A few months ago I went back to school to finish my masters, and the class I just finished was called, Jesus and Apologetics. One of the required books was called, The Meaning of Jesus, Two Visions. It was written by two Jesus scholars, one liberal and the other conservative. The liberal is Marcus Borg and the conservative is N.T. Wright. Since we are in the midst of Holy Week and approaching Easter, I thought I would write about what I learned from this class.
The conclusion Marcus Borg comes to about the meaning of Jesus is based upon a biased way of thinking about history. Borg says, “Over the last two hundred years among historical scholars, both within and outside of the church, this common image of Jesus (Who he was? The Only Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary. His purpose? To die for the sins of the world. His Message? About many things, but most centrally about the importance of believing in him, for what was at stake was eternal life) has dissolved. Its central elements are seen no longer as going back to the historical Jesus, but as the product of the early Christian movement in the decades after his death. Jesus as a historical figure was not very much like the most common image of him.”
Borg says two statements about the nature of the gospels that are crucial for understanding the meaning of Jesus. First, they are developing tradition, in other words, the Gospel’s were embellished along the way. Secondly, they are a mixture of history remembered and history metaphorized. As history remembered, he means that some of the things mentioned in the gospels, really did happen. As history metaphorized, he means that many of the events that we think are literal were just meant to communicate a spiritual truth.
Because of the lenses through which Borg sees Scriptures; he sees a pre-Easter Jesus who was purely human; Jesus of fact, the Jesus of objective historical inquiry, and a post-Easter Jesus who is purely spiritual, the Jesus of significance, and subjectivity. It is because of personal opinions, and not evidence, Borg comes to the conclusions he reaches. While Borg show’s his obvious biases, I don’t buy into them and I believe whole heartedly that the synoptic Gospels are reliable, historical documents, and the Jesus they present is the same in essence before and after the crucifixion. Here are some reasons why.
The Synoptic Gospels Are Reliable Historical Documents
To Borg’s claim of the gospels being of developing tradition, where the gospel writers created a Jesus of our present Christian experience, is a weak claim based on what we know about oral communities and about the actual gospel documents themselves. Borg claims that since the gospels were created in an oral community that they cannot be trusted as accurate historical documents. It is true that the synoptic Gospels were created in a time where oral communication was the means, but this fact should not be a negative strike against them. We do not need to assume, based upon our present culture being a post-modern, literal one, where it is hard to believe in anything concrete, that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John had to retroject divine titles onto Jesus in order to keep Jesus’ memory alive as Borg contends they did. It is not a matter of opinion, but matter of solid evidence of what we know about oral communities that they were just as concerned with receiving and communicating precise, accurate and authentic information of the past as modern literal historians do.
We know Matthew, John and Peter (Mark’s source) were eyewitnesses of Jesus’s earthly ministry. Luke was not an eyewitness but did careful research for his account of Jesus’ life. We know from the studies of good, reputable scholars of the ability of eyewitness’s to be able to recount information with great detail. Skeptic’s objection to this ability is not based on careful research, but rather on biased guesswork. The first century Jewish world valued eyewitness testimony, and it is more reasonable to believe that the early church preserved the essence of the disciples memory of Jesus than that they ignored the actual eyewitness testimony to only create fake testimonies later.
We can confidently believe the original documents as written are trustworthy in what they say about who Jesus was, what he said and in what he did. To Borg’s claim of the gospels being developing tradition, which is another way of saying, “we don’t have the originals we have only the error-ridden copies.” We have to turn to scholars trained in ‘textual criticism’ who use a variety of techniques to try to determine the wording of an original text. A book I highly recommend is Lee Strobel’s, The Case For the Real Jesus. In this book Strobel interviews Daniel Wallace and they talk about how we all have certain biases, but it is in how we approach those biases that matter. There are so called scholars who approach the Scriptures with the intention of finding variants (inconsistencies) and then not telling the whole truth about what they find. Then there are scholars who know about the variants (inconsistencies) and are honest about whether or not they know why they exist.
Strobel mentions Bart Ehrman as one of those scholars who is not completely honest on what he finds. Ehrman reported the number of differences between various handwritten manuscripts, totaling between 200,000 and perhaps 400,000 more variants among the manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament. What Ehrman fails to say is one of the reasons we have so many variances, is because we have so many manuscripts. This actually helps us ensure that our accuracy gets very close to the original. Seventy to eighty percent of all textual variants are simple misspelling errors. Wallace also states, “Only about 1% of variants are both meaningful, which means they affect the meaning of the text to some degree, and viable, which means they have a decent chance of going back to the original text. No foundational beliefs are in jeopardy”
There is great danger in having the kind of thinking like Bart Ehrman, who believed the lie; ”If there is one mistake in the Bible we must throw it all out.” In order to believe in the doctrine of inerrancy, we do not need to deny that Bibles human authors interjected their own personality, their own feelings, literary abilities, and concerns. We can be confident that through human instruments, God communicated exactly what He wanted to say.
One Jesus, Not Two
There is one thing Marcus Borg says that is absolutely true, “Easter is utterly central to Christianity. ‘God raised Jesus from the dead’ is the foundational affirmation of the New Testament.” But what Borg means and what conservative Christians think are miles apart. The Jesus of Marcus Borg is based upon a driving agenda to keep the historical Jesus dead. It is this agenda that causes Borg to see Jesus as being Pre-Easter and Post-Easter. The Pre-Easter Jesus was a flesh and blood, extraordinary peasant from Galilee who learned how to be a healer, a teacher like Buddha, a humanitarian, a charismatic leader who found loyal followers, and a martyr. The Post-Easter Jesus is a Spiritual reality whom his followers, decades later created into the Christian Messiah giving him divine titles and attributes that he goes by today.
