2011-01-06

Delivering the Modern Believer From the Tyranny of Literalism (& Historicism)

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Bishop John Shelby Spong, Episcopal Diocese of...

Image via Wikipedia

I have been posting on John Shelby Spong’s (and his late mentor Michael Goulder’s) understanding of how the Gospel narratives were created “midrashically” out of the Old Testament scriptures. I should emphasize that my posts come with my own slant, and that Spong himself has no doubts at all about the historicity of Jesus Christ.

Spong argues that the Gospel authors were creating narratives to express their interpretations of Jesus. What this means is that someone like the original author of the Gospel of John created a Wisdom figure of Jesus to express what Jesus meant to him. That wisdom figure is a literary creation. I would say that any resemblance to a real historical figure is “imaginary,” meaning it is constructed entirely within the imagination of the reader/author and out of the materials found in the Old Testament (and sometimes other literature). A figure or event found in a literary text is surely a literary figure or event. Whether this literary person coincides with another real historical person is a question that must inevitably be decided on grounds other than the mere existence of the literary person in partisan texts. But our techniques for distinguishing who is historical and who is not and who might-be-sort-of when it comes to tales of King John, Robin Hood and Saint George seem to fly out the window when it comes to Bible stories.

(Surely this is all straightforward and not a sign that I am somehow intimate with the Woman Folly as the Christian gentleman Joel Watts charmingly asserts in his post pinged-back to here.)

But a couple of Spong’s books did influence me some years back, so it’s time I caught up with sharing some of his own words in driving home some basic truths about the Bible. They are taken from pages 234 to 245 in Liberating the Gospels, with my own subheadings, formatting and emphasis.

The seductive lure of the Vivid and the isolation of Vivid’s chaperon

The narratives [of the Gospels, especially the final hours of Jesus] are so graphic that they are riveted in our memories. . . . But have you ever stopped to realize that they are remembered primarily because they have been relived in the liturgy year after year? Is it possible that that is also where they started? . . . .

So vivid are these details, so clear are the pictures they paint, that there remains a general consensus in both church and society that these stories surely were literally created from vivid eyewitness recollections. The assumption is made, without much internal debate, that what we read here are literal and historic facts. Indeed, to think otherwise for most church people is almost inconceivable.

Yet that easy leap from familiar data to historic accuracy has been challenged increasingly in the last century, not by critics of the Christian faith . . . but rather by the world of New Testament scholarship. Between the academy in which our clergy are trained and the pews in which our church members sit is a gap in knowledge of enormous proportions. Indeed, that gap might better be described as a void.

This book was published in 1996 and one would like to think that that void is since then being gradually filled via the internet. Looking back on these words by Spong I wonder if they were partly what initially motivated me to start this blog — to do my two bits worth to help fill in that gap.

Ye shut up the kingdom of the heaven before men, for ye do not go in, nor those going in do ye suffer to enter

To listen to the sermons of many clergy, one would have to conclude either that they did not learn what is readily available in the centers of theological study or that they have decided not to share it.

Perhaps a better explanation might be that this generation of clergy, unable themselves to process what they have learned or unable to correlate it with what they themselves believe, decided simply to ignore or suppress the biblical scholarship for as long as they could.

If that is a more accurate explanation, then maybe what we are facing today is that the time limit on that process of ignoring or suppressing biblical scholarship has now finally run its course. For many claims can be made about the passion story of the gospels, but claims of historical accuracy of literal facts are not among those that will stand.

Of course with a number of biblical scholars now promoting themselves through the internet, including the use of blogs and open journal systems, a certain amount of biblical scholarship is finding its way to a wider readership than was once possible. But my impression is that those scholars most active in this are those with a strong conservative leaning, mostly from the U.S. When lay readers do raise questions with these scholars that point to radical viewpoints, those readers are likely to be strongly dissuaded from taking such viewpoints seriously. The lesson is clear: academic debate is only respectable if confined to the framework of conservative values or the conventional assumptions and wisdoms.

The remains of history

Spong is not arguing that everything about the gospels is fiction. But I wish he would explain his reasons for declaring this bit and that bit to be historical. The evidence of midrashic processes that he uses to identify some narratives and persons as “creative truths” are also found to apply, as far as I can see, to the “this bit and that bit” that he says are indeed historical.

