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Some Comments on the Gospel of John: (Based on John Spong’s Book). A Blast from the Past

A couple of people on the blog have suggested that as a feature of the blog, I periodically provide a Blast From the Past — that is, repost a blog post from a few years ago.  I think it’s a great idea.  My guess is that most people on the blog haven’t read everything from then, and if they have, if they’re like me, they won’t remember them!  So I decided to go back from three years ago today (well, tomorrow) and see what I was saying.  Here’s the post.  I don’t remember it at *ALL*!!!  But I still think now what I did then.

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John Shelby Spong, former Episcopal bishop of New Jersey and highly controversial author (because of his skeptical views about the New Testament and traditional Christian doctrine) has just published a new book on the Gospel of John, called The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic. I have not read the book, but Spong has written an interesting article on it that appeared in the Huffington Post yesterday, at this address:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-shelby-spong/gospel-of-john-what-everyone-knows-about-the-fourth-gospel_b_3422026.html?ref=topbar

In the article Spong summarizes the conclusions he advances in the book, based on an “intensive five-year long study.” He acknowledges that many of his findings are those that scholars have held for a long time. Spong himself is not trained as a biblical scholar but has made a very successful, and useful, career out of making scholarship known to a wider audience. So too, his goal in the book, in large measure, is to bring major scholarship to a general reader, a goal I obviously sympathize with deeply.

The following are the points that he stresses in his HuPo article. I will comment on them from my perspective – with the caveat, once more, that I haven’t read what he adduces as evidence, only what he says in this article. I will respond to his views in two posts. Here are his first four major points.

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

I absolutely agree; this is a common view among scholars.

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

Well, that’s a bit extreme. Jesus’ first words in the Gospel (1:38) are “what are you seeking” – and I bet Jesus said that at some point in his life.  🙂 In any event, Jesus surely said *some* of the things in the Gospel.

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, I completely agree. The seven “signs” are not historical records. John explicitly doesn’t call them “miracles.” It is striking that in the Synoptics Jesus refuses to do “signs” (that is, to show who he really is). In the Gospel of John, that’s virtually *all* he does. Moreover, in the Synoptics he never teaches about himself. And in John, again, that’s virtually all he does. So unlike the Synoptics, Jesus in John teaches who he is (the one sent from heaven to provide eternal life) and does signs to prove it that what he says about himself is true (so he says he is the bread of life, and then he feeds the multitudes with the loaves; he says he is the light of the world, and then he heals a man born blind; he says he is the resurrection and the life, and then he raises a man from the dead; and so on.

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.

Now Spong is getting on tricky grounds. I don’t think you can say that because someone is unhistorical that the author either *knew* that they were unhistorical or that he wanted you not to *think* they were historical. We don’t know what the author “intended,” but I don’t see any reason to think that he wanted his reading audience to think that he was producing fiction. Moreover, just because Nicodemus in ch. 3, or the Samaritan Woman in ch. 4, do not appear in other Gospels (this is one of Spong’s points) does not mean that the author wanted you to assume they didn’t exist. For one thing, I don’t think he assumes that you’ve read the other Gospels – so he himself would not be assuming a point of comparison. For another thing, it’s not clear to me that these figures are inventions of the author of the Gospel; he may well have inherited these stories (and so, these narrative figures) from the traditions he had heard. If so, why wouldn’t he think they were historical? And even if he did make them up himself (how would one show that??), I don’t see any indications in the text to suggest that he wanted his readers to think that they were make-believe rather than figures that actually interacted with Jesus. In short, the fact (which I take to be a fact) that they were *not* historical figures who interacted with Jesus has no bearing, in my mind, on the question of what the author’s intentions were in narrating his stories.

As you can see, this will be a controversial book not only for lay people who have never been introduced to Johannine scholarship before, but even among scholars who have worked long in the field.

