Monday, December 26, 2016

Why did Jesus tell Parables?

Well actually he told stories, or if I must use the technical literary term for stories, his characteristic way of speaking was in narrative. Narratives (stories) have as a minimum a beginning, middle, and end, and consist of a series of related events that develop and continue through the narrative to the end. In other words it is a story, and not just a statement. Calling a story a "parable" is a reading strategy describing how one intends to read the story. In other words a parable is not a distinct literary form; it is simply a brief narrative read in a particular way.
            In the early Christian gospels parables are generally viewed as brief stories intended to make a comparison, draw an analogy, or illustrate a moral or religious principle. Some of the parables are regarded as example stories that provide an example of proper human conduct. Some scholars theorize that parables are stories making a single comparison between an unstated reality and the situation in the story. The single point where the unstated reality and the situation in the story come together is best rendered as a broad single moral point. The stories of Jesus have also been described as metaphors: a narrative description of one thing under the guise of another unlike thing. On this reading strategy parables are described as stories intended to bring the kingdom of God into expression in vivid memorable language—all the above theories take their place among other reading strategies for the parables of the early Christian gospels.
            Basic to all these strategies, however, is the story, i.e., the narrative. In my view the stories Jesus told are freely invented secular fictions, which are subjected to various reading strategies by the writers of the gospels and subsequently by modern critics. A parable works when readers put themselves into the story and identify with one of the characters; they are then positioned to make discoveries about themselves.
            Why would Jesus tell what are principally secular stories that have been so confusing to understand? The earliest recorded answer to that question is found in the Gospel of Mark around 70 CE—we have no idea what Jesus thought of his stories; all we have to go on are the stories themselves to investigate the earliest period of Christian origins. Some forty to fifty years after the death of Jesus Mark thought the stories were allegories, which is another reading strategy for the stories. A narrative read as an allegory assumes that it is comprised of a series of figures, or metaphors: See Mark 4:3-8, a story about farming in the first century and Mark's reading of it (Mark 4:14-20) as a series of individual figures, which understands it as an allegory about the results of early Christian preaching.*
            Why did Mark think Jesus told figurative stories? Mark said that parables are for those outside the circle of the inner group of associates of Jesus. Parables were designed to keep "those outside" in the dark so that they would not learn the "secret" of the kingdom of God and turn and be forgiven (Mark 4:11-12). Matthew, on the other hand, blames the crowds to whom Jesus addressed his parables for deliberately hardening their hearts (Matt 13:10-15)—but omits Mark's strange phrase "lest they turn again and be forgiven" (Mark 4:12). Luke says that the parables concealed the secrets of the kingdom, which were only meant for disciples. Luke left it open that the crowds might still understand other things Jesus spoke about in parables (Luke 8:9-10), and like Matthew he also omits Mark's offensive phrase "lest they (the crowds) turn again and be forgiven" (Mark 4:12).
            When I was teaching classes in the parables of Jesus at Missouri State, students delighted in telling me that Jesus used parables because it was a good teaching technique, and made things clearer to the audience—like good examples do. The difficulty is that not even the evangelists agree among themselves on what a parable is and what it was about.  For example, Matthew and Luke come to opposite interpretations of the Parable of the Lost Sheep, and even disagree on what the parable says (Matt 18:10-14/Luke 15:3-7).
            I have never found anyone to agree with Mark that Jesus used parables in order to keep people from understanding "lest they turn again and be forgiven."
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
*See the discussion of Mark's theory of parables in Hedrick, Many Things in Parables. Jesus and his Modern Critics (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2004), 27-35.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Do Things happen for a Reason?*

