San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2000. Pp. xi + 288. Paper. $15.95. ISBN 0060608765
Review Sections: Intro
A crucial issue in the book is the question of method, the question of how one does historical research. While the initial chapters are devoted to Wright and Borg’s methodology, the issue resurfaces through out the book, particularly in the last chapter, where Borg lays out the principle differences between their approaches (229-238; cf 27). The authors also take great pains to be clear about the presuppositions they each hold, as in many ways these set their agendas for them (3-30, 225-227, 229-238).
Borg affirms this point as he lays out a few of his basic convictions regarding the historical study of the gospels (8). The gospels, the data, for Borg aren’t necessarily eyewitness accounts but rather are a developing tradition born out of communities of faith as they reflected on Jesus (8). This tradition is multilayered, containing some original teachings of Christ which have been intermixed with the faith of the subsequent communities of faith (8). Borg also seeks to take the cultural context out of which beliefs about Jesus emerged seriously. He is committed to viewing Jesus within the tradition of Judaism (8). Further, Borg seeks to situate the gospel’s view of Jesus within the wider social context of the times of his life (9). The final presupposition that Borg initially offers is his belief that much can be gained from investigating other religious traditions. Borg believes that when one analyzes different religious experiences and actions across cultures, light can be shed on the particular tradition in question (9).
Given these fundamental orientations, Borg provides a basic framework for how he reaches conclusions regarding the historical Jesus. Since the gospels are hybrids of early recording and the theological reflections of the early Christian communities, it is vital at the outset that the layers are sorted out and the earliest material is found (11). From here the historian seeks to situate this initial material about Jesus within the cultural context of Jesus’ life (11). The goal in all this is to get “beneath the surface level of the gospels” so that one can “discern the historical Jesus (14).”
Borg is thus skeptical of much of the gospel’s portrayals of Jesus as recounting actual historical events (x). Throughout the rest of the book, Borg argues that much of what is claimed about Jesus, including why he died (chapter 5), his bodily resurrection (chapter 8), his claims to divinity (chapter 9), his second coming (chapter 13), and the virgin birth (chapter 12) are more about the early Christian church’s beliefs, not actual beliefs held by Jesus himself. Borg, in contrast, to other scholars, does not then argue that such beliefs are irrelevant to the life of faith. Rather, he affirms their truthfulness, but not in a historical sense. A key distinction Borg makes throughout is between “history remembered” and “history metaphorized (for examples, see 85-87, 135-142, 148-153, 179-185, and 193-194).”
Borg understands “history remembered” to refer to actual historical events. History metaphorized represents for Borg “the use of metaphorical language and metaphorical narratives to express the meaning of the story of Jesus (5).” Thus for Borg the “stories” of Jesus are still pregnant with meaning, and yet as a historian he doesn’t feel that he has to affirm their historicity in order to seem them as meaningful for the life of faith (5-6). This is because for Borg the experience of the living Christ matters regardless of the factuality of the gospel’s account of Jesus’ life (135). To cite one brief example, Borg isn’t concerned with whether the tomb of Jesus was empty after Easter. He doesn’t believe that Christianity is hinged to whether or not a tomb was empty, since Christians continue to experience Jesus as Lord in the present (135). It is this metaphorical and symbolic truth, that Jesus is Lord, that Borg believes is formative for Christian belief, and should impact how we live today (135-142).
The Christian life that Borg envisions then is one where God is immediately accessible to all, regardless of traditional Christian belief systems and organizations (241). Since Borg reads Jesus as caring deeply about social justice and compassion, these are qualities to be embraced by his followers (242). One should focus on their spiritual lives, cultivating a life characterized by being open “to the Spirit (243).”