You are hereBishop Spong's Articles March 2011
Bishop Spong's Articles March 2011
Examining the Story of the Cross; Part 1: Analyzing the Details of the Crucifixion
Examining the Story of the Cross; Part 2: Did the Crucifixion of Jesus Occur at Passover?
Examining the Story of the Cross; Part 3: There Never Were “Seven Last Words” From the Cross
Exploring the Meaning of the Cross: Part IV; The Symbols of the Hebrew Scriptures in the Crucifixion
My Friend: Richard Lester Shimpfky 1940-2011
Examining the Story of the Cross; Part I Analyzing the Details of the Crucifixion
In a few weeks the Christian world will enter the season of Lent that culminates with Holy Week and the liturgical reading of the Passion narrative of Jesus’ crucifixion. The story of the cross is clearly the focal point of the New Testament with the last week of Jesus’ life taking up about a third of the content in each of the four gospels. Next to the birth narratives, which are contained only in Matthew and Luke, the account of the Passion of Jesus is the most familiar part of the New Testament to Christian people. That familiarity is, however, not very well informed. To put new understanding into this well-known narrative is the thing I will seek to do in a series of columns that will carry us up until Easter.
The final week in Jesus’ life begins with what we now call the Palm Sunday procession. It then moves toward the Maundy Thursday “Last Supper,” the betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane, the trial before the Sanhedrin, the trial before Pilate, the introduction of the character we call Barabbas, the purple robe, the crown of thorns and finally the story of the crucifixion itself. The first observation we need to make when we look at this material, is that what most people think they know is far more a blending and a smoothing over of real differences that mark the original separate biblical accounts. This means that most readers have not yet embraced the fact that the story of Jesus’ passion is not literal history at all, but a pious interpretation in which even the familiar story of the end of Jesus’ life shows evidence of growth and development over the years as each successive writer began to fill in the blanks in imaginative ways and with the judicious use of the Hebrew Scriptures. Today, in the first in this series of columns, I will seek to pull this seemingly foundational story apart and show how it was actually constructed over a period of about half a century in the writings of the New Testament.
Let me begin by stating clearly that, while I am convinced that there is literal historical memory at the core of this story, the details are not history at all, but legendary and interpretive accretions. I will seek in this and subsequent columns to demonstrate both of these observations.
The central historical fact, which I find indisputable, is that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified during the reign and by the action of the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate, who served in this office by appointment of the Caesar from 26-36 CE. Beyond that central fact, however, all eye witness details seem to disappear to be replaced by the strategy of forcing the story of the crucifixion into the mold of messianic expectations through a study of the Hebrew Scriptures. Let me now lay out the various details found in the story of the Passion of Jesus in the order that each was developed from the Jewish biblical sources available to the followers of Jesus.
Paul is the first writer of any part of the New Testament. He wrote all of his authentic epistles within a span of years between 51 CE at the earliest and 64 CE at the latest. The initial fact that we need to embrace in this study is that the work of Paul is as close to the events of Holy Week as we can get in written materials. If Jesus was crucified around 30 CE, as most New Testament scholars now agree, then it was twenty-one years, or a full generation, before any words about the crucifixion that we still possess were written down. Twenty-one years is a long time to pass down any recollection by word of mouth and have it be rendered accurately.
Paul refers to the cross of Jesus on seven occasions in his epistles and he uses the word “crucified” in reference to Jesus on ten other occasions. In none of these accounts, however, does he give any narrative details. In I Corinthians: 11, for the first time Paul makes a reference to the institution of the last supper and to Jesus being “handed over,” a word that later was translated “betrayed.” That is the entire origin of the traitor story. He does not, however, suggest either that the last supper was identical or even associated with the Passover or that the betrayal was at the hands of one of the twelve. The name Judas, for example, never appears in the Pauline corpus.
About the crucifixion Paul says only that “he died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.” No other details are mentioned: no Garden of Gethsemane, no apostolic desertion, no arrest; no Pilate, no trial, no torture, no denial by Peter, no thieves, no words from the Cross and no darkness. About the burial Paul says only, “He was buried.” There is no mention in the writings of Paul of a tomb, no Joseph of Arimathea and no preparation of the body for burial. About the Easter event, Paul says only this: “On the third day he was raised in accordance with the scriptures.” There is no account in Paul of angels, no stone to roll back, no women carrying spices and no story of a dawn visit. Paul does go on then to list those to whom Jesus was said to have “appeared.” Cephas (Peter) was first, next the Twelve (note Judas is still included) and then he mentions an appearance to 500 brethren at once, about which we know nothing. Paul continues this list by saying that Jesus next appeared to James, but he does not say which James and there are three in the New Testament story: James, the son of Zebedee, James, the son of Alphaeus and James, the brother of the Lord. The consensus among scholars today is that it is the last mentioned James to whom Paul is making reference. Then, continues Paul, Jesus appeared to the Apostles. Who are they? He has already mentioned the Twelve. This seems like another group. Paul ends his list by saying that “last of all he appeared to me,” that is, to Paul, and this appearance, he argues, was in no way different from the others except that he was last. Paul’s conversion is set between one year after the crucifixion at the earliest and six years at the latest, so this appearance could hardly have been that of a physically-resuscitated body that walked out of the grave, making it a safe assumption that however Paul had conceived of the resurrection, it was not the resuscitation of a physically-deceased body. Finally, we need to embrace the fact that these scant details are all the Christian community possessed about this climactic story of the end of Jesus’ life until the 8th decade of the Christian era.
