Monday, September 20, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but not Literally. Copyright 2001 by Marcus Borg

In an effort to understand some struggles of someone my wife is friends with online, I recently read the book titled above.  These struggles, and the fact that I found that his books have been very influential (translated into seven languages) and generally representative of a considerable amount of contemporary NT scholarship (though not as much as Borg seems to think in the book), also prompted me present my own views of the book and present where I see he goes right and where he goes wrong.  Though this is my first set of posts, it is not intended to set the tone or intent of the blog.  Those of the persuasion of Marcus Borg are not the sort I care to read on a regular basis and it can be too easy to stay on a negative tone if not careful.  Additionally, much of what follows will be heavy reading (for many) at times and I don’t have the time to write like this on a consistent basis (hence the delay since my last post), especially since I hope to spend the next two years studying hermeneutics and the Corinthian correspondence – very exciting stuff. 

So, in the next number of posts, I will first explain Borg’s thoughts in the first 3 chapters where he lays out his general concerns and approach.  Then, I’ll explain his views set forth in Chapter 8 where he applies Chapters 1 – 3 to (re)reading the gospels.  I will follow with my own thoughts and criticisms of those Chapters.  Given my purposes, and the fact that many who read might not know, or care to read, Borg, what follows will be fairly lengthy – more so than a normal book review – and technical at times.  In order to keep it more readable, I’ll be limiting references to outside sources.  Hopefully I can write for a general audience.

First a little background on Marcus Borg.  He holds a DPhil degree from Oxford where he was greatly influenced by (studied under?) George B. Caird and is currently professor emeritus of religion and culture at Oregon State University.  He is also a fellow of the Jesus Seminar, whose work on the historical Jesus, I should mention, has been roundly criticized by many biblical scholars.  Borg, as he informs us in the preface of the book, is a “nonliteralistic and nonexclusivistic Christian, committed to living my life with God within the Christian tradition, even as I affirm the validity of all the enduring religious traditions” (emphasis his).

This book is written at a popular reading level (consistent with the Jesus Seminar mission of spreading religious awareness to the public) with the main concern that Christians (and non-Christians) need a new set of lenses for reading the bible.  There is a conflict, we are told, “Between two very different ways of reading the Bible” that is “the single most divisive issue among Christians in North America today.”  “It is a conflict between a “literal-factual” way of reading the Bible and a “historical-metaphorical” way of reading it.  The former is central to Christian fundamentalists and many conservative-evangelical Christians.  The latter has been taught in seminaries of mainline denominations for the better part of a century….This book represents the historical-metaphorical side of the debate.”  These two camps, and the broad brush that he uses to paint them, colors the whole book and sets the agenda.  Throughout we are told of what fundamentalists and conservative-evangelicals believe, which is what he was brought up believing.  This is contrasted with what “virtually all/most scholars” now know and teach, which also happens to be what he has learned and teaches.  But, he admits, “The book reflects my own subjectivity.  There is no point in pretending objectivity…”

In the first three chapters, Borg explains the nature of the traditional view and the reasons for its short-comings, then explains what the bible is, which in turn sets up to explain how he reads the bible.  The rest of the chapters apply his methods to various corpora of the bible.  Chapter 4 re-reads the creation account(s); Chapter 5, The Pentateuch; Chapter 6, The Prophets; Chapter 7, The Wisdom Literature; Chapter 8, The Gospels; Chapter 9, The (genuine) Pauline Epistles; and Chapter 10, The Book of Revelation.  He then ends with his overall conclusions of what the major themes of the bible are.

For other posts:

Response to Borg’s Rereading of the Gospels


  1. Can't wait to read the rest of your thoughts on Borg ... even though I've been getting them in bits and pieces as you've been studying, it's always helpful to see them all written down in orderly fashion! (And also good to read them when I'm not in the middle of reading a book of my own, as often happens when you try to talk to me in the middle of your studying!)

  2. Carl, I am SO GLAD I have so many entries to catch up on tonight--I am cuddled down with a mug of cider and I can't wait to read your thoughts on this book. Though I find Borg's reasoning depressingly persuasive at times, I am glad to read that even he considers his scholarship subjective! That gives me high hopes that the dialogue between the historical and biblical scholars can be cordial and constructive and enlightening.

    Thanks so much for posting this!

  3. Cathy,

    A mug of cider sounds great! Glad to see you're feeling better enough to read and comment on 5 posts. Concerning his persuasiveness, I've had many times when I've found something persuasive until I read an opposing viewpoint. Often opposing viewpoints are necessary to enable clear(er) thinking, even if you disagree with both in the end.


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