I am not sure if Bishop John Shelby Spong believes in god (he speaks of a “god experience”, and of atheism as being defined as not believing in a “theistic definition of god”, which definition he also rejects) but he does believe in Jesus. This, according to his new book, Jesus for the Non-Religious: Recovering the Divine at the Heart of the Human (2007). After acknowledging, even arguing the case of, the many theological and mythical constructs that have built up a non-historical figure of Jesus as found in a surface reading of the New Testament, he laments that some go one step too far and reject belief in the historicity of Jesus altogether.
So in chapter 19 Spong devotes the equivalent of a full 4 pages out of a 315 page book to establish the reasons for believing Jesus was, nonetheless, an historical person. He gives 4 reasons that he believes establish this historicity:
- No “person setting out to create a mythical character would [ever] suggest that he hailed from the village of Nazareth . . . in Galilee”
- Jesus “clearly began his life as a disciple of John the Baptist”
- He was executed
- “Paul was in touch with those who knew the Jesus of history”
This post addresses Spong’s view that no mythical character like Jesus would have been assigned a hometown like Nazareth. (I have so many loose threads on this blog I am still meaning to put up on this blog that I’m reluctant to say I will address the other points of Spong here “soon”.)
Firstly, to some extent it still depresses me to find scholars from the mainstream (not only the conservative mainstream) like Spong displaying profound ignorance of the arguments forwarded by those who posit hypotheses for Christian origins that find no place for a single historical heroic founder. If Spong or any scholar seriously wishes to persuade those tottering between the two opinions they need to become a lot more savvy of the arguments that lay at the base of both sides.
But my depression over this is not really stronger than it is over the more general fact that so many highly educated people cling to irrational and “mystical” beliefs in the first place. (To my mind, there is far more humbling awe to be experienced the more we learn about the world and the beauties our minds experience than can ever be captured by any catch-all mystical belief.)
The first three points that Spong lists for Jesus’ historicity fall under what scholars call the criterion of embarrassment. This oft cited criterion for historicity of any number of gospel stories argues that a particular event that would be embarrassing for the early Christians would not be recorded for posterity unless it was simply so well-known as a fact they had no choice but to admit it and deal with it.
Spong wrote: No “person setting out to create a mythical character would [ever] suggest that he hailed from the village of Nazareth”
Problem one. This is simply not true for the following reasons:
1. It is a common archetype that folklore heroes should be reared in a place of undistinguished and humble status. Oedipus grew up a castaway under the care of shepherd family; Theseus, true heir to the throne of Athens, grew up in the humble city of Troezen; one version of the Dionysus legend even has that “saviour” divinity being reared in Hades or Hell; Romulus the founder of Rome was also reared as an outcast by a shepherd family; Perseus drifted in a wooden chest to the island of Seriphos where he was taken in and raised by a fisherman. There is nothing unusual about a story of a god-man being reared in his early years in humble circumstances. Compare the mythic hero archetypes listed by Lord Raglan.
Indeed, when Nathaniel asks Philip in the Gospel of John if anything good can come out of Nazareth, it is most plausible to think that the author is reinforcing this archetype of humble earthly origins to secure Jesus as fitting the type. And this is consistent with the plot of the Gospel of John as discussed by Jo-Ann Brant in “Divine Birth and Apparent Parents: The Plot of the Fourth Gospel”, published in Ronald Hock’s Ancient Fiction and Early Christian Narrative (1998).
2. The Gospel of Mark, generally thought to be the earliest New Testament gospel written, carries the major theme of the hidden identity of Jesus. This was a key fact of the early Jesus story — to explain how a divinity could make an appearance on earth yet not be recognized for who he really was. This motif was also prominent in noncanonical writings, in the apologies of Justin Martyr, and in that famous Pauline passage about the son of god giving up his divinity to humble himself. The idea of Jesus growing up in a nondescript village sounds quite theologically consistent to me. And Spong does see fit to doubt historicity of other claims that can be traced to theological expediency.
3. Spong not only restricts his case to Nazareth but to the area of Galilee as well. Yet Galilee is, as Matthew informs us point blank, as theologically expedient as is the choice of Bethlehem as the place of Jesus’ birth. Any author who was mindful to make Isaiah 9:1-2’s claim that “a great (saving) light” was to come via Galilee would place Jesus here. And Galilee was a crossroads, a place of Jews and gentiles. What more apt place for the birth of a gospel that grows out of the Jewish religion to become inclusive of all races? Again, we need to weigh the likelihood of historicity against the likelihood of a theological inspiration.
Problem two. Contrary to Spong’s assumption in his question, no-one argues that anyone set out to create a mythical character hailing from the village of Nazareth. The idea that Jesus grew up in Nazareth was a later development introduced as an attempt to explain why Jesus was often called “the Nazorean”. He was not usually called “Jesus of Nazareth” at all, despite what many English translations of the passage indicate.
1. While the gospel of Mark calls Jesus a “Nazarene”, the gospels of Matthew and John and the Book of Acts call him a “Nazorean”. (Both terms are found in Luke’s gospel.) As Robert Price has noted (2003, p.53), this variation immediately prompts suspicions that the epithet did not originate in the name of a village. Neither word can easily be said to be a derivative of Nazareth. A person from Nazareth would have been a Nazarethenos or Nazarethanos or Nazarethaios (Kennard, 1946).
