[Dialogue] 10/29/15, Spong: Creating Easter VI: The Dawning of the Resurrection

Ellie Stock via Dialogue dialogue at lists.wedgeblade.net
Thu Oct 29 08:48:52 PDT 2015




Re-Creating Easter V 
The Dawning of the Resurrection
We have now explored our sources, looking where we could beneath the literal words of the biblical texts. We have come to four conclusions. First, whatever the Easter moment was Peter appears to be the person who stood at the center of it. He was the first to “see” or to embrace this new reality. We cited the evidence points to that conclusion. Second, the location of the Easter experience seems to be clear, it dawned on the disciples’ consciousness in Galilee. The Jerusalem location appears to be a later developed tradition. Third, the time between the crucifixion and the Easter experience was not three literal days, but a significant period of time, perhaps months, even up to a year. That, for most of us, is a new idea, but many things demand that it be so. Christianity was not born in an instant. Everything about Easter was an evolving process, not an instantaneous eruption. Fourth, the context in which the disciples’ eyes were opened to “see” the “resurrected” Jesus appears to be related in some way to the primary liturgical act observed from the very beginning by the followers of Jesus. Resurrection was somehow made known to them in “the breaking of the bread.” Can we now on the basis of these four clues recreate the moment when the meaning of Easter dawned in the minds and hearts of the followers of Jesus? I think we can or, at the very least, I think we should try.
We begin with what I believe was a fact of history. Jesus was arrested and when that arrest occurred all of his disciples forsook him and fled. I suspect that the arrest took place in Jerusalem for the certainty is that he was crucified there. Was it at the time of the Passover? No, that connection was also a later development coming after Paul and others had begun to think of Jesus as the “new paschal lamb.” We need to keep in mind that Passover was not the only Jewish celebration for which worshippers journeyed to Jerusalem. The fall festival called Sukkoth also required a Jerusalem location.
My reasons for suggesting a separation of the crucifixion from the Passover are threefold. First, the passion story of Jesus stretching from the first Palm Sunday to Easter is a highly stylized drama, reflecting a fixed liturgical pattern. Locating it at the season of the Passover, however, creates several anomalies. Passover was set in the early spring, late March to early April. No one could, for example, have waved “leafy branches” in a Palm Sunday procession at that time of the year because none of the trees had leaves yet. Matthew, writing about a decade after Mark, but with Mark before him, seemed to recognize that this was a problem so he dropped the adjective “leafy” from the word “branches” in his version of Palm Sunday. This means that in Matthew, the worshippers’ wave only branches. Branches without leaves, however, are sticks. Sticks do not wave, they slash; it is only the leaves that wave. Luke writing a decade or so after Matthew, but also with Mark before him, also senses a problem with this identification so he drops both the leaves and the branches. In Luke, those welcoming Jesus to Jerusalem simply lay down their clothes on the road to line his path. That statement, however, also suggests another time of the year rather than late March for disrobing, since that text means shedding one’s outer garments, would not normally be done when it was that cold. It might happen, however, in the warmth of a fall day.
The second reason I do not think that the crucifixion literally occurred at the season of Passover is found in a strange story that Mark includes in that last week of Jesus’ life. After the Palm Sunday procession, Mark says that Jesus went to the Temple, looked around, saw the Temple commerce and the moneychangers at work. Then, Mark says, he returned to Bethany, a village about two miles from Jerusalem, for the night.
The next day according to Mark, they journeyed back to Jerusalem for the event that would be called the cleansing of the Temple. On this journey Jesus was said to have been hungry. Seeing a fig tree in the distance, he went to gather some figs to eat. No figs, however, were found on the tree. Frustrated by this fact, Jesus was said to have put a curse on the fig tree. Why was he so surprised to find no figs on this tree? No fig tree in the northern hemisphere ever produces figs in late March. Does one curse a fig tree for doing what it is impossible to do? Could it be that this narrative was originally set in the fall of the year? It would certainly make more sense in a fall setting. Did this story get moved to March when the crucifixion came to be associated with the Passover? I think that is a distinct possibility.
