Marcus Borg: The Wisdom Jesus

While Tom Wright is typically the historical Jesus scholar of choice for conservative Christians, I would argue that Marcus Borg is the favorite of progressives.  Borg (1942-2015) taught for most of his career at Oregon State University, lectured widely, and wrote about both the historical Jesus and how the Church could function in light of modern critical biblical scholarship.  His most popular works are Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, Jesus: The Life, Teaching, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, and The Heart of Christianity.  During his career, Borg was in dialogue with many of the scholars in this series, including N.T. Wright, Dale Allison, and John Dominic Crossan.  He was also a member of the Jesus Seminar.  To outline Borg's reconstruction of the historical Jesus, I will be using his Jesus: The Life, Teaching, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary.

To open his book, Borg details what he believes to be the two dominant pictures of Jesus in modern society – what he calls the "popular image" and the "scholarly image."  Ultimately he believes that both of these pictures are mistaken, and sees his own reconstruction as a "third way."  

This is Borg's description of the "popular image" of Jesus:

"The popular image is most familiar to Christian and non-Christian alike: the image of Jesus as a divine or semidivine figure, whose purpose was to die for the sins of the world, and whose life and death open up the possibility of eternal life. Its answers to the three questions of identity, purpose, and message are clear. As the divinely begotten Son of God, he was sent into the world for the purpose of dying on the cross as a means of reconciliation between God and humankind, and his message consisted primarily of inviting his hearers to believe that what he said about himself and his role in salvation was true.

The image is widespread, with degrees of sophistication and elaboration. Billboards and evangelists proclaim, 'Jesus died for your sins,' suggesting that this was his purpose in a nutshell. Much of Christian preaching takes the popular image for granted. The celebration of the major Christian festivals in our culture reinforces the image. Christmas, with wise men and shepherds and angels, a manger and a star and a virgin, tells the story of his wondrous birth and thus calls attention to his divine identity; Easter focuses on his triumph over death.

The popular image has its roots deep in the past, indeed in the language of the New Testament itself. Among the gospels, its primary source is John, probably the most loved and familiar gospel. There Jesus speaks of his identity in the most exalted terms known in his culture, especially in the magnificent series of 'I am' statements: 'I am the light of the world,' 'I am the bread of life,' 'I am the resurrection and the life,' 'I am the way, the truth, and the life,' 'Before Abraham was, I am.' The self-proclamation of his own identity in the 'I am' statements is buttressed by other passages in John: 'The Father is in me and I am in the Father,' 'He who has seen me has seen the Father,' 'I and the Father are one.' In a single verse, the fourth gospel sums up Jesus’ identity, purpose, message, and the proper response to him: 'For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.'"

As Borg notes, this image is highly dependent on the Gospel of John.  It is in the Gospel of John where we find the most exalted conception of Jesus.  Borg then goes on to argue that this image of Jesus has almost unanimously been rejected by modern scholarship, mostly stemming from modern scholars' preference for the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) over John regarding historical information about Jesus.  In the synoptics, Jesus does not overtly and publicly proclaim his Divine Sonship (save, perhaps, a single verse to be discussed later in this series).  In fact, a strong motif in the gospel of Mark is the "messianic secret" – Jesus does not want to publicly declare his messiahship. Borg concludes:

"...once this fundamental contrast between John and Mark was seen, a great historical “either/or” presented itself to scholars. Either the historical Jesus openly proclaimed his divine identity and saving purpose (John), or he did not (Mark). To put the issue most directly, Jesus could not consistently proclaim his identity and at the same time not do so. Thus the question became, 'Which image of Jesus is more likely to be like the historical Jesus, John’s or Mark’s?' The nearly universal answer given by scholars was 'Mark.' With that answer, the popular image’s basis as a historical image disappeared. The image of Jesus as one who taught that he was the Son of God who was to die for the sins of the world is not historically true."

Borg thus dismisses the popular image of Jesus as historically untrue.  He then goes on to discuss the dominant scholarly image of Jesus for the past century – that of an "Apocalyptic Prophet."

