Shuck and Jive

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Borg in Elizabethton

Our hero, controlled by the Borg

Here is a final plug for the book study on Marcus Borg's latest, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary.

The study will begin this Thursday in Martin Hall from 10:30 until noon. We will meet every Thursday until March 29th, skipping March 1st when I will be in Miami for Westar's Spring Meeting. Come join us. Bring a friend.

While Borg's book will be the focus text, I will introduce other material regarding the historical Jesus quest. Any serious quester will at some point need to read Albert Schweitzer's Quest of the Historical Jesus. Schweitzer's book is a century old, yet the church as a whole has not caught up with him.

Folks may be surprised to find a breadth of views regarding the historical Jesus. Contrary to popular opinion, it didn't start with the Jesus Seminar casting their red, pink, gray and black beads. Thomas Jefferson when he had time on his hands took scissors to the gospels in search of the historical Jesus. If only contemporary presidents could be so serious in regards to scholarship and faith!

Early Christian Writings has a listing of some Historical Jesus Theories along a spectrum from "Jesus the Myth" to "Jesus the Savior."

Whether or not one finds the "Jesus the Sage" of the Jesus Seminar persuasive, you have to give them (and Bob Funk) credit for nudging scholars to come clean with their views and to publish these views in langauge that non-specialists can read.

I am pleased (an understatement) that scholars such as James Tabor, April DeConick, and James Crossley are a-blogging. I particularly enjoyed this piece from Professor DeConick, The Second Principle of Historical Hermeneutics in which she writes:

" all our texts we must distinguish between history and theological interpretation of events, between fact and fiction. This is the second principle of historical hermeneutics.

If a scholar argues that he or she can prove from the texts that Jesus actually rose from the dead or performed miracles or was born from a virgin, we need to think twice. Is this fact or is this theology wanting to be history? If we have any questions about these types of issues, simply change the god, or change the man. In other words, if a scholar of Abraham Lincoln were to write that good old Abe rose from the dead because a letter from a soldier reported that he saw Lincoln rise from the dead, well, what would we think? What we would think if Buddhist scholars told us that the Buddha was born from a virgin, and this was historically true? Why when it comes to Jesus are we willing to suspend what we know to be true about our world? As soon as we do this, we become apologists and theologians. We leave history behind."
Praise the Lord. This was my beef when I wrote an essay for the Liturgy and Literacy Seminar in the Fall of 2005. I think the distinction between history and theology should take place in a worship setting as well. I wrote

"I have endured the preaching of even seminary professors who know the difference between the Christ of mythology and the Jesus of history and yet do not come clean in their preaching. I believe this is intellectually dishonest and does a disservice to Jesus himself. If there ever was a guy who actually said and did some of the things historical scholars think he might have said and done, we owe it to him not to turn him into a god, or at least to be honest about it when we do."

Dr. DeConick allows, of course, a place for theology. She refers to Marcus Borg as an example of a scholar who takes history seriously and allows room for texts to be understood metaphorically. She writes...

Marcus Borg's book, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally (2001), is one that I have found useful in my Introduction to the New Testament course because it takes seriously the historical method and its results, while providing Christians with a metaphorical way to interpret scriptures that does not compromise the results of the historical method. Almost. In Borg's discussion of miracles (he prefers the word "spectacular") - whether a particular historical event lies behind stories that "go beyond what we commonly think to be possible" - is he really applying an uncompromising historical method? Or is there slippage?

Borg writes:

"I think that Jesus really did perform paranormal healings and that they cannot simply be explained in psychosomatic terms. I am even willing to consider that spectacular phenomena such as levitation perhaps happen. But do virgin births, multiplying loaves and fish, and changing water into wine ever happen anywhere? If I became persuaded that they do, then I would entertain the possibility that the stories about Jesus reporting such events also contain history remembered. But what I cannot do as a historian is to say that Jesus could do such things even though nobody else has ever been able to" (page 47).

Are stories like Jesus' resurrection story useful to a historian? Absolutely. What it tells me is that some of Jesus' followers had visions of Jesus after his death, a psychological phenomenon not unusual. I had vivid dreams, what I would call "visions," of my mother after she died, all suggesting that she was really alive but hidden away by the doctors. It took a couple of years for this to subside. In the ancient Jewish culture, visions of the dead could be interpreted in a couple of ways. The person has seen the deceased "spirit" or "ghost," an interpretation that some of Jesus' followers made of their visions of Jesus according to Luke 24:37. Or the person has witnessed someone's resurrected body, the theological interpretation that became the standard interpretation in the memory of the community. This interpretation was so important that it launched a series of christological questions and formulations, and ultimately led to Jesus becoming God. But how that happened is the subject of another post.

I look forward to it. Now a bee is buzzing in my bonnet. I feel the need to encourage my Jesus Seminar buds to get out among the blooming blogging field. It can only serve to pollenate our discussion. Flowery enough?


