Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Brief Thoughts on Marcus Borg

borg.jpgMarcus J. Borg, Hundere Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University, is one of the most prolific and engaging scholars of the “historical Jesus.” As he has described in several places, he grew up in a traditional conservative Lutheran household, became skeptical of faith in adolescence and college, but slowly returned to a (less traditional, but very lively) Christian faith slowly as an adult.  He is now married to an Episcopal priest and is one of the most reasonable and helpful members of the “Jesus Seminar.” (The Jesus Seminar, part of the Westar Institute, bills itself as a consensus of NT scholarship, but it is no such thing. It’s methods and conclusions are regularly ridiculed at meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature and, outside of the U.S., it is the butt of numerous jokes.  Except for Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and one or two others, few of the Jesus Seminar members are considered heavyweights in historical Jesus research. But the Seminar does manage to popularize itself with the media and give the average layperson the mistaken idea that its publications are worth the paper they are printed on, but they aren’t.)

I have elsewhere called Borg one of my favorite theological liberals. Unlike most of his colleagues in the Jesus Seminar, I find much of his work helpful.  I first encountered him through his book, Conflict, Holiness, and Politics in the Teaching of Jesus (1984, rev. ed., 1992) and again in Jesus: A New Vision (1987).  In my view, these are the best of Borg’s many writings on Jesus.  They contain many helpful ideas that I believe are on target: 1) Borg’s understanding of the conflict between Jesus (and his movement) and the Pharisees as a conflict between rival Jewish renewal movements and, thus, a conflict within 1st C. Judaism instead of a rejection of Judaism.  2) Borg’s belief that Jesus was closer in outlook to the Pharisees than to other rival parties within Palestinian Judaism. (Anyone who has seen siblings feud understands the dynamics involved. The further away from someone’s viewpoint, the more another view can be ignored. But one is often infuriated by folks one thinks right on many things, but dead wrong on others. –Aside to Jonathan Marlowe: This also explains my love/hate relationship with Stanley Hauerwas.) 3) Borg’s contrast of the Pharisees’ “politics of holiness” (or “purity”) with Jesus’ “politics of compassion” seems almost exactly right, although I would not say that Jesus was unconcerned with holiness, but rather that he redefined it in terms of justice and compassion. 4) The importance that Borg places on Jesus’ table fellowship. 5) Borg’s recognition (with many others) that Jesus, though nonviolent, was a real threat to both the Romans, their client rulers in Palestine, and the temple elites. This nonviolent threat to the established order was the motive for Jesus’ execution.

However, I also have many differences with Borg’s approach to Jesus.  1) His attempt to have a non-eschatological Jesus simply will not work.  “Kingdom of God” is clearly eschatological, even apocalyptic, language and if we know ANYTHING about the historical Jesus at all, it is that the Kingdom of God was central to his message.  2) Although recognizing some prophetic elements in Jesus, Borg downplays this and sees Jesus far too much with the Wisdom traditions in Israel. (For very different reasons from Borg and each other, Ben Witherington and Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza are both mistaken about this, too.) In my view, all Jesus borrowed from the sages was the form of his teachings, while the content of his message was far closer to that of the prophets.  The Sages, as exemplified especially in Proverbs, were far too accepting of a stratified status quo for the social sphere, but Jesus shares the prophets’ hunger for social and economic justice.  3) N.T. Wright and others go too far, I think, in dismissing all value from Borg’s attempt to see Jesus in cross-cultural perspective, first in terms of other teachers in the Mediterranean world, but also in comparison with other figures in world religions. I have, for instance, found some real insights in Borg’s Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings (1997).  But where Wright (and others) are right is that Borg jumps to such cross-cultural work too soon, without first making sure he has completely understood Jesus as a figure within 1st C. Palestinian Judaism.  Borg (and his fans) will protest this, saying rightly, that he insists that Jesus is thoroughly Jewish. But, frankly, Borg’s Jesus (unlike the various–and not entirely compatible–reconstructions of Wright, E. P. Sanders, Richard Horsley, John P. Meier, Brad Young, and Bill Herzog) just doesn’t seem all that Jewish. If one is only comparing Borg’s Jesus with that of much of the Jesus Seminar, then, yes, he emphasizes Jesus’ Jewishness. But, if one is really trying to fit Jesus firmly into 1st C. Palestinian Judaism, then Borg’s Jesus just doesn’t quite fit.

