Sunday, February 24, 2013

Jesus Scrubbed

The military service uses the expression “scrubbing a list” when it is being checked for accuracy. To clean a list of errors, typos, inaccuracies, etc. one “scrubs” the list. I am using the term to describe a Jesus-Seminar-like exercise, which aims to determine in so far as is possible what in the gospels is left of the essentially historical Jewish man Jesus of Nazareth. Everyone “scrubs” Jesus: the gospel writers, Paul, translators, ministers, true believers and liberals, even historians! When a critical historian “scrubs” Jesus, however, his Jesus comes out as a radical figure having little in common with either the modern or ancient Christian church. In the first place, Jesus was not Christian but Jewish. The rituals with which he would have been familiar would have been those in Jewish tradition rather than in the Christian calendar. Jesus knew nothing of Christian baptism, Eucharist (Lord’s Supper), Christmas, Easter, confirmation, invitation hymns, ordained clergy, bishops, ordination, praying in Jesus name, etc.
     Jesus is represented as undergoing the Jewish rite of circumcision, of celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles, the Feast of Dedication, Passover, observing the Sabbath, going to the synagogue and the temple, arguing with Pharisees about Torah (he knew nothing of the books of the New Testament). So how did we get Christian rites, theology, and celebrations out of this Jewish man? In part, it was due to the fact that Jesus was “scrubbed” by the evangelists in their narratives, and then by the later church. Their literary contexts and “Christian” spins of the oral Jesus traditions, which they received, made Jesus more amenable to the Christian Greek mentality.
     Most scholars accept that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptizer, but John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4-5). The Christian view (Paul) sees baptism as immersion in the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ (Romans 6:3-4). Matthew, on the other hand, was bothered by the suggestion that Jesus might also be thought to have “confessed his sins” like everyone else when he was baptized by John, and completely eliminates this as a possibility by having Jesus explain to John why it was necessary that John baptize him (Matt 3:13-15). In Luke, apparently John does not baptize Jesus, for Luke writes that John was put in prison (Luke 3:19-20) immediately before the baptism of Jesus (Luke 3:21); this appears to be how Luke handled Jesus being baptized for the remission of his sin; he wasn’t baptized by John, but rather at a later time, and who baptized him is left unclear. In the Gospel of John, John’s baptism is not a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins; rather John was baptizing so that Jesus might be revealed to Israel (John 1:31). The baptism of Jesus in John was a baptism of the spirit rather than a water baptism, which John only witnesses (John 1:30-34). On the other hand, in a strange passage John represents Jesus as baptizing others (John 4:1), but then in the very next verse (John 4:2) John actually denies that Jesus is doing the baptizing himself—a statement that contradicts John 4:1!
       The sayings of Jesus that pass historical/critical muster (if I can put it that way) do not offer guidance for living, talk about God or salvation, predict the future, warn about the end of the world, anticipate the foundation of an ecclesiastical institution that would last for 2000 years, establish a cult of a dying and rising God, or authorize the change of theology from a radical form of Judaism to an entirely new Greek/Roman religion. Here are three radical sayings that probably originated with Jesus of Nazareth; shorn of their literary contexts they appear to prescribe actions that are completely impractical and unworkable in practice in either the ancient or modern worlds:
Luke 6:27: “Love your enemies.” The seriously radical character of this saying is camouflaged by its literary context—by including it among other plausible but challenging acts one can render an “enemy”: do good, bless, pray. In this way the reader is led to believe that “loving your enemy” means something less than how one “loves” family, wife, parents, friends.
Luke 6:29: When struck on the cheek, offer the other; when someone takes your outer garment, offer your undergarment (which is worn next to the skin); put into practice this act would leave one nude without a stitch of clothing.
Luke 6:30: “Give to everyone who begs from you.” Follow this principle literally and how long do you suppose it would be before you find your savings exhausted, the bills piling up, and the mortgage long overdue.
      Another saying camouflaged by its literary context in all three synoptic gospels and the Gospel of Thomas is, “Pay both Caesar and God what is due them” (Mark 12:17). The oblique character of the saying is mitigated by the controversy story. In the context it comes across as an evasive answer by which Jesus avoids the trap laid for him by his interlocutors; in its literary context the saying is a shrewd quip allowing Jesus to best his interlocutors in the exchange. In itself as an oral survival from Jesus’ public career, however, it is simply ambiguous offering no clear guidance, since it does not specify the content of what is due the Caesar and what is due to God. One has to work that out for oneself with no help from Jesus. These types of sayings are characteristic of what most probably originated with Jesus. The literary contexts of the pronouncements in the gospels are not the actual social contexts of Jesus’ public career, but due to the evangelists. As a result, when the literary context is “scrubbed” we are left in general with sayings characterized by perplexing ambiguity or unrealistic idealism.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Friday, February 8, 2013

