RIP: Marcus Borg, theologian and historical Jesus expert, dies at 72

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Marcus Borg

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 10:15 a.m. EST Jan. 23 to include information about a memorial service and additional details.

[Episcopal News Service] Marcus J. Borg, a New Testament scholar, theologian and author who was associated for years with the search for the historical Jesus and who sought to put the New Testament in what he believed was its proper context, died Jan. 21.

Borg, 72, had been suffering from Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis, according to an announcement from at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, Oregon, where he had been a member for years.

He died peacefully and without pain at his home in Powell Butte, Oregon, at 7:05 a.m. PST, the Rev. Nathan LeRud, acting cathedral dean, said in the announcement.

The Rev. Marianne Borg said “Marcus rose before the sun,” according to the announcement.

There will be a memorial service honoring Borg’s life at the cathedral on March 22. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori will officiate.

“Marcus Borg was a gifted teacher and profoundly significant voice of reasoned faith for many, both in and outside the church,” Jefferts Schori said via e-mail from the Holy Land where she is leading an interfaith pilgrimage. “His teaching and writing led countless numbers of people into deeper and more authentic relationship with the Holy One. His gifts of insight, profound faith, and the ability to show others a path will be greatly missed.”

“Marcus also modeled for the world and the church what it is like to build collegial relationships with people who hold deep and differing convictions, and to discover greater truth and friendship in the midst of that kind of dialogue,” she continued. “I had the great privilege to know him as a teacher and a colleague over more than 30 years, and I will miss him deeply. May he rest in peace and edify the angels. Pray for Marianne and his children and give thanks for a life well lived in the search for truth.”

Borg, 72,  was a leader in the Jesus Seminar, which worked to construct the life of Jesus through historical critical methods that looked at ancient texts such as the Bible to discern the world they described. The seminar’s fellows voted on the relative authenticity of about 500 statements and events concerning Jesus.

The seminar portrayed Jesus as a Jewish wise man and faith healer who traveled the countryside, dining with and healing people whom Jewish dogma and social norms treated as outsiders. This Jesus was seen as a prophet who preached about the possibility of liberation from injustice.

Not all theologians and religious scholars agree with the seminar’s approach and findings. Yet others passionately agreed and many Christians credit Borg and others such scholars with reviving their faith.

“Very many people who had left the Christian faith have returned to it through Marcus’ evangelism (though he would grimace at my use of the word, I suspect),” the Very Rev. Barkley Thompson, dean and rector of Christ Church Cathedral in Houston, wrote in his blog after learning of Borg’s death. “Marcus was a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ in word and in deed.  He understood Jesus (and especially the Resurrection) differently than I do.  But the veracity of his faith was clear.  And calm.  And passionate.”

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“Imagine that Christianity is about loving God. Imagine that it’s not about the self and its concerns,” Borg suggested in his last book. Photo: Marcus Borg/Facebook

Borg had been national chair of the Historical Jesus Section of the Society of Biblical Literature and co-chair of its International New Testament Program Committee and president of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars.

Borg was installed May 31, 2009, as canon theologian at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, where he had taught frequently and where the Rev. Marianne Borg was on staff at the time. Since their retirement, the Borgs have attended Trinity Episcopal Church in Bend, Oregon.

“Adult theological re-education at the congregational level is an urgent need within American churches today,” Borg said at the time. “It is essential to Christian formation. And from my own experience and from a number of studies, I know that it has been a source of re-vitalization in hundreds of congregations around the country.”

As a lecturer and author, Borg traveled as much as 100,000 miles a year. He was the Hundere Chair of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University where he taught for 28 years until his retirement in 2007. He was the author of 21 books, including Jesus: A New Vision (1987) and the best-seller Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (1994); The God We Never Knew (1997); The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (1999); Reading the Bible Again for the First Time (2001), and The Heart of Christianity (2003), both best-sellers.

