Thursday, April 24, 2008

More Contrarian Thoughts on the Gospel of Judas

Caravaggio: The Taking of Christ, 1602, National Gallery of Ireland.

Review of: The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says by April D. DeConick, Continuum, 202 pp., 2007.

When the English translation of the Gospel of Judas was first made public by the National Geographic in 2006, I posted an essay, entitled “Contrarian Thoughts on the Gospel of Judas”, on my web page. My essay took up issues of interpretation as I then understood them. In fact the title I chose for that essay might serve me in good stead for what I now have to say about Professor April DeConick's recent book The Thirteenth Apostle. This new book offers contrarian reading of a different sort: in it DeConick almost completely overturns the interpretation that informed the National Geographic translation. According to DeConick, the Judas depicted in the Coptic manuscript is in no respect the illuminated Gnostic the National Geographic version offers us. Rather she finds this Judas to be a tragically doomed figure, a "demon" actually, depicted in the text as being locked into a grim fate: to serve Ialdabaoth and his Archons by committing a sin graver than any committed by the other, already misguided apostles.

Though DeConick's book is at times a bit breathless and handwringing in style, her arguments are persuasive. If the Coptic words and phrases she analyzes in her third chapter in fact typically mean what she says they do, then her general reading, I must say, is going to be hard to deny. DeConick shows, for example, that where the original team translated Judas saying that Jesus would "set [him] apart for that [holy] generation," what the Coptic phrase really means is that Judas would be "separated from that [holy] generation." To be set apart for salvation and to be separated from salvation are truly quite different things. In this and many other instances, DeConick argues that the Coptic has been misconstrued. Most of these are somewhat minor misconstruals, it's true, but in a text already so fragmented they add up to a completely different sense of what is going on. Especially telling is the difference between the following two translations. Jesus is speaking to Judas:
National Geographic Version:

And when Jesus heard this, he laughed and said to him, "You thirteenth spirit, why do you try so hard?"

DeConick's Version:

When Jesus heard this, he laughed. He said to him, "Why do you compete with them, O Thirteenth Demon?"
The crux here, the word behind the difference between whether Jesus is calling Judas a spirit or a demon, is the Greek word daimon. In its Platonic sense, the word could certainly mean spirit, as anyone who has studied Plato would know. But DeConick argues that the Gospel of Judas was written five centuries after Plato, and that the term daimon had already come too far toward its modern meaning to retain this earlier, positive interpretation. I suspect, based on her arguments, that she is right. I also find her discussions of the text's use of the number thirteen and her discussion of the stars and luminous cloud into which Judas moves toward the end of the gospel to be more convincing than not. In these and other instances, DeConick's interpretation is well served by the fact that she keeps always in mind just how distinct the Gnostics considered the cosmic and aeonic realms: our corrupt earthly realm which included the stars and planets, and the realm of the true God beyond, to which the holy generation would return. A brightly shining star for the Sethians was not something to wish upon: rather it was a sign of the iron hand of fate. And so Jesus' comment to Judas that his star has ascended is not meant to be good news.

Professor DeConick's book contains a complete, new translation of the gospel, one which, in my judgment, offers a more logical progression than that found in the National Geographic version. This in itself suggests DeConick is probably on the right track. The earlier translation had certain odd logical contradictions that even seemed out of bounds for an ancient Coptic text. Consider that at one point in the National Geographic translation we find "[S]eth, who is called Christ" included in a list of the angels who assist the Archons in ruling over chaos and the underworld. I still remember being taken aback by this when I first read the line in 2006. How is it that Seth would be listed among the helpers of the Archons? DeConick has a convincing solution. She argues that what the damaged Coptic text presents simply as "[. . .]eth" with the added title "chs" should not be read as "[S]eth Ch[risto]s":
The five angels who rule over the abysses (Chaos and Hades) are called [. . .]eth, Harmathoth, Galila, Yobel, and Adonaios. The first of these names is probably a version of Athoth (Atheth) based on similar lists in other Sethian texts, not "[S]eth" as the National Geographic team has reconstructed it. Moreover, in the National Geographic transcription, Atheth is given the abbreviated title chs. The team has assumed that this is an abbreviation for christos . . . thus translating the line, "The first is [S]eth, the one who is called Christ." But this is nonsensical. Seth is never an Archon in these lists, nor is Christ ever made to be an Archon ruling over Chaos and Hades in the Sethian literature. Rather, the abbreviated title, chs, is more likely from the Greek word chrestos, with the same first and last letters, but which means "the Good One." This is the epithet associated with Athoth in other Sethian texts. (112)
This rescue of Seth from the Archon's retinue is an example of the kind of clear sense of many of DeConick's translation choices. Is she correct? It is not for me to decide, but if she is in even half her choices, her book offers a significant new version of this ancient text.

