Examining the Meaning of the Resurrection Part I: Setting the Stage
by Bishop John S. Spong
Through this column during the weeks before Good Friday, I did a series on the story of the cross and its meaning, seeking to call you, my readers, into a more interpretive way of reading the passion narrative. I focused on the developing nature of that narrative and sought to show that when the first narrative account of the crucifixion was actually written in Mark around the year 72 CE, it was filled not with references to eye-witness reporting, but with quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures, especially from Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53. It was, I concluded, never intended to be literal history or something based on first-hand data. The original purpose was thus not to tell us what actually happened, but to interpret the meaning of what happened. Once we stopped seeing these words as literal history, the door was opened to plunge into a radically new understanding. So we noticed that the account of Judas Iscariot was an 8th decade addition to the Jesus story, one about which Paul, who wrote between 51 and 64, knew nothing. We examined the placement of the crucifixion story into the celebration of the Passover and suggested that this was a contrived interpretative technique, rather than a literal memory. We saw that the character we call Barabbas, whose name literally means “Son (bar) of God (Abba),” now paired with Jesus, also the son of God, was suggestive of the two animals in the liturgy of Yom Kippur, one of which was slaughtered while the other was set free and thus we saw how Yom Kippur had been used to interpret the death of Jesus liturgically.
These insights, while surprising no one in the academies of Christian scholarship, are always surprising and sometimes even troubling to those who have generally assumed that in the story of Jesus’ death as written in the gospels, they were actually reading history. They were not, nor was that ever the intention. The gospels are written 40-70 years, or between two and three generations, after the time of the crucifixion and they reflect a long interpretive process in which the memories people had of Jesus were wrapped inside Jewish messianic expectations that then became the way the Jesus story was understood and interpreted. As Paul noted in I Corinthians 15, Jesus died “in accordance with the scriptures.”
Now in this post-Easter time of the Christian year, I would like to subject the resurrection stories of the New Testament to the same sort of critical biblical analysis, recalling that St. Paul also said that Jesus was raised “in accordance with the scriptures.” Perhaps in the process of this series, we will learn that in freeing theological truth from the biblical text, something does not have to be literal to be understood as true and that the experience of the resurrection has little to do with a body being resuscitated from death back into life. Indeed, the resurrection of Jesus means something far different and far more significant than that. So I plan five, maybe even six columns that will run periodically over the next ten weeks or so. I am aware that this column is used in Adult Education classes in a number of churches across this nation and around the world. I hope this series will prove to be fruitful to those readers in particular.
Once again, we begin this biblical probe by examining the books of the New Testament in the order in which they were written, which means we study the New Testament in this order: First, we read Paul (51-64), then Mark (70-72), Matthew (82-85), Luke (88-93) and John (95-100). Only in this way can we watch the story grow and gain insight into its original meaning.
Paul, primarily in his first Epistle to the Corinthians, written ca. 54-56, is very spare in giving us any Easter details. Quite literally the only thing Paul says is that Jesus “was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.” Note there is no reference in Paul to a tomb, to a stone being rolled away, to the women coming at dawn on the first day of the week, to a messenger who makes the resurrection announcement and finally no hint of the appearance of Jesus physically at the tomb to anyone. All of these details will be added only in the later gospels. Paul does, however, give us a list of those who, he says, had the raised Christ “manifested” to them, or the list of those to whom the resurrected Jesus “appeared.” The word that we translate “appeared” or was “made manifest” is very loose. Does it mean a physical sighting or a transforming experience? Does it mean a seeing with human eyes or the birth of a new awareness? Is its primary meaning physical sight, second sight or insight? Is it different from the account of Moses “seeing” God in the burning bush? Paul gives us no details. The list of witnesses, however, might provide some clues. So might other texts in the Pauline corpus that cannot possibly be read as physical bodily resuscitation stories.
