Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy
By: John Shelby Spong
John Shelby Spong, whose books have sold more than a million copies, was bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark for 24 years before his retirement in 2001. His admirers acclaim him as a teaching bishop who makes contemporary theology accessible to the ordinary layperson — he’s considered the champion of an inclusive faith by many, both inside and outside the Christian church. In one of his recent books,The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Discover the God of Love(San Francisco: HarperOne, 2005), this visionary thinker seeks to introduce readers to a proper way to engage the holy book of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
A committed Christian who has spent a lifetime studying the Bible and whose life has been deeply shaped by it, Bishop Spong says he was not interested in Bible bashing. “I come to this interpretive task not as an enemy of Christianity,” he says. “I am not even a disillusioned former Christian, as some of my scholar-friends identify themselves. I am a believer who knows and loves the Bible deeply. But I also recognize that parts of it have been used to undergird prejudices and to mask violence.”
A visiting lecturer at Harvard and at universities and churches worldwide, Bishop Spong delivers more than 200 public lectures each year to standing-room-only crowds. His bestselling books include Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, A New Christianity for a New World, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, and Here I Stand.
In this profound and considered work, he offers a radical new way to look at the gospels today as he shows just how deeply Jewish the Christian Gospels are and how much they reflect the Jewish scriptures, history, and patterns of worship. Pulling back the layers of a long-standing Gentile ignorance, he reveals how the church’s literal reading of the Bible is so far removed from these original Jewish authors’ intent that it is an act of heresy.
Using the Gospel of Matthew as a guide, Spong explores the Bible’s literary and liturgical roots—its grounding in Jewish culture, symbols, icons, and storytelling tradition—to explain how the events of Jesus’ life, including the virgin birth, the miracles, the details of the passion story, and the resurrection and ascension, would have been understood by both the Jewish authors of the various gospels and by the Jewish audiences for which they were originally written. Spong makes clear that it was only after the church became fully Gentile that readers of the Gospels took these stories to be factual, distorting their original meaning.
In Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy, Spong illuminates the gospels as never before and provides a better blueprint for the future than where the church’s leaden and heretical reading of the story of Jesus has led us—one that allows the faithful to live inside the Christian story in the modern world.
This book has a lot of traits that real book lovers will enjoy. First, the book has a hard cover and a great binding. After much abuse in reading I found the book to be quite durable. The book also has a good thickness. Every reader loves the feel of a thick book. However, the page count of reading is only 367 pages. The page count is usually higher for a book this big but the pages thick which makes them perfect for highlighting. If you’re an academic reader and you write or highlight in books then you will enjoy this one.
This was my first read of John Shelby Spong so I was not sure what to expect. I was initially attracted to the book by it’s title. Since I too have discontentment with fundamentalism I figured this book might have a lot to say about the matter. It turns out that Spong was even more liberal than I am which is clear right in the first few pages of the book.
“Part of my task in this book will be to pull back the later of long-standing Gentile ignorance of all things Jewish that has marked our traditional approach to the New Testament. In the process I will reveal that biblical fundamentalism is, in fact, a product of ignorance.” (Spong, Pg 3)
After the book’s introduction I was very excited to continue reading and see how Spong was going to demonstrate the flaws of fundamentalism. However, as I read further I realized he was not going to write against fundamentalism, but rather, the idea that the gospels should be read literally AT ALL. As most would be, I was a bit shocked by the thesis but still intrigued. How was this man going to demonstrate that the gospels were all fiction?
“The gospels I am suggesting, were not meant to be read literally, and they become nonsensical and unbelievable if one seeks to do so. The gospels are biographies of a man named Jesus of Nazareth, They do not contain tape recordings of the things he actually said. They are not historical chronicles of the things he actually did. No one who knows anything about the gospels, such as when they were written, how they were written or the context of history in which they were written, could possibly believe these narratives to be literally and entirely true. What are they then? It will be the task of this book to discover that.” (Song, pg 16)
Spong also starts the book claiming that it’s clear that the Jewish people would have never taken the gospels literally. He also claims, by inference, that the Jews did not even take their own writings to be literal in any sense. This underlying claim is the basis for why Spong believes the gospels were also not meant to be literal. Thus, to understand the gospels as merely liturgical text and not as anything literal one must first believe that the Old Testament was also mean to non-literal.
