BOOK REVIEW: The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions

The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions. By Marcus J. Borg and N. T. Wright. New York: Harper Collins, 1999, 279pp.

For the Jesus-student, whether Christian or otherwise, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions is a helpful survey of the debate on the historical Jesus. Bishop of Durham, N. T. Wright, and Professor of Religion, Marcus Borg, invite the reader into a conversation the two friends have been having for years. While one gets the sense that these friends are equal, their ideas are not. And within this manner, the conversation unfolds.

The aim of the book is to present two leading scholars’ views on the historical person of Jesus and how that person relates to the Jesus known in faith by the church. The book addresses three major questions: (1) How do we come to know about Jesus; (2) What becomes known of Jesus following different historical methods; and (3) How does this knowledge apply to the Christian life?

Part I introduces Borg and Wright’s method of enquiry. Herein, all is revealed: Wright looks to the gospels to see Jesus and Borg looks through the gospels to sense Jesus. Borg, beginning where 20th century historical scholarship finished, assumes that Jesus of history is virtually unknowable. Discussing sources, he challenges the conservative idea that the New Testament provides a valid account of the person of Jesus, insisting instead that their testimony is metaphorical; truthful by virtue of its ability to communicate the letter/gospel writer’s experience of Jesus. In short, Borg takes the gospels seriously, but not literally. Conversely, Wright–denying skepticism’s neutrality–opts rather for a ‘bigger evidence banquet’ when doing historical enquiry. More historically certain of the historical Jesus than he is the certainty of tradition criticism, Wright insists that the historical Jesus is knowable. His point? That the Jesus of history is synonymous with the Jesus of faith; the gospels being historically helpful until proven otherwise.  

Parts II, III, IV, VI, and VII of the book focus on what becomes known of Jesus given each scholar’s methodology. For Borg, Jesus pre-Easter was a Jewish mystic, but not God. For Wright, beginning on the first-century ground as it were, Jesus is that in-time realisation of the hope of Israel; not simply that atemporal, divine figure the church clarified at Chalcedon or Nicea, but rather that in-time, Jewish man who genuinely thought himself as Messiah and inaugurator of the kingdom of God. The book structures the discussion around those fantastic event recordings and predictions in the New Testament: the virgin birth, the resurrection, and the second coming. Wrapping up their discussion are the individual’s application of this knowledge; interestingly similar.

All in all, The Meaning of Jesus provides helpful stimulus for the student engaged in historical Jesus enquiry. Disappointingly, though perhaps spatially necessitated, the book does not cover the particularities of the debate, nor engage highly in historical-critical method discussion. Rather, in broad brush strokes, it presents the logical end of two unapologetic scholars on either side.