John Shelby Spong

John Shelby Spong.

The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic

NY: HarperOne, 2013. Hard Back, 360 Pages.



This is an important book from an at-times controversial author and church bishop.


His twenty-fourth book, John Shelby Spong has always been disturbed by the fourth gospel we give the Anglo-Celtic name of ‘John’. But after more than five years solid work on this gospel he now says he feels a “sense of completion. I have arrived at a place both spiritually and theologically with which I am content” (Pg:ix).


What has changed? He has discovered that the author, or authors, of this gospel were not proto-orthodox theologians, as used (or distorted) by the fourth century credal thought police, but reflect a collection of ‘tales of a Jewish mystic’ - probably first designated as such by Clement of Alexandria in the second century, and shaped by the ‘wisdom tradition’ within Judaism.


This is not a commentary on John. For that you need to go to Bultmann or Brown or Barrett. Spong says: “My readers want meaning, not technical facts nor excessive knowledge…” (Pg:9).  And Spong says: John’s gospel is about life – expanded life, abundant life, and ultimately eternal life” but then this qualification, “not in the typical manner that these words have been understood religiously”.


Spong divides his book into five parts: (i) Introducing the Fourth Gospel, (ii) Book of Signs: Mythological Characters…, (iii) Farewell Discourses, (iv) Passion Narrative, and (v) Resurrection: Mystical Oneness Revealed.  It is not a book to be read from cover to cover, even though Spong’s writing style is easy to read. It is more one that could be at the elbow of all who have responsibility for leading worship or study groups, and preaching when following the Lectionary.


And as I found as a result of doing some of that, allowing what is suggested to change one’s mind about this gospel.


An excellent Subject Index and nine pages of Bibliography make up this well-worth book that challenges dominant assumptions and interpretations.


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