The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions by Marcus J. Borg and N.T. Wright (New York: Harper One, 1999. 306 pp)

Marcus Borg was a New Testament scholar, theologian, and author. Borg was a fellow of the Jesus Seminar and a major figure in historical Jesus scholarship. Borg attended Concordia College as an undergraduate. He studied at Union Seminary before matriculating at Mansfield College, Oxford, earning an M.Th. and D.Phil. He retired as Hundere Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University and died in 2015.

N.T. Wright is a leading New Testament scholar, Pauline theologian, and retired bishop. He earned his B.A. from Exeter College and his D.D. from University of Oxford. After retiring as the Bishop of Durham, Wright currently acts as a Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St. Mary’s College in the University of St. Andrews.

Enemies at the Gate

The benefit of distance allows for the unbiased individual to take stock in past experiences. What seems normal—in process—may metamorphize into something odd, out of place, or unusual. As children, we live uncritically in our circumstances. The rhythms of parental discipline, the daily schedules around school and work, the timbre of dinnertime. These elements represent a norm; it takes years to recognize that the lives of a neighbor, a friend, even an aunt or uncle, manifest in different ways.

It might emerge at the first sleepover, when the friend’s parents proceed in an unusual bedtime ritual—that is, tucking the friend in, kissing the friend on a cheek, disappearing without any announcement, whatever the avenue.

This moment announces a world-bending possibility. Life is much larger than we could ever imagine.

The Backfire Effect

Even though most children begin to realize these concepts relatively early through friends, media, and observation, the core beliefs of a family take root at a deeper level. This notion is termed the backfire effect, illustrated humorously in an Oatmeal cartoon. But in truth, the deepest beliefs that orbit our identity receive challenge during our lifetime.

For me, I think about how my ideas around the great mysteries of life have altered over the year. My parents excavated a foundation for me in the soil of conservative Christianity. This tradition suffers no fools. Spoken less colloquially, the more-fundamentalist sects of Christianity see life in the us-against-the-world narrative trope of the underdog. From this lens, not only do non-Christians—whether atheist, agnostic, or of differing religious persuasions—but also Christians of competing traditions—especially liberal and mainline denominations—represent an enemy at the gate.

Life in this worldview perceives every difference of opinion as a threat of eternal magnitude. An orthodoxy misremembered or misapplied is a heresy damning those untrained to the pits of hell. Yuck.

It takes years of training to purge the mind of such narrow focus, and I’m sure thin recesses of the brain yet cling to the dogma of yesteryear, but these days I try to live generously, recognizing my frame of reference isn’t necessarily the objective frame of reference, that we’re all climbing the same mountain from different starting points, and the peak to which we are all headed might appear different whether viewed from north, south, east, or west.

The Meaning of Jesus

With these developments in mind, the debate over the historical Jesus between Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright, canonized on the pages of The Meaning of Jesus finds new meaning for me.

In my younger years, I would have sided with the conservative approach, and spent my hours reading the book looking for every small hole in the enemy’s argument.

Now, I’ve discovered how important it is to learn from both sides of the argument, and to take a generous approach to the discussion.

While I may ultimately still lean toward N.T. Wright’s approach to discovering the meaning of Jesus, Marcus Borg’s liberal approach to placing metaphorical emphasis on Jesus and placing the sacredness of the Jesus story not on history but on the community that formed after Jesus to be fascinating.

At a high level, it’s worth unpacking the position of each author.

A Conservative View

N.T. Wright, retired Bishop of Durham (although he was Durham at the time of the publishing of this book), sees the historical Jesus as coherent with an Orthodox understanding of the Christian faith. Given his research on early Jewish culture and how the Christian community formed in the wake of the historical Jesus, he believes that the Gospels and Pauline writings provide a window into a revolutionary and revelatory encounter in history.

