Category Archives: Owens: Son of Yahweh


New Blog by Author of Son of Yahweh, Clarke Owens

by Neil Godfrey

One of the most interesting and informative books I have read about the gospels is one that is probably (and most unfortunately) not widely known among biblical scholars, at least not yet. It is a study of the gospels from the perspective of literary criticism. Clarke W. Owens shows us the way literary criticism works and the insights it gives us into the nature of texts and to a certain extent the original intentions of their authors.

Son of Yahweh: The Gospels As Novels demonstrates clearly the role literary criticism plays in ascertaining the historical value of narrative contents. It is on this point that Owens is in sharp disagreement with many New Testament scholars who seem to assume that literary criticism has little or no value for the historian. Scholars using the gospels as historical sources for the study of Jesus sometimes mistakenly professes little or no need for the insights of literary criticism.

Several posts on Owens’ book appear in the Vridar archive.

We can catch up with more of Clarke Owens now on his website Clarke W. Owens and Blog

read more »


Constructing Jesus and the Gospels: Apocalyptic Prophecy

by Neil Godfrey

destruction_jerusalemPassages that for modern fundamentalist readers refer doctrinally to Jesus’ death and some imaginary “end time” in some indefinite future:

Luke 12:49-53

49 I came to cast fire upon the earth; and what do I desire, if it is already kindled?
50 But I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished
51 Think ye that I am come to give peace in the earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division:
52 for there shall be from henceforth five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three
53 They shall be divided, father against son, and son against father; mother against daughter, and daughter against her mother; mother in law against her daughter in law, and daughter in law against her mother in law.

Luke 21:23

23 Woe unto them that are with child and to them that give suck in those days! for there shall be great distress upon the land, and wrath unto this people.

Luke 23:28-30

28 But Jesus turning unto them said, Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children.
29 For behold, the days are coming, in which they shall say, Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bare, and the breasts that never gave suck
30 Then shall they begin to say to the mountains, Fall on us; and to the hills, Cover us.

Luke 21:6

6 As for these things which ye behold, the days will come, in which there shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.

Luke 21:20

20 But when ye see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that her desolation is at hand.

Luke 21:24-27

24 And they shall fall by the edge of the sword, and shall be led captive into all the nations: and Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled.
25 And there shall be signs in sun and moon and stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, in perplexity for the roaring of the sea and the billows
26 men fainting for fear, and for expectation of the things which are coming on the world: for the powers of the heavens shall be shaken.
27 And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.

Luke 17:33-37

33 Whosoever shall seek to gain his life shall lose it: but whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it.
34 I say unto you, In that night there shall be two men on one bed; the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left.
35 There shall be two women grinding together; the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left.
36 There shall be two men in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left
37 And they answering say unto him, Where, Lord? And he said unto them, Where the body is, thither will the eagles also be gathered together.


The Literary Form of the Gospels

quote_begin A proper understanding of literary form gives us a historical meaning. quote_end

Much depends on our analysis of the literary form of the gospels. If we conclude on the basis of Gospel passages like those above that the gospels are novella-like apocalypses or apocalyptic prophecies, a variant of writings like Daniel, then by definition they are written with reference to historical events known to their original audience.

When the above passages are read with the knowledge of those events, the war with Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem, then they refer both to the death of Jesus and the catastrophic fate of Jerusalem.

Thus a proper understanding of literary form gives us a historical meaning. (Clarke W. Owens Son of Yahweh: The Gospels as Novels) read more »


Constructing Jesus and the Gospels: Messianism and Survival post 70 CE

by Neil Godfrey
Black Elk Speaks

Black Elk Speaks (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the previous post we saw how Clarke W. Owens (Son of Yahweh: The Gospels as Novels) drew the inference that the evangelists created the type of Jesus they did because of the impact of the Jewish War.

