Sunday, December 22, 2013

History, Historical Narrative, and Mark’s Gospel

I begin at the beginning: what is the definition of history?
The definitions of history in Random House College Dictionary read as follows: history is (1) “The branch of knowledge dealing with past events”; (2) “a continuous systematic narrative of past events as relating to a particular people, country, period, person, etc., usually written in chronological order”; (3) “the aggregate of past events”; and (4) “the record of past events, especially in connection with the human race.”  Basically these break down into three ways of viewing history: it is a branch of scientific inquiry; it is everything that happened in the past; it is a narrative reconstructing what happened in the past.  Webster’s Third International Dictionary (unabridged) agrees with these three ways of defining history but in its listing of options gives precedence to the idea that history is a narrative of events or a systematic written account comprising a chronological record.  The idea that history is principally a narrative of past events can threaten the independent reality of the lived past.
At a recent conference (Society of Biblical Literature) one panel speaker claimed: “History is only available in narrative”—I objected claiming that history was a reality in its own right completely apart from all historical narratives.  Narratives change as new information and insights become available, but the lived reality that was history is what it was, whether we can recover it or not.
History is all the millions and billions of things that have ever happened in the past—significant and insignificant, public and private, natural and arranged, remembered and forgotten, personal and impersonal, seemly and unseemly, etc.  Narratives about that aggregate of the lived past are attempts to reconstruct it—not in its aggregate totality but in what the historian considers its more significant aspects.
Bits and pieces of the aggregate that was our historical past actually survive apart from the historical narrative in the residue, artifacts, residua, and relics of the past.  These odds and ends are the raw data of history, remainders of a lived past before it was codified into the Master Narrative of a given reconstructed history.  For example, remainders of the lived past of the Battle of Gettysburg survive in such things as official lists of the dead and wounded, anecdotal reports of the battle from observers or participants, military dispatches, photos, maps, prisoner lists, scattered equipment from the battlefield, etc.  Historians rely on these bits and pieces of the lived past as well as on their imaginations to fill in gaps in the data.
History itself is something far different than historical narrative.  History consists in billions of events themselves as played out at the time—momentarily present but they then immediately become part of the lived past.  The reality that was the living moment as it was actually lived can never be recaptured, but its scattered bones (artifacts and memories) can be gathered, catalogued, and analyzed.  The historian aims to revive a given living moment by making connections between bits of data and imagining how things might have played themselves out given the data at the historian’s disposal.  Thus the historian codifies the lived past into historical narrative.  But a given historical narrative is no more “history” than a corpse is a human being.
A narrative cannot be historical if it is not informed by the residua of the lived past.  And hence a historical narrative cannot be “history” as such, but it is only an attempt at reconstructing the lived past through its residua.  A narrative about the lived past is historically reliable as a reconstruction only to the extent that it conforms to the residua of the lived past, and only to the extent that the historian’s imagination corresponds to a critical sense of what is actually real.
This way of looking at history and historical narrative has significant implications for the historical character of the Gospel of Mark, our earliest gospel in the view of a majority of modern scholars.  No residua of the lived past informs Mark’s narrative except unconfirmed oral reports, which scholars assume that Mark had at hand when composing the narrative.  Mark’s imaginative composition of the story, however, does not conform to a modern critical sense of what is real, or even to that represented by the finest history writing of the ancient past, such as is represented, for example, by Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War (5th century BCE).  Mark’s historical narrative turns out to be pious historical fiction written for the purpose of informing the reader about the origins of the gospel (Mark 1:1) preached by the Markan community in the latter half of the first century.
Many contemporary scholars, however, routinely treat Mark as though the narrative and the lived past are as Mark imagined it—in other words what Mark says happened, actually happened that way.  Thinking of history as lived past and historical narrative as an attempt to reconstruct that lived past puts Mark in its place as a questionable reconstruction of the events of the lived past of Galilee and Judea in the first third of the first century.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Tuesday, December 3, 2013


Truth is: the ideas by which each of us decides to govern our lives. Hence truth is multiple.  I think of truth as comprised of Big Truths and little truths.  A Big Truth is the primary, or organizing, principle around which we organize our lives.  Little truths can be moral, ethical, or practical, but little truths are not the consuming passion of one's life; under the right circumstances little truths can easily be modified.  Particularly the little truths make it possible for us to live comfortably in community.  The Big Truths, however, divide us.
            Everyone does not hold the same Big Truth, and hence they often disrupt life in community.  The Big Truths are usually moral and ethical in the extreme and can be classed in the following categories: political, religious, economic, cultural, social, racial, etc.  Some examples of Big Truths are: that big government is bad for the economy—which leads in the extreme to sequestration and government shut down; or that there is only one true religion, which leads in the extreme to prejudice, persecution of minority religions, and pogroms; or that racial minorities are lesser human beings than persons in the dominant group, which leads in the extreme to economic exploitation of minorities, persecution, and pogroms.
Little truths have not escalated (and may not) into an all consuming Big Truth.  And to some extent they are negotiable depending on the circumstances.  For example, consider the little truth "honesty is the best policy": if you run a red light, you will be fined (but only if you get caught); or if you plagiarize the work of another, it will damage your reputation (but only if you get caught).  The little truth "when in Rome, do as the Romans do," if disregarded in London (where they drive on the left-hand side of the road) will result in an accident for Americans who disregard it (but not if they are lucky).  The moral truth "human life is precious" if interpreted against under Roe versus Wade, which is thought by most Americans to best consider the rights of all citizens, can result in harm to the fetus (but only if you choose that option).  All little truths and their applications are subject to change and modification; Big Truths are not so easily modified.
The Big Truth of whatever variety inevitably brings every other truth under the driving force of the belief that my Big Truth is absolutely True, and that person who has found this absolute Truth will judge all other truths, Big and little, in its light.  Some of those current cultural Big Truths in today's society are, for example: abortion is murder; marriage is between one man and one woman; homosexuality is a sin; sexual acts are only for the reproduction of the species.  Big Truth-finders are unable to appreciate the circumstances and truths of others who don't share their Big Truth.
            The poet, Wallace Stevens, expresses the idea of giving up the truth and discovering the diversity of the world like this:
It was when I said,
"There is no such thing as the truth,"
That the grapes seemed fatter.
The fox ran out of his hole.
You . . . You said,
"There are many truths,
But they are not parts of a truth."
Then the tree, at night, began to change . . . . ("On the Road Home")
In short, we hold different truths in varying degrees!  But holders of a Big Truth will dismiss the value of every other truth if it conflicts with the prime insight that their Big Truth is absolutely true—hence the only way to find the diversity of truth is by giving up the Big Truth.  Big Truth-finders are myopic and cannot see the manifold nature of truth.
It does happen, however, that from time to time people give up their Big Truths.  Paul, the apostle of Christ, for example, gave up the Big Truth of Judaism only to replace it with the Big Truth of the Christ.  But, on the other hand, some also give up the Big Truth of Christianity for other truths.  Demas, the close companion of Paul (Philemon 24), is accused by a later writer of deserting Paul, "because he loved the present world" (2 Timothy 4:10).  The distinguished New Testament historian, Robert W. Funk, who held a Bachelor of Divinity and a Masters degree from the Disciples of Christ Butler University and its affiliated Christian Seminary gave up the Big Truth of the Christ for the practical truths of historical and literary criticism; and later founded the Jesus Seminar.
There is no one single Truth, no matter how Big, that can accommodate all truths by which people live.  The truth is we decide what truth is.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Waiting for God/Waiting for Godot