So, yes, “Easter is utterly central to Christianity” and what makes Easter central is the empty tomb. Without the empty tomb, Easter is pointless. According to Marcus Borg this is not the case. He says, “For me, it is irrelevant whether or not the tomb was empty. Whether Easter involved something remarkable happening to the physical body of Jesus is irrelevant.” N.T Wright counters this belief with, “Once you allow that something remarkable happened to his body that morning, all the other data fall into place with astonishing ease. Once you insist that nothing so outlandish happened, you are driven to ever more complex and fantastic hypotheses to explain the data.”
When Borg says that whether or not the tomb of Jesus was empty on Easter morning, he is speaking to the resurrection. Borg makes a distinction between resurrection and resuscitation. Resuscitation means a person is dead or believed to be dead and then comes back to life again. Resuscitation is resumption of previous existence. Resurrection means, not resumption of a previous existence but entry into a new kind of existence. With Borg’s way of thinking there is no need of a body for Easter to be relevant. Borg also makes the statement, “As a Christian, I am very comfortable not knowing whether or not the tomb was empty. Indeed, the discovery of Jesus’ skeletal remains would not be a problem. It doesn’t matter, because Easter is about resurrection not resuscitation.” This statement is the opposite of what the Bible teaches, the Apostle Paul says, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” (1Corinthians 15:17 ESV)
It is of vital importance whether Jesus’ physical body was raised from the dead, or if it was just the memory of Jesus that was resurrected. One of the interviews in The Case for the Real Jesus, is that of Michael Lincona. Lincona discusses five minimal facts to build a case for the resurrection of Jesus’ physical body from the dead. The facts Lincona includes on his list are ones that have strong historical evidence supporting them, and the evidence must be so strong the vast majority of today’s scholars on the subject-including the skeptical ones accept these facts.
The first fact is Jesus was killed by crucifixion and dies as a result. This fact is so widely accepted by both liberal and conservative scholars that to deny it or even take a trivial position like Marcus Borg is laughable to the academic world. The point needs to be emphasized that Jesus dies, and is dead for three days.
Secondly, Jesus’ disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them. This experience was the central event for the disciples that gave them assurance, confidence and hope. They were willing to suffer and die for their conviction that Jesus physically rose from the dead. As Lincona said, “Liars make poor martyrs.” It also needs to be noted that what the disciples saw was not an apparition, but the physical body of Jesus.
The third fact is the conversion of the church persecutor; Paul. This fact is very convincing because Paul had absolutely nothing to gain and everything to lose. His quick turnaround from persecutor of the church to its greatest promoter and defender is a convincing factor.
Fourthly is the conversion of the skeptic James, Jesus’ half-brother. Lincona makes a point that is very hard to argue, “What would it take to convince you that your brother is the Lord? Really the only thing that could account for that would be what’s reported in the early creed: that the crucified Jesus appeared alive to James.” For the Biblical writers to include this story is further proof for authenticity. There is a tool scholar’s use called the criteria of embarrassment. Why would they want to invent a potential embarrassing story that Jesus could not convince his own family members to follow him? The answer is that they wouldn’t have.
And the fifth and final minimal fact, Jesus’ tomb was empty. This fact, that Marcus Borg says is irrelevant, is believed by 75 percent of all Biblical scholars. That is a very high number. It is believed the reason the tomb was empty, was because Jesus physically rose from the dead, versus his body being stolen and hidden. It would be absurd to believe the disciples would steal his body, hide it, and then be repeatedly tortured and eventually die, for what they knew was a lie. Again, this last fact fits into the criteria of embarrassment. Lincona says, “My point is this: if you were going to concoct a story in an effort to fool others, you would never in that day have hurt your own credibility by saying that women discovered the empty tomb. It would be extremely unlikely that the Gospel writers would invent testimony like this, because they wouldn’t get any mileage out of it. In fact, it could hurt them. If they had felt the freedom to simply make things up, surely they’d claim that men — maybe Peter or John or even Joseph of Arimathea — were the first to find the tomb empty.”
Borg says, "Independently of their historical factuality, the stories of the canonical Jesus can function in our lives as powerfully true metaphorical narratives, shaping Christian vision and identity. It is not an either-or choice; both the pre-Easter and post-Easter Jesus matter" To see Jesus as independent of historical factuality, strips him of everything the Orthodox Church has believed about him for the past two thousand years. A Jesus who was a mere man, and who is just a spiritual force is not worth dying or living for. Borg has created in his own mind a cool Jesus who demands nothing from us and accomplished nothing for us. Borg in writing what he writes is careless and dangerous. The true seekers who read The Meaning of Jesus will find themselves confused and disillusioned on who the real Jesus is. Noted novelist and former atheist Anne Rice stated “skepticism does not equal scholarship”
My conclusion is two-fold. First, we can know the Synoptic Gospels are reliable, historical documents, based on the reliability of oral communities and how they are legitimate ways to preserve and communicate accurate history. First century Christians valued eyewitness testimony and would not be easily inclined to fabricate details about Jesus. The criteria of embarrassment is a strong tool to evaluate documents as being authentic. Applying textual criticism will expose many variants, but there are legitimate explanations for them and no foundational beliefs are in jeopardy.
And secondly, the empty tomb matters to Christianity. The evidence is strong that Jesus died and resurrected physically. The lives of the disciples, the Apostle Paul and James argue that they saw the physical Jesus and not just an apparition. When we read the Gospels we are reading about the historical Jesus who was alive then and lives now.