One of the first books I read when beginning to question my faith was one that struck my eye while scanning the shelves of a local bookshop, John Shelby Spong’s Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism.
It introduced me to many issues being addressed by biblical scholars. I have told the story before, but I like it enough to tell it again: I later had the opportunity to thank Spong personally for assisting me on my journey that took me to atheism. (I don’t think I appreciated at the time that he suffered some grief over his own mentor, Michael Goulder, becoming an atheist, too.)
One observation that Spong addressed was the respective thematic treatments of Jesus in each of the Gospels. The Gospel of Matthew, for example, depicted Jesus as grounded in the Jewish heritage of the Old Testament literature, and especially as a new Moses figure. The Gospel of Luke, on the other hand, portrayed Jesus as having stronger associations with a Gentile community. None of this suggested to me that Jesus himself had no historical basis, but it did help reinforce the idea that the Gospels were themselves literary constructs that stood apart from any clear link to a historical person.
Here is what Spong wrote about Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus as a Moses figure (identified with *), mingled with a few other linkages of Jesus with Jewish scriptures.
Family line back to Abraham
Matthew’s Gospel traces Jesus’ genealogy back to the father of the Jews, Abraham.
The Bethlehem birth story
The Bethlehem birth story was fashioned around the words of the Hebrew prophet Micah (Matt. 2:1-6; Mic. 5:2)
* The escape to Egypt
The escape to Egypt by the holy family fleeing the clutches of Herod relived the Egyptian phase of Hebrew history (Matt. 2.13ff; Gen. 46)
* The slaughter of the innocents
The slaughter of the innocents (Matt. 2:16) retold the story of Moses’ escape at his birth from the wrath of Pharaoh (Exod. 21.1ff)
Rachel weeping for her children
Rachel weeping for her children echoed the exile (Matt. 2.18; Jer. 31:15; Gen. 35:16-20)
* Moses, the one who led the children of Israel out of the bondage of slavery in Egypt, would inevitably color the account of the new and greater Moses who would lead the world out of the bondage of sin and into the promised land of the Kingdom of God. (p 157)
* Israel’s Red Sea experience
Israel’s Red Sea experience was present in the story of Jesus’ baptism (Matt. 3.1ff; Exod. 14.21ff). In both episodes identity was secured first as a nation and second as a messianic figure. Both the national identity of Israel and the personal identity of Jesus as messiah were, however, the by-products of a unique relationship to the Holy God.
The heavenly words heard at baptism
The heavenly words heard at the baptism (Matt. 3:17) echo the words of Isaiah (Isa. 42:1), where the faithful servant, portrayed as the ideal Jew, first walked the earth’s stage.
* The wilderness wanderings and testings
Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years, says the history of these people. In the wilderness they tested their vocation, they received the Law at Sinai (Exod. 19ff), and they were fed by their God with heavenly food, called manna (Exod. 16:4ff). The messianic figure, it was widely believed in Jewish circles, must repeat that history; so the period of Jesus’ lie that had been spent in the desert was transformed into forty days of temptation and testing (Matt. 4.1ff). (p. 157)
Here Spong writes as if the author was transforming a historical period of Jesus in the wilderness into an imitation of the biblical narrative. There is no evidence or objective reason to think that the author did truly have a historical event in mind and that he was re-writing this. The simpler assumption would be that the author is crafting the story with the Old Testament themes as his template. Spong believes that “Matthew” was somehow aware of Jesus’ state of mind at this time, or at least that moderns can see through Matthew’s account in such a way as to see the “real psychology” of Jesus. Jesus, he says, was entertaining various approaches to messiahship in his mind, such as being the miraculous feeder of the hungry, accumulating wealth and status, and surrounding himself with the accoutrements of worship by performing miracles.
Various modes of living out the messianic role played in Jesus’ mind. All of them were to be rejected. (p. 157)
* Preaching on the mountaintop
Matthew’s Jesus emerged from the wilderness and went to a mountaintop to teach the crowds the meaning of the New Covenant. This symbol was not missed by Matthew’s readers. Moses had gone to the mountaintop to get the Law, so the new and greater Moses must do likewise.
* The Beatitudes/Ten Commandments
The Mosaic Law began with the short, pithy, easy-to-remember rules we call the Ten Commandments. The New Covenant also began with the short, pithy, easy-to-remember statements that we call the Beatitudes. In both series there were really only nine statements. However, because ten is the number of fingers on both hands, the commandments have always been recorded as being ten in number. (p. 158)
* Feeding the Multitude in the Wilderness
. . . the account of Jesus feeding the multitude in the wilderness (Matt. 14.13-21), yet another reference colored by the memory of Moses.
Spong once again refers to his faith that there is a historical event behind this tale. If there had been something historical, then this tale must have been known to the author of this gospel a very long time indeed after it supposedly happened, for Spong writes:
By the time the narrative was written, whatever the historic event was had been lost and what was left was a highly stylized narrative with obvious eucharistic and liturgical nuances. (p. 158)
This liturgy, Spong asserts, was “historic”:
The historic words of the liturgy of the Last Supper were used. Jesus took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it (Matt. 14:19).
What Matthew did see and did communicate was the portrait f the one who fed his people in the wilderness just as the Holy God had done long ago. . . . The heavenly banquet, so much a part of the messianic expectation of the Jews, had in these narratives been dramatically acted out. (p. 158)
Spong follows with a discussion of Matthew’s application of the “Son of Man” epithet to Jesus, and then of the way gentiles glorified “the God of Israel” through Jesus, and Peter’s failure to fully grasp the nature of Jesus’ Messiahship.
