The rights and wrongs of Spong on the Gospels

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by Neil Godfrey

Having covered Spong’s arguments for most of the Gospel narratives being “midrashic literature” (with one or two more posts to come) it is time to toss in some qualifiers and state my own views. I’ll anchor my thoughts around Mark Allan Powell’s review of Spong’s arguments. (The review is less securely but more cheaply accessed from here.)

There can be very little doubt that the Gospel authors did create their narrative details out of Old Testament texts.

What critics object to is the idea that entire narratives and most narrative details found in the Gospels are fabricated this way.

Spong himself insists (without argument, only by assertion) that there was some historical underlay to the Gospels. Jesus really was crucified, for example. But his silence before Pilate and his words on the cross are artfully woven by the author into the narrative from Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22.

(I say “without argument”, but Spong does say that the historical effects of Jesus’ life and death can be objectively measured. But this reasoning, as I suggested in a previous post, is to begin with the fact that we are trying to establish; it is begging the question: “How did Christianity — and the Christian narrative — begin?”)

Many biblical scholars will not argue with the idea that some of the details of the Gospel narratives, maybe even in a few cases entire narratives (e.g. Jesus walking on water), have no historical basis. But as Powell says, Spong “has taken the argument to its logical conclusion.” I have quoted just how “conclusive” is his argument in a recent post titled: “Delivering the Modern Believer . . . “. There I cited such quotations as these:

I am suggesting that all of the details of Jesus’ last days, other than the fact he was crucified, were unknown. (He would equally claim that all the details of his birth, other than the fact that he was born, were unknown.)

. . . . the evangelists were not writing history. They were rather writing faith stories . . .

. . . . even to debate the accuracy of these details of the biblical account of Jesus is to miss the point of the gospel story totally.

Here I side with Spong. If an argument is valid then it has every right to be taken to its logical conclusion.

My disagreement with Spong is that he only takes the argument to 95% of the way towards its logical conclusion. He will argue, for example, that the Old Testament occurrence (and near-occurrence) of the name “Joseph” and the motifs attached to that name give us every reason to believe that the name of the father of Jesus was imaginatively created out of the Old Testament. And even though he directs his readers to the details of Joshua (meaning “God Saves”) being the successor of Moses, and then directs them to another Joshua who is described as a Messiah or Christ in the book of Zechariah — an OT book that contains at least half a dozen other specific “prophecies” about the Christian Jesus — Spong never once suggests the possibility that the name of the Gospel hero Joshua (Greek = Jesus) was also inspired by the creative imaginations of authors reading the Old Testament.

So I disagree with Spong’s critic, Mark Allan Powell, when he says Spong takes the argument to its logical conclusion. Spong almost does, but not quite.

Powell then brings out the familiar rebuttal that Jesus or other Gospel characters might possibly have deliberately imitated the OT scriptures. John the Baptist, for example, might deliberately have chosen the Jordan River for the setting of his preaching because of its symbolic significance. Jesus might deliberately have ridden on a donkey (or two, if Matthew is our point of reference) to enter Jerusalem in order to inform everyone he believed he really was the one spoken about in the book of Zechariah. (Others will have to figure out how he simultaneously got the crowd to come out and quote Psalm 118 in repetitive chants, or how he earlier arranged to be born and grow up in either Nazareth or Bethlehem.)

Powell’s argument here is a classic of “why not?” logic. All the known evidence points to the creation of characters and events out of OT passages, but there is always room to go beyond the known evidence and ask, “Why not also X which is beyond the known evidence, but logically possible nonetheless?”

My preference is to hew as closely as possible to a justifiable methodology before departing into the “what if’s” and the “why not’s”.

I have no problem with the idea that a story or two about a real historical person was invented. But when we reach a point where all we think we know about the historical person can more directly and simply be sourced to Old Testament passages, and where there is not a shred of independent historical attestation to that person, I am entitled to wonder. Remember Ockham and his razor.

In the case of other ancient figures like Julius Caesar or Socrates we do tread with some assurance of multiple independent attestations. The former is removed from all possible reasonable doubt by the existence of primary evidence (“evidence” as distinct from “sources”, since the latter might be generations after the person in question) such as coins and epigraphy. In this case Ockham’s razor directs us to an independent source, i.e. a real person. In the case of Socrates, we lack the primary evidence, but have some measure of confidence by virtue of the clear independence of other sources (e.g. the reverential Plato and Xenophon against the ridiculing Aristophanes).

A few individuals, such as Josephus’s Honi the Circle Drawer and Cicero’s slave, are known from a single source, but if that source is produced by a person who identifies himself and on other grounds (multiple attestation and primary evidence) is known to be relatively reliable within the context of their reference to this person, then we are entitled to have some measure of confidence in the historical reality of such a singly attested person.

