I am pleased to present this interesting guest post to Platinum members to fellow Platinum Joel Scheller. Joel has taken on one of the most important issues that we can ask of the New Testament: Are the Gospels meant to be read historically? Or, as John Shelby Spong argued, are they meant to be symbolic and liturgical expositions of the significance of Jesus?
If you have comments and questions for Joel, let us hear from you!
After Dr Ehrman wrote a tribute article regarding the late Anglican Bishop, John Shelby Spong, I began reading this man’s books, and became enamored with many, but not all, of his assertions. His book “Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy” really struck a chord with me because of Spong’s explanation regarding the difference in what we actually know about the historical Jesus from what we read in the Gospels. As fellow blog member, Dan Kohanski, so recently and aptly explained in his guest blog “What We KNOW About Jesus”, our actual knowledge of Jesus’ life and ministry is scant.
Many people assume that the information in the Gospels is a factual account of Jesus’ life, teachings, and ministry, yet anyone who seriously studies them would no doubt encounter, as the majority of academic scholars know, the fantastical and non-sensical accounts that challenge each in its own right. Furthermore, a comparison of each of them to the others has such contractions disclosed as to clearly deconstruct the notion that they represent the “Inerrant Word of God”, except for those that cling to irrationality through “faith”, in the same way one would be willing to confess that deepest darkness is light.
Spong asserts that what we call the “Synoptic” Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) were never intended to depict a historical account of Jesus, but a liturgical one instead. His explanations are compelling.
First, let us consider the undisputed letters of Paul. They are the earliest writings we have that talk about Jesus, and they are written, not to tell a story, but speak about matters related to the Christian faith. We believe that Paul became a Christian shortly after the Resurrection event, probably no more than six years thereafter. We believe that he learned an abundance regarding Jesus’ life from the earliest followers of Jesus. Yet, let’s consider what Paul never mentions; things today that are considered to be staples of the historical Jesus; things that, if one doubted literally occurred, could result in expulsion from one’s church family:
- Jesus’ miraculous birth is never mentioned.
- Jesus’ mother, Mary is never named.
- Joseph, Mary’ husband is never mentioned.
- Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem is never mentioned.
- John the Baptist is never mentioned.
- Jesus’ baptism is never mentioned.
- Jesus’ miraculous healing of people is never mentioned.
- Jesus turning water into wine, walking on water, calming storms, feeding thousands of people with food that would only be enough for one person’s lunch, causing a net-breaking catch of fish to occur where moments before the water was barren, and any other miracle Jesus is said to have performed before the crucifixion, is never mentioned.
- 99% of Jesus’ sayings in the Gospel are never mentioned.
- With the exception of Peter, none of the other disciples in the Gospels are ever mentioned by name.
- The Jewish religious leaders handing Jesus over to Pilate is never mentioned.
- The women of Jesus’ disciples, even Mary Magdalene, are never mentioned.
- The empty tomb is never mentioned.
- Jesus first appearing in resurrection form to a woman, or group of women is never mentioned.
- Jesus’ resurrection being in human bodily form, is never mentioned.
- Jesus ascending to heaven in human bodily form is ever mentioned.
Twenty some-odd years after Paul’s first letter in the New Testament, the Synoptic Gospels begin to appear. Narratives, from which believers today form unshakable beliefs about what Jesus actually did and said. Would not Paul have had these “facts” if they were actually factual? Would not Paul have had ample opportunity to use many of these accounts in his letters, as he uses lessons from the Old Testament accounts, to bolster his points?
And what do we have before Paul? Twenty some-odd years of silence. Yet, we know that Jesus was being talked about constantly in that timeframe. What would have been a consistent setting for such talk? As the earliest followers of Jesus were Jewish, Spong asserts that the synagogue would have been the constant. But just as Christian worship has a liturgical form today, so did the worship that occurred in the synagogue. Each week, long readings from the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, would be read; the goal was to get through the entire Torah each year, with a midrashic focus on the Jewish holidays; meaning that lessons at the synagogue near a holiday would focus on the meaning of the holiday. Midrash was the Jewish practice of rekindling their sacred stories in new forms.
Spong asserts that the Gospels represent a growing Christian tradition of using the pattern of synagogue worship to establish a liturgy for worship of Jesus throughout the year, with stories being designed to relate Jesus to the Jewish year and holidays. According to Spong, Mark did this with stories about Jesus that spanned the Jewish year from Rosh Hoshana, the beginning of the Jewish year, to Passover ( or from beginning of October to April). Matthew (and later, Luke), wanted to build a full year’s worth of Jesus liturgy, and did so by expanding on Mark. Thus, stories were born about Jesus that compared him to the sacred events and people from Israel’s esteemed past. Stories that ultimately trumped the originals, making Jesus the fulfillment of the scriptures. The listeners were Jewish, with a distinct understanding of how such stories should be heard; not historically, but symbolically…liturgically.
However, Christianity didn’t remain Jewish. In the second century, the future of Christianity rested in the hands of non-Jewish believers. Believers who read the Gospels based on their own understandings, as we do today. The beauty of symbolism receded as the security of certainty prevailed.
And here we are…