by John Shelby Spong
In the first decades of the Christian movement this primary meaning of Matthew’s gospel was universally understood. No one at that time could have or would have pretended that Matthew was writing literal history or recording as an eyewitness an event that actually happened. That misunderstanding, however, would arise near the middle of the 2nd century, by which time Christianity had become primarily a Gentile movement. Because they were now Gentile Christians meant that they were no longer conversant with the Jewish past or with Jewish symbols. They did not read the Jewish Scriptures, thinking that they had been superseded by the Christian writings. They no longer worshipped in synagogues. They were thus blind to the Jewish meanings incorporated into the text of this gospel.
In addition to that their blindness had a second focus. By this time in Christian history, these Gentile Christians were so deeply infected with a virulent anti- Semitism, that they had no desire to understand anything Jewish. So the real and original meaning of this gospel was lost to them. Christianity had entered what I call its “Gentile Captivity,” which was destined to last until well into the 20th century when the first cracks in it began to appear. Having no other way to understand this gospel, they almost inevitably began to read Matthew as if it were a literally true biography of Jesus and they began to assume that Matthew’s narrative was intended to be read as literal history. That was when they made assumptions about this gospel that neither its author nor its original reading audience would ever have made.
They suggested, for example, that there really was a star that traveled so slowly across the sky that wise men could keep up with it. They assumed that this star led the magi to find Jesus in Bethlehem. They assumed that since the sky was the roof separating heaven from earth, the way for God to send the Holy Spirit upon Jesus at his baptism was to open a hole in the roof to allow this divine invasion. They assumed that God literally spoke from beyond that sky to proclaim Jesus as his son, not recognizing that the divine words were actually lifted from Isaiah 42. They assumed that Jesus was literally tempted in a literal wilderness by a literal devil and that Jesus literally preached the Sermon on the Mount. None of these assumptions would ever have occurred to the original Jewish readers of Matthew’s gospel for they knew the Jewish background revealed in all of these narratives.
My task in this series will be to open the minds of my readers to this background. In doing so I hope to make it clear that biblical fundamentalism is a Gentile Heresy! It was created out of Gentile ignorance about Jewish sacred writings. The fundamentalism with which the Christian church is plagued in the 21st century rises from the same source. Gentile literalism and biblical fundamentalism are not benign, they are deeply destructive of Christianity. That is a strong, but accurate charge and it cries out to be documented. In this column and throughout this series that will be my primary agenda. So let me begin with lesson one.
The greatest hero in the Jewish faith story was Moses, so it should not be surprising that the life of Moses would be the template against which Jewish writers would tell the story of Jesus, and would thus serve as their primary clue in interpreting the life of Jesus. Surprisingly the name of Moses is not mentioned in Matthew until the 8th chapter of this gospel, but the shadow of Moses is present in every Jesus story.
Moses makes his first silent appearance in the Matthean text in the birth narrative with which Matthew opens his gospel. Here Matthew tells us that when Jesus was born, a wicked king named Herod tried to kill him. The wise men had come to Herod’s palace seeking knowledge as to the birth place of the one they called “the King of the Jews.” A child born with such a title in the land of the Jews would be a direct threat to Herod’s throne, so Herod was not pleased. Herod conferred with his scribes and wise men as to where the new Jewish king was expected to be born and they discovered in the book of Micah what they believed was a prediction that the messiah must come out of Bethlehem, for he must be of the house of David. Herod then deputized the magi to return to him with a report of this new king’s identity and location: “so that I too might come and worship him.” Then Herod sent them on their way. The wise men in this story, however, were warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod and so they departed by another route. Herod was angered when he discovered that he had been duped and so he directed his solders to go to Bethlehem and there to kill all the boy babies up to two years of age in an attempt to destroy God’s new “promised deliverer.”
Did any of this really happen? Of course not! That is a Moses story being retold about Jesus. When Moses was born, another wicked king named Pharaoh also moved to destroy all the Jewish boy babies, this time in Egypt, in a vain attempt to destroy God’s “promised deliverer.” Moses, that story tells us, was saved when his mother put him in a basket in the Nile River where he was later found by the Pharaoh’s daughter, who raised him as her son. The baby Jesus, like Moses, was also saved from his fate, when his father, Joseph, took him down to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod.
This is not history, it is an interpretive narrative in the Jewish story-telling tradition. All of Matthew’s original Jewish readers would have recognized this fact when they heard this text read to them for they would have listened with Jewish ears and Jewish understanding. They recognized Matthew’s Jewish style of writing. Later, Gentile readers, devoid of this ability, began to treat the stories as if they were literally true. That is how fundamentalism was born.
As Matthew’s story continued to unfold those who knew the Jewish Scriptures could still see Moses silently present in the background. Next Matthew told the story of Jesus’ baptism by bringing Jesus to the edge of the River Jordan. God’s power over water had long been a major theme of the Old Testament writers. That theme was illustrated most dramatically in the Exodus story where Moses was able to part the waters of the Red Sea so that the Jews could escape slavery in Egypt by walking across that sea on dry land. The tradition of splitting waters then became a recurring theme in the Old Testament. It was repeated in the life of Joshua, Moses’ successor, who split the waters of the flooded Jordan River so that the Jews could cross over on dry land and thus conquer the country that they claimed had been bequeathed to their ancestor Abraham. Later in the biblical narrative both Elijah and Elisha split the waters of the Jordan River so that they too could walk across on dry land. All of these traditions were in the mind of the author of Matthew’s gospel and of its first readers and that is why they recognized what Matthew was trying to communicate when he told this story. Look now at the details of the story of Jesus’ baptism with Jewish eyes.
Matthew first took Jesus to the edge of the Jordan River. In this story Matthew was trying to communicate his conviction, and the convictions of his audience, that in Jesus there was a God-presence like unto none other, not even to the God presence in the greatest heroes of their faith story: Moses, Joshua, Elijah and Elisha. How did Matthew do this? Read his gospel! When Jesus stepped into the waters of the Jordan River, he did not split those waters. Anyone could do that! That had happened several times before. So Matthew’s Jesus does not split the waters of the Jordan, he splits the heavens! What were the heavens to the Jews? The creation story tells us that the sky, which that story calls the “firmament,” was originally designed to separate the waters above from the waters below. So Jesus is portrayed as stepping into the Jordan, but splitting the heavenly waters, which then flowed down on him as the Holy Spirit.
“Living water” is always a Jewish synonym for the Holy Spirit. Matthew was saying that Jesus split the boundary between heaven and earth, between the human and the divine, and a voice from heaven then designated Jesus as God’s “unique” son. Here the divine is experienced in the human. Is this a literal account of the baptism of Jesus? Of course not! It is an interpretation of Jesus as the one in whom God was as uniquely present beyond any God presence the Jewish people had ever known. Both Matthew and his Jewish audience would have understood this message. No one would have been tempted to view this story as literal history. Only uninformed Gentiles, reading this story a few generations later, would begin to think this was a literal story.
The shadow of Moses in Matthew’s story of Jesus does not end there, so, I will continue next week to probe Matthew’s gospel as he wrote it and as his first readers understood it. No one in the time when this gospel was written read or viewed it as literal history because they knew it wasn’t. Fundamentalism is the interpretive ignorance of those who do not understand that Matthew’s gospel was never meant to be a biography. It was designed to be an interpretive portrait painted by a Jewish artist to enable the meaning of Jesus to be grasped by his Jewish audience. As this story unfolds over subsequent weeks that will become abundantly clear.