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Book Review: Jesus for the Non-Religious by John Shelby Spong

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Jesus has been taking it on the chin  lately in the literary world. After author and scholar Bart Ehrman shredded the New Testament in his hit books Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why and  Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don't Know About Them), edgy Christians have been hovering halfway out of the the church door. Ehrman was  so thorough in his work that he not only is no longer Christian, he considers himself an atheist. Now there's a man who overdoes his research.

So, it takes a book like Bishop John Shelby Spong's Jesus for the Non-Religious to set things straight. Only it doesn't. Bishop Spong, an Episcopalian, grew up in the Deep South seeing the worst of backwards "Christianity": the kind that supported racism, antisemitism, and sexism. It's a wonder he stayed with the church, much less became one its most eloquent gadflies.

John Shelby SpongThe Very Rev. Spong does not believe in unprovable historical stories, fairy tales, gospels written by Nazarene fishermen who didn't know Greek much less write it, and he most definitely does not think that if Jesus were to come back today, he would recognize anything the fundamentalists have been saying about him. This is because after a lifetime of studying the Bible, Spong refuses to take it as a literal document and thinks the authors of the texts, whoever they may have been, didn't expect a literal understanding. That means no star over Bethlehem (no Bethlehem!), no Magi, no virgin birth, no loaves and fishes, no walking on water, and on and on right on up to the rock-hewn grave at the Resurrection. (As he pointedly asks, when did Roman felons get the luxury of their own grave?)

Readers, especially ones already worked over by author Ehrman, can hardly argue with Spong's logic. The exponential numbers of people in David's city of Bethlehem, if one is to believe the story of Joseph and Mary returning there for a census, is really a laugh. That's just the point, Spong says. You aren't supposed to think about it. This was all an overlay over something much grander.

The original Christians were Jews and they celebrated a mostly Jewish service, Spong says. One of the readings would be about Jesus. Eventually, more and more of the Jesus readings took place within the confines of the Jewish year. Eventually, the Jesus story was made to fit the Jewish year for liturgical — not historical — reasons. The details are too complex to explain here, but essentially every part of Jesus' life has a reading appropriate for some point of the Jewish year. Holy Week takes place during Passover; Easter has no Jewish equivalent, of course, but then Pentecost comes right about the time of Yom Kippur, when Jews make atonement for their sins. Christians say, "Christ our passover is sacrificed for us." The parallels are everywhere. It's to Spong's credit that he makes the the theory stick.

But the best part comes last, when Spong says Christianity will die unless it breaks out of the old tribal mentality upon which most religions are based. "Our God is better than yours." "We have better laws."  "Our women are more dignified." You get the picture.

This was never Jesus' teaching. He spoke of the Good Samaritan — and Samaritans were hated and considered unclean by Jews. "Good" Samaritans? You must be kidding! Jesus spoke with women. He touched lepers. He healed the sick, at a time when the sick were considered to be possessed by demons. Jesus' message was that God is for everyone.  Christians didn't hold onto that very long. Pretty soon they were oppressing blacks (while forcing them to become Christians), killing Jews, hating Muslims. What happened?

It's time to get back to that wholly human Christ, Spong says. That's what made Jesus divine; the fact that he was totally human. So human he could give his life away willingly.

Vacillating Christian, still bouncing nervously at that church doorway? It's tough. No fairy tales. (Although I still hold with some of the miracles.) No phony sayings. No scriptural errors. No flying down from heaven. Only truth. Only love. Can you live with that? Bishop Spong can.

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About Lynn Voedisch

  • Baronius

    Lynn, how do you know that Jesus touched lepers and spoke with women? Couldn’t those things have been the late additions to the Gospel? When you pick and choose what parts you like, you’ve got no reason to believe any one verse more than another. Jesus could just as easily been born of a virgin and spread hate as he could have been born of a sexually-active woman and spread love.

    As for Jesus’ tomb being a problem, the Gospels tell us that Joseph of Arimathea donated it. The average poor Jewish prisoner wouldn’t have an expensive tomb, but a member of the Sanhedrin would. It kind of scares me that Bishop Spong doesn’t know the Bible well enough to know the explanation.

