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Jesus (thoughts)

April 2, 2010

To clarify: this post is not about my thoughts on Jesus himself. But rather on Marcus Borg’s book Jesus. I was trying to decide which of the three awesome books I’ve read this week I should review today, when I suddenly remembered that it’s Good Friday. So, Jesus it is!

I first discovered Marcus Borg last year, when I picked up The Heart of Christianity while browsing Barnes & Noble’s Christian section*, and adored the bits I read so much I put it on hold at the library right away. Since then, I’ve been wanting to read more by him, so I thought I’d try his book on Jesus for the World Religion Challenge. And it just confirmed my deep love for Borg and his style of Christianity. Seriously, if he ran a church, I’d attend in a heartbeat. The book is subtitle Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, and its focus is on looking at the ‘historical Jesus,’ evaluating what he said in the context of his culture, and looking past the factual debates re: stories in the New Testament to get at their deeper, mythic truths.

He does a fantastic job with all of this. I am definitely not an expert on Jewish culture in the early AD period. So I didn’t have a ton of independent knowledge to judge Borg’s writing there. But I have read a lot of comparative religion stuff over the years, especially with regards to mythology, and everything he said in those bits was spot-on. Not to mention, he’s well-respected in his field, a professor, and has quite the backlist. And the book just feels scholarly; there’s a lot of passages from the New Testament, there’s an extensive notes section & index in the back, and Borg is careful to state when he’s explaining things that are ‘accepted as truth’ by the scholarly community and the reasons for that acceptance. I say all of this, because I know some people are wary of any nonfiction written by Christians, while others are wary of any book written about Jesus. Borg just never gets bogged down in a ‘did the miracles really happen’ debate, which is key to how successfully the book works.

I feel like I could have flagged every other page, because it was all so full of interesting, important context! Towards the beginning, Borg explains how to approach the different gospels, and what scholars think of them as historical documents, which I found really neat. Of course, I’m a nerd! ;) Then, he looks at Jesus and the world he lived in…while he’s obviously an academic, his writing doesn’t feel stuffy. He vividly conjured up ancient Jewish towns, to the point that I could pretty much picture Jesus wandering around, telling his stories, urging people to change. Many of the ‘sayings’ that anyone growing up in a Christian home would recognise have a different meaning once you know the traditions Jesus was accustomed to. Since his original audience was Jewish like him, living in the same time and place, it makes sense to me that knowing what they knew enriches all of Jesus’ points. Throughout the book, Borg does a marvelous job of conveying his deep respect and love for Jesus, especially the historical ‘pre-Easter,’ Jesus who was really an incredible person if one thinks about it. He does talk about post-Easter Jesus as well, and how things changed, but that’s a small part of the book towards the end, which one would expect in a biography!

While I wish I could just share the whole book with you (seriously, go read it! Whether you’re Christian or not!), instead I’ll just share one of the parts that struck me most. Borg is building his case that Jesus was all for nonviolent social change (as opposed to passively accepting things). And he’s looking at the idea of ‘turning the other cheek.’

The second statement says: “But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” The specification of the right cheek and the awareness that people in that world used their right hand to strike somebody provide the key for understanding the saying. How can a person be hit on the right cheek by a right-handed person? Only by a backhand slap (act it out and see for yourself). In that world, a slap with the back of a hand was the way a superior struck a subordinate. The saying thus presupposes a situation of domination: a peasant being backhanded by a steward or official, a prisoner being backhanded by a jailer, and so forth. When that happens, turn the other cheek. What would be the effect of that? The beating could only continue if the superior used an overhand blow-which is the way an equal struck another equal. Of course, he might do so. But he would be momentarily discombobulated, and the subordinate would be asserting his equality even if the beating did continue.

Isn’t that fascinating?!

In the epilogue, Borg veers from his historical analysis of Jesus to look at how the rising power and public persona of the far Christian right has affected American Christianity, and how progressive Christianity might fit into that picture. Not to mention, what Jesus might have thought of that, based on the gospels Borg examined in the rest of the book! I’m sure you can imagine his conclusions. ;) He ends things on a more hopeful note, however, and honestly I feel Borg does so much to make Christianity seem like the wonderful, fascinating, revoluationary religion that it is. I highly recommend him, and Jesus (note the italics there!), to anyone.


Footenote One: This was when I was looking for a church, attempting to become a Christian again (I was raised Catholic but have been agnostic/’spiritual’ for years). Eventually, I found an awesome church full of really friendly, honest people, with a neat program for adult seekers. But after attending it, I realised that the church was waaaay too ‘traditional’ for me. I don’t really find it necessary to pray for Muslims during their Ramadan. Especially since they believe Jesus was a prophet anyway. So now I’m holding off the search for a *progressive* Christian church until I move later this year and am no longer in one of the ten most conservative cities in our country!

