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Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes [Paperback]

By John Shelby Spong (Author)
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Item description for Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes by John Shelby Spong...

The controversial Espiscopal bishop of Newark shows how the Gospel stories--a collection of Jewish midrashic tales--have been misinterpreted for centuries as accounts of actual events because of an ignorance of the Jewish foundation behind the texts. Reprint.

Publishers Description

In this boldest book since Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, Bishop John Shelby Spong offers a compelling view of the Gospels as thoroughly Jewish tests.Spong powerfully argues that many of the key Gospel accounts of events in the life of Jesus--from the stories of his birth to his physical resurrection--are not literally true. He offers convincing evidence that the Gospels are a collection of Jewish midrashic stories written to convey the significance of Jesus. This remarkable discovery brings us closer to how Jesus was really understood in his day and should be in ours.

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Item Specifications...

Studio: HarperOne
Pages   361
Est. Packaging Dimensions:   Length: 1" Width: 5.5" Height: 8.25"
Weight:   0.65 lbs.
Binding  Softcover
Release Date   Nov 12, 2014
Publisher   HarperOne
ISBN  0060675578  
ISBN13  9780060675578  
UPC  099455012003  

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More About John Shelby Spong

Register your artisan biography and upload your photo! 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.

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1Books > Subjects > Religion & Spirituality > Authors, A-Z > ( S ) > Spong, John Shelby
2Books > Subjects > Religion & Spirituality > Bible & Other Sacred Texts > Bible > New Testament
3Books > Subjects > Religion & Spirituality > Christianity > Reference > Criticism & Interpretation > Old Testament
4Books > Subjects > Religion & Spirituality > Christianity > Reference > General
5Books > Subjects > Religion & Spirituality > Christianity > Reference > New Testament > Study
6Books > Subjects > Religion & Spirituality > Christianity > Reference > Bible > General

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Reviews - What do customers think about Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes?

