Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The earliest “Christmas Story”

The only Christmas story that most of us know is the popular modern blending of the two different stories found in Matt 1:18-23 and Luke 1:5-20. Our blended story, however, never did exist as a single ancient story. The different stories in Matthew and Luke date from the last third of the first century of the Common Era. A later and still different story is found in the Infancy Gospel of James in the second century. This latter story bears little resemblance to the stories found in Matthew and Luke, however.
            Matthew and Luke at least agree that Mary, "a woman of marriageable age but as yet unmarried" (parthenos i.e., usually translated "virgin," Matt 1:18, 23, 25; Luke1:26-34), would bear a child who has a divine origin (Matt 1:20: "conceived by the holy spirit"; Luke 1:35: the holy spirit comes upon her and the power of the Most High overshadows her). These two narratives describe the birth of a child, who would be named Jesus (Matt 1:25; Luke 2:21). He is the Messiah (translated into Greek as the "Christ": Matt 1:17; Luke 1:11, 26), and the savior (Luke 2:11) with a divine commission to "save his people from their sins" (Matt 1:21).
            The earliest "Christmas story," however, is not a story at all; that is, it is not a narrative, such as Matthew and Luke use in their gospels to explain how Jesus became divine at his birth—in Matthew and Luke Jesus was born divine. On the other hand, the earliest Christmas story is a brief comment, which explains how it was that a fully grown man of natural birth became God's son—the comment, an allusion only, states that Jesus was a human being who became divine at the end of his life.
            Paul wrote the allusion in the salutation of his letter to the Jesus gathering at Rome somewhere around the middle first century—earlier than the stories in Matthew and Luke:
Paul, a slave of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, concerning his son born from David's seed according to the flesh, being appointed son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord. (Rom 1:1-4)
Although he was born a human being (born from David's seed), the above statement continues to assert that he was later appointed son of God, when he was raised from the dead. Hence he becomes God's son after he exits human life, rather than, as Matthew and Luke have it, when he enters into human life.
            It is probable that these words (in italics above) do not represent Paul's personal view, for he also says: "God sent forth his son, born of a woman, born under the law to redeem those who were under the law" (Gal 4:4). This statement seems to suggest that the child was God's son before being born, such as it appears in John 1:1-4 where Jesus was always God's son.1
In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God…and the word became flesh and dwelt among us… (compare Phil 2:5-11).
There is another story explaining how Jesus became the son of God; in this story Jesus became God's son at his baptism. That story is not completely clear in your translation of the Bible, however. To Luke's version of the baptism of Jesus a later pious scribe has added a comment:
…the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, as a dove, and a voice came from heaven, 'Thou art my beloved Son with thee I am well pleased.' (Luke 3:22)
The scribe appends a comment to Luke's statement to make it agree with Ps 2:7:
Thou art my beloved son. This day have I begotten thee.2
It is a late tradition, but it is enough to document that the baptism of Jesus early in the Christian era was regarded as the moment that Jesus became the son of God, and it is still so celebrated in the Orthodox Church as Epiphany, the Day of his manifestation to Israel as the son of God (celebrated January 6).
So what do you think: Did Jesus become the son of God at his resurrection, at his baptism, at his birth, or was he always the son of God? All four views are in the Bible and were believed by some early followers of Jesus.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
1Paul's obscure statement ("even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer," 1 Cor 5:16) most likely describes Paul's own change of mind about how he viewed Christ, rather than a comment upon the personal nature of the Christ.
2The reading appears in Codex Bezae (5th/6th centuries) and a few other Latin manuscripts.

Friday, December 8, 2017

What’s wrong with being Proud?

