Tuesday, September 30, 2014

How did Moses come by the Torah (Law)?

Most everyone knows the Biblical tradition portraying Moses as the great “lawgiver” of the Israelite people.  In Exodus and Deuteronomy he is described as receiving the Torah directly from God.  He tells the Israelite people: “When I went up to the mountain to receive the tables of stone . . . And the Lord gave me two tables of stone written with the finger of God” (Deuteronomy 9:9-10; and for the second giving of the tablets to Moses see Deuteronomy 10:1-5; remember, Moses broke the first set).  Imagine my surprise a few weeks ago to learn that the apostle Paul did not agree that God had given the law directly to Moses.  According to Paul (Galatians 3:19) and other New Testament writers (Acts 7:38, 53; Hebrews 2:2) the law was “ordered through angels!  This tradition was also shared by Josephus, a first century Jewish writer in a statement attributed to Herod (Antiquities of the Jews 15.5.3): “We have learned the noblest of our doctrines and the holiest of our laws from the messengers [angels] sent by God.”

       This tradition of an indirect passing of the Law to Moses is unknown in the Hebrew Bible, although angels are part of the coterie of God in the Septuagint version of Deuteronomy 33:2, where God comes with his “holy ones” and “on his right hand were his angels with him.” In one of the Apostolic Fathers, Shepherd of Hermas (Similitude 8.3.3), the Archangel Michael was said to have “put the law into the hearts of those who believe.”  Angels were long thought to act as mediators between God and human beings (see, for example, Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs: TLevi 5:5-6; TDan 6:1-2; Philo, On Dreams, 1. 141-142; Jubilees, 1.27-2.1; 32:21-22).  Cerinthusan early Christian heretic according to Epiphanius (Panarion 28.1,2),claimed “that the Law and prophets have been given by angels though the law-giver is one of the angels who made the world,and these angels did an evil act by creating the world.  Barnabas (9:4)another of the Apostolic Fathers, reports that an evil angel misled the Israelite people into thinking that circumcision was an actual fleshly act.

       Obviously we have here an interesting contradiction between the Old Testament and the New Testament: did Moses actually receive the Law directly from God or was it “ordered through angels”? Both assertions cannot be correct at the same time!  The situation is much more complicated, however.  These claims about the Law are traditions validating the authority of the Torah.  A tradition is a handing down orally of a belief from generation to generation.  Traditions are living “things,”and as such they change, evolve, and mutate.  Because they exist in memory and surface in oral communicationno sequential history of the evolution of an ancient tradition survives.  Each generation inevitably modifies what they receive, because it is not written in stone (if you will permit me to put it that way). If there ever had been a point of origin and an originaform of the tradition, it would have long since vanished into the fog of the past.  With time, written stories do emerge explaining the origin of this or that particular belief. These various written forms of the tradition often represent diverse contradictory versions of the tradition.  These versions represent what individuals or groups believed about them at a given moment in time.  The oral tradition, however, goes on evolving into still later multiple forms, as interpreted by those who receive it and pass it on to other auditors.

       Neither of these two attempts to explain how the Torah came to Moses (i.e., directly from God or ordered through angelsis historically verifiable datum about the origin of theTorah; they are rather ancient traditional beliefs, and as such do not provide a historical description of origins. Rather each is a then current religious belief representing what people thought at the time.

       Many, if not most, statements about origins in the Bible work the same way—for example, early Christians validated the divinity of Jesus by narratives of a physical birth (Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-55; 2:1-20), the infusion or mutation of the preexistent heavenly Christ into flesh (John 1:1-14)and a baptismal Theophany (Mark 1:9-11) – an interesting contradiction between New Testament writers.

       Which of these two contradictory traditions about the Torah, if either, makes more sense to you?  Or to put it another way: with whom do you agree: “Moses” (directly from God), Paul (ordered through angels), or Hedrick (traditions, not history)?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Interface of Reason and Faith

