logo Practical Dreamers

Meeting Jesus again
for the first time

Marcus J. Borg   (Harper Collins Paperback)



I found this book stimulating.   The title gives a clue to the content.   We have already met Jesus,  formed opinions about him over the years and modified them.   This had been Borg's experience.   He moved outside of the faith movements for a while.   Now he offers out of experience a new way to meet Jesus again for the first time.

Marcus tells his personal story to illustrate the process he has been through in meeting Jesus,  and refining the insights.   The movement is from childhood,  to adolescence,  College,  Seminary and beyond.   At Seminary he discovered the contrast between the Johannine images of Jesus with the synoptic to be so great that one of them had to be non-historical.   Both could not be accurate characteristics of Jesus as a historical figure.

He learnt of two consensus positions:

First,  that we can't know very much about at all about the Jesus of history.

Second,  from the little we can know about Jesus,  he was an  'eschatological prophet'  who expected and proclaimed the end of the present world and the coming of the Kingdom of God in the very near future.   As a 22 year old seminarian he found this exciting.

Now  -  beyond belief to relationship.   Finally to complete his story,  Borg says he met Jesus again.   Until his late thirties he saw the Christian life as being primarily believing.   Now he sees the Christian life as entering into a relationship with that to which the Christian tradition points,  which may be spoken of as God,  the risen living Christ,  or the Spirit.

Borg suggests it is useful to move beyond thinking of the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith,  to thinking of the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Jesus.   I found this a helpful suggestion.   So he turns to look at the pre-Easter Jesus  ....

What manner of Man?

Marcus acknowledges his involvement from 1985 with the Jesus Seminar scholars in determining the historical accuracy of the sayings of Jesus.   He seeks to separate of the voices,  to see an image of the pre-Easter Jesus. "The first (and most important) source is the earlier layers of Matthew,  Mark and Luke  ...  which contained sayings of Jesus,  typical actions and a skeletal framework of his adult life."

"The second source is the earlier layer of the recently discovered Gospel of Thomas,  found in upper Egypt in 1945."

"Missing from our list of sources is the Gospel of John .....   Though it is a powerful and truthful testimony to the community's experience of the post-Easter Jesus,  it does not very closely reflect the pre-Easter Jesus."

"Jesus was deeply Jewish.   It is important to emphasize this obvious fact."

"It is clear  'The Jews'  did not reject Jesus.   Rather the few Jewish persons involved in the events leading up to his execution were a small but powerful elite whose power derived from the Romans.   Instead of representing Jews,  they might fairly be described as collaborating in the oppression of the Jewish people."

Marcus goes on to deal with the birth of Jesus,  his socialization and early adulthood,  before providing an adult sketch.

On the negative side he says:

"Jesus' self-understanding was in all likelihood nonmessianic  .... His message was not about believing in him.   Rather,  the pre-Easter Jesus consistently pointed away from himself to God.   His message was theocentric,  not christocentric  -  centered in God,  not centered in a messianic proclamation about himself."

In a similar way it was noneschatological. Jesus was not expecting the supernatural coming of the Kingdom of God.

On the positive side  -  four things to note.   The historical Jesus was:


Implications for the Church?

"The image of the pre-Easter Jesus as one who experienced God is quite different from common understandings of Jesus."

In answer to the question  "Do you believe Jesus was God"  Marcus suggests the answer is  "No,  the pre-Easter Jesus was not God."

"The sketch of Jesus as a spirit person suggests that Jesus was not simply a person who believed strongly in God,  but one who knew God."

Jesus,  Compassion,  and Politics

"Two key words enable us to glimpse what was most central to Jesus:  Spirit and Compassion."

"Compassion is a particularly important word in the gospels.   The stories told about Jesus speak of him as having compassion and of his being moved with compassion.   The word also represents the summation of his teaching about both God and ethics.   For Jesus,  compassion was the central quality of God and the central moral quality of a life centered in God."

