The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic

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I really like to read books that reinforce the fact that of all the new ways to examine the lost meaning behind the gospels, the most fruitful way is one that prioritizes the study of the Jesus of history over the Christ of faith. I am referring to writings by popular proponents of a modern, scholarly and authentic Christianity, such as (alphabetically) John Dominic Crossan, Bart Ehrman, Paula Frederiksen, Elaine Pagels, Geza Vermes, and many others.

I am really excited to be reviewing John Shelby Spong’s twenty fourth book called “The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic”, published in 2013. It is a fascinating and fresh interpretation of John’s Gospel the way no one has imagined it for 1900 years. John Shelby Spong (born 1931), retired bishop of the Episcopal Church of the USA is a well-known figure and even a theological celebrity. For over twenty years, Bishop Spong has challenged Christianity to new, radical Reformation, because he feels we “need a new Christianity for a new world”.

spong-quote-1Bishop Spong begins his book by confessing that the older he gets, the more he believes, but the fewer beliefs he holds. “I have wrestled with the Christian faith for all of my now eighty-two years and I find myself at this moment, to the surprise of my traditionalist critics, I’m sure, more deeply committed to my Christ and to my faith than ever before. My commitment is, however, to a new understanding of both the Christ and Christianity. I am increasingly drawn to a Christianity that has no separating barriers and that does not bind me into the creeds of antiquity. It is a Christianity that cannot be contained by or expressed through traditional liturgical forms. I have no desire to find certainty or to embrace religious security,” writes Spong in the preface to his commentary on the Gospel of John.

I have to admit I approached John’s gospel reluctantly as I found it a little too supernatural for my liking. Bishop Spong’s book provides us with a whole new rationale for understanding and appreciating the Fourth Gospel. Spong has sacrificed over five years to reading the Gospel, complementing it with important 19th, 20th and 21st century theological elaborations and biblical commentaries on the Gospel, in English. The key suggested by Spong to understanding the Gospel’s message, his methodology, is reading it as a Jewish book, a description of Jesus Christ’s life, teachings, death and resurrection, penned by a group of authors and editors referred to by Spong as ‘Palestinian Jewish mystics’.

According to Spong, the Gospel of John contains one of the most profound portraits of Jesus that has ever been painted, and at the same time, what the Fourth Gospel says about Jesus is radically different than what we find in Mark, Matthew and Luke. Bishop Spong views the Gospel of John to be a book – not about religion, sin and redemption, but about life, expanded life and expanded consciousness. For Bishop Spong, it is a doorway into a new dimension of life; a journey into the heart of life.

I’ve set aside my bias against this gospel and will be exploring it with renewed interest. I found some of Spong’s interpretations, press releases and interviews that appeared shortly after the release of his book and I am happy to incorporate some of them here in this review.

Bishop Spong confesses that he found the Fourth Gospel “almost repellent” because it has been used to foster an outdated pre-modern view of God, religious exclusivism, literalism, and anti-semitism and has been used to support some of the most exclusive and divisive religious creeds in history. Spong argues that the last gospel to be written was misinterpreted by the early church fathers and framers of the fourth-century creeds to be a literal account of the life of Jesus when in fact it is an interpretive retelling of the events in Jesus’ life through the medium of fictional characters.

spong-quote-2However Spong declares that he is certain that John’s Gospel is an overwhelmingly Jewish work and it can only be understood through the Jewish context in which it was created. He claims that when it is seen through the eyes of Jewish mysticism, it comes alive in a relevant way for 21st century seekers. The result of his study provides us today with a radical new dimension to the claim that in the humanity of Jesus the reality of God has been met and engaged. 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).

Bishop Spong continues: “God, for John, was love, that life-giving power that embraces all those who are willing to accept the vulnerability that love always brings. This means that for John, Jesus was not one who had come and then departed and who would someday come again. Jesus was rather a God presence inviting all to enter who he was and is, to be born of the spirit – born, that is, to new dimensions of what it means to be human – and to participate thereby in the eternity of God”. Spong concludes, “the second coming was thus nothing more or less than the coming, or perhaps even the dawning realization, of the ever-permeating spirit”.

After insisting that there is no way that the Fourth Gospel was written by John Zebedee or by any of the disciples of Jesus. Bishop Spong tries to figure out who the author (or authors) were and why it was written. First he explains that the book changes in style and focus as one reads through its chapters, (this is a view shared by most biblical scholars). He elaborates that the Gospel must have been written in stages by at least three different writers/editors, who did their layered work at various intervals. The process covering a span of 25 to 30-years until the book’s final edited form around the turn of the first century.

spong-quote-3Narratively, the Fourth Gospel was designed first to place Jesus into the context of the Jewish scriptures, then to place him into the worship patterns of the synagogue and finally to allow him to be viewed through the lens of a popular form of first-century Jewish mysticism. Spong writes “My study has convinced me, first, that the gospel of John is a deeply Jewish book, and second, that by reading it through the lens of Jewish mysticism, our generation is given new doors for understanding this gospel.”

Bishop Spong carefully tracks Jesus’ Jewish follower’s difficult transition as they slowly drift apart from the Jewish world in which they belonged. This is followed by the trials and tribulations of the budding Johannine community as it evolved away from Judaism into something new and different. This involved changes the community was forced to deal with as Jesus’ followers were confronted with their changing Greek world. In the process, we are not only given the opportunity to learn more about this first century Jewish mystic movement, but as we read we gain a greater understanding of the times in which it struggled.

spong-quote-4In a review for Progressive Christianity, Fred Plumer writes that “possibly the most exciting thing for some will be the recognition that at least one important part of the initial Jesus movement was focused on an early form of Jewish mysticism. Spong makes it clear that this community did not think in Greek dualistic ways. Therefore Jesus was not an “outside invader from another realm” but rather was the defining human life, “bringing together into oneness the human and the divine.” It was through a new consciousness that Jesus was able to achieve a mystical oneness with God without the barriers that bind us.”