Once again, Matthew and Luke, both of whom, I repeat, wrote with Mark before them, seem to indicate that they knew something was wrong with this story at least in its present location. Matthew, seeking to rid himself of this story as quickly as possible, collapses it into a single event, not a two-part story as Mark tells it. Luke handles it by omitting this episode altogether, turning it into a parable later. Its location in the early spring of the year appears out of place, suggesting that perhaps it had been moved without much thought about the consequences when the crucifixion was moved to the season of Passover.
The third reason for suggesting that the crucifixion was not originally set in the season of Passover, comes out of the content given to the description of the Palm Sunday procession in all three of the synoptic gospels. That content appears to have been borrowed from Sukkoth, the Jewish eight-day fall festival of the harvest. At Sukkoth, the Jews marched around the Temple waving something they called a “lulab,” a bunch of leafy branches made up of willow, myrtle and palm. As they marched waving these branches, they recited Psalm 118, which reads: “Hosanna in the Highest-Blessed is he (or the one) who comes in the Name of the Lord.” Those words should sound familiar to Christians. They are the words spoken by the crowds on Palm Sunday, but they have been lifted directly out of the Harvest Festival of the Jews, obviously a fall event. So my first conclusion is that we must break the identification that has connected the crucifixion with the season of Passover. It is not history, but a later liturgical adaptation which developed after Jesus came to be identified with the paschal lamb of Passover. So I allow the crucifixion narrative to break from its traditional moorings and to float freely in time.
What is history, however, is that at the arrest of Jesus, all of the disciples forsook him and fled. Why am I so convinced of this? Because by the time the gospels were written, the disciples had become heroes. The tendency is to whitewash heroes, but apostolic abandonment did not flatter the disciples. Instead the gospels reveal an apologetic defense that was built around this desertion. This abandonment, they said, was done in order to fulfill the scriptures. They based this defense on a text from Zechariah (13:7), which reads, “Strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered.” The desertion of the disciples at the time of Jesus’ arrest, they asserted, was done not because of weaknesses in the disciples’ characters, but to enable them to play the role assigned to them by the scriptures. One does not build such a powerful defense of inappropriate behavior if that behavior did not actually happen. So I come to my second reconstruction conclusion. When Jesus was arrested his followers, all of them, not some of them, fled in fear. We need to embrace the overwhelmingly probable fact of history that Jesus died alone, his disciples had abandoned him. There were no eyewitnesses. Only when we embrace that probability can we begin to recreate the likely post-arrest behavior of the disciples.
Where did they go? I expect they scattered. A collection of Galileans in Jerusalem, armed as they appear to have been, was highly suspicious. Their leader had been arrested. They might be next. Safety was in small numbers, maybe just one, or two, probably never more than three. Survival was their primary agenda. Perhaps some went into hiding. Perhaps others began their journey back to the safety of Galilee.
Their emotions were a strange combination of fear and grief. Jesus was gone. Jesus had been the center of their lives, perhaps their hopes, but now he was dead. Any messianic dreams that they might have attached to him died with him. The Jews had no concept of a “dead messiah.” So his death meant that he could not have been what some of them at least thought he was. In Peter’s mind the closest sanctuary was not in fleeing immediately to Galilee. Those trails might well be guarded as the authorities looked for Jesus’ collaborators. Just two miles away was their headquarters for this Jerusalem journey. It was in Bethany, probably at the home of Mary and Martha. Peter could get there before sundown announced the beginning of the Sabbath. He could spend the Sabbath there in relative safety and then journey home at dawn on the first day of the week. So to Bethany, I believe he fled.
Death brings guilt and anger with it. Were any of them at fault? Could they have done anything that would have made a difference? I suspect that in Bethany the story of Peter’s denial came up. That had to be real. It was much too indelible an experience, too guilt producing to have been suppressed. I suspect that some of the others, including Mary and Martha, vented their anger at Peter that night. Death, especially tragic death, always looks for someone to blame. I suspect that it was an uncomfortable night for Peter and it fueled his plans to leave at the crack of dawn, once the Sabbath had passed, to begin his journey back to Galilee. He wanted safety and solace, perhaps aloneness. With this speculative detail in place, the reconstruction of how Easter dawned has begun. We leave Peter in Bethany, bitter, guilty, angry, having been abused for his weakness, and resolved to return to the safety and anonymity of his home in Galilee as quickly as possible. The journey will continue next week.
