Archive for category Spong
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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
My Way into an Interfaith Future
June 27, 2012
Last week I introduced you, my readers, to an interfaith “think tank” in which I shared recently at a conference center known as the Chautauqua Institution in Western New York. Some fifty leaders from among all the major religious systems of the world gathered there to explore the common ground that might lead to deeper interfaith cooperation and appreciation. The goal seemed desirable and all of the participants came with hope and excitement. The need for interfaith cooperation is apparent all over the world. Where divergent religious systems confront each other, violence almost always ensues. One has only to look for documentation at the Jewish-Moslem conflict in the Middle East, the Hindu-Moslem conflict between Pakistan and India, the Christian-Islamic violence that cuts across Africa, the Catholic-Protestant tensions in Ireland or the Sunni-Shia conflict that keeps Islam divided in the Middle East. One could also look at Christian history to see the anti-Semitism of the ages, the violence of the Crusades directed against Islam, or the Thirty Years’ War in Europe that followed the Reformation as both Protestant Europe and Catholic Europe sought to impose its faith on the other.
This reality forces us to ask what there is about religion in most of its forms that makes violence all but inevitable as it appears to be in religious history. At the Chautauqua conference it did not take long for this flaw to be revealed. Indeed, it became present and visible in the first presentation.
This presentation was given by Dr. John Cavadini, a Roman Catholic Professor of Theology from Notre Dame. The Roman Catholic Church articulates its claim to supremacy quite overtly. The current pope has reiterated a position taken by his predecessor that there is but one true religion and that is Christianity and that there is only one true version of Christianity and that is the Roman Catholic Church! He went on to warn those Catholics engaged in ecumenical relations that they should never refer to other Christian traditions as “sister churches,” since that implies some legitimacy. When that point of view is publicly articulated there is a genuine embarrassment in the listening audience. Such an attitude makes any significant conversation aimed at unity a rather worthless activity. Professor Cavalini tried at our gathering, unsuccessfully I believe, to navigate these troubled waters by making a distinction between revealed truth and our understanding of this truth. The central Christian doctrine of the Incarnation was not subject to debate, he said, but the way we understand that doctrine is always unfolding.
Lest the blame for interfaith failure be placed too heavily on Roman Catholic shoulders, let me hasten to say that almost every religious tradition makes similar claims to be the exclusive possessor of revealed and “saving” truth. Protestant fundamentalists assert that the Bible is the literal “word of God” and those denying that claim are either to be condemned or subjected to conversion pressure. Protestant evangelicals believe that the prerequisite for salvation is that one must be “born again” or “accept Jesus as their personal savior.” Muslims make the Islamic claim that in the Koran the Word of God was dictated directly to the prophet Muhammad. Within Islam itself both the Sunnis and the Shia claim that theirs is the only true expression of that faith tradition. Other sacred writings from the religions of the East are similarly invested with claims of being vessels through which the absolute truth of God has come into human possession. These claims that ultimate truth is the possession of a particular religious system are what make interfaith conversation all but impossible. The attempt to be open, to understand or to appreciate another faith perspective is thus deeply threatening to every religious system.
One of the things that every religious system seeks to do is to offer religious certainty and for that to be possible that religion must escape the quicksand of relativity. Relativity, at the same time, is almost always impossible to escape without falling into religious triumphalism. At the Chautauqua “think tank” these problems were quickly identified and named. We could not start without finding a new way into the interfaith issue. As I thought about this over the next few days I tried to discover that illusive new path. Let me try to outline it briefly.
The first step in any interfaith process is to be conscious of the fact that these exclusive claims exist and that we must begin where people are, not with where we wish they were. No one speaks in a vacuum and no one listens in a vacuum. We need to listen to each other closely, the same way we want others to listen to us. Let me then begin this process autobiographically.
