by Earl Doherty
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LIBERATING THE GOSPELS
Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes
by John Shelby Spong
I: UNLOCKING THE GOSPELS WITH TWIN KEYS
The Old in the New
John Shelby Spong is the Episcopal Bishop of Newark, New Jersey. His analysis of the Gospels as Jewish midrashic works began in previous books: Born of a Woman, 1992, and Resurrection: Myth or Reality, 1994. In Liberating the Gospels, he lays out an impressive key to understanding what these pieces of writing are and what they are not. While an intricate study of Jewish scripture and synagogue practice is required to evaluate his thesis first-hand, I would venture to say that most of his proposals seem essentially correct, and that this understanding of the Gospels will go a long way toward burying the historical Jesus as a creation of the evangelists. This, of course, is not Spong's intention. He may be the most adventurous (and perhaps before long the most public and influential) figure in New Testament scholarship today, but he has not chosen to carry his conclusions this far.
In this book, Bishop Spong readily acknowledges that he is building on the work of a British biblical scholar whose theories have suffered from scant attention and even less acceptance. In the preface to Liberating the Gospels, Spong speaks glowingly of Michael D. Goulder, and describes how he became Goulder's close friend and disciple. Spong adopts (with no argument in this book) one of Goulder's controversial positions: that no document "Q" existed. Rather, both men claim that the material usually designated as coming from Q was essentially the invention of Matthew, and that Luke used both Mark and Matthew, copying the so-called Q material from the latter. I find it difficult to agree with this position, despite a certain appeal about it, but as it is not central to Spong's core argument, I will ignore the question in this review.
We all know that the Gospels are full of inconsistencies and contradictions, many of which are mutually exclusive: that is, if something happened as one of the Gospels says it did, it could not have happened the way another Gospel tells it. These accounts of Jesus' life are also full of things that are impossible for the 20th century discriminating mind to accept. Spong laments the course of Christian interpretation of the Gospels which arose relatively soon after their composition: that such accounts were to be taken as literal and historical. This, he says (p.35), was the fault of gentiles, who not only failed to understand the purpose and process behind the writing of the Gospels, but had broken the connections (often bitterly) to the Jewish roots of their faith movement, thus ensuring that they would be permanently denied that understanding. Spong identifies all the evangelists but Luke as Jewish by birth, and Luke as a gentile convert to Judaism. The fact that they wrote in Greek, others would add, indicates that they moved in hellenized circles and had a notable gentile component in their communities.
The difficulties of the Gospels evaporate, however, with the aid of Spong's key—actually two keys. The evangelists did not conceive of their writings as history, he declares. Rather, they were stories, never intended to be taken literally, which served to illustrate the meaning of Jesus (that is, the presumed historical Jesus) according to a longstanding Jewish practice. This practice was known as "midrash". In this particular expression of midrash (there are many ways this word and concept can be applied), the writer retold an existing biblical story in a new story and new terms, basing many of its details on specific scriptural passages. Thus Jesus was portrayed as a new Moses, in settings and with features which paralleled the stories of Moses; he was represented as performing actions such as "cleansing the Temple" which embodied ideas expressed in prophets such as Zechariah. In this way, all the significances and associations of the older context would automatically be soaked up by the new one. To the knowledgeable reader or listener, a story or anecdote modelled on an identifiable prototype in scripture would convey a meaning and inspiration far deeper and more detailed than that contained in the simple words themselves. This was the power of midrash.
Spong claims (p.37) that the Jewish mind could not write or speak of something new in any other way than to translate it into counterparts of past expressions of God's dealings with his people. "Jews filtered every new experience through the corporate remembered history of their people, as recorded in the Hebrew scriptures of the past." One wonders if this might be overstating the case, but it is certainly true that later parts of the Jewish bible can sometimes be interpreted as retellings of older parts of scripture (Goulder offers, in his Midrash and Lection in Matthew, the books of the Chronicler as midrashic reworkings of earlier books), and that some biblical tales, such as certain stories about David or those of Esther and Judith, were probably not originally meant to represent literal historical events.
As a simple example, Spong offers (p.36) this chain: the theme of Moses' parting of the waters of the Red Sea was repeated in Joshua's crossing of the Jordan (Joshua 3), then later in Elijah and Elisha's crossing of the same river (2 Kings 2). Both of the latter were midrashic retellings at later times of the prototype Exodus incident. Then in the Gospels, when Jesus is baptized at the Jordan, Mark makes him part not the waters of the river, but the firmament separating heaven from earth, allowing the passage of God's voice and the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove.
This was, says Spong, "a Jewish way of suggesting that the holy God encountered in Jesus went even beyond the God presence that had been met in Moses, Joshua, Elijah and Elisha. That is the way the midrashic principle worked. Stories about heroes of the Jewish past were heightened and retold again and again about heroes of the present moment, not because those same events actually occurred, but because the reality of God revealed in those moments was like the reality of God known in the past." Other more obvious examples (among the hundreds we encounter in this book) would be Herod's attempt to kill the Christ child through his "slaughter of the innocents", a retelling of Pharaoh's attempt to kill the promised deliverer Moses by slaying the Hebrew first-born in Egypt; or the entry of Jesus, riding a donkey, into Jerusalem on "Palm Sunday", a rendering of the prophet's visionary scene of the Day of the Lord in Zechariah 9:9-11: "Rejoice, daughter of Zion . . . for see, your king is coming to you . . . humble and mounted on an ass . . ." Neither event does Spong believe actually happened in the life of Jesus.
Sabbaths and Festivals
Before going any deeper into this picture of the Gospels as retellings of older Jewish writings, Spong's second key needs to be laid out. This too is based on Goulder, plus a few glimmerings in other, older scholars, and it is certainly revolutionary. An early reviewer of Goulder's thesis called it "breathtaking", though most critics have questioned in various ways the security of its foundations.
