Teachings, and Relevance of
a Religious Revolutionary
“Jesus” is a scholarly review of Jesus’ life and times. Marcus Borg carefully examines the gospels and the small amount of extrabiblical sources to help us understand Jesus' mission in the context of his life as a Jew from a small town under Roman domination. Borg acknowledges that all historical studies involve a degree of subjectivity, which he tempers by providing cogent reasons for his perspective thus allowing readers to form their judgment about his interpretation of the gospels and other available records.
It is no secret that Christians are “A House Divided” about many matters. This is notably evident in the United States. And this is the author’s context. Borg begins by providing us with a perspective on divided Christianity. Instead of focusing on denominations, he refers to two broad views or paradigms. His terms (in parentheses) are different from the more familiar conservative (an earlier Christian paradigm) and progressive (an emerging Christian paradigm). He further identifies the conservatives as fundamentalists, evangelicals, and Pentecostals and links them to the political right. In contrast, he presents the emerging paradigm as the “emergent church” and “neotraditional Christianity.”
The current presentation of Jesus’ life varies with the perspective of people writing from one of the two aforementioned major Christian paradigms. On the one hand, the earlier paradigm focuses on Jesus’ saving death on the cross, his divinity, and his moral teaching. When teaching about his life, these earlier paradigm Christians interpret the texts in a literal or near literal way.
Emerging Christians hold a view Borg calls “historical-metaphorical.” His short summary is:
“...the pre-Easter Jesus was a Jewish mystic, healer, wisdom teacher, and prophet of the kingdom of God; he proclaimed the immediacy of access to God and the kingdom of God; he challenged the domination system, was executed by the authorities, and then vindicated by God.”
Borg does not deny the importance of appreciating the “post-Easter Jesus” but Borg does want us to understand Jesus as a first century Jewish man who revealed God’s passion for the world as distinct from the way his followers wrote about Jesus as Son of God, Messiah, and Lord long after the resurrection.
Early in the book we see the two divisions when it comes to beliefs about Jesus life as described in the gospels. Early Christians developed a set of creeds or statements of faith. Modern conservatives expect Christians to affirm these beliefs, which are indicative of what it means to be a Christian. These beliefs include Jesus as the Son of God, born of a virgin, and eternally existent as God. Borg refers to this understanding of belief as “belief that,” which means belief in Jesus is a matter of believing statements about him.
In contrast, Borg’s view is that an older understanding of the word belief is more accurate. That is, the word belief meant a focus on a person in the sense of being faithful and loyal to the person you follow. In this view, to believe in Jesus is to follow his way in contrast to affirming characteristics about Jesus.
Borg presents Jesus as if you were taking a class by a master teacher who offers us a grand overview providing the context of Jewish life at a time when Romans ruled the Jews' homeland. He then explains his historical method of examining the scriptures, considers human memory, and how to treat testimonies of historical events. Next he explains how we should understand metaphorical language in the gospels—we should consider the language as “more-than-literal.”
Having explained the scholarly methods, Borg tells Jesus’ story from birth to death and the resurrection appearances. We learn about Jewish life and the meaning of phrases like “kingdom of heaven” and “eternal life.” We gain an appreciation of Jewish perspectives on wisdom and the wisdom Jesus presented in parables and short sayings. Wisdom also includes an understanding of the way to live life—the familiar two ways of broad or narrow. The broad way means the way most of us live our lives. Borg unpacks the narrow way in a series of contrasts to the broad way by exploring such common pursuits as wealth and honor.
As the Jesus' story nears an end, we learn more about Jesus’ confrontation of the Roman domination system and the symbolic language of the gospels in telling the story of the crucifixion. Finally, Borg interprets the texts telling of Jesus resurrection appearances beginning with the first comments on the event written by the apostle Paul before the first gospels were written.
Jesus is worth reading by Christians who want to learn more about the life of Jesus from a scholar who understands the gospels in their historical context and takes a humble stance when presenting the reasons for his views.
Jesus is also worth reading by atheists, agnostics, and people of other religions who wish to understand Christianity and how Christians can be divided over matters of faith and practice.
What's missing is a full appreciating of Jesus' character. Jesus appears to be a somber and witty character. There is evidence of compassion. What we don't see is a man who enjoys family, loves to laugh and joke with friends, and feels the exhilaration of romantic love. That's not the fault of the author who avoids speculating about matters not included in the gospels.
Perhaps of additional importance is an understanding of how Jesus and the first Christians mixed faith and politics. As Borg writes, the Christian story is not just personal; it is also political. Jesus and his followers presented a way of life that was different from the Jewish establishment and perceived as a threat to the domination system enforced by the Roman rulers in Judea. When Jesus' life is seen this way, it is no surprise that the earthly rulers attempted to silence him. Clearly they failed. As people continue to experience Jesus as a healer, teacher, exorcist, savior, and Lord.
Jesus is a contemporary figure in American history. Europeans brought their story of Jesus to the Americas. Although the story is fading from an active role in American culture, a substantial percentage of Americans continue to embrace one or the other of the two paradigms, which affects how Americans love, work, fight, vote, and of course, worship.
A related book: A House Divided: Sexuality, Morality, and Christian Cultures
Cite this review
Sutton, G. W. (2022, January 1). Jesus-Life, teachings, revolutionary -a review. Sutton Reviews. Retrieved from https://suttonreviews.suttong.com/2022/01/jesus-life-teachings-revolutionary-book.html
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