Archive for category scripture
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“Think Different—Accept Uncertainty”
Analyzing the Miracles Attributed to Jesus
Bishop John Spong
When most people think of the miracles included in the gospels, they usually think of a broad series of apparently supernatural acts. They tend not to be familiar with the intimate details of the biblical narrative. When those details are revealed, questions are inevitably raised as to the purpose the gospel writer had in mind when he was writing, and the possibility that these stories were never meant to be taken literally rises substantially. Allow me to illustrate that with some easily discovered biblical data. I begin with the most miraculous of the biblical claims.
Did Jesus literally raise people from the dead? A search of the gospel texts reveals these biblical facts. The gospels suggest that three different people are called by Jesus from death into life, but only one of those stories occurs in more than one of the gospels. That is the account of the raising of Jairus’ daughter. It makes its first appearance in Mark (5:21-24, 35-43), a book written in the early seventies. The details in this original narrative tell us that Jairus was a “ruler of the synagogue,” who comes to Jesus beseeching him to heal his daughter “who is at the point of death.” Jesus begins to move toward Jairus’ home. As he does so, there is another healing miracle, the story of the woman with an issue of blood, inserted by Mark to take up the time during which they were on the way to Jairus’ house. Having completed that episode the journey continues only to be interrupted by Jairus’ servants coming to inform the synagogue ruler that the child has died and he is not to trouble the “teacher” any longer.
Jesus, apparently unmoved by this report, speaks to Jairus telling him not to be fearful, but to believe and so the journey continues. Arriving at the house, Jesus is greeted by a host of mourners, who are weeping and wailing. He asks them why they are mourning, informing them that the child “is not dead but sleeping.” The mourners laugh at him. Closing the door on the mourners, Jesus goes with the child’s parents and his disciples into the child’s room. He takes the child’s hand and commands her to rise. She does. Mark then tells us that she is twelve-years-old. Jesus orders them to give her food and departs leaving behind him a trail of wonder and amazement.
That same story is told next with only slight variations by Matthew (9:18-26) writing in the mid-eighties and then once again by Luke (8:40-56) writing in the late 80’s to early 90’s. Both Matthew and Luke incorporated substantial portions of Mark into their gospels and so we are not surprised to find the story not only repeated in each, but in exactly the same context of events, that is the message of the child’s sickness, the journey, the healing of another on the way and then word of the child’s death. It is obvious that in these three accounts we have a single story in three slightly different versions.
For help in understanding this story we turn to a remarkably similar episode that was said to have occurred in the life of the prophet Elisha recorded in the book of II Kings (4:8-36). In that story, Elisha raises a child of about twelve from the sleep of death. The only difference is that for Elisha the child is a boy not a girl. In each story, there is a message sent to the “healer” while he is a long distance away. In both stories, the healer continues to the child’s house, goes directly into the room where the child is lying on the bed. Elisha is said to have done mouth to mouth resuscitation, stretching himself on the body of the child.
Jesus is portrayed as taking her hand and speaking the word of healing. In each story, the child is restored to health. Could it be that this Jesus story was originally nothing more than a re-telling of an Elisha story as if it had occurred in Jesus’ life as a way of relating Jesus to the tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures and claiming for him the status of being a new Elisha? I think that is highly likely.
The only other raising from the dead story that occurs in the synoptic gospels is told in Luke (7:11-17). In this miracle account the only son of a widow is restored to life by Jesus in the village of Nain. There is little doubt that this man is dead, for his body is on the funeral bier in a procession toward his place of burial. Yet once again by looking at an older Elijah story (I Kings 17:24), we find remarkable similarities. There we discover that Elijah was also said to have raised the only son of a widow from the dead. We also know that Luke will draw on more than one occasion from the Elijah stories to relate his understanding of Jesus. Is that what this raising of the dead story, found only in Luke, is all about? I believe it is.
There is only one other raising from the dead story in the gospels and it is the very dramatic account of the raising of Lazarus recorded only in the Fourth Gospel, a work that is generally dated at the end of the first century, ca. 95-100 or 65-70 years after the crucifixion. The details are these: It is a public not a private act. Jesus’ disciples, his friends and even his enemies are present. The person, who is to be raised, is not only dead, but he has been buried for four days. John’s text even warns Jesus that there will be an odor if the tomb is opened. Jesus, nevertheless, orders the stone covering the mouth of the cave to be removed and then he literally calls Lazarus out of the grave.
Lazarus comes like a walking mummy, bound by the grave cloths in which he has been wrapped and from which he must be freed. If such a credibility-stretching episode had really occurred, ask yourself whether it is likely that no one in that public gathering would mention it for more than three generations before John writes it down. I will return to this story in this series next week, but suffice it now to say that no biblical scholar today regards the account of the raising of Lazarus as history.
So this brief analysis reveals that the three gospel stories of Jesus raising someone from the dead might mean something quite different from that arrived at by reading them as literal history, an insight confirmed again and again as we look at the miracles of Jesus more closely.
The next category of miracles, attributed to Jesus, is what we call “nature” miracles: Jesus walking on water, stilling the storm and feeding the multitude with loaves and fishes. A close look at these narratives also yields new possibilities for non-literal interpretation. Most people are not aware, for example, that there are six separate versions of the feeding of the multitude story in the four gospels. There are two in Mark, two in Matthew, one in Luke and one in John. Since Mark and Matthew are older than Luke and John, it looks like the multiple accounts of the feeding stories are the earlier tradition. So we look first at Mark and Matthew. The symbols present in these narratives then begin to pop out of the text. In Mark, Jesus, on the Jewish side of the lake, feeds 5000 men (plus women and children) with five loaves and two fish. Afterwards twelve baskets of fragments are gathered up so that “nothing is lost.”
Then Jesus moves to the Gentile side of the lake and proceeds to replicate the experience, but this time he feeds 4000 people with seven loaves and a few fish and afterwards seven baskets of fragments are collected. The numbers employed: five loaves, 5000 people and twelve baskets of fragments on the Jewish side of the lake and seven loaves, 4000 people and seven baskets of fragments on the Gentile side of the lake scream at us not to read these narratives as literal history, but as symbolic feedings, perhaps as early Eucharists. By the time we get to John’s gospel those eucharistic connections are clear since John has Jesus liken his flesh to the manna that fell on the starving Israelites in the wilderness, making it clear that these stories are related to the Moses accounts in which God feeds the children of Israel with heavenly bread. Thus it becomes apparent that these feeding stories are not to be understood as literal happenings, but as interpretive narratives being retold about Jesus, the “New Moses.” I wonder how many people who sit in the pews have ever been invited to view miracles from this non-literal perspective.
Moving on to the miracles of healing, let me illustrate this same non-literal approach by looking at just one narrative, the restoration of sight to a blind man from Bethsaida (Mark 8:22-26). This miracle story is unique because the first application of the hands of Jesus on the eyes of this blind man was not successful, at least not completely. After Jesus anointed this man’s eyes with clay and spittle the blind man can see only “trees walking.”
Only with the second laying on of hands was his sight fully restored. If this is really a miracle story then why was Jesus’ power inadequate the first time? The literal mindset is buffeted by these questions, but a look at the context in which this story appears in Mark offers a powerful clue. Mark places this story just before the account of Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi. In Peter’s confession he says the right words “You are the Christ,” but he clearly does not know what they mean. When Jesus begins to tell him what the Christ role is to be – suffering, rejection and death — Peter objects eliciting from Jesus the stern rebuke: “Get thee behind me Satan, for you are not on the side of God, but of men.” Peter is surely portrayed as a blind man who begins to see, but not clearly, and a second experience must precede his full entry into both faith and sight. It should not come as a surprise when we discover Peter hails from Bethsaida.
Is this then really a miracle story, the account of a supernatural healing of a blind man? I do not think so, nor do I think that this is what Mark intended us to understand as we read his gospel. Mark is rather writing a parable about the conversion of Peter, a blind man who has to be led to seeing and thus to faith in stages.
There are many more things that I can say about the miracle stories of the gospels, but I will devote only one more column to this subject to allow me to deal more fully with the fascinating story of the raising of Lazarus. For now let me say bluntly that I no longer think that the miracles of the gospels have anything to do with what we once called the miraculous.
“Think Different—Accept Uncertainty” Part XIII: Miracles As Signs to Be Interpreted
Today, as a part of the overall series entitled “Think Different–Accept Uncertainty,” I want to begin to press this mini-unit on the miracle stories of the gospels toward a conclusion. My concern has been to show modern readers that these miraculous narratives found in the gospels were always symbolic, interpretive stories rather than supernatural accounts arising out of the lack of knowledge present in that pre-modern world, filled as it was with fear and superstition. The first thing we noted was that the miracles attributed to Jesus in the New Testament fell into three distinct categories: nature miracles, raising of the dead miracles and making people whole miracles.