Though offering a scholarly argument, The Thirteenth Apostle should be accessible to any keen reader with an interest in Gnosticism and some knowledge of the issues. DeConick's book gives one of the clearest discussions I've encountered of how the Gnostic myths (possibly) arose. How did these groups of ancient seekers move from more normative Jewish belief to the complex cosmogony of Gnosticism? Scholars still aren't certain of the origins of the movement. DeConick opts for one of the standard explanations: it is mainly a matter of the collision of Jewish monotheism with the new science of Plato. Not standard, however, is DeConick's compelling step-by-step narration of this collision and its effects: how certain philosophical positions, once accepted, would likely result in a reconsideration of elements of the orthodox biblical faith, which would then lead to further effects, and so on. Beginning students of Gnosticism can learn a lot from her concise presentation of what may have been happening during these centuries.

Among the issues crucial to DeConick's argument, and which she addresses, are the relations between the Gospel of Judas and Mark, as well as its relations with Sethian works found in the Nag Hammadi collection. Marvin Meyer, one of the scholars on the National Geographic team, criticizes DeConick for her extensive use in this book of later Sethian works, but I suspect these later works, part of a general body of Sethian thought and doctrine, offer the best comparative material we have for assessing what the author of the Gospel of Judas might have meant. That she carefully considers elements from later Sethian literature so as to better understand the earlier text of Judas doesn't at all suggest, to me at least, that DeConick accepts Sethian Gnosticism to be a monolith without historical development.

Particularly of interest in relation to the Gospel of Mark is the theme of the ignorant, bumbling apostles. As is known, in Mark the first and almost only figures to recognize Jesus for who he is are the demons. In contrast to this, the twelve apostles are repeatedly berated by Jesus for not understanding, and upon his arrest they scatter in fear. DeConick points out that sectarians who rejected the doctrines of the apostolic church would be inclined to make use of this Markan portrait of the apostles to show that any church claiming descent from them must be a church of ignorance.
[The writers of the Gospel of Judas know that in Mark] Jesus' disciples are both faithless and ignorant. Tertullian of Carthage tells us that the Gnostics regularly "brand" the twelve apostles, in particular Peter, with "the mark of ignorance" and "simplicity." (101)
Such moves were indeed, as DeConick agrees, part of second-century turf wars between competing sects. The Markan portrait of the apostles' ignorance does not in my mind show an attempt to disparage them: rather it is in the main a matter of the gospel writer's dramatic power, and buttresses the theme of the "Messianic secret." (I also believe, with some scholars, that whoever wrote Mark was likely dependant on either firsthand testimony from Peter or a source dependant on Peter. Thus I don't understand the theme of "Messianic secret" in the sense William Wrede proposed: it is rather partly history remembered, partly an instance of Mark's narrative genius.)

DeConick also makes an argument for Judas' importance as a piece in the historical puzzle of the development of orthodoxy. It is her opinion that the kind of attack on the doctrine of atonement found in the Gospel of Judas may have been instrumental in pushing the early Church toward refining atonement theology. She discusses Origen's early atonement theology as a possible response to the Sethians.

