Monday, September 27, 2010

BORG: Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, Chapter 8

This is the fifth post of a series on Reading the Bible for the First Time, by Marcus Borg.  The other posts can be found here:

As stated previously, I wish to lay out Borg’s Chapter 8 in more detail in order to interact with it specifically.  Chapter 8 sets out to reread the gospel stories in light of Chapters 1, 2 and 3.  He first has some general things to say about Jesus and the gospels and then goes into depth rereading each of the gospels.  The gospels are of course products of the early Christian community.  But, Borg cautions, we should note that Jesus and his early followers were not Christian in the proper religious sense and thus distinct from Judaism, but saw themselves as Jews their whole lives.  There was then a shift towards the end of the first century where a number of factors like Gentiles not Judaizing and issues of Jesus being the Messiah caused “Christians” to exclude Jews.  But, he posits, this division was slow as a recent study suggests that the majority of Christians were still Jewish in origin as late as the middle of the third century.

According to Borg, the NT is dated to mostly 60 to 100 CE with a few books dated a few decades into the second century (such as the Pastoral letters).  He notes that there were only about 7500 Christians around 100 CE, making the NT an impressive literary production.  Within this, the gospels were written between approximately 65 and 100 CE.  We are not sure who wrote any of the gospels.  Though undoubtedly the names assigned to the books in the second century are the names of who wrote them, we must not suppose that they are products of those who knew Jesus.

The gospels themselves are the product of a developing tradition and contain different layers of earlier and later material.  Moreover, “They preserve the Jesus movement’s memory of Jesus and use the language of metaphor and metaphorical narrative to speak about what Jesus had become in their experience, thought, and devotion in the decades after his death.”  So there are two ways of reading the gospels. The first is to read “beneath the surface” to construct a sketch of the historical Jesus.  The other is to read them as “late-first-century documents that tell us about Christian perceptions and convictions.”  Both ways are legitimate, but must be distinguished.  When they are confused, that is, when what the gospels say about the canonical Jesus is read as historical reporting, Jesus “becomes an unreal human being and we lose track of the utterly remarkable person he was.”  He goes on to say, “Anybody who can multiply loaves, walk on water…raise the dead…and call down twelve legions of angels from heaven is not a credible human being.  He is not one of us.”  Borg sees Jesus as “a Jewish mystic, healer, teacher of unconventional wisdom, social prophet, and renewal-movement initiator.  Borg also sees Jesus as “the Christian messiah”.  That is, “The experience among his followers of Jesus as a living reality after his death, and the conviction that God had exalted him to be both messiah and Lord” (emphasis mine).  This is the canonical Jesus we meet in the NT and what Borg focuses on in the rest of the chapter.

In reading the gospels metaphorically, Borg sees each of the gospels as thematic constructions, each with its own portrayal of the “canonical Jesus”.  The gospel of Mark, written around 70 CE when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and its temple, has an “apocalyptic eschatology”.  For Borg this means that Jesus’ return in glory and the ushering in of his kingdom will happen within the lifetime of those Jesus is talking to (see Mark 13:24-30).  This links with Jesus’ inaugural scene in Mark 1:14-15 where Mark has Jesus open with saying, “the kingdom of God is near.  Repent and believe in the gospel.”  The rest of the book says little about the nearness of the kingdom but of the way or path of following Jesus; note even Mark’s quoting Isaiah 40 in 1:2.  Of course the way of Jesus is the path of death and resurrection.  Likewise, Mark’s canonical Jesus calls his followers to the path of martyrdom, a major issue during the fall of the temple.

Matthew is written 10 to 20 years later, according to Borg, and points to Christian Jews in conflict with other Jews.  This explains why the book is both hostile to Judaism (e.g. Matt. 3 and 23) and in continuity with Judaism (Hebrew bible quoted 61 times at least, also see chapters 1 and 5).

Luke-Acts was written about the same time as Matthew and is dominant with the theme of the Spirit of God.  The promised Spirit fills Jesus - equipping him for his ministry, gives birth to the community, and directs significant advances in the community’s mission.  This includes reaching out to the Gentiles which indeed becomes a major theme.  In all, “The Spirit active in Jesus continues in the mission of the community.  By implication, then, the community is to continue Jesus’ activity in the world.”

John is of a whole different piece (no dating is given).  The differences between John and the Synoptics include chronology, geography, Jesus’ message, and his style of teaching.  But with these differences come some of the richest symbolic language in the NT.  For Borg, this rich symbolism in John means that “metaphorical narrative dominates history remembered and historical memory.”  As Jesus’ inaugural scene determines the gospel themes elsewhere, so here the scene of the wedding in Cana determines the theme of John.  For John, then, what Jesus is about is that it is “about a wedding banquet at which the wine never runs out and the best is saved for last.”  To this metaphorical meanings can be multiplied.  In Judaism, a banquet was a frequent symbol of the Messianic age and marriage was often used to refer the intimacy of the divine-human relationship.  Thus the nature of John’s signs.

Borg then selects 4 narratives, some of which are found in some form in all 4 gospels,  that he feels are only metaphorical in nature and exposits them along the contours of his metaphorical hermeneutic.  I will explain his view of only one of them.

The first narrative of choice is the story of Jesus walking on the water (John 6:16-21, Matt. 14:22-33, Mark -51).  Borg finds numerous “metaphorical meanings” intrinsic to the story and not dependent on its “happenedness”.
            - Without Jesus, you don’t get anywhere.
            - Without Jesus, you’re at sea and in the dark.
            - Following Jesus may put you in difficult situations.
            - Jesus takes away fear.
            - Jesus comes to you in distress.
            - Jesus still storms.
Of course, this list is not exhaustive.  Borg notes that Matthew adds an episode where Peter walks on water.  He, naturally, “strongly doubts that Matthew’s point is literal: if you have enough faith in Jesus, you can literally walk on water.”  Rather the point is again metaphorical and intrinsic meaning could include:
            - Without faith in Jesus, fear takes over.
            - Without faith in Jesus, you sink.
            - With faith in Jesus, you can walk on water (metaphorically).
            - When you’re sinking, call out, “Lord, save me!” – and he will.
Additional meaning can be found when we factor in specific historical associations of sea imagery in the bible.  The sea was mysterious and threatening force opposed to God so when the Hebrews wanted to stress God’s power and authority, they spoke of God’s mastery over the sea (see Psalm 107:25-29).  The same authority is accorded to Jesus here in the gospels.  Thus the early-church canonical Jesus can do all of the above because he participates in the power of God.

1 comment:

  1. I know to someone whose faith is unshakeable, the thought of getting solace from Borg's view of the metaphorical Jesus must seem kind of sad. But as someone who struggles with the issue of literal belief, it's...enough for now. And it works.

    I'm going to go back and re-read all of these tomorrow. Again, thank you for undertaking this explanation.


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