The essay below was published on Februrary 15, 2006 as part of series on this topic. Bishop Spong also wrote a book on the same issues under the same name.

Jesus for the Non-Religious

Most Christians seem to assume that the details of their faith system dropped out of heaven in a fully developed form. Nothing could be further from the truth. The creeds began as baptismal formulas in the 3rd century and did not receive the shape we now recognize until the 4th century. Doctrines like the Trinity and Incarnation were still being formed in the 5th century.

Moving closer to the life of Jesus, scholars now suggest that miracles were added to the Jesus story only in the 7th and 8th decades of the Christian era. The Virgin birth and the suggestion that resurrection meant physical resuscitation are products of the 9th decade, and the account of Jesus’ ascension enters the tradition only in the 10th decade. Perhaps the biggest gap in our knowledge of Jesus, however, occurs in those years between 30 C.E. when Jesus’ earthly life came to an end and 70 C.E. when gospels began to achieve written form. Today, by lining up the gospels in chronological order with Mark first (ca. 70 C.E.), then Matthew (ca. 80 C.E.), Luke (ca 90 C.E.) and finally John (ca 100 C.E.), we can see how the miraculous was heightened; the details become more graphic and supernatural activity more pronounced. If the story could grow as dramatically as it did from 70-100 C.E., is it not reasonable to assume that it also grew from 30-70 C.E.? Yet with no written sources, entering that time of oral transmission is a problem. For the past year that forty-year oral phase of Christian history has been the primary focus of my study. In a series of columns not necessarily on successive weeks, but as a theme to which I will return often during the next six months, I want to begin to share this study with my audience under the general topic of “Jesus for the Non-Religious.”

How can we gain access to an oral period of history when by definition no written records exist? Is that not a dead end for research? These are valid questions, yet studies of the gospels yield numerous clues that lead us into these primitive moments in our faith story.

The obvious fact is that the story of Jesus was passed on or we would not have it today. So the questions are by whom, how and in what context. Was it simply personal? Did parents convey the Jesus story to their children? Did it pass from person to person in the marketplace? The context of the gospel narratives appears far too complex and patterned to have been handed on in that personal and individual way. We need to search for a better explanation.

The gospels make it clear that before the story of Jesus was written a heavy dependency on the Hebrew Scriptures was already evident. That could not have happened accidentally. Mark, for example, opens his gospel with two quotations from the Hebrew prophets, one from Malachi and the other from II Isaiah. He then builds into his narrative of Jesus image after image from the Jewish scriptures. Matthew seems to imply in his gospel that everything Jesus does is in fulfillment of the words of the prophets. He retells a story of the birth of Moses as if it actually happened to Jesus (see Exodus 1:15-22, Matthew 2:16-18). He patterns the Sermon on the Mount (Matt.5-7) on Psalm 119 portraying Jesus as the new Moses. Matthew and Luke both provide us with genealogies of Jesus that relate him to both Abraham and King David. They both quote Jesus as using texts from the Hebrew Scriptures to ward off the attacks by Satan in the story of the temptation. Luke models the life of Jesus frequently on the life of the prophet Elijah. On two occasions Luke says the role of the resurrected Jesus was to open their minds to understand the scriptures as the way to make sense out of his death. The Fourth Gospel opens with a hymn of praise to the “Logos” or the “Word” that John believes he has discovered in Jesus. This hymn was patterned on a hymn to wisdom from the book of Proverbs. John constantly has Jesus invoke the name of God, “I am,” given to Moses at the burning bush as part of his own divine claim. One cannot read the gospels without confronting the Hebrew Scriptures on every page. These facts point powerfully to the source of the oral tradition.

The only setting in which this interweaving of the Jesus story with the Hebrew scriptures could have occurred was in the synagogue, since that was the only place where people heard the scriptures read and interpreted. In the first century no one owned books since few people could either read or write. There was no Gideon Society to place the sacred scriptures in hotel rooms. The books of the Jewish Bible had to be copied by hand on great scrolls. They were enormously expensive. They were the treasured possessions of the whole community, kept in the Tabernacle of the Synagogue and brought forth with great solemnity to be read aloud in public worship on the Sabbath. They were always read in order. One does not skip around with scrolls. The handles of the scrolls were laboriously turned as they were read and the male reader began the next Sabbath where he had stopped the previous Sabbath.

