Monday, June 19, 2017

Are there Degrees of Spirituality?

This is not a question that I can answer. In my view a person's spirituality is an inner attitude; it is not a foreign supplemental addition to oneself. One can evaluate spirituality in terms of exterior social behavior after defining what is meant by "religious," but that is not quite the same thing as studying a mental state or stance toward something. The inner mental state or stance of spirituality is never available for direct study; instead, only the stated claims of those polled about spirituality may be analyzed.
 
            The Apostle Paul, however, thought there were degrees to spirituality, and from the perspective of nascent Christianity he described the scale this way:
 
But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as fleshly, as babes in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food; for you were not ready for it; and even yet you are not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not still of the flesh and behaving just like ordinary people? For when one says, "I belong to Paul," and another, "I belong to Apollos," are you not just ordinary people? (1 Cor 3:1-4)
 
The degree scale that Paul establishes is at its lowest end "ordinary fleshly people" (or babes in Christ) and at its highest end "spiritual people." I suppose that the designations fleshly/spiritual would come together at the midpoint halfway through the scale. Paul is able to distinguish these two extremes, however, only in terms of human behaviors and he gives his readers an example.  Ordinary fleshly people act jealously and create strife (1 Cor 3:3). Presumably the spiritual people at the upper end of the scale would act just the opposite; that is, spiritual people would be characterized by trust and they would create harmony. But perhaps we should use his words as to how spiritual people behave:
 
The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. (Gal 5:22-23 RSV)
 
On the other hand, the behaviors to which the flesh (what Paul regards as human lower nature) leads are:
 
fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissention, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and such things." (Gal 5:19-21 RSV
 
            Does "spirituality," however defined, improve the species Homo sapiens?  Again, it is not a question that can be answered for two reasons: 1. It will depend on how you define "improvement." For example, some may think spiritual improvement means being less formally "religious" (however defined), since they might regard religiosity as a holdover from the superstitious period of humanity's primitive past; and 2. Since "spirituality" is a personal attitude (that is, how one regards oneself or how one is regarded by others), we can never analyze the degree of one's spirituality directly. We can only know how we regard ourselves and what we claim about someone else—and our self claims and what others claim about us may disagree.
 
            Suppose, however, "spirituality" were defined in terms of stated concepts of the Divine—that is to say how has the species Homo sapiens described the Gods it serves? Have concepts of God evolved or devolved? My theory is that spiritual people are more apt to conceive a more ethically respectable God; spiritual people would scarcely serve a flawed Deity. The more ethically their Gods behave; the keener must be the spiritual sense of those believing in such Gods.
 
            I do see specific indicators of gradual change in the representation of Deity by the species Homo sapiens. The overlapping changes are not uniform throughout the world and have been occurring over millions of years.
 
1.   The ascription of Divinity to the primal forces of nature (Primitive period).
2.   Polytheism and anthropomorphism (Classical Greek and Roman period).
3.   Monotheism and Spirit (Judeo-Christian period).
4.   Panentheism: God is in everything and everything is in God (Post-Enlightenment).
 
Whether this represents an evolution that makes our species more spiritual or whether it is a devolution that makes our species less spiritual, is a subjective judgment, however, and will be answered according to one's personal faith.
 
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Monday, June 5, 2017

From the Jesus Tradition: On Becoming and Being Human

All of us are special, even those of us who are not. We belong to the animal species Homo sapiens (intelligent man), a thinking animal, capable of abstract thought, and logical analysis. Anthropologists tell us there have been several iterations of the genus Homo that preceded our species, apparently without our mental capability and potential; here are the names of those closest to us in the genus Homo: heidelbergensis, neanderthalensis, erectus, floresiensis.1 They are now extinct.
 
            As a species of the animal kingdom, our kind (Homo sapiens) often exhibits an insensitive brutish behavior that unfortunately reflects a destructive aspect of our nature. Nevertheless, the higher aspects of our nature enable us to contribute to the enhancement of civilization and life in community through the arts, philosophy, science, etc. This dissonance in the nature of the species Homo sapiens between the lower and higher aspects of our nature, or perhaps better: between the animalistic and the humanistic aspects of our nature, raises the following question: what is the quintessential characteristic of human nature? That is to say: what is best in the nature of our species?
 
            I suggest that what is best in our nature is a kind of liberal humanitarianism grounded in the concept of altruistic and unconditional love. Altruistic love is an unselfish concern for and devotion to the welfare of other human beings without regard for personal benefit or personal cost. In a sense it is a self-denying love for other members of our species of whatever ethnic background.
 
            This kind of love is first met in the ancient world in the Jesus tradition. The Israelite tradition of "love your neighbor as yourself" (Deut 15:1-3) is essentially a tribal ethic, since a neighbor was one of your own tribe; that is to say, your fellow Israelite. And love was also extended to the stranger sojourning in the Israelite community (Lev 19:33-34), a custom grounded in the hospitality codes of the ancient near east.
 
            Through the Jesus tradition love for the neighbor passes over into the Christian communities (Rom 13:8-10) where the neighbor is not a fellow human being of whatever ethnic background but fellow Christians in the community (as in Rom 15:1-2; Gal 5:15-15). James 2:1-13, however, does seem to shade over into a universal humanitarian code of care and concern for fellow human beings of whatever ethnic background because concern and care is extended to any poor shabbily dressed person who wanders into a Christian assembly. So it is not necessarily at bottom a religious community ethic, but seems grounded in a kind of humanitarian concern for other human beings.
 
            One of the clearer expressions of a kind of secular altruistic love as a quality in human life is found in 1 Cor 13:1-13. In this chapter love is not motivated by religious belief or empowered by divine sanction. Here love has more value than religious acts and knowledge (13:1-2) and other forms of charity (13:3). It puts others before self (13:4-7), and epitomizes what it means to be a mature human being (13:11-12). Hence, love has greater value than even religious faith or hope (13:13). There is no mention in the chapter of God or Christ, but love is apparently an altruistic human response to the human other. For these reasons some scholars of the Jesus tradition do not regard the chapter as composed by Paul but as borrowed from the Greco-Roman tradition.
 
