Borg, Marcus J. 1942–
Borg, Marcus J. 1942–
(Marcus Joel Borg)
Born March 11, 1942, in Fergus Falls, MN; married; wife's name Marianne (an Episcopal priest). Education: Concordia College, B.A., 1964; Oxford University, M.Th., D.Phil., 1972; postgraduate work at Union Theological Seminary and University of Tübingen. Religion: Episcopalian.
Office—Department of Philosophy, Oregon State University, 208 Hovland Hall, Corvallis, OR 97331-3902.
Educator and writer. Concordia College, Moorhead, MN, instructor, 1966-69, then assistant professor, 1972-74; South Dakota State University, Brookings, assistant professor, 1975-76; Carleton College, Northfield, MN, assistant professor, 1976-79; Oregon State University, Corvallis, professor, 1979—, faculty council president, 1985-86, 1992-93, Hundere Professor of Religious Studies, starting 1993, now emeritus. University of Puget Sound, Tacoma, WA, distinguished visiting professor, 1986-87; Pacific School of Religion, Berkeley, CA, visiting professor, 1989-91. Journal for the Study of the New Testament, member of editorial board, 1991—. Appeared in the ABC News program Peter Jennings Reporting: The Search for Jesus, 2000.
Jesus Seminar, Society of Biblical Literature (chair, historical Jesus section, 1987-92; cochair, international New Testament program committee, 1991-95; member of executive council, 1993-96), Catholic Biblical Association, American Academy of Religion.
Rockefeller Brothers theological fellow, 1964-65; Danforth fellow, 1965-66, 1969-72; Elizabeth Ritchie Outstanding Teaching Award, Oregon State University, 1984; National Endowment for the Humanities awards, 1985, 1988; Burlington-Northern Teaching Award and College of Liberal Arts Researcher of the Year designation, both Oregon State University, both 1986; Oregon Legislature Faculty Excellence Award for Teaching, 1986; Distinguished Professor, Oregon State University, 1992; College of Liberal Arts Faculty Excellence Award, 1997.
Conflict and Social Change, Augsburg Publishing House (Minneapolis, MN), 1971.
Jesus, a New Vision: Spirit, Culture, and the Life of Discipleship, Harper & Row (San Francisco, CA), 1987.
Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship, Trinity Press International (Valley Forge, PA), 1994.
Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith, HarperSanFrancisco (San Francisco, CA), 1994.
(With John Dominic Crossan and Stephen Patterson) The Search for Jesus: Modern Scholarship Looks at the Gospels, Biblical Archaeology Society (Washington, DC), 1994.
The God We Never Knew: Beyond Dogmatic Religion to Authentic Contemporary Faith, HarperSanFrancisco (San Francisco, CA), 1997.
(With Jack Kornfield and Ray Riegert) Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings, Ulysses Press (Berkeley, CA), 1997.
(With N.T. Wright) The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, HarperSanFrancisco (San Francisco, CA), 1999.
Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally, HarperSanFrancisco (San Francisco, CA), 2001.
The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, HarperSanFrancisco (San Francisco, CA), 2003.
(With Tim Scorer) Living the Heart of Christianity: A Guidebook for Putting Your Faith into Action, HarperSanFrancisco (San Francisco, CA), 2006.
(With John Dominic Crossan) The Last Week: The Day-by-Day Account of Jesus's Final Week in Jerusalem, HarperSanFrancisco (San Francisco, CA), 2006.
Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, HarperSanFrancisco (San Francisco, CA), 2006.
(With Mark Powelson and Ray Riegert) The Lost Gospel Q: The Original Sayings of Jesus, Ulysses Press (Berkeley, CA), 1996.
Jesus at Two Thousand, Westview Press (Boulder, CO), 1997.
(With Ross Mackenzie) God at Two Thousand, Morehouse Publishing (Harrisburg, PA), 2000.
(With John Dominic Crossan) The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus's Birth, HarperOne (San Francisco, CA), 2007.
Religion scholar Marcus J. Borg has been a pioneer in the study of the "historical Jesus," the effort to uncover more about Jesus as he actually lived and spoke. In his own work and in his affiliation with the Jesus Seminar, Borg has been a central figure in controversial debates about the nature of Jesus, the accuracy of the Bible, and the politics of religion in contemporary society. Though the main thrust of his work has been scholarly, his ideas about Jesus and the Christian religion have crossed over to a mainstream audience in response to what Borg has called "an enormous public appetite" for new ways of looking at Christianity.
