Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Resurrection-Myth or Reality? 

An excerpt from:
Resurrection - Myth or Reality?
By John Shelby Spong
One essay from the Search for Jesus series

...Let me be specific about the following parts of the resurrection story: An angel did not descend from the sky on the wings of an earthquake to roll away the stone from the door of the tomb in order to make the resurrection announcement. A deceased man did not walk out of his grave physically alive three days after his execution by crucifixion. The risen Jesus did not walk, talk, eat, teach or invite the disciples to handle his physical flesh. Jesus did not literally defy gravity and ascend to the top of a three-tiered universe. These legendary aspects of the Easter story are no longer viewed as literally true in the academic world of biblical scholarship. We are not going to make sense out of the meaning of Easter if we have to defend the accuracy of these pre-modern details.

Buttressing these conclusions is the fact that a close study of the gospel texts reveals that these details did not find their way into the written gospels until the ninth decade of the common era. These details are the products of a tradition that arose more than 50 years after the Easter moment. They are not original to the story and therefore should not be thought of as either literally true or as descriptively accurate.

Yet, even if one is skeptical about these details, can one with credibility still argue that nothing of profound significance actually occurred? I do not think so. There was something powerful and life-changing about the Easter experience that the earliest Christians could not deny. That something must be examined deeply even as we move far beyond miraculous claims of erupting supernatural power. Whatever Easter was originally, it appears to have broken open the human sense of being bound by finitude and death. It seems to have captured people inside a sense of transcendence that was not bound by time. It removed the barriers impeding human consciousness, and it emerged in the startling realization that a life-changing power was connected in an intimate way with Jesus. That is the reality that cries out to be explored.

Easter dawned when a small group of people felt that their lives and their consciousness had been expanded to new dimensions. How could they describe something ultimately beyond the limits of their humanity, but which had, they believed, embraced their humanity. It was a time when certain people's eyes were opened to see that life was more powerful than death, that love was more powerful than hatred, and that being was more powerful than non-being. It was an awakening to a totally new reality. It was real beyond dispute, and yet no words existed in the human vocabulary that could capture that reality. So our task when trying to understand the meaning of Easter is to look not at the ancient descriptions, but rather to examine the effects that occurred in the lives of those who claimed this experience.

Those effects are seen when the disciples who had forsaken Jesus in fear and who had abandoned him in cowardice suddenly became fearless, heroic people ready to die for the truth that now possessed them. Easter's effects are seen when the perception of God changed so dramatically that it represented something new. Something happened that caused Jewish disciples, taught their whole lives that God was wholly other and that this God could never be captured in finite words or symbols, to claim that Jesus was part of what they believed God to be. From that moment on, the way these people thought of either God or human life would never be the same.

That Easter experience caused people to say that Jesus must now be seen as part of who or what God is. God had, in effect, left the sky and was now found in the self-giving love of Jesus, in whom a new depth to human life was also revealed. That was a profound revolution in human thinking. From that moment on, they were convinced God could be encountered in human form as life, love, and being. So they said that Jesus had entered the fullness of life and love whose source is God, and that Jesus had touched the ground of being whose depth is God...


Bishop Spong Addresses "The Passion" 

From Spong's Online Forum

"The Passion of the Christ" — Mel Gibson's Film and Biblical Scholarship

Mel Gibson's motion picture, "The Passion of the Christ," went public on Ash Wednesday. People can now see for themselves a film that has been hyped by advance showings to evangelical clergy and conservative Catholics, including Pope John Paul II. It has been praised by Protestant fundamentalists, who count on it to bring Christian renewal to the people of the United States and who see it as inspired by the Holy Spirit. It is, they say, "the tool of conversion," that follows "faithfully the texts of the gospels." One evangelical church in Kansas has even erected tents, across from the theater, staffing them with "counselors," to bring about the full conversion of viewers following the showing of this film.

At the same time, "The Passion of the Christ" has been condemned by Christian scholars and Jewish leaders as anti-Semitic in nature and, therefore, a threat to reignite the flames of prejudice and persecution that marked the darkest days in Jewish-Christian relations. A writer in the Jerusalem Post, Shmuley Boteach, has gone so far as to refer to Gibson as a "kooky fundamentalist, who seems intent on reversing the reforms of Vatican II, which officially absolved the Jews of deicide, and convincing the world that, indeed, the Jews did it." Boteach identifies Gibson as a conservative Catholic, who has never disavowed his father's statement that "The Second Vatican Council was a plot, put out by the Jews" and that the Holocaust could not have happened because, "there weren't even that many Jews in all of Europe." This film will create an enormous debate, thus insuring its financial success.