            The clearest expression of an altruistic unconditional love is the challenge of Jesus to "love your enemies" (Luke 6:27b; Matt 5:44). Matthew and Luke each try to domesticate the saying by suggesting practical actions one can perform that do not involve one actually loving an enemy—that is to say: do favors for those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for your abusers (Luke 6:27-31; Matt 5:43-44); all of which one can do without actually loving the enemy.
 
            When our behavior displays altruistic love, we are quintessentially human; when our behavior is brutish and uncaring, we are marginally human. Being human is not an accident of birth, but a matter of behavior.
 
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
 
1Richard Potts and Christopher Sloan, What does it mean to be Human? (Washington: National Geographic, 2010), 32-33.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Did Paul believe in the Christian Heaven?

Fortunately we do not have to wonder about the uncertainties of what Paul may have believed; his views can be described from what he himself wrote. How Paul used the word "heaven" (ouranos) shows that he clearly understood heaven as the divine realm, the abode of God, Christ, and the angels (Rom 1:18; 10:6; 1 Cor 8:5; 15:47; Gal 1:8; 1 Thess 1:10; 4:16). The view as expressed in these passages is identical to that of the ancient Greek world where heaven, and/or Mount Olympus, was seen as the abode of the Gods.1 In Paul's view this heavenly abiding place of the divine appears to have been permeable (2 Cor 12:2), so perhaps its nether regions were open to visitation by other travelers on heavenly journeys as well as Paul.2
 
            Paul described those who shared his religious views as citizens of the commonwealth of heaven (Phil 3:20-21), which is their transcendental home in the heavens (2 Cor 5:1-4) where they would always be with the Lord (2 Cor 5:6-8; 1 Thess 4:16-17). With respect to the sovereign rule of God, in five instances the concept appears to be something that is realized in the future (1 Cor 6:9; 15:24, 50; Gal 5:2; 1 Thess 2:12), but in two instances it appears to be something one can experience in the present (Rom 14:17; 1 Cor 4:20).
 
            One way Paul may have differed from contemporary views of the Christian heaven is the state in which the departed soul would experience heaven. The Christian view of heaven today seems to be more Greek than that hope anticipated by Paul. Today, in general, Christian churches tend to think of a person's soul in terms of the disembodied state; the soul is the essential spiritual essence of a person that remains after the body has been discarded. This is essentially the ancient Greek concept.3 Paul, however, being Hebrew, was more influenced by the Hebrew myth of the first human being (Adam), who was created as a unified living being (Gen 2:7), and hence for Paul a disembodied soul was apparently a strange concept. In Paul's view a person was essentially a living being, and not an embodied spirit/soul. He argued that the dead will again be embodied with an imperishable "spiritual body" (1 Cor 15:35-50; 1 Cor 5:1-5), and, I suppose, in that state the believer would experience heaven.
 
            Another concept in Paul, strange to Christian ears today is Paul's association of the hereafter with the liberation of the physical creation from its futility (Rom 8:20) and bondage to decay (Rom 8:21), perhaps occasioned mythically by God cursing the ground when Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden (Gen 3:17). Romans 8:19-23 reflects a kind of restoration or renewal of the physical universe to its original "very good" state (Gen 1:31). The idea of a "new heavens and a new earth" (Isa 65:17) is shared by other early Christians (2 Pet 3:13; Rev 21:1). Paul, however, has specifically associated this restoration of the physical universe with believers awaiting the "redemption of their bodies" (Rom 8:22-23) as the universe awaited its renewal. I am not at all sure, however, what role a restored physical universe would play in the completely spiritual reality of heaven. But Paul dies not elaborate.
 
            In sum, Paul anticipates that after death the believer will be with the Lord in heaven; nevertheless that experience does not appear to be identical with contemporary ideas of the blessed state of the Christian heaven.
 
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
 
1 Helmut Traub, TDNT, 5:500 [497-502].
2 James D. Tabor, Heaven, "Ascent to," ABD, 2:91-94.
3 Christopher Rowe, OCD, 1428.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Did Jesus Believe in the Christian Heaven?

As most of you likely know, I cannot read minds—much less the mental state of paper characters invented by the minds of others, that is to say, the synoptic evangelists of whom virtually nothing certain is known. Here is a prolegomenon addressing the question in the title. The Greek word for heaven (ouranos, οὐρανός) according to the lexicographers is used three ways in the New Testament: 1. referring to a part of the ancient universe, hence firmament or sky; 2. referring to a transcendental abode, hence not part of the universe; 3. as a circumlocution for God, hence neither of the first two.
 
            I limit my inquiry to the testimony of the Gospel of Mark and the hypothetical Gospel Q. In Mark there are 17 uses of ouranos. I would describe the uses of ouranos in Mark (readers may disagree): firmament or sky (1:10-11; 4:32; 6:41; 7:34; 13:25 [twice]; 13:27; 13:31); as a circumlocution for God (8:11; 11:30-31); as a transcendental abode (10:21; 11:25; 12:25; 13:32; 14:62). Such is the evidence in Mark.
 
            The question now becomes do the five "heaven-is-a-transcendental-abode" sayings attributed to Jesus in Mark survive the scalpel of critical scholarship. The report of the Jesus Seminar published in The Five Gospels (abbreviated here as FG) is the most critical sifting of the Jesus tradition to date. All but one of these sayings attributed to Jesus by Mark are colored gray, meaning that in the judgment of the seminar Jesus did not say this, but the ideas expressed are (may be) close to his own (FG, pp. 36-37). The saying rendered black is Mark 14:62 meaning Jesus did not say this; it represents the perspective of a later strand of the Jesus tradition. To see their rationale, look up the sayings in The Five Gospels. Hence, the sayings on heaven as a transcendental abode in the Gospel of Mark appear to be a later Christian tradition attributed to Jesus. Apparently Jesus himself did not share the view of an ultimate heavenly abode affirmed by the later tradition. Such is the judgment of critical scholarship on Mark's sayings about heaven as a transcendental abode.
 