Marcus provides an interesting exposition of  'The Purity System of the Jewish Social World'  followed by an explanation of Jesus' attack upon the Purity System.

"The purity system was to create a world with sharp social boundaries between pure and impure,  righteous and sinner,  whole and not whole,  male and female,  rich and poor,  Jew and Gentile."

"At the centre of the purity system were the temple and the priesthood."

"In the message and activity of Jesus,  we see an alternative social vision,  a community shaped not by the ethos and politics of purity,  but by the ethos and politics of compassion."

"Many of the sayings of Jesus indicted the purity system  ...  Jesus spoke of purity as on the inside and not on the outside."

"The critique of the purity system is the theme of one of Jesus most familiar parables,  the story of the Good Samaritan.   Most often interpreted as a message about being a helpful neighbor,  it in fact had a much more pointed meaning in the first-century Jewish social world.   It was a critique of a way of life ordered around purity  ... Thus this beloved and often domesticated parable was originally a pointed attack on the purity system and an advocacy of another way:  compassion."

"We see the challenge to the purity system not only in Jesus' teaching but in many of his activities.   The stories of his healings shatter the purity boundaries of his social world."

"One of his most characteristic activities was an open and inclusive table.   'Table Fellowship'  -  sharing a meal with somebody  -  had a significance in Jesus' social world that is difficult for us to imagine."

Finally,  Marcus Borg faces us with the Spirit and Compassion of Jesus.   A most telling and inevitable implication is directed to the strongly negative attitude toward homosexuality on the part of some Christians.   He sees this as a purity issue.   He concludes  "It seems to me that the shattering of purity boundaries by both Jesus and Paul should apply to the purity code's perception of homosexuality.   Homosexual behavior should therefore be evaluated by the same criteria as heterosexual behavior.   It also seems to me that the passage in which Paul negates the other central polarities of his world also means,  'In Christ, there is neither straight nor gay.'   Granted,  that Paul didn't say that,  but the logic of 'life in the Spirit' and the ethos of compassion imply it."

Jesus and Wisdom - Teacher of alternative wisdom

"Wisdom is one of the most important concepts for understanding of what the New Testament says about Jesus.   It is central for two reasons.   One the one hand,  Jesus was a teacher of wisdom.   This is the strongest consensus among today's Jesus scholars.   Whatever else can be said about the pre-Easter Jesus,  he was a teacher of wisdom  -  a sage,  as teachers of wisdom are called.   On the other hand,  the New Testament also presents Jesus as the embodiment or incarnation of divine wisdom."

Marcus Borg shows the 'how' of Jesus' wisdom teaching:  aphorisms and parables.

"Strikingly,  the most certain thing we know about Jesus is that he was a story teller and speaker of great one liners."

Not that he would have used them all at once,  as we sometimes imagine.

"Sometimes it is the content of the one liner that is fresh and arresting ... The saying is striking,  enigmatic and evocative ... the image is humorous,  but with a bite to it as well."

"Thus as a wisdom teacher Jesus used aphorisms and parables to invite his hearers to see in a radically new way."

Borg identifies a problem between 'conventional' and 'subversive and alternative' wisdom.

Conventional Wisdom

"Conventional wisdom is the dominant consciousness of any culture.   It is a culture's most taken-for-granted understandings about the way things are,  (its world view,  or image of reality) and about the way to live  (its ethos, or way of life).   It is 'what everybody knows'  -  the world that everybody is socialized into through the process of growing up."

Conventional wisdom:

In short,  whether in religious or secular form,  conventional wisdom creates a world in which we live.

"Life in this world can be and often is grim.   It is a life of bondage to the dominant culture,  in which we become automatic cultural persons,  responding automatically to the dictates of culture.   It is a life of limited vision and blindness,  in which we see what our culture conditions us to see and pay attention to what our culture says is worth paying attention to.   It is a world of Judgement:  I judge myself and others by how well I and they measure up.   It is a world of comparisons:  I may be aware that I am not the most attractive person in the world,  but because I am more attractive that some,  I am 'okay'."

