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Making sense of the resurrection
on 18 February 2008
Spong presents reasons why he believes the resurrection of Jesus became literalized gradually after his death. Spong proceeds through the letters written by Paul to argue why he does not find good evidence that Paul regarded Jesus' resurrection as bodily. He then proceeds through the Synoptic Gospels in the order in which they are believed by most scholars today to have been written (Mark, Matthew, and finally Luke) to show what he believes are signs of increasingly literalized presentations of the resurrection. After reviewing all the Gospels including John, Spong speculates boldly to try to capture some sense in which Peter and the others who had known Jesus might have had a transforming Easter experience after the death of Jesus that led them to proclaim that he had been raised. Spong explains what it was about Jewish beliefs and the conditions of the times that would have influenced their response to Jesus's death.
Is it plausible? Probably not if you believe to begin with that the resurrection was bodily. It will seem that Spong is certainly reverse-engineering this book's arguments to fit his own rejection of a supernatural resurrection. Will it be plausible to other Christians? Perhaps but it may seem one set of speculations among many. Spong has not carefully graded his speculations as to which seem most likely and which least so he may have weakened his presentation by making it seem dependent on too many speculations. As for non-Christians, they may note that however "radical" Spong may seem to Christians in questioning the Gospel accounts, he seems not to question much, if at all, Jesus himself. One might compare Elaine Pagels' speculations in The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics or those of Bart Ehrman in Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium neither of whom seem to hold as closely to the Jesus of the Gospels as Spong does. It may seem baffling that Spong would question so much but not Jesus, especially given that Spong accepts that Paul, who had such a powerful response to Christ, seemed to know little about Jesus's life and especially given that Spong believes the Gospels were constructed by those not directly familiar with Jesus with heavy appeal in a midrash-like way to Old Testament writings. So who was this Jesus? Spong's faith seems to rest in a belief that Jesus had at the least earned the deepest love of those close to him, that he had taught them profoundly and that they had believed he had given himself for their sake. But it is the very Gospels that Spong calls into question which seem to provide Spong most of reasons for faith: Spong's attention to Paul seems secondary, mostly to convince himself that the resurrection was not bodily.
It seems a good idea to read Spong's books in the chronological order in which they were written. His theologizing evolves but whatever his skepticism of specific New Testament passages, his acceptance of the image of Jesus he derives from the New Testament seems not to be called into question by him in either of the later Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers In Exile or A New Christianity for a New World: Why Traditional Faith is Dying & How a New Faith is Being Born. In rejecting literal aspects of Jesus, Spong seems to hold tight to idealized aspects. But which came first, the Jesus Spong met or the New Testament texts through which Spong has freely speculated to arrive at the Jesus he proclaims?