In 1996, Jack Miles wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning work entitled God: A Biography. In that work, he constructed a character analysis of God, based strictly upon a literary study of the Hebrew Bible. He gleaned from the text of the Bible a dynamic and complex deity, and his literary analysis of God’s character, because it shunned dogmatic concerns of Judaism and Christianity, proved provocative. In Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God, Miles turns to the New Testament and the character of Jesus. As he did in God: A Biography, Miles analyzes the character of Jesus, based on the New Testament texts alone. The sequel forms a continuity with the first work, however, because Miles takes seriously the claim that Jesus was God incarnate. Therefore, the complexity of God’s character in the Hebrew Bible is brought forward in toto, into the person of Jesus as well.
The book divides into four chapters—“The Messiah, Ironically,” “A Prophet Against the Promise,” “The Lord of Blasphemy,” and “The Lamb of God”—presented in roughly chronological sequence, each chapter focusing on a particular characteristic of Jesus Christ. Although he refers to many New Testament books, Miles primarily uses Gospel passages. Because the Gospel of John is the Gospel most emphatic about Jesus as the incarnation of God, it functions as the outline for most of Miles’s work.
In his first chapter, “The Messiah, Ironically,” Miles highlights passages from the early chapters of the Gospels, especially John. In these passages, Jesus and others make claims for his status as messiah, but their understanding of “messiah” is so strange that it becomes an ironic title. For instance, John the Baptist calls Jesus the “Lamb of God,” and Jesus himself uses the image of a bronze serpent to expound on his status. The second image, drawn from Numbers, was an object used to heal the people of Israel from an attack of poisonous snakes sent by God himself. These two animal symbols demonstrate that God has dramatically and voluntarily altered the power he exerted in the Hebrew Bible. God has chosen sacrificial animals as metaphors for his life and death, symbols that point to him as the means of forgiveness, but a forgiveness of a curse that he himself caused.
In chapter 2, Miles calls Jesus the “prophet against the promise” because so much of Jesus’ words and actions invert God’s actions in the Hebrew Bible. Instead of expressing a concern for justice that includes reward and punishment, Jesus proclaims that “he is no longer a head-smashing kind of God.” While he had previously announced himself as a mighty warrior, now the Lord opts for nonviolence. The strict distinction between Jew and Gentile that defined God’s relationship to humanity is made obsolete by Jesus’ preaching to his hometown. In all these instances, God in the form of Jesus contradicts his prior acts. Moreover, Miles asserts, the actions of God incarnate change so dramatically because Jesus makes a virtue out of necessity. God found that he could no longer live up to the covenant of the Hebrew Bible, so he altered its rules to make it a covenant of unconditional love.
When, in the third chapter, Miles addresses the blasphemous aspects of Jesus, he looks primarily at Jesus’ speech. At the center of Jesus’ blasphemy is his unequivocal claim, made in John 8:56-58, that he and God are the same. Nothing could be more blasphemous than making oneself equal to God, and when his audience hears Jesus say this, they attempt to stone him (as God in the Hebrew Bible commands them to do). This blasphemy, however, goes beyond hubris. Jesus exalts himself to the level of God, and, concurrently, brings God down to the level of humanity. The crisis that the incarnation solves is a crisis of God’s failing to live up to his own assertions about himself. The incarnation obliterates this failure by making a new assertion—namely, that Jesus’ victory over death takes the place of the triumph of God’s chosen people over their flesh-and-blood enemies.
In the final chapter, Miles treats the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The passion narratives of the Gospels finalize the reversal of expectations that Jesus has been enacting in his public ministry. Jesus’ (God’s) death on the cross and his subsequent resurrection are the ultimate revisionist acts. God’s grandeur and power are exchanged for helplessness and shame. Through the passion, God announces that he “is no longer a warrior prepared to rescue the Jews from foreign oppression but, rather, a savior who has chosen to rescue all mankind from death.” Appropriately, Miles closes this chapter with references to Revelation, the book of the New Testament that most graphically depicts the dual nature of God as victim and conqueror when it presents a lamb with its throat slit as the most powerful being in Heaven.
At the end of his book, Miles includes an epilogue and two appendixes that explain his procedure and put his work in conversation with the academic field of New Testament studies.
Sources for Further Study
Madsen, Catherine. “Jesus Saves Face.” CrossCurrents 52, no. 1 (2002): 131-136. A review that focuses on Miles’s treatment of irony.
Wood, James. “God, Interrupted: Revisiting the Life of Christ.” New Yorker 77, no. 35 (November 12, 2001): 122-125. Explores the book as a study of theodicy.
Wood, Michael. “Nobody’s Perfect.” The New York Times Book Review, December 23, 2001, p. 8. A critique of Miles’s literary reading, centering on Miles’s lack of attention to authorial presence.