Saturday, October 30, 2010


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

In this last post I will deal with a number of specifics that Borg posits in Chapter 8, concerned with how to read the gospels.  Quite naturally, given Borg’s views concerning the sole human origins of the bible, the deep metaphorical levels of the bible, and his a priori rejection of “things that have never happened”, he sees the gospels as “a product of a developing tradition and contain different layers of earlier and later material.”  This way of seeing the gospels is nothing new, being about 100 years old, and holds sway among a large group of biblical scholars.  However, within the last few decades, a lot of work has been done questioning its presuppositions and constructing a more reasonable approach to seeing the gospels.

One issue that ties in with this is presuppositions about dating.  According to Borg, and many others, the beginnings of Mark as a literary work cannot be much before AD 70 so that Mark 13 can be written after the destruction of the temple.  After all, the early community of Mark through the metaphorically constructed Jesus could not have possibly foreseen the destruction of the temple.  Once that date is set,  we need to allow enough time for the Markan tradition to reach other communities like those of Matthew’s and Luke’s.  So those gospels are dated a couple decades later.  Moreover, with Matthew, as Borg writes, we have to allow enough time for there to be significant factions to develop between early Jews who did and didn’t follow Jesus. (Contrast to evangelical scholarship, which dates Mark to early – mid 60’s and Matthew/Luke to mid-late 60’s)

But there are a few problems with this construction:
1) The dating of Mark 13 involves anti-supernatural presuppositions concerning predicting the fall of the temple, which are hard to maintain, as developed in earlier posts.

2) Another false presupposition is that the early church consisted of hermetically sealed communities, who developed their traditions and doctrines apart from much knowledge or interest of other communities.  In reality, as was typical in the Roman Empire, there was significant travel and interaction among numerous churches in any given locale.  As the church grew, it showed a capacity to maintain communication.

3) The issues of Matthew are clearly tied to Borg’s statement that by 100 CE there were only about 7500 Christians.  This of course blatantly disregards Acts as a valid historical resource.  Note Acts 2:41, “3000 added”; 2:47, “added to their number day by day”; 5:14, “more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women”; 6:7, “the number of disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem”; 9:31; 13:48-49; 16:5; 17:11-12.  To take Acts seriously would mean that there were 7500 Christians within a year or two of the church’s inception at the latest. 

4) All of these points are ultimately dependent on the reader/author morality as explained in earlier posts.

Closely linked to these issues are those of form criticism, that is, of viewing the gospels simply as a product of various layers of (oral) tradition developed out of different metaphors arising from personal experiences.  While that may be sufficient for analyzing the development and production of many cultural works, the gospels don’t fit this mold for a few reasons.

1) As mentioned in an earlier post, the gospels make eyewitness claims as in John , and Luke 1:1-4.  The Luke passage is especially important so I’ll give it here:
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who were from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.
The parts I stressed should speak for themselves.  Moreover, as Borg notes, Luke uses material from Mark and Matthew uses material from Mark; it’s therefore reasonable to extrapolate to a significant degree the Luke passage above to the two other Synoptics even though they don’t make the same claims explicitly.

2) It should also be noted that, even on Borg’s dating, there is not much time for tradition development as form criticism assumes.  The sort of development that happens over the course of a few hundred years can’t be assumed to happen within 30 to 50 years, especially given the lifespan of the eyewitnesses and the travel possibilities between communities across the Roman Empire.

3) Lastly, as N.T. Wright makes reference to an important study by Kenneth Bailey in Jesus and the Victory of God (pg 134), reconstructions of the gospel traditions must account for an important sociological factor.  The world of the early ‘Jesus community’ was one of “informal but controlled oral tradition”.  In explanation, Wright notes that
They are informal in that they have no set teacher and students.  Anyone can join in – provided they have been part of the community for long enough to qualify.  They are controlled in that the whole community knows the traditions well enough to check whether serious innovation is being smuggled in, and to object if it is.
Wright quotes Bailey:
The assumption that the early Christians were not interested in history becomes untenable.  To remember the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth was to affirm their own unique identity.  The stories had to be told and controlled or everything that made them who they were was lost. (Italics original)
Thus Borg’s rigid separation between the canonical and historical readings of the gospels cannot be maintained.  This also means that Borg’s assertion that seeing the gospel as historical reporting makes Jesus an “unreal human being” cannot be maintained either.

I’d note in passing a couple of things about this assertion.  First, there were certainly categories for divine-humans in legends that people believed to be true so perhaps the gospel portrayal of Jesus would not seem quite as unreal as Borg thinks.  Second, what if the nativity story as portrayed in Matthew 1 and 2 and Luke 2 was true?  What if a virgin did conceive by the Holy Spirit and give birth to a boy who, despite being human, was so of sharing with God’s nature and being that he could be called “God with Us”?  Perhaps he wasn’t meant to be portrayed as simply human to begin with.  If so, then whether or not he’s an unreal human being doesn’t really matter because in him God is with us.

