Millions of Americans look to Marcus Borg for clear, honest and compelling books about the meaning of the Bible after 2,000 years. Considering that Christians comprise the world’s largest religious group at 2 billion souls and the Bible is the perennial best seller—Borg’s Bible-study books play a very important role in our world.
His newest book is unusual: It’s not so much a book about the Bible as it is an actual Bible as reorganized by Borg to present the New Testament books in the order that the ancient world first received them. Even evangelical Bible scholars now widely teach that the New Testament books weren’t written in the order the world reads them today. Thomas Nelson’s new VOICE Bible says as much.
HOW DID THE BIBLE’S BOOKS WIND UP IN THIS ORDER?
Centuries after Jesus walked the earth, Bible compilers thought it made better sense to put the Four Gospels (the short biographical sketches of Jesus) first in the New Testament. They followed that with some early-church history in Acts; then they published some of the letters that circulated in the early church; and they wrapped up the New Testament with the vivid scenes of Revelation.
But, problems of perception arose when these books were reshuffled from their original dates of publication. Think about it this way: It’s a bit like discovering a terrific new mystery writer and starting with her sixth novel, then reading her second, followed by her tenth. You’re likely to leap to flawed conclusions because of your non-chronological reading of her books.
MARCUS BORG: UNUSUAL FUEL TO LIGHT UP YOUR GROUP
That’s why discussion groups in your congregation will have a lot of lively conversation when you pass around copies of Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written. Borg himself introduces each book of the New Testament and, for the first time in most churches, readers will be receiving these sacred texts in the order men and women received them nearly 2,000 years ago. Looking for a terrific mid-winter or Lenten discussion starter? Evolution of the Word will light up both general book discussion groups as well as hard-core Bible-study classes in your congregation.
Need more convincing? The back cover of Evolution of the Word shows praise from Barbara Brown Taylor and the late Peter Gomes, both best-selling authors of books that have been hugely popular in congregations. Before his death last year, Gomes put his recommendation this way: “We have no better guide to the recovery of an authentic Christian faith for these difficult times than this articulate and prolific public theologian.” In one sentence, Gomes captured our own viewpoint at ReadTheSpirit, spread across five years of covering Borg’s new books.
MARCUS BORG: FROM CONTROVERSY TO EMBRACE
You may encounter someone in your congregation who still remembers confrontational front-page headlines decades ago pitting Borg and other university-based Bible scholars against Christian traditionalists. However, as ReadTheSpirit has pointed out repeatedly through the years, Borg now is embraced in mainline congregations coast to coast. This is true in the general culture, as well. He’s a “go to” Bible scholar for PBS documentaries. Rob Bell likes to read and quote Marcus Borg. To put it simply: Marcus Borg has become a friend to growing congregations.
That’s the background as ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm talks with Marcus Borg, again. Today, we are publishing …
HIGHLIGHTS OF THE INTERVIEW WITH MARCUS BORG
ABOUT ‘EVOLUTION OF THE WORD’ (A NEW TESTAMENT)
DAVID: The first eye-popping detail that regular Bible readers will discover is this: The earliest gospel, Mark, is eighth in this New Testament after seven letters by Paul. You explain that historians believe Paul’s letters circulated before the gospel writers got into gear, right?
MARCUS: That’s right, yes. These seven letters of Paul all came before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD. I place the appearance of Mark at around 70 as most Bible scholars do these days. I don’t have a strong argument myself about whether Mark was written in 68, just before the destruction of Jerusalem, or in 72. I wouldn’t argue about the precise date of these texts down to the exact year. No one has evidence to date things that precisely. But, for example, we can tell that Paul’s letters came before 70 AD; and we know that whoever wrote Mark was aware of the great war with the Romans that included the destruction of Jerusalem.
DAVID: How much argument is there among Bible scholars about the basic timeline for these books? Your book will surprise a lot of people in churches across the country, but I sense that there’s widespread agreement among scholars about the broad sweep of this timeline. For example, there’s not a more conservative Bible publisher in America than Thomas Nelson and Nelson’s new VOICE Bible introduces Mark by saying that it “is probably the first written account of the life of Jesus.” You say that Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians was actually the earliest document in the entire New Testament. Nelson’s VOICE doesn’t go quite that far, but it admits that this letter was one of the first. So, while this is sure to spark discussion in churches, your conclusions about the order of books are not really “controversial,” I would say.
MARCUS: That’s right in general terms. But then, the details on individual texts become more complicated as we try to date each one. You’re right that the consensus is: At least these seven letters attributed to Paul are earlier than any of the gospels. There would be some disagreement about the sequence among those seven letters. Some would put Galatians really close to Romans, for example. But overall there is solid evidence that these seven were written before any of the gospels. And, yes, pretty much everyone today agrees that, among the gospels, Mark was written first. There’s also a consensus that Revelation was not the last book to be written, even though it appears as the last book in our Bibles today.
MARCUS BORG’S NEW TESTAMENT: QUESTIONS FOR LIVELY DISCUSSION
DAVID: Let’s zero in on some examples. First, let me ask about a question that arises when Paul’s letters suddenly come first. The fact is: Paul didn’t write much about Jesus’ life. It can be surprising if we start wondering why Paul said so little about Jesus’ famous quotations, Jesus’ parables, the events in Jesus’ life. Did Paul think that details of Jesus life and teaching somehow weren’t important?
MARCUS: That’s a good question to ask, because people do wonder about this. And here is how I approach the question. You have to remember that Paul had been present in person in all of those communities to which he wrote his letters. The one exception is the letter to Romans, although he was expecting to be in Rome soon. Even in the unusual case of Rome, Paul knew that he was writing to a well-established Christian community in Rome that had been there already for 10 or 15 years. It’s important to remember that Paul actually visited these communities and spent some time in each one.
