Marcus Borg (d. 2015), Hundere Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University until 1997, and Fellow of what was known as the Jesus Seminar, enjoyed a certain vogue around 1994, when his best known book, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, was published. He made the rounds of parish Bible study groups and media, including our affluent Episcopal parish. The people loved him, tweeds, tea, crumpets, and all; about as privileged and well positioned as a man could be, presenting himself as an avatar of Jesus the political revolutionary,
One of Professor Borg’s slogans is “original message,” which he used as warrant for privileging parts of scripture over others; particularly the parts of the synoptic gospels that narrate Jesus’ ministry before his crucifixion. Whatever was said earlier is taken as more authoritative than later “accretions.” He didn’t invent this; it goes back at least to Thomas Jefferson, who took a razor to the pages and excised what he considered corrupting “miraculous” elements. Borg follows a long, dubious tradition by dividing the Gospel up to valorize his favored fraction. His criterion for making excisions is a distinction between pre-resurrection and post-resurrection Jesus. The first is a Jewish spiritual healer who has a gift for aphorism and midrash, and who, in a friend’s words, “tells us how to live.” The other is a product of tradition, dogma, the stock in trade of an old (1950s) finger-wagging God.
Around a convivial table, we ask our friend to expand on “how to live.” It turns out to be “love your neighbor, the beatitudes, do unto others . . . , and give to the poor.” (Whatever may be the difference between these admonitions and finger wagging, our friend does not say.)
At this point a second friend at the table asks, Who does more good: Ted Turner, by donating a billion dollars to nonprofit charities, or Michael Milken, by raising capital for scores of business startups that go on to produce goods and employ people, or Mother Teresa, by giving people shelter and care while they die. It is not a frivolous question. All agree that radically different kinds of good are involved.
As it happened, my friend Ev Simson had just made a trip to Haiti, where he volunteered at one of the Sisters of Charity clinics in Port au Prince. He gave shaves, massages, and made conversation with gravely ill men. One of them asked to be spoken to in English, because he wanted to learn the language, return to his village and teach it to his children. He had a father and mother living there. It came out over time he had no parents, no children, and no village. At last he said to Ev, “You are my father.” Ev simply made a cross on his forehead, held his hands, and prayed silently with him. More than a week after returning, he could not tell his experiences without sobbing.
Now, if this is doing good (and all seem to agree it is), it is radically different from what we mean when speaking of Ted Turner and Michael Milken. Their good aims for some socio-economic improvement for people. Mother Teresa’s does not. And yet (here again all are agreed) Mother Teresa’s nuns have not misread the Gospel, including the parts about other, neighbor, and poor.
At this point our first friend speaks up: “Post-resurrection Jesus!” She sees the connection between Mother Teresa’s kind of good and some other realm—the eschatological realm, no less—which is reached only through death and resurrection.
Now what has happened to the distinction between pre- and post-resurrection? It is shown to have been false from the start, not in the text. That is why Borg’s Jesus Seminar fellows have to work so hard to slip it between one word and another. In the process they not only do violence to Gospel, but dishonor some of their fellow Christians while misleading and confusing others. The truth is, to perform New Testament exegesis one must always have in mind the fact that it is all written from the standpoint of resurrection faith. That is why teaching the Resurrection should not be deferred to late in a Christian’s learning. It is not a doctrine reserved for overachievers in believing the impossible, but the foundation of everything else a believer needs to know; properly not the last thing to be taught, but the first.