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VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2009
Number 70
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Believing Christian ... Agnostic Believer

A Review Essay by Frank E. Eakin, Jr.

Jesus for the Non-Religious by John Shelby Spong, Harper San Francisco

A review essay by Frank E. Eakin, Jr.

Jesus for the Non-Religious is a captivating study done by Bishop John Shelby Spong, one in which his characteristic iconoclastic attitudes are apparent. If one has read faithfully his works through the years, or if indeed one has known him on a conversational level over the years, this book is a rather logical culmination of his thinking. Concluding with material from Christpower, Lucy Negus’ poetic distillation of a 1974 sermon by Spong at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, the circle is closed as he seeks to clarify in 2007 where he was beginning to move in 1974.

The attraction of the author is the fact that, confronted by all of the trapping of the mythological Jesus, he finds himself deeply conflicted. As a priest in the Episcopal Church, and through the last years of his professional life the Bishop of the Diocese of Newark, one might expect him to be grounded in the certitudes of the tradition. It is his debunking of these certitudes that makes him so appealing to many contemporary Christians who do not want a schizophrenic relationship between their daily rational lives and their lives of faith. Nonetheless, he has clearly been a “problem” for many of the “faithful” who refuse to recognize a schism between scientific reasoning and traditional interpretations of scripture. Let it be acknowledged that the traditionalist would declare Spong to be dogmatic in his rejection of the “faith of the fathers.” Moreover, the traditionalist would declare him to be equally as dogmatic in the position that he espouses as he declares the traditionalist to be in the traditional faith affirmation. Long ago this reviewer learned that, where presuppositions differ, two parties can never reconcile their differences--at best there can be agreement to agree to disagree. As one reads Spong, it is recognized that he does have a tendency to assume that the only rational position is the one he sets forth, no thinking person would suggest otherwise! Jesus for the Non-Religious consciously draws upon the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity” (p. xiv) as Spong attempts to flesh out for the 21st-century reader what this mid-20th-century victim of the Third Reich sought to express. Several of Rudolf Bultmann’s books are listed in his bibliography, although Spong does not invoke Bultmann in his text. Nonetheless, it seems that one should recognize that it is a radical Bultmannian-type formgeshcichte approach that undergirds his material. Of his 25 chapters, he spends 18 chapters, i.e., Part 1 which focused on “Separating the Human Jesus from the Myth” (chapters 1-11) and Part 2 which developed “The Original Images of Jesus” (chapters 12-18); emphasizing that what is recorded is not and cannot be understood as a “historical” record. It is the typical demythologizing of the text to separate the thought from what he sees as the corruptness of the Christian “religion” built around theistic thought in order to remythologize it according to development around the Jewish liturgical year. The other earlier figure invoked by Spong is Bishop John A. T. Robinson, an earlier iconoclastic but exceedingly helpful figure within the Anglican communion (as in his Honest to God).

In Part 1, “Separating the Human Jesus from the Myth,” Spong has effectively marshaled his evidence, and it helps that the reviewer basically agrees with the Bishop’s arguments. His general position is if you can describe the event other than as history that is preferred. He characteristically views the data as built upon the Tanach; i.e., drawing upon the Jewish liturgical year.

An apocalyptic argument not used which would have enforced his general position (although not a reliance upon the Jewish liturgical year) is the idea that, as the end time approaches (all of the New Testament materials were written during the apocalyptic era), the events associated with the beginning of Yahwism’s emergence would be repeated. Using this forced interpretive mechanism of the period, this explains the threat to the young child’s life and the necessity to have Joseph take Mary and the baby into Egypt. This type of repetitive activity would presage both the imminent apocalyptic end and also Jesus’ role in history’s fulfillment as apocalyptically envisioned.

It is important to affirm that all of the Biblical material was written in a pre-scientific era. They could not think or write scientifically because they predate the phenomenon. Thus, their writing was mythological because that was the literary genre that described the actions of the gods, or in this case the God YHWH among humans. To declare this text as mythology should not be seen as a negative but indeed as the most positive comment one can make, i.e., it affirms the action of God among us. To juxtapose the actions of God with the historical reality of human existence gives rationale for reinterpretation (demythologizing and remythologizing) of the text as historical circumstances and human awareness alters--reinterpretation is the most natural of responses!

One cannot argue with Spong regarding his rejection of Biblical miracles. I would have preferred, however, that he deal with Hebraic perceptions, such as “mighty acts,” the “outstretched arm of God,” etc. The point is that Hebraically they did not deal with miracles, for miracle is a Greek concept that assumes natural order and the cessation of same during which something happens contrary to natural order. Hebraically, we speak of signs and wonders, and the more naturally you understand these more they affirm YHWH, the Lord of history. The real question then is how the Christian community became so Hellenized, when Jesus is so clearly a first-century Jew (see Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew). Jesus is recorded as saying “...if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the Kingdom of God has come to you” (Luke 11:20). Much of the Hellenistic view of miracle incorporates the sense of the struggle between body and spirit, whereas in Hebrew thought there is no such dichotomy. God created the cosmos and humankind, looked upon the totality of his creation, and said “...very good” (Genesis 1:31).

