Sunday, April 26, 2015

What is Sin?

For no particular reason several days ago I began wondering what acts or attitudes are specifically named as sin in the Bible (amartia in the New Testament).  The writers, of course, use an assortment of words to describe acts or attitudes on which they frown—for example the deception of Eve was called a transgression (parabasis, 1 Timothy 2:14), but not a sin.  I was only interested, however, in acts or attitudes that were specifically designated as sin.
               I was surprised to discover that very few acts or attitudes are specifically designated sin.  While the Bible uses the generic word sin quite frequently very few specific acts or attitudes are ever specifically named as sin.  That is to say, few authors write: "X is sin."  This lack of specificity raises the question: exactly what do the biblical writers have in mind when they use the general word sin or describe someone as a sinner with no specific acts or attitudes being described?  For example, when people came to John the baptizer for baptism (Mark 1:5) "confessing their sins," exactly what did they confess"?  Or when the "woman of the city," who washed Jesus' feet with her hair (Luke 7:37) was described as a "sinner" (Luke 7:39) what exactly had she done to earn such a harsh condemnation?  And when Jesus later in the narrative "forgave her sins" (Luke 7:48) exactly what was he forgiving?  The New Testament writers seldom give specific reasons for why certain people are described as sinners.
               My research was quick and sloppy, so I am sure I missed some of the specific acts that are described as sin, but that will enable you, gentle reader, to pick up your concordance and add to my list.  In order to make the survey manageable for a blog I limited myself to Hebrew and Greek words that English translators of the Bible decided to render by the English word sin.  Note that there are a number of different Hebrew terms with subtle differences which translators chose to render as sin.
Old Testament/Jewish Scriptures/Hebrew Bible
Unfulfilled vows to God (Deuteronomy 23:21)
Witchcraft/divination and rebellion, stubbornness and idolatry (1 Samuel 15:23)
Idol worship (1 Kings 12:30; 16:26)
Rebellion and speaking without knowledge (Job 34:37)
Haughty eye and proud heart (Prov 21:4)
Speaking against the Lord and Moses (Num 21:7)
Killing David without a cause (1 Sam 19:5)
David's numbering of Israel (1 Chron 21:8)
The Apocrypha
The beginning of Pride (Sirach 10:13)
Always swearing and uttering the Name (Sirach 23:10)
Proud speech (Sirach 32:12)
New Testament
Blaspheming the Holy Spirit (Mark 3:28-29)
Immorality (unlawful sexual acts) (1 Cor 6:18)
Whatever does not proceed from faith (Rom 14:23)
All wrongdoing (1 John 5:17)
Lawlessness (1 John 3:4)
Betraying innocent blood (Matt 27:4)
Knowing to do good and not doing it (James 4:17)
Looking over this strange list, I am caused to wonder at the arrogance of contemporary religious leaders who seem to know a much longer list of acts or attitudes they regard as sin.
               The use of the word sin with no specifics seems to be similar in content and style to a general slander charge in Greco-Roman antiquity.  For example, the first charge against Socrates was that he did not pay customary respect to the Gods of the city of Athens (vomizein, Apology 24b, which is equivalent to a general charge of impiety or atheism).  Actually Socrates was very pious and diligently sacrificed to the Gods.  Dutiful respect for the Gods of one's family and community is one way of describing a respectable citizen of the community and carries the general idea of devout, pious, or upright (Daniel 11:37-38).
               The charge against Socrates is the same sort of calumny leveled against the early Christians.  Among other general accusations against them, they were called atheists in that they did not participate in the worship of the traditional Gods or make sacrifices in behalf of the emperor.
               Calling someone a "sinner" works in a similar slanderous way.  Jesus, for example, was accused of being a sinner (John 6:19, 24); it was a malicious misrepresentation and was tantamount to a slur designed to ruin his reputation.  The reason given was that he didn't keep the Sabbath—in other words, it was not something he did, but something he did not do, and it lacked in specificity  Even Paul was apparently accused of being a sinner (Rom 3:7).
               James 4:8, like the other two examples above, has the earmarks of a general slur made by someone on one side of an argument against those on the other side, and the obscure accusations accompanying the slur lack specifics (cleanse your hands, purify your hearts, double minded).
               It appears that calling someone a sinner or accusing someone of committing sin, both in the abstract, may be the equivalent of a Christian slur.  The charge "sinner" without specificity has no more significance than affirming that people so designated do not agree with my way of thinking.
               What is sin, anyway?  Is it possible that it is simply a figment of the pious imagination?  At least one ancient text claimed that there was no such thing as sin (Gospel of Mary, 3:3-5).  Paul, on the other hand, seemed to think that sin is built into our DNA (Romans 7:11-23).
What are your thoughts?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Monday, April 13, 2015

