Was Jesus born of a virgin? Did he know he was the Messiah? Was he bodily resurrected from the dead? Did he intentionally die to redeem humankind? Was Jesus God? Two leading Jesus scholars with widely divergent views go right to the heart of these questions and others, presenting the opposing visions of Jesus that shape our faith today.
About the Author
Marcus J. Borg (1942–2015) was a pioneering author and teacher whom the New York Times described as "a leading figure in his generation of Jesus scholars." He was the Hundere Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University and canon theologian at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, and he appeared on NBC's The Today Show and Dateline, ABC's World News, and NPR's Fresh Air. His books have sold over a million copies, including the bestselling Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, Jesus, The Heart of Christianity, Evolution of the Word, Speaking Christian, and Convictions.
N. T. Wright, one of the world’s leading Bible scholars, is the chair of New Testament and Early Christianity at the School of Divinity at the University of St. Andrews, an Anglican bishop, and bestselling author. Featured on ABC News, The Colbert Report, Dateline, and Fresh Air, Wright is the award-winning author of Simply Good News, Simply Jesus, Simply Christian, Surprised by Hope, How God Became King, Scripture and the Authority of God, Surprised by Scripture, and The Case for the Psalms, as well as the recent translation of the New Testament The Kingdom New Testament and the much heralded series Christian Origins and the Question of God.
Read an Excerpt
The Meaning of Jesus
Seeing Jesus: Sources, Lenses, and Method
How do we know about Jesus? What are our sources, what are they like, and how do we use them?1 For most of the Christian centuries, the answers to these questions seemed obvious. Our sources? The New Testament as a whole, and the four gospels in particular. What are they like? The gospels were seen as historical narratives, reporting what Jesus said and did, based on eyewitness testimony. How do we use them? By collecting together what they say about Jesus and combining them into a whole. Importantly, it did not require faith to see the gospels in this way; there was as yet no reason to think otherwise.
This way of seeing the gospels led to a common Christian image of who Jesus was and why he mattered. Who was he? The only Son of God, born of the virgin Mary. His purpose? To die for the sins of the world. His message? About many things, but most centrally about the importance of believing in him, for what was at stake was eternal life.
But over the last two hundred years among historical scholars, both within and outside of the church, this common image of Jesus has dissolved. Its central elements are seen no longer as going back to the historical Jesus, but as the product of the early Christian movement in the decades after his death. Jesus as a historical figure was not very much like the most common image of him.
As I write these words, I am sitting on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. I am here with a group of thirty Christians assisting my wife, Marianne, an Episcopal priest who leadseducational-spiritual pilgrimages to Israel. My role is to provide historical background and commentary. As I do so, I often feel like the designated debunker. Again and again I find myself saying about holy sites associated with Jesus, "Well, it probably didn't happen here," or, "Well, it probably didn't happen at all." Of course, I have more to say than that, but it is a frequent refrain.
For example, today as we drove past Cana, I told the group that the story of Jesus changing water into wine at the wedding at Cana is most probably not a historical report but a symbolic narrative. At the site marking the Sermon on the Mount, I said that it was unlikely that Jesus ever delivered the Sermon on the Mount as a connected whole, even though many of the individual sayings probably go back to him. In Nazareth, I said Jesus probably was born here, and not in Bethlehem.
I sometimes feel like a debunker in my writing as well. A significant portion of what I have to say is, "This story is probably not historically factual," or, "Jesus probably didn't say that." And yet, for reasons I will explain later, I also find the nonhistorical material to be very important and meaningful. I am not among the relatively few scholars who think that only that which is historically factual matters.
The Nature of the Gospels
But for now I want to explain why the issue comes up so often, whether on pilgrimage to the Holy Land or in my work as a Jesus scholar. The issue arises because of the nature of the Christian gospels, our primary sources for knowing about Jesus. Two statements about the nature of the gospels are crucial for grasping the historical task: (1) They are a developing tradition. (2) They are a mixture of history remembered and history metaphorized. Both statements are foundational to the historical study of Jesus and Christian origins, and both need explaining.
The Gospels as a Developing Tradition
The four gospels of the New Testament are the product of a developing tradition. During the decades between the death of Jesus around the year 30 and the writing of the gospels in the last third of the first century (roughly between 70 and 100), the traditions about Jesus developed. More than one factor was responsible. There was a need to adapt the traditions about Jesus to new settings and issues as early Christian communities moved through time and into the broader Mediterranean world. Moreover, the traditions about Jesus grew because the experience of the risen living Christ within the community shaped perceptions of Jesus' ultimate identity and significance.
As developing traditions, the gospels contain two kinds of material: some goes back to Jesus, and some is the product of early Christian communities. To use an archaeological analogy, the gospels contain earlier and later layers. To use a vocal analogy, the gospels contain more than one voice: the voice of Jesus, and the voices of the community. The quest for the historical Jesus involves the attempt to separate out these layers or voices.
