John A.T. Robinson Study Archive

It is indeed generally agreed that this passage must bespeak a pre-70 situation. . . . There seems therefore no reason why the oracle should not have been uttered by a Christian prophet as the doom of the city drew nigh.

John A.T. Robinson

1919-1983 | “Arthur Thomas” | Anglican | Bishop of Woolwich | Dean of Trinity College | New Testament Scholar






  • -0047-48: James
  • 0050,E: 1 Thessalonians
  • 0050-51: 2 Thessalonians
  • 0055,E: 1 Corinthians
  • 0055,L: 1 Timothy
  • 0056,E: 2 Corinthians
  • 0056,L: Galatians
  • 0057,E: Romans
  • 0057,E: Titus
  • 0058,E: Philippians
  • 0058,M: Philemon
  • 0058,M: Colossians
  • 0058.M: Ephesians
  • 0058,L: 2 Timothy
  • 0040-60: The Didache
  • 0045-60: Mark
  • 0040-60+: Matthew
  • -0057-60+: Luke
  • 0061-62: Jude
  • 0061-62: 2 Peter
  • 0057-62+: Acts
  • 0060-65: 1  John
  • 0060-65: 2 John
  • 0060-65: 3 John
  • 0065,E: 1 Peter
  • -0040-65+: John
  • 0067: Hebrews
  • 0068,L(-70): Revelation
  • 0070,E: 1 Clement
  • 0075: Barnabas
  • -0085: The Shepherd of Hermas

  • Acts: 57-62+
  • Barnabas: 75
  • 1 Clement: Early 70
  • Colossians: Summer 58
  • Corinthians 1: Early 55
  • Corinthians 2: Early 56
  • The Didache: 40-60
  • Ephesians: Late Summer 58
  • Galatians: Later 56
  • Hebrews: 67
  • James: -47-48
  • John c. -40-65+
  • 1  John: 60-65
  • 2 John: 60-65
  • 3 John: 60-65
  • Jude: 61-2
  • Luke: -57-60+
  • Mark: 45-60
  • Matthew: 40-60+
  • 1 Peter: Spring 65
  • 2 Peter: 61-2
  • Philemon: Summer 58
  • Philippians: Spring 58
  • Revelation: Late 68 (-70)
  • Romans: Early 57
  • The Shepherd of Hermas: -85
  • Thessalonians 1: Early 50
  • Thessalonians 2: 50-51
  • Timothy 1: Autumn 55
  • Timothy 2: Autumn 58
  • Titus: Late Spring 57

(On Christ’s Second Coming)
“The parousia is clearly understood, not as a separate catastrophic occurrence, but as a separate pervasion of the daily life of the disciples and the Church.  The coming is an abiding presence.” [Jesus and His Coming (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1967), p .176]

(On Revelation 11:1 ; Early Date of Revelation)
“It is indeed generally agreed that this passage must bespeak a pre-70 situation. . . . There seems therefore no reason why the oracle should not have been uttered by a Christian prophet as the doom of the city drew nigh.” (Redating New Testament pp.. 240-242).

“It was at this point that I began to ask myself just why any of the books of the New Testament needed to be put after the fall of Jerusalem in 70. As one began to look at them, and in particular the epistle to the Hebrews, Acts and the Apocalypse, was it not strange that this cataclysmic event was never once mentioned or apparently hinted at (as a past fact)? (Redating, p. 10).

“One of the oddest facts about the New Testament is that what on any showing would appear to be the single most datable and climactic event of the period — the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 — is never once mentioned as a past fact. . . . [T]he silence is nevertheless as significant as the silence for Sherlock Holmes of the dog that did not bark”. (Ibid., p. 13.)

(On the Forty Years and That Generation)
“I believe that John represents in date, as theology, not only the omega but also the alpha of New Testament development. He bestrides the period like a colossus and marks out its span, the span that lies between two dramatic moments in Jerusalem which boldly we may date with unusual precision. The first was when, on 9 April 30, ‘early on the Sunday morning, while it was still dark,’ one man ‘saw and believed’ (Jno. 20:1-9). And the second was when, on 26 September 70, ‘the dawn of the eight day of the month Gorpiaeus broke upon Jerusalem in flames.’ Over those forty years, I believe, all the books of the New Testament came to completion, and during most of that period, if we are right, the Johannine literature was in the process of maturation.” (p. 311)

(On Re-dating of the New Testament books)
“the rewriting of many introductions to – and, ultimately, theologies of – the New Testament.”

