CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

I ended Part 3 of this Round with the conclusion: "When the only clear development in a proposed series of accretion, across three (not even four) sets of the data, is something this minor, legendary accretion theory as a primary explanation for the material is toast."

So why does Bishop Spong think otherwise?

Briefly put: he focuses pretty simply on some (not all) apparent things, without really going into the details, and without considering alternate hypotheses.

His case, as might be expected, looks 'strongest' (in a simplistically uncritical fashion) when moving 'from' GosMark 'to' GosMatt, simply because there's obviously more 'stuff' in GosMatt. He lists the data in these two texts well enough (though still not quite as extensively as I did in Part 2), but he doesn't bother to talk about differences in any detail (as I did). If any reader, unfamiliar with the material, happens to wonder just how presenting Iscariot in a pitiably sympathetic tragic light is supposed to be a development of the villainy of a purely fictional character whose only (or at least chief) reason for existence at all is (supposedly) to help Jewish Christians hate Jews and Judaism, they will receive no help from Bishop Spong (in this chapter anyway) as to how this counts as evidence for his theory. The mere existence of the material is presented and adduced as though its existence is all that is required, or counts, for evidence.

(To be fair, I am curious whether Bishop Spong addresses the tragically sympathetic portrait of the penitent traitor in his subsequent chapter of The Sins of Scripture; I don't have access to all its material yet. But Bishop Spong's own proposed topical scope for the chapter doesn't look promising, and such a discussion of this element in relation to his theory attempt isn't found in what material I do have access to. Anyone with more information about the subsequent chapter material, particularly in regard to this element, is certainly welcome to post it in a comment!)

Also, Bishop Spong tries to adduce evidence of accretion that has exactly nothing to do with details about Iscariot per se: specifically, the cutting off of the high priest’s ear. Now, this is an example of something that might be legendary accretion. It starts out as X in GosMark, and is X again with an added interesting detail in GosMatt. But then Bishop Spong neglects to mention that while GosLuke includes one more important and highly interesting detail (healing the ear) and one more irrelevant detail (asking Jesus if they should strike), the account loses almost all of Jesus’ rebuke to the disciples. (This is the part Bishop Spong neglects to mention.) Whereas GosJohn, while specifying who does the striking (Simon Peter) and the name of the slave (Malchus), has a completely different rebuke (longer than Luke’s, much shorter than Matt’s), and loses the healing again. So even this falters, on closer examination, being an especially clear example of legendary accretion per se. (Besides which Bishop Spong never mentions that the result of simply reporting more historical detail than before could easily be indistinguishable from the results of carefully inventive legendary accretion.)

But even if the incident with the slave’s ear might be legendary accretion (at least from GosMark to GosMatt, if not farther), most of the Iscariot material (even involving the explanation about Satan’s influence) looks less like accretion, on close examination, than that incident does! Which is my guess for why Bishop Spong includes it, even though it isn’t technically about Iscariot at all.

To be blunt: either Bishop Spong isn’t interested in fully assessing the details, even when he manages to report them, and/or he simply isn’t capable of doing so; or else he’s playing a shell game. And, unfortunately, there is some evidence of the latter--especially when he begins trying to extend the evidence set for his theory into GosLuke and GosJohn.

For example: he mentions GosLuke’s detail of the chief priests and scribes wanting to lay hands on Jesus (not Luke’s wording, by the way), without mentioning that this detail doesn’t materially change from GosMatt (where the wording is exactly identical to GosMark, “to seize Jesus by stealth and kill”, “plotting” to do this in one case, “seeking” in the other--only Caiaphas’ name and house is added as a detail in GosMatt for where the plotters seek); he tries to claim that the wording is stronger in GosLuke when arguably it’s weaker (“seeking how they might put Him to death” vs. “plotting/seeking to seize Jesus by stealth and kill” from the previous two Gospels); he mentions fear of Jesus’ popularity with the people as though it's a new detail in GosLuke, without mentioning that back in GosMark and GosMatt there was fear of the people, too (“not during the feast, lest a riot ensues!”); and he doesn’t bother to mention that this detail drops back out again (insofar as Iscariot material per se is concerned) in GosJohn. (The Sanhedrin’s worry about the crowds rioting is earlier in GosJohn, at no direct connection to Judas Iscariot who never is shown plotting with them in GosJohn; and the Sanhedrin is more specifically concerned about the threat of Jesus starting a coup that would then be crushed by Rome.)

Or again: Bishop Spong presents Judas being introduced in GosLuke against the background of the chief priests and scribes wanting to kill Jesus as though this is different (it isn’t); and as though it’s a new detail for the leaders to send spies pretending to be righteous to entrap Him, which isn’t a new detail either: this detail and the one reported attempt, where the spies pretend to be Herodians, are both found in both GosMatt and GosMark, too. There is no accretion here at all!--the details are exactly the same, with irrelevantly minor wording differences, as in the other two Synoptics!

