By PT Staff, published on December 1, 1996 - last reviewed on January 23, 2015
The gospel according to Stephen Mitchell, the preeminent translator
of ourtime, is sometimes dangerous, often shocking-and always
The breadth of his knowledge is astonishing--sprawling across
centuries and cultures. More than a messenger, Stephen Mitchell is a
magician who brings our greatest spiritual teachers to life. He reads
French, Greek, Latin, German, and Hebrew. His latest translation,
Genesis, was inspired by Bill Moyers's invitation to participate in the
10-part PBS series Genesis: A Living Conversation, in which noted writers
and scholars discuss the meanings that the stories of Genesis have for us
The other day, we had a delightful animated lunch with Mitchell. In
essence, we wanted to know what this 53-year-old man had learned from
translating the classics.
PT: You've recreated stories about the most primordial issues of
life: creation, temptation, compassion, betrayal. How do we know when
we're reading a good translation?
SM: Samuel Johnson said that a good translation reads like a great
piece of literature in the language into which it's been translated. It
has to capture the spirit of the original. The center of anything
genuine--from translation to marriage to our spiritual life--is intimacy.
Old Chinese stories will say of an enlightened master, "And then he
became intimate." Not intimate with anything, just intimate. And that's
what it's like for me to be dwelling with these gorgeous presences. I
literally fall in love [with my subjects], from Jesus to Job to the poet
Rilke. When I translate, I find tone as important as content. And in the
stories of Genesis, it was a delight to recreate the gritty, powerful
music of the original Hebrew.
PT: How old are these stories?
SM: Nobody really knows.
They were composed, some of them from ancient folk material, by a
number of different writers. Many of them are much older than the date
they were written down, because for centuries they were preserved orally
Some of them parallel stories from other cultures that appeared thousands
of years earlier, like the story of a great flood. And yet oral
traditions tend to be very conservative. Often holy texts are memorized
from childhood on. For instance, the traditional test for a 13-year-old
student of the Talmud was this: take a pin and stick it through one word
on one page and tell what word the pin went through on the next twenty
pages. That meant the student had to know the text photographically as
well as by heart.
PT: Some of the stories in Genesis are very disturbing.
SM: Even the greatest stories of Homer don't plumb the same depths
as the weird and dark stories of Genesis. Yet they're marvelous because
they're like mirrors. Take the story of Adam and Eve and the serpent.
When I read this aloud to a group of people, I can almost see flames
coming out of women's ears when Eve eats the apple and Adam denounces
her. It's really a very dangerous little story--like a Kafka
parable--where men blame women for all the miseries of humanity And
that's how it's been interpreted by both Jews and Christians.
PT: So what's really going on?
SM: The story is much more complex. The serpent is a symbol of
wisdom in many cultures, because it sheds its skin and thus is born
again. In India, the serpent represents the energy stored at the base of
the spine, known as kundalini. When this energy rises it can be a
potentially great and painful awakening of consciousness. So it's
interesting that the antagonist in the story takes the form of a serpent,
and that the serpent tells the truth.
Then you have a God who plants a forbidden tree right in the middle
of the garden, like a parent placing a cookie jar in front of children.
And he says, "If you eat from this tree, you'll die." But that's a lie.
Adam and Eve don't die.
PT: So God is bullshitting.
SM: He's not telling the truth.
PT: In a way, he lies to Abraham, too.
SM: People have been trying to rationalize God's lies for thousands
of years. These stories are very powerful and are at the root of our
culture. But you have to realize that the God of Genesis is a human
creation, not the God at the center of the universe. Whenever God is
presented as a character, that presentation is partial, and therefore
false. Ultimately, God is not a character in a story. God is the whole
PT: In your introduction to Genesis, you draw a fascinating and
even shocking parallel between the suffering of Buddha and that of
Abraham. God appears to Abraham and tells him to leave his family and
murder his child. The Buddha-to-be is also faced with a heartbreaking
choice: stay with his wife and son, or go off and seek
SM: The story of Abraham is darker and has such transcendent power.
