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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19 thoughts on “Liberating Jesus from the letter of the Gospel narrative”
Perhaps I lack imagination or maybe the “spiritual” part of my brain is burned out, but I don’t see how Spong helps. It takes a certain kind of mental contortion to hold incompatible facts inside your head. I speak from experience, as I once believed that the universe was billions of years old and that God created the universe not more than 5,000 years ago.
However, there’s a certain amount of comfort that comes with the fundamentalist, inerrantist mindset. The Bible is absolutely true in every detail — that’s the only thing you have to remember. Everything else either conforms to the received truth or is rejected as evil. I’ll grant you that this can be a very difficult mindset to maintain, especially if you can read above the sixth-grade level, but many people can do it. (A whole lot of them in the U.S.)
But this liberal Christian view in which things are simultaneously true and not true, real but symbolic, historical but fictional… I can’t even follow it. It’s like that video of Borg and Crossan talking about God. I just want to shout, “What the hell are you guys even talking about?” Are they trying to outdo Zen Buddhism?
Look, if you need wonder and mystery in your life, go down to your local shelter and adopt a cat.
I sometimes say I believe in poetry rather than spirituality.
The common idea that the bible is true “spiritually” but not literally strikes me as saying nothing more than that the Bible’s poetic images are the truest expressions of the feelings of the poet/author.
Tim, “The Power of Meow” by Bernard Gunther. Also “I have known three Zen masters in my life and all of them were cats”. — eckhart tolle
I once attended a lecture by Marcus Borg “Beyond Atheism” in which he conceded the basic argument of the New Atheists and their critique of religion. He then went off into never never land discussing his spiritual god, which all but evaporated in the mist of mysticism. It left the congregation at the Church of the Beatitudes United Church of Christ scratching their heads.
I wonder about the basis for this assertion. I don’t know much about the climate of that area, but I read that winters are mild and rainy in much of Israel. The Weather Underground web site indicates that high temperatures for the remainder of this week in Jerusalem will be in the high 50s and low 60s Fahrenheit. Moreover, palms are not deciduous.
I wondered, too. But decided to leave it unquestioned because the feast of first-fruits, presumably first-leaves at that time, is Pentecost, 50 days after the Passover. Besides, Tabernacles is bound up with branches leafy enough to construct sheltering booths anyway.
“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.)”
Once again, I think the Synoptics, through “Mark’s” lead, are following Paul:
“15:3 For Christ also pleased not himself; but, as it is written, The reproaches of them that reproached thee fell upon me.
15:4 For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that through patience and through comfort of the scriptures we might have hope.
15:5 Now the God of patience and of comfort grant you to be of the same mind one with another according to Christ Jesus:
15:6 that with one accord ye may with one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
15:7 Wherefore receive ye one another, even as Christ also received you, to the glory of God.
15:8 For I say that Christ hath been made a minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, that he might confirm the promises [given] unto the fathers,
15:9 and that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy; as it is written, Therefore will I give praise unto thee among the Gentiles, And sing unto thy name.
15:10 And again he saith, Rejoice, ye Gentiles, with his people.
15:11 And again, Praise the Lord, all ye Gentiles; And let all the peoples praise him.
15:12 And again, Isaiah saith, There shall be the root of Jesse, And he that ariseth to rule over the Gentiles; On him shall the Gentiles hope.
15:13 Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope, in the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Paul’s theology is that proof-texting the Jewish Bible will describe Christians in PAUL’S time. “Mark” sends his proof-texting back to the future and uses the Jewish Bible to describe Jesus in JESUS’ supposed time. “Mark’s” Christ is unknown to the audience in his Gospel because he has traveled forward in time from the Jewish Bible to come into an adult Jesus. Christ has a history but it’s in the Jewish Bible, not the Christian one.
The related MJ/HJ question of course is to what extent did the Gospellers think they had proof-texting historicized or history proof-texted. It’s easier here to give a relationship than a definite conclusion. It’s likely that the earlier the writing the closer it is to Paul’s FIGURATIVE use of the Jewish Bible (Poetry as opposed to History).
Surely the differences among the Gospel narratives, for the most part readily explained by theological differences, point to those authors lack of interest in literal history. It was figuratives all the way down.
