Item description for Born of a Woman by John Shelby Spong...
Overview Presenting a carefully researched examination of the Immaculate Conception and the birth of Christ, the author of Living in Sin? challenges male-dominated interpretations of the Virgin Birth. Reprint.
Publishers Description John Shelby Spong, bestselling author and Episcopal bishop of Newark, NJ, challenges the doctrine of the virgin birth, tracing its development in the early Christian church and revealing its legacy in our contemporary attitudes toward women and female sexuality.
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More About John Shelby Spong
John Shelby Spong was the Episcopal Bishop of Newark before his retirement in 2000. As a visiting lecturer at Harvard and at universities and churches throughout the English-speaking world, he is one of the leading spokespersons for liberal Christianity. His books include Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World, Jesus for the Non-Religious, A New Christianity for a New World, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, Why Christianity Must Change or Die and his autobiography, Here I Stand. He has initiated landmark discussions of controversies within the church and has become an outspoken advocate for change.
John Shelby Spong currently resides in Newark, in the state of New Jersey. John Shelby Spong was born in 1931.
Reviews - What do customers think about Born of a Woman?
Scholarly, Provocative, and Informative Aug 8, 2006
John Shelby Spong's 1992 book is subtitled "A Bishop rethinks the birth of Jesus" and in it he hopes to concentrate exclusively on the birth of Jesus. Needless to say the good bishop manages to devote only about 50% of the book to the issue of Jesus' birth, but don't let that detract from the value of the book. Spong's discussion of the gospels in general and the resurrection in particular only add to the value of the book.
The book is divided into 5 basic parts. Chapters 1 and 2 are general in nature and discuss biblical scholarship. Chapters 3 to 5 discuss the Pauline and pre Gospel traditions. Chapters 6 to 10 are devoted to Matthew and Luke. Chapter 11 deals with Mark and John, and the remaining chapters discuss the two Marys. The notes are limited, as is the bibliography.
Throughout the book Spong continues to hammer his point that the gospels are neither history nor biography, and must be understood within their theological and symbolic contexts. Spong is right in this regard, although his own context is relatively narrow and he rarely discusses the broader issues (e.g., the astronomical background to much of the gospel texts, the influence of mystery religions, the roman/jewish interface, etc.). He can rarely be faulted for what he does say, although one might have wished that he perused some areas in more detail.
The section on Matthew covers several issues:
- On the four (sinful, foreign) women, Spong believes that "irregular sexual activity initiated by the action of the Spirit [that] enabled the promise of Israel to move forward" is what unites these women's stories and links them to Mary.
- He believes that Matthew's midrash tradition of prophesy was mistaken by later Christians to be literalized.
- The story of the star and the magi is thoroughly researched by Spong, who identifies the Old Testament as well as contemporary events that contributed to these passages.
Luke's section begins with an excellent discussion about who "Luke" was and presents sound arguments for the fact that the same writers did not pen Luke and Acts. It's a minority position, but one I subscribe to as well. He also points out that Luke's gospel is presented in the format of a play, and other authors have theorized that Luke's gospel was drawn from a pre-existing early Christian play. Spong then proceeds to block out the gospel in play form, and this is an amazing exercise that is truly instructive.
Some of the interesting elements from Spong's discussion of Luke include:
- John the Baptist's father's name is Zechariah, the name of the next to last of the minor prophets in the Old Testament. Zechariah preceded Malaci (the messanger), possibly a clue to the naming. John's mother's name, Elizabeth, is only found in the Old Testament in Aaron's wife (Aaron was the brother of Moses), and Aaron's sister's name was Mary. Hence Elizabeth and Mary were related and their children would have been cousins. Intriguing stuff!
- Spong raises the interesting question of why Mary says "I have no husband " (Luke 1:34) when in fact, by Jewish law and customs, as a betrothed woman Joseph was her husband.
In his brief section on Mark and John, and in his discussion of the likelihood that Jesus and Mary were married, Spong continues his ability to critically examine the gospel texts. Some of the interesting findings here are:
- Angels appeared and Mary said she was crying because "they have taken away my Lord..." These words were spoken before anyone knew that Jesus had risen, and hence he was still merely a dead prophet, not the risen Lord. Yet Mary called him "lord", a term commonly used by first Century Jewish women to speak about their husbands.
- When the gardener appears, Mary claims the body ("I will take him away"), an act only the nearest of kin could perform.
- Mary addresses Jesus as "Rabboni" (an affectionate term) and then tries to embrace him. Jesus cautions: "Do not touch me..." Yet in First Century Jewish society, only a wife (or mother) was permitted to touch a man.
