You are hereBishop Spong's Articles June 2010

Bishop Spong's Articles June 2010



The Origins of the New Testament, Part XXV: Concluding Luke and the Synoptic Gospels

Does the Religious Faith of a Supreme Court Justice Matter?
The Origins of the New Testament, Part XXVI: The Book of Acts

 



Thursday June 03, 2010
The Origins of the New Testament, Part XXV
Concluding Luke and the Synoptic Gospels
In this final segment on the third gospel we call Luke, I want to summarize and to establish firmly in the minds of my readers the major thesis that I have sought to develop in my comments on the synoptic gospels: Mark, Matthew and Luke. My thesis is that each of these gospels is organized on the basis of the annual liturgical cycle of the synagogue where Christianity lived in its first generations as a movement within Judaism, and so these gospels must be read through a Jewish lens. The later Greek thinking period, which shaped the creeds in the 4th century and informs Christian doctrine to this day, has actually distorted the gospel message in a radical way. We have already observed that Mark was the original gospel to be written and that both Matthew and Luke incorporated Mark into their w ork, expanding Mark in a way appropriate for the community for which each wrote. Matthew's community was traditionally Jewish. Luke's community was made up of dispersed Jews living far from home and interacting increasingly with their Gentile neighbors. Clearly Gentiles were beginning to come into Luke's community, drawn by the ethical monotheism of Judaism, as they faced the demise of the gods of the Olympus. That was why, as we have seen, that the gigantic figure of Moses, the inward-looking father of the law became the popular symbol against which the Jewish Matthew told his Jesus story, and the gigantic figure of Elijah, the outward-looking father of the Jewish prophetic movement, became the symbol against which the more universally-minded Luke told his story of Jesus. It was also this one year liturgical cycle of the synagogue that caused each of these writers to portray the public ministry of Jesus as one year in duration. This time sequence, I am now convinced, has nothing to do with the actual time of Jesus' ministry, but rather it had everything to do with the fact that Jesus' ministry in these synoptic gospels was being recalled and retold against the liturgical year observed in the synagogue.
The first holy day in the liturgical year of the Jews was, according to the book of Leviticus (23:24), the Passover, which was observed on the 14th and 15th days of the first month of the year known as Nissan. The Christians obviously told the story of Jesus' crucifixion against the background of this Passover celebration and then adjusted the Jewish calendar by concluding their Jesus story on the Sabbath and first day of the week following Passover on which they celebrated the Resurrection. So the beginning of the Christian liturgical year was always at least a week and sometimes two weeks after Passover. Once we can embrace this crucial time disparity, the synoptic gospels go in a very orderly way through the other feasts and fasts of the Jewish year. With that preamble, I seek to focus our final consideration of Luke's Gospel on how this particular gospel writer followed the liturgical pattern of the synagogue. That will put Luke's gospel into a very different contex t from the literal pattern that traditional Christians assume to have been the case.
Fifty days or seven Sabbaths after Passover the Jews observed the festival of Shavuot or Pentecost (which means 50 days). On that day they recalled God's gift of the Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai. The Law was assumed by the Jews to have been God's greatest gift to them. Luke, however, probably under the influence of Paul, had come to believe that the Holy Spirit, rather than the Law, was God's greatest gift to the Christians. When he actually tells the story of Pentecost in chapter two of Acts, the second volume of his gospel, this becomes his focus. So in his gospel he wants to make sure that he presents the Pentecost theme with a suitable Jesus story that would thus be appropriate to Shavuot. Watch how cleverly he does it.
