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The Gospels in their Jewish Setting
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
A review of the book by John Shelby Spong
Liberating the Gospels:  Reading the Gospels with Jewish Eyes
(San Francisco:  HarperSanFrancisco, 1997.  365p.)

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Bishop Spong analyzes the four Gospels for their literary structure in regard to the cultural context of the Jewish worship calendar of the period.  He finds the sequence of each of the Gospels follows the annual readings of the Jews, but using the themes of the new faith of the Jewish Christian community.

Worship Readings
Spong's analysis indicates that the story of each of the Gospels can be seen as a sequence of readings to be used in the worship gatherings of the Christians, initially in the Jewish synagogue settings.  The Gospels appear to follow the pattern of Jewish scripture lectionaries for the Old Testament. The selections from the Torah, Prophets and Psalms were supplemented by readings from the gospel story.

Spong follows the commonly-accepted idea that each gospel was written within the context of one worshipping community or group of related communities. Each Gospel would have provided the new gospel reading for the worship sessions of its community. A selection of the Gospel would be read week to week and in the major festivals of the Jewish worship calendar. By the Passover, the story would be completed.  Spong gathers insights from the cultural and religious context in which and to which the Gospels were written.

This is a somewhat novel proposal that makes sense of the various different formats of the similar material and themes of the disparate Gospels.  It helps clarify the differing versions of the same stories and events in the ministry of Jesus in each of the four writers.  Spong finds the commonality and unity of the Gospels not in the details of the historical events, but in the format of worship of the Jewish communities that accepted Jesus as the Messiah.

Spong feels this view liberates the Gospels from their captivity to the modern scientific rationalist worldview, freeing them to express their message in their original context.  Reading these Gospels with a modern analytical viewpoint skews their meaning and imposes modern assumptions.

Oral-Culture Characteristics
In this analysis, it would appear the Gospels were not written just to record the facts, but these were testimonials of faith, and the stories portray the character of Jesus seen as the Christ.  This seems consistent, as far as it goes, with the characteristics of oral story-oriented cultures worldwide that have come into focus in recent years.

The simplistic focus on facts for their own sake is a modern historicist approach that seems alien to the character of oral, concrete-relational societies like those of the Middle East and Mediterranean in the first century.  The Gospels would have to make sense to the people in their own cultural context.  (You can find more on the concepts of Orality and Oral Cultures on this website.)

Unity in the Passion
In Spong's analysis, the commonality of the different sequence and different versions of events in the four evangelists is found in their common culmination in the story of Jesus' "Passion:"  his persecution, mock trial and condemnation culminating in his crucifixion.  The Gospels can be seen as the new Christian lectionary, recounting the key events of the faith in Jesus as the Messiah (Christ).

Spong finds that these stories fit into the worship calendar, matching the Jewish liturgical year culminating in the Passover.  The Gospels follow the same sequence, but end in the added component of the Resurrection stories, central to the early testimonies of the Messianic community that proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah of the Jews.

Worship Lectionary
The conclusion is that Gospels were written for purposes of worship and testimony.  The Gospels were written to encourage the believing community and portray Jesus as the Messiah.

Spong concludes that the point of the Gospels was a positive testimonial and worship catechism for the Messianic community.

Two Misunderstandings
Based on the evidence of the texts, Spong contends that these writers were not concerned to simply record a historical account, as is commonly assumed in the modern simplistic historicist approach.  In ordinary popular or academic analyses of the Gospel, it is common to find one of two approaches:

1.  One ends up dismissing the total account because of differences in details that cannot be reconciled (like one story saying one blind man was healed while another says two blind men were healed).

or on the other end of the spectrum

2. Intended defenders of the historicity of the Gospels end up dishonouring the integrity of the individual Gospels.  Their insistence on imposing a modern historical format on the texts tortures the clear statements of each Gospel story line trying to somehow make them all say the same thing in spite of clear differences in the same events.

Loss of Confidence
Either approach results in a loss of confidence in the scriptures, because they have each misread the scriptures by pulling them out of their own historical, cultural and faith context.

This clarifies aspects of various gospel accounts that cause puzzlement in the traditional academic approach that takes a narrow approach of only historical detail.  The common approach limits the meaning of the gospels by focusing on the differences or similarities of the details of the differing accounts of similar events in the different gospels.

Spong includes an extensive bibliography and thoughtfully provides a helpful index.

See related reviews and articles on this site:
[TXT] The Early Gospels
[review] Gospel Time Travel
[TXT] Keeping The Torah by Nature
[review] Jesus and the Jewish Resurrection
[review] Jewish Analysis of Christian Beginnings with Paul
[Review] Keeping It Real:  Examining the Logic Behind Biblical Text Skepticism
[TXT] Orality and Oral Cultures
[review] A Phenomenology of Jesus
[Review] Uncovering the Hidden Kingdom
[review]Yeshua - The Jewish Character of the Early Church and Jesus' Teachings

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First reading notes written 16 April 2005
Finalized as a review 30 December 2007
Reviewed on Amazon 1 March 2009
Last edited on OJTR 10 June 2013

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2007 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

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