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“No one who reads it will be able to think about even the most familiar Biblical scenes in quite the same way.” —Newsday
“The brilliance of Jack Miles's new book on Christ is that it manages to "make strange" the best-known story in history. . . . Stratlingly original.” —The New Statesman
“As a way of seeing [God], Miles’s book has great power and depth.” —The New Yorker
In the beginning was the Word,
And the Word was with God,
And the Word was God.
Before God spoke his first words, "Let there be light," the words that began the making of the world, what was he thinking? What was he thinking during the eternity of silence when "the earth was formless and void, darkness was upon the face of the deep, and God's Spirit breathed over the waters" (Gen. 1:1)? In its opening words, the Gospel According to John consciously echoes the opening words of the Book of Genesis–"In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth"--but establishes its own beginning at a time before that famous beginning. Back then, it says, is when this story really began.
HIS LIFE BEFORE HE WAS BORN
What was God thinking? The thought that he entertained in silence before he thought or spoke any other reality into existence, John says in his oracular way, was the all-encompassing thought of himself. This is the Word that was with God and was God at the beginning before the beginning. All God's subsequent self-revelations, everything that he has said or done, made happen or allowed to happen, the whole of history and reality since then--all of these later words, John suggests, derive from the great Word of primeval divine self-consciousness. And as all of them in their different ways have enlightened mankind about what God is like, all have been life that gave light:
Through him all things came into being,
And without him nothing was made that has been made.
What came to be through him was life,
And the life was the light of mankind.
Now comes the premise of the Gospel itself. At a certain point in time, this unspoken divine self-consciousness itself came to expression. The all-encompassing Word itself "became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14). God spoke himself aloud in the form of a human being who lived a human life among other human beings.
Why did God do this? Because the human race, to whom God had given dominion over the world, was estranged from him: "The world did not know him" (John 1:10). God had chosen a special people to be his own, but even many of them rejected him: "His own received him not" (John 1:11). At length, in a final effort to achieve reconciliation with the human race (collectively, his own self-image and therefore intimately connected with his own identity), God became one of them. This time, too, he was rejected, yet through that very rejection he accomplished something glorious. He began his own life anew; and because he did, his human creatures are now able to begin their lives anew as well, living them not as human beings ordinarily do but rather with a portion of the all-encompassing "fullness" (John 1:16) that was his before the beginning and will remain his after the end. The Gospel is the story of how this new, all-transforming relationship was inaugurated, and John gives his own credentials by confessing, in a tone of awe, "And we have seen his glory":
For the Word became flesh
And dwelt among us.
And we have seen his glory,
Glory as of the Father with his only Son,
Full of gracious truth.
The prologue to the Gospel of John says not a word about crucifixion or resurrection, and never so much as mentions the name of Jesus. In the way of all such mythic proems or "prologues in heaven," it delivers, in poetry, the quintessence of a story that it assumes we all know. It sets the tone and, above all, makes the true identity of the protagonist known to the reader in a way that it will not be known to most of those to whom the protagonist will say what he has to say through the action that now begins.
"the winnowing-fork is in his hand"
The act of divine self-expression by which the Word became flesh might not seem to require either birth or death. If God neither begins nor ends, then these two definitive features of human existence might seem exactly wrong for any divine self-revelation. Far more in character for God, at least for God as a reader of the Old Testament may recall him, would be an appearance, without warning, in the form of a grown man. In the Book of Joshua, for example, the Lord appears just before the battle of Jericho in the form of a warrior with sword drawn:
Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him, grasping a naked sword. Joshua walked up to him and said, "Are you with us or with our enemies?" He replied, "Neither one. I am here as the commander of the Lord's host." Joshua fell flat on the ground, worshipping him and saying, "What does my Lord command his servant?" The commander of the Lord's host answered Joshua, "Take the sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is holy." And Joshua did so. (Josh. 5:13-15)
Joshua's reaction makes it clear that this "commander of the Lord's host" is the Lord himself, the divine warrior in person. The Lord confirms this impression by giving Joshua the same order that he gave Moses when he appeared to him as a burning bush: "Take the sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is holy." It is no more beyond God to appear in the form of a man than it is beyond him to appear in the form of a bush. To be sure, it is one thing for God to make an isolated appearance in the form of a bush and another for him to plant a seed, water it, cultivate it, and have it grow up to be God-made-bush. And it is yet another thing for him to conceive a human being with a fully human (and, not incidentally, Jewish) genealogy, gestation, birth, and childhood, and have it grow up to be God-made-man. But this last step, incomprehensible as it first seems, is a step in a known direction.
