Examining the Story of the Cross by Bishop John S. Spong

note:  I am excited, enthused when I read Bishop Spong. Granted he is bringing together the scholarship of many others but he is able to present these themes in a manner that is easier to digest and understand. This Lentan series I found very valuable and worth sharing.

Examining the Story of the Cross; Part I Analyzing the Details of the Crucifixion

In a few weeks the Christian world will enter the season of Lent that culminates with Holy Week and the liturgical reading of the Passion narrative of Jesus’ crucifixion.  The story of the cross is clearly the focal point of the New Testament with the last week of Jesus’ life taking up about a third of the content in each of the four gospels.  Next to the birth narratives, which are contained only in Matthew and Luke, the account of the Passion of Jesus is the most familiar part of the New Testament to Christian people. That familiarity is, however, not very well informed.  To put new understanding into this well-known narrative is the thing I will seek to do in a series of columns that will carry us up until Easter.

The final week in Jesus’ life begins with what we now call the Palm Sunday procession. It then moves toward the Maundy Thursday “Last Supper,” the betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane, the trial before the Sanhedrin, the trial before Pilate, the introduction of the character we call Barabbas, the purple robe, the crown of thorns and finally the story of the crucifixion itself.  The first observation we need to make when we look at this material, is that what most people think they know is far more a blending and a smoothing over of real differences that mark the original separate biblical accounts.  This means that most readers have not yet embraced the fact that the story of Jesus’ passion is not literal history at all, but a pious interpretation in which even the familiar story of the end of Jesus’ life shows evidence of growth and development over the years as each successive writer began to fill in the blanks in imaginative ways and with the judicious use of the Hebrew Scriptures.  Today, in the first in this series of columns, I will seek to pull this seemingly foundational story apart and show how it was actually constructed over a period of about half a century in the writings of the New Testament.

Let me begin by stating clearly that, while I am convinced that there is literal historical memory at the core of this story, the details are not history at all, but legendary and interpretive accretions.  I will seek in this and subsequent columns to demonstrate both of these observations.

The central historical fact, which I find indisputable, is that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified during the reign and by the action of the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate, who served in this office by appointment of the Caesar from 26-36 CE.  Beyond that central fact, however, all eye witness details seem to disappear to be replaced by the strategy of forcing the story of the crucifixion into the mold of messianic expectations through a study of the Hebrew Scriptures.  Let me now lay out the various details found in the story of the Passion of Jesus in the order that each was developed from the Jewish biblical sources available to the followers of Jesus.

Paul is the first writer of any part of the New Testament.  He wrote all of his authentic epistles within a span of years between 51 CE at the earliest and 64 CE at the latest.  The initial fact that we need to embrace in this study is that the work of Paul is as close to the events of Holy Week as we can get in written materials.  If Jesus was crucified around 30 CE, as most New Testament scholars now agree, then it was twenty-one years, or a full generation, before any words about the crucifixion that we still possess were written down.  Twenty-one years is a long time to pass down any recollection by word of mouth and have it be rendered accurately.

Paul refers to the cross of Jesus on seven occasions in his epistles and he uses the word “crucified” in reference to Jesus on ten other occasions.  In none of these accounts, however, does he give any narrative details.  In I Corinthians: 11, for the first time Paul makes a reference to the institution of the last supper and to Jesus being “handed over,” a word that later was translated “betrayed.”  That is the entire origin of the traitor story.  He does not, however, suggest either that the last supper was identical or even associated with the Passover or that the betrayal was at the hands of one of the twelve.  The name Judas, for example, never appears in the Pauline corpus.

About the crucifixion Paul says only that “he died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.”  No other details are mentioned: no Garden of Gethsemane, no apostolic desertion, no arrest; no Pilate, no trial, no torture, no denial by Peter, no thieves, no words from the Cross and no darkness.  About the burial Paul says only, “He was buried.”  There is no mention in the writings of Paul of a tomb, no Joseph of Arimathea and no preparation of the body for burial.  About the Easter event, Paul says only this: “On the third day he was raised in accordance with the scriptures.”  There is no account in Paul of angels, no stone to roll back, no women carrying spices and no story of a dawn visit.  Paul does go on then to list those to whom Jesus was said to have “appeared.”  Cephas (Peter) was first, next the Twelve (note Judas is still included) and then he mentions an appearance to 500 brethren at once, about which we know nothing.  Paul continues this list by saying that Jesus next appeared to James, but he does not say which James and there are three in the New Testament story: James, the son of Zebedee, James, the son of Alphaeus and James, the brother of the Lord.  The consensus among scholars today is that it is the last mentioned James to whom Paul is making reference.  Then, continues Paul, Jesus appeared to the Apostles.  Who are they?  He has already mentioned the Twelve.  This seems like another group.  Paul ends his list by saying that “last of all he appeared to me,” that is, to Paul, and this appearance, he argues, was in no way different from the others except that he was last.   Paul’s conversion is set between one year after the crucifixion at the earliest and six years at the latest, so this appearance could hardly have been that of a physically-resuscitated body that walked out of the grave, making it a safe assumption that however Paul had conceived of the resurrection, it was not the resuscitation of a physically-deceased body.  Finally, we need to embrace the fact that these scant details are all the Christian community possessed about this climactic story of the end of Jesus’ life until the 8th decade of the Christian era.

Mark, writing somewhere between 70-73, is the creator of most of what has become the familiar story that surround the crucifixion. Judas Iscariot, for example, makes his first appearance in Mark.  Mark is also the first New Testament source to identify the Last Supper with the Passover, the first to introduce the Garden of Gethsemane, to give us details of the trial, to relate the account of Peter’s denial, to mention Barabbas and the first to record the story of the torture.  He is the first to put words into the mouth of the dying Jesus, suggesting that he said only one thing from the cross and that was what we now call the cry of dereliction, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Mark was also the first to suggest that on the day of the crucifixion darkness covered the land from noon to three p.m., and the first to give content to the burial story, including the introduction of Joseph of Arimathea.

Matthew writing in the 9th decade, somewhere between 83-85, essentially copied Mark’s story, but then added some other fascinating details.  It is from Matthew alone that we are told that the price Judas received for his act of betrayal was thirty pieces of silver, or that Judas repented, hurled the silver back into the Temple and went and hanged himself.  Matthew is also the first to suggest that an earthquake accompanied the death of Jesus or to tell us that a Temple guard was placed around the tomb of Jesus by the high priest.

Luke, writing near the end of the 9th decade or perhaps even in the first years of the 10th decade (89-93), expands the story in a still further direction.  For example, only in Luke is Jesus portrayed as praying for his tormentors, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Only in Luke does one of the thieves become penitent and asks Jesus to remember him.  Only in Luke does Jesus tell Peter that he will pray for him since Satan has desired him.  Only in Luke is Jesus tried separately before Herod.  In Luke Pilate becomes more and more a sympathetic figure and Judas a more sinister one.  Finally, Luke dismisses the cry from the cross, “My God, why have you forsaken me” and has Jesus say at the moment of his death, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”  That is, I submit, a very different “final word.” Despair has been vanquished in victory.