Or again: Bishop Spong presents Judas’ plan to hand over Jesus away from the crowds, in GosLuke, as though it’s an entirely new detail (like the explanation about Satan leading Judas to strike the deal with the Sanhedrin.) But this concern is in fact a detail of all four Gospels; it just isn’t specifically said about Judas in any of the others (including GosJohn). It is, however, specifically said to be a concern of the Sanhedrin in Synoptic material which Bishop Spong has already mentioned.

While we’re on this point, Bishop Spong thinks the plan to hand over Jesus apart from the crowd is “a rather weak explanation.” If so, it’s a rather weak explanation characteristic of all four Gospels, not just introduced in GosLuke! But the timing issue should have been obvious enough to anyone who has seriously studied the material: if you’re an unpopular group of religious leaders who have just recently decided (again, after being flamed publicly by Jesus in the Temple disputes) that Jesus is a danger to be eliminated, YOU DON’T TRY TO DO IT AT PASSOVER when the crowds are hoping a Messianic prophet will arise to lead them to military victory over their oppressors. (Especially if, per GosJohn, you don’t think he’ll win but will lead to zorching by Rome instead.) It isn’t a question of “following Jesus at night and discovering where he slept apart from the crowd” (which per a harmonization timing of GosJohn and the Synoptics they only had one night to try anyway--less than that, if the Synoptics are strictly stuck with! The night of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus was holding a secret seder somewhere first.) It’s a question of letting the holiday get by and then doing it some other time. Sure, if you could manage to get it mostly done before the general population knows what’s happening, they’ll see God isn’t showing up to save him, and then the crowd will be on your side instead (or, if not exactly on your side, at least they’ll hate Jesus just as much as a false Messiah). But the Sanhedrin knows Jesus has no intention of rebelling against Rome, or anyway they’re unsure if that’s really his plan. Leave Judas in place, and pick Jesus up later; unless of course he looks for sure like he’s going to--OMG JESUS IS HOLDING A SEDER EARLY LIKE HE’S EXPECTING A BATTLE TOMORROW AND WORSE HE KNOWS JUDAS IS A TRAITOR ALREADY!! We’ve got to start moving NOW or all is lost!! (But first we’ve got to get Rome in on this, so our own butts are protected... Plus other rituals for that day are happening, so it takes some time to even get enough conspirators together to get hold of Pilate, hire or assign a mob for arrest that they can trust not to go rebel on them, make plans to meet for an informal pre-trial emergency meeting that night after the rituals when no one will suspect their absence, etc.)

It isn’t a weak explanation, except insofar as it highlights how precariously weak the Sanhedrin thought their position between Rome and the populace was.

True, what they did could have been accomplished without Iscariot’s assistance, if they knew for sure where Jesus would be going that very night. And they could have fairly easily known already. But that wasn’t the point of hiring Judas; the point was to keep getting good information about where Jesus would be later after Passover, and to meanwhile keep tabs on whether Jesus was really going to try starting a rebellion in Jerusalem that holiday or not. Up until the early seder service, (and whatever hint Judas got out of it concerning what Jesus somehow seemed to know about a traitor in the group) the resolution of the chief priests to kill Jesus after His flaming of them during the Temple disputes, is pretty much consistent with any prior resolutions or desires to kill Him in the material (harmonized or otherwise, Synoptic or Johannine): they’ll get around to it later. Someday. When it’s safe. (And meanwhile they’ll seek to completely undo Him or “destroy” Him in the eyes of the people.)

What’s mainly worth noting, is that Bishop Spong has to ignore a bunch of information to make it look as though GosLuke counts as “growing” the story of Judas. Most of what he mentions doesn’t count as “growing” (because it shows up in the earlier Gospels, too); and he just kinda forgets to mention that, oh, yeah, the most blatantly obvious piece of “growth” from GosMatt is now totally missing.

Amusingly, Bishop Spong tries to cover this omission by saying that in Acts Luke “adds” that it was Judas rather than the Jewish authorities who bought the Potter’s field. This is more properly called “changing”, if anything, not “adding”. (Historically it could be called “an understandable mistake made by Peter and/or Luke” instead.) I would say it rather papers over the vast differences between the Matthean and Lukan material on this point, except that Bishop Spong mentions this, too, when he thinks it looks impressive (merely by mentioning it). But whatever “quite specifically contradicting the hanging account” (as he puts it) may mean, it cannot and doesn't count as evidence of legendary accretion per se. If Judas had only hanged himself in GosMatt and then in the Lucan material he had hanged himself and also then fell bursting himself wide open, that might count as legendary accretion. Or it might be an extra historical detail that Matt didn’t include for whatever reason. The only thing Bishop Spong sees as important, though, is the bowel gushing being “a rather more gross way to die than simply hanging”. “The story obviously was still growing” he concludes. Yeah!--except for all those parts where it was shrinking or totally changing or staying the same or whatever.

