June 10, 2003
"The Mission and Message of Jesus" chapter 3 (by N.T. Wright)
"Jesus Before and After Easter: Jewish Mystic and Christian Messiah" (by Marcus Borg)
Since these two chapters (and possibly every future pair) dovetail and sometimes criticize each other, it seems appropriate to treat them together. Here we see each scholar's methodology bear its first fruit.
Wright leads in chapter 3 with a portrait of Jesus in seven "broad strokes":
Jesus was a first-century Jewish prophet announcing God's kingdom (33).These interpretations lead the historian, like the reader of any Gospel, to the cross and resurrection as the decisive events of Jesus' career. These are topics for future chapters.
He believed that the kingdom was breaking in to Israel's history in and through his own presence and work (37) ...
and summoning other Jews to abandon alternative kingdom visions and join him in his (40) ...
and warning of dire consequences for the nation, for Jerusalem, and for the temple, if his summons was ignored (42).
His agendas led him into a symbolic clash with those who embraced other ones, and this, together with the positive symbols of his own kingdom agenda, point to the way in which he saw his inaugurated kingdom moving toward accomplishment (47).
[Jesus indicated] in symbolic actions, and in cryptic and coded sayings, that he believed he was Israel's messiah, the one through whom the true God would accomplish his decisive purpose (50).
Wright anchors these claims in the context first-century Jewish history, and appeals more than once to Jesus' resemblance to other messianic figures from Judas the Galilean in 6 AD to Simeon ben-Kosiba in 132, to show that Jesus is most understandable against the backdrop of his own people's politics, social history, and theology. Data on Jesus' life centers in its most public, historically sure events: the temple disturbance he caused in Jerusalem, the last supper before his crucifixion, and the sayings that survive historiographical scrutiny according to criteria not so unlike the ones Borg advances in chapter 1 (i.e., 33 on Jesus' claim to prophethood). These are events whose origin is otherwise hard to explain. The chapter comes across as settled and sober rather than speculative. For more detail on Wright's generalizations he repeatedly cites his own more massive volumes in Christian Origins and the Question of God (which I have not yet read). The treatment so far reminds me of the work of Duke University's E.P. Sanders: cautious and judicious rather than speculative and sensational. Everything seems to fit nicely.
Wright's main challenge to me is his unusual interpretation of Jesus' eschatology, which draws on the work of his (and Borg's) advisor George Caird. Footnote 18 on page 41 pointed me to a long section in Wright's Jesus and the Victory of God, a volume that had been sitting barely read on my bookshelf for years. What he has to say there is similarly well argued and set to influence my thinking on Jesus' apocalyptic discourse in Mark 13, which was already affected by a word study I did as a TA in Richard Hays' New Testament introduction class. That work took me in very cool but still speculative directions, and Wright may help me develop them further.
Newcomers to biblical criticism and historical Jesus research might find the material in chapter 3 challenging and perhaps unsettling. But after my years of grad-school exposure at Fuller Seminary and Duke University it seems solid and dependable, fueled by reasonable assumptions without being constricted by ideological constraints.
Chapter 4 moves back to Borg's project, in which his methods begin to bear their own fruit. The pre-Easter Jesus is a "Jewish mystic" and the post-Easter Jesus is a "Christian messiah" (53). In this chapter we learn more about the pre-Easter Jewish mystic.
Ever the professional debunker, Borg leads by denying a description he knows will be on his readers' minds. He refers to describe the pre-Easter Jesus as messianic: "I am not persuaded that the pre-Easter Jesus thought of himself as the messiah, and so I describe him in nonmessianic categories" (53). The more nuanced language on page 54-55 still says basically the same thing. Borg is trying to do justice to the paucity of indications in the Gospels that Jesus described himself as the messiah. This absence of overt evidence is shocking to most Christians when they first learn about it, but many of Borg's judgments here are noncontroversial in the discipline. It is certainly an open question whether historically speaking Jesus understood himself as the Anointed One.
Yet Borg takes this in a confusing direction. On the one hand, he distinguishes between whether Jesus thought of himself as messiah and whether he really was messiah (55). So far so good. But then Borg describes "being the messiah" simply in terms of "the community's testimony to what Jesus had become in their life together" (55) in effect, in terms solely of the opinions of his confessors. As in chapter 1, he uses the first-person as if it is all the proof he needs:
As a Christian, I affirm these metaphors [of exaltation] to be true. I see Jesus as the messiah, the Son of God, the Word of God, the Wisdom/Sophia of God, and so forth. That affirmation is a defining element of what it means to be Christian: namely, Christians find the decisive revelation or disclosure of God in Jesus. But I doubt that any of these affirmations go back to Jesus himself, and so I do not use them in my exposition of the historical Jesus. I describe Jesus before Easter in nonmessianic terms (54).In a footnote Borg distinguishes his position from the argument that Jesus became messiah, which he calls Adoptionism. This is odd: In fact, Adoptionism holds that Jesus became divine. Borg knows the difference between being anointed and being divine (256 n. 11). As a matter of fact, I myself believe that Jesus, who is divine from eternity, first became anointed became messiah at his baptism. The Gospels and especially Luke-Acts suggest that Jesus is anointed as Isaiah was anointed (cf. Isa. 61 in Luke 4). Mine is a minority position but it is not Adoptionistic, and it is Christologically orthodox.
Anyway, like Wright, I believe Jesus understood himself as messianic; that conviction makes a lot of sense out of his most visible actions. In fact, I believe that awareness dates from the beginning of his ministry. Like Borg, I can see how Jesus could be messiah without knowing it. (By way of example, did William Wallace have to know his death would trigger the liberation of Scotland for him to be the liberator of Scotland?) Like Wright, I appreciate how differently we will read Jesus' career depending on the motives informing it. Unlike Borg, I cannot see why it is improper to call the pre-Easter Jesus messiah simply because his followers and he might not yet have realized it. The question, it seems to me, is whether Jesus was God's anointed deliverer of Israel, whether God knew it rather than whether when he (or even his followers) knew it.
After hours trying to interpret this confusing and contradictory section, I still can only venture guesses about what Borg is up to.
