CNN is prominently headlining a diatribe by the former Bishop John Shelby Spong, noted heretic and extreme skeptic. Spong’s article claims that people hold to three “big misconceptions” about the Bible. I read it and, while I found nothing new or compelling in the way of argument, I had some down time and thought it would be a useful exercise to critique it.
“…people assume the Bible accurately reflects history. That is absolutely not so, and every biblical scholar recognizes it.”
That is an outright falsehood (there are thousands of evangelical biblical scholars, not to mention reams of archaeologists, who see historicity in the Bible) – unless you recognize what Spong has actually done here. See, Spong has implicitly re-defined the term “biblical scholar” to exclude anyone who sees any historicity in the biblical accounts. To do so would be to beg the question, of course, but as we shall see Spong is hardly concerned with cogency.
“Abraham, the biblically acknowledged founding father of the Jewish people, whose story forms the earliest content of the Bible, died about 900 years before the first story of Abraham was written in the Old Testament.”
Abraham would have lived around 2100-2000 BC or so. Spong, then, is saying that Genesis would have been written around 1200-1100 BC. I have two observations:
1) 1200-1100 BC is the same period that is widely accepted as the “late” date of the Exodus (the other contender, the “early” date, is around 1447 BC). If you accept the late date (I don’t, but many evangelicals do), then isn’t the fact that the story of Abraham was committed to writing at that time a confirmation of the traditional story (that Moses wrote Genesis around the time of the Exodus)? And if so, doesn’t that refute the statement above that the Bible does not accurately reflect history?
2) Spong’s argument that Abraham’s story was not written down is an assertion without evidence. There are many indications in the text of Genesis (literary forms of narratives, the genealogies, etc) which show that the story of Abraham possessed written form before it was incorporated into the present-day book of Genesis (by Moses, I believe, but even Spong has to admit someone wrote Genesis using some kind of sources). Spong, by appealing exclusively to “oral tradition” as the carrier of Abraham’s story, is depending on the long-discredited assumption that writing wasn’t invented in Abraham’s day – an assumption that archaeology has conclusively disproven.
“Moses, the religious genius who put his stamp on the religion of the Old Testament more powerfully than any other figure, died about 300 years before the first story of Moses entered the written form we call Holy Scripture….This means that everything we know about Moses in the Bible had to have passed orally through about 15 generations before achieving written form. Do stories of heroic figures not grow, experience magnifying tendencies and become surrounded by interpretive mythology as the years roll by?”
Wait: assuming Spong’s right and the story of Moses has been “grown” and “magnified” and “interpretively mythologized,” on what basis can Spong then call Moses a “religious genius” or say that he “put his stamp on the religion of the Old Testament more powerfully than any other figure”? If all we know about Moses was written centuries after the fact and embellished, we don’t know anything about Moses at all, do we? How can Spong give any opinion about Moses’ intellect or impact, then? He’s trying to have it both ways. He refutes himself. If he’s right, he’s wrong.
“Jesus of Nazareth, according to our best research, lived between the years 4 B.C. and A.D. 30.”
And on what sources is that “best research” based? Try reconstructing any semblance of a timeline of Jesus’ life without the Gospel accounts–which Spong then goes on to try to discredit as history! If you try to do so from allegedly “secular” historians, you’re left with a few fragmentary mentions of Jesus which can’t do the job. How does Spong know these dates, without the Gospels?
“Are the gospels then capable of being effective guides to history? If we line up the gospels in the time sequence in which they were written – that is, with Mark first, followed by Matthew, then by Luke and ending with John – we can see exactly how the story expanded between the years 70 and 100.”
We have a fragment of John’s Gospel that dates from the very beginning of the second century (P52). So, if we are to believe Spong, in the span of a little over thirty years, someone wrote Mark, Mark was circulated widely and gained popularity, Matthew and Luke were then written based on Mark, Matthew and Luke were then circulated widely, and later John was written, and circulated widely, each succeeding book containing new and more fanciful ideas, and yet without criticism or debate!
Thirty years is an awfully, awfully short time for “expansion” of a story, actually. Think about it: Jesus ministered around 30 AD (as Spong says, without epistemic justification, but correctly in spite of himself). That means during the period of 70-100 AD, there would have been original eyewitnesses still alive in this period. Not to mention all those who knew the allegedly original “Markan” version from 70 AD or so, of course. Such an expansion and embellishment that Spong is alleging would have ignited a firestorm of controversy. Where are the hundreds of manuscripts of letters and tractates from early Christians disputing the issue and arguing for one side or the other? They don’t exist. They never existed. Spong’s suggestion is so farfetched it’s ludicrous.
