Miracles and the Resurrection The Fourth Fundamental, Part I

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 1 August 2007 0 Comments
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I have just finished reading Jesus for the Non-Religious, which I
found to be as informative and challenging as all your prior
books. I have struggled with Jesus' Resurrection as far back as
I can remember, and have read keenly what you have to say on
this subject. It has been several years since I read
Resurrection: Myth or Reality?, but I recall that you said you
did not know what actually happened, but that you believed
something profound must have occurred to ignite a movement that
put its early followers at grave risk - and attracted billions
of people over two millennia. In your latest book, your
thinking appears to have changed somewhat, with a greater
emphasis on the theory that Jesus' Resurrection evolved as part
of a grief-coping mechanism
used by his disciples. Am I missing something here? I look
forward to your next book in 2009.


"Resurrection: Myth or Reality" was written in 1994.
"Jesus for the Non-Religious" was written in 2007. I suspect
there has been change and movement in those 13 years. I
certainly hope so. Having said that, I do not find any
incompatibility in the attempt to understand the Resurrection in
these two books.

I do not know what the first Easter experience was. Neither
does anyone else. The earliest record in Paul ascribed the
Resurrection to an act of God raising Jesus into the presence of
God. In Paul, God raised Jesus, Jesus does not rise. If this
is an action of God then that act does not occur in human
history. However, people living in human history seek to make
sense out of that experience. Whatever Easter was it caused the
disciples, who had forsaken Jesus in fear when he was arrested,
to be reconstituted and empowered in dramatic ways. It caused
his Jewish disciples to redefine God so that Jesus was included
in that definition. It caused a new holy day, the first day of
the week to be born and eventually to rival the Sabbath. So the
effects of Easter were in history but Easter itself was not.

It is fascinating to me to note that the first gospel
writer, Mark, tells the story of Easter without portraying
anyone as ever seeing the risen Christ. The first stories of
people seeing the raised Jesus occur only in the 9th decade when
Matthew writes. Matthew gives us two resurrection episodes,
both of which are strange. First, he has the women see the
risen Christ in the garden and says that "they worshipped him."
That is interesting because Mark, Matthew's primary source, says
the women never saw him. Luke relates Mark's version not
Matthew's. So the gospels are two to one against it being
accurate to say that the women saw the raised Jesus.

Matthew's second resurrection story depicts a transformed
Jesus coming out of the clouds of heaven. To view the
resurrection as a physical, bodily coming back to the life of
this world event, is an idea that is added to Christianity in
the 9th decade. It is not original to the Easter story. So I
fail to see how anyone can say that physical resuscitation is
what the resurrection was.

I regard the Easter moment as more a life-changing
experience than it was a miraculous event. I believe, however,
that this experience was real for the believers who were
transformed by it. I believed the Easter moment occurred
somewhere between six months and a year after the crucifixion.
I regard "three days" only as a liturgical symbol. The
three-day time frame allowed worshippers to observe Jesus' death
on Friday and his victory over death on Sunday, the first day of
the week. I am confident that the Easter awakening had
something to do with the common meal, that is, the words: "He
was made known to them in the breaking of the bread," represents
a remembered context. I am also convinced that the disciples
were in Galilee and not in Jerusalem when Easter dawned on their
consciousness. I regard the Jerusalem Easter tradition as both
secondary and quite mythological. I do not think that there was
a burial that anyone would have remembered, or that Joseph of
Arimathea actually existed. I do not think any women came to
the tomb on the first day of the week because there was no tomb
to which they could come. I do not believe that a resuscitated
body appeared to anyone. I do believe that Peter was the first
to "see," but I do not know what kind of sight that was:
Insight? Second sight? A vision to the eyes of the mind? I do
believe that Peter called others to see whatever it was that he
saw and thus that he opened the eyes of the others.

I do not think there would be something called Christianity
if the Easter experience had not been real. I do not think that
Easter has anything to do with a body walking out of a tomb
after dying. I still affirm the tentative reconstruction of
these crucial moments in our faith story as I described them
when I wrote "Resurrection: Myth or Reality." Indeed, I would
not change a word of it if I were to write it again.

John Shelby Spong




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