I am left with the impression that he is cherry picking. Those details are historical that are the bedrock foundations of his faith and what he believes make up the core gospel narrative. Without faith I cannot see any reason he would have to declare any details to be historical. Both his fictional and non-fictional data can be shown to have similar “midrashic” origins.

I do not mean to suggest for a moment that Jesus of Nazareth was not in fact crucified by the Roman authorities. That indeed remains a fact of history.

Nor do I even wish to suggest that some experience of incredible power did not occur after that crucifixion that had the effect of reconstituting the band of disciples and convincing them that this Jesus, the crucified one, was alive, was available to them, and perhaps most profoundly, was a part of who God is and who God has always been. That experience indeed broke into history with erupting, transforming, ecstatic power and gave birth to a movement that was destined to grow into the Christian Church and to wield enormous power . . . . Whatever that transforming power we now call Easter or the resurrection was, it changed the course of human history . . . .

There is no doubt both that he was crucified and that after his death he was believed to have been restored to life.

Of course history was changed. But it seems Spong here can do little more than merely assert that the catalyst for that change was a a particular event that we can only imagine was historical solely on the strength of our faith that a literary event also coincided with a historical event. (Remember King John and St George.) Surely the evidence that we have informs us that it was belief in such a historical event that changed history, not the event itself.

The historical question is the origins of that narrative and belief.

Liturgy and theology as the sources of the narrative?

For Spong, following Goulder, 

the biblical descriptions of those originating moments in Christian history grew out of the liturgical practices of the early Christian Church far more than they did out of remembered history. . . . [M]ost of the details of the story of the cross were shaped by Jewish worship patterns and by the Jewish sacred story of antiquity. . . . [W]hat the Gospels give us in the passion story is far more a theological interpretation than it is a literal narration of the climactic movements in the life of Jesus.

I have some doubts about Spong’s (Goulder’s) argument for the Gospels being written in episodes to coincide with the Jewish liturgical calendar. I do not think that liturgical practices are the only possible explanation for the evolution of the gospel narratives. But I will not discuss any of these arguments now. They are, as I said, the major historical question.

Tyranny and massive misunderstanding that permeates the religious establishment

Finally, I intend to confront this massive misunderstanding of the Bible that permeates the religious establishment with an alternative view that will deliver the modern believer from the tyranny of literalism.

Biblical literalism arises, in my opinion, out of a blindness that has been created both by an ignorance of and a prejudice against the Jewish origins of our Christian faith. Our biblical ignorance, I will suggest, is a direct result of the gentile attitude toward the Bible.

The distinctively Jewish feature that Spong is referring to in the above passage is the way the Jews constructed narratives as reiterations of earlier images and motifs to express theological meaning rather than literal history. I discussed some of the details of how this was done my recent post, “Where did John the Baptist’s parents come from?”:

In a deep and significant way, we are now able to see that all of the Gospels are Jewish books, profoundly Jewish books. Recognizing this, we begin to face the realization that we will never understand the Gospels until we learn how to read them as Jewish books. They are written, to a greater or lesser degree, in the midrashic style of the Jewish sacred storyteller, a style that most of us do not begin even now to comprehend. This style is not concerned with historical accuracy. It is concerned with meaning and understanding.

  • The Jewish writers of antiquity interpreted God’s presence to be with Joshua after the death of Moses by repeating the parting of the waters story (Josh. 3). At the Red Sea that was the sign that God was with Moses (Exod. 14). When Joshua was said to have parted the waters of the Jordan River, it was not recounted as a literal event of history; rather it was the midrashic attempt to relate Joshua to Moses and thus demonstrate the presence of God with his successor.
  • The same pattern operated later when both Elijah (2 Kings 2:8) and Elisha (2 Kings 2:14) were said to have parted the waters of the Jordan River and to have walked across on dry land.
  • When the story of Jesus’ baptism was told, the gospel writers asserted that Jesus parted not the Jordan River, but the heavens. Thus Moses theme was being stuck yet again (Mark 1:9 ff.), and indeed, for a similar purpose. The heavens, according to the Jewish creation story, were nothing but the firmament that separated the waters above from the waters below (Gen. 1:6-8). To portray Jesus as splitting the heavenly waters was a Jewish way of suggesting that the holy God encountered in Jesus went even beyond the God presence that had been met in Moses, Joshua, Elijah, and Elisha.

