Part XX Matthew - Introducing Yom Kippur and the Jewish Concept of Atonement

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 5 June 2014 0 Comments
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Recently I had to renew my credit card, which I used to subscribe to your weekly Newsletter and thereby I lost my subscription to the Newsletter come bill-paying time. Fortunately, I received an email from the company that handles your Newsletter and was thereby able to provide the data on my new credit card and am now receiving your emails. The first thing I can remember reading from the newsletters when my service was restored was that you had completed your work on the book of John and your book entitled, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic so I bought it and have now finished reading it. I can remember from books of yours that I read several years ago that you were bemoaning the fact that you could find no defining books on the Gospel of John. Well, now we have one. Yours! Thank you, this book is a very good read and I am glad that you wrote it, but I am afraid that I missed something. It left me to question why the empty tomb was so important to the gospel writers, including John and how does one avoid reading the open tomb stories literally? Can you elaborate a bit on these questions?


Dear Edward,

Thank you for your letter and your comments. Many people have the experience you had when their credit cards are renewed. Our company has developed a means of assisting when this arises. One other thing about our billing process that I think people should know is that all of the profits, after expenses from this column are paid, go to support the work of the non-profit organization and publishers of this newsletter-

You ask about the empty tomb. First some facts:

1. There is no reference to an empty tomb in the writings of Paul.

2. The empty tomb makes its first appearance in Mark written about 72 CE, but Jesus does not appear to the women at the tomb, rather a messenger appears who directs the women to tell the disciples that they are to return to Galilee and that they will see Jesus there.

3. Matthew, written about the year 85 CE, changes Mark so that the women do see Jesus at the tomb that is located in or near Jerusalem. Then Matthew goes on to describe the Galilean appearance to which Mark had only alluded. It occurred, said Matthew on the top of a mountain. In it Jesus gave what we call the Great Commission: “Go into all the world.”

4. Luke, written around the years 89-93 CE says the women do not see the raised Christ at the tomb, thus agreeing with Mark and opposing Matthew. Luke, however, denies any Galilean resurrection experience to anyone at any time.

5. John reduces the number women who came to the tomb on Easter morning to one, Mary Magdalene, and she is the only one in this gospel to see Jesus before he ascends. All other Johannine appearances are of the already ascended and transformed Jesus.


Next we need to notice that the tomb stories are all located Jerusalem. It is thus part of the Jerusalem tradition. The Galilean tradition is more vague, more mystical and visionary. The Jerusalem tradition is more specific, physical and suggests historicity. Most scholars believe the Galilean tradition is the earliest and the most authentic, so all the stories about the empty tomb are regarded as a later development.

In my book, Resurrection: Myth or Reality - A Bishop Re-Thinks the Meaning of Easter, I covered the reasons for reaching this conclusion about both Galilee and Jerusalem. I suspect that whatever the resurrection was originally, it was simply proclaimed ecstatically. A proclamation always precedes an explanation. I suspect the original proclamation had two parts. First, the ecstatic cry, “He has risen! We have seen the Lord!” Second came the implicit realization: “Death could not contain him,” or in Paul’s words, “O Grave, where is your victory?” Explanations, however, come inevitably when one seeks to pass the experience on verbally. In time, “He has risen! We have seen the Lord” gave way to stories of visions and apparitions that people said they actually saw. The women at the tomb, the disciples on the mountain top in Galilee, Cleopas at the evening meal in the village of Emmaus and the disciples in the locked room in Jerusalem are a few of these narratives. In time, the ecstatic cries that “death cannot contain him” or “O Grave where is your victory?” were turned into narratives of a tomb that was empty, that is, a tomb that could not contain or capture his living reality. Resurrection then ceased to be a symbol of breaking the final limit on our humanity, but came to mean instead the return of a deceased body back into time, space and history. That is a rather crass literalization of the meaning of Easter, but it is the tendency of human beings always to literalize mysteries,

I think the truth of the resurrection is real. I don’t think it has anything to do with physical resuscitation. It is a tragedy that many people think that if there is no physical body, then there is no reality to the meaning of Easter. Those who shared in the original experience of Easter would, I believe, view that understanding of resurrection with incredulity.

I hope that helps.

John Shelby Spong




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