Marcus Borg on Prophets and Prophecy Historicized

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Image: Huffpost, Philip Clayton, 2015, Marcus Borg and the New Face of Christianity

Borg reiterates much of what we have learned as biblical students this semester. He does a fantastic job of separating the prophets into the Latter and Former categories (Borg, 2002: 111-112). He also does a phenomenal job at putting these prophets and their prophetic ministries into their historical contexts. The former prophets, for example, can be accessed in the books beginning with Joshua as well as Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, and 1 & 2 Kings. These books narrate the history of Israel from the time of the occupation of the Promised Land until the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon in 586 BC. The Latter prophets are referred to as the “classic prophets” and can be separated into the minor and major prophets. These terms do not categorize or differentiate the prophets on any basis of significance other than the actual sizes of the books. For example, the major prophets are longer books. Isaiah is a book of 66 chapters, Jeremiah of 52 chapters, and Ezekiel of 48 chapters. The books of the 12 minor prophets are much shorter (Hosea and Zechariah are just 14 chapters each while Obadiah is one chapter and therefore shortest book in the Hebrew Bible).

There is much Borg does in terms of contextualizing the prophets in the development of Israel’s history from a tribal confederacy in their early years post their settling into the Promised Land and then to their transforming into a monarchy (Borg, 2002: 111-115 & 131-134). For some 200 years the Israelites existed as a “tribal confederacy” in which there was no centralized government. By the year 1000 BC the tribal confederacy would be replaced by a monarchy with its first king, Saul. The biblical narrative says that David reign followed Saul’s and that under his rule he unified the new kingdom and made Jerusalem its capital. King Solomon, David’s son, would succeed David and build the temple on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem (Barton, 1967: 98-101). Under Solomon’s rule the kingdom extended to the largest size it would ever be. However, when Solomon died in 922 BC the kingdom split in two: the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. The northern kingdom lasted until 722 BC, the year it was conquered and destroyed by the Assyrian Empire. The Southern kingdom would later be conquered and destroyed by the Babylonian Empire in the year 586 BC, and some of the survivors were exiled to Babylon. There were almost four decades of exile until the exiles where permitted to return to Judea and begin building anew.

The former and latter prophets speak to these historical circumstances. The classic prophets belonged to the time of the divided kingdoms, their destruction, the exile, and the return (Borg, 2002: 113). The earliest of these was the prophet Amos who begun speaking in 750 BC, just 30 years prior to the destruction of the northern kingdom. The latter prophets spoke in the century or two following the return from exile (Borg, 2002: 113).

The social world that the prophets addressed was primarily a preindustrial agrarian one that begun to develop within Israel during the emergence of the monarchy in 1000 BC. These were societies and social systems compromising economic, political, religious, and social structures that were shaped by the elites who possessed most of the power and wealth as a means to serve their own greedy interests (Borg, 2002: 127). The biblical prophets sought to oppose the oppression and exploitation that resulted from this monarchical authority as it was like the oppressive system that the Hebrews faced while in Egypt. In many respects Israel had become “miniature versions” of the Egyptian domination system, a system that was in full swing by the time of Israel’s third king, Solomon. The prophets did not blame the victims and hold them responsible for the injustices of their society but rather it was the elites “who were primarily responsible for Israel’s becoming a radically unjust domination system” (Borg, 2002: 128). The prophets were convinced that what they witnessed was contrary to the will of God, and especially the God one who liberated Israel from the Egyptians.

One can, as does Walter Brueggemann, divide the language of the prophets into two further categories: “prophetic energizing” and “prophetic criticizing” (Brueggemann, 1978: 62-75; Brueggemann, 2002: 156). Unlike the harsh criticisms from the prophets towards the elitists (“prophetic criticizing”), prophetic energizing is “the language of hope” by which a prophet speaks of restoration and the creating of a new future for the nation of Israel (Borg, 2002: 130).

Second Isaiah is arguably one of the best examples of the language of prophetic energizing. The historical context is that Babylon was conquered by Persia in 539 BC, and Persian policy allowed for the return of exiles to their homelands (Boadt, 1984: 418-419). However, at this stage the Jewish community was already weakened and therefore vulnerable. They had little power, wealth, and spirit, and their identity was under threat. Many Jews had been born in exile while in Babylon, and it is likely that only few remembered Jerusalem and life in the Promised Land before Babylon conquered and exiled them. However, now that they were allowed to return to their homeland they would be required to voyage a distance through largely desert and semi-desert terrains. And all while on foot. It is in and to these circumstances that second Isaiah seeks to inspire hope, and encouragement, and does so in a tone hugely different to the pre-destruction prophets. Many of the Jews successfully returned to their land although some remained in Babylon, and within a generation they had built a new temple in Jerusalem. This temple replaced the far more splendid temple initially constructed by King Solomon and destroyed by the Babylonians.

