Stephen M. Miller's Quest for The Jesus of the Bible
- 2009 20 May
Stephen M. Miller isn’t your average Bible scholar. In fact, despite publishing credits that would make any seminary professor proud, Miller insists he’s not a scholar at all—and Bible scholars just might agree. According to Miller, he’s merely a “translator.”
But the best-selling author isn’t the type who translates the Bible from one of its original languages into English. He’s the one who takes the Bible from another popular language—“Christianese”—and translates it into English. Everyday English, that is. The kind that non-Christians speak.
“There’s only one family in my neighborhood that goes to church, so I’m thinking, ‘How do I phrase this for them?’” he said, during a recent telephone chat. “Those of us who have been Christians awhile have our own way of talking, and that’s not their way of talking.”
A freelance journalist and editor who contributes to numerous publications such as Reader's Digest Books, Guideposts Books and Christianity Today's Christian History magazine, Miller is also a prolific author. In addition to writing books like The Bible: A History, How to Get the Bible into My Life and Who’s Who & Where’s Where in the Bible, Miller has served as a writer and a contributing editor for The Quest Study Bible, which remains one of the best-selling study Bibles in the country. His How to Get into the Bible is also one of the top-selling Bible handbooks in Christian circles.
Here’s what Miller has to say about why he writes, his latest book—The Jesus of the Bible—and what he discovered about Jesus along the way. ...
Unlike most books about Bible history, The Jesus of the Bible is very accessible to the average person, yet still engaging for someone with a lot of biblical knowledge. How did you bridge that gap?
I think in terms of communicating to average folks, and I think that’s my journalism background. We were taught to grab them by the throat with the first sentence and do your best to hold them. You’re writing for a mass audience, so you can’t write for one segment, whether that’s the Christian elite or an educated savant. You write for my Uncle Henry, a cold miner, or a friend who’s a solder in Iraq, and you tell the story in a way that will hold their interest. That’s what I feel strongly about—telling the story in a way that average folks can get engaged. And my hope is that it will pull them into the Bible. I see it as a springboard.
Why don’t other Christian scholars do that?
I think of myself as a translator, more than anything else—not a biblical scholar. Big deal, I went to seminary; I went to journalism school, too. I’m a generalist, and that’s not a compliment. I use the biblical scholars as the resources and I’m trying to say what they should be saying, if they could say it well. Sometimes I get it wrong. I interpret them in ways they don’t want to be interpreted or take them in directions that they don’t want to go.
If someone can’t explain something in a way that I can understand—with normal words—then they don’t understand it. I think theologians invent words to explain things that they don’t understand. Words like “trinity.” But people like my neighbors don’t understand it. They want us to learn their language, but that’s not going to happen, for the most part. They (are forced) to learn our language.
Where do you find all the art for The Jesus of the Bible?
I’ve been doing this for decades. Years ago, I took over a magazine called Illustrated Bible Life. I realized we were in a visual age and talked them into it, then began working with the major suppliers of biblical art, like Art Resources out of New York City, Flicker, Deviantart.com. These are places where average folks, even kids, are putting up art. These are new and emerging sources of photos, art, paintings, and some of the photos are phenomenal, just phenomenal.
So, basically you’re surfing the Web?
Not so much surfing as keeping my eyes open. If I want a picture of a topic, I will Google it and look at the sources.
You have lots of paintings of Jesus in there. Do we actually know what he looked like?
We don’t have a clue what Jesus looked like. The most common description can be traced back to the 1400s—which is that he was very handsome with long brown hair parted in the middle and a full beard with no wrinkles. The earliest on-record description was about 200 years after he died, and they say that he was as homely as a hound dog. But they take that from the suffering servant passage, and that’s poetry. Why would you take that literally? The picture in my book was taken from a skull from first-century Israel. The guy looks like a bearded construction worker—someone who would be working a jackhammer on the sidewalk, whistling at some girl walking by.
What do you think about the view that it’s wrong to try and create a picture of Jesus, because it violates the commandment that we are not to create any likeness of God?
The graven image commandment, as I understand it, is talking about idols. The Jews took it in a different way, literally, and wouldn’t make any images at all, which is (why) we don’t have any images of Jesus. (The idea is that) … we would be too inclined to worship the image.
(But) even the idea that the Bible is error free it its original version is worshipping the Bible, not God. That doesn’t take into consideration humanity, or the fact that what we have in our hands is copies of copies. What we need to be talking about is how reliable it is, or how effective it is and what we can rely on them for. My response would be: For everything we need to know about God and about salvation.
What was the toughest part of the book for you to write?
The critical studies, where the scholars were on a quest for what Jesus was really like—the quest for the historical Jesus, (otherwise known as) “The Jesus Seminar.” The circles that I move in consider that flaky. They cast their ballots with color-coded marbles that actually track with the red letter edition. If a certain percentage of marbles are red, then that’s what Jesus actually said. So when you look at the Lord’s Prayer, for example, “Our father” isn’t red. Nothing is red in the Gospel of John—the entire Gospel.
It’s a little odd to envision these scholars sitting in a room dropping their marbles into a bucket, and I was so tempted to make a wisecrack about them losing their marbles. The theories that they come up with about what Jesus was like seem to have no substance. One theory was that Jesus was a revolutionary whose revolution failed, so his disciples stole the body and rewrote the story. If you’re passing that off as history, you need to substantiate it—beyond the claim that that makes sense, and that the fact that he rose from the dead makes no sense (to you). They can’t understand how we can believe in these things because they are not a part of their experience. We never see anybody walking on water or rising from the dead (so) why would we believe something like that? These biblical scholars are doing the same thing, saying that these things are beyond reason so we need to come up with some reasonable explanations.
So what would you say to people who argue that Jesus didn’t exist?
Go to the section of the book that quotes Roman history, where writers like Josephus, who was born in A.D. 37, talk about him. Josephus writes, for example, “There was a wise man who. ...” That’s not in the Bible. That’s in a Roman history book. There are others. If you’re going to say that Jesus didn’t exist, you’ve got to say that somebody made those things up.
What surprised you, if anything, during your research?
That Jesus produced enough wine at Canaa to get more than 1,000 people drunk—drunk enough to drive a donkey cart! He produced 120 to 180 gallons of wine, depending on the measurement you use. At a minimum, at least 1,000 people were drunk at that wedding.
Jesus probably had an accent. Remember the story of Peter in the Garden? They said that they could tell it was him because he had an accent from Galilee. The Northerners have an accent. It never occurred to me that Jesus had an accent.
What is your calling as a writer?
I don’t use "the calling" language. I don’t think in terms of God calling me to do this or that. A lady in the church once told me, “I was called to be a missionary, but now I’m living God’s second best.” But if God goes with you in whatever you do and wherever you go, how could that be second best? I could have stayed in secular news. And sometimes I wonder if I could have made a bigger impact on God’s kingdom, had I done that. But I love what I do. I’m excited about getting up and doing what I have to do, most of the time.
I think in terms of God giving us gifts, desires and interests, and God going with us wherever we go and in whatever we do. It takes the pressure off.