John Shelby Spong’s newest book, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, was released this week. For those unfamiliar with Spong, he is a retired Episcopal bishop of Newark, New Jersey, and the author of a string of notorious books such as Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism (1992), Why Christianity Must Change or Die (1999), A New Christianity for a New World (2002), and Jesus for the Non-Religious (2008). The recurring theme in these books, reflected in some of the titles, is that Christianity must stop being Christianity and become a mildly spiritual humanism. (Spong actually won the 1999 Humanist of the Year award.) Spong is a devotee of the liberal humanistic theology of Paul Tillich (1886-1965), a German-American theologian who argued that God was not a personal Creator but the ground of being, or being itself. This is a philosophically sophisticated way of saying that God does not exist, of having one’s God and eating It too. Spong has also written several books attacking specific traditional Christian beliefs and values, such as Living in Sin? (1990, against traditional Christian sexual values), Born of a Woman (1994, no virgin birth), Resurrection: Myth or Reality? (1995, no resurrection of Jesus), and Eternal Life: A New Vision (2010, no heaven or hell).
Spong claims, both in the book and in an article on Huffington Post promoting the book, that The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic is the result of an “intensive five-year-long study” of the Gospel of John and of Johannine scholarship. “I have now read almost every recognized major commentary on John’s gospel that is available in English from the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries” (Fourth Gospel, 8). Unfortunately, it doesn’t show. Spong has left himself some wiggle room by using the qualifier “recognized,” which is probably code for “non-evangelical.” Spong’s nine-page bibliography at the end of his book does not include a single conservative or evangelical commentary on John and only one monograph on John by an evangelical (Craig Evans’s Word and Glory, an academic study on John’s Prologue). The only other work by a conservative author listed in the bibliography is Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, attributed to Richard “Bruckman,” which is a reflection of just how little attention Bauckham’s excellent study received. Neither Evans nor Bauckham is actually cited in the book, and Spong’s arguments show his usual studied ignorance of conservative biblical scholarship. If Spong did read the commentaries on the Gospel of John by George R. Beasley-Murray, Gary M. Burge, D. A. Carson, Craig S. Keener, Andreas Köstenberger, J. Ramsey Michaels, Leon Morris, Grant R. Osborne, Merrill Tenney, Ben Witherington III, or any other evangelical scholar, he apparently learned nothing from them. Keener’s massive two-volume commentary is especially important because its 300-plus page introduction alone thoroughly refutes the assertions that Spong makes concerning the Fourth Gospel.
The main points that Spong seeks to make in his book are as follows:
- The Fourth Gospel was not written by the apostle John or any of the disciples.
- It was produced by at least three different authors over a period of perhaps thirty years.
- Jesus probably said not even one word attributed to him in the Gospel.
- Jesus did none of the miracles narrated in the Gospel.
- Many of the figures appearing in the Gospel never existed.
- The Gospel contains many indications that it was not meant to be taken literally.
- The message of the Gospel is not that God became incarnate for our salvation but that human beings can experience personal transformation and a sense of mystical oneness with God (i.e., with being itself).
- The orthodox creedal doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity depend in large measure on misreading John by taking the Gospel’s statements literally.
Spong would have his readers believe that he came to these conclusions only after his recent intensive five years of research: “Among the conclusions that I have reached in my intensive five-year-long study of John’s Gospel are these…. These are the conclusions to which my study of John’s Gospel has led me.” Yet anyone the least bit familiar with Spong’s nearly forty years of published writings knows that he has been beating these same drums repeatedly throughout his iconoclastic career. Notably, in his 1996 book Liberating the Gospels, Spong presented the same view of the Gospel of John as he does in his newest book. For example, he says in that earlier book, “I do not think that there is one word in the Johannine text that Jesus actually came close to saying” (Liberating the Gospels, 178). He strenuously objected to “literalized” readings of the Gospel of John and blamed such misreading for the “rigid” doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity (ibid.). Spong even claimed in Liberating the Gospels that he had already read “almost every major English-language commentary on this gospel published this century and many in the nineteenth” (180)!
Of the many points that could be addressed here, I will focus on Spong’s claim that the Gospel of John contains indications that it was never meant to be taken “literally.” In his Huffington Post article, Spong claims, “John’s Gospel seems to ridicule anyone who might read this book as a work of literal history.” For example, Nicodemus looks silly taking Jesus literally about being “born again,” and the Samaritan woman responds to Jesus’ offer of “living water” by commenting that Jesus didn’t even have a bucket. But in both of these passages Jesus is using metaphorical language to describe spiritual realities, and in both cases the text records Jesus correcting the misunderstanding. Thus Jesus tells Nicodemus that he is referring to being “born” of the Spirit, not of being born a second time in the womb (John 3:3-8), and he tells the Samaritan woman that the “water” he is offering her is not water one draws from a well but is rather the source of eternal life (John 4:10-14). When the woman still does not understand (v. 15), Jesus changes the subject in order to lead her gradually to a better understanding (vv. 16-26). Nothing in these passages suggests that the Gospel as a whole is to be taken metaphorically.