Naturally, I assumed Spong would flesh this claim out a bit since it’s such a big claim. Sadly, he goes the entirety of the book without once demonstrating that the Jewish texts were meant to be read as non-literal texts and the first century Jews did just that. Without actually building a case for that claim the entire foundation of the book’s thesis build on sand, as Jesus would say.
Song spends the bulk of the book showing how the gospel of Matthew correlates to the Jewish liturgical calendar. This was the first time I had seen such a demonstration and I have to say, it was incredible and disappointing at the same time; here is why. While I greatly enjoyed his work showing the organization of Matthew against the Jewish calendar, he never one showed a chart with Matthew and the Jewish liturgy side-by-side. I realize this might be a small factor for many but a simple chart can speak a thousand words or more.
However, after trying to make a chart myself I quickly realized why Spong never made his own; it’s impossible. After a considerable amount of time making a simple excel spreadsheet of all the holidays and weekly readings I was not able to adequately pair Matthew with the weekly readings and not with the feast readings either. I will paste my work below as well as a link to the spreadsheet incase someone in the reader-base wants to edit my spreadsheet and possibly help me out. I personally did not see a way to pair anything well. Moreover, many of the OT readings that Spong describes as pairing with Matthew are not part of the reading schedule. Unless he has access to a different reading schedule than I do then I am not sure how he managed to do his work.
Now that I have that out of the way, I would like to mention that Spong did do a remarkable job of showing the OT allusions in the book of Matthew, as well as how Jesus (or Matthew) used those passages to change the message a bit. In fact, the mastery of Matthew as a writer and organizer is shown in this book by Spong. Even if Spong is proven to be incorrect (which I remain in the fence) about this liturgical idea the book still shows some amazing handling of the OT by Matthew.
Spong is best as demonstrating how Matthew describes Jesus in a way that would strike the readers/hearers of an OT passage. So often we gloss over the book of Matthew without understanding how it would have been heard by 1st century Jews but Matthew was indeed written for Jewish Christians. Reading this book WILL for sure unlock some of that 1st century understanding.
Spong also helps the reader understand some of the Jewish festivals. Most Christians do not know any Jewish feasts but the OT speaks of them often. But like most things, out of site, out of mind. We don’t celebrate these feasts so we have little understanding of them. This will serves as a great introduction to the Jewish feast days.
Spong has a habit of assuming things. For example, he assumes that since Matthew parallels the Jewish liturgy (which it doesn’t as far as I can tell) then Matthew must have been designed to be read figuratively and not literally….. unassumingly because the Jews thought of all their own writings to be fictional. This assumption shows up over and over again. However, it defies logic. Had the Jewish people not believed any of their own writings then there wouldn’t be a need to parallel them in the book of Matthew. It also would have been necessary to fulfill any of the OT prophecies. Additionally, the behavior of the Jewish people and the disciples in the first century would make no sense if they believed their own history to be fiction. Why would Jesus need to be put to death of they didn’t believe their own laws to be from God? Nothing about first century Judaism makes sense if we assume that Jews did not believe their own texts to be true.
Spong also seems to have a problem with anything that looks or smells like a miracle. This is actually a bit shocking to me because I have witness miracles in my own life and the lives of my friends. I don’t see any need to dismiss the miracles in the gospels. Is it possible that some of them were embellished? Sure that’s possible. But Spong believes that the miracles are a sign that Matthew was signaling that Jesus was from God but that readers would have understood that the miracles were purely fictional. This idea seems odd to me.
In summary, this book deserves to be read. I reject many parts of it outright. I am also saddened that I was not able to find the same Jewish liturgical readings that Spong was because the book’s main premise is based on it. However, this book does present a LOT of good information. Any good student will have to decide for themselves what to keep and what to discard when reading this book. It took Spong years to develop this book so perhaps it will take me a long time to see what he sees.
I give this a cautious read recommendation. It deserves to be read but proceed with caution.
2 thoughts on “Book Review – “Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy”, by John Shelby Spong”
The charts (Mark and Matthew) you are looking for are included in great detail in M. D. Goulder, Midrash and Lection in Matthew, SPCK, 1974, Part I, Appendices A and B.
Thank you very much Him! I will get that book immediately and eexamine. Have you read it already? Do you have an opinion on the matter? I’m curious to see what Goulder presents!