Bishop John Shelby Spong has a unique view on the resurrection of Jesus; it was not really a resurrection at all as we understand it. In his book, Resurrection: Myth or Reality (1994), he states repeatedly that he believes in the reality of the resurrection; he explains (page 106):
Easter, for me, is eternal, subjective, mythological, nonhistorical, and nonphysical. Yet Easter is also something real to me.
On page 143, he asks:
Did Easter reverse the verdict of Jesus’ death? No, I don’t think so…I think Easter is real, but it is not an event that takes place inside human history.
Simon Peter Has an Epiphany
Spong describes his idea of the origin of the resurrection stories beginning on page 255. After a successful catch while fishing in Galilee, Simon Peter and some others ate a meal.
Simon, as the oldest member of the group, did the ceremonial blessing. Images flowed together: the psalm of Tabernacles, “I shall not die, but I shall live”; the words of Zechariah, “They looked on him whom they pierced”; and that awful night when Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them, calling that bread his body…
Suddenly it all came together for Simon. The crucifixion was not punitive, it was intentional. The cross was Jesus’ ultimate parable, acted out on the stage of history to open the eyes of those whose eyes could be opened in no other way to the meaning of Jesus as the sign of God’s love…
That was the dawn of Easter in human history. It would be fair to say that in that moment Simon felt resurrected. The clouds of his grief, confusion, and depression vanished from his mind, and in that moment he knew that Jesus was part of the very essence of God, and at that moment Simon saw Jesus alive…
With a burst of animation Simon tried to bring his breakfast mates into his vision. He tried to open their eyes…The bread in his hand was broken over and over until light dawned in James, John, and Andrew.
My Response to Bishop Spong’s Theory of the Resurrection
I respectfully reject Bishop Spong’s theory that it was in the imagination of Jesus’ followers. I enjoy biblical fiction—it is good to see things in a different light—but fictional reconstruction is still fiction.
My response is not a critique. A critique would be much longer, more in-depth, and require more creds than I have. There is much in Spong’s book that I really like. He emphasizes the use of Jewish midrash in the New Testament, which is important to understand in order to avoid over-literalizing many passages. And I like the description of midrash he quotes from The Jewish Encyclopedia: (page 15):
[T]he attempt to penetrate into the spirit of the [Old Testament] text, to examine the text from all sides, to derive interpretations not immediately obvious, to illuminate the future by appealing to the past.
I agree with him on many cases of midrash, such as Jesus’ flight to Egypt and the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert. Spong says he believes the experience of the resurrection is both real and true but that the details that describe it cannot be literalized (page 21). And I agree to a great extent, as I have mentioned in previous posts on strange stories surrounding the crucifixion and the resurrection of many holy ones.
Spong builds slowly to his conclusions but bases his reconstruction on very tenuous connections. It is an interesting theory but reads like those contrarian documentaries that search for unlikely clues in order to uncover some hidden ‘truth’. Spong, himself, calls it a speculative reconstruction (page 237); and I don’t find it convincing. There is much conjecture, and many connections are extremely flimsy.
Spong, Paul, and the Resurrected Jesus
Acts 9 reports Paul’s encounter with the resurrected Jesus. While Paul (Saul) was on the road, a light from heaven flashed around him, and he fell to the ground. He heard a voice identifying itself as Jesus; the men traveling with Saul heard the sound but did not see anyone.
Spong points out that Paul once said, referring to this experience, “Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” (1 Corinthians 9). In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul writes that:
[Jesus] was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living…Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also.
So Spong suggests that all Jesus’ resurrection appearances were visionary—like Paul’s:
I would argue…that these witness were the recipients of revelatory visions of the living Christ at God’s right hand (page 51).
In other words, personal, close up encounters with the resurrected Jesus never happened. But I don’t think Paul’s ‘vision’ was a model for the resurrection experience of others just as I don’t think the experience was in their imaginations.
What is Essential about the Resurrection of Jesus?
Is Bishop Spong really a believer? Is he a fellow-follower of Jesus? Of course he is! Bishop Spong makes important contributions to Christian thought, but I think he is mistaken about Jesus’ resurrection.
At the very least, resurrection includes consciousness that is not present in death—and a body. I don’t mean a resuscitated corpse; the body is a new body—perhaps even a spiritual body as Spong says. But, to me, the most important question is whether Jesus was present and conscious during face-to-face resurrection appearances; did he interact with people? If not then he was not there. For Spong, resurrection was in Peter’s inspired imagination, and that is not sufficient for me.
The essence is that Jesus was dead and then he was not. He is risen! He is risen indeed!
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