“God” Isn't in the Bible

Essay by Rev. Mark Sandlin on 8 February 2018 9 Comments

Language is more important than many of us realize. More precisely, the specific words we choose to use impact our way of thinking, our social behavior, and many other perspectives of our lives. It's actually a fairly recent development in the human brain in terms of our long history as a species. The frontal lobes of our brains have actually expanded to handle its expanded work requirements.

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Question

Is God a person?

Answer

Dear Scottie,

In my theology, “Yes, and…”

The universe began its intricate, gigantic, and truly awesome expansion 13.7 billion years ago. Humans arrived on the scene a mere 5 million years ago. Therefore, God is and has been many things, including humanity. Everything that exists now, or has existed in this span of time, originated within that first spark of Divinity. Each being I encounter is a manifestation of God – my neighbor across the street, the rows of earth teeming with vegetables, the flight attendant, the feral cats living near the bike path, the sea lions sunning themselves outside the aquarium, and on and on. All life forms hold particular intelligences and dimensions. Humans carry will and the ability to reason. Spiritual disciplines help us to both appreciate our abilities, as well as to take responsibility for the power and privilege they grant.

To reduce God to only being a person seems woefully short-sighted. God is life, and life perpetually pulsates around us, whether or not we sit in witness to each inhale and exhale. And then, God is in the negative spaces, too: the night sky following sunset, the patches of canvas that haven’t received paint, and the nano-second of “no-thingness” before one cell descends, becoming a root, and the other ascends, becoming a shoot. Perhaps, before anything else, God is possibility. Within possibility there can be creativity and there can be destruction. As carriers of God, we have been given the humbling task of discernment; of moving through the world not simply as entitled takers, but as deep listeners, responding wisely and with love to the needs and shifts of life’s unfolding.

So, yes, God is a person, manifesting as possibility in every human everywhere, and God is so, so much more.

~ Lauren Van Ham

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Bishop John Shelby Spong Revisited

The Connection between the Crucifixion and the Passover, Part III
The Influence of The Jewish Festival of Sukkoth on the Passion Narrative

Spong

Western Christians find it hard to understand that the gospel writers were not writing objective history. Yet nothing we know about the formation of the New Testament supports that conclusion. Jesus lived between 4 BCE and 30 CE. He spoke and taught in Aramaic. The gospels came 40 to 70 years after his death and they were written in Greek. This means that almost everything that we know about Jesus lived in oral transmission and underwent one translation before we get to the earliest documents that we possess. During that time his followers had continued to worship in the synagogues of their ancestral Jewish faith before the movement that he had begun separated itself from Judaism in 88 CE and came to be called Christianity. They were originally called "The Followers of the Way."

Realizing these facts, our claim to possess objective history in the gospels begins to wobble. Next, we have become aware that after the writing of Mark's gospel in the early 70's, the written record of Jesus expanded about every decade with Matthew writing in the early 80s, Luke in the late 80s or early 90s and John in the late 90s. By reading these accounts in the order in which they are written, we can actually watch the story grow and the miraculous heightened.

The obvious question that these data raise is one that has been generally ignored by Christian interpreters. So let me pose it in several forms. Where did the sayings of Jesus, the parables of Jesus and the stories about Jesus reside in that oral period between the end of his life and the first writing of the gospels? In what context was the oral tradition maintained? In what ways did that context shape, change and transform the message? The reason these questions are seldom raised is directly related to the residual effect of the idolatrous worship of the Bible that we call bibliolatry. Bibliolatry gripped the early church and still resides in traditional parts of Christianity today. The gospels have for far too long been treated as if they are history and therefore are presumed to be accounts of what Jesus actually said and did. They have been invested with the literal claim that they are the dictated words of God. When people begin with that definition of the Bible, they are not disposed to study the origins of their sacred story. It is easier to make excessive claims for its inerrancy and to seek to maintain the now thoroughly discredited fiction that the Bible was received by divine revelation. Incredible though it may seem, after some 200 years of critical biblical scholarship, its impact, for the most part, still has not escaped the hallowed halls of academia. The insights gleaned from that study, and their impact on how the Bible can be competently and accurately read, are still largely ignored in both Catholic and Protestant circles. It is actually worse than that. Scholarly study of the scriptures is still being attacked in these circles as "godless heresy."