Mark, writing somewhere between 70-73, is the creator of most of what has become the familiar story that surround the crucifixion. Judas Iscariot, for example, makes his first appearance in Mark. Mark is also the first New Testament source to identify the Last Supper with the Passover, the first to introduce the Garden of Gethsemane, to give us details of the trial, to relate the account of Peter’s denial, to mention Barabbas and the first to record the story of the torture. He is the first to put words into the mouth of the dying Jesus, suggesting that he said only one thing from the cross and that was what we now call the cry of dereliction, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Mark was also the first to suggest that on the day of the crucifixion darkness covered the land from noon to three p.m., and the first to give content to the burial story, including the introduction of Joseph of Arimathea.
Matthew writing in the 9th decade, somewhere between 83-85, essentially copied Mark’s story, but then added some other fascinating details. It is from Matthew alone that we are told that the price Judas received for his act of betrayal was thirty pieces of silver, or that Judas repented, hurled the silver back into the Temple and went and hanged himself. Matthew is also the first to suggest that an earthquake accompanied the death of Jesus or to tell us that a Temple guard was placed around the tomb of Jesus by the high priest.
Luke, writing near the end of the 9th decade or perhaps even in the first years of the 10th decade (89-93), expands the story in a still further direction. For example, only in Luke is Jesus portrayed as praying for his tormentors, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Only in Luke does one of the thieves become penitent and asks Jesus to remember him. Only in Luke does Jesus tell Peter that he will pray for him since Satan has desired him. Only in Luke is Jesus tried separately before Herod. In Luke Pilate becomes more and more a sympathetic figure and Judas a more sinister one. Finally, Luke dismisses the cry from the cross, “My God, why have you forsaken me” and has Jesus say at the moment of his death, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” That is, I submit, a very different “final word.” Despair has been vanquished in victory.
When we come to John, written in the final years of the 10th decade (95-100), new details are added. Only in John does the mother of Jesus appear at the foot of the cross. That fact should surprise both Mel Gibson and the creators of what are called “the Stations of the Cross.” John’s Jesus says three things from the cross, none of which have we ever heard of before in the earlier gospels. They are, “I thirst,” “Woman behold your son, son behold your mother” and, as Jesus’ final word, John has him say: “It is finished.” John alone tells the story of the breaking of the legs of the thieves to hasten their deaths, a procedure which, he says, Jesus was spared since he was already dead. John alone then adds the story of the spear being hurled into Jesus’ side, which makes this detail a 10th decade addition. Its details are drawn from II Zechariah. John concludes this episode by noting that from that wound flowed both water and blood. Finally, John mentions a character called Nicodemus, who appears in no other gospel. In John Nicodemus is first introduced in chapter three and then re-introduced in the burial story, joining Joseph of Arimathea and together, we are told, they used 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes to prepare Jesus’ body for burial.
That is, in the briefest possible form, the way the story of the cross grew in detail from Paul in the 50’s to John in the late 90’s. In future columns I will seek to put these changing and sometimes conflicting details into an interpretive framework. I trust it will be a worthy and provocative study as the season of Lent unfolds.
~John Shelby Spong
Question & Answer
John F. West via the Internet, writes from the UK:
I am a Reader in the Anglican Church, but have been unable to believe in a God “up there” or indeed a personal God for some years. I have tried to understand Tillich’s idea of God not being a “Being,” but “Being itself” and the concept of the “Ground of all Being” without that much success I should say. More recently I have read Borg’s “The God we never knew” and the concept of “Panentheism” both transcendent and imminent. I have also read all of your own books which have brought me often out of the slough of despond, but sometimes I am still feeling very alone in my particular churchmanship to which I still wish to contribute. The question is: If I do not believe in a theistic God, does that now make me an Atheist or an a-theist, at least in comparison to the modern atheists like Richard Dawkins et al? I hope not, as I still wish to serve God, whoever or whatever that means through ministry to other people and have no wish to leave the church, but I must be true to myself and to other people.
Theism is a human definition of God. As such it is as inadequate as any other definition of God since it should be obvious that the human mind cannot escape the limits of humanity and define anything that is beyond those limits. An insect cannot define a bird. A horse cannot define a human being. A human being cannot define God. Yet we human beings are driven to try to make sense out of the source and experience of life itself. Defining God theistically is the typical result. Then people make the strange assumption that theism, a human construct, actually defines God and so we proceed to literalize our own definition. Then when that definition proves inadequate, as all human definitions ultimately do, we say, I must therefore be an atheist. That is, if my definition of God no longer defines my understanding of the source of my life, there must not be a God!
Atheism literally means, however, that I reject the theistic definition of God. It does not mean that there is no God. That is the mistake Richard Dawkins makes. His critique of theism is, as the English would say, “spot on.” I share in most of it. His conclusion that since theism makes no rational sense, there must be no such thing as God simply does not follow. Buddhism does not define God theistically but no one who studies Buddhism could assert that Buddhism denies the reality of God. The problem we have in all God Talk is the limits of both language and human consciousness.
