Thanks, BR, for exploring the tough questions and for making me think and forcing me to examine my faith. I hope it spurs others to do the same, instead of canceling their subscriptions and closing their minds further.
BR an Insult
This is a poor excuse for a Christian magazine and insults the intelligence of Bible-believing Christians.
The April issue will end up with the others I have received—in the garbage where this type of nonsense belongs.
Bay Minette, Alabama
The Poison That We Intended
At best Biblical Archaeology Review and BR are spiritual trash; at worst, they are the poison that you intended them to be, filling peoples’ minds with doubt and suspicion. May God have mercy on your soul.
Tolerating New Ideas
It seems people can tolerate new ideas about everything except their religion, including Christianity.
Paul and Judaism
Was Paul a Waffler?
Although indeed provocative, Daniel J. Harrington’s article on Paul (“Paul and Judaism: 5 Puzzles,” BR 09:02) was so shot through with questionable argumentation that only an article of similar length could begin to respond to it thoroughly. For an uncredentialed lay preacher to attempt such a critique would no doubt seem bumptious and insubordinate; I shall therefore confine myself to an objection that even a nonspecialist may safely essay.
One way of accounting for Paul’s frequent self-contradictions, says Harrington, is to recall the situational context: “Paul was not a systematic theologian; he was a practical pastor. We should therefore not demand consistency in his view on the Law.” How handy that a pastor need not be consistent in presenting the fundamental doctrines of his faith! He may preach one thing today and another tomorrow. He may waffle and weasel-word, evade and equivocate. If the pastor should rhyme himself into a corner, he may reason himself out of it. Or vice versa. (As long, of course, as he suits his statements to his audience and so manages to win them to what he has been divinely assured is the true faith.) Why not? Paul did it.
Perhaps if he had been more concerned with spreading Jesus’ teachings and less with being the authoritative definer and chief purveyor of a new religion, Paul would not have had to work quite so hard trying to reconcile the irreconcilable. And Christianity would doubtless be deprived of a great deal of abstruse theology.
Yet without him Christianity would likely have been extinguished in the First Jewish Revolt against Rome in 66–70. Alas, one can’t have it both ways.
Foster, Rhode Island
Daniel J. Harrington replies:
Recognition of the historical circumstances helps us to understand better Paul’s statement about the Law. Paul was at the beginning of Christian reflection about the Law. He was moving toward an articulation of a fundamental doctrine. He does not, however, have the only or the final word about it in early Christianity. As a pastoral theologian, Paul sought to bring his appropriation of Jesus’ death and resurrection to bear on the different pastoral problems of his communities. To describe his efforts (even by way of irony) with verbs such as “waffle and weasel-word, evade and equivocate” (as Mr. Hall does) fails to respect Paul as a historical figure seeking 005both to be faithful to Christian faith and to help people deal with their pastoral problems.
The Seven Faces of the Law
Daniel J. Harrington’s article (“Paul and Judaism: 5 Puzzles,” BR 09:02) will reward careful rereading during the seven-week wait till your next issue arrives.
I do have a preliminary observation, however. Harrington follows everybody else in speaking of the Law. What do these people mean by the Law. Do they really think there is only one? There are seven dimensions to biblical law:
1. Ten Commandments—These are present from Genesis to Revelation and were not diminished by Jesus or Paul.
2. Civil Regulations—These apply under the Israelite theocracy, and so are not entirely in force today (e.g., remission of debts, Deuteronomy 15; preparations for war, Deuteronomy 20).
3. Social—Many of these statutes exist today in various forms. We recognize the responsibility to report and/or return lost property (Deuteronomy 22:1–3).
4. Ritual—This is what Paul talked about! Sacrifices, Nazirite rules, diagnosis and quarantine of the unclean, and so on made life a burden and, more importantly, emphasized physical remedies for spiritual problems. Jesus and Paul told people to accept the sacrifice of Christ, the One Lamb, and cleanse our hearts.
5. Environmental—A lot of these are simply common sense. Kindness to animals (in fact, “animal rights”) is established by Torah Judaism. And Jesus liberated the animals who were facing imminent death in the Temple!
