Metaphorized History / Historicized Metaphors, and The Meaning of Jesus

I’m currently working my way through one of the most interesting books I’ve picked up in a while, The Meaning of Jesus – Two Visions, by Marcus J. Borg and N. T. Wright. Marcus Borg is the most popular revisionist voice on Jesus today and a member of the Jesus Seminar, and N.T. Wright is the most prominent standard-bearer for the traditional stance and an outspoken critic of the Jesus Seminar. They wrote alternating chapters presenting their views on who Jesus was, what he taught, and what he did. After writing the first drafts, they sent them to each other and then re-wrote their chapters, addressing the other’s arguments. It is a fascinating read, and as it is written for the lay person it is not very difficult to understand. Although I do still have to read through each chapter a couple times to really get a grasp on their respective arguments.

One of the more interesting sentences I’ve come across so far is in a chapter titled Jesus and God, written by Borg. Under the paragraph heading The Christological Images as Confessional Language, he says:

Very early on, we metaphorized our history, and since then we have often historicized our metaphors. When we literalize metaphors, we get nonsense. We also lose the metaphors, with their rich resonances of meaning.

While I would ultimately disagree with Borg in almost every case about what he thinks was metaphor first and not history, I think the statement is still valid, particularly regarding the apocalyptic literature.

Continuing with the role and nature of metaphorical language in the early church and the scriptures, N.T. Wright wrote a chapter on The Transforming Reality of the Bodily Resurrection where he explores the details of the resurrection stories that existed before Christ, how the resurrection story the Christ-followers told differed from the earlier stories, and the metaphorical layers of the stories. He then says “This is not to say, of course, that the truth value of the stories consists simply in their bare historicity. They are pregnant with so many layers of metaphorical meanings, mythical and eschatological alike, that it is almost impossible to explore them fully.”. He goes on to say:

These stories, with all their metaphorical layers, are not explicable, I suggest, on the basis of subtle scribes sitting down with biblical texts and transforming a non-resurrection-centered early Christianity into a community that told its own stories in terms of the myth of Jesus’ resurrection. We are, in short, offered a stark choice: either grasp the nettle, or resign yourself to a long walk round through thorns and thistles.
Grasping the nettle-proposing, as a historical statement, that the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth was empty because his body had been transformed into a new mode of physicality – will of course evoke howls of protest from those for whom the closed world of Enlightenment theory renders any such thing impossible from the start. But if Christianity is only going to be allowed to rent an apartment in the Enlightenment’s housing scheme, and on its terms, we are, to borrow Paul’s phrase, of all people the most to be pitied – especially as the Enlightenment itself is rumored to be bankrupt and to be facing serious charges of fraud. The lines of historical enquiry point relentlessly inward to the first day of the week after Jesus’ crucifixion. Once you allow that something remarkable happened to his body that morning, all the other data fall into place with astonishing ease. Once you insist that nothing so outlandish happened, you are driven to ever more complex and fantastic hypotheses to explain the data. For the historian, as for the scientist, the answer should be clear.

It is no good falling back on “science” as having disproved the possibility of resurrection. Any real scientist will tell you that science observes what normally happens; the Christian case is precisely that what happened to Jesus is not what normally happens. For my part, as a historian I prefer the elegant, essentially simple solution rather than the one that fails to include all the data: to say that the early Christians believed that Jesus had been bodily raised from the dead, and to account for this belief by saying that they were telling the truth.

It is unusual to find two scholars from opposing viewpoints debating a topic, especially a topic as central to Christianity as the meaning of Jesus, with civility and without resorting to name calling. I’ve found it particularly interesting coming from a background in Fundamentalism where a discussion of this nature could never have taken place. If you have not yet read a book on this topic, I highly recommend The Meaning of Jesus.

5 thoughts on “Metaphorized History / Historicized Metaphors, and The Meaning of Jesus”

  1. I have twice read Borg. The first time, I found myself able to be on-board with most of what he said. The second book was thrown across the room and into a wall in anger about 40 pages in, never picked up again [except to be shelved months later].

    A couple of my friends have this one, though. I’ve told them as much that I find Borg to be so revisionist that I think that he’s almost left Christianity altogether.

  2. Geof, which book of Borg’s did you like? Do you think you would still like it?

    One of the things that I appreciate about this book is that, while I usually disagree with Borg’s conclusions, it is written in such a way that I know where and why I disagree with him and the implications I think his positions would have.

  3. I read some Borg in seminary, and some N.T. too. Always a good read. I’m less easily scandalized these days, even when I strongly disagree with someone. Your observation about Borg is dead-on: he is crystal clear about his thoughts and beliefs. He’s very easy to track. I appreciate that even if I can’t agree with him.

  4. Sounds like a great read. I’ll have to pick that up. Thanks for the suggestion.

    I read this about N.T. Wright in Wikipedia:

    “The most contentious issue has been whether he is guilty of denying the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone.”

    Sounds like my kinda chap.

  5. Cach, I just added another of Borg’s books to my reading stack, The Heart of Christianity – Rediscovering a Life of Faith. One of the blurbs on the back is by Frederick Buechner, who says “Writing with a simplicity that never becomes simplistic, Borg manages to convey the essence of Christianity in a way that does justice to those who do not share his views and will greatly enrich the understanding of those who do.”

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