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

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by Neil Godfrey

One 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.)

Generally stated, the idea is that all ancient figures are difficult to document, and they all occupy an equally difficult ‘historical’ status.

(Owens, Clarke W. (2013-07-26). Son of Yahweh: The Gospels As Novels (Kindle Locations 222-223). Christian Alternative. Kindle Edition.)

The above quotation from Owens sums up a common assertion by those who insist that there can be no more doubt about the historicity of Jesus than there is about the existence of Julius Caesar “or anyone else in the ancient world”. But Owens point out that this assertion is “both imprecise and misleading” for the following reasons.

Clarke Owens is writing from the perspective of literary criticism but the principle is simple enough for anyone to see. One does not have to be a formally trained literary critic to see that

the type of literature we have about Jesus is qualitatively different from the type of literature we have about Thales.

(Owens, Clarke W. (2013-07-26). Son of Yahweh: The Gospels As Novels (Kindle Locations 225-226). Christian Alternative. Kindle Edition.)

The above statement is also misleading because, by placing Jesus and Thales on the same level of historicity, we ignore the differences in quality of the literature testifying to each. When we examine that literary evidence we see that it is so different in each case that it is really impossible for the impartial reader to place Jesus and Thales on the same level of verifiable historicity.

What we need to do, what historians and theologians need to do, is first to assess the nature of the literary evidence for each.

The primary sources of information about our two figures, i.e., the New Testament canon and, say, the life of Thales by Diogenes Laertius . . . are not even remotely similar in nature or known purpose.

(Owens, Clarke W. (2013-07-26). Son of Yahweh: The Gospels As Novels (Kindle Locations 231-233). Christian Alternative. Kindle Edition.)

That’s it in a nutshell. The Gospels are “not even remotely similar in nature or known purpose” to the ancient sources we have for other ancient historical figures.

John Meier, like most theologians writing about the historical Jesus, dismisses literary criticism as irrelevant to the historical inquiry. His (and their) argument is that literary criticism is only about understanding the way parts of a work function in the larger text.

Owens shows that this is an antiquated understanding of literary criticism. Since Northrop Frye they ought to have understood the fundamental importance of comparing literary works with one another.

We then distinguish between them and account for their differences. If we apply that principle to the sources for ancient persons and the sources for Jesus we will see how the two types of works “are not even remotely similar in nature or known purpose.”

The trouble is that most of us are familiar with the Gospels but few of us have ever read Diogenes Laertius. Luckily we have essays like those of Clarke Owens from time to time to bring the differences to our attention.

Owens leaves aside the question of whether any of the “facts” Diogenes Laertius writes about Thales were true or not. What is important is that

its facts are obviously of a different nature than the gospel ‘facts,’ and are offered in a different spirit and manner. . . .

Today’s literary critic would immediately recognize and consider significant the fact that the gospels on the one hand, and Diogenes’ life of Thales on the other, are two entirely different types of works, the nature of which leads us to different conclusions about the reliability of the ‘facts’ each gives us.

(Owens, Clarke W. (2013-07-26). Son of Yahweh: The Gospels As Novels (Kindle Locations 236-253). Christian Alternative. Kindle Edition.)

Let’s look at some specifics. Owens discusses The Life of Thales by Diogenes Laertius as a case study. (Reading through the list some may find points that they believe are in common with the sort of information we read about Jesus in the Gospels. I ask that we hear Owens out first — there will be much to discuss but let’s first understand the main idea of the argument.)

There are no miracles in Diogenes. Instead, the sorts of things we read about Thales by Diogenes are key details about his life:

  • the names of his parents
  • the probable places of his origin
  • the names of his treatises on astronomy
  • his philosophical ideas
  • his experiments and discoveries

My comment: The gospels, on the other hand, replace details about Jesus’ parents and his place of origin with theologically motivated selections of data [two gospels only name one of his parents, and that is done indirectly through a dramatic narrative scenes], and his teachings and relationships with his disciple with their own or later church theological views. Hence the “quest” to “dig beneath” the Gospels to find the “historical” Jesus.

Then there is the way Diogenes constantly identifies for readers the sources he is using for his information. For examples of this read sections 23 to 35 in the Life of Thales. Diogenes does not ask or expect readers to blindly accept whatever he writes. He provides enough information for readers to follow up and check what he is saying.

Owens drives home the comparison with the Gospels: Of the evangelists we only find anything remotely comparable in Luke, and even then it is restricted to one passage at the opening. And right on cue with recent posts on Luke’s preface here Owens observes that Luke’s “eyewitnesses” are not clearly eyewitness of events since they are said to be “eyewitnesses and servants of the Gospel”.

But Owens says something else that I find particularly significant:

Even in Luke the language of narration is much more like the language typically associated with storytelling:

In the days of Herod. king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah . . . (Luke 1:5 NEB)

This leads us into the way readers identify different types or genres of reading material. There are certain “verbal categories” that tell us when we are reading fantasy, and others that tell us we are reading serious biography, for example.

A text that begins, “In the time of King So-and-So, there was a priest named Such-and-Such” is language within a narrative tradition which the literary critic recognizes as what we might call the “Once Upon a Time” tradition; a history could conceivably begin this way, but much more common following language like this comes a fairy tale, or certainly something both traditional and fictitious.

(Owens, Clarke W. (2013-07-26). Son of Yahweh: The Gospels As Novels (Kindle Locations 286-288). Christian Alternative. Kindle Edition.)

