Book | Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy | John Shelby Spong
In this typically lively and provocative book, John Selby (Jack) Spong has come out of writing retirement to consider the origins of biblical literalism and fundamentalism. Spong claims to have found the key that unlocks both the (non-literal) meaning of the New Testament, and the problematic history of its literalist interpretation: that Biblical literalism is a Gentile heresy, imposed on Jewish texts that were, from the outset, intended to be read symbolically.
Spong’s agenda is clear: we should return to those forms of symbolic interpretation and seek to undo the damage done by literalism. In particular, we need to recognise that the Gospels in our New Testament “are not biographies…do not contain tape recordings…are not historical chronicles” and therefore no-one who understands them “could possibly believe these narratives to be literally and entirely true.”
Following a lengthy introduction, Spong’s argument proceeds in two stages.
Part I provides an overview of critical information about the Gospels; information covered in any university course introducing the New Testament.
It also introduces the reader to the theory on which Spong will build pretty much the entire edifice of his argument.
He suggests the stories in the Gospels were probably preached as part of a ‘synagogue liturgy’ before they were written down. As such, they were originally symbolic interpretations of scriptural texts from the Jewish law and the prophets.
Spong’s key assertion is that biblical literalism begins when these Jewish symbolic stories are taken out of the synagogue and detached from a Jewish worldview. Gentiles started to read the stories literally, as descriptions of ‘what Jesus did and said’ and left us a legacy for interpretation that has had calamitous consequences.
The remainder of the book unpacks this thesis by looking at the ways in which the gospel traditions, especially in Matthew, from Jesus’ birth to Jesus’ resurrection, should be seen as subjective and symbolic interpretations of the Hebrew Bible, with little or no direct relationship to historical events.
The book is written with Spong’s customary passion, and provides a clear sense of some of the complexities involved in gospel interpretation. Much of what he argues should be affirmed.
The Gospels are not ‘history’ in any simplistic way (but then again ‘history’ isn’t simple). They do contain symbolic narratives that draw on the language and imagery of the Hebrew Bible to communicate convictions about what Jesus did and said. Spong is strong on identifying and describing such features.
The Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses. And yes, biblical literalism is a bad thing.
But the book suffers because of Spong’s insistence that these features of the gospel mean that they were never intended to tell us what happened and that, consequently, we would be foolish to draw any kind of historical conclusions about Jesus from their pages.
The argument reverts to the ‘either/or’ debates of a past generation that are problematic not only theologically, but also in the light of our understanding of the nature of history.
I venture to say that if Spong had done a little more reading in recent scholarship on the Gospels and ‘biography’ or ‘history’, his conclusions might have been more judicious (though less obviously controversial).
And the key foundation stone of the argument (derived from Michael Goulder’s work on the Gospels and early Jewish and Christian lectionaries) simply cannot support the weight that Spong places on it. We actually don’t know that such Jewish lectionaries existed in the first century CE. The parallels adduced between each Jewish feast and related sections of the Gospels are sometimes strained. The majority of New Testament scholars find the lectionary hypothesis unconvincing, and for good reason.
And the notion that Gentiles introduced ‘literalism’ is simply false on the basis of our earliest evidence. Paul was very fond of non-literal reading of texts in his Bible (just look at what he says about Hagar and Sarah in Galatians 4:21–30 for an example), and any reading of Gentile Christian writings of the second century will throw up countless examples of non-literal interpretation.
No, biblical fundamentalism is the product of a much more modern set of conditions, as, in its own way, is Spong’s attempted escape from it.
Available at: www.harpercollins.com.au/ RRP $27.99
Sean Winter is Academic Dean and Coordinator of Studies in New Testament at Pilgrim Theological College.