A Gem of a Church in Montana

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 28 October 2010 0 Comments
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As you have moved into the origins of the gospels, accepting your accounts of how they came to be written as they were, do these books still constitute our main source of our knowledge of who Jesus really was, how he spoke and how he related to his contemporaries, indeed our main reason for calling him great? After explaining how Mark's gospel served the synagogue, will you dwell on his choice of the taxpayer Matthew as his disciple, on his placing of children in his scheme of things, indeed his whole view of life?

I shall look forward to this part of your articles.


Dear Don,

Thank you for your letter. The series I have developed through this column is meant to give each reader an introductory knowledge of each of the books in the Bible, in a kind of sweeping overview. The questions you raise are good ones but they do not fit the scope of this present series.

I have referenced in the column on Mark, one of the roles that the story of the calling of Matthew from the receipt of customs plays as a Yom Kippur story in which Jesus enters a place of ultimate uncleanness, namely that of a Jew in the employ of Gentiles dedicated to the impoverishment of the chosen people. From that context of uncleanness Jesus calls and transforms the offending Jew Levi Matthew restoring him to ritual purity. Making clean that which is unclean is a Yom Kippur theme.

The gospels do remain our primary sources for knowledge of Jesus. It is not, however, that we go to the gospels to obtain literal knowledge. The gospels are not based on photographs that capture Jesus literally at any moment in his life nor are they based on tape recordings of what he actually said.

We need to remember that the gospels are the product of the second and, even in John's case, the third generations of Christians. The authors are not eye witnesses. The gospels are written 40–70 years after the crucifixion and in a language, Greek, that neither Jesus nor his disciples spoke. They are much more like portraits painted by a Jewish artist attempting to interpret a life–giving experience. The leaders of the Jesus Seminar, chaired by Robert Funk and Roy Hoover, have written a book entitled, The Five Gospels in which they sought to determine the historicity of each saying attributed to Jesus. Their conclusion was that less than 20% of the words attributed to him were actually close to having been articulated by the Jesus of history. Many of the deeds attributed to Jesus fall into the same category. I think of the Palm Sunday procession and the cleansing of the Temple. Both stories seem designed to link Jesus with the messianic projections of the prophet Zechariah, which are written in chapters 9 through 14 of his book.

What you are requesting would be a massive undertaking. The closest I have come to that is my book, Jesus for the Non-Religious that I happily commend to you. It will not answer all of the questions you raise, but it will address most of them.

~John Shelby Spong



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