After years of friendship, two Bible scholars met to discuss their different views of Jesus. You and I are the beneficiaries of this discussion because it has helped to clarify the belief of many Christians about who Jesus really was, and is. The book, The Meaning of Jesus,1
It can be a challenge to read because both its authors speak from extensive experience as exegetes. But it is a valuable contribution because it clearly seeks to introduce the controversial subject without resorting to name-calling and misrepresentation.
Jesus himself encouraged people to do this:
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He was asking His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”2
Both of these men would agree with Peter’s statement, but only one believes that Peter actually said it. N.T. Wright argues that the New Testament as a whole gives a historically accurate representation of the history of Jesus, while Marcus Borg argues that the New Testament authors write their theological understanding of Jesus into the narratives of their stories, so that much of what they write is not factual history. Instead, much of the content of the Gospels is “history metaphorized” (5) – things believed about Jesus that are turned into stories that reflect that belief, but which never really happened.
With this presupposition, Borg proceeds to suggest that the stories of Jesus’ virginal conception were the Gospel writers’ way of saying that Jesus had a special significant identity (185). He admits that he believed in the actual virgin birth when he first heard the stories as a child (247), but his understanding of how the Gospels were written has changed his mind.
Borg also doubts that Jesus knew that he was the Messiah during his earthly ministry. Borg states “I do not see Jesus as seeing himself in messianic terms, and I do not think he saw his death as central to a messianic vocation or as in some sense the purpose of his life” (54). By contrast, Wright argues that a messianic vocation was not only central to Jesus’ testimony, but it was also consistent with other historical figures who lived the same time as Jesus (33,44).
Wright argues that the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ resurrection are absolutely essential to the gospel message. But Borg argues that the actual physical resurrection of Jesus is not the point of those narratives. He argues that “the truth of Easter does not depend upon something having happened to Jesus’ corpse” (131). He thus argues “that the empty tomb is irrelevant” (134). Wright responds by saying “Take away the bodily resurrection … and what are you left with? The development of private spirituality, leading to a disembodied life after death: the denial of the goodness of creation, your own body included. If Jesus’ resurrection involved the abandoning of his body, it would make exactly the wrong metaphorical point” (126). Conditionalists agree.
Wright argues that Christ’s resurrection guarantees ours, and that both are examples of a “transformed physicality, with new properties and attributes, but still concrete and physical” (120). Borg insists that “resurrection does not mean a resumption of previous existence but entry into a new kind of existence. We cannot say in detail what this new existence is like, but it is obviously an existence very different from what we presently experience” (131). Conditionalists (and Wright) would argue that the resurrected body of Jesus is the pattern, and that “transformed physicality” is a helpful description of that pattern.
Borg asserts that “mainline scholars generally do not think Jesus spoke specifically about his own second coming” (192). He argues that “the apocalyptic eschatology of early Christianity and the expectation of the second coming of Jesus emerge within the early Christian community after Easter” (193). Interestingly, Wright seems to take a less that categorical stance in his reply. While arguing that Jesus did proclaim his own second coming, he suggests that such language was “apocalyptic metaphor, signifying the vindication of God’s people after their suffering” (197). Wright is more comfortable reflecting the general understanding that God is going to bring a new earth out of the old, rather than insisting that it happen via some specific coming in the clouds.
While conditionalists may be somewhat disappointed in Wright’s apparent concessions in this section, we applaud some statements he makes: “Regular devout language about leaving ‘earth’ and going to ‘heaven’ needs to be challenged by Revelation’s picture (chapter 21) of new heavens and new earth, and by Paul’s great image, in Romans 8, of the whole creation groaning in birth pangs, longing for liberation, sharing the freedom and glory of the children of God in the world that is yet to be” (198). Wright also says that “Regular talk of ‘going to heaven’ and the reference to ‘heaven and hell’ as final destinies can … be misleading, encouraging visions of a disembodied future existence.” “The classic Christian hope and prayer for the faithful departed is that they may rest in peace and rise with Christ in glory.” “The ‘heavenly country’ for which we long, according to Hebrews 11.16, is not, then, a disembodied existence. It is the new world in which heaven and earth are joined at last, in which what God is currently preparing in heaven is brought to birth in a world that we will recognize as physical. ‘Thy kingdom come,’ we pray, ‘on earth as it is in heaven,’ not ‘in heaven once we’ve escaped earth’ (200).
The book reveals two major areas in which these scholars disagree. First, there is a question of evidence. Wright suggests that the entire New Testament is an accurate source for our understanding about the historical Jesus. Borg suggests that much of the New Testament is a result of the early church’s faith about Jesus being rendered in the form of stories that are metaphorically true, but which are about incidents which did not happen.
The second major area where these scholars disagree is the role that belief plays in being a Christian.
- “repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).
- “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name” (John 1:12).
- “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. “He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:16-18).
- “But many of those who had heard the message believed” (Acts 4:4).
- “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16).
- “In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation–having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory” (Ephesians 1:13-14).
- “For we who have believed enter that rest” (Hebrews 4:3).
Borg does not “think being a Christian is primarily about believing” (239). He says that our “preoccupation with believing is because many of the central teachings of Christianity have come into question in the modern world. Thinking of the Christian life as being primarily about believing in God, the Bible, and Jesus is thus a modern mistake, with profound consequences. Beliefs have little ability to change our lives. One can believe all the right things and remain a jerk, or worse. Saints have been heretical, and people with correct beliefs have been cruel oppressors and brutal persecutors. Rather, the Christian life is about a relationship to the God to whom the tradition points. What matters is the relationship, for it can and does and will transform our lives” (240).
By Contrast, Wright says that “the scandal at the heart of the Christian faith is that Christians are committed to worshipping a first-century Jew, believing that in him the living God, the God of Israel, the creator of the world, was and is personally present” (209-210). We must, in other words, not begin with the relationship, but with the truth. We must first read the biblical account and get to know this first-century Jew before we confess him as our Lord and Saviour. If we disavow the historical evidence of Jesus we see in the Gospels, we cannot be sure that the post-Easter Christ we have a relationship with is the same person.
- Marcus J. Borg and N. T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus. (HarperCollins e-books; 2nd edition), 2009.
- Matthew 16:13-16 NASB.