Borg's earliest scholarship focused on social issues and the role of the Christian Church in bringing about social change. Borg was critical of mainline churches that emphasized individual salvation at the expense of justice and basic human rights. In his first book, Conflict and Social Change, Borg suggests that the major focus of Christian life must be involvement in the political and social conflicts of the world. His argument is based on Biblical quotations and a view that many social conflicts need the intervention of the Church. The social issues that served as the focus of Borg's doctoral studies at Oxford were eventually revised into the book Conflict, Holiness, and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus. In this work, Borg narrows his argument for Christian social activism to the message of Jesus, stressing the primacy of mercy in Jesus' teaching. Borg maintains that understanding the teachings of Jesus in the context of the Jewish-Roman conflict in which he and his followers lived can better illuminate the idea of holiness than the "eschatological emphasis" of modern Christianity. James M. Reese, reviewing Conflict, Holiness, and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus for Theological Studies, found Borg's book to be a "substantial study of the political dimension of the ministry of Jesus." Though Reese felt that Borg weakened his last chapter as he "tries to do too much," the critic concluded that overall the work offers "insight into the mission and teaching of Jesus." Writing for the Journal of Biblical Literature, William R. Farmer called the work "a model of scholarship," noting Borg's analytical skills, his lack of bias, his depth of research, and his "brilliant conceptual contribution" to the discussion of the historical Jesus.
Shortly after the publication of Conflict, Holiness, and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus, Borg became one of the founding members of a new scholarly organization dedicated to studying the life and teachings of Jesus. Called the Jesus Seminar, the group convened in 1985 with two main goals: measuring the level of consensus on the accuracy of the sayings attributed to Jesus and popularizing biblical study in American culture. In an interview with a Cathedral Age contributor, Borg explained that the Jesus Seminar maintained that "the most widespread understanding of the Bible is a literalistic understanding, especially for people outside the church." Part of the work of the Seminar, Borg noted, was "to make people realize there's another way of looking at this material." The group was controversial, particularly in the eyes of Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals who felt that, according to Borg, "to become part of it would grant the premise that this is a developing tradition." In general, Borg said, fundamentalist and evangelical groups have tended to marginalize biblical scholarship, and by extension the work of the Jesus Seminar.
Borg's first book after working with the seminar was Jesus, a New Vision: Spirit, Culture, and the Life of Discipleship, a work especially aimed at a general audience. In it, Borg attempts to negotiate between the view of Jesus as divine and the view of Jesus as a purely human Jewish prophet. Instead, Borg suggests, Jesus led a life "in the Spirit world," a world that would have been real and clearly understood by his original hearers, though it is not fully comprehended in the modern era. By revisiting Jesus' teachings and the historical context in which he taught, Borg proposes to make the historical Jesus a compelling model of discipleship and an advocate for modern social justice. By emphasizing the spiritual as well as the historical, Borg distinguishes himself from several other members of the Jesus Seminar whose interest in Jesus has been purely scholarly. Though some critics suggested that Borg's liberalism is a weakness of his theology, many offered praise for his efforts. C. Clifton Black, writing in Interpretation, found that Borg's "new vision" of Jesus holds "extraordinary relevance for both the church and the contemporary culture." Like Black, Ron Large, a reviewer for Christian Century, called Borg's effort to translate scholarship for a wider audience "accessible and rewarding." Large remarked on Borg's continued study of the distinction between holiness and compassion; Borg's Jesus describes a god of compassion and seeks to "eliminate divisions and to create a new heart centered on God, not culture." Bruce Chilton, reviewing Jesus, a New Vision for Theology Today, criticized Borg for what he found to be a fuzzy analysis of loose concepts such as "clairvoyance" and "paranormal healings," and also doubted Borg's depiction of Jesus as a social activist. Nonetheless, Chilton found Borg's work "engaging" and able to "serve well to stimulate thought and discussion."
In later works, including Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship and Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith, Borg's overall aim has remained the same: to bring the work of religion scholars to the attention of a general audience, and make the teachings of Jesus newly relevant. Though not accepted by all Christian groups, Borg's moderate position among scholars of the "historical Jesus," and his willingness to discuss his own spiritual development, has allowed Christian writers to take his work seriously. As J.R. Davila noted in a review of Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship for Choice, Borg's is a "welcome moderate voice among the sometimes stridently antireligious publications" of the Jesus Seminar. Lawrence S. Cunningham, who reviewed both books for Commonweal, admitted that although his personal "bias is somewhat against this school of scholarship," he nonetheless was "grateful to Borg and recommend[ed] his work." Cunningham quipped: "Of the lot, Borg is one of my favorites since he still remembers that Jesus has something to do with the Christian Church."
