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
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,
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. Ch.
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)