To MG Home
By: Erick Nelson
Last Updated: September 11, 2002
Marcus Borg is the Hundere Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University and a fellow of Robert Funk's Jesus Seminar. He has been national chair of the Historical Jesus Section of the Society of Biblical Literature and co-chair of its International New Testament Program Committee. He was the principal organizer of the "Jesus at 2000" gathering in Oregon. He has written several books which attempt to provide scholarly information to both a scholarly and popular audience.
See his autobiographical sketch on the web entitled Me & Jesus - the Journey Home
See Email Correspondence with Borg.
Dr. Borg has enjoyed an illustrious career explaining how we can benefit from a spiritual, metaphorical understanding of the gospels without taking them literally. He even chose to subtitle his 2001 book Reading the Bible Again for the First Time "Taking the Bible Seriously but not Literally." He also proposes to reconcile the results of New Testament and Historical Jesus scholarship with a modern, even redefined Christian faith.
In one sense, it is clear that Borg holds the Metaphorical Gospel theory. But in another sense, his position is not entirely clear. There are at least four possible reasons for this:
1. Where Spong comes right out and says "They didn't mean it literally!", Borg rarely specifically talks about authorial intent. And he typically doesn't discuss the issue of how the original readers understood the gospel claims. His agenda is elsewhere.
2. Borg seems to be open to dialog and change, much like Bertrand Russell was - and therefore, his position has possibly changed or become refined in various ways over the years. Therefore, it may be unfair to cite 1995 books to describe his position now.
3. While he does not have his PhD in New Testament Studies, Borg is a respected Historical Jesus Scholar and a professor of philosophy to boot. It's possible that his view is so finely nuanced that the questions I'm asking are too simplistic. And, since his books have not dealt specifically with this particular issue, at least in depth, it's not fair to try to derive his view from these sources.
4. Perhaps, since his main field of study was not New Testament, he has simply relied upon a set of NT scholars whom he considers the state of the art for these exegetical issues. And perhaps the apparent confusion on this topic is simply a symptom of confusion in his own mind.
I have, accordingly, approached the Borg view with caution and care. Here's how I have dealt with each of these issues:
First, I completely understand that Borg is not Spong, and shouldn't be viewed with Spongian lenses. And I accept that he's not nearly as concerned as Spong to make a stand in this arena. However, he does make statements in his books that seem to logically entail the MG theory; and he makes additional statements that actually state it. It's as though he takes the truth of the theory for granted.
Second, I have tried to give extra weight to his most recent publication (2001) Reading the Bible Again for the First Time. It appears to be consistent with his earlier works on this topic. Even if he, as a private person, had changed his views on this, Marcus Borg as a public writer must be what counts in the final analysis.
Third. The best way to find out if I correctly understand his position is to ask him. Fortunately, Dr. Borg did reply to my (several) emails, and I give a great deal of weight to his replies. See Email Correspondence with Borg.
Fourth. If this comes down to a confusion in his own mind, at least this should be stated. I complain in this work about the lack of "Definiteness of Articulation" - that any theory which isn't, or can't be, well articulated is not a sound theory.
Summary of His Basic View
In 1997, after reading several of his books and carefully attending to the "Jesus at 2000" debates, and corresponding with Borg via email, I tried to summarize his view and asked him to confirm. Here's what I said:
1. Regarding the deity of Jesus, you believe that the earliest disciples and Christians attributed some form of divine nature to the post-Easter Jesus, based upon their experiences of him. The NT writers did not think that the pre-Easter Jesus was divine, but wrote of him AS IF he were, because of the their understanding of the post-Easter Jesus.
2. Regarding the resurrection of Jesus, the NT writers did not mean to say that Jesus' body literally came alive; they used these stories, however, to convey a message that he was indeed alive in the experience of his followers (which you think goes beyond a mere psychological reality).
3. And so, the object of discourse of the gospels (at least in these cases) is the post-Easter Jesus rather than the pre-Easter Jesus.
