Jesus for the Non-Religious: Recovering the Divine at the Heart of the Human,* John Shelby Spong’s latest book, deconstructs much of the traditional understanding of the story of Jesus. It also leads the reader on a fascinating journey through the Jewish scriptures, offering new insights into the meaning of Jesus and the message he brought the world. Using Christian scholarship, Spong proceeds to “dismantle piece by piece . . . the literalized stories of the Bible” and “the theological constructs that were placed on Jesus of Nazareth” (p. xiii), separating the historical Jesus from layers of interpretation.
*HarperCollins/HarperSanFrancisco, 2007, ISBN 978-0-06-076207-0, 336 pages, hardback, $24.95.
Spong shows that the traditional Jesus narratives do not stand up to scrutiny as history. Biblical scholars date Paul’s letters as the earliest writings in the New Testament (50s ce). Mark, the earliest gospel, was probably written in the 70s, Matthew in the 80s, Luke in the 90s, and John still later. The various parts of Jesus’ birth stories did not enter Christian tradition until Matthew, based on a text found in Micah (5:1-5) which claims that the messiah will be born in Bethlehem. As for the three kings, “no reputable biblical scholar today would seriously defend the historicity of these magi. This story . . . developed rather dramatically from a passage in Isaiah 60” (p. 18). Matthew also transplants onto Herod the story of Moses and pharaoh’s killing of all male babies. Luke has Jesus born in Bethlehem as the heir to David’s throne, an image-building bit of mythology. As to Mary and Joseph, “neither parent receives any mention in any written material available to us prior to the eighth decade of the Christian era, nor is there any hint present that anyone regarded either parent as particularly significant in the tradition until the ninth decade” (p. 26). Spong thinks that Matthew created the legend of the virgin birth, and regards Joseph as a mythological figure with similarities to the patriarch Joseph. Luke enhanced the episode using the story of Abraham and Sarah to create narratives around the parents of John the Baptist. Moreover, Mary is not mentioned in the crucifixion story in any of the first three gospels. Spong concludes that “Once the birth stories are dismissed as history, both of the supposed parents of Jesus fade substantially. . . . they have almost no factual basis” (p. 36).
The tradition that there were twelve disciples seems consistent, but the Bible texts do not agree on their names or identities, and give hardly any details about them. Spong believes the number twelve had symbolic significance: “Perhaps the whole idea that Jesus had twelve male disciples is a claim initiated by Paul and imposed on the Jesus story . . . If Jesus was the founder of the New Israel, which was one of the claims made for him, then the New Israel must have twelve tribes just like the Old Israel” (pp. 46-7). The idea that one is a traitor appears in Mark. Paul, though he mentions a betrayal, seems to have no knowledge of this traitor as one of the disciples. Spong notices that Judas’s character seems to grow with every gospel, the additional details found also in previous biblical narratives — the betrayal, the kiss, the thirty pieces of silver, and the hanging of himself.
Spong also analyzes the miracles described in the New Testament. Because at that time sickness was considered a divine punishment for sinfulness, he thinks healing powers were attributed to Jesus to support claims of his divine status: “all of the healing miracles are understood to be signs that Jesus is the messiah” (p. 81). Though “raising the dead” was not a messianic sign in Isaiah, it had become one in later-developing Jewish thought: it was expected that the dead would be raised for judgment on the last day (pp. 80-1). There are three such narratives: the widow’s son (only in Luke), Lazarus (only in John), and the daughter of Jarus (in all three synoptic gospels). Only Lazarus has no antecedent in the Old Testament: in Elisha one can read about a child being raised; in Elijah about a widow’s son. Spong suspects these stories were used to indicate that Jesus was “greater than Elisha and Elijah — the prophets who were said to embody the very power of God” (p. 94).
The earliest records of Jesus contain very few details, and the details we have were actually developed at least 40 years after he died. Paul, for example, hardly says anything about the life or death of Jesus, just that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures. In Mark, written in the context of the Jewish war with the Romans (66-73 ce), “the crucifixion is not only placed into the context of the Passover, but . . . it is made to parallel the story of the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt, of which Passover was the liturgical expression” (p. 100). Both Passover and crucifixion were meant “to convey the idea of deliverance from bondage. In the exodus story it was deliverance from the bondage of slavery in Egypt, while in the crucifixion story it was deliverance from ‘the bondage of sin’ ” (p. 101). As to firsthand accounts, neither the words nor the details used to convey the crucifixion come from eye witnesses, but rather from the Hebrew scriptures. The crucifixion story depends heavily on Psalm 22 (almost verbatim in Mark) and Isaiah 53, which describes how the death of the “suffering servant” impacts others — here Spong sees the groundwork being laid for the idea of atonement, claiming that the passion story is in fact “a highly stylized interpretive portrait designed . . . to identify Jesus with messianic images familiar to readers of the Hebrew scriptures. . . . the crucifixion account was designed for liturgical use. . . . this story of the crucifixion is not history” (p. 112).