The question of why God the Father chose to proceed in this way, choosing to experience human birth and death as God the Son, is best dealt with later. Suffice it to say, for now, that it is the adult Jesus who was first recognized as Messiah and as God Incarnate. All four of the Gospels initially began with Jesus, as a grown man, being baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. All four recognized the descent of the Spirit of God upon him at that moment as the inauguration of his career if not of the Incarnation itself. This, they all agree, is the moment when the Gospel story begins in earnest. Postponing genealogies and Christmas legends to a later, retrospective moment, we may enter the Gospel story at the dramatic moment when God Incarnate appears full-grown and as if from nowhere like the Lord Commander of Joshua 5, but this time without a sword.
In the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar's reign, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of the territories of Ituraea and Trachonitis, Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during a term when the high-priesthood was held by Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah, in the desert. He went through the whole Jordan Valley proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the sayings of Isaiah the prophet:
The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
Clear a way for the Lord!
Make straight his paths.
Let every valley be raised,
Every mountain and hill lowered,
The crooked made straight
And the rough smooth
So that all flesh will see the salvation of God.
(Luke 3:1-6; passage in italics from Isa. 40:3-5)
The action of the New Testament begins with the memory of a broken promise. Isaiah's language is wonderful, but he describes a triumphal march that never occurred. Mountains were going to be leveled and valleys filled to create a parade route for the Israelite exiles marching home from Babylon to Jerusalem--but the parade was canceled. The exiles to whom the Lord spoke through Isaiah did not return home in glory. Many of them never returned at all, and those who did merely exchanged one imperial ruler for another. The Persians defeated the Babylonians, but Israel was just one part of the spoils of war. Yes, a new temple of sorts was built by imperial order in the tiny, Persian-governed province of Yehud, but no Psalms were ever written in its praise. For those old enough to remember, the sight of the Second Temple was a cause more of grief than of joy: "Many of the priests and Levites and the chiefs of the clans, the old men who had seen the first House [Temple], wept loudly at the sight of the founding of this House. Many others raised their voices in a shout of joy. The people could not tell the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping"(Ezra 3:12-13). The Lord himself had to apologize for the paltriness of the Second Temple:
Who is there left among you who saw this House in its former splendor? How does it look to you now? It must seem like nothing to you. But be strong, O Zerubbabel, be strong, O high priest, Joshua son of Jehozadak; be strong, all you people of the land, and act! For I am with you. . . . The glory of this latter House shall be greater than that of the former one. (JPS; Hag. 2:3-4, 9)
But the glory of the Second Temple never did become greater than--in fact, it never approached--the glory of the First. The Zerubbabel whom the Lord exhorted through Haggai was a son of David, an anointed son of David--that is, a messiah--but he was a failed messiah, and his name was half-expunged from the record.
As the Baptist speaks, five hundred years have passed, and a spectacular Third Temple is nearing completion in Jerusalem, but this Third Temple, King Herod's Temple, whose remains can still be seen in Jerusalem, is the work of a Roman puppet, an Idumaean married into a collaborationist Jewish clan. Is this Temple the fulfillment of the Lord1s ancient promise? Many in the Baptist's day are impressed by it. Indeed, the entire ancient world is impressed by it. But dissident Jewish groups--notably the Pharisees (forerunners of the Judaism of today) and the Essenes (who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls)--keep their distance. John does the same, preaching in the desert rather than on the steps of Herod's monument to himself. The memory of the past and the reality of the present--the great and holy temple that never was and the great and unholy temple that is--conspire against elation of the sort heard in Isaiah. That promised triumph did not happen the first time. Will it happen this time?