I have more problems with Borg as a theologian. This puts me in a minority in my local church, I think. My pastor is very taken with Borg’s The Heart of Christianity.  There are helpful insights there and in his Reading the Bible Again for the First Time and The God We Never Knew.  But ultimately, I have a higher Christology, a more objective view of the atonement (although my view is more with the Christus Victor than substitutionary tradition), and a bodily resurrection.

April 1, 2007 - Posted by | Bible, liberal theology, New Testament


  1. wow, I couldn’t have put it better. You nailed exactly how I feel about Borg, right down to the last sentence “I have a higher Christology, a more objective view of the atonement (although my view is more with the Christus Victor than substitutionary tradition), and a bodily resurrection.”

    The only thing I might add in commentary on Borg is that he is a very powerful speaker and that his ability to communicate clearly and effectively with people at all levels of theological literacy is a skill to be admired. As a translator of the faith I think he is in his element, and though I disagree with some of what he says, I know many folks who wouldn’t consider themselves Christian if not for the way he articulates the faith.

    Comment by Aric Clark | April 1, 2007

  2. Borg IS an excellent communicator. I heard him speak 2 years ago when the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America met in Oregon. He advised us to spread the word by having Bible studies in traditional churches and he outlined the justice and peace themes from Genesis to Revelation in about 20 minutes. It’s not your average liberal who tells people to have more Bible studies!

    And his communication style is probably why he is so popular with some in my congregation. I have more mixed feelings than they, however.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 1, 2007

  3. I am an unabashed admirer of Borg, and so I disagree with you on your disagreements with him. That, however, isn’t worth hashing out here, as I think that we agree on his best attribute: his ability to communicate, and his concern for a theology that is meaningful in the pews. Would that more theologians communicated so well, and were so concerned with the daily living out of the faith!

    Comment by Sandalstraps | April 1, 2007

  4. I hear ‘ya loud and clear on Hauerwas 🙂

    Comment by Jonathan Marlowe | April 1, 2007

  5. Well, Chris, it COULD be worth hashing out our different views on Borg. For instance, are you agreeing with him that Jesus had a non-eschatological message? That Jesus never made any (even implicit) messianic claims (all the more surprising when one reads Borg’s claim in Jesus: A New Vision that Jesus considered himself God’s agent in history for the Kingdom–if that’s not a messianic claim, what is??)? Do you share Borg’s view that Jesus was a wandering Wisdom teacher and not a prophet?

    I’d be curious as to what you agree with Borg about that I don’t–and why.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 1, 2007

  6. Michael–your aside about Hauerwas is intriguing. Care to expand? (By the way, I’m pretty much with you on Borg. Don’t know enough Wright–which is kinda embarrassing for a good Episcopalian guy like me!–so I appreciated that post.)

    Comment by Kerry | April 2, 2007

  7. Not really, Kerry. Jonathan had noticed before that I sometimes disagree with Hauerwas strongly–and especially with people who interpret Yoder through Hauwerwas’ influence. But I have met Stanley and he’s a great guy and I agree with him on much–but we argue about much, too. I’ll have to post on that some day, I guess.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 2, 2007

  8. Whenever I heard the Jesus Seminar folks claim to be the consensus NT scholarship, I always thought it implied that a number of the claims that the public heard for the first time such as the distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, Q, Mark feeding into Luke and Matthew, etc. was commonplace. Not that every claim they made (such as the non eschatological Jesus) was consensus.

    Borg is helpful in that he writes for the church in a way that someone like Funk could and did not. He’s interested in the faith of the pews and he’s got a constructive project which makes him a helpful resource for a number of mainline congregations. And he distills a liberal protestant faith in an understandable way.

    I don’t use the language of pantheism or panentheism. But a low christology I take to be of critical importance, though my own reasoning would probably be closet to H. Richard Neibuhr in this regard. I worry that the insight of monotheism can be compromised by both christocentric and church centered accounts of religious faith.