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Comments

  1. leo.b@cox.net  June 12, 2016

    Thanks for the repeat post. I just thought of something in answer to your request for suggestions to reduce the number of hours you have to devote to the blog. I am rather a new reader (about a year) and think it would be
    worthwhile to repost older blog posts that you thought were important. First, I wouldn’t have to do as much searching back to find the ‘good ones’ (ha ha) and repetition is always good.Just a thought. Also, I really appreciate your work in helping me to strengthen my spiritual belief system. I have donated another $25 for you charities. I would rather give to you then the dogmatic traditional churches.Leo

  2. Matt7  June 12, 2016

    Great Blast From the Past! Nice new feature!

  3. Wilusa  June 12, 2016

    I’m curious – was the author stripped of his “rank” as bishop, or pressured to give it up, because of his “heretical” beliefs? Is he still an Episcopalian in good standing – or does he even want to be?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 13, 2016

      Nope, he’s still a faithful Episcopalian (and ex-bishop) to this day.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  June 16, 2016

        We heard him speak in 2005 at the (founding) Conference of Spiritual Progressives in Berkeley, founded by rabbi Michael Lerner and reverend Jim Wallis. He was terrific.

  4. talmoore
    talmoore  June 12, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, the Fourth Gospel reads to me exactly like a piece of fan fiction. That is to say, whoever wrote the Gospel was probably familiar with the synoptic narrative — although not exactly in the forms that come down to us as Matthew, Mark and Luke — and the fourth evangelist was essentially trying to fill in some of the gaps within the synoptic narratives. There are several signs (no pun intended) to John being fan fiction of this sort. For starters, it’s telling that John brings in certain events as signposts so that the reader is able to place the expanded narrative of his gospel within that of the synoptics. For instance, he includes reference to the Feeding of the Multitude, the Visit to Bethany (with John’s greater detail into Mary and Martha) and the Passion. It all reads like the writings by fans of a popular literary source (e.g. Harry Potter, the Twilight series, etc.) who feel the need to expand that narrative in order tie up loose ends or to satisfy a desire for greater detail within the story.

    It’s very rare for fan fiction to make it into “the canon” (as it’s called, funny enough) of the original literature, but it has happened. The Fifty Shades of Gray books, for instance, started out as Twilight fan fiction, and were it not for modern copyright laws the author of Fifty Shades of Gray could have simply kept the very same character names from the Twilight series, thus expanding the original narrative. One prime example of Biblical fan fiction is the book of Isaiah. Anyone who reads Isaiah will notice right away that it has at least two (maybe three) different authors. It appears that the part called Deutero-Isaiah (and possibly Trito-Isaiah) are basically fan fiction based on Proto-Isaiah. But probably the most popular apocryphal fan fiction was that of all the books purportedly written by “Ezra” or Esdras. There are at least four books by “Ezra”, but it’s quite clear that if any of those books were written by the real Ezra it was the first alone. All the others fit the fan fiction mold perfectly.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fan_fiction

  5. Rick
    Rick  June 12, 2016

    Ok, so I’ve wondered about this for a while… If I recall your background and work correctly you have done what most of cannot – read the gospels in Greek. Furthermore you are trained in the criticisms and have applied that to the Greek Gospels. Do you have that all laid out on maybe some immense spread sheet or data base so that you can take a verse, perhaps something Jesus said (ie, everything he said in John), and categorize it as to its likely historicity? There has to be way too much detail to commit to memory. Or, perhaps are there passages where the answer is – maybe or don’t know?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 13, 2016

      Ha! Good quesiton. No, for most of the Gospels I just know what I”ve decided based on my analyses over a number of years. Some places I haven’t made up my mind, but in most of those places I can very quickly (in seconds) know how the criteria of authenticity apply. It’s not that impressive. I don’t know most things in the world, including, for example, how my toaster works….

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  June 16, 2016

        Like players of musical instruments, the best and greatest, in their senior years, have often said there is still so much to learn and that’s just on their instrument! I’ve been going to, listening to, and watching Giants baseball games since 1958 when they moved to S.F. and have learned more about baseball from my grown son the last ten years than I and in the previous 48. I still don’t get many of its subtler points. Then there’s my cameras, my guitar, growing vegetables, politics, religion…..

