Below is a letter from Bishop John Spong trying to help a young man who finds a literal understanding of the Christmas story to no longer be helpful. My comments follow his letter.
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Dear Bishop Spong,
I find Christmas to be a challenge to my faith and have difficulty believing all the events around Jesus’ birth to be literally true. Am I losing my faith? Thank you for any help you can give me.
Thank you for your question, which is perfect for the column that goes out on Christmas Eve. There is no doubt that most people have literalized the images that Matthew and Luke have in their birth stories of Jesus (See Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2), but I do believe it is quite clear that neither Matthew nor Luke thought of them as literal events. The great majority of biblical scholars share that perspective.
The facts are that stars do not travel across the sky so slowly that wise men can keep up with them; angels do not break through the midnight sky to sing to hillside shepherds; and human beings do not follow stars to pay homage to a newborn king of a foreign nation, especially when the same gospel that tells us that Jesus was the son of a carpenter. To continue this train of thought, no real head of state, including King Herod, would deputize eastern magi that he had never seen before to be his CIA to bring him a report of this threat to his throne. Virgins do not conceive except in mythology, of which there were many examples in the Mediterranean world. A man does not take his wife, who is "great with child," on a 94-mile donkey ride from Nazareth to Bethlehem so that the expected messiah can be born in David's city. One lay Roman Catholic woman theologian said of that account, "Only a man who had never had a baby could have written that story!" Kings do not order people to return to their ancestral home for enrolling for taxation. There were 1000 years between David and Joseph, or some 50 generations. David had multiple wives and concubines. In 50 generations, the descendants of David would number in the billions. If they had all returned to Bethlehem, there would be no wonder that there was no room at the inn!
Certainly, both Matthew and Luke were aware that they were using these stories to try to interpret the power of God experienced in the adult life of Jesus of Nazareth. Matthew drew his wise men story out of Isaiah 60, I Kings 10 and Numbers 22-24. He wrapped his interpretation around the well-known story of Moses. That is why he repeated the story of Pharaoh killing the boy babies in Egypt at the time of Moses' birth, transforming it to be a story of Herod killing the boy babies in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus' birth.
What these narratives were designed by the gospel writers to proclaim are:
• Human life could not have produced the presence of God that people believed they had met in Jesus. • The importance of his birth was symbolized by having it announced with heavenly signs, a star in Matthew and angels in Luke. • In the life of Jesus, they believed that heaven and earth had come together and that divinity and humanity had merged. • Messiah for the Jews had many facets. Messiah had to be both a new Moses and the heir to the throne of David. The heir to David was the reason his birth was located in David's place of birth (Bethlehem) instead of in Nazareth, where Jesus was in all probability born. • This Jesus draws the whole world to himself, symbolized in the Gentile Magi as well as the humble lives of the shepherds.
These are the interpretive details of the Christian story. All of them came into the Christian faith only in the 9th decade. None of them is original to the memory of Jesus. Neither Paul nor Mark (the earliest Gospel) had ever heard of them. John, the last gospel to be written, must have known of these birth traditions, but he doesn't include them and, on two occasions, calls Jesus the son of Joseph (see John Chapters 1 and 6). Given these pieces of data, there is no way the authors of the Christmas stories in the Bible thought they were writing literal history. They were interpreting the meaning they found in Jesus. As long as we understand that, I see no reason why we can't sing, "While shepherds watched their flocks by night" or "O, little town of Bethlehem", and other Christmas hymns. Your faith can be robust without being literal.
My suggestion is that you separate mystery from history and then enter into and enjoy the mystery of the season. Dream of Peace on Earth and good will among men and women, and then dedicate yourself to bringing that vision into being. In that way you will understand the intentions of the Gospel writers. John Shelby Spong
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Some who read Spong’s comments may come to the mistaken conclusion that the Christmas stories are not true. The reason for this conclusion is our modern mindset that equates truth with factuality, which arose during the scientific and industrial revolution and which is so very prevalent in our technocratic age. The understanding of truth to the ancient mindset was broader than ours. Our minds have become, to some degree, mono and one dimensional. Take the word “myth” for an example. We have become accustom to equating myth with something that is not true. Yet, the whole purpose of mythological stories is to communicate powerful truths in a symbolic way. Let me ask you this question: Are the stories of the Prodigal Son and Good Samaritan true?
