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Friday, March 21, 2003
Would the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?
The views of John Shelby Spong
Paul Barnett, historian and former Anglican Bishop of North Sydney, skewers the popular revisionist writer:
Who's Spong anyway?
Bishop John Spong is Bishop of Newark in the Episcopal Church of the United States, a sister church in the Anglican communion. In the latest of his books, Liberating the Gospels, Spong is a passionate missionary for (his version of) Christianity to a post-modern world unable to accept miraculous and other culturally strange elements in the Gospels. A pre-modern message cannot be heard by post-modern ears.
Spong is now offering a new way forward. Christianity can be made a "viable option for future generations, but only if we develop an entirely new approach to the Gospels ," he believes (p17). So what does he propose?
Spong allows the existence of the historical Jesus of Nazareth and he accepts the fact of the crucifixion, but not much else. He believes fervently that Jesus was a man in whom people encountered God, though I doubt that he sees Jesus as the only or unique man in this regard. As he sees it, when the Jewish gospel writers set about their tasks they portrayed Jesus as a man wrapped up in the stories of the Old Testament.
Thus: Jesus' temptations and his sermon on the mount were a re-run of stories about Moses. His feeding of the multitudes were a re-telling of miracles from Elijah and Elisha. Parables of the 'Prodigal Son', the 'Good Samaritan' and the 'Pharisee and the Publican' were re-created from passages in Deuteronomy. The Triumphant Entry was shaped by Zechariah's prophecy about the king riding on a donkey and most of the Holy Week events can be accounted for along the same lines.
Spong says that only as we understand Jewish culture of the period and learn how to reinterpret these Jewish Gospels will we be able to liberate them for the postmodern world. We must unwrap Jesus from the Old Testament stories in which these writers have clothed him. Only then can we find One in whom God can now be encountered by postmodern people. (This begs the question: if the Gospels are of little or no historical value, how can we know Jesus is a man in whom God is encountered?)
Spong develops his case out of the theories in the writings of Michael Goulder. Goulder argued that the Jews of New Testament times read their scriptures according to a set lectionary. Further, he asserted that the writers composed their Gospel text for lectionary readings in the churches. Those texts, which appear to narrate some action or teaching of Jesus, are not historically true. They are actually made up stories from the Old Testament used now to clothe Jesus. The Gospel passages are unhistorical, mere ciphers for retold Old Testament stories.
Goulder's views were published in 1974 and have found little support among scholars. A volume of essays published from Sheffield University Press in 1983 substantially demolished Goulder's hypotheses (Studies in Midrash and Historiography (Gospel Perspectives III) eds R T France and D Wenham, Sheffield: JSOT, 1983). Astonishingly, Spong had not heard of Goulder until 1991. Equally astonishingly, he makes no mention of the comprehensive rebuttal of Goulder's theories, noted above. (In fact, Spong has few footnotes and, indeed, none citing any scholar who support his own views!'
Now it is fundamental to scholarship that we don't build conjecture upon conjecture. One conjecture is no more stable than a sandcastle. Two conjectures are two sandcastles, even more unstable than one. Sandcastle Number One is the assertion that Jews of New Testament times used a lectionary to control their readings of the Old Testament. For this there is no evidence. Indeed, it is even a matter of debate whether such a lectionary was in place by the time of the Talmudic writings which were assembled in the 500s!
Sandcastle Number Two is the proposal that the Gospel writers organised their material for lectionary reading in the churches. Again there is no evidence for this bald claim. On the contrary, Justin Martyr, writing in the mid-second century, tells us that the Christians in church read "the memoirs of the apostles... as long as time permits " (Justin, Apology 1: xvii).
Spong erects the whole structure of his book on these two sandcastles.
The fatal flaw
Equally seriously, John Spong's fundamental thesis is flawed. According to him the Gospels, as Jewish writings of the times did, characteristically represented their history as arrayed in stories from the Old Testament.
So did other Jewish history writings of the period do this? Answer: no! Did I Maccabees, written in the previous century do this? Answer: no. Did Philo or Josephus, writing in the era of the New Testament do this? Answer: no! Not even the Talmud, written centuries later, presented characters in terms of stories from the Old Testament. The use of 'creative midrash', as R T France called it, is scarcely to be found where Spong alleges it was commonplace.
History and the Gospels
Spong assumes that the Gospels' account of Jesus were reprocessed in a Jewish culture over generations, through which Jesus was transformed from the man in whom God was encountered to the parable telling, miracle working, messianic figure we find in the pages of the Gospels. His assumption is that the Gospels, as final written products, were much later than Jesus and quite out of any living contact with him.
