1 vote, average: 5.00 out of 51 vote, average: 5.00 out of 51 vote, average: 5.00 out of 51 vote, average: 5.00 out of 51 vote, average: 5.00 out of 5 (1 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)
You need to be a registered member to rate this post.

Spong’s New Book on John: Part 2

Yesterday I wrote a post in which I began to discuss the recent Huffington Post article by John Shelby Spong in which he discusses his new book on John; the book is called The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic and the article can be found this address: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-shelby-spong/gospel-of-john-what-everyone-knows-about-the-fourth-gospel_b_3422026.html?ref=topbar

Today I will finish out what I started to say yesterday.

Let me say again that I have long appreciated Spong’s work and am sympathetic to his mission. He is trying to do from inside the church something very similar to what I am trying to do outside of it: help educated lay people outside the field of biblical scholarship see what scholars – believers and non-believers alike – are saying about the New Testament.

Since Spong is operating within the church, however, and sees himself as a Christian, some of his perspectives and goals are different from mine.   At the end of the day, he is interested in reforming Christianity in order to make it sensible for the twenty-first century.  That is not my goal, since I am not a Christian.  And it is this difference that, I think (as I’ll try to explain below) that explains our different interpretations of what the author of John is trying to do.


FOR THE REST OF THIS POST, log in as a Member. If you don’t belong yet, JOIN WILL YA????

You need to be logged in to see this part of the content. Please Login to access.

On the Cutting Room Floor: Part 1
Spong’s New Book on John



  1. Avatar
    bobnaumann  June 14, 2013

    I have long been an admirer of Bishop Spong and am presently reading his new book. I have to say that you have pretty much nailed it when you said he wants to redeem the Gospel for his own pastoral purposes. My question is, was John written to support the evolving belief in the divinity of Jesus or was this Gospel of John the origin of this belief?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 15, 2013

      I think this belief was already in place long before John, as I try to show in my new book.

  2. Avatar
    Scott F  June 14, 2013

    My inkling concerning the above/again dialogue with Nicodemus, is that John uses these little “jokes” to get the readers attention. He does it again in the fourth chapter when he has Jesus say, “Go, call your husband and come back.” and then drops the punch line concerning five-plus-one “husbands.”

  3. Avatar
    toddfrederick  June 15, 2013

    Scholars disagree with each other constantly. No one is absolutely correct. And who is to say that Spong is not a scholar? He freely admits in the book that his Greek is rusty but that he took 5 years to research everything he could find by scholars to write this book and admits that he avoided John as much as possible in his pastoral role but decided to deal with it at this time..

    I understand your position. You are not a Christian, by your own admission. Bishop Spong is a Christian and is driven to relate what happened 2000 years ago to our lives today.

    Your research does not have a religious goal. His research has a religious goal.

    Except for your undergraduate students, your findings will probably not reach as many ears as you think they might. Spong, being within the church, has an avenue to make his ideas reach the common people.

    You are writing objective historical analysis. Spong is writing applied theology (my term) with a bias (bias not in the negative sense).

    My take on this is that Spong does not want to see the church die….that there is a greater truth to all of this. I think that you do not care if the church lives or dies since there is no greater truth to all of this.

    I think that may be where the two of you differ since all scholars differ on the details.


    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 15, 2013

      There’s not a biblical scholar on the planet who would say his Greek is rusty! I bet if you ask Spong himself he would admit he’s not a biblical scholar. He is one who does the valuable service of making scholarship available to the non-scholar. He does that –as you rightly note –as a pastor and Christian within the church. But he does not do it as an academician within the academic community.

      • Avatar
        toddfrederick  June 15, 2013

        Bart…I hope I did not offend you with my comment yesterday. I was trying to make a distinction between you, as a scholar, and Bishop Spong as a learned pastor.

        To be very honest about this, I do not know what constitutes a “scholar”…is it just the knowledge of ancient languages, or being a part of an academic community, or publishing books for others of similar rank in the academic community, or can the term “scholar” have a broader meaning? Can a church pastor also be a scholar? What is the criteria (might make a good topic to post on your blog). All I know is that I don’t know.

        I went to seminary with the intention of getting into archaeology but soon discovered a fact about me that I should have known all along…I have a terrible time learning languages. My Greek is very rusty (to non-existent) so I went into the parish ministry, then into public school teaching and produced a small photographic business, though I never gave up learning. Learning is a life long proposition. I know that I am not a scholar, but I would say that Bishop Spong is more of a scholar than Billy Graham and much more than me.

        Bishop Spong does not claim to be a scholar…I agree….and what he does he does very well…I also agree with you on that.

        After writing my comment last night I thought about what I said very deeply and I have to go back to what I have thought about myself and humanity since as long as I can remember:

        No human being on this planet, in all times past or present or future, can or will know everything about everything or know the absolute truth about anything. We are all finite creatures sharing DNA with countless other finite creatures, and all come at life from very different perspectives. We can not know the “Mind of God” (as Einstein and Adam so hoped to do) because we are finite and God (whatever God might be) is infinite.

        With that in mind, your ideas based on your research may be quite different from those of James Tabor of Sincha Jacobovici, or Albert Schweitzer or Rudolph Bultmann or Bishop Spong…and least of al,l me. I’m just learning, just a beginner, and always will be.