All established religions tend to have yearly cycles of ritual and celebration, marking perceived events in a sacred past. Usually, a written liturgy is developed to accompany these observances, often drawing on existing holy writings. The Jewish year generally had 50 or 51 Sabbaths. It was constructed on a lunar model and needed periodic insertions of a month to align things with the true astronomical year, so the liturgy designed for it needed to be flexible. Soon after the Exile it seems to have become the practice to read the entire Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) over a full year of Sabbaths. This annual cycle of reading the first five books of the Hebrew bible began around the beginning of spring, just before Passover. Note that this liturgical year is distinct from the regular calendar year, which for Jews began in the late summer, at Rosh Hashanah.
Thus, as a general rule (allowing for the vagaries of the calendar), over the first 12 Sabbaths of this 'year', successive parts of Genesis were read in the synagogue; over the next 11, those of Exodus, and so on. These major readings were supplemented with selections from the "former prophets" (Joshua to Kings) and from the "latter prophets" (Isaiah to Malachi). The three readings were designed to deal with a common theme. For example, the second Sabbath, the one before Passover, encompassed the story of Noah in Genesis, Joshua crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land, and a prophetic passage from Isaiah about the coming Day of the Lord, all relating to the theme of the end of the present world and the anticipated arrival of a new one in the kingdom and reign of God.
To complicate this picture, another pattern has to be superimposed over the cycle of Sabbath readings covering the liturgical year, namely, the pattern of major festivals or holy days which fall at certain points throughout that year: Passover, Pentecost (Shavuot), Ninth of Ab, New Year (i.e., the calendar year, Rosh Hashanah), Atonement (Yom Kippur), Tabernacles (Sukkot), Dedication (Hannukah) and Purim. Each of these holy days had its own themes and observances, with liturgical readings to illuminate them. For example, Shavuot (Pentecost) was originally an early harvest festival, but became a celebration of God's gift of the Torah and its reception by Moses on Mt. Sinai. (Note that this festival fell during the period when Genesis was being read on the Sabbaths, so there was no necessary coinciding of the festival readings with the Sabbath readings.)
Thus in the period when Christianity began, Jewish observance in the synagogue involved Sabbath and festival readings from scripture which followed specific themes and patterns. Certain Christian congregations (not all, for Paul worked entirely outside the synagogue among gentiles) were closely associated with the synagogue, being Jews themselves, and would have taken part in these observances with their liturgical readings. To express their additional Christian faith in Jesus, these Jewish-Christians would soon have felt the need to develop their own liturgy, composing it under the influence of the Jewish pattern that was already a part of their heritage. Working on this foundation-scenario, Spong proceeds to tell us what that new Christian liturgy was.
(Note: The admittedly imperfect knowledge of Jewish lectionary practices, as well as Christian ones, is dependent on records of the time, or later, which are by no means complete or unambiguous. Goulder himself admits this, and in a later book, Luke: A New Paradigm, in response to reviewers' criticisms, he 'hedges his bets' on certain elements of his theories, though nothing has been disproven. In fact, Goulder's arguments about the liturgy and calendar are, in my view, very persuasive, even allowing for the patchiness of the evidence. Spong himself, writing for a broader audience, smoothes over the edges and voices far fewer reservations.)
The Structure of Mark
As soon as scholars, about a century ago, began to realize that the Gospels could not simply be seen as historical narrative accounts, offering a sequential record of Jesus' activities as preserved in oral tradition, the question arose as to what was the organizing pattern the evangelists followed. Did Mark's Gospel, the first to be written, conform to the rules of hellenistic biography? Was Mark stringing together inherited pieces of tradition to create a dramatic prelude for a pre-set Passion story? Perhaps he was retelling the old wisdom story of the Suffering Righteous One.
Moreover, what was the purpose for setting the whole thing down in the first place? Was it to fill the demand for a written record of the words and deeds of Jesus, especially as time passed and the anticipated end of the world receded? Was it to serve polemical purposes in the sect's struggle with a hostile establishment? These have been some of the explanations offered. Says James M. Robinson (Trajectories Through Early Christianity, p.51): "We don't know what Mark's intentions were," a representative evaluation of the problem.
Surveying Mark's Gospel, Spong notes the general scholarly agreement that it falls into several major sections. One of these, the Passion story, is clearly divided into sub-units, most of them marked in the narrative by a time reference separated from the next by three hours. ("At the ninth hour, Jesus cried out...") These would seem to divide the Passion story into eight three-hour sections.
But there are other telling divisions throughout the entire Gospel. Some of the earliest surviving manuscripts of the Gospels, notably the Codex Alexandrinus, demarcate the texts into small numbered units with titles. The Gospel of Mark is divided into 49 of these pieces. The theory is that this was for lectionary purposes, that is, these units were designated to be read on successive occasions. Spong works backwards and assigns the final unit, the empty tomb story in Mark 16, to Easter Sunday, while the previous eight units, those marked by 3-hour divisions in the Passion narrative, were intended for use in a 24-hour vigil from Thursday evening to Good Friday evening of Easter week. This Passion observance (later extended into a "Holy Week") was a "Christian and expanded version of the Jewish Passover observance," (p.76) and its readings were the counterpart to the Jewish lectionary practice of the Passover vigil. (Spong is silent on Mark 14:1-11, the Anointing and Betrayal scenes, but Goulder (Luke, p.155) assigns them to a 'night before Passover' service.)
Continuing to work backwards, Spong finds some further startling correlations. Consider two elements on the Jewish side. One: After the start of the Jewish liturgical year, there were two Sabbaths before Passover. On the second of these, the chapters of Genesis relating to Noah and the Flood were read. The theme of this Sabbath's readings, as noted above, was the destruction of the present world and the dawning of the new Kingdom. Two: For a period of (usually) 12 Sabbaths prior to the beginning of the liturgical year, Deuteronomy, the last of the five books of the Torah, was read. This book, says Spong, had become a kind of catechism for converts to Judaism, and it became the practice to prepare these converts during the period leading up to Passover, which was the time when such converts were welcomed into the fold. To this, Spong asks us to compare the practice of the early Christians, who were overwhelmingly Jews: they also seem to have received converts into the faith around the same time of the year. Such converts underwent baptism and participated in the eucharistic meal of the Passion observance. And they, too, used the preceding period as a time of instruction.
