Scholars who have assumed a position over many years do not quickly recant it and publicly admit their error; nor can a novel hypothesis expect to carry the day at once in a conservative profession. It may be particularly difficult to shift opinion over texts which are fundamental to the faith of the critic. With time scholars came to treat sympathetically my arguments for the evangelists’ creativity: their freedom to create Nativity stories out of Old Testament types, and their ability to create or develop parables in line with their own stylistic and doctrinal concerns. They have been less willing to accept Matthew and Luke as embroiderers of earlier Gospel traditions, because there is a hankering after putative lost sources and oral traditions which would take us back to the historical Jesus.
And then there’s the suspicion that a challenge to fundamentals implies a questioning of scholarly integrity:
The Q hypothesis has been part of the ‘assured results of scholarship’ for more than a century, and despite my aggressive campaigning against it, it is still the standard teaching in most universities. I have over the years proposed two potent arguments in favour of Luke’s knowledge of Matthew, neither of which has been adequately criticized by defenders of Q . . . . . The puzzle to me has been why such arguments, which seem so conclusive, have failed to convince my leading opponents. I once had an uncomfortable conversation with Christopher Tuckett, with whom I have had a slightly uneasy friendship over twenty-five years. He asked me two disturbing questions: first, ‘Do you really not believe in Q, Michael?’ and second, ‘Do you think I am honest?’ as though he thought that one or other of us must be playing games, rather than seriously pursuing the truth.
I do think that Christopher is honest, but I am unable to understand how, after years of discussion orally and in print, he still finds the evidence I have produced so unconvincing. It was reassuring to be told by Francis Watson, when he was Professor at Aberdeen, that I had persuaded him about Q; but I think it is probably asking too much to expect those like Neirynck and Tuckett, who have nailed their colours to another mast, to be able to consider with the necessary open-mindedness a view which so undercuts their own position.
Goulder, M. D. 2009. Five Stones and a Sling: Memoirs of a Biblical Scholar. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press. p. 134
Michael Goulder’s thesis that the Gospel of Matthew was composed specifically to be read out week by week in churches (assemblies) may not have been widely adopted yet I am convinced that the core of his arguments is worth serious consideration. Of course Goulder applies his thesis to the Gospels of Mark and Luke, too, but I focus here on Matthew.
Here is the essence of Goulder’s argument as he himself sums it up in Five Stones and a Sling: Memoirs of a Biblical Scholar (2009). I also build on a simplified table Goulder uses to illustrate his argument in The Gospels According to Michael Goulder: A North American Response (2002).
The gospel can be divided up into discrete units or more or less the same length. It ends with the story of the resurrection, a suitable reading for “Easter Day”. (I can hear many of us wondering when “Easter Day” began to be observed and when does the gospel itself appear to have been written. Those questions require more detailed discussion for another time.)
Let’s imagine the gospel’s story units were intended to be read serially, week by week, throughout the year, with thematically relevant units meant for their appropriate seasons (such as the resurrection story at “Easter”). If so, we would expect to begin reading the opening chapter of the gospel after Easter (or after the more Jewish sounding Passover/Wave Sheaf Offering). We would expect to find seven narrative units to coincide with the seven weeks leading up to Pentecost.
I have recently posted insights by John Drury and Michael Goulder into the literary character of the parables in the gospels. (The vocabulary and themes are part and parcel of the larger canvass and thematic structure of each gospel.) Drury has further shown that they are not, as widely assumed, to be based on everyday commonplace events but are in fact bizarre and unnatural scenarios. (Sowers did not scatter seed so wastefully as per the parable of the sower, for example.)
Shortly before Drury’s book was published (1985) a work by Werner Kelber appeared, Oral and Written Gospel (1983). I recall devouring Kelber’s books, pencil-marking them, thinking about them, applying them to other works I read, when I first began to study study what scholarship had to say about Gospel origins. His Oral and Written Gospel remains one of the most underlined and scribbled-in books on my shelf. Back then Kelber led me to ask so many questions of other works I was reading; now I find myself asking more critical questions of Kelber himself.
Arguments for the parables originating in oral performance
Here is what he wrote about the significance of the parables as evidence for oral tradition lying behind the sayings of Jesus in the gospels.
