Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Book Reviews: The Meaning of Jesus.

The Meaning of Jesus represents a “conversation” between two leading New Testament scholars, Marcus J. Borg and N.T. Wright. Because I have reviewed N.T. Wright’s The Challenge of Jesus, this review focuses on Dr. Borg’s offerings. The first part summarizes the general themes of his part of book, and the second provides my critical interaction with the material.

1. Summary of Material

Distilled to its essence, Dr. Borg develops a few themes regarding Jesus and the gospels over his several chapters. First, he establishes immediately that he does not accept the gospels’ historicity (at least in their entirety), and then he emphasizes that position throughout his sections.

Second, as an adjunct of the first proposition, Dr. Borg argues that much of these scriptures and stories about Jesus are metaphorized, including the virgin birth. (p. 179.) “I do not think the virginal conception is historical…. He sees these stories “as literary creations” and “metaphorical narratives.” (Ibid.)

Summarizing these two strands, Dr. Borg writes: “Two statements about the nature of the gospels are crucial for grasping the historical task: (1) They are a developing tradition. (2) They are a mixture of history remembered and history metaphorized.” (p. 4.)

Third, Dr. Borg distinguishes between “the Jesus of history” and “the Christ of faith.” (p. 7.) He expounds on this distinction in chapter four with his description of Jesus before and after Easter. Before Easter, Jesus was a “Jewish mystic”, according to Dr. Borg. After Easter, he was a “Christian Messiah.” (pp. 53-54.) Dr. Borg revisits this theme in chapter 8 when he states: “Easter is utterly central to Christianity. ‘God raised Jesus from the dead’ is the foundational affirmation of the New Testament. … I agree.” (p. 129.) However, Dr. Borg returns also to another of his themes that questions “the historical ground of [that] affirmation[.]” (p. 130.)

Fourth, Dr. Borg argues that one’s worldview “affects how we see Jesus.” (p. 9.)

Fifth, Dr. Borg “see[s] the Christian life as a relationship to God, mediated by Scripture and tradition, and transforming our sense of ourselves and our relationship to the world of the everyday.” (p. 227.) Dr. Borg expands on this dynamic when he says that our understanding of Jesus is not just driven by scripture or history, but also “faith.” (p. 232.) This faith, then, in turn, necessarily “affects how we see Jesus”, as noted above. (p. 9.)

2. Critique of Material

Contrasted with N.T. Wright’s chapters which I found generally more persuasive, I disagreed with Dr. Borg on several points, and I was surprised at some of the positions that Dr. Borg took. For example, consider Dr. Borg’s lofty portrayal of Jesus and his work: “’God raised Jesus from the dead’…. Jesus lives, and Jesus is Lord.” (p. 129.) This surprise was born out of the fact that Dr. Borg ultimately cuts off the branch under which he sits.

As noted above, Dr. Borg’s general theme is that the gospels are not historically accurate (at least not in all respects), and that they are metaphorized. He suggests that they have been doctored by those with agendas. With this general approach in mind, if we focus on a core tenet of Christianity, Easter, we can see that Dr. Borg’s analysis is ultimately unpersuasive and flawed. He evidently realizes that Christianity is essentially moribund without Easter. “Easter is utterly central to Christianity.” (p. 129.) As a result, he freely acknowledges his assent to its reality, and then digs out its underpinnings--the gospels. (p. 130.) So, left with no historical or scriptural support, he is left to arguing that it is solely a matter of faith to accept the Jesus of faith. This inconsistency is not very persuasive.

Without a high view of scripture, there is really nothing to support the view of Easter that Dr. Borg holds. Then coupled with the fact that each brings his or her worldview into the picture, and then he or she freely views and interprets these matters only through these worldviews, there is little confidence inspired by Dr. Borg’s analysis that his view is worthy of acceptance.

Further, I did not find that Dr. Borg posited cogent reasons for his proposition that the gospels are largely metamorphized. This conclusion seemed to be a byproduct of Dr. Borg’s own admission that one brings his or her own worldviews as the lens through which they view reality. This is a telling admission, because I thought it most accurately explained Dr. Borg’s approach to the gospels and his view of Jesus.

Of course, Dr. Borg’s apparent view is that the gospels cannot credibly record any supernatural explanations for events. For example, the virgin birth does not comport with the modern understanding of procreation, so therefore, it must have been a mere “metaphor” or a subsequent creation or gloss administered by exuberant followers. Then, to save the faith somehow, Dr. Borg resorts to creating a “Christ of faith” to explain the matters that he has explained away beforehand. Again, this inconsistent approach leaves one with nothing, except perhaps an experiential faith that operates on a psychological level for the benefits of its followers. But reduced to this level, there are many other means to get there. Even Dr. Borg, perhaps unwittingly, allows for this grossly devalued religion when he contends that the statement from John, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life, no one comes to God except through me” does not actually mean an exclusive means to the Father, nor his divinity. (p. 156.) The probably could be no better example of Dr. Borg’s biases driving the interpretation to the result he wanted.