November 15, 2015
This summer, Ellen, Robbie and I heard John Shelby Spong preach at All Saints-By-The-Sea, a chapel on Southport Island in Maine. It was a riveting message in which Spong sketched the changing views on when Jesus is portrayed as divine in Paul’s letters (at the Crucifixion), in Mark (at Jesus’s Baptism), in Matthew and Luke (at His birth), and in John (in the Beginning). Spong urged reading the Bible “with Jewish eyes,” by which he means through an awareness of how the New Testament draws on the Hebrew Testament and an awareness of how early Christians (many of them Jews) would have heard Hebrew Testament antecedents in New Testament accounts of Jesus.
Spong is an Episcopalian Priest who was Bishop of Newark from 1979 to 2000, and also author of more than two dozen books. Says his Wikipedia biography, “A prominent theme in Spong’s writing is that the popular and literal interpretations of Christian scripture are not sustainable and do not speak honestly to the situation of modern Christian communities. He believes in a more nuanced approach to scripture, informed by scholarship and compassion, which can be consistent with both Christian tradition and contemporary understandings of the universe.”
Hearing Spong this summer led me to read his Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible With Jewish Eyes (HarperSanFrancisco, 1996). In this book, Spong argues against a literal reading of the New Testament as history. He doesn’t seek to undermine the gospels but rather to rescue them for modern readers. There are too many inconsistencies in the gospel accounts to satisfy a critical reading as history, but that wasn’t the intent of the authors. “The concern of the Jewish writers was not to relate biographical facts,” he argues, “but to interpret within the framework of their faith tradition the meaning of the experience they had with the living God” (p 217).
He develops this down two roads. In the first half of the book, he makes a case that each of the four gospels should be read as a lectionary: a cycle of readings about the life of Jesus to accompany and parallel the readings from the Torah that were the standard lectionary readings for a Jewish congregation. He takes the gospels in the order they were written, showing how Matthew expands on Mark, Luke on Matthew and Mark, and John on the first three, each author having somewhat different purposes and audiences. (Spong doubts the existence of an undiscovered Q source.)
He emphasizes the importance of the year 70 CE, the year the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, thus scattering the Jewish community. He argues that the gospels were written (Mark just before and the three other gospels soon after) to pull together nascent Christian communities that before the critical year had been worshipping communities more or less comfortably within or beside Jewish congregations. The destruction of Jerusalem provoked a crisis that led the two sets of communities to separate. The Jewish communities needed to clearly define themselves without a homeland, and the Christian communities needed to distance themselves from the now-disfavored Jews. With the separation, he asserts, Christians moved steadily away from seeing the gospels ‘through Jewish eyes.’
In the second half of the book, Spong various aspects of the Jesus story (the virgin birth, the crucifixion, etc.), and with each develops a case that many of the details, often differing details, provided in each gospel should not be seen as literal truths but rather as chimes and borrowings that relate the life of Jesus to other experiences of God narrated in the Hebrew Testament. Spong calls these borrowings “midrashic.”
He shows that the earliest accounts (Paul’s, Mark’s) of each part of the Jesus story are thinner factually and less specific. Subsequent tellings add detail, but those details, Spong asserts, should lead us to recollect parallel stories in the Hebrew Testament. They should not be read as additional eyewitness testimony. He reminds readers regularly that several decades passed between Jesus’s death and any of these writings. Nearly every first hand witness to Jesus life and ministry was dead before they were written. Later tellings of the gospel are unlikely to be richer in trustworthy factual detail.
Reading the Bible ‘with Jewish eyes,” Spong hopes, will lead people not to doubt the truth of the gospels but rather to see that the truth the gospels convey is a deep understanding of experiencing God in Jesus, not a literal or factual recounting.