I found Dale Allison’s book on the historical Jesus stimulating enough that I thought I should get another perspective. I had read Marcus Borg’s Jesus: A New Vision several years ago, but didn’t really remember much of it. So I thought it might be worth re-visiting.
Though he comes to different conclusions than Allison (Borg argues for a non-eschatological Jesus), Borg makes a very similar argument regarding our ability to know at least the general shape or pattern of Jesus’s life:
Though it is true that the gospels are not straightforward historical documents, and though it is true that every saying and story of Jesus has been shaped by the early church, we can in fact know as much about Jesus as we can about any figure in the ancient world. Though we cannot ever be certain that we have direct and exact quotation from Jesus, we can be relatively sure of the kinds of things he said, and of the main themes and thrust of his teaching. We can also be relatively sure of the kinds of things he did: healing, association with outcasts, the deliberate calling of twelve disciples, a mission directed to Israel, a final purposeful journey to Jerusalem.
Moreover, as we shall see, we can be relatively certain of the kind of person he was: a charismatic who was a healer, sage, prophet, and revitalization movement founder. By incorporating all of this, and not preoccupying ourselves with the question of whether Jesus said exactly the particuar words attributed to him, we can sketch a fairly full and historically defensible portrait of Jesus. (p. 15)
Borg is countering both what he regards as an excessive agnosticism about the historical Jesus and the prevailing image of Jesus in much 20th century scholarship–that of the eschatological prophet who expected the imminent end of the world.
However, Borg makes his case against the “eschatological Jesus” largely by denying the historicity of the “Son of Man” sayings, which suggest that Jesus identified himself with an apocalyptic heavenly figure who would usher in the end-times. He says that the scholarly consensus has shifted toward ascribing these sayings to the early church rather than Jesus himself, but I’m not sure he’s being completely consistent here. Allison would point out, I think, that the gospels provide the most reliable general image of Jesus we have and would question whether we have grounds for excluding an entire category of sayings (as opposed to doubting that any particular saying goes back, verbatim, to Jesus). Presumably Borg has more to say about this, so I don’t want to jump to any conclusions; but there does seem to me to be a tension there.