This is one in a series of guest posts authored by students in an undergraduate course I taught during Spring 2014, “Protestantism and the Development of American Culture.” Each student’s task was to write an informative essay explaining some way that Protestants have shaped (or tried to shape) American culture. Students knew that their essays would be posted to this blog, so they would have a real-world online audience.
Students are entirely responsible for the content and quality of their essays; I am merely the vehicle for broadcasting them (though on the whole I’m reasonably pleased with the results).
The Influence of Marcus Borg and Nathan Thomas Wright on the Protestant View of the Historical Jesus
By Kristen Hatton
Who was Jesus Christ? The Bible tells the tales of his life, describes all the lessons he taught, and the miracles he was able to perform. In the lives of present day American Protestants these stories are very important and are central to the teachings of the religion. They are taught starting at a very young age and can be recited by most members. With the rise of science and technology, some disagreements surrounding the life of Jesus have started to arise. The historical Jesus has been an attempt by scholars to reconstruct his life based on the texts of the Bible and the context of the time period. Throughout these studies, called higher criticism, different scholars have published works describing their interpretations of the historical Jesus. Have these scholars been able to influence the opinions of modern American Protestants on the historical Jesus?
Higher criticism can be defined as “restoring the original words of a text from manuscripts that have altered them.” Many of the religious scholars who have devoted their time and efforts to these studies often view it as a science in itself. The divide amongst scholars surrounds the idea of biblical inerrancy.
Biblical inerrancy refers to the belief that the Bible, in its original manuscript, is the inspired word of God and is free from error. Those who believe in it see the stories in the Bible as accurate, historical events. The opposition is that the Bible contains errors from the different authors and scribes. Which side of the divide scholars have joined often determines their opinions on the historical Jesus.
The New Testament Controversy
The New Testament of the Bible has been of particular interest to those who study higher criticism. This part of the Bible is made up of manuscripts from different authors and their accounts of Jesus’ life. Those who believe in biblical inerrancy see this part of the Bible as factual. Other scholars are hesitant because there are discrepancies between interpretations of the same events. It is possible that scribes made errors when copying these certain parts of the Bible. Or, perhaps the authors wanted to convey different messages. Their view is often that the version of the New Testament that we possess can’t be seen as completely accurate.
Marcus Borg vs. Nathan Thomas Wright
Throughout this essay I will be looking at the differing opinions of Marcus Borg and Nathan Thomas (NT) Wright on the Bible and specifically the historical Jesus. Both are religious scholars and prominent figures in the Protestant community. NT Wright is an Anglican who represents the conservative side of Protestantism. Marcus Borg identifies as Lutheran and expresses more liberal views.
These two men are friends despite their theological differences and wrote a book presenting their opinions called The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions. The book is divided into eight parts starting with methodology followed by Jesus’ teachings and actions, death, resurrection, divinity, birth, second coming, and relationship to Christians. How Borg and Wright view the above areas will be discussed as well as the impact their beliefs have had on others.
Views of NT Wright
The methodology of Wright points to the Bible as being the “inspired word of God.” In another one of his works, Scripture and the Authority of God, Wright says “Inspiration is a shorthand way of talking about the belief that by his Spirit God guided the very different writers and editors, so that the books produced were the books God intended his people to have.” In his view even though there were different writers and editors of the New Testament and we don’t have the original texts, it is still the inspired word of God. The events can be seen as historically accurate because these are the accounts that God wants his people to have. So when reading and interpreting the Bible it should be taken in its literal sense.
When looking at Wright’s view on the life of Jesus Christ he accepts all events that are described in the New Testament. And although many Christians struggle with the truths of the Bible, in his opinion “the only appropriate stance is silence before the mystery of God.” Wright believes that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem. He argues that the fact that Matthew and Luke were able to produce such similar accounts on separate occasions gives credibility. He believes that Jesus saw himself as the messiah and knew about his death throughout his entire life. Jesus “believed himself called to do and be what, in the scriptures, only Israel’s God did and was.” Looking at the resurrection of Christ, Wright sees him as physically returning to Earth in his human form.
