This post continues from earlier ones on Spong’s discussion of the meaning and nonhistoricity of miracles in the gospels. See the link above to Spong: Jesus for the Non Religious for these earlier posts.
In discussing the miraculous cure of the blind man in the Gospel of John, John Spong makes a point that I have made in recent posts about Gospel genre: the gospels are not designed to relate marvellous events performed Jesus, but rather to focus on pointing out the identity of Jesus. If this truly is the point of the miracle narratives in the gospels, then some questions come to mind over what reasons anyone might have for thinking they might have some historical basis.
Firstly, if they are told to illustrate a theological construct about Jesus, then we have a candidate for a tendentious motive in their appearances in the narratives.
Secondly, if they are not told to focus on the astonishing personality and impact Jesus had among his contemporaries as a renowned healer (or even shaman, as some have suggested), then we have no reason to think that they formed part of any genuine biographical information about Jesus.
Spong himself does not question the historicity of Jesus. Spong is clear that he believes “of course” there was a historical figure who was baptized by John, crucified by Pilate, and who gathered a few (though probably not twelve) disciples such as Peter (but not Judas, who was an anti-semitic invention).
But when I read the sorts of literary arguments by Spong where he points out that the miracle stories are not so much about the person of Jesus as a figure of history, but rather about a theological identity attributed to him by later authors, then I wonder why the question of historicity should not arise. Is not Spong’s argument essentially an argument that favours the Gospels being entirely theological-narrative inventions?
The story of Bartimaeus is constructed to inform readers that Jesus is greater than the traditional idea of the Son of David. The details of the story serve only to point out the identity of Jesus Christ and the meaning of discipleship. The healing of blindness is only the symbolic way in which these messages are conveyed. Take away the theological meanings of the story and it becomes a meaningless tale. There are no details left over that give us any reason to suppose that the story was ever anything more than a symbolic or parabolic fiction.
As noted in my previous post, Matthew and Luke inform us directly that the miracles of Jesus were for the purpose of identifying Jesus as the Messiah in accordance with the prophecies in Isaiah.
We may, if we wish, speculate that there really were a set of healings performed by charismatic, shaman-like person and that gospel authors completely re-imagined the way these occurred and subsumed those imaginative reconstructions beneath their primary interest of writing a narrative to demonstrate prophetic fulfilments of Isaiah, but that can never be anything more than idle speculation. We have no evidence for such historical antecedents so let’s work with the evidence we do have.
As the discussion following my previous post on this topic shows I have discussed this several times before with detailed analyses of certain miracles (particularly in Mark’s gospel) showing they were intended to be read not as literal events but as symbolic of theological messages. This post draws heavily on Bishop Spong’s perspective of the same argument as found in his Jesus For the Non-Religious. Of the passages in Luke and Matthew in which Jesus is quoted as telling the messengers of John the Baptist that the miracles are signs that he is the Messiah, Spong writes: Continue reading “Jesus was not a healer (2)”
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.
Spong may not present the strongest arguments for the historicity of Jesus but who cares when he delivers such a clearheaded critique of the sins of religion and advances a wonderfully humane message for religious and nonreligious alike, as he does in his new book, Jesus for the Non Religious.
In explaining religious anger (does one need any examples here? Spong says of the 16 serious death threats he has received not one was from an atheist, Hindu, Buddhist, Moslem, leaving only you-know-who) Spong points the finger directly at the violent and angry god Christians worship. Christians are quick to deny this, saying they worship a God who sent his Son to die for our sins, who always extends his mercy to us. And that message, says Spong, was not the message of the earliest disciples and it contains the seeds of the most pernicious and destructive of attitudes. Continue reading “Thank (the non-theistic) God for Spong: Why religious violence”
I am not sure if Bishop John Shelby Spong believes in god (he speaks of a “god experience”, and of atheism as being defined as not believing in a “theistic definition of god”, which definition he also rejects) but he does believe in Jesus. This, according to his new book, Jesus for the Non-Religious: Recovering the Divine at the Heart of the Human (2007). After acknowledging, even arguing the case of, the many theological and mythical constructs that have built up a non-historical figure of Jesus as found in a surface reading of the New Testament, he laments that some go one step too far and reject belief in the historicity of Jesus altogether.
So in chapter 19 Spong devotes the equivalent of a full 4 pages out of a 315 page book to establish the reasons for believing Jesus was, nonetheless, an historical person. He gives 4 reasons that he believes establish this historicity:
No “person setting out to create a mythical character would [ever] suggest that he hailed from the village of Nazareth . . . in Galilee”
Jesus “clearly began his life as a disciple of John the Baptist”
He was executed
“Paul was in touch with those who knew the Jesus of history”
This post addresses Spong’s view that no mythical character like Jesus would have been assigned a hometown like Nazareth. (I have so many loose threads on this blog I am still meaning to put up on this blog that I’m reluctant to say I will address the other points of Spong here “soon”.) Continue reading “Spong on Jesus’ historicity: The Nazareth connection”