Yes! It is nice to find confirmation of a point I tried to make some years ago on an open scholarly discussion group only to be met then with total silence. Read the opening lines of the Gospel of Mark — but first take Mark “out of the Bible” and read it like a piece of literature you just found lying alone on a desk in a library. It really does read more like a fairy tale or legend than anything we might call history or biography. A great and mysterious voice straight from the Prophets opens up the dramatic scene and then “everybody” in “all the land” comes out to hear the message and be baptized. Then out of nowhere along comes Jesus . . . . (Scholars and others, conditioned to remaining tone deaf to the literary tone of the passage, scurry to their concordances to find ways to argue that Mark does not really mean to say “all” or “everybody” whenever he uses such language.)

And yes, all this is true even allowing for the translations through which most of us read the New Testament.

A fairy tale is a highly fictive form, as is an etiological myth, whereas a life history is less so.

Owens, Clarke W. (2013-07-26). Son of Yahweh: The Gospels As Novels (Kindle Location 317). Christian Alternative. Kindle Edition.

Owens illustrates the same technique with a “random” selection of opening passages from Grimms’ fairy tales:

  • A long, long while ago there was a King (The Golden Bird)
  • In Switzerland there lived an old Count, who had an only son (The Three Languages)
  • Once upon a time there was a King’s son, who had a mind to see the world (The Riddle)
  • In the days of Herod. king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah (The Gospel of Luke)
Clarke Owens references the works of literary critics Roman Jakobson and Tzvetan Todorov in support of “expansions of certain verbal categories” identifying different “types of discourse” (genres).

Owens illustrates further with a comparison of the language of etiological myth with the opening lines of the Gospel of John:

  • First of all, the Void came into being, next broad-bosomed Earth, the solid and eternal home of all (Hesiod, Theogany)
  • There was in the very beginning nothing whatever. There was no sky, no earth, no water, but just empty space (Juaneño/ Luiseño myth)
  • In the beginning of creation, when God made heaven and earth, the earth was without form and void (Genesis)
  • This is the beginning of the Ancient Word, here in this place called Quiché. Here we shall inscribe, we shall implant the Ancient Word, the potential and source for everything done in the citadel of Quiché, in the nation of the Quiché people. (Popol Vuh)
  • In the beginning was the divine word and wisdom / In the beginning was the Word (John 1:1 ASV/NKJV)

Contrast the beginning of the Life of Thales, with no etiological function at all:

  • Herodotus, Durus, and Democritus are agreed that Thales was the son of Examayas and Cleobulina, and belonged to the Thelidae, who are Phoenicians. (Diogenes, 1:22)

Contrast the theologically driven genealogies of Jesus in Luke and Matthew. Luke traces the genealogy back to God and both Matthew and Luke are really making a point about the theological necessity of Davidic descent.

No such theologoumenic principle governs the parentage and home town information in Diogenes.

To look beyond Clarke Owens for a moment and glance at what other scholars who do have a keener literary appreciation of the Gospels have been publishing in recent years, we can also see that their very structure — a series of loosely connected episodes followed by an in-depth climactic account of the Passion — follows the structures of Greek and Roman epics and novellas. Even the philosophical Gospel of John has been shown to employ the motifs and themes of ancient fiction.

In future posts we will compare the place of miracles in the gospels and other ancient literature. Most importantly, we will see how interpreting the Gospels through clearly established historical facts (as opposed to the assumed truth behind their narratives) can open up an entirely new world of understanding of the question of Christian origins.

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Neil Godfrey

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

  1. Keeps sounding like a great book.


    From the opening lines of the Hindu Scriptures, “The Pantratantra”:

    “Once upon a time, in the southern land flourished the fair city of Mahilaropya, rivalling in splendour even Amraravati, Citing of the Gods. Possessing all excellences that could possibly be imagined, it shone as the Earth’s crest-jewel. …”

    The Hindus were a little more clear about fantasy — but millions believe it.

  2. OK, you’ve sold me on this book. Meier is in error: literary criticism is the first toolkit we need to bring to examine texts, ancient or modern. An understanding of genre, and rules for the genre, must be established before we bring out or create other tools: source criticism, etc. The “gospel” genre is psedudo-historic narrative theology. The main rule of this genre is to write anonymously, as if the text just dropped out of the sky, and cannot be traced to an individual. That anonymity alone should be a red flag to people like Meier that we are dealing with something quite different from “The Life of Thales.”

  3. And before he’s taken to the woodshed for the provenance or dating of his sources…

    “The Syracusan general Hermocrates, the man who defeated the Athenians, had a daughter named Callirhoe.” – Chaereas and Callirhoe [1st BC – 2nd AD], 3rd sentence, coming after the Hochlitteratur preface mentioning the name of the author

    “Among the most influential citizens of Ephesus was a man called Lycomedes.” – An Ephesian Tale [2nd AD?], 1st sentence

    “No finer or more courageous man is held to have existed than Alexander, king of Macedon.” – The Alexander Romance [140-340 AD], 1st sentence (and a cautionary tale about assuming that fiction necessarily implies non-historicity of the subject)

    “In Antioch there was a king named Antiochus.” – The Story of Apollonius, King of Tyre [2nd-3rd AD], 1st sentence

    Quotations taken from “Collected Ancient Greek Novels,” edited by B.P. Reardon. These represent 4 out of 9 surviving complete Greek novels. Four others use first person narration, and one (An Ethiopian Story) begins with a mood-setting third person description of nobody in particular.

    Of course, while this proves consistency of this feature with Greek novels, more features, considerations, and examples of other genres would need to be brought to bear on the question in general before asking for a verdict.

  4. Excellent post! I’m presently slogging through the first volume of Meier myself. Ugh, what a chore it is!

    And his chapter on Josephus, I am overwhelmed by the data he’s throwing at me!

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