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Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes

Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes

by John Shelby Spong

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In this boldest book since Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, Bishop John Shelby Spong offers a compelling view of the Gospels as thoroughly Jewish tests.Spong powerfully argues that many of the key Gospel accounts of events in the life of Jesus—from the stories of his birth to his physical resurrection—are not literally true. He offers


In this boldest book since Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, Bishop John Shelby Spong offers a compelling view of the Gospels as thoroughly Jewish tests.Spong powerfully argues that many of the key Gospel accounts of events in the life of Jesus—from the stories of his birth to his physical resurrection—are not literally true. He offers convincing evidence that the Gospels are a collection of Jewish midrashic stories written to convey the significance of Jesus. This remarkable discovery brings us closer to how Jesus was really understood in his day and should be in ours.

Editorial Reviews

Rabbi - Jack D. Spiro
"Compelling, controversial, substantive, provocative, and original…remarkably convincing."
Harvey Cox
“Bishop Spong’s work is a significant accomplishment.”
Rabbi Jack D. Spiro
“Compelling, controversial, substantive, provocative, and original…remarkably convincing.”
Kirkus Reviews
Maverick Episcopal bishop Spong (Resurrection: Myth or Reality?, 1994) argues that to take the Gospels as literal history is to miss their essential point.

In recent years Spong has gained notoriety for his unorthodox views on doctrine and sexual morality. Here he reproduces the ideas he put forward in Resurrection, arguing that the Gospels are not historical narratives but exercises in midrash, a Jewish genre of biblical exegesis. Spong takes midrash beyond its narrower Jewish definition to mean a method in which biblical themes are interwoven in order to describe things beyond ordinary human experience and language. Nearly 2,000 years of anti-Semitism have blinded Christians to both the Jewishness of Jesus and the "midrashic" nature of the Gospels. According to Spong, for example, the account of the Sermon on the Mount is really a device to show Jesus as the new Moses, while the feeding of the multitudes is a way of bringing Elijah and Elisha material into the story of Jesus. Spong hopes to break the impasse between fundamentalists who believe that the Gospels are literally true history and liberals who reject miracles and the supernatural as projections of a prescientific mentality. However, for all his talk of a true "God experience" lying behind the Gospel stories, it is hard to tell how Spong's position is substantially different from that of the liberals whom he condemns as spiritually bankrupt. Like them, he assumes a priori that supernatural events cannot happen, and he rejects the historical value of vast areas of the Gospels, such as the Last Supper and the raising of Lazarus, reserving for them only a pale, psychological meaning. Spong praises the ultraliberal Jesus Seminar and lambastes orthodox Christian scholars as lacking either learning or moral courage.

Well written and scholarly, but unlikely to fill anyone's spiritual void.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
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5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.86(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Crisis in Faith Today

Finding a New Question
and a New Starting Place

Did it really happen?

That is the question that people through the ages have always asked about the beginnings of their religious traditions. Certainly that has been the question asked of the gospel tradition of Christianity. Did it really happen? Did a virgin actually conceive? Did the heavens really open at the time of Jesus' baptism? Did Jesus walk on water or feed the multitude with five loaves? Did he literally restore sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, and even more dramatically, life to the deceased? Did his resuscitated body walk physically out of the tomb at the dawn of Easter some thirty-six to seventy-two hours after his public execution? Did he rise from this earth and ascend into a heaven located just beyond the sky?

Traditionally, the only answers that these questions could possibly elicit were either yes or no. "Yes" was the answer of the believer. "No" was the answer of the unbeliever. In the years of Christian dominance in the Western world, the answer "no" was seldom heard in public places, for the pressure against doubting or questioning the conventional religious wisdom was enormous. The Bible had been proclaimed to be the literal Word of God. It was God's truth. It admitted to no error. Great theological systems of doctrine had been erected on the basis of this revealed Word of God. Belief in that creedal orthodoxy was equated with salvation. Unbelief was subject to condemnation.

