Monday, October 7, 2019

Dismantling a Scholar's Library

Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh (Eccl 12:12, RSV).

A true statement! But it tells only half the story. Much study may weary the “flesh,” but it encourages the spirit and enlightens the mind.

When you come bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments (2 Tim 4:13, RSV).

We need books and, as the writer of this statement notes, we collect them. We cannot hold everything in mind, but if we can remember the book, we can find therein, precisely stated, the information our brain only half remembered.

Shapan read [the book] before the king. And when the king heard the words of the book of the law, he rent his clothes (2 Kgs 22:10-11, RSV).

Books can regenerate a community; books change the course of one’s life. Hence there is little wonder that we find libraries to be essential.

            Sometimes books become a difficulty, however, especially when one finds it necessary to change one’s residence. For then one discovers a large library collection is a major problem, as I recently have been made aware. We waited entirely too long to begin downsizing in preparation to move near children who would be able to assist us in our advanced years (she, 83; me 85)—the child becomes the father of the man! Our 39 years in Springfield, Missouri had seen us gather through inattention a mass of “stuff”: luggage, brief cases, photos, pictures, clothing gathering dust in closets, “stuff” at the bottom of stacks of other “stuff,” office material, mementos, et cetera and so forth.

            In my case there were also several thousand volumes of books collected over a lifetime of professional study of religion, which included a 30 year teaching career. Unfortunately there is little interest among the American public for technical books written in Hebrew, Greek, Coptic, French and German—the languages one must master to be granted membership into the guild of New Testament scholars. What does a scholar* do near the end of life with a well-worn research library, especially when University libraries are reducing their collections of print media and increasing their electronic media. Journals are now online (so I tossed out all my journals), as are certain major works of the previous generations of scholars. In short, as a collection my library is an unwanted commodity with no real financial value.

            That prompts the question what does a critical scholar of religion leave behind when his library is not valued? That valuation seems to pass over also onto his published books and articles. Had I been an architect, my legacy would have been written in buildings of mortar and stone that passed into the next century; were I a physician I might have perfected a new surgical technique or discovered a new cure for the many illness of humankind; were I a lawyer I might have been survived by legal briefs that inspired laws improving the common lot. A critical scholar of religion, however, leaves behind books and articles that may or may not even find a place in the history of scholarship; if fortunate they may find shelf space in libraries and used book stores. Should the guild make it so, a scholar during his career might have discovered what becomes accepted solutions to nagging problems in New Testament Studies, or perhaps raise new questions about the discipline. Discovering new problems for the guild to ponder would have been a singular achievement—for solutions come and go but the enduring questions of New Testament Study seem to have a very long life for those who read with a critical spirit (for example, did Q really exist or is it doomed forever to be a scholar’s invented [hypothetical] source for partially explaining differences between the Synoptic Gospels).

            What then should I do with my professional library if I cannot sell it or donate it as a collection? Here is what I did: I invited a few of my local colleagues and former students to come by and select whatever they wanted from the collection after I had packed what I regarded as the basic tools of my discipline (I included few commentaries and specific studies) for moving to a much smaller home. I offered this in the interest of finding my books a good home. My books are good friends and have served me well in the past 50 years, or more and still have good years remaining. What books remain on my shelves when they have finished their selections will regrettably be abandoned to their fate in the estate sale—a sad ending! But endings are accompanied by new beginnings. What’s next?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

*A scholar is one who has done advanced study in a special field, and is guided in his/her studies by the spirit of criticism: that is, to make judgments in the light of evidence.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Of lowly Prepositions and Bible Contradictions

A preposition is a “linguistic form that combines with a noun, pronoun, or noun equivalent to form a phrase that typically has an adverbial, adjectival, or substantival relation to some other word.”1 There is a recurring phrase in three of the gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and Revelation that refers to a certain figure coming in the future. His coming is associated with heavenly clouds. In the gospels this figure is the Son of Man and in the Book of Revelation this figure is the resurrected Lord Jesus.2

            All of these recurring expressions are thought by New Testament Scholars to be derived from the Book of Daniel 7:1-28, where the author says:

I saw in the night visions and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him (Daniel 7:13, RSV).

The preposition (‘m) in the phrase “with the clouds of heaven” is regularly translated as with and it is so translated in the Septuagint (Greek translation of Hebrew Bible) as meta, which is “with” in Greek. The image evoked by the phrase (“coming with the clouds of heaven”) is unclear—that is to say: do the clouds surround him or precede him or follow in his wake?

            In the New Testament three different Greek prepositions are used in the phrase “coming [with, in, upon] the clouds of heaven. Two verses (Mark 14:62; Rev 1:73) use the preposition “with,” as it appears in Dan 7:13. Three verses (Mark 13:26; Luke 21:27, 1 Thess 4:174) use the preposition “in” (en in Greek). The image evoked by the phrase (coming in the clouds of heaven) is also unclear. Is the figure covered by the cloud, or among the clouds in the air? There are parallels in Hebrew Bible for this figure being covered by (that is, he is “within”) the cloud (Exod 19:9, 24:15-16, 34:5; Lev 16:2; Num 11:25, 12:5). On the other hand, five verses (Matt 24:30, 26:64; Rev 14:14-16) use the preposition “upon” (epi in Greek). There is no question about the image evoked in these verses. The figure is upon the cloud (in Revelation he is “seated” upon the cloud).

Ancient Gods were associated with heavenly clouds. The Greek God Zeus, for example, lived on Mount Olympus among the clouds and was called the “Cloud-gatherer”; and the Canaanite storm God, Baal, was known as the “Rider of the Clouds.” Here is a similar statement from Hebrew Bible:

An oracle concerning Egypt: Behold, the Lord is riding on a swift cloud (Isa 19:1, RSV).

Artists have shown a great fascination with the subject of the triumphant Christ returning [with, in, upon] clouds of heaven. Modern readers of the Bible, however, should note that a scientific view of clouds was common knowledge in 5th century BC Greece. Here is a quotation from a comedy by the Greek playwright, Aristophanes, making that clear:

[I]s the phenomenon of rain best explained as a precipitation of totally fresh water, or is it merely a case of the same old rainwater in continuous re-use slowly condensed by the Clouds and then precipitated once more as rain?5

For the careful critical reader, the inconsistencies between the images and their obvious mythology do little to inspire confidence in the historical credibility of the biblical narrative. Only in myth, romance, or fiction do clouds become stable platforms for divinities.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, s.v. “preposition.”
2Critical Scholars in general think that the “Son of Man” is an apocalyptic figure other than the resurrected Christ. See Funk and Hoover, The Five Gospels (Harper, 1993), 76-77.
3A few manuscripts change the preposition “with” to “upon” (epi in Greek) in these verses.
41 Thess 4:17 refers to the saints “in the clouds,” while the Lord is “in [eis] the air.”
5From The Clouds: W. Arrowsmith, Four Plays by Aristophanes (Meridian, 1994), 125.