What the Lord says through the Baptist, moreover, is disturbing in another way:
He said . . . to the crowds who came to be baptized by him, 3Brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear the fruit that accords with repentance, and do not start telling yourselves, "We have Abraham as our father,' because, I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones. Yes, even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Any tree that fails to bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire." (Luke 3:7-9)
It is not that the rhetorical question "Brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" is particularly disturbing. This is the usual prophetic idiom for a call to repentance. The Lord is accustomed to saving his friends by destroying their enemies. What disturbs is the fact that the Lord seems audibly irritated with Israel for making so much of its national identity--which is to say, of course, for insisting so much on being his people: "I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones."
The Baptist is identified elsewhere in the Gospel of Luke as the Old Testament prophet Elijah come down to earth in fulfillment of a prophecy made in the very last verse of the Old Testament:
Behold, I shall send you Elijah the prophet,
Before the great and awesome Day of the Lord.
He will reconcile parents to their children,
And children to their parents,
Lest I put the country under a curse of total destruction.
(Mal. 4:5-6; some editions, 3:23-24)
When the Baptist speaks--prophetically, in the name of the Lord, just as Elijah did--what he says is not altogether unlike things that the Lord has said before. The Lord has shown himself capable of mocking his chosen people for ethnic pride on more than one previous occasion. Speaking through Ezekiel, he said with blistering contempt for mere pedigree:
Your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite. At birth, on the day you were born, there was no one to cut your umbilical cord or wash you in water to clean you, or rub you with salt, or wrap you in swaddling clothes. No one looked at you with kindness enough to do any of these things out of pity for you. You were dumped in the open fields in your own filth on the day of your birth. I spotted you kicking on the ground in your blood as I passed by, and I said to you, lying there in your blood: "Live!" And I made you grow like the grass of the fields. (Ezek. 16:3-6)
Ezekiel is a fairly ferocious precedent for what the Baptist says, yet the Baptist1s tone is still jarring when directed at an oppressed people living in an occupied land. The passage from Isaiah that Luke uses as keynote for this episode is, after all, an oracle of consolation, not mockery. It says, to quote the King James translation familiar from Handel1s Messiah, that God is done punishing Israel:
Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people,
saith your God.
Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem,
and cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished,
that her iniquity is pardoned.
(KJV; Isa. 40:1-2)
The Baptist, however, seems intent less on building confidence that God will eventually save his people than on undermining it.
Finally, there is the surprise that the Baptist1s message is preached to the oppressor as well as to the oppressed:
There were tax collectors [Romans or Jews in Roman employ], too, who came for baptism, and they said to him, "Teacher, what must we do?" He said to them, "Exact no more than the appointed rate." Some soldiers [Jewish mercenaries under Roman command and perhaps a Roman officer or two] questioned him as well: "What about us? What should we do?" He told them, "No intimidation! No extortion! Be satisfied with your pay." (Luke 3:12-14)
From the Hardcover edition.
In 1996, Jack Miles won a Pulitzer Prize for his book God: A Biography, a work that dealt with the protagonist of the Old Testament purely as a literary character. His new book, Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God, deals with the same character again, this time as God Incarnate continuing his life as the protagonist of the New Testament.
Q. Can you tell us briefly how your new book relates to its predecessor? What is the crisis of the subtitle?
A. The crisis is the fact that God has failed the Jews. After the children of Israel were carried into exile in Babylonia, God promised to restore their national sovereignty and glory, but as Christ is born he has not kept his promise. One empire has followed another in the Land of Israel, and God knows that he will not intervene to stop a Roman holocaust as ghastly as the Nazi holocaust of the 20th century. God's knowledge that he will fail the Jews is the supreme crisis of his life. Christ is the resolution of the crisis.
