As mentioned, I went to a discussion between Marcus Borg and Paul Anderson on the origins of the gospels last night. After Paul Anderson finished his talk on the historicity of the Fourth Gospel it was apparent to me that my co-blogger, JohnDave Medina, would need to be to one to review that part of the evening since he is a student of Anderson at George Fox Seminary. I decided that I would take Marcus Borg since (1) it was more familiar material and (2) it is basically the same thing he has put in print elsewhere. Expect the review of Anderson’s talk sometime this weekend.

Borg gave most of his attention to the Synoptics. He divided his lecture into three parts: (1) The Synoptic Gospels and the Relationship Among Them; (2) Patterns (or Structure) of the Synoptics; and (3) Gospels as Developing Tradition. It only seems fitting for me to divide my review the same way.

Part One: The Synoptic Gospels and the Relationship Among Them

Borg presented the traditional two source hypothesis: Mark (Mk) and Q. He noted that approximately 90% of Mark can be found in Matthew  (Mt) and nearly two-thirds of Mark can be found in Luke (Lk). This leads to the conclusion that Mt and Lk are dependent upon Mk, therefore Mk has chronological priority.

Then Borg addressed the shared content of Mt and Lk which scholars have called “Q” (which is derived from the German Quelle meaning “source”). This is a document that has never been seen but it believed to be the common source for Mt and Lk which would explain the content shared between those two gospels not found in Mk.

Of course, there are some problems with this view. For one, we have never seen the so-called “Q”. Second, although it may be a consensus amongst modern scholars that Mt and Lk are dependent upon Mk we must remember that most of the early church thought Mt was written first and even today there is a minority opinion that Mt may be first. Nevertheless, his thesis is fairly secure amongst most gospels scholars.

Part Two: Patterns of the Synoptics

Borg moved on to show how this effects the narrative structure of Mt and Lk. He divides Mk into three parts:

(1) Galilee: Chapters 1-8

(2) Final Journey: Chapters 9-10

(3) Jerusalem: Chapters 11-16

Borg showed that Mt and Lk follow this same pattern with some variations (e.g. Lk expands journey motif from two and a half chapters to nine). He argues that there is conceptual expanding as well. According to Borg, Mk does not have Jesus speaking of himself in any sense as Lord, Messiah, Son of God, et cetera. He says 8.27-30 and the end of chapter 14 are exceptions, in private, and the words of people about Jesus, not Jesus about himself.

The one odd assertion that he presented here was when noting Mk  14.62 he commented that Ἐγώ εἰμι can be “I am” or “Am I?” since Greek word order does not matter. Well, I am not sure what he hoped to accomplish by this statement. It is obvious from the text that the author understood his quotation of Jesus to mean “I am” since this is followed by “…and you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” If Borg meant that the actual, historical moment when Jesus said these words could be understood as a question rather than an affirmation this seems to be a waste of words. Who is to know such things? What we do know is the authorial intent is “I am” in the affirmative.

Part Three: Gospels as Developing Tradition

It was at this juncture where I bounced back and forth between affirming and denying Borg’s assertions. He argued that the gospels contain both early and later Jesus traditions. Fair enough, but what does this mean? Since he dates the gospels to the very late end of the first century he is convinced that none of the gospel authors were eyewitnesses. Therefore, the traditions about Jesus had decades to grow and expand beyond what actually happened in the life of the historical Jesus of Galilee.

For Borg there is a thin line between what Jesus really said and did and the “experiences of the post-Easter Jesus” that were shared by the later Christian community. So for Borg Jesus never really said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” but this is who the post-Easter Jesus became to the early Christians. Their experience with him and reflections upon him led to their understanding of him as the way, truth, and life. These words were imported back into his mouth.

The need to apply Jesus’ teachings to the current situation of the various Jesus communities led to a three step process which we find solidified in the canonical gospels:

(1) Memory: The words and deed of the actual historical Jesus as remembered by his earliest follows.

(2) Interpretation: The application of those words and deeds to the community to which the various gospels were addressed.

(3) Testimony: The shared experiences of later followers of Jesus to the significance he had in their lives.

For Borg it may look something like this. Jesus did or said something. The evangelist tell the story but within their own literary construct which provides meaning foreign to the actual historical event. An example of this may be the sermon where Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor”. For one evangelist this saying may have “economic” implication so “the poor” is quoted. For another there may be a more internal poverty that needs to be addressed so he will interpret Jesus’ words quoting him as saying “poor in spirit”. Most evangelicals can go this far with Borg.

It is the next step where we depart and I go with Wright, Nick Perrin, and others who think that what we find in the gospels is grounded in the words of the real, historical Jesus. Interpretation is one thing, but Borg goes further to suggest that many of the sayings are simply made up based on the continued voice of the post-Easter Jesus. Since Jesus was not just a historical person but someone being continually experienced by the community it was hard to distinguish between what he said before his death and what he “said” to the Christian communities as a spiritual presence.

Final Thoughts

I appreciate two things about Borg. He is willing to explore the historical Jesus and the meaning/interpretation of his words by the evangelist amongst early Christian communities. Likewise, I appreciate his emphasis on Jesus as more than a historical person, but a present person, who lives with us.

Where I parted with him is the assertion that so-much of the content of the gospels is some sort of “post-Easter” voice of Christ. I think Wright and others have shown that there is good reason to see Jesus as saying many of the things he did or something like it that was interpreted by the evangelist.

Furthermore, I think there is a huge difference between the “post-Easter” Jesus of which Borg speaks and the resurrected Jesus of the Christian faith. If the resurrection did not happen than there is a lot to be desired. The material realm seems secondary to a spiritual realm. The best God could do is save Jesus’ soul/spirit and therefore the best we can hope for is some sort of disembodied life after death. It is a meta-narrative that makes me wonder why Christianity is worth adopting at all.

Anderson’s response was great and I am sure JohnDave will do a good job explaining it. To create a segway to JohnDave’s post(s) let me say I think Anderson does a great job showing that the Johannine tradition may have been a two-staged process and stage one may have been in dialog with the Jesus traditions of the Synoptics. In other words we should not dismiss the historical reliability of the Fourth Gospel. I will leave it to JohnDave to say more.