Dear Marcus Borg: Please Reconsider the Resurrection

Dear Marcus Borg: Please Reconsider the Resurrection October 9, 2013

Marcus Borg has joined Patheos as a blogger, which I think is great. He has put out some of the most solid biblical scholarship around over the past few decades. His more popular work I’m less fond of, in which I think he tries too hard to disabuse people of some important aspects of Christianity. Nevertheless, I consider him a very important voice, and I heartily recommend his work to people.

Last week, in my QTH answer, I referred to Borg in passing, writing,

When I read Marcus Borg arguing that Jesus’ resurrection only happens in the believer’s heart or Reza Aslan saying that it’s shocking to discover that Jesus didn’t really grow up in Nazareth or Bart Ehrman revealing that Jesus didn’t think that he was God, I honestly yawn.

I wasn’t trying to pick a fight. I was just honestly stating that those who take the historical Jesus to be significantly less than the Gospels portray him to be are not interesting to me. But Borg took exception to what I wrote, stating that I have thrice misrepresented his views:

I have never said or written anything remotely like that…

…I do not understand why Jones misrepresents my understanding of the resurrection. Perhaps it’s because the only two options he has considered are that it either happened in a physical bodily way or else it happened only “in the believer’s heart.”

Borg writes that I have also misrepresented him in a book. Here’s what I wrote about Borg in The New Christians:

Marcus Borg

To the left, there is also talk of “truth.” Our liberal brothers and sisters care about truth too, though they sometimes seem squeamish about the truth of the biblical narrative. I had the pleasure of hearing the biblical scholar Marcus Borg speak recently, and in the question-and-answer session after his address, he was asked a question he’s surely been asked hundreds of times: “Professor Borg, what about the empty tomb on Easter morning?” After a bit of theological hemming and hawing, Borg responded, “If I were a betting man, I’d bet—my life or one dollar—that the tomb was not empty. Or that there was no tomb.”

Why would the resurrection seem unbelievable to Borg? It’s because he is beholden to a certain framework for historical truth: if it violates physical laws, it’s probably not “true” (at least not in a factual, historical sense; he still considers it “true” in a literary, metaphorical, even spiritual sense). He is unwilling to entertain two mutually contradictory ideas simultaneously: (1) that the physical laws by which the universe operates hold unremittingly and (2) that events that break those laws—such as resurrection, miraculous healings, and transfigurations—really did happen. In his talk, Borg referred to those who hold the latter as “fideists,” people who allow faith to trump reason.

I can tell you that my direct quote of him is not a misrepresentation. I was there, I wrote it down, and there are many others who can corroborate it. My interpretation of his position may be off, however, and if so, I’d like to apologize and correct it.

Borg makes two points about the resurrection in his post:

1) “I have consistently affirmed that Jesus was experienced after his death. According to the New Testament, those experiencing him included Mary Magdalene, Peter, the rest of the disciples, James, two travelers on the Emmaus Road, Paul, the author of Revelation, and more. Indeed, Paul refers to “five hundred” who saw Jesus.”

2) “Jesus lives: he is a figure of the present who continues to be known, not just a beloved figure of the past. Jesus is Lord: God has vindicated Jesus and made him both Lord and Christ.”

So in his post, Borg makes two positive statements about Jesus’ resurrection — that his followers experienced him, and that he lives and reigns today — and I agree with both of those. So maybe I have been misrepresenting Borg all these years.

But he’s a bit coy about what he doesn’t believe. He simply says that he doesn’t agree with me that Jesus was actually, historically, materially raised. And he misrepresents me at least once, saying that I “insist” that this must be the case. Au contraire, Professor. I don’t insist, I believe. I think Jesus actually came back from the dead, and I believe it to be so. But I surely don’t insist that is the case, and I entertain the possibility that it may not have been.

Borg ends his post with a question:

I end with a question: what is added to the meaning of the resurrection by believing, as Jones does, that it happened in a material physical bodily way? In short, what’s at stake in the difference between my view (as described by me and not by him) and his view? Do our differences matter? And if so, how?

Here’s what’s at stake, in my opinion, and what is “added to the meaning of the resurrection” to think that it really happened as it’s portrayed in the Bible:

1) Continuity with the historic church. Billions of Christians have walked this planet, and 2.2 billion are walking it right now. The vast, vast majority of them have believed that Jesus materially rose from the grave. I’d guess that about 99.5% of the Christians who ever lived have believed, like me, that Jesus physically rose. Indeed, to ask them if Jesus’ resurrection was something other than physical and historical would seem a nonsensical question to them.

