Most of us are familiar with the confessional reflections that so many biblical scholars drop in at the close of their scholarly works on Jesus. Sometimes this confessional is found in the prologue or preface as well. It is like a little prayer uttered by the devout believer thanking and praising the Lord for the academic study he has produced. It is particularly obnoxious when found in the dedication of a formal higher degree thesis. “Obnoxious” because it betrays an interest and motivation that is not entirely scholarly: it is scholarship motivated by confessional interests.
Examples (my bold emphasis throughout):
“Indeed, for Christians, the unending conversation about Jesus is the most important conversation there is. He is for us the decisive revelation of God. . . .” (last paragraph of Borg’s Jesus)
“And yet, despite everything, for those who have ears to hear, Jesus, the millenarian herald of judgment and salvation, says the only things worth saying, for his dream is the only one worth dreaming. . . .” (Allison, last paragraph of Jesus of Nazareth)
“Jesus will always be for me the way to God. . . .” (Spong, last paragraph of Liberating the Gospels)
“For a believing Christian both the life of the Word of God and the text of the Word of God are alike a graded process of historical reconstruction. . . . If you cannot believe in something produced by reconstruction, you may have nothing left to believe in.” (Crossan, final words in The Historical Jesus)
And so on.
Confessional statements and astrotheology
So it occurred to me that if I am correct in coming to realize that D.M. Murdock (Acharya S) is just as devoted to a religious view of Christian origins and writes with a view to sharing her belief system in the same way, then in her more neutral and “academically” minded books I should find the same confessional statements, most probably in the epilogue.
I have read sections of Christ in Egypt before but this time I turned to conclusion and here is what I found:
Having covered Spong’s arguments for most of the Gospel narratives being “midrashic literature” (with one or two more posts to come) it is time to toss in some qualifiers and state my own views. I’ll anchor my thoughts around Mark Allan Powell’s review of Spong’s arguments. (The review is less securely but more cheaply accessed from here.)
There can be very little doubt that the Gospel authors did create their narrative details out of Old Testament texts.
What critics object to is the idea that entire narratives and most narrative details found in the Gospels are fabricated this way.
Spong himself insists (without argument, only by assertion) that there was some historical underlay to the Gospels. Jesus really was crucified, for example. But his silence before Pilate and his words on the cross are artfully woven by the author into the narrative from Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22. Continue reading “The rights and wrongs of Spong on 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.
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.