Among many other conclusions that Bishop Spong has reached in his study of John’s Gospel is that “many of the characters who appear in its pages are in all probability literary creations that were never intended to be understood as real people who actually lived in history, many of whom had ever been mentioned before in any written Christian source.”

Spong then adds that the authors do not want this book to be read as a work of literal history. When Jesus says to Nicodemus: “You must be born again.” Nicodemus, the literalist, says: “Born again? I am a grown man! How can I crawl back into my mother’s womb and be born again?” When Jesus says to the Samaritan woman: “If you know the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would give you living water.” The Samaritan woman, a literalist, responds: “Man, you don’t even have a bucket!”

spong-quote-5Spong continues “the Gospel exaggerates details, to warn us not to read it literally. For example, Jesus does not just turn water into wine, he turns it into 150 gallons of wine! Jesus does not just give sight to a blind man, he gives sight to a man born blind! Jesus does not just raise a person from the dead, he raises one who has been dead and even buried for four days, one who is still bound in grave clothes and one who, according to the King James translation “already stinketh” with the odor of decaying flesh!”

Bart Ehrman, one of the most respected and prolific new testament scholars, comments on one of Bishop Spong’s points from his own perspective. Here’s Bart Ehrman’s comment on Bishop Spong’s claims that not one of the signs (the Fourth Gospel’s word for miracles) recorded in this book was, in all probability, something that actually happened.

Bart Ehrman comments, “I completely agree. The seven ‘signs’ are not historical records. John explicitly doesn’t call them ‘miracles.’ It is striking that in the Synoptics Jesus refuses to do ‘signs’ (that is, to show who he really is). In the Gospel of John, that’s virtually ‘all’ he does. Moreover, in the Synoptics he never teaches about himself. And in John, again, that’s virtually all he does”. “So unlike the Synoptics”, Bart concludes “Jesus in John teaches who he is (the one sent from heaven to provide eternal life) and does signs to prove it that what he says about himself is true (so he says he is the bread of life, and then he feeds the multitudes with the loaves; he says he is the light of the world, and then he heals a man born blind; he says he is the resurrection and the life, and then he raises a man from the dead; and so on.”

spong-quote-6Another one of Bishop Spong’s interpretation in a ‘2013 Huff Post Religion’ release concludes, “this book will challenge the way the Fourth Gospel has been used in Christian history as the guarantor of what came to be called Christian orthodoxy or creedal Christianity. The Council of Nicea in 325 C.E. leaned on the Fourth Gospel as literal history in order to formulate the creeds and ultimately to undergird such doctrines as the Incarnation and the Holy Trinity. The texts used to support that creedal development, my studies have led me to affirm, have nothing to do with an external God entering humanity in the person of Jesus, but are rather attempts to describe the experience of the human breaking the boundaries of consciousness and entering into the transformation available inside a sense of a mystical oneness with God. If that is so, then the Fourth Gospel has the potential to become the primary biblical source upon the basis of which Christianity can be changed dramatically to speak with radical freshness to the 21st century. Christianity is not about the divine becoming human so much as it is about the human becoming divine. That is a paradigm shift of the first order. These are the conclusions to which my study of John’s Gospel has led me, and they are the conclusions that I explore and document in my book.”

In closing, Fred Plumer believes this book will not only dramatically change our perspective on the Fourth Gospel but it may very well alter our understanding of our Christian roots. For some it may even change the way they feel about their own Christian path and may provide a model for change for disenchanted Christians or followers of Jesus.

For those who feel spiritual hunger, which literal and dogmatic Christianity has failed to satisfy; I am very excited about this book, its promise and the good things it might engender and highly recommend it.

About Bishop John Shelby Spong

Bishop John Shelby Spong is an outspoken advocate for religious literacy and social change in regards to race, gender, and sexuality. For over twenty years, Bishop Spong has challenged Christianity to new, radical Reformation, because he feels we need “a new Christianity for a new world”

Bishop Spong was the Episcopal (Anglican) bishop of Newark for twenty-four years. Since then he has taught at Harvard, Drew, the University of the Pacific, and the Berkeley Graduate Theological Union. Selling over a million copies, he is the author of a string of notorious books such as; Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, A New Christianity for a New World, Jesus for the Non-Religious, The Sins of Scripture, Eternal Life: A New Vision, Jesus for the Non-Religious, and his autobiography, Here I Stand. His weekly online column reaches thousands of subscribers all over the world. He lives with his wife, Christine, in Morris Plains, New Jersey.

For those seeking to experience Christianity in a new and vibrant way, Bishop John Shelby Spong offers fresh spiritual ideas. Over the past four decades, he has become one of the definitive voices for progressive Christianity. As a member of Bishop Spong’s online community, you’ll receive insightful weekly essays, access to all of the essay archives, access to message boards which will connect you with other believers in exile, and answers to your questions from Bishop Spong himself!

References

Progressive Christianity: The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic – Review by Fred Plumer and John Shelby Spong
Huff Post Religion: Gospel of John: What Everyone Should Know About The Fourth Gospel
The Progressive Christianity website has a sample from the book, the preface, which you can read as a PDF.
The Bart Ehrman Blog: Spong’s New Book on John

John Shelby Spong Website – A New Christianity for a New World
Progressive Christianity

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