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Reshuffling the Gospels: Jesus According to Spong and Wilson

by Luke Timothy Johnson

Luke Timothy Johnson teaches New Testament at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 28, 1993, pps. 457-458. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Given the shoddy level of analysis and argument evidenced by these books, perhaps the most pertinent questions to ask are: Why were they written? and Why were they published by houses of at least residual reputation?

Neither book adds a single thing to the world’s knowledge about Jesus. Neither makes the slightest claim to original research. Indeed, both authors gleefully acknowledge riding as amateurs on the backs of professional scholars: A. N. Wilson pays homage to Geza Vermes, while John Spong claims as his scholarly mentors Raymond Brown, Michael Goulder and Jane Schaberg. It should be noted at once that these scholars are not responsible for the confusions perpetuated in their names. Brown, in particular, deserves better than to have his careful work on the infancy accounts in any way associated with Spong’s fantasies.

More intriguing, neither author believes either what Christianity claims about Jesus nor what the Gospels say about him. The books appear to belong to that curious subset of contemporary literature that seeks to relieve others of the burden of an explicit Christian faith that the authors themselves have found otiose. They belong on the "Religion" shelf of the ever-proliferating self-help literature produced by those recovering from every imaginable form of dysfunction and addiction.

The therapeutic tone is at least muted in Wilson, although he apparently feels compelled to share the stages of his own disaffection from faith. With Spong, however, self-referentiality is the order of the day. His desire to convert "fundamentalists" from their naive acceptance of biblical claims burns with messianic fever.

In contrast to the critical scholars to whom they so breathlessly refer as authorities for their forays into historical reconstruction, our authors share a blithe disregard for careful historical method. Instead, they follow the (by now boring) path of rationalist reduction. Historical difficulties in the text are rendered as hopeless aporia, which yield historical skepticism. The void of skepticism is then filled with inventive speculation. The speculation turns out to be not a reasonable alternative reading of the available evidence but a complete and random reshuffling of the pieces to construct a picture more satisfying to the aesthetic (Wilson) or political (Spong) sensibilities of the authors.

In Spong’s "rethinking of the birth of Jesus," the sound if unexceptional observation that the infancy narratives are late in composition and provide little significant historical information quickly becomes the claim that "what really happened" has been "covered up" by the evangelists. One might think that the natural alternative to a (unlikely) virgin birth would be a (likely) normal birth. Christians who believed that Jesus was divine exercised the widespread Hellenistic prerogative of having their hero also born exceptionally.

But Spong’s rage against "literalists," whose belief in the virgin birth and whose honor of Mary have apparently been responsible for every oppression against women in Western civilization, demands a conspiracy of more sinister and titillating character. Enter his therapeutic rereading: Mary was in reality a teenaged girl who was raped and became pregnant with an illegitimate child and was taken under the protection of Joseph. Spong offers no evidence for this speculation beyond Schaberg’s already highly tendentious appropriation of anti-Christian slanders (apparently deriving from Jewish sources) peddled in the second century by Celsus.

It is apparent, however, that Spong is not truly interested in "what really happened." His interest is in freeing Christianity from its dogmative entanglements, which he more or less identifies with fundamentalism. Spong is negative toward the birth narratives because, he suggests, they represent a displacement in Christianity which began as an Easter rather than a Christmas event. But what is Easter for Spong? Well, it seems to have been "not so muc. . . a supernatural external miracle but. . . the dawning internal realization that this life of Jesus reflected a new image of God, an image that defied the conventional wisdom, an image that called into question the exalted king as the primary analogy by which God could be understood." The resurrection as end to patriarchy via conceptual correction? Of course, Spong insists that Christians got all this wrong from the start by thinking that Jesus was divine. Now, let’s follow the argument. The infancy narratives are simply a further expression of the fundamental error that birthed Christianity? Having a bishop with these views is a little like hiring a plumber who wants to "rethink pipes."

Bishop Spong thinks he has escaped his fundamentalist past, but he has not. He remains defined by the literalism he so strenuously battles, and his vaunted "liberalism" is one confined by a tired rationalism. The reader who struggles through the repetitions, non sequiturs and self-aggrandizing narcissism is not surprised to find Spong arguing that Jesus might have been married to Mary Magdalen, and that it was his own wedding at Cana for which he was wine caterer. The depth of the bishop’s theological insight is revealed not so much by his pitifully eager insistence that a Jesus who was born illegitimate and was married to a prostitute is automatically good news for women, but by his failure to deliver on his implied promise to deal positively with the infancy accounts as religious symbolism. Most readers unobsessed with literalism find that these stories say very little about the mechanics of birth, but a great deal about the dimensions of faith in threatening circumstances. Spong’s inability or unwillingness to accomplish such a positive appropriation is not surprising, since his reductionistic reading of the resurrection has removed the premise for it.

Wilson also has a chapter on "His Wondrous Birth" but his book deals with the entire gospel story. It is much more difficult to place Wilson than the instantly identifiable Spong. On the one side, he has had a bit of Greek and a bit of theology. On the other side, his interests seem to be those of the antiquarian and curio seeker rather than those of the historian or theologian. He employs the classic distinction between Jesus, the simple Jewish teacher (here construed, from Vermes, as a Galilean chasid), and Paul, the religious genius who invented Christianity. His "Jesus of history" must therefore lack all distinctive marks except a generalized "belief in God and in Judaism." Once Jesus is collapsed completely into Judaism, of course, and once the resurrection is understood simply as a physical resuscitation and dismissed as silly, Wilson is understandably left at the end of the book with puzzlement concerning his impact: ‘We can only be surprised that an historical figure of whom so little is known should have attracted to himself a reputation such as theology would wish to give him."

In the familiar manner, Wilson seeks to destroy the surface credibility of the Christian writings in order to reconstruct "what really happened" on his own terms. He nods to the critical problems in reading the Gospels, but finds a way through the alternatives of credulity and skepticism by using a criterion of historicity that can only be designated "idiosyncratic aesthetic." Tiny details that strike Wilson’s fancy, like the "cooked fish" of John’s feeding narrative, are used to reconstruct not Jesus’ teaching, for there is nothing to be said about that, but his public ministry. Wilson follows the gospel outline, correcting this point or that and making connections on the basis of nothing much more than oddity or psychological plausibility. Thus Wilson is convinced that Paul had to know Jesus personally, and so works him into the plot against Jesus, even identifying him with Malchus of the arrest scene. Likewise, the key to the Last Supper is "the man with the pitcher" who represents Aquarius, perhaps a portent of the approaching messianic age. Jesus, Wilson thinks, must have shared the Qumran community’s interest in astrology. All this and much, much more of the same sort of stuff.

I return to my opening question. If such books offer so little beyond the vagaries of their authors’ imaginations, why are they published? Can it be that a generation of book editors shaped by the same tendencies driving these writers is no longer capable of distinguishing the fraudulent from the real, or the sincere from the cynical?


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