        I thought your overview of Bishop Spong’s new book was superb…you were honest, and, as always encouraging. The two of you don’t agree on everything and that’s the way it should be.

        I think that one of my big issues with our absolutist friends is that they seem to think that there is only one truth and everyone has to agree on that one truth. Diversity is good, intellectual evolution is good and, as the apostle Paul said, “we see now through a dark glass, but then we will see face to face.” Plato’s Allegory Of The Cave says the same thing, to me, about our totally inadequate knowledge of reality.

        What I love about you and Spong, and Tabor and Simcha and all those who seriously pursue knowledge is that we don’t all agree, and that makes learning all of this very exciting.

        Blessings, Todd

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  June 16, 2013

          No offense taken! I would say that normally a scholar is someone who has advanced training in a discipline (as you know, and MDiv doesn’t give a person that) and who publishes peer-reviewed works of scholarship with scholarly apparatus that advance our knowledge and that are written for scholars. Pastors certainly can be scholars if they meet these requirements, but not by virtue of being pastors. On these grounds Tabor is a scholar and Simcha definitely is not. Bultmann and Schweitzer were, Spong is not.

      • Avatar
        bobnaumann  June 15, 2013

        Nor does he claim to.

  4. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  June 15, 2013

    I am so glad that you made the very positive comments about Spong. He may not be a trained Bible “scholar” in the sense of getting a doctorate and doing academic research, but I think he is a Bible “scholar” in the sense that he has studied and learned a lot of stuff and summarizes it and transmits it well. However, I really don’t understand the “new Christianity” of which he writes.

  5. Avatar
    gavm  June 15, 2013

    yeah it seems alot of left minded christains make this argument. in the end they come up with arguments that are as illogical as the fundamentalist. on a differnet note would you considered writting a post on the idea of Hell, especially where it comes from in the NT? thank you

  6. Avatar
    raskel  June 15, 2013

    Dr. Ehrman:

    What do you mean by literal? How do you know the author of John (presuming there was one) was writing in a literal fashion? How do you know there wasn’t an exoteric and an esoteric meaning? How do you know his approach was not akin to someone like Plato or Philo? How do you know that the miracles weren’t intentionally exaggerated? What does the last verse of John mean literally? Does it have any significance with respect to the interpretation of the rest of the Gospel? What does the absence of Jesus casting out demons say about John? What is all this logos stuff if John is just a toothless hillbilly writing fairy tales for the gullible?

    There is a Protestant myth that Jesus/ the Apostotles and Paul had it down/ then it got butchered for 1500 years until some European peasants figured it all out again. But another hypothesis is that there was actually historical continuity between the human authors of the Gospels and folks like Origen or Pseudo-Dionysius or Gregory of Nyssa. The patristic authors most definitely rejected the Protestant “literal” interpretation of the Bible. Why would the Moody Bible College reading of John be more authentic than say Origen’s? (I’ve stated before I believe–as a historical proposition–that Christianity was a symbolic and mystical way of seeing God/ e.g. a hermeneutic/ not the recitation of a set of historical propositions about a man who lived in ancient times. Certainly/ this view is consistent with Irenaeus. This viewpoint is certainly evident in Alexandria commencing in the second century and really continued until the Reformation and the Enlightenment in the West . . . and is still on-going in the Eastern Church.)

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 15, 2013

      “Literal” in the ancient world was understood to be a reading “according to the word” — where words meant what they typically meant, not symbolically something else. Plato and Philo intended their words to be read literally, as did just about every author we know of from the ancient world (I can’t think of exceptions: maybe you know of some?).

      • Avatar
        donmax  June 15, 2013

        How about Aesop’s Fables or Plato’s Allegory of the Cave??? 🙂

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  June 16, 2013

          Yes, these are certainly fiction. I’m not saying that there was no fiction in the ancient world! The Greek novels are among my favorite pieces of ancient literature. And of course the plays of Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus, and — well lots and lots. But these are *genres* that are meant to be fiction: writers wrote them that way and readers (always) read them that way. And so the question is entirely one of genre. There is wide agreement today that the Gospels are, in terms of genre, ancient biographies. Biographies were not fictional pieces but are meant to be historical accounts. For full discussion of the Gospels as biographies, the best treatment is still Richard Burridge, What Are The Gospels: Comparison with Greco-Roman Biography.

          • Avatar
            donmax  June 16, 2013

            “Wide agreement” doesn’t count for much sometimes. When it comes to fiction and nonfiction the distinction is not absolute. Ancient biographies are different from modern biographies. So different, I would say, that they do not belong in the same category as what we might consider contemporary nonfiction. Whether or not they were “meant” to be historical accounts is irrelevant to the issue. As far as the Gospels are concerned they are a genre unto themselves, a one-sided mix of fiction and non-fiction, hear-say, fictionalized history and propaganda. Moreover, they are a LITERARY classification, something to which I give a literal interpretation.

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  June 17, 2013

            Yes, ancient biographies are very different from modern ones. The Gospels are of the ancient variety, and need to be rad as such. Ancient biographies were not allegories.