Q. Before we get further into the story, can you say a word about how you came to write these two books?
A. Yes, I can, and I will, but let me point out first that until the epilogue of the second book, which is really a retrospective look at both books, I deliberately abstained from making any statement in the first person. There are some first-person comments in the end notes but none in the main text. The character I wanted readers to think about was God. I took John the Baptist's line about Jesus as my motto: "He must increase, I must decrease" (John 3:30). But to answer your question, the deepest personal root of this pair of books lies in a chronic anxiety about warfare and violence that goes back beyond my earliest memories. I was an early reader, it seems, and my mother says that at the age of about five-I have no memory of this myself-I grew hysterical as I read a grisly newspaper account of the Bataan Death March. I was able to decode the words, but evidently I lacked anything like an insulating adult sense of time and place. I thought Japanese soldiers might show up at our front door in Chicago. Moreover, violence in the real world and violence in the Bible seem to have fused in my mind. I thought that Roman soldiers, King Herod's soldiers, the ones who slaughtered the innocents in Matthew 2:16, might show up at our front door as well and demand that we turn over my baby brother. These and other similar, very early experiences seem to have left me hyper-aware of the violence that God inflicts in the Old Testament and of the suggestively matching violence that he suffers in the New Testament.
Q. In a more proximate way, though, how did these books come out of your teaching or research? How did you actually get started?
A. As you may know, I am an ex-Jesuit. I earned a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible at Harvard University largely because the Society of Jesus asked me to do so. Though I successfully completed my degree, I was out of sorts from the first moment with the historical approach taken at Harvard (and generally in our era). Impressive and altogether admirable as it was (and is), I craved the more aesthetic, more literary response that, as it seemed to me, the texts invited. When I left the Jesuits, shortly after completing my doctorate, I thought of leaving academe as well and did leave it barely three years later for a twenty-year career in book publishing and literary journalism. (Journalism had been the career I envisioned for myself before I joined the Jesuits.) What provoked my return-not to academe or to the Jesuits but to the Bible as a subject-was a recording of Bach's "St. Matthew Passion." The opening chorus of that oratorio is an immensely moving lamentation for the divine bridegroom who is also the divine lamb. Hearing it, I was struck-emotionally struck, not intellectually struck-by the enormity of the change that befalls God in the Christian myth. The great warrior who drowned Pharaoh's army in the Red Sea becomes a helpless baby animal, pathetically unable to defend even itself, much less anyone else, from the butcher. In the conventional terms of literary character development, this seemed an unimaginable transformation. Obviously, the radical Jewish writers who created the Christian scriptures and, for that matter, Christianity itself did somehow imagine it. Still, thinking of the character himself rather than of the authors who invented him-thinking of God, in short-one could only ask, in amazement, "What came over him?" So, there is where it all began. With this as motive, I found my way back into Bible studies. Only very late did I begin to realize that the depth of my reaction to the music was connected with the early terrors of a child born during a world war. And there is a special poignancy for me in the fact that the book is being published at a moment when my country is in the grip of a suppressed terror, a moment when even adults feel the same confusion and helplessness that I felt in the mid-1940s.
Q. Now that these books are written, do you believe that you have an answer to your own originating question? What did come over God?
A. Yes, I do have an answer, though I do not expect that everyone will accept it. My answer is that God repented. He underwent a change of mind and heart as he recognized that it was he himself who had brought suffering and death into the world. When Jesus submitted to baptism-a ritual of repentance-in the Jordan River, it was God Incarnate who repented.
Q. Repented of what?
A. Back in the Garden of Eden, God allowed his anger to betray him into marring his own creation and sentencing his own image and likeness, the first couple and all their offspring for all time, to lifelong suffering and to death. The fall of man was thus the fall of God as well, and the fall of both signaled the rise of Satan, who had defeated both by luring them into mutual estrangement. Past that point, God could no longer look at the world he had made and say "It is good."