(On Parousia)
“Coming – presence” (Parousia) of Christ should not be seen as future events, but as a symbolical mythological presentation of “…what must happen, and is happening already, whenever the Christ comes in love and power, whenever are to be traced the signs of His presence, wherever to be seen the marks of His cross. ‘Judgement DAY’ is a dramatized idealized picture of everyday” (His in the end… Clarke, London, 1950 Pg. 69). Again I will quote the words of Robinson. “…Did Jesus ever use language which suggested that He would return to earth from heaven? A critical examination of the data leads him to answer `NO’. Jesus’ sayings on the subject really express the twin themes of vindication and visitation. e.g. His reply to the high priest’s question whether or not He was the Messiah (Mark 14:62+): `1 am: and you will see the Son of man sitting at the right hand of power: and coming with the clouds of heaven’. In Math 26:64 and Lk.22:69 a word or phrase meaning from now on’ or ‘hereafter’ is inserted before `you will see”‘ (Jesus and His coming – S.C.M., London 1957).

“The parousia is clearly understood, not as a separate catastrophic occurrence, but as a separate pervasion of the daily life of the disciples and the Church. The coming is an abiding presence.” [Jesus and His Coming (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1967), p .176]

“…Did Jesus ever use language which suggested that He would return to earth from heaven? A critical examination of the data leads him to answer `NO’. Jesus’ sayings on the subject really express the twin themes of vindication and visitation. e.g. His reply to the high priest’s question whether or not He was the Messiah (Mark 14:62+): `1 am: and you will see the Son of man sitting at the right hand of power: and coming with the clouds of heaven’. In Math 26:64 and Lk.22:69 a word or phrase meaning from now on’ or ‘hereafter’ is inserted before `you will see”‘ (Jesus and His coming – S.C.M., London 1957).

(On The Pella Flight Tradition)
“Moreover, the only tradition we have as to what Christians actually did, or were told to do, is that preserved by Eusebius apparently on the basis of the Memoirs of Hegesippus used also by Epiphanius. This says that they had been commanded by an oracle given “before the war” to depart from the city, and that so far from taking to the mountains of Judea, as Mark’s instruction implies, they were to make for Pella, a Greek city of the Decapolis, which lay below sea level on the east side of the Jordan valley.” (Robinson 1976:16.)

Redating the New Testament
Chapter 2: The Significance of 70

“One of the oddest facts about the New Testament is that what on any showing would appear to be the single most datable and climactic event of the period – the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, and with it the collapse of institutional Judaism based on the temple – is never once mentioned as a past fact.  It is, of course, predicted; and these predictions are, in some cases at least, assumed to be written (or written up) after the event.  But the silence is nevertheless as significant as the silence for Sherlock Holmes of the dog that did not bark.  S.G.F. Brandon made this oddness the key to his entire interpretation of the New Testament:1 everything from the gospel of Mark onwards was a studied rewriting of history to suppress the truth that Jesus and the earliest Christians were identified with the revolt that failed.  But the sympathies of Jesus and the Palestinian church with the Zealot cause are entirely unproven and Brandon’s views have won scant scholarly credence.2  Yet if the silence is not studied it is very remarkable.  As James Moffatt said,

We should expect . . . that an event like the fall of Jerusalem would have dinted some of the literature of the primitive church, almost as the victory at Salamis has marked the Perae.  It might be supposed that such an epochal-making crisis would even furnish criteria for determining the dates of some of the NT writings.  As a matter of fact, the catastrophe is practically ignored in the extant Christian literature of the first century.3

Similarly C.F.D. Moule :

It is hard to believe that a Judaistic type of Christianity which had itself been closely involved in the cataclysm of the years leading up to AD 70 would not have shown the scars – or, alternatively, would not have made capital out of this signal evidence that they, and not non-Christian Judaism, were the true Israel.  But in fact our traditions are silent.4

Explanations for this silence have of course been attempted.  Yet the simplest explanation of all, that ‘perhaps . . . there is extremely little in the New Testament later than AD 70’5 and that its events are not mentioned because they had not yet occurred, seems to me to demand more attention than it has received in critical circles.

