Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time
(HarperOne, 1994) is a consolidation of a series of lectures given by Marcus Borg, New Testament scholar and former professor of religion at Oregon State University. Borg delivered a series of lectures at the Northern California Conference of the United Church of Christ (in Asilomar, California) in 1992. During his career, Borg was an active member of the Jesus Seminar, a group of 150 scholars founded in 1985 to examine the historical Jesus.
In the preface, Borg explains his position as a secular Jesus scholar and a Christian. He feels like he occupies two worlds, the secular world of the academy as well as the world of the church. Borg was raised in the church and his wife is an Episcopal priest.
In the first of six chapters, “Meeting Jesus Again,” the author notes how common a trajectory it is for individuals to realize the unlikelihood of Jesus as they come of age. Borg then discusses the diverse images of Jesus, such as that of divine savior and teacher, promoting fideistic
images of the Christian life, respectively. Borg proposes a new image of Jesus derived from the first century of the Christian movement. According to Borg, the Christian life promoted by his new image of Jesus is about entering into a relationship with God.
In the second chapter, “What Manner of Man?: The Pre-Easter Jesus,” Borg insists on the importance of distinguishing between the pre-Easter Jesus and the community-driven concept of post-Easter Jesus. The former went into the wilderness with John and experienced some sort of religious conversion. Jesus was one of the few who apparently had an experience evidencing the reality of God, and so can be said to belong to a group of spirit people
, whose unique experiences lead them to becoming mediators of sacred things. Jesus used parables to teach subversive wisdom. He promoted a renewal of Jewish faith that upset social boundaries.
Chapter 3, “Jesus, Compassion, and Politics,” claims that the major themes embodied by Jesus are spirit
. Borg adduces the verse in Luke 6:36 in which Jesus instructs to “Be compassionate as God is compassionate.” Borg sees this injunction as a response to the purity laws in Leviticus. He goes so far as to claim that Paul’s language can be imagined as saying something akin to ‘In Christ, there is neither straight nor gay.” The Hebrew word for “compassion” is cognate with the word for “womb,” aptly used to expressing the feeling that a mother has for her child. Jesus promotes compassion as a replacement for “holiness” or “purity” (the latter a point of contention between the exacting Pharisees and the isolationist and contemplative Essenes, among other first-century Palestinian tribes). Jesus’ practices of eating with lower classes, touching lepers, and visiting graves flew in the face of traditional notions of purity. This movement took root in large part because compassion can be deployed by an individual within a community rather than a political unit.
Chapter 4, “Jesus and Wisdom: Teacher of Alternative Wisdom,” defines the pre-Easter Jesus as a sage as well as the embodiment of divine wisdom. Borg contends that there are two types of wisdom and two types of sages, the conventional type and the subversive type, which are at odds. Buddha and Lao-tzu are examples of the latter type. Conventional wisdom, according to Borg, is common to many (including non-Christian) traditions. Subversive wisdom (Jesus’ type) is unique, and is not predicated on striving and forbearing in this life in hopes of doing well in the next. Many of Jesus’ aphorisms and parables (his most common mode of discourse) invite his audience to see God as compassionate. There is a firsthand and “secondhand” religion, the latter predicated on what the Bible says, the former rooted in a relationship with God or the Spirit.
In Chapter 5, “Jesus, the Wisdom of God: Sophia Become Flesh,” Borg notes how the gospels portray Jesus as an emissary of God’s wisdom. Jesus’ notional incarnation as the wisdom of God paves the way for the modern understanding of Jesus as (according to Borg, metaphorically,) “Son of God.” Here, Borg points to New Testament attestations to Jesus as representative of “wisdom of God,” as well as to the parallel relationship between the concept of Sophia and the God of the Old Testament. Sophia’s relationship to God in the Old Testament, too, points to the invalidity of a literal understanding of Jesus as “Son of God.”
Chapter 6, “Images of Jesus and Images of the Christian Life,” reinforces the close connection between the popular understanding of Jesus and of Christian life. Borg claims that Jesus is a social prophet and subversive sage, but that he had no especial interest in being known as the “Son of God” or even being believed. In this chapter, too, Borg divides Scripture into three categories: 1.) the Exodus from Egypt, 2.) the period of exile and in and return from Babylon, and 3.) the non-historical stories explaining the institution surrounding temples and priests. These three categories serve to represent the sum of human experiences of bondage, alienation, and guilt, respectively. Borg notes that the stories of priests are domesticating, while those of bondage and exile are subversive. Jesus’ persona as depicted in the letter to the Hebrews is a liberating one that discounts the importance of priestly protocol. Jesus’ teachings as included in the New Testament constitute a fourth category: a period of discipleship. As such, the Christian life is one of transformation. Christians are called not only to believe in Christ, but to enter into a relationship wherein one is constantly transforming into a more compassionate being.
Borg died in 2015 and is remembered as a leading figure in the academic movement to locate the historical Jesus. He wrote and co-authored 21 books, including several New York Times bestsellers such as Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time