One guess is that the main reason Borg refuses to call the pre-Easter Jesus "Christian messiah" is a pedagogical goal of helping readers appreciate the chronological development he sees in Christian beliefs about Jesus. "My point here is not ontological," he says, "but rather concerns a chronological sequence in the use of language" (255). His discussion reminds me of a distinction sometimes made in classes on biblical interpretation: the distinction between what a text originally meant and what it means today. It is as if Borg's half of the book The Meaning of Jesus is a historical chronicle, a nineteenth-century style Religionsgeschichte, of what the term "Jesus" meant before and after Easter. His half of the book is about the meaning of Jesus, not on the meaning of Jesus. By contrast, Wright's half describes who Jesus was and is. So Borg concentrates on Jesus' opinion of himself. Yet according to the Gospels the disciples confess Jesus as messiah well before Easter (Mark 8, Matthew 16, Luke 9, John 1). The meaning of "messiah" shifts as Jesus explodes their conventional notions, but they keep the label. Why do their opinions not matter here?
Another guess is that, his own protestations to the contrary (55), Borg actually does view the pre-Easter Jesus' opinion on his own messiahship as determinative for whether he really was messiah. This would explain why Borg makes makes Jesus' self-consciousness the measure of his pre-Easter identity. He is assuming that Jesus' pre-Easter meaning belongs to him alone. That seems inconsistent with Borg's shift to weighing "post-Easter" apostolic opinion. But comparing only Jesus' self-understanding before Easter to only the disciples' understandings afterward makes sense if Borg has decided in advance that they refer to two different things.
A third guess is that later in the book Borg is going to pursue the following line of reasoning: One cannot explain the origin of Jesus' followers' belief that Jesus is Lord and Christ his followers' use of "exalted metaphors" about Jesus except by the reality of Jesus' resurrection and exaltation. Thus these opinions prove the events that alone can explain them. That is a popular argument among conservatives. Yet if Borg is going here, why would it not be appropriate to call the pre-Easter Jesus "messiah" too, as his eyewitnesses did (1 Cor. 15:3)?
A fourth guess is that elsewhere in his project Borg is simply using the word "messiah" in an idiosyncratic and inconsistent way. Compared to the attention Wright pays to how the word was used in first-century Jewish contexts, it is remarkable how little explicit attention Borg pays.
A fifth guess is that Borg the historian has weighed Wright's and others' arguments and found them wanting. Though Borg refuses to engage Wright's strategy for finding out (which Wright alludes to on pages 49-50 and appeals to in footnote 29), he offers an historical judgment on page 54 and another one on page 57 that he finds Wright's argument from inference unpersuasive. Yet why then does Borg make this assertion: "Of course, it is possible that Jesus thought he was the messiah, even though he didn't say anything about it. But how would we know that?" (56, emphasis added). Borg's rhetorical question here is a categorical denial of the possibility that we could know Jesus' mind by interpreting his actions, not a refutation of a specific proposal. One gets the impression his mind is already made up.
A sixth guess is that Borg means the term "messiah" to function as an attribution of value rather than as a statement of fact. More on that below.
A seventh guess is that Borg just wants to be ornery. After all these pages on the pre-Easter Jesus' non-messianic status, after structuring his whole book according to the pre/post dichotomy of "Jewish mystic"/"Christian messiah", after labeling the judgment of Jesus' messianic self-awareness the single most significant difference he has with Wright, he drops in another footnote (256 n. 11) the claim that it doesn't really matter anyway!
A further reason why messianic self-awareness does not play a role in my sketch of Jesus: even if there were persuasive evidence that Jesus thought of himself as the messiah, it wouldn't tell us much. The word means "anointed by God" and was associated with the hope for a deliverer; but beyond that, there was no generally accepted notion in first-century Judaism of what the messiah would be like. It is therefore a relatively empty category, which would need to be filled by what we know of Jesus (256-257).Oh.
So essentially contested concepts are "empty" categories? Because other first century Jews disagreed about whether messiah was coming, how many would come, and what he or they would be like, whether Jesus thought of himself as deliverer of Israel is unimportant and the task of discerning his specific interpretation of his own role in Israel's deliverance is not worth pursuing?
After surrendering Jesus' pre-Easter messiahship to the ambiguities of history, Borg takes the reader through a strategy he is much more confident will reveal his elusive character:
My broad strokes are drawn from the cross-cultural study of types of religious personality. Five are most illuminating for seeing the kind of person Jesus was: (1) Spirit person; (2) healer; (3) wisdom healer; (4) social prophet; and (5) movement founder. Each type functions as a template that helps to constellate the traditions about Jesus. Together, these templates generate a gestalt of Jesus that not only does justice to early layers of the tradition, but also combines them into a comprehensive image of the kind of religious figure he was (60).Borg's methodology here is very important. Having worked through rules for establishing the historical veracity of material from the gospels, Borg then crosses disciplines to find "types of religious personality" that fit. He then draws conclusions based on the type:
As foundational, my claim that Jesus was a Jewish mystic means Jesus was one for whom God was an experiential reality. He was one of those people for whom God was an experiential reality. He was one of those people for whom the sacred was, to use William James' terms, a firsthand religious experience rather than a secondhand belief. Mystics, as I use the term, are people who have decisive and typically frequent firsthand experiences of the sacred.Borg goes on like this for some time drawing on William James' Varieties of Religious Experience and appealing to resemblances in vastly different cultures to develop the generalized phenomenology of mysticism. Mystical experience involves "communion or union with the divine," "ineffability," "transiency," "passivity," "knowing", "transformation," and "immediacy of access to God" (61-62). Jesus' relationship with the Spirit is no longer an anointing by the Spirit of YHWH at the Jordan, where Israel once entered the land, inaugurating Israel's restoration, but an experience "common to Spirit persons (63 and 258 n. 28). A tradition like Jesus' forty days of temptation in the wilderness is no longer a re-enactment of Israel's holy history, but a "vision quest" like those of aboriginal Americans (63).
The most dramatic of these experiences of the sacred involve a variety of nonordinary states of consciousness. In visions, there is a vivid sense of momentarily seeing into another layer or level of reality. In shamanic experience, one not only sees another level of reality but also enters it and perhaps even journeys within it (60).