Whereas the reviewer agrees with most of Spong’s conclusions, I have a basic concern pedagogically. When preaching to the converted, one may be more caustic in presentation. When seeking to alter the thinking of the traditionalist, however, one must move more cautiously. After all, traditional religion impacts the beliefs, actions, and emotions of the individual, i.e., the entire being. His treatment of the entire miracle section could lead one to conclude that essentially 95 percent of the Gospel narrative is “made up” on the basis of earlier stories in the Tanach. To say this is what happened, even to point to some parallels, is not sufficient proof for the traditionalist. Because of this I consider this one of the weaker sections, but for Spong, as he writes of Paul and his understanding of the crucifixion and death of Jesus, Paul assumed such to be “...beyond either debate or doubt” (p. 98). For the traditionalist, I believe it will take more convincing!

This leads us to an area where one treads gingerly, for I am confident that this is not what Spong is saying although it might be so interpreted. It would seem that Spong’s suggestion that the New Testament materials are formulated according to the Jewish liturgical year, using events such as Passover and Yom Kippur, is at best examples of midrashic interpretation, indeed a view not unique to Spong. At worst, however, such interpretation becomes supersessionist is this “Jesus” interpretation the “real” interpretation? Again, Spong never suggests this, but against the reality of Church history it raises a red flag! To mention it at this point is more to warn against a misuse of Spong’s words for a view I know he does not accept!

Part 2, “The Original Images of Jesus,” is an interesting section, and in many ways Chapter 12, a brief introductory chapter (pages 133-137), is one of the strongest chapters because it factually describes the rejection by both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism in the 1960s of a possible movement away from traditionalism and fundamentalism. Rather, he suggests, the Church retreated into the safety of its tradition, away from the possibilities of new approaches to an understanding of Jesus.

One cannot over emphasize the Kerygma as found in Acts 2, 7, 10 and 13. This standardization of the proclaimed message of the early Church makes impossible the formulation of a clear story of Jesus. Spong is also certainly correct according to the best textual evidence that Jesus died alone, that much had to be reconstructed, and the Kerygma gives clear evidence of this fact.

It would be expected that the Jesus story was understood by his followers to be encapsulated in the chronicles of Judaism because the earliest followers were Jews. On the other hand, we recognize that strong antipathy developed between the “followers of the Way” and the Jews at a rather early stage, and thus to build overly on the development of the Jesus story a la the Jewish liturgical year in part because this was proclaimed in the synagogues is somewhat shakey. Neither for Spong nor in general is Jesus portrayed as the poster child for traditional Judaism, so the transmission of this Jesus story would more likely be within the developing ecclesia, not the synagogue (see chapter 13, page 146).

I would see as most viable the idea that data relative to Jesus did transmit during the “oral transmission” period without concern for either chronology or context, and thus we end up with the Gospel writers, none of whom seems to have been eye witnesses to Jesus’ ministry, with practically no biographical knowledge of Jesus the man. Even in the Synoptic Gospels the man of history is often covered by the Christ of faith, and this is without question true for the Fourth Gospel. As a result, I would not use the Fourth Gospel except to discuss a confessional perspective on Jesus as developed by the end of the first common century.

As an aside, it is noteworthy that Paul, even though the earliest contributor to the New Testament, was the writer most concerned with the risen Lord, the Christ of faith as opposed to the Jesus of history (one might argue that in some ways the Fourth Gospel contrasts with the Synoptics in this same way). Thus, Paul’s favored way to refer to Jesus is Christ Jesus rather than Jesus Christ. This subtle distinction is crucial in understanding Pauline thought.

It is generally acknowledged that the Gospel of John had paramount influence in the development of Christian thought, for example in supporting creedal development when Biblically based. It is also from the Fourth Gospel that we get the radical association of Jesus with Passover. As Spong notes, it is the portrayal of Jesus as the paschal lamb who had been introduced earlier by John the Baptizer as “the lamb of God” that colors this picture. Again, recognizing the significant differences between the Synoptics and the Fourth Gospel, it is questionable how much of the Jesus story should be constructed from the Fourth Gospel’s association of Jesus and the Passover.

Many will find Spong’s arguments convincing and will accept without question the associations he draws, i.e., Jesus with Passover, Yom Kippur, Son of Man, Servant, and Shepherd. For this reviewer, the associations often seem somewhat forced, trying so hard to associate the tradition as developed with a more standardized Jewish liturgy one loses any foundation in the historical Jesus. Like Form Criticism, which has done so much to enlighten the Biblical text, its radical use comes at significant cost. Spong’s approach likewise comes at significant cost.

