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Two visions, one meaningful Jesus

By Marcus J. Borg and N. T. Wright
HarperSanFrancisco, 288 pages, $24


When Pope Paul VI in January 1964 went to the Holy Land to meet Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople, my wife and I were members of the accompanying press corps.

We visited the places identified with the short life of Jesus. We walked the streets of Bethlehem in search of an inn. In Capernaum we stood in the ruins of the synagogue where Jesus had spoken with authority. In Nazareth we relived the moment when he unrolled the scroll and, like any politician, adapted Isaiah’s words to formulate his own life project. We looked out on the Sea of Galilee whose storms he had stilled with a word. We shared food on the hillside near Bethsaida where five barley loaves and two fish sufficed to assuage the hunger of more than 5,000. In old Jerusalem we retraced the Via Crucis.

They were all places and events with which we had been familiar from childhood, each given a context by homilies, by religion classes, by history courses. We learned nothing new. But what we already knew had acquired added meaning. It had come alive.

Reading The Meaning of Jesus has been a similar experience. It has given deeper understanding to what I had long known. I now see Jesus more clearly as a Jewish mystic, shaped by the traditions of Israel’s heritage, one with a passion for social justice rooted in his own firsthand observation as a member of a marginalized social class in a marginalized village in Galilee.

Jesus did not attack Judaism. He attacked Jerusalem and the Temple because they were the center of the ruling elites and thus the center of the domination system.

He spoke harshly about wealth. “In our discomfort with these sayings we have often metaphorized them, as if they refer to spiritual poverty and spiritual wealth, a process that can be traced back at least to Matthew’s gospel. But initially they referred to real wealth and real poverty. In that world, to be wealthy meant that one was among the ruling elites. The sayings against wealth are thus part of Jesus’ criticism of the dominant system.”

Also meaningful for me is the authors’ understanding of the centrality of the resurrection of Jesus. This “political-religious affirmation” of the early Christians meant that the resurrection, “the great hope of Israel, had happened, but that it had happened in a way that nobody had imagined (a single human being raised within the middle of ongoing history) ... revealing God’s future as having already arrived in the present. ... The resurrection of Jesus means that the present time is shot through with great significance. What is done to the glory of God in the present is genuinely building for God’s future.”

The authors are established historical Jesus scholars, both well within the mainstream of contemporary biblical criticism. Borg, Hundere Distinguished Professor of Religion at Oregon State University and a member of the Jesus Seminar, sees the gospels less as historical reports than as documents in which history is “metaphorized” to reveal symbolic meanings about Jesus’ life. For his friend Wright, formerly a professor at Oxford University and now dean of Litchfield Cathedral in England, the actual historical content is significantly higher.

The differences of emphasis are overshadowed by the ultimate unity of vision. What we have is a broad area of basic agreement along the arc of their overlapping spectrums. The result is a very meaningful Jesus.

Gary MacEoin may be reached at gmaceoin@cs.com

National Catholic Reporter, March 3, 2000