  • Lynn Voedisch

    Spong knows the Bible back and forth, enough to know that Joseph of Arimathea is probably the least provable of any characters of the Bible. As Spong says, we can believe the things that Jesus did that shocked people, that went against authority, for surely these things would be remembered. Kowtowing to authorities wouldn’t. So the tales of healing lepers and speaking with women (who were considered hardly human), and inviting tax-collectors to diner, all these things are more likely to be real because of their then shocking nature and the fact that these tales were passed down by oral tradition.
    And I don’t know why you address me as if I am an authority on anything. I’m just reviewing a book. I’m not picking parts I like, I’m showing what Spong presents as most convincing.

  • Baronius

    Lynn, no offense intended.

    Personally I think that rising from the dead would have shocked people.

  • Jordan Richardson

    Probably the most important aspect brought to life by this book is how the person of Christ is linked to Jewish traditions. Spong’s focus of viewing Christ through the lens of Judaism is what makes his points most compelling and it does give most of his arguments profound weight.

    It’s not really a book that’s comparable to anything be Ehrman, though, as Ehrman isn’t really intent on “rescuing” Christ from supernatural religious nonsense while Spong most certainly is.

    This book compares with other great works in the liberal Christian tradition, including Robinson’s classic Honest to God and the works of Paul Tillich and Matthew Fox.

  • Jordan Richardson

    When you pick and choose what parts you like, you’ve got no reason to believe any one verse more than another.

    It’s not about picking parts you “like,” unfortunately. It’s more about learning to read the bible with full understanding of the different types of literature, poetry and allegory that went into it. I think it’s foolish to read through the bible and consider it to be a fully literal, fully historical text.

  • I’m certainly no Bible scholar, but wasn’t a substantial amount of the current canon selected at the Council of Nicea at the behest of Constantine? Somewhere I read that there were over sixty gospels and only four made the cut?
    Tell me that prevailing politics of the day didn’t have a lot of influence on what got into the Bible.
    Wasn’t this during the same time that Constantine blended in a lot of pagan beliefs with Christianity?
    Beware the translator that interprets scripture for his/her benefit.

  • Jordan Richardson

    Somewhere I read that there were over sixty gospels and only four made the cut?

    Yeah, the New Testament apocrypha. Not sure if there were sixty valid gospels, mind you, but most of those books, at least the credible ones, are well out in the open now.

    Most scholars don’t believe that the bible was decided upon as a canon (or even brought up) at the First Council of Nicaea. That didn’t stop Dan Brown from using that, but I digress…

    The main point of the Nicaea thing was to help decide on a consensus of Christian doctrine and to help solve some church disputes as to what a Christian should believe with respect to Christ’s relationship to the Father, picking the date for Easter and so on.

    Prevailing politics, though, did have a lot to do with what went into the final canon of scripture. And, it stands to reason as Spong argues, prevailing politics of the day and prevailing cultures of the day had an awful lot to do with what’s actually written in the bible too.

  • Lynn Voedisch

    I believe you will find much of that sort of historical skullduggery in the works of Ehrman, who does indeed address the gnostic gospels (although the number 60 seems a bit high). Elaine Pagels does a wonderful job of explaining the most important ones in her book “The Gnostic Gospels.” Constantine was at fault, but there also were many power-wielding bishops by that time who didn’t want to lose face. Politics, you see, had already loomed large by the time of the Council of Nicea.
    Spong is not involved in any of this, and Jordon Richardson is quite right that the bishop is concerned with saving Christianity from the craziness of literalism than anything else. Sure, he’s probably translated the Bible from Greek to Hebrew and back again, but his mission is quite different than Ehrman’s detailed and elaborate fact-finding.

  • Jordan Richardson

    There were a number of reasons to leave out certain parts of the canon and to include others and we’ll probably never know what all of those reasons were.

    Indeed, the addition of the book of Revelation is a strange one as its authorship is fairly fuzzy (as with Hebrews) and its tone is dreadfully inconsistent with the rest of the New Testament. Yet there it sits, at the end of the bible, giving fuel to all manner of Left Behind-type crackpot theories and the like.