First Luke needs to supply Jesus material for each of the seven Sabbaths between Passover and Shavuot. He does this by expanding the birth narratives with elaborate details about the nativities of both John the Baptist and Jesus. Next he relates some substantive content from the preaching of John the Baptist. Then when he arrives at the Shavuot lesson he has John the Baptist point to and interpret Pentecost exactly as Luke will later describe it in Acts 2, by saying "I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I,…will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire." In effect, he has John say exactly what will happen when Pentecost rolls around. Then he adds an even longer genealogy than that of Matthew, and expands the temptation story and the forty days Jesus supposedly spent in the wilderness being tempted by the devil. Then he proceeds to add enough Jesus material to complete the entire Galilean phase of Jesus' ministry, using much of the content that Ma tthew had placed into the Sermon on the Mount. Finally, having produced a sufficiently long narrative to carry us through five and a half months into the year, he finds himself confronted by the celebration of the New Year, or Rosh Hashanah, where Mark had opened his gospel by having John the Baptist convey his Rosh Hashanah themes. Luke, however, like Matthew before him, has obviously used that story much earlier in his narrative so he needs to find a new way to convey the Rosh Hashanah message. Exactly as Matthew had done earlier, he reintroduces the Baptist with the story of John, now in prison, sending a messenger to ask Jesus, "Are you the one that should come?" To this question Jesus responds by quoting the favorite synagogue Rosh Hashanah lesson from Isaiah 35 in which the prophet announces that the signs of the Kingdom, when it comes, will be that "the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk and the mute sing." When Luke gets to chapter 7:18-23, he is back in syn ch with Mark and both now have stories that allow the liturgical year to be introduced by John the Baptist. The shaping of the Jesus message by the life of the synagogue is in full view.
Rosh Hashanah was the first of three major Jewish observances that occurred in the month of Tishri, the seventh month in the Jewish calendar. Rosh Hashanah was on the first day of Tishri, Yom Kippur on the tenth and Sukkoth (the Harvest Festival) filled the eight days between Tishri 15-22. Since John the Baptist has been reintroduced, and Rosh Hashanah has been observed, we need to be on the lookout for Yom Kippur and Sukkoth stories. They come right on cue. There is a series of verses (7:24-35) that are available for use on any Sabbath that falls between Tishri 1 and Tishri 10, and then, in 7:36-50, the Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, message comes front and center. It is the story of the woman coming into the house while Jesus is at dinner and anointing his feet. Focus with me now on this story.
The first thing we notice is that it is out of place, at least according to Mark and Matthew. In both of those gospels the anointing of Jesus by the woman was an event just prior to the crucifixion (see Mark 14:3-9 and Matthew 26:6-13). "She has anointed me beforehand for burial" (Mark 14:8 and Matthew 26:12), is how Jesus explains this action. Luke, however, has moved this story and placed it early in the Galilean phase of his ministry. In neither Mark nor Matthew is there even a hint of scandal, no suggestion that this woman is evil, no intimate fondling of Jesus' feet and no drying of them with her hair. So Luke has not only moved this story to a new place, but he has also greatly heightened the sensuous quality of this act and made the woman evil. Luke has the woman identified as "a woman of the street," that is, a prostitute who kisses and rubs his feet. She is by definition unclean and, by touching Jesus, has presumably made him unclean. Jesus is even judged by his Pharisaic host not to be a prophet, for a prophet would know what kind of woman this is and would not allow her behavior!
When we place this story in Luke on the grid of the liturgical year of the synagogue, we discover that it falls exactly where Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, falls and he has clearly chosen, moved and adapted this story to fit this observance. At Yom Kippur, the people are cleansed of their sins and made pure. Jesus is thus portrayed as entering the world of ritual uncleanness and, instead of being corrupted by it, actually transforms it and purifies the evil. That is what atonement is all about. He concludes this story by having Jesus banish the demons from Mary Magdalene and other women, once again a Yom Kippur theme. When Yom Kippur is over, Luke connects again with Mark and uses Mark's parable of the Sower for his harvest story to celebrate Sukkoth. That account begins in chapter eight, but, as we might expect, it is considerably shortened. Luke's Gentile leaning community does not do eight day festivals or twenty-four hour vigils. When Luke's story moves on he comes to the winter festival called Dedication, or Hanukkah, and once again, like Mark, he relates the story of the Transfiguration, where the light of God is not restored to the Temple, but falls on Jesus, the new Temple.
Then Luke has Jesus begin his journey to Jerusalem. Luke uses this journey sequence to be the hook on which he hangs the concentrated material that constitutes the teaching of Jesus. So here we have a series of teaching episodes until he has entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Luke completes the cycle now by having Jesus observe the Passover on Thursday, be crucified on Friday and be raised on Sunday. The journey from the Sabbath after Passover through the Jewish observances of Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkoth, and Dedication back to Passover is now complete. This was the cycle of remembering the story of Jesus and it is tied in every detail to the liturgical year of the synagogue. Here the form of the gospels — at least Mark, Matthew and Luke — was born. That is why I entitled one of my books Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes.