"There is an image of God that goes with the world of conventional wisdom.   When conventional wisdom appears in religious form, God is imaged primarily as lawgiver and judge ..."

"When this happens in the Christian tradition,  it leads to an image of the Christian life as a life of requirements.   Indeed,  this happens so frequently that it is the most common form of Christianity  ...   It is very common for Christians  (and some scholars)  to identify Judaism with a religion of law and an image of God as wrathful and judgmental,  in contrast to Christianity,  which is seen as a religion of grace,  with an image of God as forgiving and loving.   There are two things wrong with this identification.   First,  it is historically inaccurate and radically unfair to Judaism.   There were voices of alternative wisdom within Judaism  ...  Second it misses my point about conventional wisdom completely.   Conventional wisdom is not to be identified with any particular tradition;  it is pervasive in all traditions.   To emphasize the point once again,  the conflict between conventional wisdom and alternative wisdom is not a conflict between Judaism and Christianity,  but a conflict within both traditions."

Subversive and alternative wisdom

"As a teacher of wisdom,  Jesus undermined the world of conventional wisdom and spoke of an alternative.   The two are intrinsically linked:  the first must be deconstructed in order for the second to appear.   Jesus set about this task in a number of ways."

"Jesus used the language of paradox and reversal to shatter the conventional wisdom of his time."

He spoke of conventional wisdom as the broad way that that led to destruction and  "directly attacked the central values of his social world's conventional wisdom:  family,  honor,  purity and religiosity.   All were sanctified by tradition,  and their importance was part of the taken-for-granted world.   It was against these values that some of his most radical sayings were directed."

Jesus,  the wisdom of God

"The second important role played by wisdom in the early Christian movement's imagining of Jesus is Christological.   The early layers of the movement's developing traditions portray Jesus not only as a teacher of wisdom,  but also as intimately related to 'the wisdom of God'."

Marcus Borg identifies the contributions of the church councils at Nicea (A.D. 325) and Chalcedon (A.D. 451).   "As a result the most familiar Christology to people both within and outside of the Church is one that images Jesus' relationship to God as Son of the Father.   This Son of God Christology is the core of the popular image of Jesus."

"But this had not yet happened in the new Testament period.   There was as yet no official Christology.   Rather,  the New Testament contains a variety of Christological images,  which function as metaphors for imaging the significance of Jesus and his relationship to God.   They had not yet been crystallized into doctrines  ..."

Marcus Borg usefully examines Wisdom in the Jewish tradition before he turns to the synoptic gospels to make a link with Jesus as a child of Sophia  (Wisdom)  and John the Baptizer.   The next step is to see wisdom as a central category for the Apostle Paul,  and finally within the Gospel of John to see wisdom as logos within the prologue.

A complementarity of Christological images:

"Our exploration of the role of Sophia as Wisdom in the Jewish tradition and in the New Testament discloses a number of things.   It enables us to see a nice symmetry between Jesus as a teacher of wisdom and the early movement's image of him as one intimately related to Sophia.   As the voice of alternative wisdom,  Jesus is also the voice of Sophia.

"It enables us to glimpse what may be the earliest Christology of the Christian movement.   The use of Sophia language to speak about Jesus goes back to the earliest layers of the developing tradition."

This points not only to the centrality of Sophia language in the formation of the early Christian movement,  but also to a gender complementarity of Christologies.   For early Christianity,  Jesus was the Son of the Father and the incarnation of Sophia,  the child of the intimate Abba,  and the child of Sophia.   This awareness is very helpful for us in an age of growing sensitivity to the issue of inclusive language.

"It also points to the impossibility of literalizing Christological language.   The multiplicity of images for speaking of Jesus' relationship to God  (as logosSophia,  Son  -  to name but a few)  should make it clear that none of them is to be taken literally.   They are metaphorical."