So Powell’s suggestion that the details of the acts of John the Baptist and Jesus can be explained by the original historical persons deliberately acting out OT scriptures begins to fall flat. Are we to explain every reference to the OT this way? The birth narratives? Jesus stilling the storm with a commanding voice?

Or are we to explain only a few of the OT allusions this way, such as those that apply to particular events we need to be historical if our faith is to survive?

Come on now. Let’s be consistent and not jump the rails whenever pivotal foundations of our western culture’s faith show themselves. Are the OT allusions in the narratives the work of the author(s) or not? Do our authors give us any hint that they knew they were writing about people who were deliberately attempting to act out OT “prophecies”? Of course not. They wrote to persuade readers that the whole story was a prophetic fulfilment.

If we have independent evidence that the Gospel persons really did consciously act out OT verses, then let’s use it. But when we read about John the Baptist in Josephus there is not the slightest hint that he ever visited the Jordan River or a wilderness.

Authorial intent and gentile misunderstanding?

Spong argues that the authors of the Gospels did not expect their narratives to be read literally.

Here I think I agree with Spong’s critics, in particular Powell. There is not the slightest indication anywhere in any of the Gospels that they, or any portion of them, were to be interpreted allegorically, symbolically, or whatever. The fourth gospel, John, stresses at the end that every word it contained was an “eyewitness” account. Luke’s prologue is surely an attempt to invite readers to accept that everything to follow was the testimony of multiple witnesses.

I certainly am sure that the same authors knew they were deriving “historical events” from the OT scriptures, and not from anything we would consider to be historical sources. I think the writings of Justin Martyr when he composed his dialogue with an imaginary Jew named Trypho help us understand the process. Justin frequently attempted to prove what had happened “historically” by citing OT “prophetic” scriptures for Trypho. Justin’s purpose was to persuade Trypho, or his real readers, of the sure-Truth of the Gospel by claiming that OT passages were fulfilled by Christ.

I don’t think the Gospel authors themselves had a very different agenda, or faith.

How did Justin living in the mid-second century know what Christ did – that he was born of a virgin, that he healed the sick, that he was despised and rejected, etc? By studying scripture, especially Isaiah, and explicating it to his readers.

I would like to think that there was a time when early Christians read such narratives “midrashically” — “metaphorically”. But as Powell points out in his review by reference to a study by Erick Nelson, the historical record points to Christians always taking the Gospels literally.

I have not read Erick Nelson’s study, and I do not know how sure we can be that “all” Christians always understood the Gospels to be “Gospel Truth”, but I am prepared to accept that the earliest readers understood them as meaning to convey literal truths.

So why would Gospel authors manufacture stories from OT passages expecting them to be read as literal “Gospel Truth”?

I think I can agree with Powell’s explanation for this:

The answer, I suspect, is that the literal acceptance of the stories is intended to facilitate the ultimately important acceptance of the spiritual or metaphorical meaning. (p. 243)

The earliest Christians drew spiritual or metaphorical meanings from the story of Jesus walking on the water, but they were helped in doing so by believing that Jesus literally did walk on water.

So in conclusion, I can fault Spong for holding back at that last hurdle when he sought to apply the logic of the argument to its ultimate conclusion. If we have “midrashic” reasons for thinking Jesus’ father Joseph to be a theological creation, we have at least equally strong reasons for seeing Jesus himself as a theological creation. Spong’s argument is sound. He failed to take it all the way.

I can agree with Spong’s critics who find no clear evidence that the earliest Christians ever read the Gospels metaphorically. (I would like to.) But I disagree with those same critics who imply that this indicates that the gospels indeed were constructed around a historical core. As late as the mid-second century we know Justin Martyr, like the author of the Epistle of Barnabas a generation or more earlier, was still manufacturing “historical truths” about Jesus from his reading of “prophetic” Scriptures. These, too, were meant to be believed in as literal history solely on the basis of the “authority” that spiritual wisdom applied to the Old Testament revealed them to be so.

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Neil Godfrey

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10 thoughts on “The rights and wrongs of Spong on the Gospels”

  1. One comment regarding your claim that: “There is not the slightest indication anywhere in any of the Gospel that they, or any portion of them, were to be interpreted allegorically, symbolically, or whatever. The fourth gospel, John, stresses at the end that every word it contained was an “eyewitness” account. Luke’s prologue is surely an attempt to invite readers to accept that everything to follow was the testimony of multiple witnesses.”

