The Adult Sunday School class at my small church (Jeff Street Baptist Community @ Liberty) has been studying The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions by Marcus Borg and N. T. (Tom) Wright. At no point do these two Jesus scholars disagree more sharply than over the nature and meaning of Jesus’ resurrection. Wright defends a traditional bodily resurrection in which the dead Jesus is raised to a “transformed form of physical life” by God. In a fashion similar to Wolfhart Pannenberg’s approach in Jesus–God and Man, Wright argues for the historicity of both the empty tomb and the appearances of the risen Christ–as Wright does at much greater length in The Resurrection of the Son of God.
By contrast, Borg argues that Jesus’ resurrection appearances, though real, were visions or apparitions. Reading 1 Cor. 15 very differently than Wright, Borg claims that Jesus’ resurrection is in some way spiritual, that the appearances of Jesus to the disciples and to Paul were not qualitatively different than believers’ experiences with the Risen Christ ever since that day. He argues that the empty tomb traditions developed separately, that we, today, cannot know the historical reliability of the empty tomb stories and that whether or not the tomb was empty is irrelevant to understanding Jesus’ resurrection. He sharply contrasts resurrection with the resuscitation of a corpse (a contrast which implicitly mischaracterizes Wright’s view, since he clearly distinguishes Jesus’ resurrection from resuscitation).
I tend to side more with Wright than Borg on the nature of Jesus’ resurrection. He argues well that spiritual life after death would not be termed “resurrection” by first century Jews and Christians. Like Karl Barth, however, I’m somewhat more skeptical that historians qua historians can demonstrate the resurrection.
But traditionalists like Wright, though having the better case than liberals like Borg on the bodily nature of the resurrection, are remarkably tongue tied on the tbeological meaning of the resurrection. (Wright does see that it leads Paul and other early Christians to rethink radically traditional Jewish eschatology.) Borg is stronger at this point. He outlines 5 dimensions of the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection in the New Testament–or, more accurately, 5 dimensions of the death/resurrection of Jesus considered as one event. While I am not sure these 5 (or any list) can fully exhaust the meaning of the cross/resurrection, I certainly think that these are important dimensions–and that each point would be strengthened by viewing Christ’s resurrection as a bodily resurrection–though our language, like Paul’s in 1 Cor. 15, strains to the breaking point in attempting to say what kind of bodily resurrection.
- Resurrection/Vindication. The Domination System ( a term Borg borrows from Walter Wink) rejected and killed Jesus. The resurrection is God’s vindication of Jesus. “This Jesus whom you crucified, God has made both Lord and Christ.”
- Defeat of the Powers. This is the story of God’s victory over Pharoah in the Exodus now projected on a cosmic screen. God in Christ, “disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in the cross.”
- Revelation of the Way. Because of the resurrection, early Christians concluded that following Jesus is the way to God. “I am crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” They remembered Jesus’ saying, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and takeup their cross and follow me.” In his life and ministry, Jesus and his prophetic renewal movement within Judaism, tried to teach the Way to and with God. Now, the early Christians conclude that not only are Jesus’ teaching and example the Way, but Jesus himself is the Way.
- Revelation of the Love of God. The New Testament writers also see the Good Friday/Easter pattern as revealing the depth of God’s love for us. As Borg notes, this interpretation depends on developing the completed Christian story–in which Jesus is seen as God’s only and beloved Son. Within this framework, the death of Jesus is not simply the execution of a prophet or the rejection of Jesus’ message by the rulers of this world. It is also God’s giving up of that which is most precious to God–namely, Jesus as God’s only Son. John 3:16; Rom. 5.
- Jesus as sacrifice for sin. Borg describes this dimension in greater length because it is central to many versions of Christianity–but some in ways that he believes are not helpful. When Borg is asked, “Do you believe that Jesus died for your sins?” he answers “no and yes.” If the questioners mean “Do you think that Jesus saw his own death as a sacrifice for sin?” He answers “No.” (Here I side with Wright who argues strongly that many would-be 1st C. Messiahs saw their impending deaths as redemptive for Israel and there is no reason why Jesus wouldn’t view his death similarly.) If the questioners mean “Do you think that God can forgive sins only because of Jesus’ sacrifice?” Borg also answers “no.” (Here I agree. I find it strange that conservative Catholics and evangelical Christians, many claiming to believe in biblical inerrancy, can so quickly throw out all of the First Testament examples of God’s forgiveness!) But if the questioners mean, “Is the statement that Jesus was a sacrifice for our sins a powerfully true metaphor for the grace of God,” Borg answers “yes.”
What would it mean in a 1st C. Jewish context to say, “Jesus is the sacrifice for our sins?” Borg notes that there is both a negative and positive meaning and both are strikingly radical.
Negative: In the temple theology, the temple claimed a monopoly on forgiveness of sins–and, thus, an institutional monopoly on access to God. So, negatively, the statement “Jesus is the sacrifice for our sins” is a subversion of the temple. “You don’t need the temple; you have access to God apart from the temple.” “Jesus is our sacrifice” is an anti-temple statement.
Positive: “Jesus is our sacrifice” is a metaphorical proclamation of the radical grace of God and our unconditional acceptance. To say, as the letter of Hebrews does, that Jesus is the “once for all” sacrifice for sin means that God has already taken care of whatever it is that we think separates us from God. If our own sense of sin and guilt, or unworthiness or failure, makes us feel unacceptable to God, then we simply have not understood that God has already taken care of it. Borg asserts that this is also what Paul is getting at by saying that “Christ is the end of the Law.” (I think I hear Borg’s Lutheran childhood coming out here.)