            The hypothetical early Christian gospel Q (Quelle, source), which no longer exists but is reconstructed by scholars from close verbal parallels between Matthew and Luke, is thought to be earlier than Mark. It is dated by some as early as 50 CE. Reconstructions of Q include seven sayings on heaven, four of which appear to be referring to heaven as a transcendental abode: Luke 6:23; 11:13; 12:23; 15:17. One saying can either be a transcendental abode or a circumlocution for God (Luke 10:15). One refers to heaven as part of the firmament (Luke 16:17), and the last is a circumlocution (Luke 17:29). Such is the evidence from the hypothetical early Christian sayings gospel Q.
 
            Critical scholars regard four of these Q sayings as highly questionable (i.e., colored gray): Luke 6:23; 11:13; 12:33; 16:17; and three of them were definitely not spoken by Jesus (i.e., colored black; Luke 10:15; 15:17; 17:29). Such is the judgment of critical scholarship on Q's sayings about heaven as a transcendental abode.
 
            When the earliest sources about Jesus (Mark and Q) are read critically it appears that Jesus did not share the later Christian hope of heaven as a transcendental abode to which the Christian soul journeys after death. He did, however, anticipate the imminent coming of what he called the "sovereign rule of God" (Mark: 10:14, 23, 25; Q: Matt 6:10a/Luke 11:2b; Matt 12:28/Luke 11:20) All of these sayings, when evaluated critically, are affirmed as originating with Jesus.
 
            On the basis of the passages I have listed just above, the sovereign rule of God does not appear to be a transcendent abode (readers may disagree), but rather a domain, in the sense of God's sphere of influence over human life—or do you read them differently?
 
            It is a naïve mistake to assume that what the church believes is what Jesus believed. Basically people must decide if they will live by the uncritical faith that the New Testament gospels are historically correct in all particulars, or live by reason and logic and make use of the results of 250 years of critical studies of the Bible. Critical scholars are not always right—true enough! But neither are they always wrong. One must look at the evidence and make informed judgments.
 
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Will the Jesus Tradition remain Relevant?

A good friend suggested that I owe an explanation to people of progressive religious faith as to why I still concern myself with the Jesus traditions in light of my published views that the Jesus tradition is historically unreliable, and traditional Christianity is based on mythology. He was thinking like a progressive pastor, preacher, and prophet of social justice; I, on the other hand, am a retired academic and a historian of Christian origins. Our perspectives are quite different. Critiquing the Jesus tradition is something I do professionally, and my friend is a practitioner of a new form of traditional faith based on social justice.
 
            The explanation he asked of me is nothing less than describing what the Jesus tradition contributes to contemporary human life; that is, what in the Jesus traditions might be embraced by people of progressive religious faith and what should be consigned to the bulging trash bins of dead religions.  Fortunately he asked me to address the entire spectrum of the Jesus traditions; that is, to address not only what originated with the historical Jesus, but also what others have found of value in the Jesus traditions. In his challenge all of the Jesus tradition is given an equal weight.
 
            Here are two reasons for my continuing interest in the Jesus tradition, and why I think it will continue to remain relevant. These two reasons only scratch the surface. Judging from the pervasive influence of Christianity and the iconic status of the Bible in contemporary American culture, it is obvious that the Jesus traditions remain relevant in 21st century America. Hence, the critical study of the Jesus tradition (what I do) will remain a legitimate public service until it happens that traditional Christianity and the Bible lose their influence in modern society.  For the foreseeable future, however, there remains a need for critics of the Jesus tradition to separate beliefs about Jesus from the probable views of Jesus in order to call into question illegitimate uses of the Jesus tradition.
 
            A second reason relates to early Christian ethical values. Early Christian writers have preserved certain ethical concepts, which have inspired much that is beneficial in Western civilization. One such concept is a liberal humanitarianism grounded in the concept of altruistic and unconditional love, which has embedded itself in Western culture. Altruistic love is an unselfish concern for and devotion to the welfare of others, without regard either for personal benefit or personal cost.
 
            The Jesus traditions have brought over from the ancient Israelite tradition the idea of loving one's neighbor (Lev 19:18; Mark 12:31). In the Israelite tradition the neighbor was not one's fellow human being of whatever ethnic background, but rather one's fellow Israelite (Deut 15:1-3); that is to say, their neighbors were of their own tribe.  Love was also extended to those sojourning among the Israelites; that is to say, to the stranger in their midst (Lev 19:33-34). In the Hebrew Bible love for neighbor appears in Torah as a commandment of God—hence it is a religious ethic of the Israelite community, which through Jesus passed into early Christian communities. Paul, for example, writes:
 
Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. All the commandments are summed up in this sentence: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Rom 13:8-10)
 
In this statement "neighbor" is not a fellow human being of whatever ethnic background, but rather a religious community ethic—love for your fellow Christian (as in Romans 15:1-2; Gal 5:13-15). Nevertheless, James 2:1-13 does seem to shade over into a universal humanitarian code of care and concern for fellow human beings.
 
            One of the clearest expressions of a kind of secular altruistic love is found 1 Corinthians 13:1-13. Love in this passage does not appear to be a Christian attribute, which is motivated by religious belief and empowered by divine sanction; rather it is a nakedly human quality. There is no mention in this chapter of theology or Christology; neither God nor Christ is mentioned as motivating or enabling the act of loving.
 
            One hard saying unique to Jesus in antiquity unquestionably illustrates an altruistic unconditional love; Jesus said "Love your enemies" (Luke 6:27b; Matt 5:44b). The literary context in which this saying is found struggles against the concept of "loving enemies" by offering lesser actions that involve minimum risk, which can be done without actually expressing concrete love for the enemy. In my view the world would be more impoverished without the concept of unconditional love, and it is precisely the Jesus tradition that has imported this concept into Western culture.
 
