2013-12-06

Why (Not) Read the Gospels as Fiction?

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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some very worthwhile nuggets for anyone interested in understanding the nature of the Gospels as either literature or historical documents.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

The second indicator of fictionality is the evidence, seen in comparisons among the gospels, of the reworking of themes and episodes without regard to reliability or stability in the fact pattern, but with great emphasis placed on putting across one’s lessons. (Owens, Clarke W. (2013-07-26). Son of Yahweh: The Gospels As Novels (Kindle Locations 58-60). Christian Alternative. Kindle Edition.)

Indeed, a story in one gospel is re-written in another in a way that conveys a different theological message. One is reminded of Levi-Strauss’s explanation of the cross-cultural relationships between myths. The same motifs in myths are found across cultures but rearranged within the stories to tell different (but oddly similar) tales. Clarke Owens draws attention to the way the story of the anointing of Jesus at Bethany is restructured and even split apart by later evangelists to suit their particular theological messages. I have reduced his discussion to a table:

Mark 14

Matthew 26

Luke 7

Luke 16

(Parable)

John 11

John 12

Two days before Passover Two days before Passover Unrelated to Passover Ten days before Passover Six days before Passover
Jesus stops at Bethany Jesus stops at Bethany Apparently in Galilee Before Jesus arrives at Bethany — then at Bethany At Bethany
In house of Simon the leper In house of Simon the leper In house of Simon the Pharisee Lazarus a leper at gate of rich man’s house In town of his sisters Mary — who anointed Jesus — and Martha, Lazarus is sick. In house with Lazarus, Mary, Martha and disciples
Unidentified woman enters with alabaster jar of myrrh Unidentified woman enters with alabaster jar of costly ointment A local woman, a “sinner”, brings alabaster jar Mary, sister of Lazarus, anoints Jesus with expensive ointment
Breaks the jar and pours myrrh on Jesus’ head Breaks the jar and pours myrrh on Jesus’ head Anoints Jesus’ feet, with tears and kisses and her hair Anoints Jesus’ feet with her hair
“Some” were angry at this extravagance “The Disciples” criticize Jesus Simon the Pharisee is critical since the woman is a sinner The rich man had no mercy on the leper; his brothers remain in sin. Lazarus dies; Jesus to go to Lazarus, and devotedly loyal disciples will go “to die” with him. Judas, son of Simon, is angry but hypocritically — no concern for the poor
Jesus’ responds that the woman’s act is justified because she was anointing him for burial Jesus’ responds that the woman’s act is justified because she was anointing him for burial Jesus responds that the woman loves much (unlike Simon) and is therefore forgiven much Jesus’ lesson is forgiveness of sin and love Jesus proves his power and love for all by raising Lazarus from the dead Jesus’ responds that the woman’s act is justified because she was anointing him for burial
Judas Iscariot leaves to conspire with priests to betray Jesus Judas Iscariot leaves to conspire with priests to betray Jesus

Since we know now it was the disciples who were critical of Jesus Judas’s act is given motivation.
Rich man is tormented in Hades, his brothers have been warned, and the leper is comforted Jews plot to kill Jesus — one to die to save the nation from turning to Jesus and against Rome. Chief priests plot to kill Lazarus too.

Owens comments:

The constantly shifting details, the shifts in characters, the alteration of a parable to an incident, and the wide variation in both meaning and event from the first version of this episode to the last, reveal beyond doubt that the foremost urgency in the minds of the writers was not giving an accurate account of events, but rather shaping a tale for its best didactic purpose.

All of us who have read the Gospel of Mark have at one time wondered how the disciples can be so obtuse. We can see Jesus perform miracles before their eyes yet after repeated performances they still don’t believe! Their disbelief defies normal narrative logic. The reason is simple. The disciples, Owens point out, “inhabit a world of free-flowing magic, and yet . . . exhibit difficulty in . . . believing in the magical powers of the very leader they profess to follow, against the evidence of their senses.” Such a problem

can only arise from construction and invention of a fictional nature.

Clarke Owens finds the explanation in the words of the critic Tzvetan Todorov who explained that this sort of narrative is created to establish an identification between the doubting character and the reader of the narrative. Such a technique is a “defining characteristic of fantastic literature”.

