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The Evolution of the Word by Marcus Borg (thoughts)

May 30, 2013

Evolution of the Word
Marcus Borg is one of my favourite writers, the person who first opened my eyes to the existence of progressive Christianity. I’ve been working my way through his books, and when I saw he had a new one out, I requested it from the library without looking much more closely. Imagine my surprise when it turns out The Evolution of the Word is not just about the New Testament: it actually is the New Testament, with the books presented in the chronological order they were written in (rather than the standard order) and with prefaces by Borg to each book (and footnotes on Greek/English translation issues). After my initial surprise, I realised I’d never actually read all of the New Testament, so I might as well give it a go.

I loved Borg’s prefaces; he explanations and highlighting of key points is what I thought study bibles would be like, and meshed perfectly with my reading style. His emphasis is on the historical context in which each book was written, an approach I think makes good sense, and one that allows the New Testament to trace the outlines of Christianity’s formation and development. This historic aspect is further emphasised by Borg making sure to note key books and passages that have had a large impact on Christianity (i.e. Martin Luther’s favourite, etc.). His explanation of the development of early Christian communities and their later clashes with Jewish authorities that’s reflected in the anti-Semitism of some of the later books was certainly enlightening. It was also interesting to discover that Biblical scholars don’t think Paul wrote all of the letters signed by him, and that the ones with the problematic gender issues are the ones that those scholars find were written later than he lived. All in all, I learned a lot on an intellectual level, enough that’d recommend it to anyone interested in comparative religions. That being said, I do wish the prefaces had been longer, but I imagine this would have made the book quite unwieldly (it’s already about 600 pages)! I’d also have loved to see more footnotes, with comments on the text rather than just translation issues, although the translation stuff alone was quite interesting.

I also think this would be an excellent resource for practicising Christians, as long as they aren’t of the ‘Bible is literal’ variety (in which case, they’re unlikely to be reading Borg anyway). Seeing the context made some of the more troubling parts of the New Testament make more sense, and Borg’s obvious love for Jesus and Paul makes this book feel like spiritual devotion as well as intellectual exercise. It’s a good balance, and the prefaces are the kind of thing a good study bible would contain.

This is a solid, fascinating look at one of the most influential books in Western Civilisation. If you’re willing to devote the time, you’ll emerge with a better understanding of Christianity’s influences and beliefs.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. May 30, 2013 10:39 am

    Thanks. I have read and liked his other books, too.

  2. Vanessa permalink
    May 31, 2013 4:10 am

    I was raised in one of those churches that took the literal interpretation of the Bible. A few years ago I discovered Borg (and other like-minded writers) and was so relieved! I enjoyed his work of fiction titled Putting Away Childish Things : A Tale of Modern Faith. I will look at Evolution of the Word. That sounds like a book that would compliment some others that I’m reading. Thanks for your review.

    • June 1, 2013 5:51 pm

      I was raised Catholic, and CCD drove me insane. Then I went to high school in the Bible Belt, and my friends who were Christians were definitely literalists, so I felt so relieved when I discovered Progressive Christianity too! I’ve been wanting to give his novel a go: I’m glad you liked it.

  3. Jennifer permalink
    June 3, 2013 9:12 pm

    Hello. I’m new to your blog. I’m Jennifer. I blog at I’m working on expanding my network. I hope you take a moment to check out my blog. I really like yours!

    I have to say that when I saw the cover of the book, I wasn’t necessarily expecting what ensued. Not sure why.

    However, I have to admit that I work at a Catholic school (a Catholic school that I once attended). After I graduated, I don’t think I really contemplated religion all that much. But now that I’m teaching at a Catholic school I feel like I have to know my stuff. Which I don’t always. However, I have some good friends in the religion department and I know that they would probably appreciate this book. So maybe it’s time for me to do some reading up too.

  4. June 4, 2013 8:53 pm

    I will have to add this one to my list. I’ve always had a soft spot for Borg. Have you read anything by John Shelby Spong? Right now I’m reading his Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World

  5. July 20, 2013 10:01 am

    I’m one of those “Bible is literal” Christians. I’ve read one of Borg’s books (The Heart of Christianity) and it put me off reading anything more of his. So, yeah — you pegged me correctly.

    But, that said, I do shy away from the pious type of Christianity that’s all about rules & regulations. I prefer books like Erwin Raphael McManus’ “The Barbarian Way“, and Rob Bell’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About God” (have you read this? It’s awesome!), and Steve Brown’s “A Scandalous Freedom“. These books are more “out-of-the-box” style and the author’s don’t pussyfoot away from the usual “taboo” topics.

    I also enjoyed Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian.

    I’d like to see more books that talk about the context that the Bible books were written in — more about the culture of the day. It helps to understand the Bible so much better! I’ve come across tidbits here and there, by several different Christian writers, but never a full book on this sort of thing. While it sounds like Mr. Borg does something like that in this book, I don’t trust him overall, so I don’t think I’ll be looking into this particular volume.

    Thank you for your review, though!

Thank you for commenting! For a long while, my health precluded me replying to everyone. Yet I missed the conversation, so I'm now making an effort to reply again. It might take a few days though, and there will be times when I simply can't. Regardless, I always read and value what you say.

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