(See part one of this post.)
Wright also continues with the same approach he's been taking all along, which in his case is to see Jesus as very much a product of his place and time. Unlike Borg, he does see Jesus' death as central to his mission, and calls upon the Jewish traditions of atonement as well as prophecies in Isaiah and the like. (Though I haven't read any other of the prophets, I can vouch for the presence of atoning death in Isaiah.)
One of Borg's objections to this idea is that, if Jesus' point on earth was to die, that seems to denigrate Jesus' healings, preachings, and other virtuous activities while he was alive. Was he doing all that "on the side"? Wright answers, plausibly, that this was all part of the same thing: the atonement of Israel, and by extension, the world.
Another point of disagreement between the two scholars relates to the accounts of Jesus' trial. Borg asks a question that I wondered myself when I read the Gospels: how could Jesus' followers have known what happened? They were not there, and the next time they saw J he was on the cross. Therefore, Borg concludes, the early church invented the stories.
Wright has an interesting counterargument. In premodern cultures, he says, it is much more difficult to keep a secret than in our society, because there is such an active gossip chain, or as locals call it, "bush telegraph." He gives an example from the modern era:
When the Ugandan Archbishop Janini Lawum was killed by Idi Amin's soldiers in 1977, his murder was the culmination of several swift nocturnal journeys, kangaroo courts hearings, and beatings. No one person was present for more than part of the sequence. Those who were involved had reason to tell nobody what they had done. Yet by the middle of the next day the entire story was told as a connected narrative on the streets of Kampala. The bush telegraph not only transmits snippets of information; it can put them together and make a coherent whole. It simply wil; not do to say that certain people weren't present so they didn't know. Ask any journalist.
Also, though Wright goes on to emphasize that the bush telegraph tends to be "conservative" and produce a uniform story that changes little over time, there were clearly some competing rumors afoot that the Gospel writers were trying to squelch. I'm not going to dig up the exact cites now, but at one point the writer refutes a rumor that Jesus talked to Elijah on the cross, and another knocks down a story that Jesus' body was stolen. It's impossible to tell how much of the narrative was disputed, but clearly some of it was. (There are also differences between the Gospel narratives themselves, of course.)
Wright wraps up with some musings about the spiritual meaning of the crucifixion, and what it achieved. Since I went into that ad nauseum six months ago and I don't think this adds anything, I won't go into it here.
My main quibble with Wright is the same as it's been: he's inferring a lot from historical context, without explaining why that would be the key to understandin Jesus. I griped about this to Telford by email recently and he answered thus:
It's a burden of proof thing. In the absence of contrary evidence, you would tend to assume that a figure is influenced by his or her
environment in basic ways; and the evidence for Jesus fitting basically
(but creatively and somewhat uneasily) into his Jewish world is pretty
substantial. Moreover, you would assume that in the absence of contrary
evidence, when the people in that culture use terms and images and
concepts that have basic meanings in that culture, those are the
meanings they intend to convey. To me, Borg comes across as working too
hard to cut away these relationships and connections. Wright is arguing
against Borg in a lot of these pages, saying, "There isn't any
compelling reason to cut him away like that; in fact, he and his
movement make more sense when you don't."
I certainly agree that there are features of Jesus' life that can be
described in generalized categories. Some of what Borg does here,
finding parallels between Jesus and figures from other cultures,
missionaries do all the time. But the point is to build a bridge,
establishing some surface understanding in order to go deeper into the
specific characteristics of Jesus. For instance, you could describe a
lot of my own personality by appealing to generalities: white, male,
middle-aged, married, conservative, Protestant, a prof, with kids and
an elite education. You would certainly 'know' more about me with these
labels than you would with no labels at all. Yet the more specific you
can get with those generalities, the more you can know. It also helps
to know that I'm from southern California, that my children are young,
that I am an evangelical, that I used to be a deejay in college. Finally,
you do best to develop and correct them by appealing to my own story,
personality, opinions, and so on. I see Wright doing all this better
than Borg is doing it.
Actually, this connects to something else I've been thinking since I wrote my last post. I've been pretty rough on Borg, as have the rest of the commenters on this other than Lynn, but it occurs to me we might all be missing the boat. Borg is, as Lynn noticed and I observed myself, very friendly to mysticism. I don't know enough about him to know if he's had much mystical experience himself, but I gather he's had something. If Borg actually had some kind of direct contact with God, why wouldn't he be trying to fit his historical research to what he already knows?
Let me extend Telford's metaphor about himself. Suppose I were trying to reconstruct his life. I know him, I know his personality, so whatever evidence I find I would see through that lens. It does not surprise me to learn that he was a deejay. It would surprise me if someone told me that he was a drug dealer, and I would treat that information with more suspicion.
Would I be a better source on Telford Work than someone who'd never met him, who lived in, say, Japan and was an expert on the society and culture of southern California at the turn of the millennium? I think I would be. Sure, there may well be things the expert would get right that I would get wrong, but given the choice, whom would you ask?
Telford is not mystical at all, and he places a pretty low value on it. (Kind of funny for a Pentecostal, but then Christian Assembly isn't all that Pentecostal.) He's an intellectual and a poli-sci major, so it's not surprising that Wright's historicism should appeal to him more than Borg's mysticism. But being more mystical myself, I'm not so sure.
This relates to a last point I wanted to get to (sorry this post is so huge!) in response to Rob, a commenter who's been repeatedly impressing on me that this whole thing is pointless, and this is not the way to faith. As you might have gathered from what I just said, I'm pretty sympathetic to that point of view. But I'm going to continue on, for two reasons.
One, this is clearly really important to Telford and I promised him I'd do it. This topic seems to have been important to Telford's faith journey, even if it wasn't to Rob's, so it seems like it's worth a look. More to the point, Telford has done so much for me that even if this functions as nothing but a gift to him, it would still be worth the effort.
But the second reason is that I feel like I have to do something. The trouble with mystical experience, and with faith generally, is that you can't will it to happen. The most I can do is make myself available to God through various activities, such as going to church, praying, volunteering for the poor, and studying. All those I've been doing, and as far as I can tell all I can do is keep trying stuff until the "hole" has something in it.
So I apologize to Rob if this topic is annoying you, but I'm going to have to go on annoying you for a little while longer.