Saturday, March 27, 2010

A Representative Case of a Bible Skeptic

Marcus Borg, Professor of Religion, Bible-skeptic and former member of the Jesus Seminar, advances an illogical but common point of view:

“Whether or not Jesus thought he was the messiah, he is the messiah. That is, his messianic status and the truth of the exalted metaphors do not depend upon whether Jesus thought of himself in those terms. Whether any of them go back to Jesus or not, they are the [1st century Christian] community’s testimony to what Jesus had become in their life together.” (“The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions,” co-authored by M. Borg and N.T. Wright, 55)

I know what you’re thinking: “How could Jesus be 'the messiah,' and yet be totally deluded about His identity and mission? And how about all of the passages that reveal that Jesus knew Himself to be the Messiah?” Well, Borg has an answer for this:

“In our earliest gospel, a messianic self-claim is not part of the Jesus’ own message. In Mark, Jesus does not teach about being messiah, Son of God and so forth. To clarify: the issue is not whether Mark thinks Jesus is the messiah and the Son of God. For Mark, Jesus is both.”

However, when I re-examined Mark’s Gospel, the evidence that Jesus thought Himself the Messiah was overwhelming. Here’s just a small sample from the 1st chapter:

1. "A voice of one calling in the desert, 'Prepare the way for the Lord [YHWH], make straight paths For him.'" (Mark 1:3). Although this doesn’t come from the mouth of Jesus, He later affirms that this does pertain to Him (Mark 9:12-13).

2. “And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’"
(Mark 1:11). After such an event, how could Jesus not know that He is the Messiah?

3. About the many self-authenticating miracles that Jesus performed, Borg surprisingly confesses, “In common with the majority of contemporary Jesus scholars, I see the claim that Jesus performed paranormal healings and exorcisms as history remembered. Indeed, more healing stories are told about Jesus than any other figure in Jewish tradition. He must have been a remarkable healer.” (66). If Borg then takes these accounts as historical, how then can he insist that the greatest miracle worker couldn’t have regarded Himself as the Messiah? (Strangely, Borg does not regard the “miracles” as “supernatural intervention.”)

4. "What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are--the Holy One of God!" "Be quiet!" said Jesus sternly. "Come out of him!" (Mark 1:24-25). If even the demons knew that Jesus was the Messiah, how could Jesus not realize this fact?

However, Borg is also aware of these verses and a multitude of similar verses that suggest that Jesus knew that He is the Messiah. While Borg believes that there is an historically accurate core within the Gospels, he also believes that those verses that affirm the Messiah-ship of Jesus were later embellishments by the early church. Nevertheless, he confesses that even the early, more historical layers of Mark:

“Present Jesus as an utterly remarkable figure, but I think the inference that he was the messiah, Son of God, and so forth, was most likely first made by the early Christian movement.” (57)

The evidence coerces Borg to admit that Jesus was an “utterly remarkable figure.” Everything He said and did was remarkable and even radiated the fact that Jesus understood His divine mission. How could Jesus not regard Himself as the Messiah in light of raising the dead (5:41), empowering his disciples to cast out demons (6:7), calming the seas (6:48-51), feeding the multitudes (6:41, 8:20), and healing them (6:55-56)?

How then can Borg deny His self-identity? Although Borg identifies himself as a “Christian,” he refuses to believe what is most fundamental to the Christian faith:

“I have trouble imagining that Jesus saw his own death as salvific…It seems a strange notion to me: that Jesus thought that his own death would accomplish all of this.” (81)

What are Borg’s reasons for his radical views?

“First, with the majority of mainline scholars, I see the passion predictions in Mark as post-Easter creations…Moreover, traces in the gospels indicate that Jesus’ death was a shock to his followers and a shattering of their hopes. This is hard to understand if Jesus had spoken so clearly about his upcoming execution.” (81)

This might be hard for Borg to understand, but the denseness of Jesus’ disciples is a consistent theme throughout the Gospels. They failed to understand very much about Jesus and His mission. Why should we expect it to be any different in regards to His prophecies about His death and resurrection?

However, Borg seems to have a deeper reason to doubt that Jesus believed that He’s the Messiah, who had to die for the sins of the world:

“Honesty compels candor: I find this [the atonement] not only a strange notion, but an unattractive notion to attribute to Jesus. I don’t want Jesus to have seen his death as having the significance that Tom [Wright] gives it. As a Christian, I want Jesus to be an attractive figure.” (82).

I appreciate Borg’s candor and also his desire for “Jesus to be an attractive figure.” However, unredeemed man understandably does not regard the Messiah’s death for the sins of the world as attractive. This death communicates some unattractive facts – that we are sinners who are in desperate need of the Savior and deserve to die for these sins. Only when we confront the depths of our sin and helpless situation, does the Cross become attractive, even glorious!

When we start with skeptical sentiments, we can always find skeptical tools to defend these sentiments. Borg starts with a conception of Jesus that suits his tastes and then exercises the liberty to discount, as later embellishments, those verses that fail to fit his conception. With this type of picking-and-choosing, we can prove anything we want to. And that’s just what many scholars do.

There are many tools available by which scholars can derive the results that suit them. If we start with the idea that Scripture is totally a human phenomenon and then choose investigative tools that coincide with this starting-point, we can assure ourselves that we’ll derive our desired conclusions.

Borg starts with the presupposition that Scripture is just a human product. He then eliminates those verses that could not humanly have been known to the New Testament authors:

“About the events reported between arrest and execution [of Jesus], including the trials before Jesus and Roman authorities, I have little historical confidence. The reason: whatever happened was not witnessed by Jesus’ followers; they had fled and were not there.” (87).

However, Borg’s stance refuses to even consider the possibility that the Bible is also the Word of God (1 Thess. 2:13; 2 Peter 1:20-21) and what was written had supernaturally been revealed. If the Bible is the Word of God, we have to be open to the possibility that some disclosures might have been supernatural. Jesus promised that the Spirit would lead the Apostles into all truth. If we are Christians, we should be open to this reality. However, from the get-go, Borg has ruled this out. He started by presupposing human causality, and it was inevitable that this is where he’d terminate his inquiry. Sadly, for the sake of attaining professional respectability, many Evangelicals do likewise.

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