Was the resurrection a conjuring trick with bones? Bishop David Jenkins RIP

Today, 4th Sept 2016 it was announced that Bishop David Jenkins had died. Some of us will remember the uproar he caused in 1984 over his theology and especially on the resurrection.



Image result for david jenkins

David Jenkins hit the news shortly after he was appointed Bishop of Durham in 1984. Prior to that he was professor at Leeds following time with William temple and the World council of Churches, where he developed his Humanum studies. Until 1984 Jenkins was a little known moderately liberal professor of theology. In January 1979 I went to a William Temple Foundation conference in Manchester , where he was the most conservative voice – but not conservative enough for me!

Jenkins was interviewed on TV and then the storm broke. Essentially he said nothing new and theologically he was no more liberal than his immediate predecessor John Habgood, or Hensley Henson half a century before. Jenkins was in the tradition of scholarly Durham bishops; Lightfoot, Westcott, Ramsay and Habgood in particular. Like Henson in the 1920s, Jenkins did not believe in the Virgin Birth or the empty tomb in respect of the resurrection. I am quite sure Lightfoot, Westcott and Ramsay could have challenged him!!

The difference was that others put their theology around in learned articles and conferences and not prime time TV, where some theologically clueless journo could make a story out of it  – and they did. I had a copy of the transcript of the TV programme back then – but it has been lost after several moves. From memory it was not memorable, but simply a brief and popular summary of a widely -held liberal theological belief. Though I then took a far more conservative position than he did – and still do – there was nothing startling. It was similar the theology taught at the Anglican theological colleges Ripon Hall or Westcott House, but not the tranche of evangelical ones.

However the media picked up his denial of the Virgin Birth and also claimed he did not believe the resurrection. That was totally untrue, but his memorable sound-bite that the resurrection was not

A conjuring trick with bones

was taken to imply that he rejected the resurrection.

After the media and the conservative theological underworld went into overdrive, and Jenkins was unjustly known as the unbelieving bishop. Even a parishioner at my church in Liverpool asked if all who studied at Durham had similar views 🙂 (She wasn’t overly partial to me and once our 4 year old asked why she had funny hair. Luckily a lady, who was stone deaf heard her first, and made the comment apply to her. Muriel saved the day!)

In fact the sound bite “not a conjuring trick with bones” makes an incredibly important point, and on this point I am at one with Jenkins. I am sure (without checking what he wrote) that Jenkins believed that Jesus rose but not the account of the empty tomb. I think he is wrong to deny the empty tomb, but he has (present tense of course) a great grasp of what the resurrection means.

He used the expression “a conjuring trick with bones” to show that the widely-held popular idea that on the first Easter Day Jesus literally physically rose again. Sadly that is held by many with theological training i.e. clergy, as well.If the resurrection was  a conjuring trick then it was resuscitation rather than resurrection. That happened to Lazarus (John chap 11) as he was only to die again.

When you read the resurrection narratives in the four gospels CAREFULLY, you will see it is not a conjuring trick or resuscitation, but much more than that. Jesus was recognisable , but not quite physical as we read in Luke 24 on the Emmaus Road and with Thomas in John 20. So “dem dry bones” were not put together again by a conjoror. It was something more. Often writers and preachers are very slipshod over this and seem to imply a purely physical resuscitation, ooops-  I mean resurrection.

As I started my training I found this a problem but found the book Risen Indeed by Grenville Yarnold very helpful. ( I was given a copy as Gren was my uncle and godfather and before ordination senior physics lecturer at Nottingham. He married my mother’s sister, whereas my mother married a biochemist, who was a second generation atheist. I did not carry on that tradition!) In the book Gren argued first for the Empty Tomb, which I consider to be essential in our understanding.

Most important was his treatment of the “body” of the Risen Christ. After dealing with all the resurrection narratives at the end of each gospel, he said clearly that the Risen Jesus did not have a physical body, but a  quasiphysical body (lit; as-if-physical). I found that made so much sense and it guided my understanding of the nature of the resurrection for the last forty or more years.It helped me to avoid the two errors (I am tempted to say heresy) of a literal conjuring trick with bones and denial of the empty tomb and a purely spiritual resurrection. The former leads to crass materialism and the latter to a wispy rejection of the material. As Jesus is the first of the New Creation, he is very material indeed and we see that the Resurrection involves not only people but the renewal of the whole creation (apokatstasis if you prefer).

More recently, Tom Wright has argued the same point (p476ff) in his book The Resurrection that the Resurrection of Jesus is not physical nor spiritual but


I think that is a better word but it has the same meaning as Gren’s quasiphysical.

This briefly is how I have reflected for three decades on Jenkins’ conjuring trick with bones. He was making a very important and serious point but I do think his successor as Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, came up with a better understanding , but without a memorable sound-bite. After all”transphysical” is unsuitable for News Night or The Daily Mail.

Christ is risen

He is risen indeed, alleluia

P.S. I said all that is needed in exactly 1000 words!

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