          • Avatar
            donmax  June 19, 2013

            Hope you and your mom hauled in some “real” trout and not just a humungous allegorical one like the fish that caught Jonah.

            If we keep that distinction is mind, maybe we can make some headway about literary distinctions and what constitutes reliable history. It can’t be just a matter of categorizing literature into its various components, nor does it depend solely upon the intentions of the writers. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, whoever they really were, may, as you say, have thought they were telling the truth about Jesus, and THAT EVERYTHING THEY WROTE ACTUALLY HAPPENED. (If they didn’t think this way all the time, as I believe, there’s no way to prove it except to extrapolate from our modern understanding of the limitations of testimony and what we now know about the psychological motivations of suspect storytellers.)

            Even if we do admit that to the authors the cast of characters were actual flesh-and-blood human beings who were thought of as players in a very real drama, including real miracles, it doesn’t mean that what was claimed to have happened really did happen, or that what was spoken and subsequently written down was somehow an accurate reflection of history. It may have been “true life” to the writers and to many of their readers, but as Gershwin said “It ain’t necessarily so.” In other words, “whatever yer lible to read in the bible” could well be “fictional” nonfiction. 🙂

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  June 22, 2013

            I hope you have not inferred that I think history is to be done by making literary distinctions and trying to ascertain authorial intention!!! Or that what someone says happened is probably what happened. GOOD GRIEF!!!

          • Avatar
            donmax  June 24, 2013

            Of course, not. But let’s keep things in context, shall we? In this instance you attempted to clarify disagreements you have with Rev. Spong’s interpretations of the Gospel of John. From my point of view, this reveals, more precisely, where you seem to be coming from with respect to biblical narratives as they relate to history.

            The issue hinges on whether or not John intended his words to be interpreted literally or otherwise. You think he did, Spong takes the opposite position, and I see two men making judgments based upon their own projections and presuppositions.

            With Spong we are helped to see where he’s coming from for the reasons you provide, but in your case it’s more difficult because you seem to have a blind spot when it comes to the mind and the motives of the author. For you, John really thinks his words should be taken verbatim as factual descriptions of what happened. The Nicodemus/born-again story and Jesus’ turning water into wine are two examples, as is the healing of a blind man and the incarnation of God – gospel formulations you assume to be not only non-fictional, but ancient biographies, which “were not fictional pieces but are meant to be historical accounts.” Why??? Because “there is nothing in the text to suggest the author doesn’t mean what he says or that he expects his reader to laugh off his stories as obvious fictions.”

            Now, I know you love great fiction, but if you have ever tried to write any, you’d understand that no novelist wants what he writes to be laughed off as obvious fictions. Like any other storyteller John could well have been inventing things (fictionalizing them) in order to persuade people that what he was writing was historically true, and “nothing but the truth!” Bishop Spong is therefore correct about how John’s gospel was ultimately interpreted by the Church. As he says, “[T]he Fourth Gospel has been used in Christian history as the guarantor of what came to be called Christian orthodoxy or creedal Christianity. 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.” And you are right in claiming that John likely wanted it that way. But it is a mistake to suggest that we who live the modern era should also start from the presumption of a mostly biographical rather than fictional history .

            At best your assumption is only partially correct, because John (and the other New Testament writers) had other more important intentions; namely, to reinterpret certain of the Old Testament prophesies, to reformulate the salvific teachings of a messianic-apocalyptic Jesus, and to reassert God’s judgment against the Jews in favor of Gentiles. Readers (and listeners) in the past did not bisect and re-dissect the meaning of words as you and other scholars tend to do. In most cases they accepted what they read and/or heard at face value.

            I say this because, in order for any reader to fully understand what’s been written, he or she must move from a literal to the figurative (or symbolic) level of understanding. This happened historically, though much too slowly, and it almost always happens individually to some degree. But John is not “inviting [us] to understand the deeper, real meaning of his words.” The task requires it!!! People don’t see the deeper meaning of words by always taking them literally, which is why you switch back and forth to explain John’s literal intentions before jumping to so many non-literal judgments of your own.

            As you say, “Literal” in the ancient world was understood to be a reading ‘according to the word’ — where words meant what they typically meant, not symbolically something else.” But if that was John’s intent (and your point), how does one distinguish between a physical birth and a heavenly one? Which readers are best equipped to fully understand the distinction? And, how does the average reader or a professional historian separate fiction that is *true* from nonfiction that is *false*?

      • Avatar
        raskel  June 15, 2013

        Plato intended the creation myth in the Timaeus to be interpreted literally? The Republic Book X–Plato really thought we all live in a cave? Iamblichus passing himself off as the Egyptian prophet Abamon in De mysteriis–was he a liar trying to hide his ideas behind ancient Egyptian wisdom–or did he a different understanding of meaning and authorship and text from we enlightened modern people?

        Philo was influenced by Greek philosophy and made a distinction between the literal and the allegorical understanding and he talked about the Logos prior to John. Does it defy historical probability that the human author of John may have been influenced by Greek philosophy and Greek ideas about interpreting sacred texts/ and deliberately incorporated those ideas when he wrote the Gospel of John? Is reverse engineering inconceivable here? I note he scrubbed out the exorcism of demons which are in the Synoptic Gospels.

