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Spong’s New Book on John

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:


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.

Spong’s New Book on John: Part 2
Jesus’ Inflammatory Words



  1. Avatar
    Peter  June 14, 2013


    Re. Nicodemus and Jesus.

    Does the account not make sense in Aramaic? Does it require the double entendre (in Greek)?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 14, 2013

      That’s right — the double entendre cannot be conveyed in Aramaic, and without it the flow of the conversation is shot.

  2. Avatar
    billgraham1961  June 14, 2013

    Is there any indication that the author of John, like the authors of Matthew and Luke, used existing artifacts to write this gospel?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 14, 2013

      Yes, he definitely had sources at his disposal. I discuss these in my textbook on the NT.

  3. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  June 14, 2013

    I have read most, maybe all, of Spong’s books, as well as many of his blogs, including his excellent autobiography which includes his experiences in Durham, North Carolina. Even if Spong is not a trained Bible researcher, he summarizes Bible problems in a very readable way. His interpretation of where to go with Christianity in light of these problems is less clear. Your summary is quite helpful. I also think it Is likely that the author of John did not knowingly create literary characters, but obtained information through the oral tradition which he probably thought was historical. The main issue is why the author of John was exposed to an oral tradition that was so different than that to which the authors of the Synoptic Gospels were exposed. Did he live in a different place or, writing later, was he just exposed to later traditions? I look forward to reading Spong’s book as well as your next post. Ron

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 14, 2013

      Yes, he was living in a different part of the world from the others. We don’t know where.

  4. Avatar
    Wilusa  June 14, 2013

    I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of a man named “Yeshua/Jesus” supposedly raising a man named “Lazarus” from the dead. As I understand it, those names were the then-modern forms of “Yehoshua/Joshua” and “Eleazar”…the successors, respectively, of Moses and Aaron (who I think of as having been – supposedly! – Moses’ “high priest”). I’ve imagined that story might have been intended to symbolize Jesus’s creation (or, as his followers would have seen it) a *restoration* of some kind of priesthood.

    Of course, I have a pretty active imagination! I used to think the stories about Jesus might have been based on more than one actual man…just because the name “Yeshua” was common, *and* could have been chosen as a spiritual name or *nom de guerre* because of its being a form of “Yehoshua.” I abandoned that idea when I learned from your works how much is really known about Peter, and about Jesus’s brother James.

  5. Avatar
    toddfrederick  June 14, 2013

    I bought the book Tuesday. I’m not a fast reader so I’m only into Chapter 2.

    I’ve been a follower of Bishop Spong for a year or so and appreciate his courage to be controversial and to put a new twist on old familiar stories. From the promos I think this will be a worthwhile read.

    Persons who do serious scholarship are often never heard within the churches. We need people like Bishop Spong to communicate new ideas to the faithful… if the people will listen.

    In his books, Bishop Spong presents controversial ideas and new ways of looking at the familiar, as he is doing with the Gospel of John, putting a mystical twist to what so many view a just historical narrative.

    Speculation is not a stranger to scholars. Neither should it be a stranger to those who do practical theology and communicate to those in the pews.

    I am stimulated to think in different ways when I read his writings and I would recommend any of his many books as well as his wonderful presentations on You Tube. He is an excellent communicator.

  6. Avatar
    S.P.  June 14, 2013

    Have you read Spong’s book “Liberating the Gospels”? I wonder what your scholarly opinion of it is.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 14, 2013

      Nope, I’m afraid like most scholars I don’t read books in my field for general audiences.

      • Avatar
        toddfrederick  June 14, 2013

        I think you guys should read what general audiences are reading because what you and other scholars are saying is just not getting through to the pew-warmer crowd. Or…perhaps you should write books such as those that Spong and other progressives write for general audiences because your trade books are a few steps above the general public’s intellectual level. What you are saying must some way get through to the church people or your efforts are futile…just listen to the radical religious right wing in politics.! It’s in the churches as well.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  June 15, 2013

          Well you may be right, but I do think I’m getting through to some extent — as well as I can.

