The Evolution of the Word by Marcus Borg (thoughts)
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.