Book review: The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic
by John Shelby Spong
Spong has never warmed to the historicity of the Fourth Gospel. In fact, he never warmed to that gospel much at all, until the last few years, when he decide to make a study of it. I’m glad he finally did; I thoroughly enjoyed reading Spong’s analysis.
He begins his book by admitting that the older he gets, the more he believes, but the fewer beliefs he holds. I quoted Spong in my own book about John’s Gospel (published just three months ago) as saying “I do not believe I can make a case for a single word attributed to Jesus in the Fourth Gospel to be a literal word actually spoken by the historic Jesus.” Knowing that we were researching our projects simultaneously, I contacted him to make sure he hadn’t developed a new “belief” about the Gospel before I printed that. Nope, he still doesn’t believe Jesus said any of the words in John’s Gospel, and more than that: Spong believes none of the miracle stories are real, few of the characters are historical people, and certainly the author wasn’t an original apostle of Jesus. Nicodemus, Nathanial, the woman at the well, the beloved disciple, the mother of Jesus (who remains unnamed in this Gospel)—all purely symbolic. The Gospel is a late-first-century mystical work, allegorically telling the history of the Johannine Community and the development of the Jesus movement, and it was never meant to be read like a history book.
I can’t go quite that far, yet it’s fascinating to read the Gospel as a mystical lesson book. The “mother of Jesus” in John’s Gospel, for example, was never a woman named Mary, but a symbol of Israel. The wedding of Cana was Jesus’ own wedding. Not literally, of course, but symbolically. The incarnation was never about a foreign visitor from heaven, but about a new and mystical way of experiencing life in abundance. I reach similar conclusions in my own book, but if this is the correct way to read John’s Gospel, then there remains one miracle Spong doesn’t explain: how did a book with so many contributing authors, going through so many stages, wind up coherently spiritual? Were none of these contributors literalists?
Yet Spong’s book just gets better as it goes along. I would venture a guess that he finds the most poignant moment in the Gospel of John to be at the foot of the cross, where the beloved disciple is joined to mother of Jesus. Spong’s parabolic understanding of the Gospel climaxes in symbolic meaning here, and I think it would be a spoiler to explain exactly what the moment describes.
Perhaps my favorite part of the book was Spong’s treatment of the final chapter in John. Written by an unknown author, it is often referred to as the appendix of the Gospel. So contrary is the “appendix” to the rest of the Gospel that I pretty much left it out of my own book. Spong, however, while recognizing that it doesn’t fit with the rest, still has a great appreciation for this story of Jesus appearing to the disciples in Galilee. He considers it probably founded on an earlier tradition than the rest of the gospel … indeed, possibly earlier than any of the gospels’ resurrection stories! Still treating even the appendix as a mystical writing, Spong brings this final chapter alive in a way that made me, for the first time, appreciate it.
Fascinating and fresh, this is John’s Gospel the way nobody has read it for 1900 years.