59 Comments leave one →
  1. April 2, 2010 6:33 am

    Oooh I am not personally religious but I do want to learn more about all religions and the Christian and Catholic ones are at the top of my list as I married a Catholic and this book does sound very interesting indeed.

    I have also just got a sudden non fiction itch which needs to be scratched and I might have to get myself reading this one, thanks very much for bringing this to my attention in such a timely way, in many ways.

    • April 3, 2010 9:04 pm

      I think this would be a good read for you then. :) Also, may I recommend My Life With the Saints? It’s a memoir by a Jesuit priest, and even though I have too many issues w/ Catholicism to return to it, I really loved it!

  2. April 2, 2010 6:54 am

    Interesting. Does Borg hold to the traditional Christian view that Jesus is “100% God”? How about you?

    • April 3, 2010 9:05 pm

      I never thought that Jesus being 100% God was the traditional Christian view. Borg talks about how looking at him only as the Son of God sells short the incredible person that he was, if that helps.

      • April 4, 2010 4:21 am

        Actually, 100% God, 100% man is pretty much the traditional view–or “fully God, fully man” as it’s usually expressed. Logically impossible, I know, but I figure God isn’t bound by logic :p

      • April 5, 2010 6:22 am

        The reason I ask whether Borg (and yourself) view Jesus as fully God, or at least a manifestation of God, is because it would necessarily follow that all those quite morally problematic statements in the Old Testament would be Jesus’s sayings too. You know, the things like not suffering a witch to live, homosexuality as an abomination, stoning children for talking back, slavery, Canaanite genocide, etc. If Borg limits himself to Jesus’s words in the gospels only, and yet holds the traditional view of Jesus as fully God (esp. in light of John 1:1-2), then he’s not being consistent.

  3. April 2, 2010 8:33 am

    Sounds interesting Eva and very appropriate for today.

  4. April 2, 2010 9:04 am

    Sounds like a great book – I’ll have to check it out. Have you been to any Unitarian Universalist churches? I’m UU and it sounds like it might be something you’d be interested in too. The national website is

    • April 3, 2010 9:06 pm

      I’ve been to both UU churches here in the Springs, and they were just a bit too scattered for me. I love their ideas in principles, but I just didn’t feel like I was a ‘match’ with either church. I plan on trying one out in TX too, though.

      • April 3, 2010 9:11 pm

        Oh good, you may find the one in TX to be quite different. They’re congregational churches so they can vary quite a bit depending on the makeup of the congregation.

  5. April 2, 2010 9:11 am

    The backstory on “turning the other cheek” is absolutely fascinating! I am definitely adding this to my reading list.

    I understand your search for a progressive Christian church- it’s difficult! Perhaps you could consider a Unitarian Universalist congregation, or that might be too far in the opposite direction. I hope you find a great church once you’ve moved!

  6. April 2, 2010 9:18 am

    Another book onto my mount TBR. I actually think this is exactly what I’m looking for for the World Religion Challenge. Thanks!

    • April 3, 2010 9:06 pm

      No problem! Isn’t the World Religion Challenge fun? :)

  7. April 2, 2010 9:28 am

    I love this review, but this is one of those cases where I feel like I love the review of the book even while knowing that the chances of me actually picking the book up are slim. Do you know what I mean? I think the quote you gave is great food for thought, and I’m glad that the author seems like he’s got a good head on his shoulders when discussing Christianity. But I also admit that Christianity makes me uncomfortable (and, I admit, angry) in a way that no other religion does and so while this book sounds fascinating, I feel like if I went into reading it, I wouldn’t do so with an open mind, anyway. I’d probably go in, subliminally, with a “I want to hate this book and this man” sort of approach.

    • April 3, 2010 9:08 pm

      Hmmmm…..I can understand why Evangelical Christianity makes you angry (I went to high school in the Bible Belt, when I was in an atheist phase, lol). But I think if you were to give Borg a try, he’d show you that the whole religion isn’t like that! Dare I draw a parallel between the people who think all Muslims are the extremists? I don’t want to offend you though; you know how much I respect you Aarti! :D

  8. April 2, 2010 9:29 am

    Well, not HATE the man. But be very skeptical about his interpretation of events and presenting Christianity in a very positive light.

  9. April 2, 2010 10:29 am

    Does the author give an opinion on different translations of the Bible? It’s seems that any modernization would serve to lose the context of the original text even more. Anyway, this sounds like a fascinating book that will be read by all of the wrong people, if you know what I mean. Those who blindly follow don’t pick up scholarly books on Jesus that challenges what they’ve been told. It will be read by Christians and others who already have more open minds on the history and evolution of religion.

