UMAction Briefing HomepageMark Tooley
Institute on Religion and Democracy


Mark Tooley
Institute on Religion and Democracy
February 22, 1999 

Two of the most prominent "Jesus scholars," both of them Anglicans, debated at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC before 1300 spectators. Marcus Borg, a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar, and N.T. Wright, formerly dean of Litchfield Cathedral, disagreed over whether the New Testament's accounts of a divine Jesus were myth or history.

Borg differentiated between a pre-Easter and post-Easter Jesus. The former was a heroic spokesman for social justice. The latter was a divine miracle worker whom the early church created to sustain their faith.

Wright countered that the early church placed its faith in a Jewish prophet who had indeed claimed divinity for Himself and whose Virgin Birth and Resurrection were to be understood as more than metaphor.

Both Borg and Wright agreed that Western-Enlightenment thinking, with its stress on science factuality, had distorted Christianity. Wright claimed that both he and Borg were challenging conventional impressions of Jesus.

According to Wright, Jesus may not have said very much about His role as messiah, but He did a good many things to show he was laying a claim to messiahship. Jesus believed His vocation was to die. "I do not believe the passion narrative was made up to fit with prophecies [as the Jesus Seminar claims]. Jesus research has concentrated too much on [Jesus'] sayings rather than His actions."

Wright said Jesus was not physically resuscitated but rather went "through death and out the other side. His previous body was transformed into a different mode of physicality." This Resurrection of Jesus is a "slap in the face of the Enlightenment mode of knowledge."

"If we look long and hard at Jesus we will find out who God is," Wright said. This God is not a deist or New Age deity, but is the "strange" God of Exodus and Deuteronomy. Jesus "was doing what God was supposed to do." As to questions about the New Testament's veracity, Wright said "we know more about Jesus than how the Gospels got written."

In contrast, Borg sees the Gospels as "history remembered and history metaphorized." Some stories happened, while others are completely metaphor. Stories about the Virgin Birth, miracles, multiplying bread loaves and walking on the sea should be seen as the latter. Borg said scholarship must decide which parts of the Gospels are "early" and which parts reflect the much later "voice of community" arising from the early church.

Borg said he disagreed with Wright about Jesus' self-understanding, His death, and Easter. Jesus "probably" did not see Himself as messiah. His death was a "consequence" of His actions but not His vocation, making Him similar to Martin Luther King, Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi. And, in Borg's view, the corpse and tomb of Jesus are "irrelevant."

"Truth is founded in the continuing reality of Jesus among believers," Borg said, rather than a strict reliance upon the New Testament. He acknowledged that Wright "provides a brilliant, historical support for the traditionalist approach" to Jesus. And he said their differences represent a "conversation" within mainline denominations over Jesus.

Borg said he saw Jesus as a Jewish mystic or "spirit person," one of a long line of persons who had "visions of the sacred." God can be experienced and not simply believed in, he affirmed. These experiential times can be "shamanic," "peak experiences" or "altered states of consciousness." Only the Enlightenment would deny the validity of such experiences. According to Borg, Jesus was remarkable healer who, like the Buddha, taught the path to "wisdom." Jesus was also a great social prophet who critiqued the "domination system" of His day.

"Jesus is for us as Christians the decisive disclosure of what God is like," Borg observed. "Tom {Wright} and I share a vision of the Christian life. Our disagreements are in theology. Does it matter if Jesus thought He was messiah. Tom says yes. I say no."

Wright responded by criticizing Borg's Jesus Seminar for striving to separate Jesus' original sayings and eye-witness accounts of His actions from supposedly latter additions, with little evidence. Besides, he noted that the "first biography of a great figure is not necessarily the best."

Borg agreed, admitting that John's Gospel, traditionally understood as the latest of the Gospels, sees the "significance" of Jesus by talking of Him as "Light" and "Bread." "But of course Jesus did not talk that way," Borg insisted, as these metaphors were attributed to Jesus by the early church only to assist in their understanding of Him.

"I find that language misleading," Wright told Borg. "You're saying the early church took non-literal, non-concrete ideas and then historicized them. Metaphor is being used to cover a multitude of sins." Borg said he saw nothing wrong in the early community of believers historicizing their spiritual experiences with a Jesus whom they thought to be risen.

Borg asked Wright if there were "any limit" to what he could accept as history. For example, could anyone multiply loaves of bread? Wright responded: "I have rebelled against automatic dismissal of the miraculous." He noted that St. Paul never multiplied bread loaves or calmed the waters, but Jesus did.

"It's really hard to imagine these things without imagining an interventionist God," said Borg. Wright responded that it was an erroneous legacy of the Enlightenment to speak of a "split level universe" in which God does or does not intervene. God's miracles should not be seen as an intervention into His own universe but more appropriately as "unique" and "dramatic."

Much of the debate may have seemed too academic to the audience. Within an hour, many people were leaving, and within 90 minutes, nearly half the crowd had departed. Still, there was a lively question and answer session with Borg and Wright after their formal presentations.

"Is it possible to believe in the Incarnation without the Virgin Birth," asked one audience member. "And has the Holy Spirit guided or misguided our interpretation of Scripture?

"I don't know if the Holy Spirit would be helpful in judging the factuality of the Gospels," responded Borg. "The Holy Spirit is irrelevant in that decision making process." Wright added that although he himself does believe in the Virgin Birth, belief in the Incarnation does not require it.

Borg added that a Christianity that sees itself not exclusively true but as one of "many religions" is "closer to Jesus."

Another questioner asked Borg if, given his beliefs, he could still call himself a believer in the biblical god Yahweh. "Sure," he responded. "I see the risen, living Christ as at one with God. I don't see pre-Easter Jesus as God. He was the embodiment of the wisdom of God."

Still another questioner probed Borg on the Resurrection of Jesus. Borg responded that he believed in the Resurrection but did not think anything literally happened to Jesus' corpse. He claimed that the Resurrection was not proclaimed until Pentecost, which would have allowed the corpse 50 days to rot beyond recognition.

Borg admitted that the "very earliest" Christians believed in the divinity of Jesus and were addressing their prayers to Him. "They were already in a post-Easter situation," Borg concluded.

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