Moving on, Borg does make a very important point.  The gospels are thematic constructions.  They are not just simply a historical reporting of the life and times of Jesus, but are constructed in such a way as to develop thematically various truths about who God is, who Jesus is, he established kingdom, etc.  This is seen at a basic level in the fact that the chronology of events changes between gospels (most likely, Luke is (closer to?) the actual chronology).  Rather, events are ordered thematically.  Of course, this doesn’t mean there’s no chronology.  At least in Matthew and John, there are textual markers to indicate chronology between events.

Borg, however, overemphasizes considerably the thematic differences between the gospels.  It is certainly not the case that there is only one dominant theme in each of the gospels.  Matthew certainly has as much to say as Mark about the nearness of the kingdom (Matt. Ch. 3, Ch. 4, 10:7, and esp. ), apocalyptic eschatology (Matt. , -28, Ch. 24, 26:64, and technically Ch 13), and the path of following Jesus (Matt. -39, -30, -50, -25).  Neither are these themes absent in Luke-Acts or in John.  The symbolism of John (which can be overdone) is not entirely absent in the Synoptics.  Nor do their thematic constructions negate the historicity of the events.  It’s possible that the various truths pointed to through the different themes faithfully capture the truths revealed in the historical acts themselves.  God has spoken truly through Jesus incarnate, and to this the gospels bear witness.

The rest of the chapter is spent analyzing a few passages along the metaphorical lines that Borg proposes.  While he does bring out some valuable points, it appears on my reading that they are valuable precisely because they bring out the author’s intent and/or have some degree of cultural-historical accuracy, making a “metaphorical reading” superfluous at best.


That’s a wrap for my critique of Borg and this particular book of his.  Though I think there is some merit in his approach to the bible, I think that it obscures more than illumines the text.  And while we must not suppose absolute objectivity on our understanding of Scripture, Borg’s portrayal of what’s practically an exclusively subjective understanding is unwarranted.  In the end, if one supposes the God of Scripture, then one’s understanding must depend first on God.  We know him because he first knows us.  To claim our own standards/basis for understanding essentially de-gods God and thus what we come to understand is a de-godded God and not God of himself.  Let us choose instead to submit to the one who says:

Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other.  By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: “To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.” Only in the Lord, it shall be said of me, are righteousness and strength; to him shall come and be ashamed all who were incensed against him.  (Isa. 45:22-24; cf. Phil. 2:6-11)

Sunday, October 17, 2010

BORG: Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, Response, Part 4

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

In Chapter 3, Borg posits that a plurality of meaning exists for any given biblical text given its metaphorical nature.  Here I will explore why I disagree with his approach.  The reasons for multiplicity of meaning seem to be entirely founded on what associations a text brings forth for any given reader.  Borg acknowledges to some degree the historical context for meaning, which implicitly acknowledges the author, but there is very little emphasis on this. 

I think the starting point for thinking through this issue is that the author’s intention in some sense determines the meaning of a text (very few would disagree with this first point).  Thus, in writing what he did, the author intended something by it.  The reader, however, is a bystander to this intention to some degree or another, that is, he takes no creative role in the text in question.  If that’s true, then there must be at least some distinction made between meaning as based on the author and meaning as based on the reader.  It’s worth noting here that the word “meaning” has considerable semantic range.  The author’s “meaning” has a will or intent behind it in creating the text – we talk about what the author meant, whereas the reader’s “meaning” comes from the text entering his world or horizon and his realm of experience interacts with the text, thus creating significance for the reader.  The reader’s meaning can be similar to what one’s first car can mean, or a painting, or rainbows, or art deco.  This links to some significant experience or reference point on some level for the reader.  Of course, formally the text has significance for the author just that it’s restricted by the will or intent of the author at the time of creating it, and so it is significant in a different sense. 

The reader, however, does not have that inherent restriction since he’s not the creator but the receiver of what’s been created.  The text naturally “invokes” any number of significances to the reader based on the range of overlap between the text and its context and the experience or understanding of the reader.  The reader has to will to control these invoked significances (associations) if he cares to understand the intent of the author in the text.  The responsibility of the reader then is to restrict and/or bend the associations that are invoked within his whole experiential range to line up with the sector of the author’s world which informed his intent in the text.  In short, the reader aligns his own understanding as best as he can with the context of the text.

