Palm Sunday: Passover Plot or Providence Program?

Jesus arriving on a donkey - Palm Sunday
Jesus entering on a donkey – Palm Sunday

People around the globe today are commemorating Palm Sunday – the Sunday before Jesus was crucified when he rode into Jerusalem on the foal of a donkey as the long promised Coming King.  It is recorded in all of the Gospels as a watershed event which set in motion the crisis of that Passover Week.

I believe the Gospel for several reasons, but very high up on the list are the widespread, diverse and testable prophecies that, in spite of the vanishingly impossible odds, are fulfilled sometimes hundreds of years after the prophecies were first written down.  I had shown how Daniel (ca 550 BC) had predicted the interval of time to the coming of this awaited King.  This was fulfilled precisely on that Palm Sunday when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey.  Because of the long time span involved – over 500 years – this meant that the chance that his birth would even just fall in the proper time frame for there to be a chance that he could be around to ride into Jerusalem would itself be startlingly improbable.   Jesus could not have humanly engineered the timing of such a scope.

But the gospel writers do not focus on this timing when they record the events of that Sunday.  Instead they direct our attention to the book of Zechariah (ca 520 BC) and explicitly tell us that when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey he was fulfilling the prophecy given in Zechariah that:

Look, your king is coming to you.
He is righteous and victorious,
yet he is humble, riding on a donkey—
riding on a donkey’s colt.  (Zechariah 9:9)

Now this fulfillment that the Gospel writers trumpet had never really impressed me for the simple reason that it seemed too easy to plot a ‘fulfillment’.  All that Jesus needed to do was to read Zechariah and recognize that to get a ‘fulfillment’ he would need to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey.  The timing of his entrance aside (which I think is impossible to explain naturally), it would be a simple matter for Jesus to plot his entrance into Jerusalem for the Passover festival and make sure he came in on the donkey as per Zechariah’s script.  And being a lowly peasant it would be easier for Jesus to hatch such a plot than for him to procure a war horse – the steed of choice when kings make their entrances.  So could that entry simply be explained as the plotting of a man using an ancient script to ride a Passover exuberance?

Zechariah’s Prophecy in context

So let’s take the trouble to read the original Zechariah prophecy in its full context and consider such a ‘Passover Plot’ conspiracy.  Here it is:

9 Rejoice, O people of Zion!
Shout in triumph, O people of Jerusalem!
Look, your king is coming to you.
He is righteous and victorious,
yet he is humble, riding on a donkey—
riding on a donkey’s colt.

10 I will remove the battle chariots from Israel
and the warhorses from Jerusalem.
I will destroy all the weapons used in battle,
and your king will bring peace to the nations.
His realm will stretch from sea to sea
and from the Euphrates River to the ends of the earth.
11 Because of the covenant I made with you,
sealed with blood,
I will free your prisoners
from death in a waterless dungeon.
12 Come back to the place of safety,
all you prisoners who still have hope!
I promise this very day
that I will repay two blessings for each of your troubles. (Zechariah 9:9-12)

What jumps out is the bizarre change of scope that spans these few sentences.  The king enters Jerusalem on a donkey (v9) and then his rule will extend to ‘the ends of the earth’ (v10).  And God will seal a covenant ‘with blood’ such that prisoners of death will be freed (v11).  Zechariah saw and predicted something of far greater scope than just an entry to a city on a donkey.  According to Zechariah, tied with this entry would be a new worldwide program as well as a new destiny for ‘prisoners of death’.

And who might that be?

Today, the news outlets across Canada are reporting on the sudden and unexpected death of the recent Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.  He was considered one of the most successful and influential finance ministers in Canadian history.  He retired three weeks ago in the media spotlight to transition his career.  Today he is dead and his sudden and abrupt death has shocked and saddened everyone.  I submit that he is a ‘prisoner of death’.  Though he had been chief of the finance department, his success and prominence there gave him no advantage in this department of death.   And we too are all following along right behind him – not knowing when or how we will die.  We all are ‘prisoners of death’!  Zechariah was writing this 2500 years ago for you and me.  He was telling us that someone was going to come who would free us from this prison.  But how?  Zechariah explained long before Jesus rode the donkey into Jerusalem that it would be done by God making a covenant ‘sealed with blood’ (v11) – echoing the sign of the Passover Blood and the release from death that Isaac experienced in Abraham’s sacrifice.  A few short days after Jesus rode into Jerusalem atop his donkey on Palm Sunday he did indeed inaugurate a new covenant and then literally sealed it with his blood.  And three days after that he rose from the dead.  The doors of that prison which holds us all busted open.  The fact that Zechariah could see it so long before it happened indicates that the entry of Jesus on the donkey was not the desperate plot of a pitiful man, but rather it was a key sign marking a Providential Program for the largest jailbreak imaginable – to spring all of humanity from the prison of death.  The entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on a donkey was prominent for the gospel writers precisely because they saw it as a key sign marking that larger Providential Program that Zechariah had sketched out 500 years earlier.