When we come to John, written in the final years of the 10th decade (95-100), new details are added.  Only in John does the mother of Jesus appear at the foot of the cross.  That fact should surprise both Mel Gibson and the creators of what are called “the Stations of the Cross.”  John’s Jesus says three things from the cross, none of which have we ever heard of before in the earlier gospels.  They are, “I thirst,”  “Woman behold your son, son behold your mother” and, as Jesus’ final word, John has him say: “It is finished.”  John alone tells the story of the breaking of the legs of the thieves to hasten their deaths, a procedure which, he says, Jesus was spared since he was already dead.  John alone then adds the story of the spear being hurled into Jesus’ side, which makes this detail a 10th decade addition. Its details are drawn from II Zechariah.  John concludes this episode by noting that from that wound flowed both water and blood.  Finally, John mentions a character called Nicodemus, who appears in no other gospel.  In John Nicodemus is first introduced in chapter three and then re-introduced in the burial story, joining Joseph of Arimathea and together, we are told, they used 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes to prepare Jesus’ body for burial.

That is, in the briefest possible form, the way the story of the cross grew in detail from Paul in the 50’s to John in the late 90’s.  In future columns I will seek to put these changing and sometimes conflicting details into an interpretive framework.  I trust it will be a worthy and provocative study as the season of Lent unfolds.

~John Shelby Spong


Examining the Story of the Cross; Part 2: Did the Crucifixion of Jesus Occur at Passover?

It is a common assumption that the crucifixion of Jesus took place in the context of the Jewish observance of Passover.  That is certainly the point of view developed in each of the four gospels.  Mark portrays the journey of Jesus and his followers to Jerusalem, which eventuated in the crucifixion, to have been for the sole purpose of celebrating the Passover.  Matthew and Luke leaning on this Marcan source repeated that tradition and thus together they tended to set this connection in stone. Mark later portrays Jesus in Jerusalem as making elaborate preparations for eating the Passover with his disciples.  From the time of the Deuteronomic reforms in the latter years of the seventh century BCE to the time of Jesus, Jerusalem has been the setting in which the Passover was traditionally to be observed.  Each of the first three synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) goes to great lengths to identify the last supper with the Passover meal, making this assumption to be an almost unchallenged one in Christian history.  Recent scholarship has, however, begun to loosen this connection and to raise lots of questions about this tradition.

The first biblical detail that raised a challenge was found in the Fourth Gospel.  John separates himself from the conclusions of the earlier gospels by stating quite plainly that the last supper was not a Passover meal.  It was in this gospel alone a Kibburah meal, that is, a fellowship meal observed in anticipation of the Passover.  John suggests that the Passover meal that year came not on the night before the crucifixion, but on the evening of the day in which the crucifixion occurred.  In this way, John was able to identify the death of Jesus more closely with the killing of the Paschal Lamb, since both executions took place on what came to be called Good Friday.  This was only a slight shift in John, but it was the first destabilizing observation.

When we go back and read Paul’s story of the institution of the last supper (I Cor.11), we note that Paul dates this meal only with the words, “On the night in which he was handed over.”  We have read Paul for so long through the lens of the later gospels that we have simply made the assumption that the “handing over” of Jesus was done at the time of the Passover.  Yet nowhere does Paul make that identification.  Perhaps the time has come for us to follow the historical order and to read the gospels through the lens of Paul and not the other way around.

Paul, in this same epistle, does identify Jesus with the Lamb of Passover (I Cor. 5:7) when he says that “Christ, our new Paschal Lamb, has been sacrificed for us.”  That seems, however, to be more of a homiletical device than it was a liturgical practice. It was clear that by the time of Paul the death of Jesus had been identified by the Jewish followers of Jesus in terms of the two lambs that were put to death as important elements in Jewish worship.  One of these lambs was the Paschal Lamb of Passover, whose blood protected the Israelites from death in Egypt when the last plague, the death of the first born in every household, was carried out in God’s plan to free the Hebrews from slavery at the hands of the Egyptians.  The second was the animal (normally a lamb without scratch, bruise or broken bone, i.e. physically perfect) sacrificed to take away the sins of the people in the liturgy they called Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement.  These theological identifications with the death of Jesus appear to have been made early, but that original interpretive process did not imply or even suggest that the crucifixion occurred in the context of either the Passover celebration or Yom Kippur.  It also doesn’t rule it out, I might add, it only loosens the connection and leads us to search for additional clues.

We look for those clues beginning in Mark’s gospel which was the first place in which the story of the crucifixion was told in the context of the Passover celebration.  In this Marcan narrative a couple of details quickly grab our imagination.  First, Mark suggests that a triumphal procession into Jerusalem occurred on the Sunday before the crucifixion took place on Friday.  As part of that procession, Mark tells us that the crowd waved “leafy branches” as they walked.  Passover, however, was celebrated on the 14th and 15th days of the month of Nissan, which would place it on our calendars somewhere between late March and early April.  This means that if this triumphal procession was historical it would have occurred a week earlier, which would run the date of the procession back deeper into March at the earliest and earlier in April at the latest.  Where at that time of year did these followers get leafy branches?  There are no leafy branches that early in the year in the Middle East where Jerusalem is located, so the date of Jesus’ crucifixion and its connection with the Passover begins to wobble visibly.

When Matthew incorporated Mark’s story into his own gospel about a decade later, he omitted the word “leafy” from his text.  Perhaps Matthew recognized that the presence of leafy branches in late March was a problem, so he has the disciples all wave only branches, not leafy branches.  Sticks, however, don’t wave.  It is only the leaves that give one the wavy sensation.

About a decade after Matthew, Luke wrote his gospel.  Once again, like Matthew, he had Mark in front of him and he too seemed to recognize that leafy branches in late March were a problem.  So he omitted not just the leaves but also the branches, telling the story only of the people laying down their garments on the path in front of Jesus.  Even that detail, however, probably assumes a warmer climate than would be normal in late March in Jerusalem,  People do not shed their outer garments in cold weather.

It is interesting to note that only when we reach John, who wrote his gospel between 95-100, which makes it a late tenth decade piece of writing, do these branches become palm branches with evergreen leaves.  That was John’s way of solving the problem.  So, our first clue is that at least in this detail, the original passion story suggests that the date of the crucifixion might have been different from a Passover setting in the late winter to early spring.

A deeper search of Mark reveals that he gives us yet another clue.  It is found in a strange narrative that Mark places on the day after the triumphal procession of Jesus into Jerusalem.  In Mark’s story this Sunday procession went to the Temple where Jesus only looked around at the money changers and then he and his disciples went to Bethany, a couple of miles outside Jerusalem to spend the night.  Bethany is identified elsewhere in the New Testament as the home of Mary and Martha, so perhaps they spent the night there.  The next morning Mark says that Jesus and his followers returned to Jerusalem.  This was to be, Mark proceeds to tell us, the day of the “Cleansing of the Temple” when Jesus drove out the money changers.  On his way to the city Mark says that Jesus was hungry and, seeing a fig tree in the distance, he went to it in search of fruit.  The fig tree, however, was bare.  Fig trees in the northern hemisphere do not bear fruit in late March.  Disappointed that his hunger was not satisfied Mark says that Jesus laid a curse on the fig tree.  When they returned to Bethany that evening following the cleansing of the Temple episode, they noted that the fig tree had in fact shriveled up and died.  To say the least this is a strange story and for Jesus to lay a curse on the fig tree for not producing fruit in March is quite un-Jesus like.  Is it possible that that this story was originally located in the fall season when figs should appear on fig trees, but as the crucifixion was brought liturgically into being observed at the time of the Passover, this story was dragged along with the crucifixion story creating this strange anomaly?  We file that clue and press on.