The Bible has little positive to say about pride, and vigorously condemns it in every instance or virtually every instance (it depends on whether you use the Protestant or Catholic Bible). In Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament) a usual synonym for pride is arrogance (Prov 8:13; Isa 9:9, 13:11; 16:6; Jer 48:2) or haughtiness (Jer 48:29; Zeph 3:11). Its opposite is humility (Job 22:29; Prov 3:34; 29:23; 2 Chron 32:26), which God honors (Prov 22:4; 2 Chron 7:14, 12:7). I only found two positive statements about pride in the Catholic Old Testament (Judith 15:9; Sirach 50:1).
            In the New Testament pride (alazoneia, 1 John 2:16)1 is condemned, as is its synonym (uperēphaneia, Mark 7:22), which is defined in the lexicon as "a state of undue sense of one's importance bordering on insolence, arrogance, haughtiness, pride."2 These two words in the New Testament describe completely negative character traits (Luke 1:51; Rom 1:30; 2 Tim 3:2; Jas 4:6; 1 Pet 5:5).
            A severely negative view of pride has persisted in Western culture—without doubt because of the influence of the Bible in Western culture. For example, near the end of the 14th century in the "Parson's Tale" Chaucer listed pride as the first of the seven deadly sins, and the root of all the others (pride, envy, wrath, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust), noting that the only remedy for pride is humility or meekness, a virtue in which a person "considers himself worthy of no esteem nor dignity."3 In the 17th century Milton traced the beginning of the woes of humankind to the pride of Satan.
The infernal serpent, he it was, whose guile stirred up with envy and revenge, deceived the mother of mankind, what time his pride had cast him out from Heaven, with all his host of rebel angels, by whose aid aspiring to set himself in glory above his peers, he trusted to have equaled the Most High" ("Paradise Lost," Book One: lines 34-40; see lines 27-58).
Keeping the biblical attitude toward pride in mind, it is surprising to learn that self-respect is considered a synonym of pride. In fact, one definition of pride is "a sense of one's own worth and abhorrence of what is beneath or unworthy of oneself: lofty self-respect."4
            Here are a number of sayings that recognize pride's positive character (even Paul seems to acknowledge it in Gal 6:4, but without using the word "pride"):
Take pride in your work. A job well-done is a meaningful accomplishment/ Take pride in your appearance/ Civic pride should be encouraged/ Pride is a personal commitment—it is an attitude that separates excellence from mediocrity/ There are two kinds of pride, both good and bad. "Good pride" represents our dignity and self-respect/ Be proud of who you are instead of wishing you were someone else/ Pride is holding your head up when everyone around you has theirs bowed—courage is what makes you do it.
Viewed from the biblical perspective, pride is firmly condemned by God, but from a secular perspective pride may well be an essential positive trait of being human. If pride or being proud can often be positive, the biblical view of pride appears to be inadequate and misleading in that it masks the true nature of pride.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
1In Classical Greek alazoneia is translated as pretension, imposture, boastfulness, a piece of humbug: Liddell and Scott, Greek-English Lexicon, 9th ed.), 59.
2F. W. Danker, Greek-English Lexicon (3rd ed.; University of Chicago, 2000), 1033.
4Webster's Third International Dictionary Unabridged (2002), 1799.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Beggary in the Bible