The mind obsessed with factuality would probably say “no” because the Prodigal Son and Good Samaritan were not historical figures. Notice how this thinking would undermine these two powerful parables that contain the truth of God’s forgiveness and compassion and what he expects of his followers.
These Christmas stories contain powerful truth about Jesus, even though one does not have to view them as factually true. The heart of their truth is found in the bullet points above.
Anyone who has studied in a mainstream seminary during the past sixty or more years has been exposed to the scholarship that has led Spong to these conclusions. However, because many pastors are frightened to present this material for fear of being accused of heresy, they have avoided talking or writing about it. Also, pastors want to help people’s faith grow and looking at the Christmas story in this way may discourage some, but to others it is helpful. Those who find this not helpful can disregard it.
When one looks closely at the details surrounding the Infancy Narratives, problems such as those mentioned above arise if one seeks to view them as history in the sense that we have become accustom to viewing history. Some believe that the use of modern scholarship to study scripture leads to a corruption of the text, but nothing could be further from the truth. Modern study of scripture attempts to sort through the historical culture and literary genre in which the scriptures where written to find the true intent of the author. In the case of the Infancy Narratives, the intent of the author was to communicate that in Jesus they found the new Moses, the presence of God, and the promised Messiah within the linage of King David. Their purpose was to communicate this reality to their Jewish audience in language and imagery they would understand. There intent was not to record history as we understand history.
If one seeks to view all of scripture as factually true, the primary object of faith is not God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit; it is the Biblical statements themselves.
With this understanding, the more spectacular the Biblical statement, such as Jonah living in the belly of a whale for three days or a talking snake in the Garden of Eden, the more faith is necessary to believe them. One must be willing to suspend reason to give mental assent to the historicity of these stories. This may work for some people, but for others it is a problem. Many young people and adults leaving the church today do so because they can no longer perform the mental gymnastics necessary to believe these stories to be literally true and, not having other options, they leave the church. Most continue their spiritual journeys, but look elsewhere for traveling companions. If they knew there were other options to understand these stories, such as viewing them as parabolic narratives or symbolically or metaphorically, they would be more willing to stay. The worst thing for them is to be perceived as loosing their faith, or worse, heretics, when in reality, they are moving to a different level of faith, which should be welcomed and embrace.
The object of our belief should not be the Biblical text, but the Risen Christ himself. We profess that the same Christ that was experienced by members of the early church and who inspired the scriptures they wrote, is experience in our hearts and church today. The central issue they wished to communicate in the Infancy Narratives was that the crucified Jesus of Nazareth was the promised Messiah. In Matthew’s Infancy Narrative, Jesus is seen as the new Moses who will later in his Gospel ascend the mountain again and deliver, not the Ten Commandments, but the Sermon on the Mount. In the same way Pharaoh attempted to kill Moses in the slaughter of the innocents in the Old Testament, Matthew has Herod slaughtering babies in an attempt to kill Jesus in the New Testament. To the Jewish audience, the symbolism was clear, Jesus is the new Moses. That was the central issue of faith for Matthew, not the historicity of the slaughter of the innocents.
If one studies the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, they must understand it as having occurred within the context of the Civil War, which was raging during that time because of slavery. Without the context of legalized slavery and what it had done to our country, the historical event of Lincoln’s assassination is not properly understood. Similarly, it is impossible to properly understand the original intent of the Biblical authors unless one first understands the cultural situations in which they lived. One must also understand the literary genre in which the scriptures were written and that the intent of the authors was to interpret their experience of Christ in a way that their Jewish audiences would understand and illicit their belief.
The Good News is that the same Christ who inspired the authors of the Infancy Narratives speaks to our hearts today. My experience is that he is indeed the Light of the World, the Word made Flesh, and Emmanuel – God with us! This faith is the result, not of believing in the Bible, but is born from an encounter with the living Jesus, whom I met through the Bible. Historical statements do not transform people, but an encounter with the Living Christ does. The scriptures continually confront us with the living Christ who beckons us to believe. We are called to look through the printed word to the spiritual reality that Jesus lives today in our hearts and in his church. In this sense, the scriptures are a finger pointing to Jesus, but the finger is not Jesus. I think this is what Luther meant when he said the Bible is a manger that contains the living Christ. The point is the Living Christ, not the manger. We must be careful not to make the manger into an idol.