But what about this rule that Zechariah wrote would go to the ‘ends of the earth’?  Jesus never ruled – the prophecy is in error, critics will charge.  But to think of ‘ruling’ solely in political or military terms is to miss the most powerful rule of all – the personal allegiance of a one’s heart freely given in worship.  Though Jim Flaherty was a senior member of the party that ‘rules’ in Canada, he never had that kind of rule over one single person in the entire country.  But Jesus at his trial calmly claimed that he would one day get this rule – worship – from people around the world.  Here we are two thousand years later with Palm Sunday inaugurating Passion Week which will be celebrated in worship by people around the world, in all nations, in a multitude of languages.  From that point of view Zechariah’s prediction of a rule ‘to the ends of the earth’ was indeed fulfilled by that peasant carpenter who rode into Jerusalem on a lowly donkey so many Sundays ago.

But what about the removal of all weapons of war from Israel (v10)?  That certainly has not happened. In fact today Israel is one of the most weaponized countries in the world!  True enough.  But that prediction is anticipating the conclusion in this Providential Program.  We are not there yet.  We are now at the stage exemplified in v12 where the plea and offer is going out to all us prisoners of death to come to his place of safety.  The news and offer of the ‘jailbreak’ is going around the world and many are choosing to take it.

In the context of this larger Program, Zechariah predicted that this King would make another entrance.  He wrote

“Then I will pour out a spirit of grace and prayer on the family of David and on the people of Jerusalem. They will look on me whom they have pierced and mourn for him as for an only son. They will grieve bitterly for him as for a firstborn son who has died.  (Zechariah 13:10)

The one that had been pierced and had died, and in so doing had sealed that covenant with his blood, will come back!  It is a hope I have, and some may charge me with naïvity for keeping it.  But given that Zechariah was bang on with both the details and the outworkings of that entrance on a donkey, it is simply a reasoned leap to trust that this Second Entrance in this greater Program of Providence will also one day come about.  And when it does, I want to be part of the jailbreak.

An evening at the University of Wyoming – on the historical case for the resurrection of Jesus

In late October I had the privilege to visit the University of Wyoming and give a public presentation on the historical case for the resurrection of Jesus.  This was followed by some Q&A time.  The presentation and the Q&A was captured on video.  Grab a coffee and engage in on this most vital of topics and invite your friends to e-join as well.

Resurrection Presentation

Q&A time

The Heart that Changed History – Did it Beat Again?

Last Easter weekend I had the privilege to share some brief overview thoughts on the question of the Resurrection of Jesus at a community brunch in Hamilton.  Entitled “The Heart that Changed History – Did it Beat Again?”, it was recorded on video by a friend.  This 17 minute video summarizes the case for the resurrection of Jesus using non-biblical historical sources and highlights the relevance of this event for everybody by showcasing lives of some famous people.


Considering the Resurrection: From the eyes of Bishop Spong – Part 4

In my series of posts (Parts 1, 2, 3) on the question of the resurrection of Jesus I have looked at its impact on Peter, the other disciples, and on James the brother of Jesus, all through the eyes of a prominent denier of the resurrection – Bishop John Shelby Spong. Because he denies the resurrection he has to develop alternative scenarios for the changes we know from history that took place in these men. Now we turn to consider Paul. What would make Saul, chief persecutor of the followers of Jesus, change into Paul, the chief apologist and evangelist of Jesus in the first century – if there had been no resurrection? Spong tells us:

“There is no sense at all in Paul of a physical resurrection of Jesus back into the life of this world. God did not, for this apostle, raise Jesus from the grave back to life on this earth. Rather, for Paul, God raised Jesus from death into God’s presence, from the grave to God’s right hand… For Paul there were no empty tombs, no disappearance from the grave of the physical body, no physical resurrection, no physical appearance of a Christ who would eat fish, offer his wounds for inspection, or rise physically into the sky after an appropriate length of time. None of these ideas can be found in reading Paul.”  (Resurrection: Myth or Reality pg 50-51)

Spong’s previous scenarios for Peter, the disciples and for James have been ludicrous at best. But in this statement concerning Paul, Spong sinks to outright error and deception. Which Paul has Spong been reading?  If anything, it is obvious that Paul himself believed and emphasized the resurrection. Why he is the very one writing about the physical resurrection appearances of 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, assessing the issue as of ‘first importance’, that we looked at in Part 3. I quote it again so you can see for yourself whether Paul taught ‘no physical appearance of a Christ’ as Spong wishes us to believe:

“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)

Paul, as you can see, certainly believed in the physical resurrection of Jesus. What many of us do not realize is that the message that the disciples, and especially Paul, preached was not ‘love’ so much as it was the resurrection of Jesus. And from their own words everything stood or fell on the resurrection of Jesus. Notice how Paul continues:

“If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that we are found to be false witnesses about God for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead … If Christ has not been raised your faith is futile…But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead… If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men….Why do we endanger ourselves every day – I mean that brothers – …If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus for merely human reasons, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised – ‘Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die’…” (1 Corinthians 15:14-34)

Spong, unsurprisingly, skips over this part of Paul’s writing because it flatly contradicts him. In trying to make his case that Paul did not believe in the empty tomb, he maintains that Paul taught a spiritual resurrection of Jesus’ spirit straight to God. He believes that this is because Paul did not hold a distinction between the resurrection of Jesus from the grave to life on earth and the ascension of Jesus to God, since he never mentions the ascension separately from the resurrection. But Luke does; Luke clearly separates the two because he places the resurrection appearances in The Gospel of Luke and then places the ascension in his 2nd volume – Acts of the Apostles.  Luke and Paul were ministry and travelling companions.   In their respective writings both of them write as being with the other as part of a travelling team.  In fact, it is because of Luke’s association with Paul that his two books, Luke and Acts, were accepted as authoritative.  So it would have been impossible for Luke to have a different view of the resurrection/ascension of Jesus than Paul had. Spong just ignores this, disregards Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians, and then deceptively fabricates an imaginary Paul to fit his theory. I can only conclude that Spong is deliberately misleading his readers in what he writes about Paul.

One reason Spong feels he can do so is because he thinks that the evidence in support of the resurrection is solely in the accounts of his appearances at the end of the gospels. And since (in his mind) they are written late they do not carry much weight. I built the broad outline of the case for the resurrection in the videos in Session 7. You, I and Spong should all take note that the case there and in subsequent posts was developed without any recourse to any of the Gospel statements of Jesus’ resurrection. In Session 7 I used some of the Gospel accounts to obtain details of his death and then I used some passages in Acts to help us understand the extent of the opposition that this new movement faced in Jerusalem. That was it!  After that I used only extra-biblical sources to show that it is precisely the broad outlines of the verifiable facts outside of the Biblical testimony that argues so strongly for the resurrection of Jesus.

Paul viewed the resurrection and ascension of Jesus as distinct and real events. In the same way he viewed the resurrection of Jesus as an event distinct from, but also as a prefiguring for our eventual resurrection. Here is how he puts it:

Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed — in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” (1 Corinthians 15:51-54)

The resurrection of Jesus is not only news pregnant with Hope, a potent simplicity, but is also news so firmly anchored in the verifiable facts of history that open-minded faith as small as a mustard seed could live and grow if but placed in the rich soil of its rationale.

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.


[1] Josephus. 93 AD. Antiquities xx 197

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

[3] Ibid p. 52



Considering the Resurrection: From the eyes of Bishop Spong – Part 2

In my previous post I had started us thinking about the resurrection from the point-of-view of one of its prominent deniers – Bishop John Shelby Spong.  In his book Resurrection: Myth or Reality?, he had given a vivid description of how Jesus would have impacted his disciples during his lifetime. He then painted a thorough picture of how the disciples would have interpreted the meaning of a non-resurrected, dead, Jesus. Spong focused on the turmoil that would have gone on in Simon Peter’s mind and Spong portrays Peter’s conclusion as:

…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 (p.251)

Bishop Spong on the turn-around of Simon Peter

Spong has perfectly captured the implications that would indeed have haunted the minds of the disciples with a non-resurrected Jesus. But what was the catalyst that would have turned these peasant fishermen around to take on the world? Spong continues by surmising how it would have turned around for Simon Peter after a night of fishing and now warming himself by the fire.

