Tag Archives: John Shelby Spong

The Confessional Epilogue: Christians and Acharya

Scholarship motivated by confessional interests

Most of us are familiar with the confessional reflections that so many biblical scholars drop in at the close of their scholarly works on Jesus. Sometimes this confessional is found in the prologue or preface as well. It is like a little prayer uttered by the devout believer thanking and praising the Lord for the academic study he has produced. It is particularly obnoxious when found in the dedication of a formal higher degree thesis. “Obnoxious” because it betrays an interest and motivation that is not entirely scholarly: it is scholarship motivated by confessional interests.

Examples (my bold emphasis throughout):

  • “Indeed, for Christians, the unending conversation about Jesus is the most important conversation there is. He is for us the decisive revelation of God. . . .” (last paragraph of Borg’s Jesus)
  • “And yet, despite everything, for those who have ears to hear, Jesus, the millenarian herald of judgment and salvation, says the only things worth saying, for his dream is the only one worth dreaming. . . .” (Allison, last paragraph of Jesus of Nazareth)
  • “Jesus will always be for me the way to God. . . .” (Spong, last paragraph of Liberating the Gospels)
  • “For a believing Christian both the life of the Word of God and the text of the Word of God are alike a graded process of historical reconstruction. . . . If you cannot believe in something produced by reconstruction, you may have nothing left to believe in.” (Crossan, final words in The Historical Jesus)

ChristInEgyptAnd so on.

Confessional statements and astrotheology

So it occurred to me that if I am correct in coming to realize that D.M. Murdock (Acharya S) is just as devoted to a religious view of Christian origins and writes with a view to sharing her belief system in the same way, then in her more neutral and “academically” minded books I should find the same confessional statements, most probably in the epilogue.

I have read sections of Christ in Egypt before but this time I turned to conclusion and here is what I found:

read more »

Extracting the Gospels From the Bible

ClarkeOwensTime to return to one of my favourite books at the moment, Son of Yahweh: The Gospels as Novels by Clarke W. Owens. I have posted on this book five times before but have not yet got to its most interesting ideas. By scholarly training he knows how to read a text. That means he knows how to understand what sort of literature a text is. And that means he can be a most valuable asset for a historian who wants to know what sorts of documents the New Testament Gospels and Acts are. After all, how can a historian know how to interpret a primary source if he does not understand what sort of document it is? How can a historian know what sorts of questions a document is capable of answering if she does not understand its nature?

The trouble with most analysis of the Gospels by those who use them as primary materials for reconstructing Christianity’s origins is that it to a significant extent depends upon interpreting the nature of the Gospels as “Bible books”.

In literary-critical studies, definition of the text is an obvious first step, but critics seldom spend much time on it, because in most cases the text is readily defined.

When we (whether literary critics, students, interested readers, historians) pick up a piece of literature that we wish to learn about and understand more deeply, we may well first ask, “What is this work?”

The answer to that question is nearly always quickly understood. The answer is simply a matter of historical record. We identify and understand a work by both its form and its place in history. If we pick up Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, or Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, or Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, we know we are studying a discrete work, something clearly understood by author and audience alike to be a work distinct from any other work. If we did not know the author of a work we would still be able to define the work according to its form and understand that it has been composed at a particular time and place in history.

The historical context of composition is important for understanding how and why the work came to be composed the way it is.

Owens points out that we (scholars included) all too often bring in addition an entirely different set of perspectives to books in the Bible. He writes:

I can think of no examples [outside the Bible's books] in which the definition of a text would include works by different authors who were not by their own intention co-authors of a given work.

In the previous post we saw the two ways the Gospels are widely interpreted as literature. Jack Miles and John Meier were representative. read more »

Making of a (Christian) Mythicist, Act 5, Scene 2 (Staying Christian With a Symbolic Jesus)

The times, they are changing

The times, they are changing (Photo credit: riacale)

Come writers and critics
who cauterize with your pen . . .
You’ve spoken too soon,
the wheel’s still in spin . . .

. . . Mythicism is compatible with Christian faith.

That is certainly the argument of Fr Thomas L. Brodie in chapter 20 of Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery.

As Brodie was becoming increasingly aware of the extent of the debt the Gospels owed to the Old Testament narratives, his faith did not waver:

In September 1972, when I was first struck by the deep similarities between the Gospels and the Old Testament, I immediately had two responses: ‘This is strange stuff that may have radical implications’; and, ‘It’s OK’. Rightly or wrongly, my sense of God’s presence at the time reassured me that whatever was happening would be alright (sic). (p. 197)

It was within two years that Brodie finally saw the way 1 Corinthians had synthesized various sources in order to “[compose] the very figure of Christ and [lay] that figure down as a foundation for others” and it was only then that the foundations of his belief-system were fully impacted.

