Advertisement

Gospels Based on Jewish Stories, Not Literal Truth, Bishop Says

TIMES RELIGION WRITER

Even in his own church there are those who call the bishop a heretic. He has questioned the virginity of Mary, denied the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and heaped scorn on a literal reading of the Bible.

Now the Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong, perhaps the most liberal bishop in the Episcopal Church, has written yet another controversial book, this one arguing that significant events described in the life of Jesus--from the circumstances of his birth to his physical resurrection--are not literally true. Instead, he said the New Testament is essentially a Jewish book that appropriates Jewish stories of the sacred to describe the holiness that Jesus’ contemporaries saw in him.

The book, “Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes,” is certain to outrage many Christians and be seen as an attempt to undermine the faith. But Spong, who is the Episcopal bishop of Newark, N.J., said his motive is not to tear down but to build up.

The church, he said, is dying. Fundamentalist Christian churches may be growing--but only temporarily--by “trafficking in certainties they cannot deliver.” And old-line churches, he said, don’t know who they are or what their message is.

Advertisement

The problem, he continued, is that Christian sacred stories have either been advanced as literally true by church conservatives and fundamentalists or rejected out of hand by liberals who leave the church instead of digging deeper into the meaning of Jesus’ life.

*

For Spong, embarking upon a Jewish view of Christian Scripture is more than a religious accommodation with the postmodern world. Others before him have interpreted the teachings of the church in the light of modern or postmodern philosophic and scientific thought--such as finding parallels in the Genesis creation story with how Darwin described the sequence of evolution.

Spong is not stretching Scripture to make it fit science. He is going back to the faith’s sacred writings and arguing that they have been misread almost from the beginning, or at least since the church severed its Jewish roots around the year 88.

Advertisement

Spong said he hopes to unveil a Christ who is believable as a man and as a window to God. He argues that Jesus was a divine exemplar whose holiness and exceptional life was so filled with God that those who experienced his presence were at a loss to describe his uniqueness.

When words failed, they turned to the Old Testament stories to describe him, stories that previous generations of Jews had fashioned to recount all that was sacred in their past.

*

‘The Gospels,” Spong wrote in his book, “were not written to be history. The Jews who created the Gospels knew they were not history, but they also knew that their experience was true--not literally true, but profoundly true.”

Advertisement

Consequently, Spong said, there might have been no actual person called Joseph as the husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus. There was, Spong said, probably no manger.

Spong suggests that there was no temptation of Jesus during 40 days in the wilderness, or even a Sermon on the Mount. Both narratives, he said, were intended to portray Jesus reliving the life experiences of Moses.

Spong said there was no miraculous feeding of the 5,000. He calls this tale another early Christian effort to incorporate Elijah and Elisha material into the story of Jesus, blending it with the manna described in Hebrew Scriptures when the children of Israel wandered 40 years in the desert before entering the Promised Land.

Then there’s the story of Jesus’ Ascension into heaven following his crucifixion and resurrection. Spong suggests it’s a retelling of the Jewish story of Elijah designed to communicate something important about Jesus.

Advertisement

“Elijah needed a chariot drawn by horses and a whirlwind,” Spong said in a recent interview while in Los Angeles on a nationwide book tour. “Jesus is greater than Elijah. He sort of goes on his own power. Elijah when he ascended into heaven poured out a double portion of his human spirit on his single disciple, Elisha. But the new and greater ‘Elijah'--Jesus--can pour out the infinite power of God’s Holy Spirit upon the whole gathered church. Now, that’s not a story about astronomy.”

Spong said he is not unmindful that such a reading will be troubling to many Christians.

“It upsets me and grieves me that people find themselves disturbed by what I write,” he said. “But I have a different agenda.”

*

Advertisement

People are turning from the church in great numbers, he said, in large part because they cannot accept the literal truth of its stories. He said his daughter, who holds a doctorate in physics from Stanford University, is one of them.

“She is never going to respond to the simple religion of her past,” Spong told The Times. “And I think her name is legion. I think there are tremendous numbers of people today who are educated, who have religious roots, but for whom the church . . . has no meaning at all because they can’t translate pre-modern symbols into their postmodern world.”

The problem, he said, is that the wrong questions are being asked of the sacred stories.

“The question they asked the Scriptures was the typical Western question: Did it really happen? They [fundamentalists] answered it with a resounding ‘yes.’ Jesus walked on the water. Creation was in seven days. The Resurrection was physical. The Virgin Birth was literal biology. The Ascension literally took place. These were the unquestioned yes answers of a believing age,” Spong said.

Advertisement

“When ‘yes’ became an answer to did it really happen that people could not give with integrity, then you began to see the rise of the non-literalists. They were first the liberals and then they became the secular humanists and then they became the church alumni association. People began to drop out of the church with great regularity.”

“It seems to me that what we’ve got is a bankruptcy in the way we read the Bible,” he said.

*

Spong has been wrestling with traditional interpretations of Scripture since before his seminary days.

Advertisement

“Everything I believed was challenged [in college], really challenged,” Spong recalled. “My literal Bible was obliterated, and even my creedal concepts were called into questions. I’ve been sort of wrestling with that almost ever since. [But] I cannot and will not give up being what I call a believer. God is a very real experience for me. Jesus is the lens through which that God becomes real to me. But I’m not going to close my mind to the 20th century.”


Advertisement