          • Avatar
            AndrewAD  June 17, 2013

            You got through to me Bart after I dared to read one of your books.I was a proverbial pew warmer and knew for years that your books were taboo.It was only after getting into the study of church history and coming across references to Lost Scriptures and Lost Christianities that I decided to read them.I was searching for the truth and after reading Lost Christianities it opened my eyes and got me to thinking about what the nt was really all about..
            I’m very grateful for your work and how it has expanded my horizons.

  7. Avatar
    haoleboy26  June 14, 2013

    I first encountered Bishop Spong while living in Charleston, SC, by discovering his book, “Why Christianity Must Change or Die.” In Chapter 1 he goes through every line of the Apostle’s Creed and explains exactly why he can’t affirm belief in those statements. About the only two statements that survive his critique are that 1) he affirms his own personal belief in God and 2) that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” Everything else was rejected to a greater or lesser extent.

  8. Avatar
    jonfoulkes  June 14, 2013

    Hi Bart, in a future post, would you consider covering some of the characters in the gospels whom you consider to be unhistorical and why?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 14, 2013

      Interesting idea! I’ve done a bit of that already — for example, with Joseph of Arimathea.

  9. Avatar
    Sharif  June 14, 2013

    Since most scholars agree that Jesus was perceived as a miracle worker (whatever the explanation), what is the purpose of the ostensible miracles (in the Synoptic Gospels or the historical Jesus) if not as “signs” to vindicate his prophetic claims?

    Also—maybe for another post—are there any words or events associated with Jesus in the Gospel of John that you think *are* (or may be) authentic, that are not found in the Synoptic Gospels?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 14, 2013

      In the Synoptics Jesus flat our refuses to do a “sign” when asked (e.g., Matt 12:38-42). But that’s all he does in John, “signs.” In the synoptics, the “miracles” (not called signs) appear to perform two functions: to show Jesus’ compassion and to demonstrate that the kingdom has almost arrived.

  10. Avatar
    gonzalogandia  June 14, 2013

    You say that Jesus refuses to show signs in the other books. But I do recall he raised a widow’s son in Luke 7. Aren’t there other signs like this one in the synoptics?

  11. Avatar
    jhague  June 14, 2013

    I agree with your comments on the four points. Regarding point 4, this made me think about Karen Armstrong also stating that the people of Biblical times did not read the Old Testament stories as history but as myth (attempts to understand the world). It seems to me that even if the writers of the OT stories meant them as myth, the people regarded them as history. The biblical people seem to believe that there was a Moses, Abraham, an Exodus, Jonah in the great fish, etc. Your thoughts?

  12. Avatar
    wgmccollum  June 14, 2013

    Don’t know if you have read Spong’s book “Jesus for the Non-religious”, but in it he argues that the gospels were structured in a way as to be used in the synagog for liturgical purposes. Are you familiar with this argument, and if so what is your opinion of it? Thanks.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 14, 2013

      Yes, I know the argument, and I have never been convinced by it. We know almost nothing about ancient liturgy (from the period of the Gospels).

      • Avatar
        Jdavis3927  June 14, 2013

        So the extensive work by Michael D. Goulder, who was a biblical scholar, in this field has no validity at all?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  June 15, 2013

          Are you addressing this to me? I think Goulder was a terrific and unusually intelligent biblical scholar.

          • Avatar
            Jdavis3927  June 15, 2013

            Yes, Spong’s book,” Jesus for the Non-religious” was based upon the hypothesis that the Gospels were structured in a way to be used in the synagogue for liturgical purposes. Spong was relaying the scholarly work of Michael Goulder. His book, Midrash In Lection in Matthew is pretty convincing. The reason I brought it up is because you mentioned we know almost nothing about ancient liturgy (from the period of the Gospels).

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  June 16, 2013

            Yes, I don’t think we do know much about it.

