Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written
by Marcus J. Borg
HarperOne, New York. 608 pages
Reviewed by Bill Carter
A new book by Marcus Borg is often a major publishing event. The advance buzz about “Evolution of the Word,” his newest volume, was considerable. “Groundbreaking!” is how the print advertisements pitched it. Borg, it seems, has discerned in the New Testament an emerging message, tracing how a radical Jewish apocalyptic was slowly domesticated into a state religion. And how did he reach this conclusion? By putting the books of the New Testament in the order they were written!
It is an intriguing thesis. The canonical process put the New Testament in a rough historical sequence, moving forward from Matthew’s annunciation of the Messiah’s birth to the consummation of the New Jerusalem. The new covenant rightly begins with the coming of Jesus and concludes with his final rule over heaven and earth. There have always been glitches in this canonical arrangement — notably the separation of the Gospel of Luke from its sequel, the Acts of the Apostles, largely because the canonizers did not know where else to insert the distinctive Gospel of John.
The book begins by tracing the “prewritten” stage of the Christian Gospel, and notes how texts were composed as time passed and generations of witnesses passed on. Borg offers as cogent a summary of the brutal Roman Empire as exists in print. His introductory essay on the apostle Paul is a fine and helpful piece of work.
But “Evolution of the Word” is mostly a rearranged printing of the NRSV text, set in Borg’s compositional chronology, each book briefly introduced with what appears to be a professor’s notes from an Introduction to New Testament class. Borg’s initial essays constitute 32 pages. His introductions to the 27 biblical books constitute 112 more pages. The rest of this nearly six-hundred-page work is the same New Testament text that we have in our pew Bibles!
Then we begin to discover some other curiosities. Borg dates the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles quite late, about 110 CE, placing their composition many years after the Book of Revelation. Upon whose work does he make this claim? “A growing number of scholars.” Who are these scholars? He never tells us.
It is hard to take him seriously. Many of his introductions to the biblical documents sparkle with wisdom. Yet his primary thesis — that the chronological rearrangement of the canonical books unlocks the devolvement of an apocalyptic faith into a settled religion — is undermined by generalizations and unsubstantiated claims.
There are other issues that we have heard from Borg before. He jumps back on a tired horse to attempt debunking any notion of a physical resurrection. “It’s purely spiritual,” he says dismissively.
In short, “Evolution of the Word” is a disappointment. It merely provides a speculative distraction for those who are looking for something “groundbreaking.”
BILL CARTER is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Clarks Summit, Pa., and leader of the Presbybop Quartet.