I seek to raise two primary questions: 1. How accurately does this film follow the biblical text in telling the story of the crucifixion? 2. What historicity can we ascribe to the gospels themselves in regard to the crucifixion? This second question Gibson never faces since his brand of conservative Catholicism has never raised the issue. Scholars have, however, and it is time to address it publicly. Only then can we assess the claim made to defend this film against the charge of anti-Semitism. Simply following the biblical narrative may not be enough for exoneration.

I begin by noting the fact that Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" includes a number of details that are not in the biblical narrative. They derive rather from a centuries-old Catholic piety. There is nothing wrong with using material out of an ancient worship tradition but one should not claim biblical authority for this material. For example, Jesus is portrayed in this film as stumbling three times on his way to Golgotha. There is no evidence to support this in the gospels but it is a well-known part of the traditional Catholic liturgy called "The Stations of the Cross." This film also introduces a fictitious character named St. Veronica who is said, at Station Number Six, to have wiped Jesus' bloodied face with her handkerchief. Veronica, a creation of later piety, never appears in any biblical narrative.

Next, the Mother of Jesus is highly visible and quite central to Gibson's portrayal of the crucifixion. That is not true to the gospels and expresses a confusion born out of later developing Catholic devotional practices. The only time Mary is present in any biblical account of the crucifixion comes in John, the last gospel to be written, where she makes only a cameo appearance at the cross. Even John does not then include her in his resurrection narrative. Yet, in this film, Mel Gibson has Mary say to the dying Jesus, "Let me die with you," and then she cradles Jesus' deceased body. That is a famous portrait in Catholic art, painted many times and called the Pieta, but there is not a shred of biblical evidence to support it.

As a matter of fact Mary, the mother of Jesus, hardly appears in the gospel tradition outside the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke. She is never referred to or mentioned in the writings of Paul (50-64 CE). She makes only two appearances in Mark, the first Gospel to be written (70-75 CE) and both of them are pejorative. In Mark 3:31-35, Jesus' mother and his brothers, none of whom are named, come to where Jesus is and call for him to come out to them. An earlier verse in Mark (3:21) tells us why. When his family heard about his activities, "they went out to seize him, for the people were saying, 'he is beside himself.'" "Beside himself" is an ancient way of saying "He is out of his mind." Jesus had become a family embarrassment. The scribes, according the next verse in Mark (3:22) were saying that he "is possessed by Beelzebul," who was called 'the Prince of demons." Jesus responds to his family, according to this Marcan reference, by denying his relationship with his mother and his brothers, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" Then, answering his own question, he looks around at those seated near him and says, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God, is my mother and sister and brother."

In the second Markan reference (6:1-6), Jesus returns to Nazareth and begins to teach in the synagogue to the astonishment of the townspeople. They respond derisively as if to say, "Who does this man think he is?" Then they go on to identify him with these words, "Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James, Joses, Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?" and they took offense at him.

It is interesting to note that Mark, in this passage, has this critical crowd identify Jesus as "the son of Mary," as well as describing him as "the carpenter." Both of these references are quite negative. To call a Jewish man the son of a particular woman was an insult since it cast public doubts upon his paternity. To call him a carpenter identified him as a lower class laborer.

Some ten to fifteen years later, when Matthew wrote his gospel (80-85), he copied almost 90 per cent of Mark into his story. It is interesting to note how Matthew changed Mark's negative wording (compare Mt. 12:46-50 and 13:53-58 with Mk. 3:31-35 and 6:1-6). Mark's words were so clearly embarrassing, that in Matthew's version, the slander is removed when Joseph, Jesus father, becomes the carpenter, not Jesus, and the crowd calls him not "the son of Mary," but simply recalls that his mother was named Mary. Those are the only references to the mother of Jesus in Matthew's Gospel other than those in the birth narratives. The Virgin Mother of Jesus is far more a creation of Christian history than a character in the gospels.

