The Meaning of Jesus | Book Review

Academic Articles | Book Reviews

Published on May 25, 2021

This is a book that I assume many Evangelicals would not be too familiar with—but it was an interesting read. It is a conversation between a liberal and conservative(ish) scholar about the historical Jesus debate. Not many people outside of scholastic circles will be too familiar with this debate, but the influences from it affect many spheres of the dialog that happens in pop-culture surrounding Jesus and the various competing theories. In fact, the historical Jesus debate has even found itself into pulpits and sermons by pastors and church leaders who have been swayed by its arguments. So, in some way it is valuable to have some understanding of what’s going on at a basic level. Not to mention, it is always healthy to deal with the best arguments on both sides of a debate to arrive at a true conviction.

This review of this book is by no means an endorsement, but rather an honest attempt at dealing openly with its content. I do believe it is good to read broadly and even from viewpoints we disagree with in order to better refine our own beliefs.

Marcus Borg

Marcus J. Borg is a liberal theologian who was an American New Testament scholar and author. He graduated from Union Seminary, NY and earned his M.Th and D. Phil at Mansfield College, Oxford University. He was part of the controversial Jesus seminar and Professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University. He has taught at Concordia College, South Dakota State University, and Carleton College. He has been the national chair of the Historical Jesus Section of the Society of Biblical Literature and president of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars. He was a widely known and influential figure in liberal/progressive Christian circles and a major figure in scholarship surrounding the historical Jesus. He passed away in January of 2015.

N.T. Wright

N.T. Wright is a conservative(ish) theologian (though some may differ on that opinion) who is a leading New Testament scholar and former Anglican bishop of Durham. He is the author of numerous books and scholarly works and is now Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St. Mary’s College in the University of St. Andrews. Wright studied classical literature at Exeter College, Oxford then got a BA in theology with first class honours. He studied at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, earning his MA and later was awarded a Doctor of Divinity from Oxford University. He has been a research fellow at Merton College, Oxford and Downing College, Cambridge. He received his DPhil at Merton College and has served as Assistant Professor of New Testament Studies at McGill University then chaplain, fellow and tutor at Worcester College and lecturer at the University of Oxford. He became Dean of Lichfield Cathedral and eventually took up the place as Canon Theologian at Westminster Abbey. He is well known as a defender of traditional orthodoxy among New Testament scholarship and debates though many have critiqued his perspectives on Paul’s writings.

Both of these scholars are well distinguished in their fields, so the interchange between them undoubtedly reflects some of the best minds on the opposite ends of the debate. Despite their opposing views, they were friends in real life, so there was a great level of respect and civility between them which helped in making clear arguments void of name-calling or empty rhetoric so popular in today’s disputes. Ultimately though, this book was quite heavy to get through. Much of the material may be unfamiliar and uninteresting to those not invested in the discussion. However, for those wanting to read deeper or research into what the current scholarship and debate is on these issues—it is an invaluable resource. Below I will outline some of the highlights and take away points from the book.

The presentation of the book

I thought the presentation of the book was quite helpful. By placing the chapters side by side, one can easily see the arguments and counter arguments made between the two friends and their amicable relationship towards one another. This avoided any harsh or unnecessarily antagonistic attitudes getting in the way of the real debate. It was also helpful that they had read what each other had written and were able to respond accordingly which made the dialogue very interactive and stimulating to read. I thought both men did a good job of presenting their views, however I was not as much convinced by Borg’s presentation as it had contradictions, unsubstantiated assumptions, and did not hold up as well to Wright’s critiques in my opinion. The close interaction between the two views gave me much consider as I formed my own conclusions afterwards. So for this I am greatly appreciative.

Interacting with Five quotations

I’ll use 5 quotations from this book and my reflections on them to frame this review.

1. “History is precisely a matter of looking, through one’s own spectacles, at evidence about the past, trying to reconstruct the probable course of events and the motivations of the characters involved, and defending such reconstructions against rival ones… Part of the process is becoming aware that one’s spectacles are almost certainly distorting the picture, and becoming ready to let puzzles within the evidence or the reconstruction, or the alternative theories of one’s colleagues, alert one to such distortion and enable one to clean or replace the offending lens.”[1] –NT Wright

Wright’s approach to the subject helped me a lot in opening up my previously held assumptions and conclusions about what I knew of Christology to the scrutiny of theories presented by these two scholars. At first, our knee-jerk reaction to views which so strongly oppose our own theology—which we have held to for so long—is to recoil or dismiss them.