The oral propriety of parabolic stories requires little argument. “A parable is an urgent endeavour on the part of the speaker towards the listener.” [citing Carlston] Speaking is the ordinary mode of parabolic discourse, and writing in parables seems almost out of place. (p. 57, my own bolding and formatting in all quotations)
In a recent post on parables I quoted Michael Goulder’s recollections on why he came to the conclusion that the parables attributed to Jesus were really the literary creations of each of the gospel authors (evangelists). A few pages on in his memoirs, Five Stones and a Sling, Goulder further recalls what led him to believe other “sayings of Jesus” in the gospels were likewise the authors’ inventions.
The Gospels contain a number of double animal images:
‘Be ye wise as serpents and harmless as doves’;
‘You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel’;
‘Give not that which is holy to the dogs and cast not your pearls before swine’.
There are ten of these double animal images in the Gospels, and all of them are in Matthew; this seems to cogent evidence that they were created, not by Jesus, but by Matthew himself. (p. 62, my formatting as throughout)
Why did he write his Gospel?
Goulder relates that he was seeking to understand the way the Gospel of Matthew had been put together. Overall it looks like the author has composed various series of (mostly healing) incidents and interrupted them by five passages of discourse:
The Sermon on the Mount (ch 5-7)
The Mission Discourse (ch 10)
The Harvest Parables (ch 13)
A Church Law Discourse (ch 18-19)
The Discourse on the End (ch 24-25)
I had long ago heard it suggested that Matthew was attempting to write a Gospel that was in some sense modelled on the five books of Moses (the Pentateuch) but Goulder points out what most of us who have attempted to explore that particular pattern have surely come to suspect — that “the fit is not good”.
The parables of Jesus are among many people’s favourite treasures in the Bible and the focus of much erudite and popular research outputs by some of the most renowned scholars in the field. In The Five Gospels Robert Funk, Roy Hoover and the Jesus Seminar confidently point to the triadic structure (groups of threes) as well as the repetitions and catchwords — all characteristics of oral sayings — in the Parable of the Sower (Mark 4) to assert that this parable most likely originated as the very words of Jesus himself. The same year (1993) saw Barry Henaut’s publication, Oral Tradition and the Gospels: The Problem of Mark 4, that comprehensively demolished the claim that triadic structures, repetitions and mnemonic catchwords are unique to oral communications and demonstrated that the same features were also characteristic of ancient literary compositions that were written to be read aloud to audiences.
This post follows on from What Is a Parable? My original intent was to post the outline of Michael Goulder’s reasons for concluding that the parables we know so well from the gospels were the literary creations of the evangelist authors of those gospels and did not derive from anything Jesus said.
I’ll keep this post’s main focus on the Gospel of Mark, widely thought to be the earliest gospel written. Matthew, Luke and (a significant number of scholars believe) John knew and adapted Mark’s material to serve their own theological and literary purposes.
I know we remember all this but. . .
From the earlier What Is a Parable? post we saw that the Greek word in the Bible that we translate as “parable” was derived from the Greek version of the Old Testament (the Septuagint/LXX) and embraced what in Hebrew was a word (mashal) that embraced a wide range of figurative expressions. It could be a pithy proverbial saying, an extended allegorical tale, a prophetic oracle, a riddle, a song of derision or a byword. It was generally a saying with a hidden meaning that needed to be deciphered. It generally professed to explain God’s will behind some historical condition. It was always an integral part of its surrounding narrative.
As a follow up to my previous post here is more detail of Michael Goulder’s argument that the Lord’s Prayer was originally composed by the author of the Gospel of Matthew. I am referring to Goulder’s “The Composition of the Lord’s Prayer” as published 1963 in The Journal of Theological Studies.
Goulder begins by setting out the five propositions generally accepted as the explanation for how the Lord’s Prayer came to be recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. He finds each of these propositions unsatisfactory. From pages 32-34 (excerpts with my formatting and bolding):
The Prayer was composed by Jesus, incorporating phrases from the synagogue liturgy, but in a unique combination and meaning.
If the Prayer was composed by Jesus and taught to his disciples, then it is the only thing of the kind he ever did. . . . [T]here is no very obvious reason why he should so have done [i.e. passed on this one teaching to learn by heart — which is the same principle as setting down one’s teaching in writing].
