Tuesday, January 01, 2008

A Radically Liberal Christmas (Part 2)

Several days ago, I posted some comments about a recent book on the infancy narratives by Marcus Borg and John Crossan. At the time, I had only read about 100 pages of the book. I recently finished reading it, and I want to add some comments to my earlier post.

The book is largely about the alleged neglect of the political context of the infancy narratives. Borg and Crossan don't deny that the narratives have spiritual and personal significance. But they think that some political elements of the Christmas narratives have been neglected. Some of the titles applied to Jesus (Lord, Son of God, etc.) were applied to Caesar in ancient times. The infancy narratives refer to political figures such as Herod and Augustus as ignorant of who Jesus was and opposed to Him. The references to God as Savior in the Magnificat and elsewhere involve salvation in this world, with political implications, not just spiritual reconciliation with God and an afterlife. Etc.

Borg and Crossan are correct in some of what they observe about the political context of the infancy narratives and the tendency of some people in our day to neglect the temporal and political implications of these passages and of scripture in general. But they go too far in the other direction. They see political implications where there probably aren't any. They often misread the political implications that do exist. And while they object to the neglect of the political implications of the infancy narratives, both authors are guilty of the more significant error of neglecting the spiritual and personal implications.

An example of their imbalance is their treatment of Revelation 12. The passage does have some relevance to Jesus' childhood, but they dubiously identify the dragon of that passage as the Roman empire (p. 194). Satan isn't even mentioned in their discussion of the passage, even though Revelation 12:9 identifies the dragon as Satan. The chapter repeatedly associates the dragon with heavenly warfare, angels, activity throughout the ages of history, and appearances before God to bring charges against His people, all of which make far more sense in reference to Satan than in reference to the Roman empire or even worldly political systems in general. While it could rightly be argued that Satan was a motivating force behind the Roman empire, nothing in the passage suggests Rome as a prominent reference. Satan does use political systems to achieve his purposes at times, but the focus of the passage, as far as the dragon is concerned, is on Satan, not Rome or political systems in general. Judging from what Crossan has said elsewhere, I doubt that he even believes in the existence of Satan. He doesn't seem to believe in the existence of God as the term is commonly defined (Paul Copan, ed., Will The Real Jesus Please Stand Up? [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1998], pp. 49-51). Borg and Crossan's neglect of such spiritual aspects of the Bible is more significant than the neglect of scripture's political implications.

And where there are political implications to the accounts of Jesus' childhood and other passages of scripture, Borg and Crossan often arrive at the wrong place on the political spectrum. They think that the Bible presents some inconsistent views of eschatology and how political systems should operate (pp. 70-72). They side with the Biblical passages that allegedly refer to the attainment of peace through nonviolence and justice, as opposed to other Biblical passages and extra-Biblical political systems that seek peace through violence:

"There are, in other words, two utterly divergent descriptions of God's final solution to the existence of imperialism, one violent and the other nonviolent, one extermination in a Great Final Battle and the other conversion at a Great Final Feast. They are both there from one end of the Christian Bible to the other. Which one, do you think, is announced by those Christmas stories? When Luke's angels announce 'peace on earth' to those shepherds at Bethlehem, is it peace through victory or peace through justice?" (p. 72)

Borg and Crossan repeatedly make ridiculous comments such as the following:

"Judaism and Christianity are, for us, a double covenant and, no matter how each has disputed the other's dignity and integrity throughout the centuries, we hold them as fully and equally valid before God." (p. 40)

"In English 'humankind' [in the Bible] often appears chauvinistically as 'mankind.' Similarly, in Semitic languages 'human being' often appears chauvinistically as 'man' or 'son of man.'" (p. 68)

The book doesn't go into much detail about modern politics. In my first post about the book, linked above, I referred to a recent Boston Globe article that cites some comments Marcus Borg has made that are critical of the war in Iraq. But Borg and Crossan's book is mostly less specific than that. They do refer to "the American empire" (p. 238) as a parallel to the Roman empire, but they also acknowledge that America is different in some ways. They make a positive reference to a recent book by Jim Wallis (p. 239), and there's some brief criticism of George Bush, but I don't recall anything as specific as a criticism of the war in Iraq or conservative tax policy. It seems that Borg and Crossan are both theologically and politically liberal, but the book is more about general principles than the details of political policy. Borg has gone into more detail in other contexts, such as at the event the Boston Globe covered, but he and Crossan seem to have wanted the book to appeal to a more general audience.

Though I think Borg and Crossan are wrong in much of what they say about politics, their errors on other issues, such as the historicity of the infancy narratives, are more significant. I made some comments on some of those other errors in my first post, and I'll have more to say tomorrow.


  1. "In English 'humankind' [in the Bible] often appears chauvinistically as 'mankind.' Similarly, in Semitic languages 'human being' often appears chauvinistically as 'man' or 'son of man.'" (p. 68)

    Nauseating political correctness...great.

    Liberalism is a mental disorder.


    As to the "political language": I heard the same argument from Crossan in James White's debate with him. It seems that he's arguing that the gospel stories were made up and used as meta-narratives against the Roman political system and military policy. Have you or anyone else written on this?

    If I recall correctly, wasn't the Davidic king already called God's "firstborn" (Psalm 89:27).

  2. "It seems that he's arguing that the gospel stories were made up and used as meta-narratives against the Roman political system and military policy."

    This is reading Marxist class warfare back into the text. Luke is the only Evangelist of the four who takes a passing interest in the Roman political system, and even in his case, this is hardly the dominant theme of his gospel.

    Given the degree to which Roman politics intersected with Jewish politics, it's striking how peripheral this is to the four gospels. They only talk about it when they have to.

    Just compare the four gospels to Josephus in terms of their respective interest in the Roman political system.

    There's a very high percentage of material in all four gospels which is irrelevant to the Roman political system.

  3. Saint And Sinner,

    Steve has already made some relevant points. I'll have more to say in my remaining posts on Borg and Crossan's book. I have three more posts on it, and they should be going up tomorrow, Thursday, and Friday. Borg and Crossan do say many of the same things Crossan said in his debate with James White.

    To add to what Steve has said, yes, you're correct in noting that what's said about Jesus in the gospels can also be read in the context of the Old Testament and ancient Judaism. The early Christians would have disagreed with much in Roman politics, and they would have included Caesar among those who should bow to Christ's authority. But the corruption in ancient politics would have just been one form of corruption among others they were concerned about. While the application of a title like "Lord" to Jesus would raise questions about Caesar's authority, it would also, and more significantly, associate Jesus with the God of Israel and authority in all realms of life, not just politics. The reason why Borg and Crossan have to argue at such lengths and so indirectly for political implications in the New Testament is because the New Testament authors didn't often address such issues directly or in depth.