Suddenly it all came together for Simon. The crucifixion was not punitive, it was intentional. The cross was Jesus’ ultimate parable, acted out on the stage of history to open the eyes of those whose eyes could be opened in no other way to the meaning of Jesus as the sign of God’s love. God’s love was unconditional, a love not earned by the rigorous keeping of the law… Jesus’ death was the final episode in the story of his life. It demonstrated as nothing else could or would that it is in giving life away that we find life, it is in giving love away that we find love… It was a love that allowed us to stop pretending and simply to be. Simon saw the meaning of the crucifixion that morning as he had never before seen it … this was the dawn of Easter in human history … the clouds of his grief, confusion, and depression vanished from his mind, and in that moment he know that Jesus was part of the very essence of God, and at that moment Simon saw Jesus alive. (p.255)

So what caused this ‘coming together’ for Simon? Well after the night of fishing, by the fire, he ‘broke bread’ and said grace and in doing so remembered Jesus. That’s it! That changed the defeated and confused Simon into valiant Peter that no one could silence. Read Spong’s explanation again in detail, and you will see it just raises far more questions than it answers. How could the crucifixion not be ‘punitive’? It is the worst form of humiliation and torture that man has invented. In what way is Jesus being ‘intentional’ and ‘acting’ out a ‘parable’ that leads to his grisly end? How can a man tortured on a cross, without a resurrection, be a “sign of God’s love”? And is not anyone’s ‘death the final episode of their life’? That is true for everyone. That is just a circular statement to mean nothing. How does Jesus giving his life ‘away’ in crucifixion ‘demonstrate as nothing else could’ that ‘we find life’ (assuming no resurrection)? That is bogus; it just demonstrates the reverse. How does Simon in that moment ‘know’ that Jesus was part of the ‘very essence of God’ when as we saw in the first quote that the non-resurrected death of Jesus would very logically been understand as proof of his ‘blasphemy’? What could be going on in Simon’s mind to get this sudden ‘realization’? Spong tells us.

It was as if scales fell from his eyes and Simon saw a realm that is around us at every moment … a realm of God from within which Jesus appeared to Simon. Was it real? Yes, I am convinced it was real. Was it objective? No, I do not think it was objective. Can it be real if not objective? Yes I think it can. (p.256)

We have a word for this kind of thing, where something appears ‘real’ to the beholder, but is nonetheless not objective (i.e. it is not true). We call it delusion. There would be no other way to describe what would have happened to Peter at this moment if Spong’s scenario is true. In a real sense, Spong has Peter becoming a lunatic regarding the person of Jesus.

Spong on the turn-around of the other apostles

But perhaps we should cut Spong some slack. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and concede that it is conceivable that in the stress Peter went through that he snapped and had this delusional ‘realization’. But that still does not explain anything. Peter needs to get a movement going (which we know from history did indeed take off). He needs to get all the other ‘apostles’ on board. And he has to do so in a way that will sustain them for a long, long time in a difficult, difficult task. Consider, given the opposition that the disciples would face in the coming years, what kind of pressure they would be under. Dr Simon Greenleaf, a professor of Law at Harvard whose specialty it was to train students how to cross-examine witnesses had this to say of the disciples coming career:

The annals of military warfare afford scarcely an example of the like heroic constancy, patience, and unflinching courage. They had every possible motive to review carefully the grounds of their faith, and the evidences of the great facts and truths which they asserted [1]

French Philosopher Blaise Pascal had this to say about the disciples.

