A review of JESUS: UNCONVERING THE LIFE, TEACHINGS, AND RELEVANCE OF A RELIGIOUS REVOLUTIONARY by Marcus J. Borg
It turns out sometimes you CAN judge a book by its cover. One example is Marcus Borg’s 2006 book, Jesus. On the cover of this book is a photograph of the massive statue, “Christ the Redeemer.” (The one that was adored from all kinds of camera angles at last year’s summer Olympics in Rio.) This time the statue is surrounded by scaffolding.
The photograph perfectly depicts Borg’s thesis: Jesus is a construct of the Church. Beliefs about Jesus have determined by culture and historical circumstance, not recovered from inspired Scripture. The Jesus you think you know is a construct of the last couple centuries, vastly removed from the actual, historical Jesus.
Borg’s thesis will not surprise anyone familiar with “The Jesus Seminar,” another incarnation of the tired quest for the “historical Jesus” begun a couple centuries back among European Bible scholars. What purveyors of this heresy attempt to do is, ironically, what they accuse traditional scholars of having done: creating a Jesus that suits them.
It goes like this; exalt reason above revelation, deny anything that can’t be proven scientifically, and save what’s “left” of the biblical record that suits you, lending an air of authority to your preconceptions. With this self-appointed largesse, you have latitude to keep what you like and discard the parts you don’t as “unhistorical.” Traditional theological conclusions can then be discarded as “provincial,” “archaic,” or “not credible.”
As we’ve heard from too many Bible scholars, Borg asserts the Bible in general and the Gospel accounts in particular are “metaphor.” They are not to be taken as historical accounts (which sets aside that pesky issue of historicity), but as metaphors, expressing spiritual truths that are “trans-historical.” There are at least two problems with this assumption.
One, the Bible writers never viewed themselves in this way. As the beginning of Luke’s Gospel makes clear, their intent was to set forth orderly and factual accounts of the life of Jesus. What use is “metaphor” in fighting heresies in the first century Church? Can you picture Paul teaching that the Old Testament never intended to relate the truth about God’s great acts in history, but instead to pass along noble sentiments by way of metaphor? Borg’s imaginative approach reduces Jesus to a figure who lived and died in a first century Roman province. His followers were jazzed by “visions” they’d had of a resurrected Jesus and set about to form a religion based on these clever metaphors.
Two, “metaphor” is a far too elastic term. It is too subjective, too prone to flights of fantasy and manipulation. That is why, for centuries, Bible scholars have moved away from allegorical and metaphorical methods of interpretation. It is, however, very suitable to “progressives” (Borg’s term of choice for his assumptions) and to the Emergent Church, who are keen to remake the Church into something that is a better fit with postmodern culture.
While our modern approach to historical writing is more strict (“scientific”) than the authors of the Bible, that does not condemn the Bible as unreliable. With his imaginative reconstructions of New Testament formation, Borg moves away from the self-testimony of Scripture as inspired, to a man-made writing. I suppose he takes exception to 2 Peter 1:20-21 which explains that no prophecy has its origin in the will of man, but inspired by the Holy Spirit.
His assumptions are that events covered by more of the Gospels are more likely to be historical, that Mark is older than Matthew and Luke, that events in John are more likely to be embellished, and that an ancient document that sourced material shared by Matthew and Luke is explained by an undiscovered document referred to as “Q.” (It is only an argument from silence, but the fact is that “Q,” nor any document remotely like it, has been discovered. When one considers the hundreds of surviving scraps of manuscript evidence for the real Gospels, one has to wonder how it is that nothing of “Q” survived. Might it be because it is only a theory? It is a moot point either way.)
At the risk of over simplifying or stereotyping, liberals like Borg assume that the biblical texts must serve logic, especially the contemporary fads in philosophy and culture. Conservative scholars insist that logic serve the texts. Borg attempts to reverse engineer the texts to make educated guesses about first century communities, while traditional scholars use historic information like detectives to discern the intended meaning of the passage.
Borg also resorts to a line of reasoning familiar to “progressives:” since there are similarities in cultures and religions contemporary to writers of Scripture, the Bible writers must have borrowed these to form their own writings. This seems like a left-handed way of denying the inspiration of Scripture while at the same time authorizing the syncretism of the Church: our faith being re-formed in the image of our own culture. As Borg is not critical of his own assumptions, the reader must be. We must be careful to “test the spirits” as 1 John 4:1 commands. When tested, Borg’s heresy is to deny the divinity of Jesus. Here it is in his own words; “the pre-Easter Jesus was not God, but God was the central reality of his life.” To make certain this artificial distinction of his is not lost on the reader, it is presented in italics and stated on p. 109 and again on p. 136. If one accepts this premise, it is then up to Borg to decide which Gospel texts are “pre-Easter” and therefore more historically accurate, and which are “post-Easter” and therefore more prone to embellishment by the Gospel writers in order to justify the beliefs of the churches in which the Gospel writers lived.
One final concern is his frequent citation of “the majority of biblical scholars” (you’ll find an example on p. 73) as evidence that his positions are well-founded. I find this kind of unsubstantiated, unqualified statement to be asides, toss-offs that do not contribute anything to rational discourse. It’s the kind of thing people put in papers when they wish to pass themselves off as well-informed but haven’t got any research or actual numbers to back it up. While Borg’s credentials as an academic are there for all to see, these kinds of statements detract from his writing, they do not support it.
In his epilogue Borg takes a jab at those who disagree with him using the usual broad brush of the stereotypical “religious right.” While he claims to only want to add to the “conversation” about Jesus, what Borg wants us to clearly understand is that only those who adopt his “pre- and post-Easter” dialectic are capable of truly perceiving Jesus. My advice to the reader is to take a look at the cover and pass on this book. The cover will tell you all you need to know about its contents.