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Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance
of a Religious Revolutionary

byvMarcus Borg
Harper SanFrancisco, 2006

commentary by John Tintera

The New York Times recently reported the issuance by the Vatican of renewed warnings against the works of John Sobrino, a “proponent of liberation theology” based in El Salvador. The liberation theology movement, which has given us such wonderful catch phrases as “the preferential option for the poor” and inspired the passionate works of modern saints like Oscar Romero, began in Latin America in the late 50s and has gained momentum since the Roman Catholic Second Vatican Council in the early 60s.

While Catholic Church officials claim that the movement’s efforts to relieve the sufferings of the poor and oppressed and to change the societal structures that breed inequality are built upon Marxist ideology, members believe that their work is just as inspired by the words and deeds of Jesus Christ. One need have only a cursory knowledge of the Gospels to know that Jesus got into a lot of trouble with the religious authorities of his day for associating with social outcasts, predicting a time when the last shall be first and the first last, and disrupting the temple in Jerusalem. By the same token, Jesus is also quoted in the Gospels as saying “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

The question at the heart of the debate over liberation theology is “Who is Jesus and what is he all about?” In his latest book, Marcus Borg gives perhaps the most inclusive and comprehensive summation to date of what two centuries of Biblical scholarship have to say about this important matter.

The cover art for Borg’s new book —Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary—features a photograph of the famous statue of “Christ the Redeemer” in Rio de Janeiro encased in scaffolding. Just as the giant statue was built by dozens of workers who pooled their skills and talents, scholars like Borg have shared their research with one another in an effort to get to the heart of Jesus’ life and mission. The results of this centuries-long project are just now starting to leak into the general consciousness. In the end, the research suggests that the Roman Catholic Church ought to go a little easier on liberation theology.

In the words of Marcus Borg:

Jesus was from the peasant class. Clearly, he was brilliant. His use of language was remarkable and poetic, filled with images and stories. He had a metaphoric mind. He was not an ascetic, but world-affirming, with a zest for life. There was a sociopolitical passion to him—like a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King, he challenged the domination system of his day. He was a religious ecstatic, a Jewish mystic, for whom God was an experiential reality. As such, Jesus was also a healer. And there seems to have been a spiritual presence around him, like that of St. Francis or the present Dalai Lama. And as a figure of history, Jesus was an ambiguous figure—you could experience him and conclude that he was insane, as his family did, or that he was simply eccentric or that he was a dangerous threat—or you could conclude that he was filled with the spirit of God. [p164]

After reading Borg’s book, I am convinced that this is what the historical Jesus was all about. Perhaps even more significant, however, is the evidence that Jesus never spoke of himself as being the Son of God during his lifetime. To drive the point home, Borg explains the differences between the pre- and post-Easter Jesus—the Jesus of history and the Jesus of the Nicene Creed. As a believer, what makes this book doubly exciting is that Borg accepts outright and proclaims by faith both the pre-Easter and the post-Easter Jesus. I know of no other major historian who does this.

To anyone who has studied modern hermeneutics, there will be few surprises here. Borg is fully in the camp of the “two source” theory of the synoptic gospels, which states that Mark was written first and that Matthew and Luke both used Mark as a primary source, in addition to a collection of Jesus’ sayings that no longer exists. This position holds that most of what we can know about the historical Jesus can only be found in these three Gospels. The corollary to this theory is that little in John’s Gospel should be thought of as factually having occurred. As I mentioned, Borg also accepts the methodology scholars use to figure out which of the sayings and deeds attributed to Jesus in the synoptics most likely happened. It’s too much to go into here, but academics have developed strict criteria with which they evaluate each event. The result is a portrait of Jesus as a revolutionary reformer who used non-violent methods to raise consciousness about injustice and who proclaimed a radically inclusive vision of God’s kingdom.

At the outset, Borg states that Jesus will be his last major work and that his intention is to sum up everything he has come to believe about the historical Jesus after 40 years of study and contemplation. In the course of the book, Borg treats his readers to a lively vision of the Nazarene who is both passionate and compassionate. At the same time, he reveals the scholarly processes he relies on for discerning the truth about Jesus. The result is a book that is both learned and engaging. One comes away from it with a fresh love for its subject and a fresh appreciation for the men and women whose scholarship made possible this wonderful synthesis.

For those who struggle, as many of us do, with such post-Easter concepts as the blood atonement for human sin, Jesus retaining his physical human body in heaven, or the notion that he went around saying things like “I am the sheepfold,” Borg’s book will be a breath of fresh air. And yet, the book is also about Jesus, the Christ—the post-Easter Jesus who Borg clearly loves and experiences in his own life today. The Christ—the resurrected Jesus who the disciples experienced by the Sea of Tiberias, who appeared on the road to Emmaus, and who lives within us as God’s expression of love incarnate—is different than the man studied in the academy. Borg’s explanation of the living Christ, along with his portrait of the historical Jesus, captures as well as anything I’ve read the reason why 2000 years later we are still building huge statues of adoration in places around the world. Indeed, Borg shows us that there is room at the table of Christ for the liberation theologians and those who hold dearly the doctrine of Christ’s divinity.


Copyright ©2007 John Tintera

Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary
To purchase a copy of Marcus Borg's JESUS, visit amazon.com. This link is provided as a service to explorefaith visitors and registered users.


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