Tag Archives: Spong: Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism

Where Did John the Baptist’s Parents Come From? Reading the Gospels “with Jewish Eyes”

Annunciation to Zechariah. Fragment of russian...
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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. read more »

How the Gospel of John created a Jesus from Wisdom Literature

Personification of wisdom (in Greek, "Σοφ...
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Earlier I outlined Spong’s discussions of the way the Gospel of Matthew mined the Hebrew scriptures to portray Jesus as a new Moses, and the way Luke’s Gospel found in the same Jewish scriptures ways to present him as a greater Elijah. This post repackages Spong’s discussion of how the author(s) of the Gospel of John turned to the same Scriptures, but added to them from the Wisdom literature of late Judaism in order to create a Jesus who was the embodiment of the Wisdom found there.

Before looking at the Wisdom literature from which John drew, Spong covers some of John’s cuts from the Old Testament that he used to build his Jesus. (I have expanded Spong’s Wisdom and Biblical citations into tabular form, with quotes and/or links.)

By the time the Gospels were written, the Old Testament had been culled again and again, looking for treasures of interpretation and hints that might prefigure the Christ. A common body of material had emerged. .  . .

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Jesus the New Elijah, and the Gospel being a Symbolic Tale according to a scholarly view

A fresco of Saint Ilia (Elijah) from the Rila ...
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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:

  1. a greater Moses as the Deliverer from Bondage
  2. the suffering servant of Second Isaiah – representing a new Israel called to servanthood, not to power
  3. 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.

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Jesus, constructed from Moses and other OT passages — according to the Gospel of Matthew

One of the first books I read when beginning to question my faith was one that struck my eye while scanning the shelves of a local bookshop, John Shelby Spong’s Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism.

Moses mosaic on display at the Cathedral Basil...
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It introduced me to many issues being addressed by biblical scholars. I have told the story before, but I like it enough to tell it again: I later had the opportunity to thank Spong personally for assisting me on my journey that took me to atheism. (I don’t think I appreciated at the time that he suffered some grief over his own mentor, Michael Goulder, becoming an atheist, too.)

One observation that Spong addressed was the respective thematic treatments of Jesus in each of the Gospels. The Gospel of Matthew, for example, depicted Jesus as grounded in the Jewish heritage of the Old Testament literature, and especially as a new Moses figure. The Gospel of Luke, on the other hand, portrayed Jesus as having stronger associations with a Gentile community. None of this suggested to me that Jesus himself had no historical basis, but it did help reinforce the idea that the Gospels were themselves literary constructs that stood apart from any clear link to a historical person.

Here is what Spong wrote about Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus as a Moses figure (identified with *), mingled with a few other linkages of Jesus with Jewish scriptures. read more »