History Remembered and History Metaphorized
The gospels combine history remembered with history metaphorized. By the former, I mean simply that some of the things reported in the gospels really happened. Jesus really did do and really did say some of the deeds and teachings reported about him.
By history metaphorized, I mean the use of metaphorical language and metaphorical narratives to express the meaning of the story of Jesus.2 I define metaphor broadly to include both symbol and story. Thus the category includes individual metaphors, such as Jesus is the light of the world, and metaphorical narratives, where the story as a whole functions metaphorically. Metaphorical language is intrinsically nonliteral; its central meaning is "to see as"-to see something as something else. To say Jesus is the light of the world is not to say that he is literally a light, but means to see him as the light of the world. Thus, even though metaphorical language is not literally true, it can be powerfully true in a nonliteral sense.3
As I use the phrase, history metaphorized includes a wide variety of gospel material. Sometimes a story combines both history remembered . . .The Meaning of Jesus
Two Visions. Copyright (c) by Marcus Borg . Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Table of Contents
How Do We Know About Jesus?
Seeing Jesus: Sources, Lenses, and Method Marcus Borg 3
Knowing Jesus: Faith and History N. T. Wright 15
What Did Jesus Do and Teach?
The Mission and Message of Jesus N. T. Wright 31
Jesus Before and After Easter: Jewish Mystic and Christian Messiah Marcus Borg 53
The Death of Jesus
Why Was Jesus Killed? Marcus Borg 79
The Crux of Faith N. T. Wright 93
"God Raised Jesus from the Dead"
The Transforming Reality of the Bodily Resurrection N. T. Wright 111
The Truth of Easter Marcus Borg 129
Was Jesus God?
Jesus and God Marcus Borg 145
The Divinity of Jesus N. T. Wright 157
The Birth of Jesus
Born of a Virgin? N. T. Wright 171
The Meaning of the Birth Stories Marcus Borg 179
"He Will Come Again in Glory"
The Second Coming Then and Now Marcus Borg 189
The Future of Jesus N. T. Wright 197
Jesus and the Christian Life
The Truth of the Gospel and Christian Living N. T. Wright 207
A Vision of the Christian Life Marcus Borg 229
What People are Saying About This
"This book is a fantastic reading experience for all those who identify themselves as Christians. N. T. Wright describes powerfully what Christianity has traditionally been. Marcus Borg presents his convictions about and his vision of what Christianity can become. Together they sing a majestic song of faith into which the whole world can be invited to join."
"A fascinating, highly civilized conversation on the central issues about Jesus under debate today. The point-counterpoint arrangement introduces genuine and instructive differences of view, while the authors' mutual respect models an ideal way to disagree. Bravo to this intelligent spirit of searching for common ground!"
"At times the sides in the historical Jesus debate have made Republicans and Democrats seem like soul mates. This book shows that ultimately the subject transcends all bickering. Borg and Wright both care about history, people, and God. Both have powerful views. That their friendship has resulted in this book may be the best testament to the continued study of the historical Jesus."
"Another book about Jesus? Yes--and a much-needed one. Marcus Borg and N. T. Wright provide us with a refreshing model for New Testament studies at a time when Christianity and all the other great religious traditions are being reimagined. We are beginning to understand that getting the facts straight about anything (let alone the 'historical' Jesus) isn't enough. You have to find the story to which they belong. Here we have the story-within-a-story of two men on a journey of scholarship, friendship, and faith that will challenge and sustain many of us who find the record of Jesus, as we have presumed to understand it, at odds with our experience. This book will transform our understanding and open us up to deeper experience."
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
There are a ton of books out there dealing with the nature of Jesus. Which one to choose? This one. Here two Christians offer different understandings of what Jesus was like. Wright is pretty orthodox. He says Jesus was God and paid for humanity's sins. Wright also believes in a resurrection at the end of time. Borg, on the other hand, is a revisionist. He says Jesus wasn't God but a window through which we see God. For Borg, when we see Jesus, we see what God is like. Borg doesn't have as robust a view of resurrection and is silent on the question of the afterlife. This debate was easy to read and each topic was covered thoroughly. With all the Jesus books out there (including the books both Wright and Borg have written) I'd start with this one first. There are fringe liberals who would disagree with Borg and ultra right-wings who would disagree with Wright, but if you're looking for a 'consensus' view--a view of what most traditionalists and revisionists think of Jesus and the Christian life--this is the book.
I read this book with a predetermined bias in favor of Borg's point of view. Borg sees the Christian life as an opportunity to have a deep relationship with God as shown in Jesus Christ. We can use Jesus as a lens through which we see God and what it is like to live a life full of God. Borg's approach is refreshing because it is not necessary to hold a lot of beliefs about Jesus in order to lead such a life.