Yet Matthew (4:13) and Luke (4:14) use the word Nazara, not Nazareth, for the hometown of Jesus. And Nazarene can more comfortably be said to derive from Nazara. (Compare Gadarene from Gadara.) But this raises the question why Nazareth was the more frequently used name of the village. Did the term Nazara come to Luke and Matthew after having been invented as an early attempt to explain why Jesus was called a Nazarene (or Nazorean)?
2. Both the author of Acts (24:5) and the fourth century writer about heresies, Epiphanius, inform us that Nazoreans were an early Christian or even pre-Christian sect. (More details can be found at this link.) It is hardly likely that a religious sect would take the name of the birthplace of its founder — unless there were many other disciples there. There is no known case of a religious sect having done so. Rather, the name indicates “Keepers” or “Guardians” or “Covenanters”. The term may refer to those who kept the Law (Torah), or perhaps the Secrets or Mysteries (Mark 4:11).
From what is known of the Nazorean sect (Torah-observers) it is understandable why later “proto-orthodox” Christian authors would want to find a new association or meaning of the term, such as a concocted place name.
3. Matthew is first gospel that attempts to explain the origin of the term Nazorean, and he does so most clumsily and implausibly. In 2.23 he tells his readers that Jesus was taken to Nazareth in order to fulfill the scripture that said “He shall be called a Nazorean.” There is simply no link between the name of Nazareth and the label of Nazorean, and there is no such prophecy. Some have wondered if Matthew’s memory was faulty and he was thinking of the passage that spoke of Samson, “The child shall be called a Nazirite” (Judges 13:7). This may have been a Freudian slip since Nazirite suggests something closer to sectarian practices of the Nazoreans. Neither word is related to Nazareth.
There is also the possibility that Mark introduced “Nazareth” in 1:9 to present readers with the suggestion that the town was the origin of Jesus’ epithet. Mark does have a habit of making many allusions without making explicit his reasons for doing so, or his sources, unlike Matthew. Kennard, however, notes that the very few references to the town of Nazareth in the gospels all appear to belong to later editorial or redactional strata (Kennard, 1946).
4. While geographical labels attached to names are used to identify individuals in literature, they are not used in direct address. No-one addressed Paul to his face as “Paul of Tarsus”. But Jesus of Nazareth is used as a form of address to Jesus himself (e.g. Mark 1:24). The word Nazorean seems rather to suggest an identification with a particular cult or title, like “John the Essene”. “Jesus of Nazareth/Nazorean” also appears to be a magical name that has the power of exorcism in Acts 3:6 and 4:10. (Kennard, 1946)
5. Although our versions of Mark’s gospel narrate that Jesus “came from Nazareth” to be baptized by John, some find it questionable whether that particular phrase (came from Nazareth) was in the original text. Matthew copies large chunks from Mark into his gospel, but he omits that phrase from his copy of that section of Mark (Matt.3:13). One possible explanation for such an omission is that it was not in Matthew’s text of Mark. The phrase could have been later inserted into Mark to counter the impression elsewhere in Mark’s gospel that the hometown of Jesus was in fact Capernaum (c.f. Mark 2:1; 9:23; and compare Mark 1:21-27 with Mark 6:1-6). There is no manuscript evidence to support any such omission, however.
(The Kennard citations come from Was Capernaum the Home of Jesus? by Spencer Kennard Jr. Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 65, No. 2 (Jun., 1946), pp. 131-141
Problem three. Facts on the ground.
1. None of the signs of village have been found at the site of Nazareth around the period of the early first century. No hearths, no wall foundations, no evidence of streets. In other words, no evidence of dwellings at all.
2. No non-gospel text from the era mentions Nazareth at all despite hosts of other place-names in Galilee being known. Josephus gives no reason to think he ever heard of the village.
3. Archaeological finds that have been located around Nazareth are often vaguely dated (“between the early and late Roman empire” period — what does that mean?), and are mostly funerary. Jewish villages were not built upon or abutting cemeteries.
4. Some finds of a winepress and farm life have been found there, again vaguely dated. But neither a farm nor a cemetery is a village.
5. It is not impossible that the village of Nazareth was founded later (3rd century?) by Christians — where they thought the original place must have existed.
No-one argues that someone set out to create a mythical character from Nazareth. The New Testament generally identifies Jesus as a Nazorean, a name that cannot be said to have derived from Nazareth. Nazareth is rarely mentioned at all in the NT and it is only very clumsily associated with Jesus’ Nazorean epithet, apparently as a late attempt to explain — or hide — the origin of the term Nazorean. Place-names might be used to identify a person but were not used as forms of direct address, as we find in the case of Jesus of Nazareth in the gospels. Nazorean more likely points to a sect later found to be an embarrassment to Church authors.
There is no evidence that there was a village of Nazareth in the early first century. The name and place appears to have been fabricated to help re-write and hide the meaning of the term “Nazorean” that was widely associated with Jesus, probably because it originally suggested practices that later Christian authors regarded as heretical.
In the process of re-writing the term as a place name, the necessary obscurity of such a place fitted well the theological and mythical needs of a Jesus biography. Jesus could thus match other semi-divine heroes by being raised in obscurity. And the obscurity of Nazareth also fit the theological message of a divine being giving up his glory to live the humblest of existences, his true identity unrecognized, so that the divine plan could be fulfilled.
I’m surprised Spong does not relegate the Nazareth connection to the many other theological apologetics (especially given Matthew’s gauche attempt) in the gospels and that leave no grounds for assuming historicity.
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