Bo Reicke begins a recent essay6 with the words:

An amazing example of uncritical dogmatism in New Testament studies is the belief that the Synoptic Gospels should be dated after the Jewish War of AD 66-70 because they contain prophecies ex eventu of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70.

In fact this is too sweeping a statement, because the dominant consensus of scholarly opinion places Mark’s gospel, if not before the beginning of the Jewish War, at any rate before the capture of the city.7  Indeed one of the arguments to be assessed is that which distinguishes between the evidence of Mark on the one hand and that of Matthew and Luke on the other.  In what follows I shall start from the presumption of most contemporary scholars that Mark’s version is the earliest and was used by Matthew and Luke.  As will become clear,8 I am by no means satisfied with this as an overall explanation of the synoptic phenomena.  I believe that one must be open to the possibility that at points Matthew or Luke may represent the earliest form of the common tradition, which Mark also alters for editorials reasons.  I shall therefore concentrate on the differences between the versions without prejudging their priority or dependence.  the relative order of the synoptic gospels is in any case of secondary importance for assessing their absolute relation to the events of 70.  Whatever their sequence, all or any could have been written before or after the fall of Jerusalem.

Let us start by looking again at the discourse of Mark 13.  It begins:

As he was leaving the temple, one of his disciples exclaimed, ‘Look, Master, what huge stones!  What fine buildings!’  Jesus said to him, ‘You see these great buildings?  Not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives facing the temple he was questioned privately by Peter, James, John, and Andrew.  ‘Tell us,’ they said, ‘when will this happen?  What will be the sign when the fulfilment of all this is at hand?’ (12.1-4)


(1) The Old Testament Background
1. Form and Matter
2. The One and the Many
3. Body and Soul
4. Boundary of Self
(2) The Pauline Usage
(i) The Concept of the Flesh
(ii) The Concept of the Body

The Human Situation
The Process of Redemption
(1) Self-Identification
(2) Victory over evil
(3) Reproduced through baptism

(1) The Extension of the Incarnation
(2) The Origin of the Doctrine of the Body of Christ
(3) The One and the Many
(4) Christ, the Church and God
(5) The Old Body and the New
Dictionary of Key Greek Terms
Index of Biblical References
Index of Names

Excerpts from ‘Honest To God’ (1963)

“For in place of a God who is literally or physically ‘up there’ we have accepted, as part of our mental furniture, a God who is spiritually or metaphysically ‘out there’.” (p. 13)

“After it had been discredited scientifically, it continued to serve theologically as an acceptable frame of reference.” (p. 16)

“But suppose such a super-Being ‘out there’ is really only a sophisticated version of the Old Man in the sky? Suppose belief in God does not, indeed cannot, mean being persuaded of the ‘existence’ of some entity, even a supreme entity, even a superior entity, which might or might not be there, like life on Mars?” (p. 17)

“God, [Paul] Tillich was saying, is not a projection ‘out there’, an Other beyond the skies, of whose existence we have to convince ourselves, but the Ground of our very Being.” (pp. 22)

“… the impact of the now famous passages about ‘Christianity without religion’ in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers From Prison … the church was not yet ready for what Bonhoeffer was giving us as his last will and testimony.” (pp 22-23)

“Rudolph Bultmann … ‘New Testament and Mythology’ … when he spoke of the ‘mythological element in the New Testament he was really referring to all the language which seeks to characterise the Gospel history as more than bare history like any other history. … unintelligible jargon … the mythological language of pre-existence, incarnation, ascent and descent, miraculous intervention, cosmic catastrophe, and so on … make sense only on a now completely antiquated world view. … the entire conception of a supernatural order which invades and ‘perforates’ this one must be abandoned. But if so, what do we mean by God …. and what becomes of Christianity?” (p. 24)

“God is, by definition, ultimate reality. And one cannot argue whether ultimate reality really exists. One can only ask what ultimate reality is like … Thus, the fundamental theological question is not in establishing the ‘existence’ of God as a separate entity but in pressing through in ultimate concern to what Tillich calls ‘the ground of our being’..” (p. 29)

“In Tillich’s words: The phrase deus sive natura, used by people like Scotus Eriggena and Spinoza, does not say that God is identical with nature but that he is identical with the natura naturans, the creative nature, the creative ground of all natural objects.” (p. 31)

