Five Beliefs I Continue to Hold About the Church

Essay by Eric Alexander on 6 April 2017 15 Comments

Five Beliefs I Continue to Hold About the Church
Essay by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 6 April 2017 15 Comments

In the last article I talked about some of the things I still believe about Jesus, and in this post I want to talk about some of the things that I still believe about the Church. By “Church” I am referring to the institutions, buildings, denominations, and organizations. I am not referring amorphously to the people of Jesus, or body of Christ, as the Church here. I am also not referring to all churches, but rather the majority of them. But before getting into that, let me preface as I did last time in my article “Five beliefs I Continue to Hold About Jesus”, with my current synopsis of the Church.

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With Easter almost here, I can't help but wondering what the point of Jesus dying on the cross was if it wasn't to save us from our sins?


Dear Jeff,

To me, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem – humbly riding into town, bouncing around on the back of a previously unridden ass as people gathered to greet him singing and shouting, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord,” signals that Easter is going to be a story about confronting The Powers That Be.

You see, in stark contrast, the actual ruler of the region, Prefect Pontius Pilate, basically the Governor would have made quite a different entrance. As Rome’s official authority, he would have paraded through the front of the city's gates on a mighty steed while surrounded by Roman soldiers.

The Easter story happens as folks are gathering in Jerusalem to observe Passover – the annual commemoration of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt to escape a repressive, enslaving government. So, it happens in a setting that recalls the power of the people when it comes to escaping tyrannical and oppressive regimes.

As you might imagine, Rome, actually BEING a repressive government, would have been somewhat weary of this kind of celebration. The Romans certainly didn't want the Hebrew people to get any ideas about another Exodus, this time from the occupying Roman government.

And Jesus, after his humble entrance into Jerusalem, and seemingly out of character, enters into the Temple courtyard and strikes at the heart of a main source of the religious institute's funding. The moneychangers and traders who had set up shop in the Temple used their monopoly to take advantage of the mostly-poor travelers who came to the city to pay their taxes.

Since the religious institute and the government were closely tied, Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple was the beginning of the end. He'd gone from an annoying sideshow (along with all the other supernaturally endowed teachers of his time) to being a viable threat to the state.

From that point on, the storyline gives us a reality check as to how far the Powers were willing to go to protect their status and wealth.

It's a story that continues to echo in the world today. We can look to the life story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and remember how far American politicians and some of the people are willing to go to obstruct voting and civil rights.

Confronting The Powers That Be can be dangerous work. It should not be taken lightly. It can be unsettling, unnerving, and downright frightening. The Powers That Be will not go down gently – they never do. They will use every tool available to them to maintain their status, wealth, and control.
In confronting them, we risk our good name, our freedom, and even our lives.

Or as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. put it, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

The Easter story is a not-so-gentle reminder of how much is required to resist powerful and oppressive forces, and it is a reminder of how far The Powers That Be will go to protect their power.

The Good News is that Easter's conclusion is a reminder that it’s also the story of how far love will go for the sake of divine justice.

In the end, Easter is a story of confronting those who would use their power to oppress others and the real risks that go along with it.

Ultimately, though, Easter is the story of the resurrecting power of love and hope.

~ Rev. Mark Sandlin


Bishop John Shelby Spong Revisited

My Suspicions about the Historicity of Judas Iscariot, Part II

As the season of Easter dawns in the Christian world, two figures take center stage in the liturgical drama. One is Jesus of Nazareth, who came to be called by believers, “the light of the world.” The other is Judas, called Iscariot, portrayed as the incarnation of darkness and villainy. When the story of the final events in Jesus’ life are read in worship services during this holy season, the latent hostility toward those thought to be responsible for his death is once again raised to consciousness. John’s Gospel is quite overt in stating this theme: “He came to his own home and his own people received him not.” It was the beginning of a deep and killing anti-Semitism.

Those who “received him not” were the Jews. More particularly they were two identifiable groups of Jews who were targeted in this rejection theme. First, there was the ruling class of the orthodox Jews, the Temple party, dominated by the tradition bearing Sadducees. Second, there were the Jewish zealots, the guerrilla fighters, who wanted to attack the hated Gentile Romans whenever the opportunity arose. The character Judas, who is portrayed in the Gospel narratives as the quintessential Jew, is in some sense a composite of both groups. It was appropriate, therefore, that his name would identify him with Judah, the name of the Jewish nation. Judas is nothing but the Greek spelling of Judah.

