The Origins of the Bible, Part XXIV: The Book of Ruth

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 2 April 2009 0 Comments
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Thanks for your scholarship, which has opened my eyes to much about Jesus. I've read a number of your books and struggle to find the "hermeneutical key" that tells me how to decide what Jesus really said and did and what was read back into his life from later tradition. Do I turn to the Jesus Seminar people for that (The Five Gospels)? Or can you refer me to one of your books? I remember reading in your work that there's enough original/historical material in the gospels for one to find Jesus, but how do you know what's what?


Only those who have a divinity degree (M.Div.), as you do, would ask for the "hermeneutical key" to the gospels. That is a foreign language in today's world.

The problem with your question is that you assume some part of the gospels must be active recordings of Jesus' words and deeds, so you seek to separate the authentic from the unauthentic. I think that puts you into a "fundamentalist/minimalist" camp. Let me propose a different approach.

Take all of the gospels seriously. Take none of them literally. I am convinced they are written about the experience people had with the historical figure Jesus of Nazareth. They are written, however, two to three generations after the life of Jesus came to an end and in a language that neither Jesus nor his disciples could speak or write. So none of them can be regarded as literally accurate, but all of them serve the purpose of allowing you and me to gain insight into the meaning of this Jesus by examining the interpretative portrait that each gospel writer painted about Jesus.

The gospels are also not independent sources, since Mark was the first and Matthew incorporated about 90 percent of Mark into his gospel and Luke incorporated about 50 percent of Mark into his. John alone reveals no dependency on Mark, and indeed counters Mark at a number of places: Jesus was not actually baptized by John the Baptist, for example, the cleansing of the Temple occurred early in Jesus' ministry and not during the last week and the Last Supper was not the Passover. John does appear to have some affinity for Luke's gospel.

My recommendation is that you study them in their historical order (Mark about 70-72, Matthew about 82-85, Luke about 88-93 and John about 95-100). When studying the first three and recognizing the dependency of both Matthew and Luke, note what these two gospels leave out of Mark and ask why. Note what they add to Mark and ask why. Read them as interpretive portraits and not as objective photographs. Do not ask "Did this really happen?" but rather ask
"What was there about Jesus that caused people to think it appropriate to portray him as having power over nature, over sickness and over death?" The Five Gospels by Robert Funk and Roy Hoover is good, but not interpretive. The book of mine that I would recommend is Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes. I hope this helps.

~John Shelby Spong




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