Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: Marcus Borg

Meeting Jesus Again...

During the Easter period, the Book Reading Group read and discussed Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time by Marcus J. Borg.  It was recommended to us by Howard Sharp, and it seems that other people in the congregation have been reading it as well.  So, if youhaven’t heard about it, here is a short review of the book, which is subtitled The historical Jesus and the heart of contemporary faith

The author belongs to a group of scholars known as the Jesus Seminar, who try to ascertain the historical accuracy of the sayings about Jesus.  This may sound academic and heavy, but the book is quite short (140 pages) and very readable.  If you have ever wondered about some of the stories of Jesus - such as the story of his birth - and asked yourself ‘Is this true, did it really happen like that?’ this book is for you.  On the other hand, if you are happy with a literal interpretation of the gospels, then you may not like it! 

Marcus Borg was born into a Scandinavian family in North Dakota, where the Lutheran church was a central part of life.  As a child he absorbed the conventional Christian faith with what he describes as ‘the childhood state in which we take for granted what the authority figures in our lives tell us to be true’.  With adolescence, as with so many people, the doubts started to creep in; nevertheless he went to a Lutheran seminary with the anguished prayer ‘Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief’.

At the seminary he learnt that the ‘popular image of Jesus as the divine saviour who knew himself to be the Son of God, and who offered up his life for the sins of the world’ was not historically true.  The basis for this ‘mind-boggling realisation’ was the understanding of the gospels that has developed over the last two hundred years of biblical scholarship, in which the gospels are seen as representing the developing traditions of the early Christian movement, written down after many years.  They contain not only memories of what Jesus did and said during his life on earth (the pre-Easter Jesus), but also what the movement came to believe about him as a result of their experiences and reflections in the decades after the Crucifixion (the post-Easter Jesus). 

For example, the pre-Easter Jesus was, amongst other things, a teacher of wisdom who used parables and memorable one-liners ‘to teach a subversive and alternative wisdom’, a theme which is developed in later chapters of the book.  On the other hand, the picture of Jesus in St John’s gospel (the last one to be written) is quite different from the picture in the other three gospels, and so would relate to the post-Easter Jesus.  Jesus probably never actually said ‘I am the bread of life’ or ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life’, but these sayings express how the early church experienced Jesus many years later.  So today we can hear the stories as ‘true stories, even while knowing they are not literally true’.

The author says that up to his mid-thirties, he saw the Christian life as primarily about believing, which was becoming more and more difficult for him.  Now he sees it as ‘entering into a relationship with that to which the Christian tradition points, which may be spoken of as God, the risen living Christ, or the Spirit’.  And this relationship involves one in a journey of transformation.  Understanding this will, for a lot of people, be like ‘meeting Jesus again, for the first time’.

So what did we, the book reading group, make of this?  Everyone enjoyed the book, and was stimulated by it.  Some felt it had perhaps gone too far from the established faith, others said it was only talking about what they had known for years.  But to many of us it was a revelation, a new way of seeing our faith which answered many questions and resolved many difficulties.  We wondered why we don’t hear more of this view of the Christian faith from the pulpit - why did we have to wait so long before finding it out in this book?  Some thought this was to ‘protect’ those with a straightforward faith from views that might unsettle them; others felt this approach neglected the needs of those who had reached the critical, doubting stage of their spiritual journey, and, finding no way through, could have lost their faith entirely.

Peter Elliott

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