Liturgical practices had been inaugurated by theChurch so that these great objective moments of the gospel drama could be lived out annually and thus be riveted upon our memories. So at Christmas we heard the story of Jesus' birth, with all of its miraculous wonder that featured stars and angels, virgins, and close escapes into Egypt. During Holy Week we relived the literal drama of Jesus' suffering, from the betrayal, arrest, and torture, to his crucifixion on a hill named Calvary. At Easter we reveled in the stories of his restoration to life, which were replete with tangible proofs of his resurrected reality. He was seen by his disciples. He ate food before them. He invited them to handle him to make sure he was not a ghost. He opened the wounds in his hands and side to their tactile examination. On the Sunday of Pentecost, we celebrated the gift of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the Church complete with accounts of a mighty rushing wind, tongues of fire, and the ability to speak in the language of the hearer. Over and over, year in and year out, the liturgy of the Church flowed over the conscious minds of the people until these events became part of the cultural self-identity, thus enabling these concepts to be kept ever fresh in our memories.

The liturgy also served to make these defining moments in our faith story so dramatic and powerful that for centuries it occurred to no one to suggest anything other than that these were the objective memories of eyewitnesses who faithfully recorded them in the sacred text that came to be known as the Word of God. So to the question, "Did it really happen?" the believer would assert with great confidence, "Yes, of course. It happened just as the Bible says!"

But the Christian dominance of the Western world began to decline visibly by the sixteenth century, and with that decline the answer "yes" to the question, "Did it really happen?" became less and less secure. Believers had to face the fact that other answers were becoming conceivable. This shift did not happen quickly. At first, those few who would question or doubt publicly did so at the risk of some very real danger to their lives. Some were ostracized, others were excommunicated, and a few were even burned at the stake. To doubt or to question the literal truth of the Bible or the authority of the Holy Church was a dangerous occupation.

In this believing age, it never occurred to the Christian majority to ask whether "Did it really happen?" was the proper question with which to approach the Bible. That had been the unquestioned approach to scripture since at least the dawn of the second century. That was the way the Bible was read and interpreted by the leaders of the Christian Church. That was the way the "fathers" of the Church -- Polycarp, Iranaeus, Chrysostom, Origen, Augustine, and Jerome -- had taught them. Western consciousness in this era was such that it escaped the notice of the common mind that all of the fathers of the Church were gentiles of a Greek, Latin, or North African origin. It also did not occur to them to notice that the Gospels were books written by people who were Jewish, and that Jewish people did not relate to sacred history as if it were an objective description of literal events. Indeed, in the early years of the Christian Church in the Western world, a wretched spirit of anti-Jewish hatred was so pervasive that the very idea that the Gospels were the products of Jewish authors and that they represented a Jewish gift to the world would have seemed both incomprehensible and even revolting. So it was that the Christian Church locked itself into certain basic assumptions by which it lived and to which it admitted no challenge. Among these assumptions was that the Bible, especially the Gospels as the Word of God, were objectively true, that they described events of literal history, and that one could confidently assert that all that was contained therein did in fact happen just as it was written. This mentality produced a comfortable feeling of security that endured for centuries. It was, however, destined not to endure forever.

Liberating the Gospels. Copyright © by John Shelby Spong. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

What People are Saying About This

Jack D. Spiro
“Compelling, controversial, substantive, provocative, and original…remarkably convincing.”
Harvey Cox
“Bishop Spong’s work is a significant accomplishment.”

Meet the Author

John Shelby Spong, the Episcopal Bishop of Newark before his retirement in 2000, has been a visiting lecturer at Harvard and at more than 500 other universities all over the world. His books, which have sold well over a million copies, include Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy; The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic; Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World; Eternal Life: A New Vision; Jesus for the Non-Religious, The Sins of Scripture, Resurrection: Myth or Reality?; Why Christianity Must Change or Die; and his autobiography, Here I Stand. He writes a weekly column on the web that reaches thousands of people all over the world. To join his online audience, go to www.JohnShelbySpong.com. He lives with his wife, Christine, in New Jersey.

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