  13. talitakum
    talitakum  June 14, 2013

    Hi, I think I am in partial disagreement with you on point 3).
    I guess we know that historical Jesus *was* a miracle-worker (in particular, a healer and an exorcist). If this isn’t true, then the Gospels couldn’t be considered valid historical sources and we should put historical research to bed. Do you agree?
    For sure miracles’ accounts in Gospels have been in many cases (if not always) exaggerated and filled with theology…
    It is perfectly acceptable, in my opinion, to consider unhistorical tout-court the “signs miracles” under the assumption that “anomalous miracles” (that is, against nature’s laws, like resurrections and walking on waters) are implausible/impossible.
    However, the dichotomy between John and Synoptics as you presented it, in my opinion is not fully convincing: at least the “Miracle of 5,000” is present in all four Gospels (where Jesus feeds a vast crowd with a few loaves and fishes).
    Also, miracles such as healing blind men and healing a paralytic have parallels in Synoptics, although John “heighten” such miracles by specifying that the man was blind from birth and the paralytic has not been able to walk for 38 years (and this could be definitely in the interests of John’s heightened Christology).
    Therefore, if we put aside the argument of impossibility of “anomalous miracles” (an argument that in fact you didn’t use), we’d better regard such stories as non-historical *in the form they have reached us*.
    This would be more close to your Point 2), where it’s rue we can’t know the ipsissima verba Jesu, but in some cases we cannot exclude a priori that Jesus said “something like that”.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 14, 2013

      No, I don’t think Jesus was a miracle-worker, since I don’t believe in miracles. He never did multiply the loaves, walk on water, or raise the dead, etc., in my opinion.

      • talitakum
        talitakum  June 15, 2013

        Then if a scholar says that Jesus was an “apocalyptic prophet”, he must believe in something strange called “apocalypse” and prophecies.
        In order to say that John was a “baptizer”, then one must believe in baptism.. 🙂

        Moreover, I don’t understand why to write a book when one can simply say: miracles don’t happen, so there’s no historical ground in Gospel accounts.
        I now realize how personal beliefs can effectively simplify historical inquiry! 🙂

        Jesus simply was born, lived, and died (mythicists permitting, of course)
        He didn’t even preach God, cause God doesn’t exist: he was more “talking to himself” 🙂

        At the opposite, I think that people saw Jesus doing healings and exorcisms and thus was known as a miracle-worker. I’m not personally forced to think they were miracles.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  June 15, 2013

          I think if you read my accounts of Jesus and miracles (I have discussed the issues in a number of my books) you’ll see that I do not take the simple line you suggest (Miracles don’t happen and therefore Jesus didn’t do any). Quite the contrary, I have a much more sophisticatted approach to it. But if anyone states that “Jesus was a miracle worker” that seems to be taking the other extreme without considering the histrical difficulties posed by the statement. This line of inquiry is not a matter of simply of saying that some historians have anti-supernaturalist biases. It is far more complicated than that, involving what it is historians can plausibly show as having happened in the past (not simply with respect to Jesus).
          And yes, if you say that John was a baptizer, then there must indeed be such a thing as baptism; and if Jesus was an apocalypticist then there must indeed be such a thing as apocalypticism.

          • talitakum
            talitakum  June 15, 2013

            Thank you very much for further clarifying your thought. Yes, I think I probably didn’t express myself right from a scholarly standpoint.. I didn’t want to seem “conservative” on this matter. The point is that I’m not a scholar and I sometimes forget that I’m writing to… Bart Ehrman!!! 😀

  14. Avatar
    dikelmm  June 14, 2013

    Do you think the author of John was a “Jewish Mystic?”

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 14, 2013

      It depends what the term “mystic” means.

      • Avatar
        dikelmm  June 14, 2013

        The reason I put the term at question in quotation marks is that I took it from the subtitle of Spong’s book. In the article on HufPo you referenced, Spong wrote:

        The Council of Nicea in 325 C.E. leaned on the Fourth Gospel as literal history in order to formulate the creeds and ultimately to undergird such doctrines as the Incarnation and the Holy Trinity. The texts used to support that creedal development, my studies have led me to affirm, have nothing to do with an external God entering humanity in the person of Jesus, but are rather attempts to describe the experience of the human breaking the boundaries of consciousness and entering into the transformation available inside a sense of a mystical oneness with God.”

