Friday, February 19, 1999

Borg and Wright

Last night I attended a lecture/debate at National Cathedral featuring Prof. Marcus J. Borg of the Jesus Seminar and the Rev. N.T. (Tom) Wright, Dean of Lichfield Cathedral. It was billed as "An Evening of Detente in the Jesus Wars." While the two men differ strongly on critical points regarding who Jesus was, they are longtime friends who studied at the same school under the same adviser, and they have written a new book together, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (which was for sale on site). The center section of the nave of the cathedral was nearly full.

Wright won the coin toss and opted to speak first. He tried to downplay the extent of his differences with Borg, saying it is not entirely correct to depict himself as a "traditionalist" and Borg as a "revisionist." In some ways they are both traditionalists (they are practicing Christians), while in others they are both revisionists (they are academic historians whose goal is to understand Jesus in the context of 1st century Judaism). This allowed them both to focus on the points where they actually disagree.

Wright understands Jesus in terms of contemporary Jewish apocalypticism. Many sects of that era expected God's direct intervention in history. For Wright, Jesus was not just a teacher of wisdom, but a prophet warning his hearers to prepare to meet God. He believes that Jesus consciously identified himself with the rampant messianic hopes of his era, while interpreting the role of messiah somewhat differently than popular expectation. And he believes in a literal resurrection of the body of Jesus. He does not believe in a simple "resuscitation of the corpse" (who does?); rather, he describes the resurrection as a transformation of Jesus' body into "a different mode of physicality."

Borg interprets Jesus as a Jewish mystic. By "mystic," he means a person with direct experience of God. He would also include the Buddha and a few others in this category on a basis equal to that of Jesus. He believes that Jesus was a healer, but he does not believe in other miracles, such as the feeding of the 5,000 or walking on water. He does not believe Jesus thought of himself as messiah or son of God, but believes, rather, that these identifications were made by the early Church after Jesus' death. And he understands the resurrection as a purely spiritual phenomenon, involving the union of Jesus' spirit with that of God, and the Church's real sense of Jesus' ongoing presence in the Christian community.

Each man spoke for about 20 minutes, and then they went back and forth, critiquing each other's ideas and responding to these critiques. Finally, people from the audience lined up to ask question, some more interesting than others. One complimented them for their criticism of the Enlightenment, and then asked if there was some other era in the Church's history when the Church, in its understanding of Jesus, "got it right." However, neither speaker claimed the objectivity to judge our own century, and both men's expertise is so focused on the 1st century that they did not feel qualified to pose as experts on the intervening 18 centuries. A couple of questions addressed to Borg challenged his unorthodox beliefs on the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection, but he made a plausible case for his being a traditional Christian while holding to untraditional understandings of these doctrines. And Wright, while expressing belief in the Virgin Conception, said he could not consider this belief essential to understanding the doctrine of the Incarnation, since Matthew did not draw theological inferences from the fact of the Virgin Conception, and Luke barely did so.

The event ended about an hour and a half after it began. The authors were available afterwards to sign copies of their books, which were for sale at the cathedral.

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