What Is Truth?  Jan 18, 2008
A Question asked of Jesus by Pilate. Spong also has this question but within a Jewish context.
Spong approaches Jesus and asks, "Have His Jewish apostles really told the literal truth about His earthly life in their gospels or are they actually hyperliteral. figurative Jewish commentaries."
Jesus refers him to John 3:1-17, however unlike Nicodemus, the teacher of Israel (see Greek text), Spong has a difficult time taking this literally. The loss is Spong's because within a Jewish context Jesus Chrrist has literaaly fulfilled the Hebrew Scriptures of Isaiah 52:13 - 53:12. He is the Lord of Isaiah 45:21-25 (Phil 2:9-11). Blessed are all those who are seeking refuge in Him Psalm 2:12.
After wasting my time reading Spong's speculations, I would like to ask a question of Spong's admirers. The once Pharisee Saul , now the Apostle Paul, procalims in Acts 13:32-33 that Jesus has fulfilled Ps 2:7 in His resurrection. Is this a midrash? Or will you accept the evidence of transformed lives throughout the last 2,000 years that this is a literal truth ?
Review of "Liberating the Gospels" by John Shelby Spong  Jul 3, 2007
This book represents the best scholarship I have ever read concerning the essence and basis of Christian thought as it most probably originated in the late First Century, CE. It is the most refreshing reading I have encountered on this subject. As a Christian myself, I have always been put off by much of what I see being held up as the beliefs of Christianity, and now I understand where it comes from. Anyone who professes to be a Christian should read this book, but get ready to have your foundations rattled. You will be a better Christian after you read it, and you will be better able to interact with people of other denominations and other faiths.
Read this Book  Jan 24, 2007
There are many books that describe the origins of the gospels, and each book has as its basis a theory about how the gospels were written and what they were meant to say. But even while there are some very good books out there, Spong's Liberating the Gospels stands alone as a unique, provocative, and challenging examination of the gospels. He approaches the gospels as a product of the Jewish mind in the First Century, and shows clearly what the intents were in the approach of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. Spong argues that the original gospel was designed to be read on successive sabbaths, as the Torah was read, and hence the organization and structure conformed to that format. He shows how the major sections of Matthew, for example, mirror the Jewish holidays and were designed to be read at those times. Spong's theory would be outrageous if he didn't bring to bear a host of examples which confirm his various hypotheses.
Notes on "Liberating the Gospels"  Jun 19, 2006
COMMENTARY: Bishop Spong presents a compelling case for considering that the three synoptic Gospels were lectionaries written so that the Jewish believers in Christ could relate the deeds and teachings of Jesus to the readings of the Torah at their synagogue services.The Episcopal Church in the small town where I grew up employed a boy's choir (literally employed, we choristers got something like 25 or 50 cents a month just for getting to all practices and services!). As an incidental result of this "play for pay", I was passively educated in church liturgy. I was able to explore the Book of Common Prayer (mostly during the sermons, I must admit) and I became familiar with the liturgical year beginning with Advent [Latin: ad=towards and venire=to come], Christmas, Epiphany [Greek: epi=forth and phanein=to show], pre-Lent, Lent [Anglo Saxon: lencten=Spring], Holy Week, Eastertide [Anglo Saxon: Eastre=Goddess of the vernal equinox] to Pentecost [Greek: pentecostos=50} and the long season of Trinity. In the front of the book I found a list of Psalms and Lessons for the Christian Year which solved the puzzle of how the minister and the readers knew exactly what verses of the Bible to read on a given Sunday. This type of list is called a lectionary and it specified a passage from the Old Testament for the First Lesson of Morning Prayer and a related passage from the New Testament for the Second Lesson of the service. Both of these were supposed to have some connection with whatever was being emphasized at that time in the church year.
OBSERVATIONS - Since there were few copies of the Torah available to most Jewish worshipers, it was fitting that participants become familiar with the Holy Books of Mosaic Law [Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy] by hearing them read sequentially at each Sabbath service. This practice became widespread long before the Christian era and at the same service there would be readings from other Scriptures that were related to, or commentaries on, the Torah passages. Now this is a very important thing to remember: the significance of a given event or lesson depended on its relationship to something that had occurred in the past, not necessarily on how it literally occurred. This style of exposition eventually produced the Jewish Midrash, a collection of rabbinical commentaries enlarging and interpreting the ancient scriptures. This method of writing history is known as midrashic and it is essential to recognize what it was never intended to be, and that is, it was not written to be a scientifically accurate, eyewitness account of what is being described. Unlike the way in which modern history is written, midrashic history was not primarily intended to be taken literally. Its literal meaning was secondary to its symbolic relationship with times in the past when God's will or action was manifested.
Now do you see what Spong is leading up to? In the first part of his book, Spong discusses what he sees as the present crisis in the church summarized in the question: "Did it really happen?" Since the dawn of the second century, the traditions of the early church became more and more infused with the influence of gentile converts. The Greco/Roman thought forms replaced the Semitic and the words of the Jewish/Christian texts were interpreted as statements of fact rather than confirmations of faith. Thus, the answer to the question above became "Of course they happened". This continues up to the present day, as we witness in the inerrancy beliefs of the Protestant fundamentalist denominations. However, scientific rationalism has amassed convincing evidence that the answer should be "No, they didn't happen" in reference to many of the statements in the Gospels taken as statements of fact. Spong argues that the question is not only inappropriate but also irrelevant. The relevant question which should have been asked by the ancient hearer as well as the modern reader is "What does this mean", or, "Why was this image chosen to convey this insight?" And the answer is as valid today as it was back when the Gospels were written: "To show that God was acting through Jesus".
The idea that narrative exposition may have been purposely written to tie in a significant historical relation rather than to describe a literal event may take some getting used to, but, I find Spong's approach quite compelling because it is able to answer many seeming contradictions and puzzling features in the Gospels. The middle section of his book is largely taken up with establishing the reasonableness for considering the structure and details of the canonical Gospels to be consistent with their origin as written lectionary material for use by Jewish Jesus believers when they worshipped in their synagogues.
The Jewish liturgical year was divided into 12 months and, at least after the Exile, began with Nissan (corresponding to late March/early April) during the middle of which the Passover was celebrated. There were four other major celebratory festivals: Pentecost (Shavuot) in the third month, Sivan; New Year (Rosh Hashanah) the first day of the seventh month, Tishri; Tabernacles (Sukkot) late in Tishri and Dedication (Hanukkah) in the ninth month, Kislev. The Jewish calendar was based on lunar months and so a thirteenth month had to be thrown in seven times every nineteen years. Obviously, there had to be some flexibility in scheduling the year's lessons, but, in standard years, to cover the whole Torah in one year required the reading of about five chapters each Sabbath! Genesis, beginning at the first of Nissan, would generally take 12 weeks, Exodus 11, Leviticus 8, Numbers 9 and Deuteronomy 11.