6. Traditional—Derived from historical experience, these are not enforced but are observed at the discretion of the community. The Israelites did not eat meat from the hip socket because Jacob’s hip was hurt in wrestling the angel (Genesis 32:26–33).
7. Interpretive—The derived regulations made up by the Pharisees. These, too, were opposed by Jesus and Paul, as they, subjected people to a human dictatorship instead of letting us be directly responsible to a loving God.
Daniel J. Harrington replies:
By “the Law” I mean the whole Law of Moses, including the seven dimensions outlined by Mr. Ickes. These distinctions, however necessary and dear to subsequent Christian theological tradition, are foreign to Paul’s writings. One can see why later theologians developed them.
What Paul Did Not Do
Context should always play a paramount role in biblical studies, yet in the recent article “Paul and Judaism: 5 Puzzles,” BR 09:02) Daniel J. Harrington seems oblivious to the fact that Paul’s writings are largely derived from the context of the Old Testament.
For example, as opposed to what was stated in Harrington’s article:
1. Paul did not redefine circumcision;
2. Paul did not redefine Israel to exclude some Jews and include other gentiles;
3. Paul did not redefine what it means to be an observer of the Law.
From the days of Moses it was recognized that there are two types of circumcision—that of the outward flesh (Genesis 17:10–11) and that of the heart (often represented as the opposite of “unbelief” or “hard heartedness,” Deuteronomy 10:16). Hence, when Paul acknowledges that some gentiles actually “believe” in the Jewish Messiah, he correctly labels them as having the circumcision of the heart (Phillipians 3:3). There is no redefinition of terms here.
Likewise, according to Moses, not all of those circumcised (in the outward flesh) inherited the promises of God (Numbers 14:20–24)—although they did transmit the promises to their children! It is in this sense that Paul says “not all Israelites truly belong to Israel.” In other words, not all Israelites are “circumcised in heart” (Leviticus 26:41; 1 Kings 19:18). Again there is no redefinition of terms.
In Romans 2:12–16, Paul argues that both Jews and gentiles are condemned under sin. Furthermore, even the gentiles have a law, namely their conscience, by which they can be judged (and condemned). But this passage nowhere implies that gentiles can be “observers of the Law” by merely following their conscience.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Daniel J. Harrington replies:
The Hebrew Bible on occasion uses “circumcision,” “Israel” and the “Law” in metaphorical or spiritual ways, but these terms have quite concrete referents. If what Paul does is not redefinition, I do not know what the word means.
Paul Undermined Torah
In “Paul and Judaism: 5 Puzzles,” BR 09:02, Daniel Harrington mentions Paul’s wish to bring the blessings of Judaism to gentiles “by enabling them too to become among the people of God.” Salvation is not the question here for, as Father Harrington knows (and Paul should have known), all kind and decent people are eligible for heaven, regardless of their house of prayer. However, if by “people of God” is meant becoming a member of the am segula, or Chosen People, then it is necessary to accept the laws and obligations imposed by God in exchange for being his people. In other words, one must fulfill the requirements in order to enter the group. This is true whether it’s joining the Boy Scouts or becoming a Jew. In the former case, the candidate must take a pledge and practice the conduct expected by the Scouts. To enter God’s covenant with Israel, the aspirant must make a commitment and observe the behavior mandated by the Torah for admission. Paul not only promised his adherents that faith would lead to their salvation, but he set about appropriating for his followers membership in a covenant they could not enter for failure to accept its rules and conditions. Harrington ignores this principle in his essay.
Paul’s call to bring Jesus’ gospel to the gentiles introduced a whole new theology. If it were but a question of gentiles accepting ethical behaviour without the requirement of practicing circumcision and observing the Sabbath, rituals and dietary restrictions, then Paul did not have to found a new religion. The Seven Noachian laws demand basic moral behavior and are all that the Hebrew Bible and Jews require of gentiles. The latter are not excluded from salvation. Judaism, unlike Christianity, has never reserved heaven only for its practitioners. The “righteous gentile,” mentioned frequently in ancient and modern Jewish literature, will find his place in heaven, no less than the benevolent Jew. Were Paul as learned in Judaism as he claimed and as Harrington believes, he would certainly have known this.