Still it seemed that, in some way I did not understand, things would be OK. God was still God, and eventually things would work out, they would become clear. However, while I kept trying, as usual, to be faithful to the practices of the Catholic faith, I often wondered what that faith really meant. (p. 198)

Coincidentally, a Westar Fellow of the Jesus Seminar I met a few years ago acknowledged the theoretical possibility of Brodie’s conclusion here when I asked him what it might mean for Christianity if it were learned that there had been no historical Jesus. His reply as I recall it, “Well I suppose if Judaism can get by without a literal Abraham . . .”

Some time in the 1980s as Brodie was continuing to ponder what he truly believed he concluded that he “was really sure of the Abraham story, not of its history, but of its meaning.” It turned out that this belief in the meaning (as opposed to the literal history) of a biblical narrative would point the way forward to a Christian faith without a literal, historical Jesus.

Bishop John Shelby Spong, Episcopal Diocese of...

Bishop John Shelby Spong, (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Brodie calls upon imagination and mysticism. I am reminded of John Shelby Spong’s Liberating the Gospels. By the time I finish reading the main text I am wondering why Spong believes in Jesus at all. Then I read the epilogue only to find he speaks of being “overwhelmed” by his “God consciousness” and the “mystical presence” of God. He calls for a new way of looking at Christianity, a non-literal way of reading the Gospels. (Spong emphatically does believe there was a historical Jesus who was crucified, however.)

Albert Schweitzer, 1952

Albert Schweitzer, 1952 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am also reminded of Albert Schweitzer’s conclusion in The Quest of the Historical Jesus (pp. 401-402, my bolding):

[S]trictly speaking absolutely nothing can be proved by evidence from the past, but can only be shown to be more or less probable. 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 by raised so high as positive probability.

. . . . Seen from a purely logical viewpoint, whether Jesus existed or did not exist must always remain hypothetical. . . .

. . . Modern Christianity must always reckon with the possibility of having to abandon the historical figure of Jesus. Hence it must not artificially increase his importance by referring all theological knowledge to him and developing a ‘christocentric’ religion: the Lord may always be a mere element in ‘religion’, but he should never be considered its foundation.

To put it differently: religion must avail itself of a metaphysic, that is, a basic view of the nature and significance of being which is entirely independent of history and of knowledge transmitted from the past . . .

Schweitzer, of course, did believe there was such a historical figure and he argued against Christ-myth theorists of his day. That’s what makes the above passage all the more significant. He seems to be approving of a view of Christianity that transcends faith in literal interpretations and historical events. (Please Stephanie F., do not come back here with your undergrad essays on some tangential argument about another and quite unrelated aspect of Schweitzer’s faith.)

By “imagination and mysticism” Brodie means read more »

Why the Church Does Not Want Jesus — ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ chapter 4

Niels Peter Lemche is the author of the fourth chapter of ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’, “The Grand Inquisitor and Christ: Why the Church Does Not Want Jesus”. He frames his case around the parable in Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov, that tells of Christ being arrested on his return to earth in the time of the Spanish Inquisition. The Grand Inquisitor informs the imprisoned Christ that he will have to be burned at the stake because he is a danger to the Church. But there is a subtle twist in the parable which is the key to understanding the paradoxical argument that follows.

But before starting, let me point out that this post is different from earlier ones discussing chapters of this book. Rather than sequentially paraphrasing the argument I take some core arguments in Lemche’s chapter as a springboard for discussion of my own observations. (So I omit all reference to the origins of historical-critical scholarship, liberation theology and third world exegesis, Philipp Gabler‘s famous lecture on the conflict between historical theology and ecclesiastical dogmatics, the various ways both Catholics and Protestants have historically controlled the reading of the Bible, Marcion’s and von Harnack’s complaints about the inclusion of the Jewish scriptures in the Christian Bible . . . . , that Lemche covers in this chapter.) Now back to the parable. . . .

Ivan Karamazov (John Malkovich)

The parable is told by Ivan Karamazov who appears to side with the Inquisitor in objecting to the Jesus Christ who walks straight out of the pages of the Gospels and begins performing miracles etc just as he did there. (There is much more to the original story, but let’s roll with the details Lemche selects for his analogy.) The irony for Lemche is that this same Ivan also represents those who in other ways question the Church. The Grand Inquisitor thus turns out to be something of a double-edged sword. “Perhaps there are more layers represented in this novel than appear at first sight.