Can human beings sense or experience that which is beyond human limits, which we think of as transcendent and perceive it to be real? I think we can. Can one define himself or herself as a non-theist and still be a Christian? I think one can. Can we know intuitively, even if we cannot know it intellectually that which is beyond human perception? I think we can.
I hope you will continue to serve as a Reader in the Anglican Church and that in that deep and broad community of believers I trust you will find a community of fellow seekers who will admire both your commitment and your integrity while not judging your journey into the mystery of God.
~John Shelby Spong
Examining the Story of the Cross; Part III There Never Were “Seven Last Words” >From the Cross
One of the most dramatic services of Holy Week for me has always been the Good Friday “Three Hour Service.” It was designed to enable Christian worshipers in some dramatic way to watch by the cross as their Lord died. The traditional content of that three-hour service traditionally consisted of sermons or meditations on what were called “The Seven Last Words,” which were supposedly the words spoken by Jesus from the cross as he died.
Normally, the three hours were divided into a series of eight mini-services of twenty minutes or so in duration. After one introductory sermon setting the stage for the day, each segment thereafter in this liturgy would usually consist of a reading from the gospel that included the quoted word from the cross; perhaps a Passiontide hymn like “Go to dark Gethsemane” or “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”, some prayers, which were characteristically of a penitential nature, and perhaps some silence for meditation. There was opportunity for worshipers to come and go after each of the “words.” A few, as the final act of their Lenten discipline, would stay for the whole three hours. Sometimes these services would be ecumenical with clergy from various traditions taking one of the “words.” Sometimes a number of churches would join in the observance and an outsider would be brought in to preach on each of the “Seven Last Words,” a pattern that would at least give consistency to the overall message. Sometimes the local pastor would himself or herself do the entire three-hour service that, in my experience, would either be a work of supererogation for which the preacher would feel profoundly virtuous, or an intensely moving personal experience. In my career I have participated in each of these formats; I have been one of many in a community service; I have done the entire service in the church I was serving; I have been the guest who did the “Words” in another city, and I have sat in the pews and listened to another for the entire three hours. The three most memorable three-hour services that I can personally recall are first, when I was invited to be the Good Friday preacher at St. Peter’s Church, Charlotte, the downtown Episcopal church in which I had been raised as a child; second, listening to a priest of my Diocese, David Hegg, in my present parish church, St. Peter’s, Morristown, New Jersey, preach on the death of Jesus on Good Friday, after he had experienced the death of his 27 year old daughter in an automobile accident just six days earlier, and, third, during the year that I had the privilege of teaching at Harvard I spent Good Friday listening to Dr. Peter Gomes, the senior minister of Memorial Church in the Harvard Yard and one of the great preachers of our time, do each of the seven words.
That three hour Good Friday liturgical pattern has, however, fallen into general disuse and for two major reasons I think. First, churches located in the heart of business districts in the cities of this land have given way since World War II to churches located in the suburbs. A noon to three p.m. service in the suburbs might not have a critical mass of people in the homes who might attend a midday service. A city-center church where business people and shoppers could drop by for a convenient part of the three hours was the final expression of this tradition. In recent years even in city-center churches this traditional Good Friday observance has thus been replaced with some lesser version, perhaps a one-hour services or, at best, one and a half hour services with perhaps a service toward the end of the three hours dedicated to the children, designed, I felt, to perpetuate the illusion of yesterday’s tradition. In many churches preaching has been replaced with liturgical music appropriate to the day.
The second reason for the demise of the Good Friday three hour service was, I believe, the fact that critical biblical scholarship has over the past 200 years demythologized, to use the word Rudolf Bultmann made famous, the way we understand the Bible. The literal manner in which we once read the New Testament is simply no longer possible. One of the casualties of that critical study is that we now recognize that Jesus did not actually say any of the supposed “seven last words” from the cross. In order to reach the number seven people had simply collapsed the four gospels into a single blended collage, as if we could create from these separate sources a single historical and accurate narrative. In our pre-literate biblical days we also did this with Christmas pageants, which were almost uniformly designed to blend Matthew’s story of Jesus’ nativity, which was the earliest of the birth accounts, with Luke’s story which was both the other and the latest. The two stories are radically incompatible in many details, but that did not stop pageant producers from putting them together so that Matthew’s star in the east leading the magi to Bethlehem became the last scene in the story following Luke’s account of the angels’ visit to the shepherds and their journey to the manger in search of the baby. Most people, influenced by too many pageants, still today think of these two stories as a single whole.
The “Seven Last Words” has had a similar history. In the first two gospels, Mark written in the early 70’s and Matthew, composed about a decade later, the only “word” Jesus was said to have spoken from the cross was what came to be called, the “Cry of Dereliction,” which is “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This intensely human cry, however, became an increasingly difficult “word” to attribute to Jesus as Christian history moved and the humanity of Jesus was increasingly replaced by various claims of his divinity. Scholars also noted that this cry, while attributed to Jesus, was actually the first verse of Psalm 22, a psalm that clearly was used early in Christian history to interpret the crucifixion. I will look at the influence of that psalm in the story of the crucifixion later in this series.