Paul’s concern to undermine the Law, as he called the Torah, was close to an obsession. For, in order to replace the Torah with his teachings, he had to construct a case against the Torah as the way to uprightness. But he was in a bind. As the builder and developer of Christianity, he found himself in the peculiar position of both depending on and having to denigrate Hebrew Scriptures. He used the scriptures to legitimize his claims, often twisting the words and their meaning in the process. By calling on the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) to validate his statements, Paul acknowledged its prestige and value. He even admitted, with grudging ambivalence, some of the qualities of the “Law” in Romans 7:8, 12, 14, 16 and 13:10. (The law is holy, righteous and good; it is spiritual; love is the fulfillment of the law.) However, his condemnations and attacks far outnumber his accolades. And his contradictions are downright confusing. As E. P. Sanders expressed it when discussing Romans, “How can Paul say both that Christians die to the law (Romans 7:4) and that the law is to be upheld (Romans 3:21) and fulfilled (Romans 8:4, 13:8–10) or that God gave the law and it brings sin and death (Romans 8:2)?”a
While Harrington acknowledges Paul’s inconsistencies, I doubt that the cause for his ambiguity is primarily due to the audiences he was addressing. I believe that there are more fundamental reasons related to his resentment at his dependence on the Torah and his antagonism to Jews who rejected his views.
The irony of Paul’s rejection and denunciation of the laws in the Torah is that the Pentateuch was canonized by every Christian church.
But certainly one who puts Christ above the Torah and claims that only the former can bring about the right relationship with God has left Judaism, if he was ever a part of it. To insist that Paul was or remained a Jew despite his gratuitously bitter and rancorous attacks on the foundation of Judaism is to ignore, nay, denigrate, what Jews hold most holy. Although some theologians and clergymen deny Paul’s anti-Jewishness, their church members have understood Paul’s message only too well. For centuries they have read, comprehended and acted upon the messages of hate toward Jews and their Torah that Paul conveyed to them.
Paul’s entire history—his limited knowledge of Torah, his hostile statements about Jews and Judaism, his affinity to, familiarity with and greater comfort in working among gentiles—call into question any original Jewish connection, much less a continuing one.
It is commendable that liberal clergymen wish to eliminate some of the anti-Semitic teachings emanating from the New Testament. But denial of what is clearly written there won’t accomplish it. That violates the credibility of the reader of the Epistles and Gospels. Acknowledgment and rejection of those anti-Torah and anti-Jewish verses is the only honest way of dealing with this subject, which has led to two millennia of suffering and cost millions of Jewish lives.
Daniel J. Harrington replies:
I agree with Lillian Freudmann that several factors contributed to Paul’s 048ambiguity regarding the Torah. But she reads into Paul’s historical situation criteria for expelling Paul from the Jewish people that were not so clear in the first century. My article seeks to explore how Paul and other first-century Jews may have understood his statements. Only when this historical situation is appreciated can we accurately assess Paul’s place in the history of Christian-Jewish relations.
More on Borg
If Jesus Knocked on My Door
If Jesus Christ knocked on my door, I certainly would not want him to see a magazine in my house that has an article by a “Christian” who denounces the virgin birth, the star of Bethlehem and the journey of the Wise Men (Marcus Borg’s column, “The First Christmas,” BR 08:06)! Please cancel my subscription.
I have enjoyed most of the articles in BR. I have all of your issues—from the first one. I guess the end has come, though, after reading Borg’s “Why Was Jesus Killed?” BR 09:02.
What is an article of this type doing in a magazine called Bible Review?
Support for Borg from a Sunday School Teacher
After quickly reading Marcus J. Borg’s column (“Why Was Jesus Killed?” BR 09:02), I decided there were several points I disagreed with and would have simply said so, but I turned the page to Readers Reply and was once again shocked by the hateful language used by some of my fellow “conservative Christians.”
This took me to a second reading of Mr. Borg’s article. I find that I don’t disagree with much at all.
As an adult Sunday school teacher I try to be controversial in order to start conversation and idea sharing. I never say anything I don’t believe, but sometimes I choose my language so that if someone wants to misinterpret or take exception there will be room to do so.