        I guess what I am saying is Greek philosophy was old in the time of Jesus. Greek philosophy had a very different understanding of myth and meaning than the one shared by historical critics of the bible and biblical fundamentalists. Paul and John were both clearly highly educated and familiar with Greek rhetoric and probably some Greek philosophy/ and it is not impossible that they were reading the OT from hermeneutical ideas similar to Philo/ and that these ideas influenced the text of the Pauline Epistles and the Gospel. The real historical question is this: was Origen and Alexandrian Christianity an anomaly occurring two centuries of X-tianity/ which imported philosophical elements alien to Christianity for the first time/ or were those elements already present in St. Paul and the Gospel of John? If so/ then the meaning of these texts is much more complex.

        For the record/ I agree with your comments about the author of John probably believing in the miracle accounts and the incarnation. However/ I agree with Spong that the significance of the miracles was not in the historical fact that they happened (or didn’t happen).

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  June 16, 2013

          Yes, Plato’s myths are certainly fiction. I’m not saying that there was no fiction in the ancient world! The Greek novels are among my favorite pieces of ancient literature. And of course the plays of Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus, and — well lots and lots. But these are *genres* that are meant to be fiction: writers wrote them that way and readers (always) read them that way. And so the question is entirely one of genre. There is wide agreement today that the Gospels are, in terms of genre, ancient biographies. Biographies were not fictional pieces but are meant to be historical accounts. For full discussion of the Gospels as biographies, the best treatment is still Richard Burridge, What Are The Gospels: Comparison with Greco-Roman Biography.

          There is also a fundamental difference between an author who writes an allegory and an interpreter who employs allegorical methods of interpretation for works that were not written as allegories.

          • Avatar
            raskel  June 16, 2013

            There is a distinction between (1) a literal factual narrative and (2) a fictional narrative which addresses a factual matter.

            There is (or was) a third beast/ a symbolic narrative/ which stands beyond the facts/ as it were/ such as Plato’s cave/ and is true irrespective of how the facts stand. Plato does not seem to regard myth as silly stories that superstitious people believe/ but rather fundamental cultural narratives–you might say archetypes–without which you have no culture. John Scotus Erigena distinguished between mysterium and symbolum. One is a narrative/ the other “is established in the discourses of spiritual teaching but not in sensible deeds.” The second kind was far more important to Erigena/ as well as most Christians who wrote intellectual works from Origen through the middle ages. The metaphysical presuppositions of modernity make this point of view difficult (true means established in sensible deeds) but not for pre-modern intellectuals who had a different point of view.

            Erigena’s concept of symbolum is rooted in Greek philosophy. These ideas were available in the Roman Empire at the time the Gospels were written as well as in the Jewish community. The historical issue is the extent to which the influence of the idea of symbolum was present in the human authors of the NT or whether this was a later accretion to the tradition. I mentioned previously Strang’s book on Pseudo-Dionysius (published by Oxford)/ which makes a clear case that Pseudo-Dionysius’s work is clearly a manifestation of a prior understanding in Christendom/ arguably dating back to Paul himself. Perhaps you should consider a book review of Strang’s book/ Apophasis and Psuedonymity in Dionysius the Aeropagate since his take on these issues is different from yours/ and he is a “real scholar” unlike myself.

            I have a great respect for your erudition and have enjoyed reading several of your books and your great courses lectures. My readings in ancient Christian writers (in translation) and selective readings of secondary literature has caused me to have doubts about some of your assumptions in approaching the manuscripts. I am not saying you are wrong/ I am saying it seems like you are ignoring some of the evidence/ and thus would be curious if you tackled a book like Strang’s whether you would say its all hogwash and provide some historical rationale or whether you would re-examine some of your assumptions.

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  June 17, 2013

            I think you’re misreading me, in your various comments. I’m not denying that the Gospels are trying to convey religious/theological/philosophical truths. I’m making a much simpler point. Ancient biographies were not allegories. When John’s Gospel narrates Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus, it is not an allegory: the author understands that this conversaation actually took place and he expects his reader to think so as well.

      • Avatar
        FrankJay71  June 16, 2013

        I while back I believe I read Philo’s allegorical interpretation of Genesis. In particular, I recall that he was of the opinion that when Moses wrote of the six day creation of the world he chose the number 6 because it has significance as “the first perfect number.” I believe he had a lot of other examples of where he believed Moses was not being literal. So It seems he was at least familiar with symbolic writing.
        When I was a kid, my dad took a college class on the bible. His professor taught them that at the time the bible was written it was understood that writers wrote to convey a message and were not concerned with conveying facts. My sense is that you don’t hold this view at all, and that you think the writers of the gospels believed they were writing the “gospel truth”. Is that correct?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  June 16, 2013

          Yes, I don’t think they thought they were writing fiction. Here’s a reply to a another (related) comment on the topic:

          Yes, Plato’s myths are certainly fiction. I’m not saying that there was no fiction in the ancient world! The Greek novels are among my favorite pieces of ancient literature. And of course the plays of Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus, and — well lots and lots. But these are *genres* that are meant to be fiction: writers wrote them that way and readers (always) read them that way. And so the question is entirely one of genre. There is wide agreement today that the Gospels are, in terms of genre, ancient biographies. Biographies were not fictional pieces but are meant to be historical accounts. For full discussion of the Gospels as biographies, the best treatment is still Richard Burridge, What Are The Gospels: Comparison with Greco-Roman Biography.