– John Shelby Spong
 


Question and Answer
With John Shelby Spong
Barbara Palmer, via the Internet, writes:
I am interested in your theology of love when speaking about God loving creation, humans loving God, and even loving the neighbor. Understanding that love transcends human emotion, how does love manifest in these areas? If God, as you say, is not a being, how does God love the world, the universe? If God is not an entity, what does it mean to love God? Doesn't one need an object to express love? And if one doesn't know or is interested in the neighbor, whoever that might be, how does one love the neighbor? We religious people throw words around so carelessly, therefore I would appreciate your being as specific as possible.
Dear Barbara,
I am not sure that the problem is that people throw around words so carelessly, but that the only words we humans have to use are human words, bound by time, space and human experience. Whatever God is, God is surely beyond the boundaries of human life. So the more specific we are about God, the less accurate we probably are. Let me repeat my favorite analogy. Horses cannot escape the boundaries of what it means to be a horse, nor can a horse view life from any other lens or perspective save that of a horse. Therefore a horse could never describe what it means to be human. In a similar manner, a human being cannot escape the boundaries or perspective of what it means to be human and therefore can never define or describe what it means to be God. I wonder why it is that we not only continue to try to do the impossible, but even continue to persecute those who disagree with our definition or description.
So what are our realistic possibilities? We can describe just how it is that we experience God. We can always describe a human experience since that is within the realm of our competence. We do need to face the fact, in the name of honesty and to escape the most destructive elements of religion, that some human experiences are delusional.
By the word God I mean that which calls me beyond the limits of humanity, that which empowers me to live to love and to be. When someone asked the author of the First Epistle of John to define God, he did so by saying that "God is love." I think that what he meant by that was that it is the unanimous human experience that love expands life. Love is not something any human being can create. We must receive love before we can give it. We cannot hoard love once we have received it. Love that is not shared always dies. So love is a power that appears to relate us to something beyond ourselves. Love is thus a power that enables us to journey beyond the boundaries of the human and to embrace that which is transcendent. Love always manifests itself in enhanced life. Perhaps we should stop talking about God loving us or our loving God, since that kind of language turns God into a being. The proper language would be to relate the experience of love to the experience of God. We would then recognize that the word "God" is a human construction that seeks to define the experience of transcendence, which calls us more deeply into what it means to be human.
If one has identified God with the love that enhances life then the way we love our neighbor, both known and unknown, is to act toward them in such a way as to enhance their humanity. Once we break this language barrier and begin to think through the dimensions of speaking not about God, but about our experience of God, then I believe we could reconstruct the Jesus story on this basis and be within the context of Jesus' purpose as St. John defines it, "That they may have life and have it abundantly."
Thank you for your question and for forcing me to put new words into this equation.
– John Shelby Spong


 

Go to Top



Thursday June 10, 2010
Does the Religious Faith of a Supreme Court Justice Matter?
In President Obama's recent nomination of Solicitor General Elena Kagan to be the ninth justice on the Supreme Court, a new reality forced its way into our consciousness. With the resignation of Justices David Souter in 2009 and John Paul Stevens in 2010, the last representatives of Protestant Christianity — by far the largest religious group in the country — departed from that body. This means that, for the first time in American history, there are no Protestant Christians sitting on our highest court. Justice Souter was replaced by the first Hispanic justice, Sonia Sotomayor, who is a Roman Catholic. Justice Stevens is scheduled to be replaced by Elena Kagan who is Jewish. The new court will thus be made up of six justices who identify themselves as Roman Catholics and three ju stices who identify themselves as Jewish. This shift is in no way a revolution, and, while it has been noted, it has not become a matter of public debate, being regarded rather as simply a sign of America's evolving sensitivities. I certainly do not intend in this column to suggest that it should be otherwise, but I do believe it gives all of us an opportunity to understand the modern religious consciousness and the rising secular consciousness that are both today significant parts of our nation's makeup.