"Waiting for God" was a British sitcom (1990-94) about the residents of a retirement community in England.  Life in the home was anything but boring.  Every week residential life was depicted full of zany activities, with rare moments of pathos—it was after all a comedy!  In real life, however, I suspect the situation is much different.
Except for the idle rich, figuring out what to do with life is a problem that under the best of circumstances primarily concerns young adults and the very aged.  In our youth there are many options, but in advanced old age options are severely reduced.  Because of health issues life in very old age can even border on the tedious, somewhat like the situation depicted in Samuel Beckett's strange play in two acts (Waiting for Godot, 1953) featuring two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, waiting on a road beside a tree for someone called Godot—who never comes.  Things happen in the play true enough, but there seems little point to it all, and at the end of the play the two protagonists are left, still waiting for Godot, whom they are told "will surely come tomorrow."  The play is not intended as an allegory, says the playwright, which leaves the audience pondering what sense to make of the absurdity of it all.
            Sitting, beside the road, absurdly waiting is where many in advanced old age find themselves, pondering what to make of their situation.  They are in the world but no longer of it—in the sense that they are no longer contributing to the principal structures of society.  The primary option left open to them, health permitting, is that of "helper."  More often than not, in the case of many, they are simply marking time and wondering when life's last great adventure will begin.
Like the mammals we are, human beings are biologically hard-wired for survival, and for active participation in life as protagonists or actors, rather than being consigned to last season's sets stored away when the play is done.  We are naturally curious and motivated to aspire, rather than to despair—self-survival, curiosity, and aspiration may very well be the primary features that make us human.
Alas, another feature of our humanity is mortality, so many of us will not make it into advanced old age.  Those of us that do, if they are fortunate enough to avoid the "Big C" in the spinning down of their lives, will experience unexpected health issues with which they are unprepared to cope: loss of independence, restricted mobility, lack of energy, loss of hearing, failing eyesight, inability to focus, imbalance, short term memory loss, forgetfulness, arthritis, Alzheimer's, the shrinking of our world and our prospects in it—to mention only a few.  Under such conditions we are apt to forget that we humans come from a long tribe of explorers and world adventurers--finding cures for smallpox and tuberculosis, overcoming superstition through education, leaving footprints on the moon and much more.  At this stage of life, however, it is small consolation to be reminded that we are fortunate enough to be at this point in life only because of the accomplishments of our tribe!  Then the struggle will commence between the nobler aspects of our humanity and its baser character.
            Remembering we belong to a proud species, we take each day as it comes, accepting what it brings and always aiming higher, even if it is only to take just one step more than the previous day. The opening stanza of a poem by Dylan Thomas expresses in my opinion the essence of what it means to be human in advanced old age:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
To do less diminishes humanity to its baser elements.
How do you see it?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Friday, November 1, 2013

An Allusion in Search of a Narrative: Betraying Jesus

The tradition about Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Jesus, may be a simple case of early Christian creative fiction.  The earliest mention of betrayal comes in a liturgical text associating "the night on which [Jesus] was betrayed" with the Eucharist (1 Cor 11:23-25).  No further description is given and no betrayer named.  Paul did not know the stories about Judas' betrayal of Jesus in the early Christian gospels, which in his day had not yet been written.  Paul's passing allusion to a cryptic betrayal was a mystery in search of a narrative to clarify it.
A generation or so later (around 70 C.E.), Mark's Passion Narrative (chaps. 14-16) begins with a plot by the chief priests and scribes to arrest Jesus "by stealth" for they were afraid of starting a riot (Mark 14:1-2)—one assumes their fear derived from the popularity of Jesus with the crowds (Mark 11:18-19).  Judas Iscariot is portrayed as an insider in Jesus' circle who offered "to betray him," and the chief priests offered him an unstated amount of money for the service (Mark 14:10-12).  What was being betrayed is unclear. One assumes that Judas promised to disclose a place where Jesus could be arrested away from the crowds, for it happened that way (Mark 14:32-50).  Judas came with a rabble organized "by the chief priests, scribes and elders," to Gethsemane and betrayed Jesus with a kiss.  Jesus, however, was a public figure and his whereabouts were clearly known (Mark 11:15-13:1), as Jesus himself complained at his arrest (Mark 14:49), alluding mysteriously to an unnamed scripture being "fulfilled."  It strains credulity to think that his whereabouts out of the public eye could not easily have been known without an informer.  Judas' motives are unknown.  He asked for nothing, although the priests promised him an unspecified amount of money.  What happened to Judas is also unknown.  Mark apparently lost interest in continuing his story.
Sometime after Mark was written, the Judas tradition underwent significant developments.  In Matthew the chief priests and elders plot to take Jesus "by stealth and kill him" (Matt 26:3-4). Judas volunteers to betray Jesus, asking for an unspecified consideration in return: "What will you give me if I deliver him to you?" (Matt 26:14-15), and they paid him "thirty pieces of silver."  Matthew, prompted by what he regarded as a "prophecy," has turned Mark's unstated amount of money into "thirty pieces of silver" (Zechariah 11:12; cf., Exodus 21:32)—as the "prophecy" foretold.  Judas came with a rabble organized by the chief priests and elders to Gethsemane, and betrayed Jesus with a kiss (Matt 26:47-50).  Later, conscience-stricken, Judas repented, returned the thirty pieces of silver to the temple, and hanged himself (Matt 27:3-5).  The chief priests, regarding the thirty pieces of silver as "blood money," purchased a potter's field, which according to Matthew, fulfills a prophecy (Matt 27:7-10) in Zechariah 11:13 (not Jeremiah!).  In so doing, Matthew made an unfortunate association between Judas the betrayer of Jesus and the good shepherd of Zechariah chapter 11.
Sometime later, unaware of Matthew's narrative, Luke described Judas as the "pawn" of Satan.  Under the influence of an evil power, Judas did not come to the chief priests and scribes seeking money, 22:3-6, but simply offered to betray Jesus because Satan had "entered into" him (Luke 22:3).  He was given money, but that was not his motive (Luke 22:4-6). His motive was not rational but demon inspired.   Judas then led the crowd to the Mount of Olives, and among them were officers of the temple, chief priests, and elders (22:39, 47-54).  Luke completes the story of Judas in his second volume (the Acts of the Apostles).  Under the influence of what Luke regards as "prophecies" (Psalm 69:26; 109:8), he describes the death of Judas (Acts 1:16-20) as falling, breaking "open in the middle," and his bowels gushed out.
At the end of the first century in John's story there is no indication of money for information. Judas has become the helpless puppet of the Devil; Jesus knew ahead of time what Judas would do (John 13:11), and described him as a devil (John 6:70-71)—not simply "demon possessed," as Luke does. John cites a "prophecy" about a specific act of betrayal (Psalm 41:10), apparently unknown to the other evangelists. The character of Judas is castigated as only pretending to be interested in the plight of the poor, for he was really a thief (John 12:4-8), who betrayed his friends by taking money from the group's money box (John 12:6; 13:29). Twice it is said of Judas that the devil put it into his heart to betray Jesus (John13:2, 27).  While the chief priests and Pharisees wanted to kill Jesus (John 11:47-53), there was no collusion between Judas and the priests to accomplish it.  Judas, prompted by Jesus (John13:27), procures a "band of soldiers" (John 18:2-3) and leads the band of soldiers with their captain and officers of the Jews to a garden to seize Jesus (John 18:1-12).  Judas' fate is not described in John.
The Pauline allusion to an ambiguous betrayal has found four different narratives in a half century: (1) a dubious idea that an insider provided unnecessary information in exchange for financial considerations, shaped by figurative readings of unstated "scriptures" (Mark); (2) an enhancement of Mark's narrative, shaped by figurative interpretations ("prophecies") of Hebrew Bible (Matthew); (3) an enhancement of Mark's narrative attributing the betrayal to demonic possession, shaped by figurative interpretations ("prophecies") of Hebrew Bible (Luke); a mythical narrative of the transmogrification of Judas into a devil, shaped by figurative interpretations ("prophecies") of Hebrew Bible (John).
Where is the history in these imaginative fictions?  All four are clearly shaped by early Christian hermeneutic.  In Luke and John the betrayal is accomplished by the superstition (the ancient pre-scientific worldview) that the world is inhabited by demons.  Mark's depiction of Jesus as a public figure is a serious obstacle to the idea that an informer is even necessary.
What are your thoughts?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Parables as Poetic Fictions—Questions from a Reader