The Devil may be in the details of the definitions I am using:  reason is "the mental powers concerned with forming conclusions, judgments, or inferences"; faith is "a belief that is not based on proof."  Reason proceeds on the basis of skepticism, critical inquiry, and logic; faith works on the basis of credulity, a priori premises, and confessions.  In short, the two processes of thought are by definition two completely opposite ways of apprehending reality.  For example, reason says that a person who is dead and not in some kind of deep coma, remains dead; s/he does not return to a living state.  Faith, on the other hand, argues: true; in general a person who is dead does not come back to a living state, but there is one exception.  God "raised" Jesus of Nazareth from the dead.  Behind this particular Christian response lies the a priori premise of an unseen divine being, and the confession that Jesus was raised from the dead, both of which are evident only to a believer.  Reason, on the other hand, demands that some rational proof be offered to justify this exception to the way of all flesh.
               Faith pleads an open universe where God has elbow room to make things deviate from the observed usual.  But reason, willing even to accept the idea of an open universe where things may deviate from the usual, still demands proof that the deviation from the usual is based on natural cause and effect rather than by the manipulation of an invisible divine hand outside the natural order of things.
               At bottom, reason and faith are fundamentally two contradictory ways of viewing reality, but up to a point they can co-exist and in some cases even cooperatively in the same mind.  Where they part ways is in the deference given to the primary confessions of a given faith.  These a priori premises of the faith are non-negotiable, i.e., without them, by definition, there is no faith.  To join a given Faith one must give assent to its confessions, and if one changes one's mind after joining, then one can be taken before some official body of the organization on heresy charges (and, yes, such trials do take place with some regularity), and if convicted of heresy one either recants or is put out of the community.
               Apart from the primary confessions it is possible for a member of a given faith to practice a rational 21st century existence as long as one does not make the mistake of thinking there is a 1:1 correlation between what one believes is so and what is actually so.  Should one make that mistake, alibis will be required to accommodate the difference between belief and actuality.  For example, Faith asserts "this is my Fathers' world," i.e., God controls it, and can be expected to act in the best interest of the created order.  Yet we also experience in the world pain, disease, natural disasters, and tragedy.  How can that be reconciled with a benevolent God controlling the universe?  When one comes to the point of recognizing that a disconnection exists between "good" God and dangerous creation, the disconnect must be bridged to enable one to hold on to both concepts at the same time.
               One of the many alibis explaining away this phenomenon is as follows:  The world was originally created as a benign place. We, however, now live in a fallen creation because of Adam's willful sin.  The creation will, however, in the end be redeemed (Romans 8:18-23), but such a belief does not solve the problem of God's failure to render benevolent care to the creation and its creatures in the here and now.  Here is another: Whatever bad happens to people is for their benefit.  The word "bad" used in this connection is really a misnomer; for the tragedies that come upon humans can be explained as part of God's refining process through which human beings grow and improve.  So the "bad" is really a "good."  Such a solution to the problem, however, turns God into a stern disciplinarian who shapes his creatures through pain and suffering—a far cry from a kind and caring "Father" (compare Luke 11:11-12).
               When the alibis can no longer bridge the gap between benevolent deity and dangerous world, a fundamentally different way of viewing reality is required, and a gap appears in the confessional wall sheltering the faithful from the insistent voice of reason.  We surrender items of personal religious belief with great difficulty, yet reason persistently continues its nagging and prodding.
               How do you see it?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Reading Jesus’ Mind

Today's average Christian if asked whether Jesus thought of himself as the Son of God and the messiah, would likely answer in the affirmative.  Critical scholars in general would likely avoid the question, however, for obvious reasons—who can possibly know anyone's thoughts?  Confessional scholars would likely side with the average Christian.  Nevertheless, some critical scholars are not at all uncomfortable talking about what was going on in Jesus' mind.  Marcus Borg, for example, affirms some things that "Jesus was aware of": "The power or authority which others sensed in him"; "the power of the Spirit flowing through him"; "his teaching also shows an awareness of a numinous authority not derived from tradition."  And if you allow Borg to define carefully the terms he uses, he is willing to affirm: "in this Jewish sense, Jesus may have thought of himself as 'son of God.'" (Borg, Jesus A New Vision, 47-49).
               At the turn of the previous century Albert Schweitzer (holding three doctorates: Music, Theology, Medicine) wrote a short work entitled The Psychiatric Study of Jesus. Exposition and Criticism (1913).  The book was his medical dissertation.  In it he countered the views of those in the medical profession who at that time were arguing that Jesus, "who considered himself the 'Son of Man' and the 'Messiah,' is to be adjudged in some fashion as psychopathic" (p. 27).  And Schweitzer himself felt comfortable telling the reader what Jesus thought: Jesus "did not permit the conviction that he was destined to be the coming Messiah to play a part in his message" (p 51).  And again: "That Jesus of Nazareth knew himself to be the Son of Man who was to be revealed is for us the great fact of His self-consciousness" (Quest of the Historical Jesus, 367).
               Even the gospel writers knew what went on in the mind of Jesus—or claimed they did.  Here are a few of their comments: "Jesus knowing their thoughts said..." (Matt: 9:4); "knowing their thoughts, he said..." (Matt 12:25); "he knew their thoughts and said..." (Luke 6:8); "But when Jesus perceived the thought of their hearts, he took..." (Luke 9:47).
               Providing the reader with interior views of characters in a narrative is a function of the narrator (i.e., the voice telling the story).  Such a narrative technique is a standard feature of narrative fiction and qualifies the narrator as omniscient, i.e., a narrator who knows everything (see Arp and Johnson, Perrine's Literature, 238-45).  Matthew and Luke also engage in reading Jesus' mind; hence they are omniscient narrators, because they know everything—even what goes on in the minds of their characters.  John, on the other hand, features an unreliable narrator, for the principle narrator's story is frequently corrected by a second more knowledgeable narrative voice at points in the narrative (see, Hedrick, "Unreliable Narration: John on the Story of Jesus and the Chronicler on the History of Israel," Perspectives on John [Edwin Mellen, 1993], 121-43).
               An author's use of the literary technique of reading minds calls into question the realism of the narrative.  The use of such a technique results in a less realistic narrative because it provides the reader with something s/he could not possibly know in real life. Hence the early Christian gospels are more akin to fiction than history.  For historians to use this technique in historical narrative is irresponsible, because it misleads the reader in that historians present as a datum of history something that is obviously a fantasy of fiction.
               The truth is that we never know what people are thinking even when they tell us what they claim to be thinking.
What are your thoughts?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University