Then Borg shifts from the general to the specific:
If one takes seriously that the sacred can be experienced, and that people who have such experiences frequently and vividly may be called mystics or Spirit persons, then it seems apparent that Jesus was one of these (62-63).One of these. Whatever this methodology will reveal about Jesus, it will not reveal that he was unique. Moving from the general to the specific will ensure that Jesus is one of an open-ended set of enlightened mediators of access to God. After all, he has a "religious personality."
Why am I not surprised? I am not surprised because I read this footnote from Borg:
I do not think that Jesus is the only or only adequate disclosure of the sacred; I am convinced that the sacred is known in all of the world's major religious traditions. The affirmation that Jesus is the ultimate disclosure of God defines what it means to be Christian, but need not mean that God has not been disclosed elsewhere (256).How convenient that Borg's methodology prevents that conviction from being criticized.
The argument proceeds after this fashion. The mystical type becomes foundatiional to Jesus' identity; it becomes a safe conclusion on which further claims can be built. All of them too infer Jesus' specificity from some generality:
His religious experience would have been "shaped by" his Jewish heritage (64). (Not defined, but merely shaped. Borg has already ruled out the applicability of Israel's tradition of a God set apart from the world and occasionally intervening and dwelling there, on 62 and 258 nn. 25-27. This "Western supernatural theism" has "seriously negative consequences.")
His experience of injustice would have given him "an unusual sensitivity to the poor and marginalized," as is typical for those like Gandhi and King who experience or observe injustice firsthand (65).
His healings and exorcisms, common among some Spirit persons and having a historical core (unlike nature miracles, which would a form of supernatural intervention Borg categorically rejects a priori on 259 nn. 34-35), would have been "inexplicable and remarkable things ... involving processes that we do not understand" that suggest a time of divine deliverance like the one promised in Isaiah (66-67). (Wright perceptively seizes upon this admission along with others and wonders aloud why Borg rejects the self-understanding of messiahship that would logically follow for a first-century Jew.) They also broker a relationship with God "apart from institutional mediation" (68). (The latter is a popular theme among American spiritualists.)
His teaching of "subversive and alternative wisdom" would have been (as is typical of such teachers) grounded in his experience of the sacred, such as Lao Tzu and Buddha (68-69). As such it would have turned him and his followers against socialization and "to a new way of being in relationship to God that was not dependent upon convention or institutions" (70).
His immediate knowledge of God would "typically" have put him on the side of the marginalized and made him a social prophet like the biblical prophets who opposed the ancient domination system (71). (It is this that led to his execution, Borg claims on 73.)
All these features combined to make Jesus a movement initiator and to attract followers (73). His movement, however, remained uninstitutionalized "until quite some time after his death" (74).
In other words, Jesus's inner and outer life bears a remarkable resemblance to that of Marcus Borg.
Not that there is anything necessarily wrong with that. I have already admitted that subjectivity will necessarily color historiography, positively as well as negatively. But when Borg summarizes all this as "Jesus as prophet of the kingdom of God" (74-75), the methodological groundwork he has laid virtually guarantees that "kingdom of God" will be emptied of the first-century content that specifically centered Jesus' usage in the promised arrival of Israel's deliverance as God's chosen people. Its meanings are now generic and transferable: the power of God, the presence of God, the lordship of God, liberation into a new way of being, a world of social justice, perhaps the concrete community living under God's reign, and (possibly) a final communion between people worldwide and "long-dead figures from the past." (Israel's past? Borg doesn't say.) In fact, they transfer right to the pattern of Borg's own spiritual journey.
Borg still uses the phrase "kingdom of God," but Wright and he "differ considerably on what it means to say this" (261 n. 50). They do indeed. While Wright (and I) can happily affirm a form of every one of Borg's categories, Wright's own approach casts each in a very different light. Consider the different methodological paths the two took to arrive at their separate destinations, and you will understand why.
While Borg's project ostensibly operates with a "criterion of dissimilarity" that distinguishes Jesus from his Jewish context and Christian legacy, there is another criterion even more powerfully at work: a criterion of similarity. Borg has programmatically built into his work an assumption that Jesus is like us, a religious personality we can understand by looking around us and that religious personalities like Borg can understand by looking within. We need not be surprised when this assumption returns as his conclusion.
You would think the spectacle of scholar after scholar reducing Jesus to his own expectations in Schweitzer's The Quest of the Historical Jesus would have stopped future constructions of Jesus as a mirror of ourselves, but a hundred years after the original a latter-day Schweitzer could write a disturbingly similar sequel using a parade of twentieth century historians of Jesus. You would think there would still be enough sting in George Tyrell's quip that "The Christ that [Adolf von] Harnack sees, looking back through nineteen centuries of Catholic darkness, is only the reflection of a Liberal Protestant face, seen at the bottom of a deep well" to keep new generations of scholars from peering again into that well and writing what they see.
You would be wrong.
After finishing the chapter the question still haunts me: Why does Borg find Jesus' actions so intelligible for these sociological categories while dismissing out of hand the potential intelligibility for messiahship? Having made Jesus a shaman, a guru, an Enlightened Soul, and a civil rights leader, why not let him remain a messiah? I cannot prove it, but I suspect it is the pre/post, fact/value dichotomy that has become the fabric of Borg's own life working its magic. How Jesus experienced God is not a matter of Christian confession, but historical inquiry; being savior is a matter of Christian confession, not public inquiry. Jesus became a mystic when Borg studied him at school; he only became Christ when Borg encountered him as a graduate. I suspect Borg learned more as a young Lutheran than he realizes: how to make one's own personal experience normative for every true believer.
Yet this normative experience works differently from the experience of justification by grace through faith that made that old German monk feel born again. Messiahship is exclusive; mysticism is inclusive. Messiahship can only be bestowed; mysticism is in principle open to anyone. Only Jews await a messiah; mystics cross cultures. Borg shows us a way to admire Jesus for "knowing God" as intimately as he did, without feeling bothered by the calls to follow him alone or the warnings of rejection's dire consequences that litter the canon of his followers, even when they appear to come from his own mouth. We can have our other ways to God without having to turn away from him.
Is that really the pre-Easter Jesus?