If I said that someone survived a car crash with barely a scratch, but three others in the car were killed outright; many (most?) people, religious or not, would likely observe, "stuff happens for a reason!" Behind that observation is the popular religious belief that God controls the universe, and there is a divine reason behind things that happen to us. But if I were to ask, was there some reason for a bird dropping poop on my forehead rather than my shoulder this morning, many would think my question silly. Nevertheless, a serious issue lies behind both situations: Is anyone or anything completely in control of the universe?
            One answer is that God micromanages the universe. If so, then all things do happen for a reason. A micromanaging God would scarcely leave anything to chance! This line of reasoning, however, leads inevitably to the conclusion that even bad things are due to God's deliberate management. By popular definition, however, God, can do no wrong; therefore everything apparently bad must really be good—and that includes even the bird poop on my forehead. A micromanaging God might have had good reason for the bird poop—for under the theory of divine micromanagement, God makes everything happen for a reason.
            Perhaps God only casually manages the universe, however, and is not responsible for everything that happens. Under casual management some things are divinely manipulated but other things are just allowed to happen, as they will. Under this theory the universe has been set up to work in a well regulated way, and God only intrudes now and then for whatever reason strikes the divine fancy. For the most part, things do seem to work fairly well in our world. The world turns with general regularity—and only the occasional glitch. This theory, however, raises the question: how can we ever really be sure what is deliberately caused by God, what is part of the regular pulse of the universe, and what is a glitch in the system? The bird poop is well accommodated by this explanation, however. It is just one of those billions of little things that never registered on the divine radar scope, or simply are part of the regular pulse of the universe where many things happen for no particular reason—like a leaf falling off a tree, or bird droppings. I happened to look up this morning at the precise moment the bird pooped. Such occurrences are part of the regular design of things: leaves fall off trees, and birds poop all over the place. But under this theory one can never be sure of what God does or does not do.
            It is also possible that God has chosen to be an observer of events in a universe designed to run itself, more or less—or worse, God has gone missing. "How could that be possible? God created the world, so why abandon it?" Good question! But since we cannot even prove that God exists, how could we possibly know whether God is missing? A missing God, however, does make a sort of perverted sense out of our human situation, and could account for natural disasters and unconscionable human suffering—in short, for whatever reason no one is minding the store! Bird poop on the forehead would make excellent sense in a world like this, however; a God absent for the big things could scarcely be expected to show up for the little things.
            Perhaps we have simply misunderstood God's character. If God were a bit devious, it might explain the general regularity of the universe and its benefits when things work without the glitches, and also accommodate the glitches, such as natural disasters, the tragedies of disease, and fatal "accidents." In short, God may be prone to be a bit "impish," so to speak. Certain passages in the Bible seem to support such a theory—at least the early Israelites and Christians must have thought so by some of the ways they portrayed God. The book of Job is a case directly on point. Bird poop on the forehead is precisely the kind of thing one might expect from a mischievous God.
            Of course, it is always possible there never was a God. The only difference between this possibility and the last is that human tragedy and natural disaster could not be caused by a nonexistent God, but must be the result of randomness in a universe that never had a manager of any sort. We could be alone in a sort of well-regulated universe—except for the occasional glitch. Such a situation accommodates regularity, natural disasters, and bird poop on the forehead.
            These five possibilities for explaining bird poop and divine management of the universe boil down to this: should one choose to believe in an uptight micromanager, a lax casual manager, a God gone missing, a mischievous manager, or in no God at all? One could choose to ignore human experience (what is found in the Bible), and fashion a God of one's own choosing. I suspect that is what most of us do—as did the writers of the Bible!
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
*C. W. Hedrick, House of Faith or Enchanted Forest. American Popular Belief in an Age of Reason (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2009), 13-15 (slightly revised).

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Love God or Fear God—which is it?

The Bible is scarcely consistent, even in some of its most basic dicta. There is of course a good reason for that, which is unfortunately lost on the most devout believers in revealed religion, who regard the Bible as originating in the mind of God. The Bible's texts are written at different times in various cultural locations by human authors, who quite naturally have different views. For example in one of its most basic pronouncements, as to how believers should relate to God, biblical texts have a range of responses.  The basic guidance is that believers should "fear the Lord." Paul, for example, condemned people, whom he regarded as being under the power of sin, because "There is no fear of God before their eyes" (Romans 3:18; Psalm 35:1 LXX). "The fear of the Lord" is the classic expression for being a pious servant of Yahweh in Israelite religion (Deuteronomy 6:2; Exodus 20:20; Job 28:28; Proverbs 1:7; 3:7; compare Acts 10:34-35; 1 Peter 2:17; Revelation 14:7), and appropriately enough pious non-Israelites, who worshipped in synagogues, were called "God Fearers" (Acts 10:2, 22; 13:16).
            Jesus tells a story (Luke 18:2-5) about a judge hearing a case in which the plaintiff is a widow lady who badgers the judge to rule in her favor. The judge, however, prides himself on his integrity as a judge who calls cases on their merits. He says of himself "though I neither fear God nor regard man" (18:4)—and the narrator actually introduces him that way, as a judge who doesn't fear God or show deference in his judgments (18:2). "Fearing God" would signal the traditional religious deference a pious person would render to God; "regarding man" would reflect deference one would pay to influential and powerful persons in the community. In neither assertion does love play a role.
            Nevertheless alongside this typical expression for piety in Israel (fear of the Lord) are found injunctions to love God (Deut 10:12; 6:2; 6:5). In Sirach these two responses (fearing and loving) are paralleled as two sides of the same emotion (Sirach 2:15-16). The two emotions strike me, however, as inconsistent responses, and the author of 1 John had a similar response: "there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love." (1 John 4:18; compare 4:13-17). A relationship based on fear would produce anxiety, which contains the seeds of uncertainty, doubt, and mistrust. It is hardly a wholesome relationship (Hebrews 12:18-21; Matthew 28:4; Mark 16:8).
            A relationship based on fear prompts obedience because of what the dominant controlling party can impose on the lesser party, such as the relationship between a slave and the slave's owner (Ephesians 6:5). Occasionally a modern translator will render the Greek word fear (φόβος; "phobos") as awe, which doesn't help, since awe communicates dread or terror (Mark 4:41; Romans 11:20). Sometimes awe as a translation does not do justice to the Greek text; for example in Mark 4:41 the Greek is "feared greatly."
            The lexicographers, who survey how words are used in the New Testament and by writers elsewhere in antiquity, tell us that the verbal forms of fear (φοβέω, "phobeo") carry the idea of "reverence" or "respect for." Nevertheless reverence, honor, deference, veneration, and the like still contain the idea of fearful obeisance and awe.  At least it is something very different from what I understand as love: "Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:6); "Love is patient and kind" (1 Corinthians 13:4). "Love does not insist on its own way" (1 Corinthians 13:5). "Faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love" (1 Corinthians 13:13). Little of love seems reflected in the dominant way God is understood in Hebrew Bible.
            Perhaps the problem, however, is not God's character, about which we actually know very little. We only know what others have told us—and that includes the testimonies of the authors of the biblical texts.  The problem is the manifold ways that we humans view God. In a sense God is always subject to what we think about God. And we frequently must choose between contradictory views, as in this case: do we love God or fear God? How is it possible truly to love someone before whom you must always be terribly afraid?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Sex and Death: Paul’s Arguments from Mythology

