Our Lord and Savior, the only Son of God, “God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, One in Being with the Father.” That was how many of us first met Jesus. We met him as the man-god whose sacrifice on the cross saved us (potentially) from hell.
And that was how Marcus Borg, as a young Lutheran, first understood Jesus. But, after many years of soul-searching and academic study, Borg came to view Jesus, not as God, but as a man whose talents and gifts placed him in the same category as Mohammed and the Buddha.
In his book, Meeting Jesus Again, for the First Time, Borg talks about the post-Easter Jesus, the Jesus of faith, but concentrates on the pre-Easter Jesus, the historical Jesus, the man. Because our sources for Jesus’ life were written by people of faith, it’s exceedingly difficult to discern this pre-Easter Jesus under the layers of mythology that have covered him. However, Borg believes that we can at least come up with a “sketch” of the real Jesus.
Borg sees the historical Jesus as a man who showed the characteristics of four types of religious figures. He was 1) a spirit person, 2) a teacher of wisdom, 3) a social prophet, and 4) a movement founder.
A spirit person often appears in anthropological studies as a shaman or holy man. We would call such people mystics. They are aware of a spiritual dimension that underlies what we call reality. Spirit people can come into direct contact with this spiritual reality—what we may call God.
So, for example, the temptation of Jesus in the desert at the beginning of his ministry is a legend that probably derives from a real experience he had. Again, the Transfiguration, in which Jesus communes with Moses and Elijah, is a mystical experience that encouraged Jesus to affirm his ancestral religious inheritance in a new way.
Viewed from another angle, Jesus—in his parables and aphorisms—was a teacher of alternative wisdom. Examples abound: “A man cannot serve two masters.” “If salt has lost its flavor, what good is it?” “Let the dead bury the dead.”
And Jesus was also a social prophet who criticized the Judaean elite who collaborated with the Romans. “If the blind lead the blind, will they not all fall into the Pit?” When he chased the money lenders out of the Temple, Jesus was following the prophetic tradition of acting out a message from God. And that message was that the Scribes and Pharisees had substituted power and money for the true worship of God.
Of course, we would not have our Christian churches today if Jesus had not been the founder of a movement. We may grant Paul credit for extending Christianity across the Roman world, but we must remember that Jesus began the community with the Twelve Disciples and many other unnamed followers.
So, how do I personally view Jesus? Well, I certainly accept Borg’s analysis; but I go a bit further. While I don’t think that Jesus was literally God on Earth, I accept Peter’s response to Jesus at Caesarea Phillipi: “Thou art the Christ!” The Greek word Christos means “the anointed one”; and that was apparently how Jesus saw himself. Before he began his mission, he stood up in a synagogue and read the following verses from Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.” (ESV)
After reading, with all eyes upon him, Jesus remarked, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” My personal belief, my personal faith is that this scripture remains relevant today.
For those interested in Borg’s book, which contains much more than I’ve outlined here, click on this link.
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