In 1996, Jack Miles won the Pulitzer Prize for GOD: A BIOGRAPHY, his book about conflict and development in the character of God in the Hebrew Bible. Miles, a former Jesuit who studied in Rome, in Jerusalem, and at Harvard, has had a distinguished career as a journalist, editor, lecturer, scholar, and writer. He was for many years the literary editor of the LOS ANGELES TIMES, and today he serves as senior advisor to the president at the J. Paul Getty Trust in Los Angeles. He has just published CHRIST: A CRISIS IN THE LIFE OF GOD (Alfred A. Knopf), an audacious new book that is at once a fresh interpretation of the classic Christian belief that Jesus is God and a moving meditation on the problem of evil. Miles reads the New Testament as the continuation of God's life story, in which He becomes a man and dies on a Roman cross, and begins his new book by asking the startlingly simple question, "What was God thinking?"
Miles spoke recently in Washington, D.C. with RELIGION &
Q: After so many years away from biblical scholarship,
what drew you back to writing two books on the Bible?
JM: I hadn't really thought that I would write on
the Bible, and then one evening I listened to a recording
of Bach's "St. Matthew Passion," in which the images of
the bridegroom and the lamb are juxtaposed. Jesus never
married, so in some conventional sense Jesus cannot be a
bridegroom. The bridegroom then must be God, the bridegroom
of Israel. And the lamb is that bridegroom reduced to the
condition of a sacrificial animal.
The horror of this transformation hit me with new force,
and something close to horror is what I hear in the opening
strains of that music. It certainly is a blend of grief
and fear -- that deep-held note [in the opening chorus]
bespeaks something close to fear or terror, as would be
expected if you understand yourself in the condition of
Israel -- losing its great protector, its champion, the
God who had destroyed the army of Pharaoh and who was the
ultimate guarantor of the safety and survival of the nation.
If He could be reduced to this condition, then what hope
was there for His people? As Jesus himself says to the weeping
women who see him being led off to die, "Weep not for me,
weep rather for your children. Blessed is the womb that
hath never borne and the breast that has never suckled.
If this is done in the green wood, what will be done in
the dry?" Jesus is speaking what have to be their own thoughts,
and if they didn't see him as God Incarnate, subsequent
Christian tradition has.
I'm making this far, far more articulate than it was for
me as the music washed over me. The words, which are so
very brief, simply say, "Look at him. Look at who? Look
at the bridegroom. How is he? He is like a lamb." That's
it. But that in its starkness is so affecting.
Then it became a matter of approaching the character of
God Incarnate as you would approach any human character
who surprises you by doing something that seems wholly out
of character. You look into his past life. You say, "There
must be something about him I didn't know." In this case,
that meant looking into the Hebrew scriptures, which are
[about] God's early and middle life. I intended to go on
from that exercise to talk about the story told in the Gospels,
but I made the fateful decision to read the Hebrew scriptures
in the Jewish order, and realized that there was here an
editorial hand that was bringing the collection to a close,
so I had to stop.
Q: So the two books were really one book?
JM: They are two books reflecting the two editions
in which we in the West have our sacred scripture. We have
a Jewish edition, and we all have it. The Jews don't just
have it. They may once have been the only ones who had it,
but Christians now have it, too. They all know about it.
And we have the Christian edition, which once seemed to
be the only edition -- to Christians. Jews always knew about
it, too. There's been a kind of double life all along. Jews
and Christians have created western culture together, and
so there are definitely two books here, but the two had
a single genesis.
Q: You were inspired by listening to the Passion
according to St. Matthew, yet you wrote a book that's very
dependent on the Gospel according to St. John.
JM: Well, that's true. Though the Passion narrative
proper comes from St. Matthew, there's very much in the
oratorio that does not come from Matthew. And that is true
of all of Bach's other passion compositions. The bridegroom
and lamb images come straight from John. In fact, they also
come straight from John the Baptist. It is he who speaks
of Jesus as bridegroom on one occasion and as lamb on another.
I gave a lecture at the Getty Museum in which I joined the
St. Matthew Passion to another German masterpiece of religious
art, Matthias Grünewald's crucifixion -- the "Eisenheim
Altarpiece." In that scene, you have Mary and John and
Mary Magdalene grieving on one side of the cross, and then
on the other side you have John the Baptist pointing triumphantly
at the cross. He is not grieving. (John the Baptist, of
course, did not attend the crucifixion. He was dead by that
time. He had been beheaded.) And there's a little lamb at
the bottom bleeding into a chalice and holding a staff --
obviously a highly interpreted, syncretistic picture of
the Crucifixion, in which one Gospel is used to interpret
Q: Why is Christ a crisis in the life of God?
JM: The crisis in God's life is that He has broken
his promise. He said that what appeared to be Babylon's
victory over Jerusalem was really God punishing Jerusalem
for the sins of the Jews, but that this punishment would
not last. Soon Babylon would fall, and then Jerusalem would
rise again in glory as under King David.
But it didn't happen. A temple was rebuilt, but it was a
paltry thing. At its dedication, as many people wept as
cheered. And the Persians didn't last very long. They were
succeeded by the Greeks, who were much more oppressive,
and by the Romans, who were the most oppressive of all.
And God knows, because He knows the future, that a few decades
hence there will come the great Roman Shoah -- the slaughter
of the Jews and the attempt to end national Jewish life
-- whose equal never came again until Hitler. And God is
not going to do anything about it.
How can He continue to be God under those circumstances?
Breaking His own promise. Not defending His own people.
He had already said repeatedly that they had suffered enough.
It was time for them to be comforted. But He is not comforting
them. This is a crisis.
Q: God made an enormous mistake; God failed; God
is only human. Isn't there a long tradition of understanding
God this way in ancient biblical commentary? Aren't there
many places in the Talmud, for example, where the rabbis
speak about God changing His mind, failing, repenting, exhibiting
the kinds of fallible human qualities you talk about?
JM: I do think that there could be assembled quite
a remarkable collection of statements from places like the
Midrash to Lamentations and other rabbinic texts. … But
I decided I wasn't going to do that. My claim has been that
I'm writing about God, and now about God Incarnate, as literary
characters, and that my warrant for doing this is that these
works have already achieved that position. They are in the
literary canon of the West. The rabbinic literature, brilliant
as it is and astounding as it can be in its daring, does
not have that status, and it is certainly not in any dialogue
with the New Testament, interesting as that could be.
You could find [these observations]. What I sometimes think
occupies the place of the Talmud in Christianity is, in
fact, the canon of literary and artistic works inspired
by the New Testament. You can find it in Milton, in Matthias
Grünewald, in Bach.
What does the average child think, looking at this man Jesus
being tortured? "What did he do? He must have been very
bad." I begin the book speaking of a Japanese artist who
expressed her shock at seeing a corpse displayed as a religious
icon. Jesus appears to be suffering punishment. And in some
way that spectacle leaps past all theological and philosophical
rationalizations of it and says to your most basic imaginative
stratum, "He is being punished. He did do something wrong."
Then you look for what it might be and what he might be
doing about it.
I'm really quite astonished at the thought that Jesus undergoes
a ritual of repentance, but he does. He's baptized at the
Jordan River, going through what for everyone else who went
through it was an admission of sin and a promise to reform.
What sin had he committed? As Jesus, perhaps none that we
can point to, but as God there was His having blighted all
of His own creation with the curse of death.