The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions
"Why Was Jesus Killed?" chapter 5 (by Marcus Borg)
"The Crux of Faith" chapter 6 (by N.T. Wright)

Where did the Christian faith, as something that centers on the death (and resurrection) of Jesus of Nazareth, begin?

Throughout The Meaning of Jesus Borg and Wright have been offering various forms of two different answers. For Borg, the faith is a post-Easter phenomenon that presumably arises in the community of, er, faith itself. For Wright, Jesus is the author of his own school of Christology. It will come as no surprise that the two men interpret Jesus' death accordingly. For Borg, Jesus' death comes as a consequence of his social protest (91), which is subsequently interpreted in way both different from Jesus' own self-understanding, and unattractive to Borg (81-82). For Wright, Jesus interprets his life in terms of his coming death, and his disciples carry on and intensify that understanding.

Many of the more revisionist schools of historical Jesus research are in Borg's camp here. Taken one event at a time; their arguments are often successful; taken together, they fail to satisfy. That is, it is plausible that a given detail of Jesus' life as recounted in the gospels is, in Borg's artificially dichotomous terms, "history metaphorized" rather than "history remembered" (5). Did a cock crow just as Peter denied knowing Jesus? I don't know; I wasn't there. Certainly I do not fault historians for figuring that such an event may have been an inventive way of remembering or constructing the disciples' failure at Jesus' greatest hour of need. I tend to agree with them. The same might be said for just about any event or discourse that is not so public or so embarrassing that it could not have been invented. However, it is one thing to doubt a particular instance, and quite another to doubt a whole class of instances. As John Wenham puts it in Christ and the Bible,

To one who has been captured in heart and mind by the Jesus of the Gospels, there appears to be a host of reasons for believing in the authenticity of the records. To regard the great mass of Gospel teaching as the creation of the Christian community seems to posit a marvellous effect without a plausible cause. Here is what may fairly be claimed as the greatest literature of all time, yet supposedly created by the imagination of an undistinguished community. It seems far easier to suppose that the Jesus of the Gospels created the community than that the community created the Jesus of the Gospels. Many features in the Gospels have an appearance of primitiveness: features have been retained which are liable to offend or perplex; the term 'Son of man' (though hardly used in the early church) is a favorite title; the theme of the kingdom of God has far greater prominence in the Gospels than in the New Testament as a whole; Aramaisms abound. There is complete lack of material in the Gospels on such burning issues in the apostolic church as circumcision or charismatic gifts; there is little on baptism, the Gentile mission, food laws, and relations between church and state – and what little there is refers to the concerns of the period of Jesus' ministry and not to the form in which these issues confronted the church thirty years later. The question of Sabbath observance and of Corban were not apparently live issues at a later period. It seems hard to conceive that a religious movement living so close to the life and death of its founder could have failed to be interested in his words and deeds. The prologue of Luke claims accurate research and eye-witness authority. To one who believes in the authenticity of the Gospels the person of Jesus has depth and breadth and balance and richness. He is real. He is known (40).

One does not have to share Wenham's Christian enthusiasm to be an appropriate target of his logic. The Gospels are post-Easter narratives, but they reflect a whole lot ofpre-Easter agenda. This alone indicates a possible source for the tradition. To argue otherwise, that this ragtag bunch of Jewish heretics morphed the undistinguished career of yet another social prophet into this story, is the kind of claim that should bear more of a burden of proof than Borg is assuming.

Consider the aphorisms of Yogi Berra. Once the man's reputation for gaffes grows, who knows how many one-liners may sneak in and become part of his legend? As Berra himself allegedly put it, "I never said most of the things I said." Yet the reputation came from somewhere. Why not Berra himself? It is easy to doubt the authenticity of a given quote; it is much more difficult to maintain that the man's entire reputation is a construction of others.

During a frustrating New Testament seminar in graduate school, I coined a term for Jesus research that always holds that people other than Jesus were responsible for the axioms of Christian faith: "Forrest Gump Christology." The difference between Borg's and Wright's two chapters boils down to the difference between Yogi Berra and Forrest Gump. One becomes the center of a following that expands upon the heritage creatively but faithfully. The other finds himself the unwitting subject of a story whose serendipity is literally incredible.

