Enter your mobile number or email address below and we'll send you a link to download the free Kindle App. Then you can start reading Kindle books on your smartphone, tablet, or computer - no Kindle device required.
To get the free app, enter your mobile phone number.
Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary Hardcover – October 31, 2006
|New from||Used from|
All Books, All the Time
Read author interviews, book reviews, editors picks, and more at the Amazon Book Review. Read it now
Customers who bought this item also bought
Customers who viewed this item also viewed
What other items do customers buy after viewing this item?
Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary
Author interviews, book reviews, editors picks, and more. Read it now
Top customer reviews
There was a problem filtering reviews right now. Please try again later.
With very sloppy applications of the meanings for the words “truth” and “reality” and a new (non-dictionary) definition for the word “literal,” Mr. Borg takes you on a detailed journey through all the significant metaphors surrounding his “developing tradition” thesis about the meaning of Jesus. He explains that very little of the gospel text is historically accurate, that is, verifiable as “facts.” He concludes that “…metaphorical narratives [such as in the gospels] can be powerfully truthful, even though not literally factual.” (page 75)
I thoroughly enjoyed The First Christmas by Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan. However, the book of this review, Jesus, by Mr. Borg as sole author seems to be at cross purposes internally. In Christmas, Borg and Crossan challenged the reader to face the obvious issues surrounding the biblical Christmas texts. They didn’t shield you from the uncomfortable feelings that might well up inside you when the Christmas stories are directly compared to each other. The lack of historical accuracy is laid bare. Contradictions are exposed. In the end, however, the authors offer you a very reasonable approach to these inconsistencies. You walk away feeling that you have learned something, that these authors have enriched your Christian perspective.
Not so with Borg’s Jesus. You should read Borg and Crossan’s Christmas first to get a bite-sized feel for Mr. Borg’s approach to the meanings within Christian scripture. You need a warm-up.
The book earns a “4” for an excellent description of the historical context of the time and environment of Jesus. Borg delivers the most concise, comprehensive and accurate context summary I have encountered. Another positive point is that Mr. Borg routinely points out what have become glaring inconsistencies among the gospels. He details significant historical inaccuracies. He starts to challenge you to think about what you are reading, to try to comprehend these issues. But he then backs off of the critical approach to show you how to avoid discovering something other than what is currently comfortable for you. This was a missed opportunity for him, in my humble opinion. However, had he chosen to emphasize critical rather than conventional Christian thinking, he would have risked losing a significant chunk of the book’s Christian-based market.
An “aha!” is his explanation of how about four or five centuries ago the functional definition of “believe” changed. Prior to that point in civilization (the Enlightenment), people “believed in.” The use of “believe” was then personal and associated with people. One believed as one beloved, he tells us. Thereafter, people routinely “believed that.” The focus shifted to believing “statements about something,” rather than “in someone.” The roots for Christianity’s shift to “believing that” can be traced back to the 3rd Century and the beginning of the development of authorized religious creeds (and the subsequent supporting doctrines, dogmas and rituals).
Also very positive is Borg’s “Epilogue,” which gets very personal. The reader can learn some enlightening perspectives from his candid discourse. Here, he delivers mental enrichment.
The book gets a “2” for his primary thesis that Christianity’s understanding of Jesus as a “developing tradition,” the strained logic of selectively applying that thesis, the sloppy use of the words “truth” and “reality, and a new (contrary to the dictionary) definition for the word “literal” that conveniently serves his dialectic purposes.
The overall rating for this book is therefore a “3.”
A “developing tradition” implies a process that generates an openly evolving story. That story increasingly distances itself from its origin in historical, verifiable facts (page 28). The resulting tradition must be interpreted according to current custom and must be read as a “metaphor.” As a consequence, it can take on any meaning the reader wants. So it does.
Mr. Borg asserts that the four gospels canonized into the New Testament are a final(?) product. They are the developed tradition. That is, they are texts documenting how early Christians living during the latter half of the First Century understood Jesus. To paraphrase Mr. Borg (page 43), clergy continue to explain what Jesus should mean to us today based on what we interpret he meant to early Christians of the first and second centuries. This implies that the “development” of the Christian tradition did not cease abruptly after the gospel of John was written and frozen in time. The “developing tradition” continues unabated today.
