Marcus Borg, leading liberal theologian and historical Jesus expert, dies at 72

Marcus Borg Theologian Dead at 72(RNS) Marcus J. Borg, a prominent liberal theologian and Bible scholar who for a generation helped popularize the intense debates about the historical Jesus and the veracity and meaning of the New Testament, died on Wednesday (Jan. 21). He was 72 and had been suffering from a prolonged illness, friends said.

Borg emerged in the 1980s just as academics and theologians were bringing new energy to the so-called “quest for the historical Jesus,” the centuries-old effort to disentangle fact from myth in the Gospels.

Alongside scholars such as John Dominic Crossan, Borg was a leader in the Jesus Seminar, which brought a skeptical eye to the Scriptures and in particular to supernatural claims about Jesus’ miracles and his resurrection from the dead.

Like other scholars, Borg tended to view Jesus as a Jewish prophet and teacher who emerged from the religious ferment of first-century Judaism.

But while Borg questioned the Bible,, he never lost his passion for the spiritual life or his faith in God as “real and a mystery,” as he put it in his 2014 memoir, “Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most,” the last of more than 20 books he wrote.

“Imagine that Christianity is about loving God. Imagine that it’s not about the self and its concerns, about ‘what’s in it for me,’ whether that be a blessed afterlife or prosperity in this life,” Borg wrote.

Marcus Borg was the youngest of four children, born March 11, 1942 in North Dakota and raised in a traditional Lutheran family. He attended Concordia College in Minnesota where he majored in philosophy and political science.

He remained fascinated by the New Testament, however, and accepted a fellowship to do graduate work at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he delved deeply into the Jewish background of the Gospels and Jesus of Nazareth and studied with some of the major theologians teachings there. Borg then went on to further studies at Oxford and taught at various Midwest universities on his return to the U.S.

In 1979 he joined the faculty at Oregon State University and taught religion there until his retirement in 2007.

Borg’s 1987 book, “Jesus: A New Vision,” launched him to prominence. The book summarized and explained recent New Testament scholarship for a popular audience while presenting Jesus as a social and political prophet of his time who was driven by his relationship with God.  Borg viewed this relationship as more important than traditional Christian beliefs based on a literal reading of the Bible.

In subsequent books, three of them co-written with Crossan, Borg continued to press and expand on those ideas, becoming a hero to Christian progressives and a target for conservatives.

Borg loved to debate but was no polemicist, and over the years maintained strong friendships with those who disagreed with him, developing a reputation as a gracious and generous scholar in a field and a profession that are not always known for those qualities.

For example, Borg co-authored a 1999 book, “The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions,” with N.T. Wright, an Anglican bible scholar who took a more orthodox view of the Gospels. But Wright also recommended many of Borg’s books and lectured alongside him on occasion.

“Spanning the study of Jesus and a wide variety of subjects, Marcus shaped the conversation about Jesus, the church, and Scripture in powerful ways over the space of four decades,” Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr., of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, wrote on his blog on hearing of Borg’s passing.

“I came to different conclusions about a number of issues, but Marc was always incisive, tenacious, thoughtful, and unfailingly gracious; and over the years he became a cherished friend,” Schmidt wrote.

The Rev. Barkley Thompson, an Episcopal priest and rector of Christ Church Cathedral in Houston, Texas, broke the news of Borg’s death in a blog post in which he spoke of how much he had learned from Borg and how close they remained even as Thompson’s beliefs became more traditional and veered away from Borg’s.

“I once introduced Marcus to a church audience by saying, ‘I agree with roughly 75 percent of what Marcus will say to you this evening,’” Thompson wrote in his tribute. “When he stepped into the pulpit, Marcus quipped, ‘I’m tempted to forgo my notes and discuss with Barkley the other 25 percent!’”

During a question-and-answer period with parishioners at one event, someone asked Borg, “But how do you know that you’re right?”

Borg paused and responded: “I don’t know. I don’t know that I’m right.”

Thompson said he had corresponded with Borg in late November and asked how he was doing.

“I may have ten years left,” Borg wrote back. “Not sure I want more. There comes a time to let go. And I could, with gratitude, sooner than that. My life has been very blessed.”

Funeral arrangements were not immediately available. While raised a Lutheran, Borg gravitated to the Episcopal Church, which was his home for much of his life. His wife, Marianne, is an Episcopal priest and canon at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, Oregon, where Borg frequently lectured and was given the title of canon theologian.

With characteristic humor he said his wife informed him that “canon” means “big shot.”