In Paul’s list, there are six separate manifestations. First Paul says, he appeared to Cephas (Peter), then to “the Twelve” and then to the 500 brethren at once. That seems to be the first list. Then a parallel list is recorded in which he appears to James then to “the apostles” and finally to Paul himself. Both sets of witnesses beg more questions than they answer. Cephas is no surprise, he is always listed first among the twelve, and perhaps that position is a direct result of being the first one to “see” the raised Christ. I will examine that possibility later. “The Twelve” is a surprise, but only because Judas is clearly still among them. Paul seems not to know the tradition that one of the twelve was a “traitor.” Judas is first introduced in Mark (70-72) and when Matthew (82-85) gives the first written narrative of the resurrected Jesus appearing to his disciples, the Judas story has been factored in, so in that gospel Jesus appears only to the eleven! No corroborating data anywhere identifies the “500 brethren” to whom Paul says he appeared “at once” so they continue to be shrouded in mystery. Then in his parallel list he starts with James. Who is he? There are three James’ in the New Testament: James, the son of Zebedee, James, the son of Alphaeus, and James, the brother of Jesus. Which James does Paul mean? The only James that Paul ever mentions elsewhere in his writing is James the brother of Jesus so he becomes our best guess. Then Paul says he appeared to “the apostles.” Who are they? They are clearly not “the Twelve,” who have already been listed. So they have to be a different group, but who? By the time the gospels are written, “the Twelve” are called “the apostles,” but not so with Paul. Finally, please note that Paul claims that he himself was one who also “saw” the raised Christ. Could this possibly mean that the resurrection was conceived of by Paul as a resuscitation of a deceased person? Hardly! Paul’s conversion, according to the best reconstruction that we can put together was no earlier than one year and no later than six years after the crucifixion. The gospel writers collectively assert that no resurrection appearances in any physical sense took place that long after the crucifixion. Mark tells us of no appearance of Jesus at all, not even to the women in the garden, but he does hint that the disciples will see him in Galilee, which is a 7-10 days’ journey from Jerusalem. Matthew contradicts Mark and says the women did see Jesus in the garden at dawn on Easter day and then he relates a story of Jesus appearing to the disciples in Galilee that appears to come much later and in which Jesus comes out of the sky as one who has been both transformed and glorified. He is clearly not a resuscitated body who has returned to life in this world. Luke says appearances of the raised Christ continued for as long as forty days after Easter and then terminated with the ascension. John says the ascension took place on Easter evening after the tomb was found to be empty by Mary Magdalene that morning, and that the Jesus who appeared to the disciples was an already transformed and ascended Jesus, who was not bound by time and space. Indeed he could walk through walls. So what kind of seeing was Paul talking about when he included himself in his list of witnesses? How are we to understand this suddenly, rather complicated Easter story?
Easter is obviously not quite as simple as literalists suggest, when they demand that belief in
the resurrection must mean belief in the physically raised, resuscitated body of Jesus from the dead. It is clear to me that this is not what the Easter experience was about at all. What is not so clear is what it was about. So that is what I shall seek to explore in this series of columns.
I will take the entire New Testament and search it for clues, remembering that all of the books that constitute the Christian Scriptures were written only in the light of the Easter experience. Not one verse of the New Testament was written prior to Easter and not one verse was written except inside the meaning of Easter. Every word of the New Testament was created 30 to 70 years after the fact of Easter.
I will present my data in response to four very elemental questions that I will ask of my biblical sources. They are: Who? Where? When? and “How? Whatever the Resurrection was, who stood at the center of this life-changing experience? Who was the first to understand? Who opened the eyes of others so that they could understand? Is there evidence throughout the New Testament that points in a single direction?
Where was the crucial person to whom the reality of Easter dawned in the mind of this critical observer? The gospels are divided between Galilee and Jerusalem. Are there other narratives in the New Testament that make it clear that it was one and not the other?
When did this “appearance” occur? Easter may be timeless, but the Easter experience occurs in a human mind at a particular moment of time? Is “three days” a measure of physical time or is it a symbol?
Finally, in what context did Easter dawn? How did this context frame the experience? Can we enter that interpretive context today and see Easter’s meaning with new eyes? That is the outline of where I hope to go over the next few weeks. I hope you will want to journey with me for this is the only website I know, which seeks to open the minds of people to a non-literal, but profoundly real way to hear the Christian story.