For Lemche, the Grand Inquisitor represents “the position of the well-educated clergy of the Church“. The threats it faces come from two opposing sides, and one of these sides finds itself in an ambiguous position:

.

Threat #1 — the pious laity with their Bible

Yes, there is the threat from “the pious laity having read too much of the Bible”:

The difference between the Christ of the Church and the Jesus of the Gospels becomes dangerous when explained to the laity. (p. 77)

Elsewhere Lemche has argued that pious people should not be allowed within a hundred metres of the Bible. “Reading the Bible has not done them much good.” Some who would follow in Christ’s footsteps have been rendered harmless by being incorporated into the constraints of the Church itself (e.g. the Franciscans). Others have gone down in history as suicide cults. I and many others would add a vast array of dysfunctional mental, physical, financial and social legacies among too many of the faithful. read more »

Appendix to my “concluding response” — that ca.4 letter word MIDRASH

This is tiresome, but I forgot to mention one more tiresome detail in Dr McGrath’s “review” (isn’t a review supposed to inform readers of what the book being discussed actually says??) –

McGrath compares Doherty’s use of the word “midrashic” with how a related word is apparently used by Barbara Thiering and John Shelby Spong. McGrath even links Thiering and Spong together as if they have a similar approach to New Testament studies.

McGrath has the ignorance, the gallstones, the ignorance (one is not allowed to use a word that relates to “truth-telling” or “lying”) to compare Doherty’s — and now Spong’s too! — use of the word “midrash” to that of Barbara Thiering’s use of another word, pesher.

It’s a pity Dr James McGrath was not sitting beside me when I attended a session where John Shelby Spong was the main speaker and at which he was asked about the works of Barbara Thiering. He would have learned that any similarity in thought between the two scholars could only come from the most creative cartoonists Hollywood has produced.

It’s also a pity that Dr James McGrath has not had the time or interest to familiarize himself with any of Spong’s scholarly background or publications. If he ever does get the chance to do so he will learn that Spong is Michael Goulder’s successor of sorts, and is advancing Goulder’s arguments, with refinements more or less. (Has Dr McGrath even ever heard of Michael Goulder? One only has limited free time when one’s teaching curriculum requires so many hours of watching Dr Who! and contemplating each program’s “intersects” with religion).

But back to this use of the word “midrashic” that McGrath takes such strong objection to.

I have said enough and do not want to repeat myself. I simply invite Dr McGrath (Is he sticking his fingers in his ears right now and shouting “La La La, I can’t hear you!”?) to review what Jewish scholars of midrashic literature themselves say about the Gospels containing or even being “midrash”, not to mention his very own New Testament scholarly peers! –

Midrash and the Gospels 1: Some definitions and explanations

Midrash and the Gospels 2: debates in the scholarly sphere

Midrash and Gospels 3: What some Jewish scholars say (and continuing ‘Midrash Tales of the Messiah’)

Messiahs, Midrash and Mythemes — more comparisons with the Gospels

McGrath actually wrote the following bollocks: read more »

The need to challenge liberal religion as well as fundamentalism

I’ve been catching up (thanks Mary) with other blog posts addressing atheism, in particular the New Atheists and their strident criticism of religion, in particular those appearing in response to R. Joseph Hoffmann’s views and posts by Stephanie L. Fisher. One that has particularly caught my attention, along with its related comments, is The Irrationality of Atheist Opposition to Atheism by Eric MacDonald. Part of my initial curiosity Eric’s post was learning that it was related to a lead post by Stephanie L. Fisher, and that Fisher’s post had subsequently been taken down. This is the second time this has happened recently — presumably on her own requests after others responded critically. (R. Joseph Hoffmann has since explained in a comment below that he removed Steph’s guest post as a matter of routine policy. I am sure Stephanie will like to repost it somewhere where it can have a more stable history.)

I enjoyed Eric’s post enough, and many of the related comments to it, and was incensed enough over assertions by some who like to be called humanists but object to being called atheists (even though they apparently do not believe in god/s), to join the fray with my own thoughts on the importance of atheists publicly challenging religious belief systems. My own thoughts are amateurish and inchoate compared with those expressed by Eric. But one has to start somewhere. Perhaps feedback can help me sort out with a bit more depth and rationality my own ideas. So here goes. read more »

Miracles as symbol, not history or biography

This post continues from earlier ones on Spong’s discussion of the meaning and nonhistoricity of miracles in the gospels. See the link above to Spong: Jesus for the Non Religious for these earlier posts.