"According to the consensus (of 'scholarship'), from such an examination of Jesus’ message and mission we may surmise that he was an 'eschatological prophet' or perhaps even 'the eschatological prophet.' The phrase needs some unpacking. Eschatology is that branch of theology which concerns the 'end time'—the end of the world, last judgment, and the dawning of the everlasting kingdom. An eschatological prophet is one who announces the end. There is some evidence that some in the Jewish tradition near the time of Jesus anticipated such a prophet, 'one like unto Moses' or perhaps even greater than Moses, who would appear immediately before the end of time. To say that Jesus was the eschatological prophet is to say that he saw himself as the prophet of the end who proclaimed the end of the world in his own time and the urgency of repentance before it was too late. That was the core of his message and mission.

The consensus image of Jesus as eschatological prophet was grounded in the claim that the 'Kingdom of God' was at the center of Jesus’ own message. So Mark describes Jesus’ mission in his advance summary at the beginning of his gospel: 'The Kingdom of God is at hand, therefore repent!' However, the consensus image also depends upon a particular interpretation of the phrase 'Kingdom of God,' namely that 'Kingdom of God' is to be understood eschatologically as referring to the 'final' Kingdom which would bring an end to earthly history as we know it, the 'end of the world.'

This eschatological understanding of Jesus and of the Kingdom of God had its origin primarily in the work of Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) at the beginning of this century. He is most familiar to us as a world-famed medical missionary, Nobel prize recipient, and a modern 'saint.' But as a young man Schweitzer, prior to going to Africa, wrote two brilliant books that decisively shaped Jesus studies for the rest of the century. Calling attention to the element of crisis running throughout the gospels and the statements about the coming of the 'Kingdom of God' and 'the Son of man' who would bring all earthly history to a close, Schweitzer argued that Jesus expected these events in the immediate future and saw his death as playing a decisive role in bringing about the end. Jesus was mistaken; the end did not come, and he died perhaps realizing his mistake.

Though Schweitzer’s work initially created a sensation and still strikes many as outlandish when they first hear of it, his basic image of Jesus as eschatological prophet gradually became the consensus understanding among scholars. Stripped of some of its details, it became the dominant image in German New Testament scholarship and, through the influential role played by German scholarship, in much of North American scholarship. To be sure, scholars also recognized that Jesus spoke of the Kingdom as present and not only future, but the future imminent Kingdom continued to be emphasized. The image of Jesus as one who proclaimed the end of the world and the urgency of repentance remained."

Like the popular image of Jesus, Borg believes that this scholarly image – that of Jesus as an Apocalyptic Prophet – is outdated.  In Borg's view, the texts implying that Jesus believed "the end was near" should be assigned to the early church, not the historical Jesus himself.  Excising these texts, and polling the Jesus Seminar allow Borg to conclude that:

"The majority of scholars no longer think that Jesus expected the end of the world in his generation."

That is, the scholarly consensus regarding Jesus as Apocalyptic Prophet is over.  Borg then goes on to detail a "third way" of seeing the historical Jesus.  

Borg's Jesus

After outlining two images of Jesus which he finds unsatisfactory, Borg spends the rest of his book painting his own picture of the historical Jesus.  Borg uses five categories through which to understand the historical Jesus: charismatic (or "mystic"), healer, sage, prophet, and movement-founder.

Charismatic or "Mystic"

Borg's first category for Jesus is that of a "charismatic," "Spirit-filled person," or "mystic."  Drawing from texts in the synoptics which imply that Jesus saw visions, spent long periods in prayer, and declared himself to have a prophetic authority ("the spirit of the Lord is upon me," etc.), Borg believes that Jesus saw himself standing in the line of Jewish prophets (and similar to "holy men" or "spirit-people" from other traditions):

"The cumulative impression created by the synoptic gospels is very strong: Jesus stood in the charismatic tradition of Judaism which reached back to the beginnings of Israel. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all portray him as a Spirit-filled person through whom the power of Spirit flowed. His relationship to Spirit was both the source and energy of the mission which he undertook. According to these earliest portraits, Jesus was one who knew the other world, who stood in a long line of mediators stretching back to Elijah and Moses. Indeed, according to them, he was the climax of that history of mediation. Moreover, as we shall see, Jesus’ relationship to the world of Spirit is also the key for understanding the central dimensions of his ministry: as healer, sage, revitalization movement founder, and prophet."


