The full title of Marcus J. Borg’s book is Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Surprising Relevance of a Spiritual Revolutionary. The book delivers what the title promises. While Borg’s ideas are not original with him, he has put together—from his perspective—an insightful synthesis of scholarly studies of Jesus. Yet he writes in an accessible, readable style. An especial strength of the book is the placing of Jesus in his cultural and political context, thereby illuminating Jesus’ life and teachings.
He begins with an account of how the Gospels—really our only source for Jesus’ life—were written. He doesn’t assume prior knowledge. Thus, while many Friends are aware that the Gospel of Mark formed the framework for the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, supplemented by material from a lost “Q” source, Borg does not assume that the reader is aware of this “synoptic problem.” He also effectively tackles the problem of which Gospel sayings came from Jesus and which were “put into his mouth” by early Christian communities. And, of course, Borg shows us that the Gospel of John is less “historical” than the three synoptic gospels and is an interpretation of Jesus that comes from John’s Christian community.
Following his Gospel chapters, Borg describes the Jewish and Roman cultures in which Jesus lived. He convincingly argues that Jesus was a mystic who had a “direct” experience of God and then gives us a picture of God’s character as envisioned by Jesus. He uses Jesus’ parables and aphorisms to support the concept of Jesus as a wisdom teacher but a teacher of an alternative, subversive wisdom. He spends considerable time on Jesus’ central message—the Kingdom of God—and how that Kingdom was the exact opposite of the Roman imperial system.
Here is the central theme of Borg’s book: Jesus was a revolutionary who opposed the Roman empire in a non-violent way. For example, when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, he was projecting the image of how a representative of God’s Peaceable Kingdom might arrive at the holy city of Jerusalem, quite in contrast to the chariots, horses, and panoply of Roman legions entering the city.
When Jesus overturned the money lenders’ tables in the court of the Temple, he was non-violently (no one was harmed) protesting the collaboration of the Temple priests with Roman authorities. And when Jesus told the Pharisees to render unto Caesar what was Caesar’s, his unspoken premise was that Caesar deserved nothing—that everything was owed to God.
Of course, the result of Jesus’ subversive words and demonstrations was his crucifixion. Pilate might as well have said, “This is what we do to people who resist Roman rule.” And the crucifixion marks a divide between the historical, pre-Easter Jesus and the metaphorical post-Easter Jesus. Borg doesn’t doubt the truth of Jesus’ Resurrection, but it is the truth of parable and myth. Jesus didn’t ascend into Heaven in the sight of a worshipful crowd, but his disciples did sense his living presence, much as Friends may feel the presence in meeting of an Eternal Christ. And Borg doesn’t shy away from the idea that this Presence wants his disciples, i.e., us, to help bring about the Kingdom of God on Earth in opposition to the principalities and powers that oppress humankind. For Borg, a Christian must engage in social action, be it words or denting the nose cone of a ballistic missile.
Let me admit that I haven’t done Borg justice. His is a magnificent book that I recommend to anyone in Old Chatham Meeting who’s interested in Jesus and Christianity. On a scale of one to five, Borg’s Jesus is a six.
~ Richard Russell
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