However, there is great benefit in re-examining the evidence either to clean the old lens or update the prescription for a clearer view. Borg’s views initially are very much in bold contrast to much of what I take for granted as ‘gospel truth’. However I had not, at the time of reading this book, seriously challenged or scrutinized it in such a way as he does. Though this was a struggle, it allowed me to become aware of the ‘spectacles’ I had been seeing scriptures through and open up his alternative viewing for assessment. I thought this was a very healthy exercise academically as one who desires a vibrant faith both spiritually and intellectually. It is important that we deal with the strongest arguments and not just knock down straw men thinking we have accomplished much.

2. “It is not just “belief”. It is natural to say “I believe it’s raining” when indoors with the curtains shut, but it would be odd to say it, except in irony, standing on a hillside in a downpour. For many Christians much of the time, knowing Jesus is more like the latter: being drenched in his love and the challenge of his call, nor merely imagining we hear him like raindrops on a distant windowpane.”[2] –NT Wright

This is quite possibly one of my favourite quotes in the book as it encompasses so well the experience of Christianity which goes above and beyond mere scriptural scholarship, moral behaviour, and fuzzy feelings. Wright hits the heart chord of the Gospel’s harmony within the melody of our life—that the God of creation desires relationship with His creation. He is the God who speaks, comforts, loves, corrects, disciplines, directs and walks with us.

While I see the value of critical scholarship in helping us to think deeply, at the heart of the Christian ‘experience’ is a life changing encounter with the living God through the work and person of Jesus Christ. For a fully robust faith, one cannot diminish the importance of ‘tasting and seeing’ that the Lord is good in a way that goes beyond mere intellectual knowledge and moves to a “heart knowledge” since it is this type of ‘knowing’ that produces genuine Christian faith, hope and love.

3. “Whether or not Jesus thought he was the messiah, he is the messiah. That is, his messianic status and the truth of the exalted metaphors do not depend upon whether Jesus thought of himself in those terms. Whether any of them go back to Jesus or not, they are the community’s testimony to what Jesus had become in their life together.”[3] –Marcus Borg

Borg’s understanding of Jesus and how he thought of himself is unorthodox to say the least. It posed a challenge for me to think about the possibility that some of the doctrines we commonly accept today may have developed in the early Church and their cultural or circumstantial contexts which would have influenced the development of the early faith. This idea of whether or not Jesus’ self-realized identity as messiah is essential to the Gospel and Christianity or the fact that he is the messiah regardless was an interesting one to ponder.

However, to say that this truth was something established by the community’s testimony of what Jesus has become to them to me borders very closely on relative truth—or truth created—instead of absolute truth—or truth found. It seems quite a stretch for me to believe that the early Christians, many of whom were horrifically martyred for their profession of faith in Jesus as messiah, would willingly subjugate themselves to torture and death for a figurative truth as opposed to one established in a historical claim of Jesus himself. After wrestling with it, I do concede that it is quite reasonable that a lot of the implications of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, their connectedness with prophesy and the theology built around those events were not realized in their fullness until enough time had passed to allow for deep retrospection on them. After all—a large portion of the post-Acts early church was too busy trying not to get martyred to sit down and have lengthy debates! It is true that theology develops over time as people have more opportunity to plumb the riches of God’s revelation to us in His Word and through His Son.

In that way, I can agree with Borg that some of the beliefs surrounding Christ, flow from a developing tradition. However, I think that the testimony of the early martyrs and the conversion of Saul of Tarsus are powerful testimonies that Jesus’ followers not only personally believed he was messiah to them, but also that he had fulfilled the role to which he testified of himself through both his words and deeds while he was alive. I agree with Wright’s response, “to say ‘Jesus acted and spoke in ways consistent with his launching a veiled claim to be messiah, and inconsistent with his having no intention of making such a claim’ is a historical hypothesis that, I believe, can be powerfully sustained.”[4]

4. “The bush telegraph not only transmits snippets of information; it can put them together and make a coherent whole. It simply will not do to say that certain people weren’t present so they didn’t know. Ask any journalist.”[5] –NT Wright

Coming from a third world country where community and neighbourhoods were so closely interconnected and people talked and shared openly about events and the talk of the town, I can relate very closely to how this works. I’ve seen it and experienced it with my own eyes and ears. Even without technology, it is amazing how fast news can travel between cities and spread through word of mouth. It is not hard at all to imagine this happening in Jesus’ case, especially as he would have been a hot topic on the lips of the common people and a high profile figure; so obviously he would be a subject of frequent discussion. Therefore, Borg’s objections as to the account of the trial being made up because the disciples weren’t there would be quite a weak argument to me.