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Monday, April 10, 2017

Pondering Divination and Prophecy #2

It is surprising to note that the authors of the Bible in the main shared so much of the ancient pagan ideas about divination and prophecy (see "Wry Thoughts about Religion" 3/28/17). The fact that the texts have so much in common with pagan thinking should not be surprising, however, since the authors themselves even in their thinking were products of ancient pagan culture. The term "pagan" describes the religions and culture of the ancient world. It was used in the later Christian period to describe the last vestiges of ancient culture that survived in the byways of the countryside ("pagan" was adapted from the Latin word paganus meaning "a peasant who lives in the villages of the countryside," where the old ways still existed.
 
            The Israelites clearly believed that their God (Yahweh), like the pagan gods of antiquity, chose certain people to be a channel for his revelations (Deut 18:17-18), but on the other hand diviners, soothsayers, augurs, sorcerers, wizards, charmers, mediums, and necromancers were forbidden in Israel (Deut 18:10-12)—nevertheless such things still occurred, as when Saul consulted the medium of Endor to resuscitate the prophet Samuel from death (1 Sam 28:3-25).
 
            The literary prophets of Israel's history were believed to write "words of God." While there is an element of futurity in their prophecies, the prophecies concerned the near future in general detail on matters relating to the Israelites and their welfare. Some of their prophecies did not come true—as, for example, the prophecy that there would always be a descendant of David ruling Israel (2 Sam 7:1-7; Jer 33:17-18). Today, however, Israel is no longer a monarchy, and its leaders do not claim descent from David! Here is a second failed prophecy: Ezekiel prophesied that the ancient city of Tyre would be utterly destroyed and no longer inhabited (Ezek 26:17-21), but today Tyre is a thriving city in Lebanon.
 
            Early Christians co-opted some of the "Old Testament" prophecies to prove that the founding events of their faith had been foreseen by the prophets. For example, they took over a prophecy that Isaiah made to King Ahaz of Judah during a political crises of the eighth century BCE. The birth of a peasant child, Isaiah said, prophesied the survival of the Kingdom of Judah (Isa 7:1-17). The prophecy came true; Judah did survive. Matthew, however, took over one verse out of context (Isa 7:14) claiming that the prophecy related to the birth of Jesus the Anointed (Matt 1:18-23).
 
            Divination also occurs in the biblical texts by means of all the usual pagan methods, as Cicero described them: dreams (Matt 1:20; 2:12-13, 19, 22); signs and wonders (Acts 4:30; 2:43; Heb 2:4; 2 Cor 12:12; Rom 15:19); portents (Dan 5:5-31; Joel 2:30-31; Isa 13:9-11; 20:2-3; 8:18; Mark 13:24-27; Rev 12:1; 15:1); marvels (Exod 34:10; John 7:21); signs (John2:1-11; Judg 6:37-40; Matt 24:29-30) omens (Sir 34:5; Macc 5:4); apparitions (2 Macc 5:1-4); wandering stars (Matt 2:2, 9-10); prodigies (13:1-9, 11-18).
 
            Those who think the Bible establishes the true contours of what is real when it describes divination and prophecy should think again. The Bible simply provides more examples of what occurred in paganism. One definite difference between the Bible and the views of paganism, however, is the Bible's understanding of Fate. In the Bible Fate is not an impersonal force that determines human destiny, rather Yahweh himself predetermines both chance and outcomes: thus human destiny lies in God's hands (Pss 16:5; 31:15; Prov 16:33; Eccl 3:11, 15; 7:13; 8:17; 1 Sam 16:14; 1 Kgs 22:22; Rom 9:18; 2 Thess 2:11). Nevertheless some of the biblical writers are aware of Fate as an impersonal force determining human destiny (Isa 47:13; Jer 10:2; Ezek 21:21; Matt 2:2), and astrologers read the heavens to determine Fate on earth (Dan 2:27; 4:7; 5:7. 11).
 
            Cicero regarded divination as superstition, "widespread among the nations" and it "has taken advantage of human weakness to cast its spell over the mind of almost every other person"; Cicero quickly added, however, "I want it distinctly understood that the destruction of superstition does not mean the destruction of religion" (Div. II.lxxii.148). I am inclined to agree with him.
 
            The truth is: there is no fixed inevitable future, which pre-exists in the foreknowledge of God. The only future we will ever know ahead of time is what rushes into the present in the next second. The future is always in a state of becoming; beyond that it exists only as an uncertain contingency of plans, fears, and hopes in the human mind.
 
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Pondering Divination and Prophecy

Human beings as a species have an insatiable desire to know their future. It has always been the case. In the ancient past there appear to have been three broad avenues to knowing the future. Cicero, a Roman politician and philosopher of the first century BCE recognized only two ways, however (on Divination, II.26), which he designated as natural (prophecies made by inspired persons) and artificial (prophecies based on observation of signs sent by the Gods).
 
            People could consult someone believed to be divinely inspired in order to know the future. Such persons, called: seers, oracles, and prophets (1 Sam 9:9; 2 Sam 16:23), were consulted for a wide range of reasons: matters of state, personal issues, medical questions, outcomes of battles, etc. Their utterances were called prophecies and oracles, or "Words of God." Among many oracular shrines devoted to various Gods, like the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, there also existed prophetic centers in ancient Israel at Bethel (2 Kgs 2:2-3), Jericho (2 Kgs 2:4-5), and Gilgal (2 Kgs 4:38), where one found guilds called "the sons of the prophets."
 
