He Whom a Dream Hath Possessed

The Life and Works of the American John Knox

by Jordan Almanzar (Author)
©2019 Thesis 308 Pages


This book treats the life and works of the American biblical scholar John Knox (1900-1990). Utilizing Knox’s own autobiographical works and having obtained previously unpublished materials from those closest to Knox, the author re-presents Knox as possibly the most neglected New Testament writer working in America during the twentieth century. By thorough analysis and development of Knox’s scholarly contributions concerning a range of topics drawn from New Testament studies and ancient Church history, the author concludes that Knox was a man ahead of his time and, furthermore, that modern readers will find in him a nearly prophetic voice from the past.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • Preface
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Abbreviations
  • 1 From Boyhood to Seminary: 1900–1923
  • 1.1 Boyhood (1900–1915)
  • 1.1.1 Character Traits of John’s Mother, Emma Knox
  • 1.1.2 The Influence of John’s Father, Absalom Knox
  • 1.2 Knox as a Young Man (1916–1921)
  • 1.2.1 Rejection of the Historical Method of Biblical Studies
  • 1.2.2 Life after College
  • 1.3 Seminary Studies at Emory (1921–1923)
  • 1.3.1 Crisis
  • 1.3.2 Mystical Experience
  • 2 Death of His Father to Fisk University: 1923–1929
  • 2.1 Death of His Father (1923–1924)
  • 2.2 Crisis: “Doubts and Searchings” (1924–1927)
  • 2.2.1 Doubting God
  • 2.2.2 Doubting Himself
  • Every Moment and Every Dollar
  • Moral Breakdown
  • 2.2.3 Vocational Indecision
  • Sherwood Eddy Travel-Study Seminar and Its Effects
  • New Testament Studies in Chicago
  • 2.3 End of the Troubled Times (1927–1929)
  • 2.3.1 Finding Freedom
  • 2.3.2 Finding Himself
  • Engagement to Lois
  • Job Offer
  • 3 Fisk and Chicago: 1929–1943
  • 3.1 Fisk University (1929–1936)
  • 3.1.1 Motivations and Convictions
  • 3.1.2 Beginning at Fisk (1929–1930)
  • 3.1.3 Lois Joins John at Fisk
  • 3.1.4 Growing Pains
  • 3.1.5 Justifying His Position at Fisk
  • 3.1.6 The End of a Dream
  • Clash of Ideals
  • Color Blindness and Color Awareness
  • 3.2 Chicago (1934–1943)
  • 3.2.1 Knox the Student (1934–1935)
  • Social Historical Method
  • Exegetical Direction
  • 3.2.2 Knox the Editor (1936–1938)
  • 3.2.3 Knox the Professor (1939–1943)
  • 3.2.4 End of Chicago Life
  • 4 Union, Texas, and Retirement: 1943–1990
  • 4.1 Union Theological Seminary (1943–1966)
  • 4.1.1 Motivations and New Beginnings
  • 4.1.2 Interdenominational Cooperation
  • 4.1.3 Knox the Introvert
  • 4.1.4 Leisure Time and Change of Focus (1943–1946)
  • 4.1.5 Busy Life (1946–1956)
  • 4.1.6 New Associations336
  • Cambridge
  • Times of Relaxation
  • 4.1.7 Becoming an Episcopal Priest
  • 4.2 Seminary in Austin to Retirement: Coming Full Circle (1966–1972)
  • 4.2.1 Dilemma at the Seminary
