The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions
"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).

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).

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.

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).


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.

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).

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).

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?