Mr. Borg has given me food for thought. I look forward to future issues. I expect to be challenged and enlightened.
The Gap Between Scholars and Believers
Your Readers Reply section is usually somewhat entertaining, often shocking, sometimes disturbing. The latest outburst, against Marcus Borg (Readers Reply, BR 09:02; regarding his Dec. 1992 column, “The First Christmas,” BR 08:06), is one of the disturbing ones. What is disturbing is that there is such dissonance between the world of scholarship and large segments of the body of believers.
This is, I suppose, inevitable. Most people do not understand what most scholarship of any kind is about. But then, most people don’t need to understand. As long as they get good medical treatment, they don’t need to know that epidemiology as well as other forms of advanced medical research, for instance, are based on the organizing principles of Darwinian evolution.
But obviously there is a large body of Christian and Jewish believers who are enraged when they encounter scholars doing their work. They don’t seem to understand the role of scholarship in the struggle of faith. They seem to think that there ought to be no struggle, that there are no mysteries, that all the questions have been answered, that God is as simple as a penny catechism, that the Bible is, in fact, a somewhat more expensive catechism, that a text of two or three thousand years ago is to be read like today’s newspaper, that human culture does not change, that human society today is exactly the same—or ought to be—as human society in the time of Abraham, and that the history of God’s dealings with humankind is not a history but a once-and-for-all statement of “the facts.”
Profoundly disturbing to me as a teacher is the sense that Satan is at work among scholars. I write to ask if it is not 049time to address the problem of your Readers Reply section directly. There is such a thing, of course, as invincible ignorance, but might it not be possible to mute the dissonance?—to explain what scholarship is about, and why there is such an immeasurable gap between believing scholars and many believing laymen.
Fairleigh Dickinson University
Madison, New Jersey
Does Borg’s “J” Stand for Judas?
As a new Christian I subscribed to BR, thinking I would be getting a faith-enhancing publication that would help me to better understand the Bible from a Christian viewpoint. Instead, I am subjected to the devil-inspired dribblings of Marcus J. Borg. (Does the J stand for Judas?) This is the kind of garbage that kept me from becoming a Christian for over 45 years.
Please cancel my subscription. I do not want BR in my home.
The letter J in Borg’s name stands for Joel, Hebrew for “Yahweh is God.”—Ed.
The Better Part of Valor?
I have profound respect for your courage and integrity in publishing Marcus J. Borg’s “The First Christmas,” BR 08:06, if not your judgment, considering how many brainwashed fanatics will jump on you tooth and nail.
W. Columbia, South Carolina
Your Writers Should Be Checking the Help Wanted Ads
Are there no believing scholars who contribute to your magazine? The majority of your contributors seem to have risen beyond their level of incompetence in the biblical studies world. Don’t they have some other way of making a living?
Marion, North Carolina
The Gospel Accounts of Jesus’ Trial Are Highly Plausible
Marcus J. Borg’s “Why Was Jesus Killed?” BR 09:02, places modern biblical scholarship in less than the most flattering light. Modern scholars, according to Dr. Borg, suspect that the entire episode of Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin was invented by the evangelists and never happened at all. And on what do they base this claim? Dr. Borg lists three arguments: (1) the impossibility of a night trial as recorded by three of the Gospels; (2) a lack of evidence as to what the Jewish court would consider “blasphemy”; and (3) the difficulty of imagining how the followers of Jesus would ever have known what happened at such a trial.
Not one of these “difficulties” is horribly difficult at all. The first one, that Jewish law would not allow a night trial, borders on naiveté. “Illegal” does not 052mean impossible. Perhaps in 2,000 years no one will believe in Watergate, either!
Further if the evangelists merely made the whole episode up, then where is the howl of righteous protest from their contemporaries? No writer of antiquity, whether Roman propagandist or Jewish talmudist, denies the trial before the Sanhedrin. Indeed, the Talmud itself refers to the trial; a reference in the Babylonian Talmud (tractate Sanhedrin) speaks of a herald going forth for 40 days searching for witnesses for the defense of Jesus, and of how, upon finding none, he [Jesus] was hanged on the eve of Passover. If the trial never took place, and if the talmudist was, perhaps, trying to counter Christian charges of injustice in the Sanhedrin’s treatment of Christ, why did he write that Christ was tried and condemned in a fully legal sense, when a better defense would be that the Sanhedrin never tried Jesus at all?
