While both authors comment on the significance of the event of the Resurrection, their emphasis is quite different. Wright bases the Resurrection to draw upon broader themes within Christianity, like “Why did Christianity arise, and why did it take the shape it did?” (p.111) Wright acknowledges the exceptional nature of Christianity, when at the time of its birth, so many new prophets and messiahs were being purged by pagan enemies. Yet, under such hostile circumstances a new faith was able to take root. To fully comprehend the magnitude of this achievement one has to consider the milieu of first-century Judaism in which Christianity was born.
As Wright points out, there were even social and political factors that hindered belief of the after-life, and by extension the occurrence of Resurrection. For example, kingdoms like that of the Sadducees discouraged such beliefs thinking that it would lead to ready revolt and sacrifice on part of dissenters. The socially prominent community of Pharisees, on the other hand, did believe in the resurrection of the body. Being a historically oppressed community, resurrection, for the Pharisees was tied into “a new state of affairs within the space-time world, bringing about justice and peace, overthrowing oppression and wickedness”. On the theological side, prevailing Judaism talked of a “life after death, but in a disembodied state that neither needed nor expected a future re-embodiment”. (p.112) It is fairly clear that there was no consensus among people about the nature and meaning of resurrection. Wright contends that the Christian idea of the Resurrection really took hold in the second century BC, when the metaphorical and allegorical interpretations of Jesus Christ’s second coming were taken to be literal. As a result, the referent “was no longer the concrete return from exile, but the concrete re-embodiment of formerly dead persons”. (p.113)
Marcus Borg analyses Resurrection from the meanings acquired by the phenomena of Easter celebrations. Borg suggests that what accounted for the rise of Christianity in its early years was the Resurrection of Jesus. The gospel stories of the empty tomb and sightings of the risen Christ are not verifiable facts. Borg then asks the pertinent question of how much should the relevance of Easter depend on the factual accuracy of the empty tomb and the risen Jesus? After deliberating the pros and cons of the two sides, Borg comes to the conclusion that a literal physical resurrection is not central to the relevance of the Easter.
Borg makes a distinction between the terms resuscitation and resurrection. The former is a medical term, a rare medical event, whereby a person believed to be dead comes back to life. This person continues to eat, sleep and function as the same person he was before this improbable event. Hence there is continuity in his identity. There is also the sure impending occurrence of his death a few years later. But what is so different about the resurrection is that there is no death for the risen Christ. Moreover, what is raised is the Spirit, and hence “does not mean resumption of previous existence but entry into a new kind of existence”. (p.131) Hence, according to Borg resurrection is an event not tied to mortality. In consequence, the salience of Easter need not be fixed on the historical evidence for the Resurrection. As Borg succinctly puts, “For me, the historical ground of Easter is very simple: the followers of Jesus, both then and now, continued to experience Jesus as a living reality after his death…Thus I see the post-Easter Jesus as an experiential reality” (p.135)
I like the historicity of Wright’s approach. Instead of treating a religious matter in ecclesiastical terms, the author enhances our understanding by throwing light on social and historical circumstances of the belief’s origin. For example, Wright delves into the nitty-gritty of social groups of the period, including that of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Although Borg also adopts a historical approach, it is not centered on the event itself but upon the traditions initiated by it in the form of the Easter.
Both authors have done a stellar job on enlightening the reader on a crucial tenet of Christianity. In terms of thoroughness, cross-referencing and depth, there is little to separate the two works in question. Borg should be credited for making the clarification between resuscitation and resurrection. Another commendable feature of Borg’s account is his thorough investigation of the Gospels, especially that of Paul. But in the end, if I have to choose only one among the two documents, I would prefer Wright’s over that of Borg’s. The main reason is that Wright attempts a grand historical-theological scholarly analysis of the Resurrection. While Borg’s scholarship is equally rigorous, its focus on the Easter somewhat narrows its range.
Marcus Borg, The Truth of Easter, Chapter 8, p.129+
N.T. Wright, The Transforming Reality of the Bodily Resurrection, Chapter 7, p.111+