    I agree that the gospels of John and Luke – Matthew too – were not written as allegories. But I don’t think the same applies to that of Mark. The reason the Markan Jesus preaches in parables is to deliberately hide his meaning. He wants those “on the outside” (Mk. 4:11) “to see but not perceive, to hear but not understand” the mysteries of the kingdom of God. His teaching is such that even his disciples “see but don’t perceive, hear but don’t understand.” (Mk. 8:18). And the identity of the Markan Jesus is presented as a secret. Those who recognize who he really is – the demons — are commanded by him to keep quiet about it.

    So I hesitate to lump the earliest gospel, Mark’s, with those written later. Mark could be an original sectarian allegory that was mistakenly taken as history by those “on the outside.” That initial mistake took on a life of its own when they decided to mine the Old Testament themselves to create their own expanded and revised versions of Jesus.


  2. I haven’t read Spong, so forgive me if he mentions it, but I think he’s missing an important component of the myth-generation cycle.

    Paul tells us that one of the “gifts of the spirit” is prophecy, and by that I think he’s referring to the ancient practice of going into some kind of trance and being spiritually transported to the presence of the Divine Council. Much like the nevi’im centuries before, certain members of the congregation would be capable of seeing God or the risen Christ and hearing him speak.

    One major misunderstanding (or disunderstanding, since I think it’s deliberate) among the more intolerant HJ scholars is the idea that the first Jesus-followers were either eyewitnesses or liars — it’s either fact or fiction. So they frame mythicism as if it were tantamount to a charge of perjury. But it’s quite probable that many of the sayings and deeds attributed to Jesus in the gospels were visions received by prophets. They saw themselves as channelers not fiction writers.

    I rather think that the fabrication of the gospel narratives from Old Testament stories went hand in hand with prophecy in the churches. One could read a verse in the scriptures and have a sudden insight into how it “must have happened” to Jesus, possibly confirming it with a prophetic episode. Or, conversely, a prophecy might send people running to the scriptures for confirmation.

    Ultimately, I think this is what Paul meant when he wrote about his “preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began, but now is made manifest, and by the scriptures of the prophets…” For Paul, God had made his gospel known in his time through direct, personal revelation and a new understanding of scripture.

  3. If we have “midrashic” reasons for thinking Jesus’ father Joseph to be a theological creation, we have at least equally strong reasons for seeing Jesus himself as a theological creation.

    But Spong not only believes Jesus to have been a real person; he believes in his divinity. This and others of Spong’s paradoxes were discussed here.

  4. A private apparition, like Smith’s angel Moroni, would face a much easier construction than would a supposedly public Jesus or a John the Baptist.

    In the same line of apologetics used in these mythic-Jesus posts, would Muhammad be classified as unhistorical? Do we have an historical Muhammad?

    1. It is not apologetics to point out the logical fallacies of scholarly arguments, or to apply the same methods historians apply to other topics to the Gospels and Christian origins.

      It is apologetics when others refuse to seriously engage in the discussion and resort to insults, ridicule, and imputation of the worst of motives as a substitute.

      Spong is not a mythicist, so where is the apologetics in those posts? What on earth does Muhammad have to do with anything? Are you assuming I have some sort of anti-religious agenda? If so, then my arguments will fall apart easily. But the McGrath’s, the Watts’, the Crossley’s, the Steph’s have all resorted to either insult or merely repeating their own arguments and failing to address the arguments in a genuine way. Someone recently said he was an apologist and was only interested in dropping his own comments here from time to time but had no interest in responding to any critique of his comments.

      When others walk away and imply anti-religious motives and fail to engage to the criticism of circular logic and the arguments that do rely on evidence and not conjecture, then who is the apologist? Who is the one who is genuinely seeking to explore Christian origins with a serious effort at intellectual integrity?

      1. Neil, I took apologetics to mean a defensive method of argument. In the case before us, the defense of ones position on matters alleged to be historical. I was referring to your mythic response to Spong as a defense typified by many of your blog posts. I am perhaps not using good vocabulary, but by no means do I wish to be harassing you. I’m just a house painter with an interest in what you are doing, not a would be theologian.
        I thought that exploring Christian origins might be facilitated by comparing it with the origins of Islam. Do we have with Muhammad —an alleged public figure— a case that was entirely constructed, or does Muhammad have an historical core of some kind? If not explicitly historical, is he —historically speaking— more like Socrates? And other questions of this kind.
        I don’t want to irritate you. I just want to learn and be able to share what I learn with others. http://www.bobmoorepainting.com

        1. Thanks for your response, Bob, and I apologize for my harshness. One of my best friends is a painter! 🙂

          Some historians have run into controversy because they do argue that Muhammad was a late mythical creation. See http://vridar.wordpress.com/2010/06/03/muhammad-mythicism-and-the-fallacy-of-jesus-agnosticism/ for some links to this. It’s not something I have investigated so cannot comment on how comparable this view is to Christ-myth arguments.

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