The final two chapters discuss Mary Magdalene and the continuing image of Jesus' mother Mary. Although not directly involved in the birth issues, both these chapters are excellent supplements.
This is not a perfect book. Spong makes several errors. For example:
- He claims in Luke 3 that "John the Baptist was engaged in a conversation with his Jewish detractors on the meaning of one's origins (p. 126)" when in fact the comments are made to the people he is baptizing, not his distractors.
- He claims Luke's authorship when in fact, many parts of the Gopspel of Luke are simply copies from other people's works (e.g., Josephus, Judges, 1 Samuel, etc).
- He makes the common error of concluding that Mark 3:20 refers to Jesus' relatives wanting to seize him and thinking he is mad (the original reference is to the disciples, not the family).
- He claims that Jesus reference in the Gospel of John to the adulteress (8:10) and his mother by the same name "woman" (2:4, 9:26) is significant. However, Jesus also addresses the Samaritan by the well as "woman" (4:21), a fact not mentioned by Sprong, which substantially lessens the significance of the usage he identifies.
These errors are few and far in between. Bottom line, this is a provocative, informative, scholarly account of Jesus' birth, and probably the best single source on the subject available. It will appeal to beginning students as well as the most advanced scholars.
Very thought-provoking Mar 11, 2005
This book was very enlightening without being too like a catechism, giving all the answers. Spong makes no pretense that he has all the answers; many of his conclusions are unpretentiously hypothetical. One should read the entire book with an open mind before judging it. The subject matter is certainly challenging, not to mention his verbose style, but it is refreshing to read the opinions and conclusions of a true intellectual, an all too uncommon thing in this day and age.
3 Stars for Engagement; But Seriously Flawed Thesis 1 Star Jun 23, 2004
Retired Bishop John Shelby Spong's book is written extremely well with his usual flare and accessible reading style - too bad the scholarship is average at best and he resorts to his broad swipes and tired polemics. Spong often says things like, "Indeed, the concept of virgin birth itself...is today quickly dismissed in scholarly circles." (p.45) Repeating phrases like this does not make it so - while many scholars do consider the virgin birth narratives to be either false, a myth, or something of the kind, many other scholars do not. Spong must know this, but like his previous works, only seems to throw the name scholar around based on naturalistic presuppositions.
While there are passages in the Bible that many fundamentalists and other Christians often do not wrestle with because of the apparent contradictions or other dilemmas, Spong uses many such passages without placing them in the proper context because many of these contradictions have been answered by other theologians and philosophers. Further, he forgets, or more than likely, intentionally hides the fact that some passages in scripture are used with an anthropomorphic idiom such as Joshua's sun stopping in the sky. Spong claims this cannot be true because the sun does not evolve around the earth, demonstrating here that the Bible is incorrect because a divine book got the structure of the universe wrong. I wonder if he is this hard on our modern weather man or woman who nightly, all across Western Civilization, provides the times the sun will set and raise each day. His analyses of Greek mythical writing infused with early Hebrew writing is spurious at best and has been handled elsewhere by more competent scholars than Spong and so I refer one to Ronald Nash's book on the "Greeks and the Gospels" here at this site to show the true influence and lack there of in regards to the New Testament.
Further, Spong either received a poor graduate education in theology or is distorting the historic and current development of doctrine. For example, he asserts that earliest interpretations of the Christ death in purely an Anselmian doctrine when stating that "God send his emissary, and through the son's divine sacrifice the justice of God had been satisfied (p. 36)." But this is just false; the righteousness/justice of God was developed in the 12th Century by St. Anselm in his famous "Why God Became Man" (this writing can also be bought by this site with "The Selected Writings of Saint Anselm" by Brian Davies) as an apologetic. The early Church had many different interpretations on Christ death (atonement/ransom/victory,etc).
Lastly, to keep this review short, it must be stated that Spong is unconvincing in trying to convince the reader that the gospels are midrash; they are not, but instead economian (biographic style writing popular at the time) writings and in addition, the gospels added to the worth of women, not their degradation. Women are considered equal witness to Christ resurrection (one could argue superior witnesses than to the apostles) as are men. The Catholic and Orthodox Churches have held Mary, the Theotokos (Barer of God or Mother of God), to such high esteem, that she is the model of obedience and holiness for the entire human race. I wish I could answer in this small format all the false propagnada Spong assert, but space limits us here. Spong once again is just wrong, but entertainingly so.
