Last night I was standing at my kitchen counter, reading the first chapter of Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written, by Marcus J. Borg.
I read the following words and made an audible, “Oh.”
“By viewing the documents of the New Testament in their historical context, we recognize that they were not written to us and for us, but to and for the ancient communities that produced them.”
I knew this already, but something in Borg’s concise language drove the point home.
I was not raised in an atmosphere of Biblical literalism. I did not grow up believing that every word of the Bible had been uttered by God, Himself. “Cultural context” came up often in the bible studies of my late teens and early 20’s, but not nearly enough in conversation with other Christians. Most often the messages of the Bible were framed in a very modern context, as though the book was some sort of how-to manual for everyday life.
I’m not sure that it was written to function in that way. Borg states,
“To try to read the New Testament without taking into account its historical context produces misunderstanding. What we read is about “their then,” not directly about “our now.”
I find that most of the conflicts I have with the ideologies of Biblical literalists, and the religious practices built around said literalism, are rooted in this “misunderstanding” that Borg speaks of. Pulling Bible passages to prove a point, to defend a modern conservative political position, or to alienate or shame someone seem like a misuse of Scripture to me. Always has.
The Bible, when read as nothing more than a rule book, can easily become a tool of the modern-day Pharisees. And if I recall, Jesus did have a few things to say about the Pharisees.
Borg places the books of the New Testament in chronological order, starting with 1 Thessalonians and ending with 2 Peter, with the Gospels falling somewhere in the middle. Read them in this order, Borg asserts, and you begin to see a completely different picture of how early Christians came to understand the relevance of the person of Jesus. Their understanding about Jesus evolved over time. It was not revealed in the Gospels, as the current ordering of the New Testament might have you think; rather, the Gospels were the product of years of Christian oral and aural tradition.
Borg’s position is undoubtably threatening to Christians who would like to simplify Jesus into a one-dimensional symbol (i.e., Savior, Redeemer of Sins, God Incarnate, etc.). It gets even more complicated when you consider that the language popularly used to describe Jesus, himself, has its own history.
Regarding the emperor Augustus:
“…Octavian became “Augustus.” The word means “he who is to be worshipped and revered.” He was heralded not only as “Augustus,” but also as “Son of God” and “Lord.” He was called the “savior of the world” who had brought “peace on earth” by ending the vicil war that was tearing the empire apart. His birth was the beginning of the “gospel,” the “good news” (the Greek word used in the New Testament and translated into English as “good news” or “gospel”). Stories were even told about his divine conception: he was the son of the god Apollo.”
This is not news to most Pagans. The evidence of other divine-human hybrids in world mythology has been used to dismiss the uniqueness of Christianity. Jesus is just another in a long line of Sons of God(s). This is not altogether untrue.
And yet I don’t find my newfound sense of faith shaken or torn apart. I do not believe that the God who quietly called to me through a moment of service was calling me into a legalistic system of “right belief” or “right piety”. My experience of calling, although it garnered a certain amount of media attention on account of my career in music, was not a sensational one. It was a calling born of simple service to a person in need.
I think there is relevance in understanding the person of Jesus, just as I believe that Jesus points to the Divine in a very particular, important way. And Borg reminds us that to have said within the context of early Christianity that Jesus was the “Son of God” was to make a political statement about the nature of power, rulership and authoritarianism. It was an act of subversion, even as it was a statement of theology.
This is no small point.
This, for most mainline Protestants in the West, is a revolutionary way of thinking about Jesus.
“The gospels, Paul’s letters, and the other New Testament writings use the language of imperial theology, but apply it to Jesus. Jesus is the “Son of God”–the emperor is not. Jesus is the “Lord”–the emperor is not. Jesus is the “Savior” who brings “peace on earth”–the emperor is not. The contrast is not just a matter of language. The contrast is also about two different visions of how the world should be. The world of the domination system is a world of political oppression, economic exploitation, and chronic violence. The alternative is a world in which everyone has enough and no one needs to be afraid. The gospel phrase for this is the “kingdom of God,” the heart, as the gospels proclaim, of Jesus’s message.”
Thanks to this book I find myself reading Scripture with a new passion. Now I am reading to get a better sense of who these early Christians were, and to understand what motivated them to create community around this crucified man.
I am reading with the knowledge that these words were not written for me, even as they continue to transform my heart.