Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A Christmas Reprise

This brief essay is a reprise in three ways: it looks back a few days ago to Christmas 2014; it is a revision of an essay I published in the Springfield News-Leader on December 24th 1986; and it also appeared in 2009 in a collection of my editorials, House of Faith or Enchanted Forest (Wipf and Stock).  Here it is again somewhat revised:
            The Christmas story has endured for slightly under 2,000 years; it has survived translation from ancient into modern culture, the attacks of hostile rationalists, the naiveté of biblical literalists, its crass commercialism in the marketplace, the self-serving interests of overzealous pietists, the secularizing of western society, and its amalgamation with other competitive non-Christian holiday traditions through the centuries.
            The story of the birth of Jesus continues to capture the imagination of the most creative and able talent of western culture. Under its influence artists have produced many of the masterpieces of our Judeo-Christian heritage in art, music, and literature.  And today in the early twenty-first century, we are still influenced by the message we find in the Christmas story. Motivated by that ancient story, we moderns have been led to acts of altruism, self-sacrifice, and charity that surprise even us upon looking back at our behavior.  When we are bombarded with so much Christmas "magic" during the festive season, it is difficult for the Scrooges of the world to react with a "bah! Humbug." There is a grandeur, a nobility, associated with Christmas that stirs the slumbering chords of the highest human ideals. For that reason, the Christmas story is authentic in a way that historical criticism cannot confirm, or even investigate.
            Why should these narratives describing the birth of Jesus still speak to modern human beings educated in a secularized west?  It is not because of their unity, philosophical sophistication, or technical excellence.  For example, there are in the New Testament actually two completely different stories describing how the first "Christmas" happened, one by Matthew (1:18-23) and the better known story by Luke (2:1-21).  Mark either did not know a narrative of the birth of Jesus, or simply did not think it important enough to report. John did not need a birth story, since Jesus was not actually "born" in the Gospel of John (1:1-18).  The many miraculous elements in the birth narratives—virgin birth, angels, star leading the "wise men," etc., are simply no longer credible to twenty-first century human beings (except the "true believers"), and constitute serious obstacles to the religious faith of many of us.  The "true believer," on the other hand, makes believing the miraculous the test of what it means to have "true faith."  Such miraculous elements are common in the literature of antiquity, where they are used to validate the careers of great men by ascribing to them the trappings of divinity; compare, for example, the birth stories about Asclepius, Hercules, and Alexander the Great. It seems to me, however, that the real "miracle" of Christmas does not lie in the miraculous features of the stories; the miracle lies in the existential influence of the story upon those of us who celebrate Christmas; that is, it lies in what the season does to us and in how it inspires us to treat one another.
            The Christmas narratives still remain surprisingly relevant in our day, in spite of their legendary and mythical character.  Behind each of the birth narratives lies a deep longing and noble aspiration of the human spirit.  The vision afforded by the narratives rises above the horizon of those ultimately insignificant narrow borders separating religions and the different versions of Christianity.  The narratives address a basic issue that concerns our common humanity regardless of heritage or creed; they speak to our consciousness of human finitude—our terrible dread of the infinite, however we label it (death, eternity, a divine infinite, inability to control destiny, etc.); and they address a very deep desire for peace in the world at all levels of human existence.
            Matthew and Luke proclaim that in the humanity of a particular Jewish lad, born in a remote village of the Roman Empire, in a naive and pre-scientific age—that in this lad, in some way, a divine infinity has intersected the finite human (Matt 1:20-23; Luke 1:35): that is to say, the message of both stories is that infinity need not be feared, but rather embraced!  Luke holds forth the birth of this child as a promise of "peace on earth" (Luke 1:76-79; 2:11-14). The possibility of being free from the terror of our own finitude and of finding peace in a turbulent and frequently brutal world is "good news" indeed.  Such hope holds forth a promise of comfort for every human heart, and is worthy of celebration by all of us.
            And so I still think today.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Reference: Robert J. Miller, Born Divine. The Births of Jesus and Other Sons of God (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 2003).

Friday, December 12, 2014

Do Texts “Mean” What the Author Intended?