Aspects of Paul's theological argumentation, social ethics, and anthropology are based on a Mediterranean myth of the divine origin of the first man found in an earlier Babylonian account and a later Hebrew account; they seem to be related. The word "myth" (μῦθος, mythos) is basically translated as story or narrative, but the term can either be neutral or pejorative: In the letters that virtually no one disputes as Pauline, the word "myth" does not appear. It only appears in the New Testament in the Pastoral Letters (1, 2 Timothy, and Titus), which most critical scholars attribute to a Pauline disciple, and in 2 Peter.  In these four cases "myth" is used in a negative sense:
1 Timothy 4:7—"have nothing to do with godless and silly myths." (RSV)
2 Timothy 4:4—"and turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths." (RSV)
Titus 1:14—"instead of giving heed to Jewish myths or to commands of men who reject the truth." (RSV)
2 Peter 1:16—"For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ." (RSV)
               These sentences clearly mark myth as misleading and untrue. Myth is not something that someone wanting to be "a good minister of Christ Jesus, nourished on the words of the faith and of good doctrine" would heed (1Timothy 4:6).
               Nevertheless, here are two instances of Paul drawing on the Mediterranean myth of an original man who was fashioned by God.
               In Romans 5:12-21 Paul asserts that all people are sinners because the sin of the first man (Genesis 3:1-13) passed into the entire human race, which is the reason that all people die (Romans 5:12; Genesis 2:17, 3:19)—although in the final analysis Paul blamed Eve for the wretched situation of the entire human race (2 Corinthians 11:3), as did one of Paul's later disciples (1 Timothy 2:13). The principle of passing Adam's sin into his descendants was set in Torah where God extended the sins of the fathers onto their descendants to the third and fourth generation (Exodus 20:5). Paul was clearly familiar with Torah (Romans 7:7 quoting Exodus 20:17; Romans 13:9 quoting Exodus 20:13-17), so it seems safe to assume that the principle of holding children culpable for the sins of their fathers was not lost on Paul. Hence, an act in mythical space and time before the beginning of historical time explains why people are sinners and why they die. Paul's ideas have no basis in fact or reason, but only in myth, so don't look for confirming evidence of sin in the human genome.
               In a second example (1 Corinthians 6:12-20) Paul again draws on the Mediterranean myth of the first man, arguing that an act of coitus with a prostitute establishes an essential physical relationship with her; they in fact become "one body" as a result of coitus. To support his rationale he again quotes scripture appealing to the myth of the first man and his consort (Genesis 2:23-24) of whom it is written "they two shall become one flesh." In other words, as it happened in mythical space and time between the first couple Adam and Eve, so it is in historical space and time between a man and a prostitute. Coitus is not simply a casual physical moment between men and women; it is a deed that effectively alters the physical composition of the male body/flesh, for the female prostitute is incorporated as part of the male body (Genesis 2:23), and the two are essentially one, so Paul argues.  Again, as in the first example, Paul's idea has no basis in fact or reason, but only in myth—so don't expect confirmation from a physical examination by your physician.
               It is important to note that Paul's argument is not based on "Scripture," which only informs him of the myth. His argument turns on what putatively "happened" in the case of the mythical man Adam. It was the "event" (so to speak) and not the later writing about it that is authoritative for Paul's argument. The mythical man, Adam, was fashioned by the divine creator as male/female and then s/he was divided into different genders –male and female (Genesis 2:18-23). Subsequently the "union" between a man and his mate restores the original state of the first man (Genesis 2:24)—the two become one flesh.
               Are the arguments of Paul invalidated because they are based on the "experiences" of a mythical man? It depends. Readers having a high view of Scripture will necessarily be compelled to accept his arguments that human beings are sinners and die because they are infected with the "germ" of Adam's sin. They will also be forced to accept his argument that coitus with a prostitute makes the male and the female essentially "one body" and would likely appeal to the "spiritual truth" of the statement to explain his argument.
               Readers guided by reason, however will not be impressed by Paul's argument about Adam's sin infecting the human race, since a "theological truth" is not necessarily historical data; and there may be excellent reasons for not engaging the services of a prostitute, but not because of the "experience" of the mythical man on whom Paul bases his argument.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Monday, October 31, 2016