Keeping these two elements in mind, what do we find when (working backwards) each of the divisions in the Codex Alexandrinus of the Gospel of Mark which precede the Passion story are assigned one to each week? The first one, which would fall on the Jewish Sabbath when the theme of the destruction of the old and the arrival of the new was presented, is Mark 13, the "Little Apocalypse", in which Jesus prophecies the coming end of the world and the arrival of the Messiah/Son of Man with great power and glory: a perfect fit for the traditional Jewish liturgical theme.
Going further, we find that the period prior to the beginning of the liturgical year when Deuteronomy was read over 12 Sabbaths, can be exactly filled by those units of the Gospel of Mark which comprise one of the major divisions I mentioned above, namely the section of Mark known as the "journey" of Jesus with his disciples from Galilee to Jerusalem. During this journey Jesus "instructs his disciples for their role in the life of the Christian community" (p.69). As Spong goes on to say, "It is marked by one teaching episode after another: on humility, on divisions within the fellowship, on marriage and divorce, on the care and treatment of children, on wealth." Once in Jerusalem, Jesus cleanses the Temple and then indulges in yet more teaching of the same nature. Since the Christian practice of training new converts, as noted above, fell at the same time of the year when Jews did the same and read Deuteronomy, this section of Mark and its divisions seem to serve the same purpose as did their counterparts in the Jewish liturgical pattern.
With this striking correlation, Spong has begun to lay out his (and Goulder's) fundamental thesis, which is this: that the Gospel of Mark was written not according to any historical pattern, not as a biography, not a wisdom story, nor to assemble the words and teachings of Jesus for some polemical purpose or even because time was passing. Rather, the Gospel served as a series of lections (readings during services). Their content was determined by the themes of the occasions they were designed for, a liturgy to fill the needs of believers in Christ who were still attached in some ways to the Jewish synagogue, but who were feeling an identity of their own which required a separate (or supplemental) liturgy beyond the Jewish one. The Gospel was a midrashic liturgy that would express their faith in the new actions of God through the figure of Jesus.
And since all of the elements of this Christian Gospel-liturgy can be shown to be reworkings of Old Testament prototypes, often down to the smallest detail, the conclusion must be—and Spong fearlessly draws it—that none of the units of the story which made up this liturgy describe actual historical events but are, in all their aspects, midrashic creations, that is, a recasting of ancient biblical precedents in a story not meant to be taken literally.
The backward pattern in Mark, of course, does not stop there. Spong shows that the liturgical divisions of the Codex Alexandrinus superimpose themselves, with uncanny precision, not over the entire year, but back as far as the beginning of the Jewish calendar year, to Rosh Hashanah. And they include distinct units at the proper places for the Jewish holy days. So what part of Mark falls upon the festival of Hannukah, whose lectionary theme was the light of God coming back to the Temple at the victory of the Maccabees—the Temple being, as Spong puts it, the place where heaven and earth come together? It is Mark's scene of the Transfiguration of Jesus upon the mountain, where heaven touched earth through the voice of God and the appearance of Moses and Elijah, and Jesus (as the new Temple and the new Moses) was enveloped "by the heavenly light of God" (p.78). Again, every element of this scene can be related to a scriptural precedent, as Spong demonstrates (p.78-80), showing that the entire thing is a midrashic creation. This lection transformed, for the Markan Christians, the festival of Hannukah into one containing specific Christian themes related to Jesus. (Note, of course, that there are no lectionary units for Christmas, as no birth date for Jesus was chosen until the 4th century.)
And on it goes. The earlier section of Mark's Gospel conforms to the preceding Jewish liturgical observances. There are perfect correspondences for Tabernacles, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. (Some of Goulder's critics have questioned certain aspects of his 'exact fit' picture in all the Synoptics, but the overall correlation between Gospel units and Jewish lectionary patterns is remarkable and can scarcely be denied.) As an example of Spong's reasoning and detail, I'll quote an extended passage (p.84-5) illustrating the correspondence of the opening parts of Mark's Gospel to the holy days Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur:
"The Jewish New Year was a call to repentance. It was marked by the blowing of the shofar, the ceremonial ram's horn used to call the worshipers to the liturgy. The shofar was thought to announce the coming reign of God. The New Year was also perceived as a time of judgment and even as a time of divine vengeance. As that judgment dawned, the tradition of the Jews was that eyes were opened, ears were unstopped, and a highway was prepared on which God might travel. This highway began in the desert, which was thought of as the abode of unclean animals, like the camel (Lev. 11:4) or the satyr or the "scapegoat" that was driven into the wilderness with the people's sins on its back (Lev. 17:7). The wilderness also was populated by one called the night hag, written daimon in Greek (Isa. 34:14). Those were the notes of the Jewish celebration of Rosh Hashanah or Jewish New Year.
"So what do we have in Mark? Mark opened his gospel with John the Baptist, a voice crying in the wilderness, like a human shofar. His task was to prepare in this desert the highway for the Lord. John was clothed with the skin of a camel, an animal unclean for eating and therefore a sign of the wilderness. The camel was a desert animal whose ability to store water made it fit to walk a desert highway. John preached the Jewish New year message of repentance. When Jesus came to him and was baptized, a heavenly voice affirmed him as God's son and sent him immediately into the desert to battle the daimon named Satan. So the first chapter of Mark is filled with the themes of the Jewish New Year.
