John Shelby Spong, the Episcopal Bishop of Newark, New Jersey believes in Jesus. That is not newsworthy. What is newsworthy, in his book “Liberating the Gospels” in which he denounces the New Testament. 

Bishop Spong asks the question; DID IT REALLY HAPPEN? He wrote: 

“To journey into the content of this book is to entertain some unusual ideas and possibilities. A literal view of the Gospels becomes untenable (indefensible, flawed).

There might well have been no such events as: 

The story of Joseph, the spouse of Mary

No literal shepherds - No angels - No guiding star - No magi - And no flight into Egypt.

There was not even a journey to Bethlehem by one who was “great with child.” 

Then Bishop Spong declares: “But to dismiss these parts of the biblical tradition as nonhistorical legends is not particularly radical. That has been done hundreds of times before, including once by this author. That has become almost tolerable, even among religious conservatives. The birth narratives are not the heart of the Gospel.”  

Bishop continues by suggesting that there was:

No Temptation during forty days in the wilderness - Nor did Jesus ever preach the Sermon on the Mount”

Bishop Spong claims “both of these narratives were designed to portray Jesus reliving the life experiences of Moses”. 

There was no literal raising of Lazarus from the dead - There was no miraculous feeding of the multitudes.

This was part of the early Christian effort to bring Elijah and Elisha material into the story of Jesus. 

I have also suggested that in all probability Jesus did not himself either create or deliver such parables as:

The prodigal son; the good Samaritan; the Pharisee and the publican or even the judgment day account of the sheep and the goats.

They were the creations of the early Church as it tried to relate Jesus first to the Book of Deuteronomy and later to parables found in the Latter Prophets. 

“Even that story of Jesus’ visit to the home of Mary and Martha is not a remembrance of history, but is rather a story designed to illustrate the Torah text that human beings “do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.” 

“I have also argued that there was no literal triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem just a week before his death. That part of the tradition was shaped by the work of the prophet Zechariah. 

“There was no betrayal by Judas, because the character called Judas Iscariot was, in all probability, as I have suggested created by the early Christians in order to shift the blame for Jesus’ death from the Romans to the Jews. Thus Judas may not have been a person of history at all. 

“I have even posed the possibility that, though the crucifixion of Jesus was real, most of the narrative events of Holy Week – including the Last Supper – and the words from the cross, were creations of an interpretive liturgical process and not literal acts that Jesus ever did or literal words that Jesus ever spoke. 

“Furthermore, just to complete the cycle, the Joseph who was said to hail from Arimathea – and to have provided the tomb in the garden to receive the body of Jesus when he died, was also a legendary character, designed to show that Jesus not only made his grave with the rich but was also guarded by a Joseph on both sides of his life. 

“If this were not enough, I have also argued that though Easter was a powerful and life-changing experience, there were:

No literal Jerusalem resurrection appearances in an upper room – or elsewhere

No Emmaus road episode – no invitation to touch the wounds in the hands or side of the risen Christ.

Each of these accounts was the late-developing legend that arose long after the fact of Easter in an attempt to give content to the experience of Easter that was beyond the early Christian’s capacity to doubt. 

“My studies have also concluded that there was no cosmic ascension of Jesus that began its flight from a spot just outside Jerusalem and carried him into the heaven of a Ptolemaic universe. There was also no literal Pentecost experience of wind and fire in which people spoke in a variety of foreign languages. These were rather expansions of the Elijah cycle of stories, combined with a throwback to the Tower of Babel story in Genesis.” 

In conclusion, Bishop Spong explains “that issue addressed in these pages is whether Christianity, as it has been traditionally presented, is the only way one can view Christianity. That is the real question for me, because I have serious doubts as to whether that liberalized traditional understanding was the original meaning of Christianity or whether it has any realistic future. Do these things I pointed out mean that I believe that Christianity is somehow a hoax or a delusion, or am I suggesting that there is no history, no firm objective truth on which the Jesus story stands? Of course not – Others will wonder if one can still be a Christian and at the same time entertain the insights presented in this book. Those who have identified the essence of their faith with a literal reading of the Gospels will inevitable make this charge.” W

You may ask, how can the Bishop say all those things and not be excommunicated?  Bishop Spong gets around that by defending Jesus and his Jewish life-style. His sermons are about what Jesus was all about, his teachings, his mission on earth.  

Bishop Spong concludes; “I have done and will continue to do my searching for God, ... That does not mean, however, that I regard this tradition as the only legitimate place in which all the people of the world must search. 

“I do not regard the details of the gospel tradition as possessing literal truth in any primary way―I do not believe that the Gospels offer us either reliable eyewitness memory or realistic objective history―we are not reading history, only the biased views of the authors of the New Testament.” 



Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes, John Shelby Spong, Harper SanFrancisco; December 1997, pages 322-326


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