For most of his life, Bishop John Shelby Spong avoided the Gospel of John. It was a book that caused him great consternation. But he began reading it in a new light, and it gave him a new perspective and a new appreciation for the ancient writings.
The 82-year-old retired Episcopal bishop spent five years researching John’s Gospel, using his studies to write his 24th book, “The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic” (HarperOne, 342 pages hardcover, $26.99).
When he’s not traveling the world giving lectures, Spong gets up early every morning to read the Bible and study, works on his books and projects, and runs four miles on a treadmill before breakfast. The early morning regimen started when he was 14 and got up at 4:30 every day to deliver the Charlotte Observer.
“On an interesting note, the last paper on my route was Frank Graham’s dairy farm where a kid named Billy was growing up. But he’s a dozen years older than I am so I didn’t know him very well,” Spong said in a recent phone interview.
He added that he makes time to watch the New York Yankees whenever possible — as painful as it has been this season to watch the usually mighty team struggle. A lifelong and knowledgeable baseball fan, Spong took a few minutes to talk about the aging Yankees and the impressive performance this year of the Detroit Tigers.
Speaking from his home in New Jersey, the eloquent and often controversial Bible scholar explained why he had for so long disliked the Gospel of John, and what sparked him to take a new approach and develop a new appreciation for the fourth Gospel.
“It didn’t appeal to me at all for most of my professional career, and that was for three reasons,” Spong said. “One is I couldn’t find Jesus’ humanity in John. He kept portraying him as a visitor from outer space. He made him clairvoyant. He suggested he was pre-existent. And I didn’t know how to relate to that.
“The classic Christian understanding of Jesus is that the fullness of God and the fullness of humanity came together. But I found the humanity gone in John’s Gospel. He’s not anxious before the crucifixion. There is nowhere where he prays, ‘Let this cup pass from me,’ there’s no cry of dereliction on the cross, ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’ It’s almost as if he can’t wait to mount the cross,” Spong said.
“The second thing was, he was anti-Semitic. And when I began to probe the historic background of John’s Gospel you can see where the anti-Semitism came from. But it wasn’t anti-Semitism. It wasn’t Christians saying bad things about Jews; it was Jews saying bad things about Jews — and that’s a very different kind of anti-Semitism,” he said.
Spong explained that followers of Jesus created friction with the first-century Jewish hierarchy. But Christ’s followers “were not Christians at that point, they were Jews who saw in Jesus the next stage of Jewish development.”
As the number of Christ followers grew and the balance of power began to shift, leaders in the orthodox Jewish party “became more and more rigid, because they were threatened with extinction. I think that’s what people do when they are threatened,” Spong said. “They become more and more rigid and more fundamentalist. They cling more and more firmly to less and less reality.”
Leaders of the Jewish party “excommunicated the followers of Jesus, who were Jewish, and then the followers of Jesus began to say things about the orthodox party that sounded very anti-Semitic,” he said.
Once he saw that it was “a Jewish internecine war” going on, he said, it changed his understanding of the anti-Semitism apparent in John’s Gospel.
The third reason Spong avoided John was the words attributed to Jesus in that Gospel.
“I couldn’t imagine that Jesus said any of the things that are in the book,” Spong said flatly. “I can’t imagine Jesus walking around Jerusalem or Galilee saying, ‘By the way, I am the resurrection and the life, I am the bread of life. I am the living water. I am the good shepherd.’ I can’t imagine him saying that. And so that was again something that just didn’t appeal to me.”
It all changed when he started to read about first century Jewish mysticism, reaching the conclusion that that “the followers of Jesus adopted this mystical language of identification.”
“It was not incarnation, that’s a fourth century idea,” Spong said. “It was the identification of the human with the divine in the first century that caused him to say, ‘I am the vine, you are the branches,’ ‘as God dwells in me so I will dwell in you,’ ‘If you’ve seen me you’ve seen the father,’ those sorts of things that, when you read them through fourth century Nicaean theology they sound really strange to me. But when you read them through Jewish mysticism, they sound sort of ecstatic, entering into a new level of consciousness. And so it became very, very important to me as I sort of broke that boundary and entered into a new direction.”
Once he began looking at Jesus’ statements as mystical, it led him to ask another question: “Is any of this stuff literal?”
Spong pointed out that he was a member of the Jesus Seminar, a group of 150 scholars who sought to determine which biblical quotes were properly attributed to Jesus. The scholars gave only one verse in John, “A prophet is without honor in his hometown,” as having any authenticity, he said.
“Once I got past that, then I began to say, ‘Well, if the words aren’t literal, what about the characters?’”
In his research, Spong said he found the people in John’s Gospel to be “lovely, wonderful, beautifully drawn characters.”
John gives depth to Thomas, for example, who was just a name in the other three Gospels but “becomes the doubter in John.”
There’s little about Andrew in the first three Gospels, but there are three stories about the disciple in John “that sort of give him personality,” Spong said.
As for Mary, she is never mentioned by name in John but is called “Jesus’ mother.”
“She always represents Judaism giving birth to new life,” Spong said, “the mother of Israel is sort of the mother of Christianity. So Mary is the mother of the Jesus movement.”
Spong believes “the beloved disciple” was fictitious, “a portrait of the ideal disciple.”
He also said the biblical account of Jesus turning water into wine is an example of an apocryphal story that was told to make a mystical point.
“The idea that Jesus would change water into wine so a party could go on is not a very profound thought,” Spong said. “And then when you see the measurements — and this is really exciting — Jesus didn’t just turn the water into wine, he turned it into 160 gallons of wine. That’s a lot of wine to keep a party going! There’s great abundance in this wine.”
It struck him that abundance is a theme permeating John.
“Everything Jesus does is with great abundance. He doesn’t just heal a cripple, he heals a cripple who’s been crippled for 38 years. He doesn’t just give sight to a blind man, he gives sight to a man who was born blind. He doesn’t just raise somebody from the dead, he raises Lazarus who’s been dead four days and was already buried and his flesh is decomposing,” Spong said.
Those “heightened stories” are a hint from the Gospel’s author to not take them literally, he said. When Nicodemus talks to Jesus about being born again, for example, and says he “can’t climb back into my mother’s womb,” it is a message that this book is not to be taken literally, he said.
“He is constantly sort of tweaking, warning his readers that this is not literal,” Spong said.
The bishop said he also does not think that one person wrote the Gospel of John, but three people over a period of 25 to 30 years. And the 21st chapter was an epilogue penned by a fourth person, he said. “It’s incompatible with the rest of the Johannine corpus” and “seems to me from another hand altogether.”
Spong said much of what he writes in his books and columns is common knowledge among scholars, but the 21st century understanding of the Bible is not being conveyed to people in the pews. It’s his hope to break that bottleneck, which he attributes to clergy fearful of making waves.
“My primary audience, at least through my column, my primary audience is people who are either on the edges of church life or people who have given it up,” he said. “And what I try to do is to say: What you’ve given up is not what Christianity is. It’s the fundamentalistic or literalistic adaptation of the Christian message, which is really harder and harder for people who live in our century to accept.”