“Jesus” by Marcus Borg: A Book Review (Chapters 2-3)

Today we will be looking at chapters 2-3 of Marcus Borg’s book Jesus.

Honestly, I am really beginning to grow tired of reviewing this book. Rob Bell cites him so unashamedly that I figured that his ideas would be covertly dangerous, not explicitly so. Was I ever wrong…

When Borg uses the word “mainstream,” we would do well to substitute the words “theologically liberal.”  For instance, Borg holds that “mainstream scholars” recognize that the gospel writers weren’t concerned with reporting real, actual historical accounts. He writes concerning things like the Miracle at Cana, Miracle of Jesus’ Birth, and Miracle of Peter and Jesus Walking on the Sea,

Purley metaphorical narratives…are not based on the memory of particular events, but are symbolic narratives created for their metaphorical meaning. As such, they are not meant as historical reports. Rather, the stories use symbolic language that points beyond a factual meaning. I provide three examples [the ones above]. About all of these, there is widespread agreement among mainstream scholars that their purpose is not to report events that happened.  

Borg’s point is that it doesn’t matter if Jesus actually turned water into wine, or if He actually walked on water, or if he was really born of a virgin. The “truth” of the account has nothing to do with the details of the story, i.e. what actually happened.

Gospels as Developing Tradition

Borg believes the gospels to be:

“products of early Christian communities in the last third of the first century”

This declaration would not be overly problematic for Bible-believing Christians, as we all believe that the gospels were indeed written to specific people at specific times, all post-Jesus. But Borg continues and again begins to self-destruct:

The gospels are not a direct divine product, as notions of biblical inerrancy suppose. Rather, as documents written within early Christian communities, they are human products. They tell us how our spiritual ancestors in these communities saw Jesus and his significance.

Borg insists that the gospels are the result of “a developing tradition.” In other words, since the gospel were not written until the latter portion of the first century, they represent everything that Jesus became in the hearts and minds of his followers, not necessarily what Jesus really did and taught.

Borg spends a good deal of the chapter discussing the supposed development of theology in the gospel accounts. His main point is that since Mark is the first gospel written that the other gospel writers added theological significance to Mark as they penned their gospels. To support this view, he points to the Lord’s Prayer, to the Triumphal Entry, and to the Baptism of Jesus to prove that the early Christian communities invented what we would call orthodox Christology (and theology in general for that matter).

He looks to the parallel accounts of the Triumphal Entry found in Matthew 21 and Mark 11. This will get a little complicated, but follow with me to see how this man treats the Scriptures (while claiming that his views are developed from the text, not a construct imposed upon it). In Matthew 21, Jesus quotes a section of Zechariah that belongs to the genre of Hebrew poetry (9:9): 

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!

Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!

Behold, your king is coming to you;

righteous and having salvation is he,

humble and mounted on a donkey,

on a colt, the foal of a donkey. 

When Matthew cites Zechariah 9:9, a casual reading would perhaps lead one to believe that Jesus was riding into Jerusalem on a colt and on donkey, whereas the Mark passage makes it clear that Jesus was actually sitting on just one animal.

Borg writes, 

Matthew adds an animal to the story. Whereas Mark’s story has one animal, a colt, Matthew’s has two, a donkey and her colt. Seven times Matthew changes Mark’s one animal to two animals, including the climactic moment when Jesus mounts up…

Borg is trying to prove that the gospels are a developing tradition, as opposed to the result of different authors painting different biographical portraits for specifically different purposes.  He claims that his thesis is not developed a priori, but rather his conclusions flowing out of the text. However, his writing is tainted with bias. Even a casual observer can see that Matthew isn’t “changing” one animal to two, but rather Matthew’s style is more descriptive throughout. Further it is possible that Matthew brings out certain aspects of the account which did not suit Mark’s purpose. 

Borg continues by attempting to explain that either Matthew misunderstood the Hebrew Scriptures (missing the parallelism, Hebrew poetry’s key identifying feature) or that he was relying on a Greek translation that got Zechariah 9:9 wrong. He concludes:

Clearly, Matthew does not see Mark as an ‘infallible’ or ‘inerrant’ account that he must not change. And it raises interesting questions. Did Matthew really think that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on two animals? Did he see himself as writing about the way it really happened? Or was making the meaning of the story explicit more important to him than historical exactitude? It seem so. 

Borg’s acrobatics are interesting, but the seeming discrepancy between Matthew 21 and Mark 11 is easily solved in the original language. Mark’s account makes it clear that Jesus rode in on one animal. In the English language, Matthew seems to be implying that he rode in on two animals (i.e. he sat upon them). However, a simple reading of the Greek text reveals that Jesus sat upon multiple cloaks (plural), not multiple animals! 