4. You would also take many of the stories about Jesus to be spiritual, symbolic accounts of the meaning Jesus, and were not intended to be taken factually. For instance, the raising of Lazarus, the feeding of the 5,000, etc.
5. Where Jesus is said to have fulfilled Jewish prophecy, you would probably see this as midrash, where the gospel authors are honoring Jesus by creating stories tying him to the prophets and their prophecies.
These points are examples of what I have called the "metaphorical gospel" view, namely that the deity and resurrection of Jesus, and many/most of the accounts about him, were INTENDED as symbolic, spiritual accounts rather than factual accounts - with the corollaries that (a) the original audience understood them in this spiritual way, and (b) later generations literalized these accounts.
Borg confirmed that this was correct:
Yes, you have understood my position correctly, and have stated it with significant clarity. I would enter a caveat or two - for example, I would certainly not take the midrashic interpretation as far as Spong does. But I accept/ follow the "principles" you outline. Well done.
Dr. Borg, unlike Spong, does not argue for the Metaphorical Gospel theory. Rather, he assumes it to be true.
In one of his most quotable passages, you can see that Borg is primarily concerned to defend the metaphorical understanding of the gospels. He doesn't often specifically say that the gospel writers' intent was to portray their material as metaphorical - he is making the somewhat weaker claim that the real truth of the material is symbolic/metaphorical.
"My journey from the childhood state of precritical naiveté' through the critical thinking of adolescence and adulthood now led to hearing John (and the bible as a whole) in a state of postcritical naiveté' -- a state in which one can hear these stories as "true stories", even while knowing that they are not literally true." (Meeting J, p 16-17)
"Nor do I subscribe to the assumption that history can be normative for faith . . . I have argued against the kind of "historical reductionism" that says that something must be historically true to be true. To use an example, I regularly say, "I don't think the virgin birth happened, but I think the stories of the virgin birth are powerfully true." (Jesus at 2000 Email Debate, Feb 27, 2000)
In Borg's brief autobiographical sketch (see above) called "Me & Jesus", he says in the section entitled "Adult study, phase one: deconstruction":
"Taught by Welsh scholar W. D. Davies (said to be one of the two favorite students of C. H. Dodd, the premier British new Testament scholar of this century), the course focused on Jesus and the synoptic gospels, and I was there exposed to the central claims of modern gospel scholarship (mostly German, despite Davies' British connections).
The effect was, for me, dramatic. I realized that the image of Jesus from my childhood—the popular image of Jesus as the divine savior 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. Moreover, I learned that scholars had been saying this for almost two hundred years.
This mind-boggling realization was based on the understanding of the gospels that has developed during the last two centuries. I learned that the gospels were neither divine nor particularly historical."
At seminary, he learned the "deconstruction" of a way of seeing. This view undergirds his entire effort. In fact, Borg's recommendation of the journey from precritical naiveté, through critical thinking, breaking through into postcritical naiveté mirrors his own spiritual journey.
Jesus and Christ of Faith
One key, I think, to Borg's position regarding the intent of the New Testament writers is the distinction between the man Jesus and the Christ of Faith. Borg calls the historical Jesus the pre-Easter Jesus and the Christ of Faith the post-Easter Jesus. In Borg's view, the post-Easter Jesus was the object of the first century Christians' spiritual experience.
"Beginning with Easter, the early movement continued to experience Jesus as a living reality after his death, but in a radically new way. After Easter, his followers experienced him as a spiritual reality, no longer as a person of flesh and blood, limited in time and space, as Jesus of Nazareth had been. Rather, Jesus as the risen living Christ could be experienced anywhere and everywhere. Increasingly he was spoken of as having all the qualities of God. Prayers were addressed to Jesus as God, and praise was offered to Jesus as God in Christian worship." (Meeting J, p 16)
For many scholars, the Christ of Faith is some sense of a "spiritual presence," or perhaps the vaguer idea that Jesus' memory somehow lived on. Borg, however, actually comes relatively close to an evangelical position when he seems to say that the post-Easter Christ really is Jesus' spirit, actually communicating with us from heaven.