The Bible has very little specific to say about beggars (prōsaitai; "beggars, panhandlers, mendicants") and the practice of begging (prosaiteō and epaiteō). It has more to say, however, about the poor (ptōchoi), those who are economically disadvantaged and oppressed, or disillusioned. But the poor are likely a social class, corresponding to Lenski's peasant class who lived at or near the bare subsistence level.1 By contrast beggars would likely be in the expendable class, people who live at the very bottom of every agrarian society.2
            Searching begging-specific words in the Septuagint of the Protestant Old Testament (Greek Septuagint manuscripts are older than the Hebrew Bible manuscripts), the following passages use begging-specific words: Psalm 109:10 (being reduced to begging is a curse on a wicked man). In the Old Testament (Catholic) Sirach 40:30 (begging is described as a shameless enterprise); Sirach 40:28 ("it is better to die than to beg").
            In the New Testament begging-specific words are used six times: Mark 10:46-52: the son of Timaeus (bar Timaeus), a blind beggar "sitting by the road," is healed by Jesus.3 The Gospel of John has the story of a blind man (John 9:1-40), whose friends and neighbors had seen him as a beggar who "used to sit and beg" (John 9:8).4
            The parable of Jesus about the steward of a rich man (in my judgment misnamed "the "Dishonest Steward," Luke 16:1-7), who complains when he is fired: "I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg" (Luke 16:3). Note that he was fired on the basis of a rumor and had no prospects for the future. Indeed, taking up begging by necessity would in effect be a death sentence, since it would thrust him into the ranks of the expendables.5
            Luke has another similar story (it is not called a parable) about Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31). It is not a story about a beggar but rather a story about a poor man (ptōchoi), Lazarus, who lay at the rich man's gate full of sores, desiring to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table (Luke 16:20).
            No doubt many of those in the peasant class (ptōchoi) were often reduced to begging (1 Sam 2:31-36, Psalm 37:25, Exod 23:10) or chose to sell themselves into slavery (Lev 25:39-42, Deut 15:11-14), since they had no other options. The peasant class (ptōchoi) receives more attention than do beggars in the gospels. The gospel writer we have dubbed Luke, for example, writes into the heart of his paper protagonist, Jesus, a special place for the poor (ptōchoi) unmatched by the other three gospel writers (the ptōchoi appear in Mark [5x], Matthew [5x], John [4x], and in Luke [10x]).  And it seems that Luke simply overlooks beggars as the subject of Jesus' care and concern; for example:
Jesus came to preach good news to the poor, which includes captives, the blind, the oppressed (Luke 4:18).
The kingdom of God belongs to the poor (Luke 6:20).
Jesus sent a message to John: the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them (Luke 7:22).
The wealthy are told that when they give a banquet they should invite the poor, the maimed, the lame and the blind (Luke 14:13).
The rich ruler was told to sell everything he had and give to the poor (Luke 18:22).
Zacchaeus said that he was giving half of everything to the poor, and would repay those he defrauded four times the amount he cheated them (Luke 19:8).
            But Beggars receive no consideration in these litanies about the disadvantaged. On the other hand, the Bible has nothing to say about the modern problem of panhandling as a professional vocation.6 People who stand at major intersections of your city, weather permitting, warmly dressed and carrying handwritten signs each appearing highly similar are a far cry from the expendables of antiquity. But their presence still raises the question of how should one respond to them.
            The same question came up once when working in Egypt. Our Muslim expatriate Palestinian driver was asked by one of our company about a tragic beggar sitting beside the road. She asked, "Saadi, how much should we give him in Egyptian pounds?" Saadi replied: "That's between you and your God!"
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
1Lenzki, Power and Privilege.
2Hedrick, Wisdom of Jesus, 182-83 for a brief discussion of the social classes.
3In the parallel passage in Luke 18:35 he is called "a blind man sitting by the road begging." Matthew does not have the story of bar Timaeus, the beggar, but has a story of the healing of two blind men (Matt20:29-34; 9:27-31).
4John has turned what was originally a story about the healing of a blind beggar into a debate between Jesus and the Pharisees.
5Hedrick, Wisdom of Jesus, 145-62.
6Millar, Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, 93-94.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

