Gospels As Historical Sources: How Literary Criticism Changes Everything

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by Neil Godfrey

Owens1This post is best read in the context of the earlier posts on Clarke Owens’ Son of Yahweh: The Gospels as Novels, in particular Jesus Is Not “As Historical As Anyone Else in the Ancient World”. This post considers the different genres qualities (verbal categories, discourse types) between Gospels and historical writings and concludes the Gospels are characterized by language typical of make-believe narratives.

One would expect that it would go without saying that one must first understand what one is reading before one knows how to assess its value as a historical source. But the field of historical Jesus research is graced with many exceptions and methods found in no other field of historical inquiry. One of these is the belief that literary analysis has no relevance to the study of the historical Jesus.

James McGrath even publishes a diagram to show why literary analysis is irrelevant for historical inquiry. It is assumed that the literary approach does nothing more than explain the literary qualities and narrative structure of the work. It appears in The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith:

McGrath is not alone in this understanding of the difference between literary and historical studies of the Gospels, which is to say that a good number of Christian history scholars do not really understand the nature of historical source material or the fundamentals of how to undertake historical research. I am not saying all biblical scholars fall into this trap, nor that all other types of historians avoid it, since there are indeed a few biblical scholars more critical than their peers and some sloppy historians in other fields who build upon unexamined assumptions.

miles1Jack Miles (born 1942) is an American author and winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the MacArthur Fellowship. His work on religion, politics, and culture has appeared in numerous national publications . . . . Miles treats his biblical subjects neither as transcendent deities or historical figures, but as literary protagonists. His first book, God: A Biography, won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1996 . . . . (Wikipedia)

What is wrong with the above model? Jack Miles, another scholar discussed by Clarke Owens in Son of Yahweh: The Gospels as Novels, strongly disagrees with the notion that one can validly “see through” the Gospel narratives to history below. He draws the analogy of the text as a stained-glass window: not to be looked through but looked at. According to Clarke Owens this is only “half right”. Owens identifies the flaw in Jack Miles’ analogy: Miles is embracing as a universal what “literary critics would recognize as [only] a theory” of literature — that of “autotelic literature“. That is, the idea that literature can and must be interpreted only within its own boundaries is only one theory among a number of valid ways of reading and understanding literature.

According to Owens, while it is correct that we cannot “look through” a text on the assumption that it is some sort of window to a real world of past persons and events, it must be recognized that there are ways literature can serve as historical sources — only not in the way biblical scholars too often assume.

The message of the stained glass window

Clarke Owens, writing as a literature scholar, reminds us that there are certain types of literature (e.g. allegory) acknowledged as taking their meaning and intended interpretations from reference points outside themselves. (One might call this type heterotelic, referring to something outside itself, as opposed to autotelic.) So Owens disputes the idea of Jack Miles that literature must be read exclusively “as literature” and without reference to history. Continue reading “Gospels As Historical Sources: How Literary Criticism Changes Everything”


How literary artistry has misled biblical historians: Nehemiah case study (4)

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Head-piece to the book of Nehemiah. Nehemiah 1...

[W]e must understand the nature of our texts as literary works before we attempt to use them for historical reconstruction. (From David J. A. Clines, What Does Eve Do to Help? 1990. p. 163, my emphasis)

In the case of the Book of Nehemiah, [biblical historians] have very often overlooked the fact that it is a literary construction and have tried to use it as if it were a chronicle giving first-hand access to historical actuality. The reason why historians’ usual critical abilities seem to fail them in this particular enterprise seems to be that they have attuned themselves to Nehemiah as author, and have forgotten that the Nehemiah we meet with in the book is in the first place a narrator. (Clines, pp. 152-153)

This is the fourth in my series of posts that began with Literary Criticism, a key to historical enquiry. Nehemiah case study. The series can be followed via the pingbacks at the end of each post (in the “comments” area) or via the Archive Categories for Clines and Nehemiah.

