Review: Jesus for the Non-Religious

John Dickson examines John Shelby Spong's book from an historical perspective

The HarperCollins press release accompanying Jesus for the Non-Religious describes its author, John Shelby Spong, as ‘the controversial, bestselling Bishop’—and for good reason. I have no doubt this book will cause some controversy and become a bestseller. Spong writes beautifully and with such wit and verve that many readers will be swept along by his portrait of a Jesus who overturned the barriers of race, creed and sexuality, who rejected the tribalism of religion and who came not with ‘the tribal message of rescuing sinners’  but in order ‘to free our humanity to enter another realm of consciousness’ (157).

To arrive at this figure of Jesus the author first explains why almost everything the Gospels say about Jesus—his birth in Bethlehem, the names of his parents, his twelve disciples, his healings, the crucifixion narrative and, of course, the resurrection story—is historically false.

The stories about Jesus, Spong asserts, were created by the early church in the period AD 70-100 as a deliberate retelling of various Old Testament stories. So, for instance, we are told the crucifixion narrative contains almost nothing historical. It was simply remembered that Jesus was executed and, in a pious attempt to explain what this event meant, the early Christians fashioned a narrative about their beloved Jesus built almost entirely out of Psalm 22 and the Jewish Passover festival. The same logic applies to most of the Gospel story—the resurrection, the healings, Jesus’ baptism and so on.

What was the impetus for this religious creativity on the part of the early believers? Spong suggests it came from the liturgy of the Jewish synagogues. Christians met in synagogues, Spong assures us, and so must have designed their stories about Jesus to coincide with the major festivals of Judaism. Rosh Hashanah (New Year), for instance, required a Jesus story about preparation and renewal; hence, the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 1 gives us the preaching of John the Baptist. Again, Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), ten days later in the Jewish calendar, would require stories of forgiveness and cleansing, which is exactly what we find in Mark 2.

Spong lays out for us which passages in Mark were designed to fall in which Jewish season. Thus, Mark (and Luke and Matthew) is not history but liturgy fashioned to lend expression to the powerful religious feeling Jesus left with his disciples. Once we learn to read the Gospels in this way, Spong affirms, we can jettison the theistic nonsense about miracles, a divine incarnation, a coming kingdom and the salvation of sinners. Only then can we open ourselves up to the fullness of humanity that Jesus embodied, and in this we find ‘the God experience’ (290).

Spong says he writes as a Christian (7) motivated by a desire to share with the public something of what he calls ‘the Christ-power’ (292). But there is surely another reason he has written a general market volume rather than one pitched at his more well-informed peers. In almost every respect Jesus for the Non-Religious runs counter to the findings of mainstream scholarship: By ‘mainstream scholarship’ I do not mean simply those with whom I agree – far from it. I mean not only a numerical majority, but more especially the scholars whose names regularly appear in the professional academic journals of this discipline. I contrast the ‘mainstream’ with both the sceptical fringes and the Christian apologists, most of whom never publish in the appropriate academic forums where their ideas can be subject to scrutiny.

While he does not tell us so in this book, Spong draws his ideas about Jesus and the Gospels almost exclusively from the theory of Michael Goulder who in 1974 attempted to argue that the Gospels are a form of Jewish biblical interpretation/application known as ‘midrash’ and that the midrashic stories about Jesus were constructed out of the liturgy of the synagogue (five of Goulder’s works are in the Bibliography). The theory convinced virtually none of the experts, least of all the Jewish scholars on Jesus, and for good reason.

Firstly, the examples of midrashim we have from antiquity look nothing like the Gospels. If the Gospels are midrash, they are a previously unknown form. Secondly, we know almost nothing about the synagogue liturgy prior to the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in AD70 – it is in this period that many of the ‘stories’ of Jesus, on Spong’s view, must have been formed. Thirdly, after AD70, when Spong thinks the first Gospel was written, Christians were certainly not meeting in Jewish synagogues. Actually, it is doubtful significant numbers ever did, since the earliest evidence reveals that Christians met for prayer, praise and preaching not on the Sabbath but on the first day of the week, i.e., Sunday.

As it is, the Jesus of the Gospels is as subversive of 1st century Judaism as he is resonate with it

A fourth reason to doubt the central hypothesis of Bishop Spong is that the purported connection between passages in the Gospels and the cycle of the Jewish festivals is entirely speculative and lacks any methodological rigour. You can find Passover themes, for example, in virtually every chapter of Mark, not just in the account of Jesus’ suffering and execution, or Passion narrative. It is well known, for instance, that Mark 1 is replete with hints of Exodus/Passover themes that were central to the Jewish psyche. Spong himself unwittingly lets this cat out of the bag by arguing in one place that the Passion narrative is based on the Day of Atonement liturgy (159-169) and then in another that it is based on the liturgy of the Passover (194-196), which falls six months later in the Jewish calendar.