Flowing from Jesus' experience of the Spirit, Borg's second category is Healer.  The tradition is filled with stories of Jesus performing physical healing and exorcisms.  Although Borg is not certain as to the historicity of these events, he remains open to the possibility.  At a minimum, the stories are symbolic, and encourage the Christian community to view Jesus through this lens.


"Mediators between the two worlds of the primordial tradition often become 'people of power' or miracle-workers, especially healers. To be sure, not all do. In the history of Israel and other cultures, some were primarily mediators of the divine will as prophets and law-givers, or of 'supernatural' knowledge as diviners or clairvoyants. Others were charismatic military leaders, 'spirit warriors.' But some became channels through which healing power flowed from the world of Spirit into the visible world. Such figures of power ('men of deeds,' as they were called in Judaism) were known in first-century Palestine, both in her ancient tradition (notably, Elijah) and in charismatics contemporary with Jesus such as Hanina ben Dosa and Honi the Circle-Drawer. Jesus was one of these 'men of deeds.'"


Borg's third category for the historical Jesus is that of a Sage.  Borg believes that Jesus, as teacher, showed his disciples a path, or a "way."  This "way of Jesus" involved an inner transformation of the heart and was marked by self-sacrifice.  It was a path that was counter-cultural, an "alternative wisdom."

"Jesus was a sage, a teacher of wisdom. Regularly addressed as 'teacher' during his lifetime by followers, opponents, and interested inquirers alike, he has been hailed by subsequent generations of Christians as more than a teacher, as indeed he was. Nevertheless, he was not less than a teacher. But what was he a teacher of? Some have thought that he was primarily a teacher of beliefs; or, more precisely, of what was to be believed in order to be saved, providing 'correct information' in the form of divine revelation about God and Jesus’ own role in salvation. Others have stressed that he was a teacher of a new moral ethic, whether understood as a new moral code consisting of highly specific commands, or as a set of more generalized ideals such as love and justice or the 'golden rule' or the 'brotherhood of man.' But Jesus was not primarily a teacher of either correct beliefs or right morals. Rather, he was a teacher of a way or path, specifically a way of transformation. His teaching involved a radical criticism of the conventional wisdom that lay at the core of the first-century Jewish social world. As teacher of a way and critic of conventional wisdom, he was similar to other great sages who proclaimed a way or path sharply in tension with the culture of their time. Their number outside of Israel included Lao Tzu in sixth-century B.C. China and the Buddha in fifth-century B.C. India. Within Israel, Moses was the great sage without equal, calling his followers out of Egypt, the culture in which they lived, to a radically different way...

Just as Jesus used a multiplicity of images in his diagnosis of the human condition, so he also used many different images to speak of the cure, that is, the path of transformation. Underlying this diversity is a common conceptual understanding which comes to expression most clearly in the first three images we shall treat: a new heart, centering in God, and the way of death. The images intertwine with each other, even as each works separately as well. Each expresses what the 'cure' involves, even as it adds nuances of meaning that may not be captured by the other images."


Borg's fourth category for Jesus is Prophet.  Standing in the line of Israel's prophets, Jesus "spoke truth to power," and radically critiqued the Judaism of his day.  This is especially seen in his critique of Jewish elites (i.e. their treatment of the "holiness code," etc.) and his actions in the Temple.  

"Of all the figures in his tradition, Jesus was most like the classical prophets of Israel. Active from about 750 B.C. to 400 B.C., they are among the most remarkable people who ever lived. Sharing the feature which defines the figure of prophet as known in many cultures, they were 'verbal mediators' or messengers between the two worlds of the primordial tradition. Indeed, the name of the last of them, Malachi, means simply 'my messenger.' Their role as messengers of God flowed out of the intensity of their experiences of the Spirit, among the most vivid in the Spirit-filled tradition of Israel. As mediators of the Spirit, they spoke 'the Word of the Lord,' and the 'I' of the prophetic speeches is most often the divine 'I.' Moreover, their language was vivid, compact, and poetic, surging with extraordinary energy. Especially characteristic of them was their passionate and critical involvement in the historical life of their people in their own day. Speaking in times of historical crisis, they radically criticized their culture in the name of God and became voices of an alternative consciousness challenging their culture’s dominant consciousness."


