Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Why do you go to Church?

If you do go to church, that is—most people do not regularly attend religious services of any sort.  That is particularly true in the UK and Europe.  This question crossed my mind as I was getting ready for church last Sunday morning.  I should admit, however, that I do not attend worship services.  In that sense I have joined what Robert Funk called "the church alumni association."  On the other hand, I regularly participate in a men's Bible Study group every Sunday at a Southern Baptist Church.  While tying my tie, I began wondering why I even do that.

            As regular readers of this blog will attest about my personal faith—whatever it may be, it is no longer traditional.  I affirm very little of the religious concepts I was taught in my youth, and yet I continue to be involved in Baptist Bible study.  My colleagues in the group, however, continue to hold traditional views.  Recently Bishop John Shelby Spong asked me in front of a small dinner party, "Why do you continue with that church; are you doing mission work?" (I suppose he meant: are you spreading the "gospel of critical thinking").  I have no memory of what I replied that evening, but here are several things that should have come to mind:

I go to Baptist Bible Study because of a sense of community.  Church is not really about theology for most people.  The major reasons most people "find a church home" are family, friends, a shared common experience, and familiarity with traditions—creeds and theology may attract those considering themselves "true believers," but comfortable sociability is a greater attraction.  In short, these are my people, stones off the rock from which I too was hewn.  I know them, their songs, and their unwritten traditions.  I know whence they came and how they got here.  In short, I am one of them—granted a bit odd perhaps, and as one former pastor admitted to a news reporter—"sometimes it is an uncomfortable fit"!  I am not sure that a creedal Episcopalian can appreciate the free–church Baptist mentality, but Baptists have no creeds or common theology—at least not formally!  In practice "The Baptist Faith and Mission Statement" is as close as it comes to a "creed."  This document, however, has changed over time and does not mandate what Baptists must believe, but rather it claims to document what a majority of them do believe.  Dissenting ideas and beliefs have always existed between Baptists; mine is one of those dissenting voices.

I go to the Sunday Bible Study for me—not for the church.  The reason for my regularity is not to enrich myself spiritually, or to "hear a word from the Lord," or any such maudlin conservative sentiments.  In spite of the authoritative claims that all churches make, their confessions and creeds, like the Bible itself, are only human opinions.  Christianity has always been a "big tent religion," and the Church as a collective with its various gospels through the centuries has yet to speak the last word on God and things religious.  There is still something to be said for the individual conscience and finding one's own way.  The issue is too important to be left to the professionals.

I have deliberately set aside one hour each week to reflect on biblical texts that I seldom get to (the Song of Solomon, for example) in order to ponder the human condition, consider my own practical religious behavior, and to ponder the eternal unknowns.  Such ideas seldom ever emerge in the course of my professional work in which I am always the critical scholar of religion.  In this one hour of the week, however, I try to think about my professional subject a little more personally.

I go to Bible study as opposed to church because I can ask questions and speak my mind freely—worship services do not give me that prerogative.  In discussing the texts I can serve as a resource on historical issues, comment on "what are they saying about that in biblical scholarship today?" raise questions, disagree or agree with a class consensus, and always receive polite consideration for what I have to say—not that I sway many minds, but I am not trying to do that.  Like I said, I do this for what I get out of it, rather than for what the class gets out of it.  Of course one does need a thick skin, but I must admit on the whole they are a tolerant bunch.

Whatever the faults of religious institutions in general and traditional Christianity in particular, as institutions they have at least maintained through the centuries a formal space in society where people may individually or collectively ponder the human condition and the eternal verities—if such there be.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Friday, February 14, 2014

Prophecy Fulfilled, or Simply Creative Reading?