Just as the Jewish people and their centre of worship had been destroyed through fire and mass crucifixions, and just as many were subsequently finding new hope and a new life in Christianity, so Jesus, the suffering servant who was resurrected, was a personification of the ideal Israel. That would explain why Jesus was depicted as the Temple, destroyed physically but restored spiritually; why he was depicted as an antitype of Israel thrust into the wilderness for forty days; and why hosts of other such allusions were attached to him.

There are additional supports for Owens’ inference.

One of these is the nature of messianism “as a cultural survival tactic”. He writes

Messianism as a cultural survival tactic is attested to as recently as 1889, when the Lakota people . . . were threatened with extinction.

The Jewish people were being threatened with “cultural extinction” with the destruction of the physical and ideological centre of their cult along with the rest of the bloodshed. Owens quotes the 8th, 9th and 10th paragraphs of the Messiah chapter from Black Elk Speaks to

[demonstrate] the same sort of collective, cultural need and motivation described by Spong, Josephus, and other writers who describe or acknowledge the effect on the Jewish War on the First Century Jews.

A book I read many years ago reflects similar social responses to distress, although at a class level rather than a cultural survival one. The Pursuit of the Millennium by Norman Cohn is a fascinating study of millennial movements among distressed peasantry of Europe through the Middle Ages.

read more »


Constructing Jesus and the Gospels: How and Why

by Neil Godfrey

Jerusalem falls

Once Clarke W. Owens extracts the Gospels from the Bible and studies them as literary creations on their historical context something most interesting happens. (Owens, I should point out, is not a mythicist. I believe on the basis of his entry in the Christian Alternative website that he is a Christian though one with a radical perspective.)

If you’re one of those readers who has somehow suspected that Christianity as we know it took shape and momentum as a consequence of the catastrophic events of the Jewish War that culminated in the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple then you’ll especially enjoy the way Owens ties the details of those historical events with the literary genre and details of the Gospels.

In the previous post I mentioned Owens’ disappointment that Goulder/Spong attempted to explain the Gospels by reference to the historical context of their authors (i.e. the existence of Jewish Lectionary readings that the authors desired to replace with Christian ones) without taking the next step of investigating why. What would have motivated them to want to do that?

I am not so sure that Goulder/Spong are correct with the lectionary hypothesis, but the real question Owens believes he can answer is “Why did the evangelists write the Gospels at all?” By the Gospels I mean those works that are largely woven together out of the warp and woof of the Jewish Scriptures (and a few related books like Enoch).

Digression on the ‘m’ word

Spong calls this technique midrash; Goulder, I believe, stopped using that term because it raised too many objections among many critics. I have no problem with the term because I have found Jewish scholars specializing in Jewish literature, including the Bible, have also written that the Gospels are largely midrash. If anyone wants to quibble I direct them to my series of posts explaining the use of the term ‘midrash’ in both Jewish and New Testament studies:

  1. Midrash and the Gospels 1: Some definitions and explanations
  2. Midrash and the Gospels 2: debates in the scholarly sphere
  3. Midrash and Gospels 3: What some Jewish scholars say (and continuing ‘Midrash Tales of the Messiah’)

But if you still reject the term ‘midrash’ in this context but still acknowledge that the bulk of the Passion Narrative was stitched together out of dozens of allusions to the Jewish Scriptures, and that so much else in the Gospels are based on passages from the Psalms, the Prophets, the tales of Moses, David, Elijah and Elisha, then follow on. Owens explains why such a form of literature was created to tell a story of a crucified saviour by reference to the historical context of the authors and original readers/hearers.

Literary criticism answering the historical question

Owens finds the answer through a literary criticism that understands a work through the historical context of its creators. He accordingly finds the explanation for the Gospels in the Jewish War as we know it through Josephus. read more »


Extracting the Gospels From the Bible

by Neil Godfrey

ClarkeOwensTime to return to one of my favourite books at the moment, Son of Yahweh: The Gospels as Novels by Clarke W. Owens. I have posted on this book five times before but have not yet got to its most interesting ideas. By scholarly training he knows how to read a text. That means he knows how to understand what sort of literature a text is. And that means he can be a most valuable asset for a historian who wants to know what sorts of documents the New Testament Gospels and Acts are. After all, how can a historian know how to interpret a primary source if he does not understand what sort of document it is? How can a historian know what sorts of questions a document is capable of answering if she does not understand its nature?

