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The Meaning of Jesus


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#21 Buckeye Jones

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Posted 11 July 2006 - 09:30 PM

I'm kicking things off--join in when you can, and please feel free to run with this.

I read this book back in 2003, and as I mentioned before, have lost/lent my copy so I've picked up one from my local library. I'm in the process of re-reading it, but didn't want to let it get too long before we started the discussion process, and for what its worth, I couldn't take two of Marcus's chapters back to back (sorry, Dr. Borg!), so I thought I'd post some questions for parts 1 and 2, and a few of my thoughts.

Part One, "How Do We Know About Jesus" and Part Two, "What Did Jesus Do and Teach", are foundational for the rest of the dialogue. In it, Wright and Borg set out their basic frameworks for understanding Jesus, interpreting the sources, and their overviews of Jesus himself, his ministry, and how the early church viewed him. From this, we see a few key similarities, as well as some stark differences that provide insight not only in the scholastic continuum of historical Jesus research, but also into the Epispocal:Anglican split.

So, here's some questions to get the conversation started (please don't feel obligated or constrained by them), and then I'll add a few brief thoughts (I never have enough time to give really well thought out thoughts, but at least it won't be some snarky little comment tacked onto a more serious post).

Part 1: Sources and Methods

1) What are some similarities in the approaches of Borg and Wright in knowing about Jesus? What are some key differences? Both criticize what they call the "secular worldview...especially corrosive of religion", as Borg puts it, but do they end up on common ground with their alternate means of understanding Jesus?

2) Who makes a better case for his approach to understanding Jesus? How so?

3) Wright is commonly viewed as a traditionalist; Borg as a liberal or revisionist. Are these characterizations accurate?

4) Both argue for understanding the importance of "metaphor" in doing history. What do they mean by that?

Part 2: The Big Picture

1) Wright's and Borg's pictures of Jesus seem pretty different at first reading. What are points of similarities, and what of differences? How much of these are surface vs. fundamental differences?

2) Who presents a more coherent argument for his interpretation of "what Jesus did and tought"?

3) How well does his overview of Jesus connect with each scholar's discussion for their interpretive method in the Part 1?

Some quick thoughts:

Thinking back to the labels of conservative vs. liberal for Wright & Borg, I find that Borg is in fact more conservative in his scholarship on the one hand--he's much less willing to depart from the traditional academic consensus, especially in his use of the sources and compartmentalizing "the Jesus of History And the Christ of Faith". On the other hand he also seems more liberal than others; he's much more willing to make nontraditional assertions relying on his personal lenses, particularly the fourth, the cross cultural study of religions (Jesus is a Spirit person like Lao Tzu who speaks of the immanence of God). He's less risky in his work--by that, I mean less of his work deals with interpreting the data at hand, which is very debatable and arguable and such, and more with his interaction with the data, which is less open for debate by its very nature. I mean, how one interprets data is up for argument; how one feels about their relationship with the data is not. Borg's more about lenses, buttressed by modern academic consensus, or conventional wisdom. Wright's more about the verification of hypotheses, consensus or no.

Rereading this, and having read most of Bishop Tom's published books to date, I must admit I find his chapters harder to read. They are dense, and unwieldy, and not well suited for snagging a bit before bed, or just after work before the baby wakes up from his afternoon nap. But they are also well thought out, coherent and internally consistent, with content that both informs my reading of the gospels, and fits the life of Jesus much more than Borg's account.

Wright presents Jesus in a holistic picture, with a face set like flint, inaugurating the Kingdom of God in opposition to the present world and the kingdom of darkness behind it. His portrait of Jesus, to me, takes into account the whole of the available data in such a way that is not anachronistic (i.e., is not influenced by neo-Buddhist readings of the Gospels, nor by addressing a scheme of salvation-history in such a way that ensures the medieval or modern church's interpretation of Messiahship, etc) as well as is not dismissive of the context of what it meant to be a messiah under Roman controlled Palestine in the first century. It does not depend on judgment calls of what's "history remembered" vs. "history metaphorized" (distinguished by what criteria? under which standard? using what methodology?). Instead, it takes the data, proposes a hypothesis, and then sets to verify it by analyzing the fit of the data to the hypothesis in providing a coherent and simple resulting picture (Wright 23).

Looking forward to the conversation!

Edited by Buckeye Jones, 12 July 2006 - 07:14 AM.


#22 MattPage

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Posted 13 July 2006 - 02:17 AM

QUOTE(stu @ Jul 4 2006, 07:14 PM) View Post

I'm beginning to get a couple of ongoing questions about the two basic positions, so could post some thoughts once a few people have read a few chapters.

