Marcus Borg is no stranger to the topic of Jesus. He is the professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University, was involved in the Jesus Seminar, and has been chair of the Historical Jesus section of the Society of Biblical Literature. Moreover, he is the author of several books on the topic, including a debate with N.T. Wright. Many evangelical readers, unfamiliar with his ideas, might write him off as fringe or uninformed, but if so they would be clearly wrong. Borg has great influence in the academic world and several of his main ideas about Jesus are shared by significant sections of professing Christians, as well as by many non-Christians.
Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary is Marcus Borg’s latest and (according to him) last comprehensive work on the life and meaning of Jesus. Throughout the book, Borg contrasts two approaches to Jesus – the traditional and the emerging (or neo-traditional). What Borg calls the traditional paradigm most educated readers will recognize as creedal Christianity tweaked in an American evangelical direction. According to Borg, this paradigm illegitimately privileges biblical literalism over proper metaphorical interpretation, the afterlife over this life, believing over living, and finally, when investigating Jesus, doctrinal lenses over empirical history. However, the traditional paradigm only gets a few pages here and there; the great bulk of the book is devoted to explaining Borg’s view.
Borg’s approach to the Gospels rests on several foundational assumptions. First, he treats the gospels as “the result of a historical process. Written in the last third of the first century, they tell us what Jesus had become in the lives of the communities in which the traditions reported in them developed” (25). Borg holds to Markan priority and the Q-source theory. From this standpoint he concludes that the added details and more frequent Christological references in the later Gospels testify to development in the primitive church’s conception of Jesus. Thus, he asserts a difference between the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Jesus.
According to Borg, the Gospels consist of two kinds of material, history metaphorized and purely metaphorical narrative. The first kind consists of stories which, though they actually happened, are told in such a way to emphasize the metaphorical significance of Jesus in the mind of the Gospel writer. Some of Jesus’ reported healings and exorcisms may have actually occurred, but the Gospel writer arranges the details in such a way as to invite the reader to experience Jesus as the writer has. The second type are narratives with no historical basis crafted by the Gospel writer to make a metaphorical point about Jesus. Borg offers the virgin birth narratives as an example of this genre. We are to read these stories not as histories, but as metaphors that illustrate the meaning of Jesus. Matthew and Luke constructed the virgin birth narrative to accentuate Jesus’ role as bearer of illumination, his status as the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes, his close connection to God, and his challenge to Roman imperial theology (60-69).
Borg does not seem to care much whether many events recorded in the Gospels actually happened; the metaphorical meaning is the main point. How does one determine whether an event is history metaphorized or metaphorical narrative? He offers several critical criteria, but probably the one of most interest to evangelicals is whether the narrative reports a spectacular event:
Does it ever happen that somebody can feed five thousand people with five loaves and two fish? Does it ever happen that somebody can walk on the sea? Does it ever happen that somebody can change a large quantity of water into wine? If I became convinced that things like this sometimes happen, I could entertain the possibility that Jesus did things like this. But if not, then as a historian I cannot conclude that Jesus did—unless I assume that Jesus had supernatural powers unlike any other human being. But to make this assumption would be to assume that Jesus us not human like the rest of us, which is contrary to the central Christian claim that Jesus as a figure of history was fully human (74-5).
Here is one of the best illustrations of Borg’s historical as opposed to doctrinal approach. The supernatural is relegated to the sphere of the non-empirical. God does not act in history in historically verifiable ways, and the Gospel writers didn’t mean us to read them as though he did. I also have to note at this point that Borg’s claim that if Jesus is more than human, he is not fully human is a slap in the face of hundreds of years of careful theological discussion concerning what it means to be human, God, or both. [On one page, Borg declares that believing Jesus to be divine is Docetic.]
