Jesus for the Non-Religious by John Shelby Spong, Paperback | Barnes & Noble
Jesus for the Nonreligious

Jesus for the Nonreligious

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by John Shelby Spong

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Writing from his prison cell in Nazi Germany in 1945 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young German theologian, sketched a vision of what he called "religionless Christianity." In this book, John Shelby Spong puts flesh onto the bare bones of Bonhoeffer's radical thought. The result is a strikingly new and different portrait of Jesus of Nazareth—a Jesus for the


Writing from his prison cell in Nazi Germany in 1945 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young German theologian, sketched a vision of what he called "religionless Christianity." In this book, John Shelby Spong puts flesh onto the bare bones of Bonhoeffer's radical thought. The result is a strikingly new and different portrait of Jesus of Nazareth—a Jesus for the non-religious.

Spong challenges much of the traditional understanding that has for so long surrounded the Jesus of history, from the tale of his miraculous birth to a virgin, to the account of his cosmic ascension into the sky at the end of his life. Spong questions the historicity of the ideas that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, that he had twelve disciples, and that the miracle stories were meant to be descriptions of supernatural events. He also speaks directly to those contemporary critics of Christianity who call God a "delusion" and who write letters to a "Christian nation" and describe how Christianity has become evil and destructive.

Spong invites his readers to look at Jesus through the lens of both the Jewish scriptures and the liturgical life of the first-century synagogue. Dismissing the dispute about Jesus' nature that consumed the church's leadership for the first 500 years of Christian history as irrelevant, Spong proposes a new way of understanding the divinity of Christ: as the ultimate dimension of a fulfilled humanity. Traditional Christians who still cling to dated concepts of the past will not be comfortable with this book; however, skeptics of the twenty-first century will not be quite so certain that dismissing Jesus is the correct pathway to walk. Jesus for the Non-Religious may be the book that finally brings the pious and the secular into a meaningful dialogue, opening the door to a living Christianity in the post-Christian world.

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Jesus for the Non-Religious LP

Chapter Two

There Was No Star Over Bethlehem

Birth stories are always fanciful. They are never historical.
No one waits outside a maternity ward for a great person to be born.

We start our probe into the Jesus story at the beginning of the Bible's description of his life. Was Jesus born in Bethlehem, the city of David? The answer is a very simple no. There is almost no possibility that this claim is a fact of history.

Jesus' place of birth was quite probably in Nazareth. He was, in all likelihood, born in exactly the same way that every other person is born. He had a human mother and a human father. Both the Bethlehem birthplace and the virgin birth tradition are aspects of a developing interpretive process that did not begin to manifest itself inside the Christian written tradition until well into the ninth decade, or some fifty to sixty years after the earthly life of Jesus had come to an end. Traditional believers, most of whom have learned what they know about Jesus' birth from Christmas pageants in which they were actors and actresses and not from the Bible itself, will find this first probe into the birth myth to be immediately disturbing. Romantic, nostalgic, unchallenged tales die hard.

Birth stories are always fanciful. They are never historical. After all, no one waits outside a maternity ward for a great person to be born. An individual has first to become great; then tales presaging that future greatness begin to circulate around his or her origins. Tales are developed that hint of the presence of peculiar gifts of strength, character or intelligence in the heroic personat a very young age. In time the moment of that person's birth might well begin to be marked with magical signs and portents of things to come. It is, therefore, essential to begin this search for the reality of the man Jesus by looking at the biblical narratives that purport to tell of his birth, which for far too long have been mistakenly read as history.1 These stories are filled with unusual details. They tell us of singing angels, stars that announce earthly happenings and even a fetus leaping to proclaim the anticipated power of another fetus. These details should quickly be recognized for what they are: interpretive symbols, not literal history. Listen first to some pertinent facts that do come from the realm of history:

According to secular records, King Herod the Great appears to have died in the year 4 BCE, after which the land of the Jews was divided into three procuratorships. In time Pontius Pilate became the Roman Empire's procurator for Judea, one of those three areas. Pilate, according to secular records, held that position between the years 26 CE and 36 CE. If the tradition is accurate that Jesus was born when Herod was king, a detail attested in two gospel narratives (Matt. 2:1, 22, Luke 1:5), and if his crucifixion took place during the reign of Pontius Pilate, as all of the gospels assert (Mark 15:1, Matt. 27:2, Luke 3:1, 23:1, John 18:29ff.), then we can get a fairly accurate fix on the actual time dimensions of his life. By squeezing those numbers with the use of other known data, a consensus among scholars has emerged suggesting that the life span of Jesus of Nazareth began around the year 4 BCE and ended in the crucifixion somewhere around the year 30 CE. With those dates fairly firmly set, we are ready to focus on the specifics of his life.