The GosJohn author “paints Judas with an even more sinister brush”, according to Bishop Spong. How so?

Judas was really a thief! (Admittedly, that’s more sinister in a way, I guess, although to me stealing from the charity bag seems more pitiably evil than sinister, compared to handing over Jesus to be tortured to death.)

Judas was filled by a satanic spirit! (uh... that’s more sinister than Satan entering into him back in GosLuke?)

Judas is never shown conspiring with the Sanhedrin in any way, unlike all three previous Gospels! (Whoops--that doesn't sound more sinister. Better ignore that textual detail then.)

Jesus honors Iscariot by handing him the sop at the table!--the other apostles wonder which honorable deed Iscariot is leaving to go do on Jesus’ orders! (Oh, wait, that doesn’t sound more sinister, although it does sound dramatically ironic. But Bishop Spong needs “more sinister”, so some of those details are conveniently ignored.)

It was night when Judas leaves! (And night when he shows back up again, in all four Gospels. How sinister-er! But I'll grant, mentioning this adds dramatically to the departure of Judas, as I myself do at the end of my harmonization chapter here. It should be noted that if GosJohn is ignored, Judas still had to have left the group even later that night.)

When Judas shows back up at Gethsemene, he doesn’t try to do anything to Jesus but just stands there with the arresting group whom Jesus then proceeds to scare the crap out of in an unbearably cool fashion! (dang, wait, that doesn’t sound more sinister of Judas... good thing Bishop Spong ignores that detail, then.)

He shows up with armed soldiers in the mob! (Yeah, that’s actually sinister-er, in a way. As long as Bishop Spong ignores why armed soldiers might in fact be there in real history, which would be to keep things from getting too rowdy at an especially volatile time. Which he does, in fact, ignore.)

Judas does nothing else in GosJohn after just standing there waiting for the arrest to be complete! (agh, no, that doesn’t sound more sinister again; which may explain why Bishop Spong doesn’t mention this. But yeesh, there has to be something else he can come up with...)

Peter is the one who fights back with a sword, cutting off the ear of the servant of the high priest! (Yeah! Naming Peter as the guy who did that deed reported in the other three Gospels will “paint Judas with an even more sinister brush!” Heck, I’m surprised Bishop Spong doesn’t mention that that Jesus goes back to not healing the slave’s ear (as GosLuke had managed to come up with), as a way of painting Iscariot “with an even more sinister brush” in GosJohn.)

There’s a little rampup of sinisterosity to note in GosJohn; but relatively very little. It should be obvious that the “John” who is most concerned to be painting Judas Iscariot with “an even more sinister brush” in GosJohn is (ironically) John Shelby Spong.

(This is aside from an interesting speculation, only available from GosJohn material, about a disciple--not named as the Beloved Disciple, in the midst of a bunch of Beloved Disciple material--who follows the arresting party from Gethsemene and gets Simon Peter into the courtyard of the Annas family compound in Jerusalem. Really, we know of only one disciple for sure who was both there at the arrest and who would surely be able to accomplish that if anyone could; and certainly there is only one character in GosJohn who clearly fits this criteria: Judas Iscariot! But that’s only an interesting speculation; I know better than to hang anything on it.)

“The distinctions are fascinating!” Bishop Spong gushes. I agree; but he has barely covered the distinctions: only enough (and rather misleadingly so) to make it seem as though “clearly the story was evolving”. “The whole story of Judas has the feeling of being contrived.” Well, someone is contriving some feelings concerning the whole story of Judas; I’ll give him that.

To recap this round: the “easily identifiable, documentable facts” are the textual characteristics I have gone to a lot of trouble to detail, in each of their marked paragraphs during this Round (with discussion after each of them: GosMark and GosMatt in Part 2; GosLuke, Acts and GosJohn in Part 3.)

The speculative theory, which does not in fact fit the facts very well (unless the facts are shortshifted and twisted around quite a bit), is that the Judas account grows in some kind of progressive way indicative of legendary accretion as the primary means of its growth. (Not that Bishop Spong ever uses the term “legendary accretion”, but this is clearly what he’s thinking about: the story is supposedly “evolving” as “each phase enters the tradition”.)

And this is completely aside from noting that if any of many scholars across the ideological board are correct about the popularized composition order used by Bishop Spong being wrong (Mark, Matt, Luke, Acts, John), his theory of legendary accretion might be even more toasted than it already is. As familiar with the details as I am, I have a hard time imagining that any other compositional order will look more like legendary accretion of the Judas story.

This probably is the best order--from which to rather shallowly squint an impression of legendary development in the story of Judas Iscariot.

[Next time, Round Four: how midnight makes Judas Iscariot seem suspiciously fictional. Or not, as the case may be.]


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