I received this set of questions about my view of parables as stated in my book Many Things in Parables from a doctoral candidate in Australia.  My comments in italics follow the questions.
[Q] This is not actually a question about one of your blog posts, but rather about one of your books. I have been reading "Many Things in Parables" and am not sure if I quite understand how you conceptualise parables as symbol/poetic fiction.
[A] "Parables as symbols" is a suggestion made by the late New Testament scholar Norman Perrin but the idea has never attracted any interest among scholars.  You are correct that I regard parables as poetic fictions.  They are invented stories, creations of Jesus' ingenuity and observations of life around him.  I do not regard parables as symbols; see pages 65-66 of Many Things in Parables.
[Q] I *think* that what you are saying is something like this: Parables are polyvalent partly because rather than expecting the reader/hearer to stand outside and analyse them, they invite her/him to enter their world and will therefore evoke different responses from different people, depending on what they bring to the parable.
[A] The nature of narrative is to engage readers and draw them into its narrative world—as the late Bob Funk put it "to take up roles in the narrative."  Polyvalence/polysemy (the potential for generating multiple meanings) thus is innate to narrative, as the history of parables scholarship clearly shows with its multiple contradictory explanations given to the same story.
[Q] Some parables also function as allegories? metaphors? because they are so constructed that they draw the reader/hearer out of the parable in a particular direction – ie, it is obvious to what or whom various elements of the parable refer. If this is the case, then the intention is that the parable has referential qualities. If not, it isn't appropriate to try to analyse it in this way.
 [A] Metaphor and allegory, deliberately created as such, use either heightened or unusual language to deliberately refer the mind "away-from-here" to some other specific thing.  Allegory and metaphor are also reading strategies.  In the case of allegory certain language in parables is regarded as heightened or unusual and is thought to serve as code or a cipher for something else.  In the case of metaphor the reading strategy is to regard the entire narrative as a figure describing one thing under the guise of something else—i. e., the narrative is not really about a woman making dough (Matt 13:33), but rather about the kingdom of God.  I argue, however, that those parables of Jesus, which have not been modified by early Christian interpretation (like Mark 12:1-8, par.; but compare the more realistic version in the Gospel of Thomas), on the other hand, are realistic narrative.  Their realism works against their being allegory or metaphor, and serves as a brake to fanciful interpretations.  Those who want to argue that parables are allegory or metaphor must validate their judgment by identifying the language in the parable that deliberately propels the mind outward in the target direction of the interpretation, and must show how such language is a deliberately designed "trigger" to lead the mind out of the story in a specific direction.
[Q] Another part of the polyvalence of parables comes from the fact that they are open ended – they have no conclusions that tell readers how they should react, nor do they make moral judgements on characters, so readers make sense of them out of what they bring to it.
[A] From my perspective you have stated the situation correctly.

[Q] While there is no one 'correct' interpretation, there is a range of plausible historical readings.

 [A] Yes, that is my view.  Readers of the parables who allow themselves to be guided by the realism of the parable will find a range of plausible readings for the parable that a fair person would likely admit: "yes, I can see how you came up with that reading.  Readers who disregard the realism of the parables will inevitably produce what I regard as implausible readings, such as Mark does with regard to The Sower (4:14-20).  Implausible readings leave one perplexed as to how the interpreter arrived at such a reading of the parable.

[Q] Some people may not respond at all to a particular parable (and that's not a problem), but if they do, the parable will suggest to them different ways of experiencing and living in the world.

[A] Narrative, which a parable is, can raise a reader's awareness of new ways of viewing and acting in the world, but it can also influence a reader to challenge former cherished beliefs and ideas—it is simply in the nature of narrative to do that.  Frank Kermode said that narratives "are ways of finding things out"—nothing mysterious about it.  So narratives that are read carefully can either change a person's life, or at the very least unsettle the old way of life.

[Q] The comparative frames and interpretations are later additions, rather than from Jesus, so we need to look at the parables without them to get the full range of possible meanings.

 [A] Yes!  Precisely so! When the fictional story-world of Jesus stops, readers enter the evangelist's story-world about Jesus.  Interpretations of the parables are from the evangelist's story-world about Jesus.  Only the story originates with Jesus; interpretations come either from the evangelists or early Christian interpretation.  I have argued in a separate essay that Mark is likely responsible for the introductory frame "the kingdom of God is like...." If that is correct, Jesus himself never used his parables as metaphors or symbols for the kingdom.

[Q] Would that be a reasonable summary? Have I misunderstood, or missed out something critical?
[A] See pages 83-88 of Many Things in Parables for my brief statement of my own view, its critique by Amos Wilder, and my response to Wilder.  Two essays published on parables since the appearance of Many Things in Parables may or may not add something further to the approach to parables as poetic fictions: "Flawed Heroes and Stories Jesus Told: The One about a Killer," pp. 4.3023-56 in Tom Holmén and Stanley Porter, Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus (2011); and "Survivors of the Crucifixion. Searching for Profiles in the Parables," pp. 165-80 in Ruben Zimmerman and Gabi Kern, eds., Hermeneutik der Gleichnisse Jesu (2008).
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Gospel of Mark is Wrong—and other Quibbles!