Next, we examine a Jewish celebration about which most Christians are uninformed, but which seems to be reflected in the Palm Sunday account in the gospels.  The Jews observed in the fall of the year a festival called Sukkoth or Tabernacles.  It was an eight-day harvest celebration marked by a liturgical procession to and around the Temple.  The people in the procession normally carried in their right hands something called a lulab that they waved as they walked.  This lulab was a group of branches tied together, made of willow, myrtle and palm. These fall branches were leafy and they waved.  As these worshipers marched, they recited Psalm 118 that says “Hosanna – Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”  It is clear that the Palm Sunday story, as we have received it, is closely associated with and draws some of its content from Sukkoth, a harvest festival celebrated in the fall of the year when fig trees do bear fruit.

Perhaps these bits of data suggest that the crucifixion of Jesus actually occurred in the fall of the year at the time of the harvest and not at the time of the Passover in the early spring.  When, however, the death of Jesus began to be interpreted in terms of the death of the Paschal Lamb then the two events were slowly drawn together until the crucifixion of Jesus came to be interpreted as having occurred in the context of the observance of the Passover itself. This connection certainly heightened the identification of the crucifixion of Jesus with the slaughter of the Paschal Lamb.  Both deaths were said to have had the power to hurl back death itself.  So we entertain the possibility that the Passover originally might not actually have been the historical setting of the crucifixion, but rather that over time, the Passover became the focus through which the crucifixion was interpreted.  This would mean that the connection between the two was liturgical rather than historical.  This might further suggest that if we wanted to read the passion story properly we should interpret it as liturgy seeking its meaning, rather than as history, which would lead us to speculate on whether or not it actually happened the way it is described.  That opens us to all kinds of new possibilities.  It is a theory worthy of consideration.  We will press this inquiry even deeper as this series continues.

~John Shelby Spong


Examining the Story of the Cross; Part III There Never Were “Seven Last Words” >From the Cross

One of the most dramatic services of Holy Week for me has always been the Good Friday “Three Hour Service.”  It was designed to enable Christian worshipers in some dramatic way to watch by the cross as their Lord died.  The traditional content of that three-hour service traditionally consisted of sermons or meditations on what were called “The Seven Last Words,” which were supposedly the words spoken by Jesus from the cross as he died.

Normally, the three hours were divided into a series of eight mini-services of twenty minutes or so in duration.  After one introductory sermon setting the stage for the day, each segment thereafter in this liturgy would usually consist of a reading from the gospel that included the quoted word from the cross; perhaps a Passiontide hymn like “Go to dark Gethsemane” or “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”, some prayers, which were characteristically of a penitential nature, and perhaps some silence for meditation.  There was opportunity for worshipers to come and go after each of the “words.”  A few, as the final act of their Lenten discipline, would stay for the whole three hours.  Sometimes these services would be ecumenical with clergy from various traditions taking one of the “words.”  Sometimes a number of churches would join in the observance and an outsider would be brought in to preach on each of the “Seven Last Words,” a pattern that would at least give consistency to the overall message.  Sometimes the local pastor would himself or herself do the entire three-hour service that, in my experience, would either be a work of supererogation for which the preacher would feel profoundly virtuous, or an intensely moving personal experience.  In my career I have participated in each of these formats; I have been one of many in a community service; I have done the entire service in the church I was serving; I have been the guest who did the “Words” in another city, and I have sat in the pews and listened to another for the entire three hours.  The three most memorable three-hour services that I can personally recall are first, when I was invited to be the Good Friday preacher at St. Peter’s Church, Charlotte, the downtown Episcopal church in which I had been raised as a child;  second, listening to a priest of my Diocese, David Hegg, in my present parish church, St. Peter’s, Morristown, New Jersey, preach on the death of Jesus on Good Friday, after he had experienced the death of his 27 year old daughter in an automobile accident just six days earlier, and, third, during the year that I had the privilege of teaching at Harvard I spent Good Friday listening to Dr. Peter Gomes, the senior minister of Memorial Church in the Harvard Yard and one of the great preachers of our time, do each of the seven words.

That three hour Good Friday liturgical pattern has, however, fallen into general disuse and for two major reasons I think.  First, churches located in the heart of business districts in the cities of this land have given way since World War II to churches located in the suburbs.  A noon to three p.m. service in the suburbs might not have a critical mass of people in the homes who might attend a midday service.  A city-center church where business people and shoppers could drop by for a convenient part of the three hours was the final expression of this tradition.  In recent years even in city-center churches this traditional Good Friday observance has thus been replaced with some lesser version, perhaps a one-hour services or, at best, one and a half hour services with perhaps a service toward the end of the three hours dedicated to the children, designed, I felt, to perpetuate the illusion of yesterday’s tradition. In many churches preaching has been replaced with liturgical music appropriate to the day.

The second reason for the demise of the Good Friday three hour service was, I believe, the fact that critical biblical scholarship has over the past 200 years demythologized, to use the word Rudolf Bultmann made famous, the way we understand the Bible.  The literal manner in which we once read the New Testament is simply no longer possible.  One of the casualties of that critical study is that we now recognize that Jesus did not actually say any of the supposed “seven last words” from the cross.  In order to reach the number seven people had simply collapsed the four gospels into a single blended collage, as if we could create from these separate sources a single historical and accurate narrative.  In our pre-literate biblical days we also did this with Christmas pageants, which were almost uniformly designed to blend Matthew’s story of Jesus’ nativity, which was the earliest of the birth accounts, with Luke’s story which was both the other and the latest.  The two stories are radically incompatible in many details, but that did not stop pageant producers from putting them together so that Matthew’s star in the east leading the magi to Bethlehem became the last scene in the story following Luke’s account of the angels’ visit to the shepherds and their journey to the manger in search of the baby.  Most people, influenced by too many pageants, still today think of these two stories as a single whole.

The “Seven Last Words” has had a similar history.  In the first two gospels, Mark written in the early 70’s and Matthew, composed about a decade later, the only “word” Jesus was said to have spoken from the cross was what came to be called, the “Cry of Dereliction,” which is “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  This intensely human cry, however, became an increasingly difficult “word” to attribute to Jesus as Christian history moved and the humanity of Jesus was increasingly replaced by various claims of his divinity.  Scholars also noted that this cry, while attributed to Jesus, was actually the first verse of Psalm 22, a psalm that clearly was used early in Christian history to interpret the crucifixion.  I will look at the influence of that psalm in the story of the crucifixion later in this series.

