The Origins of the New Testament, Part VI: Paul's Thorn in the Flesh

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 12 November 2009 0 Comments

Have you ever wondered what Paul's deepest secret was? Surely he had one. If you listen to his words, an agony of spirit is easily recognized, perhaps even a deep strain of self-hatred.

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Rob Friedman, via the Internet, writes:

How do you interpret the episode of Jesus and the money lenders in the synagogue? Taken literally, was his anger out of step with his message of tolerance and forgiveness? Or do you believe the story was devised by later generations with an anti-Jewish message?


Dear Rob,


I do not believe it was devised to carry an anti-Jewish message and I do not believe it was an expression of anger that violated the message. My take on this passage, which was introduced into the tradition by Mark, is that it was a messianic sign drawn from the writings of the prophet Zechariah and wrapped around Jesus to proclaim that he was indeed the messiah.

When the book of Zechariah describes the "Day of the Lord," a Jewish term for the coming of the Kingdom of God that would be inaugurated by the messiah, he writes "On that day there will no longer be traders in the house of the Lord." Earlier the hero in Zechariah, known as the Shepherd King of Israel, was removed from his leadership role by those who buy and sell animals. The price of this removal was thirty pieces of silver which were then hurled by the Shepherd King back into the Temple. Matthew, building on Mark, placed those extra details from Zechariah into the passion story in which the Temple authorities, following Jesus' act of disrupting the traders, paid Judas Iscariot thirty pieces of silver to betray the messiah. Judas then hurled the silver back into the Temple.

This passage reveals more than most the necessity of understanding that the gospel writers are not writing history or biography, they are painting interpretive portraits. The first three gospels, Mark, Matthew and Luke, are clearly products of the synagogue and reflect the fact that in their interpretation of Jesus, they are literally wrapping him in the Jewish Scriptures. The original Jewish leaders of the synagogue understood this. By the first quarter of the second century there were few Jews left in the Christian movement, and Gentile believers, ignorant of what were obvious symbols to the Jews, began to treat the gospels as history and to literalize these accounts. That is what led us to creeds, doctrines and dogmas that served to institutionalize Christianity, but distorted the Jesus experience dramatically.

I hope this opens for you a new way to read the gospel narrations. I spelled this out in much greater detail in two my books, Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes and Jesus for the Non-Religious.

My best,

John Shelby Spong




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