that he drew themes from his story out of the Pentateuch. What does he base this on? He begins with Lukeís prologue, and focuses in on the word translated "in order."He argues that someone writing decades after the events could not have possibly put them into an accurate chronological order. So, says the bishop, we are justified in believing that he meant the order of the Torah. And what evidence do we have of this?
As if to remind his readers once more that this might be his organizing principle, Luke closed the book of Acts with similar words. He said that Paul remained in Rome "trying to convince them about Jesus, both from the law of Moses and the Prophets" (Acts 28:23). Note once again that the Torah, that is, the law of Moses, was mentioned first, suggesting that Luke found Jesus revealed primarily in the Torah.
???? What is the point, exactly? That Luke believed Jesus to be revealed in the Torah, therefore his story of Christís life is therefore based on the order of the Torah? This is not a tenuous thread, itís a non-existent one. In fact, conservative commentators have well been aware that Luke didnít necessarily mean chronological order, but possibly a thematic one (Lie.EXP 822). In any event, this would have been a perfect opportunity for Spong to rebut the argument that Lukeís prologue is written in the form of a scientific or medical treatise and creates a presumption that he is, in fact, purporting to write serious history (Blom.JUF, 38). But sadly, we are disappointed.
Spong then attempts to match up the Lukan stories against the Pentateuch. They range from the somewhat convincing (The barrenness of Zechariah and Elizabeth, and then conceiving of a child in old age corresponds to Abraham and Sarah in Genesis) to the weak (Jesusí parents losing him is compared to Jacob losing Joseph). But the really interesting part is when he tries to correlate Lukeís gospel with Leviticus. Regarding the story of the centurionís slave, Spong says:
It did not particularly help him with his Leviticus connection, but since Matthew had decided to follow his version of the Sermon on the Mount wit this story, Luke did likewise." (p. 146)
And regarding the story of Jesus calming the sea in Luke 8:22-26, Spong calls it a "transition story" and admits that it appears to have no connection with Leviticus (p.152-53). So Spongís little scheme has broken down, but rather than admit it, he can just assume that Luke decided to throw in a story from Matthew or Mark whenever he felt like it!
The following objections can also be raised:
Spongís next section is entitled "Looking at Critical Moments in the Christian Faith Story", in which he seeks to demonstrate how certain of the main themes in the gospels are drawn from the Old Testament. A few examples will suffice. On pages 194-198 he argues that the names in Lukeís infancy narrative are drawn out of the Old Testament (of course!) are fictitious. Here is the argument:
And in the resurrection story:
And once again, given the size of he Old Testament, we can find some coincidence of details between any historical event and the Jewish scriptures, if we use our imaginations.
And finally, we have one huge error. On page 242, Spong describes the Palm Sunday story, and triumphantly declares that the story cannot be factual history because their are no leaves on the trees in Palestine in mid-March, when the story occurred. If Spong would visit the lower latitudes once in a while, he would know that palm trees are NOT deciduous and DO NOT lose their leaves during the winter (Having lived 25 years in California, I do believe Iím an expert on this subject.)
In fact, it wasnít even necessary to go this far. The simple, hard, cold fact is that midrash is, well, not what Spong claims that it is. What he has done is rely on Goulder for his definition of midrash, rather than Jewish experts on the subject like Jacob Neusner and Geza Vermes. Interestingly, these authors are found in Spongís bibliography, but there isnít any evidence that he actually read them.
So what exactly is it? Wright (Wri.WWJ, p. 72-73) gives us a helpful analysis:
First, midrash proper consists of a commentary on an actual biblical text. It is not simply a fanciful retelling, but a careful discussion in which the original text itself remains clearly in focus. It is obvious that the gospels do not read in any way like this...midrash never included the invention of stories which were clearly seen as non-literal in intent, and merrily designed to evoke awe and wonder. It was no part of Jewish midrash, or any other Jewish writing-genre of the first century, to invent all kinds of new episodes about recent history in order to advance the claim that the scriptures had been fulfilled." (Emphasis mine)
In order to get a firmer grasp on how midrash works, we will examine the three types of Midrash that were used in first-century Judaism, as defined by Neusner:
All of these forms of midrash have one thing in common; they are interpretations of texts, not fictional narrative without any reference to a particular text. Now, Spong seems to be vaguely aware of these criticisms:
....Jewish people use the term midrash in a very strict and limited sense, which was quite different from the way I was using the term...I do not ever want to be offensive to my fellow pilgrims within the Jewish tradition, so in this book I have used the word midrash only as the modifying adjective, midrashic, both to indicate the broadness of the way I am employing this concept and also to leave the word midrash to its special Jewish understanding. p. xi"
Now, how this really changes anything is not explained. This is akin to an eyewitness in court saying "I take back my statement about the car being gray. It was greyish." Why not simply make a bald declaration that the Jewish community of scholars doesnít really know what itís talking about? After all, he has no bones about doing this to the orthodox Christian scholars that he so despises?-serif">
Whatever one may conclude about the claims of traditional Christianity, it is clear that Spongís thesis is nonsense and does not amount to a suitable replacement of it. Nonetheless, Spong raises some issues that we need to ponder. Has the church looked at Jesus through Gentile blinders? Does this cause us to fail to understand Him? To a certain degree, yes. This is somewhat inevitable, given the human trait of syncretism. It is something that we must guard against, and we can never do enough historical study of Jesus and his culture to deepen our understanding of him. This does not mean that we canít comprehend His basic mission and meaning of His message, but we must continually strive to learn more about Jesus within His historical context. This, however, is being done by serious scholars, and Spong has not made a positive contribution to the dialogue.