Part XXII Matthew - Jesus through the Lens of Yom Kippur

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 19 June 2014 0 Comments
Please login with your account to read this essay.


First let me say that I am reading all your books. I enjoy reading Michael Goulder's influence in them. My Jewish friends, who have read the New Testament, say: "Well, it's about time. It took you only 2,000 years to understand!" Your books have totally revised my conception of the Divine Source and of Scripture, especially the New Testament. You and the Jesus Seminar have brought me back from the Christian Alumni Association. With your books under my belt and in my heart -- and with Joseph Campbell’s admonition to read as myth and metaphor and to consider that Jesus was a Bodhisattva, which can explain a lot of things in interesting ways, including the healings and the crucifixion and the resurrection and perhaps even the ascension -- the Bible has become one of the great sources of spiritual wealth for me.

I note that you will be at the Pacific School of Religion in July. Because our church has a supportive relationship with PSR, some of us hope to be at PSR when you are there. I have just finished The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic - well, I will tonight for I still have about 20 pages remaining to read. I attend the First Congregational/UCC Church of San Jose, where you, Borg, Crossan and Levine have spoken. Unfortunately, I was not a member when you and they were there.


Dear Dusty,

Thanks for your letter. My assignment at The Pacific School of Religion will begin on Monday, July 14 and conclude on Friday, July 18. I always look forward to it because the class is made up of incredibly impressive people who come from three distinct and different sources. Some are students seeking divinity degrees in one of the constituent seminaries that make up the Berkeley complex. They range from Roman Catholics to Unitarians with everything in between. The second source of students in the summer session is a distinguished number drawn from the ranks of ordained clergy in a variety of traditions. who come back each summer session to do additional study. They provide me with my primary insights into organized religion in the western part of the United States. The majority of those from this group are serving churches in California, but we usually have five to six states represented. The final constituent part of my class traditionally has been drawn from lay people for whom the Christian life is a serious journey. They bring little agenda except that of seeking the truth. When these three groups come together the results are impressive. It is a privilege for me to be there for them and with them.

The faculty and the administration of the Pacific School of Religion work hard to make this week a positive learning experience. It is easy to be their “visiting scholar” for a week.

It is also the hardest week that I have in every year that I am there. I believe this is my 8th time on the faculty of either the Graduate Theological Union, which started this summer school, or the Pacific School of Religion, which is now responsible for it. It is an academic course for which credit is given to those who seek it, so the class is required to meet certain academic standards. This means that we have four hours of class time each day from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. That gives us 20 hours of class time over five days. I will present two formal forty-five minute lectures each day (or ten lectures for the week), with the balance of the time being spent in discussion, sometimes in groups, sometimes in a “committee of the whole.” For those taking the class for credit, a ten-page double-spaced paper is required. I must also read and grade these papers before I leave on Saturday. These papers consistently offer me amazing insights into the things which engage the clergy and churches of this generation. I will also deliver an open public lecture for the Berkeley community on Tuesday night of that week in the PSR Chapel.

My topic this year will be the Gospel of John and will be based on my most recently published book, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic. My work on this gospel changed my attitude totally about John’s gospel. I once thought of it, first, as the one gospel which removed from Jesus his humanity and left him as something like a divine visitor from outer space, perhaps being related to God in the same manner that Clark Kent is related to Superman-- that is, Jesus is presented as “God in disguise.” My second objection to John’s gospel was that it appeared to me to be the primary source of anti-Semitism in the New Testament. My work in preparation for this book changed both of those perceptions radically. I now regard the Fourth Gospel as the least literal book in the New Testament and as the most profound portrait of Jesus ever written. I loved writing this book and regard it today as my best and most original piece of work. I say “original” though I am deeply indebted to such New Testament scholars as Rudolf Bultmann, C. H. Dodd, Sandra Schneiders and John Ashton, each of whom authored one of my favorite books on the study of John.

I shall look forward to meeting you and members of your church in Berkeley in a little more than three weeks.

John Shelby Spong




Leave a Reply