Of course I am not a scholar of Coptic and so cannot myself make a judgment on the translation decisions of the (certainly distinguished) National Geographic team. A debate has opened up regarding the most general issues of interpreting this newly discovered text. What is interesting in any case is the question of why the National Geographic team might have gotten the gist of this gospel so wrong, if indeed they have. In an interview appended to her book DeConick speculates on this:
Judas has been a terrifying figure in our history, since he became in the Middle Ages the archetypal Jew who was responsible for Jesus' death. His story was abused for centuries as a justification to commit atrocities against Jews. I wonder if one of the ways that our communal psyche has handled this in recent decades is to try to erase or explain the evil Judas, to remove from him the guilt of Jesus' death. There are many examples of this in pop fiction and film produced after World War II. It seems to be that the National Geographic interpretation has grown out of this collective need and has been well-received because of it. (180-1)
Later she states:
Judas Iscariot is a frightening figure. For Christians, he is the one who had it all, and yet betrayed God to his death for a few dollars. He is the archetype of human evil, the worst human being ever to live. He is the antithesis of the true Christian. Because of this, his image works as a religious control--he is someone the Christian never wants to become. For Jews, he is terrifying, the man whom Christians associated with Jewish people, whose story was used against them for centuries as a religious justification for their abuse and slaughter. Even his name "Judas" has been linked to "Jew," due to their root similarities (Judas/Judea/Jews). I think that Judas is someone whose shadow haunts us. (182)
These latter comments in particular make for a very apt summary of the grim importance of Judas in our history.

I suspect, however, that if the National Geographic team's interpretation is flawed as DeConick claims, it is not a matter of the scholars unconsciously seeking to assuage a collective guilt. More likely it is simply a result of them working from their expectations of what the text was supposed to contain. All the scholars on the team, for instance, would have known of the Church Fathers' descriptions of the gospel, and these descriptions would have inclined them to preconceive a positive portrait of Judas, which in turn would have influenced their translation choices--one line at a time. Building up their own portrait step by step, and leaning meanwhile on their expectations of what the gospel was supposed to contain, once their translation was finished none of them would have gone back and questioned too carefully the individual snippets. But, as DeConick shows, those snippets added up.

DeConick sums up her idea of the intentions of the ancient believers who wrote the Gospel of Judas:
The Gospel of Judas was written by Gnostic Christians called Sethians in the second century. They wrote it to criticize Apostolic or mainstream Christianity, which they understood to be a form of Christianity that needed to reassess its faith. Particularly troubling for these Gnostic Christians was the Apostolic belief in the atonement, because this meant that God would have had to commit infanticide by sacrificing the Son. They wrote the Gospel of Judas to prove that this could not be the case. Why? Because Judas was a demon who worked for another demon who rules this world and whose name is Ialdabaoth. (181-2)
Over time we will get a better idea of whose arguments the scholars find more persuasive, DeConick's or the National Geographic team's. The Thirteeth Apostle is in any case a fascinating challenge.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Give the Reins to McCain?

As an American living in Taiwan, I’m made aware every day how deep and pervasive cultural difference can be. Having been here for quite awhile, I’m now watching my third U.S. presidential race unfold from across the Pacific, assessing the candidates both as an American and as someone who hears how their words echo in this particular corner of Asia. Following American politics from a foreign country always gives a slightly different perspective.

Over the years I've usually supported the Democrats. I know that in the U.S. Democrats are sometimes blamed for being too concerned about respecting foreign cultures, too “sensitive” to cultural difference. Those who raise such criticisms want to imply that Democrats are more worried about offending foreign sensibilities than they are about defending America: i.e., they are unpatriotic. But given our globalized world, I know attention to such cultural issues should be understood in another way: it is not a matter of political correctness, but rather of hard political realism.

With the Republicans the opposite seems true. They and their leaders seem not the least worried if they know little or nothing about the world they have to deal with.

Enter John McCain and the war on terror. Several times during his recent visit to Jordan, McCain spoke bizarrely about concerns that the Iranian government was “training al Qaeda in Iraq.” Such statements are bizarre because they are sheer nonsense: everyone knows al Qaeda is a Sunni organization, whereas the Iranians are backing the Shiite forces in Iraq.