Borg explains that looking at the gospels “as a developing tradition” is different than what he calls the “earlier paradigm.” He explains this earlier paradigm: 

The latter sees the gospels as based on eyewitness accounts of Jesus and their purpose as providing factually accurate reports of his life and message. 

Borg has been liberated from this old way of seeing Scripture; he has little use for it now. Ironically, this earlier paradigm is exactly what the gospel writers claim for their writings! 

Luke 1:1-4

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that ahave been accomplished among us,  2 just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us,  3 it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write han orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus,  4 that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.

Jesus Became God?

Borg has been setting the table to explain that the “Jesus as God” concept was simply a product of early Christian tradition. Borg continues his downward spiral by making a large distinction between the “pre-Easter” Jesus and the “post-Easter” Jesus. Watch as he denies a bodily resurrection, 

Before his death, they [his followers] knew him as a finite and mortal human being. 

And continues, 

This does not deny Easter, but simply recognizes that Easter does not mean that the flesh-and-blood Jesus who weighs 110 pounds [footnote reveals that Borg believes this to be the typical weight for a male in the time of Jesus] is still alive somewhere (emphasis mine)

And again, 

Whereas the pre-Easter Jesus was finite and mortal, the post-Easter Jesus is spoken of as a divine reality. 

What follows is a denial that Jesus ever uttered the “I Am’s” of John’s gospel. He wrongly concludes that since the synoptics do not record the “I Am” statements or “I and my Father are one,” that Jesus actually did not say these things. Borg writes, 

A second possibility seems much more likely: Jesus did not speak of himself as he does in John. Rather, this language is the post-Easter testimony of John and his community (emphasis mine). 

He continues concerning Jesus, 

…he was a charismatic Jew in whom his followers sensed the presence of the sacred. I do not think that his pre-Easter followers though he was God.

Borg concludes by again stressing what he believes to be the importance of maintaining a distinction between the “pre-Easter Jesus” and the “post-Easter Jesus.” He writes, 

First, when the distinction is not made, the divine qualities of the post-Easter Jesus are projected back onto the pre-Easter Jesus. The result is an unreal human being. When the pre-Easter Jesus is thought of as divine, we get Jesus as ‘Superman,’ a superhero with powers and knowledge beyond what human beings have. 

I can only pray that non-discerning people won’t pick this book up and read it…

  1. #1 by Amos James on January 23, 2009 - 7:36 pm

    Thanks for introducing me to Marcus Borg and Rob Bell. These two Christians have strengthened my faith and allowed my faith to grow stronger and more meaningful. To see the truth of the Bible, some of us have to move away from our more conservative theologies.

  2. #2 by yoyo on January 26, 2009 - 4:12 pm

    Thanks for the good discerning work. I believe Borg and Bell are dangerous in their language and evasive. It’s hard to nail down what’s going on, but you do a good job of pointing out the errors…

    It’s frightning how many people just don’t want to accept the Bible and what it clearly teaches…I was bothered by Bell’s book “sex god” simply by the title-I didn’t read it, but felt it was irreverant and disrespectful simply by the title. We just live in a educated, but very Biblically illiterate generation…

  3. #3 by John Rhodes on April 27, 2009 - 5:59 am

    Borg has been most helpful in freeing me from the constrictions of fundamentalism and the convoluted
    logic of conservative theologians. He is a breath of fresh air.

  4. #4 by clearly on April 27, 2009 - 6:01 am


    I’m sorry to hear that Borg has “freed” you from being a Christian.

    Seriously, when one does all he can to undermine the veracity of the Word, he does so not only to his detriment, but also to many many others like yourself who no longer believe that the Bible is the Word of God.

  5. #5 by Marge on April 29, 2009 - 8:29 am

    I didn’t know what the book was about, so I came here to learn more. After reading the comments, I definitely want to read Borg’s book. And I believe I am a discerning Chrisitan!

  6. #6 by JABianchi on May 3, 2009 - 3:42 pm

    Thanks for the review, Dave. (Will there be more?)

    Borg and N.T.Wright wrote a book called, The Meaning of Jesus, which first introduced me to the scholarly differences between “orthodox” christianity and “emergent” christianity… I highly recommend…

    My lingering questions were,

    “Why does Borg even care about Jesus? Is this a historical niche that he has chosen like some study the interior decorations of the Palace of Versailles their entire academic life?”

    “Does an emergent Christian have the hope, power, and love that early Christians did when they gave their lives to care for the dying and sick when plagues swept through the ancient world?”

    “If the gospel stories weren’t really true, why would the writers give their lives for the myth of a dead man, instead of throwing their weight behind a living messiah who could actually overthrow Rome?”

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