Last Sunday morning in Baptist Bible study the lesson for the day was a part of John's account of the crucifixion.  In the student quarterly the lesson writer pointed out several "fulfilled prophecies" in John's crucifixion story.  A fulfilled prophecy is something a New Testament (NT) writer believed happened in order to fulfill a prediction by a Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (OT) writer.  In this case the writer of John believed that certain OT writers had "foretold" (predicted) that certain events would take place during the crucifixion of Jesus.  The "prophecies" are: Psalm 22:18 (John 19:24), Psalm 69:21 (John 19:28), Exodus 12:46/ Numbers 9:12 (John 19:36), Zechariah 12:10 (John 19:37).  The version of the Bible used by the writer of John is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (called the Septuagint).

            I checked the purported prophecies John identified in the OT, and surprisingly discovered there was no indication in the context that the OT writers were even aware of a future event—much less that what they wrote had to do with the crucifixion of Jesus.  Nevertheless John relates these statements to the OT with the formula "in order that the scriptures might be fulfilled…" or the like.  The specific "prophecies," which John cites, are neither marked out in the OT as prophecies nor is a crucifixion mentioned in connection with the statements.  There are even inconsistencies between the supposed prophecy and John's quoting of it: Psalm 22:18 mentions an outer garment, while John specifies an inner garment; Zechariah 12:10 reads, "they shall look upon me whom they mocked (or treated despitefully)," while John reads "they shall look upon him whom they pierced."

            The OT writers seem oblivious to the idea that their statements are to be applied to some distant future situation in the life of Jesus.  On objective grounds the statements in Hebrew Bible/OT do not describe events occurring in the future life of Jesus. John seems to have arbitrarily selected statements out of their context in the OT and applied them to the crucifixion story because they are similar in language to John's story (the synoptic accounts are different).  How can the similarity in language be explained?  Under the belief that the entire OT was a book of prophecy, John adapted his narrative of the crucifixion to fit the statements in the OT; or he searched out statements in OT having similar language to support his narrative; or John was using a traditional list of early Christian prophecies concerning the Christ from which he selected appropriate "prophecies."

            If any of these alternate explanations seems plausible, how then is it possible to claim the OT statements as deliberately intended prophecy on the part of the OT writer?  The writer of the Baptist quarterly had an answer for this question and explained Psalm 22:18 (John 19:24) as a prophecy this way:  The soldiers that divided up the garments of Christ were not aware they were fulfilling prophecy when they decided to cast lots for the inner garment of Jesus.  As John was writing his Gospel, however, John knew they were prophecies.  "The Spirit led John to include a reference to Psalm 22:18, where the Psalmist foretold these very events," says the Baptist lesson writer.  Thus, although the psalmist was apparently unaware that he was foretelling a future event, what he wrote becomes prophecy at a later time due to the "inspired" reading of the OT by John.  The lesson writer described the prophecy as a revelation to John, rather than a revelation to the OT writer.  Hence the "prophetic" statements only become prophecy after the crucifixion, when John wrote about it.

            Fulfilled prophecy is frequently used in contemporary conservative circles to demonstrate the inspiration of the Bible and the divinity of Jesus. The Baptist writer of last Sunday's lesson on the crucifixion, for example, argued that because of the fulfilled prophecies "we can be assured that He [Jesus] is the Savior and worthy of our devotion."  As early as the second century, Justin Martyr had argued that the fulfillment of prophecy proves that Jesus is "the first-born of the unbegotten God."

Apart from the assertion of John that they are prophecies, the OT statements used in the crucifixion story cannot be objectively demonstrated to have first occurred in the mind of the OT writer, for the OT writers do not identify their statements as prophetic utterances!  In order to see these passages as prophecy fulfilled one must have faith that the prophecy first occurs in John's mind by revelation, and John through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit is thereby enabled to see what is generally unavailable to others—perhaps not even the OT writer was aware that he had uttered a prophetic statement.  It appears to be simply a case of "creative reading" by John; that is to say, John reads prophecy back into a text where it never existed—except in John's mind.

An assertion whose proof is ultimately based on faith is not proven true by the belief of the one who makes the assertion; the faith statement only proves that one believes the assertion.  If other purported prophecies in OT fail to reflect the specific character of a deliberate prophecy, then the arguments that prophecy proves both the inspiration of the Bible and the divinity of Jesus are seriously undermined.  Similarity of language is not enough.