Throughout our history, various minority or underrepresented groups in our population have lobbied politically to have someone with whom they identified themselves sit on the Supreme Court. This was particularly important because, at the beginning of this nation's history, that court was unanimously white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant and male. This fact was, however, hardly noticed by our "founding fathers" since that was the way this nation understood itself. White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant males were the power group and the ruling class. The Supreme Court merely reflected this American reality, which was equally true in all of the branches of our government. Our presidents, from George Washington to Andrew Jackson, were similarly representative of this ruling class, and their names — Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and Adams — reflect that. It was not until 1840 when Martin Van Buren became president that a person of Dutch background broke the Anglo-Saxon po wer lock on the White House.
The first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court was John Jay of New York and the other members of that original court were named Wilson, Cushing, Rutledge, Iredell and Johnson — all notably Anglo-Saxon names. The constitution does not fix the number of Supreme Court justices so that detail was left for Congress to decide. In that first court, which began sitting in 1789, there were thus only six justices. That number was moved to seven in 1807, to nine in 1837, to ten in 1863 and back to nine in 1869, where it has remained ever since.
The first "minority" to gain access to the court came when Roman Catholic Roger B. Taney was appointed not just to Justice, but to Chief Justice of the Court in 1836 by President Andrew Jackson. Perhaps it helped Chief Justice Taney in the appointment process that his law partner in Maryland was Francis Scott Key, the author of our national anthem. Taney went on to have a rather undistinguished career and is remembered now primarily for his racially insensitive ruling in the Dred Scott case, which was later overturned. Taney's appointment, however, broke the exclusive Protestant domination of that body and opened the door for the inclusion of Roman Catholics on the Court. There have now been thirteen Roman Catholic justices who have served with varying levels of distinction from that day to this. When Joseph McKenna was appointed by President William McKinley in 1896, it became a major political concern that one seat on the high court be "reserved" for Catholics. Cardin al Spellman of New York had actually lobbied President Eisenhower to establish that principle firmly, since it had been semi-violated by Harry Truman's appointment of Sherman Minton to succeed Justice Frank Murphy in 1949 in what had been regarded as the "Catholic seat." Truman had argued that, while Justice Minton was not technically a Catholic, he did attend a Catholic Church with his wife and that qualified him for this seat. The Catholics were not appeased and President Eisenhower agreed to make that distinction clear and did so with the appointment of Justice William J. Brenner. Of note is the fact that Justice Minton did actually join the Catholic Church, but only after he had retired from the bench. The idea that there needed to be one "Catholic seat" faded in time with the appointments of Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Roberts and Alito. In 2008, with the Alito appointment, Roman Catholics became the majority on the court with five votes. That majority was i ncreased to six by the nomination of Justice Sotomayor by President Obama.
The Jewish minority in America had its first representative on the high court when President Woodrow Wilson appointed Justice Louis Brandeis in 1916. In time he became one of the great intellectual giants in Supreme Court history. He was followed by Justice Benjamin Cardozo, appointed by Herbert Hoover in 1932 and the two overlapped for seven years effectively dispensing with the idea of a "Jewish Seat." Later justices from a Jewish background included Felix Frankfurter, Arthur Goldberg and Abe Fortas. Few people even noted that President Clinton's two appointments to the High Court, Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Stephen Breyer, were both Jewish people. It might be observed in our increasingly eclectic and diverse religious nation that Justice Breyer's daughter, Chloe, is today an Episcopal priest.
Black people were the next minority to gain access to membership in the Court when the great Civil Rights lawyer, Thurgood Marshall, was appointed by President Johnson in 1967. His appointment thus effectively established a "Black Seat" and his replacement, Justice Clarence Tomas, appointed by President George H. W. Bush confirmed that tradition. It appears that African Americans have not yet escaped the idea that one seat on the Court is reserved for people of color.
Women made their first appearance on the Court with the appointment of Sandra Day O'Connor by President Ronald Reagan in 1981. She was followed by Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1993 and Sandra Sotomayor in 2009 when she became the first Hispanic Justice. Now the Kagan appointment appears to indicate that there is no longer a "woman's seat."