"As the calendar moved quickly from the Jewish New Year to the Day of Atonement, the Torah from Leviticus (12-13) about clean and unclean things was being read according to the Jewish custom. In that passage attached to Yom Kippur, God was teaching Moses and Aaron to distinguish between the common and the holy. Laws about clean and unclean foods followed. There we read about a woman's uncleanness in conception, about human uncleanness through leprosy, and about uncleaness through sexual discharge. Aaron, the priest, was to make atonement for the uncleanness of the people of Israel.
"Now, what do we find in Mark that would be read by the Christians against the background of the Day of Atonement? In the balance of Mark 1 and deep into Mark 2, we find stories where Jesus was the source of forgiveness, where forgiveness was understood as healing in the episode of Peter's mother-in-law (Mark 1:29-31); in the story of those possessed of demons (Mark 1:32-35); in the account of the unclean leper (Mark 1:40-45); and in the restoring of the paralytic. In each of these narratives, the miracle was accomplished quite specifically by Jesus pronouncing forgiveness on the sick, the distorted, and the unclean. Next, we read of Jesus calling into discipleship a man named Levi, the tax collector, who was associated with and who worked for the hated and unclean gentiles (Mark 2:14). Finally, we read the account of Jesus sitting at table with the unclean tax collectors (Mark 2:15-17). The message of Yom Kippur, the act of atonement, was being lived out by Jesus in this section of Mark. It was once again a powerful connector between the form of the Gospel of Mark and the organizing principle of the Jewish liturgical year."
At this point, the reader may think to ask a natural question. The choice and location of all this material, and its relationship to the Jewish liturgical pattern and its parallels in scripture, point to the compelling conclusion that Mark's Gospel does not represent an historical narrative, with scenes following an accurate sequence of time and place in Jesus' ministry. That would be a coincidence of more than astronomical proportions. But could Mark be drawing on existing units of oral tradition, arranging them in the patterns required to fit his liturgical ground plan? Spong does not directly address this question (though he constantly declares the Gospel elements not to be history). No doubt he feels (as do I) that this would also involve a coincidence only slightly less amazing: that Mark would have available to him a library of anecdotes and sayings by Jesus that would perfectly fit his liturgical needs and midrashic techniques. Other considerations also make this highly unlikely. Why was his library so niggardly in its stock of sayings by Jesus, and where did Matthew and Luke get their own cornucopias? If all this material was floating about in oral tradition during the interim between Jesus' death and the writing of the first Gospel, why does it not emerge in any other surviving document? No, each evangelist's material bears all the marks of his own purposes and theology, and the most natural conclusion as to its source is that it comes from the minds of the writers themselves as they pored over and followed the pattern of their scriptural precedents.
Matthew and Luke
When Matthew came to rework Mark he first of all had to correct Mark's greatest deficiency: that the first Gospel covered only two-thirds of the liturgical year, though it was the most significant two-thirds, with all the most important festivals. Spong shows that Matthew is considerably longer than Mark precisely because he needs to supply the missing material, and that the bulk of the new sections are in the early part of his Gospel, to fill in the missing Sabbaths from Passover to Rosh Hashanah and the festival of Pentecost. (Matthew, too, in the Codex Alexandrinus and other early manuscripts, is divided into lectionary units (69) which in this case fit the span of the entire liturgical year.) Matthew changed his central focus from Mark's Torah pattern of Sabbaths to one based on the festivals, for the five great teaching blocks which scholars have identified in the Gospel of Matthew can now be shown to correspond to, and fit exactly in proper position, the five major festivals of the Jewish year. Each block develops the themes relating to its own festival. The Sermon on the Mount, for example, represents the giving of the "new law" by Jesus to the people, corresponding to the giving of the Torah to Moses by God on Mt. Sinai, which is the theme of the Jewish Shavuot (Pentecost). This is where that section of Matthew would fall in the liturgical pattern, and the Sermon is modelled on the structure of the Pentecost vigil (see p.113f).
Spong (following Goulder) sees all this new material, most of which modern scholarship assigns to Q, as the product of Matthew himself, almost entirely of his own invention, based on Mark and scriptural roots. Luke, in his own reworking of Mark, is supposed to have used Matthew as well and copied this new material from him, with considerable reworking for his own purposes. (It should be noted that Goulder came up with his theories dispensing with Q at a time before some recent scholars argued for Q's evolution and stratification, and especially the identification of the Q1 sayings as essentially Greek Cynic in nature. It is difficult to imagine the very Jewish Matthew 'inventing' this very hellenistic material.)
Thus Matthew is seen as a recasting of Mark's ground-breaking approach, to make it fuller and more efficient, and to satisfy the Matthean community's particular needs and outlook. Matthew was followed in turn by Luke who developed his own midrashic techniques, being a converted gentile within a largely gentile community. For him and his audience, many of the Jewish interests focused on by the earlier evangelists had become moribund. Luke also reverted to an organization of material based on the five books of the Torah rather than on the festivals, since the latter were now of less significance to his gentile community.
Spong demonstrates how each of the major sections in Luke's gospel corresponds closely to important elements contained in the five Torah books. For Genesis, he supplied a birth story entirely different from Matthew's; its details are closely patterned on the first book of the bible. (Zechariah and Elizabeth, for example, parents of John the Baptist, are carbon copies of Abraham and Sarah who fathered Isaac, and who were also blessed with an unexpected conception in old age.) The parallels are legion. The dramatically different arrangement of material we find in Luke over Mark and Matthew, including much material exclusive to Luke, becomes explainable when it is seen to align itself closely with the themes of books like Leviticus and Deuteronomy.
So neither were these later evangelists concerned at all with history, but only with providing a more suitable Christian liturgy for their own communities. This, of course, solves the perplexing question of why they felt no compunction about radically recasting their received "sources". Matthew of all the evangelists is the most efficient at handling midrash, and as a scribe himself, is the one most sympathetic to Jewish traditions. (He is also, ironically, the most "anti-Jewish" in sentiment, though John comes a close second.)