What are your thoughts?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Was Peter Fishing Naked? Does it Matter?

John 21:7 has posed problems for both Bible translators and commentary writers.  Here is the situation.  Peter and the other disciples are fishing on the Galilee and Jesus calls to them from the shore.  The beloved disciple recognizes his voice.  "It is the Lord," he says, and Peter hearing that statement "girded an outer garment about him, for he was naked…" (my translation).  Modern translators in general avoid the use of a bare "naked" and cover it up with a variety of euphemisms and avoid the issue of Peter's nakedness.

RSV—"he put on his clothes, for he was stripped for work."

Goodspeed—"he put on his clothes, for he had taken them off."

Jesus Seminar—"he tied his cloak around him, since he was stripped for work."

New English Bible—"he wrapped his coat about him (for he had stripped)."

TEV—"he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken his clothes off)."

Living Bible—"Peter put on his tunic (for he was stripped to the waist)."

New King James—"he put on his outer garment (for he was wearing only an undergarment)."

Older translators, on the other hand, do not seem to be bothered by the use of "naked."

King James—"he girt his fisher's coat unto him (for he was naked)."

Douay Version—"Peter girt his coat about him (for he was naked)."

Luther—"he girt his shirt [hemd] around him (for he was naked [nackt])."

Latin—"he girded himself with an undergarment [tunica] (for he was naked [nudus])."

French (1615)—"Peter put on his garment [habit], because he was naked [nud]."

Lexicographers agree that there are subtleties to how the word "naked' is used in Greek literature.  All agree, however, that the basic or literal sense of the word is naked, nude, bare, uncovered, etc.  But in some contexts the lexicographers aver that the word carries the idea that an individual is only improperly or poorly clothed (for example, James 2:15 [naked]; but cf. James 2:2), or wearing only an undergarment (for example, 1 Samuel 19:24 and Isa 20:2, both from the Septuagint, not the Hebrew).  As these latter two examples show, however, the parallel passages used to support this latter category (i.e., wearing an undergarment) must be carefully checked, since lexicographers assume that the writer is not speaking of literal nakedness, for nothing else in the context suggests the wearing of an undergarment (I only checked the parallels from biblical literature).

Two highly regarded authors of commentaries on John (Raymond E. Brown and Barnabas Lindars) in commenting on John 21:7 explain that Peter was fishing in a loin cloth or a small undergarment and girded his outer garment around himself (total nudity would offend Jewish sensibilities) before swimming to shore.  Without introducing the idea of an undergarment, however, the text seems to suggest that Peter was literally naked and girded (secured) his outer garment around him so that when he reached shore he could cover his nakedness.

In the final analysis, however, the image created in the reader's mind upon reading this verse (in the Greek text) may not matter.  What does matter, however, is that translators and interpreters of biblical texts influence the public's perception of the Bible when they resolve its ambiguities and other difficulties in the translation rather than in a note.  With ambiguities and awkward passages resolved by how the translator renders the text in a modern language, the biblical text becomes more polished and acceptable to modern sensibilities or at least it is less offensive than it might be when "unimproved."  That is to say, texts glossed by a modern translator's sense of decency will raise few questions in a reader's mind.

Such difficulties or awkward turns of expression as presented by John 21:7 are better left unresolved in the translation and discussed in a note rather than by manipulating the text into a preferred reading.  What we moderns may regard as defects in the texts of one sort or another constitute signatures of the ancient authors or editors, and they serve to remind us that our biblical texts share in the deficiencies of the human condition.

Another case on point is 1 Samuel 19:24 (Septuagint) where Saul prophesies before Samuel: "he stripped off his clothes…and lay naked all that day and all that night" (RSV).  But in the NIV the translation reads: "he stripped off his robes…He lay that way all day and night."

So it appears that "naked" does not always mean "naked."  Or does it?  What are your thoughts?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University