Marcus Borg has a formidable reputation in the world of Jesus scholarship, but if you ask him to describe himself he’s more likely to say he is “a dismayed Democrat”—the result of years of surveying the militaristic, individualistic attitudes of so many of his fellow American Christians.
Borg, a professor at Oregon State until his retirement in 2007, has written twenty books, mainly aimed at debunking fundamentalist ideas about Jesus and God. His newest book Evolution of the Word, is a chronological reading of the New Testament. When read in historical order, Borg argues, the Bible reveals itself as having been shaped by the community that engendered it, rather than the other way around.
I had a chance to speak with Borg recently about his book, and its provocative thesis.
RD: Not many people take the time to read the New Testament in the order it’s laid out in the Bible. What can we glean from reading those texts in their chronological order?
Marcus Borg: In the New Testament, among the things we learn by reading it in chronological order is, in a sense, the obvious: mainly that there were vibrant Christian communities. I call them ‘Christ communities’ since there was not a separate religion called ‘Christianity’ in the first century. There were vibrant Christ communities spread out around the Mediterranean world before any of the documents were written, so the documents give us glimpses, or windows, into what those Christ communities were like.
And they make clear that the New Testament as a whole, including the gospels, are the product of those communities, written to those communities, and in many cases written within those communities. So, we learn that it’s not that the gospels created early Christianity but early Christianity produces the gospels as well as the other documents.
The book of Revelation, which of course comes at the end of the familiar New Testament, is almost in the middle—number 14 of 27 documents. When the book of Revelation comes at the end of the New Testament, it makes the whole of the New Testament sound as if we’re still looking forward to the second coming of Jesus and what is popularly called ‘the end of the world.’ When the book of Revelation appears more or less in the middle, we see it, hear it and understand it as a document produced in a particular time and place that tells us about what that Christ community, and the author, John of Patmos, thought would happen soon, in their time—rather than it being ‘Oh, this is still about the future from our point in time.’
Picking up on Revelation—you say that Paul’s understanding of the second coming had nothing to do with anything like Rapture theology…
Paul thought that the second coming of Jesus might very well happen while he was still alive. This is clearest in the early letters of Paul, like 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians, and near the end of chapter 15 [in 1 Corinthians] he speaks as if this might happen while he is still alive.
One big difference is he thought it was very, very soon from his point in time. Also, there is no reference to what Christians in our time refer to as ‘The Rapture,’ the notion that seven years before the second coming of Jesus, true-believing Christians will be taken up into heaven to be spared the suffering and tribulations of the final seven years. There’s nothing like that in Paul at all. Indeed, there is nothing like that in the New Testament.
The notion of the Rapture is roughly 160 years old, invented in the middle of the 1800s by a British evangelist named John Nelson Darby. Things like the Rapture—or even the notion that the Book of Revelation or Paul, for that matter, are speaking about things still to happen in our future—disappears when we understand this is what they thought in their time.
This reveals something I wish every Christian knew, and I say this as a deeply committed Christian myself: sometimes the Bible is wrong. It not only tells us about the wisdom and insights and experiences of our spiritual ancestors, but also contains their limited vision, their acceptance of things like slavery and the subordination of women. That’s not uniform, of course. There are also texts that proclaim the equality of men and women and forbid a Christian from having a Christian slave and so forth, but it’s all there, including mistaken notions about how the second coming will be soon.
We would escape a whole bunch of problems if only we all knew that and weren’t alarmed by it. The whole Genesis versus evolution controversy. For me, it’s not that the first chapters of Genesis are wrong, but they’re not meant to be taken literally. So, also the issue of whether women are supposed to be subordinate to men. That issue disappears if people are willing to say, “sometimes the Bible is wrong.”
So also with the texts that are quoted in opposition to same-sex behavior. Those passages, and there aren’t many, tell us what some of our spiritual ancestors thought and clearly they were wrong about that. So many conflicts in the church could be either resolved or handled in a very different way if only we didn’t have this uncritical reverence for the Bible.
Another point of contention is over the idea of literal, bodily resurrection. But you say Paul doesn’t talk about it this way?
In addition to Paul saying it’s not the physical body that is raised, he goes on to speak about a spiritual body. And as he tries to explain what a spiritual body is, he uses images of continuity that are at the same time image of radical discontinuity. So, the physical body is like a seed. The spiritual body is like a full-grown plant. Obviously, there is continuity, but the difference in appearance is enormous between a tree and an acorn. He does say there is continuity, but it terms of what they are like they are enormously different.
I don’t have any idea, myself, what a spiritual body is like. I don’t think it means just that our bodies more or less look the same but are made of spirit instead of flesh. I think that would be a rather silly way to understand it. For Paul, the resurrected body of Jesus is one that can still be experienced. Paul, himself, as he writes in his letters, had more than one experience of the risen Christ. His experience of the risen Christ was not of a physical body. The Damascus road story is what we would call a vision—and the people that are with Paul do not see or experience exactly what he does.
In addition to that, when Paul provides a list in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 of the people to whom Jesus appeared he not only uses the word ‘appeared’ four times, which is standard for a vision, he includes himself in that list. Paul sees the experiences that the other followers of Jesus had of Jesus after his death as belonging in the same category as his own.
Finally, for me the question isn’t whether or not the resurrection happened. It’s obvious to me that many of his followers continued to experience him after his death. But, to confuse that with the revitalization of a flesh and blood body is to misunderstand what Easter is about in the New Testament.