    Comment by Dwight | April 2, 2007

  9. Thanks for stopping by, Dwight. I do use the language of panentheism sometimes, since I am hugely influenced by Moltmann. But I liked the earlier, more Christocentric, H.R. Niebuhr more than the “Monotheistic” HRN whose earlier trinitarian problems were multiplied.

    I am FAR happier with Borg than I could ever be with the late Funk. And I agree with you that Borg’s concern for the people in the pews is laudable–though we disagree over the shape that should take. (I’m used to this. I go to a church where many are more liberal than I theologically–not politically since I am a democratic socialist–and Borg is spoken of in tones I reserve for Barth, Moltmann, or John Howard Yoder!)

    I’ll have to re-think the way the Jesus Seminar claims to be a consensus. I think I have heard them use that in very sweeping ways.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 2, 2007

  10. I have more problems with Borg as a theologian. …There are helpful insights there and in his Reading the Bible Again for the First Time and The God We Never Knew. But ultimately, I have a higher Christology, a more objective view of the atonement (although my view is more with the Christus Victor than substitutionary tradition), and a bodily resurrection.

    I think I’m pretty much in agreement with all of this. I read both books awhile back and don’t remember them in detail. I remember thinking especially that “Reading the Bible Again…” could be helpful to people who had grown up reading the bible in a literalist way – either out of habit or out of their church’s position – but I also remember thinking that I felt he went just a bit too far down the demythologisation track. Really more 1970s than 1990s, I felt.

    I’m assuming that by “objective” view of atonement, you mean as opposed to subjective.

    Comment by PamBG | April 2, 2007

  11. “I’m assuming that by “objective” view of atonement, you mean as opposed to subjective.”

    Yes, Pam. Borg’s view is an updated version of Abelard’s moral influence theory–completely subjective. I insist that God ACTED in the cross for human redemption. I don’t see this in substitutionary terms, but in terms of Christ Victor–the nonviolent one’s death was not defeat but victory.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 2, 2007

  12. I insist that God ACTED in the cross for human redemption. I don’t see this in substitutionary terms, but in terms of Christ Victor–the nonviolent one’s death was not defeat but victory.

    Well, you can probably surmise that I agree with this, being a big fan of Girard and all.

    I don’t know whether Volf would have liked the effect, but having just finished “Free of Charge”, I really don’t see any room at all for substitutionary atonement; that makes God a God of justice rather than a God of grace. I think that the problem of “the cost of sin” can be addressed in other ways.

    I agree that God “acted”. In what way is – I hate to use the word – somewhat mysterious. I’m rather taken with the first chapter of John as well. It gives me the idea that atonement is actually part of the creation process.

    Sorry. Babbling.

    Comment by PamBG | April 3, 2007

  13. Michael,

    As you can probably imagine, school keeps me from being able to do as much blog-stuff as I’d sometimes like. However, in response to your post on Borg and your invitation to flesh out our differences on Borg, I’m going to try to post my own take on Borg at my blog sometime before Easter.

    I suspect this will be much more fruitful than having a pseudo debate in the comments section here, especially since I suspect that we agree on more points than it would seem if we start off taking opposing points of view.

    What I’m planning to do in my post is to focus on a positive articulation of what I hear Borg affirming, rather than a negative articulation of what I hear him denying. From there some discussion of what he denies may indeed be necessary, as he does in several important respects disagree with generally accepted beliefs about Jesus.

    My post will focus on only three (or maybe four) books, all of which come after his earliest work on Jesus, and after he begins to have a kind of religious reawakening. I’ll be focusing on these books (Meeting Jesus Again (For the First Time), The Heart of Christianity, and Jesus) because I see them as more accurate representations of his current beliefs, and because they are written more as constructive theologies than as external criticism. In these books he is attempting to articulate a vision of Jesus and Christianity for Christians as a Christian (at least in my reading of them – feel free to disagree, as I am no authority on Borg or anything else), which is as best as I can tell a sharp departure from his earliest work.

    On the subject of eschatology, I will depend heavily on Borg’s most recent book on Jesus, in which he to a certain extent distances himself from the position of denying any eschatological content to Jesus’ message.

    I suspect after the dust settles, we will still have some profound disagreements, as I am a fair amount more liberal than you. However, as best as I can tell, those disagreements are extremely unimportant.