  • 4.2.2 Knox the Pastor/Professor
  • 4.2.3 Neighbors and Friends
  • 4.2.4 Austin Prayer Groups
  • 4.3 Reflecting on the Past
  • 4.4 Social Gospel Distorters and Callous Christians
  • 4.5 Retirement (1972–1990)
  • 4.6 End of a Life
  • 5 John Knox and Philemon
  • 5.1 The Letter to Philemon
  • 5.2 Paul Was Requesting the Slave Onesimus to Be Returned to Him
  • 5.2.1 “I am sending him back…”?
  • 5.2.2 “I am appealing to you for my child”
  • 5.2.3 “I wanted to keep him”
  • 5.3 Archippus as Slave Owner and the “Letter from Laodicea”
  • 5.3.1 Common Destination
  • 5.3.2 Common Purpose
  • 5.4 Onesimus as Bishop of Ephesus
  • 5.4.1 Ignatius’ Letter to the Ephesians and Its Connection to Philemon
  • 5.4.2 Onesimus: Compiler and Editor of the First Pauline Letter Collection
  • 5.5 An Open Door for New Interpretations of Philemon
  • 5.5.1 The Traditional View: Onesimus the Fugitive
  • 5.5.2 The Modified Traditional View: Amicus Domini
  • 5.5.3 The Knoxian View
  • 5.5.4 Avoiding Conflict in the Letter
  • 6 Marcion and the Canon
  • 6.1 John Knox, Marcion, and the New Testament Canon
  • 6.1.1 Marcion in Context: One of Many Christian Teachers
  • 6.1.2 Marcion and the Idea of a New Testament
  • 6.2 The Ancient Arrangement of the Pauline Letter Collection and Marcion’s Apostolikon
  • 6.2.1 Order Based on Length
  • 6.2.2 Companion Letters: Colossians-Philemon
  • 6.2.3 The “Marcionite” Prologues
  • 6.3 Marcion’s Evangelion
  • 6.3.1 The Older “Gospel”
  • 6.3.2 The Occasion for Luke-Acts
  • 6.3.3 Dwarfing Marcion’s Evangelion: The Appearance of a Fourfold Gospel
  • 6.4 Summary of Knox’s Marcion
  • 7 Pauline Chronology
  • 7.1 The Letters’ Chronology
  • 7.2 Acts’ Chronology in Comparison with the Letters
  • 7.2.1 First Jerusalem Visit “Acquaintance”
  • 7.2.2 Second Jerusalem Visit “Conference”
  • 7.2.3 Third Jerusalem Visit “Offering”
  • 7.3 Dates
  • 7.3.1 Relative Dates
  • 7.3.2 Concrete Dates
  • 7.3.3 Beyond Knox: Suetonius, Dio Cassius and Orosius
  • 7.4 Concluding Remarks
  • 8 Changing Points of View: Notable Shifts in John Knox’s Theology
  • 8.1 Two Languages of Truth
  • 8.1.1 Organic
  • 8.1.2 Mechanistic
  • 8.1.3 Limitations
  • Limitations to Faith
  • Limitations to Science
  • 8.1.4 Passive (Mythical) and Active (Historical) Elements in the New Testament
  • 8.1.5 Myth and History in the New Testament
  • 8.1.6 Legends—A Third Category
  • 8.2 Shifting Views toward a Primacy of the Church
  • 8.2.1 The Primacy of the Church and the Insignificance of Jesus
  • 8.2.2 Church as Event
  • 8.2.3 Distinguishing Events from Greater History
  • 8.2.4 The Kairotic Center
  • 8.2.5 The Church’s Significance in History
  • Appendix I: Sermon Preached by John Knox at Fisk908
  • Appendix II: “A Note on Rudolf Bultmann and ‘Demythologisation’”911
  • Appendix III: Complete John Knox Bibliography
  • Bibliography