In discussing the miraculous cure of the blind man in the Gospel of John, John Spong makes a point that I have made in recent posts about Gospel genre: the gospels are not designed to relate marvellous events performed Jesus, but rather to focus on pointing out the identity of Jesus. If this truly is the point of the miracle narratives in the gospels, then some questions come to mind over what reasons anyone might have for thinking they might have some historical basis.

Firstly, if they are told to illustrate a theological construct about Jesus, then we have a candidate for a tendentious motive in their appearances in the narratives.

Secondly, if they are not told to focus on the astonishing personality and impact Jesus had among his contemporaries as a renowned healer (or even shaman, as some have suggested), then we have no reason to think that they formed part of any genuine biographical information about Jesus.

Spong himself does not question the historicity of Jesus. Spong is clear that he believes “of course” there was a historical figure who was baptized by John, crucified by Pilate, and who gathered a few (though probably not twelve) disciples such as Peter (but not Judas, who was an anti-semitic invention).

But when I read the sorts of literary arguments by Spong where he points out that the miracle stories are not so much about the person of Jesus as a figure of history, but rather about a theological identity attributed to him by later authors, then I wonder why the question of historicity should not arise. Is not Spong’s argument essentially an argument that favours the Gospels being entirely theological-narrative inventions?

This looks post at the last of the healing miracles addressed by Spong in Jesus for the Non Religious. read more »

Blind Bartimaeus: some meanings of the story surrounding his healing

 

Christ cures Bartimaeus. Kussell. In the Bowye...

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Slightly revised 9th Feb. 2010, 3pm

John Spong finishes off his chapter (in Jesus for the Non-Religious) about healings by discussing the healing of blind Bartimaeus as found in the Gospel of Mark and healing of the man born blind in the Gospel of John. I’ll be sharing material from an old article by Vernon K. Robbins about Mark’s treatment of the Bartimaeus episode. Spong covers much the same theme but in less depth. (The article I use is The Healing of Blind Bartimaeus (10:46-52) in the Marcan Theology, published in the Journal of Biblical Literature, June 1973, Vol. 92, Issue 2, pp. 224-243.) Will also draw on Michael Turton’s Historical Commentary on the Gospel of Mark.

The story of Bartimaeus is constructed to inform readers that Jesus is greater than the traditional idea of the Son of David. The details of the story serve only to point out the identity of Jesus Christ and the meaning of discipleship. The healing of blindness is only the symbolic way in which these messages are conveyed. Take away the theological meanings of the story and it becomes a meaningless tale. There are no details left over that give us any reason to suppose that the story was ever anything more than a symbolic or parabolic fiction.

This is the story (Mark 10:46-52) read more »

Jesus was not a healer (2)

Following on here from my earlier post.

As noted in my previous post, Matthew and Luke inform us directly that the miracles of Jesus were for the purpose of identifying Jesus as the Messiah in accordance with the prophecies in Isaiah.

We may, if we wish, speculate that there really were a set of healings performed by charismatic, shaman-like person and that gospel authors completely re-imagined the way these occurred and subsumed those imaginative reconstructions beneath their primary interest of writing a narrative to demonstrate prophetic fulfilments of Isaiah, but that can never be anything more than idle speculation. We have no evidence for such historical antecedents so let’s work with the evidence we do have.

As the discussion following my previous post on this topic shows I have discussed this several times before with detailed analyses of certain miracles (particularly in Mark’s gospel) showing they were intended to be read not as literal events but as symbolic of theological messages. This post draws heavily on Bishop Spong’s perspective of the same argument as found in his Jesus For the Non-Religious. Of the passages in Luke and Matthew in which Jesus is quoted as telling the messengers of John the Baptist that the miracles are signs that he is the Messiah, Spong writes: read more »

How many stories in the gospels are “purely metaphorical”?

Resurrection: Son of God Jesus triumphs over d...

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Dale Allison concludes his book Constructing Jesus with a discussion of the intent of the gospel authors. Did the gospel authors themselves think that they were writing real history or did they think they were writing metaphorical narratives, parables or allegories?

Allison refers to Marcus Borg and others (e.g. Robert Gundry, John Dominic Crossan, Robert J. Miller, Jerome Murphy O’Connor, John Shelby Spong, Roger David Aus) who have gone beyond their scholarly predecessors for whom the question was, “They thought they wrote history but can we believe them?”, to “Did they think they were writing something other than history and have we misunderstood them?”

