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Jesus' Salvific Death: A Dialogue between

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Jesus' Salvific Death: A Dialogue between
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    Jesus’ Salvific Death: A Dialogue between Marcus J. Borg and J. T. Wright   I. Introduction   Did Jesus of Nazareth see his own death as having salvific significance? Did he understandhis death as to bring salvation for all people? The gospels in their present forms portray that Jesus,who lived in Nazareth in first century Palestine, knew that it was his vocation to die for the sake of all people. His death was an integral part of his call, as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.The Gospel of Mark is centered by a threefold prediction of Jesus suffering and death in Jerusalem(Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34). Mark shows that Jesus understood his death as necessary. “The Son of Man must   suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31). This prophecy-fulfillment can also be foundin Luke. Two disciples on the road to Emmaus were rebuked by Jesus for not knowing that he hadto die to fulfill the prophecy of all the prophets (Luke 24:25-27). The earliest writings in theChristian bible also note the same thing. Paul in his letter to the Corinthians underlines that “Christdied for our sins in accordance with the Scripture” (1 Cor 15:3). Based on the biblical observation presented above, it is clear from Christian bible that the death of Jesus is understood as the purposeof his life. Was this, a salvific purpose, how Jesus saw his own death? Or is it a post-Easter theological reflection of early Christian community?Marcus Borg and N. T. Wright have dedicated their lives in search for historical Jesus. The problems presented here are also parts of their studies. Based on their studies, however, they givedifferent answers to this same question. Wright underlines that the death of Jesus was a central andintegral part of his messianic vocation and purpose. He argues that Jesus knew that his life wouldreach its climax in crucifixion. His death would defeat the power of evil and install a NewJerusalem. Borg, on the other hand, understands that the salvific understanding of Jesus’ deathcannot be traced back to Jesus himself, but may be attributed to the pos-Easter interpretation of early Christian community. It should be noted again here that the core problem is not the salvificmeaning of Jesus’ death, but a particular historical question; “Did Jesus see his death as having asaving purpose?”   II. The salvific death of Jesus   The basic understanding of Jesus’ salvific death as presented by Borg and Wright will beexamined here. Borg’s idea will be first presented, followed by that of Wright’s.   2.1. Borg’s understanding of Jesus salvific death While accepting Wright’s claim that the notion of one’s death having a salvific effect for others was present in the first century Jewish context, Borg rejects that Jesus’ death was answeringthis expectation. He not only regards it as strange, but also unattractive. He believes that Jesusmight have understood that his life would end in crucifixion. However, there is a great doubt thatJesus knew ahead that his death would have an atoning effect for the sins of the people of Israel.Borg shows that it is more historically persuasive to see the salvific understanding of Jesus’ death as post-Easter interpretation, or as history metaphorized, rather than as history remembered.[1]   Borg notes that the passion stories in the New Testament gospels are the primary sources of historical accounts of Jesus’ last day, which begin with the last meal, betrayal, arrest, trials beforeJewish and Roman authorities, which reach its climax with crucifixion, death and his burial.[2]However, he argues, given the nature of the gospels, it cannot be assumed that the gospels providestraightforward historical accounts to their readers. The historicity of the narratives, especially their details, is open for genuine question. Passion stories were developed since the time of Jesus’ deathuntil the time of their composition. Thus, as Borg points out, there are four different ingredientscombined together in these stories, namely, history remembered,[3]  prophecy historicized,[4] imaginative elaboration, and purposive interpretation.[5]Borg confesses that he owes the phrase ‘history remembered’ to Dominic Crossan todescribe some biblical events that really happened during the time of Jesus, and thus part of the biblical narratives. Passion narratives, the story of Jesus’ death, according to Borg, consist of different factors apart from history remembered. There is no doubt that the crucifixion that led tothe death of Jesus was a historical event, but the details were most probably not.   