The Prayer was universally used in the primitive Church, but a number of slightly different versions of it became current, either in the Palestinian churches, in Aramaic, or later when it was translated into Greek.
Where are the variant versions to have originated? It is hard to believe that a dominically composed Prayer should have been corrupted anywhere without authority immediately objecting.
St. Mark does not include the Prayer in his gospel for reasons best known to himself; but in general St. Mark felt at liberty to include only a proportion of the teaching of Jesus known to him, seeing the gospel as primarily the acts of Jesus.
The theory that St. Mark might have felt at liberty to leave out the Prayer, along with other of Jesus’ teachings, is at variance with (1), which maintains that Jesus thought it to be the most important piece of teaching he ever gave. If Jesus thought this, it is hardly likely that St. Mark thought otherwise; and it is especially difficult to maintain that he did when he records teaching very close to the Lord’s Prayer at xi. 25 f.
Of the two versions preserved in our gospels St. Luke’s is likely to be nearer the original, as it is shorter, and liturgical forms tend to grow more elaborate in time.
[Matthew’s and Luke’s versions of the LP each show strong traces of their respective styles; Luke’s LP wording lapses into the same awkwardness in which he falls when adapting Mark’s gospel.] This means . . . that the Lucan version is not likely to be a Greek translation of the original Lord’s Prayer; and we have a highly elaborate hypothesis on our hands in consequence. [That elaborate hypothesis involves attempting to work out the history of the prayer through three unknowns: Q, L (sources or a special version of Q known only to Luke) and an Aramaic original as the root of both.]
St. Matthew’s version shows strong traces of Matthaean vocabulary and style, and is an embroidery upon the Prayer as received by him in the tradition.
The most remarkable assumption of all is that two generations after the Prayer had been committed to the Apostles St. Matthew should have been at liberty to expand and improve it at will. . . . A sound argument must run: it is impossible that St. Matthew should have had licence to amend a Prayer composed by Jesus, and it is a fortiori impossible that his scribes, or the author of the Didache, should have had this licence. Therefore Jesus did not compose the Lord’s Prayer.
I compare here two explanations for the origin of the Lord’s Prayer as we read it today in the Gospels of Matthew (6:9-13) and Luke (11:2-4).
There are in fact more than two explanations to be found in the scholarly literature but they can be conveniently divided into two: those that trace the prayer back to Jesus by means of various oral traditions and/or the now lost Q document or different editions/versions of Q on the one hand and those that explain the prayer as primarily the creation of the author of the Gospel of Matthew on the other. (If we dispense with the Q channel for the Lord’s Prayer and rely upon varied and pervasive traditions that Jesus tended to pray somewhat along these lines (that bypassed Q) then we raise the question of why the author of Mark’s gospel — and John’s — appeared to be unaware of it.)
For the first (that the prayer derives from Jesus, most likely as a collation of common themes in prayers he prayed over many different times) I use the explanations published by Funk, Hoover and the Jesus Seminar in The Five Gospels. Though not agreed upon by all scholars in the details I think it does give a fair introduction to the general idea of how our canonical versions may have been adapted from the original teachings of Jesus. As for the second explanation (that the prayer was fundamentally the creative composition by one we shall call “Matthew”) I rely upon Michael Goulder’s ‘The Composition of the Lord’s Prayer’ (JTS 14 , pp. 32-45)*.
Goulder also conceded that the original prayer came from Jesus but not as a direct instruction; he suggested that our Lord’s Prayer evolved from Jesus’ Gethsemane prayer for deliverance from the crucifixion. We will see that the details of his argument leave very little of the prayer that was not the creative work of an evangelist.
The following diagram shows what can reasonably be divined (an oxymoron appropriate to theological discussions) as the prayer from which both Matthew and Luke adapted their respective versions. Note the following:
Luke’s “day by day” is considered a departure from what Jesus would probably have originally said. Matthew got it right and Luke started to express worries about the day after this day and the next. This argument is based on our “knowing” that Jesus himself lived with complete trust in God for the needs of the present day (only).
