Marcus Borg’s Case for the Man They Call Christ
It is highly unlikely, shy of discovering the document they call “Q”, we can ever have a clear idea of who Jesus of Nazareth really was. That being said, it seems fair to assume that he existed, that he breathed and walked on Earth and that he died. He clearly had an impact, both on his followers and his enemies, one that exists to this day in one capacity or the other. So, with that in mind, we can safely agree that the nature of Jesus the person is a matter of speculation, and Borg makes a compelling case of re-presenting him to the world at large, peeling away some notions tacked on along the way.
Before we go further, let us pause for a second to consider that this is by no means a definitive portrayal of Jesus. Much of the impact Jesus made was reinterpreted by his surviving followers and cultivated by Christianity as time passed, creating the image of Jesus as a person who was beyond mere mortality, and is difficult to reconcile for the rest of the world outside the church. It sometimes seems like this Jesus, the Christ, never really existed, or if he was, that circumstances of his life and death are difficult to comprehend. It is, therefore, advantageous to both non-Christians and believers that are confused to remind us that he did breathe, like us, and he learned and taught, as we do.
Borg begins by drawing this distinction early in Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, introducing the notion of the Pre-Easter Jesus and the Post-Easter Jesus. The Post-Easter Jesus is the image most people have in their minds when considering the Christian Church and early stories. This is the idealized Jesus; the Son of God, who came to Earth preaching redemption. A healer and a teacher, Jesus Christ died so that the sins of mankind could be forgiven, the ultimate sign of God’s love of humanity, and that to prove he was who he claimed to be, he rose from the dead and ascended to Heaven, promising to return and usher the faithful in the end times. Or, as Borg puts it, the experience of Jesus: the way of living through Jesus as more than simply a man, but as a notion.
The Pre-Easter Jesus, however, is a bit more complicated to decipher; Borg does not cast uncertainty to his existence, but separating the fact from the notion is no small task. Consider that much of what we know about Jesus is based on Gospels written after his death, apocryphal documents purportedly fashioned after actual sayings, and some loose historical documentation verifying where he lived. Because the Gospels were written during varying periods after his death, there are variations in the story of Jesus during his period as a prophet, and certain entries pertaining to his birth and childhood that cannot be directly attributed to his sayings.
Of course, this is a bit of loaded statement: modern conventional wisdom exists in such a way that the variations are to be overlooked, and that the over-arching story of Jesus Christ is what is important. There is to be no consideration that we cannot verify whether Jesus spoke about his relation to divinity or to the nature of his birth. As the statement goes, “the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.” But Borg’s concern in Meeting Jesus is more suited towards knowing the person as best as possible.
Since there is little evidence to support the stories of his birth (possibly developed as the early Christian church grew), Borg comes to the conclusion it is fair to note that Jesus was born to Mary and Joseph, and it is entirely possible he was not their only child. It seems likely that he grew up in
John’s movement and death had a substantial impact on Jesus, one which informed his message and practice as he became a voice for reform within Judaism. It is important to remember that Jesus was not a Christian (an idea often cast upon him as a result of the modern idea of Jesus), but a Jewish man who recognized flaws within the
(While it may raise some debate, it is fair to note a corollary to this in Martin Luther, who, in posting his 99 theses, did not intend to create a split in the Catholic Church. His notion was to help reform Catholicism, which he felt had lapsed beyond the means of effectiveness, but not beyond the ability to change itself. He was reportedly disheartened by the formation of the
As a revolutionary, Jesus began preaching against the social norm within Judaism: the Purity System, or a means of distinguishing between “proper” Jews and anyone who was deemed impure, or “filthy”. Gentiles, the dying, women, the converted, and anyone not strictly adhering to the purity system (including arbitrary decisions involving jobs people worked) were considered to be “impure”, and accordingly were tacitly ignored, if not totally outcast from Jewish society. So dominant was this notion that it continues today, with alterations for social mores.
The result of this outlook is that many people were under no consideration to enter heaven, or to ever be forgiven, not because of their actions, but because of circumstances which had little to do with their doing. Nevertheless, they were thought of as “impure”, and deserving of their status for some lapse of faith (this also continues to this day). The Purity system seems to derive from the Priestly interpretation of the Bible, which emphasizes acts and works over compassion. The dominant conventional wisdom of the day was “yes, we are all sinners, but we can attain salvation by being pure and adhering strictly to this code and doing what the Bible asks us to do.”
