This 2007 paperback reissue of a dialogue originally published in 1999 contains very little that is dated (N. T. Wright was then a cathedral dean and has since become Bishop of Durham; otherwise, nothing much has changed). One doubts very much, for example, that the authors’ positions on the empty tomb would have been altered by the kerfuffle over the supposed “Jesus tomb,” now being revived as a topic of interest for this Lenten season.
Borg and Wright were and are friends who, in fact, share a common Christian faith and a belief in the unique importance of Jesus of Nazareth. Some of their understandings of who he was and why he matters are at variance, but the example of engaged dialogue on these issues, without demanding that either dialogue partner concede the other’s point or cease to call himself Christian is edifying in these days when mutual excommunications, formal or informal, are so dismally frequent. This reviewer is inclined to agree in more cases with Wright than with Borg, and yet when it comes to church politics, I would have expected the application of Wright’s principles to bring him to different conclusions than he has reached, closer to those of Borg.
The topics addressed are: “How do we know about Jesus?” “What did Jesus do and teach?” “The death of Jesus,” “‘God raised Jesus from the dead,’” “Was Jesus God?” “The birth of Jesus,” “He will come again in glory,” and “Jesus and the Christian life.” In each section there are essays by each of the two scholars, in alternating order, so that Wright begins the book and Borg has the last word. In the paperback edition, sections from two of the authors’ more recent books are appended—a sales ploy, but also an invitation to pursue the authors’ thought further.
In most things, Wright is more inclined to grant historicity to events that Borg contends are “history metaphorized,” and one of the sharpest disagreements concerns this point, since Wright believes that for the first-century writers to have treated some events as metaphorical would have undermined their understanding of what they were doing in writing the story of Jesus. In general, Wright’s stance rests on his understanding of and rootedness in what we can know of the history and epistemology of the Judaism of Jesus’ time, while Borg’s understanding is shaped not only by those factors, but also by his experiences in interfaith conversation. The dialogue partners differ on the degree to which the latter type of insight can be applied to the gospels.
Wright’s positions (e.g., his belief in Jesus’ messianic consciousness, and that Jesus deliberately intended to call Israel to renewal—a position he shares with my own Doktorvater, Gerhard Lohfink—and the centrality of Jesus’ death to his mission) are in general more “of the earth earthy” than Borg’s, though it would do Borg a grave injustice to suggest he is at the other, so-called “spiritual” pole. The nuances are much more subtle than can be suggested in such a brief summary.
Must the reader choose one author’s position or the other? I think that such an either/or stance would be foreign to the spirit of the book. Better, instead, to seek out the passages that inspire further reflection and pursue that reflection where it leads, then return to the other author’s essay on the subject and see whether the paths converge or diverge so radically as require rethinking. I can think of no higher praise for a book like this than to say that the reader can profit with delight from using it in this way.