In order to answer the question of who the historical Jesus was, Borg probes the Old Testament and 1st century backgrounds. Borg’s key concept is the “imperial domination system,” a state of affairs which is politically oppressive, economically exploitative, religiously legitimated, and marked by armed conflict (81-2). The priestly and ruling classes conspire together to enrich themselves while keeping the peasant class impoverished and submissive. Jesus, growing up in Nazareth as the son of a teknon (perhaps below a farmer on the economic scale), had ample exposure to the effects of the domination system. Borg’s reading of the OT stresses the deliverance of Israel from economic, physical, and political oppression. The Mosaic law contained multiple statutes to prohibit the establishment of a domination system, but Solomon instituted one anyway. The prophets constantly indicted the Israelite monarchs for their unjust exploitation of the people. In Jesus’ time, John the Baptist was bringing the prophetic message against the domination system; Jesus, attracted to his cause, was baptized by him and became his disciple.
Who, then, was Jesus, and what was the aim of his ministry? Borg offers a fivefold summary — he was 1) a Jewish mystic gripped by and possessing an unusually intense experience of God; 2) a healer and an exorcist; 3) a wisdom teacher; 4) a prophet critiquing the domination system; and 5) a movement initiator, calling on others to follow in his path of wisdom against the domination system. As a mystic, Jesus was not God, but he had an intense awareness of sonship, of his alignment with God’s character and purpose. As a wisdom teacher, he called on those to forsake the path of convention, with its misplaced emphases on family, wealth, honor, and ritual purity (205-17). As a movement intiator, he taught his followers to creatively yet nonviolently oppose the domination system.
Borg asserts that Jesus’ message was the kingdom of God, a vision of what the earth would be like if God were in charge instead of the current brutal overlords. Borg argues that Jesus preaches the kingdom of God not as an immanent apocalyptic intervention, but as a goal that humanity can reach by following the way of Jesus. “The coming of God’s kingdom is about bread for the world and freedom from debt. It is good news for the poor” (189). Jesus’ vision of God is that God is full of compassion with a passion for justice. I thought this was one of the weakest sections of Borg’s book. If God does not act in history in empirical ways, if he does not actually do anything, how could Jesus (or anyone else) know this about God? What has Borg’s God ever done for compassion or justice, other than inspiring people (and how does he do that?) to rise against the status quo?
Jesus’ preaching eventually attracted the disapproval of the Jewish authorities, not because he attacked their religion, but because he attacked their politics. On Borg’s reading, the Jews were exactly right to accuse him of sedition, and he was guilty of the claim. The cross was not God’s plan. It was not a satisfaction for God or a substitution for man; it was only one possible result of Jesus’ ministry. The cross demonstrates the lengths to which Jesus was willing to go for his cause. Borg’s treatment of the resurrection is equally non-supernatural. He equivocates on the historicity of the event, but clearly believes that a physical resurrection is unlikely and in any case unnecessary. Accounts such as the road to Emmaus are metaphorical; those two disciples realized that Jesus could live with them as they read the Scriptures, broke bread, and had fellowship.
Borg concludes by again contrasting his emerging Christianity with the traditional or right-wing Christianity of his upbringing. He stresses that Christianity is not just personal, but political, and following Jesus means doing what it takes to alleviate oneself and others from domination systems and conventional (not God-centered) ways of thinking.
As a Reformed evangelical, I obviously disagree with Borg in many details and in his general methodology. It seems to me, though, that Borg has two major problems. First, his account of how the early church transformed the pre-Easter Jesus into the post-Easter Son of God is thoroughly unconvincing. Would mostly uneducated Jews, the most relentlessly monotheistic ethnic group in the ancient world, have called a mere teacher God if he had not claimed that for himself and done inexplicable works to prove it? If Jesus’ death were not an integral part of his mission, what committee decided that his death was indeed “for sins” and the basis of our reconciliation with God, as the New Testament uniformly presents? Did Jews of Jesus’ day believe in the supernatural in respect to their own history, and would they have “literally” or “metaphorically” read these stories? Why did the early church (Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen) go to such great lengths to insist that these were not mere metaphors but actual history? Most significantly, how could there be a pre-Easter and post-Easter understanding of Jesus if there was no supernatural Easter event. What caused this sudden change in thinking? Borg’s “historical” Jesus seems to bear little resemblance to history or Jesus.