When the third gospel, Luke, was written, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” disappeared from his story and instead Luke created three brand new “words” from the cross that no one had ever heard before.  The mythical figure developed in II Isaiah (40-55), called the “Suffering Servant,” had clearly been influential in shaping Luke’s story of the cross.  The “Servant” was said to have made intercession for his oppressors so Luke had Jesus do the same, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they have done” was the result.  In Luke, for the first time, one of the two thieves crucified with Jesus was said to have become “penitent.” In the earlier gospels both thieves were said to have reviled him.  In his penitent state he was said to have begged Jesus to “remember him” when he came into his kingdom.  To this plea, Luke has Jesus promise, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”  Finally, instead of the final word from the cross at the moment of death being a fearful cry of forsakenness Luke has Jesus replace it with a note of triumph: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”

When we come to the Fourth Gospel, written near the end of the tenth decade, the author omits everything that Mark, Matthew and Luke have all proposed that Jesus spoke from the cross and he creates three entirely new sayings designed to satisfy his understanding of the death of Jesus.  The first was: “I thirst,” a note that also has its roots in Psalm 22.  The second was: “Woman, behold thy son.  Son, behold thy mother,” which helped the author to develop the character of the one he called “the beloved disciple.”  It is also noteworthy that only in this final gospel is there any reference to the presence of the mother of Jesus at the cross.  Lastly, John suggests as Jesus’ final word from the cross: “It is finished,” which catches up one of the Fourth Gospel’s unique interpretations of Jesus as the author of the new creation.

The fact is that in all probability Jesus never said any of these words from the cross and they certainly do not present a complete and harmonious story, since the “seven words” never appear together in any book of the Bible.

Despite the loss of this homiletical trick of preaching on the “Seven Last Words,” I still think there is a place for a three-hour Good Friday service.  I believe it should be an offering to the community everywhere a church is located in a business setting to which commuters flow in and out each day and where Easter shoppers are present in abundance.  I would, however, like to give “The Seven Last Words” an appropriate burial as the format of this Good Friday liturgy.  In their place I would suggest that the three-hour service be dedicated to understanding the unique way in which the passion story is interpreted by each gospel writer.  One year, for example, this Good Friday service would be based on the passion story according to Mark.  The next year Matthew’s passion narrative would form the content.  Luke’s story of the cross would be the emphasis for the third year. Finally, in a fourth year to complete the cycle, John’s gospel account of Jesus death would be examined in depth.  The clergy conducting these services would themselves in their preparation be forced to embrace the perspective of each gospel writer in order to lead their congregations into the way each gospel writer interpreted the death of Jesus.  Both clergy and their congregations would then be able to experience and to embrace the unique ways in which the story was originally told, to see how each gospel writer added new details, to observe the ways in which the story grew through the years and finally to engage the interpretive task in the quest to understand why the various additions were made.  Above all, this approach would help people know that, while the fact of the crucifixion is history, the interpretive details of each gospel writer are not.  Good Friday would be transformed into a day of entering the interpretive process that might serve to draw us more closely to this Jesus, instead of being used, as is the case so often with Good Friday preaching, as a means of eliciting guilt for what we did to Jesus.  I have never known guilt to help us grow into wholeness.  Such a tradition might help us recover the Jesus of history and the meaning of the cross itself.

~John Shelby Spong


Exploring the Meaning of the Cross: Part IV; The Symbols of the Hebrew Scriptures in the Crucifixion

The first narrative account of Jesus’ crucifixion in the Bible is found in the gospel of Mark written some 40-43 years, or approximately two generations, after the events it purports to describe.  You may read it in Mark 14:17-15:47.  It does not claim to be an eye witness account.  Indeed it draws most of its details not from anyone’s memory, but from the Hebrew Scriptures.  It is clearly an interpretive account designed to see the death of Jesus as the fulfillment of Jewish messianic hopes.

The two major sources from which Mark has crafted his story of the crucifixion are Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53.  We are generally familiar with these details primarily because we are familiar with Mark’s passion story.  Our awareness of the original sources, however, is generally quite limited.  From Psalm 22, Mark draws the only words that he claims Jesus spoke from the cross.  Psalm 22:1 says: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Psalm 22 then goes on to say in verses 7 and 8, “All that see me laugh me to scorn.  They shoot out their lips and they shake their heads saying, ‘He trusted in the Lord that he would deliver him.  Let him deliver him seeing he delighted in him.’”  Compare these words with Mark 15:29, “They that passed by railed on him, wagging their heads and saying, ‘Ah, thou that destroyest the Temple and buildest it in three days, save thyself and come down from the cross….He saved others; himself he cannot save.  Let Christ the King of Israel come down from the cross that we may see and believe’.”

Psalm 22 continues with these words, “I am poured out like water.  All my bones are out of joint…My tongue cleaveth to my jaws…They pierced my hands and feet…I may tell all my bones.”  All of these images and ideas are written into Mark’s story of the cross and they grow in form through the other synoptic accounts.  When John writes his version of the crucifixion almost thirty-five years after Mark,  he has Jesus cry, “I thirst” and he attests to the fact that none of his bones were broken.

Psalm 22 goes on to say (v. 18) “They part my garments among them and cast lots upon my vesture.” Mark writes in 15:24: “And when they had crucified him, they parted his garments, casting lots upon them what every man should take.”  No, Jesus did not miraculously fulfill the “predictions” of the Hebrew Scriptures in some predestined way, as I was once taught in my fundamentalist Sunday school, the gospels rather were written with the Hebrew Scriptures open and the gospel writers conformed their memory of Jesus to fit the expectations of those scriptures, which enabled them to interpret him in the light of these Jewish expectations.  Mark’s original passion narrative is thus not the report of an eye witness to the crucifixion at all.  It is, rather, an example of how the disciples of Jesus searched the Jewish scriptures for clues that they could use to prove that Jesus was in fact the expected messiah.  We are not dealing with history in the story of Jesus’ passion, but with interpretive material drawn from the Hebrew Scriptures.

The other favorite passage from the Old Testament that was used to illumine the entire Jesus experience in general, but the story of the crucifixion in particular, was what we now call “the servant passages” from II Isaiah (40-55).  Much of that text is also familiar to us not because we have read Isaiah, but because George Frederick Handel drew from it as the basis of his magnificent oratorio known as “Messiah.”  The best known images from this section of Isaiah’s servant passages are found in chapter 53.  Mark’s narrative of the crucifixion shows a deep compatibility with this part of II Isaiah’s work.  “He was wounded for our transgressions…by his stripes we are healed.” These are among the familiar words from Isaiah 53.  “He was despised, rejected, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” are also words said of the “servant”, but they have been applied so deeply to Jesus that most of us think these words were actually written about Jesus.  II Isaiah says of the Servant that he was “numbered with the transgressors.”  I am convinced that it was from this reference that the story of Jesus being crucified between two thieves or malefactors was derived.  It is interesting to watch the story of these two thieves develop.  In Mark their presence is noted, but they are not quoted as having said anything.  In Matthew, a decade later, both of them revile Jesus and pour out hostility on him.  By the time we come to Luke, perhaps a decade later, only one thief reviles him while the other in penitence is made to say to Jesus: “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Later in Isaiah 53, we are told that the servant “made his grave with a rich man.”  From this reference, I believe, came the developed story of Joseph of Arimathea who was said to be a ruler of the Jews and thus a rich man.  To portray Jesus as having been buried in Joseph’s tomb served two purposes.  First, it “fulfilled the scriptures” and second it covered the embarrassment of the apostolic abandonment, which was so real it could not have been denied, with a proper burial.