Relative to the “Son of man” imagery in Daniel, it is instructive to emphasize that this is apocalyptic imagery, as acknowledged by Spong (p. 173), but that means that this book is highly symbolic, cryptic in its presentation, and contextually not at all what on the surface it appears to be. Granted that Jesus seemed to adopt this designation as his self-designation (only Stephen in his address in Acts 7 refers to Jesus as “Son of man”), but is this Jesus’ self-designation or an appellation placed upon Jesus by the early Church? Is it so clear that Jesus so understood himself or that this is the way the early Church understood Jesus? This is a difficult interpretive issue and one somewhat shaky as a foundational presupposition. Indeed, in Matthew 10:23, when Jesus is reputed to have said, “You will not have gone through all the towns of Israel, before the Son of man comes” (see Spong, p. 176), was Jesus referring to himself or in that apocalyptic era to the anticipated coming of the “Son of man”?

In the “Son of man” chapter (p. 179), Spong uses the word “immortality” to describe the door opened by the Jesus experience. This reviewer suggests that, especially if one seeks to place the Jesus phenomenon in Jewish context, “immortality” is not an appropriate word. Within the Church, highly influenced by Hellenistic thought, “immortality” is regularly used, but immortal (or not mortal) is not in the early Jewish lexicon. Humans are forever mortal! We have life as a result of the beneficence of God, and if there be anything beyond this life it is at that same beneficence. We do not possess an “immortal” core that assures our continuing life. That continuing life is the gift of God. As Christians, we need to acknowledge that this Greek concept came into the Church vocabulary with the Hellenization of the Church. Jesus, however, was born, lived, and died a Jew. The Church might speak of “immortality,” but I doubt seriously that the Jesus of history would have done so!

Whereas the book is carefully written and has many commendable suggestions, several concerns for this reviewer should be noted:

  1. On page 18 he suggests that “only in the synagogue...” could the “interpretive process” of understanding Jesus have taken place. The potential fallacy here is that rather quickly the “followers of the way” and the Jews went separate ways. Granted there was evidently early on some Jewish sabbath worship coupled with “first day” worship, but quickly it was only “first day” worship and Jewish-Christians were excluded from the synagogues. For the synagogues to have so influenced the view of Jesus would require much greater simpatico than history indicates existed.
  2. On page 183 there is confusion regarding the origin of the Samaritans. They emerged as a result of the conquest of Samaria by Assyria in 721 B.C.E., when eventually those Israelites left behind by the Assyrians intermarried with persons imported into the area by the Assyrians. Samaritans already existed at the time of the 587 conquest of Jerusalem by the Babylonians.
  3. In like fashion, Ezra was a scribe and Nehemiah a governor. Neither man is understood to be a prophet.
  4. On pages 243-244 it should be noted that Paul did not find this transforming experience in the human Jesus (the Jesus of history) but in the Christ of faith.
  5. On page 245 Spong suggests that the Gospel writers framed a highly symbolic, analytical, and perceptive message. To this reviewer, this makes the Gospel writers entirely too Hellenistic, when only Luke seems to be appropriately so designated, and Luke significantly used Mark.
  6. On page 257 one must be cautious in reading a New Testament sense of the “Holy Spirit” into a Hebrew “Spirit of God” (Ruach Elohim). These are not comparably understood phenomena, and confusion of the two obscures our understanding of the Hebrew text.
  7. On page 258 Jesus’ new definition of “messiah” is suggested, i.e., when he indicated to the Samaritan woman that “messiah” is “the one who now invites her into wholeness” (as opposed to “the one who rescues”). Again, this rather analytical and psychological redefinition of terms leads to the question the understanding of the Jesus of history or of the much later Church?
  8. One should be cautious about using the term “Jew” to refer to YHWH’s people prior to the Babylonian Exile, i.e., sixth century B.C.E. It was at this point that the Torah was drawn together, and since Torah is the prerequisite to “Jews” and “Judaism,” prior to this time better terms would be “Yahwist” and “Yahwism.”

 

If one accepts Spong’s view that Mark’s Gospel is constructed according to the Jewish liturgical year, what has been demonstrated is that no one of the Gospel writers, and I would include both those of the Synoptics and the Fourth Gospel, was an eye witness to Jesus and his ministry. Thus, the Gospels would be examples of Christian Midrash, building a story around a larger and more established construct. On the one hand this would correlate with those who have suggested that the Gospels are a unique type of Christian Midrashim. On the other hand, it leaves us with the form critically induced question, does it make any difference whether or not we can relate at all historically to the figure Jesus of Nazareth? The response to the latter question will largely determine an individual’s reaction to Jesus for the Non-Religious.

Nonetheless, the book is both interesting and thought provoking. Typical of the writings which emerge from Spong’s fertile mind, it will encourage the believing Christian to read more carefully the New Testament materials and to question long-held assumptions and traditions. This reviewer would judge that there is probably no better label for the believing Christian than an agnostic believer.
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Frank E. Eakin, Jr. is the Weinstein-Rosenthal Professor of Jewish and Christian Studies at the University of Richmond and a contributing editor.

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