Our next insight came from looking at the miracle stories found in earlier traditions in the Hebrew Scriptures. There we noted that, for the most part, miracles in the Bible were centered in three cycles of stories. First, there was the Moses-Joshua cycle where the miracle stories all seemed to involve power over the forces of nature. Here we found such things as the plagues on Egypt, the splitting of the Red Sea to allow safe passage across the water for the fleeing slaves and the raining down of heavenly bread called manna. These “natural miracles” dominate the Moses cycle of stories. When we arrived at the Joshua cycle we found additional feats of natural power that included the splitting of the waters of the Jordan River, the collapsing of the walls of Jericho and the stopping of the sun in the sky in its journey around the earth to allow more daylight for Joshua’s troops to massacre more of his enemy’s soldiers on the battlefield. Then looking at the nature miracles attributed to Jesus in the gospels we saw in them echoes of these Moses-Joshua stories. Jesus also was said to have had power over water. He did not split seas and rivers, but he could calm the storm and walk on the water. Like Moses, Jesus could also feed the multitude in the wilderness with finite amounts of food, which could expand to any needed dimensions and the supply never be exhausted just like manna in the wilderness. The power of nature was thus depicted in the gospels as subservient to the power of Jesus. Like Moses, Jesus could command the forces of nature to do his will.
The second cycle of miracle stories in the Bible was found in the accounts that gathered around the persons of Elijah and Elisha, who were thought of as those who started the prophetic movement. Here most of the miracles were once again nature miracles. Both Elijah and Elisha could part the waters of the Jordan River and they could both expand the food supply so that it did not give out. They could also control the weather and even call down fire from heaven to serve their purposes. Two dramatically new miraculous powers, however, were added to the accounts of Elijah and Elisha. Both were said to have been able to raise the dead. Elijah raised from the dead the only son of a widow. Elisha raised from the dead the twelve-year-old daughter of a wealthy woman who had befriended him. Elisha was also the first person in the Bible who was said to have performed a healing miracle. He healed the leprosy of a foreigner, a man named Naaman the Syrian. We looked earlier in this series at the relationship between these Elijah-Elisha stories and the gospel narratives and began to see the close connections. Jesus, like Elijah, raised from the dead a widow’s only son, a story told only in Luke. Jesus, like Elisha, raised from the dead a child in a narrative recorded in Mark, Matthew and Luke. I might also add that Luke alone told the story of Jesus cleansing the leprosy of ten people, but that story turned on the fact that one of them was a foreigner, a Samaritan, and he, like Naaman the Syrian, was the only one to recognize the source of healing power. The Elijah-Elisha stories appear to have shaped these gospel narratives dramatically.
Most of the best-known miracle stories in the gospels that surround Jesus, however, had to do with healing individuals or making them whole. Jesus was portrayed with some frequency as being able to give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, the ability to leap and walk to those with lame or withered limbs, and to enable the mute to speak or sing. What do we make of these stories? Well, the fact is that they too grow out of the Hebrew Scriptures and were presented in the gospels as signs that Jesus was the appointed messiah.
For this analysis, we have to go to I Isaiah (Isaiah 1-39). Someone must have asked this eighth century BCE prophet how people would recognize and know just when the Kingdom of God on earth was beginning. In Jewish mythology to inaugurate the Kingdom was the primary role assigned to the figure they called the messiah. I Isaiah wrote his response to this question in the 35th chapter of his book in beautiful and poetic language. You will know that the Kingdom of God is at hand and that the messianic age is beginning, he said, when these things occur: First, water will begin to flow in the desert enabling the crocuses to bloom there and the gift of life will be celebrated from Mt. Carmel to Sharon. The second sign will be just as dramatic: Human wholeness will begin to replace human brokenness. “The eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a hart and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy” (Is. 35:5-6).
That specific messianic tradition was lifted out of I Isaiah quite intentionally by the interpreters of Jesus and its content placed into the gospel tradition by the authors of both Matthew and Luke when they re-introduced John the Baptist into their narratives. According to this story, John had been imprisoned by Herod for his preaching against Herod’s illegal marriage. While John was in prison, these two gospel writers tell us, John’s confidence began to waver as to whether or not Jesus really was “the one who was to come,” that is, the expected messiah, or whether John and his followers must begin to look for another. With these doubts motivating him, John the Baptist sent messengers to Jesus asking him to clarify his messianic status.
Jesus did not answer John’s question directly. Instead he told the messengers to return to John and tell him what they had seen and heard and let him draw his own conclusions. Then, he referred them quite specifically to this Isaiah text. The blind that came in touch with Jesus were enabled to see; the deaf were enabled to hear; the lame could walk and leap, and the mute could talk and sing. The signs of the messianic age were in fact breaking out all around Jesus. In this narrative, Matthew and Luke were making specific claims about Jesus as messiah and they were quoting this passage from Isaiah to demonstrate that Jesus indeed was the expected one, “the one who was to come.”
If healing were to accompany the inauguration of the Kingdom of God and if Jesus was believed to have been that promised one, then he had to be portrayed as the bringer of wholeness. This means that miracle stories had to be attached to the memory of Jesus in all three of the Old Testament categories: Moses stories, Elijah- Elisha stories and messianic expectation stories. Jesus was messiah was their claim and for supporting data for this claim they cited stories that demonstrated that he commanded the forces of nature, he raised the dead and he was the one who could and did bring wholeness to the brokenness of human life.
That is what those miracle stories were employed to communicate and that is why they need to be read as interpretive symbols, not as supernatural acts. That was also why no miracles were connected with the memory of Jesus until the eighth decade. It took that long for this interpretive process to get established. That is why Paul seems to know nothing of Jesus as a miracle worker. Miracles were an eighth decade addition to the Jesus story, introduced first by Mark, then copied within a decade or so with no additions by Matthew. By the time Luke wrote in the late 80’s to early 90’s, more Elijah-Elisha stories were added to the memory of Jesus. That is why only in Luke did Jesus like Elisha, heal not one, but ten lepers. Only in Luke did Jesus raise from the dead the only son of a widow just as Elijah did. When Luke arrived at the climax of his gospel he once again adapted an Elijah story, magnified it and then retold it as a Jesus story. That is why, only in Luke, did Jesus ascend into heaven, just as Elijah did, except that Luke says that Jesus did it without the help that Elijah received from a magical, fiery chariot drawn by magical fiery horses and propelled by a divine whirlwind. Jesus, as the new Elijah, could ascend without any supernatural aids. After Elijah ascended, he was said to have poured out a double portion of his powerful, but still human spirit on his single disciple, Elisha. In Luke’s climactic narrative, Jesus, the “new Elijah, poured out the enormous gift of God’s Holy Spirit in sufficient quantities to transform the entire community and to last throughout the centuries. In the telling of these Ascension and Pentecost stories, Luke tipped his hat overtly to the Elijah source from which he was drawing his material. He even took the whirlwind that propelled Elijah’s chariot heavenward and he turned it into the mighty rushing wind that filled the upper room on the day of Pentecost. He took the fire from the magical chariot and horses and turned it into tongues of fire that were said to have lighted on the heads of the disciples as a sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit.
A close examination of the miracle stories of the New Testament thus reveals that they were not written as the memory of literal events. They were, rather, created as interpretive narratives presenting Jesus as the new Moses, the new Elijah and the expected messiah. They are to be read not as supernatural tales, but as interpretive symbols. Suddenly the miracles begin to look very different and we are able to read the gospels in a new manner. To see this, however, we must “think different” and “accept uncertainty.”
We will continue this series next week.
~John Shelby Spong
“Think Different-Accept Uncertainty” Part XI: Beginning a Probe of the Miracles Attributed to Jesus
Deconstruction is always easier to do than reconstruction, but it is not nearly so important. It is never enough to say who or what Christ is not, but we must move on to say who or what Christ is. The task is complicated, however, by the very fact that the Jesus story, as related in the gospels, has been literalized for so long that breaking through the literal window to establish some new possibilities is quite difficult. This is especially true when we realize that the old mindset, no matter how dated or nonsensical it is, is nonetheless reasserted in the hymns we sing, in the prayers we pray in our liturgies and in the sermons we hear in church every Sunday. All of these activities assume a pre-modern frame of reference that most educated men and women today simply can no longer affirm. So I have to approach this task piecemeal, week by week, in order to lay the groundwork for a radically different perspective. There is no silver bullet of understanding that can be fired to create in us this new point of view. So, today I will begin a unit in the series “Think Different-Accept Uncertainty” that will look at the miracle stories in the gospel narratives. Did the miracles really happen? If they did, do they still happen? If they did once, but no longer happen why did they cease? As one person tried to explain, “Perhaps ‘the age of miracles’ is over.” To which I need to respond, “Perhaps there never was an ‘age of miracles’ and the things we once called miracles are now understood in a very different way.” Those are the possibilities.
I begin this unit by probing the level of reality that still remains among my readers in regard to the miracles recorded in the New Testament. I ask each of you to do a test just with yourself, aimed at discovering whether or not you really believe that miracles can or did happen?
Here are the questions:
- Can a star really wander through the sky so slowly that wise men can keep up with it?
- Can that star really stop in its journey, first over the palace of King Herod for the wise men to get additional directions and then over the house in Bethlehem where the baby Jesus lives with his mother?
- Can a virgin conceive?