In Paul’s visits, he personally taught people a lot about Jesus. He told them what Jesus was like. So, they would have known a lot from Paul himself—in person—about Jesus. In his letters, there’s no need for him to repeat anything about that. These letters were written to focus on other issues. You’re right that there are some people today, including some scholars, who question why Paul wrote so little about Jesus. They ask: If you’re going to sit down and write the first Christian documents, wouldn’t you include a lot about Jesus? But you have to remember that these were letters. These were not gospels. In opening up the first texts ever written in the New Testament—you’re actually going through Paul’s mail. That’s an intriguing idea, isn’t it? What happens when we start the New Testament by reading Paul’s mail?
ST. PAUL: SAVVY ANCIENT EYE ON EUROPE’S FUTURE
DAVID: There are more surprises, if people start a discussion group with Evolution of the Word. Here’s another one: Where does Paul send his first letter? Not to the well-known lands of the Bible—but to what is today northern Greece! He’s already writing to Europe.
MARCUS: Yes it is a surprise. At the time Paul was writing, there were Christ communities in the Jewish homeland and in what is now Syria and Jordan and that region. I think it’s quite surprising that this first letter is written to a community that actually is in Europe. How quickly this was spreading! It speaks to the growth and the vision of this early movement.
DAVID: Then, you move the letter known as Galatians into the second slot. Moving that letter so far forward in the New Testament, again, is thought provoking. So, Paul already has a major focus on Europe—very early in Christian history—and, right away, he’s out there preaching the barrier-breaking themes that people love to read in Galatians to this day. You describe Galatians this way: “It soars to great heights.”
MARCUS: The main thing it makes clear is that, from the beginning, divisions in the church were major controversies that he wanted to try to resolve. There were Jews, Gentiles and also people I describe with the phrase “God fearers”—Gentiles who hadn’t actually become Jews but liked to be close to the Jewish community. My friend John Dominic Crossan says: “Early Christianity ran on Jewish rails.” These were Jewish communities dividing over what Christ represented for some of them. So, there were all these questions in these emerging “Christ communities” about who needed to keep Kosher, about the food laws, about circumcision.
MARCUS BORG ON THE PRACTICAL LETTER OF JAMES
DAVID: At ReadTheSpirit, we have a special interest in James, because we publish a whole Bible study about the New Testament letter attributed to James—and connections with Ian Fleming’s real life as well as the fictional James Bond 007. I was struck in a recent interview to find that the famous football and auto-racing Coach Joe Gibbs also had a life-changing encounter with James in the New Testament. James is an often-overlooked but very important book.
MARCUS: I place James fairly early, right after Mark and before Matthew. Some have argued that James is very early under the assumption that it was written by James, the brother of Jesus. While the text does refer to a James, it does not say that it was written by the James who was Jesus’ brother. Once you set aside the assumption about Jesus’ brother, then dating the text of James seems to place it in the same general period as the composition of the gospels. If another scholar came along and demonstrated that James was written earlier than the gospels, I wouldn’t be bent out of shape by that claim. But, it seems to me as though James was written pretty close to the Jewish homeland and probably in the last third of the first century.
DAVID: It’s a very practical book. That’s what caught Coach Joe Gibbs’ eye and inspired him so much. It’s what inspired Ian Fleming. This is nuts-and-bolts spirituality, we might say.
MARCUS: James is very much a teaching document. There is hardly anything in James that we would think of as pure doctrine. Its directives for living are very specific. It’s not very much about what you are supposed to believe, but it’s very much about how you are to act and behave. James clearly belongs to the biblical tradition of wisdom teaching. A classic example of wisdom teaching in the Old Testament is the book of Proverbs. That’s very much the flavor of James itself.
DAVID: And there’s more that makes James stand out, right?
MARCUS: Yes, James also contains probably the most severe indictment of wealth of any document in the New Testament. The only serious rival would be some of the sayings of Jesus.
DAVID: Or perhaps the second half of Mary’s Magnificat, where she takes the wealthy to task. James is, indeed, strong stuff on this theme. In your new book, for example, a passage from James Chapter 1 says: “The rich will disappear like a flower in the field. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower fails, and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich, in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away.” And from James Chapter 5, there is: “Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you.”
MARCUS: I like James. I find a lot in that text. David, you read and recommended my first novel about the character Kate Riley, who I describe as having written a doctoral dissertation on James. I’m now working on a second novel about Kate and, in this one, she’s teaching a seminar on James. So, readers of my new novel will get exposed to more about James. I don’t have a publication date for that next novel yet, but it’s probably 18 months away or so.
DAVID: You’ve usually got books appearing every year and sometimes more frequently than that. Is there something coming sooner than this next novel?
MARCUS: Yes, my next book, which will be published before the novel, comes from a sermon I preached here in Portland in March. The occasion was my 70th birthday. The season was Lent and I was thinking about how much turning 70 has been empowering to me. I hadn’t really expected that. It’s like: Well, if you’re not going to tell people what you really think when you’re 70, then when are you ever going to do it?
In my life, that hasn’t been too much of a problem. I’ve been telling people what I really think since I began teaching many years ago. But this idea made me sit back and think. It’s an important truth: We need to be honest about what we know. So, the working title for that next book is: What I Wish Every American Christian Knew. And, of course, we’ll talk more about that when it’s closer to publication.
DAVID: I’ll look forward to it and I know our readers will as well.
Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.