Thursday, 23 June 2011

Taking the Bible seriously, not taking it literally: notes from an evening with Jack Spong

By good fortune, we were in my parents’ town of Milngavie, on the edge of Glasgow, the same week that Bishop Jack Spong, retired Episcopal bishop of Newark, New Jersey in the USA was giving a talk in a local church. Spong is the author of many books on topics such as the Bible, sexuality, gender, and the future of the church. The talk we heard was entitled “The New Testament – where does fact stop and myth begin?”.

Spong’s argument is that while the New Testament is the foundation of our Christian faith, it is both impossible and greatly unwise to take it literally. (He extends this argument to the Old Testament in his writing). As a way of elucidating this argument, Spong went through the history of the authorship of the New Testament, on the way showing its internal conflicts and issues that must be reconciled. Some of this history may be entirely familiar to you, some of it very surprising. Some of Spong’s account of the history is the accepted consensus of most Biblical scholars, others are his own view of what is most likely to be the case.

First, dates. Most of us know that Jesus was not born in 0 AD. He is generally thought to have been born in 4 BC, and to have died in perhaps 30 AD. These are important for establishing the distance from the events described in the gospels to when they were written down. As Spong observed, there was an ‘oral period’ of at least twenty years in the early church from which no written accounts survive, during which (as far as we know) the life and teachings of Jesus were passed on solely by word of mouth.

The first texts in the New Testament to be written were the epistles. There are fourteen that have been traditionally attributed to Paul. The current consensus, by Spong’s account, is that only seven of these were written by Paul: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1+2 Corinthians, Romans, Philemon and Philippians. These were probably written between 51 AD and 64 AD (the usual date for Paul’s death in Rome) – so around twenty years passed after Jesus’ death and resurrection before we have any Christian texts.

Of the remaining ‘Pauline’ letters, three were probably written by his immediate disciples in the decade after his death (2 Thessalonians, Colossians and Ephesians) – they are rooted in Paul’s ideas but not in his writing style or vocabulary. Three further ‘pastoral’ letters (1+2 Timothy and Titus) were written around 80-100 AD, by which time Paul was uncontroversial, a revered elder statesman (by contrast, in his lifetime he was a highly polarising figure). Lastly we have Hebrews, which hardly anyone would attribute to Paul – it is very different from his work.

Paul was not writing Scripture. He was a travelling preacher and builder of church communities, who wrote letters to those communities to encourage them, argue with them, and give them moral teaching. As Spong observed in his talk, the author of 2 Timothy 3:16 (not Paul), who wrote that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (NIV) could not have been referring to the Pauline letters, let alone the gospels (hardly written at that time). The only scripture at the time was the Hebrew Bible, that we Christians call the Old Testament. Paul’s letters, and the whole of what we now have as the New Testament, were designated as Scripture much later.

So what did Paul actually say about Jesus?
1.    He was born of a woman, in the normal way – there is no mention of a virgin birth.
2.    Paul makes no mention of his miracles, nor of his teaching.
3.    There is little mention of Christ’s passion – there is only one (fairly brief but important) account of the Last Supper, nothing about details such as Gethsemane, Judas, Pilate, his burial. All Paul tells us is that Jesus died on a cross.
4.    There is likewise little detail on the resurrection, only that Jesus was “raised on the third day” (note the passive voice – not that Jesus rose up, rather that he was raised by God). However Paul lists all the different groups to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection, beginning with Cephas (Peter) and ending with himself. As Paul was probably not converted until around three years after the resurrection, this suggests he did not seen the resurrection as being one of the physical body.
After Paul’s death, the gospels began to appear. The first of these to be written, as is well known, was Mark – this was probably written around 70-72 AD, perhaps 40 years after the events it portrays. This presents a very stripped-down version of the gospel story. If we read it on its own (and it’s likely that the early Christian communities would have had access to only one gospel) we see no miraculous birth, no story of the risen Christ appearing to anyone. What we see is are a lot of miracles, many of which bear parallels to Old Testament miracle stories, but which serve here principally as a symbol for Jesus bringing in the Kingdom of God. We also have here the first written account of Jesus’ baptism, teaching and death. The authorship of Mark, like all the gospels, is unknown.

The second gospel to be written was Matthew (around 82-85 AD). He copied large parts of Mark, almost word-for-word, as well as adding material from a source he shared in common with Luke (known to scholars as Q, from the German Quelle, source), and from further sources. The virgin birth is first written about in Matthew, and much of the birth story is justified by reference to prophecy, exemplifying the very Jewish nature of this gospel. Like Mark, some sections (such as the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness) bear close parallels to the Old Testament. It’s worth noting that the Sermon on the Mount only appears in Matthew, although some of the individual passages also appear in Luke.

The third gospel was Luke, written around 88-93 AD. He copied about half the text of Mark into his gospel (though both he and Matthew added and edited Mark’s text). Like Matthew, he presents a genealogy of Jesus, although the two are contradictory – surely a problem if the New Testament as a whole is to be taken literally? Some of the most popular parables are only to be found in Luke (such as the Good Samaritan, and the story of Dives and Lazarus). Again we see borrowing of Old Testament themes – Luke’s version of Jesus’ ascension is closely related to the ascension of Elijah (2 Kings 2).

Finally in the gospels we come to John (known simply as ‘the fourth gospel’ by some scholars, as its authorship is so uncertain). This was probably written around 95-100 AD. Notably, this followed the expulsion of the earliest Christians from the synagogues, leading to a changed relationship between Christians and Jews, and a stronger understanding of Christianity as something both different from Judaism which took forward the Jewish covenant but in a new way. For example, John often has Jesus use the phrase “I AM”, directly paralleling God’s phrase “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14) when talking to Moses from the burning bush. However, John’s way of writing is much more mystical than the other three gospels. Instead of presenting a birth narrative, he describes a Jesus who is the Logos (a Greek philosophical concept), eternally present with God. He does not use Jesus’ parables – instead he takes seven signs (miracles), and links seven discourses between Jesus and others to the signs. In Spong’s view, the crucial verse of this gospel, and of the whole New Testament, is John 10:10 – “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (NIV).

This kind of critical analysis of the Bible may seem uncomfortable to some, for whom the Bible is the inerrant Word of God. I do not present it here to challenge anyone’s faith. For myself, it increases my faith. God is too complex to be fixed into a simple set of words, whether in English translation or the Greek/Hebrew original. We have a Bible, our greatest treasure and the foundation of our faith – but we must read it with care, with our eyes and brains and souls open, looking beyond the immediate words to the meaning behind them. 

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