So we now have a court of ethnic variety (European, African and Hispanic), religious variety (Christians and Jews) and gender variety (seven men, two women). In the process, however, the Protestant majority no longer has representation in the Court at all, with Roman Catholics holding six seats and Jews holding three. The question thus arises as to whether or not this is a problem. I do not think it is, but I do think it could be some day. Allow me to explain.
The nation was founded in the yearning for religious freedom in Europe after centuries of religious conflicts from the time of the Crusades through to the English Civil War. That yearning found expression in a clear constitutional provision in America, which separated church and state (a fact that today some Tea Party members like to challenge). The ability to worship without prejudice in any religious tradition one chooses, or not to worship at all, was guaranteed to every citizen of the land. This provision in our Constitution meant that not one's religious practice, but the imperialistic mentality, which so often finds expression inside religious systems, has to be publicly denounced in order for a person to serve this government under the Constitution. By "imperialistic religious mentality," I mean that religious claim that one particular religious system possesses the sole truth or is the only pathway to God and, as a consequence, appears to judge those who are not part of that faith system to be somehow inadequate or ill informed. The values of no particular religious system, as beautiful as they might themselves be, were to be imposed on the people of this land by law. When our first Roman Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, was elected, he asserted in the campaign that he would not allow his faith or the positions of his church to influence his decisions as president. That seemed to be an acceptable statement in 1960 even to the Catholic hierarchy in America. When Roman Catholic Geraldine Ferraro was nominated to be vice president on the Walter Mondale ticket in 1984, and when Roman Catholic John Kerry was the presidential nominee in 2004, that separation appeared to be no longer acceptable to America's Roman Catholic Bishops. Both Ferraro and Kerry were told that the positions they supported politically on abortion, homosexuality and on end-of-life counseling were not acceptable to their Church and therefore they would not be welcomed to receive communion at Catholic altars since they were in effect, publicly out of communion with Catholic teaching. Should a justice on the Supreme Court be subjected to that kind of ecclesiastical pressure from his or her church that would indeed constitute a problem for this democracy. Issues regarding a woman's right to privacy, abortion and the freedom to choose when to die are all issues that could conceivably come before the Court. Can our Catholic justices separate their constitutional responsibilities from the teachings of their Church? This does not seem to be a problem for our Jewish Justices. I have never known a Jewish person who wanted to force circumcision, kosher dietary laws or Sabbath day observance on the body politic of this nation. I have, however, known Roman Catholics who wanted to force their convictions about these matters on the body politic, so I am eager to see how this court will acquit itself on issues where church teaching and int erpreting the law in a largely secular country come into conflict. I think that the vast majority of American citizens will be watching with me. In the meantime, I welcome Justice Kagan to the seat to which she surely will be confirmed and I take great joy in seeing our expanding democracy take another step into what I believe will be a glorious future.
– John Shelby Spong
 


Question and Answer
With John Shelby Spong
Janet Schulte, member of the Department of Pathology at Ohio State University, writes:
I love the column — thank you for the insights. I am a science nerd — I taught and worked in the field of science all my life. I am also working on a degree in theology. I took my first biology classes about 46 years ago. When I learned about Darwin, I had an ah-ha moment. If the human species lives according to the model of the survival of the fittest, we will become extinct. That is part of the model that is often overlooked. Every organism must successfully fill a niche to survive. Only those organisms that learn the "law of cooperation" will ultimately win the day. That is what Jesus was trying to teach us. It is all about relationship — not domination.
Dear Janet,
Your ah-ha moment was indeed a profound insight. Every living thing, plant and animal is programmed to survive. What is true of all these living things is also true of human life. The only difference is that we human beings are self-conscious, while plants and animals are not. If survival is our highest goal, self-centeredness is inevitable and thus this quality becomes a constant part of the human experience. Traditionally, the church has called this "original sin" and has explained it with the myth of the fall. That was simply wrong. Survival is a quality found in life itself. There was no fall. Self-centered, survival driven, self-conscious creatures is simply who we are. There is thus no such thing as "original sin" from which we need to be rescued by a divine invader. So much of traditional Christianity assumes this false premise.