          There is also a fundamental difference between an author who writes an allegory and an interpreter who employs allegorical methods of interpretation for works that were not written as allegories

  7. Avatar
    raskel  June 15, 2013

    I wonder what one would conclude in reading of the Gospels if instead of viewing Christianity as a unique religion of antiquity/ we thought about it as a species in the genus of Neoplatonic ancient mystery religions superficially syncretized with Judaism.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 15, 2013

      Yes, some have argued that. Most scholars do not think of Christianity as “unique” — if by that you mean “completely unlike anything else.” But Neoplatonism did not yet exist at the time of the rise of Christianity and the enormous scholarship done by experts on mystery religions has shown that they probably had very little indeed to do with Christianity in its early stages.

      • Avatar
        raskel  June 15, 2013

        If you have any good book suggestions/ I would appreciate it. Saying Neoplatonism is a bit imprecise/ but there was this ancient medley of stoicism/ platonism and other philosophy which culminated in Neoplatonism (and then Orthodox Christianity). You’ve got me trumped because I don’t know enough ancient languages in any case.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  June 16, 2013

          Yup, I’m happy to recommend books (though I’m away from home now, and may not be able to do so off the top of my head, depending on what you want). What specific areas are you thinking of?

          • Avatar
            raskel  June 16, 2013

            I am interested in scholarly works on what we really know about the ancient mystery religions and ancient polytheism and also on the question of what impact/ if any/ these religious systems had on the development of Christianity. It is pretty clear that the Church in Corinth was experimenting with spirit channeling and trance-possession work that was similar to preexisting rites of pagan oracles/ for example. My suspicion is that Christianity (the religion/ not the Jewish sect) was a iteration of pagan religiosity syncretized with Judaism and the dispute concerned how far to syncretize. But maybe there were parallels in Judaism too (which was more Hellenic than “Judeo” at that time). I am also interested in learning what I can about the Alexandrian school.

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  June 17, 2013

            There is an abundant literature on the ancient mystery religions by scholars who have devoted their lives to their study. For a start you might try the anthology of ancient texts by Marvin Meyer, The Ancient Mysteries. You may be surprised to see how little actual information survives….

  8. Avatar
    pdahl  June 15, 2013

    It will be interesting to see if Spong’s work from inside Christianity influences its future direction in any of the ways he envisions. To the extent that Christians are already emotionally invested in their religious beliefs, however, I suspect that many/most may never want to even consider Spong’s unothodox insights, let alone embrace them, for fear of their faith being changed or watered down. For example, a good pastor friend of mine has felt that Spong is essentially throwing out the baby [Jesus] with the scriptural bathwater, whereas I tend to see Spong as trying to *save* the baby *from* the bathwater [of literalized scripture]. Right there can be seen theological battle lines, which are friendly in our case but so much in many other settings.

  9. Avatar
    Beatle792  June 15, 2013

    It would seem to me that the author of John wrote down the beliefs of the Johannine community. The way the Jesus was treated by “the Jews” actually happened to the community and not to Jesus himself. And the fact that most of the events in John weren’t in the Synoptics begs the question WHERE they got their beliefs. In one of your books that I have you mentioned the author did have a couple of sources. Would you talk about that a little more here for us? and how about (since we’re on John) something more about the prologue? that would be fun!

  10. Avatar
    Wilusa  June 15, 2013

    About Jesus’s “miracles”…

    We know that in recent centuries, there have been phony “healers” (who would, for example, use “plants” among an assembled group to fake having ailments and being cured of them). Do you think such things took place in Jesus’s time as well? And if other preachers were faking miracles, do you think it possible Jesus – even if his intended message was more praiseworthy – might have felt a need to do it too?

    If you suspected he’d done that, would you still consider him an “amazing moral teacher”?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 15, 2013

      Yes, we do have accounts of phony healers from antiquity. There’s nothing to suggest that Jesus was one of them, but then again our sources of information are not the *kinds* of sources that would give such suggestions. still, I think there would need to be some evidence before Jesus could be put in that camp.

      • Avatar
        donmax  June 15, 2013

        The idea of “phony healers” is a bit of an overstatement, I think, if one means to imply charlatanism or willful deceit. In primitive cultures “healers,” whatever you choose to call them, are part and parcel of the healing experience. For them, for the audience and for those who are “healed,” the healing is real. It doesn’t mean people are being duped or tricked or victimized for underhanded reasons. The point is, or should be, that if Jesus was an actual practitioner of “the healing arts,” whether overstated or not, he probably would have been a good one. 🙂

  11. Avatar
    Wilusa  June 15, 2013

    Is this too OT? I’m remembering that a couple posts back, someone expressed a wish that there could be DNA studies of Palestinians and modern Israeli Jews…hoping they’d prove to have a lot in common.

    As I understand it, the Palestinians are descended from Arabs who entered the region after a Muslim conquest (about 1300 years ago?), *and* people who were already there (Christian in religion, but many of them probably descended from the earlier Jewish population).

