EVOLUTION OF THE WORD: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written. By Marcus J. Borg. San Francisco: Harper One, 2012. Viii + 593 pp.
What would it look like to read the New Testament chronologically? That is, what if you had in your hands a version of the New Testament that was laid out in the order that the books/letters were written, how would that affect the way you read and understood the New Testament? If you’re familiar at all with the New Testament, you know it in its canonical form -- four gospels, Acts, Pauline Epistles, Catholic Epistles (the rest of the letters and Hebrews) with Revelation bring up the rear. There’s a certain logic to this format, but is it the only way to organize the texts of the New Testament?
Marcus Borg's Evolution of the Word offers us an alternative way of reading the text of the New Testament. Even if you don't completely share Borg's reconstruction of the canon or his dating scheme it’s an interesting proposal. It makes you think about the way the text of the New Testament developed and evolved over time. Which documents might have influenced the development of other documents? How did the early Christian community itself evolve over time?
When we read the New Testament, even if we know that the Pauline letters predate the gospels, we tend to privilege the Gospels because they are the only New Testament sources of Jesus’ story. Paul spends little time on the details of Jesus’ life, so we have to turn to the Gospels to get this part of the story. But Paul wrote long before the first Gospel emerged. We can ask the question – why didn’t Paul give us more details? Borg offers a very plausible answer -- Paul’s audience likely already knew elements of the Jesus story, so he didn’t feel the need to reiterate them in his letters. That wasn’t his purpose. He may have relied on the same oral sources as the gospel writers, all of whom are anonymous.
So, could having an edition of the New Testament that offers us different vantage point be a helpful exercise? Of course, in any historical reconstruction of the development of the biblical canon, there will be differences of opinion, so the reader must be aware of the perspectives guiding this reconstruction. If, then, you know anything about Marcus Borg, you’ll know that this isn’t a conservative evangelical reconstruction.
In Evolution of the Word Marcus Borg offers us the text of the New Testament laid out according to his understandings of the development of the canonical books of the New Testament. The text is – as one might expect from Harper One – the New Revised Standard. After a foreword by Lutheran Bishop Lowell Erdahl, Borg offers three relatively brief chapters that speak to the way in which he believes the New Testament evolved chronologically. He argues in the first chapter for the value of having a chronological New Testament and the importance of context – that of early Christianity, Judaism, and the Roman Empire – in understanding this development. He also offers a chapter that looks at the development of oral tradition and how they were passed on, reminding us that there’s at least a two decade gap between the time of Jesus and Paul’s first letters, and another similar gap between those letters and the publication of the first Gospel (Mark). A third chapter focuses on Paul’s life and letters, demonstrating the importance of understanding the foundational nature of the Pauline letters (the seven genuine Pauline letters) to the development of early Christianity. You might not like Paul, but he came first and set the tone for the future of the church’s mission beyond Judaism. Finally, Borg offers us a timeline that begins with Jesus’ execution and ends in the mid-second century, laying out along this time line the books in the order that Borg believes they were written.
Once Borg provides us with these introductory materials, written as always with Borg’s fluid style and grace, he moves to the documents themselves. In his reconstruction, the first letter of Paul is that written to the Thessalonians early in the 50s CE. The final book is 2 Peter, which he dates to the 120s CE. Borg introduces each document of the New Testament, giving us his take on who and when it was written, along with a brief discussion of the major emphases of the documents – keeping in mind the three concentric circles of context (Church, Judaism, Roman Empire). In one sense this Marcus Borg at his best. The introductions are thoughtful, at times provocative, but very accessible. Moderate to liberal Christians won’t find anything here that is outlandish, though readers might differ on issues of dating. But, that shouldn’t surprise us since there will always be questions as to when and where certain texts were written. There is consensus that the seven genuine Pauline letters were written first, and a majority of scholars agree that Mark is the first gospel written, but beyond that there’s a lot of room for disagreement.
As for me, I don’t get hung up on dating of texts. My faith isn’t challenged if the Pastoral letters were written long after Paul’s death. But, it’s helpful to think about the context in which a text emerged. It’s helpful to imagine how the church itself evolved, so that if the Pastorals were written around the end of the first century or later (as Borg suggests), we can see how the church began to institutionalize itself from its earlier looser charismatic forms. Perhaps Paul was more radical than was the case for those who followed after him.
Now, Borg doesn’t go into great detail in arguing for his positions. In some of the cases, that’s not a problem, but when he goes away from the majority position – as with his very late dating of the Gospel of Luke and Acts (early second century) – more needs to be said. He gives some clues as to why some scholars are going in this direction, but more needs to be said. I must admit that his late dating of Luke caught me by surprise. So, I need more convincing if I’m going to accept his claims on this text, which I’ve long understood to have emerged in the 80s or 90s, relatively close in time to that of Matthew. And if I have criticism it’s along this line – more space needed to be devoted to exploring the dating scheme for this reconstruction. I like the idea in principle, but the author could give us more of a rationale. Help us understand how biblical scholars come to these decisions. If it’s a majority position, is it a large majority or a bare majority? Having said this, any reconstruction that helps us understand that Matthew wasn’t the first text written or Revelation the last (and thus nothing can be added after it) is of great service to the church.
For those of us who are already inundated with Bibles, the question is – why purchase this particular text? Beyond its teaching value, which comes from its reminder that the canonical shape is different from its chronological shape -- and there is value in this -- why should you add this rather large book to your library? The Bibles that we already have on our shelves will likely be of greater usefulness for taking to church and bible studies (if you’re among those who take your Bibles to church). Learning a new order and shape might be inconvenient. Nonetheless, it might be of value for a personal discipline of reading the New Testament. How do you see the New Testament story if you start with 1 Thessalonians and then over the course of time read the entire New Testament according to the format presented here? Ask yourself, as you do this, what does this new shape say to me about the evolution of Christianity over its first century of existence? You might ask yourself as well – since some of these texts might have been written in the second century, why are these documents included, while other texts like 1 Clement and perhaps the letters of Ignatius don’t merit canonical inclusion? This could prove to be very educational, and perhaps even spiritually edifying.
No, this doesn’t replace the canonical lay out. It doesn’t have any ecclesiastical endorsement – even if a bishop likes it and writes a foreword. On the other hand, as the late Robert Funk, a friend and co-founder with Marcus Borg of the Jesus Seminar, said in a presentation I attended years ago, the canon of scripture is the product of publishers (the church being one), and so a different publisher can offer up a different canon (I should note that Funk was toying with the idea of publishing a Bible minus Revelation, which he had come to see as a rather dangerous book for our times)!
If you keep in mind that this is only one possible reconstruction of the evolution of the Word, having a new reason to read the New Testament isn’t a bad thing. In fact, in an age of biblical illiteracy, having any reason to read the text of Scripture is a good thing, and Marcus Borg is a winsome guide. Just remember he’s not a conservative thinker, so some of your (and mine) preconceptions will be challenged. By the way there is a Kindle version -- and likely other e-book options, making this a more mobile text.