Time 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.
One interpretative approach was to treat the characters in the Gospels as literary characters supposedly confined entirely to that literary world of the Gospels. To illustrate this method Owens discusses the works of Pulitzer Prize winning author Jack Miles who has won literary awards for his books God: A Biography and Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God. In my last post on Owen’s book, Gospels As Historical Sources: How Literary Criticism Changes Everything, I addressed the way Miles believed the valid way to interpret the Gospels or any books in the Biblical was to treat their characters as simply literary characters. After all, it is quite reasonable to understand a person appearing in literature as a literary character. Except, of course, the literary characters in these books are not defined exclusively within the pages of the books in which they appear. For Miles, then, an interesting question is “how and why God changes his mind” across the millennia. His interpretation is fueled by the contexts and other characters and doctrines found collectively throughout the Bible.
Miles proudly claims that his view of the central character is not interpreted through theological interests or religious beliefs, nor even as a topic of ancient history, but entirely and exclusively as a work of literature.
But there can be only one reason why that “central character” does not involve us in a necessary discussion of Milton, Dante, and Spenser, and that answer is found in the decision of the first ecumenical councils.
Many critical New Testament scholars would also agree that that literary character is largely mythical so their task as “historians” (few have been trained in the historical disciplines that stand independent of biblical studies) is to peel away the mythical layers and find “bedrock” history beneath the text. This is the opposite of the way Miles believes the Gospels should be read. Owens discusses John P. Meier as a case-study of the scholar who sees himself as approaching the Gospels as a historian.
So we have two opposing views. These are represented by Owens in two metaphors: Meier’s looks through the text as if the text were a window; Miles eschews any “seeing through” and would compare the text to a stained glass window that is to be “looked at”. They are both discussed in the previous post.
As was also introduced briefly in my earlier post, another theory of literary interpretation. Owens turns the stained-glass window analogy around by pointing out that we don’t mindlessly “stare at” it, but we peer into it and wonder about
- the scenes depicted,
- the materials used,
- the artists who made the windows,
- the tradition of such windows,
- the tradition of different types of windows for comparative purposes.
For Owens, it is necessary to understand the historical circumstances of the authors of a text in order to understand it fully. The above five things we wonder about in the stained-glass window are also the things that we want to know about a work of literature, even the Gospels.
Such literary-critical questions are also powerful tools for the historian. The Bible context of the Gospels appears to have shut off these tools from historians of Christian origins. This is the point at which Owens makes a most fascinating contribution to our understanding of both the nature of the Gospels and to the impact of historical circumstances on their creation.
Owens is happy to find a few exceptions among the scholars who specialize in the Gospels. One of these is Michael Goulder (whose ideas have today been popularized by John Shelby Spong). Goulder attempted to explain the gospels by reference to what we know of their historical context. Goulder believed the Gospels could be explained as attempts to replace the Jewish lectionary readings in the synagogue. The lection followed a set program of readings through the Jewish Scriptures and Goulder believed he could identify the same thematic progressions in the Gospel narratives. He concluded that the Gospels were written to replace the Jewish lectionary readings with their Christian thematic counterparts.
This is one possible historical explanation for the Gospels. However, Owens is not happy that neither Goulder nor Spong took the next step of following through with the question of what historical circumstances in the time of the author would make an author want to re-write the Jewish lection in this particular way. The only answer Spong can offer is that the man Jesus was such an overwhelmingly impressive figure that he drove the evangelists to do this decades later. Yet this explanation is also taken from the doctrinal pages of the Bible. God in the form or life of a man made them do it.
This explanation is the common one. Jesus was such an overwhelmingly exceptional person in history that four decades after his death someone decided to capture not the details of his life but the meaning of his life through analogies, metaphors and other scriptural allusions. This explanation does not address the historical circumstances that made the author want to finally sit down and do that.
A few other scholars (not addressed by Owens) have also attempted to explain the Gospels within their historical context. Among these are Lawrence Wills, Dennis MacDonald and Gilbert Bilezikian. Both of these scholars have attempted to explain the Gospels in the light of the literature that students learning to read and write Greek were exposed to. Wills sees The Life of Aesop as an inspiration for the idea of a story that is written in a series of brief episodes, and one that is about a witty character who is both admired and rejected, who always gets the better of his opponents. Such a Life was the inspiration for the gospel genre, Wills suggests. MacDonald argues that the Homeric epics were the primary inspiration. Bilezikian argues for Greek tragedy.
None of these stops to ask why one would want to compose this new literature after these literary influences, however.
Owens’ historical answer is most interesting. That’s in a future post.
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