QUESTIONS ARISING FROM Marcus J. Borg: Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, San Francisco, Harper, 1995
American Marcus Borg was brought up in the Lutheran tradition and became an academic and theologian and writer of 28 books on theology, many of them very popular including this one. He was a leader in the “Progressive Theology” movement and a member of the Jesus Seminar. His influence in the Uniting Church in Australia has been substantial.. In the two books of his I have read I notice the substantial influence of controversial and “out there” Church historian John Crossan and the early C20th English/American psychologist and philosopher of religion William James. Borg died in 2015.
CHAPTER 1: MEETING JESUS AGAIN
- p1 For many Christians, especially in mainline churches, there came a time when their childhood image of Jesus can become a problem. (p1). Does this resonate with anyone?
- Borg argues that our earliest images of Jesus are either fideistic ..it consists primarily of believing… or moralistic, it is about being good. In his view Christianity is about a relationship with God that involves us in a journey of transformation. (pp2-3 and see also p17) What do you think?
- p5 A vivid sense of urgency was taught in Borg’s early church experience, about mission because of the fate of those who have not heard the Gospel..”haste, thy mission high fulfilling, to tell all the world that God is light, That He who made all nations is not willing, One soul should perish, lost in shades of night, Publish glad tidings, Tidings of peace, Tidings of Jesus, redemption and release.” (p5). Is this still the teaching of the church in our day? Should it be?
- Borg’s first academic study of theology was at a liberal theological academy. (p8) Was this a good idea?
- Borg’s whole approach assumes a late date for the writing of the Gospels…written in the last third of the first century, they contain the accumulated traditions of early Christian communities and were put into their present forms by second- (or even third-) generation authors. (p9). This is standard liberal orthodoxy but based on minimal evidence. For example Leon Morris, a careful scholar (he was a scientist before he studied theology), writes in his 824 page Commentary on John’s Gospel, p25: It is hard to understand why there should be such a consensus, for there is very little evidence for it (p25)…in recent years a number of critics have drawn attention to some considerations that favour an early date. (p27). He cites R M Grant, a major historian of C1st Roman history: The only grounds on which [ a late date for John’s Gospel ] can possibly be “proved’ lie in a general theory of the development of early Christian thought, and the chief support of this theory is provided by the Gospel itself. Since the argument is circular we shall do well to neglect it.” (p27) Morris puts the date of John around 50 A.D. Similarly J A T Robinson, outstanding scholar with generally liberal views (of Honest to God fame) wrote a strong defence for dating the whole of the New Testament prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 70A.D. which, to my knowledge, has never been satisfactorily refuted. [John A T Robinson: Redating the New Testament, London, 1975. As we know John, the Son of Zebedee lived to be over 90, there is no reason why he could not have written this Gospel. As for Mark, we have Papias’s (who knew Polycarp who knew John) 120 A.D. written papyrus statement that “Mark’s Gospel contained “the reminiscences of Peter”. My question is: Does it matter to us whether or not Matthew’s and John’s Gospels were written by the disciples who bear those names? (re Luke there is little dispute because of the “we” passages in Acts. Luke was in the early Christian action! The film Paul the Apostle throws useful light on the possibility that Luke came to Rome to care for and interview? Paul at the end of his life imprisoned in Rome.
- p11 The contrast between the synoptic and Johannine images of Jesus is so great that one of them must be nonhistorical…Do you agree with Borg’s verdict. [Borg himself seems aware that Midcentury Jesus scholarship was marked by thoroughgoing skepticism… [p12]
- p14 Borg became an atheist after studying theology at a liberal academy at tertiary level… (hmmm)…after about 10 years I had a number of experiences of what I now recognize as “nature mysticism”…experiences that Rudolph Otto described as “experiences of the “numinous” …they gave me a new understanding of the meaning of the word “God”. [p14] What weight do you put on such experiences? Have we experienced them ourselves?
- p15 Borg distinguishes strongly between the pre-Easter Jesus (he could be known [p16] and the post-Easter Jesus [he could only be believed in.] Is this a helpful distinction? What caused the change?
- p17 John’s Gospel is “true,” even though its account of Jesus’ life story and sayings is not, by and large, historically factual. Borg solves this apparent contradiction by comparing John’s Gospel to the “truth” we find in e.g. parables or stories..for example Lewis’s Narnia stories. (my example, not Borg’s). Is this a helpful way of understanding John’s Gospel? Borg says he would have titled his spiritual autobiography “Beyond Belief”.
CHAPTER 2: WHAT MANNER OF MAN? THE PRE-EASTER JESUS
- p22. Did Jesus have a wider mission than just reaching out to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” ? (Matthew 16:25).
