Like so many other people, I was taught as a child that the biblical books we call the Gospels were eyewitness accounts detailing the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The accuracy of these books, I was also told, was so precise that we should view the Gospels as if God himself had written them.
When I grew older and learned about the workings of science, however, I realized that this simply could not be true. Virgin births, miracle stories, physical resurrections, cosmic ascensions — it became clear to me that none of these things could have actually happened within literal history. Obviously, when I abandoned a literalistic view of the Gospels, I was presented with a pressing question: How should the Gospels be read? I turned to Bishop Spong for the answer, which is detailed in his book Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible With Jewish Eyes.
The first thing that Spong asserts is that the Gospels are Jewish books written by Jewish authors. With that information, a significant amount of light is shed on the way the Gospels were written. Ever since the first Torah writings were penned, Jewish writers have used a literary device known as midrash when writing their Scriptures.
Much like a parable, midrash uses supernatural or otherwise incredulous events as symbols for a timeless truth. In essence, it captures the present inside the symbols of yesterday, preserving the inner meanings of the faith story for current and future generations. Midrash cannot be found in a literal reading of the text; one must read between the lines to capture the hidden (true) meaning of what is being said.
What most Christians do not realize is that the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) employ midrash to tell their story. For example, midrash was employed in the story of the virgin birth to say that Jesus, from his very beginnings, was divine. It was not meant to say, however, that the male agent in conception was negated to form a being that could have only been (at most) halfway human! The question to ask of the Gospel narratives, Spong says, is not “Did it really happen?” Instead, we should search for what the midrash symbolizes as we seek to uncover the true meanings of these Biblical texts.
Once the Jewish midrashic tradition is understood, a whole new doorway to biblical interpretation is opened. Spong takes the reader on a fast-paced adventure through critical moments in the Christian faith story, arriving at conclusions that actually make sense to the postmodern mind.
The first thing that Spong uncovers is that the Synoptic Gospels were written in accordance with the Jewish calendar and the Jewish liturgical year. Since the Torah was divided into 52 sections that enabled it to be read in its entirety every year, the Gospel authors also wrote specific parts of their Gospels to coincide with annual Torah readings on Passover, Pentecost, Tabernacles, New Year, and Dedication. The length of Jesus’s ministry was shortened to one year in Matthew, Mark and Luke to accomplish this specific purpose.
Also, Spong shows how Jewish heroes made their way into the virgin birth story and concludes that both the Immaculate Conception and the figure we know as Joseph were made up by early Christians partly to thwart accusations of illegitimacy.
Next, Spong takes a look at Jesus’s death and shows the reader that none of the details can be taken as facts because there was no Biblical writer (or even disciple!) present when Jesus was crucified. The Passion drama, therefore, had to be at least partially invented. This is also shown by the fact that the Gospels do not agree on who was present at the tomb, nor do they agree on what Jesus did (if anything) after his death.
Spong alleges that the entire Passion narrative, however, is written midrashically to show how Jesus gave his life away to all of us — fully, completely, totally. When read with a historical lens, the details simply do not match up. But when read with a Jewish lens, a whole new story is uncovered — a story that shows how Jesus gave his life to others and for others; a story that tells how he loved wastefully and selflessly, and in that living and dying, the disciples concluded that Jesus revealed the meaning of God.
When the Jewish meanings behind these seemingly impossible events are revealed, the Gospels take on a whole new form. They fill to the brim with meaning and resonate with integrity as a new faith story is uncovered, a faith story that can be boldly and intelligently proclaimed in the Christianity of the 21st century.
The writings of John Shelby Spong have been, over the course of the past year, a constant source of enlightenment and fulfillment for me. Liberating the Gospels was the seventh book that I read by Spong, and each time I pick up a new one, I am continually amazed at the incredible honesty, truthfulness, and excitement that each book holds.
If it weren’t for Bishop Spong, I probably wouldn’t be a religious person because I believe deeply in both science and logic. But because of the works of this one man, I have been graciously given a renewed sense of spirituality that is deep, profound, life-giving, and incredibly real. For this, I am eternally grateful. I cannot even describe in words the magnificent power that his books hold.
Both the amateur seeker and the seasoned Spong veteran will enjoy Liberating the Gospels, which I recommend as an entry point into his theology since it addresses a plethora of topics. But hopefully, if this is the first book you read, it will be only the beginning of what the bishop himself describes as “a worthwhile journey.”