By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of readthespirit.com
Spring is the perfect season to explore John Shelby Spong’s new book, Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy. First, look past the book’s title—those words are a publisher’s way of reminding readers of the controversy retired Bishop “Jack” Spong has sparked throughout most of his career. Yes, this new book is a provocative re-interpretation of gospel stories and some Christians will disagree with Spong, as usual.
But, there’s so much more than mere “controversy” in this book!
What’s so fresh and fascinating about this book is its in-depth look at the Jewish roots of the Christian gospel of Matthew. That’s perfectly timed reading for the season that includes Easter (Western Christians have celebrated; Eastern Orthodox will soon) as well as Passover. This is a time, each year, when interfaith relationships blossom. Most Jewish communities nationwide offer some kind of friendly outreach to Christians who want to understand the Passover seder from a Jewish perspective. Most Christians, after all, traditionally say that Jesus’s Last Supper was a seder meal.
“Book titles are funny things,” Spong said with a chuckle as he discussed this new book in a recent interview. “I guess I fight about book titles with my publisher more than we fight about anything. What I’m really working on in these books is ‘The Gospels as Midrash,’ but Harper doesn’t want anything to do with that kind of title.”
I asked Spong, “How many non-Jewish Americans know that term midrash? I’m not sure as a journalist that I’d be able to explain it fully in a sentence. I’d probably say: Midrash is a traditional Jewish process for interpreting scripture by exploring tangents and connections with the basic text. And that’s what you do with Matthew in this new book—it’s one of your best books, I think. But putting ‘Midrash’ in a title for general readers? As a publisher myself, I wouldn’t recommend that.”
And he chuckled again. “Yes, you’re probably right. And Harper was right. But we go round and round about titles sometimes. I am glad you understand what this book is about. I have written about this general subject before, but this time I really look at Matthew in a new way.”
If readers look beyond the front cover, they will find that the book has a second and more descriptive subtitle: “A Journey into a New Christianity through the Doorway of Matthew’s Gospel.” That gets closer to the unique look at Matthew Spong offers in these 400 pages, but not entirely.
This book really is a midrash on Matthew, connecting Christian readers with Jesus’s Jewish world in a new way. Spong ultimately draws a new kind of Christian message at the end of the book. But, he also draws on a number of notable Jewish scholars in his research and it’s likely some Jewish readers will be intrigued by the many connections Spong makes.
If you’re wondering whether such an ambitious idea makes sense—writing a book that might interest both Christian and Jewish readers—we can say: Spong knows knows something about his audience.
In fact, this particular book was born after Spong was invited in 2014 to present five days of lectures at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York. How many people showed up? Ten thousand!
By his estimate, about a quarter of those men and women who attended his lectures were Jewish. It was truly a five-day interfaith gathering. His subject that year was the Jewish context of the gospel of John. And the enthusiasm for his lectures led him to dig deeper into the other three gospels. The result is this book that walks readers through Matthew from a perspective most Christians have never considered.
Spong argues that nearly 2,000 years ago the gospel known as Matthew was written for early Christian churches to read and remember the key events in Jesus’s life—as organized in a pattern following the annual calendar of Jewish festivals. Spong credits the late British Bible scholar Michael Goulder with writing about this notion in a persuasive way—convincing enough to lead Spong to devote years of study to expanding on Goulder’s ideas.
“I’ve included ‘Michael Goulder (1927-2010)’ in my dedication of this new book,” Spong says. “Most Americans haven’t heard his name, but among Bible scholars, he was so important. I discovered his work back in the 1990s when I was doing research on the gospel birth narratives at Cambridge. I remember buying this massive book Goulder had published and it really was tough sledding going through his work. But one of his big contributions was this idea that the gospels were organized around themes in the Jewish year.”
What does that mean? Regular Bible readers know that there are many references to Jewish customs and festivals in the New Testament. What Goulder theorized and Spong now unfolds in detail for general readers is the idea that the actual order of the stories from Jesus’s life in Matthew are sequenced to be read against the backdrop of a Jewish calendar.
This new book is about 400 pages, describing how this connection between the faith traditions could help modern readers rediscover fresh inspiration from scripture. Some early Christians were gentiles, non-Jews who converted to the new faith and had no background in Judaism. But many early Christians were experienced in both religious realms. Imagine how much deeper some of Matthew’s stories would unfold if read against traditional Jewish reflections on the seasons and religious festivals.
JESUS, JONAH AND YOM KIPPUR
Here’s one small example: Christians reading about Jesus’s arguments with critics in the 12th chapter of Matthew are likely to read right over the scene in which Jesus tells his critics that they don’t fully understand the story of Jonah. Gentiles unfamiliar with Judaism probably recall Jonah as the ancient prophet who was swallowed by a big fish. Christians who regularly study the Bible may remember more about Jonah and his mission to make the wayward people of the town of Nineveh repent of their sins.
“But I’m sure most Christians reading that passage—or hearing it read—are thinking: What’s this sudden reference to Jonah? Why is Jesus talking about Jonah?” Spong says. “If we don’t understand the structure of Matthew, it’s just something we read and forget about, isn’t it?”
But in the middle of Spong’s book, readers will discover why that reference to Jonah is such a poignant moment in Matthew—and how that passage of Matthew must have sparked deep spiritual reflection in early Christian congregations with Jewish roots.
Jewish readers will know that the text of Jonah is read, each year, on Yom Kippur. In fact, it’s a common topic for Jewish inspirational writing and teaching each year. Here’s one example of a column from ReformJudaism.org, offered as inspirational reading in the High Holidays.
“When people read my book, they’ll learn that just before Matthew 12, where Jesus talks about Jonah and we get this connection with Yom Kippur—just before that in my book, I look at the ways Matthew 11 relates to Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year that leads to Yom Kippur,” Spong says. “And after that section of my book, then I write about how Matthew 13 relates to the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot. These are connections that I think most Christians have never considered while they’re reading Matthew.”
Of course, there’s a lot more to Spong’s argument in this book, which takes all 400 pages to unfold. Step by step, his argument leads to his interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’s death—once again placing his theology in contrast to preaching about Jesus’s crucifixion that is more typical in evangelical churches. For many years, Spong has called for a rethinking of these basic Christian teachings.
‘TRANSFORMATIVE POWER OF CHRIST’S MESSAGE’
Some critics charge that Spong himself is a heretic—and no longer is a Christian. He rejects that charge and, in books like his latest, says that it is preachers who take the Bible literally who have abandoned their Christian roots.
“I simply want to help people see the truly transformative power of Christ’s message,” Spong says. “And, in this book, I point out that it’s right there in Matthew, if only we know how to read Matthew.
“The early followers of Jesus had to use words to describe and explain what really is beyond words,” he continues. “It’s our error today if we take those words, which can tell us so much, and force a literal reading that really imprisons Christ in a way that was never intended.”
And, in those words, Spong is echoing the final pages of his new book, where he writes in part:
The gospel of Matthew is about human beings discovering the divine that is always in our midst. It is about the divine calling and empowering human life to break the boundaries that imprison us in a warped sense of what it means to be human. It is about setting aside boundaries that we have created in our human quest for security. It is about stepping beyond those boundaries and into the meaning of God. It is about discovering the human in a boundary-free world.
In Spong’s new book, Christian and Jewish readers likely will find fascinating, fresh interpretations of these ancient gospel stories. Agree or disagree with Spong’s larger theological arguments, he says that nevertheless, “After you consider what I’m describing in this book, I don’t think you’ll be able to read Matthew in the same way, again.”