- p22. ..Christians have frequently been guilty of conscious or unconscious anti-Semitism. The horror of the holocaust has been a major driver of New Testament theology since WW11. Many scholars have deliberately worked to establish the Jewishness of Jesus and to oppose the notion of supersessionism (the idea that Christianity is the logical superseding or replacement of Judaism. The work of E P Sanders (Paul and Palestinian Judaism) has introduced the language of “covenantal nomism” rather than “legalism” to describe C1st Jewish theology and many Christians would argue that the covenant is irrevocable and that it is inappropriate to attempt to evangelise Jewish believers..(not including N T Wright). What do you think?
- p24 Borg regards the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke, including the Bethlehem location as rich symbolic affirmations, rather than historically accurate narratives. Borg also believes the story of the boy Jesus debating in the temple is also historically unreliable (p25). What do you think?
- p28 The Quest of the Historical Jesus was the title of Albert Schweitzer’s influential analysis of C19th and early C20th studies of the “real” Jesus in which he concluded that scholars usually end up with a view of Jesus very similar to their own views about the Christian faith. A mid 1960’s second quest fizzled out but in the 1980s a “third quest for the historical Jesus “ has made scholars more confident that we can, with a reasonable degree of probability, know something about the historical Jesus. (E P Sanders). I think this is further evidence that growing up as a Christian in the 60s ->80s “era of liberal theology” was bad for your theological health!
- p29 A degree of contradiction in Borg’s writing: (a) the self-understanding and message of the pre-Easter Jesus were in all likelihood non-messianic. (b) next sentence: By this I mean simply that we have no way of knowing whether Jesus thought of himself as the Messiah or as the Son of God in some special sense. Question: If we have no way of knowing, why is Borg so certain that Jesus self-understanding was non-messianic? I believe a more coherent reason why Jesus was reluctant to use messianic language about himself is because he was introducing a more complex, but still Jewish idea of the Messiah, viz the suffering servant of Isaiah 52 – 53. i.e. a messiah who was not a military leader but rather one who in some mysterious way made atonement for the sins of many…the same prophet who predicted that Israel’s role was to be aa a light to the nations. [Isaiah 49:6]
- p29 Borg refers to my research and evaluation of the best Jesus scholarship convince me…sentences like these usually refer to “research and scholarship which thinks like I do!” (we all tend to do that!)
- p30 Borg lists four characteristics of the pre-Easter Jesus: (i) a spirit person; (ii) a teacher of wisdom (iii) a social prophet; (iv) a movement founder. What do you think of this list? Is anything missing?
- pp30-31 Borg’s description of Jesus includes Jesus’ remarkable language ..metaphorical, poetic, imaginative, memorable, compelling. He was clearly exceptionally intelligent…and clever in debate… He used dramatic public actions e.g. eating meals with untouchables. Did Jesus have a meal with say Zaccheus just to make a teaching point?
- p31 Jesus was a remarkable healer. Why does Borg accept Jesus’s healing and exorcism capabilities but denies the nature miracles? [in his book with N T Wright: The Meaning of Jesus.]
- pp31-45 What does Borg mean by calling Jesus a “spirit person”..a mediator of the sacred. (p32) ? In fn 27 p42 he writes though “spirit person” sometimes strikes me as an odd phrase, it seems superior to its possible alternatives.. e.g. holy person, sacred person, divine person. …p32 ..the realization came to me initially not from the study of the Bible or the Christian tradition, but from the study of non-Western religions and cultural anthropology….the older technical term is ‘holy man’…someone who has vivid and frequent subjective experiences of another level or dimension. In fn 29p43 Borg agrees with George Lindbeck: The Nature of Doctrine 1984, that each religious tradition is a cultural-linguistic world…Borg writes: thus the religions of the world are clearly not all the same; they are as different as the culture from which they come. Yet I remain convinced that the impetus for creating these cultural-linguistic worlds comes out of certain kinds of extraordinary experiences that are cross-cultural. On p37 he states ..imaging Jesus as a particular instance of a type of religious personality known cross-culturally undermines a widespread Christian belief that Jesus is unique….rather than being the exclusive revelation of God, he is one of many mediators of the sacred. At this point I think Borg has moved to a position which cannot be equated with Christian orthodoxy. Jesus becomes one of a special kind of person who mediates God for us but is not God incarnate in human flesh as commonly understood in Christian tradition. What is your view about this?
- p33f The experience of spirit persons suggests there is more to reality than …the modern world view, derived from the Enlightenment [that] sees reality in material terms, as constituted by the world of matter and energy within the space-time continuum….a non-material level of reality, actual even though nonmaterial, and charged with energy and power.