This essay ran in a shorter version as a letter to the editor in the Springfield News-Leader.  
In the Springfield News-Leader (MO) November 30, 2014 Tom Krause gently chides a young woman who (unknowingly) gave an interpretation of one of his poems in a speech tournament at which he was one of the judges.  It seems that she offered a reading of the poem "describing what the author had meant," and it was "not even close to [his own] real intent."
            This is a perfect example of the poem (or creative essay) as an artistic object.  Once an author has written and published a poem, he (or she) no longer controls it.  The issue is not what authors intend to do, but what they actually did.  In other words the published poem/essay is autonomous and has an existence totally apart from the creative artist's intentions.  The author becomes only one more interpreter, and not the authoritative interpreter. It really doesn't matter what the author intended; what matters is what the essay is.  The creative piece exists apart from the author's intentions; it draws attention to itself and "speaks" to the reader, or the viewer in the case of objects of art like painting and sculpture.  Thus authors may learn something new from others about what they have actually accomplished in the essay or poem.  The poet Wallace Stevens, who has been described as "the necessary angel of earth," once wrote in a letter:
It is not a question of what an author meant to say but of what he has said.  In the case of a competent critic the author may well have a great deal to find out about himself and his work. (Letters, #396)
            In short, language is ambiguous on the best of days, as any poet well knows.  For example, Miguel de Cervantes in his 17th century novel, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, described an insane man who fancied himself a knight errant on a quest to restore chivalry and bring justice to the world  He jousted (tilted) and fought with imaginary foes (windmills and giants), which were real to him in his insanity.  Cervantes' novel inspired a book (by Dale Wasserman) and Broadway musical, Man of La Mancha.  In the musical the signature song, "The Impossible Dream," describes a man on a quest fighting "unbeatable foes," righting "unrightable wrongs," fighting "for the right," and walking "through hell on a heavenly cause."  The protagonist of the musical is certainly inspired by Cervantes' mad hero Don Quixote de La Mancha, but in his interpretation by the musical lyricist (Joe Darion) Don Quixote has become a symbol of the idealistic person who dares to dream impossible dreams including a just social order.  What, do you suppose, Cervantes would have thought of that?
            The situation is similar with respect to biblical texts, which were written by human beings.  They are not God's words, as Mr. Krause says, but human words written in behalf of a particular understanding of God.  Krause's affirmation of faith completely ignores the human authors of these ancient writings, who themselves were conditioned by their situations in life; they crafted what they wrote from vastly different perspectives with different intentions and opinions.  Letting God interpret these words, as Mr. Krause advises, is only Krause's faith speaking again.  Readers, not God, interpret texts, in the nexus between how they read the text and the life experiences they bring to the text.  God has nothing to do with it.
            If you doubt the ambiguity of language, just ask a Baptist, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic about their understanding of the Eucharist.  They come to very different understandings using the same Bible.  The classic example of reading the same biblical text and arriving at different conclusions is found in how differently Paul (Galatians 3:6-14) and James (2:18-26) understand the biblical story of Abraham (Genesis 22:1-18): Paul's view was that God requires faith alone (Galatians 3:8-11); James' view was that God required both faith and works (2:24).
            Galatians 2:16 provides another example of the slippery nature of language, and how the personal life experience we bring to our reading of biblical texts influences what we read in the text.  Paul writes "a person is not justified by works of the law, but through the faith of Jesus Christ"; that is through a confidence in God like that of Jesus.  And so the passage was translated in the English Bibles of the 16th and 17th centuries.  At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th the translation was changed, and became: "a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ" (see The Authentic Letters of Paul, 65-66).  Alas, not even the Gods, if Gods there be, can control a reader's interpretation of the divine pronouncements of the Gods.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

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: http://wipfandstock.com/the-wisdom-of-jesus.html.

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

Friday, October 24, 2014

“Jesus has come in flesh” Early Christian Confessions (continued)

