Marcus Borg, the theologian and writer who became one of the best known New Testament scholars to challenge the literal view of the biblical Jesus and to question the supernatural acts associated with his life, died Wednesday at his home in Portland, Ore. He was 72.
He had been battling idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, according to a statement from Oregon State University.
Borg, a professor of religion and culture for 28 years at the university, was associated with the Jesus Seminar, a group of Bible experts who met twice a year to determine what quotes attributed to Jesus in the Bible were authentic. The group, which started with 35 scholars and grew to include 200, concluded that only 18% of the words attributed to Christ were his, a view attacked by religious conservatives and some scholars.
John Dominic Crossan, a former Catholic priest who was cochair of the Jesus Seminar, said Borg agreed with him that the Bible was a mix of historical facts and interpretation and that many of the events associated with Christ did not occur.
Jarmo Tarkki, another member of the Jesus Seminar, said that Borg referred to the "pre-Easter Jesus," the historical figure, and the "post-Easter Jesus," created by his followers. "Jesus is the person who lived, and Christ is the one found in the creeds and doctrines of the church," Tarkki said.
Borg grew up a Lutheran but became an Episcopalian. Despite being at odds with traditional Christian portrayals of Jesus, Borg remained an active member of the church and was canon theologian of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, where he often taught and where his wife, Marianne, is a priest.
"Ordination is not a requirement for becoming a 'canon,'" Borg wrote on his blog. "Rather, Marianne tells me, 'canon' means 'big shot.'"
Borg argued in his books that elements of Christianity remain meaningful. "He's not interested in abandoning Christianity or the New Testament," said Lane McGaughy, interim director of the Westar Institute at Willamette University in Salem, Ore., which sponsors the Jesus Seminar. "He just thinks it needs to be reinterpreted for the modern world."
Borg was born March 11, 1942, in Fergus Falls, Minn. He received his bachelor's degree from Concordia College in Minnesota and his master's and doctoral degrees from Oxford University in England. Crossan said his friend was a member of the Young Republicans in college but that studying the prophet Amos and learning about his views on inequality had a profound affect on Borg. "He said it converted him religiously and politically to the left. I heard him talk again and again in lectures of God's dream for justice on Earth."
Borg was the author of 21 books, including "Jesus: A New Vision," and "Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time." Writing on his website about his final book, "Convictions," he said that "if American Christians knew and embraced what is in this book that it would change American Christianity — and American society, culture and politics."
Borg's work about the historical Jesus inspired Oregon State engineering alumnus Al Hundere to donate $1.5 million to endow a chair in religion and culture that Borg filled until his retirement in 2007.
Besides writing and teaching, Borg was a frequent speaker, usually racking up 100,000 frequent flier miles a year. He and Crossan, along with their wives, led annual tours to Turkey to follow the path of the Apostle Paul and to give a sense of his world. They also led tours to Ireland to showcase a different brand of Christianity.
Borg explained his view of Christianity In an interview in 2013 with the Naples, Fla., Daily News.
"To comfort and to challenge is the twofold purpose of Christianity. Deep trust in God provides comfort in times of trouble and tragedy," he said.
"And faith in God, loyalty to God, involves confronting and challenging the many sources of unnecessary human misery and suffering, most of which are unjust and violent humanly-created social systems. That was central to Jesus. He was executed by the powers who ruled his world because he had become a radical critic of the way things were.
"Christians are called to participate in his passion for a different kind of world."
Borg is survived by his wife, Marianne; a son, Dane; a daughter, Julie; and a grandson.