Justin Skolnick lives and works in Portland.

The Historical Borg

Originally posted to justin.revision8.com on in Crystal Lake, Illinois

Image: The Historical Borg

“My childhood understanding of Christianity had collapsed, with nothing to replace it.”

Plagued by honest theological doubt, many young Christians still cannot shake their sense that faith has value, even if they cannot articulate what this value might be. In 1964, amidst doubt and other inclinations, Marcus Borg entered Union Theological Seminary on a full-ride, one-year fellowship. Younger then than I am now, by his own account he turned to the visionaries of recent history as models of a more real faith; “John Kennedy and Martin Luther King” inspired him “to focus on social ethics.” Until someone else pushed them aside, that is.

“To my surprise, Jesus moved center stage, thanks to a New Testament course my first semester. . . . [T]he course focused on Jesus and the synoptic gospels, and I was there exposed to the central claims of modern gospel scholarship . . . .

“The effect was, for me, dramatic. I realized that the image of Jesus from my childhood — the popular image of Jesus as the divine savior who knew himself to be the Son of God and who offered up his life for the sins of the world — was not historically true. Moreover, I learned that scholars had been saying this for almost two hundred years.”

The “synoptic gospels” to which he refers are those of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which appear to record the events of Jesus’s life “with one eye” (that is, syn-optic). Biblical scholars generally agree that despite the improbability that any of the gospel writers personally witnessed the events, their certain textual interdependence suggests common source. For example, Luke mentions “those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word” (1.2, NRSV) but does not place himself within that group. Rather, he

“decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.” (3-4)

Synoptic scholarship intends to find the source(s) of such investigation.

One landmark study of the Synoptic Problem is Burnett Hillman Streeter’s succinctly-titled The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins, originally published in 1924 (and now online). To that point in time, many scholars recognized material in Mark’s Gospel as one of two textual sources of Matthew and Luke, along with a yet-undiscovered document named Q (for Quelle, “source”). Streeter’s unique assertion that the later writers employed Mark itself, rather than a proto-Markan narrative, was convincing enough to warrant ten impressions in 37 years.

I have good reason to believe the 1961 printing of Streeter’s text played a decisive role in the education of Marcus Borg. While browsing the shelves of Powell’s in Portland last summer, my pleasant surprise at finding Streeter’s name on a spine doubled when inside the cover I found another name scrawled in blue ball-point pen:

Marc Borg
1964

Known now for his contributions to the controversial Jesus Seminar, Borg himself is a published Biblical scholar and teacher at nearby Oregon State.

Of course, I bought the book. In the realm of contemporary Christian scholarship, the find is roughly as significant Robert Funk’s first red-letter New Testament or the beads from John Dominic Crossan’s rosary. Out-of-print for decades, Streeter’s work in hardcover is itself is worth the cost. No need to watch eBay. This one’s mine.