Judeochristianity Jewish star Christian cross

Resurrection: Myth or Reality?

A Review

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.

Resurrection: Myth or Reality?
John Shelby Spong
(New York: HarperCollins, 1995)

Before I came to a new understanding of it (see The Meaning of the Resurrection), the resurrection never made sense to me. What does a body walking out of a tomb have to do with my life? How does it change anything? The world is still the same; corruption and cruelty and violence still abound. And if the traditionalists are right, that Jesus was God, then the resurrection seems especially irrelevant. What God alone can do, what is easy for God, is certainly way beyond me. And yet my salvation is supposed to be contingent on believing that this happened. The bodily resurrection of Jesus seems a leftover piece of first-century Jewish eschatology wrenched from its original context and preserved as an anachronism. Two thousand plus years later and counting, the bodily resurrection of Jesus no longer seems credible as the “first fruits” of a general resurrection soon expected that never arrived.

In this book John Shelby Spong takes a completely different approach to the resurrection, one no less spiritual for being untraditional. He effectively dismantles the orthodox view, but not to discredit the resurrection. On the contrary, he fervently affirms it. Taking apart the literalist distortion of the event actually serves to reveal a deeper picture of the resurrection that I am convinced is much closer to what really happened. Just as the precise instant of the Big Bang remains forever beyond our grasp, we can only get so close to the original Easter moment. We cannot avoid speculation entirely. But with a better understanding of the original texts and the people who wrote them, our speculations can be more educated, with a much better chance of approaching the truth.

Spong begins with a necessary caution that all readers of the Bible in translation need to understand. Today when we read stories, we tend to classify them as fact or fiction. Either the recorded events actually happened (as in a history book or newspaper article), or they didn’t (as in a novel or short story). This carries an assumption that to question the historicity of the New Testament is to dismiss it as fiction and thus irrelevant. Even worse, the conclusion many people draw is that either the Gospel writers were accurately reporting historical events or they were lying. This way of approaching the Bible is completely mistaken. The “fact/fiction” dichotomy is a modern invention and foreign to how the New Testament writers thought and what they intended.

Spong notes that all of the New Testament writers (with the possible but not definite exception of only one) were Jewish. While history was their starting point, their intention was not to report events as they literally occurred, but to bring out their deeper meanings and make those meanings accessible to their listeners. So they wrote in a style that is neither fact nor fiction, and that is called midrash. I would define midrash as the creation of legend to reveal spiritual truth (see “How Should Christians Read the Hebrew Bible?”).

A midrash may incorporate elements of history, interweaving them with symbolism meant to draw the reader into the spiritual meaning of events. Thus both dismissing midrash as fiction and taking every midrash completely literally miss the point and result only in misunderstandings and distortions. To those familiar with midrashic literature and who can read the New Testament without bias, its midrashic character should be obvious, natural, and a potential source of tremendous enrichment. However, the midrashic style of the New Testament is almost universally misunderstood because of the ironic fact that modern readers of the New Testament generally lack this background, while those who do possess familiarity with midrash (mainly traditional Jews) do not read the New Testament. Midrash is the key to understanding the New Testament, but it has for the most part remained a secret possessed only by scholars.

Spong wants to change that. He has done the best job of anyone to explain the midrashic character of Jewish writing in this period, and how to understand it. He is correct in observing that when these Jewish writings passed into Gentile hands, people started taking them literally and distorting them greatly. The “Biblical inerrancy” movement is tragically misguided in its doctrinaire defense of a way of reading scripture completely foreign to the way the original writers thought.

Just to take one example, if Matthew narrates that a moving star guided three wise men to the birthplace of Jesus, he is not reporting an astronomical breakthrough. The story is meant to highlight the specialness of this birth, and to show God’s guidance present not only in the life of the newborn child but also with those who are seeking God’s deliverance though the promised Messiah. The Gospels are full of such imagery, rich in allusions to various parts of Hebrew scripture, which Matthew expected his audience to recognize. Spong shows through a lengthy and intricate series of arguments, most of them very persuasive, that the narratives fall apart when you try to take them literally. I can’t easily reproduce those arguments without quoting the entire book, but the simple fact that there are many irreconcilable contradictions, not only between the different evangelists but at times even within the same one, should tell us that a literal interpretation of the Gospels is just not possible.

Nowhere is this more true than in the resurrection narratives. Even the “synoptic” Gospels, “seen together” because they so closely parallel each other, cease being synoptic when it comes to the resurrection. At that point all four Gospels go into four separate and irreconcilable directions. There is simply no way to harmonize them if you look at them closely. Does this mean that, even if one of them recorded the truth, at least three of the others are lying? By no means.