    In the several hundred years before the 20th century, there came to be a minority of Jews who’d been expelled from Spain and Portugal. Their ancestors *had* been part of a long-ago diaspora from Palestine: they were returning. And there was little or no conflict between them and their Muslim neighbors.

    But most of the Jewish Israeli population now consists of Ashkenazi Jews (those whose ancestors lived elsewhere in Europe), either immigrants or descendants of recent immigrants. The heavy flow of immigrants began while the region was under British occupation. I’ve seen a claim (I can’t vouch for it) that a DNA study has shown that Ashkenazi Jews are more closely related to the peoples of Turkey and Eastern Europe than to those of the Middle East. They may or may not have had ancestors who were part of the diaspora.

    In the 8th or 9th century CE, an Eastern European region called Khazaria converted to Judaism at the behest of its ruler (who’d been considered divine). Some claim that many Ashkenazi Jews are descended from Khazars rather than from long-ago refugees from Palestine. But that’s a very controversial theory!

  12. Avatar
    raskel  June 16, 2013

    A factual belief has the form of “P is true” and one can construct truth conditions which tend to falsify or to verify the truth of P. We can say in this context that the meaning of P is clearly established. For example/ “Shakespeare is the author of Hamlet is true.” We can also talk about something being probably true or false.

    A religious belief has the same grammatical form/ but cannot be falsified or verified with reference to truth conditions. That is to say/ the meaning of a religious belief can never be clearly and definitively established. Further/ when there is a change in the empirical or metaphysical assumptions of a community/ there is a change in the meaning of religious beliefs (this is the way that they can always remain true). No one alive today understands Christ in the same way the author of John understood Christ. However/ Christ remains a symbol to Christians. The best we can do is to try to reconstruct what John’s empirical and metaphysical beliefs were/ in order to understand how John understood Christ. The question is/ was John self-consciously aware that “Christ” “Logos” was a symbol or was did his writing view “Christ” as merely a mysterium or historical narrative. I believe the narrative suggests that he intended a symbolic account as is suggested by the prologue and the last verse/ e.g. salvation in Christ is about meaning (and what is beyond it) and not about what we moderns call truth (and which the ancients/ following Plato/ would call opinion).

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 17, 2013

      See my earlier reply to your other comment. I don’t disagree that religious truths are different from other kinds of truths. I’m simply saying that John is an ancient biography, not a theological tractate without a historical narrative. It is in fact a historical narrative in the ancient genre of religoius biography, and needs to be read in like of its genre, not in light of some other kind of genre.

      • Avatar
        donmax  June 28, 2013

        What you are saying is *simply* untrue! When you emphasize that John is an “ancient biography,” the label is misleading by today’s standards, and only half true. It may be old or “belonging to times long past,” but it is nonetheless antiquated, obsolescent, and non-biographical in any modern sense of truth telling, whatever the author’s intention. The only people who accept your description are Christian apologists who have been promoting these sorts of unhistorical/ biographical narratives as factual fulfillments of Jewish prophesies for far too many unpalatable centuries.

        Don’t you find it strange that Jews reject your professorial judgment? They see John and the Synoptic gospels as the contrivances they have always been, and not the least bit biographical, or even remotely historical. Technically, you can call them what you will, but that only serves to give them the legitimacy they don’t deserve.

        If fundamentalist Christians or former Christians like yourself, or secular humanists, want to see them as an “ancient genre of religious biography,” they might as well be talking about “the ancient genre of religious propaganda.” It still adds up to *false* categorization!!!

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  June 28, 2013

          You might want to read some scholarship on the issue before making your pronouncements. I’d suggest starting with Richard Burridge’s book.

          • Avatar
            donmax  June 28, 2013

            You must be kidding. Burridge is an apologist for the Church of England. I’m familiar with some of what he’s written, and no expert by any means, but it seems to me he reads an awful lot, symbolically speaking, into the four gospels in order to distill one *unified* historical Christ. If you are depending on him to add weight to your Genre Hypothesis, you’ve picked the wrong man, I think. He’s certainly and most definitely NOT someone who’s unbiased on this subject. Intelligent, yes, and inventive, but like almost all establishment Christians, someone with an axe to grind. 🙁

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  June 30, 2013

            An apologist for the Church of England? What in the world are you thinking of? And you evidently haven’t read his book. When you do so, we can have a conversation about it.

          • Avatar
            donmax  July 1, 2013

            Before I embark on a “conversation” about Richard Burridge and some of his ideas, I’d like to get clear about his connection to the Church of England and the fact that he’s just another apologist defending the Faith, both of which includes *excusing* the faithful for all the bad things they once did, first, because they failed to “use the Bible Properly,” and second, because they didn’t look closely enough “at its 1st century context.” Professor Burridge is not only a professor, but an ordained priest who represents the University of London at the Church of England’s General Synod, a man not unlike Cardinal Ratzinger in the Roman Catholic Church, who chairs the Christian Evidence Society, and who frequently appears on tv and other media outlets “to discuss theology and church affairs.” (With respect to this last statement, it is more accurate to say he thus promotes and defends his religion.) In short, he’s a card-carrying apologist!

