Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Myth and Mystery

Profiling the Early Christian Mind1

Writers of the New Testament use the words “myth” and “mystery,” suggesting that the mindset of early followers of Jesus may, in part, be described as arrogant, anxious, aggressive, and intolerant. They were lacking in critical thought and were hampered by a lack of curiosity. Features such as these might today be described as symptomatic of a personality disorder.

The word “myth” appears in a few of the later texts of the New Testament where it is always employed with a pejorative edge. The term is used to disparage the views of others and defame those holding such views (1 Tim 1:3-4; 4:7; 2 Tim 4:3-4; Titus 1:14; 2 Pet 1:16). The word “mystery” suggests early followers of Jesus are confessing to a type of cognitive dissonance. “Mystery,” on the other hand, is generally used positively to describe the incomprehensible working of divine power, which the early followers of Jesus struggled to understand rationally. There were five issues that perplexed them and oddly some of these issues still remain problems for the modern Christian mind. These five issues are: the mystery of the failure of the Jewish mission (Rom 11:25-29); the mystery of the spiritual body (1 Cor 15:51-52); the mystery of God’s will to unite all things in Christ (Eph 1:9-10); the mystery of lawlessness already at work (2 Thess 2:1-12); the mystery of Christ (1 Tim 3:16).

The canonical gospels use “mystery” to describe a deliberate strategy used by Jesus to teach about the kingdom of God in oblique language in order to prevent the unwashed masses from understanding his teaching (Mark 4:11-12=Matt 13:11-12=Luke 8:10). The Book of Revelation uses the word almost as an equivalent of the word “puzzle” (Rev 1:20; 17:5, 7). Revelation 10:7 is obscure when it refers to “the mystery of God being fulfilled.”

What I have attempted above is to “profile” writers of certain New Testament texts. When scholars of ancient history attempt to characterize a figure of the past, they engage in “profiling.” A profile is a concise biographical sketch, but depending on the available evidence a more complete description might be possible. “Profiling” is an act whereby the researcher infers the likely character traits of individuals on the basis of the profiler’s data and reasoning. Depending on the amount of data available it may, however, amount to little more than educated guessing. In law enforcement profiling an unknown perpetrator consists in inferring the traits of individuals responsible for committing criminal acts. Speculation, however, is a conjecture without firm evidence. Hence a profile is a collection of inferences from data.

In New Testament studies drawing inferences about an author using textual data is an accepted practice. Scholars routinely describe an author’s beliefs on the basis of statements in the text. For example, Joseph Fitzmyer in his esteemed two volume commentary of the Gospel of Luke provides a rather lengthy sketch of Lucan theology.2 The author of Luke is actually unknown and scholars who describe the theology of anonymous authors are basically profiling an unknown subject (an “unsub” in police jargon). It is also the practice of New Testament scholars to profile known authors of texts—Paul for example. They will even include psychoanalytical assessments of known and unknown figures from what has been written about those figures, as is regularly done with Jesus of Nazareth.3

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1This essay is an adapted excerpt from an essay recently published in The Fourth R, volume 32.5, September-October 2019, 7-10, 20.
2Fitzmyer, The Gospel according to Luke I-IX, Anchor Bible 28 (Doubleday, 1979), 143-270.
3For example, Marcus J. Borg, Jesus a New Vision. Spirit, Culture, and the Life of Discipleship (Harper & Row, 1987), 39-56.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

The Land of Forgetfulness

Radio and TV preachers are fond of scaring the hell out of their audiences and trying to put them on the straight and narrow by painting a visual image of Hell as a fiery place of punishment (Rev 21:8; 14:10; 19:20; 20:10). Oddly enough the word Hell does not even appear in the Greek New Testament. Several words for the place of punishment of evil-doers appear in the New Testament,1 but Hell is not among them. The Biblical Greek word is "Hades" (usually translated as Hell). The worst thing to fear about Hades and Sheol (the land of departed spirits in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament), however, is not the New Testament fire and brimstone [sulpher], for how could actual fire affect a nonmaterial entity (soul, spirit)?2

            The most terrifying thing about Sheol is loss of memory. In the ancient world, in both Hebrew and Greek traditions the dead continue in a kind of semi-existence. It is once referred to as "the Land of Forgetfulness." The psalmist questions God:

Is thy steadfast love declared in the grave,
or thy faithfulness in Abaddon?
Are thy wonders known in the darkness,
or thy saving help in the land of forgetfulness? (Psalm 88:12-13, RSV)

The place the psalmist inquires about is not the fictional Land of the Lotus Eaters in the Odyssey,3 but rather the mythical place of departed spirits in Semitic and Greek antiquity, as the Hebrew parallelism with "the grave" and "Abaddon" (Rev 9:11) makes clear. Sheol is described as "the land of gloom and deep darkness where light is as darkness" (Job 10:21). The dead are there, but as "not existing" (Sirach 17:27-28). They are spiritless shades (Baruch  2:17) that know nothing (Eccl 9:5). In Sheol the dead are but shadows of their former living state; thinking, feeling, purposeful action, and remembering are finished, for in Sheol the vacant, thoughtless, and oblivious monotony of death reigns.

            In Greek mythology the underworld was ruled over by the Greek God Hades. His kingdom was populated by the shades of those who had died. One of the five rivers running through Hades was called Lethe (forgetfulness, oblivion). The dead drank of the waters of this mythical river and instantly lost their memories. For example, Odysseus journeyed to the mythical land of Hades, the land of death, and found his mother's shade. She did not know him until she sipped blood that Odysseus poured out; then she knew him.4

Both Sheol and Hades hold a terror worse than a lake burning with fire. Being bereft of memory is a loss of self identity and hence a loss of self; it is in a sense a kind of living death. You "live," but it is no longer that person you once were, but someone without a past—where one has neither memory of childhood nor of one's own children.

            The places of punishment in the Judeo-Christian tradition are mythical locations. Yet there is a real location, sharing the terror of Sheol and Hades, in which the land of forgetfulness becomes a contemporary reality. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) dementia/Alzheimer's "is a syndrome in which there is a deterioration in memory, thinking, behavior, and the ability to perform every day activities." The syndrome is not a normal part of aging and there is no current treatment either to cure dementia or slow its progression. Approximately, 50 million people around the world suffer from dementia. Alzheimer's is the most common form of the disease; the WHO estimates that 60-70% of dementia sufferers may have Alzheimer's disease. The WHO claims that "there are nearly 10 million new cases every year," and further estimates the number of people with dementia will be 82 million in 2030 and 152 million in 2050.5

            One could debate which of the two is the greater threat to the human psychē—the mythical hell of Sheol and Hades or the living hell of dementia/Alzheimer's. It seems to me, however, that dementia is by far the greater threat, for dementia robs sufferers of the integrity of life in the land of living in the here and now rather than in some mythical future. I seriously doubt, however, that true believers will see it that way.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1See Hedrick, Wry Thoughts on Religion Blog: "Does Hell Exist," August 29, 2015: http://blog.charleshedrick.com/search?q=hell
2Well, maybe, a mythical, magic fire might. 
3In this land all who eat the intoxicating fruit of the lotus "longed to stay forever, browsing on that native bloom, forgetful of their homeland" (Book 9).
4The Odyssey, Book 11