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Jesus’s Character

The Jesus who we have in the Gospels, no matter how you try and read it, can’t be edited out and turned into a nice guy; he just isn’t. I don’t think that there’s any credible way. You know Jefferson made up his own Gospel, just of the wisdom’s without the miracles, without any of the explicit, religious content, and without the doctrine of damnation. But, I don’t see how with any kind of intellectual credibility, you can do that; and I think people are absolutely wrong when they say, “Oh well, we dip into the Gospels and make the Jesus that we want.” You can do that, if you choose to, but if you make a minimal intellectual effort, you can reconstruct someone who is in many respects, seductive, inspiring and original and in other respects is scary and even in his way dangerous. Somebody who simultaneously believes in all of the Beatitudes, and all of the things that he preaches in the Sermon on the Mount and, also believes in damnation. Those two things, as I tried to say, I think it’s a very important point, are not exclusive; they feel exclusive to us because we live in a particular kind of world, with a particular set of values. But, that’s exactly what charismatic prophets do, they save, they preach simultaneously, universal love and universal damnation, and I think that we betray whatever the reality is, literary or literal of Jesus, when we try and brush him up too much, make him either all dharma bum or all damnation madman.

I recognize the risk of our trying to rewrite a secular, nice guy Jesus, humanist Jesus; and I recognize that there’s a risk in that. But, I don’t think you need to do it, I think you can remain fascinated by Jesus and recognize the irreducible core of bitter danger in what he says.

  • Adam Gopnik

    Adam Gopnik is a staff writer for The New Yorker  magazine. His recent books of essays include Paris to the Moon (2000) and Through the Children’s Gate (2006).