When the third gospel, Luke, was written, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” disappeared from his story and instead Luke created three brand new “words” from the cross that no one had ever heard before. The mythical figure developed in II Isaiah (40-55), called the “Suffering Servant,” had clearly been influential in shaping Luke’s story of the cross. The “Servant” was said to have made intercession for his oppressors so Luke had Jesus do the same, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they have done” was the result. In Luke, for the first time, one of the two thieves crucified with Jesus was said to have become “penitent.” In the earlier gospels both thieves were said to have reviled him. In his penitent state he was said to have begged Jesus to “remember him” when he came into his kingdom. To this plea, Luke has Jesus promise, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Finally, instead of the final word from the cross at the moment of death being a fearful cry of forsakenness Luke has Jesus replace it with a note of triumph: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”
When we come to the Fourth Gospel, written near the end of the tenth decade, the author omits everything that Mark, Matthew and Luke have all proposed that Jesus spoke from the cross and he creates three entirely new sayings designed to satisfy his understanding of the death of Jesus. The first was: “I thirst,” a note that also has its roots in Psalm 22. The second was: “Woman, behold thy son. Son, behold thy mother,” which helped the author to develop the character of the one he called “the beloved disciple.” It is also noteworthy that only in this final gospel is there any reference to the presence of the mother of Jesus at the cross. Lastly, John suggests as Jesus’ final word from the cross: “It is finished,” which catches up one of the Fourth Gospel’s unique interpretations of Jesus as the author of the new creation.
The fact is that in all probability Jesus never said any of these words from the cross and they certainly do not present a complete and harmonious story, since the “seven words” never appear together in any book of the Bible.
Despite the loss of this homiletical trick of preaching on the “Seven Last Words,” I still think there is a place for a three-hour Good Friday service. I believe it should be an offering to the community everywhere a church is located in a business setting to which commuters flow in and out each day and where Easter shoppers are present in abundance. I would, however, like to give “The Seven Last Words” an appropriate burial as the format of this Good Friday liturgy. In their place I would suggest that the three-hour service be dedicated to understanding the unique way in which the passion story is interpreted by each gospel writer. One year, for example, this Good Friday service would be based on the passion story according to Mark. The next year Matthew’s passion narrative would form the content. Luke’s story of the cross would be the emphasis for the third year. Finally, in a fourth year to complete the cycle, John’s gospel account of Jesus death would be examined in depth. The clergy conducting these services would themselves in their preparation be forced to embrace the perspective of each gospel writer in order to lead their congregations into the way each gospel writer interpreted the death of Jesus. Both clergy and their congregations would then be able to experience and to embrace the unique ways in which the story was originally told, to see how each gospel writer added new details, to observe the ways in which the story grew through the years and finally to engage the interpretive task in the quest to understand why the various additions were made. Above all, this approach would help people know that, while the fact of the crucifixion is history, the interpretive details of each gospel writer are not. Good Friday would be transformed into a day of entering the interpretive process that might serve to draw us more closely to this Jesus, instead of being used, as is the case so often with Good Friday preaching, as a means of eliciting guilt for what we did to Jesus. I have never known guilt to help us grow into wholeness. Such a tradition might help us recover the Jesus of history and the meaning of the cross itself.
~John Shelby Spong
Read the essay online here.
Question & Answer
Nick Bagnall from Omokora Beach, New Zealand, writes:
When you realize that 10% of the population of the USA owns 87% of the wealth in your country and that this figure has been growing during the past 60 years, you may need to add wealthism (the belief that disparity of income and wealth is OK) to your list of unacceptable prejudices. Do you know how little the bottom of the USA population owns? Perhaps you could find out. That may convince you that capitalism as practiced is not working. How can this be allowed to continue in a country which still regards itself as nominally Christian?
I did not say that capitalism was perfect just that I see no economic system that has served the needs of more people better. Even the poor in the United States enjoy an easier life than the poor in any other society or nation I have ever visited.
That being said, I pointed out the dangers in capitalism and you have identified the most important one. An unbridled capitalism almost inevitably leads toward a situation in which the poor get poorer and the rich get richer. That always destabilizes a population and, if unchecked, ultimately results in either higher crime rates as the underprivileged seek to balance their lack with stealing or to revolutions in which the disenfranchised seek to destroy the government that has disenfranchised them economically. We see this happening today in countries as diverse as Venezuela, Mexico, Tunisia and Egypt. This is, of course, what Karl Marx predicted when he wrote his Communist Manifesto.
The gap between the rich and the poor has been growing exponentially in the United States since the 90’s. It grew enormously during the eight years of the Clinton administration. Its growth went off the charts during the eight years of the George W. Bush presidency. Even in this time of economic collapse, the poor have suffered more than the rich. The hope for redress lies in providing a safety net through which no one will fall. That net is built with affordable and universal health care, a healthy social security system, good quality public education, scholarship help for those who qualify for higher education and a fair and equitable tax system. When Steve Forbes, a billionaire, argues that a flat tax is fair since all people would the pay the same percentage of their income, what he is proposing is little more than smoke and mirrors. That would only increase what is a fact today, namely that the poor and middle class of this country pay a much greater percentage of their spendable income in taxes than do the rich. To make that figure more equitable would be a step in the right direction.
