Liberating the Gospels

John Spong

Reviewed by Ian Harris, SOF NZ Newsletter #21, May 1997

Seafarers of Faith who have not given up on the Judeo-Christian tradition will find Bishop John Spong's latest exploration into the Bible, Liberating the Gospels, both stimulating and provocative. For the gospel records he offers "another way of seeing" -- through the Jewish eyes of those who wrote them, and of those for whom they were written.

The wonder is that after 2000 years of Christianity this should come as a novelty. But through the centuries Christians have been more adept at culturally adjusting the Christian story to their own times and circumstances than peeling it back to reveal the underlying attitudes, understandings, circumstances and experiences of 1st century Jews.

Spong charges that the gospels were hijacked into a gentile captivity and, worse, have been used for centuries to denigrate everything Jewish. He says it is time to free them so that people today can catch something of the gospel writers' world and their purposes in writing as they did.

His pivotal proposition is that Matthew, Mark and Luke took shape at a time when the first generations of Christians were still very much part of the worship of the synagogues. They were therefore written with a view to complementing the Jewish festivals and the readings from the Torah set out for the Jewish liturgical year with a kind of Christian counterpoint, showing how Jesus both fitted into the sacred story and went beyond it. John came later, and Spong's treatment is skimpier and less sure.

He acknowledges his debt to a former Anglican priest, Michael Goulder, whose studies opened up the new vantage point. He also develops a theme familiar from his book Resurrection: Myth or Reality: the importance of the Jewish literary technique of "midrash". Midrash makes imaginative links between the sacred past and the present experience, so that "the experience of the present can be affirmed as true inside the symbols of yesterday".

For Spong midrash, like spring, is busting out all over. Some of the parallels he draws between the gospels and the Old Testament are strong and convincing, others are tenuous to the point where any historical content in the gospels seems incidental. Spong unscrambles the Old Testament references that helped shape the story of the Virgin birth, Jesus' betrayal and suffering, his resurrection and ascension. Some figures long assumed to be historical, such as Joseph and Judas, become midrashic creations, important for the story but not to be taken literally.

Spong sums up: "The Jews who created the Gospels knew they were not history, but they also knew that their experience was true -- not literally true, but profoundly true. The Gospels were midrashic interpretations of the meaning of Jesus told in the traditional way of the Jews. The great pity is that later non-Jewish, Western readers had no idea what that meant and so they literalised these texts."

Strange, then, that having dealt so severely to literalness, Spong writes in terms suggesting a lingering literalness of belief in an objective God. Of the resurrection he asks: "Can we deliteralise the explanation without destroying the reality?" That would be a fascinating question to put to him about God when he attends the Sea of Faith Network's conference in October.

I found the book valuable in presenting a new perspective on the gospels and a new way of taking them seriously which does not demand the negation of our experience as secular people in a secular culture. It confirms that the Judeo-Christian tradition is still rich in possibilities for a lively, creative and honest religion, despite what the Churches continue to do to it. For me, and I suspect for many skimming the Sea of Faith, that is most encouraging.