So his statements that the virgin birth and ascension are ninth and tenth-century additions are mere assertions in lieu of argument. Where is the evidence? What manuscripts that differ from the canonical Gospels prove these points? They don’t. Spong is assuming an evolutionary theory of the development of Christian religion (more on that later), and so the idea that the Bible might be divine revelation must be ruled out of bounds at the outset.
“The second major misconception comes from the distorting claim that the Bible is in any literal sense “the word of God.” Only someone who has never read the Bible could make such a claim. The Bible portrays God as hating the Egyptians, stopping the sun in the sky to allow more daylight to enable Joshua to kill more Amorites and ordering King Saul to commit genocide against the Amalekites.”
Thus begins Spong’s argument against the Bible as the Word of God “from morality.” The first problem is that if the Bible is what it claims to be, Spong doesn’t get to stand in judgment of its morality; rather, it stands in judgment of his. On the other hand, if the Bible isn’t what it claims to be, if there is no Supreme Lawgiver who has laid down his moral code, then I ask Spong where he gets his moral standards from—and what gives Spong’s moral standards the authority to judge anyone else. If God doesn’t exist, or, if he does but hasn’t revealed himself, aren’t we on our own? Why is Spong’s opinion better than anyone else? Why, pray tell, does he get to sit in judgment?
Of course, it’s easy for Spong to throw a bunch of verbal grenades to shake peoples’ faith. It’s hard to respond and adequately answer each objection with the fair treatment, in each incident’s context, that each deserves. But here are a few short retorts in response:
“God hating the Egyptians.” Genesis portrays many Egyptians quite favorably. And when the tone of Scripture turns sour against them, it’s in the context of Egypt enslaving Israel and killing her male children. Is God not entitled to a little righteous indignation, Mr. Spong?
“Stopping the sun…to kill more Amorites.” I wonder what offends Spong more: the killing of the Amalekites, or God stopping the sun? Is this a Freudian slip, revealing Spong’s presuppositional anti-supernaturalism? As for the Amorites, this was a culture whose societal sins included ritual objectification and abuse of women and men as sacred prostitutes and child sacrifice by burning. Surely even in Spong’s ethical system, this cries out for justice; if not, why not? This was a culture that, in the battle Spong objects to, is attempting to destroy Israel. Is Israel not entitled to defend herself?
“Genocide against the Amalekites.” The issue here, of course, is the pejorative term “genocide,” as if ethnicity were at all the issue. The fact that fellow Amorites (including the Amalekite people) like Rahab and her family found mercy AND full inclusion in the covenant community, including a place in David’s royal line, shows that this is not blinkered racism at work here in the biblical account. Rahab was spared for her faith. The Amorites—well, I’ve already given a glimpse of their religious practices. I understand that it’s hard for an anti-religious fellow like Spong to understand how religion and theology can be a matter of life and death importance, but the Bible has a different view. And it was written by religious folks to religious folks, not 21st-century skeptics. Spong needs to start reading the Bible as its authors intended! Because, if obedience to God matters, the Amorites’ four-hundred-year persistence in their sin matters, too.
From another angle: in our day, wars are fought for natural resources or national interests or political systems or patriotic pride or dictatorial entitlements. Israel, by contrast, fought in the name of the God who made them and gave them life and saved them, to preserve themselves from a hateful and abusive and dissolute religion all around them. I’d say our world’s reasons to fight have “devolved” since then, rather than “evolved.”
“Dash[ing] the heads of Babylonian children against the rocks.” Try reading Lamentations’ account of the siege and destruction of Jerusalem to see how the Babylonians treated the Jews. Or go to secular history and read about their practice of warfare. The Jews in this psalm are calling for God to do justice in terms of the “lex talionis,” eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The Deuteronomic “eye for an eye” law was a requirement for proportionality: the punishment must fit the crime. So they are calling for God to visit punishment upon Babylon in a measure appropriate to the atrocity suffered by Jerusalem, not out of a bloodthirsty desire to see babies suffer. This graphic image is intended not to be prescriptive (“please, God, do this”), but to describe in shocking terms the hurt done to Israel (“This is what was done to us”). And as it is a poem, one must be careful about literalistically interpreting imagery that is clearly intended to evoke emotional responses.