The ancient Greek Gods, Zeus and company, were known to have encounters with men and women. The Gods assumed human disguise for these encounters and in some cases even appeared as animals. Zeus is particularly famous for his liaisons with human females. In the form of a swan he consorted with Leda and had two children with her (Castor and Pollux).  Here is another example: Zeus came to Alcmena and "becoming like" her husband Amphitryon, Zeus "lay down" with her and she bore two sons, Hercules and Iphicles. I only know of one instance where these divine human disguises were described as "fleshly" (in order to distinguish the personal presence of the Gods from their material statues). Such intimate situations clearly suggest that there was "fleshly" contact. This description is similar to that in the Valentinian Gospel of Truth (possibly 2nd century), where Jesus "came by fleshly form" (31:4-6).
            The writer of Hebrews noted that as children "shared blood and flesh, he [Jesus] himself similarly shared these" (Hebrews 2:14); some manuscripts add the word "misfortunes" to clarify the indefinite "these" of 2:14. "Sharing" flesh and blood is imprecise.  It is scarcely a claim that Jesus was human, but only a claim that he was "human-like," as were the Greek Gods described.
            Twice more Hebrews uses "flesh" to describe Jesus.  In Hebrews 5:7 the writer refers to "the days of his flesh." The expression suggests that the "days of his flesh" constituted only a temporary passage of time in an otherwise longer existence and that he himself was not to be identified by "flesh" in the same way the rest of us are; his fleshly state was something he only "shared" temporarily with us. Flesh and blood were only the means by which he opened up for us "a new and living way" into the presence of God (Hebrews 10:20).
            A somewhat rambling creedal-like statement appears in the Epistles of Ignatius (early second century):
There is one physician
Fleshly and spiritual
Born and unborn
God in man
In death true life
Both from Mary and from God
First capable of suffering and then incapable of suffering.
(Letter to the Ephesians 7:2)
The statement shows the difficulty Ignatius had in describing Jesus precisely, and reveals the potential for misunderstanding statements that attempt to be comprehensive and yet brief.  This statement is clearly dualistic even as it gropes toward a unified description for the nature of Jesus.
            The strange passage in John 6:51-58, where Jesus promises eternal life to the one who "eats his flesh and drinks his blood," is generally taken as an anachronistic allusion to the church's celebration of Eucharist. Ignatius seems to echo this John passage when he described Eucharist as the "medicine of immortality" (Letter to the Ephesians 20:2). These latter passages suggest that there was something special about the flesh of Jesus.  It was not simply common human flesh, for "his" flesh possessed a spiritual power, and was the means by which he brought eternal life.  Hence "his flesh" was hardly ordinary.
            Judging from this evidence, it appears that in the early days of the church (later 1st and early 2nd centuries) there existed no uniform way to describe Jesus as Christ. There were attempts to form some kind of plausible explanation that would do full justice to what everyone knew (i.e., he was a man) and to what everyone believed (i.e., he came from God).  So one might say about this early period that wide speculation existed, but that no definitive explanation emerged, which claimed general acceptance. In truth, there never has been a description satisfactory to everyone. While the "definitive" Chalcedon statement ("truly God and truly man") ended speculation in 451 for the orthodox churches, on the fringes of orthodoxy speculation continued—and still continues.
            What do you suppose was the impulse giving rise to all the Christological speculations in the late first and early second centuries?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Early Christian Confessions: An Inter-textual dialogue

