One of the best books, and very accessible to the typical layman in the pew, is The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, written together by Marcus Borg and N. T. Wright. They are both critical scholars, but take opposing views on various doctrines about Jesus. Borg represents the skeptical view and Wright the traditional view. Their dialogue of perspectives serve as a good primer on the field of critical study of Jesus and Christianity. I heartily recommend it.
Both are friends, both are believers, and both are sincere. Yet one cannot help but wonder how they can both be said to share the same faith and say such contrasting things about Jesus. Wright's faith seems so solid; Borg's faith seems so hollow. I should note that both men are Anglicans; Borg was a layman in Oregon and Wright was the Bishop of Durham in the Church of England. Wright now is a professor at the University of St. Andrew's in Scotland; Borg passed away in 2015.
I wanted to set forth their key comments from each chapter side-by-side to show the stark contrast between two visions of Jesus. For Borg, the doctrines about Jesus are true because they are emotionally meaningful. For Wright, they are meaningful because they are true (i.e., factual).
1. How do we know about Jesus?
BORG: "Both the historical Jesus and the canonical gospels matter to me as a Christian. . . . Independently of their historical factuality, the stories of the canonical Jesus can function in our lives as powerfully true metaphorical narratives, shaping Christian vision and identity. It is not an either-or choice; both the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Jesus matter" (pg 14).
WRIGHT: "The Jesus I know in prayer, in the sacraments, in the faces of those in need, is the Jesus I meet in the historical evidence" (pg 26).
2. What did Jesus do and teach?
WRIGHT: "When we put together Jesus' temple action and Last Supper, we discover that at the heart of Jesus' prophetic persona lay, not just the simple announcement of God's kingdom, but the claim, implicitly, to be the king that was to come" (pg 47).
BORG: "Jesus as Jewish mystic and Christian messiah. . . . My central claim is that Jesus is both, an affirmation I make as both a historian and a Christian" (pg 53). "I do not see Jesus as seeing himself in messianic terms, and I do not think he saw his death as central to a messianic vocation or as in some sense the purpose of his life" (pg 54).
3. The Death of Jesus
BORG: "About the events reported between arrest and execution, including the trials before Jewish and Roman authorities, I have little historical confidence" (pg 87). "If the scene of the Jewish trial does not provide the historical reason for Jesus' execution, why then was he killed? For me, the most persuasive answer is his role as a social prophet who challenged the domination system in the name of God" (pg 91).
WRIGHT: [After providing an illustration of the modern day trial and martyrdom of Ugandan archbishop Janani Luwum, Wright notes:] "The stories of Jesus' death, and the events that led up to it, are either extremely clever fictions or probably substantially close to the events" (pg 95). "In fact, we can only claim that the exchange between Jesus and Caiaphas consists of a retrojection of later Christian theology if we first invent, out of nothing, a later Christian theology that combines these elements and then claim that it has been turned into a fictitious narrative" (pg 101). "[Jesus'] messianic vocation climaxed in the call to suffer Israel's death, Israel's supreme moment of exile, on Israel's behalf" (pg 97).
4. "God Raised Jesus from the Dead"
WRIGHT: "What then did the earliest Christians mean when they said that Jesus of Nazareth had been raised from the dead? They cannot have meant that, though his body remained in the tomb, his spirit or soul was now safe in the hands of God, perhaps even given a place of honor. . . . What the early church insisted about Jesus was that he had been well and truly physically dead and was now well and truly physically alive. . . . In addition, had Jesus' resurrection been simply a matter of people being aware of his presence, there would not have been a sense, as there clearly is in all our evidence, of a sequence of 'resurrection appearances' that then stopped" (pg 116).
BORG: "Easter means that Jesus was experienced after his death, and that he is both Lord and Christ" (pg 130). "For me, the historical ground of Easter is very simple: the followers of Jesus, both then and now, continued to experience Jesus as a living reality after his death. In the early Christian community, these experiences included visions or apparitions of Jesus" (pg 135).
