Thursday, September 19, 2013

Introducing the Gospel of Matthew. Part I: The Gospels are Jewish Books

by John Shelby Spong

The Bible is the Christian Church’s sacred text. We read from it at every worship service in almost every Christian tradition. It is apparently a rather popular volume for every year since the invention of the printing press it has been the world’s best-selling book. It might well be, however, the world’s least understood and probably is history’s most misused book.

From the earliest Church fathers in the 2nd century of the Christian era to the Holocaust in Nazi Germany in the 20th century, the Bible was quoted to justify a cruel anti-Semitism.

In the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, the Bible was quoted to justify the Crusades and the relentless Christian attempt to kill “infidels,” who just happened to be the Muslims who occupied Christian holy places in the Middle East. In those Vatican-led Crusades, Western Christians, armed with quotations from what they called “the Word of God,” poured a hatred of Islam into the world’s bloodstream, the harvest of which we are reaping today in terror attacks, in 9/11, in the Boston Marathon bombing and in the political chaos that still marks the Middle East. The hostility of the Muslim world toward the West is so deep that we have been politically incapable of helping to direct into positive channels the human yearning for freedom manifested in what we once called “the Arab Spring.”

In 1215 this book, the Bible, was quoted to justify the divine right of kings and to oppose the Magna Carta and the rise of democracy. That was one more time that the literally understood Bible was placed on the losing side of history.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, this book was used to justify the enslavement of African people and when this slavery was ended on the battlefields of Antietam, Gettysburg and Appomattox, this book was then used to legitimize a dehumanizing segregation. Do not fail to notice that the part of this country in which slavery was practiced the longest and segregation was defended the most fiercely with the use of police dogs, fire hoses and church bombings was then and is still today known as “The Bible Belt.” I know it well; it is my home.

This book, the Bible, was also used to deny women university educations, doorways into the professions, including the priesthood, and even the right to vote until the 20th century.

Most recently, this book has been quoted to justify a culturally rampant homophobia, to deny gay and lesbian people justice under the law and equality in the recognition of their sacred commitments and solemn vows. Quotations, reflecting profound biblical ignorance, nonetheless ring out publicly as people try to make the Sodom and Gomorrah story in Genesis, some verses from Leviticus and even Paul’s convoluted argument in Romans 1 justify their visceral prejudices. With all of these documented examples of cruelty and abuse based on the Bible, we nonetheless still solemnly proclaim at the end of readings from this book in public worship: “This is the Word of the Lord!” How can a book we call “The Word of God” be responsible for so much hurt, pain and oppression? How can a book that purports to be about the love of God create such carnage? I begin this series on Matthew’s Gospel today by addressing that question.

First, some biblical facts. In the standard text of the Bible there are 66 books plus the Apocrypha. Thirty-nine of them are in what Christians call “The Old Testament,” twenty-seven of them form what Christians call “The New Testament.” These books were written between about 1000 BCE and about 140 CE. The oldest written part of the Old Testament appears to be that part of the Torah known as the Yahwist document, and the last part of the New Testament to be written appears to be II Peter. The original language of the Old Testament is Hebrew, while the original language of the New Testament is Greek. Of note is that Jesus spoke Aramaic, a language related to but not identical with Hebrew. He probably could read Hebrew, but there is no evidence that Jesus either spoke or read Greek, beyond the few phrases that were required to do rudimentary business with a few Greek-speaking merchants.

If we are to understand the Bible on any level, the first thing we need to embrace is that it is to its core a Jewish book. Every writer of every book in the Bible was a Jew. There is only debate about one of them. Most scholars now believe that Luke, the name assigned to the author of the gospel that bears his name and the book of Acts, which is literally volume two of that gospel, was a Gentile by birth. He later appears to have converted to Judaism as a “Gentile proselyte” and, through that doorway, he came into the Christian movement, possibly through the influence of Paul. So all of the writers of the books of the Bible were Jewish by birth, save for Luke and he was Jewish by conversion. We must embrace this seminal fact if we are to understand this holy book. The Bible needs to be viewed and read as a Jewish book, a deeply penetrating, profound piece of Jewish writing.