                      A shorter version of this essay appeared in the Springfield News-Leader, October 31, 2016, p. 2C.
That America is divided is news to no one—particularly in this divisive Presidential election year (2016). The body politic seems to agree on very little, and our citizenry as a whole seems to have very little in common. I don't usually stumble about in political issues, but since the election this year has been particularly fractious, it set me to thinking about the ethical center of the country. If there is such a center, what might it be?
            Our grand experiment in democracy has not united us, as our current incorrigible political discourse attests.  Because America is a nation of immigrants our ethnicity does not unite us—we are, and are destined to remain, a nation of diverse ethnicities with different values and cultural traditions.  Not even our vaunted secular educational system succeeds in uniting us because of homeschooling and private religiously-oriented high schools and colleges. Our religion does not unite us in terms of beliefs and values because the melting pot that is America hasn't worked on religion—we don't even do toleration well.
            What we seem to have in common is that we are a secular people—that is, our society for the most part is "rationally organized around impersonal and utilitarian values and patterns and receptive to new traits."
            The preamble to the U. S. Constitution is a very hopeful statement of the ideals and intent of the founders of the country. It is a vision of a "shining city on a hill," but the reality is far different. Today we are scarcely a "more perfect union," and cannot even agree on the nature of Justice in the social order. Too often domestic tranquility hinges on the neighborhood in which one lives. Congress bickers, but cannot agree on, how much or how little should be provided for the common defense. We all want for ourselves and our posterity the blessings of liberty, and do not seem bothered that not all citizens fully share in liberty's blessings.
            The only thing we seem to agree on is the emphasis in the preamble on promoting the general welfare, as long as the welfare being promoted is mine—and this is my point: we all agree on the utilitarian value that "my welfare" should be promoted; yet we seem unaware that a government formed "of the people, by the people, and for the people" comes at some individual personal cost; put simply: freedom is not completely free.
            A representative democracy, and the high ideals of the preamble to the constitution, can only succeed if they aim at working for all citizens, and that means concessions are required on everyone's part. Hence the goal is not "my welfare" but should be "our common welfare." Economic benefits must aim always at providing for the common good. An economic rising tide must "raise the boats of all citizens" to be successful. The traditions and beliefs of a religious majority cannot be mandated so as to compromise the religious traditions of minority groups.  In other words, for a democratic society to function toleration is required. The goal is to achieve the greatest amount of liberty under the law for the greatest number of people.
            Politics is the art of the possible, which always involves compromise. Everybody gets a little and gives a little in return. In a democracy the most successful politician is the one skilled at deal making, for s/he moves the country forward.
            A wise man once said, "a state divided cannot stand" (Mark 3:24-25). We would do well to heed his caution, and seek common ground.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Barnes & Noble Book Signing

 Charles W. Hedrick signing books and meeting the public at Barnes and Noble Springfield, Missouri on Saturday 10/22/16. Charlie is chatting with Bill Lord, Chaplain (Colonel) U. S. Army (retired).