The second objection, that we have too little evidence of what constituted blasphemy for us to believe that Jesus was condemned for it, must be declared “out of order.” It is no more than an argument from silence. If scholars don’t know what the Sanhedrin considered blasphemous, then it follows that they also don’t know everything the Sanhedrin did not consider blasphemous. In a less suspicious age of scholarship, the Gospel accounts might have been welcomed as helping to fill out our knowledge in this area. “Aha,” scholars would have said, “it seems that at least some ancient sources link the claim to divinity with the crime of blasphemy!” But today, since this evidence is found in the Bible, it is immediately suspect.
The third objection is likewise shaky. Scholars find it difficult to imagine how the followers of Christ could have obtained their information about the trials. Come now! Could it be that it has not occurred to the scholars that someone who was in the chamber might later have told the followers of Christ what happened? Do the names Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea ring a bell? In fact, John admits that he was known to the high priest; he also could have received a report of what happened in these trials. (The rationalist will please note that one need not appeal to divine inspiration at all to overthrow this objection.)
Pastor, Mount Olive Lutheran Church
Marcus J. Borg replies:
What Pastor Schallert argues is not impossible. However, historical scholarship involves “probability judgments,” that is, moving from a number of possibilities to what can be said in favor of, or against, the various possibilities. In my judgment, the probability is strong that the Gospel accounts of a Jewish trial of Jesus reflect the Christian movement’s intensification of Jewish responsibility for the condemnation of Jesus, rather than being based on reasonably accurate eyewitness reporting. We can actually see the intensification happening in the sources.
To address two of Schallert’s specific points:
1. The account in the Talmud is late (not earlier than the third century and, in written form, later) and is almost certainly responding to the Gospel accounts rather than preserving an independent historical memory. Moreover, though the text accepts that Jewish authorities were involved in the death of Jesus (which my column does affirm), it does not actually refer to the Sanhedrin, as Schallert suggests.
2. Regarding the charge of blasphemy, we have no reason to think that claiming to be the messiah (and, as such, “son of the blessed”) was “blasphemous” and punishable by death, and there is some evidence to the contrary. In the second century, Rabbi Akiva declared Simon bar-Kokhba to be the messiah, and there is no suggestion in Jewish sources that this was blasphemous. Schallert’s suggestion that Jesus’ response was a “claim to divinity” goes beyond the meaning of the Gospel accounts: The status Of messiah (and the parallel expression “Son of the blessed”) did not involve a claim to divinity. Finally, the notion that the historical Jesus claimed to be the messiah (or divine) is generally rejected by contemporary scholarship.
The Historicity of John’s Gospel: You Can’t Have It Both Ways
Marcus Borg’s faith and reason, as manifested in his article, “Why Was Jesus Killed?” BR 09:02, call for a good reviewing. Obviously he understands Bible Review as Bible Change. His dogma, expressed in his endnote 5, proclaims that John’s Gospel is “in 053general highly symbolic and not very historical.” In spite of that, he has used, with a stroke of his peculiar logic, John’s text (John 11:47–53) to prove his thesis that Jesus’ disruptive action in the Temple was the immediate cause of his arrest (and trial) and not any blasphemy alleged by the accounts of a Jewish trial in the Synoptic Gospels. So John, maligned by Borg (without any historical proof) as highly symbolic and not very historical, provides for the same Borg a strong “historical” argument that the Synoptic Gospels as well are not historical, in particular in their accounts of a Jewish trial in which “Jesus is tried and condemned to death by a Jewish court … on the religious charge of ‘blasphemy’ (Mark 14:53–64).”
