|A PLAIN GUIDE TO
A Liturgical Jesus
Many versions of Jesus crowd the consciousness of
humanity. No single one can be called "true" or "accurate". One version of
Jesus has recently been gaining more ground. It proposes that the gospels
were compiled with a liturgical year in mind. They were meant to be
readings at Christian worship. This may not impact the historical Jesus as
found in the gospels, but it does affect the way we regard the earliest
Christian traditions. Far from being incidental to modern Christianity,
insights about the "midrashic" Jesus are revolutionary.
Those who claim that a single
person called Jesus of Nazareth exists in the contemporary human
consciousness are wildly mistaken. One has only to superficially examine
the huge volume of writing about Jesus to realise the error of any such
At one extreme there are those who think that Jesus was
exactly as the gospels describe him. Never mind the stark contradictions
they contain. These can be explained. Then there are exponents like Earl
who attempt to demonstrate that no such person as
Jesus ever existed. He was, they maintain, the creation of the overheated
imaginations of early Christian Jews.
An immensely varied range of Jesus figures exists
between these two extremes. From the gentle Jesus meek and mild of silly
sentiment to the bleak, martyred saint of social justice, the various
Jesus figures range across a wide prairie of Christian and popular
Definitive in many ways is Jesus Through the Centuries by
Jaroslav Pelikan . He writes:
... each age of history [depicts] Jesus in accordance
with its own character ... For each age, the life and teachings of Jesus
represented an answer (or, more often the answer) to the most
fundamental questions of human existence and of human destiny ...
He discovers no fewer than eighteen visions of Jesus
from the first century until now. Of course, the state of biblical
scholarship being what it is, many other versions and lists can be found.
It seems almost as though each person discovers his or her own Jesus in
the New Testament.
From time-to-time there appear, unheralded out of a
hidden fold in the landscape, startling new variations of the Jesus
figure. One such surprising irruption is what I call the "liturgical
Jesus". A controversial scholar named Michael Goulder was the first to
present this concept in detail .
Briefly, he proposed that the gospels of Mark, Matthew
and Luke were never intended to be accounts of what Jesus did and said
during his life.
First, they were constructed as collections of
illustrative stories, intended to convey the meaning of Jesus in terms of
God's action in the world. In other words, they were theological
statements closely connected to a catechetical function. As such, they
would have been loosely rather than directly associated with the theology
of Paul of Tarsus. Whereas Paul was a Jew working primarily in a
non-Jewish context, the Gospels of Mark and Matthew were most probably
linked with Jewish Christians. Luke's Gospel may have been the work of a
convert to Judaism. (But note the word "may", which indicates a guess
here, as in most scholarly works.)
Second, says Goulder, the Gospels were assembled by
their authors primarily for use in worship as liturgical readings. This
use would, I think, most likely have been intended also as a teaching aid.
Just as the Muslim youth of today still learn the Koran by heart, so did
Jewish young people in the time of Jesus and the first Jewish-Christian
communities learn the Jewish scriptures. They would, I think, almost
certainly have quickly tried to assemble a Christian counterpart to the
Jewish scriptures as they gradually broke away from official Jewry.
I think it's significant in this context that Mark's
Gospel was probably assembled about the year 70, when Jerusalem was
destroyed by the Romans and many Jews dispersed into the Roman Empire. The
grip of the official religious system on the Jewish faith would have been
weakened enough at this point to allow an independent burst of creativity
John Spong, a disciple of Michael Goulder and retired Bishop of the
Episcopal Church's Newark Diocese in the United States, proposes that the
purpose of the Gospels was distorted later by non-Jewish Christians. They
tended to regard the Gospels as records of what really happened - that is,
as good history.
Their world views were fundamentally Greek and Roman. Greeks would not
have understood Jewish Midrash - that method of illustrating and
elaborating the meaning of God's actions which was an integral part of the
way Jews interpreted the past .
In addition, Spong thinks (with some good evidence backing him) that
the Gentile group of Christians had begun to break away from those with
Jewish roots by the time the gospels were written. The author of the Acts
of the Apostles portrays some of this process (writing around 80,
some fifty years after the crucifixion of Jesus).
Spong writes that
Jews filtered every new experience through the corporate remembered
history of their people, as recorded in the Hebrew scriptures of the past
But it should be noted that direct evidence for Midrash
from Jewish sources comes mainly from about 200. Although there is earlier
evidence, it isn't as coherent or definitive as Spong makes out.
Both Spong and Goulder present example after example of
Midrash in action. On the face of it, their evidence is overwhelming. One
instance which is familiar to modern-day Christians is the likening of
Jesus to Moses and Elijah (Mark 8.28; Matthew 16.14; Luke 9.30; John
1.21). Spong thinks that this is
... a Jewish way of suggesting that the holy God
encountered in Jesus went even beyond the God-presence that had been met
in Moses, Joshua, Elijah and Elisha. That is the way the midrashic
principle worked. Stories about heroes of the Jewish past were
heightened and retold again and again about heroes of the present
moment, not because the same events actually occurred, but because the
reality of God revealed in those moments was like the reality of God
known in the past.
