Friday, March 16, 2018

Does the Bible Dissemble?

I begin with two definitions:

Euphemism: “The substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend.”

Dissemble: “To put on a false appearance: conceal facts, intentions, or feelings under some pretense.”

Thus a euphemism is an attempt to disguise the true nature of a concept by using an expression that might give less offense—sugarcoating it as it were. On the other hand when one dissembles one does not address a thing forthrightly, but attempts to conceal or mask the true character of a thing or situation. Speaking euphemistically and dissembling are essentially attempts to mislead and deceive for whatever reason.

Judging by these two definitions some biblical writers do just that—they dissemble by using euphemisms. The best known instance of this practice is the use of the word “Heaven” as a circumlocution for “God” by the writer we dub Matthew. Matthew uses this euphemism likely for reasons of personal piety (Matt 8:11=Luke 13:29; Matt 10:7=Luke 9:2; Matt 11:11=Luke 7:28; Matt 11:12=Luke 16:16; Matt 13:11=Luke 8:11=Mark 4:11).

Another well know instance of dissembling is the use by certain writers of the word “feet” as a euphemism for genitalia and activities involving the genitals probably for reasons related to modesty (compare Paul’s declining to name the less presentable parts of the human body, 1 Cor 12:22-24). Some of these euphemisms are so clear that Bible translators apparently feel comfortable simply de-euphemizing the euphemism and unmasking the “real” meaning in their translations, albeit it modestly. The King James (KJV) translation of 1611 regularly translates “feet” literally as “feet,” while more modern translations (the Revised Standard Version, RSV) de-euphemize certain passages in which the word feet appears.

Judges 3:24:
KJV: “surely he covers his feet in the summer chamber”
RSV: “He is only relieving himself in the closet of the cool chamber”
1 Samuel 24:3:
KJV: “where was a cave, and Saul went in to cover his feet
RSV: “there was a cave; and Saul went in to relieve himself.”
Ezek 16:25:
KJV: “you have opened your feet to everyone that passed by and multiplied your whoredoms”
RSV: “offering yourself to any passer-by and multiplied your harlotry

In other instances modern translators are apparently uncomfortable de-euphemizing the euphemism (if that is what it is). The RSV translates David’s order to Uriah “Go down to your house and wash your feet” (2 Sam 11:8), which Uriah understands as a directive to enjoy the privileges of being a husband and “lying with his wife” (2 Sam 11:11). Here are several others where the RSV hesitates: Isa 7:20 (shaving the hair of the feet; likely meaning pubic hair); Exod 4:25 (Zipporah cuts the foreskin of her son “and touched Moses’ feet with it”).

What should we now think about Ruth 3:4 where Naomi tells her daughter-in-law, Ruth, to observe where Boaz lies down “then, go and uncover his feet and lie down and he will tell you what to do.” Ruth does as she was instructed “Then she came softly, and uncovered his feet and lay down” (Ruth 3:7).

            Of course an ancient Hebrew would likely have known when “feet” was used euphemistically. But sometimes a foot is just a foot and not a euphemism for something else (for example, John 11:2; 12:1-2; Luke 7:38-39); and even we moderns in our own culture sometimes stumble over euphemisms—so perhaps they may not have known in every case after all. So perhaps some of the other uses of “feet” should be considered a euphemism. Recognizing “feet” as a sometimes euphemism for genitalia does leave me wondering just exactly what was the nature of the disease that King Asa of Judah developed in his old age (1 Kgs 15:23 and 2 Chron 16:12).

More importantly euphemisms in the Bible raise the broader issue of hermeneutics—the methodological principles of interpreting the Bible. The uncertainties of our knowledge of the ancient past should caution us to respect the tentative nature of our knowledge in how we craft historical reconstructions of the ancient past. The better practice is let the text say what it will and put explanations in notes appended to the text.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Does the Name of Jesus work like "Magic" or has the Bible misled us?

In the Gospel of John Jesus told his disciples to “ask anything” in his name: “whatever you ask in my name, I will do it…If you ask anything in my name I will do it” (John 14:13-14; see also 15:16; 16:23-24; 16:26). And so the custom has evolved in conservative Protestantism to conclude every prayer with the refrain “in Jesus name Amen.” In fact, many deeply religious folk feel that prayers lacking this refrain are not heard by God (or Jesus, to whom some people also pray).

Adding “in Jesus name” to a prayer is apparently a reminder to Jesus of his promises in John, for Jesus was believed to intercede for believers (Romans 8:34; Hebrews 7:25). But the practice of praying in Jesus name appears to have been unknown in the synoptic gospels. For example, in the model prayer where Jesus taught his disciples how to pray there is no instruction that prayers should conclude with “in Jesus name.” This model prayer is a Q tradition, an early source, which Matthew and Luke used in addition to Mark (Matt 6:9-13=Luke 11:2-4), and it appears also in the Didache (8.2; dated from 70-150 CE).

The model prayer Jesus taught his disciples is slightly different in all three versions.

His disciples said to him “Lord teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” And he said to them “when you pray, say: ‘Father, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come! Give us each day our daily bread; and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us; and lead us not into temptation.’” (RSV Luke 11:1-4).

But there is no mention of praying in Jesus’ name. The earliest instance of praying in Jesus’ name may be Paul’s prayer language regarding the gathering at Rome: “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you…” (Rom 1:8; also Eph 5:20; Col 3:17). But this is likely just a recognition that all approaches to God should be made through Jesus the mediator (Ephesians 2:14-18), rather than a specific indication that early Christians ended prayers “in Jesus name.”

Nevertheless, Jesus’ name does appear in early literature authorizing the performance of miraculous deeds. His name is represented as being a powerful force. Demons are cast out and other mighty works are done using the formula “in the name of Jesus” (Matt 7:22; [Mark 16:17]). Peter, for example, heals a lame man saying: “‘In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, Walk!’ And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong” (Acts 3:6-7, 16; 4:10). Paul drives a spirit of divination out of a slave girl by saying, “I charge you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her, and it came out that very hour” (Acts16:18). Unspecified “signs and wonders” are also performed “through the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:29-30). In one instance a person who was not even a part of Jesus’ band of disciples was casting out demons by using the name of Jesus (Mark 9:38-39=Luke 9:49-50). So the evangelists apparently regarded power as residing “in the name of Jesus.” Incidentally I know of one contemporary scholar, critically trained, who claims to have stopped a thunder storm and other such things by saying “in Jesus name.”

Perhaps the greatest claim for the name of Jesus is made in the Shepherd of Hermas, Similitudes 14:5: “The name of the Son of God is great and incomprehensible and supports the whole world,” a claim similar to Colossians 1:15-20.

Traditional Reformation-era churches regard the performance of these kinds of mighty deeds performed using Jesus’ name, as restricted to the “Apostolic Age.” That is, such things were actually done, but only during the time of the earliest apostles, which one New Testament introduction dates as 30-65.1 Nevertheless, today in contemporary churches many of these deeds are thought to continue into the modern period. The Catholic Church, for example, has scheduled a week-long international conference in Rome on the exorcism of demons for April of 2018.2 In 1990 the International Association of Exorcists, a Roman Catholic organization, was founded and recognized by the Vatican in 2014.3

Does anyone know the earliest time in recorded history that the words “in the name of Jesus, Amen” (or the equivalent in any language) appeared at the end of a prayer?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1R. W. Crapps, E. V. McKnight, D. A. Smith, Introduction to the New Testament (1969), 373. The apostolic age is generally considered to be the period from around 30 to 100, covering the period of the lives of the earliest disciples/apostles.
2Springfield News-Leader, Feb 25, 2018, B2.