JRP vs. Bishop Spong vs. Judas Iscariot: Round Five (3 of 4)

Click here for Part 2 of this Round, where I cross-check Bishop Spong's theory about "Judas" being a codename used for denigrating orthodox Judaism in the eyes of the Jewish Christian audience of the Gospels, with actual textual details. (Readers can follow links back to the beginning of this Round, and of this series of analysis, too.)

In an attempt to make this theory sound like it has a shred of credence, Bishop Spong writes:

“The leaders of the orthodox party of that nation, who defined the worship of the Jews, were by the time the gospels were written increasingly the enemy of the Christian movement. It is simply too convenient to place the blame for Jesus' death on the whole of orthodox Judaism by linking the traitor by name with the entire nation of the Jews. […] The Romans killed Jesus, but by the eighth decade of the Christian era, when the story of Jesus was being written, something compelled the gospel writers to exonerate the Roman procurator, Pilate, and to blame the Jews. That was when Judas the traitor, identified as one of the twelve, entered the tradition.”

(Don’t worry, I’ll be discussing that ellipsed bit, too, later.)

Let’s set aside (as Bishop Spong does, for whatever reason) the obvious fact that in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (which Bishop Spong accepts as genuine and as written at least 5 to 10 years before GosMark, on his dating, maybe moreso), the Romans (either as a people or as a government) are not blamed for the death of Jesus, while Paul is warning his Gentile readers that they’d better not be dissing their Jewish brethren for rejecting Christ, because God still loves the Jews, even the ones who have stumbled over Christ, and will be saving them, too, in the end--and in fact Gentiles are being grafted into the promises of Israel, while Gentiles should not be surprised if Jews make even better Christians than Gentiles do.

But, pretending this is irrelevant, and setting it aside: Bishop Spong’s paragraph only makes sense as meaning, or trying to mean, that Christians invented orthodox Judaism’s rejection of Jesus, roughly 40 years after Rome (the real culprits) slew Jesus, apparently in revenge for orthodox Judaism increasingly rejecting Christianity roughly 40 years after Rome (the real culprits) slew Jesus. And so, needing someone to shift blame from the Romans (the actual culprits, per Bishop Spong) to the Jews, somebody invented a traitor among Jesus’ own disciples, whom no Christian had ever heard of before his invention but who every Christian just kind of accepted anyway (um... okay, maybe ignore that detail) as someone who Jesus Himself had personally chosen for the highest Christian ranking under Him in authority, and named this traitor Judas (after the very name of the Jewish nation never once used as such in any of the Gospels... uh, wait, ignore that detail.) And then made up some other name for him that nobody today can figure out for sure what it means. (But for which theories are practically never connected to Christian anti-Jewish persecution... okay, ignoring that, too, then.)

Doesn’t this plan seem just a little vague?

I mean, if Christian authors are going to authoritatively invent opposition to Jesus from orthodox Jewish authority, and cleverly codify this opposition as “Judas Whasiwhosis”, why not invent obvious opposition to Jesus from orthodox Jewish authority and put that in the story instead? Wouldn’t that seem more efficient? Why restrict it to this guy whom no one (per this theory) has ever heard of before (unlike Peter, John, etc.) but who was supposed to be a high ranking member of the--?

Wait: all four Gospel texts are absolutely crawling with opposition to Jesus from orthodox Jewish authority? Vastly much moreso compared to the few references to Iscariot in any of the texts?! In fact, in one text, Iscariot actually turns around and rejects the danged authorities who are in the process of ensuring Jesus’ death because even he thinks Jesus is innocent!!?

Why in God’s name, then, would some author need a fictional 'Judas Iscariot' for this purpose!!?!

John Shelby Spong does not bother to answer or even to consider this question. (Not in this chapter anyway; there is a subsequent chapter which I don’t have full access to. This would have been a good chapter to do it in, though, I think, since he overtly begins the next chapter by alerting the reader his rationale for his position is finished.)

It gets even better, though; because sometime between writing The Sins of Scripture and writing Resurrection: Myth or Reality? (check back through the link-trail to discover or remember why this book would be important to the discussion), Bishop Spong appears, at a casual glance, to utterly and completely change his mind on this topic. Because in that book, Bishop Spong has less than no problem at all believing that the orthodox Jewish authorities of Jesus’ day saw Jesus as a threat to be eliminated by turning Him over to the Romans for execution. Because they were a bunch of persecuting religious hypocrite authorities, etc. What else would be expected of them, but to oppose the nice Jesus of Nazareth who spent much of His (or rather his) ministry opposing their nasty religious bigotries and empty ceremonialisms and such?

And yet, it gets even better again. Because later in The Sins of Scripture itself, John Shelby Spong basically puts Jesus--the historical Jesus that Bishop Spong himself believes in, admires and follows as a leader (sort of; well as a teacher anyway)--in opposition not only to the corrupt religious leadership of that day, but to the mainstream Judaism of that day, represented by the Pharisees and by the religious authority of the Hebrew Scriptures, against which Bishop Spong spends much of The Sins of Scripture fulminating--because, unlike Jesus, those authorities hadn’t “escaped the boundaries of the Torah”. And so they considered Jesus a threat they had to... well... get rid of. To put it politely. Ahem.

“Would we welcome such a god?” Bishop Spong rhetorically asks. “Or would we kill this deity because the threat we perceived at the divine hand was still intolerable to our security?”

He isn’t challenging us by putting us into the place of the Romans, here. In fact, there isn’t much reason for the Romans to have killed Bishop Spong’s Jesus at all; he wasn’t leading a military revolution, wasn’t making a royal authority claim they would have taken seriously, and was (apparently, per Bishop Spong’s reading) advocating the kind of acceptance of all people and freedom beyond religion that would fit quite well enough into the Imperial Pax Romana: “rolling on past the limiting tendencies of gender and race, sexual orientation and religion, until one human community comes into our vision”. Such a person might be annoyed or grieved over the technical tyranny of the Emperor and/or over the expansionist military tendencies of Rome (to bring that same Pax Romana to all people), but Rome wouldn’t be likely to kill them over it as a traitor to the Empire.

So, perhaps this is why Bishop Spong eventually changed his mind and decided that Jesus was going up against orthodox Jewish authority all the time, until the orthodox Jewish authorities put Jesus out of the picture by getting him crucified by Rome somehow; which he eventually puts into his book on the Resurrection?

Uh, no: you see, Sins of the Scripture was written in 2005. That other book, where Bishop Spong spends so much time talking about Jesus being a threat to the religious authority of his day?--that was first written about 10 years earlier, in the mid 90s.

It’s clear enough, though, that even in The Sins of Scripture, John Shelby Spong hasn’t really changed his mind about Jesus challenging the religious authorities of his day until, tragically but predictably (for such is the way of the natural oppression of religious authority when faced with the liberating message of Jesus, etc.), they had him killed.

So: if that really, historically happened--why would anyone have to invent a Judas Iscariot out of nothing?

The short answer is: there isn’t any reason. No more reason than, for example, the preachers in Acts had (or the author of Acts, even if the preaching was simply invented by him) for ever mentioning Iscariot as part of their preaching to non-Christian Jews about the crime committed against the Messiah.

But Bishop Spong needs there to be a reason. So, actually lacking one, Bishop Spong pretends for a paragraph or so (here in this chapter, and then occasionally later in the next chapter, too) that Christians later needed some reason to be antagonistic to “orthodox Judaism” that would go back foundationally to Jesus and the origin of Christianity, and so invented Judas Iscariot for that purpose, as part of “shifting the blame away from Rome” and over onto the orthodox religious authorities.

Which is where Bishop Spong himself puts the blame, pretty consistently, as a historical fact he himself is entirely willing to accept. But then, so much for Bishop Spong’s hypothetical reason (such as it is) for Christians to invent Judas Iscariot.

While we’re at it: what about “specific attempts to exonerate Romans” specifically “the Roman procurator Pilate” from responsibility in the death of Jesus, as a “shifting of blame”?

“Shifting” implies a process. But the actual, easily identifiable, documentable data--the textual characteristics--once again show no clear procession. All the texts indicate Pilate tried to some extent to free Jesus. All the texts indicate Pilate wimped out and/or lost patience with the whole affair, and basically sacrificed Jesus for his own expediency. The washing of the hands and declaring himself innocent of the blood of Jesus, shows up once, in GosMatt, and then is never even heard of again (per the compositional order accepted by Bishop Spong); much less could this detail even be reasonably inferred from the actually existent evidence to have developed in progressing detail.

Is it actually necessary for me to add that few if any Christian commentators over the next two thousand years consider the blame “shifted from” Pilate? Is it remotely necessary for me to observe that the creedal formulas are “crucified by Pilate”, not “executed by the Jews?”--or for me to observe that Josephus hardly presents Pilate as exonerated from Jesus’ death either?

Very well, if it is necessary, I will add: if the intent was to shift the blame away from Pilate, the only thing that can be said is that this attempt utterly and completely FAILED! (Unless one counts some anti-Christian rabbis of the Talmudic tradition who are quite happy to make coded references where orthodox Judaism takes credit for the destruction and damnation of Jesus while utterly ignoring any role played by Pilate or Rome in general!) It was such an epic failure that Christians have gone on merrily blaming Pilate without a care in the world about it, for all those centuries since the composition of the Gospels; and pointing to the scriptural testimony as their justification for doing so.

To put it mildly, such a blatantly obvious epic failure cannot make Bishop Spong’s theory look any better. Yet somehow, he thinks it does! Probably because he isn’t remembering that if his theory is true, the attempt must have been an epic failure. An epic failure repeated four times, over a period of decades, with total lack of success each and every time.

[Next time, part 4 of 4 for this Round: but what about anti-Judaism in the Gospels? Surely Judas Iscariot can be connected to that more generally, right? And the recap for this Round.]


Jason Pratt said…
Comment tracking registration.

(Incidentally, next time will be my last entry for the series, unless I decide to write an epilogue entry.)

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