The controversial Bishop of Newark, New Jersey, is more of an ideologue than an historian, says Fr ROBERT IGNATIUS LETELLIER
Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes, by John Selby Spong, HarperCollins, £10.99
THE VEXED QUESTION of the Bible and history once again presents itself in John Shelby Spong's new book. As the blurb points out, Bishop Spong's name has become synonymous with controversy". He is known for denying the physical realities of the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection, the two foundation stones of all Christian belief in Jesus as Lord.
So here he is at it again. Already the title of the book is provocative: "liberating" the Gospels from what? The subtitle proclaims that the book is "freeing Jesus from 2,000 years of misunderstanding", a sequel to the author's ongoing work of liberation — since earlier he was Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism (1992). The Bishop is devoted to these emancipatory causes, and has gained prominence bringing "blacks, women and homosexuals into the full life of his church". This is commendable work of great charity and compassion for admiration.
But when it comes to Bishop Spong's fervour for revisionist studies of the Scriptures, reactions must be rather more complex. There are one or two serious presup positions underpinning his intellectual stance. The first is a personal arrogance which, quite simply, is breathtaking. His book claims to free the Gospels from the oppressive hold of the Church (particularly the Roman Church, of course) which, by implication, has held the faithful in a false intellectual servitude for two millennia. The existing ecclesiastical structures are moribund beyond redemption. But what does this say about his understanding of Church? Even if one does subscribe to a disillusioned view of the Catholic Church, surely one must concede that God must have exercised some sort of care for his followers through its compromised ministry over the ages, that is until the serried ranks of Reformation and postreformation saviours and theologians arrived on the scene to put matters to right?
The Bishop cares deeply for the Jewish people, indeed he loves them. This is wonderful, and I am completely at one with him here. But to speak of all Christian exegesis and hermeneutics prior to 1997 as anti-semitic, and the readings of the Gospels thus fatally flawed, either out of prejudice or ignorance, begs the question to the point of absurdity. Many of the points he makes are not new, and need not be quite so belaboured. Judaism is unquestionably the parent of Christianity, but if Spong wants to be Jewish he should convert to that religion.
The second problem is a philosophical one, of faith and history, how these interact, and the anxiety as to whether one can be intellectually sophisticated and honest, and yet still believe the Bible to have historical integrity. Spong disdains evangelical history, yet sometimes one would think he had his own personal contacts with the historical Evangelists themselves. The trend to strip the Biblical records of any historical seriousness reached its high point in the work of the German theologian Bultmann, who "demythologised" the Gospels. Christianity, for Bultmann, began not with Jesus, but with Christ preached. There was no need for any interest in the details of Jesus's life.
Acwicllug Li) Spong, the
Gospels' Jewish authors were more interested in constructing a series of situations, or stories, or discourses which explained the significance of Jesus's life in relation to orthodox Judaism, than in recording actual deeds or facts. One has to imagine that the writers of the Gospels sat there with their Hebrew Bibles and concordances open in front of them when they penned their works, drawing out situations, types and liturgical paradigms.
In this process the concept of prophecy is rendered meaningless: there is a retrospective harnessing of ideas and themes, but no such thing as an actual prophetic mystical fulfilment in the future of events or situations predicted in the past. Yet, through the ages, from the Fathers to the Second Vatican Council, the logic and beauty of the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy in Jesus has been accepted.
This is precisely the trouble, Spong would presumably say. The real trouble, however, is that his thesis is not argued with the historian's logic, but rather the ideologue's fervour.
any meologians ana Scripture scholars have little time for history. But why should it be it risible to believe in the historical dimension of the Bible, the validity of the Gospels as records of Jesus' life and
works? Of course, there are minor discordances of detail, but suspicion about historical authenticity would be all the greater if the four books were identical.
I am afraid it does matter whether we believe in the historical dimension of jesus as recorded in the Gospels. Otherwise, just what is the point of believing? The authors of the New Testament saw this clearly. They have something to tell us, even some reassurance for the
Dewtlaerea Denever. note is St Paul: "If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain...If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied."
And here is St Peter: "For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty."
Surely, we can be as confident in these words as in the scholarship or ideology of Bultmann or Spong. There need be no agonising split between faith and intellect. Jesus and his story are not yet another mythical elaboration, but the fulfilment in time and space of God's plan for creation and the embodiment of all prophecy.
At the end of the day, it is as much faith as knowledge that helps us to believe this testimony. Belief in the impossibility of miracles and prophecy is based not on scientific findings, but on philosophical presuppositions. Only the living power of the shared deposit of faith and the Tradition which keeps it alive can put this in perspective for us.