Over the years I have wondered if Christianity would have been better off today if the Gospel of John had not been made part of the canon. Ever since the fourth century, this Gospel has been used to support some of the most exclusive and divisive religious creeds in history. In my opinion it has had far too much influence on the development of modern Christianity.
I must admit, however, that I am truly excited about recommending John Shelby Spong’s newest book, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic. At times this book feels more like a detective novel than a scholarly work. Spong starts with his desire to figure out how the unusual book came to be, who was the author and why was it written. Like a who done it mystery, it is almost impossible not to be drawn into his investigation as he sorts through the clues.
Spong wonders why both the issues and focus change as one reads through the chapters of the Book of John. He concludes that this Gospel must have been written in stages, with different layers by different authors over a 30-year period. The question he poises here is why? Spong believes the text follows the stages the Johannine community was going through as it moved from a Jewish community into something new. He carefully tracks the development of what must have been a difficult transition for these Jewish followers of Jesus and concludes that ultimately they “had to learn how to live apart from Judaism.”
However he is very clear that the Gospel of John is overwhelmingly a Jewish work and it can only be understood through the Jewish context in which it was created. Spong writes “My study has convinced me, first, that the gospel of John is a deeply Jewish book, and second, that by reading it through the lens of Jewish mysticism, our generation is given new doors for understanding this gospel.”
Spong carefully tracks the changes the community was forced to deal with as the Jesus followers were confronted with their changing Greek world. In the process, we are not only given the opportunity to learn more about this first century Jewish mystic movement, but as we read we gain a greater understanding of the times in which it struggled.
Possibly the most exciting thing for some will be the recognition that at least one important part of the initial Jesus movement was focused on an early form of Jewish mysticism. Spong makes it clear that this community did not think in Greek dualistic ways. Therefore Jesus was not an “outside invader from another realm” but rather was the defining human life, “bringing together into oneness the human and the divine.” It was through a new consciousness that Jesus was able to achieve a mystical oneness with God without the barriers that bind us.
I believe this book will not only dramatically change our perspective on the fourth gospel but it may very well alter our understanding of our Christian roots. For some it may even change the way they feel about their own Christian path. Finally this book may provide a model for change for disenchanted Christians or followers of Jesus. I am excited about this book and highly recommend it.