“God is not ‘out there’. He is in Bonhoeffer’s words ‘ the “beyond” in the midst of our life’, a depth of reality reached ‘ not on the borders of life but at its centre’, not by any flight of the alone to the alone, but, in Kierkegaard’s fine phrase, by ‘ a deeper immersion in existence’. For the word ‘God’ denotes the ultimate depth of all our being, the creative ground and meaning of all our existence. …Tillich warns us that to make the necessary transposition, ‘you must forget everything traditional that you have learned about God, perhaps even that word itself.’” (p. 47)

“Belief in God is the trust, the well nigh incredible trust, that to give ourselves to the uttermost in love is not to be confounded but to be ‘accepted’, that Love is the ground of our being, to which we ultimately ‘come home’. … And the specifically Christian view of the world is asserting that the final definition of this reality, from which ‘nothing can separate us’, since it is the very ground of our being, is ‘the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’.” (p. 49)

“… Bonhoeffer insists … ‘The transcendent is not infinitely remote but close at hand.’” (p.53)

“The question of God is the question whether this depth of being is a reality or an illusion, not whether a Being exists beyond the bright, blue sky, or anywhere else. Belief in God is a matter of ‘what you take seriously without any reservation’, of what for you is ultimate reality.” (p. 55)

“The New Testament says that Jesus was the Word of God, it says that God was in Christ, it says that Jesus is the Son of God; but it does not say that Jesus was God, simply like that.” (p. 70)

“Bonhoeffer .. [wrote] … To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to cultivate some particular form of asceticism (as a sinner, penitent or a saint), but to be a man. It is not some religious act which makes a Christian what he is, but participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world.’” (pp. 82-83)

“… asked by the crowds of Jesus when he began his public ministry: ‘What is this new teaching?’ And so it has always been … Paul was dismissed as a setter forth of strange gods, Socrates was condemned as an ‘atheist’. Every new religious truth comes as a destroyer of some other god, as an attack upon that which men hold most sacred.” (p. 125)

“… the beginning is to try to be honest – and to go on from there.” (p. 141)

Keith W. Clements
John A. T. Robinson was born in 1919 in Canterbury, England. His father was a Canon of the Cathedral, and two uncles, J. Armitage Robinson and Forbes Robinson, were biblical scholars. Though he recalled never doubting the truth of the Christian faith, he did not feel any call to holy orders at an early age.

However, after reading the classics and theology at Cambrdige, he entered Westcott House to prepare himself for ordination. In 1946 he received a doctorate with a thesis on Martin Buber’s “I-Thou” theme. His emphasis and later expertise, however, was in New Testament studies.

He served a curacy under Mervyn Stockwood in Bristol. Stockwood would later become Bishop of Southwark (an area of southeast London), and would call Robinson to become his Suffragan at Woolwich. He soon began to teach at Wells Theological College and then, in 1951, became Dean of Clare College, Cambridge. He published In the End, God in 1950, The Body: A Study of Pauline Theology in 1952, Jesus and His Coming in 1957, and Liturgy Coming to Life in 1960.

In 1959, Robinson became Bishop of Woolwich. In 1960, Robinson first came to wider public attention by testifying on behalf of Penguin Books, a publishing house which had deliberately published D. H. Lawrence’s novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The affair was intended to test censorship laws on pornography, and Robinson scandalized the public – including Archbishop Michael Ramsey – by testifying on behalf of the defense.

In 1962, Robinson issued a collection of essays entitled Twelve New Testament Studies. Then, bending over to tie his shoes, he dislocated a disk and was laid up for weeks. During that time of convalescence, he penned what would become one of the largest selling and most controversial theological books of all time, Honest to God.

Honest to God was a slim volume (143) which reviewed some vital questions in theology, drawing largely on the work of three theologians: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Paul Tillich, and Rudolf Bultmann. It was highly readable and purposely provocative, and drew fire from Church leaders, serious philosophers and theologians, and – most amazing of all for a theological book – ordinary men and women and the media. An article introducing the book in March 1963 said it all: the headline read, “OUR IMAGE OF GOD MUST GO.”

The book was not particularly creative, but it was succinct, accessible and in many ways compelling as a personal testimony to the struggles of faith. It’s chief benefit appears to be that it got all sorts and conditions of people to talk theology. There were serious critiques – perhaps the most serious coming from Alasdair MacIntyre who wrote, “What is striking about Dr Robinson’s book is that first and foremost he is an atheist.”

