on 21 April 2007
This highly accessible and rewarding book is Jack Spong at his most direct and most engaging. In a series of short tightly-written chapters he strips away the interpretive mythology surrounding Jesus of Nazareth, clearly identifies the Jewish religious and liturgical background out of which those interpretations came, and leaves us with a portrait of the man in whom God's love was to be seen so uniquely.
Spong is the first to admit that in this book he revisits themes he has explored in greater depth in his previous books - especially 'Liberating the Gospels' - but the reader can sense that in this latest work Spong is offering us a chance to step back and review the bigger picture, and to observe how his more detailed theological insights from previous studies come together into a coherent whole.
The book has extensive textual notes which flesh out the supporting arguments behind some of his propositions, together with an extensive bibliography which will guide any dedicated reader into the deepest waters of biblical scholarship and progressive Christianity.
I commend this book highly as the latest part of the journey on which Jack Spong leads his readers towards the authentic Jesus and an authentic Christian faith.
on 25 September 2011
I was lent this book by a friend, and I had finished it within 5 days, having put aside other reading books to enjoy this one. It gave a great intellectual frisson, even a shock. This is a modern theological book that demolishes traditional religion, `rescuing Jesus from the church', as the dust cover proclaims it!
The detailed scholarship of analysing the gospels was most impressive and persuasive. Basically, Spong is arguing that much of what we read there is a literary construct, rather than an eye-witness account. Certainly he regards Jesus as an historical figure, born in Nazareth, and dying on the cross in Jersusalem. But he argues that the Bethlehem birth is a fiction, Joseph probably did not exist, the attendant stories about the Magi, slaughter of the innocents and so forth are made up, or built on Old Testament scriptures. The miracle stories are fiction (or embellishments). He has no truck with people walking on water or turning water into wine.
He carefully demonstrates how many gospel passages are built on previous Jewish texts and liturgies. He explains how Mark's account of the death of Jesus is split into neat literary 3-hour periods, and infused with Jewish traditions of the Paschal Lamb. He argues that the crucifixion probably did not occur at Passover. Many of the words supposedly spoken by Jesus (given that no disciple was there to witness the private interviews with the High Priest and so on) are quotations from Isaiah, Zechariah, Psalm 22 and so forth.
For instance, it is undeniable that close textual analysis shows that Mark lifted passages from Psalm 22 to write his account of the Crucifixion, for the Psalmist writes: `They divide my garments among them and for my raiment they cast lots.' These references would be well-known to the educated Jews and would resonate deeply. Spong argues later Christians have taken these accounts as literal descriptions of what happened, rather than poetic/literary interpretations of a shocking event for the followers of Jesus. He clearly states that all the disciples ran away the evening before, and were probably too afraid to show themselves in public again for a while.
Christians would argue that the prophets were given divine inspiration to foresee future events. A more honest appraisal would say that the writers of the gospels took these passages for flesh out and shape their interpretation of the life of Jesus. Most interestingly, Spong argues that the synoptic gospels were structured to fit the major Jewish festivals of the year, and certain sections were probably read out in Synagogues at the appropriate time of year. His detailed knowledge of Jewish religion and culture makes writers such as CS Lewis look very sloppy in their pronouncements about the bible.
The author enjoys his demolition work of much of traditional Christianity, as taught by the established Church. This is all the more remarkable given that he served as a priest and bishop in the American Episcopal Church for 45 years! I enjoyed this part of the book too, since he refuses to compromise his honest appraisal of the many contradictions within the traditional accounts of Christianity. It also articulated much of the puzzlement I have felt about unresolved issues within the bible. I used to take the view that the bible is peppered with metaphor and poetic truths, but had a large core of historical and literal truth. Now I perceive that hard core as shrinking to maybe 5% of the whole.