June 9, 2003
I am at work on Borg-Wright chapters 3 and 4, which I think I will blog together. My post stalled on several pages from Borg that I simply cannot figure out. For relief I consulted one of Wright's footnotes and took a fascinating and rewarding forty-page detour into his alternative interpretation of Jesus' apocalyptic speech.
I suggest we call it the criteria of reception, and I predict Catholics will, er, receive it enthusiastically.Second, I can think of reasons for questioning the axiom that a Matthean or Lukan appropriation of Mark's material doesn't count as multiple attestation. If imitation is the highest form of flattery, and plagiarism is the purest form of imitation, shouldn't material appropriated by a different author count at least a little more strongly than material that is not? That every other gospel writer apparently engages with Mark, and that apostolic churches throughout the Empire accepted the four canonical gospels, are evidence in favor of their fundamental harmony with the Jesus each community had remembered.I hadn't thought of looking at it that way. It does seem to me that normally, when you're trying to determine what happened, you count multiple independent accounts differently from multiple accounts in which one person is appropriating the other's material. Maybe "how reliable this source was understood to be by others close in time to the event" might be its own separate criterion (in which case Mark gets a few added points of credibility, and the Gospel of Thomas perhaps less credibility than the Jesus seminar though not Borg gave it).
I do agree with her caution not to go too far with it. Gospel traditions did multiply wildly, turning Jesus into a Gnostic demigod, a magician, an oracle, and on and on. Then again, the apostolic communities were relatively resistant to the trend, with the New Testament canonization process being the logical culmination of their constant efforts to keep the wheat safe and separate from the chaff.
See, part of my reasoning here has to do with the actual character of first- and second-century Christian communities in the Roman Empire. Just because a source is widely respected does not confer authority. It is easier for a book by L. Ron Hubbard to be received well among Scientologists than for an encyclical from John Paul II to be received well among Roman Catholics, because the diversity and critical habits of Catholicism are far healthier than those of Scientology. Likewise, how to correlate the weight of Mark's narrative and the popularity of Mark's narrative depends on what kinds of churches receive it as well as what they do with it.
A dynamite book here is Richard Bauckham's The Gospels for All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences. It overturns the reigning assumption in gospel scholarship that every gospel was written by an isolated community of faith and expresses the distinctive features of that community over against the others:
It is a remarkable feature of the history of New Testament scholarship in this century that this consensus about the original intended audiences of the Gospels has come about without any substantial argument. Nearly all scholars writing about the Gospels now treat it as virtually self-evident that each evangelist addressed the specific context and concerns of his own community, and a large and increasingly sophisticated edifice of scholarly reconstruction has been erected on this basic assumption. It is widely used as the major hermeneutical key for reading the Gospels. ... The present book challenges the consensus by arguing that it is probably that the Gospels were written for general circulation around the churches and so envisaged a very general Christian audience. Their implied readership is not specific but indefinite: any and every Christian community in the late-first-century Roman Empire. ... In the end, the hermeneutical issue is whether a Gospel should be read as a narrative about Jesus or as a narrative about a hypothetical Christian community that scholars can reconstruct behind the Gospel (1-2).(Go ahead and read from the introduction.) The evidence instead shows a "holy internet" spread throughout the major cities of the Roman Empire, with Rome as the hub and deliberate conversation among the apostolic churches of the various cities. Mark's reception in that environment, first in his communities (and Rome is likely to be the first such community) and then the evangelists who become his interlocutors by appropriating him, would be a sign that points toward his reliability.
In fact, if Q did exist as a document in its own right, it could not enjoy as much prestige as Mark; not only would it have had no constituency for preserving its literary integrity, but its literary framework would have been taken over by Mark's not once but twice. (By the way, I am not denying that Q existed; I don't know. I just think we need to be very, very careful about making much positive use of a hypothetical document.)
Another elephant in Gospel research's living room is the literary character of Mark. Mark lived in Matthew's shadow for most of the Church's history, and it has only recently begun to be widely appreciated in its own right as a work with a definite polemical purpose and a subtle but brilliant rhetoric. For instance, repeatedly Mark characterizes the disciples as not getting it. Repeatedly Matthew characterizes them as getting it (cf. Mark 8:14-21 and Matt. 16:5-12). Matthew and Luke are not merely appropriating Mark. They are reacting to it, answering it, fact-checking it, spinning it perhaps distorting it historiographically but perhaps correcting it. I discuss these matters further in "Synoptic Star Wars". If Bauckham and company are right that the gospels are not the exclusive property of isolated communities, then the Gospels live in a fray, a little apostolic blogosphere where Jesus' commentators' feet are held to the fire of the cherished apostolic memory. We should not assume it is a place where piety always wins over historicity.
June 7, 2003
"Knowing Jesus: Faith and History"
The Meaning of Jesus (HarperCollins, 1999), chapter 2 (by N.T. Wright)
I predicted that I would be more sympathetic with Wright than Borg, and I did not disappoint myself. Wright brings up many of my objections to Borg's way of investigating Jesus, and proposes a more defensible strategy. At its heart is an hypothesis not an axiom, but an hypothesis that "we know about Jesus in two ways: history and faith" (15). In academese, one Jesus is the common referent of both scholarly historical enquiry and the knowledge that comes through faith.
This may sound like Borg, but there is an important difference. For Borg, one way knows Jesus in only the pre-Easter stage of his life; the other only knows Jesus in the radically discontinuous post-Easter stage. For Wright, because public history and ecclesial tradition claim to be speaking of the same Jesus, they are dialogue partners whose conversation is not cut off a priori:
History ... prevents faith becoming fantasy. Faith prevents history become mere antiquarianism. Historical research, being always provisional, cannot ultimately veto faith, though it can pose hard questions that faith, in order to retain its integrity precisely as Christian faith, must struggle to answer, and may well grow strong through answering. Faith, being subject to the vagaries of personality and culture, cannot veto the historical enterprise (it can't simply say "I don't like the Jesus you write about, so you must be wrong"), but it can put hard questions to history, not least on the large topic of the origins of Christianity, and history may be all the better for trying to answer them (26-27).That sounds more like the Jesus of the creeds not a "composite Jesus" but one person who is the subject of conventionally historical claims ("he suffered under Pontius Pilate") as well as theological claims ("he came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Virgin Mary"). It also sounds like the Jesus of the Gospels even Borg's favored Gospel of Mark, which begins, "The beginning of the good news of Jesus, Messiah, Son of God" (Mark 1:1). Historical investigation and confession do not reduce to each other (to put it in my own terms, they are different discourses for different uses), but that is not an excuse for them to talk past or avoid each other.