Well now, are there some obvious data that might suggest a given gospel also has a structure corresponding to a JEWISH reading cycle? Yes indeed! There is little argument with the scholar's conclusion that the Gospel attributed to Mark was the earliest to be written of the four in the Christian Testament. The time of its writing is less certain but the best estimates assign it to the early 80's CE -- some 50 years after Jesus' crucifixion. Matthew, using Mark as a major source, was written 8 to 10 years after Mark. Luke appeared a bit later (most likely before the late 90's) using, according to Spong, both Mark and Matthew as sources.
Spong finds evidence that Mark was probably developed in three sections with the Passion narratives written first so that Jesus-relevant material could be used as commentary paralleling the Jewish scriptures read during the observance of Passover. The middle section of Mark, which contains many episodes of Jesus teaching the disciples, seems to fit well with the period just before Passover when readings from Deuteronomy were used to prepare Jewish proselytes for the celebration of God's great acts during Passover. Then this makes the beginning section of Mark fittingly correlate with Rosh Hashanah, the post-exilic Jewish New Year. Thus, it is possible that Mark's Gospel in neither biography nor history as much as it is corporate memory informed by Hebrew scripture and organized according to Jewish worship practices.
An attempt to find hints of the same in Matthew, at first blush, seems almost obvious -- a careful reading of this Gospel will identify five blocks of teaching discourses (roughly beginning with Chapters. 5, 10, 13, 18 and 24) and the first assumption one might leap to would be that these might be correlated with the five books of the Torah. However, a more satisfactory fit of these sections, and the rest of the Gospel, suggests a correlation with the five celebratory festivals of the Jewish year. Spong acknowledges the pioneering work of Michael Goulder in developing this correlation. The five discourses provided blocks of Christian teaching material to be used for the five festival seasons. The earliest Christians were convinced that everything written about Jesus in the Hebrew scriptures had been fulfilled. By adding a Christian lection to the regular Sabbath, some Jewish communities moved to incorporate Jesus into the worship life of the Jewish people. Just before the turn of the first century CE, Christians began being banned from synagogue worship and the Christians simply took their lectionary with them. Luke may well have written Acts to serve as a second Christian reading for use in the newly developing Christian worship services. As the church then moved more and more into a gentile direction, the original Jewish context of these gospels was lost and, finally, when Sunday worship replaced Sabbath worship, Christians and Jews were separated.
The writer of Matthew used 606 of the 664 verses in Mark sometimes verbatim, but often with significant changes. He was probably a Christian scribe and thus would have been responsible for the details of the weekly worship services. That he borrowed heavily from Mark can be seen in the fact that his Chapters 13 - 28 follow closely Mark 4 - 16, the period appropriate for Rosh Hashanah through Passover already outlined in Mark. Matthew's 1 - 12 include large chunks of new material with interesting correlations to Jewish liturgical readings such as the sermon on the mount coinciding with Moses receiving the law on Sinai, a time in the Jewish calendar corresponding to Pentecost. The Jews marked Pentecost with a 24 hour vigil of prayers and readings divided into 3 hour segments, but eight subgroupings are also found in the Sermon on the Mount -- each an exposition on the eight beatitudes which begin the sermon. The whole Sermon on the Mount was a midrashic attempt to reveal Jesus as the new Moses giving a new covenant to the Jewish people. If this first teaching block is identified with Jewish Pentecost and the passion story with Passover and then the rest of the gospel is stretched between, the teaching discourses of Matthew fall on the five great celebratory festivals of the Jewish year and each block is appropriate to the theme of that festival. Just one example -- the Feast of Dedication, which celebrates God's light coming into the temple, coincides with Matthew's account of the Transfiguration when the light of God descended on Jesus. So Matthew completed the task that Mark had begun by providing Christian lections for the whole year.
Spong also finds a remarkable fit between a yearly calendar of Torah readings (supplemented, as was the practice, by readings from the Prophets, etc.) and the order of Luke's gospel as lections on these. Recall that Spong is of the opinion that Luke was familiar with the writings of both Mark and Matthew; i.e., he sees no strong evidence to postulate a separate Q source common to both his and Matthew's gospels. To parallel the latter part of Genesis, Spong conjectures that Luke rewrote Matthew 1-4 as Luke 1:5-4:13; for readings related to Exodus (Luke 4:14-6:19) Luke turned to Mark; Leviticus lections (Luke 6:20-8:25) were quarried in a unique way from Matthew; then Mark 4-9 with gapping omissions provided verses related to Numbers (Luke 6:25-9:50) and finally Luke's most imaginative writing (9:51-18:14 describing the journey to Jerusalem in which Jesus often instructed the disciples) provided three readings for each of those from Deuteronomy. A few examples from this last section will illustrate the sorts of correspondences Spong finds: 1) The decalogue verses in Deuteronomy would be read on the day Luke has Jesus summarize the law in the Great Commandments. 2) Deut. 8 asserts that humans do not live by bread alone but by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of God and Luke's corresponding passage is the story of Martha and Mary where Mary sat at Jesus' feet "to be fed by everything that proceeded out of the mouth of the Lord". 3) Deut 21 prescribes that a disobedient, riotous and rebellious son must be taken to the elders and put to death where Luke's parallel lesson is the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
O.K., so all these correspondences may lend some credibility to Spong's assertion that the gospels were "cooked up" stories to express their writer's conviction that Jesus brought a new approach to god. DOES THIS SUGGEST THAT THE DEEDS AND WORDS ASCRIBED TO JESUS WEREN'T ACTUALLY DONE OR SPOKEN BY HIM? Well, yes and no. Since, for example, the parables of The Good Samaritan and The Prodigal Son were only found in Luke, Spong thinks it probable that Luke composed them, perhaps from hints in the other gospels or from oral traditions, but they expressed the way that Luke's faith in Jesus could be expressed. When you think about these writings in that context, it doesn't really matter whether Jesus ever stood up on a mountain and delivered two chapters of sermon as described by Matthew.
That which is so obvious we may have overlooked -- had Jesus never lived, none of these insights into the nature of God would have been produced. There was evidently something extraordinary about this life that inspired discipleship and apostlehood. The things he said and the life he lived influenced those he encountered to rethink the meaning of their lives and sense anew the ground of their being in ways that made them want to share this new vision. In attempting to understand this empowerment for themselves, they told everyone about what Jesus meant to them in the words and symbols with which they were familiar; so they spoke of demons exorcised, of supernatural powers, of Godlike authenticity, of prophetic expectation and fulfillment. The message was taken by the early followers, spread and interpreted as necessary to convey the wonder and awe of the impact of the original messenger. The faith of believers was channeled, and thus presumably preserved through the ages, in the creeds of various Christian churches. But the spiritual power that Jesus unleashed on the world eludes these formulations and appears in the experiences of those who find God close at hand working in acts of compassion, generosity and love among human beings.
Empowering but paradoxical  Jul 31, 2005
Spong is just hilarious, he is inspiring, empowering, lovely; you just keep reading and miss the lunch or miss going off the train ... cause Spong aims at understanding on a neutral basis what Jesus was for the first Christians and how their view can help to make sense of Jesus in our modern world. So the saying, about how you put the questions, will give you the right answers, goes like a red thread thru this book. The question is: why did the first Christians find these sequences of Jesus' life worth noting and not - did it really happen?

