More on the pre-Easter versus the post-Easter Jesus


As a follow up to my earlier posting on Marcus Borg's concept of the pre-Easter versus the post-Easter Jesus, I would like to quote something that Borg wrote in The Heart of Christianity, which also defines these terms:

The pre-Easter Jesus is Jesus before his death: a Galilean Jew born around the year 4 BCE and executed by the Romans around the year 30 CE. The pre-Easter Jesus is dead and gone; he's nowhere anymore. This statement does not deny Easter in any way, but simply recognizes that the corpuscular Jesus, the flesh-and-blood Jesus, is a figure of the past.

...the post-Easter Jesus is what Jesus became after his death. More fully, the post-Easter Jesus is the Jesus of Christian experience and tradition. Both nouns are important. By the post-Easter Jesus of experience, I mean that Jesus continued to be experienced by his followers after his death as a divine reality of the present, and that such experiences continue to happen today; some Christians, but not all, have such experiences. The post-Easter Jesus is thus an experiential reality. By the post-Easter Jesus of Christian tradition, I mean the Jesus we encounter in the developing traditions of the early Christian movement--in the gospels and the New Testament as a whole, as well as in the creeds. (p. 82)
Thus the distinction between the pre-Easter and post-Easter Jesus is the distinction between the Jesus of history, and the Jesus of experience and tradition. When Borg combines both experience and tradition into the post-Easter Jesus, he makes an important point. In order to make sense of any religious experiences, humans are naturally inclined to interpret them. Thus religion, especially religious mysticism, can be said to be the experience of the Divine that is subject to human interpretation.

Jesus, in other words, was both experienced and interpreted after his death by his early followers. The natures of these interpretations were not always the same, however. People are different from one another, and given the likely novelty of the post-Easter experience for Jesus's followers, there may not have been a context with which to explain what they were experiencing. But the problem was that, in a historical era when religious pluralism was not necessarily respected or understood, what followed from all of this was a process of normalization of these experiences into a rigidly defined common faith. It was a process that took centuries, involving the canonization of written works into a sacred scripture and the formulation of the creeds that Borg alluded to. This normalization was hardly a smooth process. Competing Christianities had emerged in the first few centuries after Jesus died, to reflect the different interpretations that Jesus's followers formulated for their experience of the post-Easter Jesus.

The first account of these post-Easter Jesus-experiences that we have comes from Paul, who wrote in 1 Corinthians that Jesus
appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
Paul here is describing the various experiences of the post-Easter Jesus that he and others had. Paul reports that one such experience occurred in some kind of group setting--perhaps a sort of charismatic, mass mystical experience--although who the "five hundred" were (an obviously rounded number that may not reflect the actual number involved) or what they were doing at the time was not described. What we do know is that Paul drew no distinction in the nature of these various experiences of the post-Easter Jesus. He says very little about what he himself experienced, other than to note in 1 Galatians that he received the Gospel "through a revelation of Jesus Christ". The author of Luke-Acts reports that Paul's experience of Jesus was in the form of a vision that occurred on the road to Damascus, although that account appears to be rather mythologized. In any case, Paul considered the earlier followers who experienced the post-Easter Jesus to have had similar, visionary experiences to his own.

The process of interpreting these post-Easter experiences of Jesus led inevitably to myths and stories that served as a means of understanding them. Hence the emergence of the resurrection appearances that Matthew, Luke, and John wrote about.

Borg makes clear elsewhere in his book that the truth of the Easter experience for Jesus's followers has nothing to do with the resurrection stories in the Bible being literally true:
Because I see the meaning of the Easter stories this way, I can be indifferent to the factual questions surrounding the stories. For example, was the tomb really empty? Was his corpse transformed? Did the risen Jesus really eat a fish? Did he appear to his disciples in such a visible, physical way that we could have videotaped him if we had been there?

For me, the truth of the Easter stories is not at stake in these questions. For example, the story of the empty tomb may be a metaphor of the resurrection rather than a historical report. As metaphor, it means: you won't find Jesus in the land of the dead. As the angel in the story puts it, "Why do you look for the living among the dead?" The truth of the Easter stories is grounded in the ongoing experience of Jesus as a figure of the present who is one with God and therefore "Lord." (pp. 54-55)


Ruth said...

It's interesting to contrast Borg's beliefs (about the resurrection) with those of N.T. Wright in his book "The Challenge of Jesus" (2000), and, in particular, in the chapter entitled "The Challenge of Easter". Wright, an intellectually rigorous first century historian, leaves no stone unturned in his quest to understand who Jesus was, what he did and how events concerning him, including his death and resurrection, were interpretted by the first Christians, and might be interpretted today.

Wright provides us with an alternative interpretation of the resurrection to that provided by Borg. Both Borg and Wright may be wrong, but they can't both be right! I'm re-reading Wright now (thanks to your blog!!) - I'll comment again if I find anything that might be of interest to you or your readers.

(I don't share some of Wright's views, by the way. I certainly disagree with his stance on homosexuality, for example - but, fortuntately, these don't come into play in "The Challenge of Jesus").

Heather - I just realised that you are the same Heather who comments on Idle Rambling Thoughts - another blog that I enjoy reading! And I didn't arrive at this blog via IRT (I came here via MadPriest)! It's a small world / blogosphere!

JP Manzi said...

I appreciate your further thoughts on this subject. It really is "clicking" for me ( I have read numerous Borg books and sometimes still sweat over not fully grasping where he is getting at). His newest book ("Jesus") and Heart of Christianity, a close 2nd, really shed much light on this.

Again, appreciate your study on this.

Heather said...

Hi, Ruth!

It really is -- it's amazing how I keep finding the same people in all the spots I travel.

Oh, and have you read the book that Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright wrote together, on introducing their different views on Jesus? It was a great read. They didn't belittle each other's position, just explained where each came from, and why they didn't support the other.

Ruth said...

Hi Heather - thanks for the book recommendation. Sounds like a good one. I've bought two theological books this week (A Spong and a Rowan Williams) - this will be the third!