Considering the Resurrection: From the Eyes of its Denier – Bishop Spong

During the Easter week I put up a posts I and II on Easter Examined giving an overview for the resurrection of Jesus and I also uploaded the videos of Session 7 which considers this question in greater depth. Since we are now a few weeks after Easter and thus in the time of year corresponding to the period just after the death of Jesus I thought it could be interesting to re-visit this time period more critically than we typically do. After all, most of us generally do not think past Easter Sunday and whether one believes it or not, it was not the resurrection of Jesus that changed human history, but it was the eyewitness followers of Jesus that changed history with their proclamation of this event.  And it is in precisely this post-death period that we are in now in which their convictions were formed one way or another. The Jewish historian Josephus, writing at the close of the 1st Century, reminds us of the impact of the diciples on his world when he writes of them that:

‘At this time there was a wise man … Jesus. … good, and … virtuous… Pilate condemned Him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that He had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that He was alive…. And the tribe of Christians, so named after him, has not disappeared to this day.’ Antiquities xviii 63

Spong: Prolific author and Church Bishop stands up to refute the Resurrection

Something happened in this period just after Jesus’ death that changed the disciples, and as the saying goes, the rest is history. So what was it? Great question – and there is no better person to help us walk through it than Bishop Shelby Spong. Spong has gained wide-spread notoriety and a following because as a bishop in the Episcopalian church, and as a prolific author, he made a career out of being an outspoken critic of almost every aspect of the gospel. So when it comes to the resurrection he flatly denies it. But Spong recognizes that this alleged event has changed human history so therefore just denying it is not reasonable – an alternate explanation of what ‘really’ happened needs to articulated by the honest skeptic and he does just that. In fact he wrote a whole book on the topic entitled Resurrection: Myth or Reality? A high-ranking church leader denying the resurrection whilst advancing a better explanation based on reason – what better context could we ever find to better consider the question of the resurrection. So let’s dive in.

Spong asserts (from the sources like Josephus and Tacitus) that Jesus did indeed die.

The fact remains that Jesus of Nazareth was executed, and when he was dying it was clear that his movement was crushed. Resurrection: Myth or Reality? p. 241

He then argues that the body was ‘placed in a common grave’ and was basically lost and the body decayed. But what then changed the disciples into the men with the courage, tenacity and conviction to change a hostile world? Spong knows that this is the fundamental question that must be resolved to give a satisfactory account of the events surrounding the alleged (in his mind) resurrection – because this fact is historically irrefutable and it demands an explanation. So he continues his scenario by first backtracking a bit to help us understand what kind of impact Jesus would have had on Simon Peter from the months they would have been together with Simon the disciple and Jesus his rabbi:

The impact of Jesus on Simon had to have been enormous…. Simon had heard Jesus’ teaching; he had watched his impact on others. Simon had seen the quality of Jesus’ life, and perhaps above all else, he had the privilege to live inside Jesus’ relationship with God… Jesus had loved him into being loving. Jesus had called him across the barriers that prejudice had erected against Samaritans, against women, and even against  Gentiles … Jesus had talked about the kingdom of God breaking into History, about the final judgment, and about the end of time. Simon had sensed from his words that that Jesus’ very life was in some way related to that kingdom and its coming… Simon had seen in Jesus a rare personal integrity that was displayed in the courage to be himself in all circumstances… Jesus seemed to be free of the need to be defined by the responses of others.” ibid pg 244

Simon also saw in Jesus a man who had a mission. I suspect that Simon was not certain what that mission was, but its reality was never in doubt… When people came to write their understanding of Jesus, they portrayed him as one who had a rendez-vous with destiny.  ibid pg 246

Spong Examines the Impact of a Non-Resurrected Jesus on his Followers

As Spong explains to us, in life Jesus would have made quite an impact on Simon Peter. Spong then details for us the kind of internal struggle and anguish that Simon Peter  would have been living with in the weeks after the non-resurrected death of Jesus. Here is how Spong explains it:

The death of Jesus was also incontrovertible. The meaning that death brought in that instance was not pleasant. Jesus had been executed upon a cross of wood. The Torah, so sacred to every Jewish man and woman, called one accursed who was hung upon a tree. What arrogance it would take for unlearned fisherfolk to suggest another alternative. Jesus was accused of blasphemy. No power intervened to save him. Death became God’s ‘no’. That ‘no’ had been engineered by the highest religious authorities of the land. The chief priests spoke for God. Jesus had been condemned by God’s earthly representatives. How could those who were not educated in either the Torah or the traditions of God’s people stand with credibility in opposition to that?… On one side there was the experience that they had had with Jesus that called them out of the old and into the new in their understanding of God. On the other side, Jesus was dead, and this new understanding had not prevailed. It was the old and not the new that had proven victorious… the religious hierarchy were the survivors, the victors. Jesus was the deceased, the vanquished. The minds of those like Simon had to begin to wrap themselves around the inevitability of those conclusions. Jesus must not have been of God. Jesus must have been wrong. Jesus had to have been guilty of blasphemy. He was dead, and they had to begin to accept the fact that they had been misled, duped, and therefore they also were guilty. ibid pg 251

Exactly!  Spong precisely frames the kind of interpretation and defeat that the non-resurrected death of Jesus would have etched itself on the minds of the Jewish people of that day – and particularly on his peasant fishermen disciples.  Spong vividly and accurately plays out for us the mental and emotional confusion and anguish that:

“Simon wrestled [with], day after day, week after week. He fished and he shared bread and fish by the lake with his friends as … the weeks added up to months and still there was no resolution.” ibid pg 252

One would think that Spong would end the story there, which is where, by all rights, it should have ended if there had been no resurrection. But it cannot end there because the facts of history speak incontrovertibly of an explosive movement, starting in Jerusalem, led by these peasant fishermen that took on all authorities, experts and powers of the world in that day, and without money, military power, education, status, or connections –  they won! It did not start decades later, did not start somewhere else, was not led by some anonymous shadowy group.  This is the fact of history that any theory of what happened to Jesus must explain.  Simply denying the resurrection without explaining this is simply not facing up to facts.  So how does Spong reason that this situation turned itself around so dramatically? We continue Spong’s analysis in our next post.