Considering the Resurrection: From the eyes of Bishop Spong – Part 3

In my previous two posts (1 and 2) I had been looking at Bishop Shelby Spong’s view of the events surrounding the resurrection of Jesus. He is correct in that ‘something’ happened that demands an explanation. But he does not believe in the resurrection and so we have been following his scenario of Peter and the other disciples about-face.  Yet though he claims to be driven by reason, his scenario flies in the face of common-sense.

But the fact that you and I are sitting here contemplating this question probably comes from the influence of Paul as well as Peter. Paul was the one who first brought this message to Europe and hence the West. But Paul had originally been Saul – a violent opponent of the gospel. And while Peter and Paul were travelling the world with this message who was holding ‘the fort’ back in Jerusalem? It was James, the brother of Jesus who became the leader of the Gospel followers in Jerusalem. But when Jesus was alive and ministering publicly his brother James had little to do with him. The Gospel of John records a sarcastic exchange that his brothers gave him with this concluding comment ‘For even his own brothers did not believe in him’ (John 7:5). But we know about James’ subsequent life from many sources, including his own letter (‘James’) in the New Testament and also, outside the Bible, from the Jewish historian Josephus. Josephus says about James:

“Ananus [the high priest] was rash and followed the Sadducees, who are heartless when they sit in judgment. Ananus thought that with Festus dead and Albinus still on the way, he would have the opportunity. Convening the judges of the Sanhedrin [the Jewish ruling council] he brought before them a man named James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ, and certain others. He accused them of having transgressed the law, and condemned them to be stoned to death”[1]

Josephus is explaining that Ananus had just been made high priest and there was a bit of a power vacuum. Ananus used the opportunity to sentence James to death. He must have done this quickly since he was only high priest for 3 months in 62 AD. His father (also called Ananus) had sentenced Jesus to death about 30 years previously and Ananus Jr. quickly took the opportunity to do the same with James, Jesus’ brother. So James was a target for his years of leadership with the Jewish church in Jerusalem. This is an extra-biblical fact of history. So what caused James to go from mocker to leader of the gospel? Spong is ready with an answer.

One reason Spong believes he has the freedom to come up with a ‘new’ scenario is that he puts no weight on the testimony of the gospel accounts because he feels that they are written too late. So he dismisses their eyewitness statements on the resurrection of Jesus as pious fable. For the sake of argument let’s give him the benefit of his doubt. But Spong recognizes a problem in his rejection of the testimony of these ‘late’ gospels. There are other early-dated New Testament writings concerning the resurrection. What to do with this testimony? For example there is the passage in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8. This is a letter written by Paul about 55 AD, just 25 years after the death of Jesus. In these verses, Paul goes on to list the people that the risen Jesus appeared to. Paul writes:

“For what I received I passed onto you as of first importance: That Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born” (1 Corinthians 15: 3-8)

So what does Spong do with this very early resurrection testimony? It lists in detail the people that saw Jesus raised – including James.

“The same is true of Paul’s reference to James…there was no record in the Christian writing of any role of discipleship during Jesus’ earthly life for anyone identified as a brother of Jesus, nor any appearance to James of the risen Lord, save for this single reference. The fact remains that James, the brother of Jesus, was a leader of the Christian church who exercised great authority. So the authority exercised demands some kind of explanation. Paul thus listed James as one who had seen Jesus”[2]

Spong recognizes the issue: that during the life of Jesus, his brother James was not a follower but afterwards the ‘fact remains’ that he became a ‘leader’ with ‘great authority’. How to account for the change? Spong’s ‘solution’ is simply to have Paul make up an appearance of Jesus to James, thus explaining his authority in the church. But this explains nothing. It is not James’ authority in the church that needs explaining; it is the fact that James even wanted to be part of the fledgling church that needs explaining. If the appearance to James is just made up, then it never happened. And if it never happened what on earth would cause James to go from a mocking, disbeliever when Jesus was alive to a leader and martyr in the movement with only the grisly resurrection-less crucifixion of Jesus for motivation? James would have had all the same questions that Peter would have had that we went over in the previous post. History shows that something happened to change James’ mind. If not the resurrection then what could it have been? Inserting an ‘appearance’ does not solve the problem. For some reason Spong thinks he has a solution but really he has ‘solved’ the wrong problem.

And it is not just James. What about the ‘five hundred’ that Paul mentions who saw Jesus at the same time, and many of whom were still alive at the time of writing of 1 Corinthians in 55 AD? Spong argues that:

“… who were the 500 brethren… it was not picked up and described in any recognizable form in any of the later gospels… it is enough now to acknowledge that Paul’s reference to Jesus’ appearance to 500 people at once is found nowhere in the gospel tradition”[3]

Earlier he had indicated that any resurrection testimony in the gospels was not really reliable because they were written so late. We gave him the benefit of his doubt. So then you would think he would take ‘early’ testimony seriously. But now he dismisses this early testimony of resurrection appearances precisely because it is not also mentioned in any of the ‘later’ gospels. For him it is ‘heads I win, tails you lose’.

And what about Paul himself? We continue following Spong’s analysis in our next post.

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[1] Josephus. 93 AD. Antiquities xx 197

[2] Resurrection: Myth or Reality? p. 52

[3] Ibid p. 52