To give more purchasing power to the poor and middle classes is also good economics. For the engine of our economy is located in the spending power of the masses. To keep the debt of the nation rising while handing out tax breaks to the rich, as this nation’s government has just done, may be good short term political policy, but it is a prescription for long term disaster. I would still prefer to perfect capitalism than to opt for any other economic system yet devised. We run enormous risks, however, if we opt for maintaining the status quo.
~John Shelby Spong
Exploring the Meaning of the Cross: Part IV; The Symbols of the Hebrew Scriptures in the Crucifixion
24 March 2011: 5 Comments »
The first narrative account of Jesus’ crucifixion in the Bible is found in the gospel of Mark written some 40-43 years, or approximately two generations, after the events it purports to describe. You may read it in Mark 14:17-15:47. It does not claim to be an eye witness account. Indeed it draws most of its details not from anyone’s memory, but from the Hebrew Scriptures. It is clearly an interpretive account designed to see the death of Jesus as the fulfillment of Jewish messianic hopes.
The two major sources from which Mark has crafted his story of the crucifixion are Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53. We are generally familiar with these details primarily because we are familiar with Mark’s passion story. Our awareness of the original sources, however, is generally quite limited. From Psalm 22, Mark draws the only words that he claims Jesus spoke from the cross. Psalm 22:1 says: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Psalm 22 then goes on to say in verses 7 and 8, “All that see me laugh me to scorn. They shoot out their lips and they shake their heads saying, ‘He trusted in the Lord that he would deliver him. Let him deliver him seeing he delighted in him.’” Compare these words with Mark 15:29, “They that passed by railed on him, wagging their heads and saying, ‘Ah, thou that destroyest the Temple and buildest it in three days, save thyself and come down from the cross….He saved others; himself he cannot save. Let Christ the King of Israel come down from the cross that we may see and believe’.”
Psalm 22 continues with these words, “I am poured out like water. All my bones are out of joint…My tongue cleaveth to my jaws…They pierced my hands and feet…I may tell all my bones.” All of these images and ideas are written into Mark’s story of the cross and they grow in form through the other synoptic accounts. When John writes his version of the crucifixion almost thirty-five years after Mark, he has Jesus cry, “I thirst” and he attests to the fact that none of his bones were broken.
Psalm 22 goes on to say (v. 18) “They part my garments among them and cast lots upon my vesture.” Mark writes in 15:24: “And when they had crucified him, they parted his garments, casting lots upon them what every man should take.” No, Jesus did not miraculously fulfill the “predictions” of the Hebrew Scriptures in some predestined way, as I was once taught in my fundamentalist Sunday school, the gospels rather were written with the Hebrew Scriptures open and the gospel writers conformed their memory of Jesus to fit the expectations of those scriptures, which enabled them to interpret him in the light of these Jewish expectations. Mark’s original passion narrative is thus not the report of an eye witness to the crucifixion at all. It is, rather, an example of how the disciples of Jesus searched the Jewish scriptures for clues that they could use to prove that Jesus was in fact the expected messiah. We are not dealing with history in the story of Jesus’ passion, but with interpretive material drawn from the Hebrew Scriptures.
The other favorite passage from the Old Testament that was used to illumine the entire Jesus experience in general, but the story of the crucifixion in particular, was what we now call “the servant passages” from II Isaiah (40-55). Much of that text is also familiar to us not because we have read Isaiah, but because George Frederick Handel drew from it as the basis of his magnificent oratorio known as “Messiah.” The best known images from this section of Isaiah’s servant passages are found in chapter 53. Mark’s narrative of the crucifixion shows a deep compatibility with this part of II Isaiah’s work. “He was wounded for our transgressions…by his stripes we are healed.” These are among the familiar words from Isaiah 53. “He was despised, rejected, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” are also words said of the “servant”, but they have been applied so deeply to Jesus that most of us think these words were actually written about Jesus. II Isaiah says of the Servant that he was “numbered with the transgressors.” I am convinced that it was from this reference that the story of Jesus being crucified between two thieves or malefactors was derived. It is interesting to watch the story of these two thieves develop. In Mark their presence is noted, but they are not quoted as having said anything. In Matthew, a decade later, both of them revile Jesus and pour out hostility on him. By the time we come to Luke, perhaps a decade later, only one thief reviles him while the other in penitence is made to say to Jesus: “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Later in Isaiah 53, we are told that the servant “made his grave with a rich man.” From this reference, I believe, came the developed story of Joseph of Arimathea who was said to be a ruler of the Jews and thus a rich man. To portray Jesus as having been buried in Joseph’s tomb served two purposes. First, it “fulfilled the scriptures” and second it covered the embarrassment of the apostolic abandonment, which was so real it could not have been denied, with a proper burial.
Another indication that we are not dealing with eye witness history in this narrative comes a bit earlier in Mark’s text when he announces that when Jesus was arrested, “all of his disciples forsook him and fled.” Please note the text of Mark says “all” not “some.” It is hard even today, but necessary if we are to engage the Jesus story honestly, to face the high probability that Jesus died alone. There was no eye witness tradition that the gospel writers could draw on about the crucifixion because there were no eye witnesses.
The final evidence that this first narrative of the cross was not history comes from a deeper analysis of Mark’s whole passion story. It is divided into eight three-hour segments. The hours are marked and are meant to be noted. It is written in a twenty-four hour format. Let me trace it.