You are correct, however, in your assessment that survival, as the ultimate goal, will lead finally to extinction. Our hope does not lie in an external rescue. It lies in the process of evolution to carry us beyond the limits of humanity into a sense of being one with the universe. I don't think this happens by denying who we are or even being rescued from it. It comes from transcending who we are and I see that as the role of Christianity from which the church as an institution and most Christian individuals, have simply turned away.
We need to begin to see God and indeed the Christ life, not as that which rescues us from a fall and a sense of depravity (which basically creates in us guilt and a sense of worthlessness that we constantly transfer to the victims of our prejudice), but to see God and the Christ figure as the love that empowers us to grow into new dimensions of what it means to be human. It is a shift from guilt to grace; from the need to victimize to the ability to affirm the divine in all things. Individuality and the process of individuation are both necessary steps in the evolutionary process, but ultimately, as you suggest, they lead to extinction because they are based on competitiveness that leads to one sole remaining dominant survivor. Being one with nature and transcending self-consciousness in order to move into a universal consciousness is the future hope.
Your insights are, as the English say, "Spot on."
– John Shelby Spong

Go to Top



Thursday June 17, 2010
The Origins of the New Testament, Part XXVI:
The Book of Acts
In the early manuscripts of the Bible, the book of Acts served the purpose of providing transition from the gospels to the epistles. There was a deep historical fallacy in this assumption though it seemed logical, at least historically, to have stories of the life of Jesus precede stories of the spread of Christianity after the end of Jesus' earthly life. The fact is that the authentic epistles of Paul were written first (51-64) and then the gospels, or, at least, the first three gospels (70-93). John was much later (95-100). Into that framework also needs to be placed the Pastoral Epistles that claim Pauline authorship, but are clearly written in Paul's name long after his death (ca. 64), and the General or "Catholic" Epistles that are called by the names of Peter, John, James and Jude, but which were clearly not written by the one to whom each is attributed and some of which are even quite clearly the products of the second century. Then there is this book of Acts, which purports to tell the story of the Christian movement and how it spread after the Easter event from Jerusalem to Rome. Although its title claims that it is the story of all the apostles, it features stories primarily about Peter, with John appearing in a secondary role before moving to its obvious star, Paul, who is known in the early church simply as "the Apostle." Not only was he not one of the twelve, but there is no evidence that Paul ever met or knew the Jesus of history.
Originally, Acts was designed to be volume two of the Gospel of Luke. The two works are clearly inter-related and are obviously the products of the same author. They agree in vocabulary usage, in common themes and in the fact that Luke's gospel anticipates the book of Acts and the book of Acts looks back on the gospel of Luke. It is unfortunate that, when the New Testament was formed, the gospels — now four in number — were put in the beginning, which necessitated splitting Luke-Acts into two volumes, with the gospel of John breaking their original unity. In this study, however, I will try to rectify that mistake by treating Luke-Acts as one continuous story. We can then move with better understanding into the Pastoral Epistles, the General Epistles and that rather unique epistle we call the Letter to the Hebrews before concluding our journey though the biblical text with the Johannine corpus, which includes the gospel that bears John's name, the three epi stles purportedly written by him and the book of Revelation, which claims to have been written by John while he was imprisoned on the Isle of Patmos. So with that apologia for the placement of this book in both the Bible and in this series, let me bring into focus the Acts of the Apostles.
I noted in our earlier study the impact the synagogue setting had on the organization and the content of the gospels themselves (I am speaking now primarily of the first three: Mark, Matthew and Luke) and raise the question about whether or not the book of Acts might fit into that same liturgical pattern. Please note first that the book of Acts is approximately the same length as both Matthew and Luke, so if Matthew and Luke were designed to enable Jesus stories to be read in the Sabbaths of the liturgical year, as I have suggested, Acts is a similar length so that it would also lend itself to be read in segments over the course of one liturgical year.