Matthew was also the first to add resurrection appearances to the Easter story, and he was also the first to cast a Nativity story. Spong devotes a separate chapter (p.185f) to the midrashic roots of Jesus' birth tale in both Matthew and Luke. His verdict? "Those birth stories are not and never were intended to be historic descriptions of events that actually happened." The themes surrounding Matthew's visit of the magi, for example, are drawn in classic midrash fashion from Isaiah 60, with its prophecy of kings on camels coming to worship the God of Israel, and from 1 Kings' visit to Solomon by the Queen of Sheba, on camels laden with gold and frankincense. In Luke's version of the Nativity, manger, shepherds and even the swaddling clothes the child is wrapped in have their prototypes in earlier writings.
Spong briefly considers Acts and the Gospel of John from the same midrashic point of view, the latter being, he admits, a tougher nut to crack. But hardly any liberal scholar today considers John to be in any way authentic, and Spong subscribes to the view that much of the Fourth Gospel is dependent on the Synoptics, if in a somewhat obscure fashion. He suggests that the famous raising of Lazarus in John is developed out of Luke's parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, and that many of Luke's details in this parable were transferred to Jesus' burial and resurrection scenes.
Passing From History
In separate chapters, the figures of Jesus' father Joseph and the arch-betrayer Judas fall before the midrashic axe. Neither one, in Spong's view, existed. In a thorough review of the Passion story, Spong is not the first to point out that virtually every detail within it has a clear prototype in scripture. Spong states categorically (p.255) that none of it is connected to any historical traditions about Jesus' real death—nothing but the bare kernel that he was crucified by the Romans. "Not even the most primary narrative of the cross was written to be approached as a description of what actually happened during the first Holy Week."
Spong highlights correlations that by now may be familiar to many. In the crucifixion scene, for example, he itemizes the elements of Psalm 22 which were worked into the narrative. Its opening line "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" was put into Jesus' mouth by Mark and Matthew, though dropped by Luke and John, since it violated the enhanced divine status they wanted to accord to Jesus. The mocking words of the Psalm's 7th and 8th verses became the taunt of the crowd. Because the Psalm (v.17) said, "I can count all my bones," supplemented in midrashic fashion by Psalm 34:20, "He keeps all his bones, not one of them is broken," this meant that Jesus' legs could not be broken (despite this being a normal practice in Roman crucifixion), and in any case he had to remain the perfect unblemished lamb for sacrifice, a Jewish cultic requirement. "They divided my garments among them and for my raiment they cast lots," (verse 18) became the activity of the soldiers at the foot of the cross. And so on. From Isaiah 53 and its Suffering Servant Song came many elements surrounding the crucifixion, including the silence of Jesus at his trials (53:7: "Yet he opened not his mouth"), the presence of the two thieves in co-execution (53:12: "He was numbered with the transgressors"), and his burial in Joseph of Arimathea's private tomb (53:9: "He made a grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death").
Says Spong (p.248): "We need to recognize that these details, in all probability, did not literally happen." As to the claim that all these things are in scripture because God put them there to foretell Jesus' life, Spong dismisses this (p.34) with a tinge of contempt, finding it impossible to believe that God would work in such a bizarre fashion. In any case, biblical scholarship has long established that such passages were not intended by their writers to refer to the distant future, but relate to situations existing during the time of writing.
II: SALVAGING THE HISTORICAL JESUS
The Coming of an Unusual Man
Having so efficiently done the job of turning the Gospels into works of midrashic fiction, what then does Bishop Spong salvage of the real Jesus he still thinks existed? This is where Spong allows the historical and scholarly dimension of his work to share space with the expression of the believer and even the mystic, for Spong offers a picture of the historical Jesus he sees behind the midrashic Gospels which owes as much to the latter as to the former. "I write with the passion of a believer," he tells the reader (p.20).
The Gospels, he says (p.19-20), are interpretations of the man, a rendering of insights into Jesus of Nazareth, a wrapping of the symbols of the Jewish sacred past around the one who clearly bore the presence of God and made such a powerful impact on everyone around him. These kinds of ideas are reiterated at intervals throughout, and reach their climax at the end of the book. While hardly a single detail of the Gospels seems to be traceable to actual historical occurrence, Spong can still speak of the "preacher" who started it all, the profound "experience of Jesus of Nazareth" (p.217), the Jesus who "was and is a new revelation of God—an incarnation, if you will, that he has entered into the meaning of God, that he is the source of the life-changing, life-enhancing spirit of God . . . (a Jesus) from whom a divine and holy spirit flowed to those who had eyes to see" (p.306-7).
We might start with a few questions raised in the face of such statements. If this "insightful and inspiring teacher" had such an impact on those around him, why does the Gospel response to him, this midrashic interpretation of the man, surface only half a century or more following his passing? Why does it spring full-blown from the mind of Mark, with hardly a glimmer to be found in any of the preceding record? Spong envisions Christians in synagogues gradually formulating such "gospel" elements about Jesus to add to their traditional lectionary readings from the Jewish scriptures. But there is no reliable evidence for any such formulations outside and prior to the community of Mark. (Especially if one were to reject Q, as Spong does; in any case, Q was comprised almost exclusively of sayings whose genuine source is questionable: see my Part Three article.) Indeed, Matthew and Luke seem to have first encountered the idea in Mark and ran with it. They show no sign that their communities had already developed liturgical interpretations of their own. Nor are such elements found in Paul and the other epistle writers.
Why indeed does the "compelling nature of the Jesus experience" lie dormant through a long period when it took an entirely different expression: Jesus as a transcendent divinity who is never identified with an earthly Jesus of Nazareth (see my Part One article). Paul seems oblivious to the man through whom people experienced God. If the death and resurrection revealed "the timeless reality of the love of God as that love had been incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth," (p.307) why was this lost on Paul? To judge by his letters (and the longstanding admission of scholars), Paul had no interest in any earthly incarnation. If this was Jesus' message, the force that began the movement, how could Paul (not to mention all the other epistle writers) ignore the embodiment of this message on earth, in Jesus' teaching, his deeds, his human personality?