In 14:17 Mark notes that “when evening came they were gathered in one place” for the Passover meal. The phrase “when evening came” means that Mark was telling us that it was approximately 6 p.m. on the day we now call Maundy Thursday. We know from other Jewish sources that the Passover meal normally included the extended family and it lasted about three hours. That measure of time included games, the meal itself and the recitation of Israel’s historical beginnings, usually told by the male patriarch in response to the question, “Father, why is this night different from all other nights?” asked by the youngest male child. The Passover ended with a hymn and the gathered family members then left for their own homes.
Mark tells us in this first segment of the passion of Jesus, that at the end of the meal they sang a hymn and departed into the night. It is thus now 9 p.m. We are then told that Jesus and his disciples went into the Garden of Gethsemane, where it was said that Jesus took three of his disciples to “watch” with him while he prayed. They were, however, unable to perform this duty without falling asleep. Indeed they could not watch with him one, two or three hours. The second segment of the twenty-four hours was thus over.
Jesus then comes out of the garden to meet Judas and the contingent of solders from the Temple guard. It is midnight. The darkest deed in human history is to take place at the darkest hour of the night. Jesus is then taken to the Sanhedrin for interrogation. This interrogation takes us from midnight to 3 a.m. The third segment of the vigil is complete.
The period of the night between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. was called “Cockcrow.” Into this segment, Mark has installed the story of Peter’s threefold denial before the “cock crowed,” presumably one denial for each hour. Then right on cue, Mark says, “When morning came,” which means it is now 6 a.m. Here Mark tells us the details of the trial before Pilate; the introduction of Barabbas; the torture, and the mocking purple robe and crown of thorns.
Mark then says “it was at the third hour” or 9 a.m., when they crucified him. At the sixth hour or 12 noon Mark says “darkness covered the whole earth.” It lasted, not surprisingly, for three hours. At 3 p.m. Jesus uttered, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and died or as the Elizabethan translation we call the King James Version says, “He gave up the ghost.”
From 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. we hear of the negotiations of Joseph of Arimathea to bury him in his tomb, a task that is completed before the sun goes down to mark the beginning of the Sabbath, the day of rest.
Two things become obvious in this study. First, most of the familiar details of the crucifixion story are not eye witness accounts of things that actually happened. They are rather interpretive accounts based upon the Hebrew Scriptures in which Jesus is seen, despite the fact that he had been crucified, as the anticipated messiah. Second, they were not written to describe what actually happened, but to lead worshippers to new insights through a twenty-four hour liturgical vigil. Just as the Jews had marked the beginning of their life as the people of God with a three-hour liturgical celebration known to us as “The Passover,” so Christians decided to mark the beginning of their life as a distinct people called to a new relationship with God in which they found salvation with a matching liturgical act. In the process they stretched the three hour Passover into a twenty-four hour vigil. What we are reading as Mark’s story of Jesus’ passion is a liturgical rite in which they could relive the last events in the life of one they believed was messiah and through whom they were convinced that they saw God in a dramatically new way.
We have been blinded to the holiest moments in our faith story by our failure to grasp the fact that the story of the cross is not literal, but interpretive. Its purpose was not to tell us how Jesus died, but who Jesus was and how his death revealed that. Armed with this clue, we can enter an entirely new dimension of the Bible itself.
~John Shelby Spong
Question & Answer
A common poem found in the Announcements/Obituary section of most (if not all) newspapers is titled “The Plan of the Master Weaver.” I’m sure you have seen this poem many times, it begins. “Our lives are but fine weavings that God and we prepare. Each life becomes a fabric planned and fashioned in His care. Sometime a strand of sorrow is added to His plan and though it’s difficult for us, we still must understand. That it’s He who fills the shuttle, it’s He who knows what’s best. So we must weave in patience and leave Him to the rest. The dark threads are as needed in the Weaver’s skillful hand as the threads of gold and silver in the pattern He has planned.” I personally find this brings more discomfort than comfort. It was written, I’m sure, with good intentions but a person has to ask: does it really bring a grieving family any comfort to know (for example) that their child was killed as part of God’s plan? I have to believe that someone (somewhere) has put together some better words of comfort. Something that does not throw us all together into a basket of weaves within the Master Weaver’s plan. What message or words would you suggest to help bring healing and comfort to those who have lost a very dear friend, a colleague, an acquaintance or a family member?
Perhaps “The Plan of the Master Weaver” is not as widespread as you imagine. I find myself only vaguely aware of it and I cannot recall any newspaper in which I have seen it published on the obituary page. For that I am thankful.
I share more than discomfort at this poem. To me it is pious nonsense - to say nothing of being bad theology and even an expression of incompetent biblical understanding. Its author has clearly never read the book of Job!
I do not find the attempt to see good or God in human tragedy either comforting or inspiring. Yes, I am aware that some people find comfort in the idea that everything fits into some redeeming divine plan. I think that makes God a kind of sadistic demon. I first ran into this when just ordained. A young couple had lost an infant through what we called then “Crib Death.” Unaware of this, I preached on tragedy and my unwillingness to try to comfort by asserting that tragedy is all a part of God’s plan. Yet they were comforting themselves with this idea, I learned later, because they had been taught that, if they did not, God might strike again and kill one of their other children. I shudder to think that anyone has been terrorized by that view of God and by that sick kind of religious thinking.
