Christians have used the Bible’s Gospel of St. John as “the foundation of identifying creeds and doctrines and dogmas” — many of which don’t communicate well with modern educated men and women, according to retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong. It is this literal interpretation of the Gospel that Spong hopes to challenge in a series of lectures this week.
Spong will give five lectures, each at 2 p.m. in the Hall of Philosophy, titled, “The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic.” The lectures, based on Spong’s book of the same name released last year, will build on each other in an attempt to examine the Gospel of John from a different perspective: that of progressive Jewish followers of Jesus attempting to articulate their experiences to traditional Jews.
When one reads the Gospel of John from a literal perspective, he or she can interpret it as anti-Semitic, Spong said.
“John’s Gospel seems to have a deep strain of anti-Semitism running through it,” Spong said. “It has Jesus constantly talking about ‘the Jews,’ almost spitting that phrase out of his mouth.”
However, reading the Gospel from a Jewish perspective illuminates the tensions between progressive and traditional Jews of the time.
For example, the story of Jesus turning water into wine is symbolic of the Jewish followers of Jesus and Orthodox Jewish leaders of the synagogue moving beyond their past divisions. The story represents Jesus transforming the water of Jewish purification into the wine of new life, Spong said.
The Gospel of John, the last to be written, is very different from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Spong said. Because the Gospel of John “includes all sorts of material that you don’t find anywhere else” — such as Jesus turning water to wine and raising Lazarus from the dead — he argues Jesus did not say or do anything with which he is credited in the Fourth Gospel. The Gospel of John, however, does present Jesus in the most profound way in the New Testament, Spong said.
“I think literally it makes no sense at all, and I think if you get beneath it and read it as a Jewish book, it is a very profound piece of literature,” Spong said.
Characteristics of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel that differ from in the others — some positive differences, some negative, Spong said — include Jesus speaking in long, convoluted monologues, but not giving a parable, and Jesus having a relationship with God different than the relationship portrayed in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke; in Mark, God enters Jesus at the time of his baptism, but by John, Jesus is a part of who God is, Spong said.
“Jesus does not appear to be human at all. The tradition of the Christian faith is that Jesus was fully human and fully divine, but in the Fourth Gospel it appears he is fully divine and not human at all,” Spong said.
Additionally, Jesus is not apprehensive about being crucified and does not present the crucifixion as a tragedy in the Gospel of John, as he does in Matthew and Mark, Spong said.
“These differences mean that it’s been looked at in Christian history from very different perspectives,” he said.
Spong, 83, grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, as a fundamentalist. The older he got, however, the more he desired to walk the line between being a modern scholar and a Christian, exploring the work of Einstein, Freud, Darwin and Newton without shutting out religion. After writing more than 20 books, Spong realized he had largely neglected John’s Gospel, and while conducting research for a different book he was working on, he read a book about a form of Jewish mysticism prevalent in Jewish circles in the first century. The Dead Sea Scrolls found on the West Bank included some references to Jewish mysticism, though most scholars didn’t previously think this kind of mysticism existed, Spong said.
“You cannot put into words the experience of God that you have. It’s mystical because there are no words to describe it and it’s really hard to deal with,” Spong said.
Spong said he hasn’t yet fully planned the topic of each of the day’s lectures, to allow the narrative to evolve without adhering to a predetermined schedule. He will present bullet points to distinguish the Fourth Gospel from the others, elaborating on the points as the week progresses.
One of his lectures will focus on the way John uses characters, Spong said, and how most characters in the Gospel serve as mythological literary symbols rather than historical figures. One such figure is the mother of Jesus, who is never called Mary in the Fourth Gospel. She only appears in two stories in the Gospel of John — when Jesus turns water into wine and at the foot of the cross — however, she has never been at the cross in any other Gospel. John’s Gospel also includes no birth story.
“You have to look and see whether he’s talking about Mary who’s the literal mother of Jesus, or the Mary that stands for Judaism as the mother of Christianity,” Spong said.
On Friday, Spong will address the climax of John’s Gospel, which he argues is the crucifixion rather than the resurrection.
Spong does not think John’s Gospel should be taken literally. “You can be truthful without being literal,” he said. Additionally, even if Jesus did not say or do the things written in the Fourth Gospel, they paint an illuminating picture upon examining the story from a Jewish perspective, an invaluable tool that would be lost if the Gospel was not included in the Bible.
“I think you’d lose the most profound portrait of Jesus that you’ve got,” Spong said. “I really think the book is a profound piece of work.”