God, the Bible, and Pink Floyd


I started reading John Shelby Spong's book Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible With Jewish Eyes. From the title, I fully expected that the author would attempt to peel back the layers of Christian interpretation and instead try to examine the Gospels as Jewish works written in a time in history when Christianity was a sect within Judaism. But I was surprised to discover that Spong would do so from a very specific perspective of a theory about the origins of the Gospels that is perhaps not generally accepted by scholars, in this case one that was developed by a theologian named Michael Goulder.

According to this theory, the gospels were actually works of Christian lectionary meant to correspond to the Jewish liturgical year. In the case of the Gospel of Mark, for example, this meant that the book was ostensibly meant to be read in Jewish religious services over the course of six and a half months or so, from Rosh Hoshana to Passover. The Gospel was written around 70 AD, before the break between Christianity and Judaism had fully taken place, and Jewish Christians would have participated fully in the life of their synagogue and its liturgy at that time. Spong makes a persuasive argument that the various sections of the Gospel correspond neatly to particular festivals and Torah readings that take place during that part of the Jewish liturgical cycle. The catch is that this correspondence requires that you properly synch up the Gospel just so in order for this correspondence to take place--you must begin at Rosh Hoshana, and you must end at Passover. But when you do so, the Gospel does seem to match up well with the Jewish liturgy.

While I admit that Spong makes a persuasive case, I am a little hesitant to completely jump on board with this specific theory. What makes me hesitant is that his methodology reminds me a little bit of a phenomenon from the realm of modern popular culture: the Dark Side of the Rainbow theory. According to this theory, which has found popular expression on the internet, if you synch up the Pink Floyd album Dark Side of the Moon at just the right point while watching the movie The Wizard of Oz, the music matches up amazingly well with what takes place in the film.

On web video sites like Google Videos, there are videos of the movie with the Pink Floyd soundtrack. In some cases as I watch the video, I do find that there does seem to be a remarkable synchronicity. In other cases, I don't really see it. The members of the band Pink Floyd have, I might add, denied that they made their album with the movie in mind, pointing out that in 1973, consumer video tapes of movies didn't even exist.

What this all probably illustrates is the power of the human mind to make patterns out of random coincidences.

Is this what Spong is doing here? I am not saying that he is. I think the evidence from the text is not only interesting, but it does make some sense that Jewish Christians of that time would have created just such a lectionary. The theory also proposes an explanation for why the Gospel of Mark, the first of the four canonical gospels to be written, was created in the first place. Many scholars believe that the Gospel of Thomas and the hypothetical sayings Gospel of Q predated Mark, and both of these Gospels lacked the narrative content that Mark has, being mostly just collections of the sayings of Jesus. (Spong denies the existence of Q, by the way, which is contrary to the view of most contemporary scholars. ) This leap to a fully narrative-based Gospel could therefore have been spurred on by the need to fulfill a lectionary requirement by early Jewish Christians.

I think that what Spong proposes is interesting, but I'm not sure that I am willing to embrace it. Most of Spong's books, I believe, seem to be consistent with the mainstream of modern scholarship. Even if fundamentalists and conservative Christians may have rejected what he has written, in general his books have--as far as I have been able to tell, anyway--been based on the findings of mainstream biblical scholars. In this book, which he published 10 years ago, he seems to have gone out on more of a limb by attaching himself to a minority opinion. Still, like everything Spong writes, it is well written and interesting.