This is exactly the process that Thomas Thompson describes in “Our Mythic Past” (also published as “The Bible in History” — smart enough to catch out suckers like me who bought the same book twice). I could be wrong but I suspect Michael Goulder/Spong came to this conclusion independently, and no doubt there are others who have long proffered the same explanation, though they may use language to that tends to obscure the implications of what they are saying. (One often encounters it more bluntly among the writings of “minimalists” explaining the various narratives of the OT.)
I don’t know why the Gospels can’t be seen in the same creative literary and theological tradition to create a new tale for “a new Israel” who had lost its earthly heritage in 70 through 135. Why should the neo-Joshua for the “end times/last days” be any more literal than the original Moses? (No, I’m not arguing the point rhetorically here. Just alluding to the arguments made elsewhere.)
Many biblical scholars are quick to jump on the genre argument. The Gospels are biography, so that is supposed to change everything. So Kings and Exodus and Genesis are supposed to be history, too. Spong (probably from Goulder?) blasts the genre argument for historicity by showing how if read as real biographies, the Gospels are utter nonsense. (Hope to discuss this genre argument in future posts.)
“Many biblical scholars are quick to jump on the genre argument. The Gospels are biography, so that is supposed to change everything. So Kings and Exodus and Genesis are supposed to be history, too. Spong (probably from Goulder?) blasts the genre argument for historicity by showing how if read as real biographies, the Gospels are utter nonsense. (Hope to discuss this genre argument in future posts.)”
What we are witnessing in our time is an exponential retreat in the mainstream Christian claim of the level of evidence of the Gospels from “eyewitness” (direct) to “connection to eyewitnesses” (indirect). Hence, the importance of GENRE to the mainstream which argues for Bias, er, Bios as support. In my now famous related Thread at FRDB:
Wrestling With Greco Tragedy. Reversal From Behind. Is “Mark” Greek Tragedy?
I demonstrate that “Mark” does indeed have a genre, but it is a genre of Greek Tragedy. I think everyone would agree that “Mark” has better parallels to GT than M & L. So no matter to what extent M & L have a genre of Bios, doesn’t really do that much good as historical evidence if their base is GT. Note especially that “Mark” is not just a source here or even merely the primary source. It is the base. Note also that M & L are reversing “Mark’s” primary theme that the historical disciples did not promote Jesus’ Passion. For them to use as a base a source which had the opposite theology suggests that they were not aware of any other source. Yikes!
The Ancients were stupid by our standards but not that stupid. Their biographies emphasized character as opposed to modern biographies which emphasize history and their standards for historicity were much looser. But you can see from a real Greco-Roman biography:
The Life of Apollonius
“And I have gathered my information partly from the many cities where he was loved, and partly from the temples whose long-neglected and decayed rites he restored, and partly from the accounts left of him by others and partly from his own letters. For he addressed these to kings, sophists, philosophers, to men of Elis, of Delphi, to Indians, and Ethiopians; and in his letters he dealt with the subjects of the gods, of customs, of moral principles, of laws, and in all these departments he corrected the errors into which men had fallen. But the more precise details which I have collected are as follows.
[§3] There was a man, Damis, by no means stupid, who formerly dwelt in the ancient city of Nineveh. He resorted to Apollonius in order to study wisdom, and having shared, by his own account, his wanderings abroad, wrote an account of them. And he records his opinions and discourses and all his prophecies. And a certain kinsmen of Damis drew the attention of the empress Julia [Domna, wife of Septimius Severus] to the documents containing these documents hitherto unknown.
Now I belonged to the circle of the empress, for she was a devoted admirer of all rhetorical exercises; and she commanded me to recast and edit these essays, at the same time paying more attention to the style and diction of them; for the man of Nineveh had told his story clearly enough, yet somewhat awkwardly.
And I also read the book of Maximus of Aegae, which comprised all the life of Apollonius in Aegae; and furthermore a will was composed by Apollonius, from which one can learn how rapturous and inspired a sage he really was. For we must not pay attention anyhow to Moeragenes, who composed four books about Apollonius, and yet was ignorant of many circumstances of his life.