This is incorrect. The authorship of the Gospels was ascribed early in the second century to four known persons, and the relative obscurity of the persons named - apart from John - renders authenticity likely. We do not have a Gospel by Peter, or by James Zebedee or by Paul the Apostle, as we might have expected. Apart from John, Matthew, Mark and Luke are surprisingly secondary figures. They are not names that would be chosen to attach to Gospels to lend them authority, and for that reason they are historically probable as the genuine authors.
Each of the four Gospels, then, has a living link to Jesus, directly in the case of John and Matthew, at one remove in the case of Mark and Luke. The Gospels are not dry, lifeless scrolls distant from Jesus of Nazareth but are living books connected through living witnesses to the living Jesus.
Recent scholarship has shown that the Gospels are serious biographical works, similar in many respects to Jewish and Graeco-Roman historical works of the period (see R A Burridge, What Are the Gospels? , Cambridge: CUP, 1992). They were genuine attempts to write about Jesus of Nazareth as a genuine figure of history. Mark and Luke, who seek to commend Jesus to Gentile readers, are hardly like to have used the allegedly Jewish midrash to 're-wrap' Jesus in Jewish garb. They know that their Gentile readers would be baffled by such a culturally foreign approach.
This is not to deny Jewish colouring in the four Gospels, Matthew's in particular. But since his was a Jewish readership this is only what we would expect. Matthew certainly has an eye on Moses when he describes Jesus going to a mountain to teach, on one hand, and feeding the multitude, on the other. But if Jesus saw himself as a 'New Moses' then Moses-like actions are among the very things he would do to make the point. In this case Matthew is merely presenting Jesus to Jewish readers in terms that would make sense to them. Matthew has simply done justice to what his Master did.
Similarly, since Jesus saw himself as the Messiah, as David's son and heir, his deliberate fulfilling of Zechariah in the Palm Sunday Entry to Jerusalem is quite understandable. The four Gospels have simply been faithful to Jesus' intentions. In brief, many of the actions and words of Jesus which were in some way prefigured in the Old Testament can be explained as deliberately played out by him to demonstrate that the long-awaited day of fulfilment now fulfilled in him .
In other words, Jesus saw himself prophesied, foreshadowed and prefigured in the Old Testament. The opinion which saw Jesus as the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets came from him and shaped the earliest tradition which in turn came to be expressed in the Gospels.
One of the most disappointing elements of this writer is his one-sidedness. As in his other works he does not acknowledge or enter debate with those who take another serious view of things. Any who offer views other than his own are dismissed as 'literalisers' or 'fundamentalists'. Now, to be sure, there is no shortage of literalisers and fundamentalists among the Christians. But there are also many balanced scholars - Protestant and Roman Catholic - who uphold historic Christianity and who have engaged in high level research in areas related to Jewish culture and its interface with the Gentile world. They simply don't figure in Spong's presentation. He gives no cognisance to any views except the rather outmoded liberalism of an earlier generation.
Spong thinks the miraculous in the bible is a barrier to people of our times. Has he failed to notice that postmodern people are not spooked by the supernatural? On the contrary, they are obsessed by it! New Agers believe the unbelievable, about people taking extra-terrestrial journeys and being reincarnated. Go to any bookshop and you will see rows of books on tarot cards, crystals and magic. TV series like The X-Files and Millennium with their world of supernatural evil, have an astonishing following, as do movies about the weird and inexplicable. In Sydney recently we had the 'Mind Body Spirit' Festival, devoted to the mystical and miraculous. It was attended by 50,000 people. There is a huge appetite out there for this material. It simply will not do to assert that people of our era cannot believe miraculous phenomena. It may be the case that they are too ready to do so. New Age, post-science thinking is now mainstream. Many people are ready and waiting to believe ever more bizarre phenomena. Historians may look back on the word 'post-modern' as a synonym for 'credulous' and 'superstitious'.
A lasting faith
Not only does he misread the general culture, Spong fails to acknowledge that the churches in the Western world that are surviving secularism, pluralism and post-modernism are not at all those who espouse his views. The church of tomorrow will not be Spong's church, affirming Spong's mystical credo. His church will simply not be here. The church of tomorrow will be the church of today which upholds and lovingly preaches "the faith once delivered to the saints".
© Paul Barnett 1997 http://www.acl.asn.au/Spong_PWB.html
originally published in Southern Cross, the Newspaper of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney, October, 1997.