Friday, October 14, 2016

Two Odd Locutions in the Gospel of Mark

There are actually other statements in Mark's Gospel that strike me as odd (that is: peculiar, strange, or unexpected), but these two locutions are markedly so. We have come to rely on Mark as the earliest gospel—at least Matthew and Luke wrote their gospels relying on Mark as a source. Luke even noted there were many who had tried their hand at "compiling a narrative" of the doings and sayings of Jesus, so s/he apparently accepted Mark's narrative as the most acceptable of the "many" who wrote (Luke 1:1)—and yet Luke frequently edits out and changes much of Mark's narrative.
FIRST LOCUTION is Mark's obvious exaggeration about John the Baptizer's success with the population of Judea. An exaggeration is a political statement; it is not a historical statement:
And there were going out to him all the region of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were being baptized by him in the river Jordan confessing their sins (1:5, Hedrick; see also 1:28, 33).
In the time of Jesus the "region/country" of Judea incorporated the area around Jerusalem extending northward to about the valley of Aijalon and southward to Masada, and included eight to ten villages. The population of the city of Jerusalem during the time of Jesus has been estimated at an upper limit of around 25,000 to 30,000.1 If the population of Jerusalem was only half this number, the idea that every single person in the city and all the villages in the region of Judea were going out, and eventually being baptized by John, is simply not credible.  Luke eliminates this verse, but Matthew (3:5) repeats the exaggeration with a slight modification.
            Mark borders on another unfortunate exaggeration when he writes: "And [Jesus] could do no mighty work there"; Mark avoids the exaggeration by adding: "except that he laid his hands upon a few sick people and healed them (6:5; see Matthew 13:58 for a more carefully worded statement).
Several translators have completely removed Mark's exaggeration (1:5) in their translations:
From all Judea and Jerusalem crowds of people went to John (TEV)
And they flocked to him from the whole Judean country-side and the city of Jerusalem (NEB)
People from Jerusalem and from all over Judea traveled out into the Judean waste-lands to see and hear John (Living New Testament).
SECOND LOCUTION is found in Mark 4:36. The sentence is ambiguous rendering it difficult to translate. To illustrate the problem here is my literal translation, which follows the Greek word order, with the unclear statement in italics; it is followed by several other translations:
And leaving the crowd they take him as he was in the boat (Hedrick)
And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was (RSV)
So leaving the crowd, they took him (just as he was) in the boat (Moffatt)
Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat (NIV)
So they left the crowd and took him with them in the boat where he had been sitting (NEB)
So they left the crowd and took him away in the boat in which he was sitting (Goodspeed)
And when they had sent away the multitude, they took Him along in the boat as He was (NKJ)
And sending away the multitude, they take him even as he was in the ship (Douay)
So they left the crowd, and his disciples started across the lake with him in the boat (TEV)
            Translators have taken the odd locution to refer either to Jesus already being in the boat (see Mark 4:2), or to the appearance or condition of Jesus (as he was, NKJ, or just/even as he was: NIV, Moffatt, Douay). Goodspeed and NEB use words other than Mark's in their translation. And TEV simply eliminates the obscure phrase. Both Luke and Matthew, resolve Mark's lack of clarity by having Jesus get into the boat with the disciples when they leave, and thus eliminate the obscure phrase as he was (Luke 8:22; Matthew 8:23).
            The larger issue raised by these two odd locutions is the ethics of Bible translation.2 Does the interpreter/translator allow Mark's problematic locutions to remain, or does the interpreter/translator change Mark's text in order to resolve the ambiguity in the interests of maintaining a text suitable for worship, since public reading of the Bible should not raise questions in the minds of the worshippers?  To put the matter differently, does the interpreter/translator serve the interests of the church, or serve a historical sense that always demands complete transparency?
What are your thoughts?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
1J. Jeremias, Jerusalem in the time of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1968), 84.
2C. W. Hedrick, "Satyrs or Wild Goats. The Politics of Translating the Bible," The Fourth R 24.5 (November –December 2012):21-22, 24.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Problem of History in Mark

One hallmark of narrative fiction, which distinguishes the writing of fiction from the writing of history, is the novelist's ability to move in and out of a character's mind and tell the reader what a character is thinking. This shift in the reader's point of view from seeing events from the narrator's perspective to seeing the situation from within a paper-character's mind is a primary feature of the rhetoric1 of fiction by which a flesh and blood author develops characters and furthers the plot of the novel.2 Historians, on the other hand, work with theories as to what constitutes the chronology of past events; in doing so they are obligated to reconstruct their historical plan by a plausible cause and effect sequence. They do not have the luxury of appealing to what a participant in an event was thinking at the time in order to further their reconstruction of events. Historians cannot read the minds of flesh and blood people who are involved in historical events; it is easy, however, for novelists to read the minds of the characters they invent.
            The Author of the Gospel of Mark makes extensive use of interior views of a character's thoughts; two of Mark's characters even read the thoughts of other characters in the narrative: Jesus (2:5, 8; 12:15); Pilate (15:10).
            A technique the author uses repeatedly throughout the narrative is the feature of registering "astonishment" by characters or groups of characters to the presence of Jesus, to something he has said, or to something he has done (1:27; 2:12; 5:42; 6:51; 7:37; 9:15; 10:26, 32; 11:18; 12:17).  Mark also employs this technique with the young man at the empty tomb (16:5, 8). When one is astonished, one is struck with sudden great wonder and surprise. Astonishment is an inner emotional response to some exterior element, and reveals what is going on in the mind of the character. Providing interior views of characters is more prevalent among primitive storytellers, but modern fiction writers are artistically more self-conscious and use a variety of techniques.3
            Mark uses the technique excessively, providing access to the inner thoughts of individuals and groups throughout the narrative: Jesus (1:41; 5:30; 6:6, 34; 8:12; 10:14, 21; 11:12; 12:15; 14:33), the scribes (2:6), the disciples (4:41; 6:51-52; 10:41), minor characters (5:29; 14:4; 16:8), Herod (6:20, 26); Peter (9:6; 11:21; 14:72); chief priests and scribes (11:18); chief priests, priests, scribes and elders (11:32; 12:12), David (12:36), Pilate (15:5, 15, 44), Joseph (15:43).
            The most extensive instance of the use of an interior view is in the case of Jesus' tortured prayer in Gethsemane (14:34-36) in which he seeks a reprieve from the crucifixion—possibly the most realistic moment in the narrative, but oddly it was not information available to Mark from an outside source.
            These interior views provided to the reader by Mark are not traditional lore passed forward over time to the author orally by participants in the actual events. How could anyone have known, for example, what Herod "felt" (6:20, fear; 6:26, sorrow), unless Herod specifically told them? And the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane may have even been an audible prayer, but Mark clearly rules out the possibility that it was overheard; Jesus was alone and Peter, James, and John were asleep (14:34-41)—hence it becomes an interior view. The interior views can only be accounted for as Mark's literary creations. It might very well be true, for example, that Joseph "took courage" (i.e., had mental or moral strength) in going to Pilate (16:43), but it is not historical data. The observation only represents how Mark wanted the reader to regard his paper-character Joseph in the situation presented in the story.
            What should one then say about the Gospel of Mark as historical narration, in light of the fact that Mark uses the conventions and literary techniques of novelistic fiction? Several years ago, I argued that Mark's realism (i.e., how Mark views objective reality) is more akin to literary works portraying a romantic realism (i.e., to works relatively free of realistic verisimilitude) than it is to historical realism.4 Mark's pronounced tendency to inform readers what characters are thinking in his narrative lacks verisimilitude (i.e., lacks in the appearance of truth), because no one can actually read minds, and know precisely what others are thinking—except omniscient narrators who invent characters and have absolute control of events in the novel. Mark appears to be such an omniscient narrator (i.e., knows everything)—even what his characters in the narrative are thinking.
            What should a reader think of Mark's reconstruction of the dialogue in the scene where Jesus appears before the High Priest (14:55-65)? Should the dialogue be regarded as what was actually said? Or did Mark the omniscient narrator create it as dialogue readers might expect in that situation?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
1That is the art of speaking and writing effectively.
2Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction (2nd ed.; Chicago: University of Chicago, 1983), 16-20.
3Laurence Perrine, Perrine's Literature (edited by T. Arp and G. Johnson; 8th ed.; Fort Worth: Harcourt, 2002), 238.
4Hedrick "Realism in Western Narrative and the Gospel of Mark," Journal of Biblical Literature 126.2 (2007): 345-59.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Of Journeys and Far-Away Places

