Marcus Borg, a renowned New Testament scholar known for his groundbreaking books on the life of Jesus, died Wednesday, Jan. 21, following a battle with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.
Borg, a professor emeritus of religion and philosophy at Oregon State University, was 72.
The Hundere Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture at OSU, Borg joined the Oregon State faculty in 1979 and became known as one of the nation’s foremost biblical and historical Jesus scholars until his retirement in 2007. He wrote 21 books, including the bestsellers “Jesus: A New Vision,” and “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.”
After his retirement, Borg was appointed Canon Theologian of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, where he lived.
In 1993, Borg was named the first Hundere Chair for Religion and Culture, a position created by a gift from OSU engineering alumnus Al Hundere, who gave a $1.5 million gift to the university after being inspired by Borg’s studies of the historical Jesus. In 1995, Borg produced a series of lectures celebrating the 2,000th birthday of Jesus, in a two-day conference featuring a number of prominent religious scholars. The conference was televised and viewed around the country. Papers from the conference were eventually published in book form as “Jesus at 2000.”
Following the success of the event, Borg helped organize the “God at 2000” symposium at OSU in early 2000. This nationally televised symposium featured Archbishop Desmond Tutu among many other scholars and authors.
During his time at OSU, Borg received every one of OSU’s major awards for teaching and he was the first faculty member in the College of Liberal Arts to be designated a “Distinguished Professor.” Borg explored what it meant to be a Christian in modern times, and his work often provoked controversy over his frank discussions regarding literal versus modern interpretations of the Bible.
Current Hundere Chair Courtney Campbell, who was a longtime colleague of Borg’s, said that although Borg sometimes received angry correspondence from people who disagreed with his work, he always focused on civil discourse.
“I never once heard him be critical of the character of those whose disagreements carried over to polemical ad hominems against him,” Campbell said.
Campbell was hired by Borg, and when the religious studies department was absorbed into the philosophy department, he said Borg fought to keep Campbell on the faculty, and continued to be an inspiration to Campbell and other colleagues.
“Marc’s legacy is one of selfless sharing of the resources of the Hundere endowment to promote the professional development of his colleagues,” Campbell said. “He was a true teacher, demanding but transformational for his students. He displayed a collegial style of gracious humility coupled with intellectual astuteness.”
Professor Emeritus Peter List, who formerly chaired the OSU philosophy department, said Borg’s role as a cheerful, thoughtful teacher and leader made him a credit to the department, and his scholarship brought international prestige to OSU.
“His thoughtful ideas brought considerable excitement and meaning to his many students, regardless of their religious affiliations or beliefs,” List said. “He was very approachable as a person in his interactions with others and was able to present controversial and sometimes difficult ideas with self-assurance, clarity, and humor.”
Former colleague and Distinguished Professor Emeritus Kathleen Dean Moore said she was still in shock from news of Borg’s death.
“When I heard that Marc had passed away, my first impulse was to protest: oh no, the world still needs him,” Moore said. “And then I thought of the magnitude, the magnificence of what he has already given the world, and my second impulse was one of gratitude and love.”
Moore said Borg was a prolific writer, a wonderful teacher and speaker, and the only person who was able to clearly explain to her what it means to say that God is love.
“Marc’s work was to make sense of religious belief,” Moore said. “He wanted to show that a person could be a rational thinker and still believe in a God fully present in the world. His heart and mind were open to wondering love, rooted in gratitude for life. This put him in opposition to fierce, defensive dogmatism and the cruelty of unquestioned obedience to textual authority.”
Borg once said he saw philosophy as being primarily concerned with the role of ideas in our lives.
“Ideas matter,” he said, “more than we commonly think they do – especially our world-views and values, namely our ideas about what is real and how we are to live. We receive such ideas from our culture as we grow up, and unless we examine them, we will not be free persons, but will to a large extent live out the agenda of our socialization.”
Mark Tauber, senior vice president and publisher of HarperOne, was an admirer of Borg’s frank approach to his work.
“His life and his work have been a challenge, a comfort and an inspiration to literally millions of readers and students over the years,” Tauber said. “In these times when writing and speaking (and illustrating) messages and stories that seek truth are dangerous, Marcus Borg was a hero and a beacon.”
Borg, who earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from Oxford University, was previously national chair of the Historical Jesus Section of the Society of Biblical Literature and co-chair of its International New Testament Program Committee. He also was president of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars, and a Fellow of The Jesus Seminar.
Borg is survived by his wife Marianne, son Dane, son‐in‐law Benjamin, daughter Julie, grandson Carter, and terriers Henry and Abbey.
A public memorial service of celebration and remembrance will be held at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Portland Ore. – early afternoon on Sunday, March 22.