    • April 3, 2010 9:09 pm

      He often returns to the original Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic to tease out the nuances of a word or phrase. And at the beginning, he did say what translation he was using, but I don’t remember. Translations are always a problem, but then, most people don’t have the time to want to get reading comprehension in ancient languages! lol

  10. April 2, 2010 10:56 am

    so interesting!! reminds me a lot of the karen armstrong book, “The Bible” which I read a few weeks ago…

    • April 3, 2010 9:10 pm

      Was it good? I’ve been wanting to read more Armstrong, but she has SO many books, I feel overwhelmed by choice on where to go next.

  11. April 2, 2010 11:17 am

    This really does sound fascinating! You’ve already blown my mind with the “right cheek” passage, so I can only imagine that the rest of the book is as interesting.

  12. April 2, 2010 11:47 am

    I had heard that historical context on the “turn the other cheek” idea, and it’s so fascinating. It’s an idea I can get behind to a much greater degree than simple passivity. I’ve heard a bit, too, about the different books of the new testament, and the way scholars posit different sources (now lost) for different ones, how some seem to come from shared sources and others not. It’s such an interesting historical puzzle.

    Sounds like Borg does a great job with a difficult and controversial subject – like Aarti, I’m not sure if it’s one I’ll pick up, as I have issues with organized religion. Yet Jesus as a person was so interesting. Thanks for such a well-done post.

    • April 3, 2010 9:11 pm

      I’m glad you enjoyed it! I have issues with organised religion too…hence probably my lack of success at finding a church. ;)

  13. April 2, 2010 12:01 pm

    How fascinating…thanks for your inclusion of the ‘turn the other cheek’ explanation.

  14. April 2, 2010 12:28 pm

    This sounds like a good one. I usually shy away from these types of topics but in this case it sounds like the author has given all the context that I crave when I am reading anything remotely religious. Thanks for a great review.

    • April 3, 2010 9:26 pm

      This is definitely academic, and not one of those ‘I love Jesus, and you should too!’ books. ;)

  15. April 2, 2010 2:40 pm

    Enjoyed your post very much. In one of my theology classes the “turn the other cheek” story was told but not as clearly as in the section you quote. So thank you for that. I saw Marcus Borg speak once; he’s a very interesting, down-to-earth man. I’ve read one of his books – I forget which. For me as a Catholic, there was something in it that was unconvincing. However, having studied theology and now occupying myself leading a Bible study group, I’m totally on board with knowing as much historical and archaeological background as can be found. As you’ve discovered, it gives you a much richer picture of Jesus.

    • April 3, 2010 9:27 pm

      I was raised Catholic, so I can understand why you’re not 100% on board w/ Borg. But I’m jealous you got to meet him! It seems like he’d be a really interesting speaker.

  16. April 2, 2010 2:45 pm

    The only Borg book I’ve read is the one he co-wrote with NT Wright, The Meaning of Jesus, in which each author presents his own view on different aspects of who Jesus is. It’s a fabulous book because it shows two top theologians with serious differences debating amicably. Plus, it’s like a one-stop job for getting different perspectives on Jesus from two fine scholars. (And neither Borg nor Wright is so extreme as to be offensive–at least not most of the time.)

    I can’t say I always agree with Borg.–I’m not overly keen on the separation between pre-Easter and post-Easter Jesus, and Borg is maybe too quick to dismiss the supernatural. But I do find his perspective on scripture really interesting and helpful, particularly as regards stepping away from the emphasis on literal truth and looking instead at the meaning or the metaphorical truth, and the historical context, as you discuss here. Really transformative ideas there. And I think it’s so important for people to see that there are a lot of different ways of understanding Christian teachings. That’s one of the biggest things I’ve learned from my theological studies!

    • April 3, 2010 9:28 pm

      Ohhh-that book sounds really awesome! I love intellectual debates. :) As I was reading the book, I thought to myself ‘I don’t think Teresa would agree with all of this.’ hehe But I think it’d be a GREAT read for anyone skeptical of Christianity, you know?

      • April 4, 2010 4:15 am

        Definitely agree that Borg is helpful for folks on the more skeptical end of the spectrum. He’s progressive without being utterly radical. And he and Wright together make for a powerhouse of a book, just for giving the whole spectrum–or at least the whole spectrum within Anglicianism.

        And BTW, if UU doesn’t work out for you, or if you’re wanting something a bit closer to Catholicism, the Episcopal church might be worth exploring. My own church is more Catholic in worship style than a lot of RC churches, right down to having a Lady altar. But progressive views are welcome in many Episcopal congregations. (Borg himself is Episcopalian.)

  17. April 2, 2010 4:15 pm

    This sounds like a fascinating book. I am interested in the research on Jesus as a person and the historical context of his life.