        BTW, used to go to Seal’s stadium in San Francisco: Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, Orlando Cepeda, and others.

  6. Liam Foley  June 13, 2016

    Recently, I posted on another message board what you had said about Marcus Borg at his belief that Jesus did not die for our sins. You mentioned that was not what the Bible taugh or what the early Christians believed. Well, one fundamentalist is having a field day with that as if David had taken down Goliath. This one fundamentalist saw your words as a triumph for fundamentalism and the refuting of liberal Christianity. I do understand that many liberal Christians deviate from a literal reading of the text, and may have a theology that is not consistent with a literal reading of the text, So it would be interesting to get your perspective on liberal Christianity. Do you believe liberal Christianity is a legitimate form of Christianity? Many fundamentalists believe that the only true way to understand Christianity and to be a Christian is the fundamentalist way.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 13, 2016

      My view is that fundamentalist Christianity is not a legitimate view. I personally think that liberal Christianity is the only credible Christian perspective.

    • rburos  June 14, 2016

      Catholics are officially against fundamentalism simply because of the problems brought up in textual criticism Dr. Ehrman brings up. Of course that doesn’t always come out in practice! I once took a class from a Jesuit priest who maintained: Adam and Eve weren’t real people; Heaven and Hell were states of being not geographical locations (which is actually in the Catholic Catechism); and that Jesus knew Judas would betray him and still celebrated the Last Supper with him so we should be willing to rethink who we deny the eucharist to. Of course there were gasps in the crowd. . .

      The two great commandments (love God and love your neighbor) make Christianity a viable life philosophy (to me). I really appreciate Dr. Ehrman’s take–there is evil in the world, and although there isn’t a reason for it there is a RESPONSE. Fundamentalism just seems to cheapen the whole thing.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  June 16, 2016

        “The two great commandments (love God and love your neighbor) ” make Judaism (from which they came into Christianity) a viable philosophy and way of life for others.

        • rburos  June 19, 2016

          I agree completely. It’s just that by chance I was born into a Christian family so that was how I worded it. Dr Ehrman’s work has opened a door that makes both traditions much more meaningful to me, although I’m sure it’s walking me down some pathways to heresy. . .but what a trip!

      • llamensdor  June 17, 2016

        Hillel was propounding the same two basic commandments as those attributed to Jesus. A very popular thesis these days is that Jesus proposed a different set of ethics than the Jews, but of course he didn’t. Of all the many things attributed to Jesus in John’s gospel, the section beginning, “I am the resurrection and the life, he that believeth in me..” was absolutely, assuredly never spoken by Jesus. He was not a pompous Greek philosopher, he was a Jewish teacher.

      • Nomad  December 13, 2016

        It doesn’t just cheapen it, but often actually gets people working on the wrong side of the equation.

  7. rbrtbaumgardner  June 13, 2016

    Please forgive me for coming in late on the suggestions for the blog. Bart, please take care of yourself! I wouldn’t feel shorted at all if you decided to cut posting down to 3 times a week. I tend to binge read. I won’t read for a week or so and then I read all the posts that have accumulated in a sitting or two. So it isn’t like I miss seeing a daily post. Also, while l like the comments section–it is amazing to get to interact with you–perhaps you could discontinue it and interact for some specified time on the readers forum or perhaps schedule a weekly twitter session That would provide interaction but you wouldn’t have to go through questions and blog them. You do an amazing service for all of us. Thank you–and take care of yourself!

  8. petegoodlion  June 13, 2016

    What do you make of Spong’s theory in Biblical Literaism that the Matthew Gospel is a first century, jewish litugical guide that attempts to explain Jesus as Messiah following the Jewish holidays throughout the year?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 13, 2016

      I don’t buy it. The major problem is that we know almost *nothing* about Jewish liturgy from the first century, so we can’t very well say what was like or unlike it….