- Are there really angels that can break through the midnight sky to sing, presumably in Aramaic, the only language that the shepherds understood, about the birth of Jesus? Could these angels really send these shepherds in search of this child, armed with only two clues: he would be “wrapped in swaddling clothes” and he would be “lying in a manger?”
- Do you think that anyone can literally walk on water?
- Do you believe that anyone can feed a multitude of 5,000 men, plus women and children, with five loaves and two fish?
- Can one curse a fig tree and cause that tree to wither down to its roots and die?
- Can one still a storm by speaking to it and commanding it to cease its fury?
- Can one raise from the dead a man named Lazarus, who has not only been dead for four days, but who has also already been buried?
- Can a blind man be made to see by the laying on of hands or the anointing of the eyes with clay? Why did this procedure not work in one gospel episode until there were two applications? Is it any harder to bring sight to a blind man if he was born blind?
- Can the mentally ill or those suffering from epilepsy be cured by casting out the demons that cause them to be other than “normal”?
- Can the mute be enabled to hear and to speak if the healer can only get Satan to stop binding the tongue of the victim?
- Can a withered hand be restored to fullness of operation or a man crippled for 38 years be enabled to walk by another’s command?
- Can water be turned into wine to keep a wedding party going? Why was it necessary, as the Bible states, to create on that occasion 150 gallons of wine?
All of these are questions that arise from actual stories that are included in the gospels and all of them are attributed to Jesus. Did any of them literally happen?
If you are convinced that all of them happened, can you explain how those feats were accomplished? If they did not literally happen, what does that do to our understanding of Jesus? Is the concept of God as an invasive, supernatural force necessary to the maintenance and certainty of the Christian story?
Does Christianity really live or die, as many claim, on the one supreme, supernatural event that all the gospels record as the climax of their narratives, namely, that a man dead from sundown on Friday, is restored to physical life by Sunday morning in such a way that he could walk out of his tomb and invite his followers to handle his flesh and even to finger his wounds?
Many people cannot imagine Christianity surviving without these things being literally true. Many other people cannot imagine any of these things ever being literally true. That is the dilemma facing Christianity today. Believers become more and more literal and fundamentalist, while those who cannot and do not believe any of these things can find no place in the life of the church for them and have no desire to continue as part of a worshiping community that pretends that these things really happened. So how can we understand miracles and how can we understand the role they played in the original telling the Christian story? That will be our task in this series over the next few weeks.
First, some biblical observations. There is no unanimity in the New Testament about most of these miracle accounts. For example, there are only two miraculous events that all four gospels record. Gospel unanimity exists only on the resurrection of Jesus and the expansion of the loaves and fishes to feed the multitude. Yet when one looks at the texts of each of the gospels the details surrounding both of these narratives vary enormously.
In regard to the resurrection, Mark, the earliest gospel to be written, has a messenger instruct the women at the tomb to tell the disciples that the risen Christ will meet them in Galilee. None of the women ever sees Jesus in this first gospel and Mark records no account of Jesus ever meeting with the disciples in Galilee. So in Mark no one ever actually sees the risen Christ. In Matthew the women are said to have seen the risen Christ quite literally in the garden on Easter morning and the disciples, or at least eleven of them, were said to have seen him on a mountain top in Galilee. In Luke the women do not see him at the tomb on Easter morning and no disciple ever sees him in Galilee. Then Luke says that two disciples, but not members of the twelve, see him in Emmaus, but he disappears into thin air. Later the twelve do see but only in Jerusalem. When we turn to John we read that Mary Magdalene alone sees the risen Christ at dawn on the first Easter and then the disciples, minus Judas and Thomas, see him in the upper room in Jerusalem at the time of the evening meal. In both instances, this gospel tells us that they conversed with him. A week later, John writes that the disciples see him again this time with Thomas. Finally, months later, John says seven of the disciples see him in Galilee, but not on top of a mountain as Matthew claimed, but beside the Sea of Galilee. There is no consistency in the details of these sightings.
In regard to the stories of the miraculous feeding of the multitude, Mark and Matthew give us two versions. The first one has 5,000 people fed with five loaves and two fish, the second has 4,000 people fed with seven loaves and a few fish. Each feeding takes place on a different side of the lake. Luke and John reduce the feedings to one. There is, thus, no gospel unanimity in this episode either. Then to complicate the picture still further, Luke alone has Jesus raise a widow’s only son from the dead. John alone has Jesus turn water into wine. The witness of the gospels to the reality of miracles is thus far more confused and ambivalent than most Christians realize and more than most of them can believe when it is spelled out for them.
We add to that complex analysis the fact that as far as we are able to discover or to read no miracle was ever associated with Jesus before the 8th decade when Mark’s gospel came to be written in the early seventies. Paul, who wrote between 51 and 64, never mentions a miracle in association with Jesus. The Q document and the Gospel of Thomas, which some, but not all, scholars believe might be pre-Marcan sources, do not mention a miracle being associated with Jesus. The Virgin Birth does not enter the Christian tradition until the 9th decade of the Christian era or some 55-60 years after his death. The physical resuscitation of the deceased body of Jesus as the way resurrection is to be understood does not enter the tradition until the 10th decade or some 60-70 years after his crucifixion. These are the factual data about the miracles of the New Testament. It is not the stable picture that believers claim and that skeptics reject. It is also not a simple study. This is enough, however, to raise the subject to our consciousness, to allow it to play upon our minds and our imaginations, to stimulate our interest. I also hope it is enough to bring you back to this column in succeeding weeks when we begin to unravel this material. So stay tuned! Same time, same place!
~John Shelby Spong
“Think Different – Accept Uncertainty” Part X: The Christ – He Is Not the Savior of the Fallen
by John S. Spong May 23, 2012
In my studies of the origins of life and its evolution, I have become convinced that the traditional and primitive claim that involves the concept of “original sin” has got to go! This mythological misunderstanding was based on the assumption that human life began perfect, but that we had our perfection destroyed by our disobedience, which left us separated from God. This was our “original sin” and no human life escapes its effects. In the light of all we know about the origins of life “original sin” has first become quaint, then bankrupt and finally harmful and destructive of our humanity. The Christianity of the future must jettison this outdated idea if it intends to live and to participate in the world that is emerging in the 21st century.
This will not be an easy transition for the Christian Church or for individual Christians to make. The concept of “original sin” has been so deeply instilled into the heart of the way that Christianity has defined itself, that for many people abandoning “original sin” feels like abandoning Christianity itself. The task before Christian leaders is therefore the task of developing a compelling new understanding of Christianity that can provide an alternative to this former understanding. This alternative will have to be far more radical and far more extensive than most people in the church can now even imagine. It will also have to be positive and in touch with what we know of the origins of life.
One aspect of this alternative Christianity will be that we must see that the word “savior” is no longer a title that we can use for Jesus. Think of what that title assumes. One cannot be the “savior” unless there is something or someone who is in need of salvation. One cannot see Jesus as the “savior” unless one believes oneself to have fallen from an original perfection into the mire of “original sin.” Since that is not the way we now understand human life, what content is left in the title “savior?” What do evangelists mean when they ask: “Have you accepted Jesus as your personal savior?” What is the meaning of either the Protestant mantra: “Jesus died to save me from my sins” or the Catholic mantra which describes the Eucharist is the “Sacrifice of the Mass,” that is, a liturgical reenactment of the cross on which Jesus died for our sins?
So extensively has the title “savior” permeated the Christian story that it is the primary way that Jesus is described in most Christian liturgies. Other forms of the word “savior” are the words “redeemer” and “rescuer.” We Christians even name some of our churches “The Church of the Redeemer.” We speak of redemption in Christ Jesus. This word means to restore full value to that which has been compromised, to make whole that which was broken. One redeems one’s valuables from a pawn shop by paying a premium.
“Rescuer” is the word that lies behind many Protestant hymns like “Throw out the lifeline,” “Love lifted me” (when I was sinking deep in sin) and a variety of others. We are told in thousands of ways that Jesus’ act of saving us had to do with his death and with the shedding of his blood on the cross. The images are somewhat gory as we sing words such as “Washed in the blood,” “Saved by the blood” and “There’s a fountain filled with blood,” all of which imply that we are “dirty,” that we are sinful and that the blood of Jesus is endowed with cleansing power. For many people there is no other way to understand either Jesus or the Cross. It might, therefore, surprise us to know that Paul, the earliest writer of material that came to be included in the New Testament, never used the word “savior” to describe Jesus. Paul wrote between 51 and 64 C.E. If Paul is representative of the thinking about Jesus in those years before any gospel was written, we get the hint that to think of Jesus primarily as “savior” was not present among the followers of Jesus in the early years of Christian history.