            A second avenue for determining the future was by divination. In the Hellenistic period a widespread belief existed that while Gods revealed the future through certain inspired persons, to the vast majority of us they only gave uncertain signs, omens, and portents requiring interpretation. Cicero mentions a number of these indicators: for example, dreams, the direction taken by lightning in the sky, the flight of birds, observing the entrails of animals at the time of sacrifice, shooting stars, prodigies (something extraordinary, inexplicable, or marvelous), omens (something believed to portend some future event). In other words both the common and extraordinary in life may be portending some future occurrence.  If one disregarded these signs, it was tantamount to not believing in the Gods. The Romans institutionalized the observation of signs by means of a college of augurs (a group of 15 who regularly "took the auspices" (read the signs). They also kept a roost of sacred chickens whose eating-behaviors were regularly consulted by eminent Romans on matters of importance, and a set of ancient books, which were collections of prophetic utterances by the Sibyls, female visionary figures from the classical tradition. They consulted these books at times of national crisis and emergency.
 
            A third way of determining the future, which Cicero included in his artificial category, was astrology.  A Hellenistic period belief was that one's fate was determined by the movement of the heavenly bodies. Fate may be defined as "the principle, power, or agency by which events are unalterably predetermined from eternity." Fate was not a deity but an impersonal force described as "an orderly succession of causes wherein cause is linked to cause and each cause of itself produces an effect."  By the third century BCE ancient Greeks had developed from Babylonian astral observations the idea that "the movements of the heavenly bodies control earthly events up to the smallest detail." Not even prayer and sacrifice could help one escape one's predetermined fate. Even the Gods themselves were subject to the inevitable force of fate, as the oracle at Delphi told the envoys of King Croesus of Lydia. Astrologers were consulted to discover one's ultimate destiny. Astrology, the idea that life is determined by the movement of the heavenly bodies, is still believed by many today to be a viable way of discovering the future by consulting horoscopes, Tarot, astrological almanacs, and psychic readings. So, gentle reader, do you share any of these commonly held beliefs of antiquity?
 
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Life is what you make it—or is it?

I have come to think that life is what you make it! There are no built in assurances that one's life will be happy, or successful, nor is one's life fated to be filled with unhappiness or end in disaster. When one is born, life is as full of possibilities, as one's historical circumstances allow, and one's capabilities permit. I did not always think of life as my own creation, however. The fresh air of philosophical secularism rarely penetrated into the suffocating religious atmosphere of the Mississippi Delta, where I spent my youth. I was taught that God had a plan for every life, which (if one could find it) would lead to success, but only as God counts success. That is to say, one's life may not appear successful as the secular world counts success, but God would regard it so. And one could count on God helping one achieve success in life (as God valued success), provided one resisted the wiles of Satan, God's arch enemy.
 
            What is surprising is that this narrative I was taught by the church is not part of the views of some writers in the Bible. For example, consider the case of Judas Iscariot, who appears to have been destined for infamy from the beginning. Luke even describes Judas' traitorous act as being prophesied in Scripture (Acts 1:16; Ps 41:9), meaning that Judas' life became not what he made it but what God had forced upon him. The evidence is mixed for Judas, however; John describes Judas' betrayal of Jesus as caused by demon possession (John 6:70-71; 13:2), while Matthew describes the betrayal as inspired by Judas' greed (Matt 26:14-16; Mark 14:10-11). A classic Old Testament example of God's interfering in our lives to work his inscrutable ways is the account of King Saul's clinical melancholia. It was caused by an evil spirit sent from God (1 Samuel 16:14-23), after the departure of God's (holy) spirit (1 Sam 16:14). Neither man had much of a chance for success in life; their lives failed because of invisible powers over which they had no control.
 
            Is it true that invisible supernatural powers are at work on all of us (Eph 6:12) to our detriment or benefit and that we have no control over them, and we become what we are as a result of what they impose on our lives? It calls to mind comedian Flip Wilson's immortal line—"the devil made me do it!" It is true, however, that certain historical circumstances beyond our control do influence the outcomes of our lives (for example, economic, political, social, etc.). But these are neither invisible nor supernatural. Thinking that supernatural powers are at work in the world is a matter of personal belief; it is not objective reality. Naturally if one believes such things, one thereby creates an objective reality and it is that belief that influences one's life, rather than the putative supernatural power. This idea works as well for those who do not think that life is influenced by supernatural powers, for their non-belief becomes the objective reality that sets them free to make what they will of life.
 
            Some biblical writers seem to think that God interferes in our lives in the sense that some are predestined to greatness and others to failure by God electing or choosing them for the fate that they come to realize in their lives (For example, Isa 42:1; 45:4; 65:9; Mark 13:20, 27; 1 Pet 1:2; Rom 11:5; Deut 7:6; 1 Kings 11:34; Ps 78:70-71). The clearest passage of which I am aware (perhaps the only one) where God swears "hands off" interfering in people's lives are the surprising statements attributed to Paul in Romans 1:18-32, where God "gave up" certain people to what Paul calls their impurity, dishonorable passions, and base minds. With this exception the biblical view seems to be that God interferes in all our lives. But secular belief can trump biblical faith in the sense that we create our own realities.
 
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Can Social Customs become Religious Rituals?

One clear example of this phenomenon appears in Paul's first letter to the "gathering of God" at Corinth (1 Cor 1:2).  When they assembled as a group, they enjoyed a regular meal together, which they enjoyed in a way similar to a "potluck" (1 Cor 11:17-19). Paul was less than satisfied with their practice, which to outsiders would have seemed little different from other dining associations in Greco-Roman culture. Paul chided them for not observing what he called the "Lord's Supper" (1 Cor 11:20-22). He gave specific instructions on how they should observe the meal (1Cor 11:23-32), and told them they should eat in this way when they gathered as a group—turning the meal into a mystical experience. Over many years their simple fellowship meal evolved into the mystical community ritual that became the celebration of the Mass.
 
            There may well be another example of a simple act of hospitality evolving into a religious ritual. It is difficult to be certain because most of the aspects of common living in the ancient past are lost in the shadows of history, and hence critical points on a trajectory are usually concealed. In John 13:1-16 at the final meal Jesus shared with his disciples before the Passover Jesus rose from his couch, stripped off his outer garment, girded himself with a towel, and washed the feet of the disciples. Reclining again in his place at the table, he said, "I have given you an example that you should do as I have done to you" (John 13:15).
 
