Thursday, March 20, 2014

Memory in John: The Pious Reshaping of Early Christian Tradition

The early Christian gospels ultimately derive from the memories of the survivors of the crucifixion.  What gets passed down orally, eventually to the writers of the gospels, originates with the survivors and their competing memories.  Everything depends on what they heard, saw, understood, and accurately reported.  Raising the question: how reliable and consistent were their memories?  There is no way we can verify the accuracy of their memories, but we know from our own experiences how contradictory and flawed memory can be.  We have all experienced both short-term and particularly long-term memory failure, or have simply misremembered and misunderstood events, conversations, and statements.  The results for us can sometimes be embarrassing, inconvenient, or disastrous.  In the case of the survivors of the crucifixion their faulty or religiously shaped memories would have resulted in transmitting a pious misrepresentation of their own experiences.

            Even at the written stage of the gospels there are several indications that multiple generations of the oral Jesus tradition were less than perfect, and at times the actual circumstances of the past were piously misrepresented.  In John 21:20-23 at least two generational levels of the tradition are portrayed. The earliest level (the situation of the disciples immediately following the crucifixion) is represented in John 21:20-22.  Jesus had just given Peter some kind of authoritative role in subsequent events (John 21:15-19: feed my lambs; tend my sheep; feed my sheep).  Peter looks over at the beloved disciple and inquires: what about this man? (21:20-21). Jesus replies, "If it is my will that he remain till I come, what is that to you?  Follow me."

The later level (the situation of the Johannine narrator, writing around the end of the first century) is represented in 21:23.  The early saying of Jesus, urging Peter to follow him and ignore the situation of the beloved disciple, later was interpreted and repeated among the "brethren" (between the events following the crucifixion and the later situation of the Johannine narrator) as a saying about the immortality of the beloved disciple.  In John 21:23 the narrator of the later Gospel of John "corrects" what he regards as the misrepresentation of the earlier tradition, but without explaining the original saying.

There are several other passages in John suggesting that the memories of the early followers of Jesus were compromised by having allowed their beliefs about Jesus and their use of the Hebrew Bible to shape how they remembered events.  Two of these passages occur in the Judean Temple incident (John 2:13-22).  Jesus says, "take these things away" [i.e., the pigeons]; "you shall not make my Father's house a house of trade" (2:16).  The Johannine narrator explains that sometime after the resurrection the disciples "remembered" the incident and at that later time associated it with Psalm 69:9 as a scriptural prediction of what brought about the death of Jesus (2:17).  In other words the survivors of the crucifixion are portrayed as allowing their memories of events in the career of Jesus to be shaped by reading "Scripture."

In this same passage there occurs another shaping of the remembered tradition by the later faith of the church.  To the Judeans who asked him for a sign to confirm his authority for doing what he did in the Temple (2:18), Jesus replies: "Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up" (2:19).  The Judeans, quite understandably, take it as a reference to the destruction of the Judean Temple, since that was the issue at hand (2:20).  But the later Johannine narrator overrides the earlier report and explains that Jesus "spoke of the temple of his body" rather than the Judean Temple (2:21).  The narrator further explains that after the resurrection of Jesus the disciples recalled the event and the saying; and "believing the Scripture" they came to believe that the saying was actually a prophecy of the resurrection (2:22).  No particular Scripture is quoted, but the statement likely refers to the Hebrew Scriptures as a whole, a custom of the later apostolic church (see 1 Corinthians 15:3-4).

Another instance of the shaping of early Christian memory by the use of Scripture occurs on the occasion of the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem (John 12:12-19).  Jesus mounted a young ass to enter Jerusalem (12:14).  The later Johannine narrator then quotes an abridged version of Zechariah 9:9 (12:15), and explains that the disciples at the time of the incident did not understand why Jesus is riding on an ass's colt (12:16).  But sometime later after the crucifixion ("when Jesus was glorified"),"they then remembered that this had been written of him and had been done to him" (12:16).  This passage is another indication that the memory of that incident was shaped by their reading Scripture.

The Johannine narrator's portrayals of the reshaping of the memories of the earliest survivors of the crucifixion further calls into question the reliability of the gospels as historical narratives.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Church and Skeletons, Ghosts, Spirits, and Demons

From our childhood the Bible and the Church have taught us that there exists the probability of surreal encounters: for example, witches that can raise the dead by spirit power (1 Sam 28:7-15); visions about disassociated bones reconnecting and being revivified (Ezek 37:1-10); evil spirits inhabiting our bodies (Mark 5:6-13); ghosts (phantasm) perhaps walk among us (Mark 6:49-50), and much more.  Of course, a modern worldview excludes such possibilities.  Nevertheless revivified skeletons, ghosts, spirits, and demons are still a part of the modern landscape, but not as the Bible or the Church would always have them.

Virtually all of us, if we have lived for any length of time, have a skeleton or two in our respective closets.  I define a skeleton as something from our past that we have buried but it still lurks in an out-of-the way corner of our conscious mind being involuntarily recalled at odd moments.  That skeleton, if it were rattled about in public, might cause us embarrassment perhaps, but no real harm, except for a slight tarnishing to our egos and reputations.

            Then there are our personal ghosts, the demons we have suppressed deep within our subconscious; they cast shadows over our conscious mind and debilitate our emotional and physical health.  These ghosts are psychological—that is, they exist only in our minds, but they are nevertheless very real in the sense that they are mental remainders of experiences so powerfully frightening or painful that we deny them, and consequently bury them so deep in our subconscious they are soon forgotten by our conscious minds.  But they remain with us.  From deep within our subconscious they continually chaff against our consciousness, bringing to the surface feelings of inferiority, depression, excessive negative behaviors, and even more serious personality disorders.  We would do well to pay attention to the warning signs that some of us may well be inhabited by "ghosts and demons of the past," and should seek the help of an "exorcist," someone specifically trained in the medical art of therapy.  To exorcize them we need the help of a skilled therapist.  The run-of-the mill counselor, spiritual advisor, or religious life coach is ill-equipped for this task.

            Then there are the metaphysical spirits, ghosts, and demons.  By definition metaphysical ghosts and demons are not part of the physical world—that is they do not exist or occupy common space and time like you and I do.  They belong to an imagined spirit world totally apart from the physical cosmos of which we are a part.  Nevertheless they are very real as ideations of the mind.  They and many other such ideations are remainders left over from humanity's superstitious primitive childhood—in our na├»ve past the natural world was not an "it" but a "thou." Rocks, trees, bushes, mountains, etc., were endowed with mana (a general supernatural force concentrated in objects or persons), and the physical world was populated by spirit beings both helpful and harmful to humans.  One learned to placate them by spells, charms, and sacrifices.  All religions to some degree have perpetuated belief in such spirits, but in the modern Western world Christianity with its use of the Bible must accept the larger share of the blame for perpetuating such primitive superstitions.

            But if they are imaginary what possible harm would it do to believe in metaphysical spirits, ghosts, and demons?  I suppose none, unless one equates physical illness, disease, or accidents, etcetera to these metaphysical ideations of the mind, and ignores medical science by resorting to prayer and/or charms as a first line of defense against them.  Tragically even in the modern world people have died as the result of misguided attempts to exorcise possessing demons and spirits.

            The use of the Bible as an authoritative religious text without proper disclaimers is not only irresponsible but borders on the criminal by endangering the mental health and welfare of the public.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University