The Call for Brotherhood: The Real Message of Jesus

By Ina Belderis
I vote for insecurity and the pursuit of truth. The alternative, I believe, is security and the creation of a doomed idolatry. -- p. 232

This is one of the remarkable conclusions of John Shelby Spong in Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture (Harper, San Francisco, 1991; Spong is the Episcopal bishop of Newark, New Jersey). He is concerned about an increasing fundamentalism in Christian circles which insists on interpreting the Bible literally, and also about an alarming ignorance with regard to the contents of the Bible by mainstream Christians. In pointing out the problems that arise when one takes the Bible literally, he offers a framework in which the message of the Bible -- and of Jesus in particular -- can have meaning for modern men and women. The result is a thought-provoking and inspiring book, the implications of which go far beyond how most people see the Christian religion.

Through the ages the Bible has been seen by many Christians as the inerrant word of God that must be taken literally. Spong's own study of the Bible made it increasingly difficult for him to do that. Accounts of vicious tribal practices abound: tribal hatred, adultery, sexual abuse, name-calling, narrow-mindedness, bearing of false witness, anti-Semitism, theft, murder, and their justification. Fundamentalism regards these passages as the divinely inspired word of God, claiming that their purpose is to point out and emphasize the values of justice. But Spong believes the real purpose of such literal interpretation is to justify one's prejudices by locking oneself into a way of life that does not wish to be challenged by any new knowledge or insights. New discoveries in both general science and biblical research make it untenable to interpret the Bible literally. And moreover, Spong cannot respect the God fundamentalism offers because that deity's needs and prejudices are at least as extensive as his own.

What Spong advocates is separation of theological truth from prescientific understanding and a rethinking of it which is more consistent with our own understanding of reality, for then

The Bible becomes not a literal road map to reality but a historic narrative of the journey our religious forebears made in the eternal human quest to understand life, the world, themselves, and God.
. . . We look for and find meaning and divinity, not always so much in an external God as in the very depth of our humanity, but it is divinity nonetheless. We discover transcending spirit within ourselves. . . . We have come to the dawning realization that God might not be separate from us but rather deep within us. The sense of God as the sum of all that is, plus something more, grows in acceptability. -- p. 33

The author believes there is no future for the Christian religion unless the essence of Christian truth can be extracted from the phenomenalistic framework of ages long gone.

Spong speaks out strongly against twisting one's brain into "a first century pretzel" by trying to hold on to images that really do not fit our knowledge or experience. "I want to place the biblical narrative into a frame of reference that will enable my readers to embrace the reality of time and see what that reality does to ancient religious claims, as well as the possibilities it creates for new biblical insight" (p. 38). To do this he takes the reader on a journey through both the Old and New Testaments.

First of all, the way of communication for writers of the various books of the Bible was by word of mouth. In the case of the Old Testament these oral traditions were many hundreds of years old before they were written down. It really goes too far to claim inerrancy for the results of such a process. Most biblical scholars agree that the Old Testament as written was based on four documents from different times and places, which were finally merged into one biblical narrative. The Yahwist document is the oldest, written during the tenth century BC in Jerusalem. Calling God Yahweh, it represents the vantage point of the province of Judah. In the ninth century the Elohist version of the story of Israel was put together. It calls God Elohim and represents the viewpoint of the northern kingdom. Spong points out that textual contradictions in the Old Testament often result because the attempt to harmonize these two versions was never completed.

In the seventh century a scroll of law supposed to have been written by Moses was found in the temple in Jerusalem. Known as Deuteronomy, it called for religious reforms and was added to the Yahwist-Elohist stories. The resulting text, edited in the light of deuteronomic insights, emphasized purification, the elimination of foreign rites, and centralization of worship under the Jerusalem priesthood. All other shrines were closed down. Early in the sixth century BC, when Judah was conquered, its people took the Yahwist-Elohist-deuteronomic version with them into exile, where Israel's history was subject to its final and most extensive revisions: "The Yahwist-Elohist-deuteronomic version of the Hebrew sacred story was thoroughly edited by the priestly writers to include the ancient priestly traditions and to affirm the sanctity throughout all of Jewish history of the traditions now being required of faithful Jews" (p. 53).

Even in the New Testament there is a time gap between the spoken word of Jesus, who did not write down a single word himself, and the first written statements about him. Jesus in all probability spoke Aramaic, while the written sources are all in Greek. What was lost or added in the process of translation? The oldest writings are letters by Paul (52-54 AD). The four gospels were written in the next five decades. This meant that after the death of Jesus, some 20 to 70 Years passed before written accounts about him appeared -- a rather precarious foundation on which to base inerrancy and literal interpretation. Paul certainly did not write all the letters ascribed to him. One has to keep in mind that he never met Jesus personally and, when he wrote, none of the gospels had been written. Furthermore, Paul's writings were not then considered sacred scripture, and his relationship with the early leaders in Jerusalem was one of tension. Being a man of that era, Paul reflected the common assumptions of those days: he accepted the patriarchal attitude of his time toward women and slavery. Treating the words of Paul as the inerrant word of God creates many problems.

Mark, considered the oldest of the gospels (65-75 AD), appears to have been written in Rome in poor Greek with a confusing syntax. It puts strong emphasis on a titanic struggle between God the creator and the demon-spirits under the guidance of Satan, who have taken over the creation. In Mark the divine nature of Jesus seems to reside in his ability to cast out these demonic forces -- there is no story of a resurrection appearance. He saw the innocent suffering of the righteous emissary of God as the way of atonement: identifying with the victim in his suffering would increase the possibility of receiving the gift of forgiveness and reward.

