A 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some very worthwhile nuggets for anyone interested in understanding the nature of the Gospels as either literature or historical documents.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:
|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.|
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:
- Gospel Puns on the Name Above All Names
- Creativity with the Name of Jesus the Healer in the Gospel of Mark
- Would the historical Jesus of Nazareth really have been named Jesus of Nazareth?
- More Puns in the Gospel of Mark: People and Places
- The Twelve Disciples: their names, name-meanings, associations, etc
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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