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.
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 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 in 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
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.
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