The Birth Myth Revisited December 13, 2010Posted by Matt in Christian Beliefs, Christmas.
Tags: Bible, Christmas, Jesus, mythology, nativity
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Last year I posted a series regarding the nature of mythology as it relates to the stories of the birth of Jesus. I put a good bit of effort into it and, though it caused a bit of controversy in this small corner of the blogosphere, I think it brought about some interesting discussion. In case you missed it then or if you would like to revisit the series, I’ll post the links below.
Reflections on Bishop Spong and Nontheism, Part 3 October 1, 2010Posted by Matt in books, Christianity.
Tags: A New Christianity for a New World, Bishop Spong, gospel as Jewish liturgy, Jesus, Mark, mythology, Nontheism, Q, theism
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So, the question must now be asked: Can we tell the Christ story apart from the concept of a theistic God? According to Bishop Spong, “We can and we must.”
But, in this new paradigm of thought the role of Jesus has surely changed. If the idea of a supernatural being that lives beyond the sky and invades life periodically to accomplish a divine purpose is no longer a possibility for modern people, then, in Spong’s words, we must “acknowledge that Jesus understood as the incarnation of the theistic deity is equally without a future.” Thus, the Jesus stories of a virgin birth and supernatural miracles become an earthly portrait of a theistic God in human form and these theistic claims can be seen as ones that grew over time.
To delve further into this idea, Spong looks into the Christian scriptures in the order in which they were written. Thus, he begins with the writings dated to the mid-1st century, just two decades or so after the time of Jesus, the much theorized about Q document (Spong shares a method for distilling the contents of Q that I’m not going to go into except to say that it comes from the shared sayings found in Matthew and Luke), the embattled Gospel of Thomas, and the letters of Paul.
Upon examining Q and Thomas, neither of which contain the divine birth, death, or miracle narratives, one will find that Jesus was a wise man and great teacher, but not divine. Paul likewise does not make mention of the birth narrative or miracle stories, but he does have references to the resurrection story. (*Note: In my opinion, Spong’s logic in explaining these away is tenuous at best and to my mind amounts to little more than quibbling over details, but this is his book.) Thus, in Paul, we find little of the theistic framework and the imposed supernaturalism present in later writings, yet it is apparent that God was “powerfully present in Christ.” Spong suggests that Paul, who was not familiar with the later developing incarnational and trinitarian language of theism, claimed that Jesus acted as more of a conduit for a God-experience to the people.
The first of the Gospels to be written was Mark (65-75 CE) and by that time the theistic interpretation of God was becoming more widespread. Due to its omission, the miraculous birth story may not have been concocted at this time, but Mark clearly perceived a God-presence, poured on him at his baptism, in the person of Jesus.
His resurrection story is also one that can be confusing when looked at in this light, for, to many scholars, the book’s original ending takes place with the women finding the empty tomb, then fleeing and saying “nothing to anyone.” Spong and other referenced scholars believe that this ending to the book was found to be untenable in a time of supernatural and theistic imagery, so an additional ending was added later to incorporate these ideas.
One of the most interesting ideas to me was Spong’s declaration that “we can detect in Mark the influence of Jewish synagogue worship,” that the events recorded in the book directly correlate with the Jewish liturgical calendar. If we begin with the crucifixion at the end of the book (14:1-15:42), which took place at Passover, and work backwards, we can see how the book seems to conform with the Jewish holidays. For instance, the Transfiguration is placed by Mark in the point of the calendar known as the Festival of Dedication, in which the light of God was restored to the temple – this is especially interesting if one dates Mark after the AD70 destruction of the Temple. Next on the liturgical calendar is the Feast of Tabernacles, the Jewish harvest festival, which coincides with Jesus telling harvest parables and demonstrating power over nature (4:1-42). Following that in our move back is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, at which point in the gospel Jesus is healing the sick, forgiving sins, calling Matthew to discipleship, and talking of fasting. The last stop on the calendar for this purpose is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, in which people are called to an expectation that the kingdom of God is at hand and they are urged to repentance, which directly correlates to the message of John the Baptist, who could even be seen as a human shofar, announcing the coming kingdom of God. Thus, Spong makes the case that Mark is a Jewish liturgical text, not a history book or biography.
To sum up, Spong says,
The earliest witnesses to Jesus – Paul, perhaps Q and Thomas, and Mark – portray a Jesus whose life has not yet been squeezed into the theistic mold. Yet it is a Jesus who is seen as a God-presence, a life through whom God is seen. That is the experience we need to embrace. Jesus was a human life through which people experienced the presence of God, and this experience is documentable prior to the time when the later theistic explanations were laid upon him. The theistic explananations can be set aside, as indeed they have been in our generation, but the experience can remain intact.
The Battle Against the Brain – part 3 September 15, 2009Posted by Matt in The Battle Against the Brain.
Tags: Bible, Biblical Interpretation, Divine Inspiration, educated people, Evangelicals, mythology
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One of the biggest sticking points between many Evangelical Christians and the educated is undoubtedly their unwavering belief that the Bible is the perfect, inerrant, divinely inspired, directly-given word of God. The aforementioned Pew study quantified this idea, stating that 59% of Evangelicals believe that the Bible is the literal, word-for-word dictation from God.
But, some of us have differing opinions.
The inaccuracies and contradictions contained within the pages of the Bible have been widely written about in the past (see Marcus Borg’s Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, as one example) and, though many seek to tie the loose ends together with the most tenuous and illogical explanations, they still exist and they can be quite damning.
Now, of course, this does not mean that the Bible is unimportant, quite the contrary, it is of great relevance, even to those of us living today in a world that the Biblical writers could not have even dreamed of. For us it is a window into the world of an ancient people as they try to explain things beyond explanation. It is their realization that something bigger than them exists, leading them to speak of it and write about it in a way that makes sense within their ancient worldview. It then leads us in our search for the Divine as we search for meaning in a world of randomly occurring tragedies and triumphs.
Thus, we do not feel the need to accept the asinine assumptions of creation science or to accept the obviously bipolar God of Genesis (It says creation is good and then, one page later, is sorry for it and wants to kill all the men, women, children, and animals by asphyxiation?) as factual. We do not need to believe that a good God sends pestilence and plague and natural disasters to wipe out masses of people. We can accept it that the New Testament writers borrowed heavily from Plato, rather than having their pens divinely guided (unless you accept Plato as being divinely inspired as well, but, as a homosexual heathen he’s probably not very high on the Evangelical guest list in heaven).
Perhaps then it is the overarching Biblical themes of redemption and love that truly matter rather than the specific stories. Maybe we would all be better off if we accepted mythology for what it is, a collection of thematic stories proclaiming truth without being factual representations of actual events.
It is this blind allegiance, this thinly veiled form of idolatry, that has been largely responsible for the exodus of the educated from America’s churches.