I recently read Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary by the late Marcus Borg as part of my effort to learn more about “historical Jesus” scholarship. This book is Borg’s attempt to summarize the conclusions of this body of scholarship from the perspective of someone who is a faithful Christian, staying true to the assumptions of evidence-based academic research while also making a space for those who are interested from a religious perspective.
What follows is a summary of some of the key highlights.
Chapters 1-3: a discussion of how Jesus is considered in American Christianity today as well as introducing readers to the assumptions and methodological approaches of religious studies scholars. This is where he explains the tools and types of questions that lead to the conclusions that he describes in the rest the book.
Chapter 4: Jewish Tradition in an Imperial World
- Jesus grew up in a pre-modern society characterized by two social classes: the 1% of “haves” and 99% of “have nots.” The Haves exploited, controlled, oppressed, and dominated the 99% Have Nots.
- He grew up in a Jewish religious culture that did not have a tradition of separation of church and state. The Jewish scriptures included many “prophets” who “indicted and condemned the domination system that was established in ancient Israel with the birth of the monarchy” (101). The prophets consistently emphasized “God’s judgment against the economic, injustice, violence, and idolatry of the domination system” (103).
Chapter 5: His Experience of God
- Jesus was a hyper-mystic whose goal was to democratize people’s relationship and connection to God, breaking down the monopoly that the dominant religious institutions of the day claimed as exclusive mediators of those relationships.
- He experienced visions and wilderness transcendent experiences.
- He claimed authority “grounded neither in institution nor tradition, but in the sacred, in God” (125).
Chapter 6: The Synoptic Profile of Jesus
- Through his itinerant preaching to a peasant class, Jesus was about healing and liberating from systems of domination and exploitation.
- Through stories and sayings, he critiqued power structures to advocate a sociality of social justice here and now in this life (“the Kingdom”).
- The Kingdom especially required a radical inclusion that erased social boundaries between social classes and social groups. The outcasts and marginalized were especially invited to the Banquet of the Kingdom.
Chapter 7: God’s Character and Passion
- Through his teachings and actions, Jesus taught his followers about the character and priorities of God. There were a few main teachings.
- “God is like a father who yearns for his son’s return from exile” (173).
- “God’s character is like that of parents who give good gifts to their children” (174).
- “God [is] life-giving, generous, lavish. … Jesus saw reality as characterized by a cosmic generosity … God’s character is marked by compassionate generosity” (175).
- God’s anger is reserved for those who are not compassionate (see Matthew 25:31-46). This is the criteria that God uses to judge people: did you feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, take care of the sick, visit those in prison?
- “Like a womb, God is the one who gives birth to us and nurtures us. As a mother loves the children of her womb and wills their well-being, so God loves us and wills our well-being” (184).
- “God’s passion is justice [because] justice is the social form of compassion” (185). The Kingdom is primarily characterized by the absence of violence/war and the presence of economic justice so that there are no poor or rich, no king or slave.
Chapter 8: The Broad Way and the Narrow Way
- When Jesus talks about “the broad way,” it is “the way most people live most of the time. It is not that most people are ‘wicked,’ but that most live lives structured by the conventions of their culture” (194). “If we do not examine our lives, if we do not submit them to critical reflection, we are doomed to live our lives as the conventions of our culture dictate” (204).
- The “narrow way” is to be enlightened, to “wake up,” to put the Kingdom over laws and rules. “As ‘the resurrection and the life,’ Jesus calls people forth from their tombs, gives them life, and sets them free” (199).
- “Embeddedness in family and its conventions can hold one in bondage and prevent responding to the message of centering in God and God’s passion. He saw the conventional patriarchal family as a constricting institution that demanded a loyalty inconsistent with loyalty to God. … Indeed, [this was] a major reason that early Christianity was especially attractive to women.” (207).
- “”Jesus ridiculed the concern with honor. He mocked those who sought social recognition. … He chastised religious practices … motivated by the desire for honor” (212).
- “In a social world that saw purity as the product of following particular behaviors, Jesus affirmed that purity was the product of what people were like ‘on the inside’” (215).
- “The word ‘repent’ combines to return from exile and to think/see anew. It means to return from a condition of estrangement and exile to the presence of God. And it means to acquire a new way of seeing and thinking that goes beyond the conventions of culture” (220).
Chapter 9: The Kingdom and the Domination System
- “Jesus was … among those advocating and practicing active nonviolent resistance to the domination system. Public criticism, then as now, was a form of resistance” (229).
- “He indicted the temple authorities as robbers who collaborated with the robbers at the top of the imperial domination systems” (235).
- He indicted the rich because in his day, the only way to get rich was through collaboration with the imperial power systems of the day.
- In terms of the coming Kingdom, “Jesus called people to respond and participate in the coming of the kingdom” (259).
Chapter 10: Executed by Rome, Vindicated by God
- The idea of “substitutionary atonement” wasn’t taught by Jesus. “It is important to realize that … it took over a thousand years for it to become dominant” (268).
- “Though not required by divine necessity, the execution of Jesus was virtually a human inevitability. This is what denomination systems do to people who challenge them” (273).
- The Resurrection is “God’s ‘yes’ to Jesus and God’s ‘no’ to the powers that killed him. Jesus was executed by Rome and vindicated by God. To put these two meanings as concisely as possible, Easter meant ‘Jesus lives’ and ‘Jesus is Lord’” (276).
Thank you Benjamin for sharing this. This is the radical Jesus of Nazareth that I personally relate to when I read the NT. And the whole penal substitution/ substitutionary atonement needs to go. The resurrection is the “sign and token” vindication of Jesus’ teachings and example and THAT is the message of his resurrection that is found in each of us…
Fortunately, the substitutionary atonement is so plainly attested to in the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants as to remove any necessity for confusion.
Hi Tim — I agree that the idea is clearly included in the BofM and D&C. I suppose the response from these folks would be that Joseph lived many centuries *after* the idea had taken hold, and thus it is not surprising to find it in subsequent religious revelations from people raised in Protestant Christianity (such as Joseph). Or from another perspective, that Joseph’s revelations were “translated” through the language, culture, and religious ideas of his time which included a strong emphasis on substitutionary atonement (a perspective discussed here: https://rationalfaiths.com/ten-models-of-prophetic-revelation-in-an-lds-context/). But from a faithful LDS perspective, the multiple attestations from the various books of canonical scripture would indeed bolster the doctrine’s truthfulness.