3. The figurative use of language

The third indicator that we are reading fiction is a figurative use of language. It is usually allegory. How else does one explain characters whose names exactly matches the role they play in the story? I bypass Owens’ example of this and point to the more abundant cases of this practice that I have pointed out in posts here:

.

We conclude, then, that the gospels are actually a form of fiction, or are at least enough like fiction to be analyzed as fiction.

 

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Neil Godfrey

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6 Comments

  • 2013-12-06 14:39:12 GMT+0000 - 14:39 | Permalink

    I have read through the Ramayana and now reading through a few versions of the Mahabharata with my 11-year-old daughter. The exercise is interesting. After all, they are loaded with Iron Age nonsense, violence and bigotry — but reading it as fiction and using them to talk with my daughter has been very fun.

    The Mahabharata has fantastic details of virgin births of galore — it starts out with Kunti being impregnated by the Sun god before she is married — sound familiar?

    Indians see the historicity of the Mahabharata in different degrees, much like Christians do the New Testament.

    But either way, like Christian Jesus stories, the Mahabharata is used in India as a vehicle of morality and identity.

    It is hard to believe Indians could take the Mahabharata seriously with all its fantastic stories and obvious figurative language and literary embellishment.

    Yet it appears to be about 3-5,000 year old piece of art!

    Good initial review, Vridar. I wrote this as a parallel. For sometimes jumping out and discussing the same stuff in a strange tradition can help take the emotion fuzziness out of discussing our own.

    Thanx.

  • David Hillman
    2013-12-06 14:52:45 GMT+0000 - 14:52 | Permalink

    Does the fact that you can have different versions of the story within the SAME text – I am thinking of “Luke”‘s Different retellings of Paul’s visionary experience _ show that he was not pretending to be writing purely factual history, or was he hoping we would forget about one version by the time we moved on to the next?

    • Neil Godfrey
      2013-12-06 23:44:42 GMT+0000 - 23:44 | Permalink

      Definitely the simplest, most obvious answer is that Luke was not interested in recording and passing on “accurate detailed history” — look how he split up and twisted almost beyond recognition Mark’s anointing scene. Scrummaging back through his earlier words to recall the exact details of what he had written earlier was the last thing on his mind. (Vague memory was always sufficient, as we know from his treatment of Theudas and Judas the Galilean that he had heard or once read from Josephus.)

      In the second account of Paul’s conversion Luke has Paul defending his conversion before the Jews so the narrative this time is shaped by his intention to make Christianity look as Jewish as possible. Hence some of the changes: now Paul goes to Jerusalem instead of Damascus and has a second vision in the Temple; Ananias appears to be a loyal Jew, unafraid of Paul, rather than a Christian. (p. 274, Acts and Christian Beginnings: The Acts Seminar Report.)

      The difficulties we have with this are the direct consequence of being fed the nonsense by faithful scholars that Luke was “a painstakingly accurate historian”, a guarantor of the truth for Theophilus and all else who love God more than reason or their fellow humans.

  • Tim Widowfield
    2013-12-06 18:21:40 GMT+0000 - 18:21 | Permalink

    . . . this sort of narrative is created to establish an identification between the doubting character and the reader of the narrative.

    It induces a gut reaction: “Why don’t the disciples understand what’s going on?! I certainly wouldn’t be that stupid!”

    It reminds me of horror movies when one of the characters goes off by himself, e.g., down to the basement with nothing but a flickering candle. The audience squirms in their seats. We think to ourselves, “What is he doing?!”

    • Neil Godfrey
      2013-12-09 00:03:45 GMT+0000 - 00:03 | Permalink

      Clarke Owens in full:

      The critic Tzvetan Todorov has described this technique of invention, which is done for the purposes of creating identification between the “hesitating” character and the reader, as the defining characteristic of fantastic literature.[3] . . . .

      3. The “hesitation” is one between accepting a fantastic premise or a more realistic explanation of seemingly fantastic events.

  • 2013-12-07 00:55:07 GMT+0000 - 00:55 | Permalink

    When you put the gospels right next to each other like that, one can’t help but think that these four writers never intended or expected their audiences to read (or even know of?) the others’ gospels. You wonder what possibly could have been the motivation to include all four together, particularly if the “four gospel book” (David Trobisch’s term) was collected so close in time to actual writing of the gospels. I’m guessing that by 130-150, the myth of the “four witnesses” had evolved and was thought to be a forceful counterblast to Marcion and the other non-Catholic sects.

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