Last week in this column, I shared my suspicions that Judas Iscariot was a literary figure not a person of history. I suggested that he was created in the second generations of Christians as the means for shifting the blame for the death of Jesus away from the Romans, who were so obviously responsible for his execution, to the Jews, who have borne the guilt of the crucifixion throughout history. I cited evidence from Paul and the Q document that the idea that one of the Twelve was the traitor was simply not present in the earliest Christian writings. This idea enters the Tradition first in Mark, which is dated somewhere between 70-75 C.E. It is then repeated and developed in all the subsequent Gospels. If my suggestion is to have credibility, a motive powerful enough to account for such a creation must be discovered. Then I would need not only to show but also to document the sources that the creators of the Judas tradition used to build their literary character. Those two things will be the focus of this column.

The earliest Christians were all Jews. That single fact escapes the notice of many Christians. These Jews saw in Jesus the same God that their ancestors believed they had seen in the Jewish heroes of their past like Moses and Elijah. They interpreted Jesus, therefore, by wrapping stories about previous Jewish heroes around Jesus. I documented these connections at great length in a book entitled Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes. After the earthly life of Jesus came to an end, his disciples, who first called themselves “The followers of the Way,” began to incorporate him into the ongoing faith story of the Jews. The story of the Transfiguration where Jesus appears on top of a mountain with Moses and Elijah is typical of this process.

There is always tension in a religious community when new ideas challenge old assumptions. So it was that these revisionist ideas, held by the disciples of Jesus, disturbed the traditional Orthodox patterns of the Synagogue. When Paul began to incorporate Gentiles into the Christian Movement, the tensions increased. Yet, despite this provocation both groups somehow managed to stay together in the Synagogue until late in the first century. It was a classic demonstration of the perennial religious tension between those who see themselves as the conservative, tradition bearers and those who bring the liberal challenge to the tradition in the name of a changing world.

During this same time, the tensions between the Orthodox Jews and the Roman Empire were also deep and constant. The Jewish guerrilla movement, designed to harass those who were the conquerors of the Jewish State, was a factor in Jewish life as early as the time of Jesus. This movement was located primarily in Galilee. The fact that one of Jesus’ disciples was called Simon the Zealot may indicate that these disciples had a deeper connection with the guerrilla movement than we have yet acknowledged, since the guerillas were widely known as “the Zealots.”

In 66 C.E. this smoldering and underlying tension escalated into armed conflict in Galilee. The Roman forces moved to quell this rebellion, but the mountainous terrain in Galilee gave those the Jews called “Freedom Fighters” a natural advantage. Rome finally decided that the only way to destroy those whom they called “Terrorists” was to strike at the Jewish heart and so the Imperial Army moved against Jerusalem and besieged the city. In 70 C.E. Jerusalem fell and the rag tag Jewish defenders fled to Masada and held out for three more years until they were finally defeated. With neither food nor weapons at their disposal, the Jewish soldiers, according to the Jewish historian Josephus, ended the war by a massive act of suicide.

The trauma of Jerusalem’s fall, however, was devastating to the members of the Orthodox party. In that cataclysmic event they lost their nation, their holy city, their Temple and the last vestiges of their religious freedom. The Romans had little patience with these defeated Jewish fighters specifically, and with the Jews in general. Powerful nations do not tolerate terrorists easily. For the Jews it was a crisis of survival itself so we see these Orthodox Jews doing what radically insecure religious people always do. They organized their lives totally around the quest for survival. One part of this survival was the fanatical frenzy with which they built a rigid defense system around their one remaining religious symbol, their sacred scriptures, centered in the Torah, which they called ‘the books of Moses.’ They are the first five books of the Old Testament. These Jews thus began to make excessive, fundamentalist claims for the Torah. “It is the inerrant word of God,” they said. “It admits to no relativity. It is complete. Nothing else is necessary. In the Torah we have the ultimate truth.”