After all, if my wife gets a letter from the IRS addressed to Taxpayer ID XXX-XX-XXXX and calls out, "You're busted, dude," it is quite clear that "XXX-XX-XXXX" and "dude" refer to exactly the same person, not "the civil Telford" over against the "the spousal Telford". When the taxpayer gets audited, the husband gets cranky. When the taxpayer is imprisoned, the husband is unavailable. Likewise, Wright knows something that Borg seems to wish away: Debunk the historical Jesus and you don't just get to keep going to church and saying the creeds and the rest of the liturgy as before (cf. 1 Cor. 15:1-20).
Wright's project is first to see whether the data of history support a picture of Jesus with coherence, explanatory power, and predictive power. These are the confirming tests of scientific adequacy. Here science is operating in its proper sense (not in the materialistic or naturalistic senses that have gained ascendency in our materialistic, naturalistic scientific culture). For Wright, every event of Jesus' life, including his resurrection, is open to scientific inquiry precisely because truly scientific historiography refuses to draw boundaries in advance for what counts as evidence (22).
Second, Wright wants to see whether the data of faith cohere with that same picture and thus confirm his overall hypothesis. We would be relieved to find out that the Jesus we believers experience (and sometimes miss) in church matches the historians' picture of the man who walked the shores (and waters?) of Galilee. We cannot guarantee this conviction beforehand, nor can we rule it out; but we can test it.
By the way, 'first' and 'second' do not mean that one picture is radically prior to the other. Wright is forthright that he is intuiting and proposing pictures informed by his faith and for that matter his Englishness, his schooling, his gender, and all the rest. The test is how well the picture serves, not where the picture came from. After all, no scientist I know is troubled by the fact that the discovery of benzene's chemical structure originated in someone's dream of a snake biting its own tail, or that the Big Bang theory came from a Catholic priest who didn't buy Aristotle's conviction of the constancy of the physical universe. Why should we be dismayed, or even surprised, if belief turns out to be a helpful source of intuition?
(This is equally true of Borg's proposal, as Wright admits (24). While Borg's dichotomized Jesus comes from a world that set its rationality over and against Christian tradition, that does not automatically discredit his proposal beforehand. It just discredits his methodology, in which Borg's picture of Jesus is a methodological assumption rather than a hypothesis.)
Wright is (or at least claims to be) rigorously critical of the assumptions that would constrict either "no-holds-barred history" or "no-holds-barred faith" (18). That means not assuming a documentary history of the New Testament writings that rests on a prior conviction of what the early church must have been like (20-22). It means being willing to break the taboos of earlier modern life-of-Jesus-research the many methodological orthodoxies that dominate in biblical critical circles far more confidently than they should. Wright delights both in catching these tenacious little pests and in identifying the source of the whole infestation:
The guild of New Testament studies has become so used to operating with a hermeneutic of suspicion that we find ourselves trapped in our own subtleties. If two ancient writers agree about something, that proves one got it from the other. If they seem to disagree, that proves that one or both are wrong. If they say an event fulfilled biblical prophecy, they made it up to look like that. If an event or saying fits a writer's theological scheme, that writer invented it. If there are two accounts of similar events, they are a "doublet" (there was only one event); but if a single account has anything odd about it, there must have been two events, which are now conflated. And so on. Anything to show how clever we are, how subtle, to have smoked out the reality behind the text (18).The rhetoric here is a little disingenuous. We scholarly types all love being clever, and Wright is obviously no exception. Let the one without sin throw the first copy of Augustine's Confessions. But take it from me: Wright is not exaggerating the problem. Biblical criticism really does get this silly. And he is not being ad hominem in suggesting ulterior motives behind the moves. At least some of my guild's willingness to go along with these axioms is scholarly responsibility, and at least some of it is unbelief.
So Wright proposes a corrective: let the paranoia of unbelief make suggestions, but also let the knowledge of faith. Let it too criticize the practices of academic history, and let academic history explore the object of faith's knowledge. (By the way, Wright offers a vibrant account of faith's knowledge on pages 24-26 that rings true to my communities' experience.)
Barring no holds also means questioning the taboos of mainstream Christian theology such as its Augustinian doctrine of the end-times, which I predict Wright will want to dislodge. Above all, it means refusing to take easy ways out to resolve the tensions that inevitably arise between historical proposals and Christian faith claims when both are being formulated and brought into mutual contact (17-18). Christians really have little choice, for we claim to worship a real human being who lived, died, and rose again. Constructing partitions between those three verbs ruptures the narrative of their common subject. It leaves us telling a different story than the one we have insisted on telling through the centuries.
I am not sure I would call Wright a "traditionalist" as Camassia does; he does not defer to tradition simply because it is tradition. Methodologically, he reminds me of Jim McClendon, the Baptist whom I read, cite, and assign often. Wright, like McClendon, is faithfully fearless in subjecting the faith itself to fair scrutiny. Yet at the level that really counts, I think he (like Jim) really is traditionalistic: his career is a long test from within of historic Christianity's bedrock conviction, that Jesus is Messiah and Lord:
The more I find out about Jesus historically, the more I find that my faith-knowledge of him is supported and filled out. These knowings are indivisible. I see why some people find themselves driven to distinguish the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, but I do not think the early Christians made such a distinction, and I do not find the need to do so myself. This Jesus of whom I speak still comes to meet us, sometimes bidden, sometimes not, sometimes despite the locked doors of an enclosed epistemology, always recognizable by the mark of the nails (26).Is Wright's work foolproof? Nah. It is always possible that Wright has still managed to edit and craft everything to fit a circle that is too neat and too small to be more than a new source of undisturbed consolation. We human beings possess no guarantee against such a development. But it is also possible that he is, simply, right. Touch the scars and maybe you will feel readier to judge.