Two of my favorite scholars, Marcus Borg and N. T. Wright, debate the meaning of Jesus. One is decidedly more conservative, but both are thoughtful and well-studied. And, raising hope for the future of Christianity, I would venture a guess that they are best friends despite their differences.Wright believes the gospels are what they are ¿because their authors thought the events they were recording¿all of them, not just some¿actually happened.¿ This may sound self-evident to conservative Christians, but it is not the way Borg sees it. Two terms he uses to describe gospel writing are ¿metaphor historicized,¿ and its complement, ¿history metaphorized.¿ Borg just can¿t jump on board with a literal reading of the gospels; he describes this outdated way of reading the Bible with five adjectives: literalistic, doctrinal, moralistic, exclusivistic, and afterlife oriented. This view, he says, has ceased to work for a large number of people, who find that if they must take the Bible literally, they cannot take it at all.According to Borg, the ¿single most important difference¿ between these two scholars is their opinion about whether or not Jesus saw himself as the messiah. Wright says yes, Jesus understood his role as central to the salvation of the Jewish nation and, by extension, the world. Borg says no, Jesus¿ role as messiah grew after his death and resurrection, as the understanding of his followers evolved.In my opinion, the single most important difference in the thinking of these two scholars is not Jesus¿ self-understanding, but the manner of his resurrection. Wright says Jesus rose in body, and showed himself physically to his disciples. Never mind that this new body could somehow walk through walls and disappear at will. ¿Resurrection,¿ to a Jew, meant a physical rising in body. Wright argues that only an event of this magnitude could have triggered the devotion and dedication of the Jesus movement that continued on after his death. In contrast, Borg seems unconcerned with the empty tomb, and interprets the resurrection in a more spiritual manner. I¿m oversimplifying his position, but Borg sees Jesus being ¿raised to God¿s right hand¿ as simply meaning Jesus has captured the position of Lord in the lives in his disciples. He is ¿raised up¿ by his followers after his death.As I said, these are two of my favorite Jesus scholars. I believe Borg and Wright encapsulate liberal and conservative Christianity at their basic levels, and studying the two in tandem helps us appreciate the arguments of both sides. Great book!
Borg and Wright are an odd pair because they represent distinctly different sides of the debate within Christianity about Jesus¿s nature and identity. Borg¿s perspective is commonly described as revisionist, while Wright has a more traditional view. In this book, the two scholars take turns sharing their thoughts on Jesus¿s divinity, his life, his death, his resurrection, and so on.What really stands out about this book is how the two men can argue so passionately, but respectfully about things that they take very seriously. The two men argue with firmness and conviction, occasionally making digs at the other¿s arguments, but they never get personal or seem angry. In a day when theological discussions about trivial matters quickly disintegrate into back-biting and name-calling, it¿s refreshing to see civil discourse about something that, to the Christian, must be of the utmost importance.So does this book have anything to offer someone who isn¿t a theology geek, or even a Christian? I think the best thing that it offers is balance. I know Christians and non-Christians alike who are interested in these questions, but it¿s extremely difficult to find literature that takes an unbiased look at what Christians believe about Jesus. By joining forces, Borg and Wright have given readers a good overview of the debate, from the horses¿ own mouths.
This was a wonderful book that showcased two wonderful minds that can truly get the message of Christ while disagreeing on several theological issues. They handle this really well, letting the reader know that they fully disagree at times, but can remain friends and still respect each other. I wish this spirit was more prevalent among other Christian writers and that more would have the willingness to take on projects like this.
There are a ton of books out there dealing with the person of Jesus. Which one to choose? This book isn't a bad place to start. Here two Christians offer different understandings of what Jesus was like. Wright is a traditionalist. He says Jesus was divine and paid for humanity's sins. Wright also believes in a resurrection at the end of time. Borg, on the other hand, is a revisionist. He says Jesus wasn't God but a person (or window) through which we see God. For Borg, when we see Jesus, we see what God is like. Borg doesn't hold to a literal view of the resurrection and is silent on the question of the afterlife. This debate was easy to read and each topic was covered thoroughly. With all the Jesus books out there (including the books both Wright and Borg have written) I'd start with this one first. There are fringe liberals who would disagree with Borg and ultra right-wings who would disagree with Wright, but if you're looking for an introduction to the issues of historical Jesus scholarship, this book is a nice place to begin. Also recommended: Jenna's Flaw
This book presents an interesting debate between two men who have different views of the truth about Jesus. Both men agree that 'the gospels combine historical material with metaphorical significance' but disagree on how much of the material is history remembered. Borg emphasizes that the gospels are heavily influenced by the theology of the developing Christian tradition during the last part of the first century and consequently gives greater weight to the gospel layers he identifies as being written earlier. I am probably more sympathetic to the traditional view of Jesus as put forth by N.T. Wright. However, Borg seems to do a better job of defending his position.
For anyoneinterested in an ongoing debate about Jesus, this is a must read.