~John Shelby Spong
Examining the Meaning of the Resurrection, Part II: Who Stood in the Center of the Easter Breakthrough?
We begin our probe into the meaning of the Easter moment by asking who it was who stood in the center of the Easter experience. People do not always recognize that the claim of revealed truth requires both a revelation and a receiver of that revelation. The revelation may be of a timeless truth, but it has no effect unless someone, who is bound by both time and space, receives that revelation or that new insight and shares it. So who was that person in the accounts of Easter? The message of the New Testament is not unanimous on this question, but a common tradition can be found there that ultimately becomes dominant. Let me now try to lift this dominant tradition out of our sacred story.
Paul, who wrote all of his authentic epistles between the years 51-64, says in his treatment of the final events in Jesus’ life (I Cor. 15:1-11, written between 54-56) that he, the raised Jesus, “appeared” first unto Cephas. Cephas was the nickname for Simon, coming from the Aramaic word Kepha, which means rock. When translated into Greek Kepha is rendered Petras and from that the familiar name of Peter was created. This nickname, Simon Peter, was something like calling Simon, “Rocky.” This Corinthian text is the earliest reference we have in the entire New Testament to the Easter experience. Paul seemed to be asserting that Simon Peter was a crucial figure standing at the center of the story of the resurrection.
When the first gospel, known as Mark, came to be written about 15-20 years later, we have the earliest narrative account of Easter morning that is found in the New Testament. Mark has a messenger, who is not yet an angel but only a messenger; announce the resurrection of Jesus to the audience of women at the tomb in the garden. In that announcement the messenger says, “Go tell the disciples and Peter that he (Jesus) is going ahead of you to Galilee. There you will see him.” Once again, Peter is singled out in a decisive way.
Peter is not mentioned in the resurrection narrative of Matthew, the second gospel writer (82-85), but when Luke writes (88-93), Peter is once more placed front and center. While Luke relates no resurrection narrative about Peter, choosing instead to relate a story about an unknown man named Cleopas and his unidentified traveling companion on the road to Emmaus, yet just before Luke has Cleopas tell the disciples about his experience, he is told that “The Lord has risen and he has appeared to Simon.” Peter’s primacy is preserved by a hair!
When John, writing near the end of the first century (95-100), tells us his version of the Easter moment, he has Mary Magdalene, not Peter, serve as the star in the drama. Finding the tomb empty and the body missing, Magdalene goes and reports this troubling news to the disciples, who then set out to verify these things for themselves. In the first century, a report by a woman was not credible unless corroborated by a male. So we are told that Peter and the enigmatic figure the Fourth Gospel calls the “beloved disciple” run to the tomb. The beloved disciple outruns Peter and arrives first. There, however, he pauses, waiting at the mouth of the cave, but Peter does not pause so he becomes the first disciple to be confronted by the mystery of the emptiness of the tomb. This starts the process of drawing conclusions.
Next, we note that in the Epilogue to John’s gospel, considered by most scholars not to have been the work of the original evangelist, but to have been added to John’s narrative by another hand and at a later date, Peter is, nonetheless, once again the focus of the drama and of the conversation with the Risen Christ. In this conversation the authenticity of Peter’s love is challenged three times by Jesus and the admonition to feed the lambs or sheep of God is articulated three times by Jesus. As I suggested earlier that while the witness from the Easter stories of the New Testament is not unanimous, these sources, nonetheless, make it clear that Peter plays the primary role in the drama.
With that hint established, we then explore the rest of the gospel material aware that in some sense every verse of the New Testament is written inside the resurrection experience so that resurrection insights might be scattered throughout the entire gospel texts. When we look at the entirety of the gospels, we discover that every time the twelve disciples are named, Peter is always placed first (Mk. 3:16, Mt. 10:2, Lk. 6:14). At Caesarea Philippi when Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter is the first one who names him “Christ” or “Messiah” (Mk. 8:39, Mt. 16:16, Lk. 9:20). Matthew states that Peter is the first disciple that Jesus calls (Mt. 4:18). Matthew has Jesus call Peter “the Rock” on whom God will build the church. Peter is the spokesperson for the disciples in the experience we call the Transfiguration (Mk. 9, Mt. 17, Lk. 9). Luke has Jesus say to Peter at the Last Supper, “When once you have turned back, strengthen your brethren” (Lk. 22:32). John portrays the disciples as ready to abandon Jesus after the miraculous feeding of the multitude episode and portrays Jesus saying to Peter: “Do you also wish to go away?” To which Peter responds: “Lord, to whom can we go, you have the words of eternal life?” (John 6:68).