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  July 1, 2013

            You obviously don’t know him and haven’t read his work. I’ve known him for probably 15 years and have read his work, and when you say that he is an apologist defending the Church of England, I simply don’t know what you’re talking about. So let me repeat: what are you referring to? Or are you just assuming that if an author is ordained he is therefore an apologist rather than a historian?

          • Avatar
            donmax  July 2, 2013

            I know you know him. At any rate I figured you must be connected, given what you’ve shared about your family relations in England and how many times you wrote about his eminence as a scholar. I will even grant that he’s a prince among men. Individual Christians, especially church officials, are frequently decent people on some level, but just as often they are quite the opposite, or merely disguised salesmen trying to perpetuate the myth of what’s good for today’s world — namely, Christian scriptures and Christian values. I happen to believe Christian writings are the root cause of unspeakable horrors that should never be ignored or forgotten.

            It should be obvious to you that I do not know your friend. So why state the obvious? It’s also plain to me that you have bought into what he’s peddling, a genre theory that equates the Christian gospels with Greco-Roman biographies. I don’t buy it, myself, but whether or not it’s true is certainly debatable. What matters to me is the continued promotion of Christian narratives to a level of legitimacy they do not deserve. This is what I most object to. Christianity had it’s chance and failed miserably! Nothing Dr. Burridge has argued will change my opinion, but because you ask, I’m willing to give it a “re-think.” Not at present, however. Right now I’m enjoying a family gathering celebrating the birth of our nation. It’s too much fun to be interrupted.
            p.s. Yes, with rare exceptions, as history has proven, men ordained by the Church (English or Roman) are apologists for the god and the sacred texts and the holy fathers they serve. Would that it were not so! 🙁

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  July 2, 2013

            His book is thoroughly scholarly and has nothing apologetic in it; it is a careful historical analysis, and if you have some actual, real objections to that analysis, I’m sure we’d all be happy to hear them; and if you have an alternative explanation as to the generic classification of the Gospels, that might contribute something to the discussion as well.

          • Avatar
            donmax  July 2, 2013

            I have no doubt about the scholarship. I’m sure it’s up to snuff in that regard. What I find objectionable is the notion that to *properly* understand our Christian gospels we must first filter them through the mind-set of ancient readers and writers rather than by means of modern standards and values. The theory that they belong to a literary genre called Greco-Roman Biography (only recently codified), especially in a world where 97% of the population was totally illiterate and where literacy only reached 15% under the best of conditions during the golden age of Athens, is both arguable and inconclusive. Even if your professor friend is right, which I personally doubt, it doesn’t change what these documents really are, historically speaking. Nor should we forget about his stated purpose, something he recently shared with a young seminarian as follows: “I’m glad to hear that you feel the scholarship helps with your ministry – this is indeed the driving force behind most of my writing.” I’m confident it is the driving force behind almost everything he does or tries to do, but that is precisely the problem from where I sit.

            For me, the gospels are indeed unique, not because they are “good news,” but because they have always been “bad news” for Jews and other nonbelievers. They represent an extraordinary genre unto themselves, by virtue of what they attempt to describe, as much as any particular literary form they may or may not belong to. What we have are “pseudo-bio-graphical descriptions” about someone called Jesus Christ, a character whose real name was Yeshua, meaning Joshua. As such, it is HIS STORY, and that alone makes the writing UNIQUELY INCOMPARABLE!, not to mention the unique religious flavor of the theological stew being brewed.

            No one else was promoting the life and times of this miracle-making Jewish messiah, and none of the examples of “popular biographies” provided by RB, bear anything but superficial resemblances. The life of Jesus, may be likened in some respects, categorically speaking, to other ancient narratives, but it is nonetheless dramatically and stylistically different, such that it is analogous to the Duck-billed Platypus of written communication.

            As far as his scholarly methodology is concerned, how can anyone do justice to the truth without considering the historical impact of what’s being studied and/or compared? Did any other narrative have the same impact on western civilization?? Of course not! Were the Lives of Suetonius or the Discourses of Plato equal to “God’s Holy Word”??? or the life and times of “God’s only begotten Son”???? I’m certain Burridge doesn’t think so. And if the gospels are not unique, and if we only look at Jesus from a purely Greco-Roman perspective, how can anyone alive today possibly swallow Burridge’s claim that “Christ died for everyone”?

            …more to come, if you wish, but I’d appreciate hearing your summation of Burridge’s scholarly arguments to the contrary of what I have suggested. 

  13. Avatar
    raskel  June 16, 2013

    Here is a good example of what I am talking about. Henry VIII was a historic personage who happened to be King of England. We can view Henry VIII as a king in the historic sense. We can also view Henry VIII as an icon or symbol of kingship/ a manifestation of the qualities of kingship in the world.

    When the writers of the Gospels claim that Jesus is the King of the Jews (or Messiah) I don’t believe they are making a fictional historical claim. They know full well that Herod and his heirs were the kings/ and they know full well that their audience knows it too. The claim that Jesus is the Messiah is a symbolic claim not a historical one. Likewise/ I believe the human author of John was not trying to tell a true historical story about the life of Jesus/ he was trying to tell a true symbolic story about the meaning of Jesus’s life. The problem for modern readers is that we can’t comprehend any sense of meaning or truth outside of a binary historical one/ which makes a text like John very difficult no matter how many ancient languages we can read.