Finally, Borg sees Jesus as a Movement-Founder.  Although Jesus intended his movement as a revitalization of Judaism, its influence obviously ended up spreading beyond Israel.  Christianity as a separate religion only occurred because of the rejection of most of the Judaism of Jesus's day.  


"We commonly think of Jesus as the founder of Christianity. But, strictly speaking, this is not historically true. Instead, his concern was the renewal of Israel. Toward this end, he created a sectarian revitalization or renewal movement within Israel, now commonly called the 'Jesus movement,' whose purpose was the transformation of the Jewish social world. The relationship between a renewal or revitalization movement and a social world is one of both affirmation and advocacy of change. On the one hand, such movements profess a strong loyalty to an inherited social world or tradition (if they did not, we would speak of them as new movements rather than renewal or revitalization movements). On the other hand, they claim that present circumstances call for a radical response. Spawned by a perceived difference between how things are and how they ought to be, all within the framework of a tradition, they affirm a tradition, even as they seek to revitalize or transform it. The fact that Jesus did not intend to create a new religion but intended the revitalization of his own tradition does not mean that Christianity is a mistake. Rather, Christianity as a religion separate from Judaism came into existence as the result of a historical process which took several decades after his death. Two factors were most important. As a revitalization movement within Judaism after his death, the Jesus movement in an important sense failed. Though most of its early members were Palestinian Jews, it did not capture the allegiance of the majority of the Jewish people. The second factor leading to separation was the success of the Jesus movement in the Mediterranean world outside of Palestine. There it quickly became a mixed community of Jews and Gentiles, and the more Gentiles it attracted, the more it seemed distinct from Judaism. Thus, before the end of the first century, Christianity had in effect become a 'new' religion. Henceforth, though Christianity continued to affirm its connection to Judaism, the connection was increasingly to the Old Testament rather than to the Jewish people themselves. In terms of its membership, it was no longer a peculiarly or predominantly Jewish movement."


Borg's historical Jesus is sometimes classified simply as the "Wisdom Jesus."  Although this is probably an oversimplification (Borg himself objected to his work being boiled down to this), it does give a pretty fair image of his reconstruction.  Borg's Jesus is primarily a Spirit-filled teacher, strongly critiquing the Judaism of his day as part of his message.

A few hot button issues.  In regards to Jesus' self-conception, Borg does not believe that Jesus thought himself to be Divine, or a kind of "final prophet" or Messiah.  Borg's Jesus believes that he is called by the Spirit to renew the Judaism of his day and that he has authority to do so because of his experience of the Spirit.  Anything beyond this is a product of the early church. 

In regards to eschatology, Borg's Jesus has nothing (that I can see) to say about a final judgment, or the coming eschatological kingdom of God.  Texts in the synoptics which imply that Jesus does expect this, Borg again treats as products of the early church.  For instance, he doesn't believe that the Olivet Discourse (Mark 13 and parallels) stems from the historical Jesus. 

Finally, in regards to the use of texts, Borg, like virtually all historical Jesus scholars, works only from the synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke).  Within the synoptics, Borg seemingly finds a core group of authentic sayings/narratives and forms his picture of Jesus from this selection of texts.  He does not touch on historical method in this book, but I would assume he uses the traditional "criteria of authenticity" (multiple attestation, dissimilarity, embarrassment, coherence).  As far as I can tell he uses the general impression of the synoptic gospels except where Jesus has an exalted self-conception or speaks of a final judgment.  In some cases he lets history slide into the background and is just fine if stories become symbolic or metaphors, for instance with miracle stories and the resurrection narratives.  When Borg does talk about the theme of "the kingdom of God" (which is rare), he emphasizes its present reality over an expected future inbreaking.  

Borg's picture of Jesus – a Spirit-filled man who taught an "alternative path" – is often used in the liberal Church.  I wouldn't hesitate to call Borg's reconstruction "the liberal Jesus."

The following is a lecture from Marcus Borg given at Vanderbilt Divinity School.  In it, Borg discusses the impact of Albert Schweitzer on the discipline, and reasons why his paradigm differs from that of Schweitzer (i.e. why he rejects the "Apocalytpic Jesus").  

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