A Meaningful Easter (Part One)

This post will explore the contributions of New Testament scholars Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan toward an appreciation of Passion Week and Easter, as recently expressed in The First Paul (Harper Collins Publishers, NY 2009).

It could be argued that Christianity, inasmuch as it claims to be based on the supernatural event of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, is based on magic or superstition. Unlike Buddhism, for example, which is based on the Gotama’s teachings and a meditative practice designed to awaken or “enlighten” the practitioner, to the extent that Christianity places the resurrection center stage, it is often viewed as an impractical flight into otherworldly realms rather than a concrete set of testable and realizable spiritual claims.  Borg and Crossan challenge this idea through an exploration of New Testament (NT) resurrectional claims, especially as refracted through the prism of (Saint) Paul’s writings.

The authors point out that in the NT, Jesus’ death and resurrection are inseparable, as are the metaphorical and inward “death” and “resurrection” of the Christian believer.  Paul in fact intimately links Jesus’ death and resurrection with a similar process of “dying and rising” in the believer.  So we begin with Jesus’ Passion and Death before going on to consider his resurrection.

The authors start with a common, widespread Christian misunderstanding of Jesus’ death on the cross.  Most Christians seem to think that the Cross means that Jesus died for our sins; that Jesus is the sacrifice for sin; that Jesus died in our place (“substitutionary atonement”); and that Jesus is the payment for sin.  However,

“But this understanding is less than a thousand years old.  It first appeared in 1097 in a theological treatise by Anselm of Canterbury.  Its Latin title, Cur Deus Homo?… ‘Why did God Become Human?’ states its purpose…:

“Because of our disobedience to God [according to Anselm], we are all sinners .  Forgiveness requires that compensation be made… But our debt to God as an infinite being is infinite.  Therefore, no one who is finite can pay the price.  Only an infinite being can pay an infinite debt.  Thus the necessity of Jesus.  As the incarnation of God, he is that infinite being whose death as a substitutionary sacrifice for sin pays the price of our disobedience.  Therefore [according to ehe operating processes of this system] we can be forgiven.”

The authors respond to and reject this common view:

“The problem is not with Anselm’s argument – its logic is impeccable.  The problem is that it is not what Paul meant when he made ‘Christ crucified’ central to the gospel.  Substitutionary sacrifice was foreign to his thought..[and] is bad history because it projects back onto Paul an understanding of the death of Jesus that did not exist in his time.”

Crossan and Borg group Paul’s understanding of the Cross into three categories:

1)  The Cross reveals the character of the Roman Empire.  Roman crucifixion was applied to two groups of people, those who challenged imperial rule (whether violently or non-violently) and chronically defiant slaves.  Common to both groups was rejection of Roman imperial domination.  “To proclaim ‘Christ crucified’ was to signal at once that Jesus was an anti-imperial figure, and that Paul’s gospel was an anti-imperial gospel.  The Empire killed Jesus.”

2)  The Cross reveals the “Way” of participatory atonement as a metaphor for the “Path” of personal transformation, involving an internal death and resurrection, dying to an old identity/way of life, and “rising” into a new identity/way of life.

“Participatory atonement does not mean Jesus died for us, and therefore we don’t need to.  Instead, it means we are to die and rise with Christ.  It is metaphorical language for a process of radical internal change… This was Paul’s experience….  About himself, he writes, ‘I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me (Galatians 2:19-20)…  Its metaphorical meaning, its more-than-literal meaning, is clear:  Paul had experienced an internal crucifixion, an internal death.  The old Paul had died, …[but]  a new Paul had been born.”

Paul identified one primary method of  receiving this kind of “spiritual heart transplant” in the sacrament of baptism, which he claimed meant dying and rising with Christ:

“All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death.  Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life (Romans 6:3-4).

Paul writes of this internal, participatory transformation using the language of sacrifice:

“I appeal to you therefore…to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God , which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1).

3)  The Cross reveals God’s character, inasmuch as Paul’s view conceives of Jesus as God’s decisive revelation; the authors succinctly state that for Paul and early Christians generally, in “Jesus, we see what can be seen of God in a human life… the death of Jesus – Christ crucified – reveals God’s character as love. God’s character is not wrathful, as if he needed to sacrifice Jesus instead of us.  Jesus’ sacrifice was not substitutionary.

“Dying ‘for’ someone and ‘sacrifice’ do not in themselves imply substitution.  This is true in ordinary language and also in the Bible.  In ordinary language, when people talk about somebody dying ‘for’ somebody, they seldom if ever mean in that person’s place.  Rather, they mean for that person’s sake or benefit. A parent risks her life and dies in order to save her child from a burning house.  A soldier leaps on a grenade… to save… his buddies….  One might say that the mother and the soldier died instead of the child and the buddies, but one wouldn’t mean as a ‘substitute.’  Rather, they gave up their lives for the sake of others.  They died that others might live.”

