July 10, 2003
Chapters 5-6: To die for

This part of The Meaning of Jesus deals with Jesus' conviction and execution. There are several points of interest in here, and I'm not going to get to them all tonight, but this has gotten pushed back long enough and I really need to get started. So part 2 of this should come tomorrow. (By the way, a note for those who don't know: I haven't read Telford's remarks on the section. The deal is that we post separately, then read each other's posts and comment on them.)

The differences between the two scholars that appeared in the earlier chapters continue on here. Borg, for whatever reason, doesn't like the idea of a Jesus who's that abnormal; so just as he resisted the idea of Jesus knowing he was the Messiah, he resists the idea that Jesus foresaw his death as being a big deal:

It seems a strange notion to me: that Jesus thought that his own death would accomplish all of this. Of course, people have thought very strange things about themselves. Moreover, we would be rash to say what a person in a very different culture a long time ago could and could not think. Further, I think Tom's claim in his next chapter is correct: the notion of one's death having an atonng effect for others was present in the Jewish milieu in which Jesus lived and died. I accept that it was possible for a first-century Jew to think this. But I have difficulty affirming that Jesus believed this about himself.

Why not? Borg doesn't give a very firm answer. The uncannily exact correlation between Jesus' predictions of his death and the way it actually happened in Mark strike him as reason to think they were added later (which seems like rather peculiar logic: would he have believed them more if they were inaccurate?).

He also mentions that Jesus' followers were shocked by his death, which would be strange if J had really been predicting it. That's a more interesting point, and Wright never addresses it, but it doesn't strike me as that compelling. Jesus' followers generally come across as being dumb as posts, understanding hardly anything that he says; but they didn't have the benefit of hindsight like we do. They would have been expecting a conquering Messiah, not a dying one, and people are awfully good at not hearing what they don't want to hear.

But then Borg reveals what seems to me to be the ultimate reason:

Honesty compels candor: I find this not only a strange notion, but an unattractive notion to attribute to Jesus. I don't want Jesus to have seen his own death as having the significance Tom gives to it. As a Christian, I want Jesus to be an attractive figure.

Borg admits this isn't really a good basis for historical judgments, but you can see how it shifts his burden of proof: I don't like this, so you'd better show me some really compelling evidence that he did know.

This pretty well sums up my frustration with Borg: his personal likes and dislikes are way too obviously influencing everything. It's also apparent, as I said, that he doesn't like the idea that Jesus is "strange." It seems to me that if J was God incarnate there could hardly be anything stranger than him, but Borg chafes against anything that seems weird to his mind. The most baffling example of this, to me, is when he expresses doubt that Jesus actually passed around bread and wine and said "This is my blood," and "This is my body." In a footnote, he admits this is as well sourced as anything, but says, "If I could imagine a plausible meaning for them as words of Jesus, I would be very open to seeing them as history remembered." Uh ... huh? Hasn't the meaning of the eucharist been kind of known for 2000 years?

It's getting late, but I'll mention one more bit in the Borg chapter I thought was interesting. He refers to the story in Mark where Jesus goes to a fig tree, finds it fruitless, and curses it, causing it to die. Borg points out that this happens right before Jesus throws the money-changers out of the temple, and suggests that the fruitless tree is a symbolic image of the fruitless temple.

I always thought that story was bizarre -- why was it the tree's fault it had no fruit? I never thought about its location in the narrative, but Borg's explanation does sound plausible.

To be continued...

Posted by Camassia at July 10, 2003 10:14 PM | TrackBack

This line of argument, on both sides, persists in second-guessing the gospel record, which is the best, and almost the only, record we have. John makes it quite clear that Jesus not only knew everything in advance, but knew it all since the spirit moved over the waters. If you want to dispute that, fine; but you are left with not much more than a truly meager and self-contradictory historical record, a primitive, but insightful epistemology and ontology of man, and an ethic that is beautiful and true, but hardly unprecedented. Historians of Jesus are like Doubting Thomas: they need to put their hands into the wound in his side. John 20:29 Have you believed because you have seen? Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.

Posted by: Rob on July 11, 2003 04:41 AM

One thing to keep in mind is that the Gospels were written to evangelize. It seems reasonable to think the disciples were portrayed as dumb as posts as much to warn those reading the Gospels as to report history. After all, the first disciples weren't the only followers of Jesus who believed in a cross-less Kingdom.

Posted by: Tom on July 11, 2003 08:34 AM

Tom makes a good point. Another aspect of that is that none of the gospels ever was, from day one, intended to function as reportage. For us, 2000 years later, the gospels function as myth. The thing is not to think of myth as something untrue, but rather as something "hyper-true": myth transcends mere historical truth and by so doing helps human beings to transcend mere humanity. Strip the gospels of their mythical function and you leave yourself as a conscious, but temporary, leaky sack of mud that reeks and suffers as it slowly decays back into the primordial slime from which it emerged. The meaning of the life of Jesus is that despite the crosses we all have to bear as mortal human beings, we don't have to, and should not, settle for that.

Posted by: Rob on July 11, 2003 09:07 AM
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