Spong - inspired by other authors - dives in the gospels - specifically Marc, Matthew and Luke and into the foundational stories, the birth, the death and the resurrection of Jesus. His hypothesis is that one cannot isolate these writings from their historical and societal context. The writings are inspired by Jewish writing techniques, the most prevalent, being the midrashic one. One example - not mentioned in the book - is the story of Abram and Sarai and the story of Isaac and Rebecka. Compare Genesis 12 and 26. Two identical stories but with some minor differences. The gospel writers used the same technique in order to give a message to the first congregations of Christians. So it can be so that none of the Jesus episodes has any historical basis, but is derived mainly from the Jewish bible and altered to fit into the new Christian context.

I will not go into detail about the examples that Spong gives, cause it is difficult to retell what Spong tries to express. For a conservatice Chrisitan the idea of unhistoricity of any Jesus' episode would be regarded as heresy, but the arguments of Spong, are on a spiritual level and faith-promoting not faith-destroying.

Spong relates the gospel writing to the Jewish almanac and sees a clear connection between the segments read from the Jewish bible and the episodes of Jesus' life. The first Christians needed to find an equivalence to the major events of Jewish almanac, such as Pesach, Pentacost in order to praise the Christian god and Jesus. The gospels became a practical tool for the first community to consolidate the new-born faith.

Do put in mind that Spong's model can be integrated with other models about the historical Jesus or the gospel writers, such as the writers of "The Jesus mysteries", who see a lot of parallels between the gospels and the Gnostic mysteries. These do not believe in a historical Jesus at all, Spong does.

The gospel composers were children of their time and were influenced by the attitudes and the stories of those times. Something has influenced the first Christians to have a centre figure in their cult. Today Christianity is so different that comparison between the 1st century would be impossible. There has been experiments by some denominations to go back to primal Christian time, but how they try, they will not be successful, cause we happen to understand the bible as we do today, and not as its composers did.

Spong shows this very clearly and I am glad about it. I regard myself as a Christian who see a meaning in the Christian community and its symbols rather than its confessions and dogma. It is wonderful to have read the book, of course there are much more in the book, among others the birth and the ressurection story.

One thing that bothered me with Spong is that: if every episode in the gospels are midrashic, than who or what is Jesus? What can be attributed to him? He goes on speculating about how wonderful he was and inspiring etc but isn't Spong relying IMPLICITLY on the gospels again, when about nothing in them is historical? The only historical I could say after reading the book was that a man was born by a father and a mother in Israel and died. Nothing else can be said about him. I don't know how Spong accepts that this man's name was Jesus, cause even the name could be a midrashic make-up relating to Joshua or Esau! In total, 4 stars and a nice smile!

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