Is John Shelby Spong right that the Bible is unreliable?

Question:  I read an article by John Shelby Spong, a former Episcopal bishop, who seemed to question the historicity of the Bible and its authority over our lives in areas of morality.  Can you help me with his views?  Here is a link to the full article: http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/12/29/my-take-the-3-biggest-biblical-misconceptions/?hpt=hp_c2.

Answer:  Reverend Spong sees three misconceptions people have about the Bible.

Misconception One

Spong’s  initial statement is,

To me, three misconceptions stand out and serve to make the Bible hard to comprehend.  First, people assume the Bible accurately reflects history. That is absolutely not so, and every biblical scholar recognizes it. 

Let me fill you in on a little secret.  When someone says that “every” biblical scholar or pastor or parent or politician or whoever says or believes the same thing, you can know for a certainty that this is an overstatement that is hiding contrary views.  And believe me, there are contrary views among biblical scholars on Spong’s position.

There have been many books written by reputable scholars for both the Old and New Testaments that support the historicity of the Bible.  But let’s deal with some of the examples Spong uses.

Spong notes,

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. 

From this disputed fact (disputed because there are reputable scholars who believe Moses wrote the account of Abraham 400 years after his life) Spong draws the conclusion that too much legend has grown up over that amount of time to give a realistic picture of a hero in Israelite history.  He makes the same argument about Moses and Jesus and the accuracy of their life stories.  Because the account of Jesus includes miracles this must surely be, in Spong’s mind, a padding of the account to make Jesus look more powerful than he was.

But oddly, when we read the account of Moses on the life of Abraham we do not find a glorified Abraham.  We see a very “warty” Abraham who lied about his wife being his sister, who married his wife’s servant at Sarah’s suggestion in order to circumvent what God told him would happen, and who expressed fear despite God’s promises to him that he would have a son through Sarah and that God would make a mighty nation from him.  Rather than glorifying Abraham we see him in his fallen human nature struggling to believe God.  By Spong’s account we ought to see him performing miracles and walking on water after so many years of legendary addition to his life story.

But this is not the way Bible history is written.  It defies the tendency Spong fears and gives us real people.  The other assumption Spong is making about the Bible is that God did not or could not guide the transmission of Abraham’s story, or Moses’ story or Jesus’ story, for that matter, accurately, protecting it from inaccurate accretion.  Spong’s naturalistic perspective, ruling out God’s purpose and power, taints all of his alleged concerns about the Bible.

Still dealing with the historicity of the Bible, Spong then asserts,

Jesus of Nazareth, according to our best research, lived between the years 4 B.C. and A.D. 30. Yet all of the gospels were written between the years 70 to 100 A.D., or 40 to 70 years after his crucifixion, and they were written in Greek, a language that neither Jesus nor any of his disciples spoke or were able to write.

First of all, there is no reason to believe that Jesus did not speak or write in Greek, but even if he didn’t, how does that make an account of his life written in Greek therefore and of necessity inaccurate?  The logic is baffling!

It is of utmost importance, in fact, to recognize that such accounts of the life of an important person written only 40-70 years after his life and contained in thousands of existing manuscripts (there are over 5,000 existing New Testament manuscripts alone)  is unheard of for other famous individuals in history.  And it is likely that the accounts of the New Testament were written in some cases only 20-30 years after Jesus’ death.  This means there were people still alive who could refute or exonerate the accounts.  This is why Paul mentions that there were over 500 people who saw Jesus alive, or why the Gospels mention Simon of Cyrene who was forced to carry Jesus’ cross, or other individuals who could be asked about these facts.

Spong’s last historical jab is this,

Perhaps the most telling witness against the claim of accurate history for the Bible comes when we read the earliest narrative of the crucifixion found in Mark’s gospel and discover that it is not based on eyewitness testimony at all.

Spong is here assuming a view of Mark’s Gospel that sees it as a deliberate attempt to conform the life of Jesus to Old Testament prophecies.  He assumes what he wishes to prove.  But there is ample tradition and indications within Mark’s Gospel itself that it is based on eyewitness account.

Misconception Two

The second misconception Spong mentions is “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.”  Well, of course, there are many who have read the Bible and claim exactly that.  But Spong’s evidence is that God endorses the violent judgment of unbelievers and this could certainly not be attributed to the God “everyone” knows is the true God.  And because people have misused these passages they cannot be from God.  Huh?  Again, the logic escapes me.  Has anyone misused Spong’s words?  Then they cannot be true.

Misconception Three

“The third major misconception,” according to Spong, “is that biblical truth is somehow static and thus unchanging.”  And there is something to what Spong is saying here.  There is a progression through the Bible of understanding and perspective, but it does not seem accurate to portray this as changing truth.  Because God deals with Israel in a way He does not deal with the church does not mean He is changing truth.  We deal with our children one way when they are minors and another as they mature into adults.

Spong’s final statement is,

The ultimate meaning of the Bible escapes human limits and calls us to a recognition that every life is holy, every life is loved, and every life is called to be all that that life is capable of being. The Bible is, thus, not about religion at all but about becoming deeply and fully human. It issues the invitation to live fully, to love wastefully and to have the courage to be our most complete selves.

But this only seems another way of saying that Spong has decided what being fully human is apart from Scripture, keeping the parts that fit with his perspective and explaining away those that don’t.  This kind of subjective handling of Scripture leaves one feeling that it would be best for him to simply say what he thinks is right and holy without appeal to the Bible at all.

For other articles exposing the poor logic and facts of John Shelby Spong see:

What’s Wrong with Bishop Spong?
William Lane Craig vs. John Shelby Spong on the resurrection of Jesus

John Shelby Spong’s Liberating the Gospels: A Critique

Randall Johnson

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About thimblefulloftheology

Staff pastor of an evangelical church in Collierville TN just outside of Memphis. Married with four grown children, all married. Thrilled with life in Jesus Christ. View all posts by thimblefulloftheology

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