The Easter moment, perhaps the most transcendent moment in all history, cannot be described directly. The temporal and spatial categories we use to make sense of our world simply do not apply. So these Jewish evangelists used the language of symbols and imagery that we call midrash to capture its meaning. That was the only means of description they had available. As Spong puts it:

I would not want to be literal about most of the content of the Gospel tradition that purports to describe the dawn of Easter. But I do not want to deny for a moment the reality that drove those early Christian writers to describe what happened in the way that they did. They employed the language and the style of midrash, for that was the only language and style they had at their disposal to capture the intensity of the realm of God being experienced in the human arena (p. 20).

What was the reality of the Easter moment that drove these writers? We cannot know with absolute certainty. But we can arrive at an approximation, which is the main goal of this book. Spong’s chain of argumentation leads to the conclusion that this pivotal moment occurred in Galilee (not in Jerusalem), and that the central figure was Peter. As Paul tells it in our earliest account (1 Corinthians 15:5), Peter was the first to encounter the risen Christ. Spong presents Peter contemplating Jesus’s life and the impact it had on him. Suddenly Peter realized he was in the grasp of something far beyond ordinary human experience. This shook him to the core. It was the resurrection moment: the moment Peter witnessed something that never dies, and that has saving power. It was nothing less than the presence of God breaking into time in the life of Jesus as the Christ.

In the common folklore of that day, sickness and disease were thought of as the punishment for a sinful life, yet Jesus embraced the lepers. Immorality was a sign of rebellion against the ways of God, but Jesus reached out to the woman of the street who anointed him and called to discipleship those who cheated others in their careers as tax collectors. In a society that suggested that women were not fit creatures with whom to converse, Jesus was portrayed as talking with the woman by the well, taking her questions seriously, and offering her new insights. When guileless children came to him, he was pictured as welcoming them and rebuking those who felt that children were not fit to make demands on his time. Simon saw all of these things and many more. They were not only things of which he was conscious, but they also surely began to sink into the layers of his subconscious mind and to be registered simply with the phrase “that is just the way he is” (pp. 244-45).

Jesus turned the temporal order upside down. In his life and presence, not the world but eternity held power. It was nothing less than a glimpse of the Kingdom, for which the people fervently hoped and prayed. In that moment, Peter understood he was not standing on earth, but in the Kingdom. In that moment, the moment of resurrection, Peter was taken into the Kingdom, to experience the presence of God through the life of Christ. In that moment, Christ had risen.

It was as if scales fell from his eyes and Simon saw a realm that is around us at every moment, a realm of life and love, 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 it is not objective? Yes, I think it can, for “objective” is a category that measures events inside time and space. Jesus appeared to Simon from the realm of God, and that realm is not within history, it is not bounded by time or space. Was it then delusional? I do not think so, but there will always be those whose eyes are not opened and those who will never see what Simon saw, so they will always think it is a delusional claim (p. 255).

Spong is no reductionist. His vision of the resurrection is deeply spiritual. In fact, it is far more impressive and majestic than a physical body walking out of an empty tomb. The latter is at best a symbol, whose original intent was to capture and preserve the actual ineffable experience as best as possible. Peter could share this moment with the other disciples, since they too had experienced Jesus as the Christ here on earth. And perhaps somehow Paul came close enough to it so that he too was grasped by eternity for one transforming instant. Certainly Paul knew no bodily Christ. The Christ who appeared to Paul had no wounds to touch and ate no broiled fish. No, this Christ was the presence of the eternal itself, the transforming demonstration of the redeeming reality beyond this earthly life. Participating in that presence is what makes Easter real for the rest of us. Easter’s message is that we are governed not only by time, but by eternity, and that the breaking of the eternal into this world in the presence of the Christ does affect the course of our individual lives.

This is of tremendous importance. The Easter moment was the gripping realization of a reality beyond this world, completely under Godís governance, that was discerned in the presence of Christ and that we can still know as his legacy (the “comforter” he promised to send us after he was gone). Jesus called it the “Kingdom of God”: “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).

This was no mere dream, impression, or halluciunation. It was a real presence. And those who experienced Jesus while he was alive experienced this presence after he had left them. and what it told them was that their lives would be transformed, that as long as they put Godís Kingdom - realizing the goodness of God here on earth - above everything else, their lives would be directed and this presence would remain with them forever to guide them. This is how the resurrection affects all of us, in ways that the traditional symbolism of the body leaving the empty tomb simply fails to capture. The symbol is at best a pointer to this greater reality, and has value as long as it is so understood. We risk losing that reality when we literalize the symbol, but when we leave the symbol behind and follow the direction toward which it points, we can regain the reality it was intended to preserve.

This is the Christ of the Gospels, the eternal presence to which the symbols point, and not those symbols taken only at face value. If we learn to get inside them to experience their original meaning and intent, we too can get a hint of the eternal reality Jesus came to show us. This is what makes reading the Gospels such a wondrous experience - once one learns to stop taking them literally.

April 2021