What happens frequently, however, is that the reader has any number of blinders on.  These can be natural ones like differences in the historical and cultural worlds of the reader and author.  But oftentimes, especially with “sacred” texts – texts of significant import in our lives, the reader has an agenda.  The reader can establish an important (to him/herself) connection/association between the text and experience/understanding apart from anything the author intended when there is no concern, will, or desire to keep the agenda in check.

Where we end up is the morality issue, stated in the last post, of whether or not the reader is concerned with what the author/creator of the text intended.  (That, in turn, leads to requiring faith/trust in the God who ultimately created his Word when it comes to understanding his word.)  Thus a moral hermeneutic is required to transcend part of the wall to understanding an author’s intent.

So, while it is true, as Borg states, that various parts of the bible have been read by Christians numerous ways at numerous times, the combination of historical cultural distance and lack of concern for the author’s intent is sufficient to explain the reason why.  The intent of the author still stands whether we choose to ignore it or not.  By not ignoring it, we can strive to merge our horizon of understanding with that of the author’s, and at least begin to understand and begin to understand sufficiently. 

This does not mean there is no need to find what the text means for us since we understand that the bible is no less from God than man.  But there is no reason to rely, as Borg does, on the reader to find the fullness of meaning in the bible.  Is there then, a plurality of meaning to be found in any given passage?  Only if intended by the author, whether God or man.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

BORG: Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, Response, Part 3

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

towards UNderstanding the bible
In Chapter 2, Borg rightly seeks to understand the nature of the bible in order to understand how to read it; certainly a critical aspect of this is understanding the historical origins of the bible.  Rightly, Borg points out that the bible is a product of particular communities.  Whatever the bible is, it is certainly not less than a product of particular human communities within cultural and sociological confines.  Sadly, in evaluating its divine origins, Borg can’t seem to be able to maintain a both/and and opts for an either/or.  It’s either human or divine, and it can’t be divine so it must be human.  At least Borg anticipates an objection to his disjunctive thinking. 

However, his argument falters on being limited to his own subjective experience.  People who affirm that all of Scripture is both, in his experience, tend to separate Scripture out between the “human” parts and the “divine”.  Quite naturally, those “divine” parts end up being those that simply affirm the doctrines of the community (so I take Borg to be saying).  Well, I’ll certainly agree that this is a problem, and such practice is endemic to humanity beyond religious bounds, but perhaps Borg hasn’t experienced any who do comfortably, in theory and in practice, hold that the bible is 100% human and divine without seeing the tension as an obstacle for understanding.  More charitably, Borg has probably read or experienced those who see it as both/and, yet made a judgment that their understanding was based simply on subjecting the “hard parts” to the “human” and what they agreed with to the “divine”.  So then, does the fact that people have problems making it 100% both/and determine whether or not it’s true?  This is an error in psychologizing.  Maybe there’s merely a shortcoming in understanding how the human/divine go together or merely a lack of care in praxis while what they believe to be true really is true. 

The issue is that the bible itself makes astonishing claims about itself that the words that it speaks (speech-acts) are no less divine than they are human.  Of course, we don’t want to err on the side of divine dictation, where the bible merely consists of God, whether literally or metaphorically, speaking in someone’s ear and that person dictating or writing it out (though that may be true of some scripture).  Rather, as a product within history, the bible claims, implicitly and explicitly, that Creator God himself has acted within history and has acted to have witness to his acts faithfully recorded.  This recording claims to be so faithful as to be “inerrant” in conveying what God has said and done.  I will not go into supporting the claims of the bible as this would take a whole other post, but note the standard 2 Timothy 3:16 and also 2 Peter 1:16-21.  The authority with which the Scriptures (implicitly) demand such trust in its faithfulness is laced throughout.

But there’s a problem.  What if such claims are simply a part of the “metaphor” of the community and simply intended to affirm faithfulness to itself?  What if this way of putting things really is just the human community trying to exercise its own authority in the midst of historical trials/circumstances, etc.?  Then it doesn’t simply do to say “the bible says it this way”, does it?  As Borg lays out in Chapter 3, we shouldn’t ignore the historical context nor ignore the fact that the bible is not just simply historiography but paints a picture of how the people of that community see (for Borg, experience) God and thus themselves and the world they live in.

However, I think Borg draws categories which are too restrictive:
Concerning historical context, it is one thing to note that historical meaning is found in historical context, but some speech-acts point beyond the historical circumstance to declare a truth value intended to transcend the situation.  Sometimes, saying that the historical meaning is found in its historical context ends up over-psychologizing the statement or not understanding the type of statement given.  Take Exodus 34:5-7 for example:
“The LORD descended in a cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD.  The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.”
Over-psychologizing can look at the historical context and claim that the author who wrote this did so (merely) out of the fact that a marvelous feat had been accomplished when the Israelite people escaped Egypt.  One might conclude that therefore the claims about God are ways of expressing the way the people experienced God in this instance and expressing consequences for not adhering to their way of seeing God.  Thus, it is limited in its scope to this circumstance and not intended to be an absolute truth claim (or at least shouldn’t be taken as one).  This is similar in many ways to Borg’s approach for Mark 13 in Chapter 8 of the book where we are to read it in light of the war-time mentality in the aftermath of the Romans destroying the temple. 