Robinson returned to Cambridge in 1969 and continued to publish. His major Christological study is The Human Face of God in 1973, and his startlingly “conservative” Redating New Testament in 1976 and, posthumously, The Priority of John in 1985.

Robinson died after a long illness in December 1983.

Some Selections from Honest to God:

“Every one of us lives with some mental picture of a God ‘out there,’ a God who ‘exists’ above and beyond the world he made, a God ‘to’ whom we pray and to whom we ‘go’ when we die.” (14) It was this traditional theism which Robinson questioned.

“Traditional Christian theology has been based upon the proofs for God’s existence. . . . Rather, we must start the other way round. God is, by definition, ultimate reality. And one cannot argue whether ultimate reality exists. One can only ask what ultimate reality is like – whether, for instance, in the last analysis what lies at the heart of things and governs their working is to be described in personal or impersonal categories.” (29)

“To believe in God as love means to believe that in pure personal relationship we encounter, not merely what ought to be, but what is, the deepest truth about the structure of reality. This, in the face of the evidence, is a tremendous act of faith.” (48)

“Belief in God is the trust, the well-nigh incredible trust, that to give ourselves to the uttermost in love is not to be confounded but to be ‘accepted,’ that Love is the ground of our being, to which ultimately we ‘come home.’” (49)“However guardedly it may be stated, the traditional view [of Christology] leaves the impression that God took a space-trip and arrived on this planet in the form of a man. . . . Indeed, the very word ‘incarnation’ (which, of course, in not a Biblical term) almost invariably suggests it. It conjures up the idea of a divine substance being plunged in flesh and coated with it like chocolate or silver plating. And if this is a crude picture, substitute for it that of the Christmas collect, which speaks of the Son of God ‘taking our nature upon him,’ or that of Wesley’s Christmas hymn, with its ‘veiled in flesh the Godhead see.’” (66)“Love alone, because, as it were, it has a built-in moral compass, enabling it to ‘home’ intuitively upon the deepest need of the other, can allow itself to be directed completely by the situation. It alone can afford to be utterly open to the situation, or rather to the person in the situation, uniquely and for his own sake, without losing its direction or unconditionality.” (131)

Excerpts from: Clements, Keith W., Lovers of Discord: Twentieth Century Theological Controversies in England (London: SPCK, 1988).

Mark Goodacre (2008)
In the previous post in this series, we looked at the case for Mark’s dating in the post 70 period, suggesting that the predictions of the destruction of the temple function to underline the authority of Jesus as the one who successfully predicted what the reader knew had now happened. The repeated and pervasive emphasis on the temple and its destruction is most plausible in this post-70 period. It is worth investing time on this question because if Mark was written after 70, and if Matthew, Luke and John are all familiar with Mark, then they too post-date 70. But does a closer look at the later Gospels correlate with this picture? For J. A. T. Robinson (Redating the New Testament), it was the lack of reference to 70 anywhere in the New Testament that proved decisive in his attempts at redating:

The fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, and with it the collapse of institutional Judaism based on the temple – is never once mentioned as a past fact. It is, of course, predicted; and these predictions are, in some cases at least, assumed to be written (or written up) after the event. But the silence is nevertheless as significant as the silence for Sherlock Holmes of the dog that did not bark.

The claim is unimpressive, though, given that most of the documents in question are either written in the pre-70 period (Paul’s letters) or set in the pre-70 period (Gospels-Acts). What is remarkable is that documents set a generation before 70 appear to speak so clearly about the destruction of the Temple. For Robinson,

That Jesus could have predicted the doom of Jerusalem and its sanctuary is no more inherently improbable than that another Jesus, the son of Ananias, should have done so in the autumn of 62.

The problem for this perspective is that Jesus ben Ananias’s prophecy occurs in a document that post-dates 70, Josephus’s Jewish War. As with Mark, it is important to ask the question about the literary function of the prediction in the narrative, here in a document that climaxes with the story of Jerusalem’s destruction. Indeed, a comparison between Jesus ben Ananias in Josephus and Jesus of Nazareth in Matthew and Luke provides further striking parallels. The oracle Matthew 23.37-39 // Luke 13.34-35 has marked similarities with the oracle in Jewish War 300-1, the same threefold focus on the people, the city, the temple. Jesus ben Ananias cries “a voice against Jerusalem . . .” and Jesus laments “Jerusalem, Jerusalem”. Jesus ben Ananias singles out “the holy house” and Jesus says “Behold your house is forsaken.” Jesus ben Ananias raises “a voice against this whole people” just as Jesus exclaims, “how often would I have gathered your children.” Moreover, the same context in Josephus features a portent of voices being heard in the temple saying “we are departing from hence” (War 6.299), similar to the implication here in Matthew and Luke that God has left the temple – “Behold your house is forsaken and desolate” (Matt. 23.38). Such prophecies and portents function similarly in each of the texts and they point to a post-70 dating.” (The Dating Game VII: Dating of Matthew and Luke PDF )