A preliminary study of the gospels will, however, reveal the obvious fact that the story of Jesus was repeated primarily in the synagogues during the years after the death of Jesus and before the gospels were written. The clue here is discovered in the wide use of Old Testament references that are both overt and covert in the gospel narrative. Paul wrote that Jesus died and was raised "in accordance with the scriptures." When Paul wrote the only scriptures he knew were the Hebrew Scriptures. In the gospels the prophets are quoted to show how Jesus fulfilled them. Micah is quoted to undergird the Bethlehem birth story. Isaiah is quoted to develop the story of the Wise Men. Isaiah had written that kings would come to the brightness of God's rising. They would come on camels, they would come from Sheba and they would bring gold and frankincense. In a book called the Wisdom of Solomon, Israel's most opulent king is quoted as having said, "When I was born I was carefully swaddled for that is the only way a king can come to his people." This line clearly shaped Luke's birth story of how the infant Jesus was wrapped in 'swaddling clothes.' We could illustrate this connection between the Hebrew Scriptures and the Jesus story quite literally thousands of times. What we need to realize is that the only place the people heard the Jewish Scriptures read was in the synagogues. In those days, books were on scrolls, handwritten and very expensive. People did not own copies of the Hebrew Bible to read at their leisure. The Gideon Society did not place them in local hotels. If the Jesus story was interpreted by and understood through references to the Hebrew Bible, the only place that could have happened was in the synagogue where the reading of the Law and the Prophets and expounding on their meaning constituted the major part of their liturgy.

In this series of columns on the relationship between the Passover and the telling of the story of the crucifixion, I have suggested that even the sacred accounts, which propose to describe the final events in Jesus' life, are not the recordings of historical memory. Rather they are the later developed, synagogue-inspired liturgical interpretation of what his disciples had come to believe, that in and through the life of Jesus, they had experienced the eternal God. In the first of this series, I pointed out hints in the text itself that suggest that the original dating of the crucifixion narrative appears to have been changed. Passover came in mid to late March. There were no leafy branches that could have been waved in a Palm Sunday procession at that time in Palestine, even though the literal text suggests that Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem came just before the crucifixion. There was no fig tree whose failure to produce figs in late March could have elicited the killing curse from Jesus that both Mark and Matthew describe. The connection between Passover and crucifixion seems to be rather forced in the gospels.

Then we looked at the earliest version of the Passion of Christ narrative found in Mark (14:17-15:47) that appears to be a liturgical form based on the Passover but stretched into a twenty-four-hour vigil with the content of the story drawn not from eye witness memory but from Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53.

The next step in this consciousness raising enterprise is to look at whether the holy days of the Jewish liturgical year were also used to shape the story of Jesus. I now want to bring one of those holy days, about which Christians tend to know nothing, into our awareness.

In the fall of the year, the Jews celebrated an eight day Harvest Festival called Sukkoth (pronounced sue-coat), sometimes called the Feast of the Tabernacles or Booths which drew Jewish pilgrims from all over the known world to Jerusalem. Despite its enormous popularity Sukkoth is mentioned only once in the Bible in John 7 so most Christians have no idea of how this festival was observed. If they did they would recognize that the symbols of Sukkoth have been subsumed in the details of the Christian story of Palm Sunday. Listen to the similarities.

The worshipers at Sukkoth marched in procession round the Temple waving in their right hands something called a "lulab," which was a bundle of leafy branches bound together, made up of myrtle, willow and palm. As they marched they recited Psalm 118, the psalm of Sukkoth. Among the words of this psalm are these: "Save us," which is an English translation of the Jewish word, "Hosanna," and "Blessed is he who enters (comes) in the Name of the Lord." This psalm goes on to say, "Bind the festal procession with branches," and it contains other words later interpreted as referring to Jesus, "The stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner." There is little question that the Palm Sunday story was dependent on the details of this harvest festival holiday of the Jews. Since Sukkoth shares common content with Palm Sunday, we have another piece of evidence suggesting that crucifixion and Passover were linked together for interpretive not historical reasons.

There are other symbols of Sukkoth that seem to have entered the crucifixion/resurrection narrative of the early church. While worshipers carried a lulab to wave in their right hand in the Sukkoth procession, in their left hand they carried an "ethrog" (pronounced e-trog), a box of sweet-smelling spices, usually the blossom, leaves or fruit of the citron tree, once again possibilities only in the fall of the year. I wonder if the sweet smelling spices, that the women were said to have carried to the tomb of Jesus on Easter morning, are a reflection of this.

Also as part of this celebration, Jewish families were instructed to build a temporary booth outside their homes to remind them of the time their ancestors spent wandering in the wilderness after their escape from Egypt when they had no permanent home. This booth was to be a place in which they ate a ceremonial meal during the eight-day celebration. I cannot help but wonder whether this temporary and ceremonial dwelling place got transformed into a temporary tomb in Joseph's garden. I also wonder whether the shelter to which Cleopas and his friend turned aside to enter in Luke's Emmaus Road resurrection story, and in which they ate a ceremonial meal with the Risen Christ, was yet another echo in which the Sukkoth liturgy shaped the basic Christian story.

Once we begin to dig beneath the surface of the gospels we discover interpretive clues to which the literalism of the past has blinded us. This exercise may destabilize yesterday's literalism but it also open for us the real question that we ought to ask today: What was there about this Jesus that caused them to see him as the fulfillment of the law and the prophets; as the human life through which the holy God was experienced? How was it that they came to see his death as similar to the death of the paschal lamb of Passover and thus allowed the Passover to frame their telling of the Passion of Jesus?

To the issues raised by these questions I will turn next week as our journey towards Easter continues.

~ John Shelby Spong
Originally posted February 16, 2005

 

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