Archive for category scripture

Analyzing the Miracles Attributed to Jesus by John S. Spong

I have been advised that this material is protected and belongs to ProgressiveChristianity, and ought not to have been posted in its entirety.  Persons interested in the writings of Bishop Spong can go to his own website.  The purpose of this blog was to serve like a library of those articles that I have found meaningful.  I have been advised that I could post portions of these articles but not the entirety of what was published.

 

“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.

Advertisements

, ,

Leave a comment

Miracles As Signs to Be Interpreted: Part XIII “Think Different—Accept Uncertainty”

“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

, , ,

Leave a comment

Part XI: Beginning a Probe of the Miracles Attributed to Jesus – John S. 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:

  1. Can a star really wander through the sky so slowly that wise men can keep up with it?
  2. 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?
  3. Can a virgin conceive?
  4. 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?”
  5. Do you think that anyone can literally walk on water?
  6. Do you believe that anyone can feed a multitude of 5,000 men, plus women and children, with five loaves and two fish?
  7. Can one curse a fig tree and cause that tree to wither down to its roots and die?
  8. Can one still a storm by speaking to it and commanding it to cease its fury?
  9. 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?
  10. 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?
  11. Can the mentally ill or those suffering from epilepsy be cured by casting out the demons that cause them to be other than “normal”?
  12. 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?
  13. 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?
  14. 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

, , ,

Leave a comment

The Christ – He Is Not the Savior of the Fallen – part X of Spong series

“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

, ,

Leave a comment

The Great Commission explained – John S. 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.

, ,

1 Comment

The Communal Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus by John Dominic Crossan

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
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-dominic-crossan/the-communal-crucifixion-jesus_

, , ,

Leave a comment

Understanding the Source of Evil by John S. Spong Part VI “Think Different – Accept Uncertainty”

“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

, , ,

Leave a comment