Saturday, January 25, 2014

John’s Gospel, History, and Fiction

There are three types of literature that are closely related in form and style: fiction, history, and gospel.  They all are narrative—that is they tell a story.  The character of two of these genres is well known: Fiction, by definition, is about things that never happened, but if it is realistic historical fiction one would have to add the following to the definition: although these things never occurred, they could have happened (in the sense that the realistic action approximates conventional reality).  History on the other hand, by definition is about things that did actually occur.

Gospel literature, according to critical scholarship, falls somewhere between the two definitions above—it is neither history nor fiction—or better, it is both history and fiction.  Gospel literature is unapologetically propaganda literature, which is enough to compromise its reliability as unbiased history, if one pauses to think about it.  Of course what we usually think of as history and fiction can also be propagandistic.  In fact they often are, and are thereby rendered unreliable for the same reason.  The historical character of the gospels is more akin to Eusebius' Life of Constantine, which is an encomium or eulogy (4th century) written in praise of the first Christian emperor extolling his role in establishing fourth-century orthodoxy.  The encomium is not critical history, but pietistic propaganda.

I have argued in several essays that in many ways gospel narratives have more in common with fiction than history, in that gospel and fiction share many of the same techniques and conventions.  For example, ancient Greek novels frequently digress into vivid and fulsome description. In handbooks of rhetoric of the 2nd century and later this phenomenon is called ekphrasis, "description."  Depending on who is explaining the reason for the feature, ekphrasis either digresses from the story to enhance the enjoyment of the reader (to make the narrative more vivid) or it is used to further the plot in some way.  Historical narrative, on the other hand, should not enhance data with the goal of increasing the reader's reading enjoyment, or aiding the historian's argument in some way.  If it introduces description that is not actually part of the events themselves in order to enrich the reading experience, to that extent the history is compromised as critical historical narrative.

In making a story more vivid a fiction writer often uses sensory words—words that appeal to the five senses: hearing, seeing, touching, tasting, and smelling.

In the Gospel of John there are only a few meager instances of enhancing description appealing to a physical sense:  seeing (4:35 white), (5:35 burning and shining), (20:5-7 purple), (21:7 naked [translations vary considerably]).  In an essay on colors in the Gospel of Mark (see below) I argued such meager description in Mark was likely due to the inadvertence of the author—it was just the way the author conceived what was being written that caused him to compose as he did; the author simply wrote what was in the mind's eye, so to speak.  I argued inadvertence because Mark had simply missed too many chances to enhance the reader's enjoyment with deliberate vivid language for the few color descriptions in Mark to be considered deliberate. With the exception of one other instance in John, inadvertence of the author may explain the few instances noted above.  In John 12:3, however, the author deliberately passes over into description enhancing the vividness of the narrative.  The entire passage is laced with vivid and sensual language: "Mary took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment" (RSV).  In this instance the author of the gospel has evidentially utilized a technique of the fiction writer and appealed to the reader's physical senses of smell and touch, as well as to an economic sense by emphasizing the quality, high cost, and amount of the ointment.

The more gospel writers can be shown to use the techniques of narrative fiction, the longer will be the shadow of doubt cast over the gospels as historical narrative.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Hedrick, "Conceiving the Narrative: Colors in Achilles Tatius and the Gospel of Mark" Pp. 177-97 in R. Hock, B. Chance, J. Perkins, eds., Ancient Fiction and Early Christian Narrative (Atlanta: Scholars Press 1998).

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

What gets you up each morning...

…and keeps you going through the day?  I have in mind those things that add spice and meaning to life, rather than those daily humdrum quotidian tasks we all endure.  Several days ago I caught the tail end of a TV commercial.  The program concluded with "What are you living for?"  That question has been on my mind for some days now.  As an about-to-be octogenarian, I found it an interesting question to ponder because getting out of bed is much more difficult lately.  In the abstract the question was perplexing.  I didn't think it could have referred to health—that is, why am I still alive? There is a perfectly good generic answer to this question if it addresses health: in my case I am still alive because of fairly good genes; I exercise regularly, eat healthy, have a good health plan, and admit to being a bit lucky. On the other hand, I didn't think it was a "politically incorrect" question about a deliberate termination of life: that is, why don't I just surrender to the inevitably of death?  At my stage of life it should be no surprise that such a fleeting possibility about the question crossed my mind.