“As I follow this path, I discover a Jesus who was not simply an example, even the supreme example, of a mystic or Spirit person, such as one might meet, in principle, in other cultures. I find, father, the Jesus I have just been describing: Jesus as a first-century Jewish prophet announcing and inaugurating the kingdom of God, summoning others to join him, warning of the consequences if they did not, doing all this in symbolic actions, and indicating in symbolic actions, and in cryptic and coded sayings, that he believed he was Israel’s messiah, the one through whom the true God would accomplish his decisive purpose” (Wright, 50).

If this argument sketches the historical Jesus, the miraculous event upon which history hinges becomes exceedingly important. Wright notes:

“The early church, clearly, thought this was the case. They gave as their reason one thing and one thing only: after his shameful death, Jesus had been raised from the dead. The practical, theological, spiritual, ethical, pastoral, political, missionary, and hermeneutical implications of the mission and message differ radically depending upon what one believes happened at Easter” (Wright, 52).

Ultimately, Wright believes his approach to the meaning of Jesus brings together faith and the historical method. He seems them as complimentary rather than antagonistic.

“Both history and faith cry out to be described in wider terms yet: both are mental and emotional activities, which in principle could be practiced by a disembodied spirit (equipped, one assumes, with a disembodied library in which to do research). The historian/sacramental world, the human world, the political world, the world of a reality simultaneously mundane and shot through with glory. Once we had widened our horizons to include all this—and if we do not we are again pretending to a disengagement that is out of tune with all our actual experiences—we will find, I believe, that the tension supposed to exist between history and faith is much more oblique, much less of a problem and more of a stimulus, than usually conceived” (Wright, 227).

Put together, history and faith strengthen the institution of Christianity an offer the foundation for community practice.

A Liberal View

On the other end, Marcus Borg divides his approach into two categories: history remembered and history metaphorized.

“In short, the gospels do not simply report the history of Jesus, they metaphorize it. For me as a Christian, both matter. For me as a historian, the realization that the gospels are a developing tradition containing both history remembered and history metaphorized points to the historical task” (Borg, 6).

Borg, then, works toward understanding the historical Jesus to the best of our ability given what we can know from the historical method. As such, much of the later sources carry less significance, with Mark and a handful of Pauline texts representing the earliest reports. For this reason, much of the miraculous and divine elements of the later sources—John in particular—provide little to the historical approach.

But, Borg quickly points out how the historical reconstruction of Jesus shouldn’t impact the faith traditions of the Christian community. The power of metaphor is often truer than the dry statement of historical fact.

“To say ‘Jesus is the messiah’ or ‘Jesus is the Wisdom of God’ is not a fact about Jesus in the sense that ‘He was five feet three inches tall and weighed 125 pounds’ (or whatever size he was) is a fact about Jesus. The latter statement was open to verification by anybody with a tape measure and a scale. The former statements involve conviction and commitment. To see Jesus as ‘the Wisdom of God’ and ‘Son of God’ and ‘messiah’ means to take very seriously what we see in him as a disclosure of God” (Borg, 152).

In other words, Borg argues that the power of belief rests not on the plausibility and measurability on the events of first-century Palestine, but on the powerful truth and narrative structure on the sacred beliefs and rites on which Christians built their community.

What Really Matters?

While my personal convictions still lean toward Wright’s position on Jesus, I find myself thinking back to an event University Presbyterian held 4 or 5 years ago with Alvin Plantinga. A heavyweight in Christian philosophy, Plantinga gave a visiting lecture on the philosophical reasoning for Intelligent Design rather than the scientific consensus of evolution. Well-reasoned and possibly compelling, I left Plantinga’s lecture with one question: “Does it even matter?” Whether God created the world in a literal 7 days or a form of theistic evolution occurred, a Christian could proceed in the exact same way, living within a community of believers and professing belief through Word and Sacrament.

Likewise, The Meaning of Jesus presents the plausibility of forward momentum for a life in Word and Sacrament, regardless of the historical meaning of Jesus. This book continues to dismantle the origins of my formation. But that’s ok. I much prefer a generous orthodoxy. The Meaning of Jesus is a worthwhile read.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5

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