The break with the historic church is not out-of-bounds for me. I’ve done it on the issue of gay marriage, for instance. But when one breaks with the historic church on an issue, the burden of proof lies heavily upon the one who is doing the breaking. I realize that, and I have tried to make my case for breaking with the historic church on the issues surrounding homosexuality. But gay marriage and ordination is a minor issue compared with the event that lies at the very center of the Christian faith and proclamation. To break from the church on the issue of the resurrection is, I think, about as big a fight as one could pick.

2) Faithfulness to the Gospels. The Gospels are not of one mind on the resurrection. Mark, the earliest, has nothing but an empty tomb, and John, the latest, has a much more embellished, almost flowery account. But I think that any commonsense reading of the Gospels shows that even the empty tomb of Mark indicates that something material happened to the body of Jesus of Nazareth. Other Gospel accounts of Jesus cooking fish on the beach or confronting Thomas with his wounds make it clear that the very earliest church proclaimed a material, bodily resurrection.

3) Accord with Paul. As Borg himself notes in his post, Paul clearly experienced the risen Jesus. And Paul also clearly believed in a material, bodily resurrection of Jesus (and, eventually, of each of us as well). To read Paul otherwise — to say, for instance, that he was preaching a purely spiritual or visionary resurrection of Jesus — requires, I must say, a very tortured hermeneutic. Paul writes a lot about the difference between the body and the spirit — too much for my taste. He is a dichotomist in that way. He is “absent in body but present in spirit” to the Corinthians. He “disciplines” his body and makes it his “slave” for the sake of the gospel. And he constantly exhorts his readers to avoid bodily lusts.

In other words, Paul has lots of opinions about the body (soma), and he’s unafraid to differentiate between the body and the soul/spirit. If he had considered Jesus’ resurrection to be purely spiritual, he would have had no problem writing that. But when he does write what is the crowning passage on the resurrection, 1 Corinthians 15, he makes it abundantly and repeatedly clear that Jesus’ soma was raised. Indeed, it seems likely that chapter was written because Hellenists in the Corinthian congregation, who already believed in the immortality of the soul, were questioning the physical resurrection. If one if going to deny the physical resurrection, I think one must break entirely with Paul, and that’s something I’m not willing to do, in spite of my discomfort with some of Paul’s writings.

4) It doesn’t seem to work. Finally, this: as a practical theologian, I look around; I try to keep my ear to the ground. For the last 200 years, from the quest for the historical Jesus to the demythologizing of Bultmann to the Jesus Seminar (of which Borg was a prominent member), some scholars have been trying to convince people that Jesus’ resurrection was something other than material. The “vision hypothesis” — that Jesus’ resurrection came by way of visions given to the apostles — is what Borg holds (I think), and that was first posited by David Friedrich Strauss in 1835. It’s had 178 years, and it just hasn’t caught on.

My point is this: Since the prominence of the Jesus Seminar in the 1980s and 1990s, most Western Christians have been well aware of the option Borg presents: you can be a Christian and reject the majority belief in the physical resurrection. And the vast majority of Christians have not embraced that position. Call us fideists or naive, but this idea simply has not captured the imagination of very many Christians. And I listen to that evidence, like a judge listens to a jury. The verdict is in: Jesus rose from the dead.

How this happened, especially holding a weak metaphysic, as I do, is tricky. I’m working that out, and I’ll continue to this week on QTH. And I don’t want to dichotomize between spiritual and physical resurrection — that’s why I tend to refer to it as a “material” resurrection. A materialist Christianity recognizes that what we experience as the “laws of physics” are actually a lot more plastic than previously assumed. In fact, I think that as quantum theory develops, a materialist resurrection will seem more and more compelling.

So I will, in turn, end with a question: What does one gain by rejecting the material resurrection of Jesus, and embracing, as Borg does, a more “spiritual” or “visionary” version? Does it make Christianity more palatable to a modern, empiricist, scientific populace? And if it does — a fact of which I am dubious — what do we in turn lose as a result?

(Let me reiterate my respect for Professor Borg’s scholarship. I do hope that my post will be received in the spirit that it’s intended, as fellow Christians working out important ideas in a public forum. And I really, really hope that lots of others will join in this conversation on blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc. If you do, please leave the link in the comments.)

UPDATE: Marcus Borg has briefly responded to me here. Unfortunately, he only took up one of my four points, and he did not respond to my closing question. He did, however, refer to the empty tomb as “a parable.” I don’t know about you, but I can imagine the biblical writers knowing that Adam and Eve was a parable, or that Noah and the Flood was a parable, but I’ve read the Gospels myriad times and I cannot see any fair reading of them in which the empty tomb is a parable.

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