If the Gospels were written as “biographies” of Jesus, or were meant to be read as “history”, does this mean that we can expect to find only factual details in them? Or if not entirely factual, must we give the benefit of the doubt that beneath a certain amount of exaggeration there must have been some kernel of literal truth?
It ain’t necessarily so.
Dale C. Allison M. Grable Professor of New Testament Exegesis and Early Christianity at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. In his recent book, Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History, he includes a discussion of recent scholarship on the genre of the gospels and what genre means for the question of whether we can expect to find fictional tales in the gospels.
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.
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.
Actually it is a slight oversimplification to describe this criterion the way I did in my opening line. More “strictly”, it is summed up by the incredulous claim: “I can’t see why anyone would make it up.” Surely claiming authenticity for any data on the grounds that one “can’t think of a reason it would have been made up by anyone” is the nadir of intellectual laziness. When taken to its extreme, it can be used to prove the most sensational claims of the miraculous. And that is exactly where Bishop and Scholar N. T. Wright does take it. He is referring to the Gospel of Luke’s account of the resurrected Jesus appearing to his disciples and breaking bread and eating bread and fish with them:
If you have an empty tomb and something’s happened to the body, and then if the apparitions are not just apparitions, such as you have when somebody you love has just died, but actually involve some extraordinary physical things. You know, according to Luke 24, there must be a broken loaf lying on the table somewhere which they didn’t break — somebody did that — and so it’s not just eating broiled fish. There’s a bunch of physical phenomena going on, and this is where the stories are so odd, as well as these kind of paraphysical phenomena — I don’t think anyone could have made up these stories, actually, I think they’re so bizarre — and that’s part of the point. . . . (pp. 37-8, my emphasis)
Historians (not theologians) generally treat bizarreness as an indicator of fiction, and the more bizarre the more likely to be fictitious.
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 names of the parents of both Jesus and John the Baptist were arguably created from the imaginations of the Gospel authors working on Old Testament passages for inspiration. The names were fabricated because of the theological messages they conveyed. There is no evidence to indicate that they were handed down from historical memory.
This is not a “mythicist” or “atheist” argument. It is the result of scholarly research by an Anglican vicar and an Episcopal bishop.
Both have published scholarly reasons for believing that the names Mary and Joseph, the parents of Jesus, and Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist, were carefully selected by early Christians on the basis of their ability to convey particular theological meanings. Goulder and Spong describe this process as “midrash”. Spong explains what he means by this:
How to read the Gospels as Jewish books
[T]here are stories in the Gospels that are so deeply reminiscent of stories in the Old Testament that one might inquire as to the reason for their similarity. Was that accidental or coincidental? Or does it point to something we might have missed? . . .
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 sytle 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. Continue reading “Where Did John the Baptist’s Parents Come From? Reading the Gospels “with Jewish Eyes””