      • JackBakewell  June 18, 2016

        Why is it then that the gospel narrative maps so precisely onto the liturgical year Spong outlines, assuming he didn’t just pull it out of thin air? This surely can’t be a mere coincidence, can it?

        And why can we not derive knowledge of the liturgy of the day from the structure of the gospel if this precise mapping out can be credibly shown?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 18, 2016

          The question is: where did Spong come up with any information about the liturgical year so as to map the Gospels onto it? I haven’t read the book — it’s a genuine question. Is he basing it on the festivals mentioned in the Hebrew Bible?

          • JackBakewell  June 19, 2016

            Yeah he is. In ‘Liberating the Gospels’, he argues that the festivals required by the Torah were Passover, Pentecost, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Tabernacles. On the back of Michael Goulder’s work on the structure of Matthew, he shows that the gospel can very easily be divided up into 5 blocks of narrative, each with their own distinctive teachings and themes. He then shows, placing first Passover at the crucifixion, that if we take each passage in Matthew for a sabbath of the Jewish year, we can work backwards chronologically from the crucifixion and map parts of the other 4 narrative blocks precisely onto the themes of the other 4 festivals.

            The whole inquiry and argument is complicated, but this mapping occurs so naturally i just can’t understand how anyone could reasonably dismiss Goulder/Spong’s theories as baseless. Spong presents a very detailed table of the order of the Jewish year followed in the 1st century, but to be honest he’s not that clear in the text of the book itself exactly where he’s getting this from. I think he derives it from both the festivals required by the Hebrew Bible and knowledge of when these festivals were traditionally celebrated in the months of the Jewish year.

          • Bart
            Bart  June 19, 2016

            Ah, so then the question would be what evidence we have that diaspora Jews of the first century observed Jewish festivals that required attendance in Jerusalem. Does he say?

          • JackBakewell  June 20, 2016

            No he doesn’t give clear independent historical evidence, I don’t think. But is there reason to think that the 1st century Jews didn’t observe these festivals in some way? Surely if the gospels can be credibly shown to be structured around them then that in itself provides us with some insight into 1st century Jewish liturgy, does it not? Why ought we to insist that we need a source other than the gospels and a knowledge of traditional Jewish liturgy to make this case?

            Even if you do reject the liturgy theory, do you accept that the gospel writers based a lot of their stories and characters on those in the Hebrew Bible? Spong argues that Joseph, for example, is likely a fictional character created by Matthew. This is because all of the important biographical details we are given about him are shared with the Joseph of Genesis (father called Jacob, God contacts him through dreams, goes with God’s chosen to Egypt to save him from death). I see no reason to doubt Spong on this, but I know he’s not a trained scholar. These details are too peculiar and idiosyncratic to not have their source in Genesis.

            I’d love for you to do a post one day on ‘Liberating the Gospels’ if you ever get a chance to read it. It completely altered my understanding of what the gospels are, and if the theories it expounds are true the whole question of how to understand the gospels from a historical perspective needs to be radically revised.

          • Bart
            Bart  June 20, 2016

            These festivals were for Israelites who celebrated them in the land of Israel, Jerusalem in particular. They are explicitly said to be times when Israelite men are to travel to Jerusalem. I don’t know of any evidence that they were celebrated in the diaspora. Maybe someone on the blog can comment.

            Yes, I absolutely think that the Gospel writers were influenced by the Hebrew Bible. They quote it a lot! but that’s(very very) different from saying that they were influenced by Jewish liturgy of the first century.(

  9. jhague  June 13, 2016

    I agree with you on point 4. Wouldn’t you say that most likely everyone who read John after it was written assumed the characters to be real people? Christians today certainly do.

  10. Stephen  June 13, 2016

    Just this week I was reading an article about the textual issues associated with the gospel of John. It seems a lot messier as a document than the synoptics. Interesting that apparently Bultmann even thought some of the chapters might be out of order. And the herky jerky logistics of Jesus’ travels. First he’s in Jerusalem and then in the next verse he’s leaving Galilee, etc. And the seemingly superfluous tacked on ending. Strange that I never noticed it all until it was pointed out and then of course it seems obvious!

