Notes From The Balcony

Progressive Reflections on Post-Modern Living in a Multifaith Age

Conversations With Scripture – Borg on Mark

Posted by John Montgomery on February 18, 2010

180px-Marcus_Borg_speaking_in_Mansfield_College_chapelI really wish that I had Marcus Borg’s ability to write for a  lay audience. That may be, even more than the insights he shares, the key reason that I delight in his latest book,  published as part of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars Study Series, Conversation About Scripture.

The Gospel of Mark is by my count the seventh book published in that series which also includes work on John, Parables, the Law, 2nd Isaiah, Acts and Revelation. I didn’t immediately find much in Borg’s new book that was particularly new – he has already written some 22 books and leads workshops across the continent in a variety of local congregations. But it is nice, especially as my ongoing study focus is Taking a Second Look at Mark, to have it all in one place.

Following what for me is a very well written introduction to post-modern Biblical study and his particular approach, Borg looks at the Gospel in five successive chapters. Rejecting the false choices between fundamentalist literalism on the one hand and the popular put down of more metaphorical readings of scripture as “less than” worthy on the other, Borg reiterates his work with Metaphorical (Parabolic) Narratives in the text, an approach that looks instead for that which is “more than” the historical, literal events related.

While Borg slogs through the text beginning with what he calls the “overture,” his chapter divisions are less grounded in the actual flow of the narrative, but serve as stopping places to explore particular elements. Gospel chapters 1-3, as the overture, function to set the stage playing key recurring themes. In particular, Borg focuses like many scholars also do on the notion of “the way” as Mark’s central paradigm.

Chapter 2 in the study focuses on Mark 4-5 exploring the topics of parabolic teaching first and then miracles examined less as actual events and more as truth-filled stories, many grounded in the Christian Old Testament.

Let me take a brief tangent, simply thanking Borg for sensitivity to some of the more damaging images of the relationships between Jews and Christians that even today hang around especially in local congregations but unfortunately in some pulpits as well. His choice to speak of the Jewish Scriptures and the “Christian Old Testament” is a point in kind, although I wish he would not simply skip over the fact that these two books are distinctly different books. However, he makes a helpful start here. In his discussion of the Final Week (chapter five  Mark 9-16), he clearly reminds readers that the corruption of the nation’s ruling elites is not the corruption of the Jewish people.

Borg’s third chapter (Mark 6:1-8:21) returns to the theme of miracles, this time nature miracles and their echo in the Jewish creation tradition, particularly the stilling of the storm. He then also explores the growing rejection, not so much by the crowds, but by authorities and the predictable conflicts being foreshadowed in the text.

Chapter Four (Mark 8:22-10:52) explores what scholar John Donahue spoke of as the top of the arch, the story of the journey from the Galilee to Judea (finally Jerusalem). Borg rightly points out that this segment of the text begins with the story of the healing of the blind man in Bethsaida and ends with a second miracle of restoring sight of one in Jericho. In between (inside this sandwich), Borg looks at the three teachings of Jesus about the Son of Man and what is to happen to him. He also discusses in each associated pericope the misunderstanding at stake and the renewed call to follow “the way.”

In this chapter, Borg  also speaks to the issue of understanding the crucifixion and resurrection beyond the fundamentalist queion of whether these events really occurred – a misinformed, misplaced question that distracts from encountering the real meat of the narrative.

Then, Borg  wrestles briefly with other stories that emerge in these texts including the transfiguration and the disturbing questions of Jesus’ attitude to wealth.

While I find this book helpful, it seems to me that as this book and the related Gospel are studied in a local parish, some scholarly consultation might be helpful. For Borg is not the last word (and I certainly don’t think he intends to be) but this study is better imaged as a “first word” that raises a whole series of issues that can be explored in the uture. This is why I do understand the rationale behind no footnotes (actually only five), the fact that there are only sixs other sources identified in what looks to be a bibliography seems to me to be less than helpful. So for example, Borg speaks of the event of the tearing of the curtain in the temple as the ripping of the cloth separating the holy of holies, but someone like Raymond Brown would beg to differ noting that there are probably several curtains. Or again, Borg’s statement that there is no historical precedent for the Barrabbas amnesty is frankly wrong.

Theologically, I find his point blank affirmation of what is called the “Messianic Secret” simplistic and his failure to distinguish between the Judean Messianic tradition and the Galilean Son of Man perspective problematic. Still, especially if a study group has access to additional perspectives, this is certainly a book that I would recommend.

Borg’s final chapter examines the week in Jerusalem culminating in crucifixion and resurrection and he is quite honest that he draws much of the summary material from his book written with Crossan, The Final Week. I might add that I love that book, so if I had a study group looking first at this resource, the next place I would take the group might well be to the fuller discussion in that book. Having said that, B0rg does extract important insights including the fact that on so-called Palm Sunday (not really a Sunday) there were two parades.

In that context, we are not surprised to find Borg’s work with empire (what he and Crossan call the “domination system”) mentioned throughout the commentary. Borg’s clear break with notions of Substitutionary Atonement are certainly there as well and may be more forcefully stated than in other settings. I’ve still got to work a bit on his suggestion of an alternative notion of  “participatory atonements.” Of course, Borg rehearses his, what for me is a helpful distinction between Faith (belief) as subscribing to a check list of  formal propositions and Faith (belief) as loyalty and trust. This description of paradign shift is found in a couple of his earlier books and often is the recurring subject of his seminars.

Without losing his perspective on Mark, I did find his regular comments as to how Matthew (less Luke and John) edited what Mark had first written. This features opens the door to further study of the larger Gospel tradition and its evolution.

As a part of the series, Borg’s commentary is followed by several pages of study questions and curriculum suggestions that offer a lot of  ways a group might take the study consistent with the actual membership. The author of these questions is not identified, but it is someone other than Borg. However, in his writing Borg also periodically stops the commentary and asks a series of questions as well.
This is helpful too and Borg is frank enough to say that he is puzzled at certain texts and honest enough to point out that scholars disagree at some places.



Well that’s the review.

Here is the commercial! Many of you are aware that for the last several months I have bee writing initial commentaries on Mark as well. This project started on the old 7 Village site, but has now in the process of being moved to my new journal site, Logos 2.0.

My study, Taking a Second Look at Mark, is still under construction, but in the meantime, I would love to put you on my mail list for when it starts again. In the meantime, please check out some of the previous posts.

3 Responses to “Conversations With Scripture – Borg on Mark”

  1. John Meunier said

    In this chapter, Borg also speaks to the issue of understanding the crucifixion and resurrection beyond the fundamentalist queion of whether these events really occured – a misinformed, misplaced question that distracts from encountering the real meat of the narrative.

    Nice review of the book, and I appreciate your efforts to point out weaknesses. I am confused, though, by your suggestion that concern about whether the resurrection happened in is “fundamentalist” concern. Borg throws around that kind of language as an effective rhetorical device, but there are vast numbers of non-fundamentalist Christians who think it is actually an important issue.

  2. Guess I’ll have to get ahold of this one soon. Thanks for the review.

  3. I may have spoken too fast limiting this only to fundamentalists. Certainly someone like NT Wright would argue for the historicity of resurrection. Although, he would now find something like the historicity of the Virgin Birth absolutely necessary. I think Borg would simply say – so what? Does it really make a difference. Fred Gailley wrote somewhere that the notion of a resuscitated body simply would not convince us today. Last Lenten season, I said that I would get to this question…I ran out of time! Hmmm!

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