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.

 

 

BBC Reports Startling Genetic Tests – Neanderthal in Your Bloodline

I had been planning to put up a few posts dealing with theories of Jesus after his death since we are in the Post-Easter weeks, but I came across a fascinating article at BBC on Neanderthals, and given that I have also just put up the FAQ presentation on human evolution I thought this article deserved some attention.  In this FAQ I showed that recent research demonstrates that we modern humans have Neanderthal blood coursing through our veins (in the 3rd video of the FAQ: What about Human Evolution?).  The BBC article, entitled “How I traced my ancestry back to the Stone Age”, is the story of how a journalist had some of her DNA sequenced by sending a vial of her saliva to a DNA testing center from which they traced her genealogy.   Apart from her European Jewish ancestry she learned something else from her test results.

Another exciting thing I’ve learned goes all the way back to the Stone Age. The test I used has added a feature that lets you see what percentage – if any – of your DNA comes from Neanderthals, and 2.7% of mine is Neanderthal.

While that’s not unexpected – almost everyone of non-African descent does have a little bit of Neanderthal DNA in them [1 – 4%] – I find it fascinating to think that somewhere up the line, I was a twinkle in a Neanderthal’s eye.

What was Neanderthal man (and woman)?

Apart from being fascinating at a personal level, this has direct implications on human evolutionary theory.  Neanderthals have probably been the showcase ‘ape cave-man’ popularized across our culture for the last 150 years as scientific ‘evidence’ bolstering the story of human evolution.  Neanderthals did indeed have skull morphology different than the typical morphology we see in people today.  But there are variations in skull morphology across all sorts of human and animal populations.  A species can exhibit great variability in traits, and it comes from having many alleles within the population.  As alleles are lost the variability is decreased and the population loses the ability to adapt to new environments.  I noted this kind of process in the ‘evolution’ of the soapberry bug and saw that this was simply a loss of some alleles – not an evolutionary gain of new information.

In any case, the question had always been an open one as to whether the difference in skull morphologies of Neanderthal and Homo erectus from that of people today was due to evolution, or just due to the inherent range of skull shapes built into Homo sapiens.  If that were the case it would just prove that Homo sapiens come in various skull shapes just like we also come in, for example, different skin colors.  But that reasoning – sound though it was – would have done little to bolster the evolutionary story in popular imagination so instead Neanderthals were portrayed and illustrated as brutish, savage and ape-ish – they were the last rung on the evolutionary ladder until Homo sapiens evolved.

The Neanderthal Narrative & Image in our Culture

Neanderthal skeletons were first discovered in the mid-19th century, around the time of the publication of The Origin of Species, and thus became compelling in the mind of the public at that time ‘proving’ evolution.  The Neanderthal ‘story’ was largely framed by Boule, a prominent paleontologist of that time. The following quote from an anthropology text shows how Boule went about developing the Neanderthal story.

Unfortunately his (Boule’s) model was riddled with errors. Most of the mistakes stemmed from Boule’s preconception that Neanderthals did not fit into the human evolutionary mainstream. Having already decided that they were very primitive, he exaggerated their differences … barely upright with their heads so far forward they could hardly stand, shoulders hunched, and knees bent. He even gave them an opposable big toe similar to that of the apes… After Boule, even reconstructions of facial characteristics emphasized the primitive; in most, Neanderthal was given a vacuous and rather stupid expression – an open mouth and dazed look … When examining the evolution of Neanderthals, we cannot help but consider the evolution of thinking about them…[1]

Boule's image of Neanderthal
Boule's Neanderthal

We can see here that ‘preconceptions’ were the driving force producing a story.  The data (Neanderthal skeletons) were interpreted, and this from the context of a pre-existing belief system.  Thus, even in a secular context, a ‘myth’ was produced by a ‘priest’ (Boule), replete with objects of veneration (the reconstructions) that told a story (vacuous and stupid Neanderthal gives rise to sophisticated modern man) that was ‘believed’ by the educated masses in the same way that primitives believed their religious myths.  And contrary to the claim of ‘critical suspension of disbelief’ that naturalism is supposed to engender, the facts had nothing to do with it.  Religion is certainly no prerequisite for the development of mythology.

And as with Neanderthals, I show in the FAQ presentation that all other popular ‘ape-men’ stories are really just that – stories driven primarily by imagination and preconceptions rather than by hard data.

But Neanderthals Really are … Us

But with Neanderthal we now come full circle from Boule.  Just as the author of the BBC article discovered, both you and I have Neanderthals in our genealogy.  Neanderthals, as well as Homo erectus are Homo sapiens pure and simple.  As the textbook I used in my FAQ class presentation summarized it:

In this scenario for the evolution of modern humans it would be difficult to draw a line between say, Neanderthals and early modern humans in Europe and between Homo erectus and early modern humans in Asia… these gradations, together with the melding effect of the gene flow that has occurred between geographical regions, justify including Homo erectus and all the regional hominin variants that came after it in a single species … Homo sapiens.[2]

We can be sure that interpretations of all sorts will be developed around this new information of Neanderthal’s blood coursing through our veins.   But given our understanding that variance in skull morphology is best understood as gradations within Homo sapiens we should treat with skepticism those stories that rely simply on these differences to project an evolutionary ‘just-so’ narrative.  Otherwise we risk repeating the gullibility of the educated that believed Boule’s stories of his day, now known to be so wrong, simply because their imaginations were tickled.

Neanderthal as per BBC article
Neanderthal as per BBC article
An image of Neanderthal using DNA data
An image of Neanderthal using DNA data

[1] Kenneth L. Feder & Michael A Park, 1997. Human Antiquity: An introduction to Physical Anthropology and Archaeology 3rd ED. p. 278-279

[2] Bernard Wood.  Human Evolution. 2005 p. 136

What about Human Evolution?

[See my related post on whether there was a real Adam or not here and a Noah or not here (and that controversial flood here)]

Recently I had the opportunity to present a scientific critique of human evolution in a university human evolution anthropology class. I recorded the presentation and Q&A which followed and then spliced it into the three videos below. My overall conclusion, referencing in part the textbook and scientific journals, is that the human evolution story is just that – a story – which says more about our society and culture than anything derived from hominin fossil data.

In the first video I discuss how it is our worldview which moves us to interpret data in a certain way, rather than the data forming our worldview. I cite from the textbook used in the course to provide some examples of this. I then look at how the fossil hominin data is to all practical extent removed from investigators. I introduce the Catalogue of Fossil Hominids – a catalogue of discovered fossil hominids up to mid-1970’s – and contend that the fossil data is actually much better than we are usually led to believe – it just does not follow the standard evolutionary story so we do not know about it.

 

 

In the second video (a continuation of the same presentation in class). I systematically go through the most ancient hominin candidates that are typically proposed as the first human ancestors that diverged from apes 5-8 million years ago. I analyze Ardipithecus, tchadensis, Tuang skull (an australopithecine), australopithecus afarensis (ie Lucy), australopithecus africanus, Laetoli footprints and homo habilis and argue that all of these do not readily fit within the standard evolutionary story. I look at fossil hominid KP271 which we usually do not hear about since it does not follow the standard story.

 

 

In the third video I examine the standard homo specimens: homo erectus, archaic homo sapiens (ie Heidelbergensis) and Neanderthals. I look at 2010 Neanderthal nuclear DNA sequencing data results which show Neanderthals interbred with modern homo sapiens and that therefore all these homo species can be seen as varieties of homo sapiens – this is one conclusion supported in the textbook. Funny thing, the BBC reported the same thing just after.  The video then follows the Q&A time where the class interacted on the material I presented.