Borg divides them into “pre-” and “post-” destruction prophets (Borg, 2002: 130-131). The pre-destruction prophets spoke before the destruction of Israel and Judah and mostly engaged in prophetic criticism (this is not to say that prophetic energizing is totally absent from their ministries and teachings). These prophets warned the elites what would soon occur unless they abandoned their greed and embraced justice. The post-destruction prophets spoke during and after the exile and engaged in prophetic energizing. They spoke to the victims of a new imperial domination system that now ruled over the Jewish people. Many readers find inspiration in both the likes of prophetic energizing and criticism given that they so vividly speak into the many deep and complex injustices in the modern world today.

Borg says that within Christian circles there is the common understanding of “prophet” as an individual who possesses more than a natural knowledge of the future of perhaps the likes of a “supernatural knowledge” (Borg, 2002: 115). For many this proves the supernatural nature of the Bible (Borg, 2002: 115). Borg holds a different view as rather than seeing them as “predictors” of Jesus, he sees them as “radical cultural critics with a passion for social justice. I now see them as God intoxicated, as filled with the passion of God” (Borg, 2002: 127). Borg argues that Christians have made the prophets say and predict things of Jesus that they did not, or, in his own words, that Christians have “domesticated” the biblical prophets (Borg, 2002: 138). And by doing so we essentially lose their richness as we often overlook how they spoke to their own contexts during their time (sBorg, 2002: 127-133).

A good example of this in practice is through how Christians have long thought that the major prophet Isaiah prophesied the virgin birth of Jesus centuries before it occurred. The problems with this are widely known. A closer inspection of the passage reveals that the original Hebrew term was not virgin, hence why many major Christian Bible translators have substituted the word “virgin” with “young woman.” Further, the context of Isaiah 7:14 in which the prophet is addressing king Ahaz of Judah saying that a child that would be born as a sign to him that Yahweh was going to protect the kingdom of Judah from the hostile alliance threatening it. Nowhere does it show itself to be a messianic prophecy.

Borg subsequently introduces Matthew’s “prediction fulfillment formula,” a major feature of Matthew’s gospel as it is used no less than 13 times (Borg, 2002: 114). This corresponds with the common view of prophetic fulfillment, namely, that an event relating to the messiah would be fulfilled in Jesus centuries after the prophecy on the part of the prophet. Borg, however, argues that the prophecies “are not the product of prediction and fulfillment, but of prophecy historicized. In other words, the New Testament authors used passages from the Hebrew Bible to generate historical narrative” (Borg, 2002:116).

A good example of this is the birthplace of Jesus. That the author of Matthew uses a remote passage in the book of Micah (5:2) as a prediction of where the messiah, Jesus Christ, would be born has been of concern for being considered historical datum. Most historians do not consider the birth in Bethlehem as historical (Sakenfield, 2008: 42). One, is because although it is true that both Matthew (2:1) and Luke (2:4) claim Bethlehem to be Jesus’ birthplace the gospels of Mark and John say that Jesus came from Galilee, from the village of Nazareth. Further, because it is clear that the gospel authors were penning accounts that were influenced by the Old Testament precisely because they read Jesus “into” it as a means to show that Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament prophecy. Thus, Matthew (and Luke) appear to “get” Jesus born in Bethlehem as a means to fulfill Old Testament prophecy, and do so in very, very different ways. There are also historical difficulties that need to be considered (the census in Luke’s account, for example). This is not, however, to suggest that we can know nothing of Jesus’ birth. For instance, that Jesus was born near the end of Herod’s reign, that he had a father named Joseph, among other datum, are considered historically plausible. This is nonetheless a good example of Borg’s “prophecy historicized” by which our gospel authors used the “God intoxicated” voices of the prophets who spoke to “their own cultures and contexts” to predict the coming messiah (Borg, 2002: 127).


Barton, G. 1967. Temple of Solomon. Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.

Boadt, L. 1984. Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction. Mahwah: Paulist Press

Borg, M. 2002. Reading the Prophets Again. Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: How to Take the Bible Seriously but not Literally. San Francisco: Harper.

Brueggemann, W. 1978. Prophetic Imagination. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Brueggemann, W. 2002. Prophetic Energizing. In Lische, R. The Company of Preachers: Wisdom on Preaching, Augustine to the Present. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing.

Sakenfield, K. 2008. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (vol. 3). Nashville: Abingdon Press


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