The Book of Romans is often quoted by the defenders of this idea. “All things work together for good to those who love God” is the KJV rendition of this verse. That is not what the text says in Greek and modern versions of the Bible have corrected this verse to its proper rendition, namely that “God works in all things for good.” Tragedy can be creative. People can and do transform their sadness into efforts that benefit the world. I have good friends, who lost their nine-year old son Andy in an accident in Yellowstone National Park and then dedicated themselves to park safety for the rest of their lives. That, however, does not mean that anybody’s death was somehow good or was part of a divine plan to bring about this good result.
It takes great strength to be human and to grapple with issues of meaning, purpose and the realities of pain and tragedy, but that is part of what being human means. Human beings are the only animals who know our adult children and therefore the only animal who can grieve over tragedy in our adult children. We are also the only animal who can enjoy and participate in life time relationships with our own offspring. The fact is that to achieve the latter we must run the risk of the former. The pious use of religion as a kind of panacea or even a narcotic that will dull the pain of life is not the answer. Embracing the potential of life, including its darkest moments as a God-given reality is.
Thanks for bringing this to my attention.
~John Shelby Spong
My Friend: Richard Lester Shimpfky 1940-2011
30 March 2011:
Recently, I preached at the funeral of one who had been a close friend for more than 40 years. His name was Richard Shimpfky. Let me tell you something of his story.
I first met Richard when he was a senior at the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, where he was described by Clifford Stanley, the very popular professor of Systematic Theology, as “the best student to attend this seminary in a decade.” Upon his graduation, he applied for the position of assistant rector on my staff at St. Paul’s Church in Richmond, but I did not choose him primarily because it would be a year before he was made a priest and I needed more immediate help. He never forgave me! He went on to serve a curacy in Arlington and then became rector of All Saints Church in Alexandria, where his talents began to be obvious. We were at that time colleagues and fellow priests in the Diocese of Virginia.
In 1976 I was elected Bishop in Newark and when the first vacancy occurred in one of our major churches, I nominated Richard, among others, for that rectorship. This particular church was at that time not in a good place. The previous rector had been forced to resign because of some personal improprieties. He was very able and very popular and half of the congregation was angry with the half that forced his resignation. To make matters worse, the young assistant, only a year out of seminary, began to campaign for the now open rectorship. He was supported in this quest by one of the two top elected officials of the congregation, but he was vigorously opposed by the other. Petitions circulated throughout the congregation for and against this man’s ambitions. To keep half the congregation happy, I agreed to allow this assistant to be involved in the search process along with other candidates, believing that in any comparison with a mature and experienced priest, he would not be chosen. When the list got down to the final three, one of them was Richard Shimpfky, one was a much respected senior priest from within our diocese and the third was the young assistant.
When the vestry interviewed the senior priest from our diocese, he found the divisiveness in the congregation so hostile and so widespread that he withdrew his name from further consideration. The vestry then called Richard Shimpfky to be their new rector but, after long consideration and for the same reason, he declined their invitation. I thought I would have to accept the young assistant. I called Richard literally to beg, coerce, threaten, twist arms, whatever it took. He reminded me once more that I had turned him down when he applied for his first position. I apologized anew, but asserted that this was neither the time nor the place to get even! It worked. He came, but the hostilities in the congregation continued unabated after his arrival. Now half of them blamed Richard for being there when they were still committed to the former rector; the other half blamed him for the fact that he had taken the position they hoped their former assistant would fill.
Churches can be destructively demonic. Richard was miserable during those early days. His wife, Jamel, fainted at a congregational meeting. Finally, when he could stand it no longer, Richard like all good leaders, decided to address the issue publicly and head on in a Sunday sermon. It was that time of the year when New Year’s resolutions are both appropriate and easy to make. He began by describing how fractious the congregation was and, as a result, how unhappy his whole family. He reminded them that he was not the cause of their disharmony, that he was not present and played no role in the decisions that marked those battles, that all he had done was to accept their call to become their rector. He acknowledged that he was tired of being the recipient of their misplaced hostility. Then in an act of rare genius, he said, “Will the congregation please rise?” They rose. Then he said, “Repeat after me” and he began a fascinating litany. “This has been a very bad year!” he said. The congregation dutifully repeated, “This has been a very bad year!” Richard continued, “But it is now over.” The congregation said, “It is now over.” Richard went on, “We must leave yesterday’s battles in the past. We are called to live in the future.” Once more the people repeated verbatim. Richard then said, “We will not let yesterday’s pain ruin tomorrow’s hope.” Again the congregation repeated his words. Then he said “Amen.” and they said “Amen.” and broke out into loud applause accompanied by both cheers and, in some cases, streaming tears. Richard stepped down from the pulpit and on that day he became in fact, not just in title, the rector of that congregation.