Neither Mark, who wrote the first gospel in the early years of the 8th decade, nor Matthew, who wrote the second gospel in the middle years of the 9th decade used the title “savior” for Jesus. So, we can surmise, that “savior” was still not the title of choice for Jesus when the 9th decade of Christian history arrived. The word “savior” makes its first appearance in Christian writing in the Gospel of Luke, a work written in the late 9th to early 10th decade of Christian history, somewhere between the years 88-93. Luke uses the word “savior” twice. The first time is in the song sung by Mary called “The Magnificat.” There she says “My spirit rejoices in God my savior.” Note that the first biblical use of the word “savior” is not a reference to Jesus, but to God! The second Lucan use of the word “savior” does apply to Jesus and is found in the song of the angel in Luke’s version of the birth of Jesus: “for to you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). The only other use of the word “savior” as a name for Jesus in the gospels comes in John’s story about the Samaritan woman by the well who, after her conversation with Jesus, returned to her village and announced that “This is the savior of the world” (John 4:42).
Both of these gospel uses of the word “savior” could better be translated “messiah,” for they are references to the messianic function of bringing about the “Kingdom of God” on earth in which the Jewish people would be rescued from such perils of history as slavery, defeat, exile and oppression. In the Hebrew Scriptures to ask God to save meant to save the Jewish people from the clutches of an enemy, a natural disaster or a personal tragedy. It was never a reference to being saved from one’s sinfulness or one’s fall from an original perfection.
It is not until one gets to the Pastoral Epistles (I & II Timothy and Titus) and the General Epistles (I & II Peter, I, II & III John and Jude), all of which are dated from about 90 to about 135 C.E., that the word “savior” comes to be applied regularly to Jesus. These are the biblical data that cause me to question just how this title “savior” comes to be the one by which Jesus is primarily known today. It clearly was not the original way the disciples thought about him.
To see human life as distorted, fallen and in need of a “savior” is an idea that does not get attached to Jesus until the 4th century and was, I submit, the contribution of a man named Augustine, who was the Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, and whose writings shaped Christian thinking for about a thousand years. It is his view of the origins of human life and the birth of sin that still infect the Christian message in 2012.
Augustine collapsed the two competing creation stories in the book of Genesis into a single narrative to form the background for telling the Christ story. From the first story (Gen. 1:1-2:3) he got his sense of the original perfection of the world and all that is within it. That story says that God created the world in six days and when God had finished, God looked out on all that God had made and pronounced it not only good, but complete. Human life, this story says, shared in this perfection for in the “image of God,” the man and the woman were fashioned. From the second creation story (Gen. 2:4 -3: 24) Augustine got his understanding of human rebellion, disobedience and the fall into sinfulness. Eve, tempted by the serpent, ate the “forbidden fruit” then fed it to Adam and “their eyes were opened.” God’s creation was ruined by this act of disobedience. Their sinfulness resulted, according to this primitive story, in the banishment of the original human family from God’s presence in the Garden of Eden. It caused human distress from the woman’s pain in childbirth to the man’s need to gain his daily bread from the soil of the earth. The ultimate punishment for this act of disobedience was death. The fact that everyone died meant two things to Augustine. First, it meant that everyone shared in the fall and, second, that sin was universal and original. It could not be escaped. It was part of the “being” of human life into which we were born. We needed to be saved from it, redeemed from it, rescued from it. That was the human condition. In order to free the world from its sinfulness the “savior” had to be external to the world, which of course meant that the savior had to be sent from the God who lived above the sky. In time, it became clear that the savior had to be, in some special sense, of the very nature of God.
That became Augustine’s frame of reference and into that frame, he told the story of Jesus. Messiah no longer meant the one who would usher in the Kingdom of God on earth but the one who would save human life from the fall and from the power of original sin.
That is thus the context in which the Jesus story has traditionally been told and it is obviously dependent on that understanding of human life’s origins. You and I, however, live in a post-Darwinian world in which this story is nonsensical. There was no original perfection from which one could fall; there was rather the emergence of life out of an evolutionary process in which survival became the driving principle and the highest value. Our ancient forebears interpreted this basic survival drive, present in all living things but self-conscious in human life, to be a manifestation of a self-centeredness that resulted from the fall, thus viewing self-centeredness moralistically when they should have viewed it biologically. Our survival-driven self-centeredness is, however, not sinful, it is in the DNA of life itself.
Being saved, therefore, does not mean that someone has to pay the price of our evil in order to satisfy the judging God and to restore human life to a status it has never before possessed. It cannot mean that “Jesus died for my sins.” It cannot mean that baptism is the liturgical act to wash away the stain of the fall. It cannot mean that the Eucharist is the liturgical reenactment of the divine rescue operation accomplished on the cross. When one pulls out this central plank of the Christian story, then the whole superstructure of doctrine, dogma, creeds and liturgy collapses. That is when we know that we must “think different” and “accept uncertainty.” The future of our Christian Church depends on our doing just that. So we will continue to develop these new themes as this series continues.
~John Shelby Spong
The so-called “Great Commission” is recorded only in Matthew’s gospel (28:16-20) and is the first time anywhere in the gospel tradition that the risen Christ is said to have spoken any words. Matthew is the second gospel to be written (82-85 CE.). We need to note that in the first gospel, Mark (written in the early 70’s CE.), there is no narrative of the risen Christ ever appearing to anyone at any time and thus there is no opportunity for Jesus to be allowed to speak. According to the translation in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, the words of the “Great Commission” are, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel.”
What do these words mean? First, let me state what they do not mean. They are not a challenge to become missionaries in order to evangelize the world and thus to make converts of all people to the Christian religion. That is a dreadful misconception based on the imperialism of Christianity that developed after Christianity became the established religion of the empire in the Fourth century CE. When Matthew’s gospel was written, the followers of Jesus were still members of the synagogue. The Christian community did not separate itself from the synagogue until about the year 88 C.E. which would have been within a decade after Matthew’s gospel was written.
What then do these words mean? This text is part of what I call Matthew’s “interpretive envelope.” Matthew was the most Jewish of all the gospel writers, yet he wanted to portray Jesus as the power that called people beyond all of their tribal identities and ethnic values. In his opening chapters Matthew uses the symbol of a star to proclaim the birth of Jesus. The uniqueness of a star is that its light is not bound to the territory of any single nation, but it shines all over the world and thus it can serve as a sign, a heavenly invitation to come to the light that the star announced. The wise men were symbolic of the human yearning to leave their divisions behind and to find human oneness in the God Jesus was thought to reveal. The wise men were Gentiles overcoming their fears and their prejudices by coming into the Jewish world in search of the light. Following that introduction Matthew then told the story of the life of this Jesus, who with consistency set aside all barriers of tribe, gender, race and even religion, all of which serve to separate people from one another. When the story of Jesus is complete, Matthew closes his envelope by having Jesus speak the words of the “Great Commission.” What Matthew’s Jesus was saying is that once you understand the meaning of Jesus, you have a new responsibility. You now must go into “all the world.” You must go to those you have described as unclean, unbaptized, uncircumcised, non-koshered, different or unworthy and you must proclaim to them the love of God that has no boundaries and that knows no limits. You do this by crossing all human boundaries, all human prejudices and by removing the sources of all human rejections. The “Great Commission” thus has nothing to do with converting the heathen.
Thanks for your question, it makes it possible for readers to see deeply into the biblical story, that is, to see far beyond the level of understanding that a literal reading of the scriptures would ever provide.
John Dominic Crossan
Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies, DePaul University
The Communal Crucifixion of Jesus
The Jewish historian Josephus, the Roman historian Tacitus, and the Christian Apostles’ Creed have very little in common. Except for this one thing: that, respectively, Jesus “had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus”; that “Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified”; and that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate [and] was crucified.”
Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor of Judea and, appointed by the emperor Tiberius, he ruled from 26 to 36 C.E. He and the Jewish high priest Caiaphas collaborated not wisely but too well and they were both eventually removed from office by their Roman masters. Jesus’ execution is as historically certain as any ancient event can ever be but what about all those very specific details that fill out the story? Are they fact or fiction and, if fiction, what is their purpose, intention, meaning?
Think about these examples and, in every case, notice how each one creates an echo or resonance with earlier biblical tradition. The most striking one is the death-cry of Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” in Mark 15:34 that recalls the opening verse, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” of Psalm 22:1. That recall is left implicit and, if you miss it, you miss it. It is neither proof nor argument but an invitation to thought and a lure for meditation.
Jesus’ death-cry as psalm-echo draws attention to further echoes between details of the crucifixion and verses of that same Psalm 22. Here are three examples from Mark, the earliest of the four gospels. Notice that they are all implicit — if you miss them, you miss them. They are there — but quietly, like choral music in the background — for those with ears to hear and hearts to understand.
A first example is the fate of Jesus’ clothes. “They crucified him,” says Mark 15:24, “and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.” That echoes the verse, “they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots” from Psalm 22:18.
A second example is that, alongside Jesus, “they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left” in Mark 15:27. That echoes the psalm’s lament that “a company of evildoers encircles me” in Psalm 22:16b.
A third example is these mocking challenges directed at Jesus: “Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying … ‘Save yourself, and come down from the cross!’ … ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself.’ … ‘Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe'” in Mark 15:29-32. In the background, hear once again, this taunt: “All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads; ‘Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver — let him rescue the one in whom he delights!'” from Psalm 22:7-8. But, once again, the echo is only implicit — if you miss it, you miss it.