5. Was Jesus God?
BORG: "Aware of all the above, I can say the creed without misgivings. I do not see it as a set of literally true doctrinal statements to which I am supposed to give my intellectual assent, but as a culturally relative product of the ancient church" (pg 155). "To affirm that Jesus is the decisive revelation of God does not require affirming that he is the only, or only adequate, revelation of God. . . . "[Creedal statements] need not be understood to mean that Jesus (or Christianity) is the only way of salvation. Instead, we might understand them (and similar Christian statements about Jesus being 'the only way') as reflecting the joy of having found one's salvation through Jesus, and the intensity of Christian devotion to Jesus. They should be understood as exclamations, not doctrines, and as 'the poetry of devotion and the hyperbole of the heart'" (pg 156).
WRIGHT: "[Jesus] believed himself called to do and be what, in the scriptures, only Israel's God did and was. . . . I do not think Jesus 'knew he was God' in the same sense that one knows one is tired or happy, male or female. . . . Rather 'as part of his human vocation, grasped in faith, sustained in prayer, tested in confrontation, agonized over in further prayer and doubt, and implemented in action, be believed he had to do and be, for Israel and the world, that which according to scripture only YHWH himself could do and be'" (pg 166).
6. The Birth of Jesus
WRIGHT: "The problem is that miracle, as used in these controversies, is not a biblical category. The God of the Bible is not normally absent God who sometimes intervenes. This God is always present and active, often surprisingly so" (pg 171). "Those who cannot imagine anything good about abstinence insist that Mary must have been sexually active" (pg 172). No one can prove, historically, that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was conceived. No one can prove, historically, that she wasn't" (pg 177). "I hold open my historical judgment and say: if that's what God deemed appropriate, who am I to object?" (pg 178).
BORG: "I do not see these stories as historical reports, but as literary creations. As the latter, they are not history remembered, but rather metaphorical narratives using ancient religious imagery to express central truths about Jesus' significance" (pg 179). "[In Meister Eckart's theology] the story of the virgin birth is the story of Christ being born within us through the union of the Spirit of God with our flesh. Ultimately, the story of Jesus' birth is not just about the past but about the internal birth in us in the present" (pg 186).
7. "He Will Come Again in Glory"
BORG: "To explain, I can imagine the end of the world. I can imagine a final judgment. But I cannot imagine a return of Christ. If we try to imagine that, we have to imagine him returning to some place. To be very elementary, we who know the earth to be round cannot imagine Jesus returning to the whole earth at once. And the notion of a localized second coming boggles the imagination. I do not think it will happen" (pg 195). "Christ comes again and again and again, and in many ways. In a symbolic and spiritual sense, the second coming of Christ is about the coming of the Christ who is already here" (pg 196).
WRIGHT: "If we spoke of Jesus' royal presence within God's new creation, rather than thinking of his 'coming' as an invasion from outside, our talk about the future might make more sense. It would also be a lot more biblical" (pg 202). "When the heavenly dimension is finally unveiled, so that the royal presence of Jesus is visibly and tangibly with us at last, the dead will be raised and the living transformed, to share his new humanity withing a transformed world. This will be the fulfillment of the new world, which began in Jesus' resurrection" (pg 203).
8. Jesus and the Christian Life
WRIGHT: "The scandal at the heart of Christian faith is that Christians are committed to worshiping a first-century Jew, believing that in him the living God, the God of Israel, the creator of the world, was and is personally present, bringing the temple theme in Judaism to a new and surprising conclusion. The true temple, the true dwelling of Israel's God, was to consist not of bricks and mortar but of a human being. 'In him,' wrote Paul, 'all the fullness of deity dwells bodily'" (pg 210). "The gospels are what they are precisely because their authors thought the events they were recording--all of them, not just some--actually happened" (pg 215).
BORG: " A single religious tradition can easily be doubted as a human creation and projection, but when one sees that the great religious traditions share much in common, especially at the level of experience and practice, one begins to wonder if there might be something to religion. That has been my experience" (pp 231-232). "I do not think being a Christian is primarily about believing. It is not about believing in the lens, but about entering a deepening relationship to that which we see through the lens. It is not about believing in the Bible or the gospels or Christian teachings about Jesus, but about a relationship to the One whom we see through the lens of the Christian tradition as a whole. . . . Beliefs have little ability to change our lives" (pp 239-240).