The First Christmas, The Last Week and The Meaning of Jesus

The First Christmas
by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan
New York: HarperCollins, 2007, 272 pp.
$22.95 (hardcover)
The Last Week
by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan
New York: HarperCollins, 2006, 256 pp.
$21.95 (hardcover), $13.95 (paperback)
The Meaning of Jesus
by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan
New York: HarperCollins, 2007, 320 pp.
$15.95 (paperback)
Reviewed by John Merrill
The First Christmas is a recent entry in the long-running debate about the historical accuracy of New Testament accounts. The book’s joint authors, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, are well-known Christian scholars. Their topic, as the title implies, is the conception and birth of Jesus, as portrayed in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. The book begins with a textual exposition of the two gospel narratives, and soon confronts, as is inevitable in any such analysis, the numerous and often-irreconcilable differences between the two.

Early on, the reader begins to suspect that this will be a rehash of problems already dealt with by others.a But instead the authors offer an intriguing perspective. The nativity narratives, they assert, were written as parables, and should be understood and judged as such. Since they were never intended to be historically complete or accurate, the seeming differences in their reported “facts” are not relevant.

The authors’ premise is a new twist, in the sense that readers are so often asked to choose between Biblical material that can be documented to be true, and material that must be taken on faith. A parable, however, is an account that, while plausible and internally consistent, has no necessary basis in objective reality. Instead, according to Borg and Crossan, the “truth” of a parable lies in the validity of its intended message. Take, as an example, the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan. Whether or not the Samaritan ever existed as a real person is irrelevant to the tale. What counts is the moral “truth” the tale conveys.

For the authors of The First Christmas, the same standard of truth applies to the nativity narratives of Matthew and Luke. They go on, then, to describe the underlying meaning of the nativity parable. It is designed, they say, to provide a contrast between, on the one hand, the conception, divinity and purpose of Jesus as savior of the world, and, on the other hand, the preexistent Roman understanding of the conception, divinity and purpose (also as savior) of the Roman emperor Augustus. The discussion of the parallels between these two understandings of a divine savior is extremely erudite, clearly written and densely packed with historical and literary material. Readers who make the effort to follow the authors’ explication will find the results quite impressive.

Explore the date of Christmas in Andrew McGowan’s popular Bible Review article “How December 25 Became Christmas,” available for free in Bible History Daily.

For those familiar with the authors’ prior work, the notion of gospel as parable will not be surprising. Borg and Crossan employed the same approach in their earlier collaboration, The Last Week, which deals with the passion and resurrection stories. Moreover, Borg offered a similar formulation some ten years earlier, this time in The Meaning of Jesus, co-authored with the self-described conservative scholar N.T. Wright, now bishop of Durham, England.

The Meaning of Jesus reveals an important and seemingly irreconcilable difference between Borg’s “parabolic” interpretation and N.T. Wright’s literal reading of the texts. Take, for example, the all-important question of resurrection, which is at the core of Christian theology. For Borg, resurrection has nothing to do, necessarily, with, as he puts it, “the resumption of protoplasmic or corpuscular existence of a corpse.” Instead, the followers of Jesus continued to experience Jesus as “a living reality” after his death. It is perhaps impossible to do full justice to Borg’s argument in a short book review, but in essence he sees the resurrection as something real, but in a metaphorical sense.

By contrast, Wright asserts that the resurrection is a historically factual, physical event. He argues his point in a powerful way, and readers who wish to see the reported resurrection of Jesus as literally true, will find ample support in Wright’s logic. Readers who would prefer a more scientific proof of such an unusual and miraculous event, may not be fully satisfied by Wright’s argument. He relies largely on the testimony of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, this being the only first-hand testimony in the New Testament.1 While trying to paraphrase Paul’s concept of resurrection, Wright explains that the resurrected body is one of “transformed physicality, with new (but undefined) properties and attributes” (parentheses mine). Here, we have clearly entered into the realm of metaphysics, where belief becomes a matter of faith.

These are all engaging books, well-written, strongly argued, and loaded to the gunwales with textual and historical insights. They will offer thought-provoking ideas to readers of all persuasions. But in the debate about the historical accuracy of the Gospels, neither side administers a knock-out punch. Wright’s case, as noted, boils down to a traditional reliance on faith. Borg and Crossan provide convincing support for their metaphorical interpretation. But as persuasive as the message may be, some may find it reminiscent of Vance Packard’s Hidden Persuaders, a 1957 seminal study of the manipulation of human hopes and dreams by artful storytelling. And so reminded, readers may come to question whether a Jesus marketed in this imaginative way is preferable to either the Jesus of faith or the Jesus of history.



1. Scholars generally agree that the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and teaching—including accounts of his resurrection—are based on traditions that, at the time of compilation, were a generation or more old. This may be adequate testimony for much of the narrative, but for the physical resurrection of a medically deceased person, second and third-hand reports may be less than fully convincing for some readers.

a. See, for example The Nativity, by Geza Vermes reviewed in BAR 34:01.

John Merrill is a contributing editor of BAR.

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