JRP vs. Bishop Spong vs. Judas Iscariot: Round Five (4 of 4)

In Parts 2 and 3 of this Round, I demonstrated that the actual data of the texts does not indicate the authors were using the name "Jud-", including with Judas Iscariot, to heap derision on orthodox Judaism; that there is no clear progression across the texts of exonerating Pilate while blaming the Jewish religious authorities; and (most problematic of all, perhaps), that Bishop Spong himself has less than no problem admitting that there was a fatal rejection of Jesus and his teaching (even on Bishop Spong's theologically truncated notion of Jesus' teaching) by the mainstream Jewish authorities of his day: a rejection leading to Jesus' death at the hands of the Romans via the Sanhedrin. Which admission of historical accuracy, radically undermines Bishop Spong's theory for the reason why the authors would invent a fictional character of 'Judas Iscariot', in order to promote rejection of orthodox Judaism among Jewish Christians.

There is, of course, the much larger question of to what extent the Gospels (and other New Testament documents) are anti-Jewish, in the sense of not only distinguishing their religious beliefs from mainline Judaism but of outright opposing the mainline religious beliefs. Whether in the Gospels or the Epistles (or RevJohn, for that matter), this distinction is always focused on the honor, attributes, deeds, authority and character of Jesus of Nazareth. Even where there are distinctions in how Christians relate to the Law, these distinctions still focus, sooner or later, on the central importance of Jesus of Nazareth. This is similarly true in how the Gospels present Jesus presenting himself (or Himself rather), to His followers, to His opponents, and to people just around Him at any given time.

This much larger and more complex discussion is well worth having--and is far too large (and complex) to try to reason about in detail at the tail end of an already-extensive critical analysis of one relatively small theory.

But, what can said about this larger body of data and reasoning, in relation to Bishop Spong’s theory about Judas Iscariot, is this:

The term “the Jews” hardly ever occurs in GosMark, where Bishop Spong would have this process begin; and when it does, it almost always concerns Pontius Pilate taunting the accusers of Jesus with Jesus being “the king of the Jews”. (The one exception being an explanation by the Markan author to his audience of how “the Pharisees and all the Jews” wash themselves.) The term has only one really important usage, and the thrust of the narrative irony is that Jesus really is king of the Jews: rejected by the Jewish leaders, yes, but still sacrificing Himself as King of the Jews. (Even as YHWH, the Jewish God, promoted constantly throughout the text as the highest and only true God.)

GosMatt and GosLuke follow suit, in the same proportions. The term usage is almost entirely restricted to the irony of Jesus sacrificing Himself as the true and highest king of the Jews. One outlying data point is the end of GosMatt’s tomb-guard story, where the author explains that the story of disciples stealing the body has been spread “among the Jews” “to this day” (the time of his composition). But the crime is still centered on the chief priests misleading the Jewish people, not on the Jewish people per se. Even in GosMatt’s notorious “his blood be on us and on our children” declaration, the nation itself is not in view, except in Pilate’s taunt to the accusers of Jesus. Had the author been primarily interested in calumniating the Jewish people per se, he could have tweaked that around far more directly.

The term “the Jews”, even in a oppositional fashion, is pretty rare up until GosJohn. Yet Bishop Spong would have us believe that Iscariot was named “Judas” solely out of the sheer importance of this term being the name of the whole Jewish people. And this doesn’t even count the number of times in the Synoptics (and Acts) when Judaism and Jews are complimented and promoted for acceptance by the audience of the Gospels.

GosJohn, at the tail end of Bishop Spong’s supposed development arc, has a lot of references to “the Jews” of course. But aside from noticing, once again, that the negative reference usages of this term tend to be aimed at Jewish leaders (in narrative context), this is also the text with the most overtly positive references to Judaism and Jesus’ respect of, and connection to, Judaism. (Not that these are missing in the Synoptics, though.)