Consider Borg's reluctance to acknowledge the historical authenticity of the Last Supper:

Jesus and his followers most likely had a meal together the night he was arrested. It may have been a Passover meal, though this depends on whether we follow the synoptic account or John's account. Jesus may have spoken of his upcoming death; my hunch is that he knew he was in great danger. But I am skeptical that he spoke "the words of institution" over the bread and wine: "This is my body" and "This is my blood." They look to me to be an early Christian ritualization of the death of Jesus, in which the bread and wine of the common meals that marked Jesus' public activity were invested with symbolic meaning (87).

In a footnote Borg acknowledges that he is violating the historical-critical axioms he so carefully laid out in his first chapter: "Even though they have double early independent attestation. They are found in very early tradition in 1 Corinthians 11:23-25 and Mark 14:22-24. If I could imagine a plausible meaning for them as words of Jesus, I would very open to seeing them as history remembered." That is a remarkable statement. The fact that Paul repeats these words as a tradition "I received from the Lord" and "delivered to you" (1 Cor. 11:23) long before the gospels are likely written, and that all three synoptic gospels retain (but slightly expand upon) the language, and that the Fourth Evangelist refers to it obliquely in John 6, and that every one of these communities of faith makes these words the center of their remembrance of Jesus is insufficient because Borg cannot "imagine a plausible meaning for them as words of Jesus." This is one of those little passages in Borg that leaves me speechless.

In liturgiology the central words of a rite are generally treated as the most stable and resistant to change, not the most pliable. Think about the language of a western wedding. What words are the most stable? "With the authority vested in me ... I now pronounce you husband and wife." The bride and groom may be wearing scuba gear; they may be of a variety of religious traditions, or none in particular; they may be in a church or in a government office or on a bluff overlooking the California coast; but these words are still likely to be spoken, for they are among the most sacred in the culture. Things change, but these things change least and last.

The words of institution are truly weighty evidence against Borg's whole scheme. Who else but Jesus would have had the audacity to invent these words long before Paul, the ability to represent them as spoken by Jesus in the presence of the Twelve, and the authority to enforce them as early and as widely as apostolic Christianity ever went? Yet Borg brushes them off – or, perhaps, hides the power of their testimony – in a footnote. the contrast with Wright's treatment (97) is striking.

Or consider Borg's narrative of Jesus' death – just about the only paragraph in the chapter "Why was Jesus killed?" that actually addresses the question positively:

For me, the most persuasive answer [to why Jesus was killed] is his role as a social prophet who challenged the domination system in the name of God. To make the same point differently, if Jesus had been only a mystic, healer, and wisdom teacher, I doubt that he would have been executed. But he was also a God-intoxicated voice of religious social protest who had attracted a following.

In Jesus' world, this was enough to get arrested and executed by authorities who did not care for criticism and who feared popular unrest, as the execution of Jesus' mentor, John the Baptizer, not long before demonstrates. To make the point yet one more way, Jesus died as a martyr, not as a victim. A martyr is killed because he or she stands for something. Jesus was killed because he stood against the kingdoms of this world and for an alternative social vision grounded in the kingdom of God. The domination system killed Jesus as the prophet of the kingdom of God. This is the political meaning of Good Friday (91).

Now this is a measured account for why someone like John the Baptist might have been crucified in the first century, and so long as it is viewed in isolation it is plausible with respect to Jesus too. It is true enough in what it affirms. But what it denies – that Jesus saw and directed his career towards a redemptive death – leaves things unexplained that beg for explanations. If Jesus was just an irritant like John, why was he not just beheaded by Herod as John was? If Jesus' death was like John the Baptist's, why were the disciples of John not going around worshiping him and claiming that he died for the sins of Israel, as Jerusalem's Jewish Christians were doing as far back as a few years after his crucifixion (cf. 1 Cor. 15:3-5)? Why did Jesus' diverse and theologically unsophisticated disciples settle so quickly and uniformly on a common interpretation of Jesus as "dying for our sins according to the Scriptures"? Why would they repeatedly invent traditions that show them hearing but not understanding insistent testimony from Jesus that "it is necessary to suffer"? Why methodologically doubt that Jesus' "alternative social vision" became the alternative social vision that we call the apostolic Church? Why the disconnect?

Doubt some of it? Sure. But all of it? That's a remarkable series of chocolates these people pulled out of the box.

C.H. Dodd's wonderful According to the Scriptures explores the literary hints that the Christians responsible for the New Testament were reading the scriptures of Israel according to a characteristic pattern. He concludes with this striking passage about the ways the New Testament juxtaposes and interprets common Old Testament texts, many of which surround the death of the Messiah:

This is a piece of genuinely creative thinking. Who was responsible for it? The early Church, we are accustomed to say, and perhaps we can safely say no more. But creative thinking is rarely done by committees, useful as they may be for systematizing the fresh ideas of individual thinkers, and for stimulating them to further thought. It is individual minds that originate. Whose was the originating mind here?

