The Borg and Jesus: you will be assimilated

I have never read anything by Marcus Borg (I KNOW! I may be alone in this) so I thought it was about time.

As I only planned to read one book I picked his latest "big picture" book on Jesus, aptly called Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary (Harper Collins, 2006/SPCK, 2011). Apparently it "distills a lifetime's study of this subject into an accessible form" (Chris Rowland on the back cover). Seems like the one to go for.

It is a very well written book presupposing no knowledge of Jesus scholarship and skillfully and sympathetically introducing readers to some key ideas and proposals. I can see why Borg has been popular among ordinary Christians — he writes as one who seeks to follow in the way of Jesus and yet who is no crazy fundamentalist. And there is a lot to like in his vision of Jesus — I agree with a large amount of what he says.

And yet . . . there's a "but." Two things struck me as deeply problematic.

First, Borg makes a major distinction between Jesus stories based on historical memory but which have been given a metaphorical meaning and stories that are simply and only metaphorical but which have no actual historical events behind them. He speaks as if this is a distinction made by the biblical authors and early readers. And modern fundamentalists make the major error of mistaking purely metaphorical stories for stories based on historical memory. They misinterpret such stories by taking them as history when they were never intended to be.

But how is one to distinguish the two types of Jesus narrative? His reasoning given with his examples is that "most mainstream scholars" think that such and such a story fits into one category or the other. Well, fair enough but why do they? In the end, it boils down not to a distinction made by early Christ-believers but one made by post-Enlightenment scholars. Such and such a story must be purely metaphorical because the kinds of things it recounts just cannot happen. OK, I understand this (though I may not agree with it!) but why is it presented as if we are being shown how to read the text along the grain rather than against the grain? As if we are understanding the text in its original context rather than in our modern context? It seems pretty obvious that the ancient authors and readers made no distinction of the kind that Borg does. (Presumably that's why they all thought that the virgin birth and resurrection, for instance, actually happened and did not appreciate that they were only ever meant as a metaphor.)

I appreciate that Borg is wanting to affirm truth in all the Jesus stories and is not wanting the lack of historicity of some to undermine that. This is much more helpful than the approach of a Dawkins, say. However, his approach to the issue is (I think) problematic telling us more about how post-Enlightenment people see things than how ancient people did.

My main worry is that Borg makes another key (and common) distinction between the pre-Easter and the post-Easter Jesus. The pre-Easter Jesus is Jesus as he understood himself and as his contemporaries understood him. The post-Easter Jesus is Jesus as later believers came to think of him. Now Borg is a generous thinker and he wants to affirm the "truth" of both Jesuses but he also wants to make sure that we do not confuse one with the other. The pre-Easter Jesus (the historical Jesus) was a Jewish mystic, filled with the divine Spirit; a prophet, a wisdom teacher, a follower of the God of Israel, who resisted the political dominion system of Rome with another vision — the kingdom of God. I agree with all that.

BUT, stresses Borg, the pre-Easter Jesus was not the second person of the Trinity; he was not the one through whom God created the world; he was probably not even the Messiah. The post-Easter Jesus was all those things but the pre-Easter Jesus was not.

Now it all depends what Borg means here. As it stands it is just nonsense. If the pre-Easter Jesus is not the one through whom God created the world then neither is the post-Easter Jesus. If the pre-Easter Jesus was not the second person of the Trinity then neither is the post-Easter Jesus. The resurrection (even if Borg thought of it as a historical event — another matter I find deeply problematic in his book) does not change one who was not the creator into the creator! That makes no sense at all! The NT writers fully appreciated this. If Jesus was now understood to participate in the divine identity then he must always have so participated. That is why the Gospel writers have no hesitation about presenting Jesus in terms that would not have been appreciated at the time. It is not that those "on the ground" at the time saw things this way, but that this is how things must be seen if the NT authors' later understandings of Jesus are true. They were not as interested as Borg in seeing Jesus as he was understood at the time. We see better now than we did then, they imply, so we look back at the events in a different light in order to understand them more clearly.

If Borg simply means that before the resurrection it was not realized who Jesus was then we are on solid ground. That's ok. The Gospels themselves make that point very clearly. Easter did mark a watershed in terms of how Jesus was understood. But the resurrection did not make Jesus the Son of God, say; it revealed him to be the Son of God.

However, I do not think Borg does mean this. I suspect that he wants the affirm the pre-Easter Jesus as the real Jesus, the Jesus we must recover using historical research and follow afresh. The post-Easter Jesus is "true" in the sense that he provides a range of metaphorical ways in which those who loved Jesus tried to emphasize how they found God in and through him (something Borg would be keen to affirm). Borg's Jesus is a deeply human person filled with divine wisdom and insight (a holy prophet). That is fine as far as it goes (and orthodox Christianity affirms all this too) but that won't cut it for the faith of the early Christ-believers nor for subsequent Christian orthodoxy (past and present). We need metaphysics and not simply metaphor to do justice to early Christ-faith.

In the end Borg's Jesus is so close to the Jesus worshipped by Christians throughout history and yet is an infinity away from him. Borg's Jesus has been assimilated and is not the Christ of the church.