One of the earliest Christian confessions is "Jesus Christ has come in flesh" (1 John 4:2, 2 John 7; dated around the end of the first century; and Polycarp to the Philippians 7:1, dated middle second century).  These references all describe the statement as a "confession," that is, a formal statement of religious belief. The words of the confession do not connote, however, how the confessor understands the expression, but merely states that Jesus Christ "has come" to a location described as "in flesh," which begs the question: where was he prior to having come to the "in flesh" location?
The Gospel of John 1:1-18 may perhaps clarify somewhat his previous location.  John describes the Word as Jesus Christ (1:17), who existed before creation (1:1-5), and who later "became flesh" (1:14); that is to say the divine Word was "en-fleshed."  Oddly John 1:14 does not claim that Jesus Christ became human (ἀνθρώπινος), or even that he became a man (ἄνθρωπος), but rather that he became "flesh" (σάρξ).  Was the confession in the Johannine letters and Polycarp intended to communicate the idea that his being "in flesh" was a state foreign to his prior state, as is suggested by the second half of John 1:14: "and he took up (temporary) residence (ἐσκήνωσεν) among us"?  Not being equipped to read minds, all that I can say is that such an explanation is a possible understanding of the confession.
The confession basically only claims that Jesus Christ is not a "phantom," a condition suggested by the disciples' experience in Mark 6:50, where it is suggested that το the disciples he briefly appeared to be only a ghostly apparition.  On the contrary, the confession affirms that he is actual substantive flesh (and blood), such as the rest of us are (1 John 1:1).
            The confession does not speculate on the nature of his fleshly condition, but such a speculation does exist in Paul, where he states that the "flesh" of Jesus Christ was of a different kind than that characterizing the normal human condition.  Paul asserts that God sent "his own son in the likeness of sinful flesh" (Romans 8:3)—meaning that his flesh only looks like that of the rest of us sinful fleshly human beings; his "flesh" is distinctly different.  These are very strange words indeed, suggesting that the flesh of Jesus was of a different sort and that it was only "similar" to the sinful flesh human beings share.
The Pauline statement and the idea also fit an early Christian hymn, which Paul quotes: that Christ was "born in the likeness of men" (Philippians 2:7); that is to say, he was not really a man or a human being, but he only appeared to be a man.
            A confession in 1Timothy echoes language similar to Philippians  2:7, the Pastor (a name given by scholars to the author of the Pastoral Epistles) begins a confession as follows: "he was made visible in flesh" (1 Timothy 3:16).  This statement takes up a middling position affirming that he was "visible in flesh" but not agreeing with either John 1:14, where he became flesh and Romans 8:3 where his flesh was of a different sort.  Prior to his having become visible in flesh, the suggestion seems to be that he was invisible, a state that is characteristic of deity (Colossians 1:15, 1 Timothy 1:17, Hebrews 11:27).
            Paul describes on one occasion that he came into the world in the manner of a human birth: "when the time had fully come God sent forth his son, born of a woman" (Gal 4:4), but the "sending forth" language suggests something more than a natural birth occurred.  The birth narrative in Luke also has the façade of a natural birth (Luke 1:31; 2:7), but clearly something else is going on (Luke 1:35).  Matthew's story also shares the façade of a natural birth, but clearly it is not (Matthew 1:18, 24-25).
            Summarizing the view that seems to be reflected in these early texts, it appears that Jesus Christ was not conceived as a human being. Rather he was a "divine Other," who did not share the human condition, but only took up residence among us "in flesh."  Imagine my surprise then to read the decision of the Council of Chalcedon (in 451 AD); in seeking to resolve the Christological disagreements in the church, the Council decreed that Jesus Christ was "truly God and truly man"; he had two natures, human and divine, both of which resided indivisibly in the same persona.  This orthodox creed, which has existed in the Western church since the middle of the fifth century, is that Jesus Christ was "fully God and fully human."  It is somewhat ironic, however, that the earliest followers of Jesus do not seem to share that confession.  What do you suppose might have been the motivation for ignoring the views of the earliest followers of Jesus?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

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

Friday, August 22, 2014

Publish or Perish

Resolved: faculty publications are essential to quality teaching in the university.
This is something a little different; last week I had an interesting conversation about the quality of college instruction by teachers who did not, as a matter of course, publish in peer-reviewed journals or with peer-reviewed presses.  My argument was that a college instructor in an academic discipline was obliged to publish in his/her area of expertise, if he/she taught students in courses of study leading to bachelors or masters degrees.  The reason for requiring publications was to ensure that instructors are current in their fields and to ensure the instructors' engagement with colleagues in their disciplines.  The purpose of requiring they publish is to make their ideas about the subjects of their disciplines public so that they can be vetted by colleagues in both the university and their discipline.  Were it otherwise, colleagues would not know if the teacher was competent in the subject matter of the discipline and knowledgeable about current discussions in the field. Publically submitting one's views and ideas to colleagues in the field by publishing them is the only way a discipline can police itself.
               In academic institutions that practice self-governance faculty members of academic departments are regularly involved in evaluating other faculty members for promotion and tenure, and it is not uncommon to ask for reviews from others in the instructor's discipline outside the university.  At my university (as in most accredited universities) faculty are evaluated in terms of teaching, research, and service.  The percentages of evaluation in each category, within certain limits, may be set by the individual faculty member.  For example, on a scale of 100%, the instructor may select 90% in teaching and service and 10% in research and publication.  But research and publication must be a part of the faculty member's package.  Teachers are required to maintain institutional/departmental minimums in all three areas in order to be promoted and tenured.  If an otherwise excellent teacher fails to meet the required minimum in all three areas during their probationary period, that teacher will not be renewed.  If the teacher somehow manages to make tenure, but does not perform at the required level in future years, the teacher will not be promoted beyond assistant professor.  I affirmed that process while I was teaching and still affirm it.  A "good" teacher who does not meet the minimum academic standards of the institution should find some other less demanding line of work.
               Let it be understood that there are varieties of "publishing" and not just print media.  Faculty members can publish on-line, as long as there is a peer review process involved, or they can submit professional papers for reading at professional meetings (these papers are peer-reviewed).  In my field the accepted method of publishing is generally in print media that is peer reviewed.  All of these publishing venues lead to informing colleagues about the kind of work being done in the classroom.  A teacher should make public the nature and quality of the research, reading, and thinking that informs what the students are experiencing in the classroom.  A teacher that will not do this is irresponsible in my view.
               The instructor controls his/her classroom.  Visitors to the classroom are there by permission of the instructor—even university administrators and colleagues work out a mutually agreed time for a visit.  Only the instructor and the students know what goes on in the classroom 95% of the time.  The state, however, demands accountability from publically assisted and supported universities, and the primary indicators for the 95% of class time that is unsupervised are the instructor's publications in whatever form, enrollments, and student performance (grades).  Enrollments and grades, however, cut both ways.  They can either indicate that the instructor is doing an excellent job in the classroom, or that he/she is inflating grades to cover a poor performance in the classroom or in order to support sagging student enrollments.
               In my university each department has a professional standards committee.  The purpose of the committee is to interpret standards set by the department (and university) for faculty facing tenure or promotion, to help the faculty member prepare his/her professional package that winds its way forward for recommendations from the professional standards committee, the department, the dean, and eventually to the president and the board.
               Let it also be said that during the probationary period poor teachers with excellent publishing records for beginning instructors will very likely not be successful in the tenure process.  The quality of classroom teaching plays a major role in an instructor's success in academia. But for the record: it is not either/or—it is both/and.
What are your thoughts?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Does God provide Portents that Warn of Future Events?

