Borg, Bereans and Beast(s) of Burden

Being laid off has its advantages.

For the first time in a good long while I’ve had a chance to dig into some books that have been collecting dust on my “waiting to be read” shelf. One such book is Marcus Borg’s Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary. Perhaps not what comes to your mind when you think of casual reading, but I have always enjoyed reading books about religion and faith. My spiritual journey has been one of ups and downs, faith and doubt, being “on fire” one day and “lukewarm” the next.

As of late, lukewarm doesn’t even begin to describe the stagnancy I’ve felt regarding all-things-religious. That’s a long story, and space and time do not allow me the opportunity to share it in its entirety here. Suffice it to say that I’m searching for a faith that makes some kind of sense. A faith that is “dynamic,” as Paul Tillich once wrote, based on an “ultimate concern” that isn’t experiential and fleeting, nor bogged down in apologetic rhetoric or snuffed out by the rigorous certainty of the scientific method. Call it a postmodern faith, even if the term carries more baggage than I’m willing to acknowledge or accept at present. I’m not there yet and, knowing how much damage can be done once someone feels they finally have a handle on something that at the end of the day is so entirely mystical and shrouded, I’m not sure I even want to fully arrive.

But I digress . . .

There is an interesting chapter in Borg’s book where he seeks to illustrate how the gospels “are products of early Christian communities in the last third of the first century,” and as such “are not simply historical accounts of Jesus’s life” but rather “tell us how Jesus’s followers told and proclaimed his story.” According to Borg, “[d]uring the decades between Jesus’s historical life and the writing of the gospels, the traditions about Jesus developed.” The implications are monumental: over time, Jesus moved from being a meek and lowly, very human Jewish mystic to the post-Easter Christ of Christianity. One way Borg illustrates this shaping of the gospel narratives is by considering several passages of scripture side by side and showing how the intent of the message changed. For example, consider the story of Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem, first as recorded in the earliest canonical gospel, written by Mark, and then in the later gospel penned by Matthew:

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ tell him, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.'” They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, some people standing there asked, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. (Mark 11:1-7)

 

 As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, tell him that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.” This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet: “Say to the Daughter of Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.'” The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt, placed their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat on them. (Matthew 21:1-7)

In Mark’s account, Jesus sends for a colt and rides it into the city. In Matthew’s version, Jesus manages to ride on two animals. Which one is the correct version?

During the early 90s I rode atop a wave of Christian dedication and enthusiasm. My wife and I were young, newly married, hung with a band of twentysomethings that took our faith seriously and attended a church where the Bible was taught with precision and attention to detail, where we believed the “Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, to be the inspired Word of God, without error in the original writings, the complete revelation of His will for the salvation of men and the Divine and final authority for Christian faith and life.” To be a Christian meant living a certain way, doing certain things and rubbing shoulders with those who affirmed the same statements of faith. To do otherwise was to risk losing your faith and becoming “worldly.” To be honest, I never really fit in. I asked too many questions, listened to music, read books and watched movies that weren’t “edifying” and refused to play the clique game. They tolerated me well enough, though. Enough to count me among the Bereans, a bible study group we started where we dedicated ourselves to digging into the Word and fortifying our minds against the Enemy’s attacks. We met at the local Christian radio station where my extremely-dedicated and “sold out for God” friend Doug worked and systematically went through Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict. We quizzed each other, engaging in mock debates so that when our faith was challenged, we’d have an answer that was biblically sound and undeniably convincing. Contradictions like the one presented above were our meat and potatoes and we spent the time necessary to figure out the solution. I’m a bit out of practice, but there’s still some Berean left in me. And, at the risk of losing all my readers, I share here my digging, my attempt to come to grips with this challenging biblical conundrum. Bear with me, dear and patient friend . . .

I actually felt a bit of the same old rush as I dug out my Bibles and tried to get to the bottom of my own questions. Surely there must be a reasonable explanation, aside from the one offered by Borg and to which I’ll return shortly, for why these two verses say very different things.

First, I cracked open my brand-spanking-new genuine leather bound copy of The Apologetics Study Bible. In a note on Matthew 21:2, it reads:

The inseparability of a donkey and its colt was proverbial in Judaism, and here the mother apparently accompanied the unbroken colt on its first ride to keep it calm. Matthew noted both animals because of the nice parallelism with the prophecy of Zec 9:9 (two animals are mentioned: the colt and the female donkey of whom it is the son), though he doubtless understood that only one animal was indicated as being ridden there and intended his readers to understand that it was upon the colt that Jesus actually rode. Mark and Luke referred only to the colt since it was the animal ridden and since they made no mention of the prophecy.

What? That sounds like conjecture to me. What my good friend Jen might call “a load of hooey.” “Apparently?” “Doubtless understood?” Nah, those dogs don’t hunt. So, I turned to the notes in my not-so-spanking-new NIV Study Bible, where I’m told that “He sat on the cloaks.” Duh, right? Of course Matthew’s “them” doesn’t mean the animals, but the cloaks. This seems to jibe with the NASB version, which translates Matthew 21:7 to say that the disciples “brought the donkey and the colt, and laid their coats on them; and He sat on the coats.” But if he sat on the coats, and both animals had coats on them . . . well, you see my point. This seems too easy. Like a copout. And then there are these folks on belief.net who, in very theologically bloated and smarter-than-you sounding badinage, hammer on for thirteen pages about how the passage really doesn’t say what it seems to say. That was an hour of my life I’ll never get back.