    At the end of the day, I tend to look at the bible as a sort of litmus test. It was constructed and written by a large number of individuals across a large number of years in another time and in another culture. It pays to view these things in context, but a lot of fundamentalists refuse to do so and choose to assume that everything (or nearly) applies literally across the board to modern ideals and modern contexts.

    Spong’s concern with this is that this actually diminishes both the power of scripture and the power of Jesus Christ. And he’s right.

  • Lynn Voedisch

    The main point of the Nicaea thing was to help decide on a consensus of Christian doctrine and to help solve some church disputes as to what a Christian should believe with respect to Christ’s relationship to the Father, picking the date for Easter and so on.

    And for driving such heretics as the gnostics, and others who didn’t exactly toe the line, deep underground. This is when careers were made. And Athanasius emerged as the Bishop with all the goods. Meanwhile poor “heretics” buried their gospels in pottery in the desert.

    The next logical step was the Papacy.

  • Jordan Richardson

    Lynn, I’m curious if you’ve read anything by Gretta Vosper. With or Without God is a helluva book. Vosper is the chair of the Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity and minister serving the United Church of Canada. Her arguments are compelling, to say the least, and it’s kind of along the lines of Harpur’s The Pagan Christ.

  • Lynn Voedisch

    I really shouldn’t say what I think about Revelations, but many denominations wouldn’t accept it, and some still don’t.
    I agree that it doesn’t fit in tenor or tone and there is little to separate it from the ravings of any street-corner prophet. (I’m in trouble now.) I think Spong would agree.
    But this is true of the Old Testament as well. Look at the Apocrypha, sections that the Jews would not accept–and many still will not. Enoch being one of them.
    This is the Bible, something that humans will fight over forever, because some consider every word of it the word of God, and others laugh at the idea, and some try to take a middle road. None of it is easy.

  • Lynn Voedisch

    No, I don’t think my experience goes that deep, Jordan. You have called my bluff. I think I knew my goose was cooked when I tried to read Schillebecks (some Dutch spelling) and was lost forever. I am no divinity student. I go only so far, and then dance off to play dilletante at some other subject. 🙂

  • Jordan Richardson

    Well if you’re ever in the neighbourhood again, try to locate it and give it a read.

  • Lynn Voedisch

    I wonder if it’s on Kindle? Things are surprisingly easy to get now.

  • Baronius

    As a Catholic, I have no problem with the idea that the church compiled the Bible. It’s evangelicals that try to wiggle around that notion.

    By the mid-100’s, the four gospels (and no others) were accepted as canonical. The Pauline epistles, Acts, and Revelation were standard. The only real questions were about the general epistles. I believe it was in 297 that the first official canon was agreed upon, the same one that was confirmed in the Councils of the 300’s.

  • Oh wow!! And where does the very reverend get his authority. I’m sorry, he is just one tiny man lost in the woods.

  • I began reading Spong’s books when Christianity Must Change or Die came out and I was elated. I was so excited about that book that I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it! I had been thinking about all of these topics since I was 21 or so but kept them to myself! I just finished reading Eternal Life and all I heard myself saying was “yes”, so I finally got a yellow marker. A New Vision: How refreshing, uplifting, calming, reassuring, beautiful, and intelligent. I will never doubt myself again about anything! Thank you John Shelby Spong for confirming what I have been thinking for so many years. I know now I am not alone in my beliefs.

  • I heard that “Eternal Life: A New Vision” but haven’t gotten to it. Glad to hear it sounds good.

    To John up there: He got his authority from the Episcopal/Anglican church after years of study, learning to read and compare the Bible in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. He is a vastly learned man. I’d say he has quite a bit more authority that a tiny man lost in the woods. That’s why they made him bishop.
    Have you paid any attention to the conversation that went before you on this thread? The man is internationally known for his scholarship.


    I just started reading Jesus for the Non-Religious and I am a little confused because I thought the purpose of the book is to uncover religious practices that are not biblical but as I’m reading it, it seems as if he is saying the writings of the bible are fabricated. Is that what I’m embarking on?

  • Keep reading.