  14. Avatar
    bobnaumann  June 17, 2013

    Spong raises some interesting questions about the historicity of some of the characters that do not show up elsewhere in the NT but are introduced by John in conjunction with the seven signs that serve to illustrate the divinity of Jesus.  For example, Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, who Jesus raised after he had been dead for four days and the body had already started to decay.  Mary and Martha also appear in Luke but no mention was made that they had a brother.  It seems incredulous that such a momentous event could have escaped the attention of Luke and the other synoptic writers.  Or was this Lazarus, as Spong suggests, a fictional character introduced by John to chide the Temple Jews for not accepting the divinity of Christ?


    Another example, did the Samaritan woman at the well really have five husbands as Jesus stated?  Or was the woman the symbol for Samaria and the five husbands were the five cities in Samaria to which the King of Assyria sent exiled priests to restore the proper worship (see II Kings 17:24)? Conversation at the well often led to marriage proposals in Jewisf tradition and Spong sees Jesus as the bidegrom offering “living water” to Symaria.

    Spong seems to have an uncanny knowledge of the OT and believes that many of the events in the NT are retelling of events in the OT that the Jewish readers would be familiar with.

  15. Avatar
    FrankB57  June 27, 2013

    Bart, you’re an incredibly patient teacher, besides being one of the world’s leading religious scholars (specific to Christianity). Thanks for offering this blog. I have thoroughly enjoyed it.

    As a recovering fundamentatist evangelical Christian, reading your posts has helped shore up gaps in what I thought I understood relating to the bible as the foundation to my faith, to a great extint, and as a lay leader during my fundy church days.

    Eventually, despite my best efforts to cling to my cherrished beliefs, misguided by my own religious fantasies, truth won out. What I discovered thanks to you and many other after mid-life, is that the good news, the really good news, is we are all here together for a short while and we need to make the best of things for each other while we can. Suffering with faith as a hopelessly flawed epistemology, need not continue. And it is o.k. to leave what hurts you. So, thank you again for sharing your talents and helping those of us who would prefer a less toxic ideology or none at all, remain confident with our choices.

    On another happy note, my daughter starts her first semester at UNC-CH this Fall and I’m hoping to persuade her to consider taking one of your classes. If she does, I’d hope to sit in on a class and say hello to you myself one day. We live just a few miles away in lovely Mebane, NC.


    P.S. And you’d be a welcome guest with your other fans at our local RR gatherings in Durham, if you ever have a spare first Wednesday night to share a pitcher of beer with us at Satisfaction at BrigthLeaf Square. .

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 28, 2013

      Ah, beer sounds lovely just now. Wish I could! (I just realized that I’m not home for a solid week straight for the entire summer….) And yes, your daughter — whatever her interests, should definitely take some Religious Studies courses; they are some of the university’s best.

  16. Avatar
    toejam  August 21, 2013

    I’ve just finished reading Spong’s book. Of the six earliest gospels (the canonicals plus Thomas & Peter), John was the one I was least familiar with in terms of scholarly deconstructions and opinions. So I really enjoyed that aspect of the book. I liked his approach. He basically goes through the gospel chapter by chapter, discusses different scholarly opinions on the scenes/characters in question, and then goes on to say which of those he finds most compelling (which is typically whichever view fits his “expanding human consciousness” view of the Christian tradition, which gets a little tiresome). Sometimes I was very much in agreement with his conclusions, other times I felt he was trying to force it a bit. But regardless, I feel so much more informed about the Gosel of John now.

  17. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  September 6, 2015

    I know I am a latecomer to these posts, but I shall comment nonetheless. I had the opportunity to participate in a radio interview with Bishop Spong shortly after his book on Jesus for unbelievers was published.I asked him why, given that all four canonical gospels present a fictionalized Jesus, most of whose words and actions reveal nothing of the historicsl man, he wants nonchristians, or Christians for that matter, to look to Jesus for inspiration. Do we not have more relevant time models in the likes of Dr. King, Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, or Benazir Bhutto? Spong could only reply that Jesus is still very important to him. Can you help me make sense of that?

    • Avatar
      SidDhartha1953  September 7, 2015

      I meant role models, not time models.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 7, 2015

      Literary figures can be as important as historical ones. As can historical ones about whom important legends are told.

  18. Avatar
    crt112@gmail.com  January 2, 2020

    Hi Bart
    I’ve got a copy of Spong’s Liberating the Gospels.
    Spong suggests the gospels closely resemble events and timelines in the Jewish calendar and proposes that readers would have been well aware of the commonalities between the gospels and Jewish life. We have lost the meaning because we dont understand the Jewish context. ( thats my summary anyway)
    Have you read it ?
    What did you think ?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 2, 2020

      Yes, that was a theory floated around for a while in some scholarly circles, but it never gained a lot of traction. One reason is that we know almost nothing about Jewish calendars in the first century. Another is that most of these authors (definitely mark and luke I would say, possibly Matthew) were not even Jewish and did not seem to understand even basic Jewish customs (e.g., Mark 6 claiing that all Jews washed their hands before eating)

You must be logged in to post a comment.