The trouble with most analysis of the Gospels by those who use them as primary materials for reconstructing Christianity’s origins is that it to a significant extent depends upon interpreting the nature of the Gospels as “Bible books”.

In literary-critical studies, definition of the text is an obvious first step, but critics seldom spend much time on it, because in most cases the text is readily defined.

When we (whether literary critics, students, interested readers, historians) pick up a piece of literature that we wish to learn about and understand more deeply, we may well first ask, “What is this work?”

The answer to that question is nearly always quickly understood. The answer is simply a matter of historical record. We identify and understand a work by both its form and its place in history. If we pick up Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, or Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, or Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, we know we are studying a discrete work, something clearly understood by author and audience alike to be a work distinct from any other work. If we did not know the author of a work we would still be able to define the work according to its form and understand that it has been composed at a particular time and place in history.

The historical context of composition is important for understanding how and why the work came to be composed the way it is.

Owens points out that we (scholars included) all too often bring in addition an entirely different set of perspectives to books in the Bible. He writes:

I can think of no examples [outside the Bible’s books] in which the definition of a text would include works by different authors who were not by their own intention co-authors of a given work.

In the previous post we saw the two ways the Gospels are widely interpreted as literature. Jack Miles and John Meier were representative. read more »


Gospels As Historical Sources: How Literary Criticism Changes Everything

by Neil Godfrey
Owens1This post is best read in the context of the earlier posts on Clarke Owens’ Son of Yahweh: The Gospels as Novels, in particular Jesus Is Not “As Historical As Anyone Else in the Ancient World”. This post considers the different genres qualities (verbal categories, discourse types) between Gospels and historical writings and concludes the Gospels are characterized by language typical of make-believe narratives.

One would expect that it would go without saying that one must first understand what one is reading before one knows how to assess its value as a historical source. But the field of historical Jesus research is graced with many exceptions and methods found in no other field of historical inquiry. One of these is the belief that literary analysis has no relevance to the study of the historical Jesus.

James McGrath even publishes a diagram to show why literary analysis is irrelevant for historical inquiry. It is assumed that the literary approach does nothing more than explain the literary qualities and narrative structure of the work. It appears in The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith:

McGrath is not alone in this understanding of the difference between literary and historical studies of the Gospels, which is to say that a good number of Christian history scholars do not really understand the nature of historical source material or the fundamentals of how to undertake historical research. I am not saying all biblical scholars fall into this trap, nor that all other types of historians avoid it, since there are indeed a few biblical scholars more critical than their peers and some sloppy historians in other fields who build upon unexamined assumptions.

miles1Jack Miles (born 1942) is an American author and winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the MacArthur Fellowship. His work on religion, politics, and culture has appeared in numerous national publications . . . . Miles treats his biblical subjects neither as transcendent deities or historical figures, but as literary protagonists. His first book, God: A Biography, won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1996 . . . . (Wikipedia)

What is wrong with the above model? Jack Miles, another scholar discussed by Clarke Owens in Son of Yahweh: The Gospels as Novels, strongly disagrees with the notion that one can validly “see through” the Gospel narratives to history below. He draws the analogy of the text as a stained-glass window: not to be looked through but looked at. According to Clarke Owens this is only “half right”. Owens identifies the flaw in Jack Miles’ analogy: Miles is embracing as a universal what “literary critics would recognize as [only] a theory” of literature — that of “autotelic literature“. That is, the idea that literature can and must be interpreted only within its own boundaries is only one theory among a number of valid ways of reading and understanding literature.

According to Owens, while it is correct that we cannot “look through” a text on the assumption that it is some sort of window to a real world of past persons and events, it must be recognized that there are ways literature can serve as historical sources — only not in the way biblical scholars too often assume.