Spong, like other modern theologians such as Don Cupitt, then goes on to try and construct a new Christianity. This last quarter of the book is written in powerful language, with passionate sincerity. It also makes many good points about Jesus challenging tribal boundaries, fighting prejudice and widening our understanding of our own common humanity. However, overall, the attempt is ludicrous. He resorts to appeals to our `real' humanity and a wishy-washy life force. This kind of stuff would be logically and philosophically ripped apart by CS Lewis. What is the moral, objective basis for his assertions now? Lewis has demonstrated the problem in `The abolition of man' and `Miracles'. If our consciousness is 100% determined by nature / evolution, we have no grounds for making any moral assertions about right and wrong.
The author forgets his earlier sceptical rigour and picks out stories that he thinks represent the core message of love in the message of Jesus. Now he is simply selecting parts of the Gospel story that suit him. Just to embrace `Christpower' is not enough, for life is constantly interspersed with moral dilemmas. The ineluctable fact is that statements of right and wrong must be accompanied by concepts of punishment. We cannot just embrace a warm wish for love and friendship amongst all mankind. There are perennial evils and failings which Christianity faces. He wants to reject the core Christian message of `salvation'. Without that I don't think he can claim to be a `Christian'.
However, his attempts to create a modern 'Theology' make me uneasy. Demolition is easier than construction.
on 19 November 2010
Jesus for the Non-Religious by John Selby Spong
reviewed by Walter Emerson
Having read the book I still do not understand why the author gave it the title he did. He systematically demolishes all the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth, from the Nativity (Mary was no virgin, Jesus was not born in Bethlehem) to the Resurrection (no empty tomb) and Ascension (no lift-off). For most thinking Christians the `facts' presented in the Gospels, that is all the supernatural goings on, are and were just impossible. He is pushing there at an open door. But we have to reconcile that admission with our repetition of the Creeds, Sunday after Sunday, when most of what we say `we believe' we don't in fact believe. Some of us try to rationalise it by saying to ourselves that the first-century Christians were locked into their culture to believe that all these myths had to be true, either because they had been `foretold' or because it was unthinkable to believe in a prophet or messiah unless he had a solid portfolio of miracles on his c.v. Human experience and understanding has moved on since then; we don't have to believe in miracles to accept the extraordinary nature of Jesus. We repeat these ancient creeds, not because they are factually and historically correct but because they helped the early Christians in expressing their belief in the essential natures of God and Christ: a belief which we have in common with them.
A large part of Bishop Spong's book is devoted to explaining how the myths came about and their essential Jewishness. Saint Paul himself, a thoroughgoing Jew and almost the inventor of Christianity, was steeped in the Jewish belief in atonement for Man's past sins; in God as fearsome and ruthless in punishment of those exciting his wrath, to be placated by sacrifices in atonement and endlessly praised and worshiped. It is a very different view of God from his present-day representation as a loving and forgiving father; yet our liturgy is still full of endless pleas for mercy; we are still `miserable offenders' who, while grovelling, `acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness', reminding God that he has shown mercy on occasions in the past and imploring him to do so again. For Saint Paul and later for the evangelists the humiliation of Christ on the Cross could be explained only as a triumphant and supreme act of atonement for all men's sins, past and present. Few now would really believe that such atonement was desired or necessary, or indeed made any sense.
Many Christians reading the book, while acknowledging that it states starkly what they accept as true, must be left with an empty feeling that, stripped of all old beliefs, going to church must be now for them no more than a farce. Yet we are reluctant to put aside the perceived closeness to God, all the beauty of the liturgy, the music, the singing, the wonderful biblical stories, the fellowship, the great architecture. But what is the point of it all?
