Miracles IV - Interpreting the Healing Miracles

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 15 November 2006 0 Comments
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Is there any material proof of any sort whatsoever that the man Jesus ever

lived at all? So many things are attributed to him that sometimes I think

he is a fantasy figure people make up in their minds, endowing him with more

capabilities that the fiction hero Superman had that prompts me to wonder if

that's all he was, a make-believe figure, like the action hero, Zorro, who

was inspired by the life of a real 19th century person.


This question is asked regularly but since it keeps coming up I

will try once more to speak to it. The problem is not that there is no

evidence to support the historicity of Jesus, because there is. The

difficulty arises because so much mythology has been laid on the historic

figure of Jesus that he has become unbelievable to many.

First, the data about his historicity. Paul writing to the

Galatians around the year 51 C.E. chronicles his activities, including his

consultations with Peter and others who were called by Paul "the pillars" of

the Christian movement. This means that Paul knew Peter and others who were

the disciples of the Jesus of history. Paul says that this meeting took

place three years after his conversion (see Galatians 1:18-24). The best

evidence that has been amassed to date the conversion of Paul was done by a

19th century church historian named Adolf Harnack, who places it no earlier

than one year and no more than six years after the crucifixion. So Paul was

in touch with disciples of Jesus within 4 to 10 years after the crucifixion.

These disciples did not think of Jesus as a fantasy or a mythical person.

Indeed myths take far longer than 4 to 10 years to develop. There is thus

ample data to support the historicity of the man Jesus. Paul would hardly

have given his life to a myth.

There are other things that are so counter-intuitive about the way the Jesus

story has been told that to me they constitute compelling additional

evidence for his historicity. One is that Jesus is said to have come out of

Nazareth, a dirty, petty and insignificant town that had a dreadful

reputation. It was said even in the New Testament that people asked "can

anything good come out of Nazareth" (see John 1:46)? His Nazareth and

Galilean origins were an embarrassment to the Jesus movement. No one

creates a myth that will embarrass them. It was undoubtedly this

embarrassment that helped to create the myth of his birth in Bethlehem. One

does not try to escape a lowly place of origin unless that place is so

deeply a part of the person's identity that it cannot be suppressed. Jesus

of Nazareth was a person of history.

Another counter-intuitive piece of data is that Jesus began his

public life as a disciple of John the Baptist. John was originally the

teacher that Jesus followed. That is why the gospels seem compelled to have

John say constantly things like: "He must increase, I must decrease."

"After me comes one whose shoelaces I am not worthy to tie." Luke goes so

far as to have the fetus of John the Baptist leap to salute the fetus of

Jesus before either was born. When people try to alter history it is not

because there is no history, it is because the reality of history has caused

embarrassment. The early Christians worked hard to prove that though John

was older, he was quite secondary, the one who "prepared the way."

The third fact in the life of Jesus, to which we can point as

history, is that Jesus was crucified. The Christian movement had to find a

way to understand and even to celebrate his death, which ran counter to

everything they believed about a messiah. If they could not transform his

crucifixion, there would have been no resurrection. Indeed the resurrection

was the story of that transformation. That took hard work. They did not do

that by making up the story of the crucifixion. His death was real. The

interpretation of his death as the gateway to life made the Christian faith


Mythology was surely added to the Jesus of history even in the

writings of the gospels, but those myths were placed on the back of a real

person. Mark, writing in the 8th decade, said that at his baptism the

heavens opened and the Holy Spirit poured out on him. Then Mark said that

after his crucifixion that the grave could not contain him.

In the ninth decade, Matthew added such details to the growing

mythology as the miraculous birth, the heavenly star, the wise men, and the

physiological appearances of the raised Jesus. Some five to ten years after

Matthew, Luke added to the developing story such parts of our tradition as

the shepherds, the swaddling cloths and the appearances of the angels. Later

he intensified the physical character of the resurrection until it became

resuscitation back into the life of this world, which in turn necessitated

his eventual escape from this earth in the story of the cosmic ascension.

Still later John identified him with the Word of God spoken in creation. As

these mythological layers were laid on top of him, his humanity began to

fade. That is where the faith crisis of today emerges. We have begun to

strip away the mythology, and as we do we begin to fear that there is

nothing under it. So we hesitate and even pretend to believe what, when

pressed, we would say we no longer believe. Many of the fundamentalist

churches are made up of pretenders who reveal their vulnerability by getting

angry whenever they are forced to face the game that they are playing.

There is, I believe, another way. I am now convinced that only by

recovering the full humanity of Jesus is there any possibility of seeing the

meaning of his divinity. That is the dominant theme of my next book JESUS

FOR THE NON-RELIGIOUS, which will be out in March of 2007. I see it as a

radical restatement of the earliest Christian proclamation that in the human

Jesus, the holy God has been encountered. I look forward to the debate and

the dialogue that I hope this book will engender.

John Shelby Spong




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