BustedHalo: I was interested to read that in the research you’ve done in the past for other books you’d never found that scholars had an axe to grind about their subjects—I think the example you gave was that Elizabethan scholars don’t have an axe to grind about Elizabeth I—which can’t be said for some New Testament scholars.
AR: People don’t usually dislike the people they write about. Even if they write about Hitler, they allow him his power and are fascinated by this. But some of the people who write New Testament scholarship today really personally dislike Jesus Christ. They seem to have a class bias against him. They are middle class and he is not. There’s a great tendency to whittle him down to nothing. They’ll make statements in their books that he was an ordinary man. There’s no proof that he was an ordinary man. There’s no proof regarding this. That he would be horrified if he saw Christianity today. There’s nothing that indicates this, no matter how skeptical you are. But they’ll make this statement and say that he would be horrified if he saw the state of Christianity today.
BH: Based on your research, what do you think of scholars who contend that Jesus’ resurrection wasn’t necessarily a physical resurrection but a metaphorical or spiritual resurrection that?
AR: It was a physical resurrection. NT Wright in his book The Resurrection of the Son of God is a monumental work. He demonstrates very clearly that the apostles thought it was a real resurrection. It wasn’t an experience or mind shift. They saw him. He goes through a great deal of the writing of the period and the scholarship and demonstrates very clearly that he rose from the dead.
I’m not particularly interested in other explanations. What interests me is the Jesus who rose from the dead, worked miracles and was the son of the Virgin. That’s what has the power, intensity, and coherence for me. I never really entertained the other explanations. I feel no need to tame him down into a wandering charismatic who died by mistake.
When I went into the Old Testament scholarship I thought all of the skeptics would have all the cards in their hands. I thought ‘this is going to be grim’ and to use your phrase that I’m going to have to “check my brain at the door” and they’re going to prove that the gospels weren’t really eyewitness accounts and it’s all going to fall apart. Well, I didn’t find that. Reading the scholarship of NT Wright and John A.T. Robinson or Richard Bauckham, all Anglicans, was very convincing. To the best of my knowledge these people totally accept the Jesus of faith and explore the gospels from that point of view. I found the skeptics not to be convincing. Their books weren’t well written and the bias was extraordinarily obvious and the appeals to our sense and skepticism almost embarrassingly direct. To me they didn’t make their case about anything they wrote about. I was amazed. I’m not a scholar equal to their scholarship in that I can’t read Greek or Hebrew, but I’ve certainly read a lot of history and done research in translation and it’s some of the worst scholarship I’ve seen.
BH: Mel Gibson got quite a bit of flack from scholars and film critics alike for making such a bold religious statement with The Passion of the Christ. Can you talk about how accurate you felt his portrayal was?
AR: That was awful what they did to him. I think that number one, he’s a great filmmaker and I think that The Passion of the Christ was terrific. But I do think that Jewish leaders had every right to be offended and upset by the portrayal of them in that movie. If the movie had just gone a little further to portray the Jewish leaders with a little more dignity and restraint it would have been a lot better for everybody. But that’s just a minor part of what that movie is about. I think what the movie accomplished was to bring the production values and the acting ability of Jim Caviezel to the role of Jesus in portraying what I thought was an accurate depiction of a first century execution. I have since argued about that with a scholar, one of the scholars who attacked Gibson. She claimed that it was not an accurate portrayal where I said it absolutely is.
BH: Even the torture scene before the execution?
AR: Oh, sure. I mean he was taking us through it in slow motion, but yes, I think it was pretty much like that. The idea was that you had the person die pretty quickly once they were on the cross. You want to have exhausted them and almost bled them to death so that on the cross it would be over soon.
BH: I thought of it as more of a meditation on the crucifixion than a conventional movie with a plot and characters arcs.
AR: Sure. He set out to portray those hours and I thought he did well what he did. And I thought Jim Caviezel was great. He combined the Jesus of devotion with the Jesus of the first century. It was almost a perfect combination of those two concepts. Before, we had blond-haired Jesuses that looked like they came from Sweden, but here we had a real Semitic–looking Jesus. Jim Caviezel has a kind of innocence and purity and goodness too. I think it really came through in this role.