"When I say, 'Easter means that the followers of Jesus continued to experience him, even though nothing happened to his body,' I do NOT mean any of the following: The spirit of Jesus lived on (as the spirit of Martin Luther King may be said to live on); or that his memory lived on; or that Jesus lived on in the birth of Easter faith among his followers. All of the above are true, but they are not, in my judgment, the meaning of easter. They are too weak, pallid, and reductionistic." (Email Debate, March 25, 2000)
In Borg's view, then, are the authors of the gospels talking about the man Jesus when they attribute deity, miracles, and a bodily resurrection to him, or are they really referring to the Christ of Faith (the "post-Easter Jesus", or "Jesus-now") of their present experience? What is the "object of reference" of the gospels?
The common sense view would simply be to say that they refer to the man Jesus, to his actual words and deeds, and to his position as the incarnation of God; and that, since the Christ of Faith and the Jesus of History refer to exactly the same person, these stories apply to the "post-Easter" Jesus as well.
As real as the post-Easter Jesus might be, the crux of Borg's view is that Jesus has changed. Attributes that apply to the post-Easter Jesus become stories and claims and sayings thrown back into the life of the man Jesus. The attributes of the post-Easter Jesus were written into the story as if the man Jesus had said and done these things - but he didn't really.
"... why would the early Christian community out of which John's gospel comes portray Jesus as saying about himself, "I am the light of the world", "I am the bread of life", I am the way, the truth and the life", if Jesus did not speak that way about himself? I now see the answer: this is how they experienced the post-Easter Jesus. For them, the post-Easter Jesus was the light that led them out of darkness, the spiritual food that nourished them in the midst of their journey, the way the led them from death to life." (Meeting J, p 16)
These stories, sayings, and claims were intended metaphorically about the man Jesus; the gospel writers did not mean that Jesus of Nazareth actually said, did, and was those things.
"Moreover, for me, as language about the post-Easter Jesus, I see all of these titles as true - that is, they express what Jesus became in the experience and tradition of his followers in the decades after Easter (I also see them all as metaphorical, of course; their multiplicity points to metaphoricity; and metaphorical language can, of course, be true). (Jesus at 2000 Email Debate, March 4, 2000)
Borg believes that this was a commonly accepted practice. He presents something similar to Spong's description of midrash.
"I see much of the passion story as non-historical at the level of details. Many of the details seem to be "prophecy historicized" rather than "history remembered" (Dom's phrases, though the notion is widely-held by mainline scholars, including Raymond Brown; the differences seem to be of degree), and/or the use of symbolism drawn from the Jewish tradition (e.g., the temple curtain tearing)." (Jesus at 2000 Email Debate, March 25, 2000)
And finally, we see what he means when he says,
"Thus the gospels are the church's memories of the historical Jesus transformed by the community's experience and reflection in the decades after Easter." (Meeting Jesus p 10)
The conflict is between two very different ways of reading the Bible. In language I will use later in the book, it is a conflict between a "literal-factual" way of reading the bible and a "historical-metaphorical" way of reading it. (Reading the Bible Again ix)
2001: Reading the Bible Again for the First Time
Marcus Borg's newest book, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time (published in late 2001) bears the provocative subtitle: "Taking the Bible Seriously but not Literally."
I had wondered whether Borg had perhaps refined or even altered his view since I corresponded with him in 1997. And if ever a book could be expected to fully explain his reasoning behind the Metaphorical Gospel Theory ("not Literally"), this would be it! But sadly, he spent almost no time explaining why he thought that the MG Theory was true, but instead explained how one might glean spiritual wisdom from the Bible, given the fact that many of the stories were not accounts of events that actually happened.
