Resurrection: Myth or Reality?

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In his previous books Living in Sin?, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, and Born of a Woman, Bishop John Shelby Spong courageously challenged traditional Christian positions on sexual morality, literal interpretation of the Scriptures, the understanding of women, and a variety of other issues central to the current cultural debate. Now, in Resurrection: Myth or Reality?, Spong takes a daring look at the very foundation of Christianity - the Resurrection and the story of Easter. The key to our understanding ...
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Overview

In his previous books Living in Sin?, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, and Born of a Woman, Bishop John Shelby Spong courageously challenged traditional Christian positions on sexual morality, literal interpretation of the Scriptures, the understanding of women, and a variety of other issues central to the current cultural debate. Now, in Resurrection: Myth or Reality?, Spong takes a daring look at the very foundation of Christianity - the Resurrection and the story of Easter. The key to our understanding these events, Spong writes, is recognizing that the Early Christians were Jewish by background and deeply shaped by their formative Jewish tradition. With a close comparison of the New Testament witness to antecedents in the Hebrew scriptures, Spong argues convincingly that many of the details of Jesus' life and his crucifixion are not historical, but derive instead from the Jewish tradition of Midrash, expository teachings that employ the retelling of sacred stories from the Jewish past in order to understand the powerful experience of God in the Jewish present. Through this radical Jewish reading of the Christian story, Spong discovers startling clues to the mystery of the Resurrection and offers a provocative reconstruction of what actually happened when the reality of Easter first dawned in history. Among his fascinating conclusions are a physical bodily resurrection was not originally part of the Christian Easter claim; the Resurrection actually occurred in Galilee, not in Jerusalem; the phrase "on the third day" does not refer to chronological time; the Easter claim and the Reenactment of the Christian Common Meal are deeply intertwined; the story of Jesus' burial and the account of the empty tomb are in fact late-developing Christian legends; the Jerusalem account of Easter was created from the Jewish Festival of Tabernacles, or Sukkot, which occurs some six months after the passover; the triumphant journey of Palm Sunday was actually undertaken
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Editorial Reviews

Patty O'Connell
Resurrection happened . . . but it didn't. He's alive . . . but he isn't. Through a series of convoluted theological suppositions, Spong, an Episcopal bishop, attempts to show that Jesus' resurrection was not a real event, but simply a legend recounted in the Bible. Arguing that this perspective is more believable than objective biblical literalism, Spong uses the very tactics for which he criticizes literalists. For example, since the Bible doesn't say Jesus "rose from the dead" but instead that he "was raised from the dead," Spong claims that the Resurrection was only a spiritual experience or belief of the disciples, rather than a bodily resurrection. The bishop insists that no reasonable person could believe literal interpretations of the Bible, and claims that this impending death of literalism has caused him to transcend chronological time when viewing the gospel. This is more believable? The troubling thing about Spong's book, nonetheless, is that a great deal of it makes sense. Although flaws in Spong's theory may be found, readers who believe in literal Bible interpretation had better expect to be challenged. Virtually all of Bishop Spong's books have been controversial. This one will be no different.
San Francisco Chronicle
“A gripping detective story. . . . [a] marvelously engrossing book.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060675462
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 3/1/1994
  • Edition description: 1st ed
  • Pages: 352

Meet the Author

John Shelby Spong was the Episcopal (Anglican) bishop of Newark for twenty-four years. Since then he has taught at Harvard, Drew, the University of the Pacific, and the Berkeley Graduate Theological Union. Selling over a million copies, his books include The Sins of Scripture, Eternal Life: A New Vision, Jesus for the Non-Religious, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, and his autobiography, Here I Stand. His weekly online column reaches thousands of subscribers all over the world. He lives with his wife, Christine, in Morris Plains, New Jersey.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Method Called Midrash

When I was doing my theological training in the 1950s, the word midrash was not heard with any frequency. If employed at all, it referred to a running commentary on the Hebrew Scriptures done by the rabbis throughout history. This commentary was voluminous, and the manuscripts that contained it would fill libraries. Commentaries by the rabbis thought to be the greatest would be particularly noteworthy, we were told, and would be studied in more detail and referred to more frequently by contemporary Jewish teachers in a continuing effort to illumine their sacred sources. Midrash was not presented as a method by which the Bible was written and not, hence, as a method by which the Bible was to be understood. So it was that midrash was deemed not terribly important to the study of the Christian Scriptures.

I am amazed today at this blindness in those who taught me Scripture. I no longer accept the proposition that anyone can understand the Bible, and most especially the New Testament, without understanding the method of midrash.

Has Christian Scholarship Been Rooted In Anti-Semitism?

When I begin to explore why Christian scholars failed to see the midrash method of the Jewish tradition as the very style in which the Gospels were written, I run headfirst into both the official and the unofficial anti-Semitism that has engulfed the church from the latter years of the first century of the Christian era until this very moment. This anti-Semitism reached its crescendo in the middle of the twentieth century in the Holocaust inGermany, but it found a significant expression in this same period of history in the United States and Great Britain, the leading nations of, this so-called Christian West.