Nonetheless it was not merely a “senior moment” for the Republican candidate: McCain made his statement several times.

At a news conference in Amman, he said Iranians were “taking al Qaeda into Iran, training them and sending them back.” Asked about his words later, he basically repeated them: “Well, it’s common knowledge and has been reported in the media that al Qaeda is going back into Iran and receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran. That’s well known. And it’s unfortunate.”

What is unfortunate is that Americans don’t seem to recognize what a boneheaded mistake this is. If they did, they’d be thinking twice about putting McCain in the White House--a White House, by the way, that got us into our current can of worms precisely because of its willful ignorance of the religious differences that make a country like Iraq such a powder keg.

Consider: Any nation that might want to fight in or occupy such a country, any nation that plans to put its own young men and women on the front lines there, simply cannot afford to misunderstand such basic facts. Taking the time to understand such deeply rooted religious conflicts in a country one plans to democratize is not a matter of being too “sensitive” or “politically correct.” Rather it is a matter of the utmost military importance.

The Bush administration ignored such ethnic issues at the beginning of its Iraqi adventure, and now McCain is taking up the task of ignoring them again.

McCain only corrected his howler when Joe Lieberman, traveling with him, leaned over and whispered a correction in his ear. I guess Lieberman must have been embarrassed at how stupid Americans look making such statements in a Middle Eastern capital.

I don't know about other Americans, but I for one am sick to death of listening to Republican so-called leaders who can’t distinguish between Shia and Sunni. This is a basic fact of dealing with the Muslim world, and if a man who wants to be our next president can’t keep such basic facts in mind, then he can’t be trusted to oversee anything like a “war on terror.” Much less can he be trusted to manage the diplomacy we will need to keep the Iraqi mess from spreading elsewhere once we, inevitably, begin to draw down troop numbers.

After how many years of this war, and the Republican nominee John McCain still can’t keep the forces straight? And he wants to be in the White House? Imagine if a U.S. presidential contender running during World War II had mixed up Italy and Germany: “I intend to keep fighting until our troops have captured Rome, the German capital!”

Would such a candidate have been judged fit to manage the war against fascism in Europe? Is it any surprise, given the Republican indifference to geographical and cultural facts, that we've botched the occupation of Iraq?

The Manhattan Reichstag Review

Marcus Borg and the Language of the Bible

Review of: Marcus Borg: Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but not Literally, Harper Collins, 321 pp.

New Testament scholar Marcus Borg is a religious thinker who thinks in stages. A period characterized by a certain set of convictions finally proves inadequate to knowledge or experience and must give way to a new set of convictions. Unlike many modern scholars, however, Borg realizes that these new convictions need not be anti-religious. In one autobiographical essay, Borg's personal religious development is laid out in stages: the naïve belief of his youth, followed by a period of atheism, developing in university into a quest to understand Jesus in relation to the political and social problems of his day.

For some years now Borg has been working out the implications of a more recent stage, a Christian faith one might call nascently postmodern. Is his work in this direction part of a new, more spiritually attuned Christianity--as he and likeminded Christians believe--or is it herald rather to the demise of Christianity? This is a question Borg's work everywhere begs.

My focus here will not so much be such general questions as the question of how Borg reads the Bible. I approach Borg's methods of biblical interpretation by considering his book Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, where he offers readings of important biblical texts, including Genesis, the prophets, Job and Ecclesiastes, the Gospels, Paul's letters and Revelation. For my concerns, the most interesting sections of the book come before the specific readings, so I will mainly take up his first chapters, in which he addresses the more general questions of biblical interpretation, i.e.: What kind of book is the Bible? How are we to interpret biblical texts?

