Obits make Marcus Borg a "controversial" scholar, while downplaying the controversy

Marcus Borg, by all accounts, blended a nice-guy approach with blunt denials of nearly every historic belief about Jesus. That often drove conservative believers to distraction, of course. But not mainstream media, which helped the Bible scholar spread his ideas for decades.

Much of that enthusiasm also marked the obits on Borg, who died Wednesday at 72. Among the most-republished obits is the detailed, 860-word obit from the Religion News Service.

RNS notes that Borg was a leader in the Jesus Seminar, which "helped popularize the intense debates about the historical Jesus and the veracity and meaning of the New Testament." The story correctly calls Borg a "liberal theologian and Bible scholar."

But it appears subtly to take sides in the debates:

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.

Assuming that there is, in fact, myth in the Gospels puts a spin on the term. In another narrative tilt, RNS later says Borg was a "hero to Christian progressives and a target for conservatives." Borg's opponents, then, are against progress.

And although the obit quotes a couple of scholars saying they disagreed with Borg, it doesn't give the what or why of the disagreements. The article mentions Anglican scholar N.T. Wright, who often lectured with Borg and even co-authored a book with him. A live quote would have been a good idea. Otherwise, it's like recapping a horse race by talking mainly about one horse.

The Associated Press obit does a bit better, saying Borg "attracted praise and controversy by helping to lead efforts to analyze Jesus as a historical figure." Then it fleshes out some of that controversy:

Through such books as "Jesus: A New Vision," Borg is credited with bringing scholarly debates about Jesus to a broad readership. His work drew much criticism from more theologically conservative Christians and others, who argued his methods were unsound and his work undermined faith. But Borg wrote that he had conducted his research within the context of his "unbelieving past" and his "believing present" as a Christian.

Beyond that paraphrase, though, objections to Borg's work and thought are lacking in the story. Yet AP found the space to quote praise from his publisher about being "unafraid to follow the scholarly evidence" and "communicating complexity fluently."

And the above constitutes a kind of "ghost" -- not exactly a religious one, but an academic one. Borg really said little new; neither did the Jesus Seminar, the coalition of liberal scholars he worked with. The attempt to separate a "historical Jesus" from the "Christ of faith," after all, has been going on for three centuries.

The difference was Borg's casual, low-key conversational style and the media savvy of Jesus Seminar founder Robert Funk. The Seminar also found ready allies among reporters and editors who always welcome a new spin on old topics.

The Corvallis Gazette-Times in Oregon naturally angled its story on Borg as a native son who in 1992 saved the religious studies department at Oregon State University. As did RNS, the Gazette-Times plays up Borg's good nature and his way of engaging people who disagreed with him.

I liked this Borg quote: “Life is short, and we have not too much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel the way with us. Be swift to love, and make haste to be kind.”

But c'mon, did the newspaper have to lionize him as a "world-recognized expert on the historical Jesus"? I also raised an eyebrow when the story called Jesus a religious "icon" -- one of the worst uses of the word in a long train of them.

The Oregonian, the newspaper of record for that state, has a surprisingly short, 300-word obit on Borg, who taught at Oregon State University from 1979 to 2007. Still, the story brings out more of the Jesus Seminar's methods and conclusions than most stories:

Borg was a fellow at the controversial Oregon-based Jesus Seminar, an independent group of biblical scholars that concluded Jesus did not walk on water or compose the Lord's Prayer. In 1996, the group published an original translation of the gospels that ranked the reliability of Jesus's sayings by color: red for historically reliable, pink for probably reliable, gray for possible but unreliable and black if they were improbable.

My main beef there is that the Lord's Prayer and walking on water were not the most controversial products of the Jesus Seminar. Nor did the Oregonian cite one of the first products of the color coding: Back in the 1980s the group famously claimed that only about 100 of the 503 sayings attributed to Jesus could be traced to him.

Then there's the resurrection. Borg himself told me in 1992: "For me, the issue is not whether Jesus rose from the dead; it's whether anything happened to his body. Resurrection is not necessarily resuscitation. It's more like an entry into another kind of existence … The historical Jesus is dead and gone, a figure of the past. It's the risen and living Christ (i.e., the theological concepts) that we can know and pray to and worship."

The Oregonian and RNS alike, however, bring out a humble side of Borg. RNS says he "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."

RNS and the Oregonian cite an anecdote from a Q&A at Christ Church Cathedral in Houston. Someone asked Borg, "But how do you know that you're right?"

He paused, then said, "I don't know. I don't know that I'm right."

If only he had said that whenever he gave media interviews. His pronouncements would have sounded much different.

Then again, many of his interviewers -- including myself -- didn't ask. We were too interested in reporting something new.

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