Hence, I use the more present-leaning term “developing” for the remainder of this review.
The historical story behind any tradition tends to evolve into a legend, or perhaps a myth. But, for Mr. Borg, the legend/myth of Christianity is “metaphorically truthful” (page 53). He very intimately and frequently associates “truth” with the meaning of a “metaphor.” Yes, the meaning conveyed by the metaphors of Christian scripture may indeed be accurately represented in the interpretations of the texts (my opinion). However, an accurate understanding of a tradition’s or story’s meaning does not make the story true. Not factual. Not historical. Not verifiable. Not reality. “Truth” deserves to be all of these descriptors, in the positive form, whenever a written statement is claimed to be true.
Think Harry Potter, or the Kennedys, or even the “neo” traditions that have “developed” around Nazism since Hitler. These modern, very real examples of “developing tradition” are not the traveling companions Mr. Borg would want to be associated with the story of Jesus. But, these examples, and many more, all fit the process he describes as his “developing tradition” thesis.
Mr. Borg presents an excellent case for the “developing” aspect of the Christian tradition as accounted in the gospels. As a fact (real fact), later gospels are longer than earlier ones, more detailed, have more quotes for what Jesus said (even when no human was implied to be within earshot of him). All of these layers and embellishments of meaning were undeniably added by later interpolators onto the evolving legend of Jesus. The historical Jesus then receded in time. That overall Christian “tradition developed” over the succeeding centuries is historically documentable. Any publication focused on the history of Christianity will demonstrate this very clearly. Mr. Borg indeed accurately describes and documents the operational process of his “developing tradition” thesis. It worked throughout Christian history. It is operative today.
To further support his thesis, Mr. Borg makes some comparisons of Old Testament texts to those of the New Testament. He describes Old Testament texts that obviously employ metaphorical meaning. However, he never links these metaphors to an ancient Israelite tradition that was “developed” through precisely the same process as he ascribes to the New Testament. His thesis of “developing tradition” apparently is not meant to apply outside of the gospels and other Christian scripture. We get the impression from him that the Old Testament is in fact―factual. Historically true. To be literally read. Ancient metaphorical texts are valuable for reinforcing specific metaphorical interpretations of the New Testament, as he sees them. Which he freely does.
What are we to do with Borg’s developed Christian traditions―those significant metaphors not based in fact? He draws the conclusion that those Christian metaphors are (in fact) “powerful truths” (pages 75 and 287). He then devotes the bulk of the book to describing the metaphorical meanings of most of the familiar gospel situations, miracles and parables. Along the way, he searches for historical validity for these important gospel stories. When he finds essentially none, he justifies a probable historicity using a variety of statements to the effect that “it certainly makes sense that this could have really happened.”
If you are not fortunate enough to have a skillful priest or minister who is routinely interpreting significant Christian and biblical metaphors for you, I sincerely and strongly recommend Borg’s well-written summary in the middle of this book. For the practicing Christian, Mr. Borg is correct. Metaphorical meaning is an essential form of meaning for Christians, whether we wish to acknowledge it or not.
To support the veracity of metaphorical meanings in general, Mr. Borg redefines the word “literal.” The literal meaning of a poem, he says, is its metaphorical meaning. After offering other examples equating literal meaning with metaphorical meaning, he concludes that one gets the “literal” meanings of the gospels from their metaphorical meanings (page 69). This is not how the dictionary defines “literal.” I object.
In a manner of his sloppy (or convenient) use of the word “truth,” Mr. Borg also plays fast and loose with the word “reality.” In a section devoted to the Apostle Paul, the topic of visions as experiences of Jesus is discussed. He says “…all visions are not hallucinations. They can be disclosures of reality” (page 277). The impression given is that the “reality” of a vision is the equivalent of “truth.” Truth would be insulted by association with any vision, regardless of whether the vision is a medical or drug hallucination or an honorable religious experience. Mr. Borg does not call to the reader’s attention the documentable fact that the frequency of religious visions has declined exponentially over the last millennium. A somewhat controversial explanation for the decline of “visions” is proposed in Julian Jaynes book, The Origin of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. No supernatural powers are invoked in his explanation.