 

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18 Comments on "Marcus Borg, leading liberal theologian and historical Jesus expert, dies at 72"

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 
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Gil Caldwell
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So far in our responses to the article on the death of Marcus Borg, we have been obedient to the UMR suggestion; “May your speech here be tempered with love.” How wonderful when we can in our comments, reflect the faith that we profess. I learned in the Civil Rights Movement (I urge all to see SELMA) the importance of “lived out love” in response to those who hated us. At times we who are United Methodist colleagues respond to each other without manifestations of love. Whether we are proponents of Borg or Wright, both, or anyone else, may we… Read more »
Paul W.
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The core of liberal/modernist theology is a “spiritualizing” of Christianity such that while the Bible and the creeds are viewed as not true in a literal sense, they are still held up as being spiritually “true”. The classic liberal theologian will work through a process of systematically thinking through and redefining the meaning of terms that he does not believe in a literal or orthodox sense (e.g., resurrection, salvation, atonement); this allows him to be able to honestly profess his agreement with both denominational doctrine and the required creeds. It is important to understand that the majority of Liberal theologians… Read more »
Troy Horton
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If you need to advertise your “mature” faith, then it is a faith which is anything but mature.

George Nixon Shuler
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To me what it means is you don’t check your brains at the door of the church. A church which expects someone to do so – say, one which mandates creationism, or, perhaps believes the government should make reproductive healthcare choices for women rather than the women themselves and because birth control greatly increases women’s freedom it is immoral, is an instrument of exercising power and control over others and nothing more. A person of mature faith has no use for such things and seeks to help those trapped there out. However, your assertion Borg, or I “advertised” it is… Read more »
George Nixon Shuler
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I can sure agree with the statement is written, as a generality. But its application here is specious at best. The article says nothing of Borg’s “mature faith” so to speak, so, the criticism is at best namecalling which may or may not apply. It seems like many who love to spout generalities about those on the liberal side of the Christian faith, there’s an ax to ground in there. My suspicion is the characterization is not unlike that of the teabagger with the placard which read “Keep the Government’s Hands off My Medicare!”

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

TD concludes, “…I, personally, find this the anthetisis of Biblical content, especially the teachings and preachings of Jesus Christ.”

How so?

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

It does not articulsate the “whys” for the generalization. Please document same rather than give a flippant reply in riddles. It’s a reasonable question. Perhaps you do not know the answer?

Troy Horton
Guest

Was this guy a christian or just a theologian? Hope he’s in heaven.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

I look at it this way: if entry in hebbin is conditional upon political correctness, then it isn’t worth much at all.

Troy Horton
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I suppose it is easy to have a cavalier attitude about it when you aren’t currently separated from God for eternity.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

The attidue I described is actually precisely the opposite of “cavalier.” It is a concise statement that a so-called hebbin with such an evil being as a “god” would be worthless to all persons of decent character. I do not believe such a place exists. If it did, I would refuse to go there and so would anyone else who’s not inherently evil themselves.

Gary Bebop
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The tangent of “imagining God” is that old canard that a spiritualized Christianity (without the content of real Incarnation or real Resurrection) is so much better than a God who saves us by becoming one of us while still remaining God. But as N.T. Wright (and so many others) rightly points out, this paradigm of the imagination is “nothing at all” that can save us. It is devoid of saving content. The Bible says don’t trust the flimsy imaginings of fallen humanity (with all its conflicting agendas and power trips) to save the world. No, God loved the world so… Read more »
George Nixon Shuler
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If one is to “don’t trust the flimsy imaginings of fallen humanity (with all its conflicting agendas and power trips) to save the world” then of course it mandates the inclusion therein of the carping of dominionist theology and mandatory political correctness (AKA “orthodoxy”) and that which seeks a deity which smites those we hate as well. One recalls the final scene in the movie version of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s “Inherit the Wind,” where, as the last person to leave the courtroom Spencer Tracy as Henry Drummond notices his just-deceased colleague at the bar of justice, Matthew… Read more »
Gil Caldwell
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Marcus Borg is quoted as saying in the article; “Imagine that Christianity is about loving God. Imagine that its not about the self and about ‘what’s in it for me’, whether that be a blessed afterlife or prosperity in this life.” His words remind me of those of John Lennon whom some might call a lay theologian. He wrote. “Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can. No need for greed or hunger, a brotherhood of man. Imagine all the people sharing all the world. You may say I am a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope… Read more »
George Nixon Shuler
Guest

very well said. The American Right Wing of today including the extremist caucus within United Methodism would rather honor an imaginary god which hates the same people they do and to them hebbin’s most sublime joy is to see your enemies writhing in the firepuits below as you look down from the parapets in satisfaction.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

Borg has long been one of my heroes. His “Reading the Bible Again For the First Time” provides an excellent description of a God worthy of the name, who does jnot require one to check one’s brains at the door upon entering a house of worship.

Kevin
Guest

This article seems to gloss over some of Borg’s thinking such as denying the virgin birth and the resurrection. Kind of disturbing, to me anyway. Not being a student of theology I will leave that critique to those of you who are.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

I think “denying” is rather direct and therefore not accurate – perhaps demystifying is more correct. Borg is for those of mature faith who do not need a cobic book hero god.

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