“Execution of children who are willfully obedient to their parents.” The law in question here does not have toddlers in view, but what we would call adolescents.
“Execution of those who follow false gods.” Of course, if the God of Israel really is the God of the Earth, who gives every man life and breath, then a failure to obey him is cosmic treason and the ultimate act of ingratitude. Spong’s argument here assumes God doesn’t exist.
“The third major misconception is that biblical truth is somehow static and thus unchanging. Instead, the Bible presents us with an evolutionary story, and in those evolving patterns, the permanent value of the Bible is ultimately revealed. It was a long road for human beings and human values to travel between the tribal deity found in the book of Exodus, who orders the death of the firstborn male in every Egyptian household on the night of the Passover, until we reach an understanding of God who commands us to love our enemies.”
There is a deeper assumption underneath Spong’s objections. That’s the assumption that the Bible cannot have been the product of supernatural intervention. God didn’t speak; God doesn’t speak; God couldn’t have spoke. To quote another skeptical scholar, Abraham Keunen: “So soon as we derive a separate part of Israel’s religious life directly from God, and allow the supernatural or immediate revelation to intervene in even one single point, so long also our view of the whole continues to be incorrect… It is the supposition of a natural development alone which accounts for all the phenomena.”
Hence, Spong’s appeal to evolution. Without a divine hand directing the establishment of Israel’s religion and the writing of the Bible, some mechanism for explaining its existence needs to be found. And that mechanism is religious evolution.
The problem is that the Bible presents a decidedly non-evolutionary explanation for its existence: God spoke through prophets and revealed himself through his Son. The Bible presents a consistent narrative, introducing concepts like atonement and sacrifice and redemption and kingship and sin and salvation early in the story and developing them into the New Testament, culminating in Jesus.
The only way one can support an evolutionary theory regarding Israel’s religion is by assuming it from the beginning and “slicing and dicing” the Bible to find evidence of that assumption. The theory of the evolutionary development of Israel’s religion depends on assumptions such as:
a) It is a universal pattern that religions evolve from less to more complex, and from many gods to one.
Aside from the fact that this assumption is inherently self-contradictory (isn’t a progression from many gods to one a progression from complexity to simplicity?), it is simply not supported by the evidence. Zoroastrianism, while formerly monotheistic, has shifted to be more polytheistic. Ancient Egyptian religion dallied with monotheism and rejected it. Mormonism, which is descended from Christianity, is one of the most relentlessly polytheistic religions known to man!
b) Monotheism was not known to the Hebrews in Moses’ day and needed to develop gradually out of polytheism and tribalism and animism.
Actually, forms of monotheism have been identified in the worship of Marduk in Mesopotamia (where Abraham came from) and in the religion of Egypt (think of the Pharaoh Akhenaten) well before Moses. The Hebrews would have been well aware of monotheism, apart from any divine revelation. Of course, if there’s a talking God, that changes everything, doesn’t it?
c) The incredibly complex religion seen in the Law of Moses could not have been practiced in Moses’ day, and must have evolved later.
Ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian religion was very complex well before Moses, including highly developed priesthoods and advanced rituals. There is no reason to think that an advanced worship system is evidence of later evolution of Israel’s religion.
Assuming an evolutionary worldview, one cannot accept evidence of static, unchanging truth. The Bible is therefore shopped up into isolated fragments that, when read alone and out of context, seemingly support pieces of the evolutionary paradigm. Spong and his radical ilk don’t derive the theory of religious evolution from an unbiased study of the text. Rather, they start with that assumption and reject anything that doesn’t fit.
The Bible presents an entirely different worldview, one where there is an unchanging God, one where this omnipotent Deity in fact reveals himself and speaks. Such a God does not stand to be judged by men. He stands and judges them himself. That kind of a God is hateful to a man like Spong, but really, it’s the only kind of God there could be that would actually make sense, isn’t it?
In short, Spong’s arguments here are self-contradictory, are completely unsupported by the archaeological and manuscript evidence, and depend upon assumptions that are themselves self-contradictory and unsupported by the facts. As long as CNN insists on giving him a pulpit, I suppose we’ll have to deal with him, but only for that media-driven prominence and exposure of his views. Certainly not because of their power or consistency.