Well the author of this book does not leave it there. He stresses throughout, with tedious repetition, his own belief in what he calls the Jesus experience. Jesus was, for him, a perfect man. He displayed a humanity which had an astonishing effect on all who knew him, an effect passed on throughout the world and through 2000 years. Spong is not an atheist, but he rejects traditional theism. For him Jesus is more than a humanist saint. He is not divine in the theist sense of divinity; he is the man whose perfection can inspire us all. What Spong does not attempt to explain is how the Jesus phenomenon arose in a `man born of a woman'. Was such perfection in his DNA, and if so, did some mighty mutation of his parents' genes bring it about? A chance mutation? Nor does he really explain what he means by `humanity'. The word's most obvious meanings are the human race and all its attributes, which must include a readiness to quarrel, to go to war, to exercise cruelty and greed, to disobey all the prohibitions of the Ten Commandments, to love and to perform acts of generosity. His definition must refer to the last two, which is probably that of humanists generally; but he does not call himself a humanist. And whence do those criteria of `good' humanity come?
on 2 March 2008
Over the years Bishop Spong has been working out his progressive Christian theology. Of the books I have read by him, this seems to me to be his best effort to date.
I had previously read by him:
Resurrection: Myth or Reality? : A Bishop's Search for the Origins of Christianity
Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers In Exile
A New Christianity for a New World: Why Traditional Faith is Dying & How a New Faith is Being Born
My recommendation would be, if you haven't read any of these books, to only read "Jesus for the Non-Religious" - or at least to begin with it after which the others may only be of interest to you if you wish to trace the development of Spong's thought.
The biggest step that Spong has made in this book is in his speculation of how the story of Jesus that eventually appeared in the Gospels might have been built up in Jewish discussions, probably in good part in synagogues, of who Jesus had been and what his life and death had meant. In these discussions, the impact of Jesus was understood to a significant degree in terms of Old Testament texts, leading to the four New Testament Gospel accounts. Explaining in this way, Spong is able to make sense of how the myths arose and what the original images of Jesus were. Spong then can present a Jesus more relevant to our times, free of reliance on supernaturalism, by emphasizing how the life and death could nevertheless reveal the love of God in a Jesus who led people past boundaries: "tribal", of "prejudice and stereotype", and "religious".
Spong presents compelling reasons for the acknowledgement of the reason for the origin and for the power of Christian myth. In doing, he presents a powerful alternative to the literalized interpretations: he's attempted this before but seems most successful in this book.
One question that remains for me is whether Spong has remained too dependent on constructing his own image of Jesus. Perhaps his message might be even stronger if, without in any way denying the power of Jesus, he accepted that the details of the life of Jesus may never be knowable but emphasized more, as he speculated in discussing the impact in the synagogues to try to understand what Jesus meant, that Christianity is a response by many. As Spong acknowledges, Paul himself did not find much about the life of Jesus significant enough to share in his letters and yet didn't Paul of something of great power about Christianity to share with those his letters were intended for? It may be that a turning us to Christ as Paul did, to Christian history, and our shared condition is what a progressive Christianity can best do rather than join the many who compete to speculate upon a "winning" image of Jesus. Nevertheless, as Spong points, moving past "tribal" boundaries, "prejudice and stereotype", and "religious" boundaries may be among the best ways we can acknowledge that "Jesus is Lord".
But might it be possible, due to all the uncertainties and speculations about Jesus, that it might be necessary in order to be a Christian that one let a definite image of Jesus go ... just as Spong has encouraged us to let a definite image (the theistic one) of God go? Paul seemed not to have communicated a detailed Jesus in his letters? Why then now so long after Jesus, Paul, and so many others are we reaching to justify doing the right things by creating an image of Jesus whose authority we then appeal to and direct others to? Founders are important but so to are successors: at this time, informed by but not tied up by history, it is our present and future actions that matter. It seems up to the living to find what God means today and to act effectively in response. One of Spong's own teachers seems of help on this, I recommend Paul Tillich as in his
The Courage to Be
when one feels ready to take another step into progressive Christianity.
on 16 April 2014
I enjoyed those parts of the book that contain valuable insights into the origins of the Jesus story as told in the New Testament. In particular, I very much appreciated the author's discovery of the close connection that exists between the synoptic gospels and the Jewish liturgical year; his idea the Palm Sunday 'entry' is likelier to have taken place during the Feast of Tabernacles rather than the Passover period; his observation that Mark's failure to mention Jesus's father probably sheds some light on his obscure parentage etc. etc. I am extremely grateful to the author for these findings. Compared to some other books I have read on the subject (Das Leben Jesu by Strauss being one of them), Spong's version presents this important religious figure as completely flesh and blood of Jewish culture, uncontaminated by Western/Dionysian/Osirian influences, at least not in the way as I was taught as a young kid in a Soviet school back in the 1980s.