Perhaps I should say Mark is clearly incorrect in at least two places, and that fact has been known since the late second century.  Jerome (4th/5th century) in a letter (57.9) cites the writings of early critics of Christianity (Celsus, On the True Doctrine [late 2nd century], Porphyry, Against the Christians [3rd/4th century], and Julian, Against the Galilaeans [fourth century] ) on a number of errors, which according to Jerome these critics of Mark called "falsifications."  Probably many of my readers will be unfamiliar with the two errors I describe here, but they are well known to most historians of Christian origins.
Jerome calls Celsus, Porphyry, and Julian "impious men," but he does not deny the errors.  One well known error is Mark's citation (Mark 1:1-3) of a passage supposedly from Isaiah, but which turns out to be a collage of Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3.  A second error is even more glaring.  In Mark 2:25-26 Jesus cites the actions of David who "entered the house of God when Abiathar was High Priest."  When this event happened, however, actually Ahimelech was high priest (1 Samuel 21:1-6); Abiathar was his son and met David only after the bread incident in the house of God (1 Samuel 22:20-23).
            Jerome in response to the first error simply solicits the indulgence of the reader for Mark's error, and for the second he argued that the evangelists were more concerned with the sense of Old Testament passages than with giving the literal words (Letter 57.9).  Matthew and Luke correct Mark's errors in the following ways: Matthew (3:3) and Luke (3:4-6) correct Mark by eliminating the words of Malachi and then the reference to Isaiah (40:3) is correct—Luke also adds more material (40:3-5) to the Isaiah quotation.  Both Matthew and Luke also correct Mark's historical error in naming the wrong high priest by simply eliminating Mark's erroneous phrase: "when Abiathar was high priest" (Matt 12:4; Luke 6:3).
            Strictly speaking, the ascription of Mark 1:1-3 to Isaiah is wrong, for the passage contains statements from both Malachi and Isaiah.  Strictly speaking, David took the dedicated bread from the altar when Ahimelech was high priest; so Mark was wrong when he says the incident took place when Abiathar was high priest.
            What do these obvious errors suggest about Mark's reporting of his narrative of the public career of Jesus?  Perhaps nothing!  But since we have no way of verifying his narrative and its details, we should take it very seriously when we catch him in an error.  These obvious errors suggest that we should read the gospel closely and not give Mark a pass when other questionable statements are reported in his account.  For example, Mark egregiously exaggerates in reporting that John, the baptizer, baptized "all the county of Judea and all the people of Jerusalem" (Mark 1:5) and exaggerates again at Mark 1:33 in reporting that the "whole city was gathered at the door."  Mark is simply not reporting responsibly in these instances.  Accuracy in historical detail is not in itself a signature of historical narrative, but inaccuracy in historical detail is a clear warning of the possible historical unreliability of the narrative.
            Questions can also be raised about some of the sources of the narratives Mark reports—specifically with respect to how Mark knows about things he reports.  Here are two narratives that are clearly challengeable as historical narration.  How does Mark know the precise words of the conversation he reports in the story of Jesus in the high priest's home (Mark 14:53-72)?  His only likely source is Peter who was not present, but was out in the courtyard of the high priest's home, and not privy to what was happening inside the house (Mark 14:54, 66).
In Mark's story about the beheading of John the Baptist (Mark 6:14-29) Mark has used the narrative technique of time compression to create the fanciful story about the dance of Herodias' daughter and her dramatic request for the head of the Baptist in front of Herod's guests (Mark 6:24-25).  Mark situates the narrative in the Galilee area (Mark 6:1, 14, 21, 45); so the banquet for "his courtiers, officers, and leading men of Galilee" took place at his palace in Tiberias.  According to Josephus (Antiquities  18.5.2), however, John the Baptist was imprisoned and beheaded in the fortress at Machaerus  located in modern Jordan (at that time Nabatea) a number of miles east of the Dead Sea and at a level near its mid-point.  Mark's compression of time (6:25-27: "with haste," "at once," "immediately") forces the reader to understand that John the Baptist was near at hand, and hence his beheading takes place while the dinner party was continuing—a much more dramatic story than sending a soldier of the guard on a long trip to Machaerus for the head!  And, of course, there is always the question of how Mark knew the precise words of the conversations during the party—was it actually oral tradition or simply Mark's imaginative recreation, or simply whole cloth invention?
Such problems suggest that Mark is not early Christian history; rather it has all the earmarks of historical fiction—that is to say, much of the gospel is due to Mark's imagination and inventive recreation.
What are your thoughts?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Monday, October 7, 2013

God the Spirit in a Material World

In the Christian tradition God is conceived as invisible Spirit (Colossians 1:15; John 4:24) and not as matter—that is to say, God is not material or substantial, but rather is—in a way that cannot be apprehended by the physical senses—that is, by seeing, touching, tasting, hearing, smelling, which makes any description of God completely subjective.  Hence God is invisible, intangible, tasteless, inaudible, odorless.  A God, comprised in any way of substance, would be subject to the change, dissolution, and decay of the cosmos, as all cosmic stuff is.
God's immateriality makes it rather difficult for one to describe God with any degree of reliability.  Hence a responsible description of God is simply impossible, a logical fact which renders all descriptions of God inadequate.  Therefore in the community of faith believers in God are only describing inherited concepts of God's character and activities (i.e., describing what they have been taught); and they do so as if God were a human being (i.e., using anthropomorphic language).  With direct knowledge of God lacking, the Church is driven to use analogical language.
            The word spirit as used in English generally describes a force or energy that is not directly accessible but only accessible as we observe what we take to be animating forces in the world about us.  So, for example, some describe people possessed by evil spirits, because of their behavior, or a person's mood is described as exhilarated or depressed (high spirits, low spirits) for the same reason.  The only uses of the term spirit in the physical sciences of which I am aware are in Chemistry and Pharmacology, where spirit is used to describe the essence of an active principle in a solution.  The language is not a scientific description from what I can tell but analogical, since the active principle is not a separate identifiable entity.  The Gods are only able to be identified as active in human reality by the visible manifestations of communities of faith.  Yet a faith community is not direct evidence for God, but only evidence of the community's belief that God acts in the world.  Spirit does not appear in the periodic table as one of the basic elements of the universe—as of 2013 the periodic table has only 114 confirmed elements, 84 of these existed before the origins of the earth.  Of course Spirit would not appear in the periodic table since it is not elemental matter.  The foregoing brief discussion raises this question: if Spirit is part of our common material reality in some way, how is it related to matter, if at all?
            Does Spirit simply permeate matter--like leaven, for example?  A little leaven mixed into flour and water and kneaded becomes dough, which rises in the oven (Matt 13:33).  There is one theological explanation for the relationship between Spirit and matter called "panentheism"—God as Spirit permeates all matter in the universe but is not to be identified with it, that is to say God maintains a Spirit identity without mingling with matter.  But if that is the case why is not everything "enhanced" or "raised" to a higher level, like leaven in flour; and why are we still bothered with the problems of an imperfect universe: disease, floods, drought, famine, etc.?  Our natural world does not seem "enhanced" but flawed, as Paul clearly recognized (Romans 8:19-21).  Does God as Spirit interface with matter, perhaps only periodically here and there?  The general regularity of the universe seems to eliminate this possibility.  On the other hand some assume the regularity of the universe is God as Spirit enabling the universe.  But if that is the case why is the universe flawed?  Perhaps God as Spirit simply hovers over the universe similar to Genesis 1:2 and is not involved in the universe at all.  There were religious groups in the early years of the Christian period who argued that there was a sharp divide between the cosmos and God.  Thus the highest God had nothing to do with the creation of the cosmos; some attributed it to the work of a lesser God in the divine realm.  In such systems of thought the matter of the cosmos was seen as flawed and evil.
            My colleagues would describe my question as a fool's errand.  My evangelical friends would say accept on faith that God as Spirit is involved with matter, even if how Spirit and matter are related cannot be quantified.  My critically inclined friends would also counsel me to abandon the question for the same reason, on the basis that Spirit itself falls outside any kind of objective proof.  Perhaps they are correct, but if there is no way logically to explain how Spirit and matter are related, Christianity is left open to the charge of superstition and self delusion on a grand scale—human beings through time have simply convinced themselves of a parallel "spiritual" universe of Gods; and Christianity is merely one more in a long line of inadequate religious views of reality, convincing to the masses perhaps, but whose description of reality is ultimately found to be seriously flawed.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

“New” Parables of Jesus Lost in the Gospels?