That is the way the midrashic principle worked. Stories about heroes of the Jewish past were heightened and retold again and again about heroes of the present moment, not because those same events actually occurred, but because the reality of God revealed in those moments was like the reality of God known in the past . . .

We are not reading history when we read the Gospels. We are listening to the experience of Jewish people, processing in a Jewish way what they believed was a new experience with the God of Israel. Jews filtered every new experience through the corporate remembered history of their people, as that history had  been recorded in the Hebrew scriptures of the past. (pp, 33, 36-7, Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible With Jewish Eyes, my emphasis and reformatted for easier blog reading)

This is the same argument presented by Thomas L. Thompson in The Mythic Past (also published as The Bible in History). The Jewish scriptures, he explains, were a series of reiterated narratives that were never originally meant to be understood as “history” in our sense of the word, and he also uses the illustration of the dividing of waters/heavens from Genesis 1 through to the Baptism of Jesus.

See the earlier post on John the Baptist’s parents for the explanation of why this understanding was lost when the Church became predominantly gentile.

The conspiracy of silence

How did the Gospel authors come to know about the details of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion if, as the Gospels themselves affirm, the disciples of Jesus fled the scene and left Jesus to face all of that alone? It was once claimed, says Spong, that the resurrected Jesus told the disciples what had happened. That theory is not in vogue today.

Indeed, no explanation is generally given today, for these questions are no longer raised by anyone. They have sunk beneath the horizon of our consciousness. They are the victims of those who take the words of the Bible literally and who do not want to hear any other possibility. So difficult is it for many Christians to face these issues and to recognize that these are not eyewitness accounts, that fearful Christians today have become part of what might be called “the conspiracy of silence.”

But these questions must be raised and faced

Why?

For to view these narratives as literal history now stretches credibility to the breaking point.

Please understand what this means. I am suggesting that all of the details of Jesus’ last days, other than the fact he was crucified, were unknown. So the Christian community created, after the fact, these narratives that now surround the story of the cross. They based these narratives on their newly developed understanding of Jesus as the paschal lamb of the Passover, who broke the power of death.

I am further suggesting that the primary purpose of these stories of Jesus’ passion was liturgical, not historical, and that they have been misread as the historical descriptions of literal events by the non-Jewish Christian world for far too long. The literal details of the passion narratives are not descriptions of historically objective events.

When one reads the Gospels with Jewish eyes, it even becomes apparent that in the passion narratives, the evangelists were not writing history. They were rather writing faith stories to be read in the context of the worship life of the gathered community.

These stories were created to produce a memorable dramatic tale that would portray liturgically the essence of what they had come to believe about the man Jesus. They expressed the Christian conviction that God had been met in the life of this Jesus. . . . So the Gospels are not biographies. They are a series of faith proclamations. If read as biographies, they quickly become nonsensical.

So much for the scholarly tomes by those scholars who have analyzed the details of the passion narratives to reconstruct Jesus’ last days. I can imagine Spong’s suggestions would not be very popular with all of them.

To even debate the accuracy of these details is to miss the point of the Gospel entirely

The shape and meaning of the biblical words that we possess are far more symbolic and liturgical than we have imagined. The content that is found in the gospel stories comes quite directly from the Hebrew scriptures in a manner far more overwhelming than most Christians have yet been able to conceive.

The truth of this gospel story lay in the impact of his life, not in the liturgical or midrashic details that gathered about him. To get to this experience of God breaking into human history, we have to take these interpretive details quite seriously. We have to walk through these narratives that sought to explain the experience, but we cannot stop with these details nor can we assume that these narratives possess literal or objective truth.

To literalize or even to debate the accuracy of these details of the biblical account of Jesus is to miss the point of the gospel story totally.

Spong here assumes that there is a historical event behind the stories in addition to the Hebrew scriptures. We have evidence for the latter, but none for the former. (Remember how we know how to decide King John is historical — hint, external independent attestation — but Robin Hood or St George not so.) The real historical question is, as I said earlier, to explain the origin of the narrative. Spong assumes a core of historicity and quickly converts this to a theological question.