        Perhaps this hints at what he means by “mystic.” Does this help you to answer my original question? thank you for answering this question and my others. You have been very helpful to me.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  June 15, 2013

          Yes, I thought that was why you did it. My problem is that I’m not sure what Spong himself means by the term, since I haven’t read the book. There are various ways of understanding mysticism. But if the term is broadly enough defined, I guess I would agree. But my sense is that Spong means something more specific.

  15. Avatar
    hwl  June 14, 2013

    Although Spong does not have a PhD in biblical studies, he was a graduate from UNC, has a Master of Divinity from Episcopal Theological Seminary, has two honorary Doctor of Divinity degrees. He has lectured at Harvard Divinity School and many other universities and seminaries. He wrote: “[I have] immerse[d] myself in contemporary Biblical scholarship at such places as Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Yale Divinity School, Harvard Divinity School and the storied universities in Edinburgh, Oxford and Cambridge.”
    At the grand old age of 81years and a lifetime in academia and the church, he would have read far more materials on biblical scholarship than many PhDs in their 20s from top universities.
    Surely Spong has at least as much scholarly credential as anyone with a doctorate specialising in biblical studies to comment on issues of biblical scholarship?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 14, 2013

      No, I’m afraid he doesn’t. The MDiv degree is available to just about anyone; it tends not to be an academic degree. His two honorary doctorates are honorary, not based on any scholarship. When he says he has immersed himself in scholarship, he means he has read what scholars have said. That doesn’t make him a scholar. The best way to know if someone is a scholar is to see if s/he has produced any scholarship. Spong has not done so — and indeed, that’s not what he has wanted to do. He presents scholarship to the lay people, but he does not generate scholarship. Big difference. (I don’t even know what languages he has: does he read Greek, Hebrew, Latin, French, German, etc.? Most PhD’s in the field do — and often one or two other major languages)

      • Avatar
        hwl  June 14, 2013

        The MDiv graduates and professors at Princeton Theological Seminary won’t be pleased to know that their degrees achieved and their courses taught do not count as academic degrees, and that just about anyone can achieve the required standard. I appreciate you hold the prestigious guild of biblical scholars in high esteem, and rightly so. However, by the logic of your argument, eminent biblical scholars like yourself, by virtue of not having doctoral training in theology, are not competent to comment on issues of theology. This seems excessive privileging of specialists. Your evangelical critics like William Lane Craig, being a philosopher by training and publication, attack you for making fallacious arguments on issues such as your views on legitimacy of appeal to supernatural explanations in the historical method and on theodicy (e.g. in your book “God’s problem”). They say the first issue is a philosophical issue (and by implication, you are not competent to make such comments; Craig says you misconstrue the Bayesian argument); they say the second issue is a matter of theology and philosophy (and by implication, you are not competent to comment). When I read and listen to your explanation of the historical method in relation to supernatural explanations (in “The New Testament: an historical introduction” and your debates), your position makes sense and I think you have the right intuition, even though it lacks the rigorous formalism typical of academic philosophy. I think you have scholarly credential to make assertions about philosophy and theology on issues that are relevant to biblical studies. For the same reason, I find it hard to see how a leading figure of the Episcopolian Church and prominent lecturer at several world-class divinity schools and seminaries can be said to lack the academic credential to comment on some issues of biblical scholarship, compared to a freshly minted PhD graduate in biblical scholarship.

        Spong has not published in academic presses on biblical scholarship (though I am not sure if he has published academic theology). So I agree with you that by definition, he is not a biblical scholar. But this is a different issue from competence to comment on issues of biblical scholarship.

        Conversely, I don’t think someone with a PhD in New Testament studies from a quality university and who has published in biblical journals is automatically in a position to make sound and authoritative comments on issues of biblical scholarship relating to his specialisation. For example, Michael Licona has published in biblical journals (e.g. Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus), he holds to certain views on the historicity of the resurrection and facts surrounding the purported event. One does not need to have a PhD in biblical scholarship to refute his arguments, and Spong’s views on the resurrection holds up just as well against Licona’s.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  June 15, 2013

          Actually, I have an MDiv from Princeton Seminary, and can say for a fact that once I received that degree, neither I nor my professors considered me yet to be a qualified scholar (even though I was at the top of my class and won the Senior Award for New Testament studies). I think unless you go to one of these programs you can’t really understand what they are. They are principally professional programs training future pastors for ministry. They are not principally centered on mastering scholarship.

