The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions

By Copan, Paul | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, June 2001 | Go to article overview

The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions


Copan, Paul, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions. By Marcus J. Borg and N. T. Wright. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1999, 288 pp., $24.00.

N. T. Wright and Marcus Borg-both former students of the late G. B. Caird-- always make for an engaging read. This co-authored face-off between them-which "has grown out of a friendship" (p. vii)-on the sweep of questions pertaining to the historical Jesus makes this book even more of an attraction. Wright, who once taught at Oxford and is presently Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey, presents a more "traditionalist" Christian perspective on the historical Jesus (p. ix)- with his unique twists and turns; Borg, who is the Hundere Distinguished Professor of Religion at Oregon State University, presents a "revisionist" vision of Christianity (p. ix)-even though such labels are, by the authors' admission, overstated and even potentially misleading.

Wright and Borg admit that they are far from being neutral and unbiased scholars (p. viii). On the other hand, both strongly believe that the subject of Jesus is not a private one, but belongs "in the public world of historical and cross-cultural study" (p. ix). They frankly declare that "we have both frequently been puzzled, and even disturbed, by some of what the other has said" (p. viii), but cowriting a book has helped Wright and Borg to understand each other much better. This book is, among other things, an attempt to get past many of the log-jammed debates between "conservative" and "liberal" Christianity and to "advance an ecumenical dialogue that is often ignored" (p. ix).

The book is in eight parts, each of which contains an essay by Borg and Wright on a given topic. These parts are broken down as follows: I. "How Do We Know About Jesus?"; II: "What Did Jesus Do and Teach?"; III. "The Death of Jesus"; IV. "`God Raised Jesus from the Dead'"; V. "Was Jesus God?"; VI. "The Birth of Jesus"; VII. " `He Will Come Again in Glory'"; VIII. "Jesus and the Christian Life" (which is a very useful and engaging discussion that tends to be overlooked in the historical-Jesus debate). As this book is difficult to summarize briefly in a section-by-section manner, I shall dispense with these breakdowns and list some of the book's nuggets.

According to Borg, the Gospels (written between AD 70 and 100) are part of a developing tradition-a point with which evangelicals can agree, though with qualifications. However, because of this development, Borg thinks it safe only to affirm Jesus as a teacher of wisdom beyond convention, as a social prophet of the kingdom of God, and as a movement initiator who attracted the marginalized. For Borg, the Gospels are a mixed bag of "history remembered" and "history metaphorized" (p. 4). So, on the one hand, Borg admits that Jesus really was crucified and probably did heal literally blind persons, but the feeding of the multitudes, borrowing from the exodus narrative, is metaphorical ("intrinsically nonliteral"). Consequently, we have two Jesuses, according to Borg: a pre-Easter Jesus and a post-Easter Jesus (what Jesus became after his death). Borg asserts that Jesus was "Jewish mystic" before Easter and after Easter became "Christian messiah."

In Borg's view, "it is irrelevant whether or not the tomb was empty" (p. 131). Despite this, Borg argues that Christians through the centuries "have continued to experience Jesus as a living spiritual reality, a figure of the present, not simply a memory from the past" (p. 135). It is these experiences-not an empty tomb-that ground the truth of Easter.

Unlike Wright, Borg doubts that Jesus thought of himself as the messiah (p. 146)even though both of them see Jesus as a "movement initiator." And the "I am" sayings of John are attributable to the early Christian community (p. 149). Psychologically sane human beings, Borg asserts, simply don't make such claims ("we have categories of psychological diagnosis for people who talk like this about themselves" Lp. …

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