Marcus Borg….I actually think I cursed Him and asked God to strike down satan’s work when I first heard him interviewed with Dominic Crossan on NBC in 2006. They were talking about Jesus final week and Dom Crossan said Jesus’ body was probably thrown in a shallow grave and eaten by dogs…implication— the resurrection did not happen. You could see why as a young (22 years) hot-blooded cuban charismatic I called down imprecations.
What I did for the next 5 years was I naively lumped, Borg, Crossan, and all the other Jesus Seminar fellows into the demonic category, and relegated them to the dustbin when it came to my own thinking on Jesus. My simple thought was “These demonized guys had nothing to offer us in the church.”
It was my time at Western Seminary, combined with being on the mission of Jesus to high school students in Portland (who embrace conspiracy theories), that made me realize the importance of historical Jesus studies, and even most of the work that Borg and Crossan had done in their research and writing.
As I would simply share the message of Jesus with students, and other co-workers, I started realizing that most people on the ground in Portland are more skeptical about the Jesus tradition than Borg and Crossan. This was rather alarming! Yes, as I sought to engage people with this man from Nazareth, the conversation could quickly tailspin into religious pluralism, the Da Vinci Code, ethical hot button issues, politics, mayan prophecies, or aliens! At least Borg and Crossan could say things like, ‘Jesus was a man of the Spirit who opposed the corrupt temple establishment’ (Borg) or ‘It is bedrock that Jesus was crucified King of the Jews’ (Crossan). I found that common people, even the college educated, even public school history teachers, did not have much of anything to say when it came to Jesus of Nazareth. Why was this? How had the most towering figure in civilization been forgotten by the people of Portland?
As these frustrations ruminated in my mind I was working through a reading list on historical Jesus studies. One book I was reading edited by Dunn and Mcknight contained an article by Borg on Jesus and the Spirit. After reading the article I decided to digress from my reading list to dig a bit more on Borg. I picked up Borg’s doctoral dissertation from Oxford ‘Conflict, Politics, and Holiness in the teachings of Jesus’. After reading the work I was impressed by the rigorous social, political, and historical effort Borg had put into his reconstruction of Jesus’ life. I actually found myself saying at several points, “This is very helpful”. I then read Jesus; A new Vision and Jesus; two visions which I thought were both very helpful at many points.
From my reading, a basic outline of Borg’s thought on Jesus is:
- Jesus was a man of the Spirit (like Honi or Hanina Ben Dosa).
- Jesus vision at His baptism was a powerful experience.
- Jesus was a very successful exorcist.
- Jesus taught using parables and aphorisms.
- Jesus broke all the purity regulations disrupting the boundaries set up by the aristocracy.
- Jesus ministry was a petition against the temple elite, the power brokers.
- Jesus was crucified for His perceived revolutionary activity.
- Jesus tomb was probably not empty, but the community proclaimed him raised.
It is this basic historical sketch, that I find many people on the streets of Portland are not aware of. Evangelicals would nuance some of this basic outline, and disagree with some of the points, especially the empty tomb. By and large however, I came to discover that there is an agreed upon consensus even among ‘mainstream’ liberal, and conservative scholars on the outline of Jesus’ life.
After all this reading, I made an appointment to sit down for coffee with Marcus in the pearl (a trendy part of downtown Portland where Marcus lives). My conversation with him was chill. I simply asked questions to figure out what this man thought of Jesus. He had much evangelical bashing to do (and I almost wonder if he did this to test how I would react….pretty offensive stuff), but as we kept on the topic of Jesus life, and ministry, I found myself learning from most of what He said. Marcus and I have maintained email contact, and I enjoyed sitting with Him at ETS NW, as he scratched out his notes for how to respond to Craig Blomberg, I enjoyed getting a glimpse of how this man thought.
Since I have listened to Marcus first hand I now know the points at which we have similarities and differences.
Strong points of Disagreement:
1. Empty Tomb
2. His definition of religion as “a linguistic cultural phenomenon”
Strong points of agreement:
1. Jesus was a successful exorcist
2. Jesus broke all the purity regulations disrupting the boundaries set up by the aristocracy
3. Jesus ministry was a petition against the temple elite, the power brokers.
4. Jesus was crucified for His perceived revolutionary activities
Be sure to read first hand accounts of people you disagree with when you can make the time. You will learn!! Obviously no one has time to read stuff from everyone they disagree with on every issue (too many people, and too many issues).
Liberal Historical Jesus Scholarship can help us steer popular ‘conspiracy theorists’ back towards a more chastened historical approach to Jesus. An approach that agrees with much of the biblical portrait, even if it disregards inerrancy and inspiration. In this sense, liberal historical Jesus scholarship can aid in evangelism to a bewildered generation of people who can remember Dan Brown and Zeitgeist, but not Jesus of Nazareth.