The Study of Life, Part 2: Exploring the Drive to Survive in Animate Life and in Self-Conscious Life

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 6 August 2009 0 Comments
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Donna Kaplan asks:

I have a question about the scripture passage from St. John's Gospel that you quoted recently in one of your columns: "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father but by me (meaning Jesus)." What about the Jews?


Dear Donna,

There are several levels on which an answer to your question must be contemplated:

  1. Did Jesus actually say these words? I doubt it. They appear in the Fourth Gospel, which was written 65-70 years after the death of Jesus. They are also part of a series of "I Am" sayings, which appear nowhere except in John and are regarded by most biblical scholars today as the words of the Christian community that have been placed onto the lips of Jesus. They are clearly not the words of the Jesus of history. The scholars in the Jesus Seminar regard nothing in the Fourth Gospel, not a single one of the sayings attributed to Jesus in that gospel, to be the authentic words of the Jesus of history.
  2. Most of the Christians at the time that John's gospel was written were still Jews. The Jews who were the followers of Jesus had just been expelled from the Synagogue. The tensions between Revisionist Jews, who were also disciples of Jesus, and the Orthodox Jews who controlled the Temple are in the background of this gospel.
  3. These words were certainly not meant to fuel an imperialistic missionary campaign to convert Jews and others as they were interpreted by later generations of Christians. The actual split between the Jews who were disciples of Jesus and the Orthodox Party of traditional Jews did not occur until almost 60 years after the crucifixion. That is, for the first 60 years of Christian history, Christianity was itself a Jewish movement within in the synagogue.
  4. At this moment, I am reading Rudolf Bultmann's The Gospel of John: A Commentary. He argues, persuasively I believe, that John portrays Jesus as the logos enfleshed in human life, calling us all to a deeper sense of what it means to be whole and human. To come to the God present in Jesus for John was to discover the logos in each of us. That, argues Bultmann, is what Jesus represented to the people of his day. It was that discovery, not some form of doctrinal Christian belief or faith, that was for John the only doorway into the ultimate reality we call God. That is quite different from saying that only those that believe in what Christianity says about Jesus will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Recall that in Matthew's parable of the judgment (Mt. chapter 25), Jesus says the criterion for eternal life is not what you believe but how you respond to the presence of God in another human being, especially those regarded as the least of our brothers and sisters. In that parable neither the sheep nor the goats are ever asked what creed they say. They are asked "did you see and respond to the presence of God in another human being." It was the Epistle of John that states that if you cannot love your neighbor whom you have seen, how can you expect to love God whom you have not seen?

Those who quote John's gospel to validate their own exclusive religious prejudices simply have no idea what John's Gospel is about. This Gospel does not lend itself to proof texting. It is far too profound a work for that.

John Shelby Spong



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