A motif frequently appearing in literature is "journey to a distant land." The content of the destination changes with the ideas of each writer, but the motif is always expressed in terms of a journey to some distant location expressed as a far away land, a distant city, or far country—but always somewhere away-from-here.
            The son of an indulgent father received what likely amounted to half the father's personal worth.  The son journeyed to a far country (Luke 15:13), a location that likely represented to the lad freedom from parental influence, which translates into fun and good times—since he squandered everything in "loose living." When Abram lived in Haran, he was directed by God "go to the land that I will show you" (Genesis 12:1), where, he was promised, his progeny would become numerous and he would be a blessing to "all the families of earth." In this case the then unknown distant land (Canaan) held the promise of material prosperity and universal influence.  The author of Hebrews took the image of the distant land and conceived it as a celestial city, "whose builder and maker is God" (Hebrews 11:8-12). The imagined destination was a spiritual ideal, the heavenly Jerusalem (Hebrews 12:22-24), representing to this author a place of heavenly rest (Hebrews 4:1-13), and the journey led ultimately to the afterlife.
            In John Bunyan's thinly disguised allegory of the Christian experience, the protagonist (Christian) journeys from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, which is imagined as a 17th century vision of Heaven.  The journey to that ideal place is cast as a pilgrimage, which is fraught along the way with temptations and threats to Christian's progress in faith.
            After the ten year long Trojan War, Odysseus, King of Ithaca returns to his native land.  In terms of physical distance Ithaca is not far, but in terms of time, it still takes him ten years to reach home, beloved Ithaca and wife Penelope. His journey home is an epic tale filled with numerous dangers, and "home" is everything positive that the word evokes.
            Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick (1851) describes the ill-fated voyage of the Pequod, a whaling ship commissioned ostensibly as a profit venture.  Her captain (Ahab), however, had another goal, and turns their journey into a quest to kill the white whale, Moby Dick, that earlier had destroyed another vessel and maimed Ahab in body, mind, and soul. The ultimate destination is thereby changed from a successful and profitable return to home port, to Ahab's revenge on the whale. The poem by William Butler Yeats, "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" (1892) poetically imagines a getaway house in the wood amidst natural surroundings, but thematically the poet is yearning for what can only be found away-from-here: "an ideal place where he will find perfect peace and happiness."
            In the modern world we conceive journeys and destinations in linear terms: a beginning that leads forward to some destination—somewhere in a different location. The ancients, on the other hand, thought in cyclical terms, perhaps because their lives were more obviously dependent on the cycles of nature: the earth dies in the winter but renews itself every year in the spring—a perennial cycle of life. Neither one's personal history nor history as human experience was conceived by the ancients as linear progress toward some ultimate goal.
            For example, Empedocles (5th century BC) introduced the idea of repeated world cycles: because periods of "Love and Strife" alternated, the history of the cosmos was viewed as a series of cyclical periods (Nahm, Greek Philosophy; fragment 66, 110). Hesiod (around 700 BC) saw reality as an alternating series of five world ages (Works and Days, 106-201). Marcus Aurelius said "…the universe is governed according to finite periods (of coming to be and passing away)" (Meditations 5.13)—each period began and another cycle ended at the same point.
            Might the ancients have been correct after all? Our tiny blue and white planet, for example, is on an infinite journey of repeated twenty-four hour cycles around its sun.  Hence one's personal physical age should not be thought of as linear sequence, but rather should be calculated in terms of a succession of repeated cycles around the sun. We don't really go anywhere in life; we just repeat the cycle every twenty-four hours.
            That is not true of the universe, however, which is expanding outward all around (if it is circular) at a rapid rate of speed on a wild ride toward some unknown destination; hence the universe clearly appears to be moving "somewhere" in linear fashion.
            Whether we conceive our journey as being locked into repeated centripetal cycles or caught up in a linear centrifugal force, which concept adds more significance to life, the journey or the destination?
The Greek poet C. P. Cavafy in a short poem about Odysseus's journey home (Ἰθάκη, Ithaka), claimed that journeys were more significant. What do you think?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Obsolescence of Poetry in Early Christian Writings