Does the God of Modern Christian faith deal in portents?  I suppose in the final analysis, it will depend on who you ask.  Portents are well known phenomena in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds.  Occurrences, which otherwise might seem to be simply natural happenings in the world, are regarded as omens or signs of future events that are sent by the gods—for example, the flight of birds, the movements of the stars, the falling of trees in the woods, etc.  There were also those in the ancient world who were thought to be endowed with the ability to recognize and interpret the signs that portended future events, and thus avoid disasters.  The practice of foretelling the future through such signs was called "divination," for the portents were thought to be sent by the gods.
               Although the practice of divination was forbidden in Israelite law (Deut 18:9-12), nevertheless portents show up in the Old Testament.  For example, Isaiah's nudity was thought to be a portent (Isaiah 20:2-3, 8:18) and the "handwriting on the wall" was a portent of doom for Belshazzar (Dan 5:5-31).  Some prophets thought that the Day of the Lord would be preceded by fearful portents in the heavens (Isa 13:9-11; Joel 2:30-31). Some New Testament writers thought that the end time would be preceded by similar portents in the heavens (Mark 13:24-27; Luke 21:8-28).  The Apocalypse describes some specific portents (Rev 12:12:1; 15:1).  The birth of the messiah in Matthew was preceded by the portent of a star in the heavens leading the three magi to Bethlehem (Matt 2:1-23). The ripping of the curtain of the Judean Temple at the death of Jesus (Mark 15:37-38) is likely a portent, which Mark declines or neglects to clarify.
               A case on point may be the crowing of the rooster that portended Peter's denial of Jesus.  Before they went out to Gethsemane where Jesus was arrested, Jesus told Peter that "before the cock crows twice you will deny me three times" (Mark 14:30), Matthew (26:34), Luke (22:34), and John (13:38), however, describe only one crowing of the cock followed by the three denials.  I have always wondered why it is that the other canonical gospels have only one crowing of the cock while Jesus in Mark predicted two.  It may well be because Mark's narration of the actual event of Peter's denial cites only one crowing of the cock (Mark 14:66-72).  The first crowing of the cock is apparently not stated in the passage, although some reliable manuscripts add a first crowing at the end of Mark 14:68: "and the cock crowed."  New Testament textual critics add the first crowing appearing in some manuscripts to the end of 14:68 in [square brackets], indicating that they are not completely convinced of the authenticity of the enclosed words.  In any case a first crowing of the cock, whether or not Mark narrated it, must have served as the portent of Peter's great denial and initiated the sad drama, which concluded immediately upon Peter's third denial (Mark 14:72).
               The motif of a crowing cock as a portent of some kind of disaster is mentioned several times by the first century Roman writer, Cicero ("Divination").
               Does God actually warn us of tragic events through seemingly inconsequential natural events like the flight of birds, the crowing of roosters, the cawing of crows, or some other natural occurrence?  Portents are attributed to God in the Bible, but how about today?  Should we modern users of the Bible regard portents as superstition, or should we regard them as "gospel truth," and consult modern diviners or augurs for a reading of "divine" signs before undertaking significant activities in our lives?  If, on the other hand, we determine that portents and divining the future are simply the stuff of ancient superstition, which have no basis in fact, how should we then regard and use the Bible?  Any thoughts?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Jesus, a Galilean Story-Teller