Pondering the Repeal Election

This essay on the recent repeal vote on Springfield city ordinance 6141 was published in the Springfield News-Leader on April 13, 2015.
In the days and weeks leading up to the repeal election I was surprised and disappointed at certain voices publically raised in behalf of the repeal: a bishop, a mega-church pastor, a leader of an international religious denomination, as well as numerous pastors of local churches.  These religious leaders urged their memberships to vote to repeal city ordinance 6141, which extended anti-discrimination protection to lesbians, gays, bi-sexual, and transgender (LGBT) citizens in the city of Springfield with regard to housing, employment, and public accommodation.  They succeeded in convincing many of us that the election was about religious freedom rather than simple fairness.
The ostensible reason for their descent into hard-knuckle political activism was to protect religious liberty.  What that means in practical street language is that business owners who shared what was touted as the biblical view of marriage (one woman to one man) would not have to participate in LGBT marriages (i.e., by providing flowers, food, clothing, and/or facilities, etc. for the ceremony).  In other words, they argued that their religious views be accepted as legal justification to deny service to those citizens who did not share their religious views.
The fact that certain business owners, with the vocal approval of certain religious leaders of Springfield, apparently intend in the future to deny service to LGBT citizens was justification for affirming city ordinance 6141.
We live in a representative democracy in a secular state, where we elect our representatives who in turn make our laws, which seek to allow the greatest amount of personal liberty to the largest number possible (that is the ideal at least); we do not live in a theocracy, where religion mandates how we should conduct our lives (as would be the case, for example, in an Islamic state, or a Christian state).  Our system of government is secular (in spite of certain "Christian" trappings), and no particular religion, even though it represents the majority, should be permitted to impose its religious views on citizens who do not share those views.
The idea that "my" religious ideas can be used as a justification for causing harm to others is insidious, for it implies that religious ideas are more important than the civil rights of all citizens in a secular state.  Perhaps they truly believe this, but, if consistently applied, it will eventually turn a secular state into a theocratic state.
The public voices of the religious leaders were less than candid with their various constituencies by suggesting that the Bible reflects one particular concept of marriage, for the Bible reflects a range of ideas on the relationships between men and women—something they should have known.  What was noticeably lacking in their common opposition to city ordinance 6141, however, was a lack of compassion for the situation faced by the LGBT community, one of the "least of these" (Matthew 25:45) in contemporary society.  Perhaps that was their greatest leadership failure on this issue (Mark 12:29-31).
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Who to Believe? Dissenting Voices in a Text

