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Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes (1996)

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In this boldest book since Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, Bishop John Shelby Spong offers a compelling view of the Gospels as thoroughly Jewish tests. Spong powerfully argues that many of the key Gospel accounts of events in the life of Jesus—from the stories of his birth to his physical resurrection—are not literally true. He offers convincing evidence that the Gospels are a collection of Jewish midrashic stories written to convey the significance of Jesus. This remarkable discovery brings us closer to how Jesus was really understood in his day and should be in ours.


From Publishers Weekly

Building upon his earlier conclusions that Jesus’ Jewishness is the key to understanding Jesus’ life and work (This Hebrew Lord), Spong contends that the failure to read the Gospels as fundamentally Jewish impoverishes many traditional Christian readings. Tracing the history of New Testament interpretation, Spong demonstrates the tendencies among Christian interpreters to read the Gospels as documents addressing primarily an audience of Greek Gentile Christians rather than as narratives connected to the broader history of Judaism. Spong relies on a wide range of New Testament scholarship to argue that the form and content of the Gospels reflects not Greek influence or concerns but a peculiarly Jewish outlook on matters of religion and culture. Thus, for Spong, the Gospels are neither objective accounts of historical events nor biographies of Jesus but midrashim, or interpretive narratives, connecting the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth to the history, literature and religion of Judaism. For example, he isolates the symbolic roles that certain characters from the Hebrew Bible, like Elijah and Joseph, play in transmitting the story of Jesus to a Jewish audience. While Spong’s conclusions about the value of reading the Gospels through Jewish lenses are neither new nor exciting, his forceful readings of the Gospels and his imaginative speculations about biblical figures are sure to provoke heated discussion among Christian interpreters.

Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Spong, the Episcopal bishop of Newark, New Jersey, and a leader in the movement for liberal Christianity, is the author of a number of controversial books, including Resurrection: Myth or Reality? A Bishop Rethinks the Origins of Christianity (LJ 3/1/94). He has now added another volume that is sure to provoke argument. Spong tries to place Jesus and the New Testament in a Jewish context insomuch as the early Christians sprang from a Jewish background that stressed the midrashic (or teaching) tale. He argues that many stories of the New Testament were not originally understood to be based on fact and that getting away from the literalism of many New Testament passages bolsters rather than hinders Christian belief. After considering the contemporary religious scene today, Spong gives background on the early Christian world. He then discusses the major books of the New Testament and the pivotal issues raised by each book. Many readers will find much to disagree with, but it will have a wide readership nevertheless. —Paul Kaplan, Lake Villa District Lib., Ill.

Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

The Bible has, of course, been read with Jewish eyes from the moment it was written: it is a Jewish book. But Liberating the Gospels is a Christian book; and Spong, bishop of the Episcopal diocese of Newark, New Jersey, urges his Christian audience to remember that the book they call the New Testament was written almost entirely by Jewish authors for an audience that was initially almost entirely Jewish, an audience to whom it would not have occurred to think of the Bible (the “Law” and the “Prophets” ) as anything but Jewish. Spong’s primary concern is to popularize the work of Michael Goulder, who reads the Gospel accounts as midrashic interpretations of regular readings of the Torah prescribed for worship services in the synagogue. They are thus not historical accounts so much as liturgically structured homilies that present history through sacred texts. This is not new, but it will be surprising to many readers, and that is sure to sustain the aura of controversy surrounding Bishop Spong’s prolific writing. —Steve Schroeder

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