by John Shelby Spong
May 3, 2006
The biblical narratives purporting to tell the story of Easter have always held a particular fascination for me. As early as the summer of 1959 I gave a series of lectures on the gospel accounts of the resurrection at the Kanuga Conference Center in Hendersonville, North Carolina. From that starting point until today my interest has never subsided. In 1980 I wrote “The Easter Moment,” but even after completing that book, now long out of print, my curiosity did not end and I found myself returning to this subject time after time. Perhaps I intuitively knew that I had not yet unlocked the mystery surrounding this central event in the Christian story. As I got more and more deeply into the subject of Easter, it became so obvious that the resurrection texts of the gospels were not written to be read literally. Their language, words and concepts are far too fanciful for that level of understanding. Earthquakes, for example, have to do with the collision of tectonic plates. They are not sent by a theistic deity to announce earthly events like the dawn of Easter. Angels do not descend out of the sky to roll back a stone securing the tomb, while causing the Temple guards to fall unconscious. In the Emmaus road story in Luke, Jesus is portrayed as having the power to materialize and dematerialize at will. In John’s gospel he is said to be able to walk through the walls into a locked and barred upper room. In the book of Acts he has the power to defy gravity to rise up into the sky to return to God. In our post-Newtonian world such descriptions cannot be literalized without destroying everything we know about the natural laws of our universe. These methods of describing the mystery and wonder of the resurrection must point us to a different dimension of reality or they are nonsensical concepts worthy only of rejection.
What intrigued me most was that these stories were developed because an incredible life-changing power, that was to the writers of the gospels indisputable, had to be communicated. It is that experience that needs to be explored far more than the way they tried to explain it. This means we must find a way to get beneath the literal words of the Easter story.
We are told in Mark that when Jesus was arrested all of his disciples forsook him and fled. This apostolic abandonment was so public that the New Testament felt it essential to provide the disciples with an appropriate rationale for their behavior, so we read that they fled in order to fulfill the scriptures. However, something clearly happened to bring these deserters back that transformed them so totally that most of them were willing to die before they would deny this life-changing experience.
Long before the gospels were written, what they said about their understanding of “the resurrection” was communicated in two primary ecstatic utterances, one negative: “death cannot contain him;” and one positive: “we have seen the Lord.” In time the negative utterance seems to have evolved into narratives of a grave, the symbol of death, that was not able to contain him and so we have a spate of late developing empty tomb stories. In a similar manner, the positive utterance seems to have evolved into a variety of narratives describing his appearances to various people. These descriptive stories, however, are filled with inconsistent and contradictory details.
It is also a fact that before the gospels were written, some 40-70 years after the crucifixion, Jesus had already been interpreted through a wide variety of messianic images, so that the Jesus of history had been submerged inside these images hiding his humanity from us even to this day. He was called “Son of David,” and “Son of Man.” He was known as the “new Moses” and the “new Elijah.” He was likened to the “suffering servant” of II Isaiah and to the “shepherd king” of II Zechariah. He was said to be symbolic of the sacrificial lamb of Yom Kippur that brought atonement and of the paschal lamb of Passover that broke the power of death. Whatever Easter was grew out of an experience that was so profound it made these images seem appropriate. Yet it did not hide the memory people had of the disciples before and after their transforming experience. They remembered that Peter, who confessed Jesus as the Christ at Caesarea Philippi, then argued with him about what that meant and received Jesus’ rebuke. They recalled James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who schemed to receive places of honor in the coming kingdom. They remembered apostolic defection, betrayal and abandonment. Separating the pre-Easter memory of the disciples from the post-Easter leaders they became cries out for an explanation. Gospels written after Easter are clearly filled with pre-Easter recollections. Easter also changed dramatically the way the disciples thought about God. After Easter they saw the human Jesus as part of who God is. The issue for the interpreter is how to get from biblical descriptions of Easter, recorded in magical words and miraculous concepts, to the power of the Easter experience that clearly changed both the disciples’ lives and their understanding of God. That was the territory I needed to explore.
With these questions still disturbing my mind and demanding the attention of my study life, I received in 1992, as if a gift from heaven, news of my election to be the Quatercentenary Scholar at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom. This appointment would give me five months with no interruptions to research, study and write about the resurrection. For those months I lived quite literally in both the University Library and the Theological Library of Cambridge. When that semester was over, my wife and I took a newly composed manuscript and spent two weeks vacationing in Scotland near Balmoral Palace. In the long daylight hours of the Scottish summer we began the process of editing this book for publication. It came out eighteen months later, under the title, “Resurrection: Myth or Reality? A Bishop’s Search for the Origins of Christianity.”
In that book I went into the biblical texts of Easter asking four basic questions. Where were the disciples when Easter dawned? In whom did Easter dawn? When did Easter dawn? In what context did Easter dawn? By working on these four questions, I hoped, like any competent detective, both to understand and to enter the power of the experience while not being bound to the literalness of the 8th, 9th and 10th decade explanations that are found in the gospels. It was like walking a theological razor’s edge for me, but that is often the only means to establish truth.
In many ways, the “where” question was the most important and, after exhaustive study, I came to the conclusion that it was in Galilee, not Jerusalem, that the meaning of Easter first dawned. By inference that is certainly the witness of Paul, by stated expectation the witness of Mark, and, by his descriptive account, the witness of Matthew. It was Luke who first shifted the focus of Easter away from Galilee and placed it in Jerusalem and we can document just where Luke changed Mark to suit his purposes. John agrees with Luke and makes Jerusalem the major focus of his Easter story in Chapter 20. However, John then adds in Chapter 21 an addendum to his gospel, in which he records a powerful episode that occurs, he says, in Galilee. This Galilean story, however, has a much earlier, original sound to it. The weight of biblical evidence clearly points to Galilee as the primary setting, which immediately makes the Jerusalem traditions later developments in the Easter story. We now can recognize that all of the empty tomb stories, as well as the accounts of a resuscitated risen Christ who walks, talks, interprets scripture, eats and offers his flesh for inspection fall into the secondary Jerusalem category. The Galilee stories are far more authentic, far less magical and give evidence of being primary. That is clue number one.
In whom did Easter dawn? Through whose eyes was the raised Christ first seen? Again, there is great conflict in the gospel tradition. Was it Peter, the women, Cleopas or Magdalene? Once the location is fixed in Galilee, the women, Cleopas and Magdalene fade for each is connected with the Jerusalem tradition and Peter emerges as the central player in the Easter drama. When that is established then all the Peter stories in the gospels need to be looked at for hints of the resurrection, including the gospel note that Peter was the head of the disciple band, which, I believe, is a direct reflection of his primacy in the Easter experience.
When did the experience of Easter dawn? The symbol “three days” has bound us for far too long. Once I understood that this time reference was developed liturgically to make the Easter celebration occur on the Sabbath immediately following the Passover, a whole new vista opened to me. I now believe that a significant amount of time separated crucifixion from resurrection, no less than six months and maybe even a year would be my present guess.
What was the context in which the experience of Easter dawned? That is the hardest one to tie down but hints are everywhere that it is related to a liturgical happening. The words, recorded in Luke, “He was known to us in the breaking of the bread,” became crucial to my detective story. Resurrection and Eucharist are somehow clearly linked.
So I assembled my clues. Whatever Easter was originally, it had considerable power. That experience occurred to people in Galilee. Peter seems to stand at its center. The time frame must be stretched from three days to at least six months and perhaps even to a year. Finally, it had something to do with the reenactment of the liturgical meal, for as Paul said in his letter to the Corinthians long before any gospel was written, “As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”