Well, maybe not "new" in the sense that no one has ever seen them before, but there are certainly parables in the gospels that are overlooked, neglected, or ignored for one reason or another—so the parables are "new" in the sense that they need to be "rediscovered" as parables. What is a parable? The classic form of parable is a brief narrative fiction about ordinary things.  Basically a narrative is a story having at least three elements: a beginning, middle, and end.  So a parable is a form of speech that is something more than a phrase, clause, or saying—it tells a story.  A parable may be as brief as a single sentence: "a woman took and concealed a fermenting agent in three bushels of flour until the whole was leavened" (Matt 13:33); or a parable may extend to as much as two paragraphs in length (viz., A Father and Two Sons, Luke 15:11-32).  In general, scholars tend to recognize a literary unit as a parable when they are introduced with the phrase:  "The kingdom of God is like . . .," but that is not always the case.  A Father and Two Sons (Luke 15:11-32), and An Injured Man on the Jericho Road (Luke 10:30-35) are not introduced by a parabolic comparative frame, and yet these two stories are universally recognized as parables.
            The Jesus Seminar made a survey of early Christian literature in the first two centuries of the Christian era searching for parables attributed to Jesus, and found thirty-three that they thought should be included in the corpus of stories attributed to Jesus (Funk, Scott, Butts, The Parables of Jesus. Red Letter Edition [Polebridge Press, 1988).  I have argued, however, that the corpus of Jesus' parables is comprised of at least forty-three parables, ten more than acknowledged by the Jesus Seminar.  One that you may have missed is Settling out of Court (Matt 5:25-25 = Luke 12:58-59).  I checked several commentaries on the parables at random and discovered that the following scholars apparently do not regard it as a parable (The Jesus Seminar, Kissinger, Scott, Bailey, Blomberg, Hultgren), but at least two do (Smith and Jeremias).  Another story, The Persistent Friend (Luke 11:5-7) is not regarded as a parable by the Jesus Seminar and Scott, but Kissinger and Jeremias do discuss it as a parable.
One story, Offering your Gift at the Altar (Matt 5:23-24), appears to have gone virtually unrecognized as a story of Jesus by the scholars whose works I checked for this blog:
If, therefore, you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and first go become reconciled to your brother, and then coming offer your gift.

The Jesus Seminar colored the saying gray, as it did a similar saying parallel (Mark 11:25), but the story is not unlike its "twin" immediately following in Matthew (On Going to Court, Matt 5:25-26) in its use of the imperative; this "twin" parable is colored pink in The Five Gospels.  Bultmann regarded the "saying" Offering Your Gift at the Altar as the more original form of another similar saying (Mark 11:25), since Matthew's parable "presupposes the existence of the sacrificial system in Jerusalem" (Bultmann, p. 132).  Bultmann regards the legal style of Offering Your Gift at the Altar in Matthew as the work of the early church.  The saying itself, however, is older, since the content had nothing to do with the church "brotherhood" (Bultmann, 146, 147).  The use of the term "brother" when used in the gospels is generally read as a Christian motif, which may account for the general neglect of the parable, but that aspect of the saying is likely part of the Christian reworking of a much older saying.  How might the narrative have appeared in its earlier pre-Christian form?
A man was offering his gift at the altar and there remembered his [friend] had something against him; he left his gift there before the altar and first went, became reconciled with his [friend], and then coming he offered his gift.

The term "friend" makes an appearance in other parables of Jesus in Luke (11:5-6; 14:10; 15:6, 9; 15:29).
What do you think?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
Color gray: the saying is questionable as a saying of Jesus
Color pink: the saying is likely a saying of Jesus
Funk, Hoover and the Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels
B. T. D. Smith, The Parables of the Synoptic Gospels
Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition
Bailey, Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes
Kissinger, The Parables of Jesus
Scott, Hear Then the Parable
Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus
Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables
Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus

Monday, September 9, 2013

Jesus said, “Do Not Resist Evil” — Does that include Syrian President Bashar Assad?

In a recent blog I discussed the question of "What to do about Evil in the world?"  What to do with evil in the world is precisely the question facing the Citizens of the United States today through their elected representatives and senators in the American Congress.  The Obama administration has released intelligence whose credibility has not been challenged that President Bashar Assad of Syria used chemical weapons on citizens of Syria in the rebel-held section of Damascus killing a reported 1,429 people, 426 of them were children.  President Obama condemned the atrocity, which he says demands a military response on the part of the civilized world.  Congress is now considering a proposal to approve a limited and targeted military response against Assad and Syria, a nation that signed the Geneva Protocol of 1925 to ban the use of deadly gases on the battlefield. (Information from an Associated Press release "What makes Syria's chemical use 'red line.'")
Proposition: The use of sarin gas on a civilian population whatever the reason is an evil act.  What is sarin gas?  See the report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It appears that only France has stepped forward, after the British Parliament said "no," to stand beside the U.S. president in what started out to be President Obama's unilateral act to punish Assad for violating the 1925 Geneva Protocol, but now France has asked for more time to consult their national legislature, while President Obama has taken the issue to Congress.
So what does our country do about this particular evil act?  I am afraid that we will not find much help from Jesus on this particular question; he said "Love your enemies" (Luke 6:27) and "do not resist evil" (or the evil person, or the evil one, Matt 5:39).  Frankly as a standard for nations to apply not only are these ideas not practical, but they are dangerous to the nations that apply them.  (Or did Jesus really say that it was "time to take up the sword"? Luke 22:35-36.)  Should Congress support the President and risk plunging the nation deeper into the Syrian civil war?  Or should our country simply ignore Assad's use of sarin gas now for the second time?
Polls tell us that the American public is war-weary and America cannot continue being the world's "policeman."  But, on the other hand, does America's position in the world impose some responsibility for taking some kind of action?  Would not our isolationist tendencies in this regard, and our anti-war marches amount to condoning the use of sarin gas by Assad, and in so doing would we not be strengthening his hand for further use of chemical weapons?
Quite frankly I do not wish to live in a world where evil goes unopposed.  And that means sometimes those who do violence in the world must be opposed with force. We live in a world where ethical choices more often than not are dirty shades of grey, and our choice is not between absolute right and absolute wrong but between dark grey and a lighter shade of grey.  That is to say, whatever your ethical choice it is likely hurtful to someone.  But in this case, using sarin gas on a civilian population will always be an evil act!  It is not a dirty shade of grey!  And it is right that President Bashar Assad and Syria should be held accountable by the world community, war-weary or not.
I am not a "hawk," although I am a retired soldier (Korean War era, and reactivated from reserve status for the first Gulf War).  I would prefer that we not initiate military action against Syria, but doing nothing is not an option.
Elie Wiesel in a Commencement Address at Washington University in 2011 said: "My commandment is: you shall not stand idly by.  When you see an injustice, do not stand idly by.  You must intervene, you must interfere." (
I have wondered why the Obama administration has not at least sought the prosecution of Assad as a war criminal before the International Court of Justice at the Hague. Is it not true that doing nothing in itself is criminal, while standing idly by makes us all complicit in Assad's crime?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Revelation and Meaning

