Just a few more words to convey Marcus Borg’s and John Crossan’s work on the death of Jesus, for this Lenten season. Already mentioned was their conclusion that Jesus’ sacrifice was not one of atonement or substitution. Rather, it was seen as a “ransom”. In the language of the times, to “ransom” meant to liberate someone from debt, or to pay for a slave’s release from servitude. And this meaning, say Crossan and Borg, is the earliest, truest connotation of Jesus’ “sacrificial death” in the New Testament. It means liberation from bondage.
Beginning with the Last Supper, the authors explain Jesus’ own view of his impending death:
“… when a person dies violently we speak of a separation of body and blood. That is the first and basic point of Jesus’s separated bread/body and wine/blood words… a correlation becomes possible between Jesus as the new paschal lamb and this final meal as a New Passover… The point is neither suffering nor substitution, but participation with God through gift or meal… it was by participation with Jesus and, even more, in Jesus that his followers were to pass through death to resurrection… It is… a final attempt to bring all of them with him through execution to resurrection, through death to new life. It is…about participation in Christ and not substitution by Christ.”
Moving on to Jesus’s death itself:
“… this [substitutionary atonement] is not the only Christian understanding of Jesus’s death. Indeed, it took more than a thousand years for it to become dominant… [it] first appeared in fully developed form in a book written in 1097 by St. Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury… [According to Anselm’s view,] God must require a punishment, the payment of a price, before God can forgive our sins or crimes. Jesus is the price… [However] the substitutionary sacrificial understanding of Jesus’ death is not there at all in Mark… According to Mark, Jesus did not die for the sins of the world. The language of substitutionary sacrifice for sin is absent from his story. But in an important sense, he was killed because of the sin of the world. It was the injustice of domination systems that killed him, injustice so routine that it is part of the normalcy of civilization.”
Marcus J. Borg & John D. Crossan, The Last Week, Harper Collins, San Francisco: 2006, pp. 118-119 and pp. 138-139.