The response to Jesus which Spong claims was expressed in midrashic language by the evangelists could only have been the result of those very things: what Jesus was supposed to have said and done, the force of his personality. Certainly, Spong would not have it on any other grounds. Why then do those words, deeds and personality disappear from the record for the first several decades of Christian correspondence? The entire corpus of New Testament epistles shows no sign of the preservation of the words and deeds of an historical teacher. If these things were lost, or abandoned, on what was the midrashic response based? Where did it derive its power when the time of the evangelists was reached? If these things were resurrected, in what limbo had they been waiting?
Spong never addresses the question of why the earliest response to Jesus had nothing to do with his picture of Gospel midrash, but instead involved Jesus' transformation into a cosmic preexistent deity to the exclusion of any interest in a human life and ministry. Paul's response would not be endorsed by Spong, who seems to regard Jesus as an exceptional human man, a man who in some way bore or channeled God's presence and love—which is in keeping with modern liberal scholarly trends of "confession".
There is surely an inherent fallacy in Spong's claim (p.86) that the details of the Gospels represent not the things which Jesus actually said and did, but rather the impact of what he said and did. How can something have this kind of impact, and yet not survive in the record of epistle or Gospel? Was the Jewish mind so incapable of engaging present reality that it had to completely bury the real man under artificial creations founded on past concepts? It is difficult to evaluate the causes of Spong's presumed impact, the actual things Jesus would have said and done, when such things have not come down to us in any concrete fashion.
At one point (p.125), Spong seems to make a passing reference to such "actual" things. In a remark while discussing Luke's liturgical order of composition he says, "The story of Jesus had existed primarily in oral transmission before Mark wrote in the seventh decade." Which "story" is this? Where does such a story surface if the Gospels are entirely midrash, and why did it not have some effect on the details of the Gospels? Spong repeatedly says such things as: "We are not reading history when we read the Gospels" (p.37), "This story of Jesus' death was never intended to be an eyewitness account of objective history" (p.73). And he goes on to describe Luke's "order" as one entirely based on biblical prototypes, all its details the product of the evangelist.
It is difficult to resolve this contradiction, except to suggest that even though Spong sees clearly that the Gospels are literary midrash and not history, he cannot conceive that some traditions about Jesus had not been circulating. But he cannot fit them into his midrashic picture, and so ignores them except for this passing remark which almost slips by unnoticed.
Some might suggest that it was these hypothetical circulating traditions (which don't show up in the early record) that powered the midrashic response. But if so, how could they have been totally ignored in the construction of the Gospels? Would the evangelists not have felt any sense of conflict? There is no sign of any clash or accommodation with an already existing "story of Jesus"—which would seem to indicate that there was none, that no historical reality needed to be taken into account. By extension, we might assume that the Gospels' readers and listeners must have felt no conflict either, that they did not demand some explanation of the relationship between midrash and history, or that they did not find it strange to worship a recent historical man through a completely fictional rendition of him—all of which suggests that for them, too, no historical figure had lived who needed to be aligned with the midrashic presentation. (We can presume that members of the Matthean and Lukan communities could get together without fighting over whose birth tale, for example, was the right one.)
Spong is not the first to suggest (p.236f.) that the evangelists were forced to turn to midrash for the details of the trial and crucifixion because all of Jesus' followers fled the scene upon his arrest, and so there were no eyewitnesses to the climax of Jesus' life. But is not Spong contradicting himself once again? Either midrash was employed because that was the only way Jews could express themselves, or else it was because there were no historical sources available. If the latter were true, then the situation should be different for those events which preceded the arrest. If Spong's suggestion has any meaning, accounts of what Jesus did after arriving in Jerusalem but while his followers were still with him should contain historical traces, such as in the cleansing of the Temple, the Last Supper, the scene in Gethsemane, or even the denial by Peter. Yet these, too, are presented as entirely midrashic creation, all their details based on scripture. "Many claims can be made about the passion story of the gospels, but claims of historical accuracy of literal facts are not among those that will stand" (p.235).
And yet Spong does hang on to something. Since he believes that the crucifixion of Jesus by the Roman authorities "remains a fact of history," (p.236) he assumes that Jesus did go up to Jerusalem with his followers, and that their abandonment of him at his arrest was factual. For this (p.237), he must regard one of his biblical texts as not filling the usual midrashic role; instead it served as a "justification" for this flight of the apostles. In Jesus' mouth (14:27), Zechariah 13:7: "I will strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered," was not, in Spong's view, used by Mark as the prototype of this element of his story, but rather to show that the factual detail of the apostles' flight "was preordained," and thus excusable. He then goes on to appeal to this detail's "enormous ring of authenticity" due to its "unflattering" nature.
On what logical grounds Spong makes this kind of exception for the flight of the apostles and distinguishes it from other elements of the Passion story which are "shaped by Jewish worship patterns" (p.236) is not clear, but it would seem to be out of necessity. And yet he reverts on the next page to his usual sentiments: "I am suggesting that all of the details of Jesus' last days, other than the fact that he was crucified, were unknown. . . . The literal details of the passion narratives are not descriptions of historically objective events." There are evident contradictions in all of this.
Powering the Movement
Bishop Spong now faces the task of explaining how the Christian movement got off the ground. He postulates that "some experience of incredible power" occurred after the crucifixion which "had the effect of reconstituting the band of disciples and convincing them that this Jesus, the crucified one, was alive, was available to them, and perhaps most profoundly, was a part of who God is and who God has always been. That experience indeed broke into history with erupting, transforming, ecstatic power and gave birth to a movement that was to grow into the Christian Church and to wield enormous power in Western civilization" (p.236).