There are a great number of quotations taken from Hebrew Bible. There are at least 17quotations found in the passion narratives in the gospel of Mark. According to some scholars, thesequotations were taken by the author of the gospel to explain that the events of Jesus were to fulfillthe prophecy of the Old Testament. Borg, however, argues that the correspondences between passion stories and Hebrew Bible were made because of ‘prophecy historicized’; early Christiansused the Hebrew Bible as they told the story of the death of Jesus. Rather than mirroring the actualevents, the use of Hebrew Bible contributed to the creation of the details of the stories.[6]   Borg especially takes the frequent use of Psalm 22 in the passion narratives to illustrate his point. This Psalm is quoted three times in the passion narratives (Mark 15:24; 15:29; 15:34). Mark quotes the Psalm to show that Jesus’ executors drawing lots to divide his garments amongthemselves. Borg poses a question, did they really gamble for a peasant’s robe? Or was it togenerate the details of the stories? Was Jesus’ utterance of the first verse of the Psalm an expressionof anguish, or as his dying prayer? For Borg, these are not history remembered, but prophecyhistoricized.[7]   Apart from the two ingredients presented above that provide some details of passion narratives,‘imaginative elaboration’ was also employed by early Christians as they told the passion stories.Imaginative elaboration includes details that would not have been known since no witness was present at the site, as well as scenes which were created for apologetic reasons. No one would haveknown what Jesus prayed, as well as the content of his prayer at Gethsemane (Mark 14:36). Thestory of Pilate washing his hands off the blood of Jesus (though only in Mat 15:24) which serves the purpose of shifting the responsibility of Jesus death away from Roman authority, according to Borg,might have been the products of imaginative elaboration.   The death of Jesus as having a salvific meaning, that it serves a divine providential purpose for the atoning of the sins of the people of Israel, has been largely accepted. Jesus was seen to haveunderstood his death as something necessary for reconciling the people of Israel with their Yahwehand to build a new Temple in New Jerusalem. Borg doesn’t think that Jesus saw his death this way.This is most likely the product of a post-Easter retrospective interpretation.[8] Borg calls this formof interpretation as ‘purposive interpretation’.[9] To further explain his position that the salvific meaning of Jesus’ death was not intended byhistorical Jesus but the product of early Christian community, Borg then explores the biblicalnarratives of crucifixion.[10] In the first century Jewish context, crucifixion was a Roman form of  execution. This explains that Jesus was executed by Roman authority. However, gospels portray theRoman governor, Pontius Pilate, as reluctant to execute Jesus, and at the same time shifting the blame of Jesus’ death to Jewish authority and Jewish people as a whole.[11] Mark, as the earliestgospel, has already showed that Pilate did not want to execute Jesus, but tried to release him. He  only reluctantly allowed Jesus to be scourged and crucified under the pressure of the crowd. WasPilate a just and sensitive man? Contemporary non-biblical sources portrayed Pilate as a harshgovernor. He knew no justice in his rule.[12] Borg explains that the reason for shifting the responsibility was the political clemency of earlyChristianity. Christians were under Roman Empire in the first century, thus it was seriouslydangerous to place the blame of Jesus’ death to the Romans. Thus gospel writers created a versionof the death of Jesus that contributed to the anti-Jewish attitude. The passion narratives have become texts of horror for Jewish people. This is one of the many examples that many biblicalaccounts were products of post-Easter Christian community.   The understanding of Jesus’ death as having atoning effect as a post-Easter interpretation, andnot the intention of the historical Jesus, can be seen from the dialogue between Jesus and Caiaphasduring the trial. Caiaphas asked; “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?" Jesus answeredhim saying, “I am; and you shall see The Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, andcoming with the clouds of heaven.” Tearing his clothes, the high priest said, "What further need dowe have of witnesses? You have heard the blasphemy." And they all condemned him as deservingdeath (Mark 14: 61-65).   Borg points out that, it is clear from this dialogue that the reason for Jesus’ condemnation was aChristian confession of faith; Jesus is messiah, the Son of God, and will return as the Son of Man.Post-Easter early Christian community combined together their beliefs about Jesus and theexpectation of his second coming in the dialogue that led to Jesus’ death.[13] These beliefs include Jesus’ salvific death, the death for the salvation of all people. For Borg, Jesus was killed not becauseit was the purpose of his life, but because of his role as a social prophet who challenged thedomination system in the name of God.