We also need to be aware of the practice in the synagogue of reading the Torah first in the Sabbath liturgy. There appear to have been two patterns at the dawn of the Christian era. The pattern in the more traditional synagogues was to read the Torah in its entirety over the Sabbaths of a single year. This would mean a very long first lesson, some five to six chapters from Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. In those communities of "the Diaspora," in which the Jews were dispersed throughout the empire into pockets in predominately Gentile cities, the pattern developed of reading the Torah over a three year cycle, thereby making the lessons much shorter each Sabbath. Once the reading of the Law was complete, and probably following the recitation of a psalm, a second lesson would be read from the historical books that the Jews called "the Early Prophets" — the books of Joshua, Judges, I & II Samuel and I & II Kings. Basically, this portion of the sac red story was the narrative of what happened to the Jewish nation after the end of the life of their founder, Moses. The Jews did not regard these writings as in the same category of importance as the Torah so the passion to complete their reading in a particular period of time was not a matter of great urgency.
It appears to me that the book of Acts was designed by Luke after the analogy of this Jewish practice and was meant to provide Christians with a lesson tracing the history of the church as it moved out of the Jewish orbit and into the wider Gentile world. Like the books called the "Early Prophets," the book of Acts chronicles the life of "the New Israel" following the death of its founder, Jesus. If that is true, we might look for stories in the book of Acts that would be appropriate to the various feasts and fasts of the liturgical year in the synagogue. The first one is obvious for in Acts 2, Luke gives us the narrative of Pentecost in which he tells the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the Christian community. The Jews regarded the Law as the greatest gift God had ever given to Israel and they marked this at Pentecost. Christians, however, wanted to transform Jewish Pentecost into a Christian celebration to mark what they believed was the greatest gift God had given the Christians, namely the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Pentecost, which literally means 50 days, was also called Shavuot. When we previously examined Matthew's gospel, we noted that Shavuot was observed by the Jews as a twenty-four-hour vigil focusing on the Sinai experience in which Moses received the law. We also noted that Matthew marked that holy day with the Sermon on the Mount that portrayed Jesus as the new Moses on a new mountain giving a new interpretation of the Torah, together with sufficient material to cover eight segments of three hours each in this twenty-four hour vigil. That is why there are eight beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount and eight commentaries or elaborations of each of the beatitudes. Matthew's traditionally Jewish community observed Pentecost in an orthodox way.
We also noted earlier that Luke's community was constituted of dispersed Jews and an increasing number of Gentiles who had been attracted to the synagogue by its theology of ethical monotheism. These Gentile proselytes, however, were not attracted to the cultic elements of Judaism. They would thus not be particularly interested in observing a twenty-four-hour vigil. When we were considering Luke's gospel, we noted that when this author came to the time in which Pentecost was celebrated, he simply had John the Baptist point to the narrative that he planned to write when he got to the second chapter of Acts where Luke would reveal his new understanding of Pentecost. He did this by having John say, "I baptize you with water, but one comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to unloose, he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire."
In the fifty day period between Passover and Pentecost in the Jewish calendar, Pentecost will be reached on or near the seventh Sabbath. Luke, therefore, needed to provide six gospel lessons before he gets to Pentecost. As the Easter stories began to proliferate he provided for three of these in his gospel itself. The lesson for the Sabbath after Passover, when the Christians celebrated the resurrection, would be Luke 24:1-12. Next, he added the Emmaus Road resurrection story (24:13-35) that no other gospel writer recorded to be read on the second Sabbath after Passover. Then Luke's gospel has a third resurrection story (24:36-53) in which Jesus appears to the disciples for the first time and commissions them to be his witnesses to "all the nations," before he departed from them.
The early Christian community would then turn to the book of Acts where Luke has three more quite distinct lessons to carry him to Pentecost. First, there is his introduction (Acts 1:1-5) in which continuity with the gospel of Luke is established together with the note that the appearances of the raised Jesus went on for fifty days. Second was the story of the Ascension that brought those appearances to an end (Acts1:6-14). Finally there was the story of the community choosing Matthias to replace Judas Iscariot so that the new Israel, like the old Israel, could continue to have twelve tribes. That brings us to the seventh Sabbath and the day of Pentecost. Right on cue, the reading was the story of how the Christians had turned Pentecost into a Christian celebration of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-13). There are other stories in the book of Acts that seem to be appropriate to the other Jewish holidays and each comes in the correct liturgical order: Stephen is a kind of Ros h Hashanah figure as he points to the coming of the kingdom (see Acts 6:1-8); Yom Kippur is referenced when the Christian movement begins to enroll Gentiles (6:9-15); Sukkoth or Tabernacles is recalled when Stephen recites and recalls the time the Jewish people lived homeless in the wilderness (7:1-36). The festival of Dedication or Hanukkah, which came in the dead of winter, might well be replicated in the story of Paul's conversion in chapter 9:1-22 in which the light of God comes not on the Temple as it did in the Hebrew observance, or even on Jesus as it does in the gospel story of the Transfiguration, but on Paul as he journeyed on the road to Damascus.