The message of the stained glass window

Clarke Owens, writing as a literature scholar, reminds us that there are certain types of literature (e.g. allegory) acknowledged as taking their meaning and intended interpretations from reference points outside themselves. (One might call this type heterotelic, referring to something outside itself, as opposed to autotelic.) So Owens disputes the idea of Jack Miles that literature must be read exclusively “as literature” and without reference to history. read more »


The Arbitrary Approach to Miracle Stories In “Historical Jesus” Scholarship

by Neil Godfrey

* Removing the miraculous from a story does not bring us closer to history; it only destroys the point of the story.

* Two-step miraculous healing of the blind (e.g. spit on the eyes followed by touching them, Mark 8:23-25) are evidently symbolic of the double-efforts to open the (spiritual) eyes of the disciples.

* Jesus’ miracles of exorcisms and healings as portrayed in the canonical gospels are not comparable to the way healers and exorcists really worked. The former are the work of a single divine utterance as befits a creator God or his Son; the latter involve magic formulae and arcane rituals.

I have posted on miracles and what the scholarly literature has to say about them before.* This time I take a different tack.

In my recent post, Jesus Is Not “As Historical As Anyone Else in the Ancient World”, we saw that the “type of discourse” and “language categories” of the Gospels group them with fantasy literature and separate them from the sources we rely upon to identify historical persons and events.

This post continues that theme but compares the place of miracles in the Gospels and other ancient literature.

Before we begin let me address common objections.

Yes, we all know the Gospels include many accurate historical and geographical features. (They also contain errors and anachronisms.) But references to real persons and places no more makes ancient narratives “historical” than it makes James Bond movies historical or ancient/modern historical fiction “historical”. See, for example, Ancient Novels Like the Gospels: Mixing History and Myth and History and Verisimilitude: “Real” vs. “Realistic”.

And yes, we all know that miraculous events are found in ancient works that we classify as historical. But there is a clear difference in the way miracles are narrated in works by ancient historians and what we read in various gospels, both uncanonical and canonical. These differences return us to the theme of the previous post, the difference in verbal categories that identify different types of discourse. In historiographical works (at least in all cases I can recall) the discourse conveys an author’s self-conscious apologetic to justify their inclusion in the book. The reason for this is that the historian understands and accepts and writes within the conceptual framework of an “empirically stable reality”. If miracles are introduced the author must explain in some way why he mentions them or how he justifies their appearance in a work that is otherwise about “the real world”. (They were reported by so-and-so; I would not repeat this except that. . . ., etc.) But now we are sequeing into the theme of this post.

Whittling the sources down to the canonical gospels

So how do historical Jesus scholars justify their reliance upon works that are evidently theological tracts riddled with miraculous events? read more »


Jesus Is Not “As Historical As Anyone Else in the Ancient World”

by Neil Godfrey

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailOne of the gold nuggets in Clarke Owens’ Son of Yahweh: The Gospels as Novels is its simple explanation of how how to distinguish between historical persons (e.g. Socrates, Thales, Alexander, etc) and fictive ones like (as we shall see) Jesus. I say it’s a “simple explanation” but maybe that’s because I am biased towards the idea of studying how literature works and the importance of understanding the nature of a literary source before we can know how to interpret its story.

I can already hear the groans of people thinking, “But we all know the Gospel Jesus is not the historical Jesus; we all know the Christ of the Faith is not the historical person,” and so forth, so what’s the point? Answer: In a future post we shall see that the very idea that the Gospels can even be used as sources through which theologians can dig to find history beneath them — an archaeological image often used by HJ scholars — is a fallacy.

Let’s return again to John P. Meier. (We’ve spotlighted him a lot lately, and not only with these Owens posts. The price of scholarly renown!)