  1. Borg is just as helpful in "Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time." It's a great book.

  2. Hey Nicholas!

    Welcome! Meeting J Again was a book that helped change my outlook. I followed your link and found your blog, the Beard of Zeus! Great title. All the best in your studies!

  3. So you're saying you'd prefer a president who picks and chooses what he can accept from the Bible and then cuts out the rest?

    What if that president didn't believe that concepts like "peace" and "justice" and "mercy" have a place in a post-911 world?

    Picking and choosing from the Bible - no matter what side it comes from - produces a distortion of the revealed truth. That's why we're instructed to seek the whole counsel of God.

  4. Chris,

    What I appreciate about Thomas Jefferson is that he thought critically about his faith and the received tradition.

  5. If one believes that the Bible must be taken in its entirety because it is an expression of the "whole counsel of God", then one is forced to believe, for example, that God commanded people to commit genocide at Jericho and Ai as the book of Joshua claims, which is hardly consistent with the values of peace, justice, and mercy. This is the moral conundrum that the biblical literalists place themselves in. Personally, I'll take peace, justice and mercy over genocide any day. But hey, that's just me.

  6. Hi Mystical,
    genocide at Jericho . Don't you mean punishment for sin? The Messiah took that punishment (Isaiah 53, Gospels, etc.), didn't He? Jesus took the punishment we all deserve.

    Keep in mind the narrative. It seems to me that judging God by Jericho equals taking Scripture out of context.


  7. I'm referring to the conquest of Canaan by the people of Israel. The book of Joshua claims that the people were commanded to kill every man, woman, child, and animal among the Canaanites who in Ai and Jericho so that the invaders could acquire the land for themselves. You know, ethnic cleansing, such as we in modern times see in places like Rwanda and Bosnia. Last time I checked, that constitutes a crime against humanity. I don't believe in a God who condones, let alone orders people to commit, acts of genocide. Condoning or making excuses for this rather abhorrent bit of Biblical bloodthirstiness is the hole that literalists dig for themselves. If they believe that the Bible is literally true, then they believe that God condoned genocide.

  8. God commanded the Israelites to destroy the Canaanites because they were exceedingly wicked, corrupt, and idolatrous. They sacrificed their own children, committed all kinds of sexual immorality, and were pagan to the core -- this in spite of having the moral law of God clearly displayed (Rom. 1) and being the children of Noah.

    God was just in ordering their extermination. To say otherwise, you assume one of three things:
    1) The Israelites were lying when they said God told them to do it. (A denial of revelation.)

    2) You know justice, mercy, and peace better than God - that they are not founded in his character but rather in your opinion. (An idolatrous exaltation of hummanity.)

    3) That Jesus' association (and endorsement) of the God of the Torah is either accidental or based in ignorance. (Either committing the Marcionite heresy or destroying any basis for following Jesus as a "great moral teacher.")

    None of these are Christian convictions.

    As for TJ taking a critical view of his faith, I think history proves that he should have been a little more critical of himself and the inconsistencies he found there than in setting himself up as God's judge.

  9. Ah yes, the world is, unfortunately, full of people who have committed genocide who thought that they were on the side of God so that made it right. I have no doubt that many of those who committed genocide in Rwanda, Bosnia, and elsewhere also thought they had God on their sides. There have been those who have defended war crimes and crimes against humanity in this way throughout history. The ethnic cleansing analogy here is particular valid here, since the Israelites killed every man, woman, child, and animal of cities that they wanted to seize for themselves. (Yes, that's right, they even killed children, and even animals. Biblical literalists consider murdering children to be part of their morality!)

    Anyone with a modicum of a conscience, however, feel differently about these things. I think it is truly amazing, and yet sad and disgusting, when any person with a straight face, as any apologist for biblical literalism inevitably does, will defend these atrocities as described in the bible as being perfectly legitimate and acceptable. It just goes to show that you have to jettison your conscience if you are going to be a
    biblical literalist.

    This is one of the scariest things about biblical literalism. It shows how religion can be used to justify a horribly dark side of the human condition.

  10. By the way, it is an interesting question as to whether the actual arrival of the Israelites in Canaan was actually accompanied by the kind of genocide that is describe in the Bible, or if it was more of a gradual settling process or something that was less barbaric. Biblical "history" in this case was perhaps not so historical. There are many other examples of the same Hebrew scriptures of wonderful expressions of humane compassion that contrast with the depictions of divinely justified genocide in Joshua. The Bible is funny that way. It can contain some wonderful theology, and it can also contain some things that are not so wonderful. That is something that can be best appreciated once one graduates beyond biblical literalism to a more mature faith. That is the perspective that Marcus Borg brings to the New Testament (although he also discusses the Old Testament as well in other writings.)