A Living Watershed

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 28 June 2006 0 Comments
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Your recent e-mail

article, "Jesus for the Non-Religious, Part I," was very

interesting. I have always maintained doubts about the

historicity of Jesus, in particular, how the stories that

comprise the New Testament evolved into the texts as we know them

today in the Bible. In your very fine article, you commented that

the followers most likely used the synagogue to transmit the

story of Jesus. You said in your column that the synagogue

"became the setting in which his followers told stories about

Jesus, recalled the sayings and parables of Jesus and remembered

and shared the developing Jesus tradition. In this fashion, over

the years, the Hebrew Scriptures were wrapped around Jesus and

through them Jesus was interpreted. The content of the memory of

Jesus was thus organized by the liturgy of the synagogue. To

recognize this connection becomes a major breakthrough into the

oral period of Christian history."

Here is my question: wouldn't the Jews, during the time following

the death of Jesus (30 C.E. - 70 C.E.) have rejected his status

as "the messiah," thus discounting Jesus as a messenger from God?

It would seem to me that rather than use the synagogue to

discuss, and possibly embellish his life; the Jews would not

attribute any divine nature to Jesus, thus rejecting him

entirely. I say this because it is my understanding that during

the time of Jesus; the Jews were anticipating a messiah. Prior

to Jesus' death, he was interrogated by Caiaphas, the elder of

the Sanhedrin (John 18:12-33). Caiaphas determined that Jesus

was not the messiah. Wouldn't that suffice to dismiss Jesus and

all accounts of his life as worthy of further discussion in the

synagogues? It is my opinion that the Jews would not have

revered him as the one whom the Old Testament prophesied.

Therefore, I surmise that stories about Jesus would more likely

have originated as folklore among the gentiles.


Your comments suggest a time warp that you have imposed on the

New Testament. You quote John's gospel, which was not written

until around the turn of the first century (100 C.E. or so). You

accept the timeline of the book of Acts, written somewhere

between 90 and 100 C.E. that shows Christians as separate from

and over against the Jews. Neither of those uses of scripture is

appropriate for discerning facts of history. They were written 60

to 70 years after the death of Jesus.

Be aware first that not only Jesus but also all of the disciples

of Jesus were Jews. If the memory recorded in the gospels is

accurate, Jesus and his disciples were frequently in the

synagogue for worship. The first Christians did not cease to be

Jews. They were called, "The Followers of the Way" and

constituted a Jesus movement within the synagogue. It was not

until around the year 88 C. E. that the synagogue and the

Christian movement split. That happened when the increasingly

rigid Orthodox part of Judaism could no longer tolerate what they

regarded as revisionist Judaism on the part of the followers of


Certainly, Jesus was interpreted immediately after his death in

the light of the Jewish scriptures, the liturgy of the synagogue

and the messianic expectations that were alive among the Jews at

that time. The gospels assume and reflect this process, which

obviously had occurred before the gospels were written since they

are all reflected in those gospels.

The Jesus we meet in the church today is a gentile creation

based on harmonizing the human with the divine, which were, in

the Greek perception of reality, thought to be quite distinct and

different. The divine and the human related to each other in

this view only in tension. That was not so among the Jews.

Remember that the first gospel to be written, Mark, portrays

Jesus as having a perfectly normal birth in Galilee and as a

fully human being receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit at the

time of his baptism. That is Mark saw Jesus as a God infused

human being. John's gospel some 30 years later would portray him

as a pre-existent divine visitor from the realm of heaven.

The more I learn about who Jesus was before the gospels were

written, the more I marvel at his humanity, which is what I

believe opened the eyes of his followers to the God claims that

they would make for him. The issue is do we see God through Jesus'

humanity or is his humanity only a mirage to allow God to become

visible to human eyes.

Periodically I will continue to explore these issues through

this column and, if all goes as scheduled, I will publish the

book, "Jesus for the Non-Religious" in April of 2007. Perhaps

with the space available in a book, these ideas will become


John Shelby Spong




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