His point, though, that there being no witnesses for when Jesus prays in Gethsemane definitely does raise some interesting questions. However, I don’t necessarily see it as problematic—as Jesus could have well related his struggle later to them or the Holy Spirit may have shown them this truth through divine revelation. Jesus did after all say that he would send the Spirit to lead them into all truth (John 16:13).

5. “Mystical experience implies the immediacy of access to God. If God or the sacred can be experienced, then God is in some sense “right here,” accessible and knowable, and not simply elsewhere… most modern atheism is a rejection of the God of supernatural theism. It is also theologically deficient: it affirms only the transcendence of God and neglects the immanence of God, despite the fact that the Jewish and Christian traditions have consistently affirmed that God is both.”[6] –Marcus Borg

I have to appreciate how Borg critiques the idea that God is only somewhere out there and occasionally comes here to perform a miracle or something from time to time. The truth that God is always present and interacting with creation is one I see affirmed strongly in scripture and even in other eastern religions and customs where the separation of creation and God was not so distant as perhaps our modern minds make it. It is a false division between the sacred and the secular to a proper understanding of spirituality. His presentation of what he calls a ‘mystic’s experience’ of the ‘more’ is one that resonates well with me experientially—especially how God can use the ordinary to show us glimpses, these foretastes of glory Divine. Wright and I agree with him that God is immanent as well as transcendent. However, this does not validate a solely mystical understanding of the faith. The Christian faith, while there may be elements of mystery is not like the Eastern Mystic religions – we plant ourselves firmly upon an objective reality.

The Historical Jesus and the Jesus of Today

I recognize that there exists a tension between a responsible assessment of the historical Jesus and his ongoing importance to us today. However, I do not believe these two things are to be treated as separate entities. I believe that the Jesus of ongoing importance is the historical Jesus. If we hold to the belief that he was resurrected bodily and ascended on high where he sits at the right hand of the Father today, these two are actually one in the same. The tension exists in discovering who this historical Jesus was so that we can know who he is for us today—as Hebrews 13:8 says, “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today and forever.” To place one’s trust in a Jesus of history ‘metaphorized’ (Borg’s term) or a figurative construct of a theology developed later seems irrational to me and holds no saving power.

The Real Substance of our Faith

If all Jesus is as messiah is a theoretical construct agreed upon later by those trying to establish a new faith, then where is the real ‘substance’ of that faith? Faith is only firm if the foundation it is placed in is secure and sure. If the historical Jesus is dead and buried, and only his figurative ‘metaphorized’ self lives on, then I would have to agree with Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:17-19 that, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

This is especially true for all those who have been brutally martyred for their faith in the actual resurrection of Christ. This would make no sense of Paul’s encouragements to “count it all a loss for the sake of Christ” if the reality of Christ is nothing more than a mere metaphor! His ongoing importance is more than just the allegorical and metaphorical implications of his life, they must also be based in a historical truth.

Not a Christian Approach

Borg’s approach to Jesus is questionable at best as a ‘Christian’ approach. Jesus to many believers is more than just a theoretical construct of history ‘metaphorized’. He is a person who is real, active, still alive and relating to them in the present day. Christianity is not a set of merely cerebral beliefs, it is a transforming relationship with the living God through Jesus Christ. Borg’s stance at times seems to be one coming from a position of a privileged western scholar separated from the experiential suffering of what it means to be a Christian in other parts of the world. If we were to ask those being slaughtered and tortured for their faith in places such as the Middle East or North Korea, I’m sure none of them would give you a “history metaphorized” view of Jesus as some sort of figurative idea. They would testify, just as the apostles and early Church martyrs would, that he is real and present with them today as the Jesus of history revealed through scripture.

It begs the question for me then—how does Borg relate to this Jesus he has constructed? It would seem to me that his approach is one of “super-scepticism” with a presumed bias to rule out the supernatural outright.