In Luke it is no different. Outside the birth narratives (Lk. 1,2), and Luke's shortened retelling of Mark's episode of Jesus' mother and brothers coming to take him away (see Lk. 8:19-22), the mother of Jesus does not appear in this third gospel at all. Only in John (95-100 C.E.) does the mother of Jesus receive any attention but still it is not close to what Gibson portrays. She presides over a wedding feast in Cana of Galilee in chapter 2 (vs.1-11). In that story she is portrayed as requesting that Jesus meet the social crisis brought about by a shortage of wine. Jesus rebukes her, rather sternly, with the words, "Woman what have you to do with me? My hour is not yet come." In John 6, as part of that gospel's version of the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus is portrayed as saying, "I am the bread which came down from heaven (vs.42)." To this the crowd responds incredulously saying, "Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he claim to have come down from heaven?" Once again, it is not a particularly flattering reference to Mary. Finally, John portrays the mother of Jesus at the foot of the cross. That is absolutely all there is in the gospels about the mother of Jesus. The Virgin tradition has been built on very scanty material.

I go through this in such detail because, to a degree far greater than we imagine, Mel Gibson in "The Passion of the Christ" has read the later development of pious tradition about the Virgin Mary back into the gospel narratives. Since he has so obviously heightened the crucifixion portrait, about the role of Mary, in contradistinction to the biblical narrative itself, then his assertion that he has followed the biblical texts accurately is severely compromised.

This lack of biblical accuracy does not stop with his portrayal of the mother of Jesus. Gibson clearly hypes the biblical accounts of the abuse that Jesus endured. There is no doubt that crucifixion was a horrible and inhumane way to die, yet the physical suffering of Jesus is, if anything, understated in the gospels while in Gibson's movie it is the riveting center of the story itself.

Look at the scourging scene in Gibson's film. It is long, protracted and grotesque. The cameras linger on the lash; the stripes, the welts and the blood, but the biblical texts about the scourging are almost matter of fact. They do not focus on the pain. Mark says simply "Pilate, having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified (15:15)." Matthew uses almost identical words (27:26). Luke has Pilate offer "to chastise" Jesus instead of executing him (23;17). When the crowd, not satisfied with that, demands crucifixion instead, Pilate acquiesces and delivers Jesus to be crucified without scourging. John says quite simply, "Then Pilate took Jesus and scourged him (Jn. 19:1). I do not mean to minimize this scourging but no blood is mentioned or even described in the gospels. Following this scourging, it is interesting to note that Jesus is portrayed in John's Gospel as having a rather long conversation with Pilate (19:12-16) and in the earlier gospels as conversing with the soldiers, the crowd and the thieves who shared the cross with him. Whatever was done to him did not render him incompetent to function immediately thereafter. The "Crown of Thorns" is mentioned with no reference to blood in Mark (15:17), Matthew 27:29) and John (19:2). It is omitted in Luke.

Once again, Gibson is reading the gospels through the lens of medieval piety. In the early church, especially in the writings of Paul, the death of Jesus was likened to the believer's act of being baptized. The believer in baptism was united with Christ in his death so that he or she could live with Christ in his resurrection (see Romans 6:1-11 and Col. 2:12). But Gibson turns this into a sadomasochistic scene of pain inflicted and suffering endured. It is so long and violent that it qualifies this film for an "R" rating, "for adults only."

The earliest Christians knew that crucifixion was not unique to Jesus. Thousands of people had died this way at the hands of the Romans. To the Jews crucifixion was particularly associated with shame and embarrassment, since the Torah said that one who was hung upon a tree was "accursed" (Deut. 21:22, 23). The fetish about the cleansing power of the blood of Jesus was again a pious devotional technique that ultimately attributed a sacred meaning to suffering and made cruelty an attribute of God, both of which are strange, even unhealthy theological concepts. Yet Gibson has developed these ideas to a fine art. His interpretive work may engender a guilt-laden piety but we need to recognize that it is not biblically accurate.

There are many more things that need to be said about Gibson's motion picture so I will return to this topic next week, by which time many of my readers will have seen the film. I will begin there to address my second and far more troubling question about whether the gospel narratives themselves are trustworthy as history, so stay tuned.

-- John Shelby Spong


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