Religion Magazine

Things John Shelby Spong Thinks He Knows About the Gospel of John

By Sjbedard @sjbedard

In a recent article, John Shelby Spong outlines “What Everyone Should Know About the Fourth Gospel,” as a preview of a book he has written on John. Spong writes as if he is presenting the agreed upon positions of scholarship to the ignorant but believing masses. Having some knowledge of New Testament scholarship, I will say that he presents one view of a wide variety of views within biblical scholarship. I will briefly respond to each of his points.

1) There is no way that the Fourth Gospel was written by John Zebedee or by any of the disciples of Jesus.

He knows that? How? I am not saying that I know the fourth Gospel was written by John, the son of Zebedee. I have heard other interesting theories including authorship by the mysterious John the Elder and by Lazarus. My point is, how does he know that John did not write it? Within Pauline scholarship, there are those who don’t believe Paul wrote certain letters. This is done by comparing certain letters to the authentic letters and noticing differences. While I disagree with their conclusions, I can understand their methodology. Does Spong have an authentic Johannine writing that he can compare to the Gospel? Things are not as conclusive as Spong suggests.

2) There is probably not a single word attributed to Jesus in this book that the Jesus of history actually spoke.

The ironic thing is that if the church had rejected John and included it with the apocryphal gospels, liberal scholars would likely be looking to John as containing the authentic sayings of Jesus. It is true that John shapes his material with theological and literary motivations, but so do the synoptics. Again, how does Spong know that none of it goes back to Jesus? Even if the synoptics are used as the measure, there are some parallels. But even where John is different from the synoptics, it is very likely that material goes back to Jesus.

3) Not one of the signs (the Fourth Gospel’s word for miracles) recorded in this book was, in all probability, something that actually happened.

Again, he knows this how? From what I know of Spong, the reasoning goes along these lines: assuming miracles are impossible, it follows that miracles cannot happen. Can I use the reasoning that assuming Spong is incorrect, it follows that his conclusions in this article are wrong?

4) Many of the characters who appear in the pages of the Fourth Gospel are literary creations of its author and were never intended to be understood as real people, who actually lived in history.

How does Spong know this? He points out that some of the characters are not mentioned in the synoptics, suggesting that they are literary creations. But if John represents a different tradition than the synoptics, it would seem likely that some different people would be involved. An interesting twist is Lazarus. He is not mentioned in the synoptics and so according to Spong is a creation. But his sisters are mentioned in Luke. So what we have here is a partially real and partially imaginary family.

5) John’s Gospel seems to ridicule anyone who might read this book as a work of literal history.

Spong argues this from some examples of Jesus using figures of speech. But since Spong points to the synoptics as the measure of history, we should note the heavy reliance of parables there. In addition, there is plenty of material in John that seems to be literal. Jesus washed the disciples’ feet with literal water, not figurative water. Most writings, ancient and modern, include lietarl details and figures of speech.

6) The Gospel also exaggerates its details, once more I believe, to counter any attempt to read it literally.

This is bizarre. John does note that the things Jesus did should create a sense of wonder. It is not a passionless recording of bare detail. “Oh look, Jesus brought another person back from dead. Yawn. What’s for lunch?” News stories today attempt to report the facts but to do so in a way that produces a reaction in the readers or hearers. That is what John does.

7) [T]the Fourth Gospel has been used in Christian history as the guarantor of what came to be called Christian orthodoxy or creedal Christianity.

There you go, the Gospel of John supports orthodox Christianity. Since we (or at least Spong) know orthodox Christianity is wrong, then we should have serious misgivings about John.

If you are interested in the Gospel of John, I would encourage you to read scholarly works on John. Don’t just read evangelical scholars, read from liberal and non-Christian scholars as well. But do not read Spong and assume that what he says is the united position of biblical scholarship today.


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