Borg followed Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time with a similar book about God, The God We Never Knew: Beyond Dogmatic Religion to Authentic Contemporary Faith. Like Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, The God We Never Knew marries a narrative of Borg's personal journey of faith with scholarship regarding the Judeo-Christian concept of God, with the goal of satisfying both faith and reason. Ray Olson suggested in Booklist that The God We Never Knew serves as a "companion" to Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, and both Olson and Library Journal critic Augustine J. Curley commented that Borg again successfully reaches out to a general audience. In addition to using his abilities as a generalist, Borg continued with biblical scholarship and the Jesus Seminar, editing a collection of essays titled Jesus at Two Thousand that presents the current state of scholarship on Jesus. Though critics praised the scholarship of the group, some suggested that the seminar tends to ignore the experience and authority of modern Christians. In the Journal of Ecumenical Studies, J. Patrick Gaffney wrote that "one of the disturbing, implicit premises of this book … is that the portrait of Jesus is to be consonant with a particular understanding of postmodern thought."
Despite his continued affiliation with the Jesus Seminar, Borg has never been grouped with the group's hard-line postmodernists, and in his own writings he continues to reach out a broader audience. With the Buddhist scholar Jack Kornfield he wrote Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings, a collection of Bible verses paired with similar sentiments from Buddhist teachings. He has also worked to bridge a substantial religious gap by writing The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions with conservative Anglican priest N.T. Wright, whose literal interpretations of the New Testament are often sharply at odds with Borg's analysis. Borg and Wright are longtime friends who studied the Bible with George B. Caird at Oxford University. In an interview with Bill Broadway for the Washington Post, Wright remarked: "We want to model a way of having a serious dialogue, which is a way of courtesy and mutual respect and a way which affirms the Christianness of the other's position." Though both authors stress that their disagreements remain—Borg told the Washington Post interviewer that Wright's Jesus is "thoroughly brilliant and unpersuasive"—critics have found the mixed presentation insightful and effective. In Sojourners, reviewer Susan Hogan-Albach wrote that "Wright's scholarly eloquence will help to dispel stereotypes of conservative Christians as unthinking and narrowminded. And Borg's creative views will resonate with any Christians who find it difficult to literally embrace Jesus as presented in church doctrines."
Borg offers another counter to literalist interpretations in his Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally. The work reflects the perspective of Borg's earlier books: that the Bible contains truth whether or not it contains facts. In some respects, the book continues the work of The Meaning of Jesus, attempting to moderate between fundamentalism and a complete rejection of the relevance of the Bible. Although he addresses the conflict between these two viewpoints, Borg "does not try to resolve it," noted Christian Century reviewer William Brosend in his critique of the work. "Borg is not interested in winning arguments over inspiration, authority or methodology," the critic added. "His concern is to gain a hearing from the millions who find such questions, if not the Bible itself, entirely irrelevant."
A reviewer for Publishers Weekly suggested that Reading the Bible Again for the First Time offers readers "a highly readable and succinct introduction to biblical criticism" by demonstrating how cultural perspective influences an individual's relationship to God. Borg's liberalism and his affiliation with postmodern scholarship has led other reviewers to think less of the work. In Library Journal, George Westerlund wrote that by choosing to emphasize "freedom and political correctness" in his reading of the Bible, Borg "completely ignores the Bible's dominant redemptive theme that culminates in Jesus Christ." Borg's own statements of faith, given throughout his scholarly career, belie this charge, however. In his Cathedral Age Web site interview with Robert Becker and Carole Crumley, Borg affirmed the belief that "entering into a relationship with God radically transforms one's life." He stated what he later confirmed in The Meaning of Jesus, that he believes in the Resurrection, and that "the truth of the Resurrection is grounded in the ongoing experience or the continuing experience of Jesus as the risen, living Lord, from his time to the present."
In The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, Borg addresses what he believes is the changing nature of Christianity. He discusses the fact that in modern society, the vision of Christianity that was held for many years, which includes a sort of hedging one's bets against the future, appears to be less viable than it once was. People no longer have the patience or the interest in adhering to a faith that simply promises reward in the afterlife. Instead, they are looking for something transformative in the present, for a faith that enables them to connect with God, to make their lives better, and to allow them to go forth with an attitude and spirituality that both eases their daily existence and helps to make sense of the world. According to Borg, this is where modern Christianity is heading, and that very fact makes it an extremely durable and practical religion for many followers in this modern society. He describes salvation for the sake of leading a better, more spiritual existence, as opposed to salvation that allows for a place in heaven. However, Borg is quick to point out that Christianity itself has not actually changed, it is just a matter of taking a fresh look at the concepts and seeing how they apply to the needs of the current congregations. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly wrote that "as always, Borg writes with clarity and precision, which should also help the ongoing conversation." Marcia Ford, in a review for Faithful Reader Web site, concluded that "there's no question that some who read this book will conclude that Borg has cut the heart right out of Christianity. But likewise, there's no question that many lapsed churchgoers will return to the faith as a result of Borg's enormous influence."