Furthermore, apart from that Psalm 22, there is a clear (but, once again, implicit) allusion to another psalm during the crucifixion of Jesus. Unlike those preceding examples, all four evangelists contain this striking — and doubled — reference. Here is an example from Matthew’s gospel: “They offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it … At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink” (27:34,48) That reminds one of this half-verse, “for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink” from Psalm 69:21b.
Those are only a few examples but, from start to finish, in larger and smaller chunks of text, the last hours of Jesus resonate repeatedly with prayers and stories from the biblical tradition that preceded them. How is that “coincidence” to be explained?
My proposal is that multiple details about the death of Jesus were deliberately created but not just at random as mere narrative fill-up. They were created to describe Jesus’ death amid a tissue of resonances and a volley of echoes from the biblical past. Further, it is especially from the biblical psalms of lament, from the prayers of the just and righteous suffering injustice and oppression, that those details have been taken. In other words, the evangelists have created communal and corporate rather than just individual and private sufferings for Jesus. Starting from the historical basis of imperial indicting, flogging, and crucifixion, those manifold details — for example, the death-cry, the divided garments, the mockery, and the bitter drink — were invented and added within the ongoing tradition about Jesus. But why?
Because of this. Jesus was not the first faithful Jew who died on a Roman cross outside Jerusalem — nor would he be the last. In 4 B.C.E., Varus crucified two thousand Jews there, and in 70 C.E. Titus crucified five hundred a day — for how many days? Those first followers of Jesus were Christian Jews,” that is “Messianic Jews.” They believed that Jesus was their awaited Messiah, their expected Christ. They did not think that Jesus’ was just another Roman execution. But neither did they think that he died alone.
He died, for them, as the climax of all the suffering of Israel, as the consummation of all those prayers of lament in the psalms, as the fulfillment of all the faithful martyrs of the biblical tradition. The details of Jesus’ death were not fact remembered and history recorded. They were prayer recollected and psalm historicized. But, then, if the suffering of others was imbedded in the crucifixion of Jesus, must not those others have been vindicated by God in his resurrection. if Jesus’ death was a communal crucifixion, must there not have been also a communal resurrection?
The Communal Resurrection of Jesus
John Dominic Crossan Posted: 04/11/11 12:08 PM ET
In the great Rotunda of the ancient Church of the Resurrection — or Church of the Holy Sepulchre — in Jerusalem is a tiny free-standing shrine known as the Aedicule or Chapel of the Tomb and Resurrection of Jesus. It is a tiny space and pilgrims are usually lined up waiting their turn to enter a few at a time.
A processional banner was hanging to our right as we entered that shrine-chapel in May, 2008. It is kept there, presumably, to be used in liturgical celebration on Easter Sunday. It is bright red with golden lettering down either side. To left is the word “Christ” and to right “Is Risen” — both in Greek upper-case letters. No surprise there since that is Easter’s celebratory greeting in Eastern Christianity. But in between those words, in the center of the banner, is a diamond-shaped image. And it surprises us.
That image does not show Jesus arising in splendid triumph from an opened tomb. This is not — even in miniature — a Titian or a Rubens with Jesus emerging in muscular majesty. But emerging, however majestically, in magnificent and lonely isolation. Instead, four other individuals are with him in this parabolic vision.
Jesus himself is at the left of the icon. He holds a small cross in his left hand and stands on the bi-fold gates of Sheol, Hades, or Hell which are shattered into a cross-shaped structure beneath his feet. Jesus is bending forward — gently, tenderly, graciously — and, stretching out his right hand, he grasps and pulls on the rather limp wrist of Adam. Beside Adam stands Eve. Behind the two of them stand a youthful Abel, with shepherd’s staff, and an older John the Baptist, with beard and long hair. They are the first martyr of the Christianity’s Old Testament and the first martyr of its New Testament.
At the top of that diamond-shaped image, lest there be any mistake about meaning, is the word Anastasis, Greek for “resurrection”. But is not Easter about the absolutely unique resurrection of Jesus alone, so why are any others involved and, if others, why precisely these others? The answer reveals a major difference between Easter Sunday as imagined and celebrated in Eastern Christianity as opposed to Western Christianity. It also reveals for me the latter’s greatest theological loss from that fatal split in the middle of the eleventh century.
When you look at Eastern Christianity’s images, either for the great feasts of the liturgical year or for traditional events in Jesus’ life, they are all — save one — quite recognizable to Western as to Eastern eyes. The great exception is how Eastern Christianity portrays the “Resurrection,” that is, in Greek, the “Anastasis,” of Jesus. Across vast stretches of time, place, art, and tradition, icons and illustrations, frescoes and mosaics show always a communal and not an individual resurrection for Jesus. We can watch that magnificent tradition develop across half a millennium — from 700 to 1200 — before its varied elements and successive stages are fully established.
First, the various elements of the tradition. Jesus is shown breaking down the closed and bolted gates of the Underworld — as Sheol, Hades, or Hell — the abode of the Dead, the prison of “those who have slept” — that is the same Greek term used for them in both Matthew 27:52 and 1 Corinthians 15:20. The personified Hades, Prison-warden and Gate-keeper of the Dead, is shoved to one side or even walked on as Jesus barges in to liberate his prisoners. Jesus is usually carrying a cross, his wounds are often very evident.
Only six individuals are identified from the crowd responding to Jesus’s arrival among the dead — they appear chronologically across the tradition’s development in this sequence. First, bearded Adam and youthful Eve appeared. In almost every single image, Jesus grasps the wrist of Adam to pull him alive from his tomb. Later, David, with crown and a beard, along with his son Solomon, with crown but without a beard, were added. Finally, as seen above, those twin martyrs, the Shepherd and the Baptist, joined the others. So, in summary, two ancestors, two monarchs, and two martyrs are singled out from the crowd. Still, if Adam and Eve are freed, who is not?
Next, the successive stages of the tradition. In the first stage Jesus is always approaching — as we just saw above — and grasping Adam’s wrist. A next stage shows him leaving — often looking backward or forward as he drags Adam by the wrist with the others looking on. A third or facing stage is similar to that last one except that now Jesus looks not backward or forward but straight out of the image — at you, the beholder.
Finally, there is the last or doubling stage and I must admit that it is my favorite. Jesus has put down the cross — sometimes an angel holds it for him — and Adam and Eve are now on opposite sides of Jesus instead of, as earlier, both on the same side. Each gets a hand at this stage. We finally have an equal-opportunity resurrection of the dead.
In the western Christian tradition we call that tradition the Harrowing — or Robbing — of Hell and keep it carefully distinguished from the individual Resurrection of Jesus. “He descended into Hell,” says the Apostles’ Creed, “on the third day he arose from the dead.” But in the eastern Christian tradition it is the communal Resurrection of Jesus. We, to our loss and my grief, have forgotten that corporate vision of Easter.
Eastern Christianity’s tradition of the resurrection of Jesus reminds our Western Christian imagination that only poetry — be it verbal or visual — speaks to our profoundest hopes, deepest dreams, and greatest insights. It also reminds us that theology is — no more and no less — the poetry of transcendence.
Posted: 04/21/2011 8:08 pm
“Think Different – Accept Uncertainty” Part VI: Understanding the Source of Evil
Bad theology is inevitable when it is based on bad anthropology! That is, the way we understand human life always determines the way we understand God. This becomes very clear when religious people begin to grapple with and to try to explain the source of evil.
One does not have to argue today about the reality of human evil. Stories documenting that reality find daily expression on the front pages of our newspapers and are the lead stories on all news telecasts. Though an evil presence is all but universally acknowledged, defining what constitutes evil can, however, still vary widely and explaining the source out of which evil flows has been a major debate throughout the ages. The source of evil has been portrayed in a variety of mythological ways. All people, however, seem to know intuitively that there is something deep in our lives, out of which hostile, spiteful, defensive and sometimes killing impulses flow. The depth of this reality oft times surprises us. It is as if it overwhelms our cultivated self image. Many of us are hesitant to own evil as something that is part of ourselves.
St. Paul, for example, saw evil as an external force that somehow held him in its grip. He explained its presence by saying, “It was sin, working death in me through what is good.” (Rom. 7:13). Later, but in a similar vein, he explained that when he knows what is evil and still chooses to do it: “It is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me” (Rom. 7:17).
In Persia, where the Jews first ran into a radical dualism that divided the whole of reality into two realms, one good, one evil, another definition was operating. Creation was a mixture of two competing and eternal powers, not just the beginning of God’s good world, as the biblical story of the Hebrews had maintained. Life was a mixture of good and evil, light and darkness, spirit and flesh and heaven and earth. This dualistic idea found a major place in the writings of Plato, who describes human beings after the analogy of a charioteer being drawn by a pair of horses, one representing the higher aspiration of the soul and the other representing the lower yearnings of the flesh. The task of the charioteer was to steer these competing forces so that the higher nature always led the lower.
