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 ‘made 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 Goulder’s arguments and insights." (p.xi-xii)

This sort of chauvinism is trait of much of Spong’s 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 Goulder’s ideas are nonsense and serious scholars don’t 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, ‘What does it mean? Why was this image chosen to convey this insight?’"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 its’ 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 1990’s. While it’s 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. Josephus’ Antiquities draws on the scriptures extensively. Why? Because, he, as a first century Jew, believed that it contained a factual record of Israel’s 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, Christianity’s 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 didn’t 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 Gamaliel’s 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 there’s 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 couldn’t 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 gospel’s 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.

Mark One

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 ram’s 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, Peter’s 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 God’s light to the temple) and the Passion Story with the Passover.

On this, we note several things:

  1. Spong fails to present any story for the feast of Purim. Although he recognizes it as a feast celebrated by first-century Jews (p. 65), there is no proposed Markan parallel.

  2. Mark only covers six and a half months. If Mark was supposed to provide a replacement for the annual Jewish liturgical style, why did he only go halfway? Why bother composing it at all?

  3. Spong’s arguments are inconsistent. For example, he suggests that the final journey to Jerusalem corresponds to the time that Deuteronomy was being read in the synagogues. Both were times when new converts were being instructed in the faith. He bases this on the fact that the Codex Alexandrius copy of Mark is divided up into 49 sections, and the journey section contains exactly eight sections. If one section is read per week, this comes to eight weeks, and this is precisely how long it took for the Jews to read Deuteronomy. This, however, cuts both ways. One section per Sunday comes out to 49 weeks, covering much longer than the proposed time-frame for Mark.
  4. The festival connections are not as convincing as they seem. Some, like the John the Baptist story, sound very impressive. But it is not so considering that the Gospels deal with only a limited number of themes, among them judgment, atonement, forgiveness, uncleanness, etc. The Old Testament is similarly limited in scope. Now, if Jesus was the Messiah, it follows that His ministry would concentrate on these themes. And even if He wasn’t, he was a first-century Jew, and naturally his life would revolve around them. In regards to Hanukkah, the Olivet Discourse would be a much better fit than the transfiguration, with its Danielic themes of "the abomination that causes desolation", the temple, and judgment.

Matthew Markup

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 Goulder’s 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 let’s 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 Dunn’s 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 Goulder’s 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. "(Dunn’s emphasis)...Goulder’s 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 don’t wash, other parts of his work, such as his arguments against the "Q" hypothesis, have received high praise - see E.P. Sanders’ favorable review in the 1977 Journal of Bible Literature).

Luke Latches On

Next, Spong proposes that Luke’s 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 Luke’s 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 Christ’s life is therefore based on the order of the Torah? This is not a tenuous thread, it’s a non-existent one. In fact, conservative commentators have well been aware that Luke didn’t 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 Luke’s 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 (Jesus’ parents losing him is compared to Jacob losing Joseph). But the really interesting part is when he tries to correlate Luke’s gospel with Leviticus. Regarding the story of the centurion’s 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 Spong’s 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:

  1. Because one story has some (or even many) conceptual connections with another does not mean that it didn’t happen. Consistency would require us to do this for all of history. Spong repeatedly challenges his readers that such and such a connection with the Old Testament is too amazing to be coincidental, but, in fact, coincidences happen all the time. Should we declare that the Green Bay Packers 1997 Super Bowl victory is a midrashic retelling of their first, exactly 30 years earlier in 1967? That if you turn 9 upside down you get a 6? Is it any coincidence that they scored 35 points in both games? Yes, it is. Or better yet, John F. Kennedy was elected President in 1960, Abe Lincoln in 1860. Both had lost Vice-presidential campaigns four years earlier, and both were succeeded by men named Johnson. Lincoln was shot in Ford’s Theater, Kennedy in a Lincoln made by Ford! There are many, many more, and while these are interesting bits of trivia to the historian, both events are real, factual history.

