Splinter Episcopalians: Giving Gravitas to Trivia

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 11 December 2008 0 Comments
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How do we really know what Jesus said? They get so much wrong. Is it not a house of cards?


It is not easy to determine what Jesus actually said or did, but I believe it is more substantial than a house of cards. Probably the reason traditional Catholics and evangelical Protestant fundamentalists try to literalize the Bible is that they recognize how fragile their grasp on truth really is and, unable to be secure in that fragility, they make incredible claims for the literal words of scripture or for the teaching authority of the church. Literalism in any form is little more than pious hysteria.

The problems are that we have nothing in writing from the time Jesus lived. The earliest material in the New Testament would be Paul's Epistles, written 20-34 years after the crucifixion and by a man who did not know the human Jesus. Paul's conversion is dated some one to six years after the crucifixion. From Paul we learn that Jesus was crucified, that he introduced the Lord's Supper and that he was perceived as alive in some way following the crucifixion and little more.

The gospels are written between 70 at the earliest (Mark) and 100 at the latest (John). Yet all four gospels reveal the impact of this Jesus on a variety of people. The Fellows of the Jesus Seminar spent more than a decade going over everything that the four gospels record Jesus as ever having said. When they completed this study, they determined that no more than 16% of the sayings of Jesus are authentic to the man Jesus which, of course, means that some 84% of the sayings attributed to Jesus are not historically accurate. The Seminar did not find a single word attributed to Jesus in the Fourth Gospel (John) to be authentic. The Jesus of John's gospel speaks to the concerns of the Christian Church near the end of the first century, not the literal words of a man of history.

I think I can demonstrate that all four of the gospel writers knew they were not writing either history or biography. Each was interpreting Jesus in the context of their relationship with the Synagogue and their time in history, most especially following the Jewish-Roman War when in 70 CE the city of Jerusalem was leveled by the Roman invaders.

If we looked at the gospels as portraits of Jesus painted by the second or even third generation of Christians and not as photographs or tape recordings capturing his exact deeds and words, I think we would be closer to the truth.

I believe the gospels give us insight into the impact of a man of history and they open the doors for an exploration into the mystery and wonders of God. That is why I treasure them.

John Shelby Spong




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