Friday, November 28, 2014

The Wisdom of Jesus. Between the Sages of Israel and the Apostles of the Church

My new book (The Wisdom of Jesus) has just been published by Wipf and Stock in their selective imprint Cascade Books.  Basically my study of Jesus addresses two questions: (1) how would the image of Jesus appear if it were based only on the limited number of sayings that scholars generally agreed originated with Jesus?  And (2) how would the wisdom of Jesus reflected in those few sayings compare to the wisdom of the sages (a sage: someone distinguished for their wisdom) of ancient Israel and the apostles of the early Christian church?
            To answer such questions historians face serious difficulties.  Everything we know about Jesus comes from what later writers thought about him; none of the statements they attributed to him come directly from him.  Everything in the early Christian gospels is either derived from historical memory, or is borrowed, or invented.  In short, everything about Jesus in the gospels is at best hearsay.  Even those very few sayings receiving near-universal agreement from historians as sayings of Jesus can only be affirmed as historically probable rather than historically certain.  In describing the sayings and doings of Jesus the later gospels, written a generation or more after the time of Jesus, are seriously flawed as history, meaning that the evangelists are not reporting the traditions about Jesus in an unbiased way.
            The aim of the book is to allow Jesus to speak directly to modern readers in his own voice, as nearly as possible in his own words, without the theological explanations of the gospel writers, or the interpretations of modern scholars and theologians.  The resulting image of Jesus that emerges from the study of his sayings is a complex picture of a first-century lower-class man who was not religious in a traditional sense.  For example, Jesus says very little about God.  His discourse was the language of the secular world and addressed issues of common life in an oblique way.  That is to say, his actual words deal more with lower class village life, and offer sweeping unrealistic challenges to the complexities of daily living.  He did not leave behind a code of conduct to be followed, and also simply omitted any practical guidance as to how his challenging ideas should be incorporated into daily life.  For example, one of the probable statements of Jesus is this rather contradictory directive: Be sly like snakes and simple like pigeons (Matthew 10:16).  The statement prompts the question: how is it possible to be both at once?  And on another occasion he said: when someone snatches your outer garment, don't prevent them from taking your undergarment as well (Luke 6:29b)—obeying this instruction in a literal fashion would leave one virtually nude—not very practical advice for living in a dangerous world.
            The sages of ancient Israel, on the other hand, offer a range of advice about how to get along in the world.  Some texts offer religious instruction, which is identified as divine wisdom, and devalue human insight and experience.  Job's book is a courageous human challenge to the supposedly perfect divine wisdom, while Ecclesiastes finds both divine wisdom, and human insight and experience bankrupt as resources for getting on in the world.  The apostles of the church locate wisdom in the world as a divine initiative and disparage human wisdom.    The ideas of Jesus, however, conflict with the religious and secular wisdom of his day—even putting him at odds with human self-interest.
            The chapter titles are:
            The Problem of the Historical Study of Jesus
            Jesus and the Language of the Gospel
            Early Christian Wisdom
            Surveying the Sages of Ancient Israel
            The Sayings of Jesus: A Preface
            Vestiges of a Discourse
            Parables: Fictional Narratives about the Ordinary
            A Case Study of a Parable: The Fired Manager
            Jesus between the Wisdom Canons of Israel and the Church
The Epilogue is entitled: Pondering the Unreliability of the Gospels
The publisher's website describing the book is:

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Monday, November 17, 2014

Jesus and Paul

Scholars working in the early twentieth century knew very well that there is a virtual lack of continuity between the Pauline tradition and the Synoptic tradition.  In short, Paul is completely unaware of the Jesus tradition as represented in the master narrative of the synoptic gospels.  The discussion of this lack of continuity between Jesus and Paul goes back at least to 1858 (Scott, "Jesus and Paul," 331).  Rudolf Bultmann, perhaps the most influential New Testament scholar of the twentieth century, summarized Paul's knowledge of Jesus in this way:  "His letters barely show traces of Palestinian tradition concerning the history and preaching of Jesus.  All that is important for him in the story of Jesus is the fact that Jesus was born a Jew and lived under the law (Gal. 4:4) and that he had been crucified (Gal. 3:1; I Cor. 2:2; Phil. 2:5ff., etc."; Theology, vol. 1.188).  To be sure, Paul knows an oral tradition of sayings of Jesus.  He cites three explicit sayings that have parallels attributed to Jesus in the synoptic gospels (1 Cor 7:10-11; 9:14; 11:23-26), as well as two sayings that do not have parallels in the synoptic gospels (1 Cor 14:37; 1 Thess 4:15-17).  First Corinthians 7:25 seems to suggest that Paul was aware of a number of Jesus sayings, but knew no saying that addressed the issue of "virgins," suggesting he may even have had a list. There are at least eight "echoes" of Jesus sayings known from the synoptic gospels in the Pauline letters that everyone would acknowledge, and a larger number of disputed "echoes" (Hedrick Wisdom, 25-29).
            Earlier discussion of the continuity, or lack thereof, between Jesus and Paul focused on the question of who was the founder of Christianity, Jesus or Paul.  If Paul had only a smattering knowledge of the teachings of Jesus, then it would appear that Christianity ultimately is founded on Paul and his idea of the resurrected Christ, rather than on what Jesus, the Galilean teacher, said and did.
            In this brief essay, however, I am concerned with Paul's knowledge of the synoptic master narrative; that is to say, the story of the career of Jesus as it is shared between the synoptic gospels.  Knowing an oral tradition of a few Jesus sayings is not the same as knowing the later master narrative of Jesus shared between the synoptic gospels.  The current theory about gospel origins is that all three writers used oral tradition, while Matthew and Luke independently used two written sources, Mark and Q.  Hence Paul could have known some of the same oral sayings that are used in the synoptic gospels without having known their later narrative about Jesus.
            What is the evidence that Paul could have known the synoptic master narrative about Jesus in some incipient oral form?  What is at stake in the answer to this question is how much information from the shared synoptic narratives may be assumed to be extant in Paul's day.  For example, should we assume that Paul knows the synoptic tradition of the baptism of Jesus by John, the Baptizer?  The question is important because Jesus' baptism by John is today regarded as a certain historical event in the life of Jesus, even though Paul gives no indication that he knows of it.
            Paul does practice baptism as a community rite, but it was not a major focus for him, and he even specifically denied that it was a part of his commission from Christ (1 Cor 1:13-17; i.e., the resurrected Christ; not the Palestinian man).  He regarded the significance of the rite as a mystical participation in the death and resurrection of Christ (Rom 6:3-4; Gal 3:27; compare 1 Cor 10:2; 12:13), and not something done in obedience to the commission of Jesus (cf. Matt 28:18-20).  Baptism seems to be part of the community lore he inherited, such as the practice of the Lord's Supper (1 Cor 11:20-34), a rite Paul appears to modify in focus and practice.
            There are four reference points for dating how early the shared synoptic master narrative about Jesus may have been known:  (a) Second Peter (1:16-18), whose date is usually given as early second century, appears to know the story of the transfiguration (Matt 17:2-5).  (b) The earliest manuscript evidence for the baptism of Jesus is second/third century: P64, having the text of Matt 3:13-17, is dated around 200; P4 and P75, having the text of Luke 3: 21-22, are dated third century; P104, dated second century, has fragments of the Gospel of Matthew.  (c) P52, early second century, is a fragment of the Gospel of John.  (d) The bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp (Letter to the Philippians), who was martyred middle second century, probably knew the written gospels of Matthew and Luke (Koester, Ancient Gospels, 14-20).  Hence the earliest that a general knowledge of the synoptic story about Jesus may reasonably be argued is early second century.  Why, then, should we think that a Palestinian tradition of the baptism of Jesus by John is "historically certain" (Hartman, "Baptism," ABD, 1.584)?  No evidence of the baptism story is attested before early second century.  The Church's embarrassment at having to admit that the Christ had once been a follower of John is the primary argument for regarding the baptism as historical.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Where does Christology begin?