His latest books are Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most (2014) Speaking Christian (2011); Putting Away Childish Things (a novel – 2010); Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary (a New York Times Best-Seller – 2006); Conversations with Scripture: Mark (2009); and three books co-authored with John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week (2006), The First Christmas (2007), and The First Paul (2009). He is the co-author with N. T. Wright of The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions.

In Convictions, a book that he said grew out of a sermon he preached at Trinity Cathedral on his 70th birthday, Borg wrote that there was “nothing remarkable about my life, nothing heroic.” And he said that while it was hard for him to turn 60 because that milestone felt “like the end of potential and the beginning of inevitable and inexorable decline,” turning 70 in 2012 felt “interestingly empowering.”

Borg said that from this vantage point he was exploring what it meant to be Christian and American, having been shaped by those two memberships, and more especially “to be Christian and to live in the richest and most powerful country in the world, often called the ‘American Empire.’”

He called God “real and a mystery,” in Convictions and asked his readers to “Imagine that Christianity is about loving God. Imagine that it’s not about the self and its concerns, about ‘what’s in it for me,’ whether that be a blessed afterlife or prosperity in this life.”

More information about Borg can be found on his website.

— Religion News Service contributed to this obituary.

Comments

  1. The Rev'd Raymond C. Ball says:

    I am saddened to learn of Dr. Borg’s death. He was a constant companion throughout my ministry, and even though I frequently disagreed with him I truly appreciated his honesty and candor. I also greatly admired his ability to disagree agreeably, a rare gift in our contemporary world. May he rest in peace.

  2. A true scholar who wrote with knowledge, understanding. For him God was real and theology once
    again merged with “religion.” He gave hope to all of us mature students of theology. Rest in peace.

  3. John Arthur Page says:

    As Liturgical Assistand and Director of Christian Education at an Anglo-Catholic church in New South Wales, Australia I am, like many Anglican Priests, caught in the unforgiving dilemma of wanting to explore matters such as – there seems not to have been a recognised settlement called Nazareth in Jesus’ time, Crucifixion was a Roman form of Punishment/Intimidation of their ememies and persons were left on the cross, many alive for several days and some rotting there, as a long-term deterent; not cut down afer a few hours as Jesus allegedly was, there has been not one archaeological find to support pesons living on the Sinai peninsula for 40 years, there was nothing substantial for David or Solomon to have been King of around 1000 BC and no trace of any massive temple or palace, the disagreements amongst the Gospel Writers are many and significant. In my short preaching career I gave an homily on the current reading of a passage from Isaiah in which I mentioned that most scholars thought the book of Isaiah to have been composed by three persons at differnet times. A menber/s of the congregation complained against me and my preaching licence was withdrawn. Introducing Liberal Theological views in any meaningful way would result in a halving of our congregtion numbers which would alarm my, or any other, Rector. What can we do to move from the stained glass windows to an intellectually satisfying set of beliefs that would attract thinking seekers back to the church?

    Dr. John A Page

    • John Bunyan says:

      As a licensed priest in the neo-puritan evangelical Sydney Diocese, and a theologically liberal (though culturally conservative) Anglican, I am surprised to read Dr Page’s story. I think not all liberal Biblical scholars would agree with all his views on the matters he mentions (though the idea that Isaiah is composed of two or three sources is hardly radical). I have found Marcus Borg’s writings of much value, including his latest book, “Convictions”, but some of the “obituaries” quite inadequate, some patronising or simply ignorant, and lacking in knowledge of what he has written long after the rather silly “Jesus Scholar” voting on the Gospels.

  4. Dru Ferguson says:

    I attended seminary 2001-2004.
    Marcus Borghese had a great
    Impact on me while there as well
    As afterwards. I great man
    I will miss him.p

  5. Bob Hillenbrand says:

    Thanks be to God for Marcus! What a marvel. Walter Wink, another of my mentors, once wrote of Marcus that (among few writers) one should read everything he wrote. So true.

    I will miss him, and his wisdom, humor and sharp and compassionate commentary.

    Tonight my wife Pamela, a retired Episcopal priest, and I will lift a toast to Marcus, Marianne and their family.