Is Wright critical enough of the criteria that establish what counts as data? I hope so, but I am not yet sure. There is no prior limit to what are the relevant facts of Jesus' story. The ones he chooses to examine depend of course on the hypothesis, which depends on the assumptions and intuitions of the hypothesizer. For instance, should we count his possibly fabulous flight into Egypt as a child? His preincarnate involvement in the arraying of the heavens? How about his appearance at CA during Communion last Sunday? How about appearances alleged to have happened to latter-day saints in the Americas?
Philosophy has been getting at this problem for some time; it need not paralyze good-faith inquiry. Wright could have nuanced his chapter with appeals to Kuhnian paradigm shifts and Quinian webs of belief and all the rest. While the excursus would have driven off much of his audience, I hope it would not have changed his argument in any material way. I suppose we shall see.
Passion surges through these pages. Wright is calling both the historical and confessional communities to a quest that trades the empty comfort of convention for the satisfying discomfort of trust not because he is a modern hero striking out bravely on his own, but because he is a follower who has gone ahead and found the land a good one. That kind of passionate confidence is infectious. It looks like the passionate confidence of Jesus that God was with him even in the crunch. It looks academic in its proper sense, and apostolic in its proper sense. I want to follow him and see where it leads.
June 4, 2003
"Seeing Jesus: Sources, Lenses, and Method"
The Meaning of Jesus (HarperCollins, 1999), chapter 1 (by Marcus Borg)
The first two chapters set out the authors' different methodologies in investigating the significance of Jesus of Nazareth. Here Borg introduces us to his vision of historical Jesus research, in the context of the many recent movements to distinguish the real Jesus from the Church's Jesus. My commentary here is rather long, for which I should perhaps apologize; I suspect there will be less to say in succeeding chapters.
Over the last two hundred years among historical scholars, both within and outside of the church, this common [confessional] image of Jesus has dissolved. Its central elements are seen no longer as going back to the historical Jesus, but as the product of the early Christian movement in the decades after his death. Jesus as a historical figure was not very much like the most common image of him (3).That is truer in some circles than in others. Giants like Raymond E. Brown do not distinguish so radically between the two pictures, because they do not believe that the central elements of Jesus' life are the product of his followers. (More below on why that is.) Exposure to life-of-Jesus research is required of all biblical scholars today, and for many their distinction between history's Jesus and the Church's Jesus does not dissolve the confessional picture.
As I write these words, I am sitting on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. I am here with a group of thirty Christians assisting my wife, Marianne, an Episcopal priest who leads educational-spiritual pilgrimmages to Israel. My role is to provide historical background and commentary. As I do so, I often feel like the designated debunker. Again and again I find myself saying about holy sites associated with Jesus, "Well, it probably didn't happen here," or, "Well, it probably didn't happen at all." Of course, I have more to say than that, but it is a frequent refrain (3-4).I remember a friend's birthday party in fourth grade where we all went to the movies to see Voyage to the Top of the World. We spent the whole time pointing out the flaws to each other. Going to the Holy Land with Borg must be like going to the movies with a fourth grader.
Borg immediately protests that the nonhistorical material in the gospels is significant too, that he is "not among the relatively few scholars who think that only that which is historically factual matters." Okay. And the professorial fourth-grader in me is sympathetic with his urge to educate those around him. However, this is a good place to show one of my own cards: I think Borg's school of historical criticism is too quick to jump from particular conclusions to generalizations. I have no objection to his judgments that "for example, today as we drove past Cana, I told the group that the story of Jesus changing water into wine at the wedding at Cana is most probably not a historical report but a symbolic narrative. At the site marking the Sermon on the Mount, I said that it was unlikely that Jesus ever delivered the Sermon on the Mount as a connected whole, even though many of the individual things probably go back to him. In Nazareth, I said Jesus probably was born here, and not in Bethlehem" (4). His qualifiers are responsible: most probably, unlikely, probably. Yet as example after example piles up, a powerful effect subtly builds. Every distinctively Johannine or Matthean or Lukan or Markan insight is taken off the table because every one may be questioned as not certainly having happened. That seems responsible enough, but in the aggregate it turns every probability into a negative certainty. This school of Jesus historians moves from admitting our uncertainty about a particular instance of Jesus-tradition to basically dismissing entire gospel traditions.
Consider a popular historian like Ken Burns. Certainty he imposes his perspective in every one of his documentaries; that is what gives them all the same look. But does that make his perspective unhistorical? Another historian reduced to looking through Burns' documentaries of the Civil War, baseball, and jazz would be forced to reject any historical conclusion that resembled Burns' perspective. But what if the reason Burns chooses his subjects is because of their compatibility with his perspective? If his love warms the heart of the viewer, his taste for Americana draws him to these subjects in the first place, and his perspective brings clarity to the jumbled historical picture, well, aren't these potentially good things? Borg's school of life-of-Jesus research typically treats Matthew, Luke, and John and distorters rather than experts, to be bypassed all the time rather than heard even some of the time.
We will see this tendency manifest itself later in the chapter.
Borg contrasts "history remembered" and "history metaphorized." "Metaphorical language is intrinsically nonliteral; its central meaning is 'to see as' to see something as something else. To say Jesus is the light of the world is not to say that he is literally a light, but means to see him as the light of the world. Thus, even though metaphorical language is not literallly true, it can be powerfully true in a nonliteral sense" (5). That distinction is common enough, but it is wise not to put too much weight on it. What Borg is moving toward is a distinction between literal and figural that correlates with the modern distinction between fact and value: "For me as a historian, the realization that the gospels are a developing tradition containing both history remembered and history metaphorized points to the historical task. It also leads to the distinction that has been foundational to the modern discipline of Jesus scholarship" (6). However, as Janet Martin Soskice shows in Metaphor and Religious Language and the later Wittgenstein shows in Philosophical Investigations, all human language all human thought is basically metaphorical. To see anything is to see it as something. The distinction between literal and figural language does not in fact map to the modern fact-value dichotomy, which is untenable anyway. I have a hunch that this will wreck Borg's entire project. I also have a hunch that you will get tired of me pointing that out as the book progresses.
Borg's next move is to lead us to that foundational distinction: between "the Jesus of history" and "the Christ of faith," or what he will call "'the pre-Easter Jesus' and 'post-Easter Jesus'" (6-7).
