Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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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 assertion. 

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 Doherty [1] 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 imagination.

Definitive in many ways is Jesus Through the Centuries by Jaroslav Pelikan [2]. 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 [3].

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 among Jewish-Christians.

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 [4]

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 [5]

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 ... [6].

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 [7].

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 [8].
  • 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 [9].

The question remains - how convincing is Goulder's thesis? In this connection the following points are, I think, important:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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 his conclusions.

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 argument.

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 them.

  • 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 during worship.
  • 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.

[1] The Jesus Puzzle, 2000
[2] Yale University Press, 1999
[3] Midrash and Lection in Matthew, 1973
[4] See The Burning Mystery by Richard Holloway 
[5] Liberating the Gospels, 1997
[6] The Gospels According to Michael Goulder, 2002
[7] See The Great Divide 
[8] The Death of the Past, J H Plumb, 1969 
[9] See A Jesus of History 

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