They are not claiming that we must, because of modern knowledge, reinterpret the old texts in new ways, against their authors’ original intentions. They are instead contending that the texts were not intended to be understood literally in the first place. (p. 438)

I would love to read the books Allison cites but till then will have to rely here on his brief remarks.

Of O’Connor, Allison informs readers that he reasons that Luke’s two accounts of the ascension of Jesus are different because Luke did not think he was writing history (The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (4th ed., 1998)). read more »

The rights and wrongs of Spong on the Gospels

Having covered Spong’s arguments for most of the Gospel narratives being “midrashic literature” (with one or two more posts to come) it is time to toss in some qualifiers and state my own views. I’ll anchor my thoughts around Mark Allan Powell’s review of Spong’s arguments. (The review is less securely but more cheaply accessed from here.)

There can be very little doubt that the Gospel authors did create their narrative details out of Old Testament texts.

What critics object to is the idea that entire narratives and most narrative details found in the Gospels are fabricated this way.

Spong himself insists (without argument, only by assertion) that there was some historical underlay to the Gospels. Jesus really was crucified, for example. But his silence before Pilate and his words on the cross are artfully woven by the author into the narrative from Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22. read more »

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

Bishop John Shelby Spong, Episcopal Diocese of...

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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 read more »

Liberating Jesus from the letter of the Gospel narrative

Christ's entry into Jerusalem
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John Shelby Spong wrote Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes: Freeing Jesus from 2,00o years of misunderstanding to open the way for educated moderns to understand that the authors of the Gospels did not think they were writing literal history (e.g. Jesus did not literally walk on water, ascend to heaven, etc.), but rather that they were writing symbolic narratives based on Old Testament stories and sayings in order to convey what Jesus Christ meant to them. This form of writing was, Spong explains, a traditional method of Jewish storytelling. Expressing meaning through well-known images and episodes in earlier books was more important than recording literal history. (I explained this method in a little more detail in an earlier post.)

This post looks at Spong’s reasons for rejecting the historical details of most of the Gospel narrative about the last hours, or the Passion, of Jesus. I need to emphasize that Spong is not seeking to undermine faith, but to make faith more accessible to modern audiences who find (quite rightly, he says) a literal interpretation of the Bible to be in many ways offensive to modern knowledge and values.

My own interest has nothing to do with undermining or opening up faith. Such decisions are personal ones that go beyond intellectual exercises. Everyone has their own life to live, and we are all the products of our own genes and experiences. (I will be active if I think I can help minimize abuse or harm that some faiths bring about, but that is another matter again.) My interest is strictly in exploring and understanding Christian origins and sharing insights and information with others with similar interests. That sometimes includes exposing what I see are the fallacies of “knowledge falsely so called” and of its public practitioners.

The Beginning of the End read more »

How Joseph was piously invented to be the “father” of Jesus

Georges de La Tour. St. Joseph, the Carpenter
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This post continues from the previous one about John the Baptist’s parents. It’s a sharing of my reading of John Shelby Spong’s Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes . . .. I covered in that earlier post the rationale for searching the Old Testament scriptures for an understanding of the Gospel author’s choices of names and narrative episodes.

Spong begins his discussion of Joseph by reminding readers how “shadowy” he is in the Scriptures. Much legend has accrued around him since the Gospels were written, but the New Testament has very little to say about him at all.

The earliest Christian evidence

Neither he nor Mary appears at all in Paul’s writings.

At the very least, we can state that to the degree that Paul represented Christianity in the fifth, sixth, and seventh decades of this common era, there was no interest in Jesus’ origins or his parentage at that stage in the development of the Christian story.

. . . Paul’s writing gives us no indication that he had ever heard of or had any interest in the miraculous birth traditions. (p. 202)

Spong emphasizes the indications in Paul’s letters that Paul thought Jesus’ birth was quite normal. He points to Galatians 4:4 (“born of a woman”) and Romans 1:3 (from David “according to the flesh”). Others have noted, however, that one does not naturally refer to anyone’s birth as being “of a woman” or “according to flesh”! I would expect to get strange looks if in any conversation I managed to explain that I or anyone present was “born of a woman”! That such apparently obvious truisms are made explicit does raise questions about the intent of such phrases in Paul’s letters. But I’ll continue here with Spong’s explanation.

The next Christian evidence read more »