In The Marginal Jew, v. 1, page 12, Owens focuses on Meier’s bald assertion that literary criticism is of no use to scholars who are seeking to discern genuinely historical material behind the Gospels. (I have argued that that is nonsense but in this post I will try to channel Owen’s voice as much as possible.) And what are Meier’s grounds for giving a priori confidence in the Gospels as gateways to historical information lurking behind the texts?

1st-century documents of Christian propaganda . . . advanced truth claims about Jesus of Nazareth, truth claims for which some 1st-century Christians were willing to die. . . .

  • Against these tired claims we do know people die for all sorts of nonsense and delusions;
  • we also know — well many of us do — that the stories of early Christian martyrdoms have been greatly exaggerated into mythical dimensions;
  • and we also know — at least many of us do — that there are more plausible explanations of Christian origins than a handful of devotees coming to feel a new inner-presence of their master who had been killed as a social and political outcast. (This is nothing other than a rationalistic paraphrase of the myth.)

Is not this a scholarly version, a slightly diluted version, of: “The Bible claims to be the Word of God and since the first generations of Christians willingly died for its message it must be true! No-one would die for a lie!” Scholar’s edition: “The Bible claims. . . . and since Christians died. . . . there must be some truth somewhere there if we look with the proper tools.” Both the conservative believer and the critical scholar in the service of increasing the credibility of theology to the modern world rhetorically conclude: How else do we explain the martyrdoms? How else do we explain Christianity?

When John Meier in his opening chapter of volume one discusses the “basic concept” of “The Real Jesus and the Historical Jesus” he creates the illusion of starting at the beginning but in fact he leaves the entire question of historicity begging.

  • Of course we can’t know “the real Jesus” given the time-gap and state of the records; after all, we can only partially know “the real Nixon” despite his recency and the avalanche of material available on him.
  • Of course it becomes increasingly difficult to assess “the historical” the further back in time we go; it’s hard enough knowing what to make of Thales or Apollonius of Tyana “or anyone else in the ancient world” and the evidence is just as scant for Jesus.

Owens identifies what Meier has done in making such comparisons (my bolding in all quotations):

An implication exists in the double comparison, which is that Jesus is as real as Nixon and as historical as Thales but the explicit point is that there is less ‘reality’ data on Jesus than on Nixon, and as meager ‘historical’ data on Jesus as on Thales.

We note that what we might consider the “first question” of any book purporting to deal with the issue of a ‘historical Jesus’ – the question of whether or not Jesus existed — is being set up to go begging. ‘Reality’ is impossible, and ‘history’ is impossibly difficult, so we are to assume both, as we do with Nixon and Thales.

(Owens, Clarke W. (2013-07-26). Son of Yahweh: The Gospels As Novels (Kindle Locations 216-221). Christian Alternative. Kindle Edition.)

Is Jesus really as historical as Thales?

No. And the reason the answer is No is because the qualitative difference between the literary evidence for the existence of Thales and the literary evidence for the existence of Jesus. (John Meier introduced the comparison of Thales so Clarke Owens takes this as a case-study to illustrate his argument.) read more »


The Historical Jesus Quest Is Theology in Disguise

by Neil Godfrey

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailUpdated 8:30 am UTC

As a follow up to my last post I am sharing here another valuable snippet I read in Clarke Owens’ Son of Yahweh: The Gospels as Novels.

Owens’ first chapter, “Literary Criticism and the Historical Jesus”, is brilliant and deserves to be read and addressed by everyone who has an interest in how scholars work on the “quest” for the historical Jesus. My reasons for that evaluation:

  • the chapter gives the most articulate and cogent explanation I have yet read for why anyone would have “made up” the Jesus story;
  • the chapter exposes the fundamental flaws in the methodology of HJ scholars;
  • it exposes how the quasi-historical methods of HJ scholars serve theological ends (in part the topic of this post);
  • it demonstrates the failure of HJ scholars to understand modern literary criticism and its relevance for historical enquiry;
  • it demonstrates in the simplest way imaginable how to distinguish between historical persons (e.g. Socrates, Thales, Alexander, etc) and fictive ones like Jesus. (— This was meant to be the topic of this post but I got sidetracked. Next time . . . . )

And for those rabid anti-mythicists who assume that anyone who questions the historicity of Jesus is a raving lunatic with a hostile vendetta against God and Christianity, well, they’ll be disappointed to learn that Clarke Owens writes with sensitivity towards those whose cherished beliefs are challenged in his book.

