Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes — Freeing Jesus from 2,000 Years of Misunderstanding by John Shelby Spong, HarperSanFrancisco, 1996; notes, bibliography, index, 379 pages, ISBN 0-06-067556-x, cloth $24.00.
For many it is fairly clear that the accounts in the Gospels should not be taken literally. There are too many inconsistencies, incompatibilities, and contradictions to accept the story of Jesus as historical fact. This leaves the inevitable question: If it did not really happen as described in the various gospels, what did happen? And if it has to be read as something different from history, how should we approach and interpret the accounts in the New Testament? Bishop Spong tries to answer these questions in a way that is meaningful to those who want to make the teachings of Jesus a living force in their lives.
The author starts out by explaining that the Gospels are essentially Jewish books, written by Jewish people for early (Jewish) Christians who were still worshiping in the synagogue. His premise, which he bases on the work of Bible scholar Michael Goulder, is that most of what is written in the Gospels involves references to the various festivals following the Jewish liturgical calendar. Spong points out that the "Gospels are Jewish attempts to interpret in a Jewish way the life of a Jewish man in whom the transcendence of God was believed to have been experienced in a fresh and powerful encounter" (p. 20). These interpretations were not exact descriptions of what happened historically or what Jesus said or did. "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. As this journey through the Gospels progresses, we will watch this midrashic principle operating time after time" (pp. 36-37).
This can be confirmed by studying the Hebrew Bible, especially the Torah, its first five books. Spong writes that "we must understand how the worship of first-century Jewish people was organized. . . . From that time [of the Exile — 6th century BCE] on, the Jews felt compelled to complete the reading of the entire Torah over a one-year period" (pp. 59-60). This means that every Sabbath a part of the Torah was read, starting with Genesis and ending with Deuteronomy.
So the importance of Jesus was described by first-century Jews according to the midrashic principle and following the liturgical year. In fact, the texts in the Gospels were themselves liturgical texts, written by scribes who belonged to the group of Jewish people who, though still worshiping in the synagogue, saw Jesus as an expression of God. Spong claims that this group was initially tolerated within the Jewish faith community. But after the Jewish war and its disastrous ending in 70 CE with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple,
the Jewish nation disappeared from the maps of the world, . . . Another direct result of this war was that the Christian faith, which had originally been a Jewish movement, began the shift that was destined to redefine Christianity as a bitterly anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish movement. This war quite literally cut the taproot that connected Christianity to its Jewish past. . . . every book later to be incorporated into the New Testament either reflected the tension that produced that war or was written against the background of that Jewish defeat and destruction. — pp. 39-40
As a result of this war, tolerance within the Jewish community decreased, and the Torah became the chief weapon in their struggle for survival. The presence of the Jewish Christians, with their emphasis on the importance of Jesus, threatened to destabilize the community and the authority of the Torah. Finally the followers of Jesus were no longer accepted in Jewish society. After the war hostility in the Roman Empire against things Jewish also increased enormously, so "it became extremely wise politically for Jewish Christians to make public political distinctions between the rigid orthodoxy of the traditional Jews and themselves" (pp. 49-50).
Both groups claimed ownership of the Jewish scriptures, and the Jewish followers of Jesus simply took them with them. "The Jewish Christians began to build anthologies by which they identified the shadows of Jesus everywhere in the ancient sacred story of the Jews" (p. 51). This tradition was at first oral, and was later transformed into written texts. The final breach occurred in the late 80s when the Jewish Christians were excommunicated, which gave rise to a great deal of negativity and a refusal to see Jesus as Jewish. "This attitude . . . imposed on our Gospels a gentile captivity that led us to ascribe to these books an accuracy about historical facts and a literalness about the events being described that none of the Jewish authors of the New Testament had ever intended" (p. 53).
Spong shows how the Jewish liturgical calendar organized both the worship and the daily life of Jesus and the first Christians. He contends that this calendar influenced the writing of the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. He takes readers on a fascinating journey through the Gospels, in which each text is examined from a Jewish perspective. Mark describes the story of Jesus related to the Jewish festivals from Rosh Hashanah (New Year) through Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) to Passover, about half of the year. The passion story was the Christian passover story, with Jesus as the new paschal lamb. Matthew elaborates on Mark to make the story encompass the whole liturgical year. Matthew contains five so-called blocks of teaching material, and Spong correlates them with Jewish festival celebrations; for example, Passion story with Passover and Sermon on the Mount with Pentecost. The Gospel of Luke is supposed to be the story of Jesus told against the order of the Torah. For instance, one can discover Torah readings of Genesis in his birth narrative. In Zechariah and Elisabeth, the parents of John the Baptist, we find echoes of Abraham and Sarah: "Both sets of parents were called righteous (Genesis 26:5, Luke 1:6). Both Sarah and Elisabeth were barren (Genesis 11:30, Luke 1:7). Both were advanced in age (Genesis 18:11, Luke 1:7). In both stories the angelic annunciation came to a disbelieving father (Genesis 18:11, Luke 1:11). Both fathers were assured nothing was impossible with God (Genesis 18:14, Luke 1:37)" (p. 132).
Spong fills page after page with comparisons of texts in the Old Testament reflected and (sometimes literally) retold in the New Testament. Besides an analysis of the Gospels themselves, he also takes certain themes or figures from the Gospels to offer a closer look at the use of the midrashic principle in these stories. The figure of Joseph is put under a microscope and shows signs of being very shadowy indeed. Judas Iscariot may also be a fictional character, who was created under the influence of an increasing tendency to shift the blame for Jesus' death from the Romans to the Jerusalem Jews. The Virgin Birth, Crucifixion, and Resurrection are examined, and their Old Testament counterparts are amply demonstrated. The cry from the cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" mentioned only in Mark and in Matthew, comes straight out of Psalm 22:1. Spong explains that it was omitted in the later Gospels of Luke and John because "these words were thought to violate the enhanced divine status that increasingly was being attributed to Jesus in that period of time" (p. 249). Reading on in Psalm 22, and also Psalm 69, makes clear that they have provided much of the material for the crucifixion scene, including the mocking, the vinegar given Jesus to drink, the dividing of the garments, and the casting of lots. Another source for the crucifixion events came from Isaiah's so-called suffering servant (Is. 53:3-6). Liberating the Gospels is filled with examples and demonstrations of the overwhelming influence of the Hebrew Scriptures on the creation of the New Testament accounts and events. There are too many examples to do the book justice in a review. Spong concludes that a literal view of the Gospels has become untenable. Those who have identified the essence of their faith with a literal reading of the Gospels will inevitably question whether one can still be a Christian without being a literalist. Spong comes up with a very strong yes. The conclusion of the book "might also help the searching and questioning Christian avoid the faithless despair that engulfs the person who feels that 'no' is the only honest answer to the question: 'Did it really happen?"' (p. 325). The author has shown that he can abandon dying traditions without abandoning the living God. He claims that he cannot destroy a religious system that is not already crumbling. "Religious experience, the presence of God, is mystical at its core, and because it is mystical, then creeds, doctrines, scripture, and sacred stories will never be ultimate" (p. 334). The God he worships cannot be threatened by scholarship or truth. He writes that Jesus is "for me the conduit through which the love of God was loosed into human history. Jesus lived the love of God. This love was and is wasteful love, embracing love, inclusive love. . . . That love of God . . . has one purpose: It is to invite us to be and to love us into being loving people. . . . Jesus is also for me a human expression of the 'Being' of God" (p. 332). In a series of very fine books, this is beyond doubt Spong's best. It is a questing journey, and a profoundly moving one.
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