Here's my thought - any chance of you hurrying up with your copy so I can read it too and join in. My heavy reading load of Baby books has subsided somewhat, and to be honest there wasn't much by way of theology in them (although Gina Ford's extensive examples in the Free Will verses predestination debate do deserve some credit)


Matt

#23 stu

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Posted 04 August 2006 - 02:59 PM

Here is a much delayed response, and even then, not all that much of one...

From the point of view of someone who knows fairly little (more truthfully - very little) about historical Jesus scholarship, I find N.T. Wright to be the one who sounds more authoritative, but I feel that I know an insufficient amount to really assess this.

What I did find interesting, though, was that Wright is very keen to make Jesus less unusual in certain ways that Borg. Wright's point about Jesus' understanding of his own role or nature is that a person like Jesus who began to teach in the way he did in the idealogical climate in which he lived was actually quite likely to think of themselves as the Messiah. Wright implies that claiming, or believing implicitly, that one was the Messiah was not as outrageous as it may seem to us today, and that not realising this is the mistake many scholars make when they see material relating to Jesus' claims or beliefs about own identity and significance as being later developments reflecting early church beliefs.

This kind of throws a spanner in the works of the whole "Mad, bad or God" kind of apologetic stance, because the actual fact of Jesus' belief in his own Messiahship is not quite so notable in itself - it becomes "Mad, bad, God (or well-meaning-but-sadly-mistaken-1st-century-Jew)". Which is probably more true to the facts, but less convincing...

Anyway, the other thing I was pondering was to do with Borg's use of the category "mystic". He uses various studies of religious experience (well, mainly William James') to help to understand what kind of person Jesus was: Jesus was the kind of person who experiences God in such a real, intense way that their view of the world is completely altered. I don't object to this in principle, but it does raise an awful lot of questions to do with how comparable "mystical" experiences are, and how coherent a category it really is (for example: by seeking and finding unity in religious expreriences from different traditions do you risk emptying them of actual content?)


#24 MattPage

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Posted 14 August 2006 - 05:20 AM

Does that mean I can borrow this from you now then?

Matt

#25 MattPage

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Posted 10 December 2006 - 10:36 AM

I have finished this now. Has anyone ele? Is anyone still reading it? Should I bother posting some thoughts on it tomorrow, or has everyone else lost interest?

Matt

#26 Spoon

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Posted 10 December 2006 - 12:45 PM

QUOTE(stu @ Aug 4 2006, 03:59 PM) View Post
Wright implies that claiming, or believing implicitly, that one was the Messiah was not as outrageous as it may seem to us today, and that not realising this is the mistake many scholars make when they see material relating to Jesus' claims or beliefs about own identity and significance as being later developments reflecting early church beliefs.

This kind of throws a spanner in the works of the whole "Mad, bad or God" kind of apologetic stance, because the actual fact of Jesus' belief in his own Messiahship is not quite so notable in itself - it becomes "Mad, bad, God (or well-meaning-but-sadly-mistaken-1st-century-Jew)". Which is probably more true to the facts, but less convincing...


Not neccesarily. According to Wright's other works, the people at that time didn't attribute divinity with being the messiah.


#27 M. Leary

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Posted 10 December 2006 - 01:41 PM

To be fair, this is one of Wright's more problematic aspects, as there are other points of Jesus' self-attestation in the Gospels that are claims to divinity, such as (most probably) the Son of Man references and much of the Gospel of John.

#28 Buckeye Jones

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Posted 10 December 2006 - 07:47 PM

QUOTE(MattPage @ Dec 10 2006, 10:36 AM) View Post

I have finished this now. Has anyone ele? Is anyone still reading it? Should I bother posting some thoughts on it tomorrow, or has everyone else lost interest?

Matt


Please do--I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts.

#29 MattPage

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Posted 12 December 2006 - 04:37 PM

Ok then,

I've read a good deal of Wright's output, I was going to say most and then I remembered that infernal "for everyone series" which knocks me well well down (FWIW Wright is going to publish a one volume NT translation based on these once he's finishe the series - something that will become a must have for me). This was however the first serious piece of Borg, other than his introduction to the book "Q The Lost Gospel". Interspersed with this I also read Crossan's "The Essential Jesus" which I'll get around to blogging soon, and before I read any of those I read Geza Vermes' "Jesus the Jew".

So to be honest I'm pretty immersed in the debate, a bit lost and more than likely to misattribute stuff as it's alla bit of a blur.

