In the beginning was the word

Presents an interview with translator of religious classics, Stephen Mitchell, about his insights on stories in 'The Book of Genesis' in the Bible and his journey to enlightenment. Mitchell's comparison of the sufferings of Buddha and Abraham; Insight on the 'Book of Job'; Portrayal of Jesus Christ in the book 'The Gospel According to Jesus.' INSET: Selected works by Stephen Mitchell.

By PT Staff, published December 1, 1996 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

The gospel according to Stephen Mitchell, the preeminent translator of ourtime, is sometimes dangerous, often shocking-and always personal.

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 today.

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 story.

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 enlightenment.

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 absolute justice?

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 material.

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 sale.

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 responsibility.

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 experience.

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 the Vatican.


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 Sahn

The Gospel According to Jesus