Unfortunately these many 'gems' one can extract from this book are intermingled with a generous portion of rhetoric which purports to aim at discovering the 'true Jesus' behind the plastered layers of subjective/sectarian interpretation. But this is, I am afraid, a contradiction in terms. Jesus himself, apparently, did not encourage any scientific verification of his own statements and acts when he insisted that his kingdom was 'not of this world' and was therefore not subject to any worldly judgement or analysis. Was the activity of St Paul and evangelists really an unintentional dostortion of Jesus' message caused by their theistic prejudice or rather an attempt to continue their master's effort in building an out-of-this-world mystical realm to replace the old creation? Especiallly considering that they (including Jesus) were expecting an imminent end of the world...
Unfortunately, the author completely ignores any mystical aspects of Christianity. This rationalism seems to be at odds with the fervour he displays in defending Jesus as a 'perfect human being'. This is definitely not an original thought, it dates back to the 19th century ('Since there is no God, let's love each other' - a popular joke of that time) and has very little value for an inquisitive reader. This book is a good sample of biblical criticism and a very poor one of the author's home-grown natural theology. He is very close to saying that if Jesus lived in our days he would most certainly defend the rights of sexual minorities. To make Jesus a human rights activist and to make Christianity into a mock-religion of political correctness is way too anachronistic, to say the least.
on 14 January 2013
This is such a challenging book! It really gives you something to chew on! Not for the feint-hearted, Bishop Spong seems to tear down almost everything that you thought was true. At one point I did begin to think "so if all you're saying in this book is right, what's left to believe in?" but actually by clearing away the "clutter" it does help to clarify. I don't necessarily agree with everything in this book but it's certainly worth reading ... if you're up to it!
on 28 March 2015
At last, a credible biography of Jesus of Nazareth, written by a true Christian scholar who knows both Testaments in depth. So many verses of the Psalms and the "little prophets" of the Old Testament have been copied and pasted into the gospels! The latter have to be read as symbolic messages, and not in the way of modern history books. For people interested to know how Jesus really lived.
on 12 March 2008
I have the upmost respect for this man after reading just this one book. A brave, powerful work. Especially for someone in his position. Written clearly and entertaining. Im definately not religious but fascinated by the hold chritianity has on humans.
His ultimate conclusion doesnt give me the answers i perhaps wanted but i suspect thats asking too much of one man. This is definately amongst the best books i have ever read. Recommended to anyone with the slightest interest in religion. And of course...recommended to christians. Although i can say now, most of it will be too hard to swallow.
on 24 December 2008
Spong reads the gospels, not looking for facts, but for signs of how the story tellers were changed. What defensive walls, fears, hypocrisies or self-centered views of life have been blown down by encounters with Jesus?
In pursuing this kind of encounter, Spong traces almost every phrase or image in the gospels back to the Old Testament, from which they were composed, often word for word. I've never seen such a detailed exposure of how the Jesus stories were literally written "according to the [Hebrew] scriptures".
Where does all this lead? Strangely enough, the exposure of Jewish roots recovers Jesus' challenge to the people of his times, and to ours. It exposes the impact of his life to ordinary people of that culture, and what that impact might be for an utterly different global civilization.
--author of Correcting Jesus: 2000 Years of Changing the Story
on 20 May 2013
finished Jesus for the Non-Religious by John Shelby Spong. I strongly recommend this to all fellow Godbotherers and anyone else curious to know why this 1st century man continues to fascinate so many