Review of The Meaning of Jesus by Marcus J. Borg and N. T. Wright

It is my impression that the communication gap between liberal and conservative Christian theologians is even more severe than the communication gap between liberal and conservative politicians (at least in the United States). Politicians are at least forced to confront each other in Congress or during an election. Liberal and conservative Christians, however, can easily spend their lives completely avoiding each other.

For people like me who feel uneasy with such de facto segregation, the rare meaningful dialogue between the two sides is eagerly welcomed. The book Evangelical Essentials by David Edwards and John Stott is a good example of the sort of thing I would like to see more of. In Essentials, Edwards and Stott touch on just about every doctrine that evangelicals consider to be core to their faith, from a liberal and an evangelical perspective respectively.

The book I am currently reviewing, The Meaning of Jesus, is even better than Essentials in one regard: the authors, Marcus Borg and Tom Wright, are good friends and have debated many issues personally over the years, and so unlike Edwards and Stott, Borg and Wright rarely talk past each other. Though they take very different approaches, they do a good job of representing each other’s positions fairly, and squarely facing the points of disagreement.

For the purposes of this book, Borg is the liberal and Wright is the conservative. One of Borg’s claims to fame is his membership in the famous (or perhaps infamous) Jesus Seminar, whose publicity stunts included the publication of The Five Gospels, a version of the four canonical gospels plus the Gospel of Thomas whose verses are color-coded according to the Seminar’s collective opinion of their authenticity. Wright, on the other hand, is a popular invited speaker at many conservative evangelical gatherings. Nevertheless, the terms “liberal” and “conservative” are overly simplistic labels for Borg and Wright; Borg, for example, is more accepting of the supernatural than many other liberal theologians are, and Wright’s approach to the New Testament would make many inerrantists very uncomfortable.

The fact that Borg is not quite your stereotypical liberal and Wright is not quite your stereotypical conservative makes the dialogue between them particularly interesting. Certainly if you find supernatural phenomena simply unbelievable, or if you take the inerrancy of the Bible as a non-negotiable axiom, then you will likely find The Meaning of Jesus to be uninteresting. But if you are open to the possibility of finding some middle ground, and want to see someone sketch out what that might look like, then Borg and Wright are two of the best people you could pick for the job. Both are thoroughly familiar with the scholarly literature on the New Testament, and at the same time are very good at giving simple explanations for the layman without getting bogged down in technicalities.

An issue that troubles many thoughtful Christians is the apparent double standard that the church takes towards the Bible versus other ancient texts. Biblical stories that would be dismissed as obviously fictional in any other text are accepted uncritically as true. Borg’s approach is to accept, in large part, the so-called “higher criticism” of the Bible. That is, the double standard is explicitly rejected, and the kind of critical analysis that we would perform on any other historical text is unflinchingly applied to the New Testament. Borg gives a good example of this kind of analysis in his chapter on the virgin birth, where he gives the reasons he does not believe that the gospel accounts are historically accurate.

A common fear that conservatives have of such an approach is that it will destroy everything. Once you start down the slippery slope of allowing the Bible to contain mistakes, where will it end? Certainly, Borg does end up jettisoning many traditional Christian teachings, but he does also show that far from everything is destroyed. For example, if you believe, as Borg does, that supernatural healing is a definite possibility, then you will not automatically reject out of hand the gospel accounts of Jesus’ miraculous healings. Thus Borg still affirms many traditional Christian beliefs.

Wright is well-schooled in the methods of higher criticism, but argues that its apparent objectivity is illusory. New Testament scholars wind up all over the map, and cannot come to any consensus. So how can they claim to be objective? Instead, Wright takes the approach of trying to develop a picture of Jesus that explains as much of the New Testament data as coherently as possible. While he does not assume that the Bible is inerrant, he tries hard to avoid looking at it through modern lenses, and instead tries to reconstruct everything from within a first-century Jewish context. A major part of Wright’s reconstruction is the picture of Jesus as a self-perceived messiah with an eschatological mission. While this sounds like a standard conservative conclusion, Wright’s view is subtly different, because he emphasizes the parallels between Jesus and various other failed messiahs. The existence of others who thought of themselves as the Messiah makes it more believable that Jesus thought of himself as the Messiah, too; it was an idea that was “in the air.” Moreover, even an atheist could agree with Wright on this point, as long as the atheist were to maintain that Jesus was wrong about being the Savior of the world. That Jesus thought he was the Messiah is based on historical analysis; whether he was the Messiah hinges on what you believe about the Resurrection.

Thus Wright, without any inerrantist assumptions, shows how secular historical analysis does not imperil the gospel message, and unlike Borg, he succeeds in retaining almost all of the traditional Christian beliefs about Jesus.

The main limitation of the book is its space constraints. Borg and Wright are simply not able to spell out all their arguments in detail. Fortunately, both of them have written numerous other books, so that the reader who wants more can easily find more.

A second frustrating feature of the book is that occasionally the authors seem to dodge an important question. Borg, to his credit, is usually refreshingly straightforward. In the chapter on Jesus’ second coming, Borg plainly states, “To be very elementary, we who know the earth to be round cannot imagine Jesus returning to the whole earth at once. And the notion of a localized second coming boggles the imagination. I do not think it will happen.” In contrast, even after reading Wright’s chapter twice, I still am not sure what exactly Wright believes about a literal second coming.

Borg is not immune to doubletalk, though. In effect, he argues that the early post-Easter Christians got all their facts wrong but were still right in some deeper sense. Regarding the historicity of the encounter with Jesus on the road to Emmaus, Borg just says, “Maybe it’s not that kind of story” (i.e., an account that is intended to be historically factual). But I find this highly implausible. For the early Christians, the fact of what had happened—that Jesus had risen from the dead in a straightforward sense—was absolutely foundational to their message. It is one thing to conclude that it does not matter whether Jesus literally rose from the dead; it is quite another to argue that the early apostles did not think it mattered. Borg seems to want to eat his cake and have it, too. I do not believe that Borg can salvage as much of the traditional Christian faith as he wants to, unless he plays word games.

But these are minor blemishes on an excellent book. Whether you know very little about modern New Testament scholarship and want a place to start, or whether you are more knowledgeable but want to see two scholars grapple with some fundamental controversies that are surprisingly rarely addressed, I know of no better book to recommend.

Posted June 2009

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