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Remembering My Mentors Part III: Janet Robinson, Bible Teacher

31 May 2012: 1 Comment »

Her name was Janet Robinson and I met her shortly after my 12th birthday.  She was a member of my church and active as a Sunday school teacher.  She was an unmarried lady in her late forties or early fifties.  She was a stocky, heavy-set woman, but no one would have referred to her as …

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Question & Answer

Fran from Rappahannock, Virginia, writes:


When did Jesus become a Catholic?


Dear Fran,

Jesus never became a Christian much less a Catholic!  You have either been listening to too much church propaganda or you fail to embrace the dimensions of history that mark first the life of Jesus, and second the dimensions of history that mark the institution of the church.

Some years ago at an airport in Tel Aviv, Israel, a young Palestinian girl, perhaps eight or nine years old, saw my pectoral cross that has the Hebrew letters for the name of God, YHWH, etched into the center of the cross.  Recognizing these as Jewish writing, she asked: Why do you have Jewish writing on your cross?”  I responded that it is to remind myself and others that Jesus was a Jew.  “A Jew,” she said, “I thought Jesus was a Catholic.”

Let me say first that if one is able to transcend the literalness that surrounds most religious claims, there is a germ of truth in the assertion “that Jesus was a Catholic.”  There is only this germ of truth in that assertion. If we ever come to understand Jesus properly I believe that we will discover that to the Jews, Jesus will be a Jew, to the Christians, Jesus will be a Christian, to the Catholics Jesus will be a Catholic and to the Protestants Jesus will a Protestant.  Beyond those religious limits I also think that we can say that we can also state that if Jesus is properly understood to the Europeans, Jesus will be a European, to the Asians, Jesus will be an Asian and to the Africans Jesus will be an African.  All of those are, however, faith statements, not historical definitions.

The Christian Church was formed well after the death of Jesus, indeed some 50 to 60 years afterward.  At the beginning of their life and history, the followers of Jesus continued to be what they had always been, members of the synagogues.  Christianity began as a movement within the synagogue.  They called themselves not “Christians” but “The Followers of the Way.”  Jesus certainly did not found the church, despite the ecclesiastical propaganda of the ages.

Christianity in its early centuries was not centrally organized, so it is hard to say when the Catholic Church, as we now know it, actually came into being.  The Bishop of Rome did not establish his authority over Western Europe until the fourth century and he never really established his authority over Eastern Europe, which was then and is now the home of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Jesus was a Jew.  But his followers convinced that they had experienced the presence of God in him, in time created the Christian Church.  Whether Jesus ever thought of himself as the founder of a new religion is today, at least in scholarly circles, almost universally denied.

Thanks for your question.

~John Shelby Spong


Read what Bishop Spong has to say about A Joyful Path Progressive Christian Spiritual Curriculum for Young Hearts and Minds: "The great need in the Christian church is for a Sunday school curriculum for children that does not equate faith with having a pre-modern mind. The Center for Progressive Christianity has produced just that. Teachers can now teach children in Sunday school without crossing their fingers. I endorse it wholeheartedly."

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