Q. But what does this divine original sin and God's late repentance have to do with his failure to rescue the Jews?
A. In fact, this is just what the Gospel story does: It relocates the crisis. The late-life crisis that God faces over his failure to defeat Caesar and rescue Israel is resolved when God reverses his earlier, primeval defeat and corrects the fatal mistake he made at that time. He astounds the Devil by becoming a Jew himself, choosing to suffer in advance the same crucifixion that his people will suffer at the hands of the Romans. Then, by rising from the dead, he defeats the Devil and restores to mankind the original gift of immortality that he had taken away. Repentance requires amendment of life, to be sure, but if God had merely defeated Caesar as of old he defeated Pharaoh, what would have been gained? The Jewish victors would all have gone on to die eventually anyway. God mends his ways far more profoundly by ceasing to be an earthly warrior at all and-lest there be any doubt on this point-paying the full price of that change in his own person. Milton was right. The plot of the Bible is "paradise lost, paradise regained." The difference is that in my reading of this divine comedy, this divine epic, God saves us from our sins by saving himself from his.
Q. What do you think will attract most attention in your new book?
A. This is the sort of thing an author can rarely predict. The most quoted line in God: A Biography was "God is no saint." My German publisher surprised me by dispensing with blurbs and the like and putting on the back of the dust jacket a single stark quote from the prologue: "The world is a great crime, and someone must be made to pay for it. Mythologically read, the New Testament is the story of how someone, the right someone, does pay for it." Perhaps this will be the "signature line" of the new book. I don't know. We are accustomed to see God as innocence and justice personified. But this view can only be sustained by skipping over a great deal of deeply shocking divine behavior that the Bible does not flinch to report. In God: A Biography, I saw fit to include and even linger over the parts of the Bible that are so often skipped. But I insisted that if God was no saint, neither he was a common criminal. His power as a character on the page lay precisely in his unresolved inner conflict. The new book brings that conflict to resolution by adding a shockingly violent act of atonement to God's already shocking record of violence. I am still staggered by the literary daring of the writer who first thought of turning the creator of the universe into a sacrificial animal, the Lamb of God, and creating a myth in which the creator puts himself to death by crucifixion. This is, as it were, a truly godlike desecration. I can have no larger hope for my new book than that it will bring readers face-to-face with the daring of the writers who had that heart-stopping idea and who produced works that half the world is still reading.
Q. What do you mean when you say that God "puts himself to death"? No one has ever claimed that Jesus' death was a suicide.
A. In a way, they have, though without using the word suicide, which is a seventeenth-century English coinage. In the tenth chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus says that no one is taking his life from him. "I lay it down of my own accord," he says, defiantly; "I have the power to lay it down, and I have the power to take it up again." Whatever the historical complicity of certain Jews in the execution of Jesus of Nazareth by the Romans, God Incarnate, the literary character who is the protagonist of the Gospel of John, sacrifices himself. Neither the Romans nor the Jews are finally responsible. He does this to himself. This is by no means a bizarre 21st-century innovation. You see it in the Letter to the Hebrews. You see it in the earliest Christian theology. It comes and goes through the whole history of Christian thought. Obviously, God himself cannot die; but precisely because he cannot, he can turn his own experience of the agony of human dying into a ritual that no mere human being-no mere messiah, for that matter-could ever create. In this ritual, created at the Last Supper, God gives his human followers wine to drink, telling them that this wine is his blood. The most obscene and blasphemous act imaginable-drinking God's blood!-becomes an act that symbolizes God's penitent mercy in revoking the death-curse he had placed on his creatures. Obviously, we are very far here from the historicism of "what really happened," but we are deep, I believe, into the realm of "what was really written." Victory over death is the core subject and ultimate prize of the Bible.
Q. You claim that yours is a literary approach to the New Testament, yet you completely disregard the literary intentions of the several authors. Most contemporary Gospel criticism is at pains to respect these intentions. How can you disregard them and then call the results literary?
A. Not all literary criticism is author-centered. Literary criticism can be reader-centered as well, focusing synthetically on the effect rather than analytically on different authors' different intentions. When we read four separate accounts of Jesus bound together in a single work, each irradiates the others. Figuratively, we may place lead sheathing around each. Modern critical scholarship has tended to be very good at putting such sheathing in place and so fostering author-centered responses to the Gospels. But pre-critical responses to the Gospels tended always toward the creation of a Gospel harmony. I regard harmonization as a spontaneous and legitimate form of literary response to the four Gospels, and I submit that each reader harmonizes in a slightly different way.
