Bishop Spong on the margins of history

John Dickson reviews Bishop Spong's Jesus for the Non-Religious

Jesus has had a rough time of late. In mid-2006 a National Geographic documentary called The Gospel of Judas announced the unearthing of a text, written in the second century, claiming that Judas was the real hero of the Jesus story; apparently, the eleven other apostles got it badly wrong. Not to be outdone, the Discovery Channel then aired its own multi-million dollar TV special, The Tomb of Jesus (shown on the Ten Network in Australia), claiming that Christ’s family resting place had been discovered in South Jerusalem, complete with possible DNA samples of the Son of God himself.

And, now, Bishop John Shelby Spong enters the fray with Jesus for the Non-Religious, a full-scale explanation of his long held view that the major details of Jesus’ life—his birth in Bethlehem, the names of his parents, the healings, the Twelve apostles, the trial and crucifixion scenes and, of course, the resurrection—are all fictional additions to an undoubtedly significant life. 

When it comes to Jesus there is an incredible mismatch between popular perception and academic consensus, that is, between what theologians like Spong can get away with when speaking and writing for a general audience and what mainstream historians really discuss in their peer review literature.

Unlike an issue such as climate change, where public opinion has recently caught up with the decade-long scientific consensus, it seems debates about Jesus continue to operate on two completely different levels.

Part of the reason for this mismatch is the public’s (and hence the media’s) love of the ‘controversial’—the HarperCollins press release accompanying Jesus for the Non-Religious, flagrantly trades on the scent of scandal and intrigue. The headline ‘Twelve apostles: a fiction,’ is eye-catching and therefore newsworthy, even if it does run counter to the overwhelming scholarly consensus.

And there is most definitely a consensus. Even as critical a scholar as Professor Ed Sanders of Duke University, one of the leading names in the field and no friend of Christian apologetics, can write: ‘There are no substantial doubts about the general course of Jesus’ life: when and where he lived, approximately when and where he died, and the sort of thing that he did during his public activity.’ The fact that Bishop Spong would have us believe that virtually everything in the Jesus story is up for grabs betrays his disengagement from the mainstream scholarship of the last two decades (something also evident from his bibliography).

The fact that, to many observers, nothing seems to hinge on the Jesus-question means that there is little motivation, outside the churches, for correcting the imbalance. The climate change debate comes to mind. When the ABC aired The Great Global Warming Swindle, a documentary that challenges the scientific (and now public) consensus on the issue, they thought it prudent to follow it up with a live panel discussion of expert scientists. Those interested enough to listen to the discussion were left in no doubt about the marginal nature of the documentary. With no ecosystems in the balance we are unlikely to hear from a panel of historians following the next sensationalist documentary or book on Jesus—there just isn’t the sense of importance. And so the marginal voices continue to get the airtime.

I fear things may get worse before they get better. The more publicity the controversial fringe gets, the more reticent mainstream scholars will be to get involved in discussions marked by speculation and novelty rather than evidence.

Recently, I conducted a series of interviews (for a forthcoming documentary) with a dozen of the leading figures in the historical study of Jesus. I was taken aback on several occasions by the evident suspicion many of these scholars harboured toward popular-level productions on Jesus. ‘I am sick of the sensationalist approach to this topic,’ said one of them in a grandfatherly tone as we sat down for the interview. ‘I really must insist on seeing the finished interview before it goes to air,’ said another as he recounted stories of scholars being edited beyond recognition by otherwise reputable documentary filmmakers. The distrust was only slightly tempered when I explained that our documentary was attempting to redress this imbalance.

Books like Jesus for the Non-Religious make for good news stories, but they do nothing to bring the clarity—the correspondence between academic consensus and popular opinion—we have recently come to enjoy with the climate change issue.

Dr. John Dickson is a Director of the Centre for Public Christianity and an Honorary Associate of the Department of Ancient History, Macquarie University (Australia)