Resurrection: Myth or Reality?

John Shelby Spong, HarperCollins ($27.95)

Reviewed by Lloyd Geering, SOF NZ Newsletter #7, May 1994

John Spong, a provocative American Anglican Bishop, devoted his last book to Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism. This one could be called Rescuing the Resurrection of Jesus from the Literalists. He asserts that if Christians insist on interpreting the resurrection within a literalist framework then they "doom Easter's truth to the death of irrelevance".

Christian orthodoxy currently claims that Christianity stands or falls on the truth of the resurrection. But what is meant by the words "Jesus is risen!"?

Easter faith for Spong is essentially about personal experience - the revival of hope and the overcoming of despair; in this respect (he maintains) there is no essential difference between the experience of the disciples at the first Easter and that of Christians today. It is the inner experience which was, and still is, the reality of the resurrection.

The accounts of the empty tomb along with the other Easter stories in the New Testament are the pious legends in which the first Christians expressed their experience; they are not historical reports of what gave rise to it.

Spong insists these stories should be understood in terms of midrash, the ancient Jewish method of reworking ancient religious themes in new contexts. Because midrash is symbolic and fictional in character it is wrong for moderns to ask the question, "Did it really happen that way?". Rather we should ask - What was the experience of the first disciples which led them to speak in this way?

Spong sets out to answer that question. After thoroughly examining all the relevant biblical texts, and finding some basic clues, very tentatively he constructs the Easter moment.

Much of what Spong says has already appeared in academic books. Nearly fifty years ago Rudolf Bultmann, perhaps the most famous New Testament scholar of the century, asserted that the resurrection of Jesus referred not to an historical event but to Christian experience.

Unlike many of the scholarly books, however, this is eminently readable for the non-specialist. Writing with the same vigour, clarity and sense of urgency with which he speaks, Spong invites his readers to join him in his search for the origins of Christianity. The search has become the Bishop's own confession of faith.