If we look at a similar passage involving a misunderstanding by Jesus’ hearers, we can see quite clearly why Spong’s inference is itself a misunderstanding. When Jesus drove out the sellers and moneychangers from the temple and the Jewish authorities challenged him to produce a sign validating his authority for doing so, Jesus replied: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). They misunderstood him to be referring to the man-made temple building in Jerusalem (2:20), but, John comments, “he was talking about the temple which was his body” (2:21). Here “the temple” is the metaphor and “his body” is the literal referent symbolized by the metaphor. One should not take the metaphorical reference literally, but one should also not take the literal reference metaphorically. That “his body” is meant literally is clear from two facts in the immediate context. First, John is expressly explaining what Jesus meant by his metaphor. Normally, one would not expect a metaphor to be explained using another metaphor. For example, if I asked someone for some “bread” and they didn’t understand that I meant money, it would be unlikely for me to respond, “When I said ‘bread,’ I meant clams”! Second, John tells us that Jesus’ disciples understood what he meant “when he was raised from the dead” (2:22). That is, what Jesus meant by “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” was that his body would rise from the dead three days after it was killed. (Spong glosses over this part of the passage in his book; see The Fourth Gospel, 85, 226-27, 257.) Thus, reading the saying of Jesus in the context of the narrative as a whole, one can clearly distinguish the metaphor of Jesus’ saying from the literal explanation that John gives. But this means that the narrative itself is meant to be understood “literally,” that is, as historical narrative, not as mythical “tales” with esoteric spiritual meanings.
Spong’s whole approach to the Gospel of John is askew because of his assumption—and that is really what it is, an assumption, not a conclusion—that the Gospel is not meant to be read as historical narrative. Some important recent scholarship on the Gospel of John, not all of it by evangelicals, has shown that the Gospel is meant to be read historically. For example, Richard A. Burridge’s book What Are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (Cambridge University Press, 1992; 2nd ed., Eerdmans, 2004), established that the Gospel of John (like the Synoptic Gospels) was written in the genre of ancient Graeco-Roman biography (bios). “The focus of the geographical and dramatic settings upon the person of the subject, the selection of biographical topics, the rather serious atmosphere and the range of purposes are all typical of bioi” (231). Burridge, who does not appear to be evangelical, would agree with Spong on some critical issues, including seeing the Gospel of John as the product of a “Johannine Community” rather than a single author and as having been produced over time (214). Burridge also finds John’s “stress on Jesus’ divinity and his unity with the Father” to result in a characterization of Jesus that is “not realistic” (227). Yet these “stereotypic” elements are mixed with realistic, human characterization, such as references to Jesus becoming tired and thirsty, crying at a friend’s funeral, and the like. Such a mixture, he argues, is comparable to what one finds in the Synoptic Gospels and in Graeco-Roman biographies (227). The author’s didactic purposes are consistent with and even carried out through his intention to “provide information about Jesus” in a “chronological narrative” designed to enable “the reader to realize the true identity of Jesus” (230). Thus, even a scholar who does not accept at face value the theology of the Gospel of John or assume that every element of the text is true can (and should) be able to recognize that conveying factual, historical information about Jesus is a basic intention and purpose of the Gospel. It is one thing to assert that although the Gospel claims to be biographical its claim is dubious; it is another thing altogether to assert that the Gospel makes no claim to be biographical. The latter assertion is plainly false.
Evangelical scholar Craig S. Keener acknowledges that because so much of the narrative in the Gospel of John has no independent attestation in the other Gospels, it is impossible to prove that John’s account is historically factual in all respects. “That John falls into the general category of biography, however, at least shifts the burden of proof on the matter of reported events (albeit not the particular ways of describing them) onto those who deny John’s use of tradition for the events he describes” (Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, 1:51). This is the sort of nuanced judgment that Spong never offers. Instead he makes extreme, unjustifiable assertions such as that Jesus never said one word attributed to him in the Gospel.
In closing, let me recommend just three books on the Gospel of John. One of these I have already mentioned twice: Keener’s commentary, which is by far the most important exegetical commentary on the Gospel sensitive to historical issues currently available. Here are the three books:
Blomberg, Craig L. The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel: Issues & Commentary. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001.
Bauckham, Richard. The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple: Narrative, History, and Theology in the Gospel of John. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007.
Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of John: A Commentary. 2 vols. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2003.