Homophobia - No Compromise Possible

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 15 December 2004 0 Comments
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When people tell me that I have no more reason to believe that the New Testament accurately reflects the words of Jesus than I have to believe that the Old Testament reflects accurately, how do I respond?


If what you want is some assurance that your belief in the accuracy of the parables or the stories of the life of Jesus as your letter implies in its first paragraph, I cannot give it to you. It simply isn't that easy.

In the New Testament we do have a shorter time span between presumed event and written account than we do in most parts of the Old testament but both time spans are long enough t cause all literal claims to become unraveled. For example, in the Old Testament if Abraham lived at all as a figure of history, it would be around 1850 B.C.E. While the earliest strand in the Book of Genesis that purports to tell the Abraham story was not written until some 900 years later. This means that everything we know about Abraham floated in oral transmission for 900 years before being written down. With Moses it is only slightly better. The Exodus in which Moses played a major role occurred around 1250 B.C.E. The books of Moses, as we call the first five books of the Bible, were not written for a minimum of 300 years and probably did not achieve their final form for about 800 years.

When we come to the New Testament, the earthly life of Jesus is generally dated between 4 B.C.E. and 33 C.E. with the year 30 the consensus bet on the date of the crucifixion. The first written part of the New Testament were the Pauline epistles, all of which were composed between 50 and 64 C.E. or 20 to 34 years after Jesus' earthly life was concluded. Paul tells us, however, almost nothing about the events in Jesus' life. In I Corinthians, chapters 11 and 15, he does pass on the tradition that he says had been given to him, but the details are still quite sparse.

Mark, the first Gospel, was written some 40 years after the end of Jesus' life. Matthew is second, written some 50 years after Jesus' life, Luke is third, some 60 years after Jesus' life and John is last, some 70 years after Jesus' life. So we deal with a time span of 40 to 70 years in a world where life expectancy was half of what we have today and in which there were no written records to which an author might refer. To complicate matters even more, all of the gospels were written in Greek and our presumption is that Jesus spoke Aramaic. So when we read the gospels, we are 40 to 70 years and one translation removed from the events being described. I would say any claim that one is dealing with literal words in either Testament is problematic. I think the New Testament contains authentic echoes of the Jesus of history far more than it contains his literal words.

The next issue that must be faced is where did the memory of both the words and actions of Jesus reside before these stories were written down. My study leads me to the conclusion that the place of their residence could only have been in the synagogue. The gospels are so deeply shaped by and intertwined with the stories found in the Old Testament that this intermingling process could only have occurred in the synagogue because that was the only place where the Old Testament was ever read and studied. Remember in that day there were no printing presses. Books had to be hand copied on scrolls and were thus very expensive and very rare. Even in the stories of the New Testament that do not directly quote Old Testament sources, the echoes of Old Testament themes are still heard. In Luke's Christmas story (Luke 1 & 2), for example, one meets allusions to Isaiah, Malachi, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Daniel Jacob, Rachel, Joseph, Samuel, David, Micah and probably others and that is just to scratch the surface.

If what you are looking for is literal accuracy, you will not find it in either Testament. If what you are seeking is the chronicle of how God was experienced in our religious past, together with and an invitation to you to walk in that path and enter the experiences that they describe, then I think you will discover in the Bible a rich reading experience.

The Christian life, Marlene, is always a journey. It has no fixed points and few guide posts. We walk into the mystery and wonder of a God none of us can describe. We do not have the factual certainty. We have only the record of living encounters. That is what matters to me.

This is only to scratch the surface of a vast topic. If you want to go farther, I commend to you two of my books: 1. Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, which is a survey of the entire Bible from Genesis to Revelation, giving the reader dates, contexts and background into which the texts themselves can be placed; and 2. Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes, which shows how the gospel message in Mark, Matthew and Luke was shaped and influenced by the ongoing life of the synagogue so that the narratives concerning Jesus got deeply connected with Hebrew sources. For example, the Passover tradition of the Jews shaped the Passion Story of Jesus profoundly to the place that we today assume that the crucifixion occurred at the time of the Passover. I doubt the historicity of that claim for many reasons. I believe that crucifixion and Passover are liturgically connected not historically connected, but that is another and much longer story. If any of my readers wish me to pursue this idea further, all you have to do is write and ask.

-- John Shelby Spong




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