The Origins of the New Testament, Part XXVII: Acts & the Rise of Universalism

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 24 June 2010 0 Comments
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Hank Schuthof of Ingleside, New South Wales, Australia, writes:

You are my friend, Bishop, though it is only one-sided. You don't know me, but as many, many more, I admire your columns (I now have stored 330 in my computer) and your books, with Eternal Life, in my humble eyes, as your greatest achievement. However, there are two questions I still cannot answer myself. The first one, on page 91, you say, "Our Father who art in heaven, the prayer attributed, I think incorrectly, to Jesus himself." Has your thinking here to do with a historical implausibility or do you think that Jesus would never have said that? If you mean the latter, my question is whether Jesus was not a man of his time and haven't you spent much effort to demystify Jesus for us? My second question is more about your whole oeuvre. As reasonable and true everything you write is for me, I wonder whether the not deeply-interested masses will spend so much study time to rid themselves from the worn-out symbols. Also, I think people need some hold for their daily spiritual needs. Therefore, hasn't the time arrived for a "Newer Testament," just as Jefferson has tried in his time? Please do not see this as criticism, but as an honest hope that, for once, the world will be able to abandon the worn-out paradigms.


Dear Hank,

Thank you for your letter and for your comments.

The Lord's Prayer appears to have been unknown to Paul, who wrote between 50-64 since he never mentions it. It also appears to be unknown to Mark, the first gospel to be written (70-72). If it had really been Jesus' prayer, I find it hard to imagine these earliest of the New Testament writers not mentioning it.

The Lord's Prayer makes its first appearance in Matthew in the early to middle years of the 9th decade (82-85) and, in another but similar form, in Luke, written about a decade after Matthew (88-93). The fact that the Lord's prayer is found in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark could mean that it was part of the lost book of sayings called the Q document to which presumably both Matthew and Luke had access. Then there is a possibility that it was in the tradition earlier than Matthew.

The prayer itself, when read carefully, is a "kingdom prayer" since it envisions Jesus under the image of the messiah who was to inaugurate the kingdom of God. This was an early interpretation of Jesus by the Christian Church, but I see nothing in the authentic Jesus tradition, so far as we can reconstruct it, that leads me to believe that Jesus himself conceived of his role to be that of the apocalyptic messianic figure who would inaugurate the kingdom of God on earth.

At the very least, I wish we could stop saying in church, "And now as our Savior Christ has taught us, we are bold to say" as the invitation to join in the Lord's Prayer. It is far more the church's prayer for the second coming of Jesus than it is Jesus' prayer that he taught us.

In regard to a "Newer Testament," I do not believe that this is a realistic possibility. I have no problem with the New Testament as it is presently constituted if it is properly understood and therefore not read as either literal biography or literal history. I accept it and appreciate it for what it is — the attempt by the followers of Jesus living in the first century to understand the impact of the Christ experience on their lives. My problem with the New Testament is that, if one refers to it as the "unique and exclusive Word of God," that person is heard to be implying that God speaks only in the accents of first century Jewish male writers. That point of view also assumes that God has not spoken since II Peter was added to the New Testament about 135 CE. There are thus in the only "word of God" that these people recognize no voices of women, no voices of people of color, and no voices even of German and Anglo-Saxon people. That view of God may have worked in the tribal world of the first century. It does not work for me. I would love to see churches read from other materials, not in place of the Bible but in addition to the Bible, calling it a "contemporary lesson." Would not worshippers today be edified to hear in solemn worship Martin Luther king's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" as a modern Epistle, or some of the writings of the great female spiritual voices of the ages from Julian of Norwich to Karen Armstrong? I think they would.

– John Shelby Spong



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