1 From Boyhood to Seminary: 1900–1923

1.1 Boyhood (1900–1915)

John Knox was born on December 30, 1900, to parents who were from the southern states, formerly known as the Confederate States of America which had only one generation earlier fought against the North in the American Civil War.32 His family settled in the Shenandoah Valley where his father was stationed as a Methodist pastor. John was the eldest of four children and, according to his brother James, the favorite of the siblings. James says of him, “Our brother John was the most important child in our family. He was the oldest and he was the smartest. He was (…) Sir Galahad.”33 There is no hint in his brother’s account of their childhood of anything but familial pride toward John. Even the occasional fraternal orneriness is recounted with affection by James. He recalls a story when the children, who at the behest of their mother, were being forced to swallow pills that their uncle had invented for health measures:

John put his hand on my shoulder and said ‘Take courage!

‘So nigh is grandeur to our dust,

So near is God to man,

When duty whispers low, ‘Thou must,’

The youth replies, ‘I can.’

‘Emerson,’34 said John, but it didn’t mean anything to me—or help any.35

Fig. 1: John Knox with Virginia (sister) c. 1902. Source: Tony Knox collection

By all accounts the Knox family considered John as humorous, talented, and wise even as a boy; he was the expected leader of the children. The children naturally looked up to the eldest sibling, John, because they lived in an isolated environment. To illustrate just how remote John’s upbringing was, another story from his childhood is useful. John’s father knew a man who had used a telephone for the first time while visiting a “big city” (there were no telephones in the smaller towns at that time) and upon describing the alien technology to his ←23 | 24→country neighbors, this man was excommunicated from his church for speaking lies.36 The Knox family thought the decision was ridiculous; however, the story is important only in displaying the environment in which John was raised.

John’s paternal grandfather fought for the Confederate Army during the Civil War and served as captain under the famous General Nathan Forrest.37 The Knox children were proud of their brave grandfather and it impressed them that a Confederate flag was laid over the coffin at his funeral.38 The mark of southern pride and its manifestation in racism toward African Americans was completely ←24 | 25→lost in John Knox. It is interesting to note, though, that when John was very young his father, Absalom, employed several live-in servants who, under normal circumstances in the contemporary South, should have been black women.39 The Knox family, however, only employed white women in these positions because Absalom was unsure how black people were to be treated following their emancipation and feared reproach from his neighbors should he appear to be too kind to black servants.40 We shall see in the coming chapters that John would directly encounter the problem of race-relations in his own life and profession as well.

1.1.1 Character Traits of John’s Mother, Emma Knox

John’s mother, Emma, is remembered as being resolute to the point of stubbornness—a characteristic she passed on to John. Knox says of her, “Once having taken a position—and she may have taken it impulsively—she found it hard to change it.”41 He describes his mother’s resolution and stubbornness as sometimes astounding even to those who knew her. For example, when John lost six dollars on his way home from work at a local hardware store, his mother retraced his steps long before sunrise the next day and found the money. Knox says of this episode, “She was not easily defeated!”42 In another place John tells of how his mother was once found in the wrong while trying to catch him in a lie, and when she realized she was wrong, she was still unwilling to acknowledge her fault. About this he states, “(…) I felt no resentment. I understood her look as an apology, and it would not have occurred to me to doubt her authority.”43 His response was not one of bitterness, but rather an early display of his recognition of and submission to authority—a quality he carried with him throughout his lifetime.

John’s mother was aware of her own obstinacy and worked to subdue it. Once when Eva, John’s youngest sister, was six years old, their mother decided Eva’s hair was too thin and that the only means for thickening it would be to shave it all off and let it grow back. Having done so and immediately regretting it, their mother said, “I wish, for once, that I had thought this out a little more clearly. But what’s done is done (…) and now let’s grow it back.”44 John’s mother was ←25 | 26→considered more as a scholar than a cook and due to certain academic interests she fostered the habit of constantly experimenting with new health remedies.45 John shared this interest and, for a time, convinced the entire family to go on a strict cabbage-only diet. He said, “I read somewhere that cabbage is the basic food and that if you ate enough cabbage, you would get along just fine without anything else.”46 He alone took the diet a step further deciding that grass would work just as well as cabbage. According to his brother, “[John] cut some grass and washed it and boiled it and put milk and sugar on it and ate it all.”47 Albeit an extreme example (eating grass for health reasons), John’s willingness to experiment with new ideas would be a distinguishing mark of his future work—a trait he likely acquired from his mother. Neither the son nor the mother hesitated to fly toward some end once a decision was made to do so. To them there was no point in wavering. As his mother explained, “I believe once you’re sure of what has to be done, you should go ahead and do it.”48

1.1.2 The Influence of John’s Father, Absalom Knox

John had the opportunity to spend many hours alone with his father and recalls the closeness of their relationship being increasingly strengthened as they traveled many miles through the woods together. The elder Knox’s employment as a minister to a string of congregations tucked away at various stations throughout the rustic valley required that he ride the circuit on a horse either with or without a buggy. John often accompanied his father, having the opportunity to listen to him preach the same sermon several times a day on these trips. He says:

They were for me at the time great adventures, and, more important as I think of them in retrospect, they offered the best opportunities I had for intercourse with my father (…) Almost as important in this intercourse was the privilege thus provided me of hearing my father preach, not seldom the same sermon two or three times to the different congregations he would meet on a single Sunday.49

These trips provided an almost unlimited opportunity to talk with his father and John remembered their conversations vividly and gratefully throughout his ←26 | 27→life. The lessons received while riding the circuit with his father, lessons learned through word and deed, left a permanent mark on Knox.50

The elder Knox’s ability to write well also made a lasting impression on the son. John recounts an episode, when he was in the sixth or seventh grade, of his father teaching him how to write. According to Knox, his father helped him find a topic within his own experience and suggested several ways to execute the assignment. Knox states, “I saw at once what he meant and never had to appeal to him in such a connection again. The most important lesson I ever had in the art of writing—a more important lesson, I should say, than all the later formal lessons combined—was this conversation with my unschooled father.”51 John believed that his father was such a good writer precisely because he had not had formal lessons and did not have to unlearn bad habits. He was free to write as simply as he thought and felt.52

The Knox children were impressed by their father’s wisdom about relative values. John’s younger brother, James, remembers how their father imposed strict rules upon the family for proper Sunday observance. He says, “Father was most firm on keeping [Sundays] holy. His principles covered a great many activities. Of course, nothing was to be bought on Sunday; no games were to be played on Sunday; no magazines or books—other than the Bible and Bible stories—were to be read (…) but above all, there was to be no swimming on Sunday.”53 As a boy John was, by his own account, addicted to Horatio Alger books and had obtained a large collection,54 often giving them to his younger brother to help him “build a library.”55 It was the habitual practice of their parents to take a long afternoon nap following the Sunday morning church service, and the children were expected to maintain the proper Sunday observances by occupying themselves ←27 | 28→with constructive activities. Their options included poetry composition, writing mock debate, or drawing a meaningful picture. John chose the topics and gave his younger siblings their afternoon instructions and, apparently, they all “took them very seriously.”56 After allocating the assignments, it was John’s custom to sneak away into an unused stairway and read Alger books. One Sunday he was overcome with embarrassment and shame when his father caught him sitting in half-darkness breaking the rules. The following is John Knox’s account of his father’s treatment of the matter:

He told me that although he had hoped I might be willing on Sundays to give up Alger books for more serious occupations, still it was far more important to be honest and open than to keep even the most important regulation about Sunday, or any similar observance. If my own conscience permitted the reading and I so much wished to do it, he wanted me to continue it, whatever the day, without any attempt at concealment.57

Nevertheless, John continued to read on the stairs and not in the open, clarifying enigmatically, “There’s a matter of principle involved.”58 More importantly, though, is that the gentleness and piousness of the elder Knox made a lasting mark on John, who recounts that everyone acquainted with his father both loved and respected him.59

The father’s devotion to the institutional church and the magnitude he placed on his own call to the ministry dominated the early years of John Knox’s life. Knox says, “(…) the local parish (…) was the center of our life, wherever we resided (…) We were the church’s children, not alone on Sundays with its two or three services of worship to be attended, but on all the other days as well.”60 This devotion to church life and service was embodied in John Knox and the memories of his father abound with a testimony of love for the church. The Knox family did not live a segmented life; every action of the family stemmed from their devotion to the church. This can be seen in John’s description of their upbringing, when he says, “No Roman Catholic town, say in France or Italy, could have been, even a century ago, so completely oriented to the church as regards its norms, its manners and habits of life, as were the villages and countrysides in which we lived.”61 Knox describes both of his parents as devout believers; however, it was ←28 | 29→his father’s steeled resolve to do the will of God, a resolve which stemmed from a genuine understanding of the “inner meaning” of reality, which directed the family’s course and manner of life.62 Knox says of his father, one cannot help but think he had himself in mind as well, “The ministry was his only authentic way of being himself, as every profession ought to be perhaps and as the profession of minister must be if it is to have any worth or true success at all.”63 Both John and his father felt deeply that they were created by God for professional ministry.