Where does the process begin that turns Jesus from a man into God?  What was there about this first-century lower-class Galilean man that set him apart from others?  We know very little about him and his situation in life in the early years of the first century.  Jesus was born under the ideology of the Israelite religion, and became a lower-class artisan by trade.  At one point he became a follower of John the Baptizer, who preached a message of Israelite renewal, repentance, and baptism in the face of the coming Judgment of God (Mark 1:4-8).  About his early life little more is known, for the sources report virtually nothing historically reliable about the period from his birth to the beginning of his own public career, following the arrest of John.
               The early Christian gospels are of little help, other than perhaps providing us hints about the earlier period, since Jesus is already portrayed in the gospels bigger-than-life as the Messiah and Son of God—basically a God who appears to be a man.  In their reports the process is well advanced on the way to the declaration of Chalcedon in 451: that Jesus is "fully God and fully human."  We must search for hints that might take us backwards toward the early beginning of the process.
               It is possible that the process of turning Jesus into God happened during the Hellenistic phase of the early history of the church.  With the influx of gentiles into the early community gatherings, Eastern religious traditions meet Western religious traditions.  The right conditions for accelerating the process are provided by the Greek tendency to ascribe divinity to people of unusual abilities and by the pervasive influence of the mystery religions in the Greco-Roman world.  To judge from the Pauline letters by the early 50s the process of elevating Jesus to divinity was well advanced, a situation likely due to the fact that gentiles associated themselves with Jesus gatherings shortly after the crucifixion (Acts 6:1-6).
               What unusual ability might Jesus have that prompted his elevation from laborer to divinity?  Josephus (JA 18.3.3) provides one suggestion.  In the well-known Testimonium Flavianum Josephus refers to him as a wise man (σοφὸς ἀνήρ), although the entire statement in Josephus (first century) suggests that he is more than simply man.  Because it conflicts with the statement as a whole, the view that Jesus was a "wise man" may be an authentic earlier memory.  Another hint appears in a remarkable statement made by Justin Martyr (second century) who attests a similar view of Jesus: "Now the son of God, called Jesus, even if only an ordinary man, is on account of his wisdom (σοφία) worthy to be called son of God." (First Apology, 22).  Justin tells the reader nothing about what he regards as the content of Jesus' wisdom.
               The association of Jesus with wisdom is more pointedly made in the New Testament by the author of the Gospel of Matthew (Matt 23:34-36) in revising an earlier Q tradition, represented by Luke (11:49-51).  Q attributes the oracle of doom on the people of "this generation" to Jesus, who says "I will send you prophets, wise men (σοφούς) and scribes."   In Matthew, on the other hand, the oracle of doom is attributed to "the Wisdom of God," who "will send prophets and apostles."  In other words Matthew has identified Jesus as personified Wisdom, and attributed Wisdom's oracle to Jesus.  Before the earth was formed (personified) Wisdom worked alongside God in the creation of the heavens and the earth (Proverbs 8:27-30).  But more to the point "in every generation she (Wisdom) passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God and prophets" (Wisdom 7:27).  Again Matthew has revised an earlier Q tradition; Q identifies John the baptizer and Jesus as emissaries (i.e., children) of Lady Wisdom in spite of their different lifestyles (Luke 7:31-35), while Matthew by revising Q makes Jesus the embodiment of Lady Wisdom herself (Matthew 11:16-19) by virtue of the deeds Jesus performs (Matthew 11:19).
               There is no trace of Jesus' reputation as savant or sage in any of the early Christian creeds, and only traces of it can be found in the early Christian gospels.  His reputation as a Galilean sage virtually disappears from the tradition, along with the suppression of his public career by the creeds.
               Only these few hints remain to suggest what may have been the case in Galilee and Judea only twenty years or so before Paul: Jesus was a man of unusual but native abilities with a quick mind who was remembered for his memorable sayings.  Although he was an unlettered savant or a rustic sage, he became celebrated for his wisdom; eventually coming to be regarded by his associates as a "friend of God" and one of his generation's "holy souls" sent by Lady Wisdom (Wisdom 7:27).  His unusual natural abilities gave him a position of special prominence and respect among his peers in Galilee.
               Being regarded as an emissary of Lady Wisdom and a "wise man," however, would not inevitably lead to divinity, for "wise men" were ubiquitous in the ancient world.  Nevertheless, the right conditions might spark the beginning of the process.  Those "right" conditions are provided by the influence of non-Israelites in the early gatherings of his later followers; they could well have begun the process resulting in divine honors for him.  Consider the early pre-Pauline Hellenistic confession that Jesus was a man chosen by God to be his son by virtue of his resurrection from the dead (Romans 1:3-4).  Such a conjecture about the status of Jesus among his peers plausibly tracks the beginnings of Christology to circumstances in the life of the Israelite man, Jesus, in Roman Palestine.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University