John Shelby Spong wrote Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes: Freeing Jesus from 2,000 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
The last days and death of Jesus were set against the Passover Festival in Jerusalem. So this part of the Gospel narrative begins with a journey to Jerusalem. Devout Jews generally made journeys to Jerusalem for the three major annual festivals: Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles. Three of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) describe Jesus’ entry into the city, and his first act the following day, the cleansing of the temple.
(1) Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem
The scene is a well-known one: Jesus rides on a donkey into Jerusalem with crowds lining the way, waving branches and shouting, “Hosannah, Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”
Each of the Gospels sets the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem at the Passover season. That is at the end of winter, in the month of Nisan.
Mark’s Gospel (Mark 11:8) portrays the crowds welcoming Jesus by waving “leafy branches”. The Gospel of Matthew (21:8) speaks of “waving branches”. As Spong notes, however, one does not normally speak of waving leafless sticks, so the presumption in Matthew is that they were leafy, too.
Luke, Spong suggests, may have suspected a problem, so he tosses out the branches altogether and has the crowds foreshadow Sir Walter Raleigh and lay down their clothes on the ground for Jesus’ donkey (19:36).
John’s Gospel (12:13), widely believed to have been written as late as the 90s, speaks of branches, but he calls them Palm tree branches.
The problem with the narrative, especially in its earliest tellings, is that there were no leafy branches in Israel in the month of Nisan (March), at the end of winter.
But there was another religious festival observed at Jerusalem that did involve pilgrims walking in procession and waving leafy branches.
[T]he great popular fall harvest festival of the Jews called Tabernacles, or Booths (Sukkot), had as one of its characteristic motifs the activity of pilgrims walking around the altar in the Temple in procession while waving a bundle of greenery made up leafy branches of willow, myrtle, and palm trees. . . . While those branches were being waved, the liturgy of Tabernacles called for the worshipers to chant the words of Psalm 118, which was the traditional psalm of that fall festival. This psalm proclaimed “Hosannah,” which means “save us,” “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” (Psalm 118:25-26). (p. 242)
The Gospel images of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem were drawn from the Jewish festival of autumn/fall, Tabernacles — six months after the Passover festival.
The image of Jesus riding on the donkey is also shaped by the Old Testament book of Zechariah:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your King is coming to you;
He is just and having salvation,
Lowly and riding on a donkey,
A colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zech 9:9)
Did God really cause Zechariah, some 400 to 500 years before Jesus’ birth, to write words that Jesus would fulfill in a literal way in his time? Or was the Jesus story of Palm Sunday written quite deliberately to conform to the narrative of Zechariah as a way of asserting that Jesus was the anticipated King about whom Zechariah had written? (p. 243)
(2) the Cleansing of the Temple
The image is iconic. Jesus walks into the Temple, twists a rope into a whip, overturns tables of money-changers, scatters the doves and sheep that were to be sold for sacrifice, and roars: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations, but you have made it a den of thieves!”
But was this true to history?
Note that in the OT book of Zechariah is a description of a feast at Jerusalem, the Feast of Tabernacles. This festival is set in the “last days” when God’s kingdom is to be established on earth. After a description of this feast, Zechariah declares that “there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day” (Zech. 14:21)
Are we then dealing in this gospel story with the remembered history of a literal cleansing of the Temple? Or is this another example where a story from the Jewish past has been used to shape the presentation of the life of Jesus? (p. 234)
Spong points to the latter option by observing that the very words Jesus uses in this gospel scene do “not appear to be terribly original.” They are direct quotations from Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11.
Connecting the above two narratives
Zechariah unites the two stories through the Festival of Tabernacles, not the Passover. Zechariah describes a fall/autumn Feast of Tabernacles and said that when the Lord appeared to claim his Temple in Jerusalem that there would be no more traders in the Temple.
Are we dealing with history? Or is this a Jewish way of asserting that Jesus must be understood “according to the scriptures” if he is to have the claim of messiah attributed to him? Clearly, the procession amid leafy branches, the shouts of hosannah, the cry “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” and even the reenactment of the banishment of the traders from the house of the Lord were familiar observances to the Jews, but liturgically called to consciousness by them at the Feast of Tabernacles in the fall of the year. They had been borrowed from their natural habitat and used by the early Christians . . . to make a statement about who Jesus was.The content of Zechariah had been transferred to Jesus. In that collapsing process, the customs from Tabernacles had been moved from the fall to the spring. (p. 244)
It is also significant that the Book of Zechariah also contains the seeds of the Gospel details of a shepherd king being betrayed for thirty pieces of silver, the inhabitants of Jerusalem mourning over one they had pierced as they would mourn for a first born, the sheep or followers being scattered when their shepherd is struck, and more.
I have written in earlier posts in much more detail the influences of Zechariah and other passages on the Triumphal Entry and the Cleansing of the Temple. But the purpose of this post is to focus on Spong’s particular slant. In the next post I want to bring out much more of what Spong himself has written about what he sees as the reason for so much ignorance of the Bible, and the reasons so many prefer to read it literally despite advances in scholarly understanding of how it came to be written.
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