Synopses & Reviews
Chapter OneThe Method Called MidrashWhen I was doing my theological training in the 1950s, the word "midrash was not heard with any frequency. If employed at all, it referred to a running commentary on the Hebrew Scriptures done by the rabbis throughout history. This commentary was voluminous, and the manuscripts that contained it would fill libraries. Commentaries by the rabbis thought to be the greatest would be particularly noteworthy, we were told, and would be studied in more detail and referred to more frequently by contemporary Jewish teachers in a continuing effort to illumine their sacred sources. Midrash was not presented as a method by which the Bible was written and not, hence, as a method by which the Bible was to be understood. So it was that midrash was deemed not terribly important to the study of the Christian Scriptures.I am amazed today at this blindness in those who taught me Scripture. I no longer accept the proposition that anyone can understand the Bible, and most especially the New Testament, without understanding the method of midrash.Has Christian Scholarship Been Rooted In Anti-Semitism?When I begin to explore why Christian scholars failed to see the midrash method of the Jewish tradition as the very style in which the Gospels were written, I run headfirst into both the official and the unofficial anti-Semitism that has engulfed the church from the latter years of the first century of the Christian era until this very moment. This anti-Semitism reached its crescendo in the middle of the twentieth century in the Holocaust in Germany, but it found a significant expression in this same period of history in the United States and Great Britain, the leading nationsof, this so-called Christian West.These three major Western political powers, Germany, the United States, and Great Britain, were centers of the most important and influential Christian scholarship. These three nations produced the vast majority of the world's theologians and the experts in biblical studies. Unconscious of its Western anti-Semitism, however, Christian scholarship developed with little openness to the primary midrashic outlines of the Christian story or to the basic midrashic content of the Christian Gospels. The original Jewish roots of the Christian tradition were simply not acknowledged. Seldom was it said with any sense of pride that every writer in the New Testament, with the possible exception of Luke, was Jewish. Seldom was the context of the Jewish world or the thinking processes of the Jewish mind given more than a cursory tip of the hat when scholars sought to explicate Christian texts.When scholars pored over the Christian Scriptures, the language they worked with was Greek, not Hebrew. When they studied the biblical roots of Christian theology, they inevitably looked through the lens of Greek philosophy, which had shaped Christianity's creeds, and primarily through that lens did they begin to illumine the New Testament. Even when they read the Old Testament they almost always used a Greek translation rather than the Hebrew original.Of course they could not ignore the New Testament's references to Jewish prophecy, thought to be fulfilled in the story of the Jesus of history. But, beginning at least with Polycarp and Justin Martyr in the second century, the typical Christian understanding of this tradition was that the Jewish prophets had simply predictedconcrete events in the life of the messiah who was to come, and Jesus had fulfilled these predictions in an almost literal way as a sign of his divine origin. "The Jews," a term spoken with undertones of derision in Christian circles, had failed, so the argument went, to understand their own messiah, and God had consequently created a new Israel, called the Christian church, to take the place of the old Israel, which had been composed only of Jews.The people of the first covenant, it was asserted, were given their chance, and they had failed. The promise now was to be given to the people of the second covenant. By naming the parts of the Bible the Old Testament and the New Testament, Christians incorporated this prejudice into the very title of the sacred Scriptures. The Bible of the Jews was the Old Testament, now replaced by the Bible of the Christians, which was the New Testament. The twelve tribes of Israel were superseded by the twelve apostles. Jesus had fulfilled all the law and the prophets, and this validated his messianic claim. It was a neat and complete system, and in the triumphal confidence of these conclusions, Christianity began its life as the unchallenged dominant religion of the Western world.Christianity's rationale for its overt anti-Semitism was to blame the Jews themselves as the cause -- even for Christian hostility. It was a classic example of blaming the victim. The Jews had, after all, rejected the Christ. What could a people expect from God (in whose name Christians assumed that they both spoke and acted) when they had rejected God's own Son and their own messiah? The Jews were quoted in the Gospel narratives as even willingly accepting this blame: "His Jesus' blood be upon us and upon our children" (Matt. 27:25). These words were destined to echo through the centuries as justification for one wretched deed after another.In spite of eyes blinded by prejudice, the close connection between Jesus and the Hebrew Scriptures could not be limited only to those texts that obviously referred to the fulfillment in Jesus of prophetic expectations. There were other Gospel stories whose parallels in Hebrew Scripture were too conspicuous to be overlooked. The story of King Herod trying to remove God's promised deliverer by killing all the Jewish male babies in Bethlehem simply had too many echoes of the pharaoh ordering the death of all the Jewish male babies in Egypt in his attempt not only to rid his realm of his "Jewish problem" but also to destroy in his infancy God's divinely promised deliverer, Moses.
Using approaches from the Hebrew interpretive tradition to discern the actual events surrounging Jesus' death, Bishop Spong questions the hitorical validity of literal narrative concerned the Ressurection. He asserts that the resurrection story was born in an experience that opened the disciples' eyes to the reality of God and the meaning of Jesus of Nazareth. Spong traces the Christian origins of anti-Semitism to the Church's fabrication of the ultimate Jewish scapegoat, Judas Iscariot. He affirms the inclusiveness of the Christian message and emphasizes the necessity of mutual integrity and respect among Christians and Jews.
About the Author
John Shelby Spong was the Episcopal Bishop of Newark for twenty-four years prior to his retirement in 2000. Since then he has taught at Harvard University, the University of the Pacific and Drew University and he has been a visiting lecturer at universities and churches throughout North America and the English-speaking world. His books have sold over a million copies and he is regarded as one of Christianitys frontier twenty-first-century thinkers. His bestselling titles include Eternal Life: A New Vision, Jesus for the Non-Religious, The Sins of Scripture, A New Christianity for a New World, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, Resurrection: Myth or Reality?, Why Christianity Must Change or Die and his autobiography, Here I Stand. He lives with his wife, Christine, in Morris Plains, New Jersey.