Brief Thoughts on Marcus Borg
Marcus 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.
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