Midrash, Resurrection and John Shelby Spong

November 19, 2008


Recently, I became very interested in some of the books by the Anglican Bishop John Shelby Spong. Moderate Christian friends of mine that study theology have told me Spong is a bit too out there and that while he starts his writing career pushing the envelope yet still offering different ways of interpreting things within the context of Christianity, that by now it’s hard to classify his philosophy as even being Christian. Apparently he’s apt to simply label any that disagree on his points as being a fundamentalist and he’s accused of being arrogant. It’s also worth noting that he holds no degrees– no doctorates in theology, history or philosophy, he was simply a practicing minister (now retired) and writer. Regardless of all of these points, the few books of his I’ve read have been very thought provoking. He may not have a PhD, but it’s clear that he’s spent a lifetime reading, studying, interviewing and debating in his search for the roots of Christianity, the state of Christianity and it’s future. He maintains the viewpoint that Christianity must evolve–it must change or it will die, taking its place alongside of the ancient religions of Olympus. He began making such claims years ago, believing that in light of modern science literalistic interpretations of scripture would completely die off. Well, as Raymond Martin stated in his overview of the conflicting views on such issues in “The Elusive Messiah, “it has not worked out that way and things do not seem to even be moving in that direction.”

I enjoyed Spong’s “Resurrection: Myth or Reality,” because it explores different ways of looking at the Gospels and the Easter Promise. Spong approaches each gospel individually at first; he looks at what historical time it was written, who the writer may have been and when the writer was alive. Did the writer ever meet Jesus or anyone that had known Jesus? If not, how long after the historical Jesus was present did the writer craft his gospel? Then Spong looks at the version of the Resurrection each writer portrays and how each version differs. Spong makes the claim that the Gospel writers engaged in the Jewish writing and scripture reading practice of Midrash.

Spong seeks to explore what the historical Jesus did that caused those writers to place him firmly in the tradition. He seeks to discover what happened that caused the disciples of Jesus to go from being scared and scattering in the event of his arrest and execution- -many going so far as to deny even knowing him- – to being faithful and wiling to die to spread his message.  Spong explores “discrepancies” in the gospel narratives and in the translations made of them throughout history., as well as possibly different meanings  the text may have had in its previous language incarnations–events that were spoken of in Aramaic, written about in Hebrew and Greek, and eventually “officially” transcribed in Old English.

But what is Midrash?  In a way, Midrash is the concept of timelessness. When events and people are written about in the Midrash style, they are placed in a past, present and future dialogue. Spong claims that much of what is written about Jesus is  a Midrash placement and reinterpretation of Hebrew scripture and history.  Words spoken by Hebrew leaders such as Abraham, Moses and Elijah are re-spoken by Jesus. Similarly, events that occur in the Jesus narratives are re-told events of those same Hebrew leaders. Location often plays a big part in the Midrash tradition. Events occur on Mt. Sinai, in Galilee and in Jerusalem in reference to earlier events that also occurred in those locations. According to Spong these stories are re-worked from the Hebrew traditions to place Jesus in the context of a timeless Holy journey. For Spong, each gospel writer was not merely recording a literal account of Jesus’ life- – they were instead “canonizing” him and elevating his story to a Holy, mythic level. Since each gospel was written years apart and none were written while Jesus was alive, each gospel writer reworks events from previous gospels as well as the Hebrew scriptures.  Spong doesn’t state these claims to attack the Gospel authors. He doesn’t accuse them of twisting the truth or spreading lies. He feels that they were aware that there was more to Jesus than mere humanity and that they felt his life was important enough to elevate its story into the realm of timeless and Holy myth. Myth in this sense does not mean “untrue.” In many ways, myth becomes an ultimate truth because it communicates an undying and important message that is “more true” than factual based historical records. It becomes irrelevant for the events of the Gospels to be clung to as literal fact. Spong disputes that Jesus literally rose from the dead in a bodily manner, and he uses variations among the gospel narratives as supporting evidence for such a claim. He dismisses the idea that the “red letter” words spoken by Jesus in favor of the belief that such words were merely the author of each gospel attempting to capture the essence of Jesus’ message concisely.  So ultimately for Spong the truth of Jesus becomes that of a man who God chose to pervade and express the God-presence through so that those who heeded his work, words and teachings could know God and spread the message to the world. The disciples realized Jesus’ importance fully in the aftermath of his death and began to speak of it, becoming willing to die for it to be heard. The authors of the Gospels sought to express the importance of the life of Jesus by recounting his story in the ancient Hebrew tradition of Midrash, elevating his story in the miraculous wording of the Torah. Church founders developed their churches to spread the message of love, forgiveness and service.

Thus, the “Easter Promise” for Spong (and those that agree with his viewpoint) does not rely on a literal and physical resurrection of Jesus, but rather the statement that “death cannot hold him” is fulfilled in his spirit being raised by and back to God and his teachings live on in his followers. Spong feels that we as Christians use Christ as our “entry” to God- – our way to love more selflessly, serve more strongly and live more fully.

I don’t fully accept all of Spong’s theories and claims. I did find “Resurrection” to be a scholarly and interesting work. I agree that even the Gospels can be approached with a non-literal interpretation. As for the resurrection being a physical fact or a symbolic myth? I think that Christians can take either viewpoint and still be Christians.

Unfortunately, Spong’s later work follows such claims in a chain of links to more outrageous suppositions that do indeed place him outside of what can comfortably be classified as “Christian” philosophy. His post millennial work “The Sins of Scripture,” is not only his least scholarly and intelligently written work but it also makes claims that push his theology too far– in this work, Spong rejects any possible view of a Theistic God. He states that event after event, including 9/11, have proven that a view of a God who lives apart and outside of the natural world and who cares about the details of our own personal lives, who is there to comfort us and watch over us, is illogical and unrealistic. Spong lists sporadic excerpts of scripture that describe God as a “breath that is in all of us,” and a presence that abides in all natural creations as “realistic” descriptions of God. It’s at this point that Spong loses me. His early work had admirable goals–to “rescue the Bible from fundamentalism,” by exploring alternative ways of looking at it and by gleaning the ultimate essence and message that is sometimes “lost in translation” and strangled by legalism and claims of “inerrancy.” He proceeded to dispel the ways scripture is often misused to oppress women, non-white races and ethnic groups and homosexuals. He wrote works that urged the Church to grow, evolve and reach out to all people because he felt the message and goals of Christianity were possible and positive for all people. All of this was good and fine, and I can respect different approaches and interpretations as being valid. I can’t follow his thoughts that lead to complete rejection of any type of theistic God, at least not in a way that allows him to still consider himself a Christian theologian. He did wait until retiring from his lifetime of service with the church to make this last bold statement, so maybe he was aware of that.

So that’s just my take. I’ve barely skimmed the surface in this article, really. If this interested you I suggest that you give “Resurrection” a read. Even if you completely reject a non-literal approach to the Easter story, which is understandable, you still may learn quite a bit about the Gospels and the history of the time, place and events that occurred within them. I also should make note that if you, like me, are relatively a novice in deep theological study, that an “extreme” theory like that espoused by Spong should be followed up by other scholarly and intelligent approaches that fall more to the center of things. Completely accepting the far radically liberal views of Religion without question is just as misguided as completely accepting the fundamentalist views without question.

Next up on this site, I have a short and simple article. It will be the first of possibly ten articles that will appear over the next few months in which I take a look at “under-rated” classic albums. It’ll be a way for me to ease into my year-end recap of the best new music and an excuse for me to revisit and re-listen to favorite albums of mine that don’t usually make the top cut. Thanks for reading.


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