The next problem in this interpretive process is that most people today have no idea what the liturgy of the Synagogue was like in the first century, so they have no way of imagining this setting. Fortunately, a brief description of synagogue worship included in the Book of Acts (13:13-16), gives us our next clue in this probe of the oral period of Christian history.

Synagogue worship consisted of long readings from the three major sections of the Hebrew Bible. The first was a reading “from Moses,” that is from the Torah, that included the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. It was a requirement of first century Judaism that the entire Torah, as the most sacred part of the Hebrew Scriptures, be read in public worship in the synagogue over the Sabbaths of a single year. This would mean that just the first lesson “from Moses” would last at least thirty minutes each Sabbath.

The second reading came from what the Jews called “The Early Prophets,” which included the books from Joshua to II Kings. There was no compulsion to complete the reading of this material in any specific time frame; hence this lesson was much shorter. The early prophets were simply read in order until completed and then the process would begin again.

The third reading came from what they called “the Latter Prophets,” which were four in number: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and what was called the Book of the Twelve. Today Christians refer to this Book of the Twelve as “the minor prophets,” and list them separately as the books from Hosea to Malachi, the last book in the Old Testament. In the Jewish world, however, these twelve books were all on a single scroll and treated as a single work. Thus the four scrolls of the “Latter Prophets” tended to be read over a four-year cycle at the rate of approximately a chapter a Sabbath. One year would therefore be the Isaiah year, one the Jeremiah year, one the Ezekiel year and one the year of the twelve. In the liturgy of the Synagogue these three major readings, interspersed with prayers and Psalms would constitute the core of the worship experience. After the final reading, the leader of the Synagogue would normally inquire, as happens in Acts 13, whether anyone had a message to bring that would illumine the morning’s readings. This became the setting in which his followers told stories about Jesus, recalled the sayings and parables of Jesus and remembered and shared the developing Jesus tradition. In this fashion, over the years, the Hebrew Scriptures were wrapped around Jesus and through them Jesus was interpreted. The content of the memory of Jesus was thus organized by the liturgy of the Synagogue. To recognize this connection becomes a major breakthrough into the oral period of Christian history.

By the time the gospels were written the memory of Jesus had been so deeply shaped by the Synagogue context that it is impossible now to separate history from scriptural interpretation. That is what makes the perpetual quest to find the Jesus of history so difficult. The conclusion of the scholars of the Jesus Seminar, for example, was that only 16% of the sayings attributed to Jesus in the gospels are actually authentic, accurate portrayals of what Jesus really said. The other 84% are words read into the Jesus of history by an interpreting community during the oral period. Much of what the gospels call the acts of Jesus fall into a similar statistical spread.

For example, was Jesus really born in Bethlehem or was the Bethlehem birth story an attempt on the part of people during the oral period to claim for him the messianic status of being heir to the throne of David? Did Jesus really feed 5000 people in the wilderness or was that an attempt to portray him as a new Moses who also fed a multitude in the wilderness with bread called manna? Did Jesus really march triumphantly into Jerusalem on a donkey or was that an attempt to identify him with the figure of the Shepherd King in the Book of Zechariah, who also came to Jerusalem, humbly riding on a donkey (9:9-11)? Did Jesus really drive out the moneychangers from the Temple and reclaim that place as “a house of prayer for all people” or was this an early Christian attempt to show that what the prophet Zechariah said about the Messiah had been acted out by Jesus? That prophet had written that when the Day of the Lord comes, there would no longer be a trader in the House of the Lord (14:21). Did Jesus really pray for the soldiers who crucified him, as only Luke records, or was this story developed to identify Jesus with the Servant of II Isaiah (53:12), who made “intercessions for the transgressors?” On and on we could go, posing this same question in literally hundreds of different ways about hundreds of familiar stories.

At the very least, this study begins to give us a glimpse of who Jesus was before gospels were written, creeds formed or doctrines developed. If we are willing to journey to this place with openness, I think we can be assured that Jesus will look very different. As this series develops I hope to show you this Jesus. Perhaps in the words of my friend Marcus Borg, we might “see Jesus again for the first time.”