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
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
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
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).
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