Thursday, October 29, 2015

Will Christ Come Again?

Christian Fundamentalism touts belief in the second coming of Christ as one of five fundamentals of Christian faith.  It is part of the Nicene Creed (4th century), which confesses that "Jesus coming again with glory to judge living and dead."  The earliest use of the expression "second coming of Christ" occurs in Justin Martyr (2nd century), Dialogue with Trypho 14, and the writer of Hebrews (9:28) also expects that "Christ...will appear a second time..."
            The hope of a future coming of Christ is part of the earliest extant Christian text (1st Thessalonians 1:10; 3:13; 4:13-5:11), where the event is referred to as "his [God's] son from heaven," "the coming of the Lord Jesus," "the day of the Lord."  There is also evidence that the earliest Christians prayed for his coming.  Paul concludes a letter with what is thought to be a prayer of early Aramaic Christians: marana tha, "our Lord come" (1 Corinthians 16:22).  The latest writing (ca 150) in the New Testament also warns that "the day of the Lord will come like a thief," and describes the event as "the coming of the day of God" (2nd Peter 3:9-13).  Hence a future return of (the Lord Jesus) Christ is a belief shared by virtually all the early Christians.
            It is questionable, however, whether the earliest gospel (Mark) shares the belief in a second coming of Christ. In Mark Jesus never says "I am coming again," or I will come a second time."  Instead in the Gospel of Mark it appears that Jesus anticipated a future coming of "a son of man" (8:38-9:1, 13:24-27, 14:60-64).  He speaks in these passages of the coming son of man in the third person as though he were someone other than himself.  Other statements in Mark refer to the son of man as a contemporary figure who suffers, is betrayed, is killed, and rises from the dead (9:9. 12. 31; 10:33. 45; 14:21. 41). These events, identifying Jesus as the son of man, clearly reflect the faith of the early church (e.g., 1 Corinthians 15:1-5; Acts 2:22-24).  The question is, however, did these sayings originate with Jesus, or are they faith statements of the church retrofitted into the career of Jesus to justify the church's belief that the coming son of man was Jesus?  There exists no saying of Jesus in which he unambiguously promises to return sometime in the future.
            Nevertheless, virtually all scholars accept that Jesus referred to himself as "son of man" (e.g., Mark 2:10.27- 28; Q, Luke 9:58 =Matt 8:20), but what does the expression mean?  In what sense did he use it of himself?  In my last blog I indicated its meaning (loosely construed) was something like "man of the people"—i.e., "a common human being," as the expression is used in Mark 3:28 ("sons of men"), meaning "human beings."
            There are three different senses in which the term "son of man" is used in Hebrew Bible: Job 25:4-6 describes an insignificant human creature; Psalm 8:3-6 describes a human being a little lower than God; Daniel 7:13-14 describes an apocalyptic figure of the end time.  The early church understood the term "son of man" (an Aramaic expression for "I") as a claim to be the apocalyptic figure of Daniel 7:13-14.

            Mark 2:10 was rejected by the Jesus Seminar as a Christian formulation giving Jesus the present authority of the coming apocalyptic figure. They accepted Mark 2:27-28 as a genuine saying of Jesus. This saying is the only surviving son of man saying in the gospel of Mark that likely originated with Jesus.  If the Sabbath was made for human beings (Mark 3:27), then a human being (i.e., the "son of man" in the sense of Job 25:4-6) rules over the Sabbath as he was ordained to rule over the earth (Gen 1:26-30; spoken to Adam).  It is not a messianic claim, but rather a logical argument that dissolves Sabbath rules.
            It seems probable to me that Jesus anticipated the imminent appearing of an apocalyptic figure other than himself (Mark 8:38-9:1; 13:24-27), and the early church identified this figure (i.e., the son of man from Daniel 7:13-14) as Jesus.  How could such a thing happen?  It likely occurred among his early followers under the influence of Judean messianic expectations and their reading of Hebrew Bible as a book of prophecy.  Such a situation is actually depicted in John 2:13-22, where an incident in the Judean temple during the public career of Jesus (2:13-20) is understood differently after the death of Jesus by his followers; they came to the new understanding by reading Hebrew Bible like a book of prophecy (John 2:21-22).
            In the synoptic tradition, however, there is no future coming of the Lord Jesus Christ—at least, not in so many words. The synoptic gospels describe a future coming of a "son of man."  The early church in the main abandoned "son of man" language, and identified the resurrected Christ as the figure of a future apocalypse.
            Will there be a second coming of Christ as the early Christians expected, and modern Christians believe?  It depends. I regard the belief that Jesus is coming again as a "faith fact."  That is to say, it is a fact if you believe it to be so—nevertheless one should always remember that believing a thing to be so does not make it so.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
Marion Soards, "Parousia," 646-47 in Mercer Dictionary of the Bible (1990).

