Miles' earlier work on a desert people's god, "God: A Biography," focused on a deity new at the job. Miles' portrayal depicted a god learning the role. He's inconsistent, breaks promises, commits genocide and grows increasingly dictatorial. At one point, a single man challenges him, winning a moral victory which clearly disturbs this irrational spirit. Finally, like an elderly curmudgeon, the deity simply withdraws from those he wishes to worship him.
According to Miles, after a long span of time the god has learned remorse. He has subjected his followers to a succession of invasions and dispersals. Israel becomes a client state of the Assyrians, Babylon, Greece, and now, Rome. As with many aged, powerful men, the god has reflected on his own actions and decided some positive actions are in order. He doesn't consider his career a failure, but discerns humanity's course isn't following its destined path. Genocide and other manifestations of his power are no longer the answer. A new course is necessary, so he becomes the Incarnation - a deity housed in a human body.
Miles portrayal of Christ's life shows how poorly this deity understands his creation. After all, as a god with neither peers nor serious challengers, he fails to understand human characteristics. Throughout the account, Christ is ambivalent in his assigned role. He shifts from expressing his divinity to being but a man, confused and perplexed by the role forced on him. He doesn't question his fate, knowing, at least in his adult life, that he is to be sacrificed. He understands the need for his role, but anticipates the pain as any of us would.
Miles relates how uncertainty leads to ambivalence in the behaviour of this Incarnation. Repelling followers at first, he begins gathering adherents, but, they too, are confused. Mostly Jews, his recruits think his mission is to restore Israel as promised. When they fail to understand his claim to a wider mission, they fail to comprehend. How can this "messiah" claim to redeem Israel when he offers succor to strangers and enemies? When he dies in such squalid circumstances, a social criminal, the distress among his followers is intense. Miles notes the significance of such a death, describing it as "a huge and horrifying surprise". Christ has not imparted his knowledge of the finale, leaving his followers confused and adrift. Even the resurrection seems hardly worthy of notice. There's no grandeur, no powerful declarations, little drama. The meaning of it all must be derived over time until the deity's original intention can be imparted to others. The result is not the god's accomplishment, but the people who had faith in the idea and imparted it to others.
Miles' account is full of inconsistencies and elf-contradictions. These are not author's faults, however, resulting instead from the material he consults and brings to our view. The Incarnation is as inconsistent as his "father," which isn't surprising given his previous career. Christ asserts the teachings of the Prophets foretell his coming, yet the god Miles portrays seems to know nothing of "love" in those days, particularly love of all humanity. The god's focus, promises and failures, are for Israel alone. How then, does this deity in its human incarnation, expect anyone to believe his new identity? Miles concludes that the act of sacrifice is self-explanatory needing no further elaboration.
Miles postscripts the story with a literary analysis of its telling. One interesting facet is the Bible's use of irony. Irony uses or "double meaning, or reversal of meaning. . . and will not stoop to explanation." He suggests that in this case, long-standing practices are suddenly reversed, then there is a place for irony in religion. He admits to the novelty of the concept, but argues that it fits the Judeo-Christian story. It's a compelling and challenging idea, but then, so is this book. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
on 3 October 2003
A historian reading the Gospels as historical documents might attempt to find clues to underlying facts behind the texts; which sayings of Jesus might be original, which miracle stories might point to the reality of a real real Galilean faith-healer? Traditional theology has looked to the Gospels as the definitive accounts of the the incarnation of God on earth revealing in parable and metaphor as well as in plain language the nature of God's relationship with mankind and the potential for atonement between man and God. Jack Miles avoids both these approaches, saying that if the Gospels are like a stained Glass window we should look at the window itself and at what it represents whithout trying to see through it to what it can only obscure.
The Gospels in his book are analysed as works of literature, very much in their historical and cultural context and very much with an eye to their original and timeless meaning but without the encumbrances of either a secular, sceptical arrogance or a credulous, faithful naivity. It is a brave and challenging attempt to read and understand the Gospels simply as they are and to try to see what they were meant to convey.
His conclusions are bold and suprising. An analysis that traditional Jewish beliefs about their God were becoming unsustainable in the first century before being shattered by the destruction of Jerusalem, and a model of christian atonement which is very distict from both the Pauline model and from conventional modern christianity
A fine read for anyone wanting a fresh angle on scripture.
on 19 July 2004
In this book Jack Miles looks at the four Gospels from the point of view of a literary critic, dissecting the story rather than a religious scripture. His analysis concerns most of the entire narrative of Jesus' life and Miles offers a lot in the way of historical insight, subtle meaning in dialogue and the cultural weight of the story. Unwittingly, I'm sure, Miles also has written this book in a way that lends itself very well to being a good reference text. Miles critique will not please the evangelical Christians, or Christian "fundamentalists" by virtue of the fact that his approach is primarily intellectual. It must be stressed, however, that Miles is not trying to act as a theologian, although in places he does lean in that direction. The downsides of this book are that Miles fluctuates between writing clearly and then inpenetrably. There are places where the fact that he know's he is clever expresses itself in his unnecessarily arrogant style. But that is only in places. Another disappointment with the author is that I personally contacted him with questions concerning the gospels which were not addressed in the book, and his answers where utterly inadequate. Miles is an expert, albeit an arrogant one, on a narrow field of thought. When pushed beyond the boundaries of his expertise, he falls apart at the seams but retains all the arrogance of someone who still knew what he was saying. Nonetheless, this does not detract from the quality of the published book, and I very much enjoyed reading it for it's own sake. As a person with an interest in reading books about Christianity by authors who can offer some brainpower behind their theories, I utterly enjoyed reading Jack Miles.
You should also know that the book comes in two guises: hardback and paperback. I know I'm probably unorthodox in this respect but I much prefer the hardback edition despite its higher price. This is because the paperback edition has quite small print and I like to make pencil notes all over the margins. Also I find it hard to finish a book if the letters are tiny - it seems like its much more to read than it should.
Anyway, I would recommend this book, even though I don't think that the author is very humble or helpful if you want to know more.