These three major Western political powers, Germany, the United States, and Great Britain, were centers of the most important and influential Christian scholarship. These three nations produced the vast majority of the world's theologians and the experts in biblical studies. Unconscious of its Western anti-Semitism, however, Christian scholarship developed with little openness to the primary midrashic outlines of the Christian story or to the basic midrashic content of the Christian Gospels. The original Jewish roots of the Christian tradition were simply not acknowledged. Seldom was it said with any sense of pride that every writer in the New Testament, with the possible exception of Luke, was Jewish. Seldom was the context of the Jewish world or the thinking processes of the Jewish mind given more than a cursory tip of the hat when scholars sought to explicate Christian texts.

When scholars pored over the Christian Scriptures, the language they worked with was Greek, not Hebrew. When they studied the biblical roots of Christian theology, they inevitably looked through the lens of Greek philosophy, which had shaped Christianity's creeds, and primarily through that lens did they begin to illumine the New Testament. Even when they read the Old Testament they almost always used a Greek translation rather than the Hebrew original.

Of course they could not ignore the New Testament's references to Jewish prophecy, thought to be fulfilled in the story of the Jesus of history. But, beginning at least with Polycarp and Justin Martyr in the second century, the typical Christian understanding of this tradition was that the Jewish prophets had simply predicted concrete events in the life of the messiah who was to come, and Jesus had fulfilled these predictions in an almost literal way as a sign of his divine origin. "The Jews," a term spoken with undertones of derision in Christian circles, had failed, so the argument went, to understand their own messiah, and God had consequently created a new Israel, called the Christian church, to take the place of the old Israel, which had been composed only of Jews.

The people of the first covenant, it was asserted, were given their chance, and they had failed. The promise now was to be given to the people of the second covenant. By naming the parts of the Bible the Old Testament and the New Testament, Christians incorporated this prejudice into the very title of the sacred Scriptures. The Bible of the Jews was the Old Testament, now replaced by the Bible of the Christians, which was the New Testament. The twelve tribes of Israel were superseded by the twelve apostles. Jesus had fulfilled all the law and the prophets, and this validated his messianic claim. It was a neat and complete system, and in the triumphal confidence of these conclusions, Christianity began its life as the unchallenged dominant religion of the Western world.

Christianity's rationale for its overt anti-Semitism was to blame the Jews themselves as the cause — even for Christian hostility. It was a classic example of blaming the victim. The Jews had, after all, rejected the Christ. What could a people expect from God (in whose name Christians assumed that they both spoke and acted) when they had rejected God's own Son and their own messiah? The Jews were quoted in the Gospel narratives as even willingly accepting this blame: "His [Jesus'] blood be upon us and upon our children" (Matt. 27:25). These words were destined to echo through the centuries as justification for one wretched deed after another.

In spite of eyes blinded by prejudice, the close connection between Jesus and the Hebrew Scriptures could not be limited only to those texts that obviously referred to the fulfillment in Jesus of prophetic expectations. There were other Gospel stories whose parallels in Hebrew Scripture were too conspicuous to be overlooked. The story of King Herod trying to remove God's promised deliverer by killing all the Jewish male babies in Bethlehem simply had too many echoes of the pharaoh ordering the death of all the Jewish male babies in Egypt in his attempt not only to rid his realm of his "Jewish problem" but also to destroy in his infancy God's divinely promised deliverer, Moses.

Resurrection copyright © by John Shelby Spong. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All Rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Table of Contents

Preface
Pt. 1 Approaching the Resurrection
1 The Method Called Midrash 3
2 The Impact of Easter - A Place to Begin 23
3 The Vehicle of Words - An Unsteady Ship 33
Pt. 2 Examining the Biblical Texts
4 The Witness of Paul 47
5 Mark: The Kerygma Is Joined to the Sepulcher 57
6 Matthew: Polemics Enter the Tradition 65
7 Luke: The Turn Toward Gentile Understandings 74
8 John: Sometimes Primitive, Sometimes Highly Developed 87
9 A New Starting Point 97
Pt. 3 Interpretive Images
10 The Primitive Interpretive Images 111
11 The Atoning Sacrifice - The Image of the Book of Hebrews 121
12 The Suffering Servant - The Image of 2 Isaiah 131
13 The Son of Man - The Image of the Book of Daniel 144
Pt. 4 Clues That Lead Us Toward Easter
14 The First Clue: It Occurred in Galilee, Not in Jerusalem 161
15 The Second Clue: The Primacy of Peter 181
16 The Third Clue: The Common Meal 198
17 The Fourth Clue: The Third Day - An Eschatological Symbol 210
18 The Fifth Clue: The Burial Tradition As Mythology 221
Pt. 5 Reconstructing the Easter Moment
19 But What Did Happen? A Speculative Reconstruction 233
20 Grounding the Speculation in Scripture 261
21 Life After Death - This I Do Believe 283
Notes 295
Bibliography 299
Index 309
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First Chapter

Resurrection
Myth or Reality?

