Marcus J. Borg describes himself as ‘moderate to liberal’ scholar. In setting out his ‘appreciative disagreement’ with Tom Wright (in response to the latter’s Jesus and the Victory of God), Borg homes in on the question of miracle. He sees the Gospels as a combination of ‘history remembered’ and ‘history metaphorized’. The first of these terms refers to those events that are recorded in the Gospels simply because they actually happened. The second term refers to other things that are related in the Gospels. Some of these, according to Borg, actually happened, but metaphorical meaning has been attached to them (example: the stories of the blind man of Bethsaida (Mk 8:22–26) and blind Bartimaeus (Mk 10:46–52); these suggesting a metaphor for the teaching on discipleship that comes between them. But other things recorded in the Gospels, according to Borg, are not historical at all, but rather are purely metaphorical. Examples would include ‘the stories of Jesus’ birth, his multiplying loaves, his walking on water, his stilling the storm, his changing water into wine and his raising of Lazarus.’
Now why does Borg reject the historicity of such accounts? He offers two reasons. Firstly, he thinks that these stories utilize ‘obviously symbolic’ themes drawn from Israel’s history and the Old Testament. The assumption is that these earlier themes and events led to the creation of the later stories. Secondly, Borg is unwilling to ascribe to Jesus a unique ability to ‘do the spectacular’. He writes:-
If I became convinced that at least a few people have been able to walk on water, then I would be willing to take seriously that Jesus may have done so. But as a historian, I find myself unable to say that the life of Jesus involved spectacular happenings of a magnitude without parallel anywhere else.
The way Borg sees it, at first ‘we Christians metaphorized our history. In subsequent centuries, we have often historicized our metaphors.’ He sees the first part of the process taking place within the canonical Gospels themselves, with Matthew and Luke elaborating and developing the Christology of Mark. The idea of Jesus’ messiahship, and the idea that his death had some kind of divine purpose to it, were written into the narrative from the perspective of post-Easter faith.
But to return to the question of miracles, and that most central of miracles, the resurrection: Borg thinks that the question of whether Jesus’ tomb was empty or not, and whether something happened to his corpse, are ‘irrelevant to the truth of Easter’. Jesus’ followers ‘really experienced him’ after the crucifixion, and they did so by means of visions and having a sense of his continuing power. But to suppose that the resurrection involved some kind of ‘transformed physicality’ is to try to imagine the unimaginable. This difficulty is compounded, according to Borg, by the notion that Jesus continues to exist in this state of ‘transformed physicality’:-
Does a person in a state of transformed physicality occupy space and have weight? Is a person in such a state able to eat and digest food? Does a person in such a state perhaps need food—not just during the forty days between Easter and ascension, to use the timetable supplied by the book of Acts, but even now?
If such questions are answered in the negative, the question then becomes, ‘what is the difference between a state of transformed physicality and a state of nonphysicality?’ And can people seriously think that the truth of Christianity depends on the empty tomb? Borg continues:-
As a sacrament of the sacred, Christianity has been the means whereby compassion and even saintliness have been generated in the lives of many. Surely its truth is not dependent upon whether a camera could have photographed an empty tomb on Easter morning.
Borg seems to think that he can speak authoritatively ‘as a historian’; but I am not prepared to accepto the implicit claim, “I’m a historian: trust me”. He supposes that he represents ‘moderate’ scholarship; but who would admit to being ‘immoderate’? He thinks he speaks for the majority of ‘mainline’ scholars; but I’m not interested in mere head-counting. He presents debatable points of view as if they were self-evidently true (“Surely…”); but I want to see the evidence (if any) and the reasoning (if any).
Jesus and the Restoration of Israel: a Critical Assessment of N.T. Wright’s ‘Jesus and the Victory of God’. Edited by Carey C. Newman. IVP Academic, 1999.