This essay is not about history—that is, it is not about what actually happened in the past.  It is an essay on how we create the past.  Every text contains the seeds of its own destruction; that is to say, every text contains points at which the integrity of the text breaks down and undermines itself.  In short, these points render the text ambiguous, leaving a perplexed reader to ask, what's going on here?
            Here are several examples; some are well known and others not so well known.  John 4:2 is perhaps the best known since the statements are positioned one within the other.  In John 4:1 the narrator informs the reader that it was common knowledge that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John the Baptizer.  In 4:2 a dissenting voice emerges dividing the sentence that begins in 4:1 (a subordinate clause) and concludes in 4:3 (the main clause).  Clearly the dissenting voice disagrees with the narrator.  The dissenter asserts that Jesus himself did not personally perform any baptisms, but the narrator equally assertively insists that he did perform baptisms, and that it was common knowledge that he did.  Note that translators of the text recognize the disagreement, and place John 4:2 in parentheses.  Who should we believe—the primary narrator of John or the dissenting voice that corrects the narrator?
            By my count there are at least 121 of these "clarifications" in the text of John.  Another example is found in the narrative of the feeding of the five thousand (John 6:5-14).  The reader is told that the healings Jesus performed (the narrator calls them "signs") created a sensation, and as a result a great crowd followed him (John 6:2), which the reader later discovers numbered five thousand (John 6:10).  Jesus takes 5 barley loaves and two fish and feeds this huge crowd and has five baskets of fragments left over from the barley loaves (John 6:13).  The narrator's positive climax to the feeding story is that "when the people saw the sign," they confessed Jesus as "the prophet who is to come into the world" (John 6:14).  Imagine the reader's surprise to learn a little later that the Jesus character in the narrative disagrees with the narrator's judgment: "Jesus answered them…you seek me not because you saw signs, but ate your fill of the loaves" (John 6:26).  Should we believe the narrator or the Jesus character?  Was the crowd persuaded by the sign they had witnessed or because their bellies were full (John 6:12)?
            In John 7:22 again a dissenting voice interrupts a compound sentence by the Jesus character in the narrative:  Jesus asserts to his interlocutors in the temple (the Judahites), "Moses gave you circumcision, and you circumcise a person on the Sabbath."  Translators put the dissenting statement that follows in parentheses to show that it is not part of what Jesus said to the Judahites, but rather is an aside directly addressing the reader.  The dissenting voice corrects the assertion of Jesus by saying, "not that it is from Moses but from the fathers."  Those who prepared the critical Greek text found the dissenting voice so disruptive that they set the dissenting statement off with dashes, as they also did in John 4:2.  Who should a reader of John think has provided the correct response: the Jesus character or the dissenting voice?
            The phenomenon is not limited to the Gospel of John; another interesting disagreement is found in Mark 5:22-24, 35-43.  A synagogue ruler (Jairus) implores Jesus to come heal his twelve year old daughter, who at that moment was at the point of death (5:23).   Jesus goes with him (5:24), but he is delayed by another healing (5:25-34).  At that moment Jairus received word that his daughter in the meanwhile had died (5:35), but Jesus ignored the report urging the synagogue ruler to "only believe" (5:36).  Upon arriving at the home of Jairus loud lamentations are in progress because of the child's death (5:38).  Before he sees the child, Jesus asserts to the mourners that "the child is not dead but sleeping" (5:39), and the mourners laughed at him (5:40).  When they went into the building Jesus took the child by the hand and said "arise" and immediately the girl got up (5:41-42).  Was the Jesus character correct and the girl only sleeping, or were the mourners correct and the girl was dead?  In short the problem is this: is the story about the resuscitation of a dead child (i.e., the mourners were right), or is the story about the healing of a sick child (i.e., the Jesus character was right)?
            The raw data of history are often contradictory forcing historians to choose between the more probable and the less probable.  What eventually becomes history in these judgmental situations is what a preponderance of historians decides to call history.  In the segment from Mark above the historical issue is: what is the nature of the story, a healing narrative or a story about the raising of a dead girl.  In the Gospel of John the issue is which voice is the final authority for reading John: that of the primary narrator or that of the dissenter.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
Charles W. Hedrick, "Authorial Presence and Narrator in John. Commentary and Story" in Goehring, Hedrick, Sanders, and Betz, eds., Gospel Origins and Christian Beginnings (Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press, 1990), 74-93.
Hedrick, "Miracle Stories as Literary Compositions: The Case of Jairus's Daughter," Perspectives in Religious Studies 20.3 (Fall 1993), 217-33.