The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions – by Marcus J. Borg and N.T. Wright
N.T. Wright and the late Marcus J. Borg are two of the most influential Jesus scholars of the past 20 years. And here they are, together, in one book having an open discussion about the Historical Jesus.
I’ve got to say that I was impressed from start with the way in which the book has been written. Both scholars are clear on their own views, and equally, they both seem to be clear on each other’s. The chapters harmonize together well, each knowing what the other is saying and being able to comment on it within their own sections. Both writers show humility: they know when to give praise to the other’s view, and they both know when to disagree without being disrespectful.
From this, it’s very clear that there existed a real friendship between them both, and not a “friendship” that has been concocted just for the sake of a book. Within the introduction, both scholars share their heart for endeavouring to show how a conversation on this matter can be had without it reducing to name-calling and belittling. And they succeed in doing this. Actually, there’s as much to be learnt from their approach to each other within this book as there is from its content.
On the matter of content, the book is separated into eight sections, with both authors taking a chapter within each section to share their perspective on the following topics: The Source Material, Jesus’ self-understanding, His Birth, The Crucifixion, The Resurrection, Jesus’ Divinity, The Second Coming, and The Christian Life. On all these points both scholars do an excellent job of putting their nuances and perspectives across in a way that is clear, concise and cohesive. And there are as many points of convergence in their views, as divergence — with most of the latter residing in their different approaches to discovering the historical Jesus.
Overall, I really enjoyed reading this book and feel that its coverage of the subject matter is perfect — leaving those who wish to explore deeper plenty of forward pointers, whilst giving lighter readers enough of the heart of the matter. Having not read much of Marcus Borg’s views in his own words (although, I’ve certainly read them second hand via other authors), I’ll certainly be exploring some more of his writing. Personally though, I’m still a huge fan of N.T. Wright, but there was plenty within Marcus’ words that I would affirm and plenty that challenged me to think again.
With all this praise however, I do have one issue…
The front cover description reads, “The Leading Liberal and Conservative Jesus Scholars Present the Heart of the Historical Jesus Debate”, with the back cover sales pitch declaring; “The Definitive Debate on the Historical Jesus”.
But this book, as compelling and as brilliant as it is, is not definitive.
I knew what I was buying, so this didn’t bother me. But anyone entering this thinking that they are getting the two polar opposites of the debate may be disappointed.
Firstly, the terms Liberal and Conservative don’t help. Although these categories often get banded around — and can often be found to be held by the same person on different matters — I don’t think they’ve added anything helpful here. For example; there are scholars far more conservative than N.T. Wright. In fact, I’ve often read him being quoted by both Liberal and conservative teachers/pastors and writers in support of their thinking. Similarly, I’ve met conservative Christians who would applaud Borg’s treatment of the Gospels and who would certainly be more comfortable with his view of the resurrection compared to Wright’s. (By the way, the terms Liberal and Conservative are only noted on the front and not used by the authors themselves).
Secondly, and building on the first, you would have to have added two more Jesus scholars into this mix to show the full variance of the field. Maybe Bart Ehrman on the left, who takes the stance that the Jesus we read of in the New Testament is nothing like the historical figure, not even in a metaphorical sense (if he did exist at all!). At the right, maybe you could drop in some of the scholars who have helped to form John Pipers’ views (or even John Piper himself*).
If you think of it like a line diagram; Ehrman would be at the far left, Piper at the far right, whilst Borg and Wright would be floating about in the middle somewhere (that’s if those at the extremes would be happy to have either of them hanging around there at all). Maybe an ellipse would be better visual aid (as shown below); in this case Borg and Wright would still be poles apart at its smaller axis, but certainly not at the extremities of Ehrman and Piper.
Actually, as Borg himself points out in his concluding chapter, his and Wright’s views could be seen as complementary and not competitive; with the possibility of some combination of the two being reached. But this isn’t something that could ever be said with Ehrman and Piper, or even Piper with Borg or Wright, for that matter.
Again, this didn’t personally bother me. I wanted to read a book with a dialogue between these two respected scholars. My worries are more with the expectations that people may bring to this book; expectations arising from the cover text alone.
To restate my opinion, I really got a lot out of reading this book. The conversation is enriching and it will be helpful to anyone exploring the debate on the historical Jesus—whether that’s for the first time or the fortieth. It certainly gets my recommendation.
*The reason I say this is although I respect Piper as a theologian, I’m not certain that he’s a Historian / Scholar—unlike the other three.
Tristan Sherwin is the author of Love: Expressed — Out Now!