Does this mean that they are not true?

Spong answers “No,

but it does mean that the profound truth they embody must be understood from a theological point of view, rather than a literal, historical point of view. These narratives are just not literal descriptions of objective history. Does that mean that none of the things they describe actually occurred? No, Jesus was certainly crucified. That is the kernel of history behind the story of the passion. Jesus was certainly perceived to be alive after his death in some life-changing, experiential way. The effects of that experience can be objectively measured, even if the experience cannot.

But it does mean that what we have in the Gospels is a theological interpretation of Jesus’ told in narrative form, based in large measure on the Jewish sacred story and seen as one more chapter in the unfolding drama of the revelation of Israel’s God in the history of Israel’s people.

I have answered (disagreeing with) the above thoughts in the course of this post, so I think it only fair to leave Spong with the last word to reflect what he himself would want to be said at this point.

 

 

 


Enhanced by Zemanta

19 Comments

  • 2011-01-07 03:26:35 UTC - 03:26 | Permalink

    Fancy that someone with the first hand existence/evidence similar to that of St. Paul, claimed to have come into fellowship with the followers of a supposed Robin Hood, three years after such a Robin Hood was said to have been “delivered up” [by God?] to the authorities (1 Cor 11:23; Is 53:10).
    We could discount the hearsay evidence relayed by such a “Paul”, but three years is getting pretty close to actual history. And since this “Paul” claimed to have been in contact with these Robin Hood followers (as their persecutor) perhaps one to three years earlier than that, we have something very close to actual history.
    If not by extremely rigorous historical means, surely, by critical means, the existence of such a Robin Hood could have been safely assumed. We can still understand the influence of the theological point of view in the narratives as Spong does.

    • 2011-01-07 04:43:27 UTC - 04:43 | Permalink

      Thanks for the response, Bob. You address important points.

      I am not addressing Paul’s letters in this series of posts, but they raise a whole set of problematic questions of their own. Many people do tend to read them — as they do the Gospels — with assumptions that lead them to see in them things that are simply not there.

      Firstly, Paul nowhere says he came into contact with “the followers” of Jesus, meaning followers of Jesus during his lifetime on earth. We do find a passage where he speaks of recipients of a vision (whatever it was, Paul equates it with his own experience) of the resurrected Jesus. We find similar claims in gnostic or apocryphal literature, and it is surely significant that the earliest evidence we have of the knowledge of Paul’s epistles among ancient Christians informs us that they were said to be the teachings of the “heretics”.

      Secondly, the main reason for the idea that Paul knew these people “three years after” Jesus is the narrative of Acts. Paul’s letters nowhere confirm this. Acts, moreover, is simply unknown to the Christian world till the latter part of the second century, and its narratives are the stuff of Hellenistic romance rather than “history”. (See earlier summaries here of the discussions by Pervo and Tyson for details.)

      Third, Paul says only that the Lord was delivered up. He nowhere says “to the authorities.” The closest he comes to saying anything like this is to say he was crucified by “powers and princes of this world”, an expression that is used elsewhere of demon or spirit powers. Your reference to Isaiah 53 in this connection confirms the point of the post — that such details were drawn from the OT, not history.

      Fourthly, by critical means we need to establish the provenance of the Pauline correspondence before knowing how to interpret it as history as much as we do the gospels. Early Christian literature is filled with cases of pseuedepigraphy. We know some of Paul’s letters were certainly not written by him. We know of the rest only by external witness as late as the second century when they emerge for the very first time as very useful tools in a particular series of theological controversies. Rosenmeyer has shown the prevalence with which the epistolary genre was used to convey fiction posing as authenticity and the many realistic details that would be added to create this illusion. This does not prove Paul’s letters were late second century products, but it does highlight the need to be careful about assumptions we bring to this evidence.

      As Albert Schweitzer himself said, Christianity cannot afford to base its faith on a historical event. There will always be questions about such an event. There is no evidence that can securely establish such an event, since there is no evidence that is not independently subject to controls, or external attestation. All the early evidence comes from one source, the Christians themselves.