When we get to the end of Acts, we discover the trial of Paul also appears to replicate in many places the trial of Jesus and would be read at the time when Passover for the Jews and the crucifixion for the Christians were being observed. My conclusion is that the book of Acts, like the Synoptic Gospels, was written as a liturgical book patterned after the synagogue's holy day observances and in the proper order. Now we are ready to look at the content of this book.
– John Shelby Spong
 


Question and Answer
With John Shelby Spong
Dr. Lennart Peterson of Gainesville, Florida, writes:
I am professor of physics, emeritus, from the University of Florida and I am a Unitarian. Several years ago, I had a conversation with a man who was doing some carpentry work for me and this conversation made a deep and frustrating impression on me. He asked me if I believed in the Bible. I gave the usual Unitarian type of "no" as a reply and proceeded to give an example. I related to him the story of the rainbow that God supposedly made as a promise never again to destroy mankind by a flood. I explained that, as a physicist, I can very easily deduce everything about a rainbow just by applying very basic physical principles. Therefore, if the story was true, then it follows that the laws of physics must have been different after the flood than before the flood. Since this makes no sense to me, the story can not be true. The man had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. This leads me to my question. Fundamentalism requires one to suspend logical thinking. Bu t logical thinking, especially as it pertains to scientific knowledge, is a weakness in the U.S. and in underdeveloped areas. How can people who do not have this scientific knowledge and who cannot apply the logic of science be helped to understand the narrowness of their point of view? How do I as a scientist talk to them in a mutually constructive and humane way?
Dear Len,
Thank you for your questions. I enjoyed meeting you at the lecture series that I gave last August at the Highlands Institute for American Religious and Philosophical Thought (HIARPT) in the mountains of western North Carolina.
As a child of fundamentalism, I think the thing that you do not fully grasp is that fundamentalism is designed to enhance security rather than to engage truth. The tragedy is that its tenacious hold on peoples' lives exerts political pressure that keeps education in some parts of this country captive to the religious power structure. The idea that any school board in the developed world would allow "creation science" to be discussed or taught in a science classroom in America only shows how deep this distortion is. This past year, a group of Texas Conservatives objected to the President of the United States speaking in a Texas school because they did not want their children subjected to "socialist propaganda." That is simply another illustration of the same phenomenon.
In my recently published book, Eternal Life: A New Vision, I sought to show how all human religion was developed to help frightened self-conscious human beings cope with the trauma of self-consciousness. Until we understand that connection, we will continue to see fundamentalism as the "suspension of logical thinking."
The cure for this tragedy in education is twofold. One side is that science, in all its persuasive power, must be taught in every classroom in America without compromise. That is the responsibility of the secular world of education. Not to do that is to relegate our children to lives of non-competitive ignorance.
The second aspect to the dilemma is for organized religion in general, and for the Christian Church in particular, to rediscover the necessity for educating their people about faith issues. That is simply not done in the vast majority of congregations. Part of the reason is that we do not know how to do it, but another part of the reason is that we fear the consequences of truth. Until we wake up to this challenge, however, we will force the Christian world to confront the ever-expanding learning of the scientific world with a fourth grade Sunday school Christian education. This will mean that our children will grow up thinking they have to choose between science and religion, not between science and bad religion. As long as churches don't understand these issues and refuse to undertake competent education in our churches, the problem will continue. Because of our inability to confront this problem, we allow bad theology and dated religious concepts to continue to vie f or people's loyalty in the public arena. That is not a winning formula and the church will inevitably lose that fight. Indeed, if the Christian Church continues to choose that tactic, it will almost certainly mortally wound itself.
The Unitarian tradition does this better than most. The other parts of the Christian faith need to move quickly into this arena.
Thanks for your question.
– John Shelby Spong


Go to Top