We “know” Jesus would have been directly mixing with people who faced dire poverty and were at the mercy of those who had money. It follows that Jesus originally prayed about real money debts. Matthew got this right, keeping to the original prayer as he would have found it, while Luke changed it to spiritual debts (sins).
On the other hand, Luke is generally said to have preserved the original saying of Jesus (as recorded in Q) that hews to the world of material possessions (e.g. Blessed are the poor) while Matthew is the one who changes the original by spiritualising it (e.g. Blessed are the poor in spirit.) We need to keep in mind that we are dealing with the arguments of theologians and not historians or logicians.)
Matthew liked a bit of eloquent rhetoric so he added additional high-sounding phrases and clauses to the original. The last line is a typically Matthean antithetical addition (i. don’t do this -[but]- ii. do do that)
I had supposed that scholars were dedicated to the pursuit of truth, wherever that might lead, and that new ideas would always be welcome. — Michael Goulder
In his memoirs Michael Goulder describes the eureka moments that led him to challenge major planks of the conventional wisdom New Testament scholarship. The first of these challenges was his thesis that the evangelists (especially Matthew and Luke, but in particular Luke) imaginatively created material for their gospel narratives as opposed to being slavishly bound to now lost traditions — oral traditions and Q — and that derived directly from Jesus or his immediate followers.
The early chapters of the Gospel of Luke narrate the miraculous and idyllic circumstances of the births of John the Baptist and Jesus. John’s parents, Zechariah and Elisabeth, are very old, way past child-bearing age, yet are very devout. When an angel appears to Zechariah while he is going about his Temple duties and promises him and his wife a child Zechariah finds it too much to believe. Maybe it’s the translator’s fault but it has long sounded to me like the opening scenes of a fairy tale. We must remember, however, that a good many readers, even wise and learned scholars, read it as a true story or at least as closely based on one.
Michael Goulder was not the first to notice that the similarities between these stories and narratives of miraculous childbirths in Genesis — divine promises, at first disbelieved, to devout parents otherwise not able or not ready to have children. No doubt most readers of the Bible have seen that much. What took Goulder a step further was when he noticed that in addition to the similarity of story there is also a similarity in language.
Luke (or whoever the author really was) read the Book of Genesis in Greek (known as the Septuagint, or LXX) and he wrote his gospel in Greek. There were certain distinctive peculiarities of expression in the Septuagint Genesis narrative that were repeated in Luke’s narrative.
[I]t is striking that Luke’s gospel contains phrases identical to those in the LXX, such as ‘they were advanced in days’, where one would naturally say ‘they were old’. So it began to look as if the story was not so much a record of a true experience of Zechariah, but rather one composed by Luke himself on the pattern of the Abraham/Isaac story. (p. 26)
6th August: corrected the first quote: the first line should have read
I had supposed that scholars were dedicated to the pursuit of truth, wherever that might lead, and that new ideas would always be welcome.
Even some of the more conservative of New Testament scholars boast how they belong to a guild that prides itself on craving exploration for new insights, that is committed to testing the old ideas following wherever the truth may lead. Emeritus Professor Larry Hurtado about a year ago posted one such claim that as stridently endorsed by fellow faithful Christian soldiers/scholars James McGrath and Jim West:
The field of NT/Christian Origins, for example, is now more diverse, with more approaches, more perspectives, than ever; and probably most scholars dream of being able to correct or refute some established view, or successfully lodge some new view, or publish some hitherto unknown or insufficiently noted datum.
Innocent bystanders might raise an eyebrow at such claims emanating from a field that looks for all the world as if it is dominated by persons with a conflict of interest to such a pursuit. The vast majority are clearly committed in some fashion to the faith their scholarship seeks to underpin (or test).
I responded critically to the main theme of Larry’s disingenuously self-serving remarks because they sounded to me so contrary to what I have known researchers in “real” say about their fields. Do theologians really believe their own propaganda aimed at the masses of unwashed outsiders?
Fortunately not all do.
I have just had the pleasure of reading the memoirs of Michael Goulder, Five Stones and a Sling: Memoirs of a Biblical Scholar. Goulder is most noted for keeping the torch burning for the Austin Farrer thesis — the thesis that Luke knew and used Matthew and that there was no Q document behind either of these gospels — until Mark Goodacre came along to stand at his side and take up the cause.
