Spong begins week outlining Biblical contradictions

Chautauquans fill the lawn outside the Hall of Philosophy listening to Monday’s Interfaith Lecture delivered by John Shelby Spong. Photo by Eric Shea.

Mary Desmond | Staff Writer

Spong. Photo by Eric Shea.

“I happen to love the Bible,” said retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong during Monday’s 2 p.m. Interfaith Lecture.

Returning for his sixth trip to the Institution, Spong will lecture every day this week on the theme “Reclaiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World,” named after his 2011 book of the same title.

“I study (the Bible) every day of my life, I’ve read that book from cover to cover more than 25 times, some parts of it many more times than that, but I am one priest and bishop in the church who is no longer willing to read that book through stained glass lenses,” he said.

During Monday’s lecture, Spong discussed the impetus for his weekly column and book, and the 13 bullet points he will focus on during his lectures this week.

Ten years ago, while leading a series of classes for a highly educated and financially salient audience at a North Carolina mountain resort, Spong said, he was struck by how little the otherwise intelligent audience understood the Bible and biblical scholarship.

“I was amazed by how many educated people in that part of the world actually thought the Bible dropped from heaven fully written, divided into chapters and verses and in the King James version,” Spong said.

That summer, Spong realized there was a divide between the layman’s understanding of the Bible’s contents and what was accepted and taught in academic centers of biblical scholarship. He saw how Christians living in the heart of the Bible Belt were ignorant of theological opinions held by scholars from esteemed institutions such as Harvard Divinity School and Union Theological Seminary.

“I marveled at the fact that no one in that group seemed to be aware of the current scholarly consensus that Paul only wrote seven of the Epistles that are attributed to him,” Spong said.

At that time, Spong concluded that it was his responsibility to bridge the existing gap and to highlight the Bible’s complete contents. Throughout the last 10 years, he has explored every book of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. He has examined their historical contexts and their broad messages. He has taught and published their inconsistencies, contradictions and “sins of scripture” — texts that sanction inconceivable abuse and maltreatment of human beings.

“One of the things I had great fun with was compiling all of the human misbehaviors for which the Bible recommends the death penalty,” Spong said. “Did you know that in the book of Deuteronomy we are told that if a child is willfully disobedient and talks back to his or her parents, that child is to be taken to the elders of the city and stoned until dead at the gates of the city?”

Through examining and exposing the Bible’s inconsistencies and logical impossibilities, Spong says it can be reclaimed and no longer used as a weapon of prejudice and oppression.

The cover of Reclaiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World displays three classical religious images mixed with scenes from the women’s suffrage movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Montgomery, Ala., and a picture of two men’s hands clasped together, each with a wedding band. Each contemporary image reflects an instance where the Bible has been quoted to prejudice, to impede social progress and to promote oppression.

Information about the Bible has been kept hidden from religious practitioners by the authority figures and powers in the church, Spong said.

“Someone said the church likes to treat laypeople like mushrooms,” he said. “You keep them in the dark and you cover them over with — shall we say — manure.”

In his writings, books and in-person lectures, Spong endeavors to educate Christians about the information on which he says most biblical scholars already agree. During his 2 p.m. lectures at Chautauqua, Spong said, he will focus on 13 tenets, or bullet points, that have been established with certainty in the world of Biblical scholarship.

Everything we have in the New Testament about Jesus floated through some kind of oral transmission for 40 to 70 years before anybody wrote it down. How literal can such a process be?

– John Shelby Spong
Retired bishop, Episcopal Church

Spong’s first point is that the Bible is young. In a world where the first human-like creatures appeared four million years ago, the 3,000-year-old Bible is a new arrival, Spong said.

His second point is that Moses did not author the Torah.

“In the 34th chapter of Deuteronomy, the last book of the Torah — the story of death — Moses’ death and burial is told. It’s a remarkable author that can write that,” Spong said.

The Torah was actually compiled over a span of 500 years, Spong said.

Bullet point three is that David did not write the Psalms. Spong said the Psalms were written following the exile, when David was already dead for at least 500 years.

The fourth point is that Solomon did not write the Proverbs.

“One surely wonders how it came about that a man who had 300 wives and 700 concubines could ever have been thought of as wise,” Spong said.

Spong’s fifth point is that the prophets of the Hebrew faith were unaware that their writings would be considered Scriptures. Spong called them “counterculture creatures.”

The sixth point is that there are three different and contradictory versions of the Ten Commandments.

“You cannot really name the Ten Commandments biblically, because they do not agree,” Spong said. “One’s in Exodus 20, one’s in Exodus 34 and one’s in Deuteronomy 5.”

Spong’s seventh point is that Mark wrote the first Gospel, and John the last. The first Gospels were written in Greek over 40 years, or at least two generations after the crucifixion. The last Gospels were written until at least 65 years after Jesus died, Spong said

“Everything we have in the New Testament about Jesus floated through some kind of oral transmission for 40 to 70 years before anybody wrote it down,” he said. “How literal can such a process be?”

His eighth point is that Paul did all his writing between the years 51 and 64, before any Gospels were written down. Not all the Epistles considered “Pauline” were actually written by Paul. Spong said the authentic Epistles of Paul were First Thessalonians, Galatians, First Corinthians, Second Corinthians, Romans, Philemon and Philippians.

“Number nine: There is no evidence that we can find anywhere that miracles understood as supernatural acts were ever associated with the memory of Jesus of Nazareth before the eighth decade of this Common Era,” Spong said.

Spong’s 10th and 11th points are that the theory of the virgin birth does not enter the Christian history until the ninth decade, and the story of Jesus’ ascension does not enter Christian history until the 10th decade.

Spong’s 12th point is that Jesus’ followers did not leave the synagogue until 58 years after Jesus’ crucifixion.

“The division between Christianity and Judaism is a very late division,” he said. “The Christian inability to place its story into a Jewish context is the primary source, I believe, of the way the Christian story has been distorted with literalism.”

Spong’s final point is that there is no proof Paul was ever aware of the story of the virgin birth, or that Paul ever met a person named Judas Iscariot.

This week, during the 2 p.m. Interfaith Lectures in the Hall of Philosophy, Spong will expand and elaborate on each of his 13 points.

“Folks, there are many more. I could have filled this afternoon with statements like that,” he said as he concluded the week’s first lecture.

There is one comment

  1. Tom White

    “there was a divide between the layman’s understanding of the Bible’s contents and what was accepted and taught in academic centers of biblical scholarship” – That reminds me of a bible study we had in our church about 20 years ago. It was an intense 2 year course, in which our minister taught much of what Spong says here and more. About half way through, one of the participants asked if this stuff was taught in most seminaries. The minister said it was. It was all commonly accepted knowledge, and he wasn’t breaking any new ground. The frustrated student then asked, “Then why have we never heard this before from the pulpits?!” The minister replied with a straight face, “Job security”. Ninety percent of church congregations would throw a minister out for preaching this stuff.

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