[14] The domination system killed Jesus as the prophet of  the kingdom of God.   2.2. Wright’s understanding of Jesus salvific death Unlike Borg, Wright seems to take position to defend what is described by Borg as the popular image of Jesus.[15] Wright argues that Jesus, as many Jews living in the first centuryPalestine, believed that the long-awaited kingdom was dawning. The Temple would be restored andIsrael’s enemy would be defeated.[16] At the same time he regarded his own work, his actions andwords, not simply as pointing forward to this kingdom, but also as actually installing it.[17] All hisactions would make any sense if only he believed that through them the kingdom of God was present, not only in the future. This presence of the kingdom pointed forward to a crisis eventthrough which it would come in a fuller reality. To achieve this new kingdom, Jesus denounced the use of military action and advocated adeeper revolution of loving one’s enemy, taking up one’s cross, and loosing one’s life in order togain it. This was not simply a way of life he imposed to others, but also an agenda and vocation towhich he knew himself called, which he announced as the way of being the true people of God.Jesus believed that he was called to go ahead of the people of Israel and fight the battle on their  behalf, using strange weapons - the weapons of nonviolence - that matched his vision and mission. Jesus would not only fight the true battle, but also would build a true temple. His action inthe temple (Mark 11:12-19), which seemed to be a clear symbol of God’s judgment and reached itsclimax at the meal in the Upper Room (Mark 14:12-26), must have implied that some forms of replacement temple were envisioned.[18] Wright argues that Jesus believed himself to be Israel’smessiah, through whom God would rebuild the temple and bring about redemption to Israel. Thus,he must have also believed that this messianic task would be accomplished through his ownsuffering and death. Jesus did locate his own vocation within first-century biblical and traditionalreflection of a strong sense of God’s presence and purpose with a clear gift of a charismatic  leadership. The visions of Zechariah, Daniel and Isaiah seem to have provided him withinspirational and cryptic vocabularies, as well as his sense of call and direction. And his messianicvocation reached its climax in the call to suffer Israel’s death on Israel’s behalf. “This is athoroughly credible first-century Jewish vocation.”[19]Wright believes that Jesus seemed to have believed that it was his vocation to take uponhimself the fate he had announced for the nation as a whole. He notes that the desire for, and theaction toward, violent revolution against Roman Empire had taken hold in the mind of the largemajority of Jesus’ generation, and had characterized the Shammaites, the stricter Pharisaic school inJesus time. Jesus had warned that such an action would lead to a devastating catastrophe in whichRome would be the effective agent of the wrath of Yahweh, Israel’s own God. “ He would go ahead of the nation to take upon himself the judgment of which he hadwarned, the wrath of Rome against rebel subjects. That was what his royal vocationdemanded. That, I believe, lies at the heart of the New Testament’s insistence that Jesusdied the death that awaited others, in order that they might not die it.”[20]   Israel would go through the fire and water, but the God of Israel would bring it out to the promised salvation. And Jesus, according to Wright, seemed to have believed that this would take place in and through his own suffering and death. This was how he would win the victory thatwould institute him as a true messiah, and bring the kingdom as a fully present reality.Wright explores his idea in length in his book The Challenge of Jesus . He argues that thetheological understanding of Jesus’ death as to save us from our sins does not belong to the post-Easter reflection of the early Christian community. On the contrary, it came out from the lips of Jesus himself. Jesus’ death, Wright underlines, was linked with the fate of the nation, and havingannounced Yahweh’s judgment on the temple as well as on the nation as a whole, Jesus went aheadto undertake the sentence. He took their responsibility upon himself and ready to die for his people.[21]If Jesus really planned to die for his people, does this mean that Jesus’ death was actually acomplicated form of suicide? Absolutely not! The event at Gethsemane showed that Jesus did notwish to die. “Father, all things are possible for you; remove this cup from me!” (Mark 14:36). Hehad no despair in his life. Instead, he had courageously gone up to Jerusalem to announce themessage of the kingdom, both in words and symbolic action, knowing that the reaction to thisannouncement would cause his death. Though not desiring to die, Jesus had continued to follow the path that would result in his death, as a matter of his integrity and vocation. Did martyrs commitsuicide? Wright argues that his view has considerable historical strength, that it fits within PalestinianJewish context in the time of Jesus, and at the same time it offers a fresh explanation of that contextwhich no other Jew had ever taken up in that very form. In other words, Wright indicates, his viewfits the criteria of double similarity and double dissimilarity, as well as the criteria of historical plausibility. With this, Wright claims to have answered the objection given by Borg and other scholars that Jesus’ awareness of his death for his people of Israel was a post-Easter interpretation.