This post looks at David Clines’ section in his Nehemiah chapter discussing the way historians have been misled by the literary artistry in handling the sequence and times of events, and in the way the author has elected to compress aspects of the narrative. Clines heads this section:

Time, Sequence, Narrative Compression, and Reticence

a. Sanballat’s conversation with Tobiah and Nehemiah’s prayer

Nehemiah 4:1-5

1‬. But it came to pass that, when Sanballat heard that we were building the wall, he was wroth, and took great indignation, and mocked the Jews.

‭2‬. And he spake before his brethren and the army of Samaria, and said, What are these feeble Jews doing? will they fortify themselves? will they sacrifice? will they make an end in a day? will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish, seeing they are burned?

‭3‬. Now Tobiah the Ammonite was by him, and he said, Even that which they are building, if a fox go up, he shall break down their stone wall.

‭4‬. Hear, O our God; for we are despised: and turn back their reproach upon their own head, and give them up for a spoil in a land of captivity;

‭5‬. and cover not their iniquity, and let not their sin be blotted out from before thee; for they have provoked [thee] to anger before the builders.

Here the author is creating the impression that enemies were insulting Nehemiah’s wall builders within ear-shot, with Nehemiah responding at the same time in a prayer to God.

Historians such as Hugh G. M Williamson and Joseph Blenkinsopp explain the passage exactly this way in their commentaries. Continue reading “How literary artistry has misled biblical historians: Nehemiah case study (4)”


Biblical historical methods and the Book of Nehemiah (3)

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Nehemiah rebuilding Jerusalem
Image via Wikipedia

Continuing from the post previous to this one,

Could Nehemiah have had reasonable access to their intentions?

This is the passage being discussed. Sanballat and others repeatedly send messages to Nehemiah to meet them at Ono, but each time Nehemiah, believing that they intend to do him “harm”, declines their invitations with the same reply.

1 Now it happened when Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem the Arab, and the rest of our enemies heard that I had rebuilt the wall, and that there were no breaks left in it (though at that time I had not hung the doors in the gates), 2 that Sanballat and Geshem sent to me, saying, “Come, let us meet together among the villages in the plain of Ono.” But they thought to do me harm.

3 So I sent messengers to them, saying, “I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down. Why should the work cease while I leave it and go down to you?

4 But they sent me this message four times, and I answered them in the same manner. 5 Then Sanballat sent his servant to me as before, the fifth time, with an open letter in his hand. 6 In it was written:

It is reported among the nations, and Geshem says, that you and the Jews plan to rebel; therefore, according to these rumors, you are rebuilding the wall, that you may be their king. 7 And you have also appointed prophets to proclaim concerning you at Jerusalem, saying, “There is a king in Judah!” Now these matters will be reported to the king. So come, therefore, and let us consult together.


p style=”padding-left: 40px;”> 8 Then I sent to him, saying, “No such things as you say are being done, but you invent them in your own heart.” 
9 For they all were trying to make us afraid, thinking, “Their hands will be weakened in the work, and it will not be done.”
 Now therefore, O God, strengthen my hands. (6:1-9)

The obvious question to ask (although Clines whole point – writing around 1994 — is that no biblical historian has asked them, save only one, Fensham, who did at least express some awareness of some issues) is how Nehemiah knew about Sanballat’s intentions.

Did a spy for Nehemiah see and overhear Sanballat say “Let’s do some ‘harm’ (in general) to Nehemiah!”? This is scarcely a convincing explanation.

Is it not in fact rather difficult to plot to do harm in general?

If Nehemiah was really informed about Sanballat’s intentions, then we have to explain why he appears not to have known this. He does, after all, repeatedly send the same invitation as if he has no knowledge of the reasons for Nehemiah’s declining it.

Do the subsequent actions of Sanballat and his allies bear out Nehemiah’s suspicions of them?

Well, nothing actually happens from Sanballat’s side to threaten Nehemiah in person or to sabotage the wall building.

Look at the contents of Sanballat’s letter again. All it says is that: Continue reading “Biblical historical methods and the Book of Nehemiah (3)”