THE READERS' QUESTIONS
Thank you for allowing me to read this book, I thoroughly enjoyed it, it was well written and obviously well researched. The question I would have for Jack Miles:
The premise of your book seems to be that God was vengeful and overreacted to the sin of Adam and Eve, and though He continued to be a warrior God, somewhere in history He changed His mind or personality
and became "kinder and gentler". Was it ever a consideration that His gift of "free will" was His true mistake, with free will and the presence
of Satan, making it almost impossible for human beings to be faithful, requiring God to find another way to save His creation?
Jack Miles responds:
In the Genesis story of the creation of the human species, no reference
is made to free will as such. However, at first, God places no
restrictions whatsoever on the activity of the first human couple, and
later he does, which may reflect some concern on his part. At first, he
prohibits nothing. His only two commands are both positive:  "Be
fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and  subdue it; and have
dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over
every living thing that moves upon the earth" (Genesis 1:28). The
actions commanded imply free will in those receiving the command. The
mood, moreover, is one of confidence and bounty. In Genesis 2, however,
which historical scholars read as a separate account of creation but
which, read in a more literary way, must be taken as a fuller or
corrected account of the creation of the human species, God's grant of
liberty is not so expansive. The first couple no longer have the whole
earth as their domain. They are placed in a garden, which the man (not
the woman) is commanded to cultivate, and there is, after all, a
prohibition: They may not eat of "the tree of the knowledge of good and
evil" (Genesis 2:17). These actions, inasmuch as they restrict human
freedom, may seem to bespeak early divine reservations about human free
Later, when the Serpent lures Adam and Eve into breaking God's one
prohibition, his reaction is an explosion of wrath and vengeance. He
curses the two with death, lifelong labor, and pain in childbirth, and
he expels them from his garden into the outer world. After some time
has passed, he is so distressed with the behavior of their descendants
that he "is sorry that he had made humankind on the earth" (Genesis 6:6)
and proposes to exterminate them. In the end, he makes an exception for
Noah; but despite his promise never again to destroy the world by flood,
there is little reason to believe that all his regrets are behind him.
Noah's children are by no means their father's equal in virtue. In the
flood narrative as well, though the subject of free will is not
discussed, one might well say, following your intuition, that God's
reservations about human free will have grown even greater. (One might
as easily say, though, free will being so much a part of what it means
to be human, that he has reservations about his human creatures
The fresh start that God makes with Abraham is a kind of lowering
of his sights. Rather than promising fertility and world dominion to
the human species as a whole and attempting to maintain a satisfactory
relationship with us, he makes those promises with special intensity and
specificity to just one clan. The complication that follows, however,
is that he must become a warrior on behalf of that clan, something he
had not needed to be before taking this step. God's most extravagant
military commitments are made after his people suffer their most
devastating military defeat, the defeat by Babylon that destroys
Solomon's temple and carries much of Israel into exile. Read either in
the Jewish or the Christian order, the Hebrew scriptures end with this
promise unfulfilled. At the time when God chooses to become a Jew
himself, five hundred years have passed, and still this promise has not
This is the question, the divine dilemma, to which, as I read the
them, the Gospels are the resolution. Nothing could be more evident
than that God has some kind of reservation about returning to massive
military action. My suggestion is that he develops late in his life the
awareness which he lacks at the start--namely, a realization that if he
had left his human creatures as he had originally made them--living as
immortals in a world without scarcity, sexual conflict, or toil--he
might never have felt so estranged from them. His ultimate task is
somehow to restore that condition. But his immediate task is to both
reveal and explain to his chosen people that their divine military
protector is never going to take the field again. The moment is
poignant, even heartbreaking, and yet it carries glory within it as a
seed carries a flower.
My question is:
A crucifixion scene was normal for the 'times'. The depictions of Christ being crucified by artists is to me a photograph from history. So, I don't think it can be judged from our perspective now as 'violent'.
Therefore, is Christ on the cross more acceptable as an icon to be revered?
If not, why not?
Jack Miles responds:
The public torture and execution of criminals was once common throughout
the world and still common in much of it. In the West, however, capital
punishment has been abolished as inhuman. Only the United States
retains it, and even the Americans regard public execution as inhuman.
In our country, as a result, only a tiny minority of law enforcement
professionals has ever actually witnessed an execution; even Americans
who support capital punishment rarely want to watch it being imposed.
The reason why the image of Christ crucified is acceptable in a culture
where actual public execution is unacceptable is that it no longer quite
looks like a public execution. If it did, we would recoil from it. The
display of the cross rather than the crucifix--that is, the cross
without the dying Christ rather than the cross with him--bespeaks both
that revulsion and, to give a theological explanation for it, a belief
in the resurrection: Christ was once on the cross but is no longer.
The contention I make in "Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God" is
that the literary power of a story in which God becomes a Jew and then
subjects himself to public execution as a Jewish traitor to Rome cannot
be felt unless we can learn to recoil from the crucifix as we would from
a representation of God Incarnate writhing in an electric chair or
strapped to a table and receiving his fatal injection of poison. That
God, for whatever reason, should have subjected himself to such a thing
is astonishing beyond words. Take that away, and the Gospel story is no
longer the story that captured the imagination of the world.
Here is my question for Mr. Miles.
In the second paragraph on Page 9, you state that "Our offense was so mild, his punishment was so ferocious."
Sin is ultimately rebellion against God. God gave man the ability to choose between good and evil when he created man. When we choose to disobey God and when we want our way instead of submitting to God's way, that rebellion is sin and it has nothing to do with it's mildness or severity. How can you say man's original sin was mild? It had nothing to do with the sin's mildness or severity, only that it was rebellion against God.
Jack Miles responds:
As a man of faith, I am committed, in the end, to a belief in the
goodness of God. However, as a literary critic, what I see in the
scripture and talk about in "Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God" is the
story of God struggling toward goodness. That mankind is created in
God's image empowers us to use human categories to understand God. That
God, who does not have a real spouse or real children, nonetheless uses
the image of fatherhood to characterize his relationship to his human
creatures constitutes another such invitation, and a very powerful one.
If you were the father of a boy and girl who fell in with an evil
companion who cleverly lured them into disobedience, would you punish
them by expelling them from your house and reclaiming from them the most
precious of the gifts that you had given them? When God is appreciated
as and only as a literary character, no prior commitment need be made to
his absolute goodness; and in that case, one may reply, "No, I would not
do that; and if I did, I am sure I would regret it later." To which I
would add, "And when you regretted it later, you would be a better man
for the regret. And would we not be interested to hear your story?
Real disobedience by the kids can provoke, after all, a real
overreaction in the dad, but the reconciliation thereafter can sometimes
be the most beautiful of tales."
In any case, to take the position that even the smallest human
disobedience fully justifies even the most severe divine punishment is
to understand God in an inhuman way. The Bible, in a thousand different
ways, proclaims that doing that is always a mistake.
I've finished reading the advance copy of "Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God." Thank you for the book. I enjoyed it a great deal (if "enjoyed" is an encompassing enough word--I was shocked, moved, angry and baffled by turns, in short, deeply engaged). I wish both publisher and author great success.
It's difficult to ask just one question of Jack, as his book raised so many for me. The predominant question the book left me with is: Is it really possible, as you assert, to divorce the theological implications of a reading of the New Testament from a secular literary reading? I ask because I am struck by the coherence of the reading you offer, your willingness to make sense of contradiction, the allusions you find echoing from one part of the Gospels to another, the clear "meaning" that emerges from your reasoning, the fact that it's important that you explain (defend?) your methodology in such great depth, and that your own learning is deeply grounded in theology? As a Westerner,is it possible to view something that so deeply colors our thought in purely secular terms? Would it be possible, instead of reaching the conclusion that "God changed his mind," to reach the conclusion that the rift between the earlier and later God is so great that the narrative doesn't make sense at at all? Your vision places God at the center of the narrative, doesn't this choice undergird what is fundamentally a theological question?
Again, thank you. I look forward to re-reading the book.
Jack Miles responds:
Thanks for your kind words. You may be pleased, or amused, to hear that
you are not alone in making this objection or this comment. One who
made the same comment when he read the word in manuscript was the Rt.
Rev. Frederick Borsch, recently retired as Episcopal bishop of Los
Angeles, and a New Testament scholar of note. Another who made the
objection quite forcefully indeed was the theologian Thomas J. J.
Altizer, famous in the 1960s for his "death of God" theology. My
response to them, and this is my response to you as well, is that in
order to deserve the proud name of theology, a discussion of the Gospels
simply must engage the long tradition of theological inquiry and
investigation more than mine does. A literary appreciation, however
provocative a given theologian or a given theologically sensitive reader
like yourself may find it, neither incurs nor, in my case, remotely
meets the requirements of true theology. I hope that my reply will
convey the great respect I have for theology, and yet I do not consider
myself a theologian. I once thought of inserting in the second appendix
to this book a discussion of a word I privately coined during the
writing of the book--namely, the word "theography." Theography would
be, by contrast with theology, more depictive and less analytic. It
would suggest theology without being theology in a way that would
imitate the Gospels themselves. It would relate to theology as
historical fiction--the Gospels are a kind of historical
fiction--relates to real history. A historian of the Napoleonic era,
reading Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace" and thinking about the real
history it contains or alludes to, may be prompted by it to many a
historical reflection about the war between the French and the Russians.
Yet the fact that Tolstoy is historically suggestive and, broadly at
least, historically informed does not, in the end, make him a historian.
I concede, however, that yours is a large question, and I am given pause
by the fact that people I respect are quite dissatisfied with my reply
What do you believe could be the reason that God's mental powers have increased as his physical ability has "seemed to ebb away", as you theorized in Part I--The Messiah, Ironically?
Jack Miles responds:
Though God never describes himself as passing from ignorance to
knowledge, there are many indications early in his story that he does
learn. His human creatures surprise him again and again with behavior
he had not foreseen; what he learns, above all, is what to expect from
them. Late in his story, as God Incarnate in the Gospel of John, God
speaks as if he is beyond all surprise. Nothing mankind does can any
longer shock or dismay him. The way forward to this destination is
pointed in the Book of Daniel where as the "Ancient of Days," God seems
to know the future in detail.
As this large change takes place over the course of the Hebrew
scriptures, whether we read in the Jewish or the Christian order, God's
dynamic activity as creator, warrior, and otherwise as intervenor in
human affairs progressively comes to an end. In effect, he retires, he
withdraws, he subsides. It is AS IF he has grown weak, but has he? Or
has he, instead, with greater knowledge, chosen not to exercise his
power as he once did? Whether out of weakness or by choice, he is not,
functionally, the God that he once was. The premise of "Christ: A
Crisis in the Life of God" is that this change, whatever its cause, puts
God in crisis as the moment of Roman doom draws near for his chosen