Another indication that we are not dealing with eye witness history in this narrative comes a bit earlier in Mark’s text when he announces that when Jesus was arrested, “all of his disciples forsook him and fled.”  Please note the text of Mark says “all” not “some.”  It is hard even today, but necessary if we are to engage the Jesus story honestly, to face the high probability that Jesus died alone.  There was no eye witness tradition that the gospel writers could draw on about the crucifixion because there were no eye witnesses.

The final evidence that this first narrative of the cross was not history comes from a deeper analysis of Mark’s whole passion story.  It is divided into eight three-hour segments.  The hours are marked and are meant to be noted.  It is written in a twenty-four hour format. Let me trace it.

In 14:17 Mark notes that “when evening came they were gathered in one place” for the Passover meal.  The phrase “when evening came” means that Mark was telling us that it was approximately 6 p.m. on the day we now call Maundy Thursday.  We know from other Jewish sources that the Passover meal normally included the extended family and it lasted about three hours.  That measure of time included games, the meal itself and the recitation of Israel’s historical beginnings, usually told by the male patriarch in response to the question, “Father, why is this night different from all other nights?” asked by the youngest male child.  The Passover ended with a hymn and the gathered family members then left for their own homes.

Mark tells us in this first segment of the passion of Jesus, that at the end of the meal they sang a hymn and departed into the night.  It is thus now 9 p.m.  We are then told that Jesus and his disciples went into the Garden of Gethsemane, where it was said that Jesus took three of his disciples to “watch” with him while he prayed.  They were, however, unable to perform this duty without falling asleep.  Indeed they could not watch with him one, two or three hours. The second segment of the twenty-four hours was thus over.

Jesus then comes out of the garden to meet Judas and the contingent of solders from the Temple guard.  It is midnight. The darkest deed in human history is to take place at the darkest hour of the night.  Jesus is then taken to the Sanhedrin for interrogation.  This interrogation takes us from midnight to 3 a.m.  The third segment of the vigil is complete.

The period of the night between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. was called “Cockcrow.”  Into this segment, Mark has installed the story of Peter’s threefold denial before the “cock crowed,” presumably one denial for each hour.  Then right on cue, Mark says, “When morning came,” which means it is now 6 a.m.  Here Mark tells us the details of the trial before Pilate; the introduction of Barabbas; the torture, and the mocking purple robe and crown of thorns.

Mark then says “it was at the third hour” or 9 a.m., when they crucified him.  At the sixth hour or 12 noon Mark says “darkness covered the whole earth.”  It lasted, not surprisingly, for three hours.  At 3 p.m. Jesus uttered, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and died or as the Elizabethan translation we call the King James Version says, “He gave up the ghost.”

From 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. we hear of the negotiations of Joseph of Arimathea to bury him in his tomb, a task that is completed before the sun goes down to mark the beginning of the Sabbath, the day of rest.

Two things become obvious in this study.  First, most of the familiar details of the crucifixion story are not eye witness accounts of things that actually happened.  They are rather interpretive accounts based upon the Hebrew Scriptures in which Jesus is seen, despite the fact that he had been crucified, as the anticipated messiah.  Second, they were not written to describe what actually happened, but to lead worshippers to new insights through a twenty-four hour liturgical vigil.  Just as the Jews had marked the beginning of their life as the people of God with a three-hour liturgical celebration known to us as “The Passover,” so Christians decided to mark the beginning of their life as a distinct people called to a new relationship with God in which they found salvation with a matching liturgical act.  In the process they stretched the three hour Passover into a twenty-four hour vigil.  What we are reading as Mark’s story of Jesus’ passion is a liturgical rite in which they could relive the last events in the life of one they believed was messiah and through whom they were convinced that they saw God in a dramatically new way.

We have been blinded to the holiest moments in our faith story by our failure to grasp the fact that the story of the cross is not literal, but interpretive.  Its purpose was not to tell us how Jesus died, but who Jesus was and how his death revealed that.  Armed with this clue, we can enter an entirely new dimension of the Bible itself.

~John Shelby Spong



Examining the Story of the Cross, Part V; Barabbas – Another Interpretive Figure

In Mark’s original story of the Passion of Jesus, he introduces for the first time in any written Christian record the figure of Barabbas.  In this story we are told two things:  First, it was a Roman custom to release a prisoner at the feast of the Passover, one whose freedom the people desired.  Second, the Roman authorities were holding a prisoner whose name was Barabbas, who had been part of an insurrection in which a murder had been carried out.  In occupied Judah an insurrection might be an act of terror against the oppressive rule of Rome where Roman soldiers and Jews who collaborated with the Romans were regarded as targets for death.  It does not have quite the same meaning that we might have in our society when a person is designated a murderer. In Mark’s narrative, nonetheless, the crowd asks to have Barabbas not Jesus released to them.  When Pilate asked what then should he do with Jesus of Nazareth, the response of the crowd was “Crucify him! Crucify him!

The first hint I had that this story might be something other than history came when I decided to research this supposed custom of the Romans freeing a prisoner at the Passover.  I could find no reference to such a custom anywhere in either in Roman records or Jewish records.  This Marcan narrative appears to be the only place where such a “custom” was mentioned.  One-time customs are always a bit suspicious.

Next I looked at the name ‘Barabbas.’  I am not fluent in either Hebrew or Aramaic, but I do know the meaning of many Hebrew and Aramaic words.  Barabbas contains the familiar term for God – Abba.  It was the name Jesus, somewhat uniquely, was said to use for God.  It is a name that has an intimate, deeply personal connotation about it.  So the last half of Barabbas’ name turns out to be nothing less than the word for God.  Turning then to the first part of the name we discover that “bar” is also a familiar Jewish word.  It means “son.”  Jesus says to Peter at Caesarea Philippi, “Blessed are you Simon, bar Jonah, for flesh and blood have not revealed these things to you.”  Bar-Jonah means son of Jonah.  The name “Bartimaeus,” in the account of the restoring of sight to Bartimaeus, means the son of Timaeus. So the name Barabbas literally means “son of God.”  So Mark was telling us in his story of the passion of Jesus that at the time of the crucifixion, there were two figures, not just one, about whom the “son of God” claim was being made,  one was Jesus and the other was Barabbas, so the intrigue builds.  As this passion drama played out one son of God, namely Jesus, was killed, while the other son of God, Barabbas, was set free.  With this distinction now clearly worked out, my mind began to roam over the Jewish liturgical terrain against which I now was beginning to understand that the story of the crucifixion was written, and new possibilities began to open that a literal reading of these texts would never be imagined.  Let me develop a few of these possibilities.

Jesus was called in the early days of the Christian movement “The lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”  In Jewish worship tradition, two holy days required the sacrifice of an animal, normally a lamb.  One was Passover where the blood of the paschal lamb was placed on the doorposts of Jewish homes in order to repel the power of death.   We have already observed in this series on the passion of Jesus the way in which the Passover shaped the story of the cross.  There was, however, another Jewish holy day in which another animal, again normally a lamb, was sacrificed for the sins of the people.  It was called Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement, which came on the tenth day of the Jewish month of Tishri, which would place it in October in our calendar.  It is that liturgical observance that I want to examine in this study.