But if all the disciples fled back to their homes in Galilee, their Master ignominiously executed, what force created this "experience of incredible power"? It was not anything they witnessed, or thought they witnessed, for they would have been a hundred miles away when the events surrounding Jesus' passing took place. What psychological dynamic in these dispersed, demoralized followers led to the "Easter conviction", that Jesus was alive and available to them, that he had been restored to life in some way, a conviction producing a "transforming power" which gave birth to the Christian movement? Spong (as does the Jesus Seminar) admits that this Easter conviction was not in the earliest period regarded as pointing to a physical resurrection. How much power, then, could have been generated by the mere concept of a spiritual ascension of Jesus into heaven? Would this have been a sufficient catalyst for Spong's eruption and transformation? The traditionalist who appeals to Acts' legendary event of Pentecost with its collective visitation of the Spirit is, of course, appealing to a later artificial 'explanation' of the very thing Spong is groping to describe. It, too, owes its content to midrash (see p.315f). (Ironically, Spong himself suggests that the answer to this question lies in understanding "the power of the Spirit.")
Says Spong (p.299): "Human beings experienced Jesus on the other side of death as living and real. That is attested by the birth of Christianity and by the resurrected lives of those who had forsaken him and fled." Unfortunately, no such scenario is attested to anywhere in the epistles. In Paul and the other early writers, the Christian movement, the preaching of the gospel, began with the revelation of the long-hidden secret of the Son by God through the Spirit, mediated through the study of scripture (see my Part Two article). Scripture contained that gospel of the Son (Romans 1:1f). The visions recounted by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:5-8 (which Spong acknowledges were all like Paul's own: of a revelatory nature) cannot be pressed into the service of Spong's "Easter conviction", for the latter was supposed to be something which happened among the disorganized disciples who had fled to Galilee. The "seeings" Paul describes were experienced by a brotherhood in Jerusalem which was already formed. "He was seen by more than 500 of the brothers at once" cannot fit Spong's scattered followers scenario, and the inclusion of James also does not fit.
Paul nowhere gives us any hint that the visions he lists in 1 Corinthians 15 began the movement, or that the pillar apostles, these "brothers of the Lord", were ever in Galilee, let alone that they went through some demoralized, inglorious phase after the death of Jesus, followed by a dazzling reconstitution of faith and vigor. (Nor can Paul's list of visions simply be equated with Acts' Pentecost—which no scholar does.) Such a process, such an Easter conviction, if it had been the genesis of Christianity, could not fail to have surfaced in the first century correspondence, especially in Paul, who constantly speaks of faith and the acquiring of faith, of belief that the Christ had been raised.
Again, Spong claims (p.302): "At some point in the process the light dawned. I do not know what that point was, but I believe it was real." This, of course, is based on standard preconception, on the traditional view of how Christianity is thought to have unfolded. The picture supplied by the Gospels and Acts demands that some unique and powerful event happened after the death of Jesus to get things going. For many, this presumption in itself has always been used to point to the power of the man to create such a response, and to support the claim to his divinity, even his physical resurrection. Once the Gospels are dismissed as non-historical, however, when their picture is seen not to be borne out by the earliest record in Paul, such a presumption and demand are no longer necessary.
Spong also appeals (p.302) to the much-used scenario of the "search of the scriptures" by the disciples, their discovery of countless passages they believed could be applied to Jesus—by which they could "interpret" him. I have questioned elsewhere the feasibility of such a picture of simple fisher folk, scattered and disoriented, fled to their respective homes and presumably plying their old trades, indulging in this sophisticated collective exercise in biblical exegesis and the plumbing of contemporary hellenistic philosophy, developing a theological construct around their former master which would have done Philo proud.
I suggest that we turn instead to the record we do have, to the picture lying in plain view in the letters of Paul (see my Part Two article), a picture of educated, prosperous circles found throughout many urban centers of the empire, believing in a divine Son of God who has grown out of Jewish and Greek philosophical concepts of the time, a Christ Jesus who operates entirely in the spirit world like the many other mythical savior gods of the day. It is a picture of men and women who are thoroughly immersed in scripture, open to inspiration, embracing the revelations God is perceived to have sent them. In this Pauline picture, no post-crucifixion collapse and rejuvenation is anywhere in sight, and thus the dilemma which scholarship constantly seeks to "solve" in order to account for Christianity's genesis evaporates into the wind.
That dilemma was created for 19 centuries of Christian thinking by the literal, gentile interpretation of the Jewish midrashic Gospels, and Spong, for all his debunking of that interpretation, is still ensnared by it. Because something like this had to happen to explain Christianity, therefore it must have happened. But Spong does not attempt to suggest a concrete scenario of how this "experience", this "conviction", came about. He can have recourse only to declarations like these (p.302): "Some tremendous and powerful moment it must have been to force all of these symbols to gather around this life. Whatever it was, that became the moment in which the power of Easter exploded in the human consciousness." This does little to further a scientific understanding of the question.
III: BRINGING THE SPIRITUAL WORLD TO EARTH
The Mythical Impulse
The creation of myth is a deeply ingrained human instinct. Mythic tales always serve to concretize processes that are not readily understandable, either because they are lost in the mists of time, are too diffuse to identify with single places and individuals, are based in subconscious developments, or represent things which are perceived to lie in inaccessible dimensions. The myth of Adam and Eve did not arise in order to reflect the reality of an actual first man and woman—even if those who first set it down in the form we know it may have believed they were doing so. Rather, the myth developed over time as a way of expressing little understood and unconsciously remembered features of human progress. I believe the mythical creations of the evangelists should be viewed in a similar light.
I would suggest that on one level, Jesus of Nazareth epitomized processes that were going on in the evangelists' own sectarian communities, the experiences of those people who were preaching and awaiting the Kingdom of God. It was a way of personalizing the divine presence they felt amid the promise of the approaching new world. It was a way of extrapolating the traits and virtues they saw in themselves and focusing these things into a portrait of an idealized, divinely constituted individual. And since everything in these people's lives was interpreted in terms of past prototypes, past prophecies as contained in scripture, it was to scripture they went to provide the patterns and motifs for their new myths.