Another instance, not often remarked upon, is the
account of the killing by Herod of the children (the "Holy Innocents"
story of Matthew 2.16). This story is almost certainly not historical. Why
then was it recounted? According to Spong and Goulder it was Midrash in
action, this time based upon the story of how the Pharaoh killed the
Hebrew first-born children in Egypt (Exodus 13.15).
K Stendahl describes Midrash as
... an often edifying interpretation of a text, now
opened up into a creative act by playing skillfully on various passages
and motifs, often combining them in a most fascinating and scintillating
manner ... a new form of classical typology ... used to trump the old by
the new ... the church and Christianity as the new Israel over synagogue
and Judaism ... .
It is extremely difficult, bordering on impossible, for
the average Westerner of the 21st century to understand the mentality
which could regard Midrash as a valid tool. A great divide has opened up
between us and the way the ancients regarded the world and truth. It
should be noted, nevertheless, that many the world over still think in
terms similar to those of the first century - even though they are
embedded in a modern, technological, secular culture
The main differences between modernity and pre-modern
thought in relation to a Jesus of history can be summarised as follows:
- The bulk of Jewish and Greek/Roman early Christians had no more than
a passing concern for what really happened. That is, history in the
sense that we know it today did not exist. Had they had modern
historical techniques and theory explained to them they would more than
likely not have been much interested.
- They generally looked to the past to justify their theological
teachings. The Roman culture, for example, looked back at the largely
mythical history of the city for legal and moral precedent. Authority
for the truth did not derive from "fact" as it tends to do today
- Midrash was a process of what we would today call "invention"
of stories which, because they replayed and interpreted the famous tales
of the past, were accepted into contemporary theological teachings about
God's purposes in the present.
As if the concept of Midrash is not revolutionary enough in the
context of traditional Christian theology, Goulder and Spong have
introduced an even more sweeping change to the traditional ideas about the
nature of the Gospels.
It is this: The form and order of each Gospel has not been designed to
recount any known historical version of the life of Jesus. Nor is their
purpose only to express a theological vision. It is also for use with an
annual lectionary. This lectionary followed an ancient Jewish liturgical
order by which readings were spaced out over the year in acts of worship.
In effect, the Jesus thus revealed by the gospels is as much a
liturgical Jesus as a theological one - and, according to the findings of
the Jesus Seminar, both outshine the historical Jesus. To reach a Jesus of
history becomes somewhat more difficult and problematic as a result
The question remains - how convincing is Goulder's thesis? In this
connection the following points are, I think, important:
Revolutionary insights never occur de novo. This applies
to Goulder's work as to any other. Thus others explored the coastal
territory of Midrash some years earlier, but it was Goulder who
ventured into the hinterland.
Most challenging ideas such as this are necessarily expressed in
rather extreme terms. If they survive the test of time, these terms
generally moderate into a more accurate expression.
Goulder's work was largely dismissed to begin with. Traditional
theologians regarded it as wild speculation - particularly after Goulder
declared that he no longer considered himself a Christian as a result of
As always, the validity of a thesis like Goulder's is decided only by
intense application to the detail in the context of a broad picture. It's
too early to decide, in my opinion, whether or not Goulder's ideas will
survive. Nor is a detailed account appropriate for this website. But a
summary of one or two aspects might give some idea of the bones of the
Before doing so, it's useful to very briefly summarise some background
information. Just as the so-called Catholic branches of the Church today
have their lectionaries and liturgical cycles, so also did the Jewish
faith. Indeed, few Christians today realise just how much their familiar
liturgies owe to the much older practices of Judaism. These stretch back
some centuries before Jesus. The early Church took them over and adapted
- The Jewish year was divided into either 51 or 52 weeks or Sabbaths,
depending on the vagaries of the lunar calendar which they used.
- The entire Torah (Hebrew scriptures) was read over those weeks
- Side-by-side with this liturgical cycle was a pattern of holy days
or feasts which occurred at various points throughout the year.
- Each Sabbath and feast day had their themes and liturgical readings
to illuminate and interpret their meaning. Shavuot, for example,
began as a harvest festival and gradually changed into a celebration of
the reception by Moses of God's Law on Mount Sinai.
 The Jesus Puzzle, 2000
 Yale University Press, 1999
 Midrash and Lection in Matthew, 1973
 See The Burning Mystery
by Richard Holloway
 Liberating the Gospels, 1997
 The Gospels According to Michael Goulder, 2002
 See The Great Divide
 The Death of the Past, J H Plumb, 1969
 See A Jesus of History