    Rachel and The Literary Omnivore beat me to it in mentioning Unitarian Universalism. I am also a UU and I think you might find it interesting. I am currently reading Our Chosen Faith: an Introduction to Unitarian Universalism by John A. Buehrens and F. Forrester Church and I recommend it as a good introduction to UU. I know you said you’ll be moving later this year, but there are also two UU churches in Colorado Springs.

    • April 3, 2010 9:29 pm

      Then you should definitely pick this up! As I told Rachel, I tried both the 2 UU churches here, and I just felt out of place. But UU principles certainly appeal to me, so that book sounds really interesting. Thanks for the rec!

  18. April 2, 2010 4:17 pm

    I am not religious, but I am a student in religious studies, so I’m definitely interested in this book. Jesus and his words in the context of his time is always a fascinating subject I think. I do think it’s shows how contextualised most religion is.

    • April 3, 2010 9:30 pm

      Oh-I’m jealous! I thought about majoring in comparative religion. :)

  19. April 2, 2010 7:20 pm

    This sounds like a great book, perfect for the World Religion challenge! I’ll add it to my TBR list.

  20. April 2, 2010 7:30 pm

    I’ve heard great things about Marcus Borg in the past, but for some reason have never read any of his books. I think I must have read something that cited him, though, because I know I’ve heard that idea about turning the other cheek before.

    I sympathize with your trying to find a suitably progressive church. I’m a semi-lapsed Catholic, and it seems like every time I give going back to church a try, the priest gives a sermon that reminds of me of everything I hate about the Catholic Church. The last time I went, he compared the woman at the well, the woman with all the husbands, who told everyone that Jesus was a prophet, to a used and crumpled dirty Kleenex. I know there are nice priests and progressive congregations out there, but I sometimes despair of ever finding them.

    • April 3, 2010 9:31 pm

      Yeah-I was raised Catholic, and I’ve given up on the idea of EVER finding a progressive Catholic church. I’ve had to switch sides! lol Unless of course, I find a Jesuit priest with a small, liberal congregation…I could definitely get behind that. And then I wouldn’t have to give up Mary. :)

      • April 4, 2010 5:43 am

        A very sweet Jesuit did my confirmation for me after I dropped out of confirmation classes at the university church because the pastor there told me my experience of God wasn’t true. He was a darling, and he told me all about how when he was at seminary, everyone was so sure that the Vatican was about to allow women to be priests that there were five or six women in his seminary class. If he were still at his church I’d definitely go there.

  21. April 3, 2010 2:25 am

    This sounds like a book that needs to go on my reading list! Thanks for such a great review.

  22. April 3, 2010 9:48 am

    I have already been interested in reading Borg’s The Heart of Christianity and now you have me interested in reading this one as well. The cultural context for turning the other cheek is fascinating.

    • April 3, 2010 9:32 pm

      Both books are *definitely* worth a read. :)

  23. April 3, 2010 9:55 am

    Wow, that is a great passage. This sounds like a book I want to read.

    • April 3, 2010 9:33 pm

      Isn’t it?! And I had to try to decide between a lot of fascinating ones. :)

  24. April 3, 2010 11:36 am

    I loved the passage that you have quoted! It gives a totally different interpretation on the idea of ‘turning the other cheek’! I am seeing things in a totally different light now :)

    Does this book have such wonderful insights and interpretations throughout?

  25. April 4, 2010 11:48 am

    I am so interested in the study of the Bible as a text and Jesus as a historical figure, it just makes so much sense to me. But there is tons of stuff out there and it can really eat your time, sometimes I feel like to really understand this kind of subject matter it would have to be your main area of reading. Do you think Borg provides a good overall summary, or would you need to read some backstory biblical study to understand him?

    Great to see you back by the way :)

    • April 6, 2010 9:37 am

      I definitely think Borg provides a good summary. I’ve never done any bible study stuff, and I was fine. :)

  26. April 4, 2010 5:25 pm

    Wow, that paragraph about turning the other cheek was total news to me. This sounds like something I would be *very* interested in. Thanks Eva! :)

  27. April 7, 2010 9:52 am

    If you like Borg, you should check out John Dominic Crossan, Borg’s sometimes writing partner, who also writes about the historical Jesus. :) Great pick for the challenge! When you get the chance, post your review in the reviews section for the challenge here

  28. April 13, 2010 11:52 am

    This sounds like a really good book. I read books on religion but being raised a Christian I tend to read less on Christianity because I feel I know it whereas I don’t know anything about other religions. This year I am hoping to get to some of these great books I keep hearing about that talk about Christianity as well. This one, as well as his other writing, has been added to my list.


  1. The Literary Horizon: Jesus, The Case for God « The Literary Omnivore

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