By poetry I mean, in part, an elevated language arranged in verse having a measured rhythm.  Obsolescence in this case means that poetic language is not generally used by writers of early Christian texts. This circumstance is not unusual. Everything, including writing styles, naturally falls into disuse. For example, Plutarch (1st/2nd century), a priest of Apollo at Delphi, one of the most famous religious sanctuaries of the ancient Greek world, complained in his day that oracles (statements of the gods uttered by inspired prophets and prophetesses) were no longer being given in verse, and he noted further that even the numbers of prophets and prophetesses were declining.1
            It is well known that poetic form is extensively used in Hebrew Bible, and employed in a variety of ways.2 By using a modern translation, such as the New Revised Standard Version, it is easy to confirm the use of poetic language, since poetic form is generally arranged in verse in the translation.  For example, compare Isaiah 38:9-20.
            In New Testament texts, however, there is a virtual eclipse of poetic form.  Here is how Amos Wilder, a New Testament scholar who made the study of New Testament language a special interest, described the situation:
The poetic forms of the Old Testament which reappear in the New are also often distinguished under three heads according to the traditions out of which they come: (1) the 'gnome': the aphorism of the wisdom tradition of Israel, often found in highly patterned and pungent form; (2) the 'oracle': inspired rhythmic warning, promise, vision, curse, in the tradition of Old Testament prophecy; (3) the 'psalm': liturgical prayer-poems in the tradition of the Psalter. We find the best examples of the gnome and the oracle [in the New Testament] in the sayings of Jesus. Examples of the Christian use of the psalm, of course, are found in the Canticles of Luke.3
New Testament writers sparingly used "hymns" or "odes" (rhythmic units with a liturgical or deliberate theological character), such as Philippians 2:6-11; 1 Timothy 3:16; 1 John 2:12-14; Revelation 18:2-3; 18:4-8.  By far the largest numbers of poetic units in the New Testament appear in the Book of Revelation. Revelation has at least sixteen hymns or hymn-like units many of which are antiphonal.4 In particular, the dirge against Babylon (Revelation 18:2-8, 10, 14, 16-17, 19-20, 21b-24) should be noted among some of the other poetic units in Revelation.
            The heavy use of poetic form in Revelation may be due to the author's situation. The author was a Jewish Christian who "wrote in Greek [but] thought in Hebrew, and frequently translated Hebrew idioms literally into Greek." In other words he expressed himself in Greek in the poetic style of Hebrew idiom.5 If this is correct, then the author writes from the vantage point of the verge separating Hebrew linguistic sensitivities from that of an emerging Christian orthodoxy.
            "Greek is one of the most fluid and musical of all languages."6 And Greek poets have treated all sorts of subjects in poetic form from Homer to George Seferis—including religious subjects. So how should we account for the striking lack of poetic form and the dominance of pedestrian prose in early Christian literature?  Perhaps it is due to a desire to be direct and to communicate in clear language, for an elevated style is often not clear, as Aristotle argued.7 Paul seems to recognize the difference, when he claims that he did not proclaim "the mystery of God" in "eloquent words or wisdom" (1 Corinthians 2:1; 1:17). In short, the New Testament writers in general used unimaginative plain prose to communicate information, rather than intensifying religious experience through poetic language.8 Perhaps it is not important, but poetry "is regarded by some as something central to existence, something having unique value to the fully realized life, something that we are better off for having and spiritually impoverished without."9
            From my perspective, one finds a greater spiritual uplift in poetic hymns, which share the intensity of the poets' religious experience, than in the prosaic theological stumping of preaching, which generally views religious experience in a narrow way.
Is the New Testament deficient in spiritually uplifting linguistic forms?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
1"The Oracles at Delphi" and "The Obsolescence of Oracles."
2Otto Eissfeldt, The Old Testament. An Introduction (Harper and Row, translated from the 3rd German edition, 1965), 57-64.
3The Language of the Gospel. Early Christian Rhetoric (Harper and Row, 1964), 100-101. See Luke 1-2 for the canticles (liturgical songs) of Luke.
4David Aune, Westminster Dictionary of New Testament and Early Christian Literature and Rhetoric (Westminster/John Knox, 2003), 403.
5Charles, The Revelation of St. John (ICC; Charles Scribner's Sons, 1920), 1.xxi.
6T. F. Higham, "Introduction. Part II," in Higham and Bowra, The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation (Clarendon, 1938), xlvii. 
7Aristotle, The Art of Rhetoric, III.2.1-3.
8Arp, and Johnson, Perrine's Literature, Structure, Sound, and Sense (8th ed.; Harcourt, 2002), 717-19.
9Perrine, Literature. Structure, Sound, and Sense (4th ed.; Harcourt; 1983), 517.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Was Jesus an Exorcist?