Deep down in this theological divide that separated dualism from the biblical witness was their mutually exclusive images of God. For the dualists good and evil were equal divine forces contending for dominance. This counter force might be called the devil, Satan or evil, but it was portrayed as possessing a status equal to and independent of God. For the Jews, to whom God was both ultimate and one, evil was not an independent power, but a corruption of the original goodness of God’s creation. This Jewish conviction was expressed in the Shema, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one,” and it was grounded in the Commandments where it was written, “I am the Lord your God…You shall have no other Gods before me.” This meant that for the Jews evil had to be understood as a corruption of that which is good. So, in the Jewish tradition, Satan was not an independent creature, but a fallen angel cast out of heaven by God for leading a revolution against God and human life was not evil in its origins, but became evil through an act of disobedience that corrupted the goodness of God’s creation forever.
Although these ideas were present in the mythology of the Jewish stories of their origins, they did not get developed in a systematic way until the fourth century of the Common Era and then by the hand of the most significant Christian theologian in the first twelve hundred years of Christian history. His name was Augustine. He was the bishop of a North African town known as Hippo. Today he is canonized, both in fact and tradition, and is widely referred to as simply St. Augustine.
Augustine had an interesting personal history before he was converted to Christianity. Much of that history he has chronicled in a book called “The Confessions.” He was captured, he says, by “the lure of the flesh.” He had many lovers and lived with one of them long enough to father a son by her. He identified himself as a Manichean, which meant that he was a follower of Mani, a Middle Eastern dualist. Finally, however, inspired by the witness of his Christian mother, whose name was Monica, and under the influence of a Christian leader named Ambrose, he became a Christian and put his enormous intellectual gifts into the service of his newly-adopted faith. He assumed that it was his task as a Christian theologian to explain all mysteries. One of those mysteries to be explained was the source of evil in a world that Christians believed was created by a good God. To accomplish this task, he went to the scriptures of the Judeo-Christian tradition, which he believed, as the Christians of that day did, that these words were the “Word of God” and, therefore, that they held the key to the understanding of all things. Augustine knew nothing of the source or background of these scriptures, but assumed it was his job to mine them to discover ultimate truths.
In that sacred text Augustine found two quite different stories of creation side by side in the book of Genesis. They were actually written in two different eras about 500 years apart and under very different circumstances. He blended them, however, and used them as his starting place in the definition of evil. From the first story (Gen. 1:1-2:4a), he took the idea of the perfection of creation. This was the “seven day” story, which suggests that God, the source of all that is good, created out of nothing the earth, the sun, the moon and all forms of living things from plants, fish and birds to the “beasts of the field” and “every creeping thing that creeps upon the face of the earth.” Then late on the sixth day, to complete the act of creation, perhaps as its crown and jewel, God made human life.
God made this human life both male and female, presumably as equal expressions of the divine image. To this newly minted couple God gave stewardship over all things and commanded them to be faithful and to multiply. This story ends with God pronouncing everything that God had made to be good. There was no dualism here between good and evil. All was good, all flesh, all desires, all creatures. Because creation was now complete it was assumed to be perfect. Nothing can be perfect if it is incomplete or still evolving. Completeness was established in this narrative when it announced that on the seventh day of that first week, God rested from all the divine labors and thus established the Sabbath day of each week thereafter to be a day of rest for all creation.
This familiar narrative was a product of the period in Jewish history known as the Babylonian captivity, which would date it in the late 6th century BCE. It was written to accomplish two things. First, the writer, who was a member of a group we now refer to as “the priestly writers,” wanted to have a Jewish story of creation that could be placed as a contrast alongside the Babylonian story of creation. Second, this writer wanted to establish the peculiar Jewish Sabbath day custom as a defining mark of all Jewish people and to cause that practice to distinguish the Jews from all other people.
The Jews must become, this author believed, people who refuse to work on the seventh day of the week and, in the separateness of that existence, keep themselves from losing their identity by intermingling and ultimately intermarrying with members of other ethnic groups. Only in a strictly observed separation could the continuity of the Jewish people be guaranteed and only in separation could they fulfill what was, they believed, their God-given vocation, namely to be the people through whom all the nations of the world will be blessed. That was their calling, their messianic role and their divine, historical destiny. This hymn of creation was designed to affirm the oneness of God, the goodness of creation and to justify the stance of separation in which their hope of survival as a people rested.
When this group of “priestly writers” later compiled the sacred scriptures of the Jews, an action that also took place in and following the Exile in the late sixth and early fifth centuries BCE, they placed this story of the earth’s beginnings as the first chapter of the first book of their sacred story, the first chapter of what they would later call “The Torah.” This meant that it had to push a much earlier story of creation into a secondary position.
That displaced story of creation, which was written some 400 to 500 years earlier, was much more primitive and reflected its more ancient origins. It was quite different and even quite contradictory when compared with the newcomer that now preceded it. In the first story, the creation of living things came in an orderly manner from plants to animals to human life. In the second story, the man was created first out of the dust of the earth and even after God had created a beautiful garden in which the man could live. Then came the creation of all the animals, which were designed to give the man companionship, and finally, when none of the animals seemed capable of meeting the man’s needs for companionship, God created the woman. The woman in this story was thus not coequal as in the earlier story. She was quite secondary, made out of the rib of the man. She was created to be the male helpmeet and support person. The man had the power to name her as he had named all the other animals, which meant that he had the power to control her. The names of this man and woman were Adam and Eve. The garden in which they lived was called the Garden of Eden. In both stories the perfection of creation was asserted, but how evil entered this paradise was yet to be told. The Jews would come down on the side of evil being the corruption of that which was good. St. Augustine would put these two stories together and make them the basis of his explanation of evil and just why it was that all human beings were corrupted, why they died and why they needed to be rescued and saved by an intervening deity. I will turn to that story next week.
~John Shelby Spong
“Think Different – Accept Uncertainty” Part VIII: Deconstructing the Story of the Fall
The way Christians have told the Christ story, beginning with Augustine in the fourth century and continuing through Anselm in the twelfth century, is to postulate an original and perfect creation from which human life has fallen. This original perfection was first perverted and then lost by an act of human disobedience. At least that was the way the biblical story of the Garden of Eden was interpreted. Expelled from paradise because of this act of disobedience, the only human hope was that God would somehow come to rescue us from this fall; to save us from this original sin and to redeem us from our lostness.
Given these presuppositions it should come as no surprise that Jesus was portrayed as God’s special rescue operation. His death on the cross represented the terrible price that God had to pay to accomplish our salvation. So on the Protestant side of Christianity we learned to say such things as, “Jesus died for my sins,” and on the Catholic side of Christianity we began to refer to the Eucharist as “the Sacrifice of the Mass,” which meant that the Mass re-enacted liturgically that moment when Jesus died for our sins. My last column in this series ended with the question: “What is wrong with these familiar concepts?” My answer was “Everything.” Today I seek to put theological flesh on those bare bones.
It is interesting to note how negative Christian churches have been about the work of Charles Darwin. Enormous religious energy has been spent in attempts to blunt the insights of Darwin over the last 153 years since the publication of The Origins of Species by Natural Selection in 1859. This negativity has given rise to a more militant fundamentalism, brought John Scopes to trial in Tennessee and spawned attempts to promote as alternatives such discredited concepts as “creation science” and “Intelligent Design.” It has captured the attention of State legislatures and even of the 43rd President of the United States. It has motivated politicians to force upon school districts the judicious editing of public school textbooks to allow alternatives to evolution to appear to be credible. One does not see this kind of emotional reaction unless there is a deep emotional threat.
The work of Charles Darwin has clearly disturbed the security that traditional religion seeks to provide. What, we must ask, is the nature of that threat? Well, in its earliest phase Darwin clearly challenged the literalization of the Bible and especially of the Bibles’ creation story, rocking the claims of the fundamentalists. That, however, does not seem enough to generate the levels of emotional hostility toward evolution that has been expressed in churches over the last century. Indeed, very early in the dispute, fundamentalists decided that each day in the creation story could have been a billion years or so and that was enough to save their literal Bibles, or so they thought. It was an answer that did not meet any scientific criteria of competence, but it did lower the threat and calm the fears. The real reason for this continuing visceral hostility must be deeper than that. It is as we shall see!
The real and unrelenting hostility of traditional Christians to Darwin rises out of the fact that Darwin has annihilated the familiar way the Jesus story has been told through the years. If Darwin is right, and the world of science is overwhelmingly convinced that he is and his insights have been confirmed by the discovery of DNA, then the way traditional Christians have told the Christ story explodes before our eyes. Let me examine that idea for a moment.
The traditional telling of the story, adapted from a literal reading of the opening chapters of Genesis, begins with a picture of the perfection of creation, which was both good and complete. One cannot claim perfection for creation unless it is a finished process. A still evolving universe could make no claim to be finished or complete. Yet that was at the heart of Darwin’s insight. Darwin said that there never was a perfect, finished creation, but that we have been evolving for a very long time. Darwin himself did not realize just how long that had been he only knew that it was ongoing. At this moment new galaxies are still being formed.
There was, therefore, no such thing as a state of perfection in which human life was formed. Human beings as part of life have been evolving since life began about 3.8 billion years ago, when in the form of a single cell it began its journey. During hundreds of millions of years it evolved first into multi-celled complexity; then into the division between plant and animal life with primitive forms of consciousness appearing on the animate side; then into the journey of living things out of the sea and on to dry land that occurred about 600 million years ago; then into the rise of reptile dominance epitomized by the dinosaurs; then into the climactic changes that took place about 65 million years ago rendering the dinosaurs extinct and allowing for the emergence of the dominant mammals; then into the development of higher forms of consciousness, and finally into the majestic step from consciousness into self-consciousness that finally produced the recognizable form we call human life.