[22]In response to Borg’s analysis on the dialogue between Jesus and Caiaphas, Wright arguesthat this dialogue should be understood in its whole context that was linked with the temple action.The question about Jesus’ temple action and its significance revealed what Jewish authority hadalready assumed, that Jesus saw himself in messianic terms and believed that Yahweh would installhim as messiah. Furthermore, Wright underlines that the dialogue between Jesus and Caiaphas canonly be claimed as an interpretation of post-Easter early Christian community if the temple action  was invented out of nothing. The temple action was actually originated from Jesus ownunderstanding of his prophetic vocation.[23]It is clear that for Wright, Jesus’ death was the purpose of his earthly life. He knew and believed that it was his role to face his death for the atonement of sins of the people of Israel, and atthe same time to restore a new Temple, a New Jerusalem, the coming kingdom of God.   III. Different World views and Methods   It is interesting to see that both Borg and Wright have been dedicating their lives for thestudy of the same topic, namely the historical Jesus. They have been dealing with the samematerials, analyzing the same sources. However, they both have arrived in different conclusion;Borg attributes the death of Jesus as having atoning purpose to the interpretation of the post-Easter early Christian community, while Wright sees it as the inherent purpose of the life of Jesus.Different world views and approaches employed by both authors certainly have determined their way of seeing the events of Jesus, which will be examined in this session.   3.1. Borg’s lenses and approach   Borg rightly points out that how one sees Jesus depends on what lens one uses to see him.[24]Borg shows that the lens he uses help him to provide a crucial distinction between the figure of Jesus of Nazareth who lived in the first-century context of Palestine, commonly addressed as “Jesusof Nazareth” or “the Jesus of history” or “the historical Jesus,” and the risen living Christ who isone with God, whom in the history of Jesus scholarship is also called “the Christ of faith” or “the biblical Jesus” or “the canonical Jesus.” For Borg, the historical Jesus is called “the pre-Easter Jesus,” while the other is called “the post-Easter Jesus,” who is of Christian tradition andexperience.[25] The common lenses used by most people, according to Borg, have the tendency to provide a picture of Jesus that combine together the historical Jesus and the risen Christ. Jesus of Nazareth isseen as a divine being who merely seemed to be human. He was not a real human being since hehad superhuman power. In the history of the church this image, which was promoted by “docetism,”has been declared heretical.[26] Ironically, it is still accepted by most Christians today. There should  be a clear distinction of the two.These lenses were born out of Borg’s understanding of the nature of the gospels, that theyare a developing tradition, and at the same time they are a mix of history remembered and historymetaphorized. The tradition of telling the story of Jesus after his death within the early Christiancommunity, their struggles and hopes under the authority of Roman power, provided some materialsthat were included in the gospel narratives. The narrative of shifting the blame of Jesus’ death toJewish people, for instance, can be understood in this context. In telling the story, some metaphorswere also used, such as “the light of the world”, “the bread of life” or “the living water.”[27]Tools are needed to be able to make the distinction between the Jesus of history and theChrist of faith. Two different steps are proposed by Borg, the first is to find out what is likely to go back to Jesus. This can be done by reconstructing the sources from which the knowledge aboutJesus is derived. As accepted by most scholars, a hypothetical document reconstructed by scholarsfrom materials in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark, which is commonly known as Q, and thegospel of Mark are recognized as the primary sources. These sources help determining whether some biblical passages are historical or not through multiple attestation. Texts that only have singleattestation can be determined through their coherent with the multiply attested texts. And the second step is to set the material in the first century Jewish historical context. The
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