The Gospels and Punctuation

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 3 November 2004 0 Comments
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Ben Witherington reviewed the book "The Resurrection of the Son of God" by N. T. Wright for Bible Review (February 2004, page 44). He says that Wright stands "foursquare on the side of the traditional, orthodox view that Jesus rose bodily from the grave in about 30 A.D." I have read your book Resurrection: Myth or Reality? and know that you think that was not the understanding of the resurrection by early Christians. My question is how does our belief either way affect our lives? I have my own ideas on the answer to this question but I would like t hear your opinion.


N. T. (Tom) Wright is an English evangelical with an encyclopedic mind for biblical details. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams recently appointed him Bishop of Durham. He is a popular lecturer on both sides of the Atlantic.

Many of his followers would think of him as a scholar. He has written a number of books and in religious circles his name would be recognized. To me, however, a scholar is one who pursues the truth come whence it may, cost what it will. Tom Wright does not pursue the truth because, typical of the evangelical mindset, he believes he already possesses it. I regard him, therefore, as a propagandist rather than a scholar. His study is totally directed by the task of defending what he already believes is the truth. Like so many evangelicals, he follows a convoluted thinking process in order to put together a rationale for believing what he calls traditional Christianity. He uses the Bible in a way that few biblical scholars would support. He refuses to deal with the questions of our modern and postmodern world because they do not fit into his biblical worldview. He defends such stories as the Virgin Birth as the basis for the doctrine of the Incarnation, though I know of no reputable scholar, Catholic or Protestant who views the birth narratives found only in Matthew and Luke as history. He defends the physical resuscitation of the body as the meaning of Easter not because scholarship led him to this conclusion but because his faith system asserts that it is so. He seem not to understand that neither of these traditions is an original part of the Christian faith, both having been introduced no earlier than the ninth decade of the Christian era. One will look in vain for support of either tradition in Paul or Mark the earlier traditions on which the later gospels built.

Tom Wright still lives in a world of divine revelation and divine intervention. I do not read his work any longer because I consider it so badly dated. I did read and even endorsed the book he coauthored with Marcus Borg where each sets his view of Christianity side by side with Borg's. My hope in endorsing that book was that Wright's evangelical readers might be persuaded to read Borg's contrasting views in order to read this book by their hero. The comparison I found quite enlightening. Borg glides, Wright struggles. Borg is open; Wright is closed. Borg embraces the world; Wright seeks refuge from the world.

You ask whether these differences really matter? I think they do. Truth is never found at the end of defensive propaganda. Can any human mind embrace the mystery of God? Does the wonder of God fit into small, defensive, evangelical minds? Can the resurrection really be viewed as an event in history that could be photographed? Did people see Jesus' resurrection with the 20/20 vision of physical eyesight or was it seen with second sight or insight? Can things be real if they are not physical? Those would be the questions that Tom Wright should be asked.

The Christianity that Tom Wright espouses is encased inside a control system that cannot live in today's world. He attacks first and then tries to caricature those who disagree (which is the entire world of genuine biblical scholars) and when those tactics fail he retreats into an isolated ghetto and refuses to engage the data. I have long been the object of his attacks, so have my colleagues in the Jesus Seminar.

When I wrote Resurrection: Myth or Reality? A Bishop Rethinks the Origins of the Christian Faith, I sought to maintain the power of the transformation that gave birth to the Christian movement without being bound to a literal reading of the developing myths that mark the later gospels. I still agree with that position. It is in the experience of resurrection not in the explanations of resurrection in which the power lies. I believe in that power and seek to live inside it. I agree with Paul that if Jesus be not raised then our faith is in vain. If you read Paul carefully, however, you will discover that this assertion was not related to a resuscitated body that walked out of a tomb. Easter is far more profound than that, but this is something that I have no idea that Tom Wright would understand.

-- John Shelby Spong




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