Marcus J. Borg. Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006. 343 pp.
Who is Jesus and what is his relevance for the Twenty-first Century? This is the question Marcus Borg seeks to answer. This is not merely an examination of the life of Jesus of Nazareth; more importantly this is a manifesto for a new way of being Christian. At one level, it is the final culmination of Borg’s studies of the life Jesus. Intended initially as a revision of Jesus a New Vision, Borg realized early on that this book would have a larger purpose.
Borg is well known as a Jesus scholar who has been intimately involved with the Jesus Seminar. He is a close friend of John Dominic Crossan, with whom he penned the book The Last Week (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), and so if you read this expecting a progressive, indeed liberal treatment of Jesus’ life, you will not be disappointed. Still there is more to this than scholarship, for this is a book written for a larger public. In many ways the well read scholar or pastor will find little that is truly new here, but the book remains compelling even for those who already know much of the narrative and its various interpretations.
In the epilogue, Borg states his purpose in writing this book. He intends it as “a contribution to emerging (and emergent) Christianity” (p. 304). The Jesus he presents in the pages of this book “was a person radically centered on God, empowered by that relationship, and filled with God’s passion for the world – a passion that led to his execution and vindication.” In the course of this book we explore the questions of identity – who is then the “pre-Easter Jesus” and the “post-Easter Jesus.” As fitting a scholar related to the Jesus Seminar, Borg is concerned with discerning the identity of the Jesus of history. This Jesus is important to the story, for it is his life and death that gives life to the broader message of Jesus that includes the church’s “post-Easter reflections.”
Borg’s portrait is not of a divine Jesus who is born of a Virgin, visited by shepherds and magi. He uses two terms that are key – memory and metaphor. The reader must wrestle with the question of where the line is drawn between what is remembered (history) and what is metaphor. The birth stories are largely metaphor, as are stories of walking on water and transfiguration. Some events, such as the vision at his baptism by John could be memory, for in Borg’s understanding Jesus was a visionary. Thus, the story of the Temptations are likely rooted in memory, for the description is one of a vision quest. Thus, Jesus is one whose experience of God is decisive for Christians.
The book begins with the contemporary debate about Jesus, and Borg seeks to move the debate beyond the old paradigm that is focused in upon questions of the Bible’s factuality, a concern he rightly roots in the Enlightenment paradigm. Instead he seeks to move the conversation to an “Emerging Christian Paradigm,” one that is very much postmodern. It sees the text as a human and historical product, which includes memory and metaphor, and much of the early portions of the book deal with this question. Yet, this is no scholarly exercise, for Borg wishes to advocate a “robust affirmation of the reality of God” (24).
In Borg’s eye, the message of Jesus – both in his teachings and in his life – has personal implications, but it also has political implications. He takes pains to lay out the idea of a “Domination System,” which is the foil for Jesus’ ministry and the cause of his death. Building on the work of Walter Wink, Borg speaks of Rome’s imperial rule and the role the Temple played in controlling the populace. Jesus was a peasant and spoke for the lower classes, who had suffered under Rome and Rome’s clients, such as Herod, who had built the magnificent Temple complex. After Herod’s death and after the start of direct Roman rule in Judea, the priestly class became important as collaborators – which might explain the clash between Jesus and the Temple authorities. Indeed it may explain Jesus’ outburst in the Temple that likely led to his death.
For us to understand the true nature of this person we must understand the Gospels, especially the synoptic treatments. Borg goes into some detail concerning the priority of Mark and the way Matthew and Luke use Mark, Q, and there own traditions in formulating a picture of Jesus. He also makes clear that John has different purposes in writing. We learn of his actions and his teachings, his parables and his one-liners. We also learn of Jesus’ Table Fellowship, and Borg notes that the church’s practices of the Eucharist are rooted in Jesus’ own sharing of meals. From the debates over how and with whom Jesus eats we discover that meal has important implications. It speaks of social inclusion (to be invited to eat is to be included socially, and to refuse someone is to exclude them socially). The meal also has implications of purity codes, and Jesus broke those purity barriers.
The Jesus found in Borg’s book is a Jewish mystic, a healer and exorcist, a wisdom teacher, and a prophet. He is also a “movement initiator.” He gathered around himself followers who became the locus of a new movement within Judaism that was charged with fulfilling God’s passion – the transformation of the world. And thus the importance of the word/phrase: “The Way.” Jesus offers us a way of living that is in tune with the purposes of God. His is an alternative wisdom that expounds God’s passion for justice. If God’s character, as embodied in Jesus is compassion, then God’s passion is justice, and thus it has a political intent. Indeed Borg finds great meaning in John’s statement that “God so loved the world . . .” (John 3:16). Not in the sense of a penal substitutionary doctrinal statement – Jesus dying for our sins – but in the sense that God is truly concerned with what happens to the creation. And Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life in the sense that he radically embodies a life centered on God.
Again, his death is explained in relationship to his resistance to the Domination System of the day. Some of his contemporaries were collaborators who found their way in the system by cooperating with Rome’s rule. Others approached this rule with resignation and others with violent resistance. Jesus’ resistance was different in that his was active non-violence. Borg speaks of what is normally called the Cleansing of the Temple – an act of purification – an “indictment of the Temple.” He was, Borg says, indicting the “temple authorities as robbers who collaborated with the robbers at the top of the imperial domination system” (p. 235).
With this challenge to Rome and its proxies, it’s not surprising that Jesus was executed by crucifixion, a form reserved for rebels and trouble makers. When it comes to Easter, Borg is not a literalist. In some ways, he is a bit coy about what he believes. He insists that without the resurrection there is no Christianity. But the issue here is not a literal empty tomb, but the experiences of presence (whatever that may entail) and their meaning. And as for meanings, there are two that are pre-eminent. The first is that Jesus’ followers continued to experience his presence after death --- “Indeed, they experienced him as a divine reality, as one with God.” And, secondly, Easter declares God’s vindication of Jesus, God’s yes to Jesus and God’s no to those who crucified him. Thus, two phrases suffice: “Jesus lives” and “Jesus is Lord” (p. 276).
With this narrative of Jesus in place Borg is able to contrast an emerging Christianity with the traditional modality, one that at least today is politically conservative and largely aligned with America’s imperialistic designs. As in his Heart of Christianity (HarperSanFrancisco), Borg is intent on reaching out to those who feel unable to embrace this old paradigm – we might call them the “unchurched.”
For those who are in the mainline church who wish to speak effectively to a questioning but interested world, Borg offers a way. It is rooted in what he calls the “historical-metaphorical approach to the gospels and the Bible as a whole” (p. 303). If you are wedded to a a more literal portrayal of Jesus, this book might be difficult to deal with, but even so it offers a poignant portrait of a Jesus who makes a difference to the world. And thus, the importance of this look at Jesus’ life is that “how we see Jesus affects how we see Christianity.” And thus, this is a most important book, not just for its scholarship, but also for laying out a way of being Christian that is for the world, even as God is for the world.
Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)