John Shelby Spong
Read the essay online here.
Question & Answer
Maxine, via the Internet, writes:

I do not know what is meant by the term “Ground of All Being” used by Paul Tillich and you. I do not get a concept of what the term means. I need someone to explain it to me in more understandable terms.
I have read all of Marcus Borg’s books and can understand his terminology of Panentheism, but am lost on what is meant by “Ground of All Being.”
Dear Maxine,
Part of the power of that phrase, “Ground of All Being” is that it resists definition, so your quandary is both normal and natural. The phrase represents a rebellion against the idolatrous God definitions that mark human history. Historically, we human beings have defined God by analogy. God was like the tribal chief; God was like the king; God was like the father figure; God was like the judge. Then someone realized that all these images were male, so God by definition did not represent 50% of the human race. Human beings needed a God image bigger and more inclusive than that of an all-powerful male.
We also noticed that the duties ascribed to the powerful male deity began to shrink as we learned more about how the universe operated. Were natural disasters instruments of God’s hostility? For centuries that was our explanation. Some primitive and unlearned religious figures still traffic in that kind of nonsense. It was Jerry Falwell who stated on television that the tragedy of 9/11 was caused presumably by God since America needed to be punished for tolerating abortion, feminism, homosexuality and the American Civil Liberties Union. Pat Robertson announced that the earthquake in Haiti was an expression of the Divine wrath at the Haitians for throwing the French out and declaring independence.
The God understood as a supernatural male simply was no longer big enough to be the object of human worship. The question then was does this mean that there is no such thing as God? Or does it mean that our understanding and definition of God is so inept as to be false and misleading. The push to begin to think of God, not as a being, but as the Ground of Being was the result of this struggle.
The phrase was introduced into philosophical language with the work of Plotinus in the third century (204-270 CE). It proved to be emotionally unsatisfying and so it languished. It was brought into Christianity and popularized by a man named Paul Tillich (1886-1965), who probably became the most influential Christian theologian in the 20th century. It presents us with a concept of God in whom all that is, is rooted. It suggests that God is an idea or presence that permeates all living things. It suggests that the more deeply and totally each of us can be all that we are capable of being, the more we make the God who is the Ground of Being visible. It sees the divinity of Jesus not in incarnational terms in which God is thought to have invaded the realm of the human, but as a human life which expanded until humanity was seen as part of what God is. It suggests that good is the enhancement of being and that evil is the denigration of being. Ultimately, this concept of God challenges traditional Christianity at every point.
I got my theological degree in 1955 from the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia. My professor of theology, Clifford L. Stanley, was a thoroughgoing Tillichian. He challenged me in every way imaginable. The difficulty was that he was a lone voice on that faculty of “traditional believers” and so the thought of Paul Tillich was never integrated into the rest of Christianity. That has not happened yet. The concept of an external “theistic Being” operating on or in the world no longer has credibility and still the churches pray “Our Father, who art in heaven,” and speak of an intervening God who knows all and sees all.
To re-image God from a being to the Ground of Being is a theological revolution of the first order. The leader or the church that tries to achieve that revolution will probably be defeated or will die trying. Not to participate in that revolution, however, is also to die.
Yes, understanding the idea of God as the Ground of Being is difficult. It may never become clear to millions, but not to face the reality that God, understood as a being who is supernatural in power is also doomed, is the first step that must be taken.
To put it another way: If one ceases to be a theist does that make one an atheist or can one be a non-theist and a profound Christian at the same time? I vote for this latter possibility, but I do not see many churches, denominations or theological seminaries either willing or capable of entering this arena. I think that is tragic because the future of Christianity lies in the willingness to walk into this uncharted territory.
John Shelby Spong
"The future of Christianity depends first on hearing the life-giving message of love that is the heart of the gospel and then transforming our various guilt-laden liturgies so that they too reflect this message. Without these things rising to consciousness inside the Christian church, I do not believe that there will be or can be a Christian future. So I live more in hope than in confidence as I view the life of institutional Christianity in its various manifestations in our world." ~Bishop Spong

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