A little more than a month ago I attended the Northwest regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. The society had invited two guest speakers: Craig Blomberg, a professor at Denver Seminary and Marcus Borg, now professor emeritus at Oregon State. Both are New Testament scholars whose focus is on the gospels and the historical Jesus. Blomberg is an evangelical; Borg is a liberal.
The plenary session at which Blomberg and Borg both delivered papers and dialogued with each other (and the audience in Q &A) was a treat. I was familiar with Blomberg, as he has written a couple of books on the historical reliability of the gospels. I was not as familiar with Borg. His paper was very helpful and articulate, and instructive, both in terms of his ability to succinctly summarize his position with clarity, as well as his forthrightness. I thought it was worth summarizing both, as I went away grateful, but also more convinced than ever that the liberal approach to Jesus is amazingly weak when it comes to logical consistency.
In a nutshell, Borg (and many other liberal scholars would follow suit) views the gospels as a collection of writings that either originate “before Easter” or “after Easter.” The distinction is crucial and is a guiding, though circular, hermeneutic. Pre-Easter material is the stuff that reveals the historical Jesus. Post-Easter material is the stuff that is detached from the historical Jesus in that it derives from what the writers thought about Jesus in religious, or theological, terms. That is, all that material from the gospels that describes Jesus as the son of God, has him doing miracles, the virgin birth, etc. (almost everything supernatural) does not give us the Jesus of history (who Jesus really was). Rather, those are ideas imposed upon the historical Jesus by his followers — what they believed about him.
The approach is obviously circular, but very effective for the liberal position. How do we know the son of God statements are post-Easter? Because they are religious / theological opinion about Jesus, a normal man, but a very important, enlightened one. What do I do with this theological statement about Jesus being virgin born? Embrace it as a post-Easter belief about Jesus, genuinely held by his followers. But why is it post-Easter? Because it’s supernatural.
In other words, there are no objective criteria for dating this or that piece of the gospel as pre- or post- AD30. Rather, that chronological line in the sand derives from one’s presuppositions about supernatural ideas like the incarnation and virgin birth. A simple, easy to use hermeneutical filter that doesn’t force the user to say things like “that passage is just fraudulent” or “that passage doesn’t reflect real Christian teaching.”
What caught some people by surprise in view of all this were other things Borg affirmed that made him sound orthodox. He told us point-blank that he believed in God and that Jesus really did have visions and divine experiences. He accepted them at face value. He also believed that the Bible had divine authority. He even believed Jesus rose from the dead.
Now, to the untrained evangelical ear (and there are a lot of those), this sounds fine. Borg would come across as just like them, affirming things that were important, and not saying that parts of the gospels were just nonsense. And hey, he even says that the gospel writers believed Jesus was the son of God and did miracles. And he was a very gentle, courteous guy to boot. Who would think of picking on this grandfatherly figure who could be your Sunday School teacher?
Well, to the trained hearer, Borg left a lot to be desired. I’ve heard and read enough revisionist Jesus material, and have read enough academic theological literature, to know the real issues were twofold.
First, there is the dichotomy Borg creates between the belief of the biblical writers and “reality” (the historical Jesus). It matters not to Borg what the biblical writer believed — he doesn’t believe it, preferring his historical Jesus instead (created and validated by the subjective hermeneutic noted above).
Second, there is what Borg left unsaid (some of which fortunately came out in Q &A – and Borg is to be commended for his honesty there). It became clear in the Q & A (to anyone still wondering) that all was not what it seemed. For example, Jesus did rise from the dead, but not bodily — he is alive today “with God.” That articulation becomes clearer when one understands how Borg (apparently) thinks of God. Borg was careful to avoid defining God as a personal being. My impression was that, for Borg, God really refers to “the numinous.” This is religion jargon for “that which is not human — and so ‘divine’ — and beyond human experience.” The numinous is something all that people in all religions, from the most polytheistic animistic cultures to devoted Christian monks, have experienced (think “otherworldly / divine encounters / experiences” here). Jesus, like Amazonian shamans, genuinely experienced the numinous through visions and other visitations. This experience of the “Other” is God for Borg. (If it is not, then I would ask him why he didn’t make that explicitly clear in the session.) “May the force be with you. And with you.”
The single most self-defeating thing Borg said (to me) in the session was his comment about interpreting the Bible in context. Readers know that this is important to me. I view it as essential for understanding the biblical content. Borg said that interpreting the NT in its own context “saves us from fairy tale interpretations.” What he meant here is that, we need to interpret the gospels by his pre- and post-Easter hermeneutic. He is arguing that we need to view the gospels in light of their pre- and post-Easter context — their “real” historical context. Never mind again that there is no objective reason behind that dichotomous approach — no Carbon-14, no textual criticism, no paleographical analysis, nada — just a distaste for not having the dichotomy. If there was ever an example of using one’s conclusions to drive one’s argument, this is it. But think about the contextual idea put forth by Borg. Do you realize what he is asking you to do? He’s asking you to interpret an ancient document, produced by a pre-scientific culture that saw the supernatural in everything, with non-supernatural glasses. How is that keeping things in context? Beats me. It seems quite clear that Borg is using his own modern thinking about God (the numinous) to interpret the writings of first century Jews for whom the ideas he finds uncomfortable would be readily embraced. He’s not actually contextualizing the NT on its own terms. He’s viewing the NT in terms of someone (himself, or the “modern man”) who presumes he just knows better.
At any rate, I was glad Borg was there. I’d certainly go hear him again.