I grew up in the Assemblies of God denomination, where it is affirmed that the “Scriptures, both the Old and New Testaments, are verbally inspired of God and are the revelation of God to man, the infallible, authoritative rule of faith and conduct.” This statement differs somewhat from the one stated above, most significantly by the use of the phrase “verbally inspired.” To believe that the Bible is verbally inspired is, according to one theologian quoted in an article posted on apologeticspress.org, to hold that “the original documents of the Bible were written by men, who, though permitted the exercise of their own personalities and literary talents, yet wrote under the control and guidance of the Spirit of God, the result being in every word of the original documents a perfect and errorless recording of the exact message which God desired to give to man.”

One rather dogmatic sounding author sums up the concept of verbal inspiration in clear and certain terms when he writes, “Verbal inspiration has to do with the actual formation and use of the words themselves. It involves the employment within sentences of nouns, verbs, prepositions, articles, etc. This “verbal” concept of inspiration contends that the Spirit of God guided the holy writers so that the very grammatical modes they employed were divinely orchestrated in order to convey subtle meanings of truth. While biblical scholars acknowledge that God used the individual talents and personalities of the holy writers, nonetheless it must be recognized that divine supervision was present so that the exact messages that Heaven intended were given.”  So God chose to use “it” in Mark, referring to the colt, and “them” in Matthew to refer to . . . what?  Or does God not much care about pronouns?  I’m still lost. 

Being a philosophically minded person, I decided to see what William Lane Craig, a leading evangelical Christian philosopher, had to say about the subject of verbal inspiration. On his site I found a lengthy paper in which a “theory of divine inspiration based upon God’s middle knowledge is proposed, according to which God knew what the authors of Scripture would freely write when placed in certain circumstances. By arranging for the authors of Scripture to be in the appropriate circumstances, God can achieve a Scripture which is a product of human authors and also is His Word.” I think I’m a fairly smart guy, but even this taxed my patience; fascinating reading, mind you, but too much medicine for the pain.

While neither many theologians and philosophers, nor nominally educated pastors or laymen, would go quite so far in defining or affirming the term, verbal inspiration is nevertheless a cornerstone in many evangelical denominations. Like the ones I have been a part of along my spiritual journey. And because these statements of faith have guided and helped shape who I am today, they are perhaps the reason why I have a hard time reconciling the two passages under consideration. For if God is in control – to whatever extent I allow him to be – of what the authors wrote, then there should be a perfect and equally inspired reason why the accounts don’t mesh.

Here is my shaky, preliminary and perhaps quite non-Berean conclusion: I understand that Matthew was writing to a predominantly Jewish audience, hence his use of the Zechariah passage. And, as Borg points out, Matthew’s suggestion that there were two donkeys upon which Jesus rode is clearly an attempt to reconcile his intended message, that Jesus fulfilled Zechariah’s prophecy, with a simple misreading or misunderstanding of the original Hebrew text. Since much of Matthew developed from Mark’s earlier gospel, it seems that Matthew had no qualms about “making the meaning of the story explicit” at the expense of “historical exactitude.” And a corresponding identical number of animals upon which Jesus rode. Have I chucked the idea of a verbally inspired Scripture? Perhaps, if I must be forced to cling to the definitions offered above . . . the definitions attached to the faith of my youth. I just can’t seem to wrap my mind around the notion that God would allow such a conflicting account to be penned and passed down through centuries of transcription and translation if his intention was to give us a perfect, infallible, inerrant document meant to be the final word regarding all things spiritual. I am beginning to see that the gospels are more than mere historical documents. Instead, as Borg writes, they “contain the [first century, Christian] communities’ memories of the pre-Easter Jesus and their post-Easter proclamation of his significance. They combine Jesus remembered with Jesus proclaimed.”

Whew! If you’ve made it this far, I commend you for your patience and perseverance.

And I do have a point.

Faith for many is an easy thing to cling to. Many well meaning Christians can safely and confidently claim they have no doubts about the fundamental things they believe and have no desire to look elsewhere for spiritual fulfillment. Frankly, those people scare me. For in all true faith rests a measure of doubt. Once we grip faith with a certainty that resists seeing the frailty of our human understanding, that isn’t willing to admit to a measure of slipperiness, that seeks answers where honest ones are seldom found, then we have become deluded and risk living a life built on a foundation that is bound to crumble. More simply, if at the end of the day our faith isn’t teetering on the glorious edge of wonder and mystery, then we have believed a lie and the fall will be difficult to overcome. I have been there, where rest comes easy and surety is as a warm blanket. Those are fleeting, momentary plateaus that hide the reality: God is more than you think. God won’t fit in your box much longer, I assure you. So let him out. I did. And I can’t go back . . .