How did our four gospels get written? Matthew, Mark, Luke and John: somewhat alike, yet so different in many ways. A few of our readers think four men followed Jesus around — at different times — and wrote down what he said and did. I don’t think so.
Mark makes it clear (Mark 13:1-37) that he knew about the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, which took place in 70 CE., and that’s 40 years after Jesus died. Did the Holy Spirit inspire them miraculously to remember words and deeds of 40 years ago? Not really; there are too many mistakes and errors. Well, then, how did it happen?
One of my favorite scripture scholars, Bishop John Shelby Spong, who has written over 25 best-sellers on the Bible, just published: “Biblical Literalism, the Gentile Heresy.” Bishop Spong has come up with a fascinating theory that makes a lot of sense to me.
Who were the first followers of Jesus? Jews, right? Yes, from the year 30 CE. to after the destruction of Jerusalem, these Jews went to their synagogues every Sabbath day, and listened first to a reading of the Torah and the prophets, and then to a sermon from the rabbi or a visiting dignitary like Paul (Acts.13:13). These sermons took both the remembered and the manufactured stories of Jesus and wrapped them around the Jewish feast days.
These sermons were not history lessons. They were ways to show how Jesus was the new Moses, how Jesus gave the new Ten Commandments, how Jesus was like the suffering servant of Isaiah. Every reading from these Jewish scrolls was applied to Jesus every week in every synagogue. Not literally. But figuratively. These Jesus-Jews truly believed that their hero was the promised Messiah and they wanted to build his legacy on these promises, not on some historical evidence.
Years later, according to this theory, these sermons formed the basis of our gospels. As long as Jews read these sermons, they were clearly understood, but once gentiles began to read them, literalism took over. The gentiles had no grounding in Passover or Hanukkah or any of the High Holy Days; they knew nothing of the Jewish rituals and midrashic forms of writing. When the gentiles read that Jesus was born of a virgin because of Isaiah 7:14, they said, “OK.” The Jews knew better.
When did this Jewish/gentile split happen? When did our religion cease to be Jewish? Well, we know it began slowly with Paul around the years 55-65 CE. He proclaimed himself the apostle to the gentiles and changed this Jewish sect to assuage the Greco/Roman disgust with circumcision and other Jewish rituals. (Gal. 2:1) He began having his services in rich women’s homes but he still kept reading the sermons from the Jewish synagogues (1 Cor. 16:19). Jesus died in 30 CE, and then it became 70 CE, and none of the gospels had yet been written.
However, during this time, James, the brother of Jesus, was heading up the “official” followers of Jesus in Jerusalem, and he continued to do this until he was murdered in the year 66 CE. James was a strict Jew — just like his brother — and, although he allowed Paul to make some exceptions for the gentiles, he kept his original flock kosher. (Acts 15:19). When James’ people heard these synagogue sermons, they knew how to understand them.
Then, in 70 CE, Jerusalem was destroyed. The historian Josephus describes it in his second book, “The Wars of the Jews” (6.4.1) and Mark records it as a prophesy of Jesus (Mark 13:1). There was no doubt about the utter and total devastation that spread throughout Palestine. All the Jews were dispersed, including the Jesus-Jews, and the great Jewish leadership of James was lost.
But Paul’s gentile church flourished in the Greek islands, and this is when the gospels were written. Our authors were not eyewitnesses of Jesus, but rather people who had sat listening to these sermons. They wrote down the “Torah-Jesus-stories” they had heard from the pulpit. If they were Jews, they understood them perfectly; if they were gentiles, they didn’t. And it was the gentiles, not the Jews, who became — and still are today — Christians.
Bishop Spong calls this the “Gentile Heresy,” and he bemoans the fact that questioning Christians today are faced with the difficult task of finding Jesus through the literal misinterpretations of these non-Jews who just didn’t have a clue, and still don’t.
Is the bishop right? I don’t know. But even if he’s only partially right, he makes a lot more sense than our fundamental literalists.
Dr. Bill Cummings is the CEO of Cummings Consolidated Corporation and Cummings Management Consultants. His blog is www.progressiveheretic.com.