Saturday, September 11, 2004

Liberating the Gospels

I know that the Jews do understand the things of the prophets, and there is none other people that understand the things which were spoken unto the Jews like unto them, save it be that they are taught after the manner of the things of the Jews.

(2 Nephi 25:5)

Our church meetings switched from the 11:00 schedule to the 9:00 schedule this year. While, for practical reasons (I have five small boys), I prefer the 9:00 start time, there is one aspect of starting at 9:00 that I don't like: I miss the Sunday morning radio broadcast of the sermon from St. Olaf College, and pastor Bruce Benson's Sing For Joy, a program of sacred choral music.

One thing these two radio programs have in common is that they are centered around the Lutheran liturgical year. Though I have never experienced a liturgical year in a church, it is an area where I feel holy envy. Perhaps this is due in part to the influence of my mother, who was raised Lutheran, and who instilled in her children a love of certain liturgical ritual, such as the Advent season.

The liturgical calendar offers a structure for spiritual reflection, and returning to the same themes and scriptural readings again and again offers the opportunity to remember that we can learn much more than a single thing from a given scriptural passage. In addition, I think the liturgy can have a real unifying effect -- it can bring a community of diverse views together.

And so I really enjoyed Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes, by Anglican Bishop John Shelby Spong. Spong is well-known for his very liberal views on just about every theological issue, from sexuality to gender issues to historicity, resurrection, exclusivity of Christianity, and so forth. While I do not share many of his conclusions, I find his writing very thought-provoking.

The thesis of Liberating the Gospels is that the four New Testament gospels are structured around the Jewish liturgical year. Spong credits his associate, Michael Goulder, for the ideas that form the basis of the book, and describes the book as “my attempt to make accessible to the general public the insights of Michael Goulder.” The bulk of the book consists of examples from the gospels and the Old Testament parallels connected with the Jewish liturgical year.

There were prescribed readings throughout the Jewish year, with its various feasts and holy days (such as Passover). It was in the context of these prescribed readings that Jesus

went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read. And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Esaias. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, To preach the acceptable year of the Lord. And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him. And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.

(Luke 4:16-21)

This scripture illustrates what Spong claims the gospel writers were trying to do: to show how the Jewish liturgy was fulfilled in Jesus. They wrote their accounts to show Jesus as the fulfillment of the Jewish faith, so that stories of Jesus would parallel the Old Testament accounts already used in the synagogues.

Spong provides many convincing examples of how the structure of the gospels reflects the Jewish liturgical year. Different gospels started at different points of the year, and covered different portions of it. He argues that later gospels built on what was provided by earlier ones to fill in the gaps or to provide a different emphasis to a particular account (which is why we may find the same account in different places in two or three different gospels). (On a more technical note, he rejects the “Q” hypothesis, and argues that this liturgical hypothesis obviates the need for a “Q” document.) As with nearly all parallelistic studies, some of the parallels may be a stretch, but for the most part, I found them very reasonable. More importantly, I found them very enlightening, providing connections back to Jewish stories that add richness and layers of meaning to both Old and New Testament accounts.

Spong tends to conclude that this means most of the gospel accounts are not historical -- that they were constructed as a midrashic commentary on the Jewish liturgy to place Jesus' mission in the context of Jewish worship. While there are a few instances where such an interpretation may be warranted, for the most part, I don't see why the accounts couldn't be historical, but recounted and structured in such a way as to fit with the Jewish liturgical year.

I highly recommend this book, not so much for Spong's conclusions about Biblical historicity (though I think he has some good points in his discussion about Biblical fundamentalism) as for a really eye-opening new way to read the scriptures.

And, to tie this back into the Book of Mormon quote that started this post: Some studies of the Book of Mormon have noted that Nephi's account of his family's journey is constructed in terms of the Exodus. There are other Book of Mormon stories that seem to parallel Old Testament accounts. Spong argues that we cannot truly understand the gospels for what they are unless we read them through Jewish eyes. Given Nephi's statement and his own use of Old Testament accounts as a structural framework for his own writings, it seems that the same may be true for the Book of Mormon.


  1. Great Idea, wrong author
    It sounds to me like what I have been trying to do with my planned biography of Jesus Christ for three years. For a long time I have considered that the New Testament (especially the Gospels) is more a Jewish history than Roman or Gentile; at least in approach. This is an exciting sounding book, except for one major flaw . . .

    I don't trust the author with the truth. His conclusions are way too anti-Christ and false for me to consider reading. Oh, how I wish a more believing person could have written it, as the ideas are facinating. Deep down I suppose that the biography of Jesus Christ I have been wanting to write -- or at least read about -- is a believer's version of the several anti-divinity histor-biographies. The only person of that kind I have been able to find is E. W. White (?) who looks at the Divine Christ with an understanding of the historical periods. Instead I am stuck with having to read doubters who have studied Jewish/Christian connections, or believers who reject the whole idea of the connection between them.

    In some ways both groups have rejected the connection between history and gospel that I want to understand. They see the two as opposites that can't be reconciled. The believer because they see history interfering with their perfectionist textualizations and the doubter because they can't believe in miracles and the divine mission of Jesus Christ. That leaves me, and anyone like me if there is others, who sees the ideas of history and faith as mutually inspiring and enlightning out in the cold and frustrated. I wish to take ideas from both sides of the issue and make them one.

  2. Is there truth in the words of a good man? Yes. In the words of a wicked man? Yes, sometimes; and there is truth in the words of an angel, and in the words of the devil, and when the devil speaks the truth I should have the spirit to discriminate between the truth and the error, and should receive the former and reject the latter... You take a wicked person, an opposer of the truth, one of our apostates, for instance, and he will tell you a little truth and mix it up with a great deal of error; but we should know enough to understand and receive the truth; that will do us good, and if we reject the error it will do us no harm. --Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 14:160