The synoptic evangelists agree that the public career of Jesus could best be summed up in the following way:
His mission was primarily that of a prophet (Mark 1:15), teacher (Luke 4:15), and healer (Luke 4:40, 13:32), or exorcist (Luke 4:41, 6:17-19); his message was the announcement of the impending arrival of the reign or kingdom of God (Luke 4:43).1
I would have said healer and exorcist based on the Q saying (Matthew 12:28=Luke11:20) attributed to Jesus.  In other words his exorcisms, casting demons out of people unfortunate enough to have been possessed by them, and his healings of diseases and infirmities are two sides of the same activity, for in the view of the synoptic evangelists illness is also caused by demons (Mark 9:14-29/Matthew 17:14-21/Luke 9:37-43a). Hence exorcizing demons, healing the sick, and proclaiming the kingdom are all aspects of the emerging reign of God, which brings the end of the age. Therefore Jesus is generally described as an apocalyptic prophet who announces the blessings of the soon-to-arrive kingdom, of which his exorcisms and healings are a foretaste in the present.  Such is the default understanding of Jesus on the part of the authors of the synoptic evangelistic tracts, a view that is shared by the confessing church and by many (if not most) in the contemporary academic community (but not by the Gospel of John).2
            "A belief in the existence and activity of demons is not limited to the New Testament. Some conception of evil spirits or demons was held almost universally by the religions of the ancient world."3  But not all people in antiquity shared this view of possession by evil spirits and the therapeutic activity of exorcising them.  For example, the satirist Lucian of Samosata (2nd century AD) ridicules the gullibility of people who were willing to believe all sorts of things about a supernatural world, and uses exorcism of evil spirits as an example of their gullibility.4  Hippocrates of Cos (5th century BC), the most famous physician of antiquity, regarded possession (what he calls the "sacred disease") as due to natural causes, and the idea that it is due to divine action was the result of superstition, gullibility, and quackery. The real source of this serious disease is to be found in the brain, and it can be cured without recourse to purifications or magic.5  Among the things that Marcus Aurelius (Roman Emperor, 2nd century AD) claimed he learned was to be incredulous about sorcerers and imposters regarding the driving out of spirits. 6
            Doubt is cast on the historical value of this general picture of Jesus emerging from the synoptic gospels by a number of the sayings of Jesus that the evangelists preserve, and in particular on the therapeutic value of exorcism.  For example, the narrative parables, in the main, contain no trace of the apocalyptic features the synoptic evangelists associate with the career of Jesus. Nevertheless one of his stories does describe demon possession, but it in fact casts doubt on the general efficacy of exorcism.  The story is found in the earliest gospel Q (Luke 11:24-26=Matt 12:43-45), which Matthew and Luke repeat with minor differences—in short, the story is virtually verbatim.  Oddly the Jesus Seminar printed Matthew's version in grey (meaning the ideas in this version are close to Jesus' own) and Luke's version was printed in pink (meaning Jesus probably said something like this), even though the differences are only stylistic and few in number.7  Here is the story in Luke's version:
When the unclean spirit has gone out of a man, he passes through waterless places seeking rest; and finding none he says, 'I will return to my house from which I came.' And when he comes he finds it swept and put in order. Then he goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter and dwell there.
            Luke's concluding statement (11:26, "and the last state of that man becomes worst than the first") is the Q interpretation of the story and is repeated by Matthew (12:45); Matthew (12:45) adds another interpretation: "So shall it be also with this evil generation." While the story reflects the widespread superstition in antiquity that demons possess people, it regards the practice of exorcism as futile.  In that sense it challenges the traditional image of Jesus as an exorcist.  You will recall that there are no accounts of demon possession or exorcisms in the Gospel of John.  This short story seems to link Jesus to the attitudes expressed by Lucian, Hippocrates, and Marcus Aurelius.
            Why would Jesus cast doubt on the therapeutic value of his own exorcisms, do you suppose? Or was this story not told by Jesus? Have the synoptic evangelists simply capitalized on a tendency in the Jesus tradition to see Jesus as an exorcist and developed it further?  After all, they had no personal knowledge of Jesus.
How does it seem to you?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
1F. C. Grant, "Jesus Christ" IDB, vol. 2:882.
2See C. W. Hedrick, The Wisdom of Jesus, 164-179 for a summary of academic views of Jesus at the end of the twentieth century.
3D. G. Reese, "Demons," ABD, vol. 2:140.
4Lucian, Lover of Lies, 16, and 31-32.
5Hippocrates, The Sacred Disease, I, 1-4; II, 1-46; V, 1-21; VI, 1-2; XXI, 22-26.
6Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, I.6.
7Funk and Hoover, Five Gospels, 189, 330-31.