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The Meaning of Jesus:  Two Visions
Marcus J. Borg, N.T. Wright
HarperSanFrancisco, 1999

N.T. Wright

Comments about Methodology

The guild of New Testament studies has become so used to operating with a hermeneutic of suspicion that we find ourselves trapped in our own subtleties.  If two ancient writers agree about something, that proves one got it from the other.  If they seem to disagree, that proves that one or both are wrong.  If they say an event fulfilled biblical prophecy, they made it up to look like that.  If an event or saying fits a writer's theological scheme, that writer invented it.  If there are two accounts of similar events, they are a "doublet" (there was only one event); but if a single account has anything odd about it, there must have been two events, which are now conflated.  And so on.  Anything to show how clever we are, how subtle, to have smoked out the reality behind the text.  But, as any author who has watched her or his books being reviewed will know, such reconstructions again and again miss the point, often wildly.  If we cannot get it right when we share a culture, a period, and a language, it is highly likely that many of our subtle reconstructions of ancient texts and histories are our own unhistorical fantasies, unrecognized only because the writers are long since dead and cannot answer back.  Suspicion is all very well; there is also such a thing as a hermeneutic of paranoia.  Somebody says something; they must have a motive; therefore they must have made it up.  Just because we are rightly determined to avoid a hermeneutic of credulity, that does not mean there is no such thing as appropriate trust, or even readiness to suspend disbelief for a while, and see where it gets us.  (p 18)

Of course the early church used and shaped the gospel stories for their own ends.  But of course we do not know, ahead of time, whether they invented any stories wholesale and, if so, which bits are which.  Only if we presuppose a view of Jesus - if, in other words, we secretly decide the question before we start - could we know that.  This, of course, is often done, particularly by those still wedded to an older liberal picture of "Jesus the teacher" who (unlike several leaders of first-century Jewish movements) would be shocked to think of himself as, for instance, messiah.  I do not know in advance, more specifically, that a considerable gulf exists between Jesus as he was (the "pre-Easter Jesus", in Marcus's language) and Jesus as the church came to know him and speak of him (the "post-Easter Jesus").  We might eventually wish to reach some such conclusion; we cannot build it into our historical method.  (p 24)

Life After Death and "Resurrection" in First-Century Judaism

There is no evidence for Jews of our period [the first century] using the word resurrection to denote something essentially nonconcrete.  (p 115)

There was a spectrum of belief about life after death in first-century Judaism.  The Sadducees, the ruling elite, denied a future life of any sort. (p 112)

Many Jews believed in a continuing life after death, but in a disembodied state that neither needed nor expected a future reembodiment.  The Alexandrian philosopher Philo took this view - hardly surprising, in view of his blending together of Plato's philosophy and Jewish tradition.  (p 112)

At the other end of the spectrum from the Sadducees we find the Pharisees, with their well-known belief in the resurrection of the body.  This formed part of the wider Pharisaic agenda of reform or even revolution.  (p 112)

Already we see an important point emerging.  For the first-century Jew, resurrection was not a general term for "life after death."  It was one point on a spectrum of beliefs about life after death.  (p 113)

The literal meaning of resurrection - the concrete reembodiment of those who have died, especially the righteous and wise - continued on to become the mainstream Pharisaic belief, enshrined in subsequent rabbinic Judaism.  Daniel 12 became the favorite prooftext for this view.  The concreteness with which the topic was taken is well illustrated by a later rabinnic discussion as to whether, when God gave the dead their new bodies, we would start with the bones and sinews and work up to flesh and skin, as in Ezekiel 37, or whether he would make a new body all over again, the same way as the original one was made, starting with the skin and flesh and "firming it up" with sinews and bones.  The discussion is interesting in itself, but the point is this:  one would only raise such questions if the concrete physicality of the resurrection body were taken absolutely for granted.   (p 113-114)

If the dead will be raised to newly embodied life, in principle, where are they, and indeed what are they, at the present time?  One can stick with Ezekiel's metaphor and say that they are simply a set of inanimate physical remains, awaiting reanimation.  But the more usual first-century option was to speak of a continuing existence either as a spirit, a soul, or an angel.  "the souls of the righteous are in God's hand," declares the Wisdom of Solomon:  they are safe from their torturers at last, enjoying a peaceful rest until the time of visitation and resurrection.  When the Jerusalem Christians suppose that Peter has been killed in prison, only to be told that Peter's voice is addressing them from behind a shut door, they assume that this is a postmortem disembodied visitation:  "It must be his angel," they say.  (p 115)

Jesus:  Resurrection or Spiritual Presence?

Nor, I submit, would they have used the language of resurrection to describe a sense that Jesus was personally present with them.  Such a thing would have been unprecedented, but if it occurred, the natural categories fro them would have been angel, spirit, and so forth.  (p 116)

In addition, had Jesus' resurrection been simply a matter of people being aware of his presence, there would not have been a sense, as there clearly is in all our evidence, of a sequence of resurrection "appearances" that then stopped.  (p 116)

This rules out as well the explanation that has recently been offered, that the early Christians received a ghostly visitation from their recently deceased leader.  Such events are well known in the modern, as in the ancient world; the worried church thought they were receiving such a visit from Peter in Acts 11.  "It must be his angel," they said; that meant that Peter had been killed by Herod, and they would have to go and collect his body for burial.  It would not mean that Peter had been "raised from the dead"; indeed, it would mean that he hadn't been.  (p 115)

Empty Tomb and Paul

For Paul the Pharisee, saying "he was raised, leaving an empty tomb" would have been tautologous.  (; 119)

Marcus Borg

200 Years of NT Criticism

My summary understanding of the sources as described in chapter 1 is, as Tom [N.T. Wright] acknowledges, a fairly standard scholarly understanding.  The most important element is the claim that Mark is the earliest of our existing gospels and that Matthew and Luke used Mark.  Of next importance (though not as crucial) is the existence of Q, a hypothetical early document consisting mostly of the wisdom teaching of Jesus, also used by Matthew and Luke.  (p236)

The effect of this methodological move [attempting to incoroporate the greatest amount of data] on his work is important:  everything in the synoptic gospels becomes a candidate for inclusion in his reconstruction of Jesus, the criterion being primarily whether it can be accommodated in an overall hypothesis.
In doing so [, he [Wright] in effect sets aside two hundred years of scholarly work on the sources.  (p 236)

The consequnce for our historical work is considerable.  When Mark and Matthew and/or Luke all report the same story or saying, I understand the differences among them to be the product of Matthew and Luke's modification of Mark.  They are the product of editorial revision and thus are not candidates for historical data about Jesus.  (p 237)