Today being Good Friday on the Christian calendar, it seems like a good time to talk about Jesus.
My understanding of Jesus was radically transformed – you might say revolutionized – when I heard Marcus Borg speak in River Falls, Wisconsin, at the annual gathering of Friends General Conference in 2007. Borg, who died this past January, was a prominent New Testament scholar, theologian, and author of a couple dozen books. He was also a fellow of the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars who sought to distinguish facts about the historical Jesus from the mythology that had grown up around him.
As a child, the traditional Christian version of Jesus’ life story and its meaning was drilled into me in Sunday School. I learned the story of Jesus’ miraculous birth, the miracles he performed – walking on water, turning water into wine, etc. – and how he died for our sins. As I got older, these stories made less and less sense to me, until I pretty much lost interest in Jesus altogether.
Well, that’s not entirely true. I was still very curious about how this man, who was one of a number of prophets or messiah figures who appeared around that period of history, and whose own ministry was fairly short-lived, had somehow become the central figure in the huge, world-changing phenomenon that Christianity became after his death. But that seems to have been the work of those who came after him and spread their own versions of his story. The actual historical Jesus seemed unknowable.
Marcus Borg changed all that for me.
Borg spoke about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, which is now commemorated as Palm Sunday. I had heard the Biblical version of the story many times, but Marcus Borg put it into a historical context I’d been completely unaware of. Here I’ll quote him:
On Sunday, Palm Sunday, Jesus entered Jerusalem from the east in a procession riding on a donkey cheered by his followers. At the same time, a Roman imperial procession of troops and cavalry entered the city from the west, headed by Pilate. Their purpose was to reinforce the Roman garrison stationed near the temple for the season of Passover, when tens (hundreds?) of thousands of Jewish pilgrims filled the city.
The contrast between Jesus’ entry and the imperial entry sounds the central conflict that unfolds during the rest of the week. Jesus’ mode of entry was symbolic, signifying that the kingdom of which he spoke was a kingdom of peace. According to the prophet Zechariah, the king entering Jerusalem on a donkey was to banish the weapons of war from the land and speak peace to the nations. The kingdom of Rome on the other hand was based on violence and the threat of violence.
It is clear from Mark that Jesus pre-arranged this way of entering the city. In modern language, it was a planned political demonstration. Of course, it was also religious: Jesus did so because of his passion for God and the kingdom of God.
Jesus came to Jerusalem at Passover both because it was a time when throngs of Jews arrived there for the holiday, and so that his mild and peaceful entry to the city would contrast with the annual Roman show of force that occurred at the same time.
This one historical fact, completely overlooked in the traditional telling, speaks volumes about who Jesus was and what he was about.
This doesn’t mean that Jesus was a revolutionary in the sense of wanting to effect a military overthrow of Roman rule. But he did want to point out the collusion, and in his eyes, corruption, of the Jewish religious authorities. The priests overseeing the temple in Jerusalem not only officiated over Jewish religious life, they were also judges and civil authorities who ruled by proxy for Rome and collected taxes for Caesar from the local people. The temple had become the seat of government; it was where taxes were collected. When Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers, he was rebelling against the use of God’s temple as a place of exploitation of the peasantry by the ruling class.
Jesus was motivated by his faith and a commitment to peace, compassion, and social justice. He was a radical critic of the existing system of domination that maintained its power by violent means. That one man held such views was not much of a problem for the authorities, but by attracting a significant following he came to be seen as a threat. His death by crucifixion indicates that it was an execution by Rome. Crucifixion was a form of capital punishment that was reserved for those who challenged Roman authority.
Marcus Borg challenges the idea that the death of Jesus was required by God as payment for the sins of the rest of us. He points out that this idea is nowhere represented in the Bible, and in fact it wasn’t conceived until more than a thousand years after Jesus’ death.
He also challenges the literal resurrection of Jesus in the flesh. He says the idea that something magical happened to the corpse of Jesus is a huge distraction from what’s really important. Instead, Borg suggests that we view the resurrection story as a parable. What we should take from it is that while the power of the empire killed Jesus, it couldn’t prevent his message from spreading. What’s true is that even though Jesus was no longer physically present, he continued to be experienced after his death.
Hearing Marcus Borg’s interpretation has been incredibly liberating for me. Here we have a Jesus who is not required to perform magic tricks. He doesn’t have to be born of a virgin, or rise from the dead and walk around showing the wounds in his body. He doesn’t have to take the weight of all the sins of earth’s billions of humans on his shoulders. And the God this Jesus follows does not require a blood sacrifice to satisfy a debt he feels humanity owes him.
This Jesus is a man, a man with remarkable wisdom, courage, and ability to inspire others with his enduring message of peace and love. This is a Jesus I can believe in.
Oh – and News Flash: Jesus did not look like this:
Of course we don’t have any pictures of the real Jesus. But he was not a long-haired white European. He was a Semite from Palestine, and we have a pretty good idea of how people of that time and place typically looked. This is probably a closer approximation of Jesus’ appearance:
There’s some dispute about how Jesus’ name was pronounced in his own time, but it seems likely that it sounded more like Yeshua. This article goes into it in some detail.
In this 2013 talk, Marcus Borg goes through the last week of Jesus’ life day by day, providing historical context for all of it.
In the article linked below, Borg discusses two different frameworks for interpreting the meaning of Holy Week – the historical framework and the “common Christianity” of the recent past and present – and how these two ways of looking at Jesus’ life and death divide American Christianity both theologically and politically.
Related Books by Marcus Borg