      Moreover, in the case of Jesus, the theoretical reservations are even greater because all the reports about him go back to the one source of tradition, early Christianity itself, and there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even be raised so high as positive probability. (Quest, p.402)

      • 2011-01-07 15:35:25 UTC - 15:35 | Permalink

        Neil,
        Thanks for your judicious and tactful response. I’m astonished to hear (if I understand you correctly) that the fact of Paul’s various allusions to the death of Jesus “cannot be raised so high as a positive probability.” I thought there was a better than 50% probability that Paul had actually written the letters to the Corinthians and the Galatians. I may have got some things wrong, but it seems to me that because of this there exists some probability that there was a Jesus who died sometime before 33 CE.
        I say that because, given there is a possibility that Paul wrote those particular letters, it seems there is also a possibility that his conversion was in 33 CE. His reference to escaping Aretas probably took place in 37 CE (c.f. Murphy-O’Connor’s chronology of Paul) since the Nabataeans (thus Aretas) were said to have acquired control of Damascus in the latter half of 37 CE. Then that establishes Paul’s three year stay in Damascus as 34-37 CE, and demands Paul’s visit to Arabia to have occurred in 33 or 34 (I suppose, even if it were a mystical visit). Thus Paul’s conversion was in 33 CE or before that.
        And, finally, the followers of Jesus, who were persecuted by Paul (Gal 1:23), suffered such persecution in 33 CE or even before that. I will admit that it also seems to me a possibility that those who Paul says he was persecuting had entirely invented their leader. Maybe Paul even invented the fact that he was persecuting them.
        I’m just asking, if Paul has some probability, then as a consequence, doesn’t a certain Jesus have some probability?
        Speaking of mystical visitations, have you ever read this modern day revelation of Jesus? ( http://www.bobmoorepainting.com/BlogPhotos )

        • 2011-01-07 18:25:34 UTC - 18:25 | Permalink

          The quotation about “positive probability” comes from Albert Schweitzer in his conclusion about the evidence — both Paul’s letters and Gospels, as well as Josephus and Tacitus — for the historical Jesus.

          As for Paul, his letters and probability, I like to refer to something written by a scholar way back in 1904:

          The history of classical literature has gradually learned to work with the notions of the literary-historical legend, novella, or fabrication; after untold attempts at establishing the factuality of statements made it has discovered that only in special cases does there exist a tradition about a given literary production independent of the self-witness of the literary production itself; and that the person who utilizes a literary-historical tradition must always first demonstrate its character as a historical document. General grounds of probability cannot take the place of this demonstration.

          It is no different with Christian authors.

          (The complete quote and source is found here.)

          With Paul’s letters all we have is their “self-witness” that they are what they say they are and by whom they say they are. That does not mean, of course, that they are definitely not by Paul. It means that we need to be aware of our assumptions when reading them, and be open to alternative possibilities.

          But let’s talk about them as if we can take their claims at face value.

          Paul’s central message is Christ crucified, and there is no doubt he believed Christ was crucified. But at no time does he give any indication when this event occurred — nor where. (As for 1 Thessalonians 2:13-16, see a synopsis of the scholarly debate here and here.)

          There is nothing in Paul’s letters to indicate Jesus was crucified 5, 10, 100 or 4000 years earlier. What Paul says throughout is that it was the revelation of this act that was new. God revealed that this had happened in “the last days”. What was thrilling and life-changing, and the whole motivation of Paul according to his own words, was the power of the message now revealed to him. He sought to share the message that had been revealed to him through the spirit of God. The gospel of Paul was the revelation of the mystery that had been long hid. Paul never speaks unequivocally of a recent historical event that changed his life. It is always the divine revelation of an event that changed his life. We have no reason to think that the sort of experience he claims for himself was, in his view, any different from that of any other apostle.

          So even if we take the indicators about Paul’s time of conversion at face value, they say nothing about when or where Jesus was crucified.

          See also my post below: #4, dated the 7th, 8:22 am.

          There are a number of implausibilities in the various accounts of his persecution of the church, too, just as the trial of Jesus contains many implausibilities that simply do not sit with what we know of the way things were done historically. (Happy to expand on this if interested.)

