I’m reading yet another fantastic book by Bishop Spong called “Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes.”
I’m familiar with a lot of the material in this book, because he has referenced it, and built on it, in subsequent books that I have already read.
Essentially, this is the book that outlines Spong’s view on how and why the Gospels were written. He argues that the basis of the Gospels was the Jewish technique of midrash – describing events creatively through the lens of the cultural past.
I’ve just finished the chapter on the Gospel of Mark, and it really is fascinating how much evidence he compiles to suggest that Mark’s Gospel was intended to be a liturgical text to be used in worship services, rather than a historical biography describing historically literal events. Some history may be in there – and traditionalists could even argue that it is all historically true – but regardless of one’s perspective on that point, it cannot be denied that the story itself was structured liturgically up against the Jewish liturgical calendar. The evidence really is overwhelming.
Spong starts off by discussing the background of the Christian church in the 1st century – how it started off as Jewish movement within the synagogue, and then eventually moved into Gentile areas and by the end of the 1st century became primarily a Gentile religion – leading its adherents to misinterpret and overlook the distinctly Jewish nature of the Christian writings. He talks about how the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. really spelled the end of the “Jewish” days of Christianity, and set up the fierce battles between Christian and Jew that have plagued the West ever since, and caused Christianity to lose its Jewish origins.
He then spends a chapter talking about the Jewish liturgical calendar as it was followed during the time of Jesus. He notes that the liturgical year started with the Passover in March/April, then went through the summer and fall months with a series of festivals (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Tabernacles, etc), and ultimately through the winter months with Hanukah and Purim, etc., and finally ending the following year just before Passover started again. These festivals, and the intervening weeks between them, were followed week-by-week with chronological readings of the Torah. Starting at Passover in Genesis, the synagogues would read the entire Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) over the course of the year, roughly five of our modern chapters per week. This would cause the synagogues to be reading pertinent stories from the Torah during each of their major holy days/festivals throughout the year. This, then, formed the basis for the liturgical calendar of the Jews.
When one, then, turns to Mark, you can see Mark rewriting the Jewish liturgical calendar for Jewish Christians, replacing stories and figures from the Old Testament with Jesus and the figures and stories surrounding him.
Thus, Mark begins his gospel at the Jewish New Year – Rosh Hashanah. This festival was celebrated as the coming of God into Jerusalem from the “unclean” desert, and marked by the blowing of the ram’s horn among other things. Similarly, Mark’s Gospel begins with John the Baptist – a “voice crying in the wilderness” “preparing a way for the Lord,” followed by Jesus coming out of the Galilean backwater preaching and teaching the coming Kingdom of God.
From there, Mark’s Gospel continues the chronological move through the Jewish liturgical calendar, with stories and accounts matching together with Yom Kippur, then Tabernacles, and finally Hanukah. Hanukah, for instance, celebrates the return of God’s light to the Temple under the Maccabees, and the spot in Mark’s Gospel that falls into the Jewish liturgical calendar during this time is the story of the transfiguration, which recalls ancient Jewish figures like Moses and Elijah, and describes Jesus as shining with God’s light – a light too bright to look at. God’s light, then, had now settled on Jesus.
In the weeks before Passover, the Jewish liturgy generally began to delve into teachings on the end of times and signs of the end of times. This corresponded to texts in Deuteronomy – at the end of the liturgical calendar. At this same spot in Mark, there is an entire chapter devoted to Jesus talking about the end of times. Following that, the Jews begin the Passover celebration, and at this same time in Mark’s Gospel, the Passion of Jesus begins – during Passover. And Mark, of course, depicts Jesus as the new Passover sacrifice, dying on the cross at the precise moment (sundown on Friday) that the Jews would have been slaughtering their Passover lamb. Mark’s entire Passion story, in fact, is a liturgy meant to go together with the 24 hours from sundown Thursday to sundown Friday – a solemn time of prayer and reflection in the synagogue in preparation for the Passover celebration. Thus, Mark describes the entire 24 hour sequence during that time, writing stories to function as liturgy for Jewish Christians on that day in the Jewish calendar.
So what we have in Mark is a liturgy for Jewish Christians to follow which goes along with the synagogue liturgy they would already have been familiar with. But it simply replaces common Jewish stories and readings with the story of Jesus, tying Jesus in midrashically to those old stories. It starts in Chapter 1 at Rosh Hashanah, and goes through Passover. Thus, it completes about 6 months of the liturgical year – roughly September/October to March/April.
I won’t go into how Matthew did the same thing as Mark, but I will note that Matthew clearly recognized that Mark was incomplete, and thus Matthew’s Gospel actually follows the entire liturgical calendar year, Passover to Passover.
Spong, of course, includes a lot of textual detail that I haven’t gone into here, but as I said, his evidence is very thorough and very overwhelming. There is almost no question that the Jewish liturgical calendar was at the forefront of the minds of the Gospel writers – to suggest it was just an “accident” is absurd. It’s very clear that they were writing texts to be used as replacements for the traditional synagogue liturgy. This, of course, sheds a whole new light on how the Gospels should be read and understood. One can still choose, if they want, to assume all the events are real stories and that God ordained that Jesus’s life should be played out that way. The only compromise that a literalist would need to make would be on the issue of chronology – the stories can’t possibly represent chronological events. But then again, anyone who has read the Gospels knows that they disagree on the chronology of events anyway (John, for instance, has the cleansing of the Temple early in Jesus’s life, whereas the others all put it as one of his last actions prior to his arrest).
But whether you take the stories literally or not, it’s clear that the Gospels were written as liturgy, not just simple biographies.