One can't deny that Borg makes persuasive arguments against the fundamentalists, those who call themselves "Bible-believing" Christians and who define their belief via the insistence that everything narrated in the Bible is literally, factually, historically true. Fundamentalists believe their argument for the inerrancy of the Bible is in line with traditional Christianity. Borg demonstrates that it is not:
They typically see themselves as affirming "the old-time religion"--that is, Christianity as it was before the modern period. In fact, however, as we shall see, their approach itself is modern, largely the product of a particular form of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Protestant theology. (5)
As Borg explains it, Bible literalists, unbeknownst to themselves, have been made pawns of the very Enlightenment culture they struggle against. How could this be? It is a result of the pervasiveness of Enlightenment views of reality and how we ground our knowledge of reality.

All of us raised and educated in modern Western societies have, whether we like it or not, been indoctrinated with generally Enlightenment views. As Borg likes to put it, we are "fact fundamentalists." We learn early on that statements of truth must be factually verifiable: any statement that doesn't correspond to "the facts" cannot be true. Not factually true, it is false, or, worse, it is simply nonsense. Our culture's deeply ingrained respect for facts is a result of the success of Enlightenment science, which we credit with all the technological breakthroughs of the modern world. As Borg would point out, however, the success and pervasiveness of science in our world has made us deaf to other sorts of truth than the merely factual or empirically verified. Specifically, we've lost the ability to understand broadly metaphorical truths. As "fact fundamentalists," we assume that anyone intending to say something important will use a fact-based manner of presentation. This, after all, is how scientists and researchers state the truth, so it must be the way to state the truth.

According to Borg, religious fundamentalists, who also live in the modern world, have anachronistically imposed this modern perspective on the Bible. They mistakenly assume the writers of biblical times shared our fact-based understanding of how to communicate truth. Fundamentalists are thus led to insist on the factual "inerrancy" of the Bible because, as moderns, they tacitly believe anything not grounded in empirically verifiable fact will lose its authority. Indeed, given their narrowly modern perspective, they assume it could never have had any authority to begin with. In this way Borg shows that fundamentalists are duped by the very modernity they struggle against: insisting on the "literal truth" of the Bible, they risk shrinking the Bible down to the size of a high school science textbook. The problem is very clear: the Bible's manner of conveying truth is not and never was that of a textbook. The biblical writers did not share our obsession with fact-based presentation; their palette was more varied, and their works wove history and metaphor with a boldness we no longer appreciate.

Marcus Borg

Though Borg doubtless somewhat overstates his case, he is here generally persuasive. He shows throughout how biblical texts often contain internal cues as to their metaphorical intent. And he stresses that a literal reading was not necessarily the "normal" way of approaching the Bible even in the early centuries of Church history. Consider the following quote on the Genesis narratives:
What intelligent person can imagine that there was a first day, then a second and third day, evening and morning, without the sun, the moon, and the stars? [Sun, moon, and stars are created on the fourth day.] And that the first day--if it makes sense to call it such--existed even without a sky? [The sky is created on the second day.] Who is foolish enough to believe that, like a human gardener, God planted a garden in Eden in the East and placed in it a tree of life, visible and physical, so that by biting into its fruit one would obtain life? And that by eating from another tree, one would come to know good and evil? And when it is said that God walked in the garden in the evening and that Adam hid himself behind a tree, I cannot imagine that anyone will doubt that these details point symbolically to spiritual meanings by using a historical narrative which did not literally happen. (70-1)
These words do not come from a modern liberal Christian seeking to water down the Bible's authority, but from the distinguished 3rd century Church father Origen. To men and women who lived before modernity, a story didn't necessarily have to be factual to merit reverence. They recognized other modes of truth. Though Origen affirmed that he saw much of the Bible as historical, he also insisted many things "were recorded as having occurred, but which did not literally take place," and that even "the gospels themselves are filled with the same kind of narratives."

