On Empty Tombs and Painted Sepulchres

Way back in the stone age when I was an overeager, pimply-faced and intellectually callow freshman at Vanderbilt University, just barely turned seventeen, I took an introductory New Testament course at the divinity school . The course was taught by Fr. John Donoho SJ, a roly-poly little fellow who, come to find out, was one of the intellectual giants of 20th century biblical scholarship, a protege of Rudolph Bultmann himself and the world’s leading authority on Mark’s gospel.

None of which, of course, mattered to a seventeen-year old from the hollows of East Tennessee. All I heard was Fr. Donoho’s rather radical assertion that Mark’s gospel originally ended with an empty tomb. The “resurrection appearances”, he stated unequivovally, were later additions to the original text.

In my defence, I wasn’t the only lardhead in the class who felt incited to riot by the mere contemplation of the heretical idea that Jesus might not have actually risen from the dead in bodily form. The Southern Baptists in the class, which were numerous as locusts, spoke openly about petitioning the dean or boycotting lectures.
Donoho had heard it all before. And I must say that apparently he saw something in me, perhaps my extreme youth in a class full of graduate students, which compelled him to spend several hours of his own time one Tuesday afternoon attempting to explain what modern scholarship was trying to do for Jesus.

Those of you who have been parents to seventeen-year old boys have an excellent idea of how intently I listened back then. He might as well have been giving me a detailed explanation on particle physics.

“What if, Mr. Bonner,” this round-faced priest with the Irish smile said very paternally, “Archeologists dug up Jesus tomorrow? Would that be the end of your faith?”

“If that be the case, it doesn’t say a whole lot about your faith, now does it?”

Donoho weathered the storm. He was, by then at least, a veteran of many such wars. In the years to come, I would hear that he suffered more at the hands of the Vatican than phalanxes of irate students on American campuses.

But I have never forgotten that sunny afternoon conversation in Donoho’s musty office. He might actually have been the first real Christian I had ever met, because simply he loved Jesus the Man, not the God or the idea. He took great pains to explain to a mere boy the justification for his life’s work and its relevance for today.

“Jesus was never about future,” he said. “Jesus was about today. He wanted to change his world for the better. I think that is extraordinary in any age.”

Of course, the current controversy over the Pope’s views on economic justice reminded me of how I became radicalized forty years ago. It took a while for the message to take root and sprout in my rather dense intellect. But once it settled in, it flourished.

“Consider this, Bonner,” he said. “What if there was no more God in Jesus than there is in you?”

“That is an awesome responsibility. Are you man enough for it?”


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