Here we see the full weight of the fact-value dichotomy bears for Borg. The pre-Easter Jesus is the Jesus of fact, the Jesus of objective historical inquiry, the unvarnished figure we can count on, what Borg calls "the 'protoplasmic' Jesus." The post-Easter Jesus is the Jesus of value, the Jesus of subjectivity, "the Jesus of Christian tradition and experience" (7).
Borg also distinguishes experience from tradition baptizing, I suspect, the Kantian distinction between inner and outer knowledge in order to prefer the former. The premodern Church failed to distinguish any of the three, and so it produced "the composite Jesus" of tradition: of the Bible and the confessions. At first this was Borg's Jesus, too; but in a series of stunning leaps of illogic Borg shows us why that "uncritical synthesis" proved dissatisfying and dangerous:
I thus [!] thought of Jesus as a figure of history as more divine than human....These remarks leave me dumbfounded. I have inserted exclamation points showing where my jaw hits the floor.
Moreover, I thought of him as having the mind and power of God. It was because he had a divine mind [!] that he knew things and could speak with authority." ...
But note what had happened: I lost the historical Jesus as a credible human being [!]. A person who knows himself to be the divinely begotten Son of God (and even the second person of the Trinity) and who has divine knowledge and power is not a real human being. Because he is more than human, he is not fully human. ...
Less obvious but equally important, I also lost the living risen Christ as a figure of the present. Because I had uncritically identified the divine Jesus with the human Jesus, Jesus as a divine figure became a figure of the past [!].
Thus [!!] failing to distinguish between the pre-Easter and post-Easter Jesus risks losing both. When we do make the distinction, we get both (7-8).
The Apostles' and Nicene creeds are adamant about Jesus' preexistent and incarnate divinity, Jesus' true and permanent humanity, and Jesus' present and eternal reign. What Borg has done is asserted his variety of the modern dichotomy between fact and value over both the gospel writers' judgments and the hard-won patristic consensus as the only true standard for orthodoxy. Read the Bible uncritically as Borg once did, he implies, and you too will become a heretic. Confess the creeds as Borg once did without parsing each phrase for its critical historical content and you too will become a Docetist, or the worshipper of a dead god, or some other betrayer of the true Savior. Christian tradition is the enemy of Christian orthodoxy.
Since Borg had a bad experience in Sunday School, everyone else must have too. But since Borg had a mystical encounter with God afterwards, it's all going to be okay. Never mind all the people whose biblical and confessional practices lead to, not away from, orthodoxy. Never mind the patristic Church that developed the rules of the doctrine of incarnation that Borg envisions himself recovering. The arrogance of these paragraphs is simply astonishing. (And how ironic that words manifesting such ignorance of basic Church history are coming from someone who constantly protests his historiographical integrity over against those very same ages.)
The next section will not be surprising Borg lists his "lenses for seeing Jesus". They are (1) "the foundational claim of the modern study of Jesus" he has already described, (2) "the study of ancient Judaism", (3) "the interdisciplinary study of Jesus and Christian origins", and "the cross-cultural study of religion" (8-9).
I need to say this often, lest it be missed amid my criticisms: All these lenses are good and helpful, insofar as they are used properly.
Missing, naturally, is the faith of the Church, not least the perspective of the writings the apostolic Church accepted as canonically definitive for protecting the memory of their Lord and Christ. I understand why they are not here. Let's just not forget that Borg thinks the Ken Burns effect is programmatically distortive, whereas I think it is more likely to be helpful.
Equally noteworthy is the term "foundational" modifying Borg's first item. The conclusions Borg has already identified of his school of Jesus research are in the front seat, and the assumptions behind them are driving the car. (Warning: I am using figural language! Proceed with caution!)
The "macro-lens" affecting all the others in Borg's project, the windshield so to speak, is "worldview." Borg describes his old worldview as modern, and his current worldview as moving beyond modernity to embrace both religious and secular experience. I find that puzzling: he considers respect for religious experience postmodern when the father of liberal modern theology, Friedrich Schleiermacher, founded his theological system on religious experience. Borg's continued use of "worldview" (a thoroughly late-modern term) and his reasoning up to this point are things I would still call modern, so he is probably using the terms differently than I am. My hunch is that his source, Huston Smith, is using the terms differently too, perhaps to distinguish between an earlier tendency to reduce truth to "fact" and a later movement to try to respect both "fact" and "value," "objectivity" and "subjectivity" as potentially worth labeling "truth". Of course, this may be less reductionistic but it is no less modern.
I predict that Borg's way of mapping this dichotomy onto the features of Jesus' career will produce a Jesus whose historical significance is objective and absolute, and whose theological significance is religious, spiritual, subjective, and relative. Borg is constructing a public Jesus and a private Christ. How convenient for a liberal Protestant living in pluralist America! We can talk to each other about the crucified Jesus of history, then if we like withdraw to pray to the risen Jesus of personal faith. How polite of Jesus to bifurcate himself so that we can remain in conversation but stay out of each other's way. Now that's class.
Borg's method involves identifying sources of historical knowledge of Jesus, then understanding them in the broader context of Jesus' setting. For Borg as for most of the life-of-Jesus-research guild, earlier sources are better; multiple sources are better, but only if they are independent; single sources are better if they cohere with the picture from multiple independent sources; and traditions that stand out against their context are better (11-13). There are understandable reasons behind each of these criteria, and no end of arguments over how to practice them responsibly. But even when they are practiced responsibly, it is well to note that they are hardly neutral:
First, the "earlier is better" theory has its original inspiration in a radically Protestant conviction that the earliest Christianity was the purist, and that so-called "early Catholicism" was wrecking everything already during the New Testament era. Tradition is a test rocket inexorably tilting away from its original course, not a guided missile. (Metaphor alert!) It is interesting to contrast this with the attitude among many historians today that historical perspective can actually improve with the passage of time, not degrade. It is also interesting to contrast it with the Christian doctrine of the work of the Holy Spirit as leading us "to all truth" (John 16:13).