In light of all this, read again the words of a favorite Advent hymn:
Oh, Come, Oh, Come Emmanuel
Jesus is the new Moses to lead Israel out of the bondage of Pharaoh:
Oh, come, oh, come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!
Jesus is the Wisdom of God:
Oh, come, our Wisdom from on high,
Who ordered all things mightily;
To us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!
Jesus is the New Moses:
Oh, come, oh, come, our Lord of might,
Who to your tribes on Sinai's height
In ancient times gave holy law,
In cloud and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!
Jesus is the Messiah in the linage of King David:
Oh, come, O Key of David, come,
And open wide our heav'nly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!
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For further reflection:
From a God of Violence to the Prince of Peace
False Assumptions about the World
For millennia human beings viewed the earth as the center of the universe. They watched the sun rise in the east and set in the west. Through observation it was evident that the sun, moon and stars were moving around the earth. When Galileo Galilei published his observations of a sun-centered rather than earth-centered universe, he was summoned to Rome, accused of heresy and forbidden to teach. He was put under house arrest from 1634 to when he died in 1642. Galileo’s world-view, although correct, violated the traditional world-view and he was silenced. The church’s concern was not for truth; rather, it was attempting to protect the scriptures which state that the sun revolves around the earth. And, because the Bible was perceived as God’s inerrant word, they saw themselves as protecting God himself.
This illustration shows how difficult it is for humans to change their assumptions. It is easy to point fingers at the church and accuse its leaders of ignorance and of stifling science, yet today we may hold assumptions future generations may consider primitive. We are products of our environment, yet tend to proclaim the lens through which we view the world as infallible. Changing our lens is very difficult. It was only twenty five years ago that the Catholic Church officially lifted its condemnation of Galileo.
A God of Violence?
Most of us would hold that God is a God of love and not violence; yet we embrace without question that God sent his only Son to die for the sins of the world. This statement presumes a violent God requiring the blood of his Son to satisfy his wrath—not a pretty picture of God. Is the nature of God violent? People who receive an inadequate answer to this question often drift away from Christianity because they refuse to embrace a God of violence.
Jewish Blood Sacrifice
We are spiritually more Jewish than we realize. The requirement of blood sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins comes from the Old Testament. It was not enough for Jewish people 2500 years ago to ask God for forgiveness. They had to show they were serious, which was symbolized in the sacrifice of one of their animals. They couldn’t sacrifice a crippled animal or one near death. It had to be unblemished and a true sacrifice for the owner. They noticed the more blood they took from an animal the less life it possessed, so blood came to symbolize the life force of the animal. The ritual of sacrifice required the blood to be poured out on the altar. This blood sacrifice was understood to please God and his forgiveness was granted. So, we have inherited the concept of God requiring blood in order to forgive from Judaism.
The scripture, “God sent his only Son to die for the sins of the world” and others like it were originally written by Jewish Christians and addressed to Jewish Christians to point out how significant Jesus was to their lives and convince them to embrace him in faith. They realized that because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross they no longer needed to sacrifice animals in the temple for the forgiveness of their sins. Thankfully, for Jewish Christians and everyone else, the death and resurrection of Christ brought an end to this understanding of a violent God in need of blood sacrifice.
There are several images of the atonement, i.e., the understanding of why Christ was crucified. The emphasis on blood sacrifice is especially seen in the “Substitutionary Image” but there are other very valid understandings that do not presume a God of violence. A brief description of each follows.
This image states that humanity deserved God’s wrath because of sin but he sent his Son to substitute for us and receive God’s punishment by shedding his blood on the cross. Jesus was the unblemished lamb of God who shed his blood for the sins of the world. As I mentioned, this image is the oldest and comes from Christianity’s Jewish roots and presumes that God required blood sacrifice in order to forgive. Here we see a very violent God who needed to release his wrath and did so on his Son. This is not the God most of us have come to experience or the loving God we see revealed on the pages of the New Testament in the life of Jesus. The God revealed in the Old Testament and the God revealed in the New Testament seem to be radically different.
