Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary

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Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary. By Marcus J. Borg. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2006, viii + 343 pp., $24.95.

Borg begins by contrasting Jesus as envisioned in two paradigms. The "earlier paradigm" is the traditional, biblical Jesus of conservative evangelical Christianity. The "emerging paradigm" is a more developed and documented version of the "five stroke sketch" of Jesus that Borg presented in his earlier book Jesus a New Vision. In both books, Jesus is presented as a Jewish mystic, healer, exorcist, wisdom teacher, prophet, and movement initiator. Borg is clear that he intends his new book to be "a contribution to emerging (and emergent) Christianity."

One of the "pillars" of Borg's "emerging paradigm" is the idea that much of the Gospels contains a developing tradition of testimony, often expressed in metaphor, to what Jesus meant to early Christian communities. Some of this testimony is "memory metaphorized," that is, stories based on actual events but told with "more than historical-factual meaning." Other testimony is pure metaphor with little or no basis in fact. Another pillar of Borg's "emerging paradigm" is the distinction between a preEaster and post-Easter Jesus. The post-Easter Jesus is the risen, living Christ who was "a divine reality." By contrast, the pre-Easter Jesus was an entirely human Jewish mystic whose life was changed by his vivid experience of God.

Borg insists, however, that the God Jesus experienced was not the "personlike" God of supernatural theism but rather the god envisioned in panentheism, a god that is within the universe rather than separate from the universe. Like the Buddha, Jesus' wisdom flowed out of his enlightened experience with "the sacred."

Jesus was, therefore, a teacher of wisdom. His wisdom, however, was not about information or commandments but about undermining the conventional wisdom and domination system of his day. It was about compassion and following "the way"-a "path of transformation" to a different way of being; like "The Way of Lao Tzu" or the four noble truths of Buddhism.

The focus of Jesus' mission was the kingdom of God, which was political as well as religious and would involve justice for those oppressed by the domination system of this world. Jesus practiced non-violent resistance to this domination system and called people to participate in the coming kingdom by following "the way of the cross," which is the way of personal transformation.

Jesus was killed for his passion in confronting a brutal domination system, but Borg insists that the substitutionary sacrifice conception of Jesus' death is both bad history and bad theology. To the earliest followers of Jesus, Easter meant that they continued to experience him after his death and that God had vindicated him. Borg says it does not matter to him whether the tomb was empty.

Since it would take an entire book to critique all the flaws in Borg's arguments, I will confine myself to a five-stroke sketch. First, everyone agrees that the Gospels contain metaphorical language, but Borg goes beyond this in arguing that the Gospel narratives are largely metaphorical. One of the central affirmations upon which Borg's entire book is based (i.e. that the Gospel stories are largely metaphor) seems to fly in the face of studies affirming the Gospel genre as related to ancient bios, not myth (or metaphor), and other studies seriously challenging previous views on the extent to which the Gospel narratives have been "developed."

Second, Borg's contention that the Gospel narratives are largely metaphorical is also undermined by the apparently arbitrary way in which he applies his historical criteria. For example, Borg's two primary criteria for distinguishing "pure metaphor" from "memory metaphorized" are multiple independent attestation and coherence. …