At the same time, earthly tales could provide a way of portraying the nature and activities of the spiritual Son who lived and operated in the spirit world. Paul strongly suggests (1 Corinthians 2:8; see my Supplementary Article No. 3: Who Crucified Jesus?) that he believed "the Lord of glory" had been crucified by the demon spirits. Other early documents suggest this same view of Christ's death. This redemptive act within the higher spiritual spheres was a part of God's plan to overcome the evil forces who for all the ages of time had separated earth from heaven and wreaked such havoc in the world. (Not only was God not responsible for the evil in people's lives, he could actually be portrayed as working to counter and remove it.) The correlation between the great struggle in the heavens, and the sect's struggles on earth against their own demon forces in a hostile establishment, became translated into a Jesus who battles the earthly demons in the form of the Jews who do not accept the new faith in the Christ. Such things have all the marks of universal human mythmaking.
Casting the spiritual Son in an earthly life story which embodied all the exemplary features, all the prophetic elements, all the old prototypes in the ancient writings, was the ideal way for certain sectarian Jews to portray a Son of God who in a timeless place and circumstances had revealed God and served as his agent of redemption. To understand how God had broken into human history in a new way, through the spirit of his Son, this spirit was symbolized in a midrashic tale of an earthly Son. The Passover watch became the Passion watch in the story of a new paschal lamb. If God had provided a newly-revealed redeemer, to overcome evil and sin and guarantee eternal life, those revealed spiritual truths could be embodied in a new Passover story whose correlations with the old one showed the unity of concept and the continuity of God's workings throughout salvation history. (Other features were worked into the midrashic stories, of course, such as various lessons for the community and elements which served sectarian purposes.) As deep convictions and emotional responses are developed in a new faith, people eventually need to express them in concrete terms, and when the idea of Jesus of Nazareth finally arrived, it was eagerly seized upon and soon became an unstoppable force.
Rejecting the Literal
Spong himself uses language which speaks of the necessity for such expression of the inexpressible. The Gospels, he says (p.294) "are midrashic interpretations of a reality that human words could never really capture." This might be true if the "reality" that these human words were striving to express lay entirely at some spiritual or subconscious level, or had been lost to living memory. But to claim that the life and deeds of an actual man who had recently walked the earth and made such an impact on everyone around him could not be presented in any meaningful way except through the medium of tales which had no historical basis, is surely stretching the imagination. If people "believed that they met the holy God in and through the life of Jesus of Nazareth," (p.217) why could the actual details of that life, the ones which had created the effect, not be preserved and play some role in the presentation of him? Such incongruities illustrate the problems created by the attempt to wed midrashic Gospels based entirely on scripture and liturgical observance with the existence of an historical Jesus who nowhere puts in a concrete appearance.
Spong would have us accept (p.300) that a man who had actually lived and done literal things could nevertheless not be recorded in literal words and presentations, because such literalization "would inevitably become first a distorting presence, but then finally . . . would destroy the truth to which the symbol (the midrash) was intended to point." This seems a highly dubious form of special pleading. He then goes on to say that this destructive effect "is the fate of any process in which an act of the Holy Other is captured in the words of finite human beings. It is not the human description of the reality of God that is important and that must be protected. Human descriptions are not reality. . . . It is the reality itself that becomes the issue, and that reality can only be pointed to; it can never be captured by human words."
This is the crux of Spong's position. It is unfortunate that in a work which in so many respects is admirably scientific and scholarly, Spong is forced to defend the absence of any historical record of the actual man by recourse to the untestable, by appealing to a reality which lies outside the observable world and the human mind. He has retreated to the classic position of believer and mystic.
Finally, Bishop Spong gives us his own picture of the man Jesus of Nazareth (p.301) which soars beyond anything the evangelists ever put into words, symbolic or otherwise:
"He had a unique capacity to be. His gift was to be whole, free, and giving, which in turn seemed to cause those around him to live more fully and more completely. He seemed to have an infinite capacity to love, to forgive, and to accept others. He appeared to enhance the personhood of every human being who touched his life. He broke every barrier that human beings erected to protect themselves inside their insecure world. Women, Samaritans, gentiles, lepers, those judged to be unclean felt his touch and were called into a new dignity. He had the capacity to live in the present moment, to drink from that moment all of its wonder, to scale its heights and to plumb its depths, to enable that moment to share in eternity. . . ."
But where does Spong derive such an extravagant picture? Not from any independent, historical record. Nor from the epistles, which never portray their Christ in an earthly ministry. Of course, it is derived out of the Gospels, or rather out of how Spong imagines the figure toward whom these midrashic creations point. But if such a paragon had lived in Palestine and created such an effect on those around him, surely Paul for one, not to mention his converts, would have clamored to learn every detail of his existence. The man's words and deeds would have resonated throughout the early Christian record—quite apart from any exegetes' plumbing of scripture to "understand" him, and despite Spong's misgivings about literal truth. If such a paragon had been let loose in the land, can we believe that any corner of the empire would have failed to hear of him? They would have come from far and wide to touch the hem of his garment. And that's no midrash.
In any case, such paragons do not exist except in the human imagination and longing, and they arise as a result of glorifying legend and gradual accretion. Unfortunately, not even this process can be discerned in the early Christian record. While Paul and the other epistle writers have gone off at an entirely different tangent of transcendent divinity, the midrashic Jesus of Nazareth, Spong's unique man and hero, springs fully formed on the pages of Mark, with no hint of preparation. But even the evangelists are not capable of creating the image of Jesus of Nazareth which inhabits the minds of men like John Shelby Spong and Robert Funk. That is truly the accretion of two millennia, and is essentially the expression of our own modern language and psychology, the product of intellectual scholars possessing subtle, sophisticated minds and a surfeit of mystical yearnings.