An Uncommonly Modern Question

For the first time in history retired folk of the working class must ponder this question: how should I spend my time? After the Social Security Act of 1935, and the economic boom of WWII, when jobs were plentiful and salaries on the increase, many of the working class found they could retire and live comfortably without being forced to supplement their retirement income—a situation that formerly appertained only to the independently wealthy. Today my wife and I are flexible enough to begin the day with “Well what are you doing today?” Less than a hundred years ago such a question would have been unimaginable for members of the working class. The aged, having no pension or other means of support, would still be scrambling to eke out a daily living.
     I thought about this question last Saturday while struggling with the Greek prologue to a turn-of-the-century novel. The novel (Η Φóνισσα, The Murderess) was written by Aleksandros Papadiamantis in 1903. The prologue (1971) by Giannis Katzinis is written in rather turgid and inflated Greek (my apologies to Katzinis). Some might consider such a pedantic exercise a rather extravagant and wasteful use of personal time (about 4 hours each week), and wonder why am I not doing something more beneficial for society/the church/humanity, etc. with my time? Such a question leads me in turn to the bigger question: exactly what should I be doing with my time, when paid employment is no longer necessary?
       I am well aware of the numerous appeals from charitable, educational, public, and religious groups for money and volunteers to support their causes—actually more in the recent past than I can ever remember. These appeals for money and volunteers prompt for me a more specific and personal question: should appeals from charities for gifts and volunteer service, and solicitations for “pay-back” take precedence over individual activities of personal interest with regard to flexible time and disposable income?
       It seems to me that there are four broad but basic reasons why people in reasonably good health spend their time and money as they do: personal necessity, personal interest, humanitarian and religious reasons, and public welfare concerns.
       If the Jesus tradition and the Christian tradition (they are not the same thing) are drawn upon for help in making sense of things in life, little practical guidance will be found to help resolve the question as to how flexible time and disposable income should be spent.
       I know of nothing specifically on point in the early Christian tradition that helps the retired working class practically balance the numerous appeals for their time and resources by charitable groups. At least two stories and several sayings in the Jesus tradition (as critically assessed), however, at least relate to this issue.
     To the man who asked Jesus what must he do to inherit eternal life, Jesus said sell what you have, give to the poor, and follow me (Mark 10:17-22). The gospels represent Jesus as a kind of wandering mendicant—or at least as someone who depended solely on God (a cynic would interpret this as depending on the kindness of others) for his daily needs (Matt 6:25-33). The story suggests that there are no such concepts as disposable funds and discretionary time; rather one must be fully engaged with Jesus in homeless “mendicancy.” Here is a saying from the Gospel of Thomas (69B) that probably originated with Jesus, which reflects a similar attitude: “Those who go hungry to fill the starving belly of another are blessed.” In other words all your resources are at the disposal of the needy other. The saying simply does not address the needs of the one blessed—so exactly how long must I go hungry before I tend to my own very practical needs?
       Oddly enough Paul is more practical in soliciting funds as an offering from his “gatherings of saints” for the poor “saints” in Jerusalem (1 Cor 16:1-4; 2 Cor 8-9; Gal 2:10; Rom 15:25-29). His principle seems to be proportionate giving based on what a person has (2 Cor 12-13). Even though he encouraged a liberal attitude in giving (2 Cor 8:3-4, he specifically did not encourage them to exhaust their own resources (2 Cor 8:13), and he left it up to the individual to decide what should be his/her part in the offering (2 Cor 9:7; 1 Cor 16:2). He was, however, convinced that the “Gentile gatherings of saints” had an obligation to assist the poor saints in Jerusalem (Rom 15:27).
       If one follows Jesus and the choice offered to the man in the gospel story, the result will be that the candle of one’s charity will flame rather brilliantly for the moment—but eventually it dies. If one takes the attitude “I have mine; you get yours,” and turns a deaf ear to the evident need all around the result eventually will be that the world becomes a jungle in which only the fittest and the most ruthless survive. The responsible answer seems to lie somewhere between these two alternatives—and where that point lies is the individual’s choice.
     For my part, tomorrow, I will finish the turgid Greek introduction to the Papadiamantis novel, Η Φóνισσα, and the following week I will begin reading the novel itself. I only hope the Greek of Papadiamantis is more accessible.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University