John decided from an early age that he would one day be a minister. The aspiration to become an academic professor played no role in Knox’s decision to continue his education beyond the grades. His choice to attend college was merely a choice to follow God’s call to minister. Knox says:

From a very early age I had been committed in my own mind to entering the church’s ministry. I do not recall ever considering any other occupation. I was perhaps twelve or thirteen years old when, in a clearly remembered pause or rest stop as my father and I were hoeing in our vegetable garden in Stephens City, I told him of my sense of vocation. This confession of my purpose came in answer to some question of his but was not the result of any urging, either then or earlier. As regards this ‘call,’ I have never wavered.64

Knox passed the examination for college entrance in 1916 without completing his high school coursework and promptly moved to Ashland, Virginia, to attend Randolph-Macon College. He attributes the opportunity for early college studies to the strong education he received during his boyhood.65 Having studied Latin before attending college and enjoying it as he did, Knox decided to major in classical languages.66

←29 | 30→

1.2 Knox as a Young Man (1916–1921)

Absalom was only able to afford John’s undergraduate education because of an allowance given by the Methodist Church to sons of ministers in the Virginia and Baltimore Conferences, on the condition that they attend Randolph-Macon—the oldest Methodist college in the United States.67 Having assisted John with the move to Ashland, his father had to quickly leave in order to tend to some immediate business in Richmond, Virginia. John felt severely homesick during his first days away telling dramatically of the emptiness he experienced upon his father’s leaving, “I cannot describe how lonely his departure left me. I was fifteen and away from home in a strange place for what seemed an indefinite period.”68 He describes that his father, while away at Richmond, sensed his son might need him, and so unexpectedly came by his dorm room to check on the frightened teenager. Knox says, “One of the happiest and most vivid memories of my life is of hearing one afternoon a sound at the door of my retreat and of looking up to see my father entering (…) he spent only an hour or two with me and then resumed his journey. But that short interlude of love and home changed everything for me. My homesickness was gone, never to return.”69 The close connection to his father lasted throughout his time away from home as is illustrated by the impact this unexpected visit had upon him.

Overall, Knox does not speak fondly of his undergraduate studies at Randolph-Macon College. Being slightly built and only fifteen when he enrolled,70 Knox endured much hazing from the upperclassmen and generally kept to himself throughout his days in Ashland in order to avoid any unnecessary contact with his “tormentors,” as he called them.71 A profitable habit he practiced during these years, however, was waking up early to write or do work. Likely, Knox learned the value of this habit from his mother, who was a persistent early riser believing that early rising was beneficial to one’s health.72 Although he kept himself busy studying and attending classes, Knox claims that he acquired nothing ←30 | 31→significantly important during his time at Randolph-Macon—aside from the habit of early rising, which he continued throughout his life.73

Knox recounts how he was immature and ill-prepared for college life and that this manifested itself greatly in the tendency to not only stubbornly defend his own juvenile opinions, but also to be unable to tolerate without protest perceived errors in others.74 He speaks of this mark of stubbornness as being with him since childhood, saying, “I believe it could be said that when inwardly convinced I was in the wrong, I quickly acknowledged my mistake, always with great embarrassment. But my obstinacy (…) even about small, unimportant matters, must often have made me hard to live with.”75 Knox does not make the connection, but one is reminded of his own description of his mother’s obstinacy: “Once having taken a position—and she may have taken it impulsively—she found it hard to change it.”76 If Knox considered himself immature at college—keep in mind that he was only fifteen as a freshman—his family, by contrast, considered him mature beyond his years.77

1.2.1 Rejection of the Historical Method of Biblical Studies


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (March)
Paul New Testament Philemon Onesimus Marcion NT Canon
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019, 310 p., 7 ill. b/w

Biographical notes

Jordan Almanzar (Author)

Jordan Almanzar holds a PhD (magna cum laude) from Georg-August-Universität, Göttingen. He is the first person to earn a non-theological degree in the area of History and Literature of Ancient Christianity in all of Göttingen’s storied history.


Title: He Whom a Dream Hath Possessed
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310 pages