Easter is really about two things: Jesus continues to be known and God has vindicated Jesus. By which I mean, God has said ‘Yes!’ to Jesus and ‘No!’ to the powers that killed him. Those are the central truths of Easter, as I see it. To turn the question of Easter into a conflict about whether the tomb was really empty is an enormous distraction.
Getting back to what you said earlier about the community creating the Bible—what would it mean if people came to think this way about this sacred text?
It would be very difficult to believe in biblical inerrancy or infallibility. I think it’s difficult to believe in that in any case. I often say that if you read the Bible carefully and attentively you could no longer believe in biblical inerrancy.
But the whole notion of biblical inerrancy is grounded in the conviction that God directed the people writing these documents in such a way that everything in them has the authority and truth of God. Once we realize, ‘Oh, these are the products of people living within early Christian communities,’ that whole question changes. Nobody would say ‘well, these communities were inerrant and infallible.’ To me, that’s not destructive of the Bible’s authority, rather it’s a foundation for understanding what this collection of documents is about.
In much of your writing, you talk about something called “the domination system” in which the rich rule over the poor. How do you see that working in our society?
The pre-modern domination system was ruled over by the top one to two percent of the population. We’ll call these people the ‘elites of power and wealth’—and they would include the monarchy, the aristocracy, and their extended families. Ordinary people had no voice in how the society was put together.
The post-modern domination system is in one respect quite different. To use the United States as an example, ordinary people, of course, have the opportunity to vote. But the power of the very wealthy to shape the systems of our society remains. It’s not only that the wealthiest one to two percent receive a quarter of our national income every year, but they own about 40 percent of the total wealth of the United States. Wealth in a democratic society creates enormous political power.
In 1976, the wealthiest one percent of Americans received about seven percent of the nation’s annual income. By 2007, that figure had gone up to twenty-four percent going to the wealthiest one percent. How did that happen? Is it because the wealthiest worked really hard from 1976 to 2007 while the rest of us kind of slacked off? No. The obvious answer is because of tax, regulatory, and economic policies and so forth. And the wealthy are able to shape those policies in their own interest.
How do you see the role of religion in this, especially when it is so often used to justify the attitudes of the wealthy? And what about the (bad) theological view that poor people are sinners, reasoning that if they were more moral people, they’d be rich.
The scandal of American Christianity today is that it is deeply divided not only about issues like biblical inerrancy and evolution, but it’s deeply divided between a conservative vision of Christianity that emphasizes that what really matters morally is personal morality, the behavior of individuals. Much of that is focused on what I call the ‘loin issues,’ the issues of gender and sexuality. Social values are about individual righteousness.
On the other side of the great divide in American Christianity are progressive Christians for whom moral behavior does matter, but moral questions extend to economic issues, to social justice, war and peace.
This orientation flows from seeing the political passion of the Bible and the God of the Bible and the political passion of Jesus himself. The Bible is one massive protest against the ancient domination system, which makes it a very political document.
And we need to remember that Jesus didn’t simply die, he was executed by the domination system that ruled his world. He was executed because he had become a radical critic of the way that world was put together and he was beginning to attract a following. To be very blunt, it’s difficult for me to imagine how anybody who has seen what the Bible and Jesus are about could vote for policies that actually maintain or increase the wealth of those at the top in our day.
So, I don’t have to ask how you vote.
Well, I often refer to myself as a ‘dismayed Democrat.’ I wish the Democratic party had more political courage. I admire the president a great deal, but sometimes I wish he’d channel his inner Harry Truman a bit more.
Of course, both parties have been criticized for being in the pocket of the elites.
Yes, that’s true because both parties have to appeal to wealthy supporters to run their campaigns and this does limit, to some extent, the populist voice in American politics.
Is there any room, then, for those of us ordinary religious folk who want to make real social change?
I began by emphasizing that even within our system it does matter how we vote. And I would go on to say that, at least for Christians, a major task is consciousness raising within our own congregations about the Bible. Not only about what it is, but also about the idea that God is passionate about our liberation from oppressive systems.
Part of the scandal of American Christianity is that statistically the U.S. is the most Christian country in the world, and yet as a country we have the greatest income inequality in the world. And as a country we are uncritically committed, not simply to being the most powerful nation in the world militarily, but to being as militarily powerful as the rest of the world combined.
We Christians live in a tradition that is passionate about issues of economic justice and peace and yet at least half of American Christians, probably even more, think it’s really important that we be as powerful as the rest of the world put together.
Would reading the Bible be something you would recommend?
People need help in reading the Bible because if we read it on our own, chances are we will hear what it says within the framework of what we’ve already been taught. If the Bible really is about how to get to heaven and ‘Jesus is the savior who died to pay for sins so we can be forgiven’ we’ll be primarily struck by those passages that talk about God’s judgment and sin.
So, consciousness raising about the what the Bible is and how to read it is very important.
Do you think Paul or Jesus would recognize what we call Christianity today?
I don’t think they would, but I also don’t know that they would condemn it. I think they would be surprised, even amazed. It’s helpful to remember, for example, that the Christ communities that Paul created were very small, intimate, intentional communities, maybe 15 to 20 people in each, meeting in a shop, not so much in houses, in the cities of the Roman world.
Mammoth church buildings, paid professional clergy, a country that claims to be Christian—all this would amaze them and I think they would be very curious. I think, in many cases, they’d be a bit dismayed with values that they see many Christians proclaiming.
They might be dismayed Democrats as well?
Oh, I think so!