I am a Christian. Any interfaith activity in which I am engaged must start with that fact. I am not apologetic about this self-identification, nor am I willing to jettison this definition of myself for the sake of interfaith unity. The deepest commitment of my life is my commitment to walk the Christ path as my doorway into the mystery of God. Christianity is of absolute importance to me. I want to explore its wonders as deeply as I possibly can. Yet, I do not think that God is a Christian, certainly not in any creedal way, and that insight opens me up to all kinds of new possibilities. Christianity, like every other religious system in history is clearly a human creation that has evolved over the centuries. The virgin birth, for example, did not enter the Christian tradition until the ninth decade of the Christian era. It was certainly not a part of primitive Christianity. Neither Paul nor Mark appears ever to have heard about such an idea. The ascension was a tenth decade addition. Surely a quick reading of Paul would reveal that Paul was not a Trinitarian. The doctrines of the Incarnation and the Holy Trinity were not worked out until the third and fourth centuries. Doctrines are always attempts to put rational forms onto a transformative experience. Doctrines, therefore, can never be ultimate, but the experience that made the development of the doctrine seem proper might well be. Can we then separate the God experience that we Christians believe we have met in Jesus from the explanations of that experience which form the content of our faith tradition? That is a crucial distinction. The Jesus experience might well offer me a doorway into that which is ultimate, but Christianity itself cannot be ultimate and it thus cannot be the final revelation of God. God can never be contained inside any human form or bound by any human words. This means that neither my understanding of God nor my Church’s understanding of God can ever be ultimate. This realization does not, however, invalidate the truth of my experience.
As a Christian, I walk the Christ path. My deepest hope is that if I walk the Christ path long enough and faithfully enough, I will discover that I inevitably will transcend the boundaries of my own religion. That reality thus becomes a religious inevitability. When I articulate the fact that this is true for me I discover that it also seems to be true for people in all other religious systems. The Muslim must walk the Islamic path; the Jews must walk the Jewish path; the Hindus and Buddhists must walk the Hindu or Buddhist path. All walk with the realization, however, that God is not a Muslim, a Jew, a Hindu or a Buddhist. All religious systems are designed by human beings to help its adherents walk into the mystery of an unbounded God. If any of us walks our own faith path long enough and faithfully enough, we will discover that our walk carries us beyond the boundaries of our own religious systems, since God can never be limited by or exhausted in any thing that is a human creation, whether it be scripture, creeds, doctrines or dogmas. To say it boldly the God experience may well be ultimate, but the religious system through which we walk into the God experience can never be.
The next realization comes when we discover that while we are walking our separate paths, we are also taking into ourselves the values and the treasures found in our own tradition. We hold these treasures close to our hearts; we do not want to lose them. I grasp joyfully the pearl of great price that Christianity gives me. Then I realize that my brothers and sisters in Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism are doing exactly the same. They must embrace the treasures of their religion and cling to the pearl of great price that they have received from their religious system. So perhaps the deepest and the common religious call to each of us is not to affirm our unique creeds so much as it is to explore our faith so deeply that we each transcend its boundaries and escape fear-laden limits. Then beyond the boundaries and the limits of the faith system that has nurtured each of us, but without sacrificing the pearl of great price that our own tradition has given us, we can turn and face in a new way our brothers and sisters who have walked a path different from our own. In that setting I can speak to them and say: “This is the essence of my faith. This is the treasure that I have received as I walked the Christ path and now I want to share this treasure with you.” Each of my interfaith pilgrims will in turn do the same. They will say to me: “This is the essence of Judaism, of Islam, of Hinduism, of Buddhism. This is the treasure, the pearl of great price that I have received by walking faithfully and deeply the path of my religion and I want to share it with you.” We each receive the treasure of the other. No one has to sacrifice the treasure of the system which has nurtured him or her. We all become enriched. We no longer have to protect our truth or play the familiar religious games of supremacy that we have so often played in the past. No one loses, everyone gains.
The alternative to genuine interfaith cooperation may well be genocide. While we can assert that there is no relativity in the God experience, there can also be no triumphalism in the various explanations of that experience. No religion is therefore ultimate, but God is and God is met on many paths and our call is to walk our path faithfully. In that realization, the beauty of an interfaith future is born.
~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
“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