Such statements may seem odd coming from one of the greatest of ancient Christian writers. But, according to Borg, it is we moderns who have become odd. He writes:
The modern preoccupation with factuality has had a pervasive and distorting effect on how we see the Bible and Christianity. . . . Christianity in the modern period became preoccupied with the dynamic of believing or not believing. For many people, believing "iffy" claims to be true became the central meaning of Christian faith. It is an odd notion--as if what God most wants from us is believing highly problematic statements to be factually true. And if one can't believe them, then one doesn't have faith and isn't a Christian. (16)
For Borg the Bible is neither infallible nor somehow a transcription, written down by dictation, of the words of God. Rather it records the experiences of God of the ancient Israelites and the early Christian movement. The Bible is thus a record made by human beings, a "human product," but one that nevertheless communicates "a reality." According to Borg, God is not a fiction or a lie but a real presence known in human experience:
To see the Bible as a human product does not in any way deny the reality of God. Indeed, one of the central premises of this book is that God is real and can be experienced. I have put that as simply as I know how. At the risk of repetition, I mean that God (or "the sacred" or "Spirit," terms that I use synonymously) is a reality known in human experience, and not simply a human creation or projection.
That "God is real," however, does not mean that there can be any perfect human explanation of God or God's will. And this includes the Bible.
Of course, whatever we say about the sacred is a human creation. We cannot talk about God (or anything else) except with the words, symbols, stories, concepts, and categories known to us, for they are the only language we have. Nevertheless, we also have experiences of "the holy," "the numinous," "the sacred." These experiences go beyond language, shatter it, relativize it. (22)
For Borg, the sacred is mainly to be found in these experiences of God. If any scripture results from such experiences, that is necessarily a secondary phenomenon. If the Bible is sacred, then, it not because it is "the Word of God" in the sense of a Word that came directly from God, but rather because it is recognized as sacred by the community of Christian believers. The sacred character of the Bible is grounded in its status as record of the ancient experiences of God most valued by the Christian community. The Christian community, in turn, is constituted by the Bible through constant dialogue with its texts, which dialogue Borg understands as one of the central sacraments of Christian faith. To put all this another way, one might say that the Bible is not sacred in origin (it is not a direct product of divine composition) but only in status (it is a crucial ground of Christian experience of the sacred). Borg writes:
The older, conventional way of seeing the Bible grounded scripture's authority in its origin: the Bible was sacred because it came from God. The result was a monarchical model of biblical authority. Like an ancient monarch, the Bible stands over us, telling us what to believe and do. But seeing the Bible as sacred in its status leads to a different model of biblical authority. . . .

The result: the monarchical model of biblical authority is replaced by a dialogical model of biblical authority. In other words, the biblical canon names the primary collection of ancient documents with which Christians are to be in continuing dialogue. This continuing conversation is definitive and constitutive of Christian identity. . . .

Yet because the Bible is a human product as well as sacred scripture, the continuing dialogue needs to be a critical conversation. There are parts of the Bible that we will decide need not or should not be honored, either because we discern that they were relevant to ancient times but not to our own, or because we discern that they were never the will of God.

. . . .

To be Christian means to live within the world created by the Bible.
Borg elaborates on what such living entails in his discussion of the Bible as a sacrament: "a vehicle by which God becomes present, a means through which the Spirit is experienced." (30-1)

Borg's arguments are powerful and well thought out, particularly as regards the blindness induced in modern Christians by our "fact-obsessed" modernity. Though there are directions in which I wouldn't follow Borg, I agree with him on much. Still, I believe in this work he has not adequately addressed the issue of language and the divine. For Borg--it is a point to which he returns repeatedly--the language of the Bible is human: both its glories and limitations come from its being a human product. As educated Christians, we admire the brilliance of biblical writers even as we recognize their (sometimes obsolete) culturally determined prejudices. According to Borg, humanity most quintessentially encounters the divine in "experiences of God," which are understood to be somehow separate from the language in which they are (later?) recorded. Thus the biblical writers' strictly human language is placed on one side as an instrument used to record what is seen, on the other, as the more essential experience.

