The Origins of the New Testament, Part III: Placing the New Testament Onto the Grid of History

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 1 October 2009 0 Comments
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Robert Fujimura of Omaha, Nebraska, writes:

A book I read on acupuncture claimed Taoism has five gods, which were translated into English as five spirits. I was surprised and asked some Chinese and Japanese people about this and found out that in their worldview gods are spirits. I am interested in making Christianity into a national religion by having only the New Testament in the Bible with the Old Testament being relegated to being an appendix. The emphasis should be on the love and grace of Jesus. What do you think?


Dear Robert,

I could not disagree with you more, and feel that you profoundly misunderstand the Jewish Scriptures. I also do not understand why anyone would want to develop a "national religion." I think the worship of God should lead people to transcend all boundaries, including our tribal or national boundaries. That seems to me to be what the story of Pentecost was saying when it suggested that in the power of the spirit people could communicate in the language of their hearers. Your point of view is also not new. It was offered and defended by a man named Marcion around 140 CE. His views were later condemned as heresy.

The problem with the Old and New Testaments is that they are both dated pieces of literature that reflect the values and mores of those who wrote them between 1000 BCE and 135 CE. Many passages in the Old Testament reflect a tribal mentality that portrays God as hating everyone the people of Israel hated. It also portrays God as killing the firstborn male in every household in Egypt on the night of the Passover; justifies the institution of slavery (except for fellow Jews) and defines women as the property of men. Note that even the Ten Commandments exhort us "not covet our neighbor's house, his wife, his slaves, his ox, his ass, etc." The neighbor is clearly a male, and the things that we are forbidden to covet are all male possessions. These Hebrew Scriptures, however, also define God as love, justice and as a universal being. In the portrait of the "Servant" in Isaiah 40-55 the Hebrew Scriptures portray human life as capable of giving itself away and even of acting in such a way as to draw the pain out of others, absorb it and return it as love.

The New Testament portrays Paul as believing that slavery is good if it is kind. Paul also reveals attitudes toward women that are today deeply embarrassing: "I forbid a woman to have authority over a man." "Women should keep quiet in church." No, I want both Testaments always to be available to the Christian community, I want no part of the Bible to be treated literally and used as a weapon to enforce someone's will and I want no part of a national religion.

John Shelby Spong



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