Depending on how one defines human life, that last step occurred anywhere from four million to 250,000 years ago. There is absolutely no biological evidence anywhere that with human life the permanent goal of evolution has been achieved. Homo sapiens assume that, but my guess is that the dinosaurs also assumed that 65 million years ago. Instead evolution indicates that life is a work in progress, not a finished product. Certainly it makes no sense to claim today that human life began in an original perfection. Look now at what this now established conclusion might mean for the traditional telling of the Christ story.
If there was no original perfection, there could be no fall from that perfection into a state we have called original sin. So the idea of original sin is at best nothing more than pre-Darwinian mythology and at worst nothing more than post-Darwinian nonsense. It is obviously no longer a viable way to describe the flaw we observe in human life that we call evil. To continue the carnage, if there was no fall from perfection into sin, there could be no need for a divine rescue so the idea of seeing Jesus as the savior of the sinful, the redeemer of the fallen or the rescuer of the lost becomes nothing other than inoperable word constructs and, as a direct consequence, to call Jesus savior, redeemer or rescuer becomes untranslatable.
If there was no fall, not even metaphorically, there could be no restoration from this fall, for no one and no thing can be restored to a status that persons or things have never before enjoyed. So Darwin first challenges and then demolishes the frame of reference in which Christians for centuries have told the Jesus story and the tragedy is that we know of no other way to tell our story. So, if Darwin is right, Christianity, as we have understood it, is wrong and its days are therefore numbered. This is a theological system based on a now abandoned understanding of human anthropology and good theology can never be constructed on the basis of bad anthropology.
This means that no divine figure ever came from God into this world to be the savior of a fallen humanity! Yet this theology has shaped our worship, our understanding of the Eucharist, our hymns, our prayers and our sermons, to say nothing of our creedal understandings of both God and Jesus for centuries. When we understand the depth of the Darwinian challenge, perhaps we will then begin to understand why fundamentalists cling so passionately to their outdated concepts and even seek to impose them on everyone else as the only way for their point of view to survive. It also helps us to understand why mainline churches are in a statistical freefall. They know that the old literalism no longer works, but they do not know how to replace it, so they drift without a message and they are no longer able to bind people out of loyalty to their institutional forms. Separating oneself from religion is now relatively easy.
Does that mean that we are witnessing the end of Christianity? I suspect it does, if by Christianity we mean the traditional way of telling the Christian story. The question we need to ask, and it is a deeply radical question coming at us from many angles, is this: Is the traditional way of telling the Christ story the only way to tell that story? Is the only way to talk about God the theistic way, that is, to define God as a supernatural being who dwells somewhere external to this world and who can and will invade the world to come to our aid or to answer our prayers? Is the only way to speak of Christ something that involves us in seeing him as the incarnation of this theistic deity, as one who, in the words of Charles Wesley’s Christmas hymn, was a divine being simply “veiled in flesh?”
The fact is that only inside these dated categories, can we still talk about being “saved,” about salvation, about meaningful worship, about achieving forgiveness or even about life after death. Once we pull the central piece from this carefully constructed puzzle, is there anything left? Does not the whole religious system of the past 2000 or so years come apart, shattering like a piece of precious glass into a million shards, never to be reassembled again? To be able to think differently about the Christian faith or to accept uncertainty in the presence of this kind of challenge does not mean merely nibbling around the edges of our religious system.
It does not mean simply doing a facelift on the corpse of traditional Christian thinking. It calls us, rather, to a radical re-visioning of our faith story. It requires that we find a new entry point. It means that we become willing to give up everything we have ever known in order to move to a place where there are no road maps or road signs and we still have the responsibility of putting one foot in front of the other as we are forced to step into the cloud of unknowing. Many are no longer willing to risk this journey. They are the new fundamentalists. The pain of this transition is too intense, but the alternative is little more than a life of deception and illusion. Theological honesty requires that we admit that we have arrived at the status of the total bankruptcy of our traditional Christian symbols. What do we do now?
We first must recognize that good theology can never be built on the basis of bad anthropology. So we must begin by understanding what it means to be human. We will pick up this thread and see where it leads us when this series resumes.
~John Shelby Spong
“Think Different – Accept Uncertainty” Part VII : The Corruption of Human Life According to the Bible
In the beginning all was good, said the oldest biblical story of creation (Gen. 2:4b-3:24). That goodness was symbolized by the portrait of life in the Garden of Eden, a garden that contained everything for which a human being could yearn. There was ample water, fruit and vegetation. The author of the story even asserted that this garden contained precious metals like gold and precious stones like onyx. Exactly why this original couple might have needed either gold or onyx is not stated, but they were universally viewed as valuable so the garden was made to contain them.
The second symbol of this original perfection in the narrative was that the two human beings, the man and the woman, lived in perfect harmony with God. This harmony was symbolized by the fact that each day “in the cool of the evening” God came out of the sky to have a daily walk with God’s friends, Adam and Eve. In those pre-air conditioned days, God knew better than to come out in the heat of the day. That time was reserved for “mad dogs and Englishmen!” God ventured forth, probably with a straw hat and cane, only in “the cool of the evening.”
When God first placed the man and the woman into this garden, the author tells us, there was but a single restriction. The first couple was to have access to all of the plants and trees of the garden save for one. There was a tree, planted by God, known as the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.” The man and the woman were forbidden to eat from the fruit of this tree. This restriction was not just divinely imposed, but it was severe carrying with it a terrible price. God had promised them that if “you eat of the tree in the midst of the garden, you will surely die!”
For a while all went well in Eden, says the text. Human beings, however, know the lure of “forbidden fruit.” So it was almost inevitable that one day, the woman, clearly defined by the male author of this story as the weak link in the created order, was found to be looking at this tree, perhaps fantasizing about what the fruit might be like to her taste buds. Fantasies are often the first step toward crossing a boundary. A serpent, the personification of all evil desires, approached Eve in this vulnerable setting. The serpent was smart and knew just where to aim its thrust into the vulnerabilities of this woman.
“It looks tasty, doesn’t it?” said the serpent. “Yes, Mr. Snake, it surely does!” “Why don’t you try it?” the serpent continued. “I could not do that,” Eve replied. “God said that if we eat of the fruit of this tree, we will surely die.”
“Oh, you won’t die Miss Eve,” the snake continued, weaving the tempter’s spell, “the reason that God has forbidden this fruit is that God knows that if you eat of the fruit of this tree, you will be as wise as God and will know the difference between good and evil. God doesn’t want anyone to compete with the divine prerogative.”
It was a subtle temptation. You can be more than you are, Eve. You can be as wise as God. So Eve thinks about it until her hubris wins out. She plucks the fruit and bites into its substance. Not content to be alone in this act of disobedience, she hurriedly calls Adam over and offers him a sample. Both then eat and in that act of disobedience, this story asserts, evil is born. The world and life itself, which were created to be good, were now corrupted, fallen. Sin had made its entrance into Paradise and would become a constant source of corruption. At that moment, the ancient biblical narrative tells us, the eyes of the man and the woman were opened. Adam and Eve began to see things they had never seen before. They discovered, for example, that they were naked and so they felt shame. Driven by this shame they scurried to make “fig leaf aprons” to cover their exposed bodies. Their walk with God in the cool of the evening, to which they had always looked forward with pleasure, now became a source of dread. It is one thing to walk with a friend, it is quite another to walk with one who has become your judge. So, as the hour of the divine stroll neared, Adam and Eve, in a wonderfully primitive and naïve way, decided they would hide from the all-seeing God in the bushes of the garden. They had just created a game called “Hide and Seek” and had decided that God was “It.” So into the security of the bushes they plunged.
When God arrived in the garden for the daily walk with God’s friends, God recognized that something was different. Adam and Eve were nowhere to be seen. So God called out to the man, who in that patriarchal era, would be perceived as the one clearly in charge, “Adam, Adam! Where are you?” Since this was the first time that the game “Hide and Seek” had ever been played in human history, Adam did not quite understand the rules. So, when God called him, Adam stood up in the bushes, raised his hand and said, “Here we are, Lord, hiding in the bushes!”
“What in the world are you doing in the bushes?” God asked, before it slowly dawned on the divine consciousness that something was terribly amiss. Then God asked, “Have you eaten of the fruit of the tree that was in the midst of the garden?” In response to this question, the human capacity to rationalize guilt leapt into full bloom. “It was not I, Lord,” said Adam. It was that woman. You know, Lord, the woman that you made.” Adam obviously wanted to include God in the guilt. The woman then in turn defended herself by blaming the tempter, the serpent. The result, however, was obvious. The goodness of God’s creation came crashing down. God, now cast in the role of judge, proceeds to do just that. He sentences the guilty and these punishments were used by the ancient Jews to explain observable phenomena that seemed to them to have no other explanation. The punishment given to the serpent was that for all eternity, it would be condemned to crawl on its belly and eat the dust of the earth. The punishment given to the woman was that she would experience the pain of labor in childbirth. The punishment given to the man was that he would, from that day forward, have to scratch his meager living out of the ground that frequently brought forth more thorns and brambles than it did food to eat.
