Respectfully Disagreeing

Biblical scholars Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright live on two different continents and seem even further apart in their theology of Jesus. Borg is the liberal American revisionist; Wright is the conservative British traditionalist.

Together, they are the Siskel and Ebert of the theological world. In The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions the scholars almost always take opposite views in 16 alternating essays. The book is seldom dull, but it may be too civil for many readers’ tastes. If it were a tennis match, it would be remembered for long rallies and skillful play rather than snappy sparring.

As the apologist for traditional views, Wright’s position is almost always predictable. The Nicene Creed encapsulates the tenets for which he argues, drawing generously from his understanding of historical Christianity. But at times he’s so skeptical of modern biblical methodology that he refers to the scholarly lens known as the hermeneutic of suspicion as the "hermeneutic of paranoia."

Borg, on the other hand, thrives on shaking up the traditional paradigms. For instance, he concedes that Jesus was resurrected, but says it wasn’t necessarily a bodily resurrection. It’s this kind of revisionist viewpoint that often catapults Borg into headlines.

But readers might be surprised by how traditional Borg’s beliefs sometimes are and how conciliatory Wright sometimes is. In terms of the historical Jesus, the scholars find common ground on two key points: first, that Jesus’ message emphasized the kingdom of God, and, second, that Jesus’ disruptive behavior in the temple during his final days was the single-most factor prompting his arrest.

Wright argues that Jesus thought of himself as the Messiah and saw his death as salvific, points that Borg doesn’t buy. (Borg suggests those views are possible, but not plausible.) In fact, Borg says his disagreement with Wright over the Messiah is their most significant difference in their understanding of the historical Jesus.

Borg passes on Wright’s traditional separation of the "Jesus of history" from the "Christ of faith" and instead speaks of a pre-Easter and post-Easter Jesus. By the latter he means the Jesus of Christian experience and tradition (i.e. "what Jesus became after his death"). Borg argues that the pre-Easter Jesus never thought of himself as divine, though he was the embodiment of God.

Wright doesn’t toe the traditional line in his response. "I do not think Jesus ‘knew he was God’ in the same sense that one knows one is tired or happy, male or female," he wrote. "He did not sit back and say to himself, ‘Well, I never! I’m the second person of the trinity!" Nonetheless, Wright affirms Christian teaching on incarnation and asserts that Jesus had a strong sense of vocation.

Borg believes that the gospel of Mark’s account of Jesus’ final week is "historically plausible." And in describing Jesus, Borg uses five categories: Spirit person, healer, wisdom teacher, social prophet, and movement founder. Even people who appreciate Borg’s views will find these scholarly categories awkward and poorly named, with the exception of the justice-minded social prophet.

Still, for all their theological differences, Borg and Wright happen to be friends, which accounts for the respectful tone of their disagreements. Both studied at Oxford, and Wright taught there before becoming dean of Lichfield Cathedral, 150 miles northwest of London. Borg, a religious professor at the University of Oregon, is one of the most visible participants in the Jesus Seminar, the academic movement of liberal scholars in search of the historical Jesus. Reared a Lutheran and shaped by that historical tradition, he’s now a practicing Episcopalian.

In doing this book, the scholars said their goal was to foster conversations between conservatives and liberals. Wright’s scholarly eloquence will help to dispel stereotypes of conservative Christians as unthinking and narrow-minded. And Borg’s creative views will resonate with any Christians who find it difficult to literally embrace Jesus as presented in church doctrines.

SUSAN HOGAN/ALBACH is a reporter for the Minneapolis StarTribune.

The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions. marcus J. Bork and N.T. Wright. HarperSanFrancisco, 1999.

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