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Wearing a Christian Label

All of us bear labels of one sort or another.  For example, Jesus had a status label (i.e., something about yourself you cannot deny) of "Israelite from Judean Galilee" (John 1:47; Mark 1:9; Mark 14:70).  Other labels we give to ourselves.  Jesus, for example, by all accounts called himself "son of man" (meaning something like "man of the people," Luke 9:58).  Others sometimes give us labels that are not complimentary.  For example, Jesus was called a "glutton and a drunkard" (Luke 7:34; Matt 11:19), likely because of the dinner parties he attended (Mark 2:15-16; Luke 15:1-2).
               This third kind of label is apparently what happened to the followers of Jesus: "They were first called 'Christians' at Antioch" (Acts 11:26).  It was a term used by the Graeco-Roman citizens of Antioch to designate them as followers of the god "Christos," a general way of designating the adherents of a particular leader—as, for example, followers of Herod were called "Herodians" (Mark 3:6).  The only other uses of the term "Christian" in the first century (Acts 26:28. 1 Peter 4:16) are not inconsistent with this understanding.  Luke apparently thought that followers of Jesus originally called themselves "disciples" (Acts 11:26; 9:10; 6:1-2, 7; 16:1; 19:1; 21:16).
               By the second century, however, the name was clearly embraced as a self designation by Jesus followers (e.g., Didache 12:4; Martydom of Polycarp, 10:1; 12:1; Ignatius, Epistle to the Magnesians, 4:1).  In 1Peter 4:16 the name "Christian" was associated with suffering and persecution: "If anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but under that name glorify God."  In the early second century (ca. 112) Pliny the Younger, a Roman administrator in Asia Minor, reported to the Emperor Trajan that he tried those accused of being Christian and executed the ones who refused to deny the name.  Their denial would have taken the form of sacrificing to the Roman gods and cursing Christ.
               The Letter to Diognetus (2nd /3rd century) has an interesting sociological description of Christians as appearing little different from the rest of the Graeco-Roman population, with certain exceptions: they did not expose infants, practiced free hospitality, and guarded their purity (Diognetus 5.1-17).
               Who were these people who embraced the label "Christian" in the second century in spite of its negative associations?  One may not simply assume that the label "Christian" means today what it did in the past—for one reason, the term means different things to different people today, and it was no less true in antiquity.  Those who recanted the name "Christian" to Pliny confessed "the whole of their guilt or error" to be that they met on a certain fixed day before light, sang a hymn to Christ as a God and took a solemn oath not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, and not to falsify their word, or to deny a trust, and later they ate together.  On the other hand, Cerinthus, an early second-century Christian-Gnostic teacher in Asia Minor taught that the world was not created by God but by a lesser power.  Jesus was not virgin-born but the natural son of Mary and Joseph, although he was better than other men.  The (heavenly) Christ descended on Jesus before his baptism and departed before his death.
               In the third century the author of the Gospel of Philip, a Christian-Gnostic text from the Nag Hammadi library, claimed the term "Christian," as a self-designation, but the kind of Christianity reflected in the text is very different from that reflected in Paul, John, and the synoptic gospels.  For example, the author writes: "The chrism [i.e. the anointing] is superior to baptism, for it is from the word "chrism" that we have been called Christians, certainly not because of the word "baptism" (74:12-14)…He who has been anointed [i.e., by the chrism, which is Christ] possesses everything.  He possesses the resurrection, the light, the cross, the Holy Spirit.  The Father gave him this in the bridal chamber…" (74:17-22).
               Phillip's community would have been declared heretical (i.e., not genuine) by those defining themselves as "orthodox."  The orthodox group later adopted the Nicene Creed (4th century), which assumes in part a three-tiered universe (Heaven/earth/Hell), spirit entities, and affirms that Jesus was not a human being, but a divine figure from heaven who was "made flesh" of the holy spirit and the virgin Mary.  It affirms "one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church" and a "baptism unto the remission of sins."
               The label "Christian" has had a wide variety of meanings in the past, and the situation is no different today. A large number of different religious groups are categorized "Protestant" Christians.  They exist alongside of "Christians" of a different ilk: Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Mormon.  They all claim the term "Christian" and yet all believe and practice different religious customs.  It appears that the label means little specific, or, put another way, it means just about anything you want it to.  So what does one imply by wearing it?  Has the term outlived its usefulness?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University