That was not all. Their punishment also required that they be expelled from the Garden of Eden and thus banished from the presence of God. They could no longer be “at one” with God, making the quest for atonement a driving human need. Communion with the divine was broken. They now lived in a state of alienation and since they were no longer able to live in Eden, they had to dwell “East of Eden,” to borrow a phrase from John Steinbeck.
The final punishment was probably the most terrifying. Each of them would die. It was, said this story, now the destiny of all living things to be finite not infinite, mortal not immortal, separated from God not one with God. For human life death had an extra dreadful dimension. All living things die, but only self-conscious human beings know that this is their destiny and so they have to plan for it, anticipate it, and get themselves emotionally prepared for it. The ancient biblical story also says that once the man and the woman were expelled the gates of the Garden of Eden were closed and locked and an angel with a drawn sword stood at the entry, barring any human attempt to return. The corruption of human life was now complete. No life escaped this evil. Human beings were forever after to be born into this fallen status. The fact that everyone died meant that everyone lived “in sin” and was, therefore, guilty. Human beings could do nothing to overcome the fall except to wait patiently for God to come to their rescue.
Augustine thus took this ancient story and not only literalized it, but also built an entire theological system around it. Within this theology, he would place the story of Jesus with which most of us are familiar. This theology had several parts. It was rooted in the perfection of God’s creation. It assumed, however, that human beings had destroyed that original perfection with an act of disobedience. That act had corrupted the entire human enterprise. It was this “original sin” that stained irreparably all of life. Original sin was passed on from generation to generation. No one could escape it. No one could save himself or herself from it. All anyone could do was to wait in silence for a divine rescue, for a savior who would come from God, one who was not infected with our sinfulness, one who could redeem us from our “fall”. That yearning for rescue became the lens through which these western Christian Gentiles read and interpreted the messianic dreams of the Jews. When Christianity became the established religion of that western Gentile world, it was within this theological understanding of human life that the Christ story was told. Jesus was God’s rescue operation. His death on the cross was the payment that God required for our sins in order to accomplish our salvation. We developed a mantra inside Protestant Christianity that proclaimed that “Jesus died for my sins!” The Eucharist in Roman Catholic Christianity became the liturgical reenactment of the moment when Jesus paid the price that bought us salvation, so this liturgy was referred to as “the sacrifice of the Mass.”
In time believers even developed a fetish about the cleansing power of Jesus’ blood shed on the cross. Protestants wanted to be made clean by bathing in the blood of Jesus. Catholics wanted to be cleansed internally by drinking the blood of Jesus. This was the way that traditional Christianity told the Jesus story. It is still deeply implanted in our minds, in our hymns, in our prayers, in our liturgies and in our sermons.
What is wrong with this story? Everything! It is bad anthropology and it is not true. Can we find a new way to tell the Christ story apart from this scheme? I hope so, for if we cannot Christianity will surely die. We will put flesh on both of these assertions when the next installments in the series play across our computer screens.
~John Shelby Spong
Trying to extract the substantive message of Jesus from all the myth and history
By Vince Exley
By the time you’ve finished today’s reflection from Vince Exley you might ask yourself if it would be possible today to have this conversation in Church?. As he writes: “I have recently watched The Teaching Company’s 48 thirty-minute lectures on ‘Religion in the Mediterranean World’, the 36 thirty-minute lectures on ‘Jesus and the Gospels’ and Franco Zeffirelli’s 210 minute movie ‘Jesus of Nazareth’.” He’s been on another of his lengthy quests to try and extract the substantive message of Jesus out of all the myths and the historical record. This is neither a quest in search of the historical Jesus, nor the mythical Jesus, but a search for the meaning that Jesus and Christianity might have for our lives today. As we suggested: is this a conversation you could have in Church?
Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean World…
I don’t claim to be a scholar like many who post here, but I was a professional Land, Mining and Engineering Surveyor, and I did the Bachelor of Theology course although, as I was running a business that employed 70 people, I did not have any need of a degree and I audited some of the subjects.
I do claim to be able to discern truth when I see it.
In the first series of 48 lectures, Professor Glenn S. Holland, an historian, uses textual and archaeological evidence to explore the religious cultures of the ancient Mediterranean world. He covers times from the earliest prehistoric indications of human religious practices to the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity in the 4th century A.D.
He asks how people of ancient times coped with the overwhelming mysteries of the universe. The cycles of nature kept predictable time with the sun, moon, and stars; yet, without warning, crops failed, diseases struck, storms wreaked havoc, and empires fell.
In the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, they responded with a rich variety of religious beliefs that have provided some of Western civilization’s most powerful texts: the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, the Hebrew Bible, the Greek epics of Homer, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and the New Testament, among many others. Composed largely of stories of human interaction with the divine, these narratives gave ordinary people a window into the unfathomable realm of the sacred.
People also responded with a complex array of religious rituals that survive in the archaeological remains of temples, cultic statues, funerary goods, and household devotional items—artefacts that are among the world’s greatest cultural treasures.
Religion during the time of the ancients was not something they remembered on occasion. Religion was part of everyday life and everything they did was infused with it.
Medicine was part physical, part spiritual.
The daily life of people was very involved with the various gods and goddesses who ruled mythology. It was quite acceptable to worship more than one deity and most towns and villages throughout the Mediterranean world did so, although a city would normally claim a patron god. Temples were built and scattered throughout the land, reflecting a religion that involved frequent rites, rituals and practices.
All of this mythology flowed over into early Christianity.
Jesus and the Gospels: mythical rather than historical…
In the second series of lectures, Professor Luke Timothy Johnson, an historian, when he comes to look at the Gospels, both Canonical and Apocryphal finds that this literature is mythical and in no way historical.
The figure of Jesus has tantalized both Christians and non-Christians who have sought definitive answers to questions about his words, his acts, and even his very existence.
For most of the last 2,000 years, the search for those answers has begun with the Gospels, but the Gospels themselves raise puzzling questions about both Jesus and the religious movement within which these narratives were produced. They also provide sometimes bewilderingly diverse images of Jesus.
What accounts for this great diversity in the images of Jesus that have emerged, or in the approaches taken to understanding the story of his death and resurrection? Is it possible to shape a single picture from the various accounts of his life given us by these Gospels? Can we really know who Jesus was?
What are the ‘Gospels’ and what can we learn from them?
Jesus and the Gospels is a far-ranging course. It examines not only the canonical Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John familiar to us from the New Testament, but also the many other, apocryphal narratives and literary works that have contributed to our perceptions of Jesus, Mary, and Christianity. All of these works are encompassed by the word “Gospel”.
So, Christianity was founded in a world that was totally mythical in outlook.
It has continued in this vein right up to this day. I am totally convinced that the God of the Old Testament did not exist, there is no life after death, it’s all a complete fabrication and it has continued over into modern day Christianity.
Franco Zeffirelli’s movie is really a summation of Christian belief, very little of it is historical. Virtually all we know historically of Jesus of Nazareth is that he was a wonder worker who was crucified.
I believe in a creator, be it a process or a being. I believe that the universe is permeated with a spirit of attraction. Many of these attractions we have named, gravity, nuclear force, etc.. Even within humans it can be seen that where the attraction we call love is allowed to flourish then humanity flourishes.
It is this universal love that people like Jesus, Mohammed, and many others, both ancient and modern have discerned and preached. As the Gospels sometimes show us, Jesus’ followers taught of this love in its many forms.
When Professor Johnson looks into the apocryphal gospels one really has to laugh at what was written. Although not in the canon these gospels were very widely read and actually form the basis for much of Christian beliefs.
The immaculate conception of Mary, proclaimed as Doctrine in 1854, and her being a virgin despite having given birth to Jesus are completely depended upon some of them. It is related that at the birth of Jesus the midwife examined Mary after the birth and was in awe at the fact that Mary’s hymen was not broken.
Why can’t our astronomers realise that the rings of Saturn are the Holy Foreskin of Jesus?
A few theologians argued that all the Holy Foreskins necessarily had to be frauds since, they asserted, Jesus had taken the actual Holy Prepuce with him to heaven when he ascended.
During the late 17th century, Catholic scholar and theologian Leo Allatius (Allacci Leone) published the treatise De Praeputio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi Diatriba (“Discussion concerning the Prepuce of our Lord Jesus Christ”) in which he proposed that the Holy Foreskin had ascended into heaven at the same time as Jesus, and had become the recently observed rings of Saturn.
This type of superstitious drivel totally permeates Christianity today. That is why I see its doctrines as utter crap. Despite all this, Christian people have been, able to carry out, and still are carrying out, great works of love within the world. It is such a great pity that the superstitious nonsense is driving so many people away from Christianity.
Link to further commentary in our forum sparked by this commentary from Vince Exley: www.catholica.com.au/forum/index.php?id=96653