Tom Gilson

Marcus Borg’s Magical Theory of the Gospels

Marcus Borg put out an incredible amount of writing, so I may have missed it, but I’ve studied the books that seem most likely to be relevant. Based on that reading, I would suggest that Borg (1942-2015), one of our generation’s more influential New Testament scholars, had something like a magical view of how the gospels came to be.

I’ve seen it in a lot of liberal scholarship. This saying was attributed to Jesus because it meant that theological need in the early faith community that came up with it. This other saying had a political purpose. The author of the fourth gospel wrote it in order to finally codify early Christians’ views of Jesus’ deity.

They talk about the output, not the process. It’s almost as if the product happened without any process; as if it appeared by magic. Other scholars, especially Bart Ehrman, have grappled with it much more realistically — although not realistically enough yet, as I show in Too Good to be False: How Jesus’ Incomparable Character Reveals His Reality.

I’m preparing a challenge specifically for Ehrman, which you’ll see very soon in these pages. Honeltly, I have no idea how his theory for the gospels will be able to stand up to the test I put it to in Too Good to be False. That is, I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t have some kind of answer, but at this point it’s hard to imagine it could be a good enough one.

Yet Ehrman is better at this than Borg and a lot of other 20th century skeptics, who seem to suppose that in explaining how various pericopes could have met early Christians’ needs, they’ve explained how the entire text came to be. Borg’s book Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Surprising Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary provides examples. I quote from his summary in the book’s introduction.

  • The gospels are the result of a historical process. Written in the last third of the first century, they tell us what Jesus had become in the lives of the communities in which the traditions reported in them developed.
  • As such, the gospels combine memory and testimony. Some of what they report is Jesus remembered; some of what they report is the fuller understanding that had developed in the decades between his death and the writing of the gospels.
  • There is a crucial distinction between the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Jesus. The former is Jesus before his death; the latter is what Jesus became after his death.

It’s all what, no how.

Later he tells us the gospels are “the result of a developing tradition. … The traditions about Jesus developed.” He says he can show us that they developed, but he’s silent on how they developed. His point on the next page is little help:

Of course, they were written by individuals, but these individuals were not “authors” in the modern sense of the term. … The individuals who wrote the gospels were crystallizing into writing their community’s traditions about Jesus as they had developed in the decades since his death. They proclaimed the significance Jesus had come to have in these communities as the first century wound to its end.

So what’s wrong with this, you ask? Again, there’s no explanation of process, except that somehow communities develop traditions that explicate Jesus’ significance to them. How do they do that, though? How do they refine those traditions? How do they hone them? How did the authors select from among them all?

These are some of the more obvious questions, and I suppose Borg could have offered an answer. I know Ehrman has. Other questions are much harder yet:

  • How did these communities craft traditions of the most ethically pure, self-sacrificial character in all literary history?
  • How did they develop a tradition of a character who was equally God and man — and not just in John, but in the Synoptics, too?
  • How did these communities traditions of Jesus that ran completely counter to Jewish, Greek, and Roman literature, history, religion, and cultural expectations?
  • How did they craft a character, Jesus, who was perfectly consistent across a multitude of traits and characteristics? How did these four authors do this without a single failure in consistency, within their own writings and across all four accounts?

There are questions here that Borg is unlikely to have addressed. Readers of Too Good to be False remark on its surprising originality in raising issues like this in the life of Jesus. I haven’t detailed them here, as the full exposition takes about two-thirds of Too Good to be False. Original, unfamiliar arguments take time to expound.

These are questions that he and other skeptical scholars should have raised, though, and should still be dealing with. And very soon I’ll be putting it directly before Bart Ehrman, asking how he deals with them.

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1 thought on “Marcus Borg’s Magical Theory of the Gospels

  1. The supposed development process needs to make sense in light of what we know about human nature. In particular, each community has those who resist change. Some members resist it strongly. So, if some Christian starts saying, in 50 A.D., that Jesus spoke a certain teaching or performed a certain miracle, there will be members of the community who wonder why they are hearing this for the first time. They will be suspicious of anything new. They will suspect that the new teaching is not entirely compatible with prior teachings and nitpick it to death.

    When we study the apostolic fathers, we can see a process of development in part because we read of the resistance of these “defenders of the old faith” and see how they slowed down the development process. This conflict leaves its traces in the historical record.

    Conveniently for Marcus Borg et al., all of the process of development somehow occurred during an oral phase of Christian community, and produced no internal conflict that could persist until the writing phase and leave its traces there. So, baked into the theory is the “here’s why you will never find evidence one way or another” claim that is the hallmark of the weakest kinds of conspiracy theories.

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