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Life Arts    H4'ed 10/4/14

Bishop Spong Claims That a Jewish Mystic Wrote the Gospel According to John (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) October 4, 2014: In certain previous articles I've published at OEN, I've discussed the Jungian idea of individuation and personal transformation. In theory, personal transformation is a possibility that is available to progressives and liberals in the United States today. However, in theory, it is also a possibility that is available to conservatives, including the kind of theocons that Damon Linker discusses in his book THE THEOCONS: SECULAR AMERICA UNDER SIEGE (2006).

Personal transformation can involve a dramatic event. For example, St. Paul's profound mystical experience initiated his dramatic personal transformation from being a brutal persecutor of the enthusiasts of the Christ myth to joining their ranks. If we interpret the famous burning bush episode in the Hebrew Bible as representing a profound mystical experience that Moses had, then we could say that he experienced a dramatic personal transformation. However, it appears that personal transformations can also be less dramatic at times.

To explore personal transformations further, I want to focus in the present essay on Bishop John Shelby Spong's new book about the Gospel According to John: THE FOURTH GOSPEL: TALES OF A JEWISH MYSTIC (2014). Bishop Spong is now the retired Episcopalian Bishop of Newark.

Because the historical Jesus used narrative proverbs, and because I agree with Professor Marcus J. Borg that the historical Jesus most likely had a profound mystical experiences, it strikes me that the three synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) could aptly be referred to as "Tales of a Jewish Mystic." Because the unknown author of the Gospel According to John is clearly an enthusiast of the Christ myth, I think that the Jewish author should be referred to as a Christian mystic, not as a Jewish mystic. But the historical Jesus was not an enthusiast of the Christ myth, so he can aptly be referred to as a Jewish mystic.

In any event, to understand Bishop Spong's book, we need to understand the historical context out of which the Christ myth emerge.

But before I proceed to sketch the historical contexts, I want to advert first to the Jungian idea of the Self. I have capitalized this term here to distinguish it from ego-consciousness. Now, in various traditions of thought the Self may be symbolized in different ways. As we consider the Christ myth, I would suggest that the mythic Christ figure is a symbol of the Self. In other words, as a symbol of the Self, we can understand the mythic Christ as a symbol of the Inner Messiah (or the Messiah Within) in each person's psyche -- you know, like the conceptual construct of the Inner Child (or the Child Within) that Alice Miller, John Bradshaw, Susan Anderson, and others work with so productively.

The fully elaborated Christ myth includes major milestones known as the Resurrection, the Ascension into heaven, and the Second Coming of Christ (also known as the Parousia). In short, the course of the Christ myth shows the resilience of the Self.

The Gospel According to John, the focal point of Bishop Spong's book, has long been referred to as the spiritual gospel, because it seems to have something to do with the Christian spiritual life. However, if we were to consider the mythic Christ figure as a symbol of the Self, then we could consider parts of this gospel as including messages about spirituality for non-Christians as well as for Christians.


In the first century of the Common Era (C.E.), the Jewish homeland was under the rule of the Roman Empire. Historically, the Jewish homeland had been under the rule of different empires in earlier centuries. In the ancient world, war was a way of life. Periodically, large empires emerged that were able to use war and conquest to establish themselves.

For example, Alexander from Macedonia (known as Alexander the Great) established a far-flung Greek empire that included the Jewish homeland. As a result, a form of ancient Greek became widely used as a lingua franca. (Except for a few words in Aramaic, the language that the historical Jesus spoke, all of the texts in the New Testament are written in ancient Greek.)

The Roman Empire used brutality to establish what is known as the Pax Romana. In general, the Pax Romana was good for commerce. Under local authorities of the Roman Empire, building projects and other economic developments advanced in the Jewish homeland.

For example, the local authorities of the Roman Empire might build an entire city in the Jewish homeland where there had not been one before. But this kind of building project would require dislocating a certain number of Jews from their traditional lands. For understandable reasons, the dislocated Jews were disgruntled. But the brutality of the local authorities of the Roman Empire was well known -- and served as a strong deterrent to armed rebellion.


Under the rule of the Roman Empire in the Jewish homeland, there arose the prophet who is known as John the Baptist. He lived in the desert -- and preached there. He famously baptized willing Jews in the Jordan River. This kind of ritual baptism of willing Jews was supposed to symbolize their personal renewal of their long-standing commitment to their traditional Jewish religion and customs.

Their symbolic re-dedication to their traditional religion and customs could be understood as a form of resistance to the rule of the Roman Empire in the Jewish homeland.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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