Jesus, in contrast, saw the Jewish faith not as one of works, but of compassion. Compassion for others welcomes everyone to realize they are human, and while they make mistakes, they are forgiven and loved for who they are, not what they do. As he points out so clearly in the parable of the Prodigal Son, being compassionate means not condemning the fallen, but embracing them and letting them back into the church. The people outside of the Purity System had no notion of salvation because they were to understand they had not chance of entering the
Jesus, on the other hand, chose to associate himself and his congregation with the outcasts of society, the impure, not simply to make a point to the church, but to spread the word that the
This is a crucial distinction in thinking for Jesus, and a radical alternative to the system of Good Works for Salvation so prevalent at the time. By teaching that Heaven is on Earth, among other people, and that compassion is all you need to realize your place amongst the faithful was subversive to Conventional Wisdom in Judaism, and was perceived as a threat. Jesus dared to challenge the way of thinking, and his message was spreading, in no small part as a result of his masterful oratory skills. Jesus was a charismatic figure, preaching a radical, but inclusive message, based less on the Priestly idea of the Torah, but more on the other dominant macro stories of the Bible; that of Exile and that of Exodus. He preached to those who felt left out, those seeking a home amongst their fellow men, not as an alternative to Judaism, but as an ideal form of Jewish life.
Borg makes two key distinctions long held about Jesus and his message which are not without controversy in the modern age, but nevertheless reinforce his view of a man who could, without knowledge of his impending death, preach so radically. One, that Jesus was nonmessianic, or that he never acknowledged his lineage to God. He believes this came to be during the formation of the Christian Church as a way of reinforcing the teachings of Jesus. Secondly, that Jesus did not preach the coming Apocalypse, as many of his contemporaries did. Jesus’ message was not of salvation before the end of days, but a grander vision of how humanity related to each other. The end was not nigh, but the
Perhaps it is radical to consider the notion of God as feminine, although there is textual support both from the Bible and the Apocrypha that wisdom can be equated with femininity, and there are grounds by which to consider that Jesus was aware of this, and preached accordingly. Jesus was a man, yes, but it is fair to estimate that he had a tremendous spiritual awakening some time before he began preaching. His connection to God, which he spoke of frequently according to the Gospels (and not strictly in the Trinitarian connection so associated with the Post-Easter way of thinking) was that of a man of deeply held faith; a man who felt a greater connection to the spiritual world than many of his contemporaries. He spoke with authority because he deeply believed in his heart that compassion was the key to understanding salvation.
Much of what is lost about Jesus in the Post-Easter way of thinking is that he was a product of his time, just as we are products of ours. He did not exist in a vacuum, and he was not the only advocate of change in Jewish life. He both failed and succeeded where others did not; he failed because instead of changing the establishment, he was killed as a heretic, and died without knowing whether his ideas would come to fruition. He succeeds because, as we know, his ideas and methods were persuasive enough to cultivate a following that continued and grew where others did not.
Borg is not trying to replace the Jesus that exists for so many Christians, and his book does not exist to shatter his reputation in the hearts and minds of the devoted. At the outset he states that the book is designed to strengthen the relationship of Christians to Jesus, and to, in some way, help those of us who do not live and breathe the Word of God (or even consider it part of our daily lives) understand who this man was that causes such great devotion and faith. Borg never disclaims the Post-Easter Jesus, the experiential Jesus, but seeks to shine light on a man who impacted the world in ways he never predicted. Or, perhaps he did know.
We may never be certain of what Jesus did and did not know while he walked the Earth, but there is a great deal to consider about the impact one man had on the history of Western Civilization, and why such distinctions exist between the Jesus who lived and the Jesus who is experienced. What was Jesus trying to say, and how has his message been altered in the ensuing millennia? Borg makes a compelling case that it has, and perhaps there is some notion of suspension required to discover how much of Jesus we’re hearing, how much is the Purity system, and how much is the growing influence of Christianity. Borg is not only speaking for Christians here, there is much in this modern world that could benefit from suspension, as Bohm suggested. But do not mistake suspension for eschewing your belief; look at it as a way to strengthen it. That Jesus lived was interesting enough; that he lives in the hearts of people is more important. But why his message prevails is most important of all. Borg has his take; I have mine, as you have yours. Where we differ is the true test of dialogue, so why not give it a try?
The book was a source of much debate in class, particularly because people have trouble distinguishing between the man and the idea. I'm interested in what you think of this.