The Origins of the New Testament, Part XXXI: The General Epistles — James, I & II Peter and Jude

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 29 July 2010 0 Comments
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John, via the Internet, writes:

For some time now, I have been reading your weekly essays and I have read many of your books. Your understanding of the Bible and your insight into it are remarkable. I am challenged by your thoughts. However, I read a lot about what you no longer believe, but what do you believe? Regarding Jesus, I would like to see, in a page or less, what your basic belief really is. Do you believe in any of the basic doctrines that we have been taught since childhood?


Dear John,

The way you phrase your question is a familiar one that I have heard many times. I do not, however, believe I can answer it without unpacking it. It is a regular criticism made by fundamentalists and the issue is not that I have staked out a new position, but that it is not consistent with what they were taught and so they hear only the negativity. For example, I have written a 300-page book on the birth narratives of the New Testament (Born of a Woman) that reveals quite clearly that I do not believe that these stories of stars, angels, wise men, shepherds and virgin mothers are literal. Yes, I can say that in one page. The bulk of the book is, however, an analysis of what these stories meant, why they were formed, what their background sources were and what the message is that we must be prepared to hear in these stories. About 95% of this book is an attempt to say what the birth stories of Jesus are really about. Yet, I still hear people like you say to me "you don't believe in the Virgin Birth, but you never say what you do believe." I do not plead guilty to that charge. I believe that is an expression of something present in the threatened defensiveness of my would-be critic that he or she cannot admit. I want to say: "Just what part of my elaborate explanation are you incapable of grasping?"

The same thing is true about the resurrection. I have written a 350-page book (Resurrection: Myth or Reality) on what I think is behind the Easter narratives. I do not think these narratives have anything to do with a resuscitated physical body. When Fundamentalists cannot hear that, they only hear a challenge to their own limited belief system and so they experience it as negative. That is when I get a letter from them asking me to state in one page or less what "I do believe."

You ask specifically about Jesus. I respond that in my book, Jesus for the Non-Religious, I spelled out in intimate detail what I believe about Jesus and what the Jesus story is about. I went into the miracle stories, the differences in the gospel accounts and the role the Hebrew Scriptures played in the developing Jesus story and I concluded that book with the deepest affirmation of why I believe in Jesus and call him Lord that I know how to write. So when you request a statement about what I really believe about Jesus, I have to assume that you haven't, you can't or you won't hear what I have written.

The real problem with fundamentalism is that it narrows the brain to the only options that fundamentalists understand. When any discussion goes beyond those limits, they hear only negativity and so they begin to press for a more positive statement, i.e., one that confirms their childish Sunday school images.

So I do not think your question is really about me so much as it is an insight into where you are. I, therefore, cannot answer it in a way that would be satisfactory to you — so I cannot respond to it.

I recognize that this sounds harsh and that is not what I intend, but I have reached the point where I no longer desire to affirm ignorance as if it is a form of piety and I see no virtue in trying to respond to a question that reveals no ability on the part of the questioner to listen.

– John Shelby Spong




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