The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions
"Seeing Jesus: Sources, Lenses, and Method" 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....

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).

These remarks leave me dumbfounded. I have inserted exclamation points showing where my jaw hits the floor.

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.