The Gospel of Matthew, probably written in Antioch in the decade that followed, presents a very different viewpoint. Even though it uses about 90% of the material in Mark and corrects its Greek, internal nuances convince Spong that its author was a conservative-minded Levite Jew. This author showed a great interest in Israel as the chosen people and in Jesus as the embodiment of a new Israel, using the Jewish scriptures extensively to prove his case. In his use of Mark, Matthew changed it -- obviously Matthew did not think Mark literally infallible. (It is understood that the gospels were written "according to" Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which presupposes that these names represent a school of thought rather than actual authorship.) At every step Matthew fashioned his narrative by appeals to the Jewish tradition, which Jesus was to fulfill as a new Moses. He also wanted to give Jesus' life a meaning beyond Israel. For Matthew, the meaning of God in Christ was that a universal community had to be built.

After the defeat of Israel and the destruction of the temple, the prominence of Jerusalem in the early Christian movement practically disappeared and it became increasingly a gentile movement. Luke almost certainly was a gentile writing in Caesarea between 83 and 89 AD. Luke, using only half of the material in Mark, wrote in terms of persecutions, for in those days there were laws against starting a new religion. He wished to show Christianity as a natural development within a recognized and respected Jewish religious tradition. He worked for official Roman recognition of the movement. Luke more or less retold "the story of Elijah as the vehicle through which to lead his gentile audience to see a Jewish Jesus who had become the universal Christ" (p. 181).

In the first three gospels a certain secrecy is kept around the divine origin and identity of Christ, but in the Gospel of John (c. 100 AD) it is proclaimed emphatically. The Fourth Gospel also depended on Hebrew scripture, being greatly influenced by the wisdom literature of late Judaism. As wisdom was a pure pouring forth of the glory of the Almighty, John connected Jesus with this idea -- as the Son of Man who had descended from heaven to earth. Since God was seen as the ground of being, and "I AM" was the way of describing the indescribable, Jesus was to be understood as part of the great "I AM" of God. "I AM" was the constant claim of the Johannine Christ ("I am the way, the truth, and the life," etc.). Spong also discusses the anti-Semitism in this gospel, and explains that it was written in a time when hostility between orthodox Jews and Jewish Christians increased, and the former were trying to force the latter out of the synagogues. "When this author referred to the Jews, it was clear that his primary reference was to those rigid defenders of orthodox Judaism . . . He did know other Jews that he did not condemn" (p. 201).

To conclude his survey of the gospels, Spong compares the various Christmas narratives and shows how they abound in mutually exclusive traditions, historic errors, and blatant exaggerations. Only Matthew mentions magi on camels, a star, and the holy family fleeing to Egypt in fear of Herod; while Luke alone mentions shepherds and a stable with manger and Jesus being presented at the temple in Jerusalem after 40 days. There are also differences and discrepancies between the gospels and the writings of Paul, and of Acts (presumably written by Luke). Often they differ to such an extent that the stories are incompatible. To use Spong's line of reasoning, in comparing the literal interpretations of any two of these sources, one of them can be right, both can be wrong, but both cannot be right.

Such discrepancies make it increasingly difficult to maintain the Bible as the word of God that should be taken literally. Spong, however, draws profound conclusions about the message of Christ. Even though he considers literalism and the claim of inerrancy unacceptable, he still thinks the Bible is divinely inspired:

The Bible is the Word of God in that it touches universal, timeless themes. The sense of being created for union with God, the sense of being alienated from that union, and the yearning to be restored to that union are in the depth of every human psyche. . . . The Bible is the Word of God when it captures in its remembered history archetypal and eternal truths that we can experience, enter, and live, even today.
. . . The time has come, in my opinion, for all religious systems, including Christianity, to look at the truth that lies beneath the words of every great world religion, to respect that truth, to learn from that truth. . . . -- pp. 75, 171

An important question for Spong is: What is Christ for us today? The writers of the Bible tried to put their experience into the language and images of their time. These later became normative and definitive for Christianity, and people confused the form with the real thing. Many classical theological understandings are nonbiblical: our tendency to read the Bible through Greek and Western eyes means too often not separating our own credal concepts from biblical content. For example, Mark probably would not have understood a concept like incarnation, and Paul was not a Trinitarian. Each gospel gives a different image of Jesus and participates in the truth of Christ, but they cannot bind him in their images. "Christ has been and still is many things to many people. . . . Christ is indeed 'the hero of a thousand faces"' (p. 230). But there is nothing sacrosanct or eternal about the words previous generations selected as the expression of their truth.

Spong strongly believes that there is consistency to the experience of God in every age, though the words used to express the experiences are always dated and limited. He points out that the experience of Jesus was one of divine love, and that "The God who is love cannot be approached in worship except through the experience of living out that unconditional quality of love" (p. 239). He wants to break open the church and free it of its prejudices. Jesus' life was "in touch with a reality so powerful that it has escaped all human limits. . . . Jesus was alive, totally alive, and in that vibrant, vital life God was experienced" (pp. 240-1). Peeling off the outer fabric of Christianity, we end up at the deepest core of it -- the unconditional love of the divine and our task to express this love in our lives. Jesus is a symbol for this love, but this does not take away from the fact that in essence he is reexpressing the Golden Rule of universal brotherhood: love your neighbor as yourself.

(From Sunrise, February/March 1995. Copyright © 1995 by Theosophical University Press)

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