Borg calls his approach the "historical/metaphorical" approach. There are, as the name suggests, two components. His book focuses for the most part on the second of these, the metaphorical approach.
One surprise for me was that Borg does not discuss the deity or resurrection of Jesus in his book. However, he has covered that topic elsewhere, so maybe I should have expected it.
Although he fails to mention the most important event (or pseudo-event), in the Bible - the bodily resurrection of Jesus - he does turn his attention to the historicity of the gospel stories. Dr. Borg explicitly reiterates and his view that some of the stories in the gospels are "history remembered", some are "history metaphoricized", and some are "purely metaphorical stories." Among the purely metaphorical stories are the entire birth narratives, raising of the dead, turning water into wine, walking on water, and the feeding of the five thousand (p 46)
Borg provides (borrowing from Crossan) the simplest description of the MG view I've yet seen:
. . . John Dominic Crossan calls stories like these "parables." Jesus, he says, told parables about God. The early Christian movement likewise told parables about Jesus. (p 206)
The issue that naturally arises is "How do you tell which is which?" That is, which accounts are intended factually and which metaphorically? As Borg wryly observes,
". . . the Bible does not come with footnotes that say, "This passage is to be read literally; that passage is not." Reading the stories of creation or the stories of Jesus' birth literally involves an interpretive decision (namely, a decision to read them literally) equally as much as does the decision to read them metaphorically.
Thus any and every claim about what a passage of scripture means involves interpretation. There is no such thing as a noninterpretive reading of the Bible, unless our reading consists simply of making sounds in the air. As we read the Bible, then, we should ask not, "What is God saying?" but "What is the ancient author or community saying?" (p 27-28)
And this will be our quest in this book - what were the original authors really saying?
So, how do you tell whether a passage is intended to be "literal" or metaphorical? Borg mentions three tests:
- Signs within the story itself (his example: the Creation stories)
- The Limits of the Spectacular (Borg maintains a line of plausibility which separates some "miracles" (he prefers not to use the term), such as healings, from others, presumably more extreme, such as the "nature miracles"
- The Results of Historical Criticism
It is the third test which bears the most weight in deciding that many of the stories are not historical. The second point is actually a way in which Borg can accept the results of scholarship, yet affirm his own spiritual views. (In fact, this is a point where he's being lenient, accepting "some" extra-normal events as genuine.)
My primary reviewer for an earlier version of this work was Mark Allan Powell, chair of the Historical Jesus Section of the SBL, and colleague and friend of Marcus Borg. He was concerned that I had, in my own mind, too closely identified Borg with Spong's ideas.
His impression from his interaction with Borg was that (1) he might really hold the view that the evangelists naively passed along the stories they inherited, rather than consciously inventing metaphorical tales, and (2) the issue of literal vs. metaphorical was not consciously in their minds, and so trying to make this distinction is an anachronism based upon post-Enlightenment thinking.
I was worried that I yet - even now! - had misunderstood Borg, and so started up the email correspondence again. As before, his answers were very brief, yet I believe that they are revealing. I reiterated my explanation of the MG theory, very briefly, and asked him if he had any position or account of the logically-entailed "literalization" that later must have occurred (see below). The first two points he made were:
1. I do not wish to defend Jack Spong's understanding of the gospels. I think his midrash theory is simply wrong. So I will comment only on how I see them.
2. A specific example. Should we think that Luke when he wrote the infancy stories thought that he was writing literal factual history? That, for example, he though that his characters burst spontaneously into song and sung those magnificent hymns (the Benedictus, Magnificat, Nunc Dimitis)? I would be very surprised if he thought he was. My probability judgment is that Luke knew that he was using early Christian hymns, or possibly composed them himself.
I gladly accept that Borg does not use Spong's midrash theory as mechanism for developing metaphorical stories, and it's good to keep these two straight. But that doesn't mean he disavows the MG theory.