    Comment by Sandalstraps | April 3, 2007

  14. Pam, I agree with most of what you wrote–except that I find the contrast between justice and grace to be very misleading (as with similar contrasts between love and justice).

    Chris (Sandalstraps), I DO understand about seminary time constraints. Your future post on Borg sounds worth waiting for. As for whether or not our disagreements are important, I think part of the answer would have to involve the question, “Important for what?”

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 3, 2007

  15. I do agree that there are eschatological claims in the Gospels, but remember we don’t have the “Gospel of Jesus”. We have the Gospels of many later interpreters of Jesus. Each writer sets (and creates) the stories of Jesus in their own eschatological view. Was Jesus concerned with Eschatological issues? Maybe. Probably. I don’t know, but I do know that the gospel writers were. They also created parables about him to illustrate what his teachings meant to them and some of there prophetic but most are told to futher drive home the message of Jesus which is God’s kingdom.

    Just like the the Jesus seminar, we have to do a little speculation about what words are the “red letters”. I’m not sure what to make of the Jesus seminar’s conclusions, but I don’t think that even they would say their conclusions are anything but educated guesses. All the red letters need to be taken in context of their authors. These Gospels tell us more about the authors than they do about Jesus, but in the end, that is still very helpful.

    For example, why would the writer of the Gospel of Mark tell a parable about Jesus that has him cast demons out of a man into some pigs and have the pigs cast into the water and drown? It is clear if we realize the story is set on Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. What did he do there? He protested the occupation of evil (pigs, uncleans, pagans, i.e. Romans) and the evil of injustice that has corrupted the temple. He went to clear the holy city of evil and liberate the oppressed. The story is wonderfully symbolic of Jesus’ purpose. I think it is helpful to understand these stories are created AFTER Jesus’ life/death. They were not dictated straight to text as they happened. Understanding why they are told as they are told is more important that what actually happened.

    Comment by Progression Christian Blogger | April 4, 2007

  16. But, see, PCB, if we agree that “Basilea tou Theou,” (“Kingdom of God”) is the heart of Jesus’ message–as almost ANYONE writing on the historical Jesus does–then we cannot claim that eschatology was only a concern of the Evangelists since the very phrase “Kingdom of God” is eschatological. If Jesus wasn’t proclaiming an eschatological message, then the Evangelists placed this term on his lips–they made it up. But that is impossible by the very criteria used the most by historical critics: the criterion on dissimilarity–i.e., this phrase is not common either with other Jewish movements of Jesus’ day or with the early church. So, it MUST go back to Jesus. But that means that Jesus central message was eschatological–as Albert Schweitzer argued so long ago.

    So, on this matter, Borg is simply talking through his hat.

    I’ll address the other issues in your comment later. You have bought into some very questionable assumptions that simply will not stand up to critical scrutiny.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 4, 2007

  17. Micheal, I don’t really get your issue here. Why do you assume Borg dismisses Jesus’ eschatological outlook? Even in my argument above I conceed that it probably was and I think Borg does also. We all agree on that. I think our difference is not in the question “was it eschatological” but what did these people mean by looking for the coming of the kingdom.

    I think these writers (and the historical Jesus also) DID look for the coming of a new power structure. They called this the kingdom of God and it meant that THEY (i.e. the poor and oppressed by the Empire) would rule it instead of the Romans. If that is eschatology, then sure we can say Jesus was primarily interested in eschatology. I think you mistake Borg’s view because you see Borg use a different definition of Jesus’ vision as an earthly power change instead of a heavenly reward/punishment/forgiveness type of atonement.

    Literalists try to warp the kingdom of God into the “end of the world in some future event” but those people don’t get to define the term for us. Jewish eschatology going back to the OT prophets was more concerned with power change and justice rather than an otherworldly salvation. That seems very consistent with Jesus’ teaching as recorded in the Gospels unless you try to warp the metaphorical meanings to be about supernatural things.

    If Jesus’ ideas and his followers vision was ONLY about the end of the world as executed by a supreme being, then the authorities would not have killed him. He would not have been a threat and killed as a traitor to the empire.

    Comment by Progression Christian Blogger | April 4, 2007

  18. […] Brief Thoughts on Marcus Borg […]

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