What about the Loaves? Secrecy and Mystery in the Gospel of Mark

A well-known secrecy motif in Mark features Jesus regularly silencing the demons he exorcises (1:24-25, 34; 3:11-12), people he heals (1:43-45; 5:43; 7:36; 8:26), and his own disciples (8:30; 9:9).The reason he does these things is to keep his identity as the Christ concealed (8:27-30) and his activities from becoming public knowledge. But the secret leaks out anyway (1:44-45; 7:36), and at the end of the gospel Jesus admits his identity (14:61-62). In 1901 a German scholar (William Wrede) argued that the historical figure Jesus was not responsible for these attempts at secrecy, rather it was the historical author of Mark who traced back into the life of Jesus the idea that he was messiah, in the face of a post-resurrection idea that Jesus had become Son of God at the resurrection (Rom 1:3-4).1 The "messianic secret" was the author's attempt to explain why Jesus was not recognized as messiah during his life.
            To these well-known secrecy motifs should be added several other mysterious features in Mark. Taken together with the messianic secret, they create an aura of mystery about a gospel that is supposed to announce "good news" (1:1) about the kingdom of God (1:14-15). Why would Mark represent Jesus as telling enigmatic stories (parables) for the purpose of keeping the masses in the dark about the "secret" of the kingdom (Mark 4:10-12)? The secret was apparently only for insiders, that is, those who were the elect (13:20. 22, 27). So he explained his stories to the disciples privately (4:13-20, 34).

            Another aspect of the mystery is the author's own deliberate attempt to obfuscate the narrative, that is, to conceal information—a kind of dissembling. For example, Mark never tells the reader what the disciples failed to understand about the loaves. Jesus feeds 5000 people with five loaves and two fish (6:35-44); later Mark tells the reader that the disciples "did not understand about the loaves" (6:51-52), but Mark never tells the reader what they should have understood. After a second feeding of 4000 people with seven loaves and a few fish (8:1-10), the disciples discuss that they had forgotten to bring bread, having only one loaf in the boat (8:14-21). Jesus said to them "why do you discuss the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand?" What is it that the disciples failed to understand about the loaves, and Mark does not disclose to the reader?
            On another occasion after the disciples had failed in an attempt to heal a demon-possessed boy, the father asked if Jesus could do anything for the boy (9:14-29): Jesus said to him, "All things are possible to him who believes," to which the father replies "I believe; help my unbelief" (9:22-24; as also appears in 5:36). What was it that the father should believe and how much of it did he believe? But Mark never discloses this information. Following the mention of a "desolating sacrilege" Mark suspends narration to address the reader directly in an aside: "Let the reader understand," he says (13:14). Yet Mark never tells the reader what s/he should have understood about the desolating sacrilege. In all of these instances Mark dissembles in the sense that he obviously has something specific in mind but does not disclose it.
            Mark 10:46 seems to have left a gap in the narrative, with two dangling ends of text before and after some missing event occurring between Jesus entering and leaving Jericho: Mark writes: "And they came to Jericho; and as he was leaving Jericho…"2 What transpired in Jericho? If nothing happened, why show Jesus entering and leaving the village?
            As Jesus takes his last breath (15:37), Mark tells the reader that "The curtain of the temple was torn in two, from the top to bottom" (15:38), but he does not disclose what the tearing of the curtain signified with regard to the death of Jesus. At the end of the gospel some women went to the tomb and found only a young man sitting inside. The youth informed them that Jesus had risen from the dead and they should go and tell the glad tidings to the disciples that they would find him in Galilee (16:5-7). But the women were afraid; they said nothing to no one and fled from the tomb (16:7-8). Who was the youth and why didn't the women spread the word about the risen Christ? Mark did not say. Earlier a young man, wearing nothing but a linen cloth over his naked body, was with Jesus at his arrest. He was seized by members of the arresting crowd, and leaving his linen cloth behind, he ran away naked (14:51-52). Who was he, and what was he doing at Gethsemane naked and wearing only a linen cloth to cover himself?3
            If Jesus did tell the disciples "all things beforehand" (13:23), why should Mark see fit to conceal aspects of the story? These mysterious features in the Gospel of Mark, if not simply careless writing, associate the gospel with the "mystery religions" cults that flourished in the Graeco-Roman period.4 The characteristic feature of a mystery cult was that the mystery remain concealed. Although they conducted public processions and celebrations, their secret ceremonies still today remain largely unknown. The mysteries were closely guarded and revealed only to initiates. One ancient writer, an initiate into the mysteries of the Goddess Isis, described an initiation with such oblique language that after the description he could still say: "See I have told you things which, though you have heard them, you still must know nothing about."5 And apparently that can also be