Q. But this immediately raises another difficulty. I take it that you have no positive objection to the separate consideration of separate works of scripture for those of us who want to continue in that vein. But when the separate works are not considered separately but combined in some way, the question that then arises is: On what basis are they combined? And how do you decide what to keep in and what to drop out?
A. I might point to the lectionary of the church as a selection of sometimes severely edited texts drawn from widely separated parts of the Bible and then artfully recombined for the purpose of teaching the faith. Different secular groups may have different criteria of selection, or inclusion, and every individual will bring some kind of a prior need or preference to even the most open and unconditioned of private readings. I have already located my own predilections in a background obsession with violence and war and a foreground concern with the transformation of God from lion into lamb. Others will have other biases, but not every bias is disabling. Some are powerfully enabling and even revelatory. In an end note to Christ: A Crisis, I write that what I offer is "the close reading of a modest set of Gospel passages selected to bring a particular interpretive option into high relief." I claim no more, but no less. After finishing my new book, I stumbled across something I quite like in
A.N. Wilson's Jesus. Wilson writes: "A patient and conscientious reading of the Gospels will always destroy any explanation which we devise. If it makes sense, it is wrong. That is the only reliable rule-of-thumb…." Wilson is right; but seen another way, this very historical intractability (he is talking about the historical Jesus) yields endless literary fertility. I do not claim that my interpretation is right in a way that would make all others wrong. Historical truth may be single, but literary power is multiple.
Q. Which brings us to the matter of history. Would you concede that there is even a small kernel of historical truth in the Bible? Or is history of no importance to you?
A. Rather than a small kernel of historical truth, I tend to see a large husk. Or to use a metaphor I like better, historical truth is the light from behind a stained-glass window that makes its colors glow. It would make a difference, an artistic difference, if it could be known that everything in the New Testament was unadulterated invention. That said, most of the interest in the text as we read it now arises from those parts of the text that are invention, just as what engages us most in a stained-glass window is not the light per se but the glass that actually prevents the light from reaching us directly. I belong to a company of readers, a large company, I believe, who are prepared to concede in a general way that the Bible contains history but who are not deeply engaged by sorting out in detail those parts of the Bible which are historical from those which are not. For us, to change the metaphor for the third time, history is not the drama, history is merely the theater.
Q. If historical truth does not engage you, does any other kind of truth do so? In what sense is the Bible true, or is that simply a trivial question.
A. It is not a trivial question at all. I take Christian faith to be confidence that a life lived in accord with the Gospel story, as that story is translated into a way of life, will be a life lived in harmony with reality itself. As a practicing Episcopalian, I believe that the Bible is true in that way. Not to be over-dramatic, I might even say that I have staked my life on its truth. If it is false, then by trying to life my life in accord with it I am falsifying and potentially ruining my life. There is, at the very least, a good deal at stake. At the same time, however, I continue to insist that a merely literary response to scripture-one that is neither religious nor, in the way just indicated, existential-can have its own integrity. The Iliad and the Odyssey were written by someone who really believed in the gods of Greece, but does our way of engaging these works as mere literature-that is, without belief in Zeus and company-lead us so utterly to misconstrue them that we get nothing out of them at all? I certainly don't think so. Moreover, a large number of readers cannot and will not read the Jewish or the Christian classics if persuaded that religious faith is a necessary condition for the reading. By every indication, these were the readers most drawn to God: A Biography. Perhaps they will be drawn to this new book as well, and to the unorthodox but, I believe, liberating notion of a repentant God.
Posted March 13, 2010
I think any reader here who writes a bad review because he/she disagrees with author Miles' point of view is simply missing the point of the book, i.e. to offer Jack Miles' particular point of view and give readers something to think about. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the author's point of view, the book is well written, researched and makes a cogent argument for Miles' viewpoint.
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