The second point is most telling. He had a perfect opportunity to say that he leaned more toward the view that Powell describes above, or to clarify his view in some other way. Instead, he confirms the MG view with an example: one which is presumably a telling example. The thought that Luke was really trying to report what Mary said is rendered ridiculous by evoking an image of a Broadway musical.
Since I was specifically asking him what he thought, I must conclude that he still vigorously upholds a Metaphorical Gospel understanding.
Borg's Account of Literalization
As far as I can tell, Dr. Borg has offered no published account of the supposed literalization of the gospels.
On the other hand, it is absolutely clear, and universally understood, that by the time of Justin Martyr (writing c. 150 C.E.) and Irenaeus (writing c. 180 C.E.), mainstream Christianity held a "literal" view.
So, if the N.T. authors held a metaphorical view, and if the early church fathers held a literal one, a "literalization" occurred during the intervening period. I believe that some account of this phenomenon is required by the Metaphorical Gospel Theory, since it logically entails an "apostasy" fairly early in church history. Second, I believe that Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp are counter-examples of the MG theory (later in the book), and I wonder how he deals with that.
So, I asked Borg what his view on this was. I specifically wanted to know if he thought the literalizers were people at the time of, or just before, Irenaeus and Justin, and the Apostolic Father's view was similar to the evangelists - OR if the Apostolic Fathers (Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp) themselves were literalizers. His answers to my two emails trying to clarify this are:
I don't think the early church writers were "concerned" to defend the literal factuality of the Bible and the gospels. I think that "concern" is modern (post-Enlightenment). I think many (most?) of them took the literal meaning for granted, for they had little or no reason not to (this is "natural literalism"). And for most of them, what they emphasized was not the literal meaning, but the "spiritual meaning" (which is very much like what we mean by metaphorical meaning).
I don't know how much you have read in my books. If you want to know more fully what I mean, I suggest that you read "Reading the Bible Again for the First Time."
My point there is that it has always been the metaphorical (the "more than literal") meaning of the Bible that has mattered - including the early fathers, most of whom were natural literalists. Thus I would say that some biblical narratives include "historical memory," but even when they do, the primary concern is the "more than literal-factual" meaning. The "happenedness" of the events did not become a major concern until after the Enlightenment.
It seems as if he makes a real distinction here between the Evangelists (the gospel writers) and the Apostolic Fathers. The former held a metaphorical view; the latter were "natural literalists" who took the literal meaning for granted. Borg promotes something of an either/or by contrasting the spiritual meaning with the factuality, which I address later on in this work. But more interesting, he contends:
- the Apostolic Fathers were not "concerned" to defend the literal factuality of the Bible and the gospels and
- the "happenedness" of the events did not become a major concern until after the
Now, exactly what does this mean? I interpret this as saying that Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp did not base the truth of the gospel on whether or not these things actually happened, whether Jesus was really God in the flesh, whether his body came out of the grave, etc. - it was the spiritual truth that mattered to them and which they defended.
Naturally, I had a follow-up question, since "church fathers" is somewhat ambiguous: Does this apply just to these three, or does he also contend that the factual basis of Christianity was also not a concern for the Apologists: Justin and Irenaeus? It seems to me clear that Justin and Irenaeus argue for the factuality of these things, and against the metaphorical gospel understanding as they counter gnosticism. If that's so, then to say that this concern was not in people's consciousness until after the Enlightenment is demonstrably false.
So I asked him. He replied that he has no position regarding the mid-2nd century fathers.
I don't know. I would have to re-read Justin and Irenaeus to have an informed opinion.
I admire his candor, but not his position It appears that there are two wedges that would be extremely difficult to justify evidentially.
- the gospel writers, who understood their works metaphorically
- the Apostolic Fathers, who understood their works literally but didn't care
- the Apologists, who either were like the Apostolic Fathers or were the first Literalizers.
Even though uncovering Marcus Borg's considered view about the MG theory is somewhat difficult, it seems inescapable that he is a respected, influential, and strong supporter of the view.