Whatever else he may have been Jesus was clearly a teller of tales.  His stories remind me of the world's first photographic process, the daguerreotype.  His tales, like those old photos, were black and white, grainy, and often blurry, but nevertheless provided realistic images of life in first-century rural Galilee.  For the most part the stories replicated common life in small peasant villages.  Chances are that all his characters in peasant village life were accurate to type, but those few modeled on characters from the upper classes are, likely, lacking in verisimilitude because of the inaccessibility of the oral "folk poet" to their exclusive social circles.  Few of the stories reflect religious motifs, however general, and none of the stories are theological or eschatological in character.  Theology and eschatology are brought to them by pious believers, and early "Christians," who preserved them purely for theological and religious reasons.
               The stories treat human beings in Palestine momentarily caught in the act of being human—except two.  One of these (Luke 16:19-31) contrasts the states of the rich and the poor after death.  The other, a Q story (Matt 12:43-45a = Luke 11:24-26a), describes "unclean" Spirits who possess an individual.  This last narrative provides the only confirmation among the stories that their artistic creator shared in the mythology of evil spirits, and demons endemic to the ancient world.  According to the Jesus Seminar this story did not originate with Jesus, and it seems to be little discussed in academic literature.  Brandon Scott, Craig Blomberg, and Arland Hultgren do not include the story in their parables surveys; Graham Twelftree does not include it in his book on spirit possession and exorcism in Palestine.
               The story of the twice–possessed person, however, is narrative, as is the classic form of "parable." In form the story is not unlike other better known stories Jesus told.  The story of the twice-possessed person narrates a case of possession by an "unclean" Spirit, later described as "evil."  Contrary to the highly respected German scholar, Joachim Jeremias, the Spirit is not "cast out," but merely goes out of the person of its own volition.  It passes through the desert (i.e., "waterless places") seeking rest, but finding none (why the Spirit needed rest is not stated), the Spirit returns to its "house," in the person in whom it formerly resided.  It found the "house" cleaned up and put in order (Matthew adds that it was "empty"). Speaking in images like the story, apparently during its residency this possessing Spirit had only disarranged and cluttered the house, leaving a dirty floor. The Spirit went out again, and found seven other Spirits "more evil" than itself.  And all eight entered and dwelled there.  Q added an interpretive conclusion (Matt 12:45a = Luke 11:26a), "and the last state of that person becomes worse than the first."  Matthew adds a second interpretation (12:26c): "So shall it also be with this generation."
               The story describes the helpless and the hopeless condition of a person possessed by a Spirit: if for some reason the possessing Spirit decides to vacate its "house," nothing prevents it from returning and causing even more serious harm to its host, who had in the interim regained an ordered life.  Jeremias argued that the relapse is not "predetermined and inevitable," but merely possible, and makes the individual responsible for keeping free of future possession by not letting the "house" become empty, and hence subject to repossession.
               In short the story describes the absolute control that evil spirits exert in the ancient world.  Apparently anyone could be possessed or repossessed at the whim of any Spirit.  Matthew regards the story as a curse upon "this evil generation" (Matt 12:45c; 12:38-39).  In Luke it becomes a warning about the dangers of demon possession (Luke 11:14-26).  Jeremias turned it into Christian theology.  He thinks the life of the healed individual must be filled with a spiritual element—"the word of Jesus."
               The canonical gospels, with the exception of John, relate several stories about the exorcism of demons.  Oddly there is only one story about Spirit possession in the Old Testament (1 Sam 16:14-16; 18:10; 19:9), but the amelioration of Saul's depression by David's harp playing is scarcely an exorcism in the later Hellenistic style (cf. Tobit 3:7-8; 6:7-8, 16-17).  None of the other seven exorcism stories in the gospels concern repeat possessions by evil Spirits.
               Does this story of Spirit possession have any relevance in the 21st century, other than as an astute observation on life in the 1st century?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University