The hypothesis that the disciples were knaves is quite absurd. Follow it out to the end, and imagine these twelve men meeting after Jesus’ death and conspiring to say that he had risen from the dead. This means attacking all powers that be. The human heart is singularly susceptible to fickleness, to change, to promises, to bribery. One of them had only to deny his story under these inducements, or still more because of possible imprisonment, tortures and death, and they would all have been lost. [2]

So how is delusional Peter going to develop men of adequate calibre to face this task? Spong tells us:

The gospel of Easter and Jesus as the exalted one, living with God, dawned, I believe in Galilee with Peter at its heart. Peter then opened the eyes of the other Galilean disciples to see what he saw. They took this faith to Jerusalem during the feast of Tabernacles some six months after the crucifixion. That was the real triumphal journey. That was the original Palm Sunday. In Jerusalem they made known their faith in the risen, living Christ; and in time the Jerusalem setting for the resurrection became the primary one…The Jerusalem Easter legends are not to be dismissed as untrue. They are meant to be probed for clues, as I trust I have done adequately. (p.282)

So Peter just ‘opened the eyes’ of the other disciples to see his delusion!!? Then they marched down to Jerusalem, and in a public display, in the teeth of the authorities of the day they proclaimed the ‘risen’, ‘living’ Christ! So now Lunatic Peter has made Liars of the rest of the disciples since what they were saying would have been a lie.  Jesus was not risen; he was not living (in Spong’s unfolding scenario).

In attempting to avoid a supernatural explanation for the events of history that we know, Spong has made his natural explanation supremely bizarre and infinitely less rational. His scenario takes a naive faith to believe because it flies in the face of facts that we know. But somehow he thinks he has ‘adequately’ explained things.   There is nothing ‘adequate’ about his explanation – but it is naturalistic, and this provides a glimpse into a foundational assumption in our society.  Spong, like so many of us, equates naturalism with ‘rational’ and ‘adequate’.  Like an iceberg submerged just below the water surface, invisible but certainly there, this unwritten doctrine squeezes so much of our thinking that, without realizing it, we confuse ‘adequate rationality’ with ‘naturalistic folly’.  That is why Spong thinks his scenario is reasonable.  But he is not even close to accounting for all the facts of history as we know them. How does he explain the turnaround of Jesus’ brothers and Saul of Tarsus? We will see how he does this in our next post.

[1] Greenleaf, An examination of the Testimony of the Four Evangelists by the Rules of
Evidence Administered in the Courts of Justice
. 1874 p. 29

[2] Blaise Pascal Pensees 322,310

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.



Easter Examined (Part 2)

In my previous post I showed why – based on secular historical evidence – there are overwhelming reasons supporting the claim that the tomb of Jesus was empty that first Easter Sunday.  Of course this does not prove the resurrection – there are other good explanations for an empty tomb apart from a resurrection.

However, any explanation for the absence of the body must also account for the situation on-hand: the Roman seal over the tomb, the Roman patrol guarding the tomb, the large (1-2 ton) stone covering the tomb entrance, the 40 kg of embalming agent on the body.  The list goes on.  Space does not allow us to look at all factors and scenarios to explain the missing body.  In the videos of Session 7.  News Pregnant with Hope: Considering the Death & Resurrection of Jesus I look more thoroughly at several options but in this post I want to briefly consider the most contemplated explanation – that the disciples themselves stole the body from the tomb, hid it somewhere and were then able to mislead others.

Did the disciples steal the body of Jesus?

Let us assume this scenario, avoiding for the sake of argument some of the difficulties in explaining how the discouraged band of disciples who fled for their lives at his arrest, could re-group and come up with a plan to steal the body that totally outwitted the Roman guard.  They then broke the seal, moved the massive rock, and made off with the embalmed body – all without leaving any trace.   Let us assume that they successfully managed to do this and then entered onto the world stage to start a religious faith based on their deception.  Let’s analyze it from here.

Motivation of the Disciples

Many of us today assume that what motivated the first disciples was the need to proclaim brotherhood and love among men – and Christ’s death and (spiritual or metaphorical) resurrection was the catalyst for this message.  But in the book of Acts, recounting events that occurred just weeks after the death of Jesus you can notice that the contentious issue was “the apostles were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead” (Acts 4:2).  This theme is paramount in their writings.  Notice how important Paul rates the issue of Christ’s resurrection:

For … I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died …buried, that he wasraised on the third day…  he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.. If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless … your faith is futile…If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men…. If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus for merely human reasons, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised – ‘Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die’…  (I Corinthians 15: 3-32)

Clearly (in their minds at least) the disciples placed the importance and their witness of the resurrection of Jesus at the utmost center of their message.   Now, let us assume that this was really false – that these disciples had indeed stolen the body so the counter-evidence against their new message would not put a stop to them.  They may have perhaps been successful in fooling the world, but they themselves would have known that what they were preaching, writing and creating great social upheaval for was basically false.  Yet they gave their lives (literally) for this mission.  Why would they do it – IF they knew that the basis of it was false?  People give their lives to causes (worthwhile and otherwise) because they believe in the cause for which they fight or because they expect some gain from the cause.

