Origins of the New Testament, Part XXIII: Matthew and the Liturgical Year of the Synagogue

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 13 May 2010 0 Comments
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Taylor Chambers, via the Internet, writes:

I believe there is a human need to worship. Christians believe in the divinity of Christ and can, therefore, worship him. But, if Christ is not divine, was not physically incarnated, did not perform the miracles attributed to him, then what or whom do we worship? Since to Christians, the relationship of Christ to God is so close (the Trinity), does not denying Christ's divinity also deny the reality of God? Personally, I can still enjoy a choral communion in the Episcopal Church, but I am connecting with and worshiping a force and reality that I do not truly understand and upon which I cannot place a name. Does your approach to Christianity supply that name?


Dear Taylor,

It is not a denial of divinity in Jesus, the account of his being the incarnation of God or even the miracles attributed to him that is my agenda. My task is to find a way to communicate what the biblical writers meant by divinity, what the early church leaders understood when they made incarnation a doctrine and what they were saying when they attributed miracles to Jesus. None of those things are inside the experience of the people of my generation.

I attempted to do just that in my book, Jesus for the Non-Religious, which is still one of my favorites of all the books I have written. I particularly enjoyed when I was writing that book working on the miracles that are introduced as part of the Jesus story according to the Synoptic gospels, that is, Mark, Matthew, and Luke. I find it fascinating that I can find no evidence of Jesus being thought of as a miracle worker prior to the 8th decade of the Christian era. There are no miracles that appear in the writings of Paul (50-6), the "Q" document or the book now known as the Gospel of Thomas. These are the only documents that any scholar suggests might be earlier than Mark. I personally do not believe that either "Q" or Thomas is that early, but others whom I greatly respect do and so I include them in this analysis. This means that from approximately 30 CE to 70 CE, the story of Jesus circulated without miracles. What was the Jesus story like then? Why were miracles added? Those are the questions I believe we must address.

As for the Incarnation as the way to explain the divine nature of Christ, that is a 4th century CE doctrine established primarily at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. So Jesus had to have been understood differently in the first, second and third centuries. I do not believe that Paul, for example, was a Trinitarian. What was the early understanding of Jesus? I cannot address that in a question and answer format. It is far too complex for that. Once again I refer you to Jesus for the Non-Religious where I specifically addressed that question.

What I want you to hear is that there are more ways than one to communicate the God presence experienced in Jesus of Nazareth. So, far from the theological debate about Jesus serving to deny the reality of God in him, for me the effect is exactly the opposite.

Thanks for struggling with important issues.

– John Shelby Spong



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