Among Christian thinkers of the first age known to us, there are three of genuinely creative power: Paul, the author to the Hebrews, and the Fourth Evangelist [John]. We are precluded from proposing any one of them for the honour of having originated the process, since even Paul, greatly as he contributed to its development, demonstrably did not originate it. What forgotten geniuses may lurk in the shadows of those first twenty years of Church history about whihc we are so scantly informed, it is impossible for us to say. But the New Testament itself avers that it was Jesus Christ Himself who first directed the minds of His followers to certain parts of the scriptures as those in which they might find illumination upon the meaning of His mission and destiny. That He formally set before them a comprehensive scheme of biblical interpretation, after the manner of Luke 24:25-27, 44-45, we may well hesitate to believe; but I can see no reasonable ground for rejecting the statements of the Gospels that (for example) He pointed to Psalm 110 as a better guide to the truth about His mission and destiny than the popular beliefs about the Son of David, or that He made that connection of the "Lord" at God's right hand with the Son of Man in Daniel which proved so momentous for Christian thought; or that He associated with the Son of Man language which had been used of the Servant of the Lord, and employed it to hint at the meaning, and the issue, of His own approaching death. To account for the beginning of this most original and fruitful process of rethinking the Old Testament we found need to postulate a creative mind. The Gospels offer us one. Are we compelled to reject the offer? (109-110).

I have not yet found a more persuasive explanation than this one for the rise of the Christian interpretation of Jesus' death – including Borg's.

That brings us to Wright's chapter. Wright's narrative of Jesus' death, while fuller than Borg's, is still tantalizingly concise and disappointingly vague. His chapters summarize and appeal to his lengthier works, particularly Jesus and the Victory of God, which is now near the top of my reading list. I advise anyone whose interest is piqued to put it on top of theirs as well.

Whereas most of Borg's chapter sifts out traditions Borg considers historically unreliable, most of Wright's chapter sorts through traditions Wright finds consistent – with the other data of Jesus' life, with the plausibility structures of Jesus' day, and with the faith of his followers. Wright's narrative is much thicker and richer than Borg's; it appeals much more thoroughly to the Jewishness of Jesus and his world; it is comprehensive enough to explain a wide range of material consistently. Finally, it is both familiar and surprising. Believers will recognize Wright's Jesus, but Wright's Jesus – like the Jesus' of the Church's memory – will still surprise them.

This Jesus' self-image is stranger and more mystical than the one whose atonement I try to explain in my theology classes. He is, as Dodd suggests, the spring of a new messianic stream of biblical interpretation that the Church has long studied but never quite succeeded in domesticating.

Israel would pass through the fire and water, and Israel's God would then bring it out into the planned and promised salvation. Jesus seems to have believed that this would occur, uniquely and decisively, in and through his own suffering and death. He would take upon himself the "messianic woes" on behalf of Israel. He would go through the darkest night and lead the way into the dawn of the new day. This was how he would fight the final battle against the real enemy. This is how he would build the true temple. This, in other words, was how we would win the victory that woudl establish him as Israel's true messiah and transform the kingdom from its current present-and-future state into a fully present reality (98).

When juxtaposed with Borg's picture, Wright's offers something historians might otherwise miss. Borg's Jesus is a champion of the underdog, an opponent of oppression, a charismatic and spiritual personality, a healer of bodies and cleanser of psyches. What's not to like? (Can we book this guy for the next PBS pledge week?) By contrast, Wright's Jesus is eminently rejectable. He is the Chosen One among the Chosen People. He acts as if all this significance of the cosmos is folded into his life. He is someone one would go out of the way to meet, or go out of the way not to meet. He is more than a political threat to the Roman status quo; he is an existential threat to anyone who encounters him and would rather remain unchanged. This Jesus warrants every negative reaction recorded in the Gospels. He is someone worth betraying, worth denying, worth ignoring, worth condemning, worth disowning, worth crucifying (100-102) – and, if he is genuine, worth following. Much more than Borg's Jesus, this Jesus is memorable.

In these ways Wright's Jesus is similar to the Jesus of the Church's faith, but in other ways he is dissimilar (99). He breaks through the settled categories my field of theology has long used to describe him.

