2017-07-12
Following up his 1995 Pulitzer Prize-winning, "God: A Biography," Jack Miles continues his literary approach to the Bible in "Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God": the Old Testament deity has come to Earth to rescue his people in the face of the coming Roman onslaught. The Incarnation is not a military mission, however. God comes to preach peace, mercy and love. Most shockingly, the warrior lays down his own life. Beliefnet's Paul O'Donnell had a dialogue recently with Miles on history, literature and what they both have to do with Scripture.

Is the Bible a good book, so to speak?

Section by section, the Bible varies enormously in literary merit. The first chapter of Numbers, which consists largely of the statistics that give that book its name, is tedious, and its tedium is easily matched elsewhere in the Pentateuch. The Book of Isaiah--though its best chapters are the greatest poetry in the Bible--is the work of a Homer who nods off from time to time. Some of Isaiah's oracles against Edom, Egypt, Arabia, and on and on, recycle standard images, and the other prophets are similarly variable in quality.

In the New Testament, it's worth asking if the story of Jesus is told better by being told four times. As for Paul, his rhetoric is thrilling at best, windy at worst. If Paul had known his letters would be made authoritative, would he have deleted one or another or edited here and there? I find it hard to believe otherwise.

The result of all this is artlessness, and, paradoxically, authenticity. Modern artists often combine design with chance, spontaneity or accident. They recognize that the viewer or hearer or reader begins, consciously or not, to resist an effect that seems calculated down to the last detail. The Bible is an outstanding example--perhaps the supreme example--of this kind of spontaneous art. Its very incompleteness, or unevenness, or imperfection forces us to step in to complete, smooth out, or correct. Once the reader does this, the Bible has him hooked.

Finally, there is the character of God. The Bible's central character is more important to the Bible's effect as literature than in any other classic. His power as a character, even when he is in the background, overcomes the centrifugal force of randomness.

The Old Testament has epic stories in Genesis and Exodus, poetry, song lyrics in the Psalms, prophecy, lists, history. The Gospels are more consistent as a literary genre, but the evangelists present their own challenge as writers.

In the Old Testament, miracles are frequent from Genesis through Judges, but become quite rare once you reach Samuel and Kings, the more historical books. The Gospels, with their historical individuals operating in a well-defined place and time, ought to be more like Samuel and Kings. Yet miracles are frequent. The Gospel is virtually defined as a literary genre by this startling combination.

One way to deal with this is to separate the historical from the unhistorical, the earthly from the heavenly. Choosing the earthly makes Jesus a preacher who rises or falls on the merit of his preaching. Leaving the earthly and the heavenly mixed and insisting this mixture is "right" because Jesus is both human and divine, tends to make the life of Jesus a continuation of the life of God, rather than merely the work of God as conducted by somebody else.

The second challenge in writing about the Gospels is whether to harmonize the quadruplication of the narrative-make it one text--or to leave the reader with four separate portraits. Ordinary readers instinctively harmonize. That's the path followed by great works of Christian art like Bach's "St. Matthew's Passion" and Grünewald's Isenheim Altarpiece. It's also the path I follow in my book.

Thematically, the Old Testament is pretty straightforward: stay on God's good side or face the consequences. The New Testament's moral seems more obscure. Do you think it's harder to tell what God is up to in the Gospels?

I feel this with great intensity. In the Old Testament, there's barely a wobble in God's indomitable self-confidence. The great warrior never repudiates his promises of military victory, even if he fails quite to deliver on them. With the towering exception of the Book of Job, the only flicker of self-doubt is a line or two spoken through the post-exilic prophets.

In the New Testament, circumstances have changed. Hundreds of years have passed, and still the promises are unkept. Worse, a catastrophic defeat at the hands of the Romans impends, a holocaust comparable only to the Nazi holocaust. Against this background, the New Testament's silence about God's unkept promises doesn't speak: it screams. God himself made military victory over Israel's enemies definitive of his own identity. If he's not going to deliver as promised, he does indeed have some explaining to do.

It was John Milton, in "Paradise Lost" and "Paradise Regained," who set out to "justify the ways of God to man." But the New Testament was about this task before he took it up. Jesus both preaches a justification of God's behavior and, more important, enacts it as God Incarnate. The justification is as shocking as the crucifixion and, on the other hand, as unexpectedly glorious as the return of all mankind to paradise.

The search for a historical Jesus has occupied the popular imagination recently. How does your quest for Jesus differ from the Jesus Seminar and similar efforts?

Let me offer a comparison. Part of the appeal of Shakespeare's "Richard the Third" is that there was a Richard and that he was actually involved in royal intrigues about a century before Shakespeare wrote. Research into the historical truth about Richard turns out to be rather different from what Shakespeare put into his play. That research has the legitimate interest of any history, but most ordinary readers are satisfied with just a little of the "historical Richard," and direct most of their attention to the play as a work of art.

These proportions are strikingly reversed for many readers of the Gospel. A great deal of attention is paid to the recovery of a corrected history, and only a little to the Gospel as a work of literature. In my book, I invite readers to take an attitude toward the Gospel more like the one they bring to "Richard the Third."

I have no intrinsic quarrel with historical Jesus research. I've learned from it, and I expect it to continue. My only regret is that over the past 200 years or so, historical research has so nearly eclipsed the equally legitimate artistic response that was dominant for centuries before history came to seem supremely important.

You portray the Incarnation as God's attempt to correct his own errors. Is evil, in your reading, the result of God's mistakes? Where does that leave Satan?

It restores Satan to his proper place in the Gospel drama as an important actor who has bested God in two previous encounters, first in the Garden and second when the Devil lured God into torturing the innocent Job. The third, climactic encounter begins when Satan faces God Incarnate in the emotion-laden moment after God's repentance at the Jordan River.

If I may quote from the book,
On both [previous] occasions, the Lord recovered and set about repairing the damage he had done respectively to Adam and Eve and to Job, thereby sharply limiting the extent of Satan's victories.

And yet, on both occasions the Lord was clearly wounded. No less important, Satan was far from vanquished. On this third occasion, recognizing the approach of the endgame, the Devil chooses to retreat rather than attack, but the retreat is merely tactical: He leaves only `until the opportune moment.' When that moment arrives, he will ignore Jesus' mind and go straight for his body.

Do you expect "Christ" to increase a Christian's faith?

I have bent every effort to write for my readers only as readers, and not as Christians or Jews, believers or unbelievers. To go back to my example above, I wouldn't write about "Richard the Third" to excite in readers either a favorable or an unfavorable attitude toward the British Crown.

That said, I'd be naïve not to expect that this picture of a God who repents and atones, who fails to keep his covenant with the Jews and yet from that very failure recovers the means to correct the deeper, earlier failure of his covenant with the entire human race, will not excite other-than-literary reactions. It does so in me. But even I abstain from talking about my extra-literary reactions in this book--if I went further with this question here--this interview might turn into a third book.