“There was work yet to be done to create the new Israel.” (p. 160)
* The Transfiguration
Then came the transfiguration, where Peter, James, and John got to see the true nature of Jesus. Moses had been transfigured by his mountaintop experience, and his face had shined so brightly that it had to be covered (Exod. 34:29-35). (p. 160)
Appeals to Jewish Tradition and Jewish Scripture
At every step along the way Matthew had fashioned his narrative and shaped his story by appeals to the Jewish tradition and to the Jewish Scriptures. (p. 160)
This statement from Spong would come as a complete surprise to anyone who had just read Casey’s “Jesus of Nazareth in which he accuses many scholars (especially “American” ones) of failing to appreciate the Jewishness of Jesus. To be exact, though, Spong is addressing the Jewishness of “Matthew” rather than explicitly of Jesus.
Among the Jewish features in Matthew’s account Spong discusses the following:
- Matthew divided his work into five books “in a deliberate attempt to model the form of the five books of the Jewish Torah.”
- Matthew had Jesus “use the rabbinical device of numbers in his teaching.” — e.g.
- 3 temptations (Matt. 4);
- 3 examples of righteousness (Matt. 6:1-18);
- 3 prohibitions (6:19; 7:6);
- 3 injunctions (7:7-20);
- 3 healings together (8:1-15);
- 3 miracles demonstrating the authority of Jesus (8:23; 9:8);
- 3 restorations (9:18-24);
- 3 ‘fear nots’ (10:26, 28, 31);
- 3 types of persons unworthy of Jesus (10:37, 38);
- 3 sayings about little ones (18:6, 10, 14);
- 3 questions in the Passion Narrative (22:15-40);
- 3 prayers in Gethsemane (26:36-46);
- 3 denials of Peter (26:57-75);
- 3 questions of Pilate (27:15-26)
- 7 woes (23:13)
- 7 demons could repossess an exorcised man (12:43-45)
- Asked a 70 times 7 fold pardon (18:21-22)
- referred to 7 brethren (22:25)
- 7 loaves (15:34)
- 7 baskets of fragments (15:37)
- “But above all Matthew was a Jewish Scripture quoter”
- Mary’s virginity fulfilled Isaiah 7:14
- The Bethlehem birth fulfilled Micah 5:2
- The flight to Egypt fulfilled Hosea 11:1
- John the Baptist — Isaiah 40:3; 2 Kings 1:8; Zech. 13:4
- Jesus’ responses to temptations — Deut. 6:16; 8:3
- Wilderness setting — Jeremiah 31
- In the Sermon on the Mount the refrain was, You have heard that it was said . . . Matt. 5:21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43
- Jesus came to fulfil the law — Matt. 5:17-19; 8:4
- Healings fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy — Matt. 8:17; Isaiah 42:1-4
- Critics of Jesus were confounded according to Isaiah 6:9-10
- Jesus used Daniel’s words: Matt. 13:43; Daniel 12:3
- The Passion of Jesus was constructed out of Isaiah 40-55 and Zechariah 9
- “Both sources drove the meaning of Jesus’ life and death beyond the boundaries of Israel.”
- Also the Psalms gave us
- the words on the cross — Ps. 22:1
- the casting of lots for the garments — 22:18 (Matt. 27:35)
- the derision of the crowd — Ps. 22:7-8; Ps. 109:25 (Matt. 27:39)
- the details of the crucifixion — Ps. 22:14ff)
- his death between robbers and burial by a rich man were inspired by Isaiah 53:9
(Seen in this context, some of the narrative details that are generally assumed to have been taken from Mark’s Gospel would, rather, appear to be reasonably explained as originating with Matthew. But this is another topic that I will be coming to later.)
Zeal Overwhelms Rationality
[I]n Matthew’s eagerness to fashion his story to his Jewish audience, he violated the meaning of his Hebrew text time after time. The enigmatic text in Isa. 11:1, for instance, that referred to a branch out of Jesse could hardly be used to undergird the fact that Jesus went to live in Nazareth, yet that appears to be the way Matthew used it. . . . The details of the crucifixion and burial were not predicted by Psalm 22 so much as they were deliberately shaped by that psalm. The servant passage of Isaiah, the son of man passages of Ezekiel and Daniel, the triumphant passage from Zechariah, the shepherd and Bethlehem passage from Micah all became vital and valuable tools for understanding and interpreting Jesus in the Jewish context. In each instance Matthew altered the original meanings of these texts to suit his own needs. His zeal overwhelmed his rationality. (p. 164)
A greater than Moses . . .
Thus, explains Spong, Moses, Solomon, the Temple and Jonah became models of the story, also.
If Jews believed Moses had been the greatest religious leader in history, then Jesus must be portrayed as one greater than Moses. This was the guide to the narrating of the Sermon on the Mount.
If Jews believed Solomon had been the wisest man in history, then Jesus’ wisdom needed to be greater than Solomon’s. (Matt. 12:42)
If the Temple was believed to have been the place where God made his divine presence known to mankind, then Jesus had to be portrayed in terms of the Temple. One greater than the Temple had come. (Matt. 12:6)
If Jonah stood in Jewish folklore as one who had died and come to life again through the innards of a fish, then the story of Jesus who entered death and conquered it must be told in terms of Jonah. One greater than Jonah had come. (Matt. 12:41)
Spong’s intent is to demonstrate that Matthew’s gospel cannot be read literally today. Matthew himself was sincere but without the scholarly training available to “historians” or “biographers” today, and he wrote in the way he felt conveyed the meaning of Jesus for him and his audience. I have a different take on this. And the point of my outlining this small portion of Spong’s book is to illustrate the evidence for a Gospel being more creative in its details than true to historical facts. (Spong is by no means a mythicist.)
In a future post I hope to outline Spong’s similar passage on Luke’s Gospel for the sake of comparison.
After that I might come to Mark, and consider whether this fits best before or after Matthew and Luke on the basis of such parameters.