Contemporary Writers on

The New Testament

Edited by Alfred Corn

Viking. 361 pp. $19.95

PUTTING TOGETHER this collection of essays, Alfred Corn confesses, he sometimes found himself the uncomfortable object of his friends' polite astonishment: Essays on what?

There are even hints that some of his contributors (Christians of all stripes, Jews, atheists) found themselves startled and disturbed by the request to write about this or that book of the New Testament. "For months I shied away every time I started the first sentence to this essay," remarks Michael Malone, called on to say something original about the General Epistle of James. In the literary and intellectual circles where the names of these 23 poets, novelists and critics are household stuff, sex and politics are still less publicly taboo than religion.

Yet it is the very unlikeliness of Corn's project -- a companion volume to the earlier Congregation: Jewish Writers Read the Hebrew Bible, edited by David Rosenberg -- that makes this book at once so entertaining and so helpful. Apart from the sheer crazy inspiration of pairing nature maven Annie Dillard with the Gospel of Luke, or feminist poet Rita Dove with Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians, its chief appeal lies in the fact that none of the authors is either a biblical scholar or a theologian. Many -- like Reynolds Price, who uses his own translation from the Greek in his commentary on John's Gospel -- are impressively well-versed in the relevant scholarship; and some -- like Guy Davenport discoursing on the Second Epistle of Paul to Timothy -- tussle with the thorniest theological conundrums, taking on Paul with relish. Yet for all their gifts of insight and wit, face to face with these ancient, enigmatic texts most of them are not much different from you or me: questioning, resistant, fascinated.

Some, indeed, are unapologetic axe-grinders, using this improbable forum to preach their own versions of the good (or bad) news. Paul's Epistle to the Romans prompts novelist David Plante, for example, to a predictably provocative defense of carnal, especially homosexual, love against what he sees as Paul's self-contradictory strictures against the body. And Mark's Gospel is pretty much wasted on Mary Gordon. Never mind Paul: It is "the petulant, irritable Jesus," morally humbled and intellectually bested by a Gentile woman, who excites Gordon's uneasy contempt. Random reflections rather than systematic exposition, her essay is full of potentially interesting snippets of thought, some hitting home, but most falling wide of the mark, like sniper fire.

Other contributors flaunt their lack of erudition. "In my youth," John Hersey begins his contentious account of the Book of Revelation, "I heard about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse; they were Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley, and Layden, the backfield of the 1924 Notre Dame football team." But Dana Gioia, New York businessman and poet, recognizes that it is precisely the latter-day possessiveness of scholars and believers that has caused most contemporary writers to shy away from the Bible -- to their own and their readers' loss. Imaginative writers "realize that the critic's job -- like the artist's -- is one of translation, in this case not simply from Greek into English but from an ancient mind to a modern one. Part of that translation comes from scholarship . . . But the other part can come only from imagination . . . A poet may miss the theological implications in a phrase of Paul's but will immediately catch the psychological state or emotional tone. By virtue of training, a literary artist is alert to the human side of a text."

IN FACT this quality of imaginative alertness produces some of the book's greatest pleasures. Gioia himself points out the extraordinary emotional intensity, the unusual intimacy, of Paul's obscure letter to the Philippians, written when Paul was a very old man, under house arrest in Rome. Robert B. Shaw, who claims that only Shakespeare and the King James Bible have the power to make his hair stand on end, zeroes in on the most "horripilating" lines of Paul's (or someone's) Epistle to the Hebrews ("Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: For our God is a consuming fire.")

And Reynolds Price renders himself practically speechless attempting to get across to jaded modern readers "the blinding, unforeseeable bloom of vast megatonnage . . . the towering wave of theophany" that occurs in John chapter 8, verses 48-59: "So the Jews said to him 'You're not even fifty and you've seen Abraham.'

Jesus said to them 'Amen amen I tell you before Abraham was I am.' "

Of the commentators on the four evangelists, Price on the transcendent John is, perhaps understandably, most overwhelmed by his task. John Updike leads off the book with his characterization of Matthew as "the workhorse of the four Gospel writers" and his own account is fittingly, as well as at times luminously, workmanlike. But it is Annie Dillard on Luke who produces one of the two best pieces in the book (the other being Anthony Hecht's on Galatians): At once lyrical and tough, Dillard alone has that Chestertonian grasp of the Gospels' radical strangeness, muted by generations of respectability. Deaf and blind to eternity, "we crack open {the Bible's} pages at our peril . . . This ubiquitous, persistent black chunk of a best-seller is a chink . . . through which winds howl."

But it was Chesterton, too, who wrote of Christ as "a giant of whom we see only the lopped arms and legs walking about." Penetrating as the essays on the Gospels mostly are, the figure of Christ remains here curiously elusive, partial, tantalizing. It is Paul the irrepressible letter-writer who runs away with the book. Sensualists all, these novelists and poets are awed by Christ but drawn like moths to a candle by the brilliant, crabby, pigheaded mystic whom Christians for 20 centuries have depended on to mediate between them and Christ, rather as Christ was meant to mediate between them and God. "Paul couldn't dance," regrets Rita Dove, "but he shore could talk." Beguiled by this all-too-human personality ("as if one of John Donne's sonnets were turned into a human being," says Gjertrud Schnackenberg), many lose sight of the supra-human figure behind him.

Near the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, two angels appear to those Jesus left behind and ask, "Why are you men from Galilee standing here looking into the sky?" A hundred generations later it is still a good question. As this book testifies, there are countless spiritual descendants of the men from Galilee, still staring riveted upward, wondering whether those are just clouds they see -- or the smoky aftertrail of the risen Christ.

Elizabeth Ward, a Washington writer and editor, is the author of "David Jones: Mythmaker."