          Re the “modern day revelation”, I cannot dispute anyone else’s experiences. But I see no reason to interpret this as a real event in the sense that Jesus really did in some way visit the author, in dream, vision or reality. One often reads or hears of personal experiences with divinities of some sort. I think studies have shown they relate to one’s cultural and environmental backgrounds as much as one’s psychology.

          • 2011-01-08 02:28:04 UTC - 02:28 | Permalink

            Neil, thanks for your time with me on replying to my postings, and for your patients in directing me to your older posts where you have already explained a scholarly historical methodology. I can see why those wishing for their “Paul” (or “Jesus”) to be an independently established fact, are frustrated.
            It is not obvious that a Paul and a Jesus were entirely invented, but it’s apparent that what we have been given cannot be trusted as historical. Thus we can’t have an historical Paul or Jesus.

        • Steven Carr
          2011-01-07 20:18:33 UTC - 20:18 | Permalink

          ‘And, finally, the followers of Jesus, who were persecuted by Paul (Gal 1:23), suffered such persecution in 33 CE or even before that. ‘

          So why is there zero persecution of Jesus in Paul’s letters?

          All we get is the laconic ‘Not all the Israelites accepted the good news’, which is a strange way of referring to conspiring to have the Son of God killed.

    • 2011-01-07 07:43:06 UTC - 07:43 | Permalink

      If you’re getting “three years” from Galatians, here’s what Paul tells us.

      1. At some unknown date, God “revealed his Son” in Paul. He talked to nobody and didn’t go to Jerusalem. Presumably he was in Damascus at the time, since he says he later returned there.

      2. He immediately went to Arabia (Jordan? Sinai?) and remained there for an unspecified time.

      3. He returned to Damascus at some undisclosed time, and stayed there for three years.

      4. Only then did he go to Jerusalem.

      The number of years between the revelation to Paul and the return to Damascus is unknown.

      • 2011-01-07 08:22:27 UTC - 08:22 | Permalink

        In Acts it is Damascus that is the geographic focus of Paul’s conversion experience; in Galatians the notable geographical association is Arabia. N.T. Wright makes a reasonable case in his 1996 JBL article (115, 683-692), Paul, Arabia, and Elijah (Galatians 1:17) that the author of the Galatians letter was casting himself as one who stood in the line of biblical prophets:

        * he was separated “from his mothers womb”, 1.15 (compare Jeremiah 1.5; and Isaiah 49.1)
        * he was known for his religious zeal — even killing those opposed to the law, 1.13-14 (compare Phineas and Elijah, Nu.25 and 1 Ki.18)
        * he went to Arabia in response to his call from God, and the same letter spoke of Arabia as being the place of Mount Sinai, 4.25 (compare Moses and Elijah, Ex.3 and 1 Ki.19)
        * he returned from Arabia to Damascus, 1.17 (compare Elijah, 1 Ki.19.15)

        N.T. Wright is hardly a “liberal.” It is naive for a historian to take any document at face value. We need to consider the possibility that the author of Galatians was drawing on OT memes as much as any Gospel author was.

        • 2011-01-07 09:56:50 UTC - 09:56 | Permalink

          Reminds me of the old quip: “Researchers have already cast much darkness on the subject, and if they continue their investigations, we shall know nothing at all about it.”

          Ironically, that quote is usually attributed to Mark Twain, but the more I’ve researched it, the more doubtful I’ve become.

  • pearl
    2011-01-07 03:43:28 UTC - 03:43 | Permalink

    Neil, you are being kind to allow Spong the last word in your post, but we commentators tend to be ruthless at times. 😉

    “No, Jesus was certainly crucified. That is the kernel of history behind the story of the passion.”

    This is a statement of faith. Jesus was certainly crucified in the stories, but in order to say that this “is the kernel of history” behind the stories, we would need to consider another realm outside these literary figures and stories, namely the realm of proper historical investigation.

    I’ve heard people say that even though something can’t be proven, they have faith that it is a fact. And then they proceed to treat that faith statement as a factual statement. That’s cutting it too close for me. And Spong doesn’t even go this far. He presents upfront certain items as fact, not that he has faith they are fact.