Yet this is very slippery.  Perhaps this is an instance where the reality really did point to some absolute truth, yet the approach of has determined a priori that it must be false as an absolute and so must be only true in relative terms.  Perhaps even looking at it this way is a product of our own historical circumstances (to be consistent) and so we still haven’t gotten any closer in understanding.  This is tied closely with simply not recognizing the type of statement.  It is popular these days to see the bible as simply (or at least mostly) narrative and so we put on our “narrative” glasses and read it that way.  Well, while that’s in many ways true, statements like the Exodus one above transcend narrative within the narrative.  It makes an assertion or proposition about who Yahweh is.  Thus it demands acceptance or rejection, not simply within the narrative but in and of itself.  We can rationalize the circumstance that brought it about but that doesn’t reckon with what the author asserted in writing it.

This leads into considering Borg’s second strand of approaching the bible, the metaphorical approach.  Borg wants us to recognize that ancient communities, like the ones that produced the bible, often metaphorized their history and often used this to invest their stories with meaning.  This is no doubt accurate for many ancient communities and it is certainly very important to recognize that biblical narrative certainly is more than just history, but is used to make theological points. 

But this is insufficient for a couple of reasons: First, it is recognized by some these days that many in Jesus’ and Paul’s day were very concerned with the factuality of the historicity of accounts, just as one criterion for canon for early church fathers was that it was in some way directly related to an eyewitness.  So such a blanket statement would be recognized by some as considerably off.  Secondly, and more fundamentally, there is a critical moral element in all this, a moral element to understanding and a moral element to “telling it like it is”.  One can either proclaim one’s worldview with respect to a faithfully portrayed history, or one can proclaim one’s worldview with considerable disregard for the way it really happened.  This directly ties in with the eyewitness concerns that are very prevalent in the bible (both implicitly and explicitly), especially in comparison to many other worldviews. 

The crux of the whole thing is that one’s worldview is fundamental.  Why would one be concerned with faithful historical accounting?  If a people/community understood that God really has acted in history, that this has been fairly witnessed, that God really is the righteous Creator God who stands in judgment against our sin, and that as a result we will all be judged accordingly, then there would be high reason for faithful reporting of what God has said and done.  Douglas Stuart says it well in discussing the historicity of Jonah,
“If the events described … actually happened, the audience’s existential identification with the characters and circumstances is invariably heightened.  People act more surely upon what they believe to be true in fact, than merely what they consider likely in theory …. If this is the way God works in history … it is not simply a narrator’s desire, it is God’s enforceable revelation.”

This is directly related to Borg’s methodology of determining the metaphorical level of a given passage of scripture; in particular, “the limits of the spectacular”.  He asks, “Are there some things that never happen anywhere?”  But I’d ask, “How do you know they never happened?” To anticipate the present tense of his question, I’d also ask, “Does the fact that it doesn’t happen now mean it’s never happened?”  First, this reminds me of a pithy Lord of the Rings quote.  In reference to the history of the ring, the narrator towards the beginning of the first movie says, “History became legend, legend became myth … and some things that should not have been forgotten were lost.”  Along more biblical lines, how unreasonable is it to suppose that if God really has acted specifically in history that such wonders didn’t actually occur, especially in order to affirm that God really was acting.  To assume they didn’t assumes that God hasn’t acted as the biblical authors proclaim.  Moreover, this makes man the final arbiter of what has and hasn’t happened.  Why should this be? 

In the end, who’s to determine whether only parts of it are divine, or whether all or none of it is?  Who’s to determine whether what the bible portrays really happened?  What’s required for understanding is simply faith.  That is, faith in what God has said and done.  In an essay by D.A. Carson, a couple of thoughts say it well:

1)  We cannot understand the bible without presupposing the God of the Bible, that is, of to some degree having the same view as the bible concerning God, human beings, sin, and what God has done and is doing to remedy the problem of sin.  We cannot know God without God first disclosing himself to us.

2) We do not know independently.  For God to structure his revelation to accommodate such a desire would be to foster the sin/idolatry in attempting to be like God, which the gospel frees us from.  His self-disclosure is sufficiently clear to those who walk by faith.  What is required is humility seeking godliness in order to grow in our understanding of God who says “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word” (Isaiah 66:2).
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