I was taught in my youth that the Bible is "the inspired word of God," yet no one ever explained to me how that came to be.  The early followers of Jesus regarded their Holy Scriptures, the Jewish Bible, to be inspired—an idea that they inherited from their roots in Judaism.  These "sacred writings" they regarded as "full of the breath of God," i.e., they were "inspired" (2 Timothy 3:15-16).  In a similar way, I suppose, to God's fashioning Adam from the dust and "breathing on his face a breath of life" so that Adam became a living being (Genesis 2:7 Septuagint translation). By the 4th century it is clear that Christian churches had extended this character of "holy inspiration" to the new covenant books as well.
            Inspiration is not a physical feature of a piece of literature that can be investigated—like its language, handwriting, historical context and character, human author, manuscript tradition, etc.  So how is one able to validate the truth of the assertion that "divinity" lies somehow or in some way in its words?  Divine inspiration is an extraordinarily high value to place on any product of human effort, unless, of course, it was written by God, as the Ten Commandments were described (Deuteronomy 10:1-2).  Nevertheless, we do regard the work of some authors as "inspired," usually suggesting by that appellation that their writings contribute to our better nature and motivate us for the good.  The validation of its inspiration lies in the effect that it has on us, and in its longevity as an exceptional text.  We really don't say of a writer who writes exceptional literature (like for example, a Shakespeare or a Wallace Stevens) that the hand of God is on him, or that God's breath inspires him.  His or her literary greatness we know to be derived from the powers of human imagination, creativity, and careful observation of the world.  By this standard there is much in the Bible that could be regarded as "inspired," the twenty-third psalm for example, or 1 Corinthians 13.  On the other hand, there is much in the Bible that is depressing, such as 1 Samuel 15 or 1 Timothy 2:8-15.  Only a blind true believer would affirm the "greatness" of these latter texts.   The truth is that declaring any text "inspired" is merely an opinion—even if it is a consensus view.
            Readers of biblical texts, somewhat carelessly in my opinion, like to describe the "meaning" of a given text, as though their interpretation of the text takes precedence over other readings of that text—other readings are wrong, in other words.  Truth be told, however, there are always several meanings that can be and are given to various texts—frequently there are as many meanings as there are readers.  "Meaning," like revelation is neither a physical feature of a text, nor is it some particular abstract value concealed in some way within a text, so that readers must search it out.  The "meaning" of a text is a reader's response to a text.  As such it is an abstraction evoked in the mind of the reader in the intersection between what the text says and what the reader brings to the text.  Texts say things and readers, if gracious, confer meaning upon them.
            Texts are derived out of an author's world; the author has compressed into the text his or her experience, imagination, and creativity.  Generally, however, texts carry along unintended baggage of which even the author is unaware, and for this reason sometimes authors can learn much about himself/herself and his/her craft from a perceptive reader's review.  Readers, on the other hand, live within a world of their own making; hence their world is different from the world of the text.  Readers approach texts from the perspective of their own world and experience, and bring along with them baggage of which they are unaware.  Hence the "meaning" that a particular reader creates in this nexus between the text and the reader belongs to that particular reader.  No reading of a text can ever exhaust the potential of a text to assist new readers in the creation of new meanings.

Here is an example using a parable-like story I created for illustrating some of these ideas for my students at Missouri State University.  What do you make of it?
A certain man received a letter from the IRS.  He took it to his accountant to review in order to reply to the IRS.  The accountant, however, was arrested three days later for embezzling funds from his employers, and the man was left to solve the problem for himself.  Because he was late in replying to the IRS, he had to pay a large sum in interest and penalties.  The lesson of this parable will be on the next exam.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Jesus People, Mystery Religions, and Nascent Christianity #3

This is the third essay in a trilogy on the term "mystery" in early Christianity.  My contention is that early followers of Jesus applied the term to aspects of their belief system that they could not understand rationally—i.e., it was something they believed even though it seemed contrary to reason.  Instead of revising their belief to accord with reason, they admitted cognitive dissonance and branded it as a "mystery," which allowed them reasonably to continue affirming a belief they could not understand rationally.  They trusted that these acknowledged disconnects between reason and faith would be worked out in the Divine economy.  In the modern Christian church the term mystery, as far as I know, is not extensively used.  One notable exception is the "mystery of the Mass"—the moment at which the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Christ.
These several uses of the term mystery, surveyed in the previous two blogs, raise the question whether or not nascent Christianity of the Pauline type should be regarded as a mystery religions cult—not in the sense of dependence on one of the ancient cults of the Greco-Roman world, but in the sense of a parallel development.  In other words, the spirit of the age evoked these religions of personal salvation and also led to the transformation of the early Jesus people into a nascent Christianity of the Pauline type.  At least one highly respected New Testament Scholar thought of the "religious history of the Mediterranean world in the early imperial period as 'the age of mysteries'" (Shirley Jackson Case, The Social Origins of Christianity [1923], 113).
            The mystery religions cults were rather diverse in their public celebrations, sacred objects, and theological content.  So they had a public face as well as a hidden secret side.  Although different, they did have several things in common.  They were all voluntary associations in which people must choose to present themselves as initiates.  At the heart of the cult was a private mystery rite, a secret not to be divulged to anyone.  In the mystery rite the individual was brought into a close personal relationship with the deity.  The myth behind the rite and the rite itself consisted of things said to the individual, or things performed in the presence of the individual, or in things done to the individual.  Since these rites were secret and not divulged, scholars are left to guess from clues here and there as to the content and meaning of the different secret rites.  Participation in the mystery granted individuals redemption from the evils of the earthly life and the assurance of a blessed immortality, i.e., the expectation of eternal life. Usually a sacred meal was celebrated by those initiated into the mystery cults.  The goal of the initiation rite was not to impart a particular body of knowledge, but rather to produce a certain experience in the individual that resulted in a particular state of mind—about the God, life, and the hereafter.  Some scholars describe the rite of initiation as "an extraordinary experience that could be described as death and rebirth" (Marvin Meyer, "Mystery Religions" Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible [1992]).
            Meyer finds several close similarities between the nascent Christianity of the first century and the mystery religions. Like the mystery religions, followers of the Christ voluntarily associated themselves together in the early Pauline communities, which also were communities of redemption and salvation.  In the community they experienced baptism, a ceremonial ritual (Rom 6:1-11), in which the initiate is baptized "into Christ's death" and with Christ experienced death and rebirth.  Another rite was the Eucharist (1 Corinthians 11:17-31), which commemorated the death of Christ.  "By eating of the bread and drinking of the new wine [i. e., his body, his blood] in the Eucharist Christians participated in the death of Christ, and assimilated the saving power of the Cross into their lives" (Meyer gives a number of other parallels).  The "myth" behind both these rituals is, of course, the mystery of Christ (1 Timothy 3:16): that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:17-19, Galatians 6:14). Christ is described by Paul as the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24), and Paul writes: "We proclaim in a mystery a hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glorification" (1 Corinthians 2:7; cf. Romans 16:25).  It is difficult to make detailed comparisons between nascent Christianity and the Greco-Roman mysteries, however, because there is little extant first-hand information on the mysteries (see Marvin Meyer, The Ancient Mysteries. A Sourcebook [1987]).
            These parallels are well known, but generally scholars exclude Christianity from consideration as a Greco-Roman mystery religion with the argument that the "mystery" in Christianity is an "open" secret—in spite of the fact that nascent Christianity uses similar language, concepts, and rites, and shares similar objectives with the mystery religions.  Nascent Christianity of the Pauline type evolved out of the early Jesus people into a religion of personal salvation, clearly a type of mystery religion.  It managed to survive into modernity by evolving again into an institutional creedal religion, which enjoyed the political patronage of the Roman Emperor, Constantine, in the fourth century.  The institutionalized religion seems a far cry from the earlier Pauline mysteries.  Paul regarded himself and the initiates in his gatherings as "servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God" (1 Corinthians 4:1).
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Mystery, Reason, and Faith #2