          And you’re right, I do not consider myself a theologian or a philosopher. I’m not one and don’t claim to be one. If I did, I’d be laughed off the stage. In a similar vein, Spong is not a biblical scholar. There’s nothing at all demeaning about that, it’s just a statement of fact. And it doesn’t mean that what he says is not right or that he’s not qualified to say it. He is writing for a general audience, not for scholars, and he is making the work of scholarship available to a broader audience. I am fully and enthusiastically in support of what he does! But that doesn’t make him a scholar. To my knowledge he has never produced any work for scholars — which is what scholars themselves do. My guess is that if you were to ask him, he would admit that he learns from scholars but that he is not himself trained as a scholar.

  16. Avatar
    prosario2000  June 19, 2013

    Hi Professor Ehrman:

    I disagree when you say:

    “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.”

    This should be treated with a grain of salt. I don’t mind if someone is an untrained Bible scholar. I have written a book about St. Paul, but I’m not a Bible scholar. The problem with Spong is that everything he writes is deeply impregnated with political agenda. In that light, he will make Bible scholarship known as long as it agrees with his political and religious views. For example, he supported Timothy Freke’s and Peter Gandy’s book _The Jesus Mysteries_. He also expressed himself favorably on Barbara Thiering’s works. In several of his books, he thinks he has obtained a positive evidence that the Apostle Paul was gay, and that Jesus married Mary Magdalene. He favors all of these positions out of politics.

    I guess that in this new book, his goal is to show that the Bible should not be taken literally. Of course, you may agree on that statement, but here is the deal: he wants people to be aware that no one should take the Bible literally by showing that it was the intention of the author of John’s Gospel *not* to be taken literally.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 22, 2013

      I didn’t know that he supported Freke and Gandy an Thiering, and that he thought Paul was gay and Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. REally? Where does he say these things? (I haven’t read his work, so I’m surprised!) (But I don’t see why you disagree with me when I say he’s not a biblical scholar. That’s not a value judgment. It’s of the same level as saying that I — Bart Ehrman — am not a plumber!)

      • Avatar
        prosario2000  June 23, 2013

        Thank you for your response. What I disagreed with you is the part where you say that “he makes scholarly work known to a wider audience”. This is because a lot of the things he says are not supported by the majority of Bible scholars, and I think are more influenced by his political views.

        Spong’s statements:

        -Paul was gay: He states it in “Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism”. If you don’t have the book at hand, don’t worry, there was an article written about the statement: http://www.nytimes.com/1991/02/02/nyregion/was-st-paul-gay-claim-stirs-fury.html

        -Jesus married Mary Magdalene: He states this in “Born of a Woman: A Bishop Rethinks the Virgin Birth and the Treatment of Women by a Male-Dominated Church” He also explicitly supports this view when reviewing Margaret Starbird’s “The Woman with the Alabaster Jar”, which has been thoroughly discredited by competent scholars and historians. You can see his short comment on it here: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-woman-with-the-alabaster-jar-margaret-starbird/1112409128?ean=9781591438120

        That he supported the book “The Jesus Mysteries” you can see right here in the “Editorial Reviews” section: http://www.amazon.com/Jesus-Mysteries-Was-Original-Pagan/dp/0722536771

        I owe you the one where he explicitly supports Thiering’s pesher technique and her conclusions (among them that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ wife or something similar). However, once I had her book “Jesus the Man”, and I think that I read Spong’s comment in it (my memory may not be very good at this point). However, it is a fact that he did support her “scholarly” work.

  17. Avatar
    Peter  January 4, 2014


    Do you think that the author of John was a Gentile?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 6, 2014

      I think that he was probably a Jew who was alienated from the synagogue. Kicked out, actually, for his faith in Jesus.

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