Where was Jesus born? Since he was widely known as Jesus of Nazareth (Mark 1:24, 6:1-6, 16:6, Matt. 21:11, 26:71, Luke 4:16, 18:37, 24:19, John 1:45, 18:5), the probability is that Nazareth was his place of origin. That is certainly the assumption made by the author of the book we call Mark, the earliest gospel to be written. In Mark's narrative there is not only no reference to Bethlehem, but also no hint of a miraculous birth. This means that the account of a Bethlehem birthplace for Jesus did not enter the Christian tradition until Matthew wrote his gospel sometime in the eighties of this Common Era. When the Bethlehem tradition does appear, it seems to have been driven not by some firsthand memory, but solely by the use of a messianic text found in the book of the prophet Micah (Mic. 5:2), a late-eighth-century-BCE work. Matthew, in his story of Herod responding to a query from the magi, says that the king directed his scribes to determine where the "promised one" would be born. Those scribes searched the scriptures and interpreted the words of Micah as a hidden messianic clue (Matt. 2:5-6). Why would Micah write that the messiah would be born in the village of Bethlehem, just a few miles from Jerusalem? Because this city was the birthplace of the great King David and Jewish expectations had long ago added the restoration of the throne of David to their developing messianic tradition.

Matthew and Luke, the only gospel writers to give us a birth tradition or indeed any information about Jesus' family of origin, lend support to the shakiness of Bethlehem being the birthplace by disagreeing on how it was that Jesus happened to be born there. Indeed, the two accounts vary in many places. In the common mind, however, they are blended: most people cannot separate Matthew's details from Luke's. It is essential for our purposes to make the two stories distinct.

Matthew assumes that Mary and Joseph live in Bethlehem. That, of course, makes it easy to say that Jesus' birth occurred there. Mary and Joseph, according to Matthew, lived in a quite specific and identifiable house in Bethlehem over which, he would say, a star could pause and on which it could pour its steady and illuminating light. Yet Matthew also clearly knows the historical fact that Jesus was a Galilean, and he shares the general . . .

Jesus for the Non-Religious LP. Copyright � by John Shelby Spong. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

John Shelby Spongwas the Episcopal Bishop of Newark for twenty-four years. Since then he has taught at Harvard, Drew, the University of the Pacific and the Berkeley Graduate Theological Union. Selling over a million copies, his books include Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World, Eternal Life: A New Vision, Jesus for the Non-Religious, Why Christianity Must Change or Die and his autobiography, Here I Stand. His weekly online column reaches thousands of sub-scribers all over the world. He lives with his wife, Christine, in Morris Plains, New Jersey.

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Jesus for the Non-Religious 3.1 out of 5 based on 1 ratings. 14 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
One could take the title to mean that this book is an introduction of Jesus/Christianity to those without a religious background. It is not! Rather, it is a case for redefining Jesus in a completely non-theistic and non-supernatural way. Bishop Spong considers himself a Christian, but most traditional Christians would call him an atheist because he denies the existence of a supernatural God and denies the concepts by which traditional Christians define their religion: the virgin birth of Jesus, his miraculous deeds, the resurrection and ascension, and substitutionary atonement. I see this book as advocating a version of humanism in which Jesus is the model for what it means to be fully human. It is a very moving and inspirational book if the reader is willing to overcome his/her attachment to theism which is causing such division and violence throughout the world today. It shows a version of Christianity based on the continuation and flourishing of life on Earth rather than its destruction at Armageddon.
GregNC More than 1 year ago
Bisop Spong has given me a Jesus that I can believe in. Jesus was a man ahead of his time. By taking away the mythology that Christianity teaches, Bishop Spong has shown me just how truly wonderful the man Jesus really was. We should follow Jesus'example and learn to have his values. (We'd all be a lot happier) By doing this, we can make this world a better place for all. This is the fifth book of Bishop Spongs that I have bought. I bought a copy of this book and gave it to my local priest. He said he looks forward to reading it. I also plan on giving a copy to my dad.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Spong, always thinking outside the box, has come through again as telling what many think but dare not say in their churches and communities. Reading this book gave me a sense of peace with my own concerns about what we have really missed in the message of Jesus, the man. I say thanks.
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Truejabber More than 1 year ago
Overall excellent. Beyond the typically oversimplified understanding of Christianity which seems most prevalent today.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Why is this in the Judaism section if it is about Christianity?
Guest More than 1 year ago
There¿s a new way to read the Old Testament ¿ as literature. The likes of Kugel have started viewing the ancient task as outlining literary truth about God rather than providing historical events or outlining allowance. For example: Joshua is a book about God's faithfulness rather than a book condoning genocide (genocide is just a literary tool for conveying faithfulness. Morbid). Spong grabs the reigns of this approach and uses it to shed new light on the New Testament. His conclusion: theism is dead but God (or god) still very much exists. God now is more so a state of being the way of the uninhibited self. While a fascinating reading, it suffers a fatal flaw it ignores the Old Testament. The Old Testament is clearly a text dealing with a theistic being. There is no other way to read it. Spong¿s book remains an exhilarating intellectual exercise, but a path towards a greater truth? Only if truth can defy logic.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
To deny That Jesus is the son of God, born of a virgin, is the biggest lie from the father of lies, Satan/ Lucifer.