Biblical information on the resurrection is contradictory and con-fusing. Not until the 9th decade ce did any written source suggest that Jesus physically walked out of his tomb. “Paul does not say that. Mark has no story of a physical appearance of a risen Jesus. Matthew is ambivalent . . . Only when one gets to Luke and John . . . does the interpretation of Easter begin to involve stories of the physicality of the resurrected body of Jesus walking out of the tomb” (p. 119). The author suspects that these later stories overwhelmed earlier ones of a nonphysical tradition, since the further in time from Jesus’ death the more supernaturally inclined the story becomes.
Spong considers it his first task to make accessible the so-called oral period of Christian history before any memories of Jesus were written down: “Long before anyone had taken up the task of writing the gospels, Jesus had already been interpreted through the Hebrew scriptures and in that process the Jesus story was shaped . . . by the Jewish story” (p. 143). As people did not own bibles, it must have been the environment of the synagogue with its scripture study which formed the setting for this oral tradition. He challenges the assertion by Christian tradition that Jesus lived out prophetic expectations. On the contrary, he thinks that this tries to hide “the fact that the Jesus story was actually composed with the Hebrew scriptures open and the memory of Jesus was adapted to conform to biblical expectation” (p. 144).
Spong claims that instead of literal narratives, the gospels are an interpretation of Jesus strongly filtered through the worship life of the Jewish people, “in which the story of Jesus was remembered and recalled for two to three generations before the gospels were written” (p. 149). He holds that several Old Testament images were used to interpret the Jesus experience. Mark’s story of the crucifixion shows a liturgical sequence of eight three-hour segments allowing disciples to meditate on the death of Jesus, which was similar to the Paschal lamb breaking the power of death. Just as the Jewish people put the sacrificed lamb’s blood on their doorposts so the Angel of Death would pass by, Jesus was seen as having the power to banish death.
A second image, Jesus as the sacrificial lamb of Yom Kippur, goes back to Paul, who wrote, “he died for our sins.” At Yom Kippur two animals were selected: one was sacrificed, the other became the sin-bearer. The sacrificial lamb died for the sins of the people; the scapegoat that bore the sins of the people was sent into the wilderness. This image of the sacrificial lamb was destined to become the way “by which the death of Jesus on the cross would finally be interpreted” (p. 166).
A third image from the Hebrew scriptures transposed to Jesus is the Son of Man, “probably the oldest and the most popular title developed for the one who was to fulfill the messianic expectation of the Jewish people” (p. 172). After the Exile, when Jewish hope for freedom was dashed, the people turned to apocalypticism — the dream of a delivery and destiny beyond history. The messiah (originally a physical restorer of the throne of David) turns into an agent of God who will pronounce final judgment and inaugurate the kingdom of God. “The Son of Man” becomes a supernatural image of the messiah. Spong does not find any evidence that Paul had this concept of Jesus. Stories in Matthew emphasize identification of the Son of Man with Jesus by parables of judgment, the risen Christ with full authority in heaven and on earth. In John “the supernatural ‘Son of Man,’ whose task is to judge the world and to inaugurate the kingdom of God, has been joined to the earlier, less apocalyptic messianic figure identified by Isaiah as the one who would bring peace and wholeness to life, making the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk and the mute sing as signs of the coming kingdom” (p. 177).
