Jay Parini brings a life’s worth of contemplation on Jesus to the first volume in ICONS, a series of brief, thought-provoking biographies edited by James Atlas. In Jesus, Parini turns the powerful narrative skill he’s wielded over the course of a four-decade career to a figure who’s dominated our collective imagination and cultural iconography for over twenty centuries.
The main trend of modern theology has hinged on the notion of “demythologizing” Jesus. Parini’s book seeks to re-mythologize him, considering the story in all its mythical radiance, taking Jesus as the human face of God. It asks: What’s so moving about Jesus’s story that millions of people over two millennia have considered it a paradigm for living?
Far from dogmatic, Parini looks at the many ways in which Jesus has been viewed and dramatizes the transformation from Jesus to Christ, man to myth, and obscure Jewish carpenter to someone who pointed a finger toward God and said with conviction: This is the way. Follow me.
About the Author
JAY PARINI is a poet, novelist, and biographer who teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont. His books of poetry include House of Days and The Art of Subtraction: New and Selected Poems. Among his eight novels are The Passages of H.M., Benjamin's Crossing, and The Last Station, which was made into an Academy Award–nominated film starring Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer. He has written biographies of John Steinbeck, Robert Frost, and William Faulkner, and numerous works of nonfiction, including Promised Land: Thirteen Books that Changed America.
Read an Excerpt
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your soul. For my yoke is easy and my burden light.
The soul of man is the lamp of God.
This is a biography of Jesus, not a theological tract, though I take seriously the message embodied in the story of Christ that unfolded in real time. In Jesus: The Human Face of God, I offer a fresh look at him from the viewpoint of someone (a poet, novelist, and teacher of literature) who regards scripture as continuous revelation, embodied not only in the four gospels—still the main source for information about the life of Jesus—but also in extracanonical writing, such as the Gnostic Gospels, as well as in centuries of poetry and literature, where we see that prophecy remains active and ongoing. I emphasize throughout what I call the gradually realizing kingdom of God—a process of transformation, like that of an undeveloped photograph dipped in chemicals. The process itself adds detail and depth to the image, which grows more distinct and plausible by the moment.
Literal-minded readings of the scriptures distort this understanding of the kingdom of God in unfortunate ways. In my view, one is not “saved” by simply checking off the boxes in a code of dogmatic beliefs—this is not what Jesus had in mind. He asked more of us than that, and offered more as well. And so, in this portrait of Jesus’s life and ideas, I put forward a mythos—a Greek word meaning story or legend—which suggests that the narrative has symbolic contours as well as literal heft, and that one should always read this story with a kind of double vision, keeping in mind the larger meanings contained in the words and deeds that have mattered so much to Christians over two millennia. Modern theologians have talked about demythologizing Jesus, but I want to remythologize him. At every turn in this biography, I try to discover what Jesus meant to those who encountered him, and how his teachings and behavior inspired deeply personal transformations with public or social (even political) implications.
Jesus was a religious genius, and the Spirit moved in him in unique ways, with unusual grace and force, allowing him access to the highest levels of God-consciousness. His own life provided an example of how to behave in the world, urging us to love our neighbors as ourselves, to turn the other cheek when struck, and to remain fixed on “faith, hope, and love.” “This is my commandment,” Jesus said, putting before us a single ideal, “That you love one another, as I have loved you.” (John 15:12) The simplicity and force of this statement take away the breath.
In the course of this book, I make an effort to place Jesus and his teachings within the context of desert wisdom. He came into this world at a turning point in history, a devout Jew trained in the laws of Moses and the traditions of Judaism. But he lived on the Silk Road, where he had access to Eastern as well as Western ideas. These currents informed his thoughts, and the Sermon on the Mount—where the core of his teaching lies in compressed form—extended and transformed key Jewish concepts while absorbing the Hindu and Buddhist idea of Karma: the notion that we ultimately reap what we sow. Jesus thought of the human mind in Greek terms, of course: an amalgam of body and soul. Yet his understanding of the human condition drew on every available concept as he set forth at the age of thirty with energy and passion, hoping to reshape the world, speaking not to elites—those who ruled the Roman Empire and administered the Second Temple in Jerusalem—but to the poor, the weak, and the marginalized. Here was, indeed, a revolution.
He was a ferocious, challenging teacher, hardly the Jesus “meek and mild” of the church hymn. And he made huge demands on those drawn toward him, as when he says in Mark 8:34: “Whoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” It’s an audacious invitation and one that Christians rarely take with the seriousness intended. The Way of Jesus, as it might be called, involves self-denial, a sense of losing oneself in order to find oneself, moving through the inevitable pain of life with good cheer, accepting gracefully the burdens that fall on our shoulders and the tasks that lie before us. This is true discipleship.