Views of Borg
Borg, on the other hand, is more critical of the Bible and doesn’t think it is appropriate to view in a literal sense. He still finds the Bible to be an important part of the faith that has value, but just for different reasons than Wright. He explains that the gospels “are a mixture of history remembered and history metaphorized” that is “powerfully true but in a nonliteral sense.” He applies this concept to his view of the events of Jesus’ life.
Borg expresses that the portrayal of the birth of Jesus by Matthew and Luke are different because neither of them are historically factual and they had different reasoning’s for producing their books. Unlike Wright, Borg believes Jesus didn’t view himself as the Messiah or divine throughout his lifetime. This is a view that was taken on by “post-Easter Christians.” He also doesn’t believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus stating that after his death, ‘Yes, the post-Easter Jesus is a divine reality—is indeed one with God.’” Meaning that he did not come back in his human form as the Bible portrays, he simply became one with God in a spiritual sense. He goes on further to express that Jesus was not the Messiah by saying he was not always prophesized to die for our sins. He died instead because of, “his role as a social prophet who challenged the domination system in the name of God.” He often expresses that many of the stories that revolve around Easter were ‘created’ by people to promote certain morals and ideals to live by.
Reactions to Wright
There are Protestants today who support the conservative views of Wright, while others are not convinced by his arguments. When reading through the book, some claimed Wright included too many historical supports. One review states, “Wright tends to be more of the historian, immersed in details and less apt to reach large theological conclusions. It often feels as if he “beats around the bush,” considering the minutiae of the data and making careful limited judgments based on it. The result is that he seems indecisive, even obscure at points.”
Another reviewer also saw this emphasis on history to lessen his credibility, “Wright might be placing too much emphasis on historical accuracy as the basis for a faith stance that needs to remain grounded in the substance of something hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” To this Protestant what you learn and your faith should be more important than the history involved.
Some reviews, on the other hand, saw Wright to be convincing and supported his conservative views of Biblical Inerrancy. “Ultimately I think Wright came out ahead in the debate as his assumptions seemed to be more rooted in post-Exilic Judaism while Borg focused too much on ‘history metaphorized.’”
Reactions to Borg
Just as observed with Wright, Borg had those who supported his views as well as critiques. One blog post described his opinions as, “vague and wishy washy…” and continued to say “I still get irritated at the lack of conviction and certainty that I encounter. It is part of my make-up. I want to know what the truth is and plant my flag there.” These Protestants prefer historical facts, the ‘metaphors’ of the life of Jesus that Borg puts emphasis on don’t satisfy them.
Supporters of Borg’s arguments don’t see the benefit in putting so much historical emphasis on the Bible and view his way of thinking as spiritually enlightening. “…this way of looking at things does not suggest, as some might think, a lack of faith and a weakening of the human/God relationship, but simply a new perspective that can greatly deepen the relationship.”
One reviewer ends by saying, “Regardless of your faith outlook you will find yourself challenged and ypu might just find yourself thinking about Jesus from unexpected angles. After all, isn’t the whole point to come to know Jesus more fully?”
Throughout research on the influence of these two scholars, many reviewers seemed to be sympathetic to both views even if they didn’t agree completely. They saw the value of the book in showing the different opinions on the historical Jesus, but didn’t appear to be swayed by either scholar. They seemed to stick with their previous views and just enjoy reading the opposing views of Wright and Borg.
Protestantism today is often very individualistic, and this emphasis on the study of the Bible supports that phenomenon even more. The influence of these authors on the general public was not as prominent as I hypothesized it would be.
In conclusion, Borg and Wright did not seem to influence American Protestants to join their side of the historical Jesus divide. The individual opinions seemed to already be set, and although they are engaging in individual study by reading this book, it seems to be more just out of interest in the subject as a whole.