    Anyway my question is whether in any of your work you’ve examined these textual issues, specifically in the gospel of J? If so could you point me? And if not is there a classic text you would give s student that discusses the textual problems in John?

    In my old age (I hit the big six oh myself this year) I’m getting pretty bored with theology but I find this textual stuff completely absorbing. Thanks for sharing your expertise on this site.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 13, 2016

      I’ve studied the problems for many years, but have not written extensively on it. One of the best resources would be the commentary on the Gospel in the Anchor Bible commentary series by Raymond Brown.

  11. RonaldTaska  June 13, 2016

    “A Blast from the Past” is a terrific idea. I am a big fan of Spong’s books and readers of this blog might find his “Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism” of particular interest. Once again, Dr. Ehrman’s analysis seems on target, clear, concise, and helpful.

  12. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  June 13, 2016

    Blast from the past–I like it!

  13. Kazibwe Edris  June 14, 2016

    christian apologists say that if mark knew about the temple destruction he would’ve have mentioned it.

    you replied :

    That’s a strange argument that the apologists made. Mark NEVER says something like that about *anything*. Why would he say it about the temple in particular? He doesn’t give “followup”.

    comment : is it possible that marks people already knew about the destruction and were talking about “followup” amongst themselves?

    when we ask christian apologists why the raising of the dead saints is not written in marks version, they assume that the people of mark already knew that. so using their logic, the listeners in marks community already knew about the destruction , right?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 14, 2016

      Yes, it’s probable that they already knew about it. But that provides zero support for the apologists’ view that if Mark knew about it he would necessarily have mentioned it.

  14. rburos  June 14, 2016

    Excellent use of prior material–it’s new to me, and since you provide an updated comment I still feel like “I’m getting my money’s worth.” In fact I will provide an additional small donation as well, although unlike above I will still give to my local church as they spend thousands supporting our local homeless and underemployed. Rather counterintuitive that many in homeless shelters actually have full time jobs–just not paid enough to afford rent.

    Again, thanks for everything.

  15. seahawk41  June 14, 2016

    I’ve read several of Spong’s books and enjoyed them. I also had the privilege of hearing him talk in person when he visited Cincinnati several years ago. So I bought this book expecting similar stimulation, but was *very* disappointed. So much so that I didn’t finish reading it, and probably won’t. The reason was that Spong seemed to be stretching and distorting John ecery which way in order to make it fit into his sorta “new age” model of spirituality. I agree that a good deal of John is among those distorted memories you discuss in your recent book, but I think we distort them even more when we try to force them into a 21st Century “wineskin”!

    Chuck Hawkins

  16. gsillars  June 17, 2016

    Thank you, Dr. Ehrman, for this. I think it is a great idea to revisit some of your previous posts from time to time. It is especially valuable for those of us who are newer members of the blog.

    I was going to ask whether you were aware of Spong’s latest book, but an ealier commenter alluded to the gist of it. Essentially, Spong attempts to undermine Biblical literalism by trying to show that the gospels (he concentrates on Matthew) were actually written as liturgical works to fit into and to echo stories that would have been familiar and deeply meaningful to Jews of that period. I have to say that as I read the book I felt ambivalent. I can sympathize with Spong’s desire to arrive at a humane version of Christianity that can survive in the 21st Century, but I also felt that he was reaching an awful lot. As an atheist, I don’t necessarily have an interest in preserving Christianity and I’m afraid I’m skeptical of Bishop Spong’s project, as it seems to me that liberal Christianity has had a higher attrition rate over the years than the more conservative varieties (although they are declining too).