This means that the entire Bible, Old and New Testaments alike, will inevitably reflect the worldview of the Jewish mind. It is written in the vocabulary of Jewish people. It is steeped in the history of the Jewish nation. It espouses Jewish values. It is shaped by the experience of worship in the synagogue. The audiences for which the various books of the Bible were written were also predominantly Jewish. The authors of the books in the Bible could assume a common Jewish cultural knowledge that was present in their audiences, which they did not have to explain. These authors could thus use the familiar and recognizable Jewish story-telling techniques to communicate their message. They could describe the events in their current history by relating them to familiar Jewish events in their earlier history.

When we look specifically at the gospels we discover that this Jewishness served the Christian community well so long as the church was made up primarily of Jewish people, which indeed the early church was. By the middle of the second century, however, the make-up of the Christian Church had changed dramatically. People of Jewish origin had all but disappeared from what had become an almost exclusively Gentile body. Christian congregations were made up almost entirely of people who not only did not know this Jewish background, but were taught by the prevailing culture to view anything Jewish with suspicion and distrust. Thus they were not able to recognize in their own Christian scriptures the Jewish symbols, the Jewish references or even the Jewish story-telling tradition. They could not make the assumptions that a Jewish audience would make when they heard the gospels being read. They did not understand how the gospel writers employed the Jewish Scriptures in their narratives. They did not understand its source when a gospel writer wrapped a tale out of the Jewish Scriptures around the memory of Jesus of Nazareth. So these Gentile readers began to make some assumptions about the gospels that the original Jewish audience would never have made. They assumed that the gospels were history or biography. They began to literalize individual verses in the gospels, and to use those verses in debate as if they were the court of last appeal.

Next they began to defend the literal accuracy of the entire Bible. They did not recognize, for example, that the story of the wise men was based on a text from Isaiah 60 in which we are told that kings would come to the brightness of God’s rising, that they would come on camels, that they would come from Sheba and that they would bring gold and frankincense. They did not understand that the earthly father of Jesus, known to us as Joseph, was drawn on the pattern of Joseph, the patriarch from the book of Genesis (37-50). Note that both Josephs have fathers named Jacob. Both Josephs are identified with dreams. The patriarch Joseph was called “the dreamer.” He became famous as an interpreter of dreams, even rising into political power in Egypt as the interpreter of the Pharaoh’s dreams. They could not see the connection when in Matthew’s gospel God never spoke to Joseph except in a dream. This Joseph received the annunciation of Jesus’ birth in a dream. He fled Herod’s wrath in Bethlehem after being warned by God in a dream. He left Bethlehem for Galilee and settled in the town of Nazareth in response to a dream. Both were identified with dreams because Matthew patterned Jesus’ father after the patriarch by the same name. Finally, both Josephs played a primary role in preserving the covenant.

The patriarch Joseph saved the chosen people from death by starvation in a time of famine by taking them down to Egypt. The earthly father of Jesus saved the messianic child from death at the hands of King Herod by taking him down to Egypt. The New Testament’s portrait of Jesus’ earthly father was a typical Jewish story-telling tradition on display. As long as the gospels were understood as Jewish books and were read primarily by Jewish audiences, these points were clear. When, however, the Christian Church became primarily Gentile by 150 CE, this interpretive key to the gospels was lost. So it was that Christians began to believe that the only proper way to read the gospels was to assume that the narratives were literally true and they began to defend a literal reading of these texts as the only way to read them. Fundamentalism is thus a Gentile heresy.

Until the Christian Church can develop Jewish eyes or can begin to read the gospels through Jewish lenses, the wonder of our gospels will continue to be lost to us. Biblical fundamentalism, if not countered, will finally destroy Christianity. That will be the price we Christians pay for our ignorance and our anti-Semitism. The power of our own gospels will be lost to us. They are Jewish books and they must be read with Jewish eyes.

The most Jewish of all the gospels is Matthew. Today, I am beginning a new series that will take you, my readers, deeply into the Gospel of Matthew. When this series is complete my hope is that both Matthew and the Bible will for you never be the same.


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