‘Quest’ is an interesting word

Knights of the Round Table Departing on the Qu...

Knights of the Round Table Departing on the Quest for the Holy Grail (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As Owens point out,

to go on a quest for something means that we seek it; we hope to find it; it is our most cherished goal, like the quest for the Holy Grail.

A quest is an entirely different kind of undertaking from

one in which we seek to ascertain whether or not materials exist which would support a finding that Jesus had an historical existence . . .

That is, a quest assumes that there is an historical Jesus to be found, and the reason for this is, ultimately, theological belief. A truly historical inquiry would, on the other hand,

require that we first examine the materials before we determine the nature of the quest [i.e. whether the materials indicate there is an historical Jesus or some other Jesus or agent to be sought]

Purpose of the Quest is to advance the credibility of theology

Prominent HJ scholar John P. Meier himself said so. In his chapter 7 of volume one of A Marginal Jew, “Why Bother? The Relevance of the Quest for the Historical Jesus”, Meier answered this question this way: read more »


Why (Not) Read the Gospels as Fiction?

by Neil Godfrey

ClarkeOwensA blog reader has alerted me to a book by Clarke W. Owens, Son of Yahweh: The Gospels as Novels, that I have found contains some very worthwhile nuggets for anyone interested in understanding the nature of the Gospels as either literature or historical documents.

The Amazon page says Clarke Owens has “three degrees in English and a law degree”. Ever since the appearance of lawyer Frank Morrison’s Who Moved the Stone I would have thought a law degree in biblical studies would have been a liability when it came to the credibility stakes, but I am impressed with anyone who has three degrees in English. (A website says one of them is a doctorate.) Such a person ought to understand how literature works, whatever the language. So I purchased the Kindle version and have up till now read a third of the work. I have liked most of what I have read so far and I’ll tell you why.

And these notes are only from the Introduction! So I am hoping for even more rewards as I read further.

But first, the motive. . .

I do not advance this idea with the purpose of antagonizing the devout, but out of a genuine and long-standing interest in the nature of the Bible as a literary artifact. (Owens, Clarke W. (2013-07-26). Son of Yahweh: The Gospels As Novels (Kindle Locations 149-150). Christian Alternative. Kindle Edition.)

My motive is the same. I am not the least interested in attacking anyone or the sincerity or the devout faith of anyone. This post is made public for the interest of likeminded people who wish to discuss the matter critically and to deepen our understanding of the nature of the Bible.

1. Use of Fantasy

Fantastic details are the most obvious indicator that we are reading fiction. Clarke reminds us that even many Christian believers consider the virgin birth (a narrative created in an effort to fulfill a supposed prophecy in the Greek version of Isaiah 7:14) to be pious fiction.

Of course biblical historians are quick to defend the Gospels by asserting that they are no different from other ancient historical works in that accounts of miracles are found in both. This is a point Clarke addresses in his next chapter. For now, however, I would point out that the Gospels are very different types of literature from historical writings of the day, and the way miracles are presented in surviving Greek, Roman and Jewish historical writings bears little comparison with the way they are presented in the Gospels.

When theologians and historians of the New Testament say otherwise — as they often do — I think they are demonstrating either their ignorance or their disingenuousness. I will discuss this in more detail when I come to Clarke’s next chapter.

In a future post we will look at Clarke Owens’ closer comparison of the Gospels with the writings historians rely upon to conclude the historical existence of other ancient persons and see exactly how different the two types of literature are — a chorus of a thousand theologians notwithstanding.

2. Revisions of stories for theological agendas

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