Who do men say that I am?

Jack Miles likes big celebrities. Six years ago, he wrote a biography of God. His analysis of the Great Protagonist in the Hebrew Bible won a Pulitzer Prize. Now, he's back. And this time, it's personal.

"Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God" reminds us that the story of Christianity reaches its climax with a lynching, an "improbable and appalling conjunction" of native Jewish ideas.

In the ancient story of Abraham and Isaac, animal sacrifice had dramatically replaced human sacrifice as a demonstration of devotion and repentance. But on Golgotha, the long anticipated son of David, the Messiah, plays the role of the sacrificial animal, the Lamb of God, in a radical revision of prophesy that must have struck early Jewish hearers as "not just outrageous but blasphemous."

This is a provocative study of the Gospels, particularly the book of John, lined with thorny claims that will prick anyone's comfortable sense of "the greatest story ever told."

Miles wants to approach the Bible as a literary critic, looking at it as a single story about God. At the heart of his analysis is the premise that the Gospels describe God when he took human form and allowed himself to be murdered.

In a mingling of orthodox and creative interpretations that light this book, Miles claims that God took this suicidal step for two reasons: (1) to repent for his primal sin, his ruthless curse on Adam and Eve that brought death into the world, and (2) to escape from an embarrassing scandal, his failure to save the Jews from oppression.

As you can see, Miles is an equal-opportunity offender. Textual critics will object to his conflation of the various biblical texts into a single story. Historical critics will point out that particular situations and cultures produced an assortment of myths and histories that cannot be considered as a unified whole. Fundamentalists will start collecting dry sticks.

Miles knows all these objections, but because he knows that answering them would consume his entire book, he addresses them only in the appendix. "The interpretation of the New Testament offered in this book," he claims, "is literary, rather than historical or theological."

But his insistence that Jesus is God in human form seems predetermined by his Jesuit background instead of by literary analysis. Any critic who posits that a character is, in fact, something remarkably different than he appears must not only prove that claim but effectively disarm passages that seem to contradict it. Oddly, Miles admits, "Passages that assert or strongly suggest the divinity of Christ are undeniably less frequent in the New Testament than those asserting or strongly suggesting his humanity. However, the divinity passages tint all the others the way a drop of dye tints a glass of clear water." Imagine insisting that the whale in "Moby Dick" is actually a ghost because, though it seems like a whale most of the time, its elusiveness and its whiteness suggest it's really an apparition.

As Miles sees it, the great crisis in God's life is his inability to save the Jews from Roman genocide. "The Lord, now incarnate as Jesus, knows that the Temple will soon be destroyed, with consequences worse than anything he prophesied through Jeremiah, and that he will not intervene to stop it." Several decades after Jesus' career, in AD 66-70 and 132-135, the Romans brutally quelled Jewish revolts, cutting whole forests to crucify thousands.

To explain the startling shift from an Old Testament God of violence, discrimination, and justice to a New Testament God of submission, forgiveness, and love, Miles speculates on the motive of the anxious Gospel writers, composing in the ashes of Jerusalem: "What the radical reversal in the divine identity implied by the pacifist preaching of Jesus suggests is that a Jewish writer of powerful imagination projected this crisis of faith into the mind of God, transforming it into a crisis of conscience."

In other words, the new covenant of love for all mankind announced by Jesus is a clever rhetorical strategy, a way for God to escape from the burden of all his now vain-sounding boasts in the Old Testament. Since he can't beat his enemies, he announces that he has no enemies. "The covenant had to be changed because God could not keep his terms and because, on the eve of a new national catastrophe for Israel, he chose to stop pretending that he could."

If that sounds cynical, Miles emphasizes that this decision carried extraordinary costs for God, who suffers brutally on the cross in order to dramatize - as only God's death could - the sincerity of his changed heart.

More importantly, this new doctrine of pacifism, acted out by Jesus during his life and death, is far more powerful than it first appears. Miles sees an active, subversive impulse behind Jesus' advice to "turn the other cheek," "go with him twain," and "let him have thy cloak also." Jesus isn't admonishing his followers to be human doormats; he's describing passive resistance, a risky plan for victims to shame their oppressors into reform with "paradoxical hyperagreement."

"In the Gospels," Miles writes, "moral resistance entirely replaces military resistance." The oppression of Rome is replaced by the oppression of sin, and the battlefield moves from physical space to spiritual space. "John distracts his Jewish readers' attention," Miles continues, "from God's traditional obligations and Israel's traditional expectations and redirects it to a new set of obligations and expectations that reflect a profound transformation in the identity of God."

At its best, "Christ" is jarringly provocative, and reading it is a chance to test one's own understanding of God and the Gospels against a daring critic who can provide his own translations of Hebrew and Greek. Miles is particularly brilliant when he traces echoes in the Gospel stories to their Old Testament sources, recovering reverberations that early Christians would have resonated with. Regardless of our agreement or disagreement with him, he prods us to read these familiar stories afresh, with all their original suspense and drama, his analysis serving as an invitation for our own.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments to charlesr@csmonitor.com.

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