I believe that Marcus Borg thought he was doing a helpful thing, but good intentions are rarely an indication of the true caliber of someone’s efforts.
One of Borg’s self-proclaimed goals was to help those in the mainline churches whose members were losing their childish faith in the Bible, to go about Embracing an Adult Faith (one of the titles of his many works). Ironically, Borg’s popularized scholarship helped to create the crisis in faith that he also offered to cure.
Borg was a member of the band of media-milking liberal biblical scholars known as the Jesus Seminar, whose 150 or so members set themselves up as the authoritative body defining what could or could not be believed in the New Testament, and broadcasting its results as far and wide as possible.
The members of the Jesus Seminar famously voted with colored beads to decide which, if any, of the sayings of Jesus were authentic. A red bead: “Jesus undoubtedly said this or something very like it.” A pink bead: “Jesus probably said something like this.” Grey: “Jesus did not say this, but the ideas contained in it are close to his own.” And finally, a black bead: “Jesus did not say this; it represents the perspective or content of a later or different tradition.” Or as one seminar member put it succinctly, red means “That’s Jesus!” while black means “There’s been some mistake.”
Points were awarded accordingly (3 for red, 2 for pink, 1 for grey, and 0 for black).
The Jesus Seminar then published their own color-coded translation of the Gospels, so that the Good News of what Jesus really said, and much more, what he didn’t say, could be spread to all the nations.
The authors proclaimed in the preface that over 80% of the sayings recorded in the Gospels were not uttered by Jesus. So, for example, in the Lord’s Prayer, the Seminar confidently concluded that Jesus actually did say “Our Father,” but that’s it.
Getting voted in to red-letter status does not mean, we note, that all members of the Seminar heartily affirmed even that slim saying. It only means that, after adding up all the bead points and averaging them, “Our Father” received at least .7501 percentage points. If it had slipped to .7500, “Our Father” would have been “pinked.”
To take it from the other end, while “Our Father” made it to the top tier, “in the heavens” (the Seminar’s translation of the usual “who art in heaven”) got black-beaded as not authentic. That means that after averaging up the Seminar’s bead-points, “in the heavens” could have received .2500 percentage points, rather than the .2501 that would have made it something that, even though Jesus didn’t say it, contained ideas “close to his own.”
The Seminar’s scholars, including the late Marcus Borg, really did think that their system—affirming and denying by vote, and allowing and rejecting by as little as one ten-thousandth of a percentage point—was a suitable substitute for the Holy Spirit in defining what Jesus Christ really said. As Borg once remarked, “I don’t know if the Holy Spirit would be helpful in judging the factuality of the Gospels,” and so, to be blunt, “The Holy Spirit is irrelevant in that decision making process,” either in regard to what Jesus said or how to interpret it.
The problem with Borg and the other Seminar members is that they had already decided who Jesus is (or was) beforehand, and then set about figuring out what he could or could not have said accordingly. When Seminar members said “That’s Jesus!” they were only, as the saying goes, digging up what they had buried.
What was assumed before they went digging around in the biblical text? That Jesus was a mere man, born of two parents, a man who said shocking, counter-cultural but mystically inspiring “spiritual” things to wake up the dominant and dominating conservative religious establishment as he wandered around the Holy Land. He did not claim that he was God; he was a mere mortal who was killed, but who was not resurrected.
In short, Jesus was a lot like the scholars of the Jesus Seminar. A whole lot like them. In fact, Borg considered himself to be a “Panentheist,” that is, a person who believes that god is everything, and everything is god—including Marcus Borg. (Here, Borg was merely following one of the great architects of modern scriptural scholarship, the pantheist Benedict Spinoza.) So, if Jesus can in any way be said to be divine, then so can Marcus Borg. Even more so, since Jesus wasn’t nearly as clear as Borg about who he really was.
So, when Marcus Borg looked deeply into the Gospels, he saw…Marcus Borg. Borg saw the Jesus he could believe in after his belief in Jesus had been entirely undermined by years of studying the methods and results of modern historical-critical scholarship. He saw the Jesus that did what Borg did for a living, only Borg wasn’t killed for it.
This is unfortunate but not surprising, because the self-conscious goal of modern historical-critical scholarship, from its very beginning, was entirely secular: to remove the God-man and leave only the man. As with Borg, these scholars all too often ended up asserting that Jesus was actually an ancient Spinozan, Hegelian, Lockean, Marxist, Existentialist, or whatever the prevailing intellectual spirit that dominated the soul of the particular scholar.
The central defining assumption of this scholarship was rooted in materialism, the belief that there is no immaterial soul, no God, no angels or devils, no afterlife of heaven or hell, and no miracles, and so whatever Jesus was, he could not have been divine. (See my Politicizing the Bible: The Roots of Historical Criticism and the Secularization of Scripture 1300-1700.)
This assumption guided the historical-critical method from the 17th century onwards. As opposed to the foolish person of faith, the “scientific” scholar believed that he had to remove from the biblical text anything that didn’t conform to the canons of materialism. Out with the miracles, out with the angels and devils, out with the Incarnation, out with the Resurrection.
What was left of the Bible? Not much.
When the materialist winnowing fan was applied to the New Testament, “scholars” ended up with Jesus as a mere man who (as noted above) said shocking, anti-establishment things, and got himself killed for it. All else was alien dross mixed back into the Gospels by later Christians who, wanting to keep their faith alive, divinized Jesus. The Jesus who was later adorned with pre-scientific fables became the foundation of the church, and the rest is benighted history.
Dawn again arose again, so they maintained, when we realized all is matter, and there are no gods and no miracles. Real scientific scholarship could then set about taking the dross back out again, to reveal the itinerate mystical preacher snuffed out for riling the establishment.
That is the task to which Marcus Borg dedicated his life, the gospel he passionately preached to the masses. That is the gospel we presume he took with him at his death, betting that death was the end of life, that there was nothing beyond.