In the traditional observance of Yom Kippur, two animals are brought to the High Priest.  They could be lambs or goats, but as the tradition developed it tended to be one of each.  These animals in this liturgy represented what human beings yearned to be. The people felt a need to come into to God’s presence, but considered themselves unworthy to do so.  So they developed a liturgical act which employed a symbol of the perfection they felt they lacked. That is why this lamb had to be physically perfect, with no scratches, scars or broken bones, and since the lamb was thought to live below the level of human freedom and could not, therefore, choose to do evil, it was also assumed to be morally perfect.  So on the Day of Atonement the people came to God through the symbol of the perfect Lamb of God.

As this liturgical act developed the first of these animals was taken by the High Priest and slaughtered as a sacrifice.  Then armed with the blood of the perfect Lamb of God, the High Priest would enter the part of the Temple known as the Holy of Holies, where God was believed to dwell.  The throne of God inside the Holy of Holies was called the Mercy Seat.  The High Priest would proceed to smear the blood of this lamb onto the Mercy Seat.  The understanding was that sinful people could now come into the presence of God “through the blood of the Lamb of God.”  Atonement was achieved at least liturgically and estrangement was overcome.

Next, the other animal, normally a goat, was brought to the High Priest.  Bowing over the goat with his hands on the goat’s horns, the High Priest would begin to confess the sins of the people.  The symbolism here was that all of the sins of the people came out of the people and landed on the head and back of the goat, making the goat the “sin bearer,” thus leaving the people sinless and again at one with God.  Then as the bearer of the people’s sins, the goat was thought to be so evil and unworthy of continued life that the gathered worshipers pronounced curses on it and called for its death.  The goat, however, was not put to death, but was set free and driven into the wilderness taking the sins of the people with it.  The goat was called the “scapegoat” in the Bible because it had to pay the price and suffer the affliction due to others for their sins.

So in the Yom Kippur liturgy there were two animals representing the deepest aspirations of the human race for oneness with God.  One was killed and its blood placed between God and sinful human lives.  One was set free, carrying with it the sins of the people.  Is it possible that in Mark’s original story of the crucifixion that he wrote into his narrative quite deliberately the symbols of Yom Kippur and used them to interpret the death of Jesus?  In Mark’s passion story two people called the son of God are present, Jesus of Nazareth and the fictional Barabbas.  As such they matched the two animals of Yom Kippur in that one was sacrificed and the other set free.  The blood of the first was said to be the means whereby sinful people could have their sins covered by passing through the blood of the lamb of God.  The other animal by being set free became the sin bearer, who carried the sins of the people away.

Both aspects of Yom Kippur were seen by Mark to be part of the meaning of Jesus.  The story line he is following seems to suggest this.  In the Yom Kippur liturgy the sin bearer was cursed by the people and they called for its death.  Is this not reflected in Mark’s story when Jesus is condemned to die and is made to hear the curses of the people and the calls: “Crucify him, Crucify him!

If that analysis rings true, it would be one more indication that Mark, who wrote this first version of the crucifixion in the eighth decade of the Christian era knew that he was not writing history and it never occurred to him that anyone would ever read these words literally.  He was interpreting the death of Jesus under the recognized symbols of Jewish worship.  Jewish people attending the synagogue would recognize what he was doing and would hear and understand his words as Mark intended them to be heard and understood.  Passover clearly was used to interpret the death of Jesus while Yom Kippur provided the background to the symbolic language which the gospel writer employed. Barabbas was thus a symbol not a person.

This interpretive process worked well so long as most of the Christian readers of the gospels were Jewish and were thus familiar with Jewish liturgy.  By the middle of the second century of the Common Era, however, the Christian Church had become predominantly Gentile.  They did not know, understand or even care to learn about the Jewish symbols of worship.  When Gentiles began to read the gospels they assumed that Mark was writing literal history. Over the centuries, their literalized understandings of the story of the cross were expressed in their hymns, creeds, doctrines, art and particularly in the” Stations of the Cross.”  Without a Jewish background they knew of no other way to read them.  With the advent of critical biblical scholarship in the early years of the 19th century, doubts began to be raised about their literal and historical accuracy.  That was when creeds and faith began to wobble.  How, people wondered, does the death of Jesus free us from our sins today?  Is that not the claim that literal reading Christians still try to make? Does not this assertion, however, transform God into a punishing ogre, the ultimate child abuser who kills the divine son in order to forgive our sins?  Does this make logical sense?  Armed with this new insight we can now look anew at all of the symbols in the crucifixion story. Was there really darkness at noon on the day of the crucifixion?  Did the veil in the Temple really split from top to bottom between the holy place and the Holy of Holies when Jesus died? Did Jesus really quote from Psalm 22 from the cross?

Literalizing the story destroys the meaning of every detail.  If one is not able to believe these literalized symbols, the only alternative here is to give up the story altogether.  So mindless fundamentalism and secular humanism become the only two possibilities.  What a shallow treatment of this magnificent Jewish portrait this is.  The Passion story is much more than that.

~John Shelby Spong


Exploring the Story of the Cross, Part VI The Enigma Called Judas

The anti-hero of the Christian story in general and of the crucifixion story in particular is one who is known as Judas Iscariot. Scorn and ridicule have been heaped on this figure over the centuries of Christian history. Much anti-Semitism has flowed from the depiction of this character. No one anywhere names his or her child “Judas.” The name itself has become the synonym for betrayal, for being stabbed in the back. The phrase “thirty pieces of silver” is referred to in print time and time again in the context of other incidents of traitorous behavior. When Judas is depicted in Christian art he is portrayed in dark and sinister tones. Events in western Christian history from the Inquisition in the 14th century to the expulsion of the Jews from or the ghettoizing of Jews in almost every country of Europe at one time or another, to Martin Luther’s call for the burning of synagogues, to the violence and killing frenzy of the Holocaust in the 20th century are all rooted substantially in the biblical portrait of Judas and through him applied to all Jewish people. It does not escape notice that the name Judas is identical with the name Judah, by which the entire Jewish nation was called, Judas being simply a Greek spelling of that name. Given this history, what can we then say about the literal biblical character known as Judas Iscariot? Can 21st century people, employing the critical tools of biblical and historical scholarship now available to us, cast light on this figure? I think we can.

The first questions we need to raise are very basic. Is Judas actually a person of history or is he a mythical character, a symbol that the original writers and hearers of the gospels would have understood, but whose meaning escaped later non-Jewish readers? To begin to answer these questions, I turn first to the record regarding this figure in the New Testament itself and see what light a critical study of those various books might say about this major character in the Jesus drama, which the gospel writers were creating forty to seventy year after the crucifixion.