Substitutionary atonement and the understanding of a violent God is built upon predestination which states that God is all knowing, therefore, not only did God predestined his Son to be crucified, but also predestined all other evil in the world. Predestination imposes upon God a nature of violence which is in conflict with the New Testament understanding of God where we read:
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. I John 4: 7-8
Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him. Matthew 7: 9-11
Luther tried to reconcile the conflicting images of a God of violence and love by dismissing predestination and said we need to be content to live with mystery. We also have to live with substitutionary atonement because it’s in many of our hymns and some of our liturgy.
Violent God - Violent People
Another problem substitutionary atonement creates is the issue of the divinization of violence. When God is perceived as inherently violent and requiring violent acts, violence then becomes an acceptable human behavior.
Perhaps it will be necessary to exonerate God from violence before humans will be able to find a way to lasting peace. (For more information about this see The Non-Violent Atonement by Denny Weaver.)
Thankfully, we have other ways of understanding the purpose of Christ’s death and resurrection.
In this image, we see that Jesus’ death and resurrection freed people from having to pay for forgiveness through the temple sacrifice system. Remember Jesus’ cleansing of the temple when he was upset at poor people being ripped off by the money changers and the temple being turned into a den of thieves? This was one of the reasons why Jewish authorities wanted him killed—he confronted their oppression of the poor and their lucrative money changing business. Yet, in having him killed, they unknowingly brought the end of the temple sacrifice system for Jewish Christians who then found forgiveness through Christ. In this image of atonement, Jesus set people free from their bondage to the temple sacrifice system and he continues to set people free today from any other system that holds them in bondage.
(Christ as Conqueror)
This image states that humanity was destined for the grave, but Jesus’ death and resurrection triumphed over death itself, enabling us to be made alive with Christ. Christ’s death and resurrection showed the world that our lives continue beyond the grave. The emphasis here is not on his death but his resurrection.
In this image, Jesus’ self-giving life teaches us how to live. It teaches us that love involves sacrifice. We are to imitate Jesus’ example of selfless love and compassion for others in the face of strong opposition and even death.
In this image, the resurrection of Christ begins a new creation. As we follow Christ’s example of sacrificial love, we contribute toward the new creation which God began through the sacrificial love of Christ and by raising him from the dead. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! II Corinthians 5:17 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. Galatians 2:20 When we were baptized in Christ Jesus, we were baptized into his death. We were buried therefore with him by baptism so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live a new life. (From the funeral rite) God’s new creation begins in us with baptism and continues throughout our lives as we follow Christ.
Power in Weakness
When Jesus submitted to crucifixion he showed us that strength comes through weakness. This image states the paradox that God’s power is perfected in us when we are weak. My grace is sufficient for you for my power is made perfect in weakness. II Corinthians 12:9
The last five images do not imply that God is violent, willed his Son’s death or vented his wrath on his Son. With these images, rather than sending his Son to die, God sent his Son to love. As Christ lived his life of love and compassion, he encountered evil but would not stop. Evil killed him and God wept. One can hold that God is a God of violence and predestined his Son to die on the cross, but it’s not necessary. Like Luther, we can be content with mystery and leave the question of predestination and why evil occurs in the unknown mind of God.
The Richness of Multiple Understandings of the Atonement
When I have the privilege to stand at the altar and say, “Take and drink, this is the cup of my blood to be given for you and for all for the forgiveness of sins”, it includes forgiveness but also freedom from oppression (anti-temple sacrifice), victory over death (Christus Victor), an example of self-giving and becoming instrument of God’s new creation (Moral Influence & New Creation), and shows that in our weakness we are strong (Power in Weakness). This is why I appreciate the ELCA. It has a tent large enough to accommodate other images of God and a deeper and richer appreciation of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Christmas and the Prince of Peace
When we look at the baby in the crib we see God’s love made incarnate. Jesus, the Prince of Peace changed our views and assumptions by revealing a nonviolent God. He walked into evil and refused to use violence. His life continues today through his followers. But, like the church during the time of Galileo, changing our assumptions and expanding our views are not easy.
Which God do we recognize? A God of violence, a God of peace, or both? As we celebrate Christmas we celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace.
A child has been born for us. We have been given a son who will be our ruler. His names will be Wonderful Counselor and Mighty God, Eternal Father and Prince of Peace. Isaiah 9:6