Consider the suicide bombers in the Middle East as an example.  This is surely the greatest modern-day example of extreme devotion to a cause – and a dangerous one at that.  Now we disagree with their cause – but they themselves surely believe in the cause for which they are sacrificing themselves and killing others.  They go to the extremes that they do precisely because they believe they will go to paradise after death as a reward for their sacrifice.  Now this belief may be false – but at least they themselves believe it – or they would not give their own lives (and take those of others) on such a drastic wager.  The difference between suicide bombers and the early disciples are that they are not in a position to factually verify their belief, whereas the disciples were.

Consider from their own words what price the disciples paid for the spreading of their message – and ask yourself if you would pay such a personal price for something that you knew to be untrue:

We are hard pressed on every side… perplexed… persecuted, struck down… outwardly we are wasting away…in great endurance, in troubles, hardships, distresses, in beatings, imprisonments and riots, hard work, sleepless nights and hunger… beaten … sorrowful … poor … having nothing… Five times I received from the Jews the 39 lashes, three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, … , I have been in danger from rivers, from bandits, my own countrymen, from Gentiles, in the city, in the country, in the sea.  I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep, I have known hunger and thirst… I have been cold and naked… Who is weak and I do not feel weak. (II Corinthians 4: 8– 6:10; 11:24-29)

They believed in their cause – and therefore could not have fabricated a hoax

The more I ponder the unshrinking heroism of all their lives (not one cracked at the bitter end and ‘confessed’), the more I find it impossible that they did not sincerely believe the message they were proclaiming.  But if they believed it – they certainly could not themselves have stolen and disposed of the body of Jesus.  One of the greatest criminal lawyers, who taught law students at Harvard how to probe for weaknesses in witnesses, had this remark to say about this issue:

“The annals of military warfare afford scarcely an example of the like heroic constancy, patience, and unflinching courage.  They had every possible motive to review carefully the grounds of their faith, and the evidences of the great facts and truths which they asserted” (Greenleaf. 1874.  An examination of the Testimony of the Four Evangelists by the Rules of Evidence Administered in the Courts of Justice. p. 29)

Silence of the Authorities

Related to this is the silence of the enemies of the disciples – Jewish or Roman.  These hostile witnesses never seriously attempted to tell the ‘real’ story, or show how the disciples were wrong.  As Dr. Montgomery states,

“This underscores the reliability of testimony to Christ’s resurrection which was presented contemporaneously in the synagogues – in the very teeth of opposition, among hostile cross-examiners who would certainly have destroyed the case … had the facts been otherwise” (Montgomery. 1975. Legal reasoning and Christian Apologetics.  p. 88-89)

In this brief study we have not had the space to consider every facet of this question.  However, the unwavering boldness of the disciples and the silence of the coexistent hostile witnesses speak volumes that Christ may indeed have risen and that it is worth taking a serious and thoughtful examination.  One way to do so is to view the public presentation I gave on this topic at the University of Wyoming which covers these themes in greater detail.  It is also informative to understand that the extraordinary timing of Jesus’ crucifixion – happening on the Jewish Passover, and its location – being in Jerusalem – had great prophetic meaning in the Old Testament.  It is like the whole sequence of improbable events was the plan of a Mind that could span millennia.

Easter Examined: Could Jesus have risen from the dead?

As a child I learned many ‘fantastic’ stories surrounding our religious holidays.  I learned that a jolly fat man lived in the North Pole and flew around the world with reindeer, climbing down chimneys to give gifts to good girls and boys on Christmas.  I learned about the Easter bunny that gave out eggs and chocolates to the same good girls and boys at Easter time.  As I grew older I realized that these stories were cute but not true – I could look back and smile on them – but I would (and did) outgrow them.

Is the Resurrection story of Jesus credible?