On this subject, I often recall the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian and minister who was executed by the Nazis in a concentration camp at Flossenbürg on April 9, 1945, only a few weeks before its liberation by the Allies. Bonhoeffer stood up boldly to Hitler, and his anti-Nazi activities led to his arrest by the gestapo. During his imprisonment in Berlin’s Tegel Military Prison for a year and a half, Bonhoeffer offered comfort and inspiration to his fellow prisoners, and even his Nazi jailors admired his courage and compassion, the example he set for others in a dire situation. He imitated Jesus there, making use of his example, allowing it to define his own life and actions.
Bonhoeffer reflected passionately on the meaning of his life, writing in his diary only a few months before his death: “It all depends on whether or not the fragment of our life reveals the plan and material of the whole. There are fragments which are only good to be thrown away, and others which are important for centuries to come because their fulfillment can only be a divine work. They are fragments of necessity. If our life, however remotely, reflects such a fragment . . . we shall not have to bewail our fragmentary life, but, on the contrary, rejoice in it.”1
In The Cost of Discipleship, a bracing theological work, Bonhoeffer meditates at book-length on what it means to take up the cross: “Discipleship means adherence to Christ, and, because Christ is the object of that adherence, it must take the form of discipleship. An abstract Christology, a doctrinal system, a general religious knowledge on the subject of grace or on the forgiveness of sins, render discipleship superfluous, and in fact they positively exclude any idea of discipleship whatever, and are essentially inimical to the whole conception of following Christ.”2 So it won’t do simply to follow a doctrinal system, marking off the things one has to believe in order to be “saved.” To follow the Way of Jesus, one has to walk in a certain direction, experiencing the difficulties as well as the illimitable freedom of that choice. “Happy are the simple followers of Jesus Christ who have been overcome by his grace,” writes Bonhoeffer. “Happy are they who, knowing that grace, can live in the world without being of it, who, by following Jesus Christ, are so assured of their heavenly citizenship that they are truly free to live their lives in this world.”3 Bonhoeffer’s statement makes one question the idea of dogma, the notion that one should adhere to strict rules and prescribed statements in order to pursue the Christian way.
Jesus himself would have been startled to learn that, only a few centuries after his death—with the conversion of Emperor Constantine in the early fourth century—the Roman Empire itself would officially adopt his teachings and make them the law of the land. He might well have balked at the thought that a world religion would arise in his name, with competing theologians (and armies), all convinced that their understanding of his gospel message is correct, while other views are wrong. Jesus had no intention of founding a church (Greek: ekklesia) in competition with Judaism, although as the parable of the mustard seed suggests, he could imagine large numbers of people flocking to his tree of ideas like birds.
In the last chapter of this book, I explore the “afterlife” of Jesus, how a church gradually formed, with competing ideas about what his life meant. I also explore the various attempts to write about his life, which in the modern age began in the eighteenth century, when after the Enlightenment a degree of skepticism arose about the historical status of Jesus and the deeds and words relayed in the gospels. But that’s later in the story. The starting point, for me—as suggested above—is the world into which Jesus was born, a pervasively Jewish world in Palestine at one of the major junctures in history, when the message that Jesus offered struck a small chord among a core group of people—most of them Mediterranean peasants who could barely read or write—that would grow louder and more resonant in time.