Presence Books
“Robinson, the reknown late Bishop from England begins this book, “I thought I would see how far one could get with the hypothesis that the whole of the New Testament was written before 70.” That, of course, was the year in which the Roman army sacked and burned the Temple of Jerusalem. As it turns out, Robinson got much further than he ever expected, and that on a journey made more impressive by his lack of any predisposition toward a “conservative” point of view.

His conclusion is that there is no compelling evidence – indeed, little evidence of any kind – that anything in the New Testament canon reflects knowledge of the Temple’s destruction. Furthermore, other considerations point consistently toward early dates and away from the common assumption (a prejudice with a seriously circular foundation) that a majority of early church authors wrote in the very late First or early-to-middle Second Century under assumed names. Whether or not one agrees with every word of Robinson’s analysis, he makes his case well and should help all New Testament students rethink the presuppositions that underlie much of what is currently written about First Century Christianity.” (Redating New Testament)

“In the field of eschatological studies, no topic seems thornier than that of the resurrection, regardless of the particulars of one’s perspective. A great deal of misunderstanding about the resurrection in “preterist” circles stems from our tendency to see the concept of “body” largely in dualistic terms that do not reflect Paul’s way of thinking. This is especially true of Paul’s discussions of resurrection, and a recovery of the Hebrew understanding of body will go a long way toward a proper understanding of resurrection in first-century corporate terms. To this end, John A.T. Robinson’s 1952 classic The Body: a study in Pauline theology is a valuable contribution to the literature surrounding Transmillennial® thought as much as his book, Redating the New Testament. “One could say without exaggeration that the concept of the body forms the keystone of Paul’s theology,” contends the author. Robinson’s own eschatology does not embrace complete fulfillment, yet this quality reprint of this classic book in Pauline studies provides the serious student a missing piece of the puzzle of Pauline eschatology.” (The Body)

Anne Rice
This man was brilliant, and his criticisms of Biblical scholarship are as fitting for today as they were when this book first saw print. His reasoning and his arguments are all highly persuasive. This and his book, The Priority of John, are of great importance to anyone undertaking serious study of the gospels or study of “the historical Jesus.” He left me pretty well convinced by his ideas about the early date of the gospels, and I’ve read much since — published after his death — that supports his view.

The case for the early date of the gospels is growing. Check out the work of Richard Bauckham. Look at the arguments of Bernard Orchid. The old Enlightenment cliches about the gospels being “late date” and “inauthentic” are now truly being swept aside by new investigation by fine scholars. It’s too bad an entire generation of clergy was brought up with these old fashioned ideas that the gospels were fabricated by later communities. Increasingly scholars are studying the physical manuscript evidence for new clues to date, and this field is one of the most promising. Thanks for your thoughts here. I think we will continue to see wonderful discoveries regarding the very early date of the gospels. Anne Rice. ” ( Review)

John Shelby Spong
“One of the great mentors of my life was an English bishop and New Testament scholar named John Albert Thomas Robinson. He burst into public awareness in the United Kingdom in the late fifties when he testified before a commission seeking to ban the novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover. For a bishop to favor Lady Chatterley titillated the English media who love juxtaposing religion with sexual expose. People were not aware at this time that this Bishop of Woolwich was also a serious student and a prolific, if not yet well known, writer.

In 1962 a back ailment required that John Robinson be confined to bed for a number of months. His fertile and imaginative mind was freed from other distractions and he wrote a little book called Honest to God that appeared on the bookstands in 1963. It made the controversy about Lady Chatterley’s Lover look pale by comparison. This book forced people to recognize that the language of traditional religion was not a language that people believed today whether they continued to use it or not. An advance story in London’s SUNDAY OBSERVER trumpeted the headline, “Bishop says the God up there or out there will have to go.” Thus, the Church was launched into what came to be known as the “Honest to God Debate,” and John A. T. Robinson became a household word in the English-speaking world.