For the next thirteen years he was a very popular priest and he became a highly-respected member of the diocesan clergy family. He developed a stewardship program in his parish that was later adopted in the diocese. He was committed to Christian education for all ages and was soon the director of the Christian Education Commission of the diocese with the assistance of a lay leader from St. Peter’s in Morristown, named Christine Barney, who today is my wife. After being rector for five years, he took a three months’ sabbatical and used it to organize the Program Office of the Diocese, making it both lean and effective. He was appointed to chair the Commission on Ministry to oversee our ordination process and was soon elected to the Standing Committee, the highest governing body of the diocese. Quickly he became its president. At that time the diocese was challenging old prejudices and breaking out of old barriers as this diocese has done many times in the past.
We had ordained the first woman priest from England because she could not be ordained at that time in her home country and thus, quite deliberately, placed new pressures on the leadership of the Anglican Church there. We opened the doors of our churches and hearts to the gay and lesbian community and welcomed them to come to our churches “just as I am,” promising them an honest welcome and an enveloping love. Ultimately, we agreed to ordain the first openly-gay man living in a committed relationship, a position beyond that which our own national church was not willing to go at that time. The status quo people fought back. The House of Bishops passed a resolution “disassociating themselves from the Diocese of Newark and its bishop for bringing this conflict into the church.” Our mail was heavy and negative by a 25 to 1 margin. Our leaders received death threats from “Bible-quoting true believers” no less, who seemed to assume that the church ought not to welcome those whom Christ would welcome. At that time we appeared to have few friends in the Episcopal Church. Only one bishop stood publicly with us in support, Douglas Theuner, the Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire. In the swirl of that controversy, however, a diocese in California, encompassing the area around San Jose, elected our Richard Shimpfky to be their bishop. That election was to us a sign that if we stood firm in our convictions, this church of ours would ultimately walk through this controversy with integrity. Our call, we believed, was to win over our critics by outliving them with the witness of our love. Many of us joined with Richard and his new diocese in San Bautista, California, to consecrate him as America’s newest bishop. This diocese and this bishop would miss him greatly, but he was our gift to the larger church and we were enormously proud of him.
Now Richard and I were colleagues in the House of Bishops and, from the east coast, I watched this remarkable man continue to grow. He quickly became a leader in the House of Bishops and was soon elected president of Province Eight in our church, which includes all of the dioceses in Hawaii, the entire West Coast and in the states of Nevada, Utah, Idaho and Arizona. When the time came in 1997 for the Episcopal Church to elect a new presiding bishop or primate, the nominating committee surveyed the House of Bishops and nominated four people. Richard Shimpfky was one of the four. The National Church had now fully recognized the gifts of this man and had judged him capable of leading the entire Episcopal Church.
During his years as a bishop, our friendship continued to grow. He was pastor to my family in a time of need in the life of one of our children. He invited me to come to California to lead his clergy conference. He invited my wife Christine to be the speaker at his Diocesan Convention and he returned to the Diocese of Newark to be the keynoter at mine.
When I retired in 2000, I decided it was time to make formal plans for the end of my life so that all things would be in order. I asked Richard Shimpfky then if he would be willing to be the preacher at my funeral and when he agreed, I wrote that into my will and final instructions. More than anyone I knew Richard could have interpreted my life, my ministry and my episcopacy to the world. It was, however, not to be. Last December Richard’s health took a turn for the worse and it was soon obvious that he was not going to live. About six weeks before he died, he asked if I would preach at his funeral. Though that was not the way I envisioned it to be with my younger colleague, I agreed to do so. He picked the text I was to use. It was from Ephesians and spoke of how God could do great things “more than we could think or imagine” by working in us. It was a perfect text for Richard, who never felt that he was himself significant, but he could not deny that great accomplishments had marked his life.
Richard Shimpfky was a great human being,
a great husband and father,
a great priest and bishop,
he was to me a great friend.
I grieve his loss. I rejoice in his life.
Rest in Peace, my brother.
~John Shelby Spong
Question & Answer
You have spoken frequently about talking to our clergy about their role in equipping us lay people for our ministries. I am a lesbian, feminist Episcopalian in a diocese whose bishop has an unspoken “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays. Given this atmosphere of fear and schism in our church, how can I help my bishop come to Jesus or should I just try harder to be a Unitarian or move to New Jersey?
Your authentic witness will have enormous power and it should be lived out where you are. You cannot move to a place that is not natural for you and where people already agree with your witness and expect to be effective. We must fight our battles in the context in which they arise.
In my experience people have a hard time hating and rejecting someone they know. So part of your witness is to make yourself known to the leaders of the church including your bishop. Make them see you as an authentic Christian, who happens to be both a lesbian and a feminist.
I grew up quite homophobic. What changed me were people like you, who confronted me with the quality of their lives and thus forced me to redefine the stereotypes which provided the cover and the framework in which my prejudices could hide.
Homophobia is a dying phenomenon. It will ultimately go the way of racism and sexism. A new consciousness is being born. It will not be the prejudices of such homophobic people as Pat Robertson, Albert Mahler, Fred Phelps and even Benedict XVI, but of authentic people like yourself who will change the world and you will do it by transforming others by your willingness to live your life in love, integrity and honesty even while people who claim to speak in Christ’s name continue to marginalize, ignore or reject you.
Please give your bishop a chance to, as you say, “come to Jesus” by confronting him openly, honestly, lovingly and publicly. That is the way I was enabled to grow and I think there is enormous power in such a witness.
I wish you well and admire your courage.
~John Shelby Spong