Early Christians struggled to understand their faith rationally.  This essay continues the essay of July 27, 2013.
The mystery of all things united in Christ.  Some Pauline disciples believed that "in the fullness of time" God intended to gather into Christ the sum total of everything in heaven and on earth (Eph 1:9-10)—i.e., all things and all beings.  Christ becomes a receptacle for everything in the universe in the fullness of time so as to establish a kind of cosmic harmony and unity—just as it all had begun in Christ (Col 1:16-17; cf. Rom 11:36; 1 Cor 8:6).
The very concept is breathtaking, albeit a bit strange—all things are united in Christ and nothing exists outside him.  Christ in a sense becomes "the all in all" of the universe, i.e., its plenitude.  With the universe gathered "in Christ," it would be sanctified—ie. e., made holy.  The distance between the sacred and profane would be overcome, and the profane transformed into the sacred.  At the same time, it was clearly an odd idea for those who lived in the first century—hence their description of it as mystery.  But it is even odder for those of us who live in the 21st century.  How exactly can such a concept be understood in the modern scientific age?  The universe is clearly expanding rather than contracting—and what exactly do you suppose "sanctified matter" might be anyway?
The mystery of lawlessness already at work.  In 2 Thess 2:1-12 the author corrects a misapprehension that the day of the Lord had already come.  The assertion is that it cannot have come, since it must first be preceded by "the rebellion" and by the appearance of the "man of lawlessness."  The mystery lies in the fact that already "lawlessness" is at work—although the lawless one has not yet been revealed.  In other words, there is an established timetable for the coming of the day of the Lord, and the mystery is that the scheme has been partially breached or compromised.  How can that be?  How explain that lawlessness is already at work even though "what restrains" (2 Thess 2:7) is still in place and the man of lawlessness has not yet appeared?  This kind of thinking is called apocalyptic eschatology, a kind of thinking in which imagined schemes are devised to account for what will transpire at the end time (cf. 2 Esdras 6:1-34).  Such thinking imposes a fictive plot on history that never happens.  On the other hand, Christianity was clearly more successful with its fictive plot on time separating a pagan time-frame from a Christian time-frame by Before the Common Era and Anno Domine.
The mystery of Christ.  The "Christ event" is by far the most perplexing of these mysteries.  This mystery, more than anything, revealed the difficulty that later followers of Jesus had with the most basic concept of their faith (1 Timothy 3:16).  They preached the mystery of Christ (Col 4:2-4)—that is, how could it be that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor 5:19)?  How could it be that all the treasures of wisdom had come to be in Christ (Col 2:1-3)?  How could the gospel of a crucified Jewish teacher be the wisdom of God destined from the ages to bring about human glorification (1 Cor 2:7)?
The early followers of Jesus did not settle the questions evoked by these mysteries—in fact, they never even really grappled with them.  They contented themselves with the idea that the solutions to these mysteries reside in the mind of God, and naturally remain incomprehensible to the human mind (Rom 11:33).  There was a surprising lack of curiosity or inquisitiveness on their part that apparently resulted in a reluctance to pursue them.  Certainly part of this mind-set was due to the idea that they regarded their teaching as absolutely true, but principally it was because they considered inquisitiveness (ἐκζητήση) a negative attribute.  The word appears in the New Testament where it is translated as "speculations" (ἐκζητήσεις).  Inquisitiveness also carries with it the idea of getting to the bottom of things—or making an investigation.  Hence there existed a kind of early anti-intellectualism on the part of the early Christians.  They simply ignored these issues, until much later when the diversity in the church forced later leaders to address them.  The mystery of Christ was eventually directly addressed in the councils of the fourth century, but never really resolved.  It was simply glossed over by adoption of an arbitrary scheme (the doctrine of the Trinity) at the Council of Nicaea in 325.
Mystery is a puzzle to be deciphered.  The word "mystery" is used only three times in the canonical gospels, and all in the same parallel context (Mark 4:11-12 = Matt 13:11, 13 = Luke 8:10).  The word does not indicate a divine mystery, as it appears elsewhere.  In the gospels a mystery is a deliberate strategy used by Jesus to present information about the kingdom of God in oblique language in order to obfuscate the understanding of the masses.  In the Apocalypse, on the other hand, it is generally used almost as the equivalent of a "puzzle" (Rev 1:20; 17:5, 7) to be solved.  In Rev 10:7, on the other hand, it is a divine mystery that would be accomplished at the trumpet call of the seventh angel.  This obscure reference to the "mystery of God" is not really made clear to the reader, but it is clearly a divine secret about to be unveiled.
Should Christianity be understood as one of the mystery religions that emerged about the same time it did?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Faith, Reason, and Mystery #1