This defensiveness, however, flew in the face of the disciples of Jesus who were also part of the Jewish world. As revisionist Jews they were saying, “God has acted in a new way in Jesus. Our traditions must be open enough to incorporate him and what he has taught us about God.” The two positions were mutually antithetical. All Jews were now at risk since Rome did not distinguish between the Orthodox Jews and the Revisionists. It did not help the tensions within Judaism that the Jews who were the disciples of Jesus began to say that the destruction of Jerusalem had been brought upon their nation by the rigidity of the Orthodox party. “That is what religious zealotry gets you,” they said. “It blinds you to what God is doing today. It distorts your view of reality.” The Jews who followed Jesus did not want to be linked inside the minds of the Roman authorities with the Orthodox believers. They wanted to show that they were different, more pliable, more willing to cooperate with Rome. “Look at the Christ whom we follow,” they would say. “and you will see that we too, like the Romans, have been victimized by these same rigid Jews.”

So it was, that as the story of Jesus evolved, Pilate and the Roman authorities were increasingly whitewashed, while the Jews were increasingly vilified. The Roman procurator was portrayed as saying of Jesus, “I find no fault in this man,” and making plans to release him. The Jewish crowd was portrayed as shouting, “Crucify him, crucify him,” Pilate was reported to have washed his hands publicly and to have said, “I am innocent of the blood of this just man.” The Jewish crowd was quoted as having said, “His blood be upon us and upon our children,” So the shift was made. The Romans were exonerated. The Jews were blamed. The Jewish disciples of Jesus and the Roman authorities had a common enemy in the Orthodox Jews.

I believe that the story of Judas grew out of this tension. The ultimate traitor was made to bear the name of the Jewish nation, His motive was said to be money. He symbolized the nation to whom Jesus had come and, “they received him not.

Once the fantasy figure of Judas emerged, its creators needed content to flesh out his character and identity. Where did they find the material with which to build this portrait? Every detail ascribed to the story of Judas in the Gospels can be found in other stories of betrayal in the Hebrew Scriptures. All one has to do is look them up.

In the book of Genesis another group of twelve is portrayed as handing over one of their own to his enemies. This is the narrative in which Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery. It is striking that the brother who suggested that they get money for their treachery is named Judah.

In the David cycle of stories, Ahithophel, a member of David’s inner circle of advisors, betrayed the king, who was called “the Lord’s Anointed.” This betrayal was thus by one “who broke bread with him” at the king’s table. This passage from the Jewish Scriptures is quoted in the Gospel of John, to demonstrate that Jesus’ words, about being betrayed by one who ate at his table, actually fulfilled a prophecy. The passage quoted, however, was about Ahithophel. When this act of betrayal was discovered, Ahithophel went out and hanged himself just as Matthew later was to say that Judas did.

The story of the kiss of the traitor is also found in the Bible. When King Solomon replaced David on the throne of the Jewish nation, he replaced his father’s military commander, Joab, with Amasa, one of his own loyalists. Joab, violently angry about his dismissal, searches out Amasa under the guise of congratulating him. When he finds Amasa, he takes Amasa’s beard to draw his face close to him so that he can give him the kiss of friendship. But with his other hand he disembowels Amasa with a dagger.

In the last half of the book of Zechariah (9-14), the shepherd king of Israel is betrayed for 30 pieces of silver. The money is later thrown back into the Temple. The people to whom he is betrayed are those who buy and sell animals in the Temple.

Every detail of the Judas story is an echo from other betrayal stories in the Hebrew Scriptures. Is that just a coincidence or is it additional evidence that Judas was a literary creation born in a polemic designed to blame the Jews for the death of Jesus and to exonerate the Romans. It is certainly a strong possibility. My suspicions about the historicity of Judas are not without significant foundation.

Holy Week and Easter have historically been the time when anti-Semitism has been unwittingly encouraged in Christian history. By raising to consciousness the sources of this anti-Semitism perhaps we can help it to die. Those of us who claim to follow the Jewish Jesus as his disciples, need to hasten the day when hostility toward the Jews, who gave us this Lord, is forever removed from our faith tradition.

~ John Shelby Spong
(Originally Published April 9, 2003)