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 thethen 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:
- Midrash and the Gospels 1: Some definitions and explanations
- Midrash and the Gospels 2: debates in the scholarly sphere
- 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.
The Jewish War is full of tales of thousands upon thousands killed and piled on one another in the streets of Jerusalem, and of crucifixions ad nauseam. In V:446-451, Josephus describes how Titus would crucify Jews outside the city walls as a terror tactic: “and so great was their number, that space could not be found for the crosses no crosses for the bodies.”
It was the Jews, collectively, whose life and culture must be found to have some meaning which, to paraphrase Spong, “death could not be found to contain.” . . .
It was the Roman oppression of the Jewish culture and the eventual obliteration of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. that is corroborated in history, which is transparently alluded to in the gospels, and which is suggested in the character called Jesus (Matt. 1:21: “He will save his people from their sins,” ASV; “Saviour,” NEB) who mirrors the Suffering Servant of Isaiah chapter 53.
Jesus is a midrashic creation by a culture under siege, meant to embody and idealize that culture, and to stand for the holy and immortal one who triumphs in and through his own persecution and death. Whether or not the Jesus of the gospels was “based” on a real person is not determinable, but the character who appears in the gospels is demonstrably a literary creation — by anyone’s historical theory — because all the things he does in the story are made up from preexisting theological material for theological and cultural purposes.
The destruction of Jewish culture and the slaughter of Jewish people, however, was not made up.
These two premises are accepted by proponents of the midrashic theory of gospel composition, but only the first one is given any significance.
(Son of Yahweh: The Gospels as Novels, my formatting and bolded emphasis)
So it was the Jews who collectively suffered and were crucified and who rose again in a different form as Christians. (Not all, of course. We know many went the way of rabbinism. I think there is evidence that the Gospel controversy stories — Jesus versus the Pharisees — actually reflect the arguments between post 70 C.E. Christian and rabbinical Jews.)
Owens observes that long before the Gospels we can see similar allegorical writing to represent historical circumstances:
Israel is my first-born son. (Exodus 4:22)
Matthew recognizes this literary tradition and equates Jesus with the new Israel:
Out of Egypt I called my son. (Matthew 2:15; Hosea 11:1)
Owens quotes Goulder:
Israel was God’s son in the prefiguring language of the O.T.: and it is in connection with the Exodus that he is so called. (Midrash and Lection in Matthew, p.239)
He also adds Spong’s voice to argue that Isaiah’s Suffering Servant represents Israel and that Luke in particular has melded this motif into the story:
I suspect that this post-Exilic prophet [Deutero-Isaiah] developed this symbol so that he could help the defeated Jewish nation understand that their future did not lie in grandeur, power, or glory. . . .
Luke . . . intermingled the story of Jesus with the story of the servant figure of Isaiah on a fairly constant basis. (Liberating the Gospels, p. 251)
The people of Israel were being crucified. Jesus represents Israel as does the Suffering Servant.
Owens is surprised that Spong does not draw this connection. (I must admit I was surprised to find that Spong concluded his books by affirming his faith despite arguing that virtually every mosaic piece that represented that faith in the gospels was not historical.)
A literary critic dealing with this type of parallelism in any other two works would draw it. [Spong] apparently does not draw it because, like Meier and Miles, to do so would conflict with his ultimately theological purposes . . . .
But there is more.
Owens next examines the sociological phenomenon of Messianism and applies what we know of it to this context. He also examines the nature and function of apocalyptic literature and its relevance for the Gospels.
That will have to be covered in a future post.
Meanwhile, buy and read Clarke Owens’ book. It’s not perfect and there are patches where it is a bit technical and difficult for the untrained, but who cares about a few spots in a work that challenges us with new ways of thinking about old questions and possibly adds substance to a hypothesis we may have vaguely suspected up till now.
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