  2. Similarities with Old Testament symbols and events were intentionally acted out. Wright (Wri.JVG, p. 152-3), notes that even though some Jews of the second-temple period believed prophecy had come to a halt, many "prophets" still abounded. Noting two main groups of these prophets, Wright states:
    The first type, copying Moses or Joshua, attempted, with promises of salvation, to initiate and lead a movement of liberation. The second, copying some parts at least of the work of the classical Hebrew prophets, announced oracles which warned of impending doom. (Ibid., 154)

    It was customary, therefore, for these prophets to try to portray themselves in the light of these Old Testament prophets. And so Jesus did the same:

    Equally impressive are the strong hints, throughout the gospels, that Jesus was modeling his ministry not on one figure alone, but on a range of prophets from the Old Testament." (Ibid., p.166)

    Wright goes on to list several examples, but the point is made. Jesus was portraying himself as being a fulfillment of these prophets and acted accordingly, rather than the gospel writers making up phony stories in order to accomplish the same task. Spong correctly sees Jesus’ wandering around in the desert for forty days as an echo of the Exodus, but rather than being a midrashic retelling, it was an intentional re-enactment.

  3. 3. In order to make the theory work, the proposed lectionary calendars must vary greatly in length. On pages 166-67, Spong presents a comparison with the reading of the Torah in the synagogues with his proposed parallel of Luke in the Christian churches. The Torah’s readings are very even, with approximately the same amount of text read on each Sabbath. In stark contrast is the readings of Luke’s gospel. Ten weeks are required to read Luke 8:26-9:50, or about 8 verses per Sunday. However, only fifteen Sabbaths are required to read the rest of the book (almost 1 chapter a week!) Then, it slows back down to about a chapter every four weeks until we get back to the same spot. Given the fact that we are allowed to indulge to this kind of contrivance, the gospels could have been written in any order, and we could no doubt could have fit them into any preconceived scheme that we choose.

Uncritical Moments

Spong’s 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 Luke’s infancy narrative are drawn out of the Old Testament (of course!) are fictitious. Here is the argument:

  1. John the Baptist is identified as the messenger in Mal. 3:1, and is identified with Elijah, who is mentioned in Mal. 4:5.

  2. Therefore, Luke decided to choose John’s father’s name on Malachi’s biblical predecessor, who is Zechariah! (I wish I was making this up, but I’m not.)

And in the resurrection story:

  1. In Joshua 10:26-27, Joshua (of course is "Jesus" the Hellenized version) defeats five kings, puts them in a cave, rolls a stone across, and puts a guard at the tomb.
  2. This "proves" that Matthew and Mark invented their tomb stories based at least partly on these Old Testament stories.

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 I’m an expert on this subject.)

Midrash Balderdash

In fact, it wasn’t 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 Spong’s bibliography, but there isn’t 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:

  1. Midrash as paraphrase - this involved a paraphrase of an original text, designed to bring out a new meaning. The exegete includes new text to help bring this out (Neu.WIM, p.7), but it is remains focused on a particular text. The Septuagint, with it’s somewhat free quotations and exegesis of the original Hebrew, falls in this category (Bid, p. 24-25)

  2. Midrash as prophecy - "the exegete would ask scripture to explain meanings of events near at hand, and Scripture would serve as a means of prophetic reading of the contemporary world....midrash as prophecy treats the historical life of ancient Israel and the contemporary times of the exegete as essentially the same, reading the former as a prefiguring of the latter." (Ibid, p. 7) In other words, typology. Neusner identifies the OT quotations in Matthew’s infancy narrative as midrashic interpretations (Ibid, p. 37-40), and we find this not the least bit objectionable. All this proves, however, is that the infancy narratives contain midrash, not that they are themselves midrash.

  3. Midrash as allegory (or parable) - at first glance, this may sound like a form of midrash that is close to what Spong wants, but it is not. This is simply taking a text and allegorizing it. An example of this is the Jewish and Christian readings of the Song of Solomon who saw it not as a story about the love of a man and a woman, but as between God and His people. (Ibid, 8)

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 doesn’t really know what it’s talking about? After all, he has no bones about doing this to the orthodox Christian scholars that he so despises?

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Concluding Thoughts

Whatever one may conclude about the claims of traditional Christianity, it is clear that Spong’s 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 can’t 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.

-Brent Hardaway

Sources

  1. Blom.JUF - Blomberg, Craig "Where Do We Start Studying Jesus?" in Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1995

  2. Car.EXP - Carson, D.A. "Matthew" in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 8 Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984

  3. Dun.UTNT - Dunn, James D. G. Unity and Diversity in the New Testament Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977

  4. Lie.EXP - Liefeld, Walter L. "Luke" in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 8 Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984

  5. Neu.WIM - Neusner, Jacob What is Midrash? and A Midrash Reader Atlanta: Scholar’s Press, 1994

  6. Wri.WWJ - Wright, N.T. Who was Jesus? Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993

  7. Wri.JVG - Wright, N.T. Jesus and the Victory of God Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.