    Modern conventional Christianity demands a man, Jesus, in history. If Spong took his metaphorical approach all the way even to the figure of Jesus and the death and resurrection and didn’t require a historical Jesus “kernel”, he’d most likely have passed even fringes of mainstream Christianity into “heretic” territory. I have had more than one Christian tell me that the historicity of Jesus’s death and resurrection is the absolute foundation of their faith. And then we see the human Jesus actually equated with God, etc.

    There is no way that questioning the historicity of a man Jesus is not going to be met with intense reaction from mainstream Christians. Even if one is agnostic on the subject of historicity.

    • 2011-01-07 04:48:24 UTC - 04:48 | Permalink

      I can’t help being kind to Spong. I’ve shaken his hand and thanked him for helping me arrive at my own philosophical outlook and discussed atheism and religious commitment with him. It would be wrong of me to use his stuff only to promote a view that his stuff was meant to counter without giving him a fair hearing too. 🙂

      • pearl
        2011-01-07 05:05:48 UTC - 05:05 | Permalink

        I think it is good of you to be kind, Neil. Spong and others certainly deserve a fair hearing. And he has received that throughout your postings. I respect your approach in this post; however, as a commentator, I felt like saying what was on my mind, too, without disrespect for John Shelby Spong personally. I shouldn’t have used the word, “ruthless”. A bit of exaggeration on my part. I have never met him, but his writing has been important in my journey, too. I just happen to disagree with some important fundamentals at this point. 🙂

      • Bob Carlson
        2011-01-08 07:45:49 UTC - 07:45 | Permalink

        I can’t help being kind to Spong.

        The man is a very persuasive speaker. In thisJanuary 2005 lecture he is passionate, eloquent, and funny.

        • 2011-01-08 13:51:50 UTC - 13:51 | Permalink

          Thanks for this link. I have a lot of time for a Spong sermon.

          It was reading a critical review of Spong’s by a biblical scholar. Spong was faulted for smearing the bulk of Christianity for historically using the Bible to discriminate against women, encourage war and prejudice, etc. The scholarly rebuttal was that only a small minority of misfits have ever used the bible this way!

          The image of ivory towers comes to mind.

  • Pingback: From Hinduism to Christianity via the highway of tragedy « Earthpages.org

  • Daryl
    2011-01-07 04:59:49 UTC - 04:59 | Permalink

    Spong seems like someone who has happily thrown out the bathwater, but is desperately clinging to the hope that the baby doesn’t need jettisoning as well. I think this applies to his work on the historical Jesus, and to his views on Christianity as a modern world religion. Both seem a lost cause, in my opinion.

    I wish there were more Christians like him, though. He seems like a good chap.

    • 2011-01-09 02:20:33 UTC - 02:20 | Permalink

      He is. Unfortunately he’s also a bishop. So I was disappointed with his answer to the last question he was asked in that video. If the Bible contains so many “terrible texts” why do we still use it? His reply seemed to me to ramble on that one. It was a subdued conclusion to an otherwise brilliant presentation.

  • Jason Beaulieuse aka Micheal Millstein
    2011-01-09 00:52:56 UTC - 00:52 | Permalink

    The typical knuckle walking bible institutional or widely accepted bible scholar has huge holes in his neo cortex, where most people have some critical facilities. They are sheep incapable of having a decent original thought, who recite back and blindly defend the received wisdom from their predecessors, and when they do write something new it is nonsensical “spiritual ” bumpf aimed and soothing the semi-literate bottom feeders who consider wordy imcomprehensible prose to be a sign of great learning and probity. Professional theologians and the pastors of mega churches with their prosperity end time rapture bingo driven fear sustained foo-fardle preachings are running a huge three card monte/confidence scam on a scale that even BT Barnum could not have imagined. They have turned mulceting the suckers wallets into a mass industry. The preachers wear fine suits and drive caddies, their parishioners have over-alls and rusted fords.

    And the fundamentalist academics who have managed to get a foothold in the theology department of just about every major secular university in the US, have become the tenures promulgators of a very poisonous and irrational propaganda, disguised as “fact”. Q theory, the synoptic problem solutions, assuming that Acts is historical, passing off Mark as a form of high literature, are all evils spread by these snake oil salesmen.