            The term "mystery" as used positively in the New Testament relates to a cognitive dissonance—that is, to the disconnect between faith and reason.  Positively used, it describes the incomprehensible working of divine power, which the early followers of Jesus struggled to understand rationally.  At least six issues perplexed them; oddly some of these same issues remain rational problems to the modern Christian mind.
The mystery of the failure of the Jewish mission: Paul was perplexed about the failure of the Jewish mission.  Why hadn't the Jewish people as a group embraced the "good news" about Jesus that Paul preached?  In Paul's view it had always been God's plan (Rom 9:1-5) to save the world through the sacrifice of Jesus.  Why didn't the Jewish people understood the Scripture, their own holy books, which early followers of Jesus believed "testified of Jesus" (John 5:39)?  That "a hardening had come upon Israel" until the proper number of Gentile had "come in" was a "mystery" according to Paul (Rom 11:25-29).  Paul appealed to the Jewish Scripture showing that this "hardening" had always been part of God's plan (Rom 11:8; Deut 29:3-4; Isa 6:9-10).
            The mystery that gentiles are heirs of the promise of Christ: After Paul's day the historical situation changed and a new problem was created by the failure of the Jewish mission.  At this later point Judaism and the church were recognized essentially as two different religions.  From the later perspective the question became: how is it that Gentiles (of which the church was then mostly comprised) are also heirs of the promise of Christ (Eph 3:3-6)?  They had come to recognize that the inclusion of the Gentiles was a promise made to Israel in the new covenant spoken of by Jeremiah (Heb 8:8-13; Jer 31:31-34).
Today the church no longer considers either of these a "mystery." From the perspective of history it is clear that by the middle first century the movement represented by Paul had already turned the corner.  Judaism and the early followers of Jesus actually represented two distinct social and religious groups, and Paul was too close to the situation to recognize it.
            The mystery of the spirit body: Paul also considered the resurrection of the believer, which involved the transformation of the physical body into a "spirit body," a mystery (1 Cor 15:51-52).  How could such a thing as the transformation of a physical body into spirit body occur?  How could the perishable become imperishable in "the twinkling of an eye"?  He never answers the question "how," but simply calls it a mystery—signaling by this term that it was something he did not understand.  His arguments for understanding the resurrection as a spiritual experience (1 Cor 15:35-50) are analogies rather than substantive logical arguments.  What he clearly does understand, however, is that the fleshly, physical, and perishable "cannot inherit the kingdom of God," which is innately imperishable and spiritual (1 Cor 15:44, 50). Later Pauline disciples reinterpreted his idea of the spirit body by arguing for the ascent of the spirit or the soul apart from the body (Treatise on the Resurrection 45:14-46:2; 47:30-48:6; 49:9-16) rather than for a "spirit" body.  Why should a spirit need "embodiment" anyway?
            The resurrection still remains a mystery to the Christian mind.   In an age of reason and scientific thinking a resurrection in whatever form is a problem for many.  But many modern believers persist in believing in the resurrection of the physical body and simply ignore Paul's view, arguing instead that the resurrection will be physical (i.e., the resuscitation of the natural body), a view that is encouraged in the gospels (Matt 28:9; John 20:17; 21:12-13; Luke 24:30) and 2 Clement (9:5).
Here is a curiosity question:  Do you "believe" anything that you would consider a mystery?
(End of the first installment—three more early Christian mysteries to come)
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Wednesday, July 17, 2013


When suffering comes, as it will to all of us, we usually wonder why we have been singled out for such experiences.  The classic work on human suffering and religious faith still remains the Book of Job.  The characters in this ancient drama provide several perplexing answers to the question: why me, God?  The protagonist in the book (Job) is extolled by God as the quintessential "righteous man" (Job 1:8), but in the prose prologue (1:1-2:13) Job is afflicted with unimaginable suffering, caused by Satan with the expressed permission of God.  Satan wants to test Job's faith: "Take away Job's blessings," Satan urges God, "and Job will curse you" (Job 1:9-11).   Job is completely unaware of this dialogue between God and Satan.
Job's three friends in the central poetic section, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, tell Job that his suffering is due to his sins.  Such is the general view of antiquity: sin causes suffering; Job is suffering; therefore, Job is a sinner (Job 4:7; 8:1-6; 11:4-6).  Job rejects their views as "windy words," and calls them "miserable comforters" (Job 16:2-3).  Job admits he may have sinned, but continues to insist that his suffering is out of proportion to whatever his guilt may be (Job 6:24-30; 9:20-21; 10:5-7; 12:4; 13:2-5; 16;2-3; 19:4; 23:3-7; 27:2-6). The chapters by Elihu (32:6-37:24) are a later addition to the book, but Elihu adds a further reason for human suffering: God refines or disciplines the human being through suffering (Job 36:8-12).
In God's response (Job 38:1-43:6) he does not answer Job's questions (Job 23:3-7; 6:24-25), but simply intimidates Job with his awesome power and superior knowledge (chapters 38-41), but the reader of the book, having read the prologue, knows that Job is suffering because of the capricious backroom bargain struck between God and Satan (Job 2:1-6), which is not something God is apparently willing to admit.  In the end Job simply capitulates (Job 40:1-5), accepting that he will never know why he is suffering (Job 42:1-6).  The book as a whole affirms that "no theoretical solution to the problem of suffering is possible" (Eissfeldt, Old Testament Introduction, 457).
It is perplexing to me that sufferers persist in thinking that they have been singled out to suffer by an invisible power for some particular reason.  As we are taught in public school curricula (perhaps not in faith-based schools), the universe for all its regularity is still full of randomness.  For example, a desiccated brown leaf falls in front of you as you walk into the back yard.  It is not an unusual event—in a sense it is a non-event, meaningless, unless you assign some significance to it.  Another example: even though your car is the only one in the lot to suffer the indignity of bird droppings, few of us would ask "why me, God?" but would shrug it off as the random act it is.  In spite of the regularity of the universe (meaning: things usually work that way) deviations from regularity in the physical world do not have religious significance, unless we decide that they do.
Many think, however, that God micromanages the universe, and is therefore responsible for every-day tiny details, such as thinning your hair and clogging your shower drain (cf. Matt 10:30).  They will imbue with religious significance even the most banal events in the most insignificant pedestrian day.  Hair loss, however, is a perfectly natural occurrence—your thinning hair is likely due to genetics or perhaps a diet deficiency.  The truth is we live in a dangerous universe and are subject to any number of debilitating diseases.  The state of our health depends on our genetics, our physical condition, our diet, the quality of our medical care, and, unfortunately, on our ability to pay for medical services.  "Mother Nature" is the more likely cause of your suffering—another is the lack of progressive health and human welfare programs in your community, for which our political leaders share the heaviest load of blame.  
            People who suffer do not turn to God for help with their physical pain.  Physicians do the better job of helping us manage our physical pain.  God, on the other hand, perhaps does better with helping us manage our mental and emotional suffering—although some illnesses in this area require medication and God is reduced to playing a supportive role.  Many testify that faith in God brings spiritual comfort and emotional peace in their suffering.  Such faith in many ways is a spiritual elixir bringing palliative psychological and emotional comfort to the sufferer.  Such "spiritual therapy" cannot be measured in a test tube, but for believers what it produces is just as real as aspirin for a headache.
            The "why me?" question, however, completely stumps true believers, even though they may find spiritual strength to bear the indignities of severe disease.  The answer of the author of Job is surprising: people suffer and there is no theoretical explanation.  In the prose epilogue God chides Job's three friends for not telling the truth about God with their orthodox answers (Job 42:7-9), but God commended Job for "speaking of me what is right" (Job 42:7).  Job never learned why he was suffering, but he refused to accept the easy orthodox counsel of his friends.  The only thing of which he seemed sure was that God was not punishing him because of his sins.
What should be said about other reasons given by religious people for their suffering—testing, discipline, personal growth toward spiritual maturity etc.?  These answers raise the question: what kind of God, do you suppose, would do such unconscionable things to people in the name of improving them?  As Job said to Zophar: "Your maxims are proverbs of ashes" (Job 13:12)—or as we might say: "your truths are bywords of baloney."
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Who Am I?

I am told I am many things;
some of them may well be true.
I am Homo sapien,
cousin to the chimpanzee,
a warm bloodied mammal
spawned in some protozoan sea;
Adam's child of dust from the stars,
shaped with spit and spittle
by the finger of God;
raised like cotton in the hot Delta bottom
land of the muddy Mississippi;
a Baptist of the post-war South by tradition,
a critic of convention by training,
skeptic by faith,
humanist by disposition;
by profession reason's servant
raising horizons,
altering consciousness states.
Epitaphs are for others to write, he thought.
Yet in water he did write
by flesh, blood, and bone
with premature words
a conflicted legacy;
his wry curiosity producing
only odd forgettable marginalia
to conventional views of reality.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University