Faith and factuality revisited

When I was reading Marcus Borg’s Heart of Christianity, I expressed some dissatisfaction with his treatment of the Bible. I felt like he wasn’t clear enough about the relationship between the meaning of the text and the question of its historical truth.

Recently I picked up Borg’s newer book on Jesus, and I’m happier with his treatment of the issue there. Maybe this is because he’s focusing on the gospels rather than talking about the Bible in general, which allows him to be more specific and concrete.

Borg makes it clear that the gospels contain memory–that is, remembered events, words, etc. in the career of Jesus–but that these are typically overlaid or interpreted with a particular meaning. For example, Mark’s account of Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem isn’t just about Jesus going to Jerusalem; it’s also about the path of following Jesus.

Moreover, Borg says, there are other stories in the gospels that are probably sheer metaphorical narrative (Borg uses “metaphor” broadly to mean the more-than-factual meaning of a text) whose purpose is to comment on the significance of Jesus. Examples include, in Borg’s judgment, the wedding at Cana and the story of Jesus walking on the water. They also include the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke, which Borg shows (convincingly, to me) provide a kind of “counter-imperial” theology that contrasts the claims made on behalf of Jesus with those made on behalf of the Roman emperor. (This is also a major theme in Borg and Crossan’s book on Paul.)

Borg’s point is this: whatever we say about the factuality of some of these stories, we can always (and should always) go on to ask about their meaning. The meaning is the testimony or witness of the early Christians to the significance of who Jesus was (and is).

I take it that the upshot of this view is that there is a historical “core” to the gospels, and this matters: if Jesus never lived, or wasn’t, broadly, the kind of person portrayed in the gospels, then Christianity would be based on a mistake. However, the meaning of historical events isn’t something that can simply be “read off” them. The New Testament is primarily about the meaning or significance of what theologians sometimes call the “Christ-event” (i.e., the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus). If we insist that the most important question about any particular story is “Did this really happen?” we often lose sight of the meaning the story is meant to convey.

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