Quite logically, that left me with a purpose question to consider: what is my purpose in life—perhaps better stated: what gets me up every morning and keeps me going through the day?  I immediately wondered, however, why I should need a purpose for living—why can't I just live and enjoy being alive?  I don't know why, but it appears that in general people do seem to need some kind of a larger purpose than just "hanging out and doing the living thing."

For example, Dustin Hoffman's character Rizzo in the movie "Midnight Cowboy" lived off the grid, and had to scrabble out a meager existence on the streets of New York.  What sustained him through that difficult existence, however, was his larger dream, which was finding a way into the Florida sunshine; something he never achieved.  Lack of a larger purpose may even have had something to do with the "alarming suicide numbers" among "young veterans just out of the service receiving health care from the government."  Among those in this group suicide is "nearly three times the rate of active duty troops" (Springfield News-Leader 1/11/14).  Human beings seem to need a purpose larger than "just living."

There is no one single answer to the question about what gets one up each morning and sustains one.  The answer is unique to each one of us.  An individual may have several purposes in life at the same time, which may change over time.  It is a good guess, however, that what sustains many of us would likely be related in some way to family, work, or faith—or perhaps any number of other things.

The prophet Micah suggested that what sustained him was doing what the Lord required: do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God (6:8).  For Koheleth, the rationalistic author of Ecclesiastes, the sustaining purpose of life was rather secular: What is good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in life's few days of toil—it is the gift of God (Eccl 6:18-19), so eat your bread with enjoyment and drink your wine with a merry heart (Eccl 9:7).  Enjoy life with the wife whom you love all the days of your vain life (Eccl 9:9).  For Paul, the rather intolerant apostle of Christ, the purpose was deeply religious: for me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.  If it is to be life in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me.  Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell (Phil 1:21-22).

Using these three statements as points of reference, I discover that I am not motivated by the spiritual humanism I find reflected in the statement of Micah, however worthy it may be, or by the edgy sectarian religiosity I find reflected in the statement of Paul.  I am surprised to find that my ideas at this stage of life are more akin to the mildly religious secularism in Ecclesiastes.  Specifically, what gets me up in the morning is the prospect of engaging new ideas, and what sustains me through the day is the opportunity of articulating them in a well turned phrase.  My purpose in living does not need to be some grand ideal, like "tilting at windmills," for example—just something that gets me up, adds zest to cotidiana, and keeps me engaged in life.

What gets you up every morning?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Is the Bible Really the Word of God?

This essay is now published in the Springfield News-Leader!

The short answer is: if you believe it is, then so it is!  But the early followers of Jesus did not share this holy view of the Bible—were it otherwise the Bible would not contain contradictions and errors, which it does.
Mr. Paul Summers, in a News-Leader column (1/4/14) made a case for homosexuality being sinful based on two main propositions: 1. "The Bible is the very word of God," and 2. "There is no contradiction in the Scriptures because God cannot lie."  Mr. Summers is wrong on both counts.  The truth of the matter is that his argument is based on his belief about God and the Bible.  The Christian Bible (meaning it includes Hebrew Scriptures and a collection of Christian texts) has many instances in which it disagrees with itself, as many conservative scholars well know.  Otherwise they would not argue that the original autographs of the Bible do not contain contradictions and errors.  The problem with this argument is that no original autographs exist!  Most New Testament texts are third century and later (two small fragments each of John and Matthew exist from the second century), and the bulk of the Hebrew Bible manuscripts date from the ninth and tenth centuries Common Era.  Hence the "original manuscripts argument" is specious at best, for it claims nothing about the manuscripts that have survived from antiquity, which do contain contradictions and errors, and from which we derive the versions of the Bible that serve the church today.
            It is also the case (unless you believe differently) that the Bible is a human word about God (and other things), since human beings authored the original texts and other human beings later copied them, freely making changes as it seemed best to individual scribes.  The Bible becomes God's word for many by means of the belief that God inspired its original authors (probably not the later scribes, since under the "original autographs theory" scribes introduced the contradictions and errors).  There is no evidence to validate the inspiration of these writings, however, except the belief that such is the case.  And in any case a number of theories exist about how inspiration may have occurred.
            I have no objection to Mr. Summers believing both of his principal propositions—many people do.  What I object to is his attempt to sell his personal beliefs about the Bible to the public as fact; hence he misleads the public in suggesting his belief is based on historical data when there is no data to demonstrate either proposition.  Indeed the evidence at least partly suggests a different explanation.
            The Bible is God's word only if you believe it is!  It is better understood, however, as a human search for God.  It should finally be noted that what authorizes Mr. Summers' argument about homosexuality is not God, but rather his own personal belief about the Bible.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University