That then I combined these scattered sources together and took trouble over my composition, I have said; but let my work, I pray, redound to the honor of the man who is the subject of my compilation, and also be of use to those who love learning. For assuredly, they will here learn things of which as yet they were ignorant.”
That the ancients were not ignorant regarding the issue of SOURCES. It would appear that “Mark” really really did not want to explicitly state his sources.
The same is true of ancient historians. Sure one can find a few exceptions, but they are the exceptions and not the rule. In addition to consciousness of sources is self-identity of the biographer or historian.
Re the Spong video: The book it promotes was published in Feb., 2008, and it is apparent that the video was made while George Bush was still in office. I presume the Dec. 2, 2010 to be the date the video was posted on YouTube. Later in the video, 15:18 Spong says there is no doubt that Jesus was crucified; there’s no doubt that after his crucifixion there was an experience of such life changing dimensions that the disciples, who had been cowards, became willing to die for their convictions. Holy meow! Now, Spong really comes off as a prince of a fellow, but I find it mind boggling to hear him compare the human inability to comprehend what it means to be God to the ability of a horse to comprehend what it means to be human. 🙂
“there’s no doubt that after his crucifixion there was an experience of such life changing dimensions that the disciples, who had been cowards, became willing to die for their convictions.”
Where is the evidence of this oft repeated claim? There is nothing but Catholic legends which differ not at all from the later stories of saints being beheaded and then picking up their severed heads and walking with them. I mean, are we using the legend Quo Vadis for this claim? You know the one that has Peter and Simon magus fly around Rome on broomsticks battling each other with magic and ends with Peter being crucified upsidedown in Rome because he saw an apparition of Jesus that said “I am going to Rome to be crucified AGAIN” which made Peter feel bad about not replacing Jesus the first time around (not even so much as bearing his cross, leaving it to Simon the Cyrenian) so now Peter decided to replace Jesus this time and deprive Jesus of this second crucifixion. And what’s more, we are told that Peter made the crucifiers crucify him upside down….how? I mean being crucified upsidedown would mean a quicker death and you would think that the tormentors wouldn’t want him to die too quick, so why would they comply with a request to be crucified upsidedown? So, are we defending the historicitiy of the gospels and of Jesus based merely on the claim that Peter was crucified upsidedown, a story even more fictious than the first?
I find your subject of liberating Jesus from the letter of Gospels narrative and your and your prior topic of the curious criterion all rolled into one in this YouTube video promoting Spong’s latest book, titled Jesus for the Nonreligous. At 4:03 into the video, Spong says “clearly a Jesus of Nazareth lived.” His rationale was that the guy was called Jesus of Nazareth and Nazareth was a place that everybody looked down upon, and if you are going to develop a myth, you aren’t going to have him born in Nazareth, which, moreover, explains the early evolution Bethlehem idea, the purpose of which was to remove the stigma of his having been in Nazareth. Holy cow! 🙂
No no, not holy cow. The power of meow.
Let’s make a list of all the unappealing attributes of Moses, a character we know to be fiction. Now why would anybody develop a myth about a guy who received the law from Yahweh but was so damned flawed?
How about all the things David supposedly did, starting with Bathsheba? And don’t even get me started on Jacob.
Gilgamesh starts out as a complete bastard, so I guess he was real, too. Let the credulity party begin!
We know Moses to be a fiction? How can we know such a thing?
Hercules raped a woman. Now why would you make your god rape a woman? Its embarrassing, so it must be true. An Zeus was such a philanderer. Its embarrassing, so it must be true. Adonis was killed by a wild boar. Now that’s embarrassing for a god! Ra created his fellow gods by autoerotic means if I remember correctly. Getting caught doing that by the sacred historiographer is certainly embarrassing! Ergo, Zeus and Hercules, Ra and Adonis, must be real Gods. The criterion of embarrassment hath established it. If its good enough for the criterion, it should be good enough for us.
In that Spong talk linked by Bob Carlson in a comment on the “Delivering the Modern Believer” post Spong mischievously observes that the Death Angel was not bright enough to be able to tell the difference between an Eyptian and an Israelite home, so had to have a blood-stained sign post outside each Israelite house to help it get its murder-targets right.
The embarrassment criteria again?