Bishop John Shelby Spong, the retired Episcopal bishop of Newark, New Jersey, wrote a best-seller called: “Resurrection — Myth or Reality.” In spite of the confusing mythology surrounding the “big bang” of Christian history, the bishop says we must find a reality here. He quotes the archbishop of Canterbury, George Corey, who said: “The resurrection is not an appendage to the Christian faith; it is the Christian faith.” OK, but what exactly is the resurrection?
You remember the resurrection myths: A rich man donates the tomb, angels roll back the stone and sit down inside, Jesus walks through walls and yet eats food, and this goes on and on for 40 days. All sacred legends, but, as the bishop says, just legends nonetheless. None of the evangelists who wrote these myths were present on that day. All four of them wrote their gospels 40 to 70 years after the death of Jesus, collecting the different legends that had been building and circulating all those years.
Bishop Spong says: “If the resurrection of Jesus cannot be believed except by assenting to the fantastic legends included in the gospels, then Christianity is doomed” (pg. 238). So what really happened? We know something must have happened to cause hundreds of millions of people over the centuries to follow this Jewish peasant called Yeshua.
First of all, let’s stop saying “Jesus rose from the dead.” The gospels seldom say he rose and they never say he sat up, took off the cloths, rolled back the big stone slab and walked out of the tomb. Most of the scriptural accounts say “He was raised;” God raised him. Big difference. He died and was somehow “raised.” The gospel legends, however, would have us believe that those first witnesses saw the physical Jesus walking and eating among them for 40 days. Beautiful legends, but again, as the bishop says, just legends. What is the real resurrection on which the Christian faith is built?
Paul is the first writer to cite the resurrection and he doesn’t seem to know anything about the legends that sprang up 30 years later in the Gospels. Paul is writing to his Greek converts in the town of Corinth in the year 56 CE, or 26 years after the crucifixion. His opinion is that something truly ground-shaking happened — not to Jesus, but to his followers. They “saw” the Lord. The word he uses in Greek is ophthe. He says it started with Peter, then the 12 Apostles, then 500 others, then James, then Paul himself (1Cor.15:5). The same resurrection (ophthe) that took place then, took place 26 years later with Paul.
Paul uses only one proof for his claim that Christ was raised. He says: “the dead are raised.” He assumes that his readers already believe in the resurrection of the dead. “If the dead are not raised, Christ has not been raised, and your faith is in vain.” But the dead are raised. So there. The rest of chapter 15 in 1st Corinthians is worth reading. It contains none of the legends that develop years later, but rather Paul’s attempt to explain how each one of his Greek converts will be transformed into a new “heavenly body.”
It’s obvious that Paul’s idea of resurrection is not the physical legends that were created by others who wanted to give flesh and blood to the “ophthe” they had experienced. Paul makes it clear that “there are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies” (1Cor.15:40). The earthly body of Jesus died and was buried; it’s gone; what was raised by God was his heavenly body, which can only be seen in some sort of vision or ophthe.
About 20 years after Paul wrote these words, the gospel of Mark appears. If you open your Bible to chapter 16 and look down at the footnotes you will notice: verses 9-20 do not appear in many manuscripts; these verses were added later. These are the verses that bring us the legends of Mary Magdalene, the two travelers on their way to the country, the great commission to the Apostles, and finally, the Ascension. We don’t know when this mythology was added to the gospel of Mark, but it surely wasn’t original. The other legends are added over the next 40 years by Matthew, Luke and John.
Bishop Spong ends his book by stating: “Behind the legends that grew up around this moment, there is a reality I can never deny. Jesus lives. I have seen the Lord.” If we’re going to be Christians we cannot be literalists, letting the legends put us in strait jackets, or else, as the bishop puts it: “Christianity is doomed.” But what if resurrection is not about the physical body of Christ, but about the spiritual body of Christ — which just happens to be each one of us?
When we begin to see the living Christ in ourselves and in every other living person — the good, the bad, the ugly — we begin to “see” the Lord. This is what is meant by ophthe. This is what is meant by resurrection.
That’s my opinion. And Bishop Spong’s too.
Dr. Bill Cummings is the CEO of Cummings Consolidated Corporation and Cummings Management Consultants. His blog is www.progressiveheretic.com.