Jesus by Marcus J. Borg
When I saw Eva’s review of Marcus J. Borg’s Jesus over at A Striped Armchair last April, I knew I had to read it. Not only did Eva like it (a good point in a book’s favor for me), but it sounded absolutely fascinating to me. Moving around a lot as a kid left me without a lot of the more traditional religious education other Christian kids get, so it sounded like a perfect way to both fill in my gaps and take a look at the teachings of Jesus in his historical context.
Marcus J. Borg’s Jesus is a work compiling all of Borg’s research into the historical Jesus, in order to firmly plant Jesus into his context and show him as a revolutionary protesting against Roman Empire that exploited Jews and the poor and taught his followers a way to radically center themselves in God. As Borg says, you don’t get crucified by the Romans, an execution reserved for rebellious slaves or traitors to the state, for generic platitudes.
Borg’s research is absolutely fantastic. Placing Jesus into his historical context is less about attempting to see him as a historical figure (although I quite like that practitioners of other faiths that also include Jesus can learn a great deal here), and more understanding Jesus’ references and the metaphorical meaning of his parables and teachings–Borg uses metaphorical here to refer to what we more colloquially and less elegantly know as “truthiness”, that extra layer of truth that goes beyond mere facts. (Simply because a certain parable may not have happened in that specific fashion or not at all doesn’t make the lesson learned any less valid.) It has been Borg’s life work to study the historical Jesus and he wrote this book to provide a view of Christ for the “emerging Church”, as he calls the new emergence in American Christianity that’s a backlash against evangelical Christianity. Everything is here, from the politics of first century Jerusalem to the intensification of Jewish practice as a way of rebelling against their oppressive Roman overlords.
It’s the illumination regarding Jesus’ references and the intertextuality where Jesus absolutely shines. Did you know turning the other cheek is a way of protesting that you are equal to your supposedly superior punisher? That the choice between Barabbas and Jesus is a choice between violent protest against the Romans and nonviolent? That the two greatest concerns to a Jewish peasant in the first century are referenced in the Lord’s Prayer–bread and debts? The list goes on. By viewing Jesus’ teachings as reflective of his times and of his audience, Borg presents to us a Jesus who passionately fought for and believed in God’s kingdom on earth, based not only on love of others, but the political manifestation of love–justice. As a Christian, I find this absolutely fascinating and inspiring. As a philosopher, it’s simply magnificent.
However, Borg can be dry in an academic sort of way occasionally, which I suppose is to be expected. He does go out of his way to make sure everyone is on the same page, which I always appreciate, but he also goes out of his way to specifically identify which meaning he is using for which word, which, again, is much appreciated, but smacks of academia to me for some reason. While I didn’t page through the notes, they’re well developed, if not extensive, discussing the finer points of things like the mysterious Q, a hypothetical missing source for information found in both the gospels of Matthew and Luke but not in Mark, the earliest gospel text. This didn’t bug me, but did make things a little slower than normal for me. He also occasionally makes flat statements about the meaning of certain language by Jesus and the Gospels with only an obligatory “I’m not saying this is right, just saying you should think twice about it” to make room for other totally legitimate readings of it, the most glaring when he discusses the concept that Jesus died for our sins.
The only thing that irked me was Borg’s tendency to be overly cautious about stating things. I realize religion is a very sensitive object, and I quite appreciated that Borg skipped the issue of whether or not the events reported in the Bible actually occurred, although he would occasionally comment on the likelihood of some events (like the strangeness of a trial being called the night before Passover, when such work is forbidden), instead focusing on the extra meaning gleaned from Jesus’ teachings by placing him in his historical and socio-political context. That, I felt, was a very good balance between being objective and being respectful. However, towards the end, when Borg talks about modern American Christianity, I feel how much he emphasizes that this is just his opinion was a bit much. Still, seeing a particular review on Amazon reminded me that sometimes, it’s easier to cover all your bases.
Bottom line: A fascinating, if occasionally a bit academic and defensive, look at Jesus and his teachings in his historical context, lending them more weight and truth than if viewed in a vacuum. Required reading for anyone interested in Jesus, especially Christians.
I rented this book from the public library.