The most outstanding thing an alien from Western Europe notices when crossing the border to the United States is the degree to which Puritanism has influenced the world view of the common human in this country. Literal fundamentalism is something virtually unknown where I come from, and the Bible as a whole is read as a book illustrating the divine, not taking it for granted.
Indeed, Western Europe has spent a great many years and a great many deaths on finally convincing itself the earth is not flat, the sun does not revolve around the earth, and that God did not create the world in seven literal days. Here in America, though, people seem to genuinely believe that the Bible is the literal word of God (which it claims for itself only in special circumstances). In addition, people here seem to believe that any iniquity or inaccuracy is justified if they can find a verse in the Bible that seems to hint in their direction.
John Shelby Spong is an Episcopal bishop who tried to give the common human two things: first, a basic understanding of the message of the Bible, particularly of the New Testament; second, a series of arguments against the possibility of a literal reading of the Bible.
As a whole, the book is a very worthy read, if one can tune out the polemical tone. Indeed, the message that hits you like a sledgehammer when reading the Gospel is clear, strong, and very compelling. It is good to find someone like bishop Spong to confirm from a theological perspective what any reader can feel in their guts: that Jesus Christ created a religion of love, tolerance, and humility; that the fundamentalists of today are worse than the Pharisees of yore in their literal reading of a new message. It is unclear why then he feels compelled to use the same spiteful tone against the literalists that they typically use against everyone else.
Bishop Spong highlights very successfully the contradictions in the Bible, arming the average Christian with a wonderful series of comparative elements that, combined, reveal that what the Bible doesn’t claim for itself – namely to be the inerrant word of God – is not logically possible. Freed from the possibility of being the literal truth, the New Testament sheds its protective cover and speaks directly to our heart.
One example: the narrative of the Nativity. That one sticks easily, because we are all familiar with the story. Bishop Spong points out there are two narrations of the way Jesus was born:
- In Luke (the more familiar version), Joseph and Mary go to Bethlehem from Nazareth as part of a census. There Jesus is born in a stable and rests in a manger. All a sudden angels appear, then shepherds that worship the child. The story continues with the circumcision of Jesus and the presentation in the temple at Jerusalem, then the whole family leisurely goes back to Nazareth, where Jesus will grow up peacefully.
- In Matthew (the less familiar version), Joseph has married Mary, but is shocked when it turns out she’s already pregnant. A nice guy, he thinks of divorcing her, but dreams he should keep her. Oddly enough, Jesus was supposed to be called Immanuel, but that detail must have been lost on the family. Next thing you know, the child is born in Bethlehem (Nazareth doesn’t even show up in this story) and the Magi appear. Herod, the king of Judea, knows the little child will be his ruin, and decides to get the Magi to tell him where the little one is. The Magi are not stupid, worship the newborn, and flee. So Herod decides to kill all babies in the country, two years old and younger. Joseph and Mary get wind of this and flee to Egypt. They will stay there until Herod dies, at which point they’ll move to Nazareth.
Now, this story has no logical contradiction (there will be enough of those later), but one really wonders why two evangelists would tell such different stories. There obviously is a way to reconcile them, but it assumes that neither evangelist knew the other half of the story, which seems impossible to believe.
This is what happened if you combine the two Gospels:
- Joseph and Mary live in Nazareth (L)
- Joseph marries Mary (M)
- Joseph finds out Mary is pregnant and wants to divorce her, but an angel of God changes his mind (M)
- Joseph and the pregnant Mary travel to Bethlehem (L)
- There they find no hotel rooms and have to stay in a stable (L)
- The baby is born and placed in a manger (L)
- Angels appear and rejoice (L)
- Shephers appear and worship (L)
- Magi stop at Herod’s and ask where to find the baby (M)
- Herod figures he can use the Magi to find the baby himself (M)
- The Magi stop at the manger and bring the baby gifts (M)
- The Magi return to their lands using an alternate route (M)
- Joseph and Mary get the baby circumcised (L)
- Joseph and Mary go to Jerusalem to present the child in the temple (L)
- Joseph and Mary go back to Nazareth (L)
- Joseph and Mary flee to Egypt (M)
- Herod has all children 2 years and younger killed, age based on when the Magi appeared (M)
- Herod dies (M)
- Joseph and Mary are visited by an angel and return to Nazareth (M)
I put an (M) next to all items recounted by Matthew, and an (L) next to those narrated by Luke. I put (L,M) next to all those items that are told by both evangelists. Oh, wait, there is no (L,M). The two stories of Jesus’s birth are completely disjunct and don’t agree on ANYTHING. Well, they agree on one thing: in both cases, Bethlehem and Nazareth show up in the story, but in completely different context.
So the birth is an allegory. Did Luke and Matthew lie? No, says bishop Spong, they didn’t lie. They simply told the story the way they had heard it. Even assuming that the author of the Gospel according to Matthew was the disciple Matthew, he wouldn’t have been there when Jesus was born. Of course, if he had gotten his gospel dictated by God, that would be a different story. But he lays no claim to that, and he even starts his writing saying that he’s heard so many different stories, he wants to tell his own one.
Bishop Spong makes a very strong case: if you read the gospels freed from interest in the single words, you actually see the message very clearly and strongly. It’s just that it’s not the message that fundamentalists want to hear.