I also learned other ‘stories’ about our religious holidays.  These stories had shepherds seeing angels, wise men following stars, a baby born in a manger – stories that form the basis of the Christmas celebration.  But perhaps the most dramatic was the story of how Jesus died on a cross, but that three days later he came back to life again – stories forming the basis of Easter.

These second set of stories, taken at face value, seem as fantastic as the first set.  The question I had when I got a little older and realized that the first set of stories were not ‘really’ true was – Is the second set also false?  After all, these stories seem equally incredible!  This is especially true of the Easter story which claimed that three days after his death, Jesus underwent a physical resurrection and came to life again.  This is probably the most audacious story across all religions, one perhaps fit for a tabloid headline – ‘Dead Man Comes Back to Life’.  Could it be true? Or even credible?  Was there any reasonable evidence to substantiate it?

The Resurrection: A Life-and-Death Issue

These are hard questions to answer.  But surely it is worth some adult thought since it touches on our mortality.  After all, as Woody Allen reminded us in ‘The Wisdom I learned from a filthy-rich, hard-drinking playboy’ death is inevitable for you, me and all others too.  If Jesus has in some way defeated death then it would have huge implications for all of us.  So in this and the subsequent post I want to briefly summarize some things I have learned in studying and thinking through this question.  There are more detailed videos in Session 7.

Perhaps the best way to try to answer this question is to work through all the possible alternatives and see which alternative makes most sense – without prejudging by ‘faith’ any supernatural explanation.  That Jesus lived and died a public death that has altered the course of history is certain.  One need not even go to the Bible for that.  We looked at some external evidence for this in Session 4.  But here let’s review a couple of secular references to Jesus and the impact he made on the world of his day.

Tacitus’ Testimony relating to Jesus and the Resurrection

The Roman governor-historian Tacitus made a fascinating reference to Jesus when describing how Nero martyred 1st century Christians (in AD 65) as scapegoats for the burning of Rome.  Here is what he says:

‘Nero.. punished with the most exquisite tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius; but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also’ (Annals XV. 44)

The interesting point about this statement is that Tacitus corroborates that Jesus was: 1) a historical person; 2) executed by Pontius Pilate in Judea; 3) by 65 AD (time of Nero) the Christian faith had spread across the Mediterranean to Rome from Judea – and with such an intensity that the emperor of Rome felt he had to deal with it.  Notice as well that Cornelius Tacitus is saying these things as a hostile witness since he considers what Christ started a ‘pernicious superstition’.

Josephus’ Testimony relating to Jesus & the Resurrection

Josephus was a Jewish military leader/historian who wrote to a Roman audience.  In this writing he summarizes the history of the Jewish nation from its beginning up to his time.  In so doing he covers the time and career of Jesus with these words:

‘At this time there was a wise man … Jesus. … good, and … virtuous.  And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. 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’… (Antiquities xviii. 33)

So it seems from these glimpses back into the past that the death of Christ was a known and discussed event and the issue of his resurrection was being forced unto the Roman world by his disciples.

Acts on Events in Jerusalem just after Jesus’ Crucifixion

Luke, a physician and historian provides further details as to how this movement advanced in the ancient world.  Here is his excerpt from Acts:

‘The priests and the captain … came up to Peter and John … They were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead…They seized Peter and John… put them in jail…When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished… “What are we going to do with these men?” they asked’.. (Acts 4:1-16)
‘Then the high priest and all his associates,… arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail. …they were furious and wanted to put them to death….They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.’ (Acts 5:17-40)

One can see from this account that the political/religious leaders were going to great lengths to stop this ‘pernicious superstition’ (as Tacitus called it).  We should note that these events were occurring in Jerusalem – the same city where only a few weeks earlier Jesus had been publicly executed and buried.

An Empty Tomb: Reasoned from Historical Testimony

Having surveyed the pertinent historical data we are in a position to work through the possible explanations that surround the hypothesized resurrection of Christ.  To start with, we have two (and only two) possible alternatives concerning the body of the dead Jesus.

