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””
Some people might be disturbed at the suggestion that Jesus did not exist, but surely all good people would be happily hopeful were they to hear an argument that very symbol of anti-Semitism has been nothing more substantial than an unhappy fiction. After reading Bishop John Shelby Spong’s Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes some years ago I was naive enough to conclude that most biblical scholars (of the nonfundamentalist variety) were well aware of the evidence that Judas was nothing more than a literary creation. I would still like to think that is the case, and that those scholarly works that speak of Judas as a real person of history who in fact did betray his master really are an aberrant minority in the current field of Gospel scholarship.
Don’t misunderstand, though. By no means does John Shelby Spong deny the historicity of Jesus.
Is there then no literal history that is reflected at the heart of the Christian story? Yes, of course there is; but it is not found in the narrative descriptions of Jesus’ last days. (p. 258)
But who was Judas?
Was he a person of history who did all of the things attributed to him? . . .
Or was there but a bare germ of truth in the Judas story, on which was heaped the dramatic portrait that we now find in the Gospels? Can we identify the midrashic tradition at work in the various details that now adorn his life? . . .
Or was he purely and simply a legendary figure invented by the Christians as a way to place on the backs of the Jewish people the blame for the death of Jesus?
(p. 259, my formatting)
The rest of the post follows Spong’s argument that Judas was created by “Christians [who] made Jews, rather than the Romans, the villains of their story. [Spong] suggest[s] that this was achieved primarily by creating a narrative of a Jewish traitor according to the midrashic tradition out of the bits and pieces of the sacred scriptures and by giving that traitor the name Judas, the very name of the nation of the Jews.” (p. 276)
It may be possible to quibble over Spong’s use of the term “midrash”, which some scholars define as something that is known among the Dead Sea Scrolls but not quite found in the Gospels. But regardless of the term used, the identification of the details of the Judas narrative in the Hebrew Scriptures remains a telling argument that Judas was a literary creation of the Gospel authors.
The post is in two parts. The first part here outlines the main argument for Judas being a late fictional creation and reflecting a mounting anti-semitism within the Church. The second part looks in more detail at the inconsistencies with which the different Gospels present the Judas narrative.
Continuing from my previous post, this time I’m outlining Spong’s overview of the distinctive way the Gospel of Luke portrays Jesus.
Bishop John Shelby Spong himself is renowned for his views on inclusiveness — that the Church should not discriminate against anyone for any role because of their gender or sexuality. In the Gospel of Matthew he sees a narrative expressing God’s will that “the whole world” will eventually be united in a new Israel that will transform both Jews and gentiles. In the Gospel of Luke he sees the same theme expressed differently. Instead of Jesus being a new and greater Moses as the Lawgiver who was building a new Israel on what he saw as the spiritual heart of Jewish Law, Jesus in Luke’s Gospel is:
a greater Moses as the Deliverer from Bondage
the suffering servant of Second Isaiah – representing a new Israel called to servanthood, not to power
a new and greater Elijah to portray Jesus as “the exalted and universal Christ of heaven and earth.”
I focus first on Luke’s construction of Jesus as an emulation of Elijah.
And a livestreaming/downloadable interview with Bishop John Shelby Spong Click on Most Popular Recent Interviews and navigate to the Spong interview. His recent book Jesus for the Non-Religious is the background to this interview.
Or for the abridged 3’30” interview go to the ABC site and navigate to “Best of the Year” and then to Listen to the excerpt.