Indeed, here in what should (on Bishop Spong’s theory) be the highest development of calumny against Jews and Judaism, Jesus Himself strongly declares in distinguishing Himself with “the Jews” compared to someone (the Samaritan woman) whom devout Jews did not consider Jewish (though she would have considered herself Jewish, a tension present in the text and in fact a tension which Jesus is directly addressing): “You are worshiping that of which you are not aware; but we [Jews] are worshiping that of which we are aware: for salvation is of the Jews.”

True, Jesus’ inclusiveness is also on display in exactly this place (4:21, 24): a time will come when neither in Jerusalem nor at the Samaritan temple will people be worshiping the Father; “the hour is coming, and even now is, when the true worshipers will be worshiping the Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father is also seeking such to be worshiping Him.” But this inclusiveness is explicitly presented in a way that is the very reverse of being anti-Jewish.

My point is that Bishop Spong ties his (supposed) development of Judas’ infamy to a (supposed) development of Christian anti-Judaism in the Gospel texts; but not only does the ‘development’ of Judas’ infamy turn out to be very unclear (as noted in my Round Three comments), but the actual textual evidence doesn’t clearly fit a parallel ‘development’ of anti-Judaism either. (To give yet another of many examples: GosJohn also happens to be the text that features the most overt support for Jesus among the chief priests and Pharisees! And not only by adding mention of Nicodemus, either; there's a lot more support going on in GosJohn than that.)

Now, granted, people who for whatever reason are inclined to be hateful to Jews (as religious competitors or as social scapegoats or whatever), can rather simplistically and uncritically mine the Gospels for prooftexts to support their stances. (They could do the same from the Old Testament, too, on much the same process!) But Bishop Spong in effect does this same uncritical and simplistic fundamentalistic mining, except in reverse!--namely, for purposes of calumniating Christians. (When he himself isn’t busy calumniating the scripturally devout Jews and Judaism of both Jesus’ day and today, above and beyond calumniating the same criminal corruption and uncharitable attitudes in the Jewish religious hierarchy which Jesus is represented in the Gospels as fulminating against.)

So, to recap: Judas Iscariot’s name, as a textual characteristic, is indeed an easily identifiable, documentable fact.

There are, however, many other documentable facts about those textual characteristics, some easily identifiable, some needing a little actual scholarly work to suss out, which together completely sink the suspicious innuendo Bishop Spong tries to attach, against the authors of the texts, to the existence of the name of Judas Iscariot. Judas’ name is not treated as the very name of the Jewish nation in the Gospels (or anywhere else in the New Testament, either): a supposed point leaned heavily on by Bishop Spong when trying to make the use of one of the commonest and most popular names in 1st century Palestine seem “too convenient” and so actually a coded attempt at “placing the blame for Jesus’ death on the whole of orthodox Judaism”. Nor do the Gospels ever blame the-whole-of-orthodox-Judaism-per-se for Jesus’ death. One Gospel (GosMatt) could be (and has been conveniently) read as meaning that all the Jewish people called the blame down on themselves and their descendants; but aside from such a conclusion not being tenable from a close examination of the text (though Christians are admittedly the ones to blame if they appeal to this text without critical faculty for their ideological purposes), the easily identifiable and documentable fact is that this statement completely disappears from what Bishop Spong considers the next two ‘developments’ of the Gospel story.

The Gospel narratives do blame the corrupt religious authorities and stubborn-hearted Jewish religious figures for Jesus’ death; but then, so does John Shelby Spong. Except here, where (perhaps only incidentally??) admitting that this is a historical detail he himself accepts would totally destroy the impression he’s trying to build, that such a concept was invented by Christians several decades later. Nor do the Gospels go out of their way to exonerate Pilate, although one of them reports Pilate trying (very unsuccessfully) to symbolically exonerate himself.

Does it surprise anyone by now, that at the beginning of his subsequent chapter, John Shelby Spong asks his readers to “set aside your critical judgment” and just henceforth “assume” that his theory about the invention (and motivation for the invention) of Judas Iscariot and his treachery is true?

I cannot say, however, that I would recommend that course of action. Nor can I recommend this chapter from The Sins of Scripture as being well-reasoned, good scholarship, or even worth anyone's time reading.


Jason Pratt said…
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