When we search the entire New Testament, Peter emerges at the center of the Jesus experience, yet there is clearly ambivalence in the biblical portrait of Peter. Peter also denies, Peter wavers, Peter turns again, Peter’s blindness to the meaning of Jesus is not removed easily or quickly, but when the story is told in episode after episode in the gospel tradition, it becomes clear that Peter is the clue to whatever the meaning of Easter is. Peter is the first one who sees. Peter opens the eyes of others to see. Peter strengthens his brethren.
So perhaps we ought to read every Peter story in the gospels as a resurrection story. Peter who walks on the water to Jesus, but who then begins to sink. Jesus has to lift him back and asks, “Peter, why did you doubt?” Peter, who after his Caesarea Philippi confession proceeds to define Jesus in terms of his own needs and limited vision and receives the rebuke, “Get thee behind me Satan!” Peter, who in John’s gospel refuses to allow Jesus to wash his feet and is told that unless Jesus washes his feet, Peter has no part in him. Then Peter blurts out, “Lord, not my feet only” and invites Jesus to wash him all over.
If we can escape the imprisonment of biblical literalism, in which so much of the Christian story has been captured for so long, then we become free to see things we have never seen before. Take, for example, Mark’s story of Jesus healing the blind man from Bethsaida. I submit that this is not a miracle story at all, but rather a parable about the conversion of Peter (Mk. 8:22-30). Recall three things about this story. First, it comes immediately prior to Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi that Jesus is indeed the Christ. Following that confession Jesus first applauds Peter for his insight and then rebukes him for not understanding his own words. Second, Peter hails from Bethsaida. Third, the curing of this man’s blindness does not come all at once, but rather it comes in stages, just as Peter’s understanding of Jesus seems to have done. At first we are told that the blind man from Bethsaida sees “trees walking” and only later when Jesus has laid his hands on him a second time and has looked at him “intently” was his real sight ultimately created and he was enabled “to see.” Luke says that after peter denied Jesus three times, Jesus looked on him (intently?) and Peter wept bitterly. The resurrection, whatever it was, appears to have been an experience that altered the angle of vision and enabled the disciples to see in Jesus something they had never seen in anyone before. Those who claimed that they had seen the Lord in resurrected glory were clearly not saying that they saw the physical Jesus resuscitated to life. They saw Jesus rather as a God presence. They saw Jesus as the life of God breaking into human consciousness. They saw the love of God mediated through a human life. They saw the being of God manifested in the fullness of Jesus’ being. It was not physical sight that is being described so much as it was insight or second sight.
Peter appears, however, to have been the first one who saw resurrection and that seeing did not come easily. He had to push against the limits of his understanding of reality, but when Peter’s eyes were opened, he opened the eyes of others. Peter, when you are converted, strengthen your brethren.
So our analysis of the resurrection experience yields its first clue. Whatever the resurrection was, Peter stood in the center of it. Once we grasp this insight, every Peter story in the gospels becomes a resurrection story and suddenly the literal blinders of the ages are lifted from our eyes and we can begin to read the gospels with a radically new and different understanding. The resurrection is not so much what happened at Easter, it is what happened first in the life of Peter and then in the lives of the disciples.
So our first clue comes by examining the role of Peter. We will walk through Peter in order to penetrate the mystery and to embrace the power of Easter.
Next, we will seek to answer the “where” question and there face the rival resurrection claims found in the gospels themselves. Did Resurrection dawn in Galilee or did it dawn in Jerusalem? So stay tuned.
~John Shelby Spong