The Origins of the New Testament, Part XXXVI: Johannine Epistles and the Book of Revelation

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 2 September 2010 0 Comments
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Mick, via the Internet, writes:

Hello, I have followed your columns for a number of years and have also read a couple of your books. It's because of your point of view that I have been able to redefine my atheistic ideas (it's hard to accept a magical Santa Claus in the sky) into what I guess you could categorize as (for lack of a better word) a modern forward-looking Christian willing to believe that whatever God is, we can only scratch at the surface.

I have a question or concern with some statement you made in the column, The Origins of the New Testament, Part XXI: Introducing the Gospel of Matthew. You state that the author of Matthew appears to be the leader of the synagogue, followed the liturgical patterns and observed the high holy days of the ongoing Jewish tradition, had a deep knowledge of and appreciation for the Jewish Scriptures and the Jewish expectation that the Messiah would come to and for the Jews. Then you state, "The fact is that Matthew quoted the scripture in a fast and loose way." To me these two statements seem to contradict each other. Would a leader of the synagogue with a deep knowledge and appreciation of the scriptures really play willy-nilly with their meanings to tell his story? Do you plan to address this as the discussion of Matthew continues? I usually agree with and follow your explanations and arguments but this one has me wondering. Any comments? Please keep up the great work.


Dear Mick,

I do not think they are contradictory statements. Matthew had all the qualities I described but he was also convinced as a follower of Jesus that the scriptures pointed us to the coming of the Messiah in very specific ways. He was also part of that first generation of Jewish believers in Jesus who mined the scriptures to find hints and pointers to Jesus as the promised Messiah. In the process, he let his desire to find texts that in his mind pointed to Jesus overwhelm his knowledge of the scriptures. Like many a preacher since, he made the text say what he wanted the text to say in order to confirm his understanding of Jesus. Matthew gave us the story of the virgin birth based on Isaiah 7:14, even though we now know and have known since the early years of the second century that the word "virgin" does not appear in that text and that text is not a predictor of a future event. The first century did not have the benefit of modern biblical textual criticism and as a result, frequently misread and certainly misinterpreted the Hebrew Scriptures.

This subject is far too complex to make it clear in a Q and A format. My book, Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes, was the place where I devoted a whole book to this thesis. I hope that you will find that book helpful and that it will clear up your present misunderstanding.


– John Shelby Spong





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