  6. William A. Smith says:

    I was blessed to be make 3 trips with Marcus and Marisnne. I considered him a friend and a a large part of modern theology that was the base of many ,many teaching with the Churches I served. I always thoughthis was a good part of the group but always had a personal time with his pipe while he was apart of the group.among the crowd. The Church will miss him .with his teaching and his sense of humor.
    Bill Smith

  7. The Rev. Fred Fenton says:

    Marcus Borg was a prince of a guy. His calm, irenic manner made it easy to listen to his surprising ideas which, however, were based on sound scholarship. I prize “The First Paul,” which he wrote with John Dominic Crossan, and their description of Paul as a “Jewish Christ Mystic.” That helped me make sense of Paul’s Damascus road conversion experience.

  8. The Rev. Charles H. Morris, D. Min. says:

    I am shocked and grieving. He was one whom I considered a friend, a colleague, and a most important teacher. I sat at his feet at the Cathedral School in Washington (formerly the College of Preachers) for five days in 2006. His lectures were on his book, “The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith.” (in his “Concluding Comments,” p. 204 in that book, he quotes from Micah 6:8, which I believe sums up Marcus’ life and work in brief fashion: “… What does the Lord require of you? … To do justice, … To love kindness, … To walk humbly with your God …” That experience and reading some of his books were profoundly mind-transforming for me, and I owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude. Having taught a class on his “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time,” I also know and appreciate his effect on others. His death is such a great loss to so many of us who knew or read him, and indeed to the whole world. May he ” go from strength to strength in God’s nearer presence” and glory.

  9. Rev canon william duff, diocese of rupertsland, Canada says:

    Marcus gave a challenging series of lectures at St George’s College, Jerusalem during a sabbatical my wife and I had in 1994. He inspired us! We read every one of his books as they were published. They have enriched us. We bless God for his person and his teaching. We thank his wife and family for sharing him with so many with love, Bill & Mary Duff

  10. Marcus Borg was a brilliant thinker. As long as there was that he was amazing. I am sure he will be missed by many who had touched his life. He loved to have his life touched with a new thought, meaning. Exceptional person. I would love to see what St. Paul would lookl like after an afternoon go round with the good Dr. Amen.

  11. When my husband and I were students in the ten week course at St. George’s College, Jerusalem in 1994, we were so fortunate to have Marcus give three lectures on Jesus and his theological and social milieu. His lecture on the purity system was so helpful. However one American fundamentalist student was outraged by his lecture and accused him of heresy and ran crying from the room. What amazed me was the gentleness and compassion with which Marcus dealt with her both during her attack and after the lecture. Jesus was truly reflected in his actions. It was a blessing to have that time with him.

  12. Mark Siegel says:

    I’ve read several of Mr. Borg’s books and heard him lecture once. Though I disagreed with many of his views, I was always impressed by his gentleness and profound faith. He never once tried to eviscerate those who disagreed with him, an increasingly rare and precious virtue. May he rest in peace and may light perpetual shine upon him.

  13. Carolee Jones says:

    Marcus Borg’s book “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time” brought me back to being a Christian again. For this I am deeply indebted.

  14. Requiescat in pace

  15. Joseph D Herring says:

    Marcus spoke to the clergy of East Carolina in 2000. At coffee break, he and I reflected on some of the peculiarities of Anglican worship. ” Why is it that we can’t do liturgy without the Confession?
    We should make it more optional. It would make things more joyous. ”
    More joyous indeed. What a joyful man! Thank God for Marcus.

  16. George Waite says:

    Boring man, boring church.

  17. Rev. Margaret Ayers says:

    Sorry George but last night our church’s adult class was anything but boring with lively discussion and full participation. Agree or disagree but Marcus Borg opened up discussion and in his soft spoken way enabled disagreement. We really need those skills in our churches and in the world!
    A small rural Episcopal mission church is an exciting growing community. Thank you Marcus for your prophetic voice and strong faith, may you now rest in your Savior’s arms ….. Until the discussion beging again!

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