That little book sold more copies than any religious book since Pilgrim’s Progress. It was translated into dozens of languages. It was discussed, not just in religious circles, but in pubs, on golf courses and over bridge tables. It brought religion out of the churches and planted it firmly on Main Street.

One would think that the leaders of the churches would have welcomed such an initiative, but that would be to misunderstand the nature of institutional religion. The religious establishment, instead, recoiled defensively. Every would-be theologian rushed into print to denounce this book. Calls were issued for Bishop Robinson’s resignation or for him to be deposed for heresy. A book of reactions to Honest to God was published to keep the waves rolling. It revealed just how deeply John Robinson had touched the hot buttons of religious fear that the traditional defenders of the faith struggle to conceal.

The echoes of this debate reached my ears in my small-town parish in Tarboro, North Carolina. I did not rush to read the book. Reviews indicated that it quoted extensively from Rudolf Bultmann, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Paul Tillich. I was quite familiar with these thinkers and so I dismissed the book as a popularizing effort of no great significance. Nonetheless I placed the book on my reading schedule, and finally got to it in 1965.

I remember the day I first opened this book. Vacationing on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, I sat on the beach one afternoon with Honest to God. I did not put it down until I had read it through three times. I knew from that moment that my life would never be the same.

John Robinson made me aware that my childhood understanding of God would not live in my world. He forced me to face the fact that the words of both the Bible and the Creeds sound strange to post-modern people and that my faith had to grow or it had to be abandoned. I began on that day the long, tortuous and, to this moment, not yet completed process of rethinking all of the symbols of my religious past so that I could continue to claim them with integrity. I also pledged myself never again to use pious clichés that I clearly no longer believed.

This book drove me first back to the Bible. I knew that the Noah story, or the splitting of the Red Sea story, could not be literally true, to say nothing of the stories of Jesus turning water into wine, walking on water and ascending to the heaven of a Ptolemaic universe that had ceased to exist with Copernicus. My church had prepared me poorly, I discovered, to live as a believer in a post-Copernican world, to say nothing of a world shaped by such giants as Newton, Darwin, Freud or Einstein. The Church still lived in a world of miracle and magic, where reward and punishment were meted out by God according to human deserving.

Seven years later, in 1972, this internal struggle emerged externally in the form of my first book which was deeply shaped by the “Worldly Holiness” chapter in Honest to God. My publisher entitled my book Honest Prayer, hoping, I am sure, to be pulled into the Honest to God energy that was still abroad. In 1973 I first met John Robinson. This larger-than- life man came to speak in Richmond on the 10th anniversary of the publication of Honest to God. He was very British, displaying little emotion. After the session I was introduced to him. I thanked him for what his writing had meant to me. I presented him with a copy of Honest Prayer. We talked for a while and then we each returned to our respective lives. Five years later in 1978 John and I met again at the Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Bishops of the world. I was now one of those bishops and John, who had returned to Cambridge to teach New Testament, was present as a consultant. Both of us, bored by the speeches, decided to leave early and walk through the woods of Kent to discuss the New Testament. We came across a country pub and stopped to share “a pint.” We even engaged in the pub game of “bowls,” but all the while still discussing the New Testament. It was such a pleasant experience that we decided to repeat it each day. So while the bishops were debating, John and I probed the gospel tradition and I learned from his incisive mind.

In those years John and I both continued to write books which addressed the theme of bringing the church into dialogue with today’s reality. I read everything he wrote. John Robinson’s echoes were heard in me every time I spoke and certainly every time I wrote. When one reviewer referred to me as the American Bishop Robinson, I was deeply touched. After Lambeth, John and I began to correspond. I yearned to bring him to lecture to our diocesan family, and finally he agreed. Six months before his scheduled appearance, however, John wrote that he had received a cancer diagnosis and had only a few months to live. He sent me a copy of the sermon he preached at Clare College, Cambridge, the Sunday after he received the diagnosis. I was deeply touched by it, though it made me aware of how lonely I would be without this kindred spirit. John died in the early months of 1983. In my grief I was pleased to be asked to write the American tribute to him published in THE CHRISTIAN CENTURY. Someone else had recognized how important he was to me.