If the Biblical scholarship had been a little better regarding the Jewish leaders and a bit clearer that Jesus was a Jew as well as everyone in the movement, it would have worked a little better and there would have been less offense to the rabbis. They were right to be insulted. Though I don’t think there were any outbreaks of anti-Semitism after the movie.
The movie made me keenly aware that there are people in the world who are undergoing that torture right now. And I didn’t expect that thought to come to me in the midst of it. That this is happening in foreign prisons right now.
BH: You said that when you decided to consecrate your work to Jesus that you changed. Did you find that your process or your approach of writing changed at all?
AR: I don’t think it did. I didn’t know that day when I walked out of the church how difficult this would be. I didn’t know that the field of New Testament scholarship was so contentious. But I was also, from the first moment, enthralled. I began to take books off the shelf that I had gathered over the years about the historical Jesus that I had never really read. I simply began to read and take notes and study. I don’t think any of my methods changed. I was intent on covering everything and I gradually realized how much I had to do. It was important to get this right. In the past I could always find a space to an alternate reality. The vampires were fictional characters and their world was the world I constructed. But here, I was writing about something I believed in. It meant the world to me to get this right. If I said something about Nazareth or the temple, it had to be absolutely right. With the vampires I could always construct a church if I couldn’t describe San Marco’s in Venice, I would do something else.
BH: One of my favorite characters in Christ the Lord was Cleopas because he always seems to be dying yet he’s quick with a joke or a smile. I was wondering if you there was a particular inspiration for him?
AR: He was one of those characters that just grew like a raging fire. He was actually going to die very soon but I thought ‘I’m not killing this character.’ (laughs) I realize this character can say a lot of things that nobody else can say for me. Because we know there was a Cleopas in Jesus’ family and there was probably more than one. So I felt a great freedom in shaping that character the way I wanted. Whenever I wrote anything from Mary’s point of view or Joseph’s point of view I had to be very careful that it in no way contradicts the image we have of them. And I love doing that although it’s a challenge. But there was great freedom with Cleopas.
BH: Was it difficult to write certain characters and easier to write others?
AR: All of them really were pretty much fun to write. The hardest was probably Elizabeth, the cousin of Mary, to imagine what her mind was like. She was an older person and tradition tells us that her husband was killed. She was a bit of an intimidating character.
BH: Have you received any feedback from orthodox Christians about
AR: They are very supportive. Of course there are people who like it less than others. And some people who say that it has no new imaginative dimension about Jesus. But, that was not my intent to create a radical Jesus that departs from what we know. I wanted to get right in there with him. The one we believe in.
BH: Where do you take him next?
AR: Well the next book will pick up before he leaves Nazareth to begin his ministry.
BH: So you won’t have any of the intervening years?
AR: But I will have flashbacks to the years in between. I felt like I wanted to make that jump. I felt like this first one realized the child and that now it is time to move on to the man.
BH: What do you hope they take from your newest novel? What effect do you want it to have on them?
AR: Well, above all to make it possible that it is real. What this book does is that it says: you say you believe that Jesus is the son of the virgin Mary, visited by magi and shepherds, and what the experience was like. I want to say, yes, he is [the son of God] and this is a probable way for this to have occurred moving through time and space. To create an illusion of absolute reality. Maybe that people see it in a fresh way if they do believe and if they don’t that they may believe for the first time. That was the challenge, to take all of the best research as to the archeology, geography, the social life of the time–all that we have of this research–and combine it with the Jesus of faith. This is the Jesus of the four gospels. I don’t think anyone has done this yet.
BH: As far as going forward do you have anything to say to readers who want you to bring back the witches and vampires?
AR: I’m never going to go back! (laughs) But I have received hundreds of emails since the book was published. I have something like 800 unanswered emails and I spend hours each day in hotels while I’m traveling trying to get e-mails answered. There are very few from my readers who want me to go back to the witches and vampires or wonder how I could change like this. Most of the e-mails are about this book. They usually contain questions or personal stories about how they went back to believing in Christ or how they went back to their church. I feel really good right now. I was resolved to do this no matter what happened. Even if they had all walked away and said they didn’t want the book, I would go ahead with it. But that hasn’t been the case.