Saturday, 1 August 2009

Spong: Theism capturing the Jesus story

In the next two chapters, which I will take together, Spong looks at how the theistic story of Christ grew over the years, and he makes an attempt to work out as far as possible what was the original story of Jesus before all the theistic overtones got added.

Spong regards all the theistic additions as unnecessary. He argues of the theistic interpretation of Jesus as the Incarnate Son of God:

It is not original; it was added to an earlier portrait of Jesus. Because it was added to Jesus, it can also be taken off: the theistic interpretation of Jesus does not have to be eternal; theism can die.

In order to demonstrate this, he engages in a bit of commentary on Biblical scholarship and criticism, describing the probable order of writing of the various books of the New Testament.

He mentions that Paul

was converted and baptized, became a missionary, engaged in the controversial task of defining the Christian faith against powerful opponents such as Peter and James whom he called ‘the Lord’s Brother’, completed all of his journeys, wrote all his epistles, and was imprisoned and executed in Rome before any of the canonical gospels was written. There is no evidence that Paul ever had access to a Gospel, if any had in fact been written.

And Paul’s understanding of Jesus is very different from that of the Gospel-writers.

Spong also looks at the Gospel of Thomas and “source Q” whose existence can be inferred from the fact that when you remove those bits of Luke and Matthew which have been taken from Mark, there is a significant body of material still in common between the two Gospels, which points to the possibility that both had access to another document which is now lost. Spong points out that according to these early sources Jesus was not a worker of miracles – there are no miracle stories in either Q or Thomas.

According to Spong, the Gospels themselves were not intended to be historical documents, but rather had a liturgical purpose. Mark’s gospel (the first of the four to be written) fits extremely neatly as a set of readings to be used in synagogue worship through part of the Jewish liturgical year. The start of the Gospel fits the theme of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. The Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) has Jesus healing the sick, the Feast of Tabernacles coincides with Jesus telling harvest parables, and the transfiguration story fits the Festival of Dedication, in which Jews celebrated the time when the light of God was restored to the Temple. Mark (writing after the temple was destroyed in AD 70) offers Jesus as the new temple, the new meeting place between God and human life. The crucifixion and resurrection fits with Passover.

Matthew expanded this theme so that the entire liturgical year could be covered with Christian readings. He provided additional readings (either by expanding Mark’s stories or providing entirely new material) to cover the period from mid April to early September omitted by Mark.

The one major Jewish festival not covered by Mark’s Gospel was Pentecost/Shavuot, which falls within this period. Matthew has Jesus go (like Moses) up a high mountain. Moses returned with the Ten Commandments and the Law. Jesus made the Sermon on the Mount, which is an eight-part commentary on the Beatitudes, found in Psalm 119. For the Jews, Pentecost was a 24-hour liturgical celebration, and Psalm 119 was written in eight parts, each part to be read as part of each three-hour section of the celebration. Each of the sections of the Sermon on the Mount was designed to accompany it.

Matthew fills out the period without major festivals by adding a genealogy, a birth narrative, an expanded baptism story, an expanded temptation story, and a more dramatic resurrection story, complete with earthquakes and the dead rising from their tombs.

Luke and John make further dramatic developments, and in the process, Jesus becomes less and less human and more and more miraculous and godlike.

Spong’s main point in describing all this is to show how the story of Jesus grew in the telling. His argument is that this is evidence of a progressively increased theistic understanding taking over the Jesus story, and that if we strip away these later accretions we can come back to an original nontheistic understanding of Jesus.

The problem with this interpretation is that it seems to me to be both incomplete and founded on an inaccurate premise. Firstly, the Jews of Jesus’ day were thoroughgoing theists – Judaism as a religion hasn’t become theistic in the two thousand years since Jesus, it was most definitely theistic at the time. Second, if the later writings are embellishments and elaborations on an earlier and simpler tale, this fact is not of itself evidence that the earlier tale is either true or (if true) indicative that Jesus was anything more than an unusually good itinerant preacher and teacher within the context of his religion.

Spong ends the chapter asking what a nontheistic Christianity would look like, once the death of theism is accepted and the theistic understandings of the Jesus story are stripped away.

There is an all-too-human response to these sorts of issues which I have mentioned before. The response of Christians to having these awkward issues pointed out to them is either to deny the evidence and assert the primacy of scripture over evidence (which is broadly speaking the fundamentalist position) or to retreat into a set of untestable propositions (which is more or less the liberal position). It seems to me that Spong hovers uneasily between an extreme end of the liberal position and outright atheism. He denies the theistic interpretation of God, but seeks to put something which seems awfully untestable in its place.

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