There are various problems raised by this model. One is that it simplifies how biblical texts came to be written. For instance, we cannot really say that the writer of the Gospel of John "experienced" the content of his Gospel one day and then wrote it down the next, as if taking belated notes on a meeting he'd had earlier. I would argue instead that the interplay between experience and language is much more complex--even that language itself is our most fundamental bridge to religious experience. Borg's model underestimates both the power and centrality of language: he puts language too exclusively on the human side of a divide between God and humanity. My own understanding of language would certainly be judged eccentric by some, but I believe it allows for a better understanding of the experience of the divine. I believe that our linguistic faculty is itself already partly divine. Through language, and particularly at certain privileged moments, the divine speaks in us. This is how the biblical prophets experienced language, and it explains, in my interpretation, a crucial part of the meaning of Christ as "the Word made Flesh." The Bible is not entirely a human product; rather, the language of the Bible came about across a bridge between God and ourselves.

Though sharing much with other species, we human beings are endowed, very mysteriously, with the power of language. Neither does any other species have anything approaching the complexity and power of human language, nor does any human community have a language that is less than fully developed: i.e., there is no such thing as a human group with a simple or "primitive language." Language, in all its complexity, is part of the human makeup. And with the power of language come other characteristics unique to our species, such as self-consciousness, reasoning ability, and religious sense. But where did our linguistic faculty itself come from, or, in evolutionary terms, how did it develop? Linguists, anthropologists, geneticists and brain scientists have struggled to answer this question, but a satisfying answer remains elusive. I would insist that this extraordinary faculty is the sign of some fundamental difference between us and other species, and that it is in this faculty, more than in our physical shape, that we should see the meaning of the line in Genesis: "So God created man in his image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them." (Gen. 1:27) For me, to be created in the image of God is to be created as linguistic, thinking beings. (NB: Although I use the language of creation here, I am not with those who reject the theory of evolution. On the contrary, evolution is the most compelling explanation of the origin of species, including our own. But evolution is not necessarily the most compelling explanation of everything that concerns the universe and life. Creation in my thinking was an oblique event: we are the species evolved in a way that allows the linguistic and spiritual bridge to God to open. That this opening may be in part the result of a multitude of chance mutations does not mean there is no God or no creation; it only means that the material universe was set to throwing the dice until such an opening should be made. It is becoming clearer and clearer that arguments for intelligent design make weak sense at the biological-genetic level, but very compelling sense at the level of the universe as a whole. Unless one subscribes to the utterly unverifiable theory of a multiverse, one is compelled to acknowledge that the universe we live in seems to an uncanny degree designed to allow for the rise of life.)

Our religious tradition, its understanding of God, forefronts language like no other. According to the first chapters of Genesis, creation itself was effected through language: "And God said, Let there be light: and there was light." (Gen. 1:3) The God who created through language is subsequently shown ordering the human world through it. The first human beings were expelled from the Garden of Eden because they ignored God's express verbal command (and it was the verbal wiles of the serpent that undid them); the Tower of Babel story shows human pride defeated through a newly instituted multiplicity of languages; the patriarch Abraham is not given a kingdom or some special power but is rather made party to a covenant (a verbal agreement); both Mosaic law and the prophets are a matter of receiving and then remembering the correct verbal formulations of God's plan for humanity. In the New Testament, Jesus comes teaching like the prophets, and is called "the Word made Flesh." His common refrain is: "He who has ears to hear, let him hear." One may experience and recognize many things visually, but what one hears is most essentially spoken language. Language and voice are Jesus' strongest metaphors for the link to God.

At one point in his presentation, Borg argues against seeing the Bible as a part-human, part-divine product:
[A]ffirming that the Bible is both divine and human leads to the attempt to separate the divine parts from the human parts--as if some of it comes from God and some is a human product. The parts that come from God are then given authority, and the others are not. But the parts that we think come from God are normally the parts we see as important, and thus we simply confer divine authority on what matters to us, whether we be conservatives or liberals. (27)
I agree that this will happen. Nonetheless the Bible is certainly such a divine/human product: the text is both shot through with divine formulations--expressions the Spirit forged in the crucible of the human mind--and inflected throughout by the dross of human mania and error. There is doubtless no single book of the Bible that is not in this way an admixture of the divine and human. Yet though we recognize the Bible as such a work, we will still be forever unable to separate out what comes from God and what is merely our own prejudice about God. This, however, is an attendant part of the human condition: to shift to St. Paul's visual metaphor, we see "though a glass darkly."

