For the next six weeks we’ll be exploring the book of John with the help of John Shelby Spong’s book, “The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic.” There is a great deal of compelling, though perhaps in some cases downright controversial, information in Spong’s book, and I believe it can give us a whole different perspective on early Christianity and the person of Jesus. As always, you are free to take or leave this information as your head and heart decide.
(For the full audio version, click here.)
Basically, Spong believes that the Book of John can not be understood by taking the stories literally, but by understanding the Jewish mystical tradition which the authors used to inform their experience of Jesus.
To begin, here are some things that Spong says may SHOCK you about the Gospel of John:
- Written in different layers by different authors over 30 years
- Can’t possibly be taken literally; the gospel itself even makes fun of literalism
- The sayings attributed to Jesus probably were not spoken by him
- None of the miracles (“signs”) ever happened
- Most of the characters were fictional
- Language of “incarnation” has been misconstrued
This alone may be enough to send some of you into apoplectic shock. For those of you who are comfortable with reading the stories of the Bible as myth and metaphor, you’ll have less problem with this series. You can understand that, in the same way we take Buddhist stories, Aesop’s Fables, and Harry Potter as stories with a moral, but know they didn’t happen, the stories of Jesus have no less import simply because they didn’t happen.
To understand the Gospel of John, we need to understand the context out of which it was written, and the intent of the author. If we place ourselves in the early Johannine community, we find that it was a deeply Jewish community in conflict and turmoil because some of the members have started following Jesus.
Perhaps you have been in a congregation where there has been conflict over theological issues, or monetary issues, or social-political issues, and eventually one group either decides they need to leave and start their own church, or they are kicked out. This is what happened to the Jews in John’s community. If we don’t understand this, we miss some of the purpose and messages within John.
The last editing of the Gospel of John most likely took place after the Jewish followers of Jesus were excommunicated from the synagogue. These Jews turned to Jewish mysticism to understand the reality of God they found in Jesus. The Prologue of John (Jn 1:1-14) gives us a heads up right away that Jesus is seen through mystical eyes.
John 1:1, 3a (masculine Word – logos in Greek)
In the beginning
There was the Word;
The Word was in God’s presence,
And the Word was God.
Through the Word
All things came into being…
In later Christian thought (which informed the creeds), Jesus became the Divine Word, pre-existent with God. However, seen through the eyes of Jewish mysticism, Jesus was the conduit of the Divine Word and Wisdom, which were eternally part of the essence of God. Word has always been part of Jewish thought in the speaking of creation, in the word given to Moses on the mountain (Moses’ gazing on God is an important story in Jewish mysticism), in the words of the Torah and the Law, and in the words of the Prophets.
And the connection to Wisdom is clear as the Prologue of John echoes the description in Proverbs 8.
Proverbs 8:22-23, 29b-30a (speaking of feminine Wisdom – hokmah in Hebrew, sophia in Greek)
“YHWH gave birth to me at the beginning,
before the first acts of creation.
I have been from everlasting,
in the beginning, before the world began…
When the foundation of the earth was laid out,
I was the skilled artisan standing next to the Almighty.
Wisdom literature and tradition, born after the Babylonian exile (circa 587 BCE) when the temple was destroyed, the kings were gone, and the concept of Wisdom as the immanent aspect of God took hold, marked the advent of Jewish mysticism.
In Spong’s understanding, “God’s self-revelation, the “word,” was part of the external God from the beginning of the universe. God, experienced as immanent in the creation, however, was “wisdom.” These are brought together in the Prologue to John as experienced in Jesus. Spong suggests, “The author of John’s gospel, in his prologue, is either using or creating an early Christian hymn based on a hymn to wisdom in the book of Proverbs to express the mystical unity that human life can have with God and asserting that this was in fact the unique thing about Jesus of Nazareth. It is that life-expanding oneness with God to which the author of the Fourth Gospel believed that Jesus was calling us.” (p. 57)
Over and over we hear this theme echoed in the book of John.
However, the church has literalized the Gospel of John and turned Jesus into an untouchable Divine being who had supernatural powers, who could read people’s minds, who felt no anxiety about his impending death, and who didn’t suffer when he was crucified.
If what Spong, and others, suggest about the Gospel of John is true, then we need to look with mystical eyes at the scripture to see and hear the message that the authors of John truly wanted to express. The community experienced an amazing power in their understanding of Jesus. He was their example, their way to the divine, their truth that unity with God was possible for everyone.