Jesus: The Man and the Myth
Stanford, Peter, Daily Mail (London)
Byline: PETER STANFORD
JESUS'S divinity is the issue that tends to turn off non-believers.
They can accept him as an historical figure who said wise things about the ways of the world, and even refer back to that guidance as best practice. But they balk at the bit about the Son of God with a throne in the clouds.
Christians have the opposite problem. They embrace Jesus's divinity willingly but stumble when it comes to his humanity.
He may have been God-made-man, but they don't want to probe too closely into the baser instincts that inevitably accompany flesh and blood, hence all the protests when Martin Scorsese's film The Last Temptation Of Christ showed Jesus having an erotic dream about Mary Magdalene.
Books on Jesus usually target one or other of these two constituencies, the agnostics and those who have seen the light.
Rarely do they try to appeal to the much bigger group of doubters and devout sceptics who occupy the middle ground, but the American writer and former Jesuit Jack Miles is a sainted exception.
Five years ago he won the Pulitzer Prize for his book God: A Biography, a radical rereading of largely pre-Christian accounts, including the Old Testament.
Now comes the companion volume, reworking in a similarly iconoclastic way the New Testament's account of Christ. This is neither nit-picking archaeological history nor self-serving theology, but a wide-ranging, eloquent and arresting account that treats the Jesus of the New Testament as the most exceptional, alluring and enduring literary myth known to Mankind.
The modern age, of course, has debased the word 'myth'. It is usually preceded by 'just a . . .' and used as an alternative to lie - hence the myth of male supremacy, the myth of American invincibility, and so on.
But, historically, myths have had a much more profound role in human history: that of explaining the inexplicable by characterising the origins, meaning and essential mysteries of life.
They were not concerned with things that could be proven or disproven, but provided a context that made sense of life, usually with reference to the eternal and the universal.
In treating the story of Jesus as that sort of myth, Miles is not seeking either to question the historical Jesus or undermine the faith people have had in him down the centuries.
He simply feels that such approaches potentially miss the richest seam in the New Testament.
It is not an eyewitness account and cannot claim in any sense to be gospel. It is rather a fascinating and complex impression of Jesus's life, written between 30 and 150 years after the events it describes. …