- p37 the question that surfaces is: Do you believe that Jesus was God? The image of Jesus sketched in this chapter suggests that the answer is “No, the pre-Easter Jesus was not God. In Fn41p44 Borg then writes: this denial does not preclude affirming that Jesus was an epiphany or disclosure of God, or, as I will suggest in Chapter 5, the embodiment or incarnation of the Word and Wisdom of God. (a) Has Borg satisfactorily explicated these two apparently contradictory statements? And (b) if Jesus was the “incarnation of the Word and Wisdom of God” where does this leave all the other Spirit persons he mentioned earlier?
CHAPTER 3: JESUS, COMPASSION AND POLITICS
- p49 Borg sees a conflict between the OT be holy as God is holy (Lev. 11:44) and the NT Be merciful as your heavenly father is merciful (Luke 6:36] Is there a conflict?
- p51 Borg suggests that Christian theology altered the meaning of “sinner” [Greek ἁμαρτωλος = hamartōlos] from the Jewish understanding of those who do not follow the purity system…although in the next sentence he says “sinners” had a range of meanings in first century Palestine but did not ever apply the term to everyone. He believes the NT application of the word to apply to everyone has encouraged a view that sin is a matter of being impure or “dirty” and render one “untouchable”. Yet when I read Romans it seems to be that Paul is simply saying no-one can stand pure before God…all have sinned..Jew and Gentile …all need God’s forgiveness and love. I would have thought Jesus was making the same point in his parable about the Pharisee and the “sinner” in the temple. Are Christians hung up about “sin” making us dirty or unclean?
- p54 Compassion, not holiness, is the dominant quality of God, and is therefore to be the ethos of the community that mirrors God. Do we agree?
- p56 the meals of Jesus are the ancestor of the Christian eucharist. I would have thought that the Passover meal was the ancestor? What do we think?
- p59 It seems to me that the shattering of purity boundaries by both Jesus and Paul should also apply to the purity code’s perception of homosexuality. In fn 14 p63 Borg quotes anthropologist Mary Douglas’s view that defines a purity system very broadly as an orderly cultural system of classification…making the terms purity system and culture virtually synonymous. Do we agree?
CHAPTER 4: JESUS AND WISDOM: TEACHER OF ALTERNATIVE WISDOM
- In general I think chapter 4 is a useful study of subversive wisdom but I think he is too harsh in his condemnation of conventional wisdom. The Bible as Borg says uses both . What do you think? Is subversive wisdom the only useful wisdom? e.g. on p76 Borg writes: Conventional wisdom has both social and psychological consequences. Socially it creates a world of hierarchies and boundaries. Yet in this book Borg, Crossan and the Jesus Seminar are setting up the harshest of boundaries around the “acceptable” teaching of Jesus (It would seem to me to shore up their own views about all sorts of things!…I guess Borg now knows who is right and who is wrong!
- p69 Jesus was a teacher of wisdom. This is the strongest consensus among today’s Jesus scholars. Once again I suspect these are the “Jesus scholars” Borg used to hang around with.
- pp77-78 Borg uses Freudian psychology of the superego and Fowler’s sociology of the stages of life to symbolise the internalised voice of culture. He does not like Western culture, seeing it as grim, in bondage to dominants, all about measuring up, anxious striving, the “performance principle” and the “conformity principle”, the lordship of culture, a life of profound self pre-occupation and limited to Fowler’s “conventional-synthetic” stage..and of course there is an image of God which goes with the world of conventional wisdom…the one whom we must satisfy, the one whose requirements must be met. So the Christian life becomes a life of requirements; indeed..it is the most common form of conventional wisdom…. I have never never liked Freud’s wisdom; Fowler is very helpful but Borg’s combination and interpretation is gloomy, hopeless, desperate and totally negative about society. I don’t see “society” like that amongst my Newhaven millennials who are individualistic, morally active, idealistic and wanting to do things in the world. Likewise the staff. Borg comes across to me in these pages as a “grumpy old man” (though he wasn’t when he wrote this book), tired of life and very superior towards his Christian brothers and sisters (especially I suspect the evangelicals ..who are no doubt his greatest critics!) What do you think?
- p79 Borg dislikes the bumper sticker Christians aren’t perfect — they’re just forgiven! He writes There is a smugness and divisiveness in the statement that comes out of the marriage between conventional wisdom and Christianity. Of course, let it not be said that Borg was ever divisive! I think the sticker is ok, telling a truth which is “we all need acceptance!” What do you think (about bumper stickers in general? and about this one?)
- p83f Borg has to write about the parable of the Prodigal (it is so powerful) even though it does not pass the Jesus Seminar test because it only occurs in one source!
- p85 Borg writes…I think he [Jesus] probably believed in an afterlife. Phew!!!
- p88 Borg distinguishes between first- and secondhand religion…believing what we have heard from others or what the Bible says compared with a relation with..that reality we call God or the Spirit of God. He seems to be putting the experiential ahead of the teaching (verbal or written). He should love the C20th Pentecostal/charismatic explosion although I suspect he didn’t approve..he never mentions it.What do you think of the distinction between first and secondhand religion? Isn’t it a case of both/and?