There’s much in Goulder’s memoirs to write about but here let’s just see what this renowned scholar had to say about his own scholarly peers and their willingness to take up new ideas.
Time to return to one of my favourite books at the moment, Son of Yahweh: The Gospels as Novels by Clarke W. Owens. I have posted on this book five times before but have not yet got to its most interesting ideas. By scholarly training he knows how to read a text. That means he knows how to understand what sort of literature a text is. And that means he can be a most valuable asset for a historian who wants to know what sorts of documents the New Testament Gospels and Acts are. After all, how can a historian know how to interpret a primary source if he does not understand what sort of document it is? How can a historian know what sorts of questions a document is capable of answering if she does not understand its nature?
The trouble with most analysis of the Gospels by those who use them as primary materials for reconstructing Christianity’s origins is that it to a significant extent depends upon interpreting the nature of the Gospels as “Bible books”.
In literary-critical studies, definition of the text is an obvious first step, but critics seldom spend much time on it, because in most cases the text is readily defined.
When we (whether literary critics, students, interested readers, historians) pick up a piece of literature that we wish to learn about and understand more deeply, we may well first ask, “What is this work?”
The answer to that question is nearly always quickly understood. The answer is simply a matter of historical record. We identify and understand a work by both its form and its place in history. If we pick up Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, or Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, or Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, we know we are studying a discrete work, something clearly understood by author and audience alike to be a work distinct from any other work. If we did not know the author of a work we would still be able to define the work according to its form and understand that it has been composed at a particular time and place in history.
The historical context of composition is important for understanding how and why the work came to be composed the way it is.
Owens points out that we (scholars included) all too often bring in addition an entirely different set of perspectives to books in the Bible. He writes:
I can think of no examples [outside the Bible’s books] in which the definition of a text would include works by different authors who were not by their own intention co-authors of a given work.
Anthony Le Donne has published works arguing for a new type of historical study, one that draws upon memory theory, to be applied to the Gospels. He and a number of scholarly supporters believe this new approach can open up a more valid way of approximating the historical Jesus behind the Gospels.
In the opening pages of his opening chapter of The Historiographical Jesus: Memory, Typology, and the Son of David (2009) Le Donne zeroes in on what he believes is a prevalent fallacy among scholars addressing historical questions in the Gospels and Acts. This is that a good number of well-known scholars have argued that an event in the Gospels-Acts that is expressed as some “typology” or fulfillment of an Old Testament passage should not be thought of as historical, or that it should at least be relegated to a status of questionable historicity. On the other hand, events written as facts and that contain no striking overlay of such Old Testament framing should, rightly, be considered historical, or at least be acknowledged as historical in the mind of the author.
Anthony Le Donne quotes Michael Goulder’s explicit expression of this principle:
Where . . . we find passages with no apparent root in symbolism, or with unimportant traces of types, we shall be justified in assuming that St. Luke was setting down a factual story. . . . This will be our first criterion: where there are no types, Acts is intended to be factual.
Where an incident can be accounted for wholly, or almost wholly, on typological grounds, we shall have to be very wary indeed of giving it weight as history. This gives us a second criterion: the thicker the types, the less likely is the passage to be factual.
I agree with Anthony Le Donne completely that scholars who argue for or against the historicity of a passage in the Gospels and Acts on such are basis are succumbing to fallacious and invalid reasoning. But I also believe that Le Donne has succumbed to an unsupportable assumption of his own and that what he proposes as the correction to this wrong argument is just as baseless.
Where Anthony Le Donne is right
It is quite reasonable to suggest that an event that has been framed or crafted in terms of Old Testament passages was originally an historical happening that was later reinterpreted by others through Old Testament prophecies.
Gosh, the emperor Hadrian used to present himself as Hercules, and the even more illustrious Alexander the Great was presented as the conquering god Dionysus. Mythical overlay of historical events and persons calls for historical explanation, not denial of historicity. Continue reading “A dichotomy fallacy in historical Jesus studies”
Twenty years ago the late Michael Goulder wrote an article in which he argued that Paul was the Fourth Gospel’s Beloved Disciple (“An Old Friend Incognito,” Scottish Journal of Theology, 1992, Vol. 45, pp. 487-513). It is no secret that the Fourth Gospel’s Jesus is very different from the Synoptic one. Goulder proposed that its Beloved Disciple too is a very different version of a disciple we all know and love: Paul.
