Book Report: Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy

Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy: A Journey into a New Christianity Through the Doorway of Matthew's GospelBiblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy: A Journey into a New Christianity Through the Doorway of Matthew’s Gospel by John Shelby Spong

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

John Shelby Spong argues that a literal reading of the New Testament – specifically Matthew – is an error that developed after the Christ movement left the Jewish faith to form Christianity. The earliest Christian writings were Paul’s letters (the ones he actually wrote, not all those attributed to him). Mark was the first gospel written – 30-40 years after the death of Christ, followed by Matthew, Luke, and John.

Paul does not mention a virgin birth or a physical resurrection. “…the story of the ascension did not enter the Christian tradition until the tenth decade, in the writings of Luke (Luke 24:44-53, Acts 1:1-11). Resurrection for Paul clearly meant that the life of Jesus in some way had become part of the life of God.” [p351]

Where did the gospels come from then if they were written decades after Christ’s crucifixion? Spong contends that what became the gospel of Matthew was originally a year long liturgical story told orally in the temple. Much of this book places the gospel chapters in the context of the Old Testament. This context shows Christ as the new Moses – the new deliverer of God’s people. For example, Spong holds that the Sermon on the Mount should be seen in the context of Moses’ going to Mt Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. “In the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew also has Jesus do a commentary on each of the Ten Commandments. Jesus’ message clearly drives each commandment beneath the level of the literal command – that is, it is not sufficient to keep the sixth commandment just by refraining from the literal act of murder. You must, says Jesus, listen to the law against murder in the innermost levels of your life, for it is also a call not to be angry, not to judge another, not to insult.” [p129] … “This is not a spontaneously delivered sermon on a mountaintop. This is a beautifully crafted interpretation of Jesus as the new Moses.” [p130].

Clearly bringing the comparison of Jesus and Moses into focus, “Matthew has been building the theme for some time. this is why he placed a Moses story into the birth narrative of Jesus, making both Moses and Jesus the spared agents of God when a wicked ruler tried to destroy both at birth. This was why he likened the baptism of Jesus to the Red Sea experience of Moses. Both split the waters; Moses at the Red Sea [actually the Sea of Reeds – Red Sea is a product of a mistranslation in the King James Bible] Jesus the heavenly waters. This is why he portrays both Moses and Jesus as having been tempted in the wilderness and why he makes the content of the temptations of Jesus identical with the content of the crises that Moses faced. In the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew reaches the grand crescendo of this theme. Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount is made to revisit the story of Moses on Mt. Sinai. There is no doubt that this gospel is not eyewitness reporting. Matthew is not recording things that actually happened; he is interpreting, through the lens of synagogue worship, the power of the Jesus experience.”[p130]

So what happened? Some decades after Christ’s death the Christ movement left the Jewish faith. As the years passed we have lost the Jewish context of the Christ stories and instead have interpreted the stories literally. This brings up serious problems for today’s church as can be seen by looking at atonement theology. “It was in that transition movement in Christian history that Christians first co-opted and then corrupted the Jewish concept of atonement, turning it into something they called ‘substitutionary atonement.’ … This mantra was captured best in the words that became the Christian mantra … ‘Jesus died for my sins.’ This mantra was then incorporated into everything that was call Christian. Substitutionary atonement, which became the Christian view of salvation, presented us ultimately with a god who is a punishing monster, with a Christ who is God’s eternal victim and with a humanity characterized by debilitating guilt.” [pp 201-202]

Spong argues (persuasively I think) that this approach to Christianity will result in a great weakening of the faith over the next hundred or so years. It is no secret that the Christian churches are shrinking year-by-year. Today’s youth don’t respond to the mistaken view that “the love of God must be limited to those that we are able to love.”[p 253]. Somehow we must learn to see again how far God’s love stretches. We must come to see that “Matthew’s Christ is a barrier-breaking Christ, inviting all people into the meaning of God’s life and his love.” [p 365]

I think Spong is a little heavy handed at times and I certainly am not an expert on the Jewish liturgical calendar but I do think that freeing ourselves from a literal reading of the New Testament can result in a better understanding of God’s love.

If I were to read only one theology book this year, I’d pass over this for John Dominic Crossan’s “How to Read the Bible and Still be a Christian”

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