            As most of you are aware, the final meal Jesus shared with his disciples in the synoptic gospels is a Passover meal (Mark 14:12) at which Jesus says the traditional words over the bread and wine: "This is my body"; "this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many" (Mark 14:22-25). To which Luke adds "Do this in remembrance of me" (Luke 22:19). This Passover meal becomes in time instituted in the Christian community as the celebration of the Lord's Supper/Eucharist/Mass. There is no Eucharist in the Gospel of John; there is no act of ritual foot washing in the synoptic gospels.
 
            The background of the foot washing scene in John likely comes from a common act of hospitality extended to guests in the Middle-eastern home (Gen 18:4-5; 19:2; 1 Sam 25:41; Luke 7:36-50; John 12:1-8), and/or from a requirements of personal hygiene (Gen 43:24; Judges 19:21; 2 Sam 11:8; Song 5:2-3). In the latter case apparently one's personal hygiene became associated with ritual cleanness (Ps 24:4; Lev 13:6, 34; 14:8-9; 15:1-33; Num 19:19; Exod 30:17-21; 40:30-32; Gospel Oxyrhynchus, 2:3). But exactly how personal hygiene came to segue into ritual defilement is unclear.
 
            Although the background of the foot washing scene in John is found in Middle Eastern customs of personal hygiene, hospitality, and ritual defilement, the foot washing scene in John 13:1-16 is  described as an example of humility. Jesus said it this way:
 
If I then your Lord and Teacher have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you example, that you should do as I have done to you. (John 13:14-15).
 
            The question is: does Jesus' command (mandatum) in John 13 direct the establishment of a community ritual, or is it, as Jesus said, simply an example of humility (Mark 10:42-44)? That is to say, leaders should think of themselves as servants of those whom they serve. In a sense my question is academic, however, since some early Christian groups began practicing foot washing—widows in the community "washed the feet of the saints" (1 Tim 5:10) as a part of their service to the community (1 Tim 5:3-16). The earliest discussion (400 CE) about ceremonial washing is attested in a letter of Augustine (LV, 33), where it is mentioned that some churches simply rejected the practice of foot washing, while others did not accept it as a custom lest it be confused with the act of baptism; others, on the other hand, observed it in connection with Lent. In the seventh century the earliest trace of the celebration of foot washing was in connection with Maundy Thursday of Holy Week.1 Today many churches continue foot washing in connection with Holy week on Maundy (from the Latin word mandatum) Thursday.2
 
            Which brings me back to my question above: was Jesus consciously establishing a church ordinance? To judge from the character of Jesus' career represented in the gospels that would not appear to be the case. In the gospels Jesus is represented as a peripatetic teacher of wisdom who wanders from village to village without founding communities.
 
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
 
1Shepherd, "Foot Washing," IDB, 2:308; see also Weiss, "Footwashing," ABD 2.828-29.
2https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foot_washing#Anabaptist_practice

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Pondering the Origins of the Church

The word "church" is several centuries and cultures removed from the word it is used to translate in the earliest Christian texts. "Church" and its various cognates through the centuries is descended from a Late Greek word (which I would describe as ecclesiastical Greek) kuriakon meaning "belonging to the Lord" or the "Lord's house"; from this word has come the Teutonic word kirche, Kirk (still used in Scotland), which is the equivalent of the English word "church." It appears that translators of the New Testament have pressed into service what is today a "brick and mortar" fully baptized Christian word in order to render into English the pre-Christian ekklesia, used in the earliest extant Christian texts. Paul uses ekklesia to describe a local gathering of Jesus people, and the basic idea of ekklesia is an assembly of people called out for some purpose. The original idea of the word, its secular use, survives in Acts 19:32, 39, 41, where it is translated assembly. Another word Paul uses to describe the people in the gathering is agioi, or "holy ones," usually translated "saints" (1 Cor 1:2).

      It is an egregious chronological error, an anachronism, to translate ekklesia as "church" because in the middle first century there was no organization in the sense that we use the word "church" today. Technically speaking what we know as the "church" arose with the creedal and theological councils of the fourth and fifth centuries, although earlier certain theological developments led up to the fourth/fifth century "church." In the earliest period, for which there are extant texts, there existed only local gatherings of Jesus people.
 
            Paul's gatherings were comprised of Judeans (Jews) and non-Judeans; in Paul's mythological thinking people in the gathering were made "holy" in Jesus, whom he believed to be the Anointed (i.e., Christ; 1 Cor 1:2). These gatherings met in private homes (Rom 16:3-5; Gal 1:1), and were free-wheeling assemblies not bound by formal rules, procedures, or guidelines. Paul described these gatherings in the following ways: "the gatherings of the Anointed in Judea" (Gal 1:22), "the gatherings of God in Jesus the Anointed in Judea" (1 Thess 2:14), "the gatherings of the holy ones" (1 Cor 14:33), or he referred to the gatherings by the name of the location or region they assembled, for example: "to the gatherings of Galatia" (Gal 1:2). His later disciples came to think in terms of a united phenomenon, such as "the household of God, which is the ekklesia of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth" (1 Tim 3:15). Using the word "church" as a translation for ekklesia in this latter designation does not seem inappropriate. It is one of those evolutionary developments that led up to the church as it emerged in the fourth and fifth centuries.
 
            Paul did not invent the idea of a "gathering," for there was already a gathering in Jerusalem led by people he did not meet until some seventeen years after his conversion. Peter, James, and John (Gal 1:17-24), who earlier had been part of Jesus' inner circle (Mark 14:32-33), comprised the leadership of the Jerusalem gathering.
 
