Gerald L. Borchert. Jesus of Nazareth: Background, Witnesses, and Significance. Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 2011. See here to buy the book.
Gerald L. Borchert has a Ph.D. in New Testament from Princeton and was a lawyer in Canada. The back cover of the book says that “Jesus of Nazareth is a comprehensive introduction to Jesus and the gospels for college and seminary students.” Borchert provides historical and geographical background on the time of Jesus, then he goes through each Gospel, telling us what is in them. After that, he goes through some of the non-canonical Gospels, such as the Gospel of Thomas and the Infancy Gospels. Then, he discusses scholarly methods of criticism for the New Testament, such as text criticism, form criticism, and redaction criticism. He then discusses a variety of issues: the virgin birth, the question of whether Jesus was able to sin, etc. Overall, I would say that Borchert is rather conservative. He is a believer in the virgin birth and Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. He is not a rigid fundamentalist, however, for he is against artificially harmonizing the Gospels and believes in letting each Gospel speak with its own voice.
Here are my thoughts about the book:
1. The part about the historical background was strong. One can probably read such information in Josephus, but Borchert presents it in a lucid manner. I was hoping, though, that he would talk more about what client states were like. Some have argued that the census in Luke 2 was historically inaccurate because the Romans would not impose a census on client states, but rather on states over which they had direct control. I wish that Borchert had addressed that issue. Still, his section about the historical events surrounding the New Testament was my favorite part of the book.
Overall, his tour through each of the Gospels was not particularly earthshaking to me, since he was often repeating what was going on in each Gospel. But there were occasions when he did say something that I found to be interesting. He addresses why the story of Jairus in Mark 5 is interrupted by the story of the woman who is healed by touching Jesus’ garment: faith is being contrasted with lack of faith. Whereas a number of Christians say that God the Father abandoned Jesus on the cross as part of the penalty that Jesus bore for our sins, and that the ripping of the temple veil concerned the new access that people have to God as a result of Jesus’ death, Borchert backs away from these views, saying that the rending of the temple veil in Mark’s Gospel indicated God’s displeasure at what was going on. Borchert has a compelling paragraph about the Gospel of John’s unique depiction of Jesus’ crucifixion: Borchert says that there is no temple veil ripping in the Gospel of John, for Jesus, as the temple, is the veil ripping. Borchert also has a compelling paragraph about the struggles that many people faced in the time of Jesus.
Borchert’s summary of the Gospels often focused on Jesus’ conflicts with the Pharisees and his moral teachings. Whereas the intro to New Testament class that I took years ago said that the four Gospels have different Christologies, with Mark having a low Christology, and the Gospel of John having a high Christology of depicting Jesus as God, Borchert did not seem to that route: he believes that some of the synoptics depict Jesus as God. Something that disappointed me, somewhat, was that there was not a lot of discussion about the significance of apocalypticism in Jesus’ ministry and the Gospels. Borchert should have engaged the scholarly view that Jesus expected for the end to come soon, as well as sought to define what the Kingdom of God meant for Jesus.
The part about the various methods of criticism was all right. They were clear, at least. Borchert shared how he as a believer has interacted with critical scholarship, and that was interesting. I did enjoy the personal dimension to the book (e.g., Borchert’s story about how he was in an isolation hospital as a child, and he spent that time memorizing the Gospel of John; Borchert’s reference to his brother’s scholarship).
2. I was unclear about Borchert’s stance on oral tradition. Usually, he seems to believe that the witnesses to Jesus were the ones who carried around that oral tradition. A few times, however, Borchert may have been suggesting that others told stories about Jesus, too.
3. Borchert portrayed the Pharisees as a minority of religious elitists, who looked down on the common people. Borchert may be correct that most people in first century Palestine did not have time to study the Torah, and that the Pharisees did have a luxury that few people had. Still, the Pharisees were not entirely divorced from the common people, for some of them had other jobs, such as tentmaking and masons (see here).
4. There was more than one occasion when Borchert would mention an idea or an observation that appeared interesting, but he would not develop it and it fell flat. For example, Borchert mentions the debate between the Pharisees and the Sadducees in the first century B.C.E. about the water ceremony during the Feast of Tabernacles. The Pharisees supported it, the Sadducees opposed it, and lives were lost on account of this controversy. Borchert notes that, in John 7:37-38, Jesus on the last day of the Feast exhorts people to come to him to drink. I was hoping that Borchert would elaborate on whether Jesus was commenting somehow on the controversy between the Pharisees and the Sadducees. While Borchert said that he asks his students to consider if Jesus “knew how to preach relevantly to the Jewish people” (page 21), he does not show there how Jesus was speaking relevantly to them, as far as I could see.
5. Would this book make a good introduction to Jesus and the New Testament for college and seminary students? It has its assets. I am glad, though, that the Introduction to New Testament class that I took over a decade ago used David Barr’s New Testament Story. We read the New Testament itself, but Barr’s book provided us information about what many New Testament scholars were saying. Bart Ehrman’s textbook may be good, too.
6. Borchert’s book did lead me to take a second look at a biblical passage: the significance of the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit in Luke 12. I may write about that later this week.
The book is all right. I have a hard time pinpointing why exactly I am less than satisfied with it. Perhaps it has to do with its organization—-a lot of times, his discussion of scholarly debates appeared to be asides. I am not being entirely fair there, though, because he did have sections about things (i.e., the criticisms).