It deals with the most extreme suffering possible for a human. Imagine
the emotions that come with having to murder a beloved child. On the
surface, it's a very authoritarian story. But once you dig deeper you see
it depicts the hardest thing that anyone following any spiritual practice
can do--let go of attachments. Both the Buddha and Abraham do. In
Abraham's case, he lets go to the point where he can withstand even the
most unthinkable horror.
PT: You write that it's possible to be "so fluid and centered, so
filled with trust in the intelligence of the universe, that even horror
can pass through us and eventually be transformed into light." Have you
experienced that kind of suffering and transcendence yourself?
SM: I don't think I could have written that if I hadn't. My own
spiritual path began when I was 22 and studying comparative literature at
Yale. I had the most painful experience of my life up to that point. I
broke up with my girlfriend after two years together. It was my first
serious love affair and it blew up in my face. For the next year I
couldn't find any way to deal with my pain. It was so intense that even
after another love affair nothing could touch it.
I found myself magnetically attracted to the Book of Job as the one
place in Judaism that deeply addresses the problem of human suffering. I
would read the King James version and hear the music of the voice of God,
who appears to Job out of the whirlwind. God gives a gloriously poetic
speech about the natural world and a beauty beyond good and evil, but
nobody has ever been able to figure out how that speech provides an
answer to Job's suffering. It seems to be the most dazzling nonanswer of
an answer possible. Yet I felt whoever had written this had had some
experience I was desperate for. I decided to learn Hebrew in order to go
back to the original and enter that experience completely.
Knowing Hebrew allowed me to get closer to the dark music of the
passages, but not an inch closer to understanding the answer. I'd speak
to famous rabbis and ask them about suffering, but nobody had a due. Then
a friend of mine said, "Why don't you come to Rhode Island and meet this
guy who's supposedly a Zen master who came to America six months ago. He
has no money, doesn't know English, and he's repairing washing machines
in a laundry. I don't know if he's a Zen master, but he has very strange
eyes." So I went to this very funky apartment in Providence and walked
into the kitchen of a man dressed in an undershirt and a sailor's cap, of
all things. I looked into his eyes and I was absolutely certain that he
knew what I needed to know and that if I penetrated far enough into his
eyes, I'd come to the place where I knew, too. So I stayed with him and
did nothing but practice Zen. A year later I found myself in the center
of that whirlwind. I felt I was standing in the place from which God's
answer to Job arose, and I understood that there is absolute justice in
the universe. Anyone who doesn't understand that cannot fully understand
what God is.
PT: What do you mean by absolute justice? Are you saying a thief
who steals a wallet will get his comeuppance?
SM: It's not a moral tally of right and wrong, of reward and
punishment. That view can eventually become very moralistic and punitive.
Justice happens on a far deeper level. When you can hold the greatest
pain and the greatest cruelty of your life with grace and surrender, then
everything becomes light. Light both in the sense of not weighty and in
the sense of the ultimate intelligence of the universe, which some call
God or Tao.
PT: That's a pretty thought, but how does it explain your vision of
SM: I'm talking about what happens at unconscious levels, where the
root of all experience lies. When people are in great pain they usually
ask, "Why me?" Almost always, they really don't want to know the answer.
They would be scared by it. But in order to transform pain, you need to
become aware of its source. Then you can say, "Oh, this is why I'm stuck
here." And you can change it. My experience in Zen training, where all my
doubts vanished and everything was absolutely clear, is a classic one.
But it's only the first step. What's important is how you integrate that
experience, and how fully you work through your own neurotic
I came to spiritual practice with enormous neurotic material and
had to go through a number of demanding hundred-day solitary meditation
retreats with four hours of sleep each night. That was what was required
for the deep material to float up, very excruciatingly, into
consciousness before it could be transformed.
Even then it can take years. Not long after my wife and I got
together [in 1977] she very kindly began to point out that my money karma
was totally messed up. Essentially I didn't want anything to do with it.
For a dozen years I'd been living on $3,000 a year. She kept pointing out
that aversion is the flip side of desire, and that my aversion to money
was just as unhealthy as greed. I reluctantly began to let that message
in and to work toward changing. It was extremely painful, but I finally
got to the root of it. I had equated earning money with male distance and
emotional absence. When I disentangled the two, I could see that money
was simply energy. If my books were ever going to be accepted by the
public I would need the grace to receive what came with their
Though I'd gotten to the root of my problem, nothing changed that
year, or the next. In 1986, I accompanied my wife on a hundred-day
meditation retreat, and the insights I gained ultimately inspired me to
do a new, very free translation of the Tao Te Ching with my own
commentary. The book just took off, had huge sales, and the
transformation of my money karma was complete.