According to Goulder’s hypothesis:
John was writing round the turn of the century, and had not known Paul personally. He did know at least some of the Pauline letters which we have; and he inferred from them, reasonably but erroneously, that Paul had been one of the Twelve Apostles. He also inferred from them that Paul had been present at the Last Supper, the Passion and the Resurrection. He found reason for thinking that Paul had been loved by Jesus; but his reconstruction was met with so much incredulity that he felt obliged to keep his hero incognito. (pp. 495-96).
Thus, according to Goulder, it was a misunderstanding of certain Pauline passages that led the author of the Fourth Gospel to form a conception of Paul quite different from the one in the Acts of the Apostles.
The scholar suggested that the very expression “the disciple that Jesus loved” may owe its origin to a mistaken understanding of Gal. 2:20: “But the life that I now live in the flesh, I live in faith in the Son of God, who loved me . . .”
And he noted how easily one could have wrongly inferred from the words of 1 Corinthians 9:1 (“Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?”) that Paul, like the other apostles, had met and received his call to apostleship from Jesus during the time of the Lord’s public ministry.
One particularly interesting example brought forward by Goulder was 1 Corinthians 11:23 ff. (“For I received from the Lord, what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, in the night in which he was betrayed, took bread etc.”). Goulder showed that the Fourth Gospel’s peculiar Eucharistic scenario could have plausibly arisen from a misidentification of the two occasions referred to by the 1 Corinthians passage, to wit:
“I received from the Lord” when I reclined on his breast at the Last Supper . . . “that the Lord Jesus, in the night in which he was betrayed” after the Feeding of the Five Thousand, “took bread etc.”
In the Fourth Gospel the Beloved Disciple was present at the Last Supper, but there is no indication given that he was present at the earlier event. And in that gospel it is implied that it was at that earlier event—the Feeding in Jn. 6—that Jesus instructed his followers to observe a eucharistic eating and drinking. His eucharistic discourse is given on that occasion and, correspondingly, there is no eucharist celebrated at the Johannine Last Supper. Thus the Beloved Disciple would have learned from Jesus at the Last Supper what had transpired after the earlier event, the Feeding of the Multitude. Continue reading “Is Paul the Beloved Disciple?”
This is tiresome, but I forgot to mention one more tiresome detail in Dr McGrath’s “review” (isn’t a review supposed to inform readers of what the book being discussed actually says??) —
McGrath compares Doherty’s use of the word “midrashic” with how a related word is apparently used by Barbara Thiering and John Shelby Spong. McGrath even links Thiering and Spong together as if they have a similar approach to New Testament studies.
McGrath has the ignorance, the gallstones, the ignorance (one is not allowed to use a word that relates to “truth-telling” or “lying”) to compare Doherty’s — and now Spong’s too! — use of the word “midrash” to that of Barbara Thiering’s use of another word, pesher.
It’s a pity Dr James McGrath was not sitting beside me when I attended a session where John Shelby Spong was the main speaker and at which he was asked about the works of Barbara Thiering. He would have learned that any similarity in thought between the two scholars could only come from the most creative cartoonists Hollywood has produced.
It’s also a pity that Dr James McGrath has not had the time or interest to familiarize himself with any of Spong’s scholarly background or publications. If he ever does get the chance to do so he will learn that Spong is Michael Goulder’s successor of sorts, and is advancing Goulder’s arguments, with refinements more or less. (Has Dr McGrath even ever heard of Michael Goulder? One only has limited free time when one’s teaching curriculum requires so many hours of watching Dr Who! and contemplating each program’s “intersects” with religion).
But back to this use of the word “midrashic” that McGrath takes such strong objection to.
I have said enough and do not want to repeat myself. I simply invite Dr McGrath (Is he sticking his fingers in his ears right now and shouting “La La La, I can’t hear you!”?) to review what Jewish scholars of midrashic literature themselves say about the Gospels containing or even being “midrash”, not to mention his very own New Testament scholarly peers! —
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.