            It is improbable that Jesus invented the concept for these gatherings. The gospels do not portray Jesus forming small gatherings in the communities he visited. Ekklesia is used only three times in the gospels, and all three appear in Matthew. The first of these is a highly contested passage (Matt 16:16-19) where Jesus says to Peter, "You are Peter (petros) and upon this rock (petra) I "will" build my ekklesia." That is to say, the ekklesia, however translated or conceived, was something for the indefinite future. Ekklesia also appears in Matt 18:15-18, where it appears to relate to a formal religious organization with developed rules for disciplining "brothers"; hence it is not like the gathering reflected in the Corinthian correspondence. The passage Matt 16:16-19 is a Matthean insertion into a text borrowed from Mark 8:29-30. The primacy of Peter does not surface again until the third century and later. Hence these two segments in Matthew are best thought of as bolts out of the later ecclesiastical blue. In short, they are chronologically out of place.
 
            A more cogent occasion for the origins of the Pauline gatherings is most likely to be the widespread groups of private clubs and associations in the Greco-Roman world. In the early Roman Empire many belonged to private associations of one sort or another, based on common interests and needs. The broad purposes for people associating with such clubs were economic, religious, and social. There existed associations of the trades and professions (merchants, scribes, wood and metal workers), burial societies, dining societies, sports groups, groups of ex-servicemen, and some that were specifically religious. As the fledgling cults of the risen Christ emerged in the Roman world, it would be natural for likeminded persons in a given location to assemble together on the basis of their shared interest, following the model of private clubs and associations. Outsiders aware of such gatherings would have seen them as just one more private association.
 
            In short, what eventually became the church in Greco-Roman culture began initially as small independent gatherings around certain ideas about Jesus, the Anointed. The origins of these gatherings, which led in the fourth and fifth centuries to what became the Christian Church, had no one single point of beginning.
 
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
 
Works Consulted:
 
Ascough, Harlan, and Kloppenborg. Associations in the Greco-Roman World. A Sourcebook. Waco, TX: Baylor, 2012.
 
Ferguson. Backgrounds of Early Christianity. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003.
 
Funk, Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar. The Five Gospels. The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. New York: Macmillan, 1993.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Are there Gods among us?

It is not such an idle question as one may think. Many Christians believe that "entertaining angels unawares" is at least still possible even in the twenty-first century (Heb 13:2).  In other words they think that angels are actual heavenly entities who still walk among us in today's world.  Certain biblical texts support this way of thinking by describing humanoid angels interacting with human beings in the ancient world (Genesis 18:1-19:23; Judges 13:2-21; Tobit 5:4-5).
 
            The Greek Gods, for example, are well-known for their philandering ways; they descended from Mount Olympus in human guise on many occasions involving themselves in human affairs and having amorous liaisons with human women; similar activities are at least suggested by Genesis 6:1-2 where the "sons of God" (a sort of heavenly being) discovered that human females were fair to behold and "took to wife such of them as they chose." By contrast the God of Hebrew faith was more circumspect in his activities among human beings.  He descended from Mount Sinai and involved himself in human affairs, at times even taking on human form (Genesis 18:1-19:23, 32:24, 28, 30). He is described as having face, hands, and backsides (Exodus 33:11, 21-23), among other anthropomorphic characteristics such as eyes and ears, mouth, heart, arms, fingers and feet. He talks, writes, sees and hears, sits and rests, smells, whistles, laughs, walks, sleeps and awakes, and claps his hands.1
 
            Occasionally God is described as walking among human beings as an angel (Judges 2:1-4; 6:11-18; 13:2-22). More often God's presence in the world is portrayed by natural visible phenomena: a cloudbank (Exodus 16:10-11; Leviticus 16:2; Deuteronomy 31:15; Mark 9:7), fire (Leviticus 9:24), or a burning bush that was not consumed (Exodus 3:2-6; Acts 7:30-33). Frequently his presence is signaled by an unnatural light referred to as "the glory of the Lord" (Exodus 16:10; Leviticus 9:6, 23; Numbers 14:10; 16:19, 42; 20:6; Acts 7:2). One modern writer described it this way: "The 'glory (kabod) of Yahweh' was God manifesting Himself in the brightness of light, revealing His holiness and power to men."2 Sometimes glory is spoken of as an aspect of God, rather than God himself; that is, the glory appears with no reference to God's presence (Leviticus 9:6, 23).
 
            There is only one other figure in the Judeo-Christian tradition who has been described as God in human form: Jesus the Judean teacher of wisdom, who was called the Anointed (Christ). Only one passage in the early Christian canonical literature makes his identity as God even remotely possible, John 1:1-2. Other passages cited in this regard do not claim that he is God, but they do hold that he is a divine personage. In these high Christological passages there is always a clear distinction between the Anointed and God (Romans 1:3; Philippians 2:5-11; Hebrews 1:1-4; Colossians 1:15-20). Later in the fourth century the Nicene Creed confessed what the church believed was the true identity of Jesus: "We believe in one God the Father…And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, only-begotten, that is, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father…"3
 
            Worshipping Jesus as God is rendered marginally respectable by the fourth-century Nicene belief in the Trinity (382 CE): "it is the faith that teaches us to believe in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. According to this faith there is one Godhead, Power and Substance of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost; the dignity being equal and the majesty being equal in three perfect hypostases, i.e., three perfect persons."4 With three divine personages in the Christian pantheon, Christians had to find some way to ensure they were not really polytheists—hence the doctrine of the Trinity.
 
            If angels can walk among us, shouldn't Gods (if such there be) be able to do so as well?
 
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
 
1 Paul Heinisch, Theology of the Old Testament (St. Paul, MN: Liturgical Press, 1955), 57-58.
2 Heinisch, Old Testament, 57.
3 Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, eds. Documents of the Christian Church (3rd ed.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 27.
4 "The Synodical Letter of the Council of Constantinople," in H. R. Percival, ed., The Seven Ecumenical Councils, of The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers (second series; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), vol 14: 189.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

What happened to the Gods of Ancient Greece?