Before the final section of this review, a bit of background is necessary. Mr. Borg divides the Christian understanding of Jesus into two phases: the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Jesus. The pre-Easter Jesus is the focus of the first half of the book. The post-Easter Jesus is the focus of the second half. Roughly speaking.
Mr. Borg closes with a discourse on the Easter story. Early on in the book (Page 109), Mr. Borg shocks his readers by saying: “Many Christians are accustomed to thinking of Jesus as God...The fourth-century Nicene Creed declares [that Jesus is God]…About the post-Easter Jesus, this language is correct: the risen, living Christ is one with God, a divine reality.”
If we flash back to the preamble to the early section of the book, in which he addresses the pre-Easter Jesus. Borg says: “What was his relationship to God? To state [this section of the book’s] central claim in advance, the pre-Easter Jesus was not God, but God was the central reality in his life. So the gospels present him” (page 109). I reiterate his words. Jesus was not God. Perhaps Mr. Borg is speaking metaphorically here. Regardless, the intended meaning is not clear to me.
Please notice the subtle equating of “reality” with the meanings for “truth” or “fact.” Mr. Borg frequently uses this writing technique to suggest such equivalences to his readers, urging them to occur naturally and unconsciously as we read his statements, such as those quoted above.
We return in this review to the post-Easter section of the book. There, as necessarily follows from his “developing tradition” thesis, the meaning of Easter for Christians, both early and current, is identified as metaphorical. He shifts at times to use the term “parabolical meaning.” He admits that useful, independently verifiable, historical or archeological evidence for the Easter story, outside of the gospel texts, is nonexistent.
Nevertheless, he confidently writes, “I find these [Easter] stories to be powerfully true as parables of the resurrection. It does not matter to me as a Christian whether any of them describe events that you or I could have witnessed. It does not matter to me whether the tomb was empty” (page 287). This position is reinforced with his claim: “The obvious point is that parabolic narratives can be true―truthful and truth-filled―independent of their factuality…Seeing the Easter stories as parables need not involve a denial of their factuality. The factual question is left open…A parabolic meaning insists that the importance of these stories lies in their meanings” (Page 280). “I highlight their [the Easter stories] meaning as parable, as truth-filled stories. I leave open the question of how much of this [actually] happened, even as I affirm that their truth does not depend on their public factuality” (Page 281).
But we humans often prefer to not distinguish between “fact” and “metaphor/parable.” Such distinctions require deliberate mental effort. If a passion or belief is deeply and emotionally significant to us, it appears to us to be much more than a “developed metaphorical tradition that is powerfully truthful.” One would be hard-pressed to find a practicing Christian for whom the bodily resurrection of Jesus in the Easter sense is not an automatic “fact,” in the full, historical, unadulterated, non-metaphorical and sincerely truthful sense.
This book will be a roller coaster ride for a Christian who rarely asks “why?” But, Mr. Borg offers you a safe and reassuring ride. You may be uncomfortable at times. In the end, all will be as it was. Or, if you paid attention and engaged your mind, all may not be as it was.
Borg challenges the reader to view Jesus in light of the historical setting in which he lived. Discussing the elements of the Roman occupation of Palestine and the Jewish mindset during the first century, Borg paints a picture of Jesus as a Jewish mystic, following many of the traditional Jewish practices, and challenging the status quo - which included the temple establishment and Roman rule. It is that challenging of the status quo which ultimately leads to his crucifixion.
Borg is unafraid to challenge the historical accuracy of elements of Jesus' life - including the resurrection, the ascension, the infancy narratives and the actual sayings of Jesus himself. Using modern exegesis and literary scholarship, Borg pushes the reader to see Jesus as the fulfillment of God in man, rather than God incarnating as man.
A challenging read, but one that will leave the open minded reader thinking more broadly about what it means to be Christian in an increasingly literal world.
Most recent customer reviews
Came through in good order!