Resurrection: Myth or Reality A Bishop's Search for the Origins of Christianity by John Shelby Soong, Harper Collins, £8.99 THIS EASTER WE HEARD familiar stories about angels who speak and roll back stones and tombs that are suddenly empty, apparitions that come and go, and thieves who converse as they hang on a cross.
But what if none of those stories are true? According to Bishop Spong, most of the details of Jesus' crucifixion are not historical but derive from Jewish midrash, legend and myth.
Midrash is the Jewish way of saying that everything to be venerated in the present must somehow be connected with a sacred moment in the past.
For example, God's power was seen working through Moses in the parting of the Red Sea, allowing God's people to enter the promised land. When Moses died, God's continuing presence was validated by re-telling the parting of the waters in the story of Joshua then Elijah and Elisha.
Midrash is so woven into the Gospels, Spong argues, that we need to read them through the
lens of Jewish eyes and minds. Otherwise we make extravagant claims for narratives that were never intended to be taken literally.
The question to ask is why was the life of Jesus interpreted through the stories of Abraham and Isaac, Moses and Passover, the servant figure and the Son of man? What special event had required scripture to explain it?
In search of Christianity's "Big-Bang" the original Easter experience Spong separates legend from fact in the Gospel narratives. Show ing that almost every symbol of Easter originates in the festival of the Tabernacles, he argues that this largely lost Jewish celebration was the setting in which the Easter tradition was finally told.
The "moment" of Easter itself, he suggests, happened in Galilee when Peter inwardly recognised that Jesus' life had made God accessible. With their eyes opened to the reality of the risen Christ, the disciples took their faith to Jerusalem during the festival of Tabernacles, six months after the crucifixion. That was the real triumphal journey, the original Palm Sunday.
So is Spong right? Was Christ's bodily resurrection more midrash packaging? Biblical scholars may be in the best position to judge.What clearly matters to Spong is that we share in the resurrected life; and in a world sceptical of miracles and the supernatural, modern faith must be based on a deeper knowledge of text and history.
Analysing the symbols does not discredit the reality behind them, says Spong. Agreed. But to conclude that at the heart of Easter is a mystery beyond human analysis and understanding, does not discredit our faith, either.