Going into this, I'd thought myself as in broad agreement with Wright, generally speaking, and certainly the designation of him as a traditionalist is not the most helpful (although when is that ever acccurate - it's soon going to denote for me "a position which someone is trying to bolster by championing its antiquity, but is really not that old, it just seems it"), but having read it, I'm certainly part way between the two. Perhaps not halfway - I'm still closer to Wright than Borg - but there were times I agreed more with Borg.

Ultimately though I found this frustrating. I think this peaked in the midst of the nativity story section. Basically most of Wright's chapters would go along the lines of him squeezing the data into his working hypothesis, or rather reinterpreting it for more conservative Christians, and challenging more liberal / modernist thinkers about their stances.

Borg on the other hand seemed to generally revolve around what he didn't believe. Whilst his final chapter was very good, it felt like much of his contribution was saying "I don't really believe this, and I'm not really sure about that". On the one hand you have to admire his honesty - he isn't worried about getting a bad name for his disbelief (although gievn the circles he moves in he is perhaps more likely to get a bad name for his belief!) and is happy to say "I don't know" whereas Wright seems under a pressure to convince everyone, and to have all the answers. That's probably because he has a brain the size of a planet, but there you have it.

Being caught in the middle, and perhaps slightly because this wasn't really new ground, I found it all rather frustrating. Take that Nativity chapter. Borg basically says well I can't really believe this., and I'm not really sure about that", but basically never really deals with the fact that people in the first century knew where babies came from, and could certainly be sceptical about a supposed virgin claiming she alone held a unique method of getting pregnant.

Wright on the other hand (and perhaps more frustratingly) starts by saying how the virgin birth doesn't really matter, and isn't crucial to theology, but then seems to adapt the position of "but as I'm here to defend the traditional position I may as well show how even though it doesn't matter there's a bullet proof defence for it. I find this just a little too clver for it's own good. Is CHristianity really the only faith that if you try hard enough you can iron out all the creases, whereas for all the others the harder you iron the more likely you are to crease, spoil, wear out or burn the garment. Theoretically I believe the answer is yes, but I'm sceptical about our ability here and now to present this perfectly smooth garment.

The other problem I have is that ultimately Wright does seem to consider the bible to be pretty much infallible. He never states it in so few words of course - to do so would be to blow his credibility as a historian - but as Borg says in a chapter of a book where a number of theologian's critiqued Wright's work in either NTPG or JVG it might be helpful if he indicated which bits of the gospels he did think were unhistorical. The silence in response to that particular question is deafening. If he says "I think it's all historically sound" his historical opponenets will cry foul, if he givs some examples, evangelical Christians will do likewise.

As for Borg, in the end it just seems so subjective. I don't really believe this, I find it very hard to consider this likely. There just seems to be a lack of data to back up these judgements. Too often, as he is Wrightly criticised for, he seems to make judgements that are very routed oin our own cultures values. Yes, to us it seems very arrogant to claim to be the son of God, and perhaps that is true in all cultures, but the very fact that the author of John (who didn't have to contend with the knowledge that his work would be held as inspired and authoritative) never thought - "someone who reads this might think I'm making Jesus sound dead arrogant" could at least be taken as evidence that it was more accaptable in his culture than in ours.


Putting aside the weaknesses and frustrations of each position, I was surprised that the book wasn't at all like I'd expected. I think I thought there'd be more arguing in it. More A&F style back and forth and picking apart specific points and arguments. Instead the two rarely offer any criticims of the other's position, in anything other than the briefest, most general terms, and in fact they seem far more concerned to explain to their own fans what the others' position is in their own set of terms and language.

It is an excellent idea for a book, and it's sad that in the eight years since it's publication so few have followed suit. Perhaps it's because there is so little respect between liberals and conservatives (I say that one who hasn't really "come out" within his own church community about his non-evangelical theology, and simply doesn't know where to begin - and I go to one of the most tolerant churches in evangelicalism), and so much insistence that our own positions are right. Hopefully though Borg and Wright will do it again, or if not, others will follow suit.

Right this has become the length post that no-one really reads and so I'll probably spend the rest of the week in disappointment that no-one has really picked up on what I've said, but there you go (to be fair this is what I did with Buckeye's post. At least this way this debate will model the nature of the book! (A few short paragraphs produces the greatest yield for discussion in my experience).

Matt

Edited by MattPage, 12 December 2006 - 04:39 PM.


#30 Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 12 December 2006 - 09:08 PM

Matt, I hope the briefness of my reply to your lengthy post won't be too disheartening, but I just thought I'd pipe up and say that your response to the book mirrors my own (or rather, it mirrors what I REMEMBER my response being, when I read the book several years ago).