Second, I can think of reasons for questioning the axiom that a Matthean or Lukan appropriation of Mark's material doesn't count as multiple attestation. If imitation is the highest form of flattery, and plagiarism is the purest form of imitation, shouldn't material appropriated by a different author count at least a little more strongly than material that is not? That every other gospel writer apparently engages with Mark, and that apostolic churches throughout the Empire accepted the four canonical gospels, are evidence in favor of their fundamental harmony with the Jesus each community had remembered. Of course, this too works against the romantic Enlightenment-Protestant notion that It All Went Wrong, that the Romanized hierarchy and confessional standardization the apostolic churches were already adopting during the first century was a retreat from Jesus' ideal. It is a little inconvenient for renegades and individualists that this empire-wide network was happy with bishops, the creeds, and the core writings in the New Testament.
Third, Borg's last item, the so-called "criterion of dissimilarity," is infamous for favoring only the features of Jesus' life that look neither conventionally Jewish nor conventionally Christian (since these might arise from his followers rather than specifically from him). It must be used with great caution; the Jesus Seminar (of which Borg is a member) is famous for using it both recklessly and theatrically. (On the Jesus Seminar, but not Borg directly, see "The Corrected Jesus" by Richard Hays in First Things.)
Fourth, Borg is also a fan of the Q hypothesis, which strikes me (and a minority of biblical scholars) as overly speculative. Add two things, overconfidence in dating gospel texts and a preference for early sources, to the Q theory and you get a preponderance of historical weight on a text that ironically might not have existed at all, and which if it did exist would have been folded into the Markan narrative in consistent (and thus historically plausible) ways. (It seems to me that this means one could take the exact same evidence as justification for then granting a little extra respect to Matthew and Luke for being rather consistent editors, and to Mark for providing the narrative they received so warmly. But what do I know? I am a theologian.)
On the other hand, it is refreshing to see Borg putting a fairly low value on the Gospel of Thomas, which is what a second-century Gnostic text way outside the apostolic mainstream deserves. I can't say this is a neutral judgment, but is a good one.
On to the next section. Borg almost ends the chapter by affirming the relevance of Jesus' social world to understanding his significance (13-14). It was Jewish in the era before the Temple's destruction; it was Greco-Roman; it was agrarian; it was diverse and sometimes volatile. No arguments here. In recovering Jesus' social contexts, modern life-of-Jesus research has done a lasting service to Christology. (This doesn't mean that faithful Christology should take every social history of first century Judea equally seriously; those that turn the area into e.g. a Marxist hotbed can be gently set aside or used as fodder for sequels to Monty Python's Life of Brian. I don't mean this as a swipe at Borg, who has not yet shown how he will construct Jesus' social contexts.)
We are almost through the first chapter, and it is time for me to contextualize my comments so far. They make me sound like a vociferous enemy of what fundamentalists sneeringly call "higher criticism," but I am not. I agree that some genres are more figural than others. I agree that greater exposure to the social context of Jesus' life does theology a world of good. I agree that healthy critical distance between the events of Jesus' career as the public might have perceived them and the ways they are canonically remembered can be a good thing. I agree that the criteria biblical scholars use to maintain that critical distance have some legitimacy and can even be used in the confident service of faith. I agree that some aspects of Jesus' life are in direct public historiographical view and legitimate objects of responsible historical inquiry, and others are not. While I am not yet hopeful that Borg's project will be using these insights as well as me might, I do not want to spurn the insights themselves. And I am still open to discovering that Borg might use them to craft something beautiful. But his presuppositions seem fatally flawed, so my expectations are pretty low.
Moreover, the motive behind his whole project seems counterproductive. I am not really interested in hearing some new innovative proposal for "the meaning of Jesus" to stack alongside all the others that have multiplied like rabbits since the first modern "quest for the historical Jesus" over two hundred years ago. If his historical criticism is going to overturn twenty centuries of (small-c) catholic tradition and recover a long-lost true Jesus for a heroic new breed of believer to follow, I will not feel like signing up for an Episcopal pilgrimmage to the Holy Land, for I will necessarily lose a lot of confidence in the Holy Spirit who has traditionally been taken to indwell his community, in the Son whom the Spirit empowered and ostensibly witnesses to, in the Father who sent them both to do his work of reconciliation, and in the community that confesses them as one God now and forever. My own historical-critical agenda is different: It aims to determine whether and how responsible critical historical inquiry might clarify the canonical picture to believers, and how it might make the canonical picture persuasive to moderns who are still unable to cross over into its world and inhabit it.
Borg's finale is an unexpected twist, affirming the leftover data from the canonical Jesus of the Church's actual memory: "Independently of their historical factuality, the stories of the canonical Jesus can function in our lives as powerfully true metaphorical narratives, shaping Christian vision and identity. It is not an either-or choice; both the pre-Easter and post-Easter Jesus matter" (14). Classy! See, you can still go to church if you like! But no pressure Jesus doesn't want to intrude!
Of course, Borg has left us without any advice whatsoever on how to see the public and private pictures together, except for robbing us of our confidence in the old-fashioned synthesis that articulated Christian orthodoxy in the first place. After all the chapter's previous material, this last paragraph seems tacked on to offer intentionally vague comfort to the bewildered pilgrim who has just heard that nothing really happened at the site she has paid thousands of dollars to visit.
I can see why. At this point of the journey, I would want my money back.
June 3, 2003
My fourth child Benjamin is a year old today. Happy birthday, Benjamin!
I know the blog has been too quiet recently. After the whole New York Times mess, all my unpaid, uncredited stringers revolted. Now it's just me again.
However, I am taking steps to publish more often:
In order to get a handle on modern life-of-Jesus research, Camassia and I are reading and blogging The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions by Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright. Both authors are believers, and both employ modern historical inquiry to learn more about Jesus, but their two visions diverge. You should know that from the outset I am more sympathetic with Wright.
Camassia and I will blog each chapter independently, then reply once to each other's remarks, then move onto the next chapter. We hope that will keep the discussion from blogging down.
For Camassia, I hope this provides a greater level of familiarity with modern life-of-Jesus research and a higher level of confidence in the historical integrity of the major events in Jesus' life. For me, it is an opportunity to re-engage the always hyperactive and entertaining world of "historical Jesus" research several years after I was introduced to it in graduate school.
My remarks on chapter 1 will be appearing soon.