Book Review: Jesus by Marcus Borg

Having read with great interest N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God I was keen to look at a similar sort of style of modern academic writing on Jesus but from a different perspective. Wright is known to be no fan of the Jesus Seminar, though I am aware that he has quite a lot of respect for Marcus Borg. So it seemed reasonable that I might start with Borg. I may follow up with some J.D. Crossan (to whom Borg’s volume is dedicated, along with Sarah Crossan) at a later date.

I have earlier written some thoughts based on what I think is his false premise of a dichotomy of two methods of biblical interpretation, so I would encourage you read that post for a more detailed critique of some aspects of this book. He also employs the argument from authority fallacy on a number of occasions, usually when he lacks any credible reason or evidence for holding the views that he does. Again, I have written separately about that here.

Having tied himself up with his methodological straightjacket, it might seem that there is very little that Borg could say about the historical figure of Jesus. Thankfully, he actually disregards much of his own stated approach and does actually engage with some of what the gospels say. His study then becomes more akin to an interpretation of Aesop’s fables. He is not interested in whether or not there is any historical basis but is more keen on what he calls the “more than literal” meaning.

Early in the book, Borg reveals himself as an adoptionist, a position I have thought about for some time, but have ultimately rejected. Borg’s argument is that if Jesus were to be thought of as in any divine before Easter, then you must regard him as Superman, which Borg sees as docetist. But in rejected one heresy, he seems to have embraced another.

He also advocates panentheism (not to be mistaken for a similar, but distinct, idea of pantheism). That is, God is ‘present’ in everything in creation. However, in stating this position, he makes no attempt to answer what I consider to be one of the strongest arguments against it from a christian point of view; that of how to address the question of evil with a panentheistic paradigm. If any of you know writers who address this issue, please do let me know.

In regards to his actual portrayal of Jesus, though it is arguable as to how complete it is, given his take on the historicity of the gospels, what he does have is certainly interesting, thought-provoking and worth taking note of. His overriding theme is that Jesus was a Jewish mystic. To this, he seems to owe a debt of gratitude to the recently departed Geza Vermes, whose work on re-establishing Jesus’ Jewish identity helped undo many years of latent anti-semitism in the church. However, Borg does take care to define what he means by mystic, so as to avoid the wrath of Karl Barth’s dismissal of mysticism as, to paraphrase, “[misty theology leading to schism]”. Rather, Borg argues for what might almost pass a charismatic interpretation of mysticism, whereby Jesus derived his understanding of God more from a personal relationship than from any scriptural basis. Though whilst Trinitarians might see this as stemming from Jesus’ homoousios with God, Borg’s adoptionist stance forbids him from doing similarly.

He makes an excellent point about prophecy that I wish more christians would pay attention to, in that prophecy is not about fortune telling but is about making a sober assessment of the way things are now. As such, it is anachronistic to say that the likes of Isaiah predicted Jesus, but rather that Jesus acted in such a way as to reflect Isaiah. Though again, one notes that Borg readily accepts that Jesus was perceived as a prophet in his time, but when it comes to Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah (which follows immediately in the synoptic accounts), Borg sees this as a later addition and does not relate to the pre-Easter Jesus.

While I have questioned his dismissive approach to the historicity of the gospels, much of what he says about the implications of our discipleship is well worth listening to. But I could not let the review pass without discussing his view on the crucifixion, the resurrection and theology surrounding both. While he acknowledges the historicity of the crucifixion, he openly opposes the idea of it as any kind of penal substitution. Instead he favours the christus victor idea. For my own part, I think this either/or is a false dichotomy and that both/and is a far more helpful way to consider the implications of the crucifixion. In so doing, he makes an interesting statement whereby he tries to frame Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship as supporting Borg’s view that God’s grace needs no sacrifice. In other words, he tries to hijack Bonhoeffer as a supporter of ‘cheap grace’ – the very idea that The Cost of Discipleship was most firmly opposed to.  As for the resurrection, while not denying it completely, Borg is rather dismissive of the need to treat the resurrection as historical. It is then interesting to see what Borg makes of 1 Corinthians 15, the longest discourse on the resurrection in the bible. He ignores most of it, only using an English translation of soma pneumatikon as “spiritual body” to mean something that is not physical. For an in-depth study on this topic, I would refer Borg and any of his readers to N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God.

Whether you agree with Borg or disagree with him, you have to admit that he’s a good communicator. The book is well written though (and I did mention this to the publishers) the American spelling and grammar mistakes were left in, even though he has a different publisher in the US. There are a few times when he comes across as slightly patronising, but he has made a good effort to make himself understandable to the general reader. This is a book for those who ask the question “Who is this Jesus, anyway?” Some of Borg’s answers I find enlightening, some I think miss the mark. Borg’s is a voice to take note of, though I would add, as a word of caution, not in isolation.

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One response to “Book Review: Jesus by Marcus Borg

  1. Borg asserts that Jesus’ message was the kingdom of God, a vision of what the earth would be like if God were in charge instead of the current brutal overlords. Borg argues that Jesus preaches the kingdom of God not as an immanent apocalyptic intervention, but as a goal that humanity can reach by following the way of Jesus. “The coming of God’s kingdom is about bread for the world and freedom from debt. It is good news for the poor” (189). Jesus’ vision of God is that God is full of compassion with a passion for justice. I thought this was one of the weakest sections of Borg’s book. If God does not act in history in empirical ways, if he does not actually do anything, how could Jesus (or anyone else) know this about God? What has Borg’s God ever done for compassion or justice, other than inspiring people (and how does he do that?) to rise against the status quo?