Jesus For the Non-Religious; John Shelby Spong; 2007; Harper Perennial; 293 pgs; notes, index
This is a book with a difference. The author is a retired Episcopal Bishop arguing that almost everything believers think they know about Jesus is not true. A poker buddy of mine (Hank Reiner) recommended it to me after I explained the premise of my book. I wish I had read it before writing The God Con.
A key component of my arguments in my book is that religions are cons. Religion evolve. There are two ways to start a religion: from scratch (Scientology) or by adding and subtracting bits from existing religions (cults and religious sects). Central to that idea is that Christianity is just Judaism with a few extra layers added to it. Spong's book confirms that view on almost every page. That is certainly not his intent.
The book is in two parts. The first part is a historical breakdown of the Jesus myth. The second part -- about one third of the book -- then tries to tell the reader how Jesus was a real guy and that one can still experience god through Jesus.
Both segments start by saying that atheism is not a disbelief in god, but a disagreement about the definition of god. He states this like it as an obvious fact. It is not and he is wrong. The dictionary disagrees with him on this point and so do I. The second part of the book paints god as transcendent experience that one can still have through Jesus, who he also claims actually existed. Jesus might have existed. But the problem with the other statement is that it is entirely subjective. This is where I stopped reading and started skimming. I have no doubt that Spong does believe what he says. I too have transcendent experiences, but Jesus has nothing to do with them. When I look at the huge image of the Andromeda galaxy I have hanging on one of my walls, I have thoughts that fill me with awe, but not with god. I should say that Spong believes in what science has to say about just about everything and on that score, we agree.
I did not read the second part of the book in any detail. Subjective experience is nice for the guy experiencing it, but that is about all.
The first segment of the book, however, is fascinating. I have never read the Bible and I never will. Life is too short. Spong is a brave man. He is religious, but does not believe in miracles. His book breaks down the Jesus myth largely as Judaism on steroids. The Jesus myth is just a retelling of Judaism. He breaks down the gospels and meticulously relates New Testament story telling to Jewish tradition. In other words, he validates virtually all of my arguments with respect of the origins of the Jesus myths, from the virgin birth to the crucifixion. All the Jesus stories are just Jewish stories shoe-horned into the "modern" world of 2,000 years ago.
The following are conclusions and observations made in the book. Some are clearly true, others were appropriately defended by Spomg. Spong argues constantly that all this is for liturgical reasons. Liturgical just means ritual-related. It is all about the show!
Mark, the first gospel, didn't mention the virgin birth or Bethlehem;
There were 41 generations between David and Joseph. Half the planet could claim lineage;
Mark only mentions the name Mary once;
Joseph was a fiction created to keep Jesus from being a bastard;
Scholars do not agree on the names of the disciples;
Judah is a name from Genesis and is the same name as Judas (story crossover (SC));
There was no Judas;
Twelve disciples, twelve tribes of Israel (SC);
Lots of people (e.g.: Peter and Paul) did miracles… more miracles, more power;
Miracles are recycled (eg: Moses and Elijah caused water to divide);
Miracles associated with Jesus were a later addition to fit Jewish traditions and ritual;
Moses fed a multitude with a small amount of miracle food, as did Jesus (SC);
Jesus curses a fig tree for not giving figs... off-season;
The gospels stretch language to make Jesus sound cool… cooler than Moses;
Paul only said one line about the crucifixion: That Jesus died for our sins according to scripture (Jewish scripture (SC));
No one was there when Jesus died;
The resurrection language is gibberish;
Elijah/Elisha story crosses over a lot;
There was no last supper;
There was no betrayal, no crown of thorns, no thieves, no darkness at noon, no crowds and no resurrection;
Jesus is just the Greek spelling of Joshua (Israel's greatest deliverer (SC));
Jesus and the Passover Lamb were both slaughtered and the Eucharist and Passover are reflections. This is where the consuming the flesh of the lamb of god comes from (SC);
Ditto Yom Kippur. The Jewish sacrificial lamb dies for our sins; the goat carries them away (hence scapegoat) (SC);
Barabbus, an odd figure in the bible, literally translates to "the son of god";
Again and again Spong argues that it was all about the ritual (in my words, the con). He still clings to the idea that it is all about the experience of Christ, which is meaningless to me, and entirely subjective.
This was an eye-opening book, but not in the way the author intended.
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Lee Moller is a life-long skeptic and atheist and the author of The God Con.