Commentary on William Lane Craig vs. John Shelby Spong Debate

This is an older debate, but Quodlibeta offers some good commentary on Spong’s (erroneous) use of the genre of midrash.

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I recently listened to a debate between William Lane Craig and John Shelby Spong on the historical Jesus (this was an actual debate, unlike the presentation and response Craig had with Dennett). You can listen to it here. Craig argued that Spong is so insulated that he doesn’t know what scholars outside of his small circle actually say. He points out that a survey of NT scholarship of the last few decades indicates that three-fourths of the scholars writing on the subject accept the historicity of Jesus’ empty tomb, and almost universally accept his post-mortem appearances as historically demonstrable. Moreover, most scholars today recognize that the four gospels are written as historical writing, specifically in the genre of ancient biography — not myth, not legend, not allegory, not midrash (as Spong claims). Spong seems genuinely puzzled by this. It reminds me of something N. T. Wright wrote of Spong in Who Was Jesus?

What is central is that Spong apparently does not know what ‘midrash’ actually is. The ‘genre’ of writing to which he makes such confident appeal is nothing at all like he says it is. There is such a thing as ‘midrash’; scholars have been studying it, discussing it, and analysing it, for years. Spong seems to be unaware of the most basic results of this study. He has grabbed the word out of the air, much as Barbara Thiering grabbed the idea of ‘pesher’ exegesis, and to much the same effect. He misunderstands the method itself, and uses this bent tool to make the gospels mean what he wants instead of what they say.

We may briefly indicate the ways in which genuine ‘midrash’ differs drastically from anything that we find in the gospels.
First, midrash proper consists of a commentary on an actual biblical text. It is not simply a fanciful retelling, but a careful discussion in which the original text itself remains clearly in focus. It is obvious that the gospels do not read in any way like this. (Continue)

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4 thoughts on “Commentary on William Lane Craig vs. John Shelby Spong Debate

  1. Pingback: Top Posts of 2010 « Cloud of Witnesses

  2. Hi Chris

    I had forgotten to add that in the same book Johnson had written that having a bishop like Spong was like calling a “plumber who wants to rethink pipes.” Yes, the book will be a valuable addition in your library.
    The debate has now taken a different turn, with scholars like Ludemann, John Loftus, Hitchens on one side and Dinesh d’Souza, Witherington, Craig on the other. This is just one example, and we can expect more clashes, while the science-theology dialogue goes on.

  3. Hi Louis,

    The Real Jesus is a great book. I read about half of it in a Barnes & Noble several years ago, when the Jesus Seminar was in the news a lot. He did a good job of pointing out how radical their claims and methods were compared to the mainstream of NT scholarship. I should buy a copy to add to my library since most of those issues are still alive and well.

  4. Hi Chris,

    Both Spong and Thiering have brought nothing but confusion in NT scholarship. In the case of the latter, Luke Timothy Johnson said her writings were the “product of feverish imagination.” (in his best-selling “”The real Jesus”)


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