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To be read with caution
on 13 August 2013
Marcus Borg describes the history of the Gospels as documents and the social/political world of Jesus. He then gives his view of the character of Jesus, his teaching about God and the Kingdom of God, and his challenge to the religious and political system of his day. I found much in these chapters helpful and thought-provoking. However, it is odd that Borg does not discuss the significance of the title "Son of Man" by which Jesus referred to himself.
Interestingly, on p164, Borg comes very close to enunciating the well-known "mad, bad or God" trilemma of CS Lewis; Borg says, `you could experience him [Jesus] and conclude that he was insane, as his family did, or that he was simply eccentric or that he was a dangerous threat - or you could conclude that he was filled with the Spirit of God.'
However, I am less convinced about Borg's views on the Gospels as historical/metaphorical sources. Borg claims that many incidents which the Gospel writers report as fact should be understood as metaphor. He considers the metaphorical meaning of Gospel narratives to be truthful and truth-filled independently of whether or not they are historically factual. He uses the phrases "more-than-literal" and "more-than-factual" (p 51). But surely these phrases mean that an event has to be literal and factual before it can also be metaphorical. What does Borg mean? When he says more-than-literal does he actually mean fiction but with a metaphorical meaning? Apparently so; the stories `are symbolic narratives created for their metaphorical meaning' (p57). Did the Gospel writers really feel free to make up stories? And who decides what the metaphorical meaning is? Borg discusses alternative meanings of, for example, the parable of the workers in the vineyard (pp181-3).
The foundational belief of Christianity is that God raised Jesus from the dead. Borg believes in the resurrection of Jesus - more or less. He says it does not matter to him whether or not Jesus' body disappeared from the tomb. But it surely mattered to the first disciples. How could they proclaim the resurrection of Jesus in Jerusalem if the authorities could simply show people the tomb, even open it and display Jesus' body? Borg (in contrast to NT Wright) believes the resurrection appearances were not of a physical Jesus; he believes they were "visions". The disciples were convinced `that God had vindicated Jesus' says Borg (p 289). It seems to me that the disciples' visions and experiences show no more than that something of Jesus survived death. If that is all God is going to do by way of vindicating Jesus, then God seems to be powerless.
This is a middle-weight book. I would place it between EP Sanders "The Historical Figure of Jesus" and the academically heavyweight "Jesus and the Victory of God" and "The Resurrection of the Son of God" by NT Wright. A serious defect of this book is that it has no general index. This makes it difficult to use as a study book; it seems to be designed to be read through and accepted rather than analysed.
Of minor importance, but still worrying, are the number of questionable statements and errors in the text.
For example, Borg says that the central part of Mark's Gospel describes Jesus' journey from Galilee to Jerusalem (Mark 8.22 to 10.52) and that Mark frames this account with two stories of blind men being given their sight. But the first time Mark says that Jesus was going to Jerusalem is not until 10.32, and in chapter 9 Mark says that they were going through Galilee (v 30) and then that they came to Capernaum (which is in Galilee) (v 33). Why does Borg think the journey to Jerusalem begins as early as chapter 8?
Examples of simple errors are: the origin of the name "Caesar" is uncertain but it does not mean "emperor" as Borg states on p66. Nor does the word "Augustus" mean "divine one"; it means "venerable, admirable".
On p186 Borg says that Rome referred to itself not as an "empire," but as a "kingdom". I have read a lot about Rome but I do not remember coming across this claim before. Rome drove out its kings in the sixth century BC and afterwards thought of itself as the "Respublica". And Rome certainly claimed "Imperium Romanum", i.e. military command and power, over its provinces.
Then, at the same time as Jesus is making his "Triumphal Entry" into Jerusalem, Borg imagines the Roman governor, Pilate, entering the city with `a panoply of imperial power' including `golden eagles mounted on poles' (p232). Surely Borg knows that eagles were the standards of the Roman Legions. Pilate did not have any Legions under his command; all his troops were Roman Auxiliary units, which did not have eagle standards.
Mark reports that, during Jesus' crucifixion, darkness came over the whole land for three hours. Borg comments, `It is idle to wonder if this was an eclipse of the sun; eclipses never last more than a few minutes.' (p 265) Yes, it is idle, because Jesus was crucified at Passover which is always at Full Moon. Eclipses of the sun can only happen immediately before New Moon. (It is true that a total eclipse of the sun only lasts a few minutes but the light begins to dim for some time beforehand as the moon begins to partially eclipse the sun's disc and, after totality, it takes some time for full daylight to return.) Borg, it seems, has never bothered to inform himself about eclipses.
These errors warn us that a book such as this cannot simply be read. It needs to be read with caution and careful checking. And it needs to be compared with similar books which come to different conclusions.