It keeps getting better and better Jan 6, 2004
Spong's book and perspective on the virgin birth is just way to good. I never read any of his books without being skeptical to what he says, but the fact is, I can't find any other legitimate way around it. By presenting hard-fact evidence about the virgin birth and considering the society's male-dominated ego driven in the lifetime of Jesus, one just throws the all-comforting traditional idea of Mary being a virgin and the like. This book makes the reader face the Virgin birth in its logical sense, while on the side refuting the traditional nonsense taught by the christian churches for centuries.
APOSTASY IN A BOOK Dec 22, 2003
Apostasy is a word that comes from the Greek, "apostasia", meaning a falling away from what is established.
Bishop Spong is entitled to his beliefs as much as any other person is. But he is mistaken in trying to couch those beliefs as Christian because they are clearly not. It's not a matter of fundamentalist Biblical interpretation versus his Biblical interpretation, but a matter of sound reasoning and scholarship.
The New Testament record tells us that Jesus was Divinely conceived in Mary by the Holy Spirit. And that she was a virgin when she gave him birth. Bishop Spong would have us believe that these accounts of Jesus' conception and birth are metaphors or allegories. And that the writers of these stories were giving us a "midrash" interpretation of events.
Midrash is a Hebrew word that means study or more accurately "interpretation". In Rabbinic Judaism it is used to mean an on-going exposition and ever evolving commentary on the Hebrew Scriptures that particularly examines the meaning of difficult to understand passages.
That's all fine and well. But there are problems with applying this interpretative method to the New Testament. Midrash is an invention of Jewish Rabbis for use on the "Tanakh"-the Hebrew Old Testament - not the New Testament. Additionally, Hebrew is a picture language and midrash is much better suited for it than it is for the koine Greek of the New Testament.
The Greek language is built on lexical roots. It provides a much larger vocabulary and has greater accuracy and precision in it's word meanings than Hebrew does. There is very little ambiguity to be found in it. If anything, Greek gives more insight into what is being said than perhaps any other language on the planet. Believe it, Greek is that unique! And midrash is not suited for it.
Case and Point:
The prophet Isaiah prophesied that the Messiah of the World would be born of a Virgin. (Isaiah 7:14). The original Hebrew uses the word "almah" that can mean but does not necessarily imply "virgin". When the 72 scholars translated the original Hebrew of Isaiah into the Greek of the Septuagint, occurring long BEFORE Christ's birth, they all used the Greek word "parthenos" for this passage. Parthenos most definitely means virgin. After Christ's life on earth, the Jews abandoned the use of the Septuagint. And the Old Testament was re-translated from Hebrew and Aramaic into Greek. Aquila who made one of these translations, used the Greek word "neanis" in Isaiah 7:14 meaning young woman or girl to blunt the point of Christian prophecy pertaining to the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.
It is a mistake to believe that the Septuagint scholars were themselves not inspired by God when they translated Isaiah from Hebrew into Greek. They most assuredly were.
Could a man conceived by sperm and an egg and having the propensity to sin like the rest of us; take the punishment of billions of people and bring them redemption like Jesus and the apostles alleged? (Mat 20:28; I John 2:2) Common sense tells us that, NO MERE MORTAL was/is good enough to do that. No matter how ethically or morally good they are. How can one possibly redeem billions through their death and resurrection? It can ONLY happen if that ONE was/is God the Son himself in human form - the Supernatural Christ of all Eternity. And that is EXACTLY who Jesus claimed to be again and again . (John 17:5)
Jesus' apostles who were eyewitnesses to his life, freely gave their lives for the Gospel message, proving their faith and conviction that their master was who he said he was - God the Son in human form. And if he was God in human form, he came from above and thus could not have been conceived by a sperm and an egg but by the Holy Spirit in a virgin. Just as the Scriptures say. But if Mary wasn't a virgin, when she conceived and gave birth to Jesus; it would mean that he was conceived by a sperm and egg. And if Jesus was conceived by a sperm and egg it would mean that he was not the Creator but a Creation like the rest of us. And if he was a creation rather than the Creator in human form; then he cannot be the Redeemer of the world. Because only God would be good enough to take the punishment for all of humanity's sins. Only God could have been good enough to pay the price and wipe the slate clean for all sinners.
Not according to Bishop Spong's work however. Think about it. What makes more sense; the traditional Christian view or Bishop Spong's ideas?
Christianity demands that it be accepted or rejected on ITS TERMS, as it has been laid out for us from its beginning by Jesus, his apostles and the Old Testament prophecies that Christ fulfilled. Take it or leave it. It's not a pick and choose at the bargain basement. What Bishop Spong has done with this book is re-write central Christian doctrines into illogical and unscholarly nonsense.