The Last Week: The Day-by-Day Account of Jesus's Final Week in Jerusalem, which Borg cowrote with John Dominic Crossan and published in 2006, provides read- ers with a detailed account of the last week of Jesus' life, using primarily the Gospel of Mark for a framework. Each chapter addresses a separate day of the week and includes a wealth of information and history that helps to put the events into context. Due to the leanings of both Borg and Crossan, the text has a progressive, modern spin, with a great deal of the text of the Bible reworked or reinterpreted, including such ideological fixtures as the Resurrection and Atonement. Writing for Booklist, contributor Ray Olson observed that applying "Crossan's scholarly scintillation rather than Borg's sometimes plodding earnestness, this is politically concerned analysis of Christianity at its best." Mark Allen Powell, in a review for the Christian Century, declared that "The Last Week is beautifully written and thoroughly engaging, and its authors are well informed. The reflections not only elucidate matters that are potentially difficult to understand but explain the significance of such matters for Christian life."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Antioch Review, spring, 1997, Kathleen Wildman, review of Jesus at Two Thousand, p. 236.
Booklist, January, 1994, Ray Olson, review of Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith, p. 879; January, 1997, Steve Schroeder, review of Jesus at Two Thousand, p. 784; May, 1997, Ray Olson, review of The God We Never Knew: Beyond Dogmatic Religion to Authentic Contemporary Faith, p. 1463; December, 2000, Steven Schroeder, review of Jesus at Two Thousand, p. 677; March 1, 2006, Ray Olson, review of The Last Week: The Day-by-Day Account of Jesus's Final Week in Jerusalem, p. 47.
Choice, October, 1985, D. Dungan, review of Conflict, Holiness, and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus, p. 311; February, 1995, J.R. Davila, review of Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship, p. 949.
Christian Century, January, 1989, Ron Large, review of Jesus, a New Vision: Spirit, Culture, and the Life of Discipleship, pp. 56-67; August, 1994, Leander E. Keck, review of Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, pp. 784-787; November, 1997, William H. Willimon, "Modern Distractions," pp. 1009-1011; March, 1998, William Brosend, review of The God We Never Knew, pp. 317-318; April, 1999, William Brosend, "Jesus in Faith and History," p. 394; May 2, 2001, William Brosend, review of Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally, p. 26; April 18, 2006, Mark Allen Powell, "Jesus' Final Days," p. 34.
Commonweal, January, 1995, Lawrence S. Cunningham, review of Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship, pp. 27-28; April, 1995, Lawrence S. Cunningham, review of Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, pp. 27-28.
First Things, December, 1999, review of The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, p. 65.
Hudson Review, winter, 1998, Bruce Bower, review of The God We Never Knew, pp. 696-697.
Interpretation, October, 1989, C. Clifton Black, review of Jesus, a New Vision, pp. 422-423; October, 1996, Charles B. Cousar, review of Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship, p. 428.
Journal of Biblical Literature, December, 1986, William R. Farmer, review of Conflict, Holiness, and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus, p. 723.
Journal of Ecumenical Studies, spring, 1998, J. Patrick Gaffney, review of Jesus at Two Thousand, pp. 275-276.
Library Journal, June, 1997, Augustine J. Curley, review of The God We Never Knew, p. 74; January, 1999, Graham Christian, review of The Meaning of Jesus, p. 107; April 1, 2001, George Westerlund, review of Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, p. 104.
National Catholic Reporter, February, 1994, Gary MacEoin, review of Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, p. 13; March, 2000, Gary MacEoin, review of The Meaning of Jesus, p. 16.
Publishers Weekly, February, 1994, review of Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, pp. 64-65; February, 1997, review of The God We Never Knew, p. 81; November, 1998, review of The Meaning of Jesus, p. 64; November, 2000, review of God at Two Thousand, p. 72; February, 2001, review of Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, p. 81; September 15, 2003, review of The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, p. 62.
Religious Studies Review, January, 1999, Dale C. Allison, Jr., review of Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings, p. 100.
Sojourners, July, 1999, Susan Hogan-Albach, review of The Meaning of Jesus, p. 60.
Theological Studies, December, 1985, James M. Reese, review of Conflict, Holiness, and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus, pp. 715-716; September, 1995, Elliot C. Maloney, review of Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship, pp. 569-572.
Theology Today, April, 1989, Bruce Chilton, review of Jesus: A New Vision, pp. 119-120.
Washington Post, February, 1999, Bill Broadway, "Agreeing to Disagree: Two Scholars Do Friendly Battle in the ‘Jesus Wars,’" p. B8.
Cathedral Age, http://www.cathedral.org/ (June 11, 2001), Robert Becker and Carole Crumley, interview with Marcus J. Borg.
Faithful Reader, http://www.faithfulreader.com/ (May 2, 2008), Marcia Ford, review of The Heart of Christianity.
Oregon State University Web site, http://www.orst.edu/ (June 11, 2001), biography of Marcus J. Borg.
Westar Institute, http://www.westarinstitute.org/ (December 14, 2001), biography of Marcus J. Borg.