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|Liberating the Gospels
Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes
Bishop John Shelby Spong
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
This remarkable discovery brings us closer to how Jesus was really understood in his day and should be in ours.
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
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.
Harvey Cox, Thomas Professor of Divinity, Harvard University: "Bishop Spong’s work is a significant
Rabbi Jack D. Spiro, director, Virginia Commonwealth University Center for Judaic Studies "Compelling,
controversial, substantive, provocative, and original…remarkably convincing."
Rodger Kamenetz, New York Times Magazine: "Spong argues...that the 'Jewish books' that narrate Jesus' life must
be understood more as midrashic literature than historical accounts."
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.... [This] will be surprising to
many readers, and that is sure to sustain the aura of controversy surrounding Bishop Spong's prolific writing."
Harvey Cox, Harvard University: "Bishop Spong's work is a significant accomplishment. It takes the most recent
and reliable scholarly research on the Gospels and interprets it for a lay public in an understandable and highly
Kirkus Reviews "Maverick Episcopal bishop Spong argues that to take the Gospels as literal history is to miss their
essential point. In recent years Spong has gained notoriety for his unorthodox views on doctrine and sexual
morality. Here he reproduces the ideas he put forward in Resurrection, arguing that the Gospels are not historical
narratives but exercises in midrash, a Jewish genre of biblical exegesis. Spong takes midrash beyond its narrower
Jewish definition to mean a method in which biblical themes are interwoven in order to describe things beyond
ordinary human experience and language. Nearly 2,000 years of anti-Semitism have blinded Christians to both the
Jewishness of Jesus and the 'midrashic' nature of the Gospels. According to Spong, for example, the account of the
Sermon on the Mount is really a device to show Jesus as the new Moses, while the feeding of the multitudes is a
way of bringing Elijah and Elisha material into the story of Jesus. Spong hopes to break the impasse between
fundamentalists who believe that the Gospels are literally true history and liberals who reject miracles and the
supernatural as projections of a pre-scientific mentality."
David Rosenberg, co-author and translator of The Book of J: "One doesn't have to agree with all of John Shelby
Spong's startling assertions to be drawn thrillingly close by him to the original authors of the Gospels. Spong
responds to their acts of writing with inspired acts of reading. By absorbing the tradition of Jewish midrash, Spong
turns the act of reading into an act of love."
About the Author:
John Shelby Spong was the Episcopal bishop of Newark before his retirement in 2000. As a leading spokesperson
for an open, scholarly, and progressive Christianity, Bishop Spong has taught at Harvard and at the Graduate
Theological Union in Berkeley, California. He is the author of many books, including A New Christianity for a New
World and Why Christianity Must Change or Die.
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