Borg’s Super Skepticism

There are many examples in his writing in this book of his predisposition to “super-skepticism”. In his treatment of the topic of Jesus’ birthplace, he goes through numerous differences in Matthew and Luke’s stories and then rejects Bethlehem in favour of Nazareth because they agree on it (181-2). His basis being because Micah 1:2 predicts that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem, that is reason enough to reject it as made up. However, little is really done to provide solid basis for this rejection of traditional belief on what has historically been not that big of a controversial topic. He shows that he has an aversion to even allowing the possibility of prophesy to be true and takes suspicion to great lengths simply to ignore the other possibility. He contradicts himself constantly in his arguments, confirming that it is quite possible for a first-century Jew to think that his death would have atoning effect for others, but then denying that it is possible that Jesus would have thought this way about himself.

I think he shows his cards most emphatically when he says, “I don’t want Jesus to have seen his own death as having the significance Tom gives to it. As a Christian, I want Jesus to be an attractive figure.”[7] Which he admits is not an adequate criterion for making historical judgments, but then seemingly proceeds to do so anyways. This is not an acceptable methodology for honest scholarship—even critical scholarship. Probably the bigger question though is; how he can claim to see Scripture as authoritative or God inspired and then proceed to wield a butcher knife to it and cut out parts somewhat haphazardly where it does not agree with what he is comfortable to accept? This is beyond me. Is an almighty God (to Borg) unable to protect His Word? (This of course not discounting the role of natural processes and consequence in Divine Providence.) I think Wright’s phrase of a “hermeneutic of paranoia” applies here well.

Borg’s approach, while it does help to raise some questions for the conservative thinker to ponder deeply, falls short to benefit from the full depth of meaning in scripture. I think Wright’s approach is far more complete in both addressing the intellectual struggles we must face as diligent students of the Word, but also to connect with both the historical and metaphorical truths revealed in scripture. The Jesus of history and the Jesus of ongoing importance are not separate—but rather to be understood as I think they would have been originally—as one and the same person, which gives us sure footing on which to rest our faith and souls.

How this book challenged me

I tried my best to approach this book with an open mind to learn from both sides of the argument. I think it benefitted me a lot, even if it did not sway my stance very much—it did at least open up my eyes to the arguments on the other side. Borg definitely made me reconsider what does it mean to be a Christian, how important are some of the ‘facts’ about Jesus that we hold dear to our faith, and who Jesus was as a person within his context and understanding. Wright also challenged me to think more deeply on things I had originally taken for granted. His chapter on the virgin birth was insightful, especially that no one had ever seen Isaiah 7:14, “the virgin shall conceive” as being a messianic text so arguing that Matthew made it all up just to fit that text would make no sense. Furthermore, the existence and knowledge of other non-Christian traditions about virgin births in pagan religions, this would beg the question as to why the apostles writing their Gospels would make it up and risk offending their Jewish audience by making Jesus out to be a type of pagan demigod.

Borg’s writings challenged my views about Jesus and made me wrestle with the material presented. Especially Borg’s heavy reliance on Q theory to base his arguments for late dating certain parts to developing traditions which made me re-evaluate the grounds for Q theory. However, I think Wright did a very good job with addressing Q theory and its various weaknesses—not to mention the plethora of other scholars who have written to debunk and address it. After reading this book, my faith in the Jesus of history has been strengthened and deepened, not by simply dismissing the opposing views of Borg but by interacting with his theories and seeing how much they would hold water.

So what does this mean for us today?

This book reaffirmed to me the importance of biblical and textual scholarship, as well as an understanding of the historical context and cultures of the Bible. It opened me up more to the liberal understanding of Christology, something which I had only a little interaction with prior. It really helped me to gain a more well-rounded understanding of how both sides view the topic. It was interesting to see how much Borg and Wright’s views of Jesus’ identity differed and how it affects their faith, but also how much it compared similarly.

One example that made me think about what it means to be a Christian came from Borg where he says, “thinking of Jesus as self-consciously the messiah with a messianic vocation easily and naturally leads to the inference that a major part of Jesus’ teaching concerned who he was and his purpose. Put most simply: was he part of his own message? Did Jesus want people to believe in him?”[8] My answer to this would emphatically be yes. If we affirm Jesus’ deity, that he is God incarnate, it is most definitely part of his message. It would seem to me that, to deny that he was part of his own message would be to imply that he was not God, that he was something less than that.