When Borg and Wright spoke at Regent College, back in the '90s, I asked one question of each of them: I believe my question to Borg went along the lines of, "Why would the early Christians have spoken so insistently about Jesus being alive when someone could always point to the dead body," or some such question designed to get around the sharp division Borg makes between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith (whatever my question was, I remember Wright getting an excited look on his face as though he REALLY wanted to hear Borg answer this); and my question to Wright was where the Gospel of John fits into his hypothesis (and I believe his answer began with a remark like, "I regard the Gospel of John the way I regard my wife -- I love her but I don't always understand her..." and I forget where he went from there).

I have also always loved this one response that someone had to Wright's The Challenge of Jesus:
My more serious complaint about TJC is that in several places Wright puts quite a few pages of warnings and provisos before getting into a major point, builds up an expectation of hard sayings coming down, but then delivers an innocuous conclusion. I can caricature it like this.

"You poor sheltered American Baptist kids are going to have to accept a major change in your thinking. Get ready for it. Pray for strength."

"The man you think of as 'Jesus' was really 'Yeshua'."


#31 MattPage

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Posted 13 December 2006 - 05:01 AM

QUOTE
Matt, I hope the briefness of my reply to your lengthy post won't be too disheartening, but I just thought I'd pipe up and say that your response to the book mirrors my own (or rather, it mirrors what I REMEMBER my response being, when I read the book several years ago).
Ha, no any response is good! I've just learnt that making long posts on a thread about a film that was out in the US six months ago is often fairly fruitless from a discussion PoV.

I'm interested to know actually if your approach to any of this stuff has changed as a result of your switch to Orthodoxy.

QUOTE

"You poor sheltered American Baptist kids are going to have to accept a major change in your thinking. Get ready for it. Pray for strength."

"The man you think of as 'Jesus' was really 'Yeshua'."
This made me laugh out loud and is still tickling me hours after I first read it.

Matt

#32 stu

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Posted 13 December 2006 - 08:51 AM

Matt... interesting. Very. I need to finish the book now that you've posted all that, so you better give it back pronto.

I'd be interested to see what you make of some of a couple of papers I've read about the limits of the conservative/liberal divide in this area, and possible ways of getting beyond it; one by Henri-Jerome Gagey, one by, yep you guessed, John Milbank. Once you've read these, then we should have a long chat about it, then once we've solved all the problems once and for all we can relax.

Here's how I sometimes think of someone like Wright: his position starts off being that Jesus is who and what Christianity has 'always' said he is. Then he does a lot of research and is pleased and possible relieved to discover that to the very best of his ability to discern, what he has always believed to be true is actually a pretty good explanation of the available information. Or at least, there are no good reasons for suggesting that it is false that aren't as idealogically motivated as the ones that claim it is true.

But the point remains: the belief that Jesus is pretty much what Christianity has always claimed he is preceded all this historical examination. Which means that there is a bit of a problem if the results of the examination are then presented as if they would naturally lead to a belief in Jesus as Son of God and Saviour (or however one is going to phrase it), when the truth is that is not really what happened.

In other words, there is a bit of confusion over what constitutes, in real life, one's reasons for believing.

#33 Buckeye Jones

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Posted 13 December 2006 - 09:37 AM

QUOTE(stu @ Dec 13 2006, 08:51 AM) View Post
But the point remains: the belief that Jesus is pretty much what Christianity has always claimed he is preceded all this historical examination. Which means that there is a bit of a problem if the results of the examination are then presented as if they would naturally lead to a belief in Jesus as Son of God and Saviour (or however one is going to phrase it), when the truth is that is not really what happened.


This is a coin with two sides though, that doesn't do much do advance the conversation. Borg [Funk, et al] is someone who grew disappointed and disenfranchised by the conservative churches of their youth--dancing, drinking, and sex are sins that when send you to hell!. Then their studies, to the surprise to no one but themselves, reveal a historical Jesus who wears his hair long in hippy style and preaches tolerance and love, and was rudely force fit into a fundamentalist mold by the pesky killjoy Paul.

In Wright's defense, I believe he lays his cards on the table in the opening of "The New Testament and the People of God", as well as sundry smaller works, in that he is a believer in the orthodox Christ, without trying to be "objective" about the work as if his analytical mind was separate from his "spiritual" belief. I don't think he's trying the end around you propose above.

Edited by Buckeye Jones, 13 December 2006 - 09:38 AM.