CHAPTER 5. JESUS, THE WISDOM OF GOD: SOPHIA BECOME FLESH.
- p99 Borg in this chapter appears to me to exchange the notion of “Son” (a masculine term) for the notion of “Sophia/Wisdom” (a feminine term). Both Borg and Crossan are obsessed with the Wisdom tradition which I think is really important but it is one part of God’s revelation e.g. Borg never mentions prophecy; (it is also, the way he plays it a little skewed towards the highly intelligent and hidden from all the ordinary old conventional types who just don’t get it!) Is it possible to interpret Sophia (Wisdom) in Proverbs 1 and Genesis 1:1 as the Holy Spirit? I am a little surprised Borg does not consider this possibility. What do you think?
- p103 Jesus is the spokesperson for the compassion of Sophia/God. A rather odd sentence…also Borg seems to have managed the whole book without talking anywhere about the love of God. Why is this so?
- p104. An excellent defence of Paul..next to Jesus, Paul is the most important person in the history of early Christianity. Go Paul!
- p108 Borg creates a functional equivalence between the logos in John 1: 1 -10 and Sophia/Wisdom. I think this is a major category mistake. He loses all the clear hook up between John 1 and Genesis 1 for starters and the gender of nouns in both Greek and Hebrew does not in any way relate to what we consider male and female “words” should be. (I think it is the same in French!) What do you think about the equivalence of logos and sophia? stretching the bow too far??
- On the other hand I loved in fn 52 p117 the quotation from Sandra M Schneider: God is more than two men and a bird! What do you think?
CHAPTER 6. IMAGES OF JESUS AND IMAGES OF THE CHRISTIAN LIFE
- p119 Borg recaps his whole argument with this summary: His [Jesus’s] own self-understanding did not include thinking and speaking of himself as the Son of God whose historical intention or purpose was to die for the sins of the world, and his message was not about believing in him. I do not believe the argument in this book has in any way established this finding. If it has for some it is because Borg/the Jesus Seminar has systematically removed from the Gospels any material that points in the direction of Jesus’s intention as summarised above. What do you think?
- p120 Borg emphasises the importance of story in the Bible. I agree it is very important. What do you think? and by the way is there a bit of a problem with systematic theology?
- Borg cites three “macro-stories” in the Old Testament. They are (i) The Exodus Story ( I agree); (ii) The story of Exile and Return ( I agree ..but it is an unfinished story …so NT Wright); and (iii) The Priestly story ( I disagree..it is not even a story). What do you think of Borg’s choices? Has he missed some stuff? For me he needs to consider: the Creation story (Isaiah, Job and Psalms, not just Genesis); the origin of the human separation from God story; the universal blessing of mankind through Abraham and Isaiah 49:6 Israel as a light to the nations story..this is the number 1 story in my view; the Prophets and Kings story; The Psalms story of praise; the Job story of suffering; and the apocalyptic story (which Borg had earlier dismissed)
- p129 Borg suggests the Priestly story has dominated Christian life to the present day. This might be true of the Lutheran church (I don’t know) and possibly of the Anglo-Catholic church … but it is not my experience of the evangelical Anglican churches and Baptist churches where I have frequently worshipped for many years. What do you think?
- pp 130-131 Borg praises the priestly story for its message of acceptance …just as we are; our assurance that our sinfulness does not stand between us and God and that we no longer need to feel in bondage to our past and any guilt that might constantly hurt us. But Borg believes the priestly story has many limitations which are: (i) the Christian life becomes a repeated cycle of of sin, guilt and forgiveness, resolved each Sunday then repeated; (ii) it creates a passive understanding of Christian life ..God has already done what needs to be done; and passivity towards culture e.g. the needs of many for liberation (Exodus story) or deliverance (Babylon). (iii) it is primarily a religion of the afterlife. (iv) it images God as law-giver and judge …what did happen to ‘God is love’ in Borg’s life? (v) this story is hard to believe..God’s only son came to this planet to offer his life as a sacrifice for the sins of the world , and God could not forgive us without that happening. (vi) Some people do not feel much guilt. Borg’s solution is to combine all three stories into the megastory so everything can be covered. What do you think of these 6 criticisms and the solution?
- pp133 – 137 Borg finishes his book with a reminder that the Christian life is a journey …and p135 that journey is in his company, in his presence…and also p135 journeying with Jesus means to be in a community, not on an individual path, and p136 discipleship means becoming compassionate, and, p136 the Christian journey is one of transformation…and finally, p137 believing is of the heart, not the mind..it involves the deeper level of one’s self. What do you think of Borg’s summary of the journey? Has he left anything out?