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

Jewish Christians gradually moved from the Hebrew fold into the nascent Church. This took them into the company of Greek and Roman Christians. The Jewish Christians brought with them a liturgical pattern of observances which involved Sabbath and festival readings using established Jewish themes and patterns.

Mark's Gospel, to take the earliest gospel as an instance, falls into several major sections. The exact delineation of these sections is still the subject of scholarly strife and will no doubt remain so. One of the more obvious, as an example noted long before Goulder, is the division of Mark's Passion narrative into eight three-hour sections.

But the liturgical patterns in Mark are not confined to the Passion narrative. They appear to be all-embracing. An initial clue is obtained from an early Markan manuscript from the early 5th century called the Codex Alexandrinus. In this book the text of Mark is broken up into 49 numbered and titled units. 

If one places Mark's account of the Passion (Mark 16) to coincide with Easter Sunday a number of startling correlations with the Jewish calendar become apparent. There is an almost perfect fit with Jewish liturgical themes over 49 weeks. 

For example, the book of Deuteronomy was read over twelve Sabbaths in the Jewish cycle. This can be exactly fitted with the sections in Mark which deal with the journey of Jesus and his disciples from Galilee to Jerusalem. During this journey Jesus instructs his disciples about their role in the Christian community. As Spong says,

It is marked by one teaching episode after another: on humility, on divisions within the fellowship, on marriage and divorce, on the care and treatment of children, on wealth" 

and so on.

Again, Mark 13 is the so-called "Little Apocalypse", in which Jesus speaks of the coming of the Messiah and the final fulfillment of God's creation in what's commonly called "the end of the world". If one follows the 49 divisions of the Codex Alexandrinus, this section (which precedes the Passion lesson) falls exactly on the Jewish Sabbath when the theme of the passing of the old and the coming of the new was dealt with.

So close is the correspondence between Mark's liturgical pattern and the Jewish annual lectionary that one is able to predict which week of the Jewish cycle each part of Mark applies to. Having said that, Mark's Gospel covers only roughly two-thirds of the entire cycle.

Goulder and Spong present instance after instance of this sort of correlation. Their conclusion is that Mark's Gospel does not fit any of the patterns previously proposed by scholars. It is a series of lections. The content and themes of these readings was determined by the worship needs of the early Jewish-Christian communities.

Matthew and Luke contain the same liturgical pattern, each reworked in their own way. Remember that both are dated later than Mark. For example, Matthew's Gospel is longer than Mark's because, according to Spong, the author has to compensate for the incompleteness of Mark's Gospel. He supplies the missing material for the rest of the year. 

This comprises mostly the early part of Matthew's Gospel. It covers the missing Jewish Sabbaths from the Passover to Rosh Hashanah and the Pentecost celebration (missing from Mark). It's worth noting that the Codex Alexandrinus version of Matthew contains 69 units with headings and themes (Mark has 49). The entire liturgical year and festivals are thus covered.

Where Mark focuses on the Sabbaths, Matthew focuses more on the festivals. Scholars have long noted that there are five blocks of teaching material in Matthew. It's now apparent that these five blocks fit exactly the five great festivals of the Jewish liturgical year.

Having established a compelling correlation, Spong and Goulder then take a critical next step. They have shown that this Gospel-liturgy is a re-working of Old Testament patterns. It is an output of the Midrash process. As a restatement of Old Testament themes it is not meant to be taken literally. So it is not history and, so they maintain, no amount of analysis will reveal what really happened in the life of Jesus.

The jury is still out on this conclusion. On one hand the shock and horror of the Christian establishments to Goulder's work can be interpreted as a defensive, knee-jerk reaction. On the other, the "I told you so" response of deniers of the historicity of the gospels isn't unexpected.

There are two immediate problems with the outcome of this line of thought:

  1. It depends heavily on the conclusion that there was no "Q-source" of either written or oral material drawn on by both Matthew and Luke [1]. This material was probably a good source of pre-liturgical information and interpretation of the life and meaning of Jesus. Matthew and Luke also used Mark's earlier liturgical pattern as a guide. They  modified it and "invented" their own individual liturgical schemes for themselves and their situations. This would account for the distinctive character of each gospel.

    It seems to me that there is very weighty evidence for the existence of a "Q-source". It was probably oral in origin. Linguistic similarities and other quirks in the shared material make it highly likely that it was used by the authors of Matthew and Luke.

    If this is so, and I for one think it is, then there's every reason to think that the authors of both gospels rearranged common material to suit themselves. Each gospel has material unique to itself. Each author used the Midrash method to work out their own liturgical pattern for their own situation.

    That they did this doesn't necessarily mean that there is no history in the Q-source material they both used. Not only doesn't this follow logically, but the bulk of the evidence goes against this conclusion.

  2. There is little doubt in my mind that the liturgical context of the Synoptic Gospels will gradually be accepted, and rightly so.

    But does that change anything? I don't think so. No matter how the gospels are perceived - as myth, or lectionary, or wisdom literature, or catechetical material, or polemics or whatever - the central question remains: how much of their material is good history, an account of what really happened?

    In other words, the end use of the gospels is only one matter at issue. Perhaps that use was, as it were, multi-purpose - worship, teaching and debate among them. The gospel material seems highly likely to have been assembled in various sequences to meet liturgical purposes, as Goulder and Spong propose.

    However, then as now, liturgy had a primary underlying purpose - to acquaint the faithful with the story of Jesus as illuminated and informed by the precedent of the Old Testament (the Scriptures of the New Testament).

Whatever the case, the historical-analytical task has not been done away with. It is still clear: To delve deep into the gospels and isolate from the "invented" material (assembled for varied uses) those sections which give as good a historical picture of Jesus as possible.

The essence of being Christian is, it seems to me, that faith is ultimately based upon a real person who actually lived, and who did and said certain things. Christianity remains an historically-founded way of life. It isn't just a myth. It is not just a liturgy. It is not just the vision of early Christians. Nor is it just one religion chosen from a range of religions to fit personal preference.

In terms of how most in the West interpret their world, a faith based primarily upon revelation and authority seems no longer viable. Hence the inexorable rise since the late 18th century of the quest for a Jesus of history. We now search for historical evidence about what really happened rather than unquestioningly accept the traditional Jesus of faith.

That we have latterly become aware, through Goulder and others, of a liturgical use for the written material which also contains our history is a factor to be taken into consideration. But the good history remains embedded in the Gospels, to be teased out and assessed regardless of the end purpose for which they were written.

To sum up:

  • Analysis by Goulder and others of the three Synoptic Gospels reveals that they were written primarily for liturgical use in the Jewish religious year as followed by early Jewish-Christian communities.

  • Mark's Gospel doesn't cover the entire year. The longer gospels of Matthew and Luke expand to cover the full year and festivals. They are designed to meet the needs of the communities of which their authors were part.

  • The correspondence between the Synoptic Gospels and the Jewish liturgical year uncovered by Goulder is compellingly comprehensive. But this new insight is not yet accepted by traditional Christianity - if it ever will be.

  • The case for denying the historicity of the entire contents of the gospels is weak. Parts of all three Synoptic Gospels undoubtedly relate back to very early oral and written sources. A slim but adequate historical Jesus emerges from these parts.

  • That the three Synoptic Gospels are written to be used in the annual religious liturgical cycle does not invalidate the quest for the Jesus of history. A real man actually lived about whom we know something as a matter of good history. It is upon the real man that Christianity is based.

[1]   See The "Q" Source 

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