The authors point out that the term “sacrifice” is derived from the Latin sacrum facere, ” to make something sacred by offering it to God.  Hence most sacrifices in the ancient world were gifts to God.  They were not usually or primarily appeasements or tokens of propitiation.  Religious sacrifices served the purposes of making thanksgiving, where gratitude alone was the motive; of petition, as for instance in times of community peril; as reconciliation, a means of repairing or overcoming a breach in the community’s or the individual’s relationship with God.  This crucial issue – that sacrifice was not normally about substitution, is explained:

“When an animal was sacrificed, the notion was not that God was punishing an animal instead of a person; it was not about an animal suffering and dying instead of a human being….  Paul’s language about Jesus’s death as a dying ‘for us,’ as a ‘sacrifice,’ does not in itself mean that Jesus was being substituted for us.  Indeed, we need to make the statement stronger.  To see Paul’s understanding of the death of Jesus as a substitutionary sacrifice for sin is to import into the notion of sacrifice a meaning that it did not have in the ancient world, including the world of Paul. Indeed, substitutionary atonement theology is completely counter to [Pauline] thought…  ” (blogger’s italicization).

(The present writer agrees with this assessment as far as it goes, but finds it surprising that no mention is made of that famous paradigm of ancient Hebrew sacrifice, the scapegoat.  This unfortunate animal does seem to embody the sins of Israel and its “shunning” and driving away into the desert do seem to require at least a modest idea of  substitutionary sacrifice.  Perhaps the authors will address this issue in future editions.)

And again:

“A caution: this passage [2 Corinthians 5:14-21 / par. Romans 8:31-39] uses the language of God’s ‘agency’ in the death of Jesus – God ‘gave him up.’  The language should not be literalized.  When it is, it suggests that the cross was part of God’s ‘plan’ – that it was God’s will that Jesus be crucified.  To think this is strange and [it] leads to a strange theology.  What kind of God would would require the death of this extraordinary human?

“The passage is not about divine causation, as if God willed the death of Jesus.  Rather… the use of a parent-child metaphor emphasizes the depth of God’s love:  God was willing to give up ‘his own Son’ for our benefit.  That is how much God loves us.  The death of Jesus as God’ s Son is a parable of God’s love for us.  And a parable should never be literalized – to do so would be to miss the point.”

And finally:

“… we come to the phrase ‘a sacrifice of atonement by his blood.’  If it does not mean substitutionary atonement, what does it mean?  Did Jesus sacrifice his life?  Yes….  Did Paul think [Jesus] died as a substitute?  No.  Did Paul think his death on a cross had atoning significance?  Yes.”

Considering Borg’s and Crossan’s Passion thesis, it becomes clear that Paul intended Jesus’ sacrifice-atonement to be not a substitutionary killing, but rather, a participatory sacrament in which Christians partake of Jesus’ 0wn death.  Baptism is one way of participating, and there are others.  Christianity claims that Jesus is “the Way”.  As Borg points out elsewhere, a way is a road, a path. The NT exhibits Jesus’ “Way” as a dying-and-resurrection.  And this concept is not confined only  to the crucifixion-and-resurrection narratives, but is a pre-crucifixion theme in Jesus’ own teaching.

Jesus makes an analogy to seeds in this regard:

“…unless a grain of what falls to the ground and dies, it remains just  a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.  Whoever loves his life loses it, and however hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life” (John 12:24-25).

Luke puts it like this:

“…”If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.  For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”  (Luke 9:23-24).  Luke views death-and-resurrection (“saving” one’s “life”) as a gradual, even a daily process – a “way of the Cross” enacted and partaken of over time.

Paul says:

“I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me… the Son of God who has loved me and has given himself up for me”  (Galatians 2:19b-20).

Regarding Jesus’ death, the NT does not rely on magic or superstition.   But it does rely on a mysticism in which the Christian is said to actively but inwardly participate in Jesus’ self-giving/life-giving death.  Part Two will explore how the NT also applies this pragmatic mysticism to the redemptive meaning of Jesus’ resurrection.


2 thoughts on “A Meaningful Easter (Part One)

  1. John Anngeister

    Greetings again (a.k.a. “Reader”)

    Welcome back after a long break! I have stopped by from time to time but noticed you were on hold. Tonight I am running late but wanted you to know how timely I find these quotations and reflections, in view of other writing I have done lately.

    Glad I stopped back. I’m blogging now, Come visit!

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