Resurrection - Myth or Reality, Part II: The Witness of Paul

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 30 April 2015 0 Comments

The first writer of what later came to be called the New Testament was a well-educated Jew from Tarsus in Asia Minor. His name was Paul, although there is a later tradition that suggested that his original name was Saul and that the change from Saul to Paul was symbolic of the change in his life from being a highly-disciplined member of the Jewish religious elite to being a follower of Jesus. The adjective “Jewish” in that sentence is important because at this time in history, there was no such thing as Christianity or the Christian Church. What we now call Christianity was still a minority movement within the synagogue itself called “The Followers of the Way.” These followers were also known by members of the Orthodox Party of Judaism as “revisionists.” That was a deliberately pejorative title. “Revisionists” in ecclesiastical circles means that they were “change agents” destabilizing the “True Faith.”

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My name is Donald Manyimo from Zimbabwe, Africa, and I was truly inspired by your messages I received from your talks and books. I am an aspiring author and I released my first book last week and I want to thank you because you showed me a way to see Christianity in a new light because I was giving up on it as I was discovering many disturbing things about the religion I so love. Thank you very much.


Dear Donald,

Congratulations on the release of your first book!!

Your letter has inspired me greatly. I have been to various parts of Africa on several occasions and have had the privilege of knowing many African religious leaders. They have been good human beings, but so often their understanding of Christianity has been trapped inside the evangelical fundamentalism or Catholic authoritarianism of the missionaries who first taught them about Christianity. There have been notable exceptions to that generalization, of course. I think of such African Christian giants as Desmond Tutu, Henry Okullu in Kenya, Njongonkulu Ndangane in South Africa and Walter Khotso Makhulu in Central Africa, among others. I remember one African bishop, however, (I believe he was from the Sudan) who told me that in the Bible College in which he was trained for ordination, the only theological books they had in their library were from the 1930’s and were quite fundamentalist in their orientation. When I hear some African bishops in places like Nigeria and Uganda continue to quote their literal Bibles to justify political attempts to block the emancipation of women or to make homosexuality a capital crime, I shudder to see what horrors biblical ignorance can create.

African Christianity will not become all that it is capable of being until people like you engage the faith tradition with the same scholarly intensity that the Western world and particularly German biblical scholars have done over the last 250 years. I think of such heroes in that movement as David Friedrich Strauss. His 19th century, groundbreaking book, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined (Das Leben Jesu), was published in German in 1836 and finally translated into English in 1846 by Mary Ann Evans, the author of Silas Marner and Middlemarch among other works. She wrote under the pen name of George Eliot. Strauss was the first scholar to make the biblical findings of the academicians available to the general public. It was not a popular book, because people do not like to have their primitive religious ideas questioned. He was fired from his Tubingen University position and never allowed to teach New Testament again in any European institution of higher learning. Next I think of the 20th century’s Rudolf Bultmann, a scholar on the faculty of the University of Marburg in Germany, whose body of work marked him, in my opinion, as the world’s premier New Testament scholar of our time. He is the one who introduced the concept of “demythologizing” into New Testament scholarship. His work also frightened traditional believers, who reacted quite negatively to his ideas. German scholarship has dominated this field and for that I, for one, am deeply grateful. Perhaps you can do for Africa what Strauss and Bultmann have done for Western Christianity. I want you to be aware, however, that the path of biblical scholarship will always be controversial. You must always write for those who have given up on Christianity, not for those who want to hold Christianity captive to the concepts of yesterday. In the words of James Russell Lowell: “Time (always) makes ancient good uncouth.”

My only word of advice to you is that if you are to do the kind of biblical scholarship that African Christianity needs so desperately, you must love these scriptures. If you love them, people will encourage you to wrestle with them publicly. If you do not love them, people will feel that you are trying to kill something very precious to them. Truth cannot finally be destroyed by scholarship, but those who pretend that they possess the truth will always attack anyone who exposes them to be guilty of idolatry. When genuine biblical knowledge begins to trickle down from the centers of higher learning to the worshipers sitting in the pews every Sunday, the Christian Church will be a far healthier place. You can make a tremendous difference.

I hope you will stay in touch with me, I would be glad to help you in any way I can. Through this column, I will make people aware of your work.

~ John Shelby Spong




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