In light of the evidence presented, “The Jesus of history, the real human being, becomes dim as we awaken to the possibility that so many of the gospel portraits are interpretations far more than they are eye-witness memories of a person of history. . . . Now he is seen as a composite of mythological interpretation masquerading as history” (p. 191). Yet for Spong, the man Jesus is not a mythological character but a figure of history, and he ultimately wants to investigate the real meaning of Jesus without the interpretive overlay and theistic imaging it has been subjected to for almost 2,000 years. To reach his goal he puts the traditional definition of God and religion under a microscope and comes up with some interesting insights. One is that human religious systems never have been about a search for truth but rather a search for security. He considers many forms of religion as barely more than culturally-influenced expressions of the fear of nothingness: the “theistic definition of God was never about God; it was always about human beings desperately in need of a coping system that would enable them to live with the anxieties of what it means to be human” (p. 215). People who asked, “Is there something else out there in the universe that has more power than I have, that can protect me?,”
convince themselves that they are protected in their weakness by the power of an omnipotent God who stands as their defender. Then they project an ultimate meaning and purpose onto this external, divine being of their own creation as the means of escaping the dread of life’s apparent meaninglessness. Finally, they create the hope that the mortality which they now know marks their life will not be ultimate . . . — p. 265
Spong emphasizes that theism is not God, but rather a human coping mechanism. Later under the influence of patriarchy the feminine aspect of the divine was done away with in some cultures and the deity was pictured as ruling like a tribal chief with supernatural power, who did not live in this world but was able to invade it at any moment in “miraculous ways to bless, to punish, to accomplish the divine will, to answer prayers and to come to the aid of frail, powerless human beings” (p. 222).
In his experience this view of God is commonplace and unfortunately “seems to give rise to inordinate and destructive religious anger” (p. 228), an anger that is often turned upon oneself, expressed in high levels of self-negativity and self-rejection. Traditional Christianity comes with a very powerful guilt message, emphasizing how hopeless and evil we are and turning worship in a constant plea for mercy. Spong clearly points the finger at the “theistic portrait of God, who has been traditionally understood as a punishing parent figure,” saying that “The traditional way we tell the Christ story makes an ogre out of God, a victim out of Jesus, and angry people who must be eternally grateful and thus helplessly dependent out of us” (pp. 235, 236). The question is, who needs a deity that orchestrates the death of his son before he is willing to forgive humanity? Spong considers this kind of theistic God immoral; it is basically the God of the tribe and “unless it is transcended, a deeper humanity ceases to be a possibility” (p. 241).
In this book Jesus is considered as a fully human being who purposely confronted this tribal mentality and fear, for the real message of Christ is that “divinity is seen in the fullness of humanity when limits disappear and hatreds fade . . .” (p. 248). In the words of Paul, “in Christ there was neither slave nor free” — meaning that Jesus stepped across the boundaries of all kinds of prejudice. Treating other human beings as if they were subhuman always compromises the perpetrator and makes him or her less human. Whether it is prejudice against other races and classes or the other gender, Spong points out that “that kind of human behavior, so much a part of so many religious systems, never leads to wholeness for either men or women, and thus violates the deepest understanding of God that was given us in Jesus of Nazareth” (p. 60). In his eyes there is no external theistic deity who comes to rescue a fallen world of lost sinners. He poses that salvation really means being called to wholeness — being a whole human being who is compassionate to all who are in need.
He sees religion as a human coping device set up to provide security in a very insecure world. Jesus lived out the conviction that “one must step beyond security-giving religion in order to be fully human” (p. 271). For Spong, a Jesus of this kind must have been a man of rare integrity, living in the Eternal Now and engaging people so completely that it seemed to them as if time stood still. After the crucifixion, when the messianic hope of disciples was seemingly destroyed, it took several generations before the followers had adjusted their minds to these events. In the process Jesus was interpreted through the lens of Hebrew images, and his death began to be likened to the death of the Paschal and Yom Kippur lambs. Spong is convinced that it was because people saw a divine power in Jesus that they endowed him with powers such as forgiving of sins, healing of the sick, and manipulating forces of nature.
But the Jesus that Spong believes in is beyond theism. The man Jesus was grounded in the infinite, transforming him and all who feel connected to him: “When I touch the Ground of Being, I believe that I touch that which I call God” (p. 285). There is one idea in this excellent book that I would like to extend a little further. Spong writes that Jesus’ transformative power is unique, yet we may place Jesus among several human beings whose life and altruism had the power to inspire wholeness. Another example of a whole human being who confronted the religious and social boundaries of his time is Gautama Buddha. The teaching that love is the binding force of the universe is as old as humanity, and over the ages “enlightened” and “advanced” souls have come to remind struggling humanity of what really inspires wholeness — it is the message of the heart.
(From Sunrise magazine, Fall 2007. Copyright © 2007 by Theosophical University Press)