    Liberal Christianity often seems to be the anteroom before the exit, as it was for you, Dan Barker, and many others. Still, if Christianity continues to exist in some form, I’d much rather that it be Bishop Spong’s version than, say, the late Jerry Falwell’s.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2016

      Yes, my view is that we know almost zilch about Jewish liturgy from the first century — and Xn liturgy from before 80 CE. So we don’t know precisely what we would need to know to make the hypothesis stick

  17. RonaldTaska  June 20, 2016

    Readers of this blog might have an interest in reading Spong’s newest book entitled “Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy: A Journey Into a New Christianity Through the Doorway of Matthew’s Gospel.” The title is a bit cumbersome, but the book is good, not as good as Dr. Ehrman’s books of course, and thought provoking.

  18. rburos  June 22, 2016

    Based on your comment number four above (many of the characters were not meant to be taken as real people)–

    I just picked up a book by JD Crossan on Jesus’ parabolic teachings–how parables BY Jesus became parables ABOUT Jesus. I haven’t read it yet, but I’m wondering if there might be some crossover here? That we are supposed to recognize these stories as parables in order to understand them? I almost feel like he might be knocking on the door to gnosticism? But as a former priest I have trouble accusing him of that. . .

  19. PaulDeMaria  June 30, 2016

    Great idea, reposting!

  20. Tempo1936  August 9, 2016

    Most old line evangelical teaching tried to scare you into believing Jesus was the only way. The newer mega churches now teach the gospel of the kingdom (following the teaching of Jesus )which is mercy , love and justice which fits nicely with the secular society. All are welcomed into the kingdom of God since he created all. Righteous works like serving the poor and homeless is encouraged. No Extentive bible study or knowledge is needed to follow Jesus.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  August 9, 2016

      You’d think they would teach that since the New Testament says in 15-20 places that anyone who does not believe that Christ is Savior and Lord is condemned. The U.S. is not a very secular society, just has a secular government–as intended. Nevertheless, teaching mercy, love, justice, sheltering the homeless, feeding the poor, caring for the widow and widower can be done in a secular society and doesn’t need any Bible study or knowledge Jesus at all nor, for atheists, God. Since we don’t really know that there even is or will be a kingdom of God, we don’t know who is or will be welcomed. I doubt that would be up to us anyway, if there were a kingdom, to decide who is and isn’t welcome.

  21. Beatle792  October 17, 2016

    I’ve been wanting to ask you about this. I hope I’m not too late since I haven’t signed on here in a while. I’ve read that the 4th gospel’s numerous ” I AM”s were really more like “He is.” More the view of Jesus by the Johannine community. It seems I read in one of your books that Raymond Brown’s view was that some of the things that the gospel said happened to Jesus actually happened to the Johannine Christians. It seems one of those is John 8:58. That seems like a pretty sound theory. Could some of these things be what Bishop Spong meant when saying much was made up? Also.. could you give me a few more John 8:58 like examples? I have 4 of your books and can’t remember which one I read that in.
    FYI.. I brag about being a member of your blog. I hope some of the people that I debate and discuss the NT with have joined.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 18, 2016

      There are seven major “I am” sayings in John (I am the Bread of Life; I am the Light of the World; I am the Way the Truth and the Life; etc.). Yes, these are affirmations of the the Johannine Community of their faith of who Jesus is and how he can provide salvation.

      • Beatle792  October 18, 2016

        And there were 4 or 5 (maybe more) events in the gospel that happened to Jesus that according to Brown likely happened to Johannine Christians instead of Jesus. The born again story always struck me as odd.. and you have explained why it wasn’t likely because of the dual meaning of the Greek word “anothen.” In John 8:58 it seems more likely that those are the beliefs of late 1st century Christians and it was them more likely to be stoned rather than something that happened to Jesus. It’s kind of like the author thinking that things that happened to them because of their beliefs must have happened to Jesus too. I just find that fascinating and I was wondering if there were anymore things that “the Jews” did to Jesus that was more likely to have been done to the Johannine Christians.
        BTW… I’m from the Kansas City area.

        • Bart
          Bart  October 19, 2016

          I’m pretty much a follower of Brown on all this.

          • madmargie  April 5, 2017

            I have a question…who is “Brown”?

          • Bart
            Bart  April 5, 2017

            Raymond Brown. He was a premier New Testament scholar of the end of the 20th century.

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