    I do not like Q theory, it has too many layers of kludge in order to make it hang together. The rationale for the creation of Q seems theological, as a round about way of maintaining the fiction of independant inspired authorship of the gospels. Better to have the gospels interdependent on an imaginary common source, than admit that “Luke” then “Matthew” found the earlier versions of the gospel wanting, and so set out to write a corrected version. Of course this implies that a later gospel author felt the earlier editions were erroneous and in need of correction.
    Heaven forefend, such a thought getting loose in fundamentalist circles.
    My own humble opinion is that “Matthew” ‘s sensibilities were offended by the poor writing of “Mark” and the sloppy narrative and historical inconsistencies in “Luke”, and took it upon himself to craft a revised, more literate, more stylish, book with the big historical bloopers written out. How about “Matthew” simultaneously writing a Greek and Hebrew version of Matthew” (if he did not write both himself, I am sure it would have been no big deal to find/hire a competent translator). The Greek version became an international best seller, and the Hebrew version sank into obscurity, and was only preserved in a few isolated manuscripts in rabbinical libraries.
    Given the pacifism of the “Matthew” Jesus, I would like to think it was a late write, done during the run up to the 115 Jewish rebellion, to try to separate Jewish Christians from the impending disaster.

    Now to Mark. Mark is crude , sketchy, short, has a limited vocabulary, appears strung together, and is incomplete. Contrary to what my Sunday school teachers tried to ram down my throat, it is not sublime carefully crafted literature, it is a pieced together hack job. Compare it to any other example of surviving Greek literature, quite frankly its crap. The only thing going for “Mark” is that it is short,so the agony of reading it through is not prolonged.
    The christian “scholarship” (a non sequitur) machine has produced a millenia’ worth of blather and bad analysis and over looked the simple solution: “Mark” is a rough draft, an incomplete unedited text that was prematurely released to a downscale down market audience that did not have the education or developed critical facilities to realize that it had been fed a load of crap.
    “Luke” and Matthew were subsequent drafts written to correct the known deficiencies of “Mark”, and “Matthew” being aditionaly purposed to replace the error ridden “luke” as well.

    There is not that easy, nice simple, no need to call an imaginary document into existence, no theistic on rational arguments are ignored. Of course then you have to admit that the text were composed by venal uninspired individuals who probably did not even share a common theology.

    Brainwashed intellectually dead theologians should be extirpated from secular university campuses, the study of religion divided up between the literature department and the study of abnormal psychology. The Augean stable of dogma driven academic theological studies needs to be cleansed.


    To paraphrase and expand on Voltaire, we will never experience a free and just society until the last stump speaking jingoistic bible thumping flag wrapped politician has been strangled with the intestines of the last religious leader, on top of a platform composed of the skulls of professional theologians and femurs of career militarists.


    On what planet do the scholarly rebuttists live?

    The writings of every major christian writer from Dio Chrysostom to Luther are filled with exhortations to murder any one who does not accept their teachings and submit to their leadership. Islam is a sect designed to produce fighters who have no fear of death. The original religion of Israel evolved so that a small group of affiliated ribes could resist the incursions of outsiders. Hinduism’s main purpose is to produce class stratification and keep the descendants of the Aryan invaders at the top of the Indian people pyramid.
    The state religion of Imperial Rome was there to promote loyalty to the Imperial structure, a function later assigned to Christianity. Shinto and Nichiren Buddhism were tools of the Japanese Imperial family used to control the population and produce suicidal fighters.
    Maybe it was only a small minority of christian misfits, but the monuments to horror they left at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Drancy, Gurs, Le vernet , Belzec, Maidanek, Mauthausen, Flossberg, Belsen, Theresienstadt, Dachau ect , ect, suggests that it is not at all hard to find christian misfits eager and willing to staff death factories. The minority of christian misfits willing to participate in cruelty and murder actually seems to be pretty large.
    The recluse academic rebuttists need to get out of their ivory towers, make a short trip across town and attend some store front church Saturday or Sunday services, and listen to the hatred and rage than is being disseminated from christian pulpits to packed pews.

    • 2011-01-09 02:13:19 UTC - 02:13 | Permalink

      Jason (or Michael), I have combined your several posts into the one. You have not held back with what you really think. Nor will I. I find them distasteful, intolerant, and ignorant.

  • Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *