Excerpt: Appendix II from Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God

The Bible as Rose Window
(or, How Not to See Through the Bible)

Appendix II from Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God (Alfred A. Knopf, 2001).
©2001 Jack Miles. All rights reserved. To secure permission for other than individual use, contact Georges Borchardt, Inc.; office@gbagency.com.

 A work of literary art is like a stained glass window.  It exists essentially not to be seen through  but to be looked at.  This is just how literary criticism classically responds to a work of literature, even when its subject matter is historical.  There was a historical Hamlet, but Shakespeare criticism spends little time talking about him, nor does it compensate for the inadequacy of information about him by attempting a historical reconstruction of the Denmark of his day.1   

Why is New Testament criticism so very different?  Rather than look at the rose window of the text, it labors endlessly to see through it.  Overwhelmingly historical in its preoccupation, New Testament criticism pores over the text in the hope of finding a few passages, however brief, that may seem so devoid of ancient theological elaboration that through them the originating events themselves may be seen.  Why does it do this?  Why, if little independent historical information is to be had about Jesus, may such information not simply be dispensed with?  Why may the Gospels not be read as the religiously motivated, artistically executed texts that an unforced reading would suggest them to be? Why take so narrowly instrumental an attitude toward a work of the imagination?

Why New Testament criticism strains to see through stained glass

There is about the historical criticism of the New Testament a Puritan heroism of renunciation that only religious commitment, buried as it often may be, can begin to explain. To appreciate how this ascetic attitude has come to the fore, we must return to the sixteenth century, when the Protestant Reformation, seeing, as it thought, the historical truth about Christ and Christianity in the New Testament, made that collection of ancient texts a criterion by which to reform the doctrine and the practice of the Roman Catholic church.  Having assigned the New Testament this function, Protestantism acquired a motive to engage in the historical study of the New Testament with an accelerating intensity.  At first this scrutiny, though it brought much to light that could be used to undermine the authority of Catholicism, brought little to light that could undermine the authority of the New Testament itself.  But once the skeptical attitude of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment toward the miraculous was joined to the methodological skepticism of nineteenth-century critical history toward even the historically plausible, this situation changed radically.  Critical lives of Jesus written in that century by David Friedrich Strauss in Germany and by Ernest Renan in France brought to the lay public in all of Europe a doubt about the historical reliability of the New Testament that had been building up among the learned for decades.

For Catholicism, it was a simple matter to reject Strauss and Renan.  They were merely branches on a tree of rationalist  history whose roots Rome had long since condemned.  For Protestantism, the matter was much more complex since Protestantism as a reform movement within Christianity had been built in part upon the historical reliability of the Bible. The emerging dilemma was exquisitely posed early in the twentieth century by Albert Schweitzer in an erudite but forcefully argued and indeed epoch-making work translated into English as The Quest of the Historical Jesus.  Synthesizing a century and more of critical research, Schweitzer found one conclusion inescapable: Jesus of Nazareth had erroneously believed that the end of his earthly life and the end of the world were to be a single apocalyptic event.  So inextricable was this idea from the rest of Jesus’ preaching, Schweitzer thought, that no one could embrace the historical Jesus intellectually without accepting the mistake that, historically, Jesus had made. Poignantly, Schweitzer himself, who could not escape his own modernity, could not renounce Christianity either, though his commitment to it now became more mystical than intellectual. He resolved his dilemma not by any theological breakthrough but by a heroic act of Christian charity: his decision to become a medical doctor and move permanently to Africa—as if to say with the Paul of 1 Corinthians 13, “So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

Schweitzer believed that the historical Jesus not only could be but essentially had been recovered.  When he wrote “There is nothing more negative than the result of research into the life of Jesus,” he did not mean to express any doubt that the quest for the historical Jesus had succeeded but only unflinching realism regarding the religious relevance of its success. “The mistake,” he wrote:

was to suppose that Jesus could come to mean more to our time by entering into it as a man like ourselves.  That is not possible.  First because such a Jesus never existed.  Second because, although historical knowledge can no doubt introduce greater clarity into an existing spiritual life, it can never call life into existence.  History can destroy the present; it can reconcile the present with the past; can even to a certain extent transport the present into the past; but to contribute to the making of the present is not given unto it.2

During the century after Schweitzer, the response of intellectual Protestantism to the subversion of its trust in the historical reliability of the New Testament oscillated between two options.  The first, beginning not long after World War I and fading toward the end of the century, was an attempt—much in the spirit of Schweitzer—to neutralize history rather than to use it.   The second option, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century and climaxing at the beginning of the twenty-first, has been an attempt to create a religiously usable history by redoubled effort.

The first option is associated above all with the name of Rudolf Bultmann.  Bultmann’s strategy, a brilliant one, was to retreat from the Reformation motto sola scriptura (“by scripture alone”) to the more basic motto sola fide (“by faith alone”).  How important, he and his followers asked, should biographical information about Jesus be to the Christian of today if, quite clearly, such information was of little importance to St. Paul?  It is indeed the case that Paul, who was a contemporary of Jesus and who could presumably have provided much information about him to his many converts, never sees fit to do so in the letters that constitute so large a portion of the New Testament.  Paul knows that Jesus died and rose and that he is the Savior of the world.  There Paul is content to let the matter rest.  There Martin Luther, whose preoccupations were theological rather than historical, had been content to let the matter rest.  And there Bultmann was prepared to let the matter rest as well.  What mattered was not how accurate or detailed one’s historical knowledge of Jesus was.  What mattered, rather, was whether, when Christ was preached, one could respond in faith.  Thus, Paul became not just the archetypal believer but, by extrapolating from his attitude toward the facts of Jesus’ life, the archetypal historical noncombatant.  And thus Bultmann, tacitly conceding that sixteenth-century Protestant theology may have used the New Testament uncritically in challenging the Roman church, retreated to the position that interposing the authority of the historian between the repentant sinner and the Savior was little better than reintroducing the human authority of the Roman Catholic church in the same mediating role.  Turning twentieth-century history against nineteenth-century historicism, Bultmann deployed his formidable learning to demonstrate that the Gospels were so fully subordinated to the needs of early Christian preaching and instruction that they could have no historical reliability whatsoever—but so be it: What happened, Bultmann maintained, was vastly less important than that it happened.3  

The second option—in recent decades, the dominant option, though no single writer has assumed the importance of a Schweitzer or a Bultmann—was, first, to assert or imply a normative function for the New Testament not as a mere literary text but rather as the carrier of a  “kernel of historical truth”; and, second, in pursuit of that historical kernel, to apply to the critique of the received text the same purgative fervor that sixteenth-century Protestantism brought to its critique of the received church. It was by this route that, during the latter decades of the twentieth century, the exposure of historical falsehood within the New Testament acquired the unmistakable mood of a religious mission.  Yes, much of the canonical text had to be rejected as church invention, but something, it was clearly hoped, would remain that could function for all Christians—perhaps, some dared hope, even for non-Christians—as canonical scripture had functioned when Protestantism was young.  Thus, reviewing a popularization of this historical criticism of the New Testament for The New York Times, one enthusiast exulted that it “does a better job than the canonical Gospels of presenting the root mythology of an expansive idea whose time, evidently, is still coming” and “accomplishes something the church itself would like to achieve: to wipe the slate clean of a shameful catalog of crimes and start over again with the original intention.”A brief reform movement in the Roman Catholic church, culminating in the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), resembled the Protestant Reformation in several regards, one of which was a readiness to invoke the Bible against church tradition and church authority.  In this mood, a good many Catholic recruits were enrolled for this second of the two essentially Protestant options just mentioned.

What complicated historical criticism of the New Testament undertaken in this archetypally Protestant spirit was that the proportion of stained to clear glass was not what historical critics would have wished.  A window that might at least have been partially clear was found, when examined pane by pane, to contain scarcely a single one unstained by art and religious ideology. Moreover, whenever one scholar labeled a pane clear, another scholar was likely to take a closer look and find it stained.  By the turn of the century, almost all the panes were so labeled, and the end point of a learned adventure begun courageously in the spirit of sola scriptura had come to seem very nearly sola ecclesia (“by the church alone”).  The church, which was to have been reformed using scripture as a norm, turned out to have created scripture for its own purposes.

The secular alternatives: church history and literary appreciation

To the fully secular historian, of course, the New Testament would be of little interest unless a church of historic importance had grown up around the beliefs to which it gives expression.  Indeed, genuinely secular New Testament scholars (and there certainly are some) understand themselves as, in effect, historians of the very early church.  The Gospels of Matthew and John end with scenes in which Jesus commissions his disciples to spread his message around the world.  The Gospel of Luke is half of a two-volume work, with the second volume devoted entirely to the foundation of the church.  The Letters of Paul are all addressed to recently founded churches.  New Testament scholars may easily enough rest the case for their research on the importance—large, even if not infinitely so—of the Christian church as an historical phenomenon.

As they do this, however, their study of the New Testament text undergoes—in principle, if not always in practice—a paradoxical change.  This is so because passages in the text that, though not historical in themselves, have fostered the growth of the church acquire in the end greater historical importance than duller or more cryptic passages that may hint at what actually happened or what the historical Jesus was actually like.  Thus, the line “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone” (John 8:7) is quite probably an invention of the early church, but that line captured the imagination of the world.  It is, accordingly, quite properly described as a historic line.  The New Testament contains a great many such brilliant adulterations of the historical record.  Were it otherwise, no one would now remember cryptic but probably authentic lines like “Let the dead bury their dead” (Matt. 8:22). 

Historical truth within the New Testament text has survived, in other words, only because it has been carried within imaginative invention that enjoyed historic success in the world at large.  But to value the inventions over the preserved memories is an inversion of learned priorities that, for a great many historical critics, is almost literally inconceivable.  It is to abandon the heroic program of creating what might be called Jesusianity and capitulating to the disappointing but irreversible fact that it is Christianity that became a world religion—capitulating to the fact that had Jesus not been so effectively transformed into Christ and then into God Incarnate, in a process that begins on the earliest pages of the New Testament itself, no one today would be interested in engaging in any historical quest for him. 

The religious relevance of history is not self-evident or self-establishing.  A further, constructive step must be taken to establish that relevance, and this step is itself confessionally religious rather than neutrally historical.  The action by which religious importance is assigned to history cannot be presented as a discovery but only proposed as a commitment.  Thus, when Robert W. Funk, a founder of the “Jesus Seminar,” writes in the prologue to his Honest to Jesus: Jesus for a New Millennium “I confess I am more interested in what Jesus of Nazareth thinks about God’s domain than in what Peter the fisherman and Paul the tentmaker thought about Jesus,”6 one perfectly legitimate reply is: “I confess that I am not.”  Near the end of the book, when Funk reveals his twenty-one theses for the reform of the faith, explicitly evoking the memory of Martin Luther, he expands on his confession:

5.  We can no longer rest our faith on the faith of Peter or the faith of Paul.  I do not want my faith to be a secondhand faith.  I am therefore fundamentally dissatisfied with versions of the faith that trace their origins only so far as the first believers; true faith, fundamental faith, must be related in some way directly to Jesus of Nazareth.7  

But what if another man thinks that a faith that confesses its origins in Peter and Paul as well as in Jesus is superior to one that would admit no source but Jesus?  What reply can be made to such a man?  Jesus, in one of his best-attested teachings (reported both in the Synoptic Gospels and by Paul at 1 Corinthians 7:10-15), opposed divorce under all circumstances; Paul allowed it in some circumstances.  Funk prefers Jesus; someone else might prefer Paul.  Many in the nineteenth century preferred, on religious grounds, the consciously cosmopolitan Paul to the more ethnocentric Jesus.  No historical argument or concatenation of historical facts can settle a dispute that is, in the end, a matter of religious opinion and religious commitment.  The very success of historical criticism in showing how pervasive was the influence of “Peter and Paul,” taking them as stand-ins for the entire process by which memory was transformed into literature, has made this religious question—a perfectly legitimate question, of course—increasingly unavoidable. 

As this question comes to the fore, interestingly, a more thoroughgoing secularization and academic normalization of New Testament studies may also come within reach.  Erstwhile New Testament scholars whose interests are genuinely and secularly historical may begin—some have already begun—to define their field, as historians do, by a period rather than by a text, while those who continue to define their field by the text may begin to locate their chosen text, for interpretative purposes, in the Western literary canon rather than in the first and second centuries C.E.  The truly secular historians may broaden their inquiry into very early church history to include relatively neglected topics like the history of Syriac and Egyptian Christianity (Syria and Egypt being, after Palestine, the regions first Christianized) and the surprising early emergence and influence of monasticism.  As for the truly secular New Testament critics, they may begin to deal with their chosen text as a work of art rather than mining it as a historical source.  Either change brings with it a new set of secondary colleagues and analytic categories, and neither prejudices the continued study of scripture as sacred—that is, as relevant pastorally and theologically to the life of the church.  

So long as history, literature, and religion remain ingredients in a single stew, the metahistory of how ancient writers combined scraps of actual history and remembered speech with literary inventions from various sources may continue to function as a surrogate sacred history for scholars who find that process more meaningful, religiously, than its product.  Indeed, the fact that this metahistory, this history of composition, must itself be largely imagined, the evidence for it being so fragmentary, only makes the enterprise more deeply engaging for some of the historical critics committed to it.  One begins to hear, however, a certain creaking at the seams.

The churches of today, which have in no small measure financed the latter stages of this research and have expected somehow to be its beneficiary, have begun to find themselves not so much offended by as oddly indifferent to its findings.  The compositional story of “the making of the New Testament” is, after all, a dreadfully bookish story. Even if you accept it, it is not a story to set minds and hearts on fire.  The stripped-down, historically defensible, original sayings of Jesus, even if you believe that they are not, rather, the accretion to Jesus of general Hellenistic or Judeo-Hellenistic wisdom, are anticlimactic in their plainness.  The reconstructed early-church backdrop of polemic and counterpolemic, by any measure the most plausible part of the reconstruction, is nonetheless unedifying and rather dreary.  The historical criticism of the New Testament has, in sum, all the kick of nonalcoholic beer, and some who were once intoxicated by it have awakened with a sobriety hangover.

Some years ago, as it began to dawn on a few Protestant critics that the reconstruction of the events supposedly behind the text or, worse, the reconstruction of the falsification of those events was in this way being substituted for the text itself as a source of religious authority, a reaction called “canon criticism” sprang up.  According to this school of thought, whatever is in the canon must count for the church whether or not it counts for the historian.   An older designation that some had come to apply to those passages that held the proverbial kernel of historical truth within the husk of ecclesiastical invention was “the canon within the canon.”  Canon criticism sought to deny the validity of any such intracanonical distinction; for if the canon were to be whittled down, then, among many other consequences, the great commentaries of the founding fathers of Protestantism—those of Jean Calvin, above all—could no longer be used. Canon criticism arose from a deep and correct intuition that, first, the game of seeking historical fact behind the text of the New Testament was ultimately a game without an outcome, much less a winner, and that, second, staying within the text rather than going beyond it via historical research could somehow be the first rule of a new game.  In practice, however, those who led this movement engaged, most of the time, in the same laborious winnowing of the historical from the unhistorical, the same painstaking speculation about authorship and original audience and so forth, that had always exercised historical criticism.  Canon criticism never quite offered a new game.  It simply played the historical game more gently, stopping short of drawing the practical conclusions from historical research that the more radical among the historical critics were prepared, not to say eager, to draw.

Meanwhile, all along, an alternative had lain open that was neither religious history (historical Jesus as norm for reformation) nor secular history (Christian church as historical phenomenon).  As one participant in the canon-criticism debate put it:

A really non-historical, literary study of the Bible on the basis of its shapes, styles, and motifs could be very interesting.  It would be much more original than canon criticism, which is really still completely tied up in the inherited problems of theology.  Instead of endlessly seeking to correct the older [historical] biblical scholarship, it could simply accept the latter as valid and go on its way in its own direction, taking or leaving as much of traditional scholarship as it needed.8 

This third option—lying still in the indefinite future as late as 1982 when James Barr spoke these words—was neither the Jesus of history nor the Christ of faith but the Jesus Christ of literature.  This was the option of looking at, rather than seeing through, the rose window.

The notion of reading the Bible as literature in serene indifference to all that religious commentary has made of it is, at one level, an idea as old as the Enlightenment.9   Barr’s suggestion differs from that combatively secular notion because it emerged in and is deeply colored by an academic context that continues to care intensely about the received tradition of religious commentary, a tradition of which, for fully two hundred years, the larger portion has consisted of historical commentary. Yet a far more searching and programmatic suggestion along these lines was virtually ignored by Bible scholarship nearly a decade earlier when the late Hans W. Frei published The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics.10 Frei grasped, as no contemporary writer on the Bible then seemed able to do, the novelty—even the oddity—of the notion of historical correspondence as a validating criterion for scriptural authority.  He understood where this notion had come from and dreamed, clearly, of an aesthetic response that would recover the literary power that historicism had so eroded.  That literary power lay in the delight of internal rather than external correspondences, in gestures from one part of the text to another rather than in confirmations of the text from extratextual evidence.

The paradigm that had to break down if a vision like Frei’s was to be accommodated was the paradigm by which historical and theological criticism so divided the hermeneutical terrain between them that there was no room for a kind of critique that was neither historical nor theological in intent. Historical criticism understood itself to be the only school of criticism that was both serious and secular.  It took theological commentary to be serious but nonsecular by definition.  It took literary commentary other than the kind that was ultimately in the service of historical criticism to be secular but trivial. Canon criticism, trying to break the stranglehold of this dichotomy, sought to write a theological critique of the Bible that was also historically impeccable.  But to do that was to grasp only half the problem.  The other half of the problem—or, rather, the germ of the whole problem—was the need for a secular rationale for the study, under any rubric, of the works of the canonical Bible and those only.

When secular historical criticism arose in the eighteenth century, its first order of business was to insist on treating the books of the Bible just like any other books.  Logically, the implication of this leveling was that the biblical canon—which assigned a privileged status to a group of books not necessarily different from other books of the same sort from the same period—should be disregarded.  What happened instead was that the books of this historically arbitrary canon continued to receive far more attention from historical critics than other, comparable ancient works did, notwithstanding the fact that, once the examination began, canonical status guaranteed ever less in the way of special treatment.  It was only in the late twentieth century that historical criticism of the Bible became self-conscious enough to call this uncalled question about its own inner consistency in even a preliminary way.  Historical critics tended to dismiss canon criticism as the recrudescence of theology, and they were half-right about that, but something larger was ultimately at stake. If the canonical books of the Bible were to continue to receive on some secular grounds the disproportionate attention that religion had originally dictated they should receive, what grounds, if any, were available?  Ancient history provided none.  Where else might one look?

Without a secular rationale for the closing biblical canon, there can be no secular literary critique of the Bible as a finished, ended work of art. This is the question that Frank Kermode broached—brilliantly, if indirectly and in an unexpected context—in The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction.11 Twenty years later, he addressed the same question explicitly in an essay entitled “The Canon” in The Literary Guide to the Bible.  In that essay, he argues that the canonical works of the Bible deserve disproportionate attention—more attention than other, comparable works surviving from antiquity—because  they have disproportionately influenced the literature and the consciousness of the West during the intervening centuries. Moreover, he further argues, they deserve this attention as a canon because it is as a canon that they have exerted this influence. 

Kermode—in this, an exception among critics of modern literatures—is at pains not to dismiss classic historical criticism of the Bible.  All the same, en route to his nuanced defense of the Bible as an integral whole legitimately subject as such to literary criticism, he sees fit to quote with approval the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer:

As…Gadamer has put it, the historical critic is always seeking in the text something that is not the text, something the text of itself, is not seeking to provide; “he will always go back behind [the texts] and the meaning they express [which he will decline to regard as their true meaning] to enquire into the reality of which they are the involuntary expression.”  But it is possible to take an interest in the text and its own meaning; that is literary criticism proper, [italics added] and Gadamer believes that it has for too long (in these circles) been regarded as “an ancillary discipline to history.” 12

Philosophically as well as literarily, it seemed that there was something wrong with always and only seeing through the Bible. One way of righting that wrong might be to allow the ancillary discipline to assume, for a change, the dominant position. 

Learning how not to see through the Bible

To the premodern mind, the opposite of truth was not fiction but falsehood: deception, fraud, the deliberate lie.  The only meaningful external question about scripture, then, was whether or not it was all a gigantic hoax.  Once that question was settled in scripture’s favor (and it was, of course, a question that after the first few Christian centuries scarcely arose), the mind was free to explore the Bible from within as if it were a wondrous garden whose paths and glades and ponds and grottoes all intersected in endlessly surprising and delightful ways.  Peter J. Thuesen, in a recent book entitled In Discordance With the Scriptures, writes perceptively of Hans Frei’s dream of recreating some form of this response.13 Frei’s method, Thuesen writes, “does not exclude truth-questions but brackets them in favor of exegesis that treats the Bible as something like a realistic novel.  For Frei, the biblical novel’s individual stories are to be read not primarily for their external referents in ‘real history’ but for their internal relations as part of a larger narrative.”  

A realistic novel, as an enclosed, complete text, is like a garden in that doubling back to an early chapter is an experience rather like strolling back toward the garden gate to refresh one’s memory of something already seen and to fix the plot (both gardens and novels are plotted) more satisfyingly in the mind.  Kermode addressed the relevance of this question to biblical criticism in The Genesis of Secrecy, a work appearing five years after Frei’s The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative:

It may be said that in principle any Old Testament text had a narrative potential that could be realized in the New Testament.  One might well suppose such an arrangement to be without parallel; but it is not altogether unlike the relation obtaining between the early pages of a long novel and its later pages.  The earlier ones contain virtualities or germs, not all of which grow; there is a mass of narrative detail, existing in its own right and, like the Old Testament, viable without later “fulfillment,” though it may be fulfilled.  A special kind of novel, the classic detective story, actually depends on our ability to distinguish, like the witches in Macbeth, which seeds will grow and which will not, sometimes puzzling us by making one kind look like the other.

The novel, exploiting such intermittent fulfillments, is a form of narrative inconceivable as anything but a book in the modern sense; it requires, in principle, that we be able to turn back and forth in its pages.  A novel written on a roll would be something else.  So it is of interest that the Christians, from a very early date, preferred the codex to the roll.14

Whether the Bible is read seriously when it is read as a work whose pleasure and value are established by inner articulation rather than outer validation may depend on how seriously a given reader is capable of taking finished art of any kind: any poem in which the last word has been written, any painting in which the last brush stroke has been applied.  When the closed canon of scripture is allowed to function as a finished product, whether or not any individual did the finishing, it excites a response different in kind from the one it excites when it is taken as a great historical problem toward whose solution there is always “much work still to be done.” There is no work still to be done on Michelangelo’s David; the chisel has touched it for the last time.  When the Bible is taken, despite its raggedness, as a closed canon to which no scriptures will be added and from which none will be subtracted, it may induce an emotional response as intense as the idolatry that David can induce in a postsophisticated viewer.  

I use the word idolatry by design, because it so well calls the question of the place of art in religion.  The Bible’s own attitude toward art, to the extent that it may be said to have one at all, is an attitude of indifference rising on occasion to hostility, and this may have something to do with the resistance of religiously motivated biblical scholarship to the aesthetic.  The most relevant passage, in my opinion, is Isaiah 44:13-17:

The wood carver takes his measurements, outlines the image with chalk, executes it with the chisel, following the outline with a compass.  He makes it look like a human being, with human standards of beauty, so that it can reside in a house.  He has cut down cedars, has selected an oak and a terebinth that he has grown for himself among the trees in the forest and has planted a pine tree that the rain has nourished.  Once it is suitable to burn, he takes some of it to warm himself; having kindled it, he bakes bread.  But he also makes a god and worships it; he makes an idol from it and bows down before it.  Half of it he burns on the fire; over this half he roasts meat, eats it, and is replete. At the same time he warms himself and says, “Ah, how warm I am watching the flames!”  With the remainder he makes a god, his idol, bows down before it, worships and prays to it.  “Save me,” he says, “for you are my god.”

This late prose addition to a book otherwise written as poetry quite probably reflects an era in which many in the Greco-Roman world, not just a few in the Jewish corner of it, were asking new questions about the place of sacred images in religious practice.  In its day, its question was pathbreaking, but our own world has moved beyond that question to ask a comparable one about the place of sacred texts in our contemporary religious practice, a question that might be expressed in a parody of the biblical parody:

The scribe takes up his scroll, scores it in sepia, and writes upon it with quill and black ink, spacing the letters with measured exactness.  He writes realistically, by human standards of plausibility, so that his words will persuade in the hall.  He has slain livestock, has selected a calf and a lamb that he has raised for himself among the animals of the herd, and has nurtured a kid that the grass has fed.  Once an animal is suitable for slaughter, he takes some of it to feed himself; having slaughtered it, he roasts the meat.  But he also makes parchment of its skin and worships the parchment; he writes a scroll upon it and bows down before the writing.  Half of it he tans for tenting; under this half he shelters and is at ease.  He lies under the canopy and says, “Ah, how cozy I am here in my pavilion!”  With the remainder he makes a scroll, his scripture, enthrones it, dances around it, swears upon it, and proclaims, “This is the Word of the Lord.”

The Bible does not see writing as the art of writing in the way that it sees sculpture as the art of sculpture.  When considering sculpture, it insists on seeing the sculptor in every demystifying detail of his work.  The product is demeaned by being thus intimately linked to its merely human producer.  The Bible never insists on seeing the writer in any similarly demeaning, demystifying way.  The production of the written product is never comparably linked to its merely human producer. 

In the West, modern literary criticism has made this linkage by intensifying stages.  A case can be made, I think, that the demystification of the text in the eighteenth century was followed by a counter-mystification of the author in the nineteenth and then, especially in the latter decades of the twentieth century, by a demystification of the author—text and author alike being seen as reflexes of larger, impersonal sociocultural forces.  This last stage—the inside-outing of literature—came to a climax of sorts with the publication in 1967 of Jacques Derrida’s De la grammatologie and has now begun to subside.15

In biblical criticism, which sometimes anticipates and sometimes lags behind general literary criticism, the demystification of the text in the eighteenth century was followed, in the nineteenth and twentieth, by a mystification of the postulated author (or school or community): thus, “Dtr,” the postulated Deuteronomistic Historian; the postulated “Johannine School”; the imagined “Q-community” of early Christians or “Jesus people”; and so forth. Biblical criticism will fall into step with general literary criticism if and when it begins to “de-authorize” the entities it has been “author-izing” for a century and more.  The recent, still somewhat tentative move toward social history may or may not portend such a change.

Meanwhile, general literary criticism, weary of its own demystification of the author, has begun to place a new emphasis on the work as a work and on the value of cultivating an aesthetic response to it.  It has begun to move, in a word, to a new emphasis on beauty.  The historical criticism of the Bible—a process that I have compared to the examination of a rose window, pane by pane, for signs of the absence of stain—may yet prove a paradoxically good preparation for this old/new kind of criticism, for, obviously, if you have checked every pane hoping to find one without stain, you end up knowing something about every pane as well as a great deal about stain.  Traditional Bible scholars, though their research has almost always been at least nominally in the service of history, have, de facto, studied the development of images and motifs, noted allusions, explicit and implicit, and performed a thousand other services crucial to the literary appreciation of the Bible—so much so, indeed, that some of what is offered as literary criticism by those who lack their training and have not combed through the text as meticulously as they have may quite understandably strike them as too simple-minded for serious comment.   But rather than dismiss literary criticism as sciolist dilettantism, historically trained critics could become literary critics themselves and try to improve the neighborhood.

The largest change to be realized from such a paradigm shift might be the introduction of courses and degree programs on the Christian Bible.  It is strange but true that advanced degrees are not offered in this subject, and even undergraduate courses are rare.  Jews take advanced degrees in the Tanakh, or Jewish Bible, but Christians must choose either a degree in the Old Testament (usually listed as “Hebrew Bible”) or in the New.  Advanced degrees in the whole of Christian scripture are simply not offered.  After completing their degrees, Christian scholars trained in either Old or New Testament seldom teach or publish on the far side of the pedagogical divide.  The institutionalization of this divide, which rightly surprises scholars of literature and religion outside the hypertrophied culture of biblical research, has survived even the impact of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a large and astonishing body of literature that falls, in every sense, between the Old Testament and the New.  A pedagogical bifurcation of some sort may be defensible if the goal is to write historical criticism of the Bible or outright history using the Bible as one source among others.  After all, a thousand years of cultural evolution do separate Saul ben Kish, the doomed king of First Samuel, from Saul of Tarsus, the Apostle to the Gentiles.  We do not expect a historian of France to specialize in both Charlemagne and Charles de Gaulle; why should we expect any comparable feat from a historian of ancient Jewry?  If, however, the goal is not historiography but literary appreciation—the focused, stereoptic perception of the Old Testament and the New as a single, synthetic work in which the two Sauls have indeed come to rest between one pair of book covers, then pedagogical bifurcation is indefensible.

If  there were such a thing as an advanced degree in the entirety of the Christian Bible, those seeking it might arguably not need to learn Hebrew and Aramaic so long as they mastered the Greek of the Septuagint and read the scriptures in the language in which Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul knew them. (See Appendix I on the status of the Septuagint as a divinely inspired “original” text for Hellenistic Judaism long before the birth of Jesus.)  Obviously, however, it would be better if students of the Christian Bible did know Hebrew, and indeed far more fruitful for them to have read the Tanakh in the original Hebrew than to have read fourth-century Gnostic codices in the original Coptic.  One has the distinct impression at gatherings of New Testament scholars that mastery of Coptic is more nearly de rigueur for the consummate New Testament scholar than is mastery of Hebrew and that, as a result, allusions to the Old Testament in the New are undervalued and sometimes missed altogether.  Even scholars who are determined to stress, above all else, the Jewishness of Jesus are more likely to do so by reconstructing the Judaism of his day than by hearing echoes of the Tanakh in the New Testament.  The institutional segregation of advanced study of the Old Testament from advanced study of the New Testament can scarcely avoid having a variety of such untoward consequences. Reference works preserving a heritage of theologically motivated intertextual noticing do not obviate the need for a New Testament scholar to be imaginatively steeped in the Old Testament: No reference work can substitute for a habit of mind and a well-stocked memory.

In the study of the Bible, historicism is still very much in the saddle.  Though Hans Frei was respectfully read by intellectual historians during his lifetime, his impact on biblical studies was minimal then, and even now remains modest, because historicism has made the appreciation of the Bible as art seem trivial by comparison with the elaboration and confirmation of the Bible as history or, paradoxically, even with its disconfirmation as such.  A bit ruefully, Frei called the liberals and fundamentalists who once fought (and sometimes still fight) so fiercely over the historical reliability of the Bible “siblings under the skin.”16 In their particular opinions, they differ, but in the importance they assign to history they are one.  Much the same may be said of the kind of postmodern literary criticism of the Bible that sees itself as attacking classic historical-critical scholarship from the left but is itself best described as neo-historicist. Frei is no more a prophet for that kind of postmodernism than is Eric Auerbach, whose 1946 Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature Frei admired.17 Like Frei, Auerbach is a thinker whose ideas, ever focused on aesthetic appreciation, have been more admired than applied, perhaps because they rest on an acquaintance with literature so anachronistically broad and deep as to defy imitation. 

Frei’s impact would perhaps have been greater had he more energetically offered ad hoc or, better yet, ad hominem applications of his insight to contemporary historical-critical commentary on the Bible.  The literary option had been foreclosed, he believed, because of a mistake made in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It was then that

the [literarily] realistic or history-like quality of biblical narratives, [though] acknowledged by all, instead of being examined for the bearing it had in its own right on meaning and interpretation was immediately transposed into the quite different issue of whether or not the realistic narrative was historical.

This simple transposition and logical confusion between two categories or contexts of meaning and interpretation constitutes a story that has remained unresolved in the history of biblical interpretation ever since.  Were we to pursue our theme into the biblical hermeneutics of the twentieth century, I believe we would find that with regard to the recognition of the distinctiveness of realistic biblical narrative and its implications for interpretation, historical criticism, and theology, the story has remained much the same.18

It has indeed remained much the same.  In his occasional mentions of influential contemporaries, especially German exegetes and theologians like Rudolf Bultmann, Karl Rahner, and Jürgen Moltmann, Frei provides a glimpse of what might, if pursued, have grown into a remarkable critique.  But though Frei’s ideas were intrinsically controversial, he himself seems to have been no controversialist.

Frei published his magnum opus in 1974, and as of that date the middle path that he saw as logically “the most natural thing”—the path that was neither, to use his terminology, “explication” (history) nor “application” (theology)—remained anything but the most natural thing to most who wrote about the Bible.19 During the last quarter of the century, thanks in part to Frei and Kermode, later joined by Harold Bloom, Robert Alter, Gabriel Josipovici, and a few others, the neglected option began to be explored. Even now, however, as compared with historical criticism, it remains a marginal option. 

The art of contradiction

If the appreciation of the Bible as art ever moves from the margins to the center of biblical studies, it will bring a distinct new problematic with it, for what can be stated concisely enough as doctrine cannot be evoked concisely in narrative or poetry any more easily than it can be painted simply on canvas.  Neil MacGregor, director of the National Gallery in London, writes in a discussion of Jan Gossaert’s sixteenth-century masterpiece The Adoration of the Kings:

Making an image of God who has become man is…a tricky business.  Artists attempting it have to negotiate a series of specifically visual problems, unknown to authors.  Paradox is easy to write, but hard to paint.  The Gospel tells us quite straightforwardly that the helpless, swaddled infant is in reality God incarnate, but how do you show that it is God in nappies, that the purpose of this child is to redeem the world by his death?  How can a painter make clear that the man brutally being put to death on a cross, to every human eye a man completely ordinary and like any other, is also totally divine; that limitless power has chosen absolute submission?

Like all great religious images, Gossaert’s Adoration neither simply illustrates a religious story nor interprets it according to the painter’s own caprice.  It translates into a visual language a pictorial theology, a distillation of the Western Church’s teachings on the dual nature of Christ, as at once God and man, taking into account centuries of pious poring over sacred texts to find hidden meanings and correspondences, and to wring from them every drop of possible meaning.  Gossaert’s picture does not show us the birth of Christ: it paints a meditation on the meaning of the birth of Christ and why it matters to us now. 20

MacGregor eloquently states the challenge that Gossaert faced and met, but he understates the comparable challenge that the authors of the Gospels faced, not to speak of the difficulty posed to modern readers by the mixed means the Gospels employ to meet that challenge.  The nature of the challenge itself can easily be seen in two contrasting incidents from the Gospel According to Mark.

In Mark 14:34-38, Jesus is only an hour away from his arrest, and he knows it:

He began to feel terror and anguish.  And he said to them, “My soul is sorrowful to the point of death.  Wait here, and stay awake.”  And, going on a little further, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, this hour might pass him by.  “Abba, Father!” he said.  “For you everything is possible.  Take this cup away from me.  But let it be as you, not I, would have it.”  He came back and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep?  Had you not the strength to stay awake one hour?  Stay awake and pray not to be put to the test.  The spirit is willing enough, but human nature is weak.”

In this passage, Jesus seems to speak not as God but as a man speaking to God. He prays to be spared his ordeal, much as the Psalmist prays in Psalm 59:1-4:

Rescue me from my enemies, my God,
     be my stronghold from my assailants,
Rescue me from evil-doers,
     from men of violence save me.
Look at them, lurking to ambush me!
     violent men are attacking me,
For no fault, no sin of mine, Oh Lord.  
     For no cause, they race to besiege me.

And yet earlier, in Mark 6:45-52, Jesus exercises an effortless, godlike power that belies his later, anguished prayer.   In the earlier passage, we read:

Right away he made his followers get into a boat and go on ahead to the other side [of the Sea of Galilee], near Bethsaida, while he himself dismissed the crowd.  Having seen them off, he headed up into the hills to pray.  As night fell, the boat was well out on the sea, while he himself was still on the land.  He watched them straining at the oars, the wind having turned against them, and then, just before dawn, he came toward them, walking on the sea.  He would have walked past them, but they saw him walking there on the sea, thought he was a ghost, and cried out because the look of him terrified them.  But then he spoke up and said to them, “Take heart.  It is I.  Don’t be afraid.”  Then he got into the boat with them, and the wind dropped off.  They were absolutely and totally dumbfounded.

In this passage, Jesus seems as un-human as in the earlier passage he seems un-divine.  This is particularly so if we recall that in the Old Testament power over the sea is one of the signature powers of the Lord God.  Thus, Psalm 107:23-30 (RSV), to choose one among many possible examples, reads:

Doing business on the great waters,
     they saw the deeds of the Lord,
     his wondrous works in the deep.
For he commanded, and raised the stormy wind,
     which lifted up the waves of the sea.
They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths;
     their courage melted away in their evil plight;
They reeled and staggered like drunken men,
     and were at their wits’ end.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
     and he delivered them from their distress;
He made the storm be still,
     and the waves of the sea were hushed.
Then they were glad because they had quiet,
     and he brought them to their desired haven.

Which of these two portrayals is correct?  In the year 325, the Council of Nicaea, the first ecumenical council in church history, defined—by what may fairly be characterized as an act of premodern literary criticism—the dogma that both were true.21 At that time, the emperor Constantine prevailed upon church leaders to paper over the textual inconsistencies of the now centuries-old New Testament, not to speak of their own political differences, by defining Christ as, once and for all, both human and divine.  Historical criticism is capable of, in effect, repealing this dogma, rejecting those parts of the New Testament that attribute divinity to Christ as later inventions, and reconstructing upon the foundation of what appear to be the earliest verses alone an internally consistent, merely human historical Jesus.  For decades there was a distinctly modernist, confrontational excitement about just that undertaking.

Yet times change.  In our own day, postmodern criticism, though scarcely a tool of ecclesiastical orthodoxy, relishes contradiction and values sheer interest, even ironic interest, over progress, about which, at least as regards artistic creation, it tends to be dubious.22 If the agreement to disagree that the emperor imposed at the Council of Nicaea proved stimulating for so many earlier centuries in art, architecture, poetry, and music, why may we not once again experience the same contradiction—the same inconsistency, if you wish—as stimulating in the New Testament text itself?

Modern historical criticism remains free, in other words, in the pursuit of its own still-legitimate purposes to resolve the contradiction between two passages like those quoted above from the Gospel According to Mark by tracing them to two originally separate, originally noncontradictory sources, one of which regarded Jesus as divine while the other did not.  But postmodern literary criticism, at least when it is post- rather than neohistoricist, is equally free to stress that however these two contradictory passages may have found their way into the same Gospel, they produce in combination a unique effect upon a reader open to experiencing that effect. Centuries of premodern readers possessed the necessary openness as a deeply ingrained cultural habit.  Postmodern readers can perhaps manage only a semblance of the same openness, but the rewards of doing so are significant, for the dramatic power of Christ as a character on the page is inseparable from this contradiction.  The Incarnation is Christianity’s breathtaking addition to Judaism’s already long list of divine self-contradictions.

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 of drop of dye tints a glass of clear water.  If I have seen you drunk and brawling once, I can see you sober and peaceable any number of times and know that the full truth about you is not, just then, on display.  There is something similarly scandalous, even monstrous, about divinity.  Once glimpsed, it remains in the mind.  There is, most especially, something monstrous about the Jewish deity.  Yahweh Elohim is not the Jewish Zeus. The Greek gods all had genealogies and offspring.  Human in form, they were reassuringly human in identity as well, because they existed in a population of others like themselves, interacting with them, competing with them, just as humans do with one another.  Not so Yahweh Elohim: The God of the Jews is alone in the cosmos, sexless, fatherless, motherless, and, for long, also childless.  After creating the human race in his image, God relates to his creature at first only as original to image, not as father to child.  God must adopt fatherhood.  He must choose it.  It is not, so to speak, natural to him.  In the monstrosity of this deity’s assuming human form lies the elusive remoteness, the uncanniness, that radiates so unmistakably from the pages of the New Testament, most especially from the pages of the Gospels.  What staggers the imagination and gives the Christian myth its power is not that some god or other should have become some man or other but that Yahweh should have become Jesus.

Gospel as a mixed genre

Reading the Gospels as literature means assigning them to a genre that combines history, fiction, and fairy tale.  The poet W. H. Auden described the difference between fiction and fairy tale—with history as the understood background for both—in a brief, penetrating afterword to George MacDonald’s modern fairy tale The Golden Key.  “Every human being,” Auden wrote,    

is interested in two kinds of worlds: the Primary, everyday, world which he knows through his senses, and a Secondary world or worlds which he not only can create in his imagination, but also cannot stop himself creating.

A person incapable of imagining another world than that given him by his senses would be sub-human, and a person who identifies his imaginary world with the world of sensory fact has become insane.

Stories about the Primary world may be called Feigned Histories; stories about a Secondary world, myths or fairy tales.  A story about the Primary world, that is to say, may be fiction—the characters in it and the events may have been “made up” by the writer—but the story must affect the reader in the same way that an historical narrative does: the reader must be able to say to himself, “Yes, I have met people like that, and that is how, I know from experience, such people talk and act.”  …

A Secondary world may be full of extraordinary beings…and extraordinary events… but, like the Primary world, it must, if it is to carry conviction, seem to be a world governed by laws, not by pure chance.  Its creator, like the inventor of a game, is at liberty to decide what the laws shall be, but, once he has decided, his story must obey them.…

History, actual or feigned, demands that the reader be at one and the same time inside the story, sharing in the feelings and events narrated, and outside it, checking these against his own experiences.  A fairy tale… on the other hand, demands of the reader total surrender; so long as he is in its world, there must for him be no other.23

Following Auden, how should we respond to the story of Jesus praying to be spared his final agony?  Conceding that the event is fictional (after all, the Gospel accounts say that the only possible witnesses to this event were asleep when it occurred), we may nonetheless be affected by it just as we would be by a strict report, for we can easily say to ourselves, “Yes, I have met people like that, and that is how, I know from experience, such people talk and act.”  Jesus in this moving instance of feigned history conducts himself as any man might whose friends have failed him in his moment of greatest need.

As for the way in which Jesus’ anguished prayer may recall the words of Psalm 59, historians have good reason to find the fit suspiciously close and to suspect that the episode itself was constructed or modified to match the Psalm. The literary critic, by contrast, conceding that the episode may be partly or wholly an invention, will be content to prescind from that question and allow the allusions and quotations to produce their intended effect, unconcerned that real and feigned history may be mingling. 

So much for the first episode. What of the second, Jesus’ walking on the water and stilling the storm?  Following Auden, we should respond to the miracle proper, the core of the episode, with “total surrender,” asking only that it conform to its own rules of operation—which, in this case, entails our taking the point that Jesus is God Incarnate. It is to this idea that we must yield.  But because the Gospel is a mixed form rather than pure fairy tale, our response to this episode in its entirety is more complex than simple surrender.  There was a historical Jesus, after all, and he did have followers.  Moreover, even in a story that has elements of fairy tale, there may occur elements of fiction as distinct from fairy tale.  Of this episode, we may legitimately ask, for example, Why did Jesus wait all night before coming to his disciples’ rescue?  If he knew they were in trouble, why did he not rescue them sooner? These questions are proper to fiction rather than to either history or fairy tale.

It is neither possible nor advisable for a twenty-first-century man or woman to wave away two thousand years of intellectual history and attempt to respond to the fantastical or miraculous in the New Testament as readers or hearers might have done in the first century. A premodern response to miracles is virtually impossible for any contemporary adult.  But Auden does not require this.  He urges only that we allow ourselves to approach in a mood of serious play a text that rewards such an approach.  The mood of serious play may take some cultivation, but it still lies within our reach.  Without denying that the New Testament does sometimes report historical events, we can open ourselves to its power in a new way if we can respond to the fantastical and the fictive within it as equal in importance to the historical.

To this I would add only that engaging the New Testament by hearing the Old Testament within it engages what is most distinctive about the New Testament as a work of literary art.  As Kermode has written,

The literary relations of the Gospels to the Old Testament [the same can be said of the entire New Testament] are as close and intimate as any that one can imagine between two texts.  In establishing this intimacy the evangelists not only authenticated their story but discovered its materials.  In constructing a realistic, history-like narrative in such an unusual way they created a distinctive genre; and in terms of that genre they produced unique works of art.24  

Because quoting a historically remote psalm when discussing a passage in Mark is the sort of thing that preachers have done to good effect for centuries, secular critics, and not historical critics alone, have seemed to feel that if they did the same, they would be joining the church.  Kermode is right that for the evangelists themselves these echoes were not just harmony but religious authentication.  But those in our day who decline to acknowledge the allusions as authentication can nonetheless enjoy them as harmony—and must do so if they are not to miss the haunting elegance and acrobatic virtuosity of the New Testament performance.

What the sea would say

For a significant and growing population of lay readers, the appeal of the Bible as art, good or bad, sacred or secular, has come to exceed its value as history, true or false.  No doubt those for whom the Bible is only itself, only sacred, to the extent that it corresponds with some set of intrinsically sacred events, will resist this development.  To them, the Bible as art will seem worthy of the library, perhaps, but unworthy of the sanctuary.  I myself believe that the Bible, read as art, may remain sacred so long as a distinction can continue to be made between religious art and secular art.   

Since the rise of modernism, this distinction has commonly been made, even if it has usually been made to the disparagement of religious art.  Art produced in service to a received, collective religious vision has been thought inferior to art whose vision—the original, personal creation of the artist—emerges only in and through the making.  Leaving aside that value judgment, I would insist for the moment only on the distinction itself, which in most instances is perfectly valid.  Religious art does differ, and in just the way alleged, from secular art.  Religious history differs from secular history in the same way.  The Gospels are the despair of secular historians, for they were written not as secular history must be written, for the sake of history itself but, rather, for the sake of the faith.  The authors of the Gospels know the meaning of the events they narrate before they begin the narration; they knew it before they began whatever, for them, constituted research.  By the same token, the medieval religious sculptor knew the point of his statue before he began to carve it.  Framed in this way, the distinction between religious and secular art remains valid, breaking down only in the case of the neoreligious modern artist, the artist whose personal vision can be described not just as personally but also as pedagogically and interpersonally spiritual, though in the service of no group beyond the congregation of those whom the artist aspires to “convert” to the vision that shapes her work itself. 

In a comment made while the National Gallery in London was still showing the exhibition “Seeing Salvation,” Neil MacGregor said:

One of the aims of this exhibition is to demonstrate that religious paintings can hold on to their spiritual dimension in the exhibition rooms of a museum.  Every visitor is free to discover what interests him or her, but every religious painting has a specific aim, which is different from the aim of a secular painting: to transform the soul of the spectator.25 

MacGregor makes two relevant points.  First, even though a work of art may have been produced in service to a received, collective vision, a vision not personally that of the artist, its power need not disintegrate when the collectivity breaks up.  An altarpiece without a church, at which no liturgy is any longer celebrated—an altarpiece moved to a museum—may lose much, but it does not lose everything.  Second, there is a difference between artists whose ambition is “to transform the soul of the spectator” and those who have no such ambition.  I would add that those who might say that any true artist must have such a vision have themselves unacknowledged ambitions on the souls of all artists, for to say such a thing is to deny artists the hard-won freedom of genuine secularity, secularity that is neither explicitly nor even implicitly religious.

Once the inherent artfulness of all writing has been acknowledged and a distinction between religious and secular art has been accepted, the two necessary conditions have been met for a latter-day sacralization of the Bible on the basis of its character as art rather than its reliability as a testimony to ancient events.  If the sacredness of historical events does not inhere in the events themselves but must be conferred upon them by interpretation, then interpretation may also confer sacredness upon imagined events.  Creation and interpretation are points on a mental continuum in both history and fiction.  The act by which a historical report is created is interpretive vis à vis some event: Creation entails interpretation.  Conversely, the act by which the same report is later interpreted is inevitably countercreative vis a’vis the originating event: Interpretation entails re-creation.  Similarly, the act by which a fictional story is invented is interpretive vis à vis the author’s not-yet-verbalized experience, which must ultimately be the source of the story: The author’s creation entails interpretation of his own experience.  Similarly again, the act by which the same story is later criticized is inevitably re-creative or countercreative vis à vis the story as first told: Interpretation duplicates creation at least to some extent. Without erasing the line between the real and the imagined, one may insist on the close analogy that exists between the creation and appropriation of history, on the one hand, and of fiction, on the other. In both cases, creator and interpreter—the historian and the critic of history, the storyteller and the critic of fiction—may be either two people in dialogue or one person talking to himself.  In both cases, when the motive is religious, the results are religious.  In short, an event need not have happened for it to convey religious meaning, while the fact that an event did happen does not in and of itself make the event religiously meaningful.

The point may be illustrated by imagining that Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan—a parable that Christian preaching has always read as a fictional but nonetheless paradigmatic expression of Christianity’s re-interpretation of the Old Testament command (Lev. 19:18) to “love your neighbor”—appeared in the Gospel of Luke as an episode in which, instead of a Samaritan rescuing a Jew, Jesus himself rescued a Samaritan.  A story now fruitful for preaching, though it is only a story, would then have crossed the line and become a kind of history.  But what if we further imagine that the consensus of historical scholarship about this episode in the career of Jesus were that it never happened?  Suppose historians were unanimous that the historical Jesus never actually rescued any such Samaritan?  What would have been lost?  The episode would be fiction by Luke instead of fiction by Jesus, but would its meaning not be the same, and could it not continue to function as revelation?  (Many scholars believe, even now, that the story as told by Jesus in the Gospel of Luke is actually Luke’s creation, though there is no real way to determine this.)  Moreover, even if the scholarly consensus were that the historical Jesus did indeed rescue some such Samaritan, his deed would only have paradigmatic force if a subsequent, religiously motivated decision had granted it that force.  Kindness may speak for itself, but what it says is never “I am a paradigm.” 

While insisting in this way on the legitimacy of a religious appropriation of the Bible as art, or, perhaps better, on an artistic appropriation of the Bible as religious, I would insist with equal force on the possibility and legitimacy of a fully secular appreciation of the art of the Bible.  Never underestimate the human capacity for sympathy across ideological lines.  One need not be a Nazi to appreciate the brilliance of Leni Riefenstahl’s film Triumph of the Will.  One need not love American materialism to be awestruck at the Manhattan skyline.  There is, of course, a risk: One thing may lead to another.  Someone may begin merely acknowledging that a certain power lingers in a Christian painting displayed at the National Gallery and end up at the baptismal font.  But if one thing may lead to another, it need not.  At this point in the history of the West, the secular option is open for good.  We need only note, by way of balance, that so is the religious option.  In our era, a detached but sympathetic openness to the art and literature of unbelief is no more difficult for believers than the reverse is for unbelievers.

The intellectual and emotional access that belief and unbelief, religious participation and religious abstention, have to one another in our era reminds me of a famous poem and a much less famous reply to it.  Matthew Arnold wrote in “Dover Beach” (I quote only part of a longer poem):

Listen! You hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.  

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegaean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.26 

Half a century later, W. B. Yeats replied laconically in “The Nineteenth Century and After” (this is the whole poem):

Though the great song return no more,
There’s keen delight in what we have:
The rattle of pebbles on the shore,
Under the receding wave.27

If the tide of religion will inevitably recede to the point that there is no sea at all, Yeats seems to say, we may still enjoy, for now, the sound of the pebbles under the receding wave.  But then, too, he implies with the faintest of smiles, do we really fear, as the tide goes out, that the sea will not be there in the morning? 

A half-century and more after Yeats, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, the Protestant/Catholic polemics of the sixteenth century are extremely remote even for most Protestants and Catholics.  Rather more important, perhaps, the religious/secular polemics of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries—the cultural anxieties and furies that linked Arnold and Yeats—are almost equally remote.  An immense population that thinks of itself as neither particularly religious nor particularly antireligious neither gloats if much of the Bible proves unhistorical nor feels any noteworthy quickening of interest if some of it proves historical after all. The fascination of the text—and clearly it does continue to fascinate—begins to lie elsewhere, in the work itself rather than in the events that the work may partially record or in the tangled history of how the work came to be written.  Pebbles under a receding wave?  Perhaps, but I prefer the analogy that I started with.  What attracts viewers, believing or unbelieving, to the great rose window of the Bible is neither what can be seen through it nor how the glass for it was stained and assembled, but what the window looks like in and for itself and what all those jagged fragments of light and color, working together, make happen behind the eye of the beholder.

NOTES

1I would distinguish commentary that aims to supplement the historical information in a work of historical art, the usual case in New Testament criticism, from criticism that aims to illumine the artfulness of a work of historical art by creating a rival work from the same information.  John Updike has illumined the artfulness of Shakespeare’s Hamlet by drawing on Shakespeare’s twelfth- and fifteenth-century sources to write his novel Gertrude and Claudius (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000).   Another novelist, Reynolds Price, has done something comparable for the Gospels by writing his own apocryphal gospel, The Honest Account of a Memorable Life (Rocky Point: North Carolina Wesleyan College Press, 1994). These works of art are simultaneously works of criticism, but neither intends to be a work of history.

Shakespeare scholarship, of course, attends a great deal to the historical Shakespeare and to Elizabethan England as the cultural matrix of his work; but Shakespeare scholarship is distinguished, on the one hand, from the history of Elizabethan England and, on the other, from Shakespeare criticism, whose concerns are character, diction, and other more or less extra-historical aesthetic issues. The contrast with New Testament studies in this regard is clear.  On the one hand, New Testament scholarship is less and less distinguishable from the history of the founding era of Christianity. On the other, New Testament criticism as distinct from either New Testament scholarship or early church history—a New Testament criticism concerned with character, diction, and some set of extra-historical aesthetic issues—has, until recently, scarcely existed at all.  New Testament scholars have tended to think of New Testament criticism, what little of it was written, as a species of popular theology if not simply as impressionistic or “fanciful” scholarship. In this appendix, by referring to New Testament scholars as “historical critics” of the New Testament, I seek quite deliberately to reverse this tactic—seeing scholarship as peculiar criticism rather than criticism as peculiar scholarship.

2Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, first complete edition, Edited by John Bowden, Translated by W. Montgomery, J. R. Coates, Susan Cupitt and John Bowden from the German (London: SCM Press, 2000, p. 479; originally published as Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung, [Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1913]).  Schweitzer’s reading of historical research down to his own day as a religiously irrelevant intellectual triumph depends, in effect, on his transformation of its findings into a psychohistorical reconstruction of the consciousness of Jesus. This reconstruction has its fullest development in his slightly earlier The Mystery of the Kingdom of God: The Secret of Jesus’ Messiahship and Passion.  Hans Frei in The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative rightly sees the specter of suicide haunting Schweitzer’s vision of Jesus.  Schweitzer’s Jesus, a self-conscious agent of God’s apocalyptic, final intervention in human history—an intervention that never came about—might be described as suicidally confident in the power of his own martyrdom.  For an era no longer open to self-martyrdom as a religiously meaningful action, Schweitzer believed that the historical Jesus, thus finally and correctly understood, would be religiously irrelevant except, as noted, through a mystical willingness to live in, as it were, suicidal disregard of social norms—to live, that is, as if this world were about to pass away.  Historical research could neither create nor destroy that kind of Christianity.

3 “Das entscheidende is schlechthin das Dass,” (“What is decisive is simply the ‘that’”).  This revealing remark, made near the end of Bultmann’s career, came in a lecture for the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences in 1960.  I cite it as quoted in an essay by the Dutch scholar Marinus de Jonge, “Theological Considerations in the Search for the Historical Jesus” in Jesus, the Servant-Messiah (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991), p. 23.  I see this stance as much in the spirit of the Schweitzer who, having declared historical Jesus research religiously irrelevant, cited 2 Corinthians 5:16 where Paul seems to allude to and in the same breath dismiss as religiously irrelevant, the possibility that he had known his Nazarene contemporary personally:

Our experience is like Paul’s.  Just as we come nearer to the historical Jesus than anyone has ever come and our hands reach out to draw him into our own time, we are forced to give up the effort and admit our failure in that paradoxical dictum If we knew Christ according to the flesh, yet starting now we know him no longer.  Moreover, we must come to terms with the fact that historical knowledge of the personality and life of Jesus will not be a help but perhaps even an offense to religion.  (Von Reimarus zu Wrede: Eine Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung [Tübingen: Mohr, 1906], p. 399; my translation)

In the first edition of his great work, Schweitzer risked a quasi-Nietzschean sarcasm in certain lines and passages that he excised from later editions.  The passage just quoted  is one such. 

The deepest question in this discussion, deeper than the question of history as a criterion for truth in religion, is What, if anything, can function as such a criterion?  Can scripture, read historically or allegorically or in any other way, play that role?  In the earliest Reformation debates, Catholics cogently objected that without some outside authentication, no one would be able to distinguish what was scripture from what was not.  Scripture, therefore, could not in and of itself be the needed criterion.  Then could tradition as interpreted by church authority be the needed criterion?  Protestants cogently counterobjected that without some outside authentication, no one would be able to distinguish who was pope from who was not.  Tradition, therefore, could not be the needed criterion either.  Intellectually, as Richard H. Popkin shows in “The Intellectual Crisis of the Reformation” (chapter one in The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979, revised edition]), the two sides fought each other to an intellectual draw as completely as, in the Thirty Years War, they would fight themselves to a military draw.  Yet their debate was anything but inconsequential.  As Popkin shows, the writings of Sextus Empiricus and therewith the core of the classical tradition of skepticism became available just as the Reformation debate was being joined.  The result was that the intellectual crisis of the Reformation became a rehearsal for the intellectual crisis of the Enlightenment.  That is, the question of whether scripture could serve as a criterion for religious truth became a rehearsal for the broader question of whether anything could serve as a criterion for truth in general-, the question that received a provisional but surprisingly durable answer when Descartes, to quote a contemporary French cleric, “taught his age the art of making Skepticism give birth to philosophical Certainty” (cited in Popkin, p. 172).  Though Popkin’s subject is skepticism rather than biblical interpretation, his work well illustrates the dictum that to understand the history of biblical interpretation in the West is to understand the history of Western thought itself.

For much of the twentieth century, it was a commonplace of New Testament studies to oppose “the Jesus of history” to “the Christ of faith.”  Discussion of the Jesus of history was invariably linked to the name of Albert Schweitzer.  Discussion of the Christ of faith was much less frequently linked than it should have been to the name of Martin Kähler, the author—in 1892, years before Schweitzer’s 1906 sensation—of The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic, Biblical Christ (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1964).  Where Schweitzer thought the quest of the historical Jesus an intellectual success but a religious irrelevancy, Kähler thought it an intellectual failure as well as a religious irrelevancy.  Bultmann, especially as linked to the “neo-orthodox” theology of Karl Barth, might seem the descendant of Kähler rather than of Schweitzer.  I link him to Schweitzer because, like Schweitzer, he so energetically and impressively mastered what he had determined, in advance, to be irrelevant.

4Paul William Roberts reviewing Thomas Cahill, Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus, The New York Times, April 23, 2000.  The reviewer may exaggerate the religious aspirations of historical criticism, but not by much. 

5For a lively but serious review of this research, paying particular attention to American scholarship, see Charlotte Allen, The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus (New York: The Free Press, 1998).  A penetrating analysis of the methodology of “the quest for the historical Jesus” is to be found as an appendix to Donald Harman Akenson’s Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1998); Akenson develops his critique further, noting that the Christ of Paul appeared a generation before the Jesus of any of the Gospels, in Saint Saul: A Skeleton Key to the Historical Jesus (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).  A more neutral, international, and academic survey may be found in Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz, The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide, translated by John Bowden (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998; originally published as Der historische Jesus: Ein Lehrbuch [Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1996]).  The case for and against the success and/or relevance of historical-Jesus research is argued in The Jesus Controversy: Perspectives in Conflict (Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press, 1999) by two American scholars, John Dominic Crossan (for) and Luke Timothy Johnson (against), with the tie-breaking vote (for, with qualifications) cast by a German scholar teaching in the United States, Werner H. Kelber.

6Ibid., p. 10.

7Ibid., p. 298.

8James Barr, Holy Scripture: Canon, Authority, Criticism  (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1983), p. 159.

9An American example in this vein, published just before Enlightenment thinking went into hibernation in American cultural and political life, is Thomas Smith Grimké, Oration on the Advantages, to Be Derived from the Introduction of the Bible, and of Sacred Literature, as Essential Parts of All Education, in a Literary point of View Merely, from the Primary School, to the University.  Delivered Before the Connecticut Alpha of the FΒΚ Society, on Tuesday, September 7, 1830 (New Haven, Conn.: printed by Hezekiah Howe, 1830). 

10Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1974).  See also Frei’s Types of Christian Theology, edited by George Hunsinger and William C. Placher  (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992), and his Theology and Narrative: Selected Essays, edited by George Hunsinger and William C. Placher (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

11Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending  (London: Oxford University Press, 1967).

12Robert Alter and Frank Kermode, editors, The Literary Guide to the Bible (Cambridge: The Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 1987), p. 607.   See also Kermode’s summary, concluding statement on p. 609:

It is an empirical fact that each book has its own history; it is also true that the association of many books in a canon was the result of a long historical process and owed much to chance and much to the needs and the thinking of people we know little or nothing about.  But it is also a fact that works transmitted inside a canon are understood differently from those without, so that, if only in that sense, the canon, however assembled, forms an integral whole, the internal and external relations of which are both proper subjects of disinterested inquiry.  Nor need we suppose that we have altogether eliminated from our study of canonical works every scrap of the old organicist assumptions, every concession to a magical view of these worlds and their profound, obscure correspondences.  When we have achieved that degree of disinterest we shall have little use for the canon or for its constituents, and we shall have little use either for poetry.

The phenomenal history of the Bible as an anthology of uniquely wide diffusion is commonly but illogically invoked as a justification for the study of historical phenomena in the Bible.  That is, the influence of this text in so many places over so many centuries is invoked as a reason to pay particular attention to the events and circumstances that are recounted in the text or that formed the cultural matrix for its original composition.  But to this claim, one might well reply, “Non sequitur,” objecting that if it is the influence that is important, then it is the influence that most deserves study.  Don’t study sunspots and sunstorms if it is sunburn that concerns you. 

The Bible has not usually wielded its influence in conjunction with any independently acquired knowledge of the ancient world from which it emerged.  The extent to which it does so even now is debatable, though surely the assumption by so many scholars, enacted in so many school curricula, is that this is how the Bible should wield its influence. The deeper trouble is that historical criticism, by dissecting the Bible and considering its component parts separately, offers for contemplation a text that has had—in just that dissected, anatomized form—no influence before modern times.  There is room, then—and to claim this is surely not to claim too much—for a form of Bible study that would stress the effect that the collection produces as a whole rather than the effects produced separately by its separable parts.

13Peter J. Thuesen, In Discordance with the Scriptures: American Protestant Battles Over Translating the Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 154.

14Frank Kermode, The Genesis of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of Narrative (Cambridge: The Harvard University Press, 1979), p. 88.  It would be interesting to hear Kermode’s views on the experience of listening to a novel on audiotape.

Cf. Kermode, (The Literary Guide to the Bible, p. 454) on the literary technique of John the Evangelist:

The method by which [John] arranges…inconspicuous repetitions of word, idea, or incident—the literary devices which add up to what E. M. Forster called “rhythms”—may well owe something to Jewish liturgical practice.  In the Passover readings the bread of the ceremony is said to replace the forbidden fruit of Genesis 2 and to foretell the manna which will again descend at the coming of Messiah.  It has sometimes occurred to me that the subtleties of construction, the more or less occult relationship of parts, that we admire in favored novels owes a largely unconscious debt to ancient liturgical practice.  This is a part of one’s justification for calling John a protonovelist.

15Jacques Derrida, De la grammatologie (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1967).  See especially, the subchapter “Le Dehors et Le Dedans,” pp. 46ff.

16Cited in Thuesen, In Discordance with the Scriptures, p. 3.

17Eric Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, translated from the German by Willard Trask (New York: Anchor Books, 1957).  Mimesis appeared in German in 1946 and was first published in English by Princeton University Press in 1953.

18Hans Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), p. 16.

19  “Hermeneutically, it may well be the most natural thing to say that what these accounts are about is the story of Jesus the Messiah, even if there was no such person; or, if there was, he was not in fact the Messiah; and quite regardless of whether or not he (if he did exist) thought of himself as such; and regardless finally of the possible applicative significance of such a story and of the messianic concept to a modern context.  Many elements may enter into the way a story makes sense, but its sheer narrative shape is an important and distinctive one which should not be confused with others—especially that of estimating its abiding religious meaning and that of assessing the narrative’s cultural context or the reliability of the “facts” told in the story”  (Ibid., pp. 133-4).

20Neil MacGregor with Erika Langmuir, Seeing Salvation: Images of Christ in Art (London: BBC Worldwide Limited, 2000), p. 13.  The dean of a California seminary commented to me in 1999 that many of her students do not recognize a painting of the Madonna and Child as other than a painting of an unidentified woman with a baby.  Yet I suspect that however lost the iconographic language of European religious art may be, it may be through the recovery of that language that a more fully lost language—the language of medieval biblical commentary as set forth in Henri de Lubac’s four-volume Exégèse médiévale (Paris: Aubier, 1964)—may come to seem worth recovering.  The language of intense and intensely playful internal reference continued to be spoken in painting well after it had become a dead language in written exegesis.

21For an excellent popular account of this decisive event in Christian history, see Richard E. Rubenstein, When Jesus Became God: The Epic Fight over Christ’s Divinity in the Last Days of Rome (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999).

22Defined differently by everyone who invokes it, postmodernism is, for me, not a period that succeeds modernism but rather, an attitude that rejects periodization as such.  Modernism felt a great Hegelian confidence that history had a direction, even a destination.  Thus, the recovery of the historical Jesus seemed the destined outcome of the history of New Testament criticism.  Postmodernism, by contrast, has no such confidence and therefore feels none of the obligation that modernism felt to go where history is headed.  History is going nowhere, it thinks, and so what’s the rush?  Its mood is Kierkegaardian and ironic. 

As regards literature, postmodernism recognizes no large, collective enterprise with a clear direction that all legitimate participants must respect.  Though the history of interpretation is not cyclical, there is no reason why what has been done already in interpretation may not be done again if we find it rewarding.  God: A Biography was indebted to the character criticism of A. C. Bradley, whose major work, Shakespearean Tragedy, appeared in 1904.  The more innovation comes to seem mere variation, the more easily the old and neglected can become new again. There exists no historical imperative to be obeyed or disobeyed.  Nothing must be done.  Anything might be done.  When the results are interesting, they are not interesting because they constitute “progress.”  Evidence coerces.  Art merely seduces.

Postmodern literary criticism has been faulted for arrogance toward the author and the author’s claims.  Michel Foucault famously remarked that “the author is the dead man in the game of writing.”  Though I do not regard this view to be the wave of “the” future (there is no “the” future), neither do I regard it as a fad that is now happily behind us.  It is here to stay, along with all that preceded it.  However, I must say that if the great fault of postmodern criticism has been that, in effect, it treats all books as if they were anonymously written, then this school of criticism may suit the Bible particularly well because so much of the Bible is irretrievably anonymous and the authorship even of those portions of the Bible that bear some kind of attribution is quite often in dispute. 

Modern historical criticism has labored diligently to bring the Bible to the “normal” condition of clearly identified authors with consistent agendas and clearly identified audiences.  Postmodern criticism can and should acknowledge the value, even the grandeur, of this enterprise of rationalization and yet not surrender its right to observe that historical criticism almost inevitably aborts certain highly stimulating and fruitful kinds of literary engagement.  For me, both kinds of criticism are interesting and legitimateAnd certainly for the modest purposes of this book, the matter need not be pushed much past the recognition that an unintended effect is a real effect which may be welcomed without prejudice to intended effects.  Or, to use the nomenclature of historical criticism, one may ignore questions of authorship and dating in a given discussion while conceding their relevance to many other discussions.  One may also concede that what “causes” an unintended effect may be someone’s first experiencing it and then talking about it. 

At such a moment, facing such an unintended effect and sensing the presence of an intrusive subjectivity, modernist historical criticism, like virtually all modernist criticism, catches itself in time, and muffles its inclination to join in the discussion as one might muffle one’s inclination to join in a laugh at a funeral. The critic may find the joke funny, but to laugh at it would interrupt the ceremony—or, in this instance, retard the collective enterprise.  Postmodern criticism—going nowhere, we might say—feels no such inhibition.  More important, it has time to linger over distractions and chance arrangements that, like a sunset, are intended by nobody but may lift the spirits of anybody willing to be led outdoors for a look.

23George MacDonald, The Golden Key, with pictures by Maurice Sendak, afterword by W. H. Auden (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1967), pp. 81-4.

24Kermode, The Literary Guide to the Bible, pp. 382-3.

25Interview in The Art Newspaper, No. 100, February 2000.

26The New Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1950, chosen and edited by Helen Gardner (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), p. 703. 

27The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats, volume I, The Poems, revised, edited by Richard J. Finneran (New York: Macmillan, 1989), p. 240.