I did not have either John’s intellectual training or his Cambridge PhD. Yet after his death, in a real sense I was the only other bishop who was addressing publicly the issues he had raised. That fall of 1983 I published a book entitled Into the Whirlwind: The Future of the Church. It marked a watershed moment for me from which there was no turning back. It was not that it was a great book, but reading it today I discover that the seeds of every book I have written since were present in its pages.

In 1988 Living in Sin? came out. That book was for me the kind of birth to the wider public that the debate on Lady Chatterley’s Lover had been for John Robinson. Because of that book and the controversy it sparked, I increasingly found myself occupying the space in which John Robinson once stood and bearing the hostility he received. Now I was the most controversial bishop in the Anglican Communion. My vocation clearly was to transform Christianity so that it could be lived out appropriately today. Each new book fueled this growing flame. Invitations to lecture began to come in from across America, as well as from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. To be a bishop leading this debate became the heart of my vocation. Hence, I worked long hours lest I violate either the integrity of my office or of my scholarship. I could not walk away from the role for which everything in life had equipped me. I have lived this role with vigor, yearning more than once to have had John’s counsel.

This past summer I returned once again to the United Kingdom on a lecture tour. I had speaking engagements in Yorkshire, Aberystwyth, Cardiff, Sheffield, Leeds, Milton Keynes, London and Leicester. There were also breaks to allow us to visit family and friends. In one of these downtimes I came face to face with John Robinson once again.

We went to visit two friends, formerly of St. Peter’s, Morristown, who now live in a tiny, secluded village in Herefordshire. To our amazement their next-door neighbor was John Robinson’s only brother, Edward. We spent an evening with him reminiscing about John’s career and his influence. My tour ended at a conference in Leicester for an organization called “The Sea of Faith,” where I debated the radical English theologian Don Cupitt. To my joy a member of this conference was Ruth Robinson, John’s widow. Once again we spent an evening remembering John Robinson. It was as if grace had touched me twice. The theological child of John A. T. Robinson had been welcomed home. I have now lived and worked twelve years beyond the life span of my mentor. I have picked up and addressed some issues that never surfaced for him. It has sometimes been a lonely journey. Today I can see the horizon of my career and wonder who the next John Robinson will be.

There will always be the “John Robinson” role present in the life of the Church. It will be welcomed by some, feared and hated by others. But that role is always the means by which growth and the renewal of the church is accomplished. I have been privileged to walk, however ineptly, in these footsteps.” (Robinson, A.T. Remembered)

Date:30 Nov 2003

Spong’s silence about Robinson’s later works, particularly on the dating of the New Testament is, to quote Robinson “…nevertheless as significant as the silence for Sherlock Holmes of the dog that did not bark.” Whether Robinson was correct or not is not the issue. The wonder is that one who claimed to be so close to Robinson never mentions his later works. In his latter years Robinson was, of course, pushing against the edges as he had so wondrously done in “Honest To God.” Yet now it was the edges of “accepted” scholarship, not the edges of “orthodoxy” against which Robinson was pushing. ‘Tis strange, indeed, that the good Bishop Spong was silent about this “pushing.”

Date: 19 Sep 2005
Time: 08:45:41

i think that full- preterists have not sifted throught the pertinent biblical-exegetical issues very carefully

Date: 15 Aug 2012
Time: 14:58:02

I think Alasdair MacIntyre’s assessment is correct. Dr. Robinson was “first and foremost an atheist.”

Date: 04 Jul 2013
Time: 06:00:19

This observation on Mr Spong’s later silence on J.A.T. ‘s conservative works is very pertinent. Bishop’s Robinson and Spong both criticized the uses made of the bible by discrediting it. But the problem is that after discrediting scripture the essential problem still remains: Why didn’t Jesus fulfill His promise to return in that generation?? (Mtt 23:35-36; 24:34; 26:64; Mk 9:1)

Boiled down to its bottom the main and essential problem is; Time facts (‘this generation, soon, near, now..’) do not match Descriptive facts (‘come in clouds, earth passes away, world…’) Literally.

Robinson made real progress by in understanding the NT context candidly taking scripture at its word in ‘Redating the NT.’ J.S.Spong seems lacking in the area of his mentor’s candor.

Even after Spong debunks the misuse of scripture, he still leaves unattended and undone the serious and essential issue of the proper relations between End Time and End time Description. He has left this task undone, and until this is done, his work is not done.

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