Embedded within the earliest strands of Christian tradition we find an already formulaic statement: the messiah died for our sins according to the scriptures. I suggest that this represents, not only an accurate summary of what the earliest Christians believed, but a strand of thought going back to the mind and intention of Jesus himself.

It is important to see what this strand meant at its very beginning. It was not, first and foremost, a way of saying that the moral failures of individuals had been atoned for in some abstract theological transaction.

Let me pause here to note that the doctrine of atonement, currently in flux across the spectrum of Christian theology, is an area of sharpening disagreement between dogmatic and biblical theologians. Theologians (like me) like to classify visions of atonement into clusters that more or less describe settled doctrinal traditions: Catholics favor satisfaction atonement, Lutherans and liberationists Christus Victor, Calvinists substitutionary atonement, liberals moral influence theory, and so on. But biblical scholars and historians like Wright are less patient with these theological judgments from the precritical era of biblical study. They rightly note that none of these theories is adequately rooted in the Jewish world of Jesus' day. Each comes from a time when the Church had largely forgotten how to think Judaically. For a dogmatician like me, the freshness of Wright's Jesus is a wake-up call to read Jesus in context if I am to represent him adequately.

That would come, and quickly; we find it already in Paul's mature thought. But in the beginning it was a claim about what Israel's God had done, in fulfillment of the scriptural prophecies, to bring Israel's long night of exile to its conclusion, to deal with the "sins" that had kept Israel enslaved to the pagan powers of the world, and to bring about the real "return from exile," the dawn of the new day, for which Israel had longed.

Let me interrupt myself to say that this is really helpful. If Wright's reconstruction of Jesus' self-understanding and the earliest strands of Christian soteriology help focus me on the image of atonement as exodus from Egypt or return from Babylonian exile, the book will have been well worth it.

For atonement is the reconciliation not just of God and individual human beings, but the collective restoration of humanity's intended end. It is the reuniting of who we are with who we are meant to be. Exile is estrangement not just from some uncaused cause, but from ourselves. Sin takes us far away from home; and home for God's chosen people is Jerusalem: not Jerusalem as a city ruled by pagan oppressors and a corrupt priesthood, but as a new city that enjoys God's justice and good provision in spirit and in truth, whose temple is the Lamb.

[This interpretation of Jesus' death] was not, that is, a matter of the early Christians "feeling forgiven," experiencing the divine forgiveness for moral misdemeanors as an inner existential reality. Nor was it a new theory about how "atonement" functioned, supplanting previous Jewish beliefs on the subject. It was the early Christian deduction, from Jesus' resurrection, that his death had been after all effective, as the hinge upon which the door to God's new world had swung open. ... The sins that had caused Israel's exile had now been dealt with, and the time of forgiveness had arrived.

Hence what might be seen as the earliest statement of atonement theology in the New Testament: "Save yourselves," said Peter to the crowd on the day of Pentecost, "from this corrupt generation." In other words, if the messiah has broken through the barrier of sin that has kept Israel in exile, there is no need for anyone to remain bound any longer within the old agendas (103).

That, not just the martyrdom of a worthy and inspired man, is appropriately called "good news." That promise is what moved me to come to Christ.

What still troubles me, not only as a vocational theologian but simply as one who calls himself a believer and disciple, is how odd it all still sounds.

Somehow, the suffering of Christians in the present, as they share Christ's sufferings and groan in awaiting their final redemption, is to become the means by which the Spirit of God prays from the heart of a world in pain, in order that the world itself might be redeemed (105-106).

This conviction, attractive and repulsive at the same time, still animates my faith and makes me who I am; but so much of life trains me and those around me away from it that it remains as foreign as my brother Jesus. The words of institution still transport me into another world where a broken body and shed blood confer life, where a cross is a sign of glory, where poverty and persecution are cause not for retribution but for rejoicing, where strangers become friends, where the evil that presses in on us from every side is already defeated. I am always glad for the trip, but want it all to feel more like home. Perhaps if I didn't push it away so often when it proved inconvenient, I would be more like the many people I know for whom it has become as natural as the air they breathe.

This is the school of Yogi Berra, not the luck of Forrest Gump. I would not have invented this story for myself. Its only lasting comfort is its unavoidable reality. Thanks to Wright and others whose efforts keep it fresh, and whose investigations confirm that the evidence of that harsh and comforting reality is not to be found in the wishful thinking some misname "faith", but in the real achievements of a real God in a real world.

Coming soon: the next two chapters, on the resurrection. My prediction is that the tone of Borg's chapters will begin to shift remarkably, while Wright's will not.