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.