The humanity and deity of Christ is something vitally essential to Christian doctrine (just look at the history of councils, heretics, creeds and schisms in response to issues surrounding this question!). Especially in regards to the atonement of sins—only a perfect and infinite sacrifice can satisfy the wrath and judgment of an infinite and holy God. In other words, if Christ was anything less than the God-man, his sacrifice would not be sufficient. When Jesus tells his followers to believe in me, he is also affirming that he and the Father are one, therefore he is also saying believe in God.

Essential Christology

The book made me think deeply about just what about Christology is essential to what we call “Christianity”. In the end, I don’t think I was very much persuaded by Borg’s views but it did help me to gain some depth into my understanding and an opportunity to interact with a scholarly opinion I don’t agree with totally. Wright’s chapters were compelling and insightful and seemed to offer a more complete and natural viewing of Christology from scriptures which engaged it thoughtfully.

My view on what it means to be a Christian today has not essentially changed—that, it is to believe that we are sinners under God’s holy wrath in need of a perfect Saviour, Jesus, who is the incarnate image of the Living God in human form, humanity’s messiah, who came as an atoning sacrifice for sins and was bodily resurrected and ascended on high. Salvation is then (but not limited solely to) a restoration of the broken relationship by sin to God through the death and resurrection of the Jesus of history. I believe from the evidence and testimony of scripture and history that Jesus was fully aware of his role and purpose in life, and the significance of his sacrificial death on the Cross. I believe that to present any other picture of Christ than what is revealed in scriptures is to present a false and non-saving Christ as 1 John 4:1-3 says. And I believe that it is this same Christ Jesus who God raised up from the dead that lives today and is very much a reality to many millions of Christians.

So I would say this book, while it has deepened my understanding, it has not changed what it means to be a Christian today as opposed to what it meant to the early church in the first century. It did however show to me a danger in Christian scholarship of becoming overly intellectual about such issues. If the Scriptures are merely used for academic gain and lack a personal level of application we lose something vital of our spirituality. If they are only for information and not transformation, we run the risk of a faith that is dead and only theoretical. I think the intellectual pursuit of understanding Scriptures and dealing with critical scholarship is important and should help to work in tandem with our personal relationship with God and deepening that understanding of Him.

Lingering Questions

The most prominent questions it has prompted me to ask are, how can someone who denies the bodily resurrection of Christ, his self knowledge as Messiah, discredited so much of Scripture which is supposedly inspired and ‘metaphorized’ the Gospel still consider themselves a Christian in a true sense? Does a figurative understanding of Messiah and Jesus resurrected have just as much saving power? How much of these liberal questions end up forming an imaginary Christ in the mind, a god in your own making? Can someone be extremely skeptical and critical of scriptures and still hold them as authentically authoritative in any meaningful way? If Christianity is not a religion but a relationship, what type of relationship is it with a figurative risen Christ? Is that not any better than having an imaginary friend?

I think in the end, I cannot square with the proponents of liberal theology, such as Marcus Borg, as being truly “Christian” in any meaningful sense. This is not to be mean, but just to state things plainly. Christianity believes in a faith “once for all delivered to the saints” and we must contend for that faith (Jude 3) – not one we imagine.

I do look forward to studying more about and interacting with those who do not necessarily share my views on such topics to open discussion and channels for mutual understanding and the challenge of preconceived notions to deepen our faith. I think the book definitely prompted me to honestly re-evaluate what are the essential doctrines and points of Christology which are unable to be compromised. Also, it made me realize how much the lack of thoughtful responses to legitimate questions raised by liberals is needed. I think much of the struggle of liberals comes in response to the inherent anti-intellectualism of fundamentalism which avoids serious dialog by mere dogmatic assertion and being dismissive.

It is not enough to hold right beliefs based on faulty arguments or blind loyalty. These are important questions to ask and wrestle through with great care—understanding of the weight of their importance. If we’re dealing with matters of people’s eternal destiny, getting it wrong may prove to have dire consequences. This is not something I take lightly. To deal with such issues of life and death, of heaven and hell, is a reality which we cannot tread carelessly nor apathetically or merely theoretically. It must be taken seriously and endeavoured in genuine grace and love for one another.


[1] Wright, The Meaning of Jesus, 17 [2] Wright, The Meaning of Jesus, 25 [3] Borg, The Meaning of Jesus, 55 [4] Wright, The Meaning of Jesus, 49 [5] Wright, The Meaning of Jesus, 95 [6] Borg, The Meaning of Jesus, 62 [7] Borg, The Meaning of Jesus, 82 [8] Borg, The Meaning of Jesus, 58

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