Is it 'Heresy' To Read the Bible Literally?

A retired Episcopal bishop claims that it is “a Gentile heresy” to read the Bible literally — that first century Jews would have taken the gospels as allegory, not as history. But it is rather he himself who brings a modern interpretation to scripture which is alien to the authors of it.

John Shelby Spong, the retired bishop, released a book last month called Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy. He argues that, after about 150 years, there were no longer enough Jews in the Christian movement to understand the Jewish roots and allegorical meanings in the biblical stories of Jesus. Instead, they brought a Gentile understanding of literalism to the Bible, in contrast to what the authors intended. “We imposed fundamentalism on the Bible. No one who has ever read the Bible could be a literalist,” he declared.

These claims are patently ridiculous, and ironically, it is Spong himself who is guilty of forcing his own “Gentile” reading of scripture on the text. As Dr. David Chapman, professor of New Testament and Archaeology at Covenant Theological Seminary wrote PJ Media in an email statement, Spong “disregards all ancient evidence for how Jewish people in Jesus’ day read their OT [Old Testament] Scriptures as historically true patterns of God dealing with his people.”

“Bishop Spong appears to be the modernist Gentile in the room, misreading the historical intentions of Jewish-Christian accounts of Jesus’s life,” Chapman wrote.

How a Bishop Could Get Scripture So Wrong

If Spong is so wrong, how did he ever come to his conclusions? Part of the answer is due to “higher criticism,” also known as “historical criticism,” which has come to dominate many academic approaches to the study of scripture. This trend in education began in Germany in the 1700s, and seeks to investigate ancient texts by examining their original historical context.

While this is a noble goal, too many academics used this school to read their own interpretations into scripture. They imported a view of history foreign to what the evidence presents, and thinking they had discovered “the real truths behind the text,” aimed to debunk the literal meaning of the Bible. Many theories of the “historical Jesus” use this method, and the Jesus Seminar, which is connected to this movement, honored Spong in 2012.

Spong’s reasons for rejecting the “Gentile heresy” of Biblical literalism mimic the arguments of the higher criticism. Spong argues that he has discovered the “true meaning” of the gospels, in contrast to the way early Christians — and today’s evangelicals — interpreted them.

Spong’s Arguments

Spong claims that “the literalization of the Gospels is not the result of the authors, it’s the result of a generation 150 years after the birth of Jesus who didn’t know the Jewish tradition so they couldn’t see the [literary] connections” between stories about Jesus and the Old Testament. Spong presents many examples of such literary parallels.

“They didn’t know, for example, that the feeding of the 5,000 was not a miracle. It was a retelling of Moses’ manna in the wilderness story heightened and applied to Jesus,” Spong argued (emphasis added). He also mentioned the star of Bethlehem: “I say to people, ‘Do you know what a star is? It’s burning masses of gas at incredible tenperatures and formed out of all sorts of dust and matter over millions of years. A star does not give a message about some event that happened on earth.'”

This kind of “debunking” might be expected from an avid atheist opposing the miracles in the Bible, not a former bishop who claims still to be a Christian. Instead, he claims that his declarations do not mean he thinks the Bible untrue — he just considers it “figurative.”

He recalls teaching in Milwaukee (emphasis added):

I took the shadow of Moses and lifted it out of Matthew’s gospel, starting with the murder of the children by Herod, which is a Moses story now being wrapped around Jesus. Then to the baptism which tells the Red Sea story, then Jesus goes into the wilderness for forty days because Moses went into the wilderness for forty years. Then the temptations of Jesus are patterned after the trials of Moses in the wilderness and then when he gets through [Matthew] puts Jesus on a new mountain to give a new interpretation of the law and that’s the Sermon on the Mount.

Next Page: Christians Saw the Parallels, but Believed the Gospels Were History

Christians Saw the Parallels, but Believed the Gospels Were History

The worst kinds of lies are built on a foundation of truth. Chapman explained how Spong can be right about the literary parallels and so wrong about how early Jews and Christians took those allegories. Chapman turns to historical sources to explain how Jews and Christians read their scripture at the time.

“In both ancient Jewish and Gentile historical writing, it was common to assume that patterns would be repeated through real historical events,” Chapman explained. “So historians would write in such a way as to emphasize these patterns, even while seeking to write accurate history.”

Chapman further noted that “the authors of the Gospels and Acts clearly wanted to portray real historical events, even while noting the ways that Jesus’ own ministry clearly does follow in the patterns of the great events of the OT, including the actions of Moses and the Prophets.” Indeed, both the gospels and the Pauline epistles are chock-full of references and direct quotations of the Old Testament.

It would be absurd to claim that the authors of the New Testament were unaware of the parallels, and even more absurd to claim that they did not think of the events they recorded as literal history — especially in view of the fact that a vast majority of the early apostles died gruesome deaths for their faith.

Evidence from Jewish Historians

Chapman also cited ancient Jewish historians to debunk Spong’s claims that the gospel writers did not consider these events to be true history:

In fact, especially in the time of Jesus, it is very clear that the Jewish people were reading their Bibles and recording literally true historical events. The evidence for this is widespread in the Jewish literature from the time, especially concerning their reading of what are today called the “historical books” of the Old Testament. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus spends 11 of 20 books in his Jewish Antiquities recounting the events of the Old Testament as if they actually occurred, as did the anonymous author (sometimes called “Pseudo-Philo”) of the Biblical Antiquities.

Writings for the Dead Sea Scrolls clearly assume the historical accuracy of the OT, as do rabbinic writings from after the time of the New Testament. Philo, the Jewish writer most aligned with allegorical interpretation (which he ironically developed in part by reading Gentile pagan philosophers), always first upheld the literal sense before proceeding to the allegorical.

In light of this evidence, Spong’s claims go from controversial to laughable to ridiculous. “Intriguingly, even while Bishop Spong claims to be recapturing an earlier ‘Jewish’ method of interpretation, he actually disregards all ancient evidence for how Jewish people in Jesus’ day read their OT Scriptures as historically true patterns of God dealing with his people.” Rather, Spong “employs a very modern approach to interpretation that allows him to separate the author’s intent from any goal of portraying historical truth.”

This is the true Gentile heresy of our age — reading our prejudices into scripture, in opposition to the plain meaning of the text and the historical approaches of other Jewish writers at the time. If anyone tells you they “understand” the meaning of an author in contrast to the plain meaning of his words, mistrust that person. Spong may indeed be trying to educate Christians, but he has reintroduced the greatest evil of the church — undermining the Word of God.