Marcus J. Borg replies:
The claim that John’s Gospel is “in general highly symbolic and not very historical” is widely accepted by contemporary scholarship (including Roman Catholic scholars). Given its general acceptance, it seemed unnecessary to argue this in a short article, and unreasonable of Father Budovic to expect that I would have. Finally, I do not use John 11:47–53 to prove that the disruption of the Temple was the cause of Jesus’ arrest; that connection is made in the Synoptic Gospels (see Mark 11:15–18). Rather, I simply note the interesting fact that John reports that the decision to take action against Jesus was motivated by fear that his growing popularity would lead to unrest (and not by some blasphemous offense).
Regarding Marcus J. Borg’s “Why Was Jesus Killed?” BR 09:02, Jesus was tried and convicted for the violation of a specific Roman law, the Lex Julia Majestatis, enacted by Augustus in 8 B.C.E. (Digesta 48.4. 1, 11), which made it a capital offense for anyone to declare himself to be a king (messiah) without the express consent of the emperor. The Herod family had obtained this approval.
It was also mandated that the cross be inscribed with the cause of the crucifixion to act as a deterrent. Here all Gospel writers are consistent: “King of the Jews.”
Santa Monica, California
No Need for Firewood
Well, last issue started it, and this month’s issue (
Between Marcus J. Borg and Jane Schaberg and others, I must finally say, “I will not be renewing by subscription.”
I really don’t know what your writers have in the way of credentials, but whatever they are, they are not enough. I can no longer sit idle while people such as these malign my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
If Christ was not who He said He was, and if God the Father and God the Son did not say what they mean, and mean what they said, then we have no need for our Bibles, and they should be burned. And if that be the case, then we also have no need for BR and those too should be burned.
Whose these people claim for their God, I know not, but they are not worshiping the same Lord that I know and love. I’ll take my Bible and believe every word of it, for it is gospel. I believe in the virgin birth, I believe my Lord came to save the lost and I believe that God wants all to be saved from the hell that is mentioned in Scriptures. Otherwise, what is our purpose in being here?
Running Too Far Ahead of the Pew
As usual I received my April 1993 issue of BR and immediately turned to my favorite section—Readers Reply. My interest was piqued by the responses to Marcus Borg’s “The First Christmas,” BR 08:06 and Jane Schaberg’s “How Mary Magdalene Became a Whore” BR 08:05.
After re-reading Schaberg’s article I wondered whether I had read the same work as these distraught folk who denounced her and questioned her faith and her credentials. Personally, I found her article uplifting for women in general. She certainly challenged my own male bias. While I understand that the title was intended to draw readers in, it tended to create a barrier from the beginning. It occurred to me that with a less alluring title, and substituting the word “prostitute” for “whore,” her article 054could have appeared in Christianity Today and no one would have raised an eyebrow.
Marcus Borg’s column on the first Christmas was interesting, but not particularly earth-shattering. I found myself agreeing with his views. But I will have to admit that the way he started out did seem a bit offensive. Perhaps what turned some folk off was that be began with a recitation of what he doesn’t believe. He did get around to speaking about his faith, but by that time he had lost those readers whose faith is dependent on immovable anchors.
I am the pastor of a small Baptist church, I am sure that my theology is much broader than 85 percent of the people who hear me preach each Sunday. I try to stretch their thinking as much as possible without breaking the connection I have with them. If I did what you do in BR, I would lose them rather quickly. I sometimes think that those of us in professional ministry run the danger of running too far ahead of the lay people and losing them altogether.
It would seem that a substantial number of people subscribe to BR in the hope that they will get some affirmation of what they already believe, and they are disappointed by the challenging and thought-provoking articles. I am not suggesting that you change your editorial policies. I appreciate what you are doing at BR. I only wish there was some way to bridge the chasm that exists between the scholars and the average “pew-sitting” Christian.
Loved the “Parody”
I’ve been enjoying BR for over a year now, and the April 1993 issue is by far the best. I say this without having actually read any of the articles.
The wonderful satire you ran (Readers Reply) in lieu of the usual letters was a riot! Not only did it make me laugh out loud on the “A” train during rush hour, it gave me a lot to think about. I think we often learn best through humor and you did a great job of illustrating the diversity, depth and passion of our feelings about the Bible. May I suggest that it would have been a bit funnier if you had made up more realistic names and towns?
New York, New York