            Some years ago I spent six hours on the Greek island of Delos walking its streets and climbing among the various sanctuaries and temples dedicated to the ancient Gods of the Greco-Roman world.  Delos, a tiny island 5 kilometers by 1300 meters, began as a religious center dedicated to the Ionian God Apollo.  Its influence in the Greek Cycladic islands endured from the seventh to the first century BCE.  The devout of many faiths from all over the civilized world came to build holy shrines on Delos, and for six hundred years worshiped their gods there.  But now the site consists of crumbled ruins, whose white marble remains glisten as so many skeletons in the burning Greek sun. Apollo, Asclepius, Dionysus, Isis, Aphrodite, and the many other Gods of their generation survived into the Roman period, but to my knowledge today there is not a single active temple dedicated to the worship of these Gods, whose power captured the imagination of the people of the ancient Mediterranean world.
 
            One modern response is to say that they were not real Gods—meaning, I suppose, that they never existed at all. I can just imagine, however, the response of the hundreds of thousands who believed in them, and through the years made their holy pilgrimages to Delos—just as today modern Christians, Jews, and Moslems make pilgrimages to the holy shrines of their faiths.  The ancient believers came, offered prayers and sacrifices, and left inscriptions throughout the ancient world attesting to the power of these Gods and their influence in the daily lives of the believers.  They would be shocked at the idea that Asclepius and Apollo are not "real."  Nevertheless today their sanctuaries are silent and these Gods considered historical artifacts. What do modern believers in God say about the silent sanctuaries of Delos?  Should they assume that these ancient Gods were simply products of the over-active imaginations of a primitive and superstitious people who lived during a naïve age?
 
            If such popular and influential Gods can so completely pass out of fashion, or be so easily dismissed as never existing, what should one think about one's own God?  Is my faith really that different from these ancient faiths, whose Gods were credited with as much power and influence in the ancient world as the Gods of current faiths enjoy in the modern world?
 
            If there is no completely satisfying answer to these questions, they at least remind us of the character of faith: faith is not demonstrable proof; it is only the evidence of a deeply held hope.  God's existence cannot be quantitatively proven—at least not in a modern scientific test-tube sense.  And that knowledge should make us all a little less arrogant in our own religious beliefs, and just a little more tolerant of the beliefs of others. It also raises the issue as to whether or not the demise of the Greek Gods was the beginning of the twilight of all the Gods.*
 
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
 
*An earlier version of this essay appears in Hedrick, House of Faith or Enchanted Forest. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2009, 51-52.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Why does Jesus not use Parables in John?

The word parable (παραβολή, parabole) does not even appear in the Gospel of John, and neither does the brief story form, which is what scholars usually describe as the classic form of the parable. Instead John uses the word paroimia (παροιμία) to describe an aspect of the discourse of Jesus. The figurative image of the sheepfold in John 10:1-5 is not a story and is not described as "parable," but rather as paroimia (10:6). Scholars provide several translations for this word: pithy saying, proverb, maxim, or hidden, obscure speech.  Its only other occurrences in the New Testament are translated as "figure" (John 16:25, 29) or "proverb" (2 Pet 2:22). The kind of language to which it refers is indirect language (i.e., not directly related to the issue at hand) or language that paints a picture.
 
            John 16:16-29 deliberately contrasts paroimia (16:25, 29) with clarity of speech (16:29)—paroimia being conceived as obscure, unclear, inscrutable and mysterious language, suggesting that it is not plain speech, but rather that it is obscure and that its significance is open to question. In this section (John 16:16-29) there really is no "figurative" language for the disciples to be perplexed over. They quite plainly state that what confused them was Jesus' statement "a little while, and you will see me no more; again a little while, and you will see me" (16:16-19). Jesus refers to his explanation to the disciples over their perplexity (16:20-28) as "paroimian language" (i.e., unclear, 16:25).  And they accept this explanation of what they regard as an obscure saying, as plain or clear language (16:29-30). In short, the narrator in John 16:16-29 seems to misunderstand paroimia—at least, one may say that what the disciples are confused about does not have the character of figure, pithy saying, proverb, or maxim.
 
            The image in John 10:1-5 (and presumably also John 10:7-18) is described as paroimia (John 10:6). And it certainly is, without doubt, a "figure," that paints an image of the situation with a sheepfold, the door to the sheepfold, and identifies the one who legitimately has access to the sheep and to the fold. This image (unlike the saying in John 16:16-29), however, does not confuse, it only succeeds in angering the audience of Judeans/Judaites/Jews (10:19), who apparently are not confused about the image, but rather are confused over the person of Jesus.
 
            The reason for the correct usage in one instance and the incorrect usage in the other is the fact that John 10:6 is a "narrative aside," written from a perspective different than that held by the principal narrative voice of the Gospel of John, which in this case is represented by John 16:16-29.*
 
            The Jesus of the Gospel of John does not use parables simply because the flesh and blood author does not know the tradition that Jesus told brief stories that the synoptic evangelists dubbed "parables." Nevertheless, both the authors of the synoptic gospels and the author of John agree that the language of Jesus was cryptic and in need of explanation, which is very interesting in the light of their almost complete disagreement on everything else. Their lack of understanding of the nature of parable arises from their erroneous idea that Jesus the early first-century Israelite believed the same things they did. But he was a Judean Israelite and they, coming along later, were Greek Christians.  Little wonder that they found his language strange, arcane, and in need of explanation.
 
Scholium (a marginal comment):
 
Brown is clearly wrong that "paroimia and parabole are used synonymously in Sirach 47:17." R. E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (i-xii). AB 29. New York: Doubleday, 1966, 385-86.
 
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
 
*See Hedrick, "Authorial Presence and Narrator in John. Commentary and Story," in Gospel Origins and Christian Beginnings, pages 74-93. Edited by Goehring, Hedrick, Sanders, and Betz; Sonoma, CA: Polebridge, 1990).