Images of Jesus and Images of the Christian Life

Finally Borg seeks to broaden his framework for thinking about the images of Jesus and the images of the Christian life to include the Bible as a whole,  especially the Old Testament.

"In the last two decades,  a movement known as story theology has called attention to the narratival character of the Bible,  or to say the same thing,  the centrality of 'story' in Jewish and Christian Scriptures."

The Macro-Stories of Scripture:

"All three of these stories shape the message of Jesus,  the New Testament,  and subsequent Christian theology." "What is revealed is more than one thing.   Sometimes the emphasis is upon revealing what God is like  (for example,  love or compassion).   Sometimes the emphasis is upon Jesus as 'the light' who beckons us home from the darkness of exile.   Sometimes the emphasis is upon Jesus death and resurrection as the embodiment of the way of return,  a disclosure of the internal spiritual process that brings us into an experimental relationship with the Spirit of God.   Within this way of seeing Jesus,  he is the incarnation of the path of return from exile."

"Yet, though all three stories were important to Jesus,  the early movement,  and subsequent Christian theology one of them  -  the priestly story  -  has dominated the popular understanding of Jesus and the Christian life to the present day.   It is,  of course,  the core element in the popular image of Jesus as the dying savior whose death is a sacrifice for our sins,  thereby marking our forgiveness by God possible.   To say 'Jesus died for our sins' is to interpret his significance within the framework of the priestly story."

Borg notices the effect of the confession of sins in Christian worship.   He goes on to say "When the priestly story becomes the dominant story or the only story for imaging Jesus and the Christian life,  it has serious limitations.   Indeed,  limitations is too weak it term.   When it dominates Christian thinking,  it produces severe distortions in our understanding of the Christian life."

Marcus lists six distortions:

Jesus and the Christian Life as Journey:

"The story of Jesus,  and our understanding of the Christian life,  are much richer and fuller when we see them in the context of all three stories,  and not simply in the context of the priestly story.   All three stories informed and shaped Jesus own perception of the religious life and therefor his message and activity."

"The conventional wisdom that he subverted had characteristics of both bondage and exile,  Egypt and Babylon."

"The emphasis both in Jesus' teaching and in the gospels themselves upon a 'way' or 'path' also points to an understanding of the religious life as a journey.   Jesus teaches a 'way' and the gospels are about 'the way'."

"Jesus' relationship to the priestly story is somewhat different.   Here he subverts the story itself.   His subversion of the purity system undercuts the priestly story's image of the human condition as 'stained' or impure.   He forgives sins apart from the institution of temple,  priest,  and sacrifice,  thereby negating their necessity."

What picture of discipleship do we get?   "I invite you to hear what is said as resonating both with what it meant for his first followers to be in relationship to the pre-Easter Jesus and what it means to followers in every generation to be in relationship to the post-Easter Jesus."

Discipleship means:

"Thus we have what I would call a transformist understanding of the Christian life,  an image of the Christian life richer and fuller than the fideistic and moralistic images I have described  ... (chapter 1)  It is a vision of the Christian life as a journey of transformation,  exemplified by the story of discipleship as well as by the exodus and exile stories.   It leads from life under the lordship of culture to the life of companionship with God."

"It is an image of the Christian life as not primarily believing or being good but as relationship with God.   That relationship does not leave us unchanged,  but transforms us into more and more compassionate beings 'in the likeness of Christ'."

"Believing in Jesus in the sense of giving one's heart to Jesus is the movement from secondhand religion to firsthand religion,  from having heard about Jesus with the hearing of the ear to being in relationship with the Spirit of Christ.   For ultimately,  Jesus is not simply a figure of the past,  but a figure of the present.   Meeting that Jesus  -  the living Jesus who comes to us even now  -  will be like meeting Jesus again for the first time."

Norman J. West



>>>   Home Page


>>>   Site Index