All scholars agree there are elements of Jewish midrash in the Gospels: the crucifixion scene, for instance, is clearly narrated in a way that recalls the righteous sufferer of Psalm 22. But far more striking is the way the Gospel writers appear to struggle to show how the very odd Jesus-event could be the fulfilment of Jewish expectations about the Messiah.

If the first Christians were happy to create stories that fitted well with Old Testament and Jewish liturgical interpretations of the period, we would have ended up with a messiah figure that conformed far more easily to Jewish hopes and expectations than the one we find in the Gospels. As it is, the Jesus of the Gospels is as subversive of 1st century Judaism as he is resonate with it.

Oddly, Spong thinks he finds evidence for his (Goulder’s) theory in Acts 13:13-52 where Paul is invited to address the synagogue of Pisidian Antioch after public readings from the Law and the Prophets. Spong speculates that here we have a picture of how the Jesus story was fashioned—people like Paul and others invented episodes from Jesus’ life to tie in with the reading of the week. Actually, in Acts 13 Paul ignores the Sabbath texts and tells the story of Israel from the patriarchs to King David, finally presenting the Jesus story—his resurrection in particular—as the punchline of Israel’s hope for an everlasting kingship. Paul’s use of Old Testament texts here appears rather convoluted and ad hoc (Ps 2:7; Isa 55:3; Ps 16:10) making clear to most scholars that Paul and the first Christians were working back from the Jesus-event to find an Old Testament explanation; they were not starting with stock scriptural passages and fashioning a story that would resonate with them. Spong has it back-to-front.

The bishop is operating on an idiosyncratic view of the literary form of the Gospels (as midrash). He writes of the Gospel of Mark: ‘Its form makes it very obvious that when this drama was first described, it was not history but liturgy that was the driving force’ (104). This completely ignores the consensus of New Testament historians over the last 15 years that describes the Gospels as a Jewish-Christian form of the well-known Graeco-Roman Biography (Bios).

In Spong’s long list of things that are historically untrue in the Gospels (128) he shows just how far from the scholarly mainstream he has travelled

All would agree that ancient biographers, like the Gospel writers, had a particular agenda in retelling the stories of famous people but there is no question they were setting out to tell actual episodes from the subject’s life. It is anachronistic to say that ‘the concern of the gospel writers was not to record what happened in history, but to probe the experience that people had with Jesus’ (157). This statement will resonate with many in the modern literary world and some in theological seminaries, but it will puzzle the trained ancient historian.

In Spong’s long list of things that are historically untrue in the Gospels (128) he shows just how far from the scholarly mainstream he has travelled. The names of Jesus’ parents, the existence of his Twelve disciples, his status as a healer, his significant final meal, his betrayal unto death and his disciples’ claim to have seen him alive again after death—things rejected by Spong as late additions to the story—are accepted by the vast majority of biblical historians as belonging to the earliest traditions about Jesus. They are regarded as historical, and with good reason. A quick check of the relevant literature in any university library will bear this out.

There are numerous non-sequiturs in this volume. For example, because Mark 6:3 says Mary was the mother of at least seven children Spong concludes that Mark knew nothing of the Virgin Birth story. Apart from being an argument from silence, what are we to make of the fact that Matthew, who tells the Virgin Birth story, happily carries over the reference from Mark about Mary’s seven kids (Matt 13:55-56)? A similar argument from silence appears in Chapter 9 where Spong asserts that the credal summary of 1 Cor 15:3 (‘Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures’) was the only information Paul had about Jesus’ death. This is disproved by 1 Cor 11:23-25 where Paul quotes Jesus’ words from “the night he was betrayed …” but, more importantly, how could we tell that Paul knew nothing more than what was contained, by way of summary, in the credal formula of 1 Cor 15:3?

Spong’s arguments collapse under their own weight but it is revealing that the Bibliography at the end of the book, which lists no fewer than 180 titles, has inexplicable omissions. It is not surprising that Spong would avoid interacting with Christian academic apologists but a 300-page book about Jesus with claims this significant, cannot justify overlooking the landmark contributions of scholars such as Martin Hengel, Sean Freyne, James Charlesworth, Richard Bauckham, James Dunn, N. T. Wright, Dale Allison, William D. Davies, Gerd Theissen, Joseph Fitzmyer and Graham Stanton. These are recognized leaders in the field and yet none of their writings appears in Spong’s bibliography. Those with even a cursory knowledge of historical Jesus studies over the last 20 years will justifiably conclude that Jesus for the Non-Religious is a work from the margins of scholarship prepared for an unsuspecting general market.

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)