Options for the Jesus' Tomb occupied or empty
Options for the Tomb of Jesus

As the figure shows, the body of Christ was either in the tomb or was not.  Let us assume that his body was still in the tomb.  As we reflect on the unfolding events recorded in history, however, we are quickly confronted with absurdities.  Why would the religious/political leaders have to go to such extremes to stop such exaggerations of an alleged resurrection if the body was still in the tomb, a few minutes walk from where the disciples were publicly proclaiming his resurrection?  If I had been one of those religious/political leaders, I would have waited until Peter or John had reached the climax of their speech concerning the resurrection and then publicly paraded the body of Christ before all – audience and disciples.  I would have discredited the fledgling movement without having to imprison, torture and finally martyr them!  And consider – thousands were converted to belief in the physical resurrection of Christ in Jerusalem at this time.  If I had been one of those in the crowds – listening to Peter, pondering and wondering if I could believe his incredible message (after all, this belief came with a price of persecution) I would have at least taken my lunch break to go down to the tomb to take a look for myself.  If the body of Christ was still in the tomb this movement would not have gained any adherents in such a hostile environment with such incriminating counter evidence on-hand.  So Christ’s body remaining in the tomb leads to absurdities.  This alternative cannot be seriously entertained.

Tomb was not occupied

Of course this does not prove a resurrection.  There are several natural possibilities for how a tomb can get empty.  In my next post I look at some.

7. News Pregnant with Hope: Considering the Death & Resurrection of Jesus

One of the most hopeful times in life is when a couple hears that they are going to have a baby.  The expectation of a new life that will burst on the scene, full of energy, need and promise fills parent’s hearts with celebration, joy and hope.  And so the parents wait, prepare, and check ‘under the hood’ with ultrasound and heartbeat to see if that life that is still invisible to the eye is indeed there, and is growing.

That Jesus died and rose physically from the dead is central to the gospel.  In fact, Paul in his letter to the Corinthians states it this way:

I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you…. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Peter and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, … and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (1 Corinthians 15:1-8)

This is what makes the news of the gospel pregnant with hope – Jesus has conquered death and this new life of his can infuse anyone with this same new life.  So in a sense the gospel  can be viewed as a promise of good news that we can become ‘pregnant’ with new life that will one day burst upon the scene.  But now it is hidden or masked to the naked eye just like that of a woman in her first month of pregnancy; though she carries a new life, it is not outwardly visible.

But one can take a hard look ‘under the hood’ so to speak on whether Jesus actually – in a physical and historical sense – did rise from the dead.  This hope was never meant to be accepted on blind faith, or by cultural custom, or just by taking it for granted.  Just like a couple who wants to see an ultrasound or hear a heartbeat of the pregnant life within the woman’s body, the videos in this session invite you to consider through history and reason whether in fact Jesus did rise from the dead.  If so, we can have a solid assurance of this same new life given to us if we want it – we would have a firm hope.

In this first video I cover eye-witness details from the gospels that confirm that Jesus in fact did die.  Then I survey extra-biblical historical sources that bear on life and death of Jesus: Mara-bar Serapion, Tacitus, Josephus and Suetonius.  From these sources we learn that his followers began their movement in Jerusalem, a few weeks after his death, in the teeth of opposition from the religious/political leaders there.  We therefore can prove that the tomb was empty because the authorities were not able to produce the body – the only effective way to stop this movement.

In this 2nd video I look at various naturalistic explanations for why the tomb of Jesus could have been empty on Easter Sunday.  I look at whether the authorities could have moved the body; whether grave robbers could have stolen it; whether the disciples could have stolen it; or whether the whole story was just a myth that developed over a long time.  I show that none of these explanations come close to explaining the historical events that we know happened at that time.  I also look into the changed lives of Jesus’ brothers and of Saul, arguing that no explanation apart from the resurrection could account for these changes that we know from history happened in these men.  I close by looking at why this event is so pertinent to all of us.

Blog Posts Related to this Session

  • 13/04/2014 - Palm Sunday: Passover Plot or Providence Program?

  • 08/11/2013 - An evening at the University of Wyoming – on the historical case for the resurrection of Jesus

  • 05/04/2013 - The Heart that Changed History – Did it Beat Again?

  • 04/06/2012 - Considering the Resurrection: From the eyes of Bishop Spong – Part 4

  • 22/05/2012 - Considering the Resurrection: From the eyes of Bishop Spong – Part 3

  • 06/05/2012 - Considering the Resurrection: From the eyes of Bishop Spong – Part 2

  • 30/04/2012 - Considering the Resurrection: From the Eyes of its Denier – Bishop Spong

  • 07/04/2012 - Easter Examined (Part 2)

  • 04/04/2012 - Easter Examined: Could Jesus have risen from the dead?