Chapter One

The Method Called Midrash

When I was doing my theological training in the 1950s, the word midrash was not heard with any frequency. If employed at all, it referred to a running commentary on the Hebrew Scriptures done by the rabbis throughout history. This commentary was voluminous, and the manuscripts that contained it would fill libraries. Commentaries by the rabbis thought to be the greatest would be particularly noteworthy, we were told, and would be studied in more detail and referred to more frequently by contemporary Jewish teachers in a continuing effort to illumine their sacred sources. Midrash was not presented as a method by which the Bible was written and not, hence, as a method by which the Bible was to be understood. So it was that midrash was deemed not terribly important to the study of the Christian Scriptures.

I am amazed today at this blindness in those who taught me Scripture. I no longer accept the proposition that anyone can understand the Bible, and most especially the New Testament, without understanding the method of midrash.

Has Christian Scholarship Been Rooted In Anti-Semitism?

When I begin to explore why Christian scholars failed to see the midrash method of the Jewish tradition as the very style in which the Gospels were written, I run headfirst into both the official and the unofficial anti-Semitism that has engulfed the church from the latter years of the first century of the Christian era until this very moment. This anti-Semitism reached its crescendo in the middle of the twentieth century in the Holocaust in Germany, but it found a significant expression in this same period of history in the United States and Great Britain, the leading nations of, this so-called Christian West.

These three major Western political powers, Germany, the United States, and Great Britain, were centers of the most important and influential Christian scholarship. These three nations produced the vast majority of the world's theologians and the experts in biblical studies. Unconscious of its Western anti-Semitism, however, Christian scholarship developed with little openness to the primary midrashic outlines of the Christian story or to the basic midrashic content of the Christian Gospels. The original Jewish roots of the Christian tradition were simply not acknowledged. Seldom was it said with any sense of pride that every writer in the New Testament, with the possible exception of Luke, was Jewish. Seldom was the context of the Jewish world or the thinking processes of the Jewish mind given more than a cursory tip of the hat when scholars sought to explicate Christian texts.

When scholars pored over the Christian Scriptures, the language they worked with was Greek, not Hebrew. When they studied the biblical roots of Christian theology, they inevitably looked through the lens of Greek philosophy, which had shaped Christianity's creeds, and primarily through that lens did they begin to illumine the New Testament. Even when they read the Old Testament they almost always used a Greek translation rather than the Hebrew original.

Of course they could not ignore the New Testament's references to Jewish prophecy, thought to be fulfilled in the story of the Jesus of history. But, beginning at least with Polycarp and Justin Martyr in the second century, the typical Christian understanding of this tradition was that the Jewish prophets had simply predicted concrete events in the life of the messiah who was to come, and Jesus had fulfilled these predictions in an almost literal way as a sign of his divine origin. "The Jews," a term spoken with undertones of derision in Christian circles, had failed, so the argument went, to understand their own messiah, and God had consequently created a new Israel, called the Christian church, to take the place of the old Israel, which had been composed only of Jews.

The people of the first covenant, it was asserted, were given their chance, and they had failed. The promise now was to be given to the people of the second covenant. By naming the parts of the Bible the Old Testament and the New Testament, Christians incorporated this prejudice into the very title of the sacred Scriptures. The Bible of the Jews was the Old Testament, now replaced by the Bible of the Christians, which was the New Testament. The twelve tribes of Israel were superseded by the twelve apostles. Jesus had fulfilled all the law and the prophets, and this validated his messianic claim. It was a neat and complete system, and in the triumphal confidence of these conclusions, Christianity began its life as the unchallenged dominant religion of the Western world.

Christianity's rationale for its overt anti-Semitism was to blame the Jews themselves as the cause -- even for Christian hostility. It was a classic example of blaming the victim. The Jews had, after all, rejected the Christ. What could a people expect from God (in whose name Christians assumed that they both spoke and acted) when they had rejected God's own Son and their own messiah? The Jews were quoted in the Gospel narratives as even willingly accepting this blame: "His [Jesus'] blood be upon us and upon our children" (Matt. 27:25). These words were destined to echo through the centuries as justification for one wretched deed after another.

In spite of eyes blinded by prejudice, the close connection between Jesus and the Hebrew Scriptures could not be limited only to those texts that obviously referred to the fulfillment in Jesus of prophetic expectations. There were other Gospel stories whose parallels in Hebrew Scripture were too conspicuous to be overlooked. The story of King Herod trying to remove God's promised deliverer by killing all the Jewish male babies in Bethlehem simply had too many echoes of the pharaoh ordering the death of all the Jewish male babies in Egypt in his attempt not only to rid his realm of his "Jewish problem" but also to destroy in his infancy God's divinely promised deliverer, Moses.

Resurrection
Myth or Reality?
. Copyright © by John Shelby Spong. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Read More Show Less

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