Marcus Borg, Liberal Scholar on Historical Jesus, Dies at 72
Marcus J. Borg, a scholar who popularized a liberal intellectual approach to Christianity with his lectures and books about Jesus as a historical figure, died on Wednesday at his home in Powell Butte, Ore. He was 72.
His publisher, HarperOne, said the cause was idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.
Professor Borg was among a group of scholars, known as the Jesus Seminar, who set off an uproar with its very public efforts to discern collectively which of Jesus’ acts and utterances could be confirmed as historically true, and which were probably myths.
His studies of the New Testament led him not toward atheism but toward a deep belief in the spiritual life and in Jesus as a teacher, healer and prophet. Professor Borg became, in essence, a leading evangelist of what is often called progressive Christianity.
He came to the fore in the late 1980s and early ’90s, just as a conservative brand of evangelical Christianity was gaining adherents in America and emerging as a political force. He was among those who helped provide the theological foundation for liberals who were pushing back, defining Jesus as a champion of justice for the poor and marginalized.
He wrote or co-wrote 21 books and lectured at so many churches, conferences, universities and seminaries that, friends say, he accumulated more than 100,000 frequent flier miles almost every year.
A friend and collaborator, John Dominic Crossan, an emeritus professor of religious studies at DePaul University who helped found the Jesus Seminar, said in an interview last week that Professor Borg had delivered a radical message, but with a notably gentle demeanor.
“His own vision was not simply derived from opposing fundamentalist or literalist Christianity,” Mr. Crossan said. “It was a very positive vision. He could talk about Jesus and he could talk about Paul and the positive vision they had.”
In his last book, the memoir “Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most” (2014), Professor Borg wrote: “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.”
Professor Borg was for 28 years a professor of religion and culture at Oregon State University, where he held a chair endowed by an alumnus who said he had been inspired by Professor Borg’s research. His books “Jesus: A New Vision” (1987) and “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time” (1994) were on many best-seller lists.
Professor Borg was born on March 11, 1942, in Fergus Falls, Minn., to a traditional Lutheran family. He attended Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn. and earned a Ph.D. in philosophy at Oxford, where he did research on the historical Jesus.
In 1983 he became an Episcopalian. His wife, Marianne Wells Borg, is an Episcopal priest and a former canon at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, Ore., where Professor Borg later served as a canon theologian. She survives him, as do a son, Dane; a daughter, Julie; and a grandson.
Professor Borg relished public debates with more conservative scholars who criticized both his methods and his message. One sparring partner was N. T. Wright, a professor of the New Testament and early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and an Anglican who was formerly the bishop of Durham.
Mr. Wright said in an interview last week that the two men had often debated the birth of Jesus and the bodily resurrection. Professor Wright said he had argued that “there’s very good historical reason to believe these are things that actually happened,” while Professor Borg had believed they were “metaphors.”
Despite their disagreements, Professor Wright said, he and Professor Borg shared “a deep and rich mutual affection and friendship.” They wrote a book together, “The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions.”
When Professor Borg went to Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Fort Collins, Colo., as a visiting scholar a few years ago, the sanctuary was full and hundreds watched his lecture on a screen in an overflow room, said the Rev. Hal Chorpenning, the senior minister there.
He said that on the day Professor Borg died, he received an email from a young woman in the parish who wrote, “Without Marcus, I wouldn’t be able to call myself a Christian.”