Yet questions loom: Who exactly was this man, Jesus of Nazareth? Was he, as some scholars argue, a wandering rabbi, a magician, a healer and exorcist like many others at this time, including Rabbinic sages such as Honi ha-Ma’agel or Hanina ben Dosa?4 Was he also an apocalyptic visionary who imagined an end to history? As anyone who reads the Gospels soon notices, Jesus quoted easily and often from Hebrew scriptures, with incredible alertness to parallels that foreshadowed his own story. He understood that Jews in Palestine felt profoundly uneasy under Roman rule, and he reflected this political reality in the things he said and did. But it’s important to keep in mind that he was always a good, if unconventional, Jew. The fact that he took himself to be the long-awaited Christ (the Greek word for messiah) would, in fact, hardly have endeared him to Jewish authorities, who never imagined that the Chosen One would come from peasant stock in a remote Galilean village. That wasn’t what they had in mind, and they looked askance at his purveyance of “signs and wonders”—miracles and astounding deeds that drew crowds wherever he went.5
Table of Contents
1. Ancient Palestine 1
2. In the Beginning 13
3. The Dove Descending: His Ministry Begins 30
4. Walking in Galilee: The Healer and Teacher 44
5. Entering Jerusalem 79
6. The Passion: From Gesthsemene to Golgotha 99
7. Resurrection 118
8. The Afterlife of Jesus 136
Select Bibliography 168
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Memorandum Date: December 29, 2013 Re: JESUS THE HUMAN FACE OF GOD by Jay Parini, Icons Series, 2013 In general, I found this book interesting and a more spiritual discussion of Jesus and his ministry than other books that I have read recently like Zealot by Reza Aslan. The Preface and Chapter Four especially the discussion and parsing of the Sermon on the Mount (page 54 et.seq.) are excellent. Nonetheless, I am troubled about some statements in the book, ones for which there is little or no historical evidence and others from an interfaith and Jewish perspective that suggest a Supersessionist reading of the Gospel. By supersession, I mean the historical and now somewhat discredited view that Christianity superseded Judaism and that the Jewish Covenant is no longer valid. Turning first to the references that suggest that Christianity superseded Judaism, Parini on pages 65, 72, 95 and 107 refers to the new covenant between God and humanity. Since the Gospels in places refer to such a covenant, citing them in the book is appropriate. Nonetheless, some elaboration of the change in the Christian view of the Jewish Covenant would have been equally appropriate. Permitting this idea to stand is not compatible, in my view, with the evolving change in the Christian view of Judaism. In connection with Parini’s discussion of the Sermon on the Mount, he writes about the Antitheses. In so doing he says that “They amplify Mosaic laws in significant ways.” (Page 60). Perhaps I am reading too much into what Parini is saying here, but it sounds to my Jewish ear that he is suggesting that Jesus is saying these Antitheses are superior to the Mosaic laws. In discussing the “Golden Rule” at page 68, Parini mentions that the idea of this rule was articulated by Rabbi Hillel and has been called the “Silver Rule.” Hillel’s version is at times paraphrased as “what is hateful to you do not do to others.” Calling Hillel’s rule silver and Jesus’ rule gold is a clear statement that, as Jesus states it, his is superior. Historically, Hillel’s version has been called, I believe, by non-Jews, the negative Golden Rule. (See Commentary in the Pentateuch and Haftorahs, Edited by Dr. J.H. Hertz, Second Edition, Soncino Press, 1975, pages 501, 502, 563 and 564.) Parini should have referred to Leviticus 19:18, “but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself:” which I believe is the proof text for both Hillel and Jesus. Contrasting the language of the rules as silver and gold is not a fair reading of them and suggests Christian superiority in how the rule is stated. That superiority is not supported by the Shared or Jewish Testament. In the Passion Narrative chapter of his book, chapter 6, Parini refers to the Jewish crowd which it may have been without also mentioning that it was mainly the Jewish establishment that wanted Jesus crucified. Moreover, and significantly at page 111, Parini states that since Jesus was crucified, “his offense was technically against Roman, not Jewish laws.” What does he mean by technically and what was the Roman law for which Jesus was crucified? In the context of this chapter, a fair reading is that Jesus was crucified for violations of Jewish laws not unspecified Roman law. The reference to the Jewish crowd and the use of the word “technically” in my mind supports my assertion. In addition, at page 110, when Parini is talking about the crowd demanding Jesus’ crucifixion the demand is for violating a Jewish law, not a Roman law. Parini concludes the fourth full paragraph of this page as follows: “Only death would satisfy their bloodlust.” Bloodlust for Jews is such a loaded word when Jews were charged with blood libel in the Middle Ages and beyond that Parini might have chosen his words more carefully. Finally, in the conclusion of the passion narrative page 117, Parini quotes Abelard as saying that “Jesus became, in effect, the suffering servant of Isaiah” ignoring entirely the historical context for Israel of the Book of Isaiah. Regarding my concern about historical accuracy, I have only minor comments. Parini finds Buddhist and Hindu concepts in Jesus like Karma and one of the four “Noble Truths” of Buddhism in the Sermon on the Mount. I am not aware of any documented evidence that Jesus had any knowledge of Buddhism or even that Buddhism was known in the second temple period in Palestine. In addition, Parini says that what became known as the last supper may have been the Passover meal “or seder.”(Page 94). My understanding is that the Seder as such was not developed until the Rabbinic Period well after Jesus’ death. Parini also asserts that three disciples fell asleep perhaps because of the four cups of wine they drank that were required by Jewish law at the Passover meal. I am not sure and I could not find any time when this requirement became part of Jewish law.