The closest Borg comes to my own view of biblical language is in a discussion of the Bible as "the World of God," where he writes:
"Word" is being used in a metaphorical and nonliteral sense. As with metaphors generally, this one resonates with more than one nuance of meaning. A word is a means of communication, involving both speaking and hearing. A word is a means of disclosure; we disclose or reveal ourselves through words. Words bridge the distance between ourselves and others: we commune and become intimate through words.

. . . . The Bible is a means of divine self-disclosure. (33-4)
By evoking speaking, hearing and a distance to be bridged, Borg is getting close to contradicting himself. According to his repeatedly stated principle, it is not God we hear in the Bible, but men speaking of God. How then is the Bible a means of "divine self-disclosure"?

Though I find Borg's solution to the problem of the origin of the Bible to be unsatisfactory, his chapter on basic reading approaches, in which he explains the "historical-metaphorical" method, is excellent. Many of his points here have long been understood by readers, going back even to ancient times, but in our world of atheist materialists on the one hand and biblical literalists on the other, such ideas need the kind of clear presentation Borg gives. He concludes the chapter by presenting three stages Bible readers may go through: precritical naivete; critical thinking; postcritical naivete. I believe his stages are roughly right for many modern Christians, but think he'd be better served calling the third stage postcritical belief. Perhaps he doesn't because of his stress on the experiential and sacramental over the, for him, more fraught term belief. In any case, for me a postcritical belief would imply a belief in the sacred character and central importance of the Bible, not a belief that all its narratives are factually true. As Borg points out, many pre-Englightenment cultures accepted that factually untrue stories could nonetheless be profoundly true:
Postcritical naivete is the ability to hear the biblical stories once again as true stories, even as one knows that they may not be factually true and that their truth does not depend upon their factuality.

This way of hearing sacred stories is widespread in premodern cultures. In Arabia, traditional storytellers begin their stories with "This was, and this was not." . . . A favorite of mine is the way a Native American storyteller begins telling his tribe's story of creation: "Now I don't know if it happened this way or not, but I know this story is true." If you can get your mind around that statement, then you know what postcritical naivete is. (50)
There are many aspects of Borg's book I haven't addressed. Most obviously, I haven't referred to any of his readings of biblical texts. As stated above, the bulk of Reading the Bible Again for the First Time is given to explicating important biblical books in terms of his historical-metaphorical method. Much of it is well worth reading, especially the chapters on the Pentateuch, the Gospels, and his well-balanced poetic defense of Revelation.

In an epilogue, Borg writes:
[This] book reflects my personal perceptions. I do not have an objective vantage point outside of my own history. . . . For me, this book comes down to what I have been able to see thus far about how to read the Bible. (297)
Such disarming statements are ultimately true, of course, but they are also somewhat belied by the amount of scholarship behind Borg's readings. After all, he has decades of study shaping his perceptions of the Bible; his "personal" interpretations are, to no small degree, a matter of what modern scholarship has allowed him to see. Borg struggles to be responsible both to his Christian faith and to what modernity has revealed to him. Whether he has been successful in this double allegiance is up to the reader to decide. Borg himself might argue, of course, that it is not a double allegiance and that it is not up to the reader to decide in any case. He might insist that success or failure here is a matter to be worked out in his personal relationship with God, in his own experience of the Christian tradition as a multifaceted sacrament. According to such a vision of the Christian life, this--and not self-imposed adherence to any creed--would be the truth of Christianity for the (post)modern faithful. Does such an individually modulated and dialogical notion of Christian truth do justice to the faith? Many will say No, and discard the lot of Borg's perceptions; others will embrace him as a brother in the Spirit; still others, like myself, will toss back some of Borg's catch, but keep a few fine fish.

Check Marcus Borg’s Reading the Bible Again for the First Time at