PT: In The Gospel According to Jesus you portray Jesus as an
enlightened man, not a god; a brilliant teacher who would have been
appalled at the things later said and done in his name.
SM: People have put a message in his mouth that's antithetical to
what he felt with all his heart. He talks about the kingdom of God being
here and now. Yet at the end of Mark the risen savior says, "If you
believe in me you'll be saved, if you don't believe in me you'll be
damned." This verse has been responsible for more human suffering than
any single verse in history That ending is not in the earliest
manuscripts. It only appears a few hundred years later. As Thomas
Jefferson said, these later teachings simply cannot come from the same
mind that gave us the authentic teachings.
The central message of Jesus is a very attractive one, and
something that many people feel they need personally So much of what's
been written about Jesus, however, is fictional biography. For political
and theological reasons, the Church had to show that this great teacher
whom they all adored didn't die in vain.
PT: And yet what you are doing is also potentially dangerous. Just
like the biographers of Jesus, you as a translator have an enormous
SM: It was tremendously fulfilling to be able to collect the best
of the teachings and paint a portrait of a person I was deeply in love
with. I tried to view this great Jewish teacher in relation to his peers,
spiritual masters such as the Buddha, Lao-tzu, and Ramana Maharshi. Many
scholars of the gospels see him only within the Christian tradition,
which means seeing him in relation to people who are very much his
inferiors, starting with St. Paul, who was a brilliant but deeply
neurotic and intolerant man.
PT: What is the gospel according to Jesus?
SM: Simply this: that the love we all long for in our innermost
heart is already present. Jesus left us the essence of himself in his
teachings, which are all we need to know. We want to know much more about
him, of course. What did he look like? Was he married? Was he ever in
love? Why is the emotion that informs Jesus' teaching about forgiveness
so intense, so filled with the exhilaration of forgiving and being
forgiven? I feel it must have come from a profound personal
PT: How have people reacted to your assertion that Jesus was an
illegitimate child, and this caused him very human pain and anger?
SM: A lot of people have found his anger enormously liberating. I
don't think that we can fully appreciate who Jesus became unless we
realize the overwhelming difficulties he must have had as an illegitimate
child in a small provincial town. This teacher is much more effective
than the superhuman figure who bears the sins of the world. And people
don't feel so damn guilty about being human and flawed themselves.
PT: If you had to recommend one Genesis story for our readers, what
would it be?
SM: The most beautiful story of all is "Joseph and His Brothers." I
didn't expect Genesis to contain a story of this greatness--which in the
Bible is now almost mined by the additions of later scribes. This is the
only story in Genesis, besides Job's, where a character undergoes a
profound spiritual transformation. As the story begins, Joseph is
described as a gifted and beloved child, but also as a spoiled brat. And
so it feels cruel but appropriate when his brothers decide to wring his
neck. Through Joseph's suffering, and years of slavery and imprisonment,
he becomes truly wise, a shaman, an interpreter of dreams, a great
political leader, a man who can open his heart to the brothers who almost
killed him and forgive them completely. A story this large-hearted
reveals God not as a character but within Joseph himself, who has come to
fully trust the intelligence of the universe. It's the most moving story
in the entire Bible.
PHOTO (COLOR): Masterpieces of Interpretation: Adam and Eve being
driven from the Garden of Eden In The Expulsion from Paradise by Charles
Joseph Natoire (page 28) and the middle panel from the Sistine Chapel's
Original Sin by Michelangelo (above).
PHOTO (COLOR): The Fall of Man, by Raphael, is yet another
translation of the story of the first man and woman. This one hangs in
SELECTED WORKS BY STEPHEN MITCHELL
A Book of Psalms
Tao Te Ching
The Book of Job
The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai
The Enlightened Mind: An Anthology of Sacred Prose
The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry
The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke
Dropping Ashes on the Buddha: The Teachings of Zen Master Seung
The Gospel According to Jesus