(If I have misunderstood Borg I apologize and withdraw any comment that does not reflect his views.)


David said…
Just discovered your blog a couple of weeks ago. I'm enjoying your posts. And while I haven't read THAT particular Borg work, I have read "The Meaning of Jesus," which is half-written by him, and half by NT Wright. It was a book assigned in seminary. It was a good read, and I think may help to clarify some things in Borg's thought, simply because everything he says is presented with a foil in terms of what Wright has to say. The chapters are things like "Was Jesus God?" and "The Death of Jesus," and "The Birth of Jesus." They take things and explain their own interpretations, from their own perspectives. It's an interesting read, and I highly recommend it.
David said…
Actually, I'm sitting in my office, and I just decided to pick up "The Meaning of Jesus" again. In the first chapter, Borg makes the pre-Easter, post-Easter Jesus thing pretty clear. You more or less have it right. But one important factor in his distinction is how Athanasian he really is. Borg is very concerned with preserving the humanity of Jesus, as well as the divinity. He views the divinity as "those things the church puts on Jesus after Easter," and therefore have to be pared away in order to understand the pre-Easter Jesus, who was an historical human being, as we affirm creedally (that's probably a generous reading of Borg, but not inaccurate). He's a very interesting fellow. I'm glad you wrote this today, because I'm going to read this book again over the next few days.
Bob Wilson said…
My perceptions of Borg's tone and beliefs are similar. But I don't think he believes Bible writers distinguished which events are historical. As you say, he does it based on what he as a modern man perceives as credible. For him the post-Easter Jesus is not literally identical to the historical person. Yet those post-Easter formulations metaphorically point to realities about God that are true in a different metaphysics than Nicea or Chalcedon formulated.
Don Horrocks said…
Doesn't Borg fit into the mold of classic nineteenth and twentieth century liberals like GWH Lampe who saw the post-resurrection Jesus as a creation of the early church as it tried to make the stories live on?
Robin Parry said…
I feel that I may not have got a clear view on my head of what Borg is about. He says that he is happy to recite the Nicene creed but I am not at all clear about what he means when he recites it. As I said in the post, if the post-Easter Jesus was the second person of the Trinity then he was this prior to Easter too, otherwise the claim is simply false. The divinity of Jesus cannot be "those things which the church puts on Jesus after Easter" because the church cannot confer divinity on anyone. The church can, at best, recognize a divinity that is already there. But a divinity granted by humans is no divinity and the worship of such a Jesus would be idolatry.

In the book Borg asks us to choose a Jesus that is either human or divine (and clearly opts for the human one, only later introducing a very diminished view of what his "divinity" amounts to). But orthodoxy has always sought to insist that this is not a choice one has to make. Christ is both human and divine.

Don—there are indeed lots of echoes on nineteenth- and early twentieth-century theologies here. But Borg does want to find ways of affirming the "truth" of all the biblical teachings about Jesus and I applaud that. I just think that he sacrifices fundamental Christian claims en route
Bob Wilson said…
Borg does 'sacrifice' what you see as "fundamental claims." In his dialogue with Wright he clarifies that his views must conform to his belief in 'God' as akin to that of process theology. So he can't affirm Jesus' literal divinity or Trinitarian nature as a fundamental truth. But he does indeed seek to affirm what he thinks are the true underlying implications of Nicaea or "biblical teachings." For him they are beautiful in that they rightly look to Jesus, his life and message, as a true revelation of what 'god' and god's values are actually like.
Robin Parry said…

That's a helpful clarification and it is just as I thought. It makes Borg a very interesting thinker. He wants to deny the literal truth of Christian orthodoxy while generously trying to find a way to affirm some mode of truth in it.

I like him and I like his heart. I also think he has a large amount to teach the church.

However, some of his views are not orthodox Christian views and do deny matters fundamental to the faith. I cannot be indifferent about that. I must say that on those issues he offers not an alternative Christian view of Jesus but a Christian-like but ultimately unChristian view of Jesus.
JD said…
I have several problems with Borg, some of which you have mentioned, Robin. Ultimately I think Borg and Crossan et al read the Bible in an un-Christian way. Indeed it can perhaps be argued that, since the Reformation, we all do. We read the Bible as an entity all by itself. But the early Christians read the Bible in the light of the Word revealed to them, and as time went on in the light of the Church's teaching and understanding. The idea of a pre-easter and post-easter Jesus is a modern day construction. The early Church simply would not have understood this distinction. For them the Jesus who walked this earth healing and preaching and prophesying is precisely 'this' Jesus who God raised from the dead and made Lord of all. Markus Bockmuehl's 'This Jesus: Martyr, Lord, Messiah' covers this.

Does any of that make sense???
JD said…
I guess what I am saying is the Bible is a faith document. It was written by and for believers. You can, if you so wish, deconstruct it all, apply all sorts of historical criteria to it etc... but if it is to be read as Holy Scripture you simply cannot divorce it from the faith convictions of the Church. And the earliest confession of the Church is 'This Jesus, whom you have crucified, God has raised and made Lord of all'.

Popular Posts