I begin with the earliest Christian writings that we possess the authentic epistles of Paul, all of which can be dated between 51 at the earliest and 64 at the latest. This makes them just 21 to 34 years after the crucifixion, which makes these Pauline writings the closest writing we have to the historical events surrounding the crucifixion. They are also one or two decades before the first gospel (Mark) was written and four to five decades before the last gospel (John) was completed. So our first task is to examine what Paul, the original New Testament writer, had to say about Judas Iscariot. The answer surprises many. Paul said nothing about Judas. Not a single, solitary mention of his name! Pressing deeper we ask if Paul says anything about an act of betrayal. The answer to that question is vague, since it depends on how one Greek word is translated. In I Corinthians, written in the mid-fifties (54-56) Paul says in chapter 11, “On the night that Jesus was handed over, he took bread.” Paul then proceeds to relate the story of the institution of the Christian Eucharist, known as “The Lord’s Supper.” Note three things about this single reference. First, there is no indication in his text whatsoever that Paul identified the meal with a Passover meal. This identification would come later only when the gospels were written. Second, the word used in this single text is properly translated “handed over” not “betrayed,” which means that the idea of betrayal was based on a later, harsher rendering of that word. In the Pauline text by itself here is no indication that this “handing over” constituted an overt act of betrayal. At the very least it is not as strong a word as people have assumed in Christian history Thirdly, there is no sense in this original reference to the handing over of Jesus that it was the work of one of ‘the twelve.” So the first question we face is what do these omissions mean? Could Paul simply have assumed the truth of what came to be thought of as the “traditional view” of betrayal without actually mentioning them? That would be in the category of possible but not probable! An act as painful and scandalous as betrayal at the hands of one of the twelve would be hard to ignore. If such a tradition were known could it possibly have been omitted? I do not think so ,which leads me to suggest that it was not known.

Recall that Paul was a student of the law as well as an educated rabbi and a rigid observer of Jewish liturgical forms. The words “handed over” are quite passive and do not seem to imply a planned act of traitorous behavior such as that described in the gospel accounts where Judas has contact with the Temple authorities well in advance of the act and even agrees on the amount of the payment that he is to receive for his cooperation. The clinching argument for me is that Paul, just four chapters later in the same epistle, describes the resurrection appearances by saying: “He (Jesus) first appeared to Cephas (Peter) and then to the twelve.” Note “the twelve!” Judas is still present. Could the traitor still be part of the intimate band of disciples if he had brought about the death of their leader? That is to me inconceivable! So, I conclude that in the writings of Paul there is no hint that one of the twelve was the traitor, which means that the Judas story has to be a story that developed after Paul’s time and is thus not an original part of the tradition. Recall that thirty years later Matthew would say that Jesus appeared only to “the eleven.” All of these data point to the probability that betrayal at the hands of one of the twelve named Judas was not a fact of history, but an interpretive addition to a developing tradition.

When Paul was forced later to defend his own apostleship, an activity that permeates his authentic writing, would it not have helped his cause to refer to the defection of one of the twelve, to bolster his apostolic claim as one whom he said “was born out of due time?”

Having filed these first seeds of doubt, based on contemporary biblical insight, I now turn to the gospels and trace in them the development of the story of Judas. Lining up the gospels in the order in which they were written and focusing only on what each gospel says about Judas, we discover that between Mark, dated in the early 70’s, and John dated in the late 90’s, the figure of Judas grows more and more evil. Judas is mentioned for the first time in written history in chapter three where Mark introduces the twelve and identifies Judas as the one who betrayed him. It is of interest to note that both Luke and John tell us of another one of the twelve who is named “Judas,” but who is not Iscariot. It appears that a good Judas is also in the Christian memory in the 1st century. When Mark first describes Judas‘ traitorous act, he does so in a fairly low key fashion. In this first gospel Mark mentions no bribe and no stated motive; he does say, however that Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss at midnight. Then Judas disappears from Mark’s story and is never mentioned again. Matthew, the second gospel to be written (82-85), builds on Mark’s story, but he now supplies the motive, a bribe of thirty pieces of silver. Matthew goes on to tell us that Judas repented and hurled the thirty pieces of silver back into the Temple and then went and hanged himself. The Judas story is clearly growing. Luke, writing about a decade after Matthew, explains Judas’ actions as having been done at the impulse of “the devil.” John, writing between 95-100, suggests that Judas was a thief and that he would do anything for money. John also says that when Judas left the upper room to do the dastardly deed, he walked out of light into darkness. At that moment “it was night.” says the Fourth Gospel. As the years go by Judas grows darker.

Next, we take all of the biographical details found in gospels about Judas and search the Hebrew Scriptures about other traitors in Jewish history to see if we can see any literary connections. The result of this search is that every detail attributed to Judas in the gospels is present in earlier stories of traitors in the Hebrew Scriptures.

First we look at the Genesis story of Joseph being “handed over” by his brothers, a band of twelve, to be sold into slavery in Egypt. The brother who decided to receive money for this deed was named Judah. I do not think that is coincidental. In the David cycle of stories in the book of II Samuel the king was called “The Lord’s Anointed,” the same word that would later be translated “messiah.” He was betrayed by a man named Ahithophel, who also broke bread with King David around the table just as Judas was portrayed as doing at the last supper in the gospel narratives. This same Ahithophel, when he recognized the consequences of his actions, was said to have hanged himself. That detail is added to the Judas story by Matthew. The idea of being betrayed with a kiss is also found in the David cycle of stories when Joab, David’s military Chief of Staff was replaced after Absalom’s rebellion by a man named Amasa, Joab sought out his successor under the guise of congratulating him. When he found him, he drew Amasa by the beard to give him the kiss of friendship only to disembowel him simultaneously with a dagger. Mark has Judas kiss Jesus in the Garden to fulfill a signal given to the Chief Priests. Luke, writing in the book of Acts, suggests that Judas died not by hanging, but by falling down and having “all his bowels gush out.” Is the literary fate of the betrayed Amasa at work here?

Finally, in Zechariah 9-14, the Shepherd King of Israel is betrayed to those who are traders in the Temple for thirty pieces of silver, which was then later thrown back into the Temple, just as Matthew says Judas did with his thirty pieces of silver.

A study of Hebrew sources reveals Judas as a composite of Old Testament traitors described in the Bible. Perhaps Paul did not know about the Judas story because it had not yet been developed. The Judas story grows darker as the years go by because not being history it is still being created. Every detail in the gospel portrait of Judas can be found in earlier biblical traitor stories. Is it then not possible that Judas is a literary figure, a corporate symbol developed for an interpretive purpose to serve some apologetic Christian need? I think this conclusion is both possible and probable. What purpose would such a story serve? I will turn to that question next week and seek to address it then.

~John Shelby Spong


Exploring the Story of the Cross, Part VII – What Judas Iscariot Meant in the Eighth Ninth & Tenth Decades of Christian Development

Last week we began a biblical analysis of Judas Iscariot.  First, we noted that Paul, who wrote and died before any gospel had been written, was totally unaware of the tradition that one of the “twelve” played the role of the traitor.  Not only is there no mention of this when Paul wrote the account of Jesus being “handed over,” but also when Paul described the experience of resurrection on “the third day,” he said that Jesus was seen by the “twelve.”  Judas is still among them, a fact that would have been inconceivable if he had been the traitor.  Next we looked at how the Judas story, introduced into the Christian narrative by Mark, the first gospel writer somewhere between the years 70-72, grew and developed as new details were added when each successive gospel was written, until the Fourth gospel completed the New Testament’ Judas  portrait somewhere between the years 95-100.  Finally, we took those developing gospel details and, guided by them, began a search of the Hebrew Scriptures for other tales of traitors to see if in those Jewish sources any of the things said later about Judas were present.  We discovered that every single detail in the New Testament’s account of Judas could be accounted for in this manner.  This suggests that the story of Judas is not that of a person of history, but of a mythological creation.

One other detail that needs to be noted is that while Judas, the symbol of the Jewish nation, grows darker and more sinister as each successive gospel is composed, Pontius Pilate, the symbol of the Roman authorities, grows more and more benevolent. Pilate is portrayed as struggling to have Jesus released, offering Barabbas in exchange, washing his hands publicly and announcing that “I find no fault in him.”  Keep in mind that the gospels were written 40-70 years after the crucifixion.  They are not eye witness accounts, but interpretive portraits and we must not pretend that they are describing things that actually happened; they are seeking to interpret what the death of Jesus meant and to find in it the salvation purpose that they assumed his death accomplished.  With that in mind, it is also essential to be cognizant of the history of that time and to embrace the context in which the gospels were composed and how the story of a traitor named Judas might have emerged.

The Jewish people were conquered by the Roman Empire about 65 years before the birth of Jesus, thus breaking the oppression of the Syrians and beginning the period of oppression at the hands of the Romans.  As a conquered people the Jews displayed the entire gamut of responses that subjugated people always display: some sought to cooperate with their conquerors, some endured this oppression passively and some resisted in every way they could.  The general population of Jews admired these resisters calling them “freedom fighters.”  The Romans on the other hand regarded them as “terrorists.”  In fact these rebellious Jews tended to organize themselves as guerrilla warriors and set up camp in the natural hideouts of the hills of Galilee to harass their conquerors with a series of hit and run attacks. From these hiding places they would swoop out on small contingents of Roman soldiers, destroy them and then fade back into those hills.  They were a nuisance to the Romans, but a costly nuisance.

Emboldened by their guerrilla successes, these “patriots,” who were also known as “the Zealots,” decided in 66 AD that they were sufficiently strong to attack the Romans directly and to drive them out, thus securing Jewish freedom once again. So they began activities that looked more and more like general warfare and less and less and less like sporadic guerrilla tactics.  It was a military gamble that in retrospect proved to be quite foolish.  The Romans responded with maximum force and began to neutralize the Galilean hills, but they were unable to destroy the guerrilla bands since moving a heavily-armed Roman force into those hills was all but impossible.  When the hostilities escalated, however, the Romans under a commander named Vespasian decided that they had to attack and destroy the heart of the Jewish nation.  The Galilean guerrillas could not continue without support from Judea and Jerusalem.  So invading Judea with a powerful military force, the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem and in the year 70 CE, breached the walls, cracked the defense perimeter and moved into the Jewish capital city.  The Romans went through Jerusalem in that year like the Russians went through Berlin in 1945.  Not one stone was left on another.  When the smoke of battle cleared, the nation of Judea no longer existed, the city of Jerusalem had been destroyed and the Temple had been razed to the ground as all Jewish resistance was crushed.  Those who managed to escape retreated into the desert to a fortress named Masada, where they held out until the year 73 when they too were finally destroyed.  Josephus, a Jewish historian, tells us that the defenders at Masada, knowing that if they were captured alive death by crucifixion awaited them, engaged in an act of mass suicide until not a Jewish soldier was still alive when the Romans finally entered the fort.

This war unleashed enormous hostility on the part of the Romans toward all Jews for having brought this war upon themselves and upon Rome.  Within the Jewish community the members of the Orthodox party, who controlled the worship of the Temple and who had in fact supported the guerrilla fighters, were held particularly responsible for bringing this disaster upon the Jewish nation. The Roman authorities, however, did not distinguish one Jew from another. Revisionist Jews, a category that at that time included the disciples of Jesus who were called not Christians but the “Followers of the Way,” sought to find a way to separate themselves from the Orthodox Party for the sake of their own survival, lest they be tarred with the same brush with which all Jews were being tarred by the Romans.  How better to do that than to make the villain of the Jesus story someone who bore the name of the Jewish nation by shifting the responsibility for the death of Jesus away from the Roman officials, who alone had the power to execute, and to portray the Romans as crucifying Jesus, but only under pressure from the Orthodox Party of the High Priest and Sadducees.  This meant that the same people who had been responsible for the war against Rome were now said to have been also responsible for the death of the founder of their own movement.

They would thus portray Jesus not as a revolutionary – “My kingdom is not of this world,” – and at the same time portray Pilate, the Roman governor, in increasingly benevolent terms seeking to set Jesus free.  The principle these “Followers of the Way” were trying to establish was that “if your enemy is also my enemy then we should be friends.”  To frame the Jesus story as an act of betrayal by the Orthodox party of the Jews accomplished these goals.  So Matthew’s gospel can portray Pilate as seeking Jesus’ release but being thwarted seeking to remove his guilt by announcing: “I am innocent of the blood of this just man.” At the same time characterizing the Jews as a “mob” at the foot of the cross, saying words that would fuel anti-Semitism through the centuries: “His blood be upon us and upon our children.”  This group thus began a process of separating the followers of Jesus from the Jews that ultimately resulted in the “Followers of the Way” being excommunicated from the synagogues around the year 88 CE and pushing Christianity rapidly into becoming a Gentile movement. Ultimately they sought to deny the Jewish womb that had given them birth.

Soon fierce hostility toward the Jews became a primary mark of Christianity and its intensity grew in the first centuries of Christian history.  The Church Fathers, Polycarp, Irenaeus, John Chrysostom and Jerome, among many others, filled their writings with a blood-curdling anti-Semitism.  To them the Jews were “vermin unfit for life” and “Christ-Killers.”  Forced conversions, the kidnapping and subsequent baptizing of Jewish babies enabled them to use a law prohibiting a Christian child from being raised by “infidels,” to make legal the separation of Jewish children from their parents.  Good Friday became a day of peril for Jews as Christian emerged from their churches and cathedrals filled with wrath for what “the Jews had done to Jesus” and seeking revenge by beating Jews, destroying Jewish property and sometimes killing Jews.  The Crusades were filled with anti-Semitism – so was the Inquisition – Martin Luther added fuel to the fires of hatred with his diatribes against Jews and his call for the burning of synagogues.  The Holocaust was the final incredible explosion of the anti-Semitism poured into the blood stream of Western civilization by Christian people.  It all began I now believe when out of their need to survive the hostility of the Romans following the Jewish-Roman war the Christians created the character of Judas making him the quintessential Jew and using him to shift the blame for the death of Jesus away from the Romans, where it surely belonged, and onto the Jews, which allowed Christians to justify their anti-Semitism for centuries.

The stereotype of a Jew from the character of Shylock in Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” to the images of Jewish people as money grubbing bankers is all derived from the portrait of Judas who would do anything for money.  Because Jews were not allowed in Christian Europe to own any land, they became bankers and jewelers and in the process this anything-for-money reputation was enhanced.

The facts are that Jesus was put to death by the Romans, but his death was blamed on the Jews for political reasons.  Judas was the vehicle for accomplishing this.  It is never too late to roll the prejudices of ages back.  It is never too late for Christians to bow in apology before our Jewish brothers and sisters and to beg forgiveness.  It is never too late to be vigilant against anti-Semitism whenever it lifts its ugly head.  As we come to observe Good Friday this year in the name of the Jewish Jesus, I invite my fellow Christians to join me in doing just that.

~John Shelby Spong

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