Charting the New Reformation, Part II - The Burning Necessity

Essay by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 10 December 2015 8 Comments
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It was a delight to attend your lectures and to meet you in Glasgow, Scotland, two years ago when you talked about your book The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic. I bought the book (which you kindly signed) and I have now read it twice. I have found it an enlightening read; it has at last helped me to make some sense of St. John’s gospel. However, although your suggestion that many of the characters in this gospel were not actually real people of history, but rather were invented by the gospel writer to put across his point not only seems feasible, but convincing, but how can this be so for the character of Judas? Although he is not specifically mentioned in the writings of Paul, he certainly is mentioned by name in the Synoptic Gospels, which pre-date John. This being so, how could he be a character invented by John? John may have added details about him not mentioned in the synoptics, possibly for his own literary purposes, but the name and general character of Judas surely pre-dates John and that therefore he can’t possibly be “invented.” I would be grateful for your comments.


Dear Gwen,

Thank you for your letter. Both Christine and I loved being at those courageous, dynamic Presbyterian Churches in the Glasgow suburbs. I thought both pastors were just terrific.

I’m glad you have found my book on John helpful, but I fear you have misunderstood what I said in that book about Judas. I do not think that Judas was created by the Fourth Gospel writer. Rather he enters the Christian tradition in Mark in the early years of the 8th decade. His story does grow from its introduction in Mark to its final references in the Fourth Gospel. The issue I was raising was whether the figure of Judas was actually a person of history when he entered Mark’s story. My study has led me to the conclusion that Judas was an invention of the early Christian community deliberately created to shift the blame for the death of Jesus from the Romans to the Jews. That would make him a symbol not a person. Let me share the things that led me to this conclusion, which was a startling one to reach. I remember being surprised by it.

I was first introduced to this possibility when I discovered that Paul had obviously never heard of the story of the betrayal by Judas. Paul refers to “the Twelve” but he does not name them. He does refer to the “Pillars” of the Church in Jerusalem and calls them by the names, Peter or Cephas, John and James. The James to whom Paul refers appears not to be James, the son of Zebedee, but James, the brother of the Lord. Paul does use the word “betray” in (I Corinthians 11), but there is no hint that the “betrayal” was at the hands of one of the Twelve. On the third day following the crucifixion, Paul says, in I Corinthians: 15, the raised Christ appeared “to the Twelve.” In Paul’s mind, there had been no defection on the part of a traitor. It seems obvious to me that Paul could not have escaped hearing about one of the Twelve being the betrayer if it had really happened.

The name of Judas is another clue. If the traitor is given the same name as the nation, whose leaders were at that time in the process of excommunicating the followers of Jesus from the synagogue, I think we should be suspicious. In the gospels, Judas is the Jewish figure who turns the blame of the crucifixion away from the Romans and toward the Jews. The greatest debate in the first century both before and during the time when the gospels were being written was whether the followers of Jesus would be allowed to continue to be members of the synagogue and as a corollary, whether the synagogues would be open to receive Gentile Christians as members without them having to become Jews. These battles resonated throughout the gospels. As these debates raged we note that Judas grows darker and darker between Mark and John (70-100), while Pilate and the Romans grow more and more sympathetic.

Mark introduces the kiss of the traitor and is the first to set the moment of betrayal at midnight. Matthew introduces into the story the price of “30 pieces of silver,” the repentance by Judas and his attempt to return the money, as well as the story of Judas hanging himself. Each of these elements can be shown to have been part of previous traitor stories in the Hebrew Scriptures. Judas begins to look like a composite of all the Jewish traitor stories in the Bible.

Judas is mentioned in all four gospels. My argument in The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic is that the Johannine characters who appears nowhere else in the Christian tradition are John’s own literary creations. The list includes Nathanial, Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman at the well, the man crippled for 38 years, the man born blind, the figure of Lazarus raised from the dead and John’s special hero, the nameless member of the Twelve known only as “the disciple Jesus loved.”

John also, I stated clearly, has a category of characters familiar to the Christian tradition like: the mother of Jesus, Andrew, Thomas, Philip and yes, Judas, to whom he gives what can only be described as “makeovers.” Thomas, for example, is a name on the list of the Twelve in Mark, but he becomes “doubting Thomas” in John.

The mother of Jesus in John is never connected with the story of Jesus’ birth and is never referred to as a virgin. In John’s gospel, she appears twice; once in the changing of water into wine story and once at the foot of the cross in the company of the “beloved disciple.” There was obviously a woman, a person of history, who was the mother of Jesus. No one enters the world without a mother. The idea, however, that she was at the wedding in Cana of Galilee when water was supposedly turned into wine, or that she was actually at the foot of the cross when Jesus was being crucified, are elements that come into the Christian story only in the 10th decade. Judas, on the other hand, came into the Christian story in the 8th decade, no earlier. He was, I am suggesting, Mark’s creation to which each successive gospel writer added more details.

Studying the Bible is not a simple process. That is why biblical fundamentalism is, in the last analysis, based on little more than religious and sometimes hysterical ignorance.

~John Shelby Spong




8 thoughts on “Charting the New Reformation, Part II – The Burning Necessity

  1. Pingback: *Spong’s Spin On Copernicus – Institute of Biblical Defense

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