CHRIST: A CRISIS IN THE LIFE OF GOD | By JACK MILES | Alfred A. Knopf | 352 pages | $26 hardcover

God felt guilty, so he killed himself. Now, that‘s a revisionist stunner. Jack Miles admittedly isn’t the only one to come up with the idea; he admires Pierre-Emmanuel Dauzat‘s 1998 book Le Suicide du Christ. But he describes Dauzat’s work as postmodern, and Miles is no postmodernist. As a scholar, an educator, a journalist and, in his early years, a Jesuit, he has always been a constructive rather than a deconstructive thinker. He sends Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God up like fireworks to draw a reader‘s gaze into a broadened view of the New Testament intended to disarm Jewish-Christian antagonism, and maybe other kinds as well.

He’s sneaky about it. Realizing he can‘t hold a calm discussion in the bloody arena where true believers battle ”historical Jesus“ questers, he removes his subject, as he did with 1995’s Old Testament–centered God: A Biography, out of religion and history into the less charged forum of literary criticism. Here, Christ is understood to be God Incarnate simply because that‘s the way the text presents him. Miles isn’t primarily worried about the process of editing and augmenting that may have transformed a Galilean teacher into a prophet and then into the Supreme Being. The story‘s the thing.

Many who read Christ will gain new appreciation for what a shocking, dramatic, revolutionary story it is, and will thank Miles — who won a Pulitzer for God — for his craft. He knows his ancient Jewish culture, so he’s able to explain why people saw Jesus as a nut case when he washed his disciples‘ feet (it was considered the act of a slave) or when he referred to himself in terms reserved for God (blasphemy carried the death penalty). And Miles knows his ancient regional languages; his own translations from the Greek convey the street-corner clarity of the mercantile tongue in which the New Testament was written, and he digs revealing shades of meaning from scriptural Hebrew. He also commands a talented professor’s communication skills: His writing style is accessible and precise; when he wants to spank a point into your head, he revisits it and amplifies — and you‘re glad.

The idea of a divine suicide is indeed strange, but it doesn’t seem so far-fetched once Miles starts ticking off the Deity‘s rap sheet. Whether jealous lover or ruthless murderer, Yahweh often seems greater than his human creations only in terms of his power, and by the time Jesus comes on the scene, there are doubts about even that. Through his prophets, God has repeatedly promised a messiah to kick ass on the Assyrians, Babylonians and Greeks who’ve trampled the Jews. But his credit is bad. In fact, the Chosen People, currently dust under the heels of the Romans, may be worse off than ever.

God can keep bluffing, or he can revise his covenant. Displaying new traits of mercy and humility, he chooses to preserve his own dignity while offering the world (not just the Jews) the greatest prize of all — eternal life. But in order to accomplish this credibly, he must be betrayed as his people have been betrayed by him, suffer as they have suffered, and die as they have died. He becomes Jesus Christ and submits to all this. His resurrection symbolizes the heavenly reward in store for all who believe in him.

Everyone knows that Jesus died for the remission of sins. Miles‘ twist is that the sins are not human ones — the Jews have remained essentially faithful throughout their centuries of captivity — but God’s own. They‘re sins of abandonment, and also the sin of condemning Adam and Eve and all their progeny to pain, exile and death, when all our first parents did was eat a piece of fruit. Now God plans to redeem himself by restoring the immortality that was mankind’s birthright.

Miles doesn‘t just pull this rabbit out of his hat and wave it around. He carefully connects Jesus’ words and actions with Old Testament prophecies to show that, though the Jews‘ expectation of a military and kingly messiah was justifiable, Christ was not changing the ground rules entirely; Isaiah’s notion of a peaceful but redemptive ”lamb of God,“ among other examples, could be used in the great Judaic tradition of textual reinterpretation to connect the dots between old covenant and new. On the literary side, Miles applies a microscope to the New Testament, revealing how nothing in the much-picked-apart text is wasted, and how every difficult utterance of its protagonist, from ”Eat of my flesh“ to ”Blessed are the meek,“ serves to lead his disciples, and the reader, gradually toward an understanding of his unthinkable suicide mission.

Jesus‘ teachings imply a practical bottom line — survival, not just in the sense of eternal life, but here and now. In his time, as in every time, the majority of the world lived under oppression. Within hardly more than a century after his death, a series of Jewish rebellions, ruthlessly put down by Rome, resulted in the slaughter of untold thousands of Jews and the closure of Jerusalem to the rest. If followed, Jesus’ injunction to love not only your neighbor but your enemy as well would have saved many lives, even if those lives would have been lived in slavery.

To Nietzsche and others, submission stinks of weakness, but that attitude deliberately ignores the cross‘s power. Rome’s eventual adoption of Christianity under Constantine, built upon the martyrdoms of Peter, Paul and numberless others, had philosophical and political implications: Church and state in the West were intertwined for at least a millennium and a half.

The philosophy of Jesus fits a conqueror poorly. A Crusader had to read his Bible with one eye shut, and Germany under Hitler needed to revive interest in its pagan roots. Rulers have always been able to claim alliance with God, but the inevitable presence of Christ has been an obstacle, because Jesus represents the masses, and his kingdom is not of this world. As Miles points out, the first murder, Cain‘s killing of Abel, was motivated by rivalry over God’s affections, and religious contention is the devil‘s domain.

We’re all descendants of Cain, of course, not Abel. And Miles‘ emphasis on the common roots of Christianity and Judaism will not endear him, regardless of his pacifistic intentions, to many scholars, who, as scriptural explicator Donald Harman Akenson has written, are ”paid to joust.“ Miles anticipates as much in his acknowledgments, where he tips his hat to New Testament commentary in general, but wishes to ”spare individual scholars from a paternity claim that might be most unwelcome.“

The rest of us can take comfort in the fact that a person’s interpretation of the Bible often tells us as much about the interpreter as about the Bible itself. About Miles, we learn from his book that he‘s a very learned, very insightful man, but mainly a humanist. About the Bible, we learn that seeing God and Christ in human terms isn’t a bad way to go; in fact, it may be the only way we really have.

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