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The parting of the ways on Jesus

We live in interesting times, with key evangelical doctrines under scrutiny and challenge—sometimes by Christians who claim to be evangelicals themselves. I like to follow the way these developments have progressed. Two distinct paths have emerged and both are typified in this book: The Meaning Of Jesus: Two Visions by Marcus J. Borg and N.T. Wright (HarperCollins e-books, 1999. ISBN: 978-0-06-193483-4).

One path leads to what is sometimes called ‘progressive’ Christianity, but which many would call simply ‘liberal’. The other keeps broadly to the evangelical line but offers modified versions of some elements. Marcus Borg is typical of the first, and N.T. Wright of the second. Myself, I’m a committed ‘second’ man.

This book looks at Jesus from the two perspectives. The authors, who write as friends, take turns in examining Jesus as presented in the New Testament: his virgin birth, his mission and message, his death and resurrection, his deity, his return, and what it means to follow him. They argue with respect for each other, but their conclusions are poles apart.

As for the ‘flavour’ that each imparts, I found Borg’s conclusions so vague that he left virtually nothing for my faith to hold on to, whereas Wright’s, while questioning some traditional ideas, strengthened and encouraged me in my Christian walk. I suspect you might feel similar effects, but you must judge for yourself.

I have grouped my selection of quotations under the name of each author.

[The numbers are not page numbers but Kindle location numbers]

From Marcus Borg

I see the story of Jesus changing water into wine at the wedding in Cana in its entirety as history metaphorized; I do not think a historical event lies behind it. As the opening scene of the public ministry of Jesus in John’s gospel, the author uses it (and perhaps created it) to invite us to see the story of Jesus as a whole as the story of a wedding banquet at which the wine never runs out and at which the best is saved for last. (201)

I am not persuaded that the pre-Easter Jesus thought of himself as the messiah. (984)

I do not accept a supernatural interventionist model of God and God’s relation to the world. The model creates more problems than it solves. (1216)

The death of Jesus has been seen as the purpose of his life. But was this how Jesus saw it? Was a salvific understanding of his death in the mind of Jesus himself? Or is it a post-Easter product of the early Christian community? Of these two options, Tom chooses the first and I choose the second. (1413)

I see the use of passages from the Hebrew Bible generally as prophecy historicized rather than as prediction fulfilled. (1424)

Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane: “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet not what I want, but what you want.” But according to Mark, there were no witnesses: Jesus had gone some distance away, and the disciples were all asleep. The point: according to the story itself, nobody would have known what Jesus prayed, and the content of the prayer is thus the product of imaginative elaboration. (1510)

Tom argues vigorously for the historical factuality of the empty tomb and sees it as central to the truth of Easter. He thus affirms what is commonly called a “physical resurrection”: something utterly remarkable did happen to the corpse of Jesus, namely, it was transformed into “a new mode of physicality.” I see the empty tomb and whatever happened to the corpse of Jesus to be ultimately irrelevant to the truth of Easter. (2186)

I do not see the Emmaus Road story as reporting a particular event on a particular day, visible to anybody who happened to be there, but as a story about how the risen Christ comes to his followers again and again and again. (2269)

To say “Jesus is the true vine” is to see him as the true vine, and to say “Jesus is the Son of God” is to see him as the Son of God. The point is not to believe that Jesus is the true vine or the Son of God, as if these were facts about him. But to see him as the true vine implies taking him very seriously as the one upon whom we as the branches depend for life, and as one whose life flows through us. (2508)

I can say the creed without misgivings. I do not see it as a set of literally true doctrinal statements to which I am supposed to give my intellectual assent, but as a culturally relative product of the ancient church. (2589)

I do not think the virginal conception is historical, and I do not think there was a special star or wise men or shepherds or birth in a stable in Bethlehem. Thus I do not see these stories as historical reports but as literary creations. (2965)

In an inscription from 9 C.E. found in Asia Minor, Caesar is spoken of as “our God” and as a “Saviour” who brought “peace” throughout the earth, and whose birth was “good news” to the world. In other texts, he is also spoken of as divine and as descended from a divine-human conception. By echoing language used about the Roman emperor, Luke affirms that Jesus, not Caesar, is the good news, the true saviour and Son of God who brings peace. (3051)

I do not myself think there will be a future visible return of Christ. (3201)

An older understanding of Christianity has ceased to be compelling to millions of people over the last thirty to forty years and is the major cause of the loss of membership in mainline denominations. I have described that older understanding elsewhere with five adjectives: in harder and softer forms, it was literalistic, doctrinal, moralistic, exclusivistic, and afterlife oriented. It has ceased to work for a large number of people. They find that if they must take the Bible literally, they cannot take it at all. (3773)

I do not think being a Christian is primarily about believing. It is not about believing in the lens, but about entering a deepening relationship to that which we see through the lens. It is not about believing in the Bible or the gospels or Christian teachings about Jesus, but about a relationship to the One whom we see through the lens of the Christian tradition as a whole. (3922)

We need to develop the ability to hear the gospels (and the Bible as a whole) in a state of postcritical naïveté. It is a state beyond the childhood stage of precritical naïveté and the adolescent and adult stage of critical thinking. (4059)

From Tom Wright

The more I find out about Jesus historically, the more I find that my faith-knowledge of him is supported and filled out. These knowings are indivisible. I see why some people find themselves driven to distinguish the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, but I do not think the early Christians made such a distinction, and I do not find the need to do so myself. (561)

Many have traditionally read Jesus’ sayings about judgment either in terms of the postmortem condemnation of unbelievers or of the eventual destruction of the space-time world. The first-century context of the language in question, however, indicates otherwise. Jesus was warning his contemporaries that if they did not follow his way, the way of peace and forgiveness, the way of the cross, the way of being the light of the world, and if they persisted in their determination to fight a desperate holy war against Rome, then Rome would destroy them, city, temple, and all, and that this would be, not an unhappy accident showing that YHWH had simply forgotten to defend them, but the sign and the means of YHWH’s judgment against his rebellious people. (766)

Embedded within the earliest strands of Christian tradition we find an already formulaic statement: the messiah died for our sins according to the scriptures…  It was not, first and foremost, a way of saying that the moral failures of individuals had been atoned for in some abstract theological transaction. That would come, and quickly; we find it already in Paul’s mature thought. But in the beginning it was a claim about what Israel’s God had done, in fulfilment of the scriptural prophecies, to bring Israel’s long night of exile to its conclusion, to deal with the “sins” that had kept Israel enslaved to the pagan powers of the world, and to bring about the real “return from exile,” the dawn of the new day, for which Israel had longed. (1785)

Only the belief that the principalities and powers have in fact been led as a bedraggled and defeated rabble in Christ’s triumphant procession will provide the right foundation for a true Christian political activity. Without being rooted in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, such activity all too quickly becomes a “religious” version of one or another contemporary ideology. (1851)

There is no evidence for Jews of our period using the word resurrection to denote something essentially nonconcrete. The word retained its metaphorical echoes and acquired new metonymic ones, but without losing the literal reference to the concrete event of dead bodies coming to life. (1952)

Early Christianity did not consist of a new spirituality or ethic. It consisted of the announcement of things that had happened, whose significance lay precisely in their happenedness: specifically, the messiah’s death, burial, and resurrection. (The mention of burial underlines the fact that, for a Jew like Paul, resurrection does not mean “survival” or “nonphysical immortality” but involves the undoing of death and burial alike. The empty tomb, though not mentioned here, is presupposed. (2018)

The stories of Easter morning in Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, and John 20 are notoriously difficult to harmonize. We shall never be sure how many women went in what order to the tomb, at what point two or more male disciples went as well, how many angels they all saw, where or in what order the appearances of Jesus took place. But, as many have pointed out, it is precisely this imprecision, coupled with the breathless quality of the narratives, that gives them not only their unique flavour but also their particular value. Despite the scorn of some, lawyers and judges have regularly declared that this is precisely the state of the evidence they find in a great many cases: this is what eyewitness testimony looks and sounds like. And in such cases the surface discrepancies do not mean that nothing happened; rather, they mean that the witnesses have not been in collusion. (2066)

The resurrection of Jesus means that the present time is shot through with great significance. What is done to the glory of God in the present is genuinely building for God’s future. Acts of justice and mercy, the creation of beauty and the celebration of truth, deeds of love and the creation of communities of kindness and forgiveness—these all matter, and they matter forever. Take away the resurrection, and these things are important for the present but irrelevant for the future and hence not all that important after all even now. (2156)

I do not think Jesus “knew he was God” in the same sense that one knows one is tired or happy, male or female. He did not sit back and say to himself, “Well I never! I’m the second person of the Trinity!” Rather, “as part of his human vocation, grasped in faith, sustained in prayer, tested in confrontation, agonized over in further prayer and doubt, and implemented in action, he believed he had to do and be, for Israel and the world, that which according to scripture only YHWH himself could do and be.” (2797)

The early church was not reticent about saying that Jesus was messiah, that his death was God’s saving act, and that he and his Father belonged together within the Jewish picture of the one God. I see no reason why the contemporary church should be reticent about this, either. (2818)

I cannot…imagine a Christianity in which the would-be Christian has no sense, and never has had a sense, of the presence and love of God, of the reality of prayer, of their everyday, this-worldly life being somehow addressed, interpenetrated, confronted, or embraced by a personal being understood as the God we know through Jesus. (3389)

If all claims to truth are suspect, so is the claim that all claims to truth are suspect. By what right does the postmodernist claim to be standing still, observing the rest of the world going round and round in its biased circles? (3474)

Thy kingdom come, he taught us to pray, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Not “in heaven, when we eventually get there” or “in heaven, where we enjoy our private spiritualities,” but on earth, in the here and now. And that kingdom, that will of God, concerned—for a first-century Jew speaking to first-century Jews—God’s becoming king, and Caesar, Herod, and all other claimants being demoted. That language, both then and now, enters the arena known as politics, and any attempt to remove it from that arena falsifies and belittles it. (3569)

Once we focus both history and faith on Jesus of Nazareth, discovering him to be as I have tried to describe him, we may perhaps find that creation, sacraments, human life, politics, history, and faith come rushing together in new integrations for which as yet we have no language but worship. (3728)

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