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Say goodbye to the real Jesus Christ
on 12 July 2008
NOTE: In order to understand what Borg really means when he talks about "contemporary scholarship" (and similar phrases) the reader must know that "scholars" and "scholarship" are coded references to the members of the so-called "Jesus Seminar", of which Borg is a "fellow", and NOT to theological scholars in general.
Thus the members of the JS refer to themselves as "scholars" - as though there were no other scholars worth considering. This despite the fact that, according to the list on pages 533-537 of "The Five Gospels" (HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), their organization included only 70 (seventy) "fellows" in the year before the copyright date on Borg's book. That is to say, fewer than a hundred scholars out of the many thousands in North America alone!
The figures become even more revealing when we consider that the JS's version of the four New Testament gospels - named, in a breath-taking piece of arrogance "The Scholar's Version" - involved a translation panel of only 19 people.
This book, then, is NOT "an account of contemporary Jesus scholarship", as is claimed on the back cover of the HarperSanFrancisco paperback version. It is MERELY (and I use that word advisedly) an "account of the dogma circulating within the relatively tiny membership of the fringe group which likes to call itself 'The Jesus Seminar'."
As to the book in general, I confess I lost confidence in the integrity of its viewpoint when I came across this claim regarding Jesus' attitude towards the orthodox Jewish purity system. Borg is trying to argue, in the face of a mountain of evidence to the contrary, that Jesus was merely a subversive "wisdom teacher" who wanted to overturn the purity system. To support this claim he quotes the very similarly worded statements found in Matthew 23:23 and Luke 11:42 which he gives as:
"But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every type of herb, and neglect justice and the love of God."
This, Borg claims, constitutes a criticism of "a system that emphasized tithing and neglected justice".
But look again.
If we check the endnote referenced at the end of the quote we find that Borg has carefully left off the whole of the second half of the verse, a second half which, as the endnote acknowledges, reads "These [i.e. justice and the love of God] you ought to have done without neglecting the others."
In other words, Borg's amputated quote doesn't say what he says it does in the main text. On the contrary, he admits in the endnote that Jesus is SUPPORTING justice AND the love of God AND tithing.
The endnote does try to mitigate the true meaning of the verse by offering the excuses:
"The concluding phrase may indicate that Jesus approved of tithing and simply lamented the neglect of weightier matters such as justice; or the phrase could conceivably be understood ironically."
But where is there any indication that Jesus thought that some elements were "weightier" than any others? Or where is there the slightest indication that Jesus was being ironic?
In short, the splitting up of the verse conceals the fact that it is NOT, as the author claims, a criticism of the purity system. And we need to ask why the verse was effectively misquoted if the author had genuinely valid support for his contention?
In practice, the fundamental problem with this book is that it violates the author's own declared standards,
For example, on page 120 he starts out making what I think is a very valid point - that the Bible must be viewed as a series of interlinked stories for it to make sense. And he goes on to say, at the bottom of that page and the beginning of the next:
"Modern historical study of the Bible has also tended to lose the story, by seeking the history behind the story or by an analytical approach that often loses the story by focusing on its bits and pieces. In both cases the story as story disappears."
Brave words, but incomprehensible coming from this writer who, as a leading light in the Jesus Seminar has contributed over a period of years to exactly the kind of activities he criticises here.
How else, for example, can we describe his involvement in their policy of totally fragmenting the gospels in order to discuss and vote on the text at an almost verse-by-verse level?
On a similar note, the members of the Jesus Seminar have - presumably by common consent (?) - argued that in searching for the truth of the New Testament we should avoid constructing an interpretation simply on the basis of what we are personally comfortable with. Yet Borg regularly judges what he reads in the Bible, and the tenets of the Christian faith, according to his own comfort level. Thus on page 131 we read:
"Moreover, this story is very hard to believe. The notion that God's only son came on this planet to offer his life as a sacrifice for the sins of the world, and that God could not forgive us with that having happened, and that we are saved by believing this story, is simply incredible. Taken metaphorically, this story can be very powerful. But taken literally, it is a profound obstacle to accepting the Christian message. To many people it makes no sense, and I think we need to be straightforward about that."
In addition to the misrepresentation of Christian beliefs in the suggestion that God "could not forgive us", notice that the author doesn't address any of the important questions raised by his comments:
- For whom is the story "very hard to believe" and /or "simply incredible"? For him, perhaps, BUT not, it seems, for many millions of orthodox Christians over the last two thousand years.
- For whom is the deity of Christ, and the substitutionary atonement of his death "a profound obstacle to accepting the Christian message"? Again Borg is referring to his own problem (though no doubt it is shared by many other people), but NOT to one which has greatly discomforted generation after generation after generation of orthodox Christians.
And no wonder. These things ARE beyond belief - for the members of the Jesus Seminar. Since according to their guidelines there should be absolutely nothing in the life of Jesus the Christ that could be described as being in any way "supernatural".
In other words, this book is not a serious, open-minded investigation into the nature of Jesus the Christ, as we are led to believe. It is pure propaganda for a whole slew of anti-orthodox interpretations of Christ, dictated not by this author but by the guidelines of the Jesus Seminar, a small (though vociferous!) fringe group who regard Jesus as nothing more than a first century Jewish bloke with a special talent for preaching.
In short, according to the contents of this book, if you find it hard to believe in the Jesus of orthodox Christianity, don't sweat it. Just invent one who does fit your beliefs - like the members of the JS have.
Borg apparently wants us to believe firstly that there was not one but two Jesus' - the "pre-Easter" Jesus and the "post-Easter" Jesus (another basic doctrine of the Jesus Seminar). In fact he takes the claim so far that he ends the book by arguing that:
"Believing in Jesus does not mean believing in doctrines about him. Rather it means to give one's heart, one's self at its deepest level, to the post-Easter Jesus who is the living Lord, the side of God turned towards us, the face of God, the Lord who is also the Spirit."
But where is the justification for this argument? If the hypothetical "pre-Easter" Jesus was merely an ordinary human being, albeit a "wisdom teacher", why should the "post-Easter" Jesus be anything more than more of the same? Why would all four gospels spend so long talking about the so-called "pre-Easter" Jesus, and so give so little space to the alleged "post-Easter" Jesus? In fact we would need to ask how a mere wisdom teacher ever managed to rise from the dead at all?
By the way, if you think the last part of the quote sounds authentically Christian, I invite you to reconsider. Borg does NOT, so far as one can tell, accept the doctrine of the Trinity. In fact he regularly confuses Jesus with what he calls "the Spirit of God" as though they were one and the same thing.
Indeed, it seems that what Borg wants us to believe in is far more incredible and unbelievable than the beliefs he is arguing against.
And the alleged "Jesus" whom he wants us to meet "again" is someone who never existed in the first place, except possibly in the minds of the members (some members?) of the Jesus Seminar.