Note: This entry is a little long and a little different. I hope that you will bear with me and wade through it and, perhaps, offer your comments.
A number of years ago, when the Internet first began to infiltrate the common household, I became a devotee of emailing. I had penpals in Japan, Singapore, Australia, England, The USA, and Canada. This was in addition to any email that I wrote to people whom I already knew. I still keep in touch with one of those penpals, a woman from New Hampshire. Cuppa and I have visited with her and her husband more than once.
In that list, I didn't mention my penpal from Israel. Actually, he was never that, for we corresponded for only a relatively short period of time. He was an Hasidic Jew. That may not be the proper categorization or nomenclature, but it's the closest that I can come to representing him to you.
I remember asking him, that as an Orthodox Jew, at what point he took the Bible literally. Was it from the very beginning (the Creation Story), or after the flood, or at some other point? I never got a satisfactory answer because he didn't have one. The question was meaningless to him. He never even spared a thought for what scriptures might be literally true and what might be figurative or mythical (for want of a better word). I'm not sure that the meaning of this totally registered with me until just recently.
You see, we two approached faith, religion, spirituality, the scriptures with totally different mindsets. My evangelically formatted Westernized brain thought in terms of the quantifiable. We Westerners want to observe, measure, and weigh. We yearn to distinguish fact from fiction, literal truth from that which is not literal. I'm not sure whether most of us can embrace the concept that something that is not literal can be true. Perhaps that is why silly wars over the teaching of evolution are still being waged; for some good folk, if the Creation Story is not literally true, then it reveals no truth at all. This is how I perceive many to believe. Perhaps I am wrong. It would not be the first time and will not be the last time.
For this Hasidic Jew, however, all that mattered was the intent of the scriptures, what truth about God could be gleaned from each and every passage. Whether Noah really built an ark or not, the lessons of the flood would be the same for this man. As I understand it, to him, the intent of scripture was to reveal the nature and ways of the divine and not to record history.
Recently, I have come across the writings of John Spong, an Episcopalian bishop, who believes that the key to understanding the gospels is to read them, to the extent that we can, with Jewish eyes. He contends that they were never written to be factual and linearly unfolding chronologies of the life of Jesus. Rather, they were written by Jews, with Jewish scripture in mind, to reveal the nature of Jesus to (primarily, at first at least) Jewish readers. According to Spong, the gospel writers frequently revealed Jesus through the lens of allusions to the Hebrew scriptures.
I cannot begin to recapitulate or précis his works in this space. Truthfully, I am not up to the task. I understand much of what he says but in a vague and general way. I would do a disservice to try to elucidate his scholarship any further at this juncture.
Having been raised as an evangelical, I understand that mindset very well. I understand that some readers of this blog must despair of my soul for reading heresy that concludes that much of the gospel narrative is not literally true, that it was never intended to be understood that way. When Christians and Jews went their separate ways back in the first century, Spong holds that we lost the Jewish way of interpreting scripture. We got hung up on understanding the gospels as historical record rather than as teachings about who Jesus was.
Did any of you read Real Live Preacher's retelling of the Christmas Story? (Don't go, he takes it down after Christmas.) In his version, he speculates on how it could have been, what people could have said to Joseph, how they might have found a place to give birth, how the shepherds could have entered the picture. RLP wasn't telling a falsehood; he was narrating how it could have been. He was trying to make the story real to us by adding human touches. We all knew this when we read it, and we appreciated him for it.
Isn't it possible that the gospels were written in a similar vein? Isn't it possible that they were written to elucidate the meaning of the life of Jesus to those who had a firm grasp of the scriptures and how they had learned to interpret scripture in the past?
I find John Spong to be a man of incredible faith. While disbelieving the literalness of much of the gospel account, he believes very strongly that God was in Jesus and raised him into heaven. The life of Jesus changed the world because something powerful was at work in Him and through Him. Isn't that what Christians have always believed?
When I am presented with this alternative way to view scripture, I find myself responding positively and hopefully. Perhaps, just perhaps, this is where I can hang my theological hat. Like my former Jewish penpal, I find that the literalness of scripture becomes meaningless to me. Does it matter whether there was a man named Jonah who spent three days in the belly of a great fish? Does it matter whether God created the universe through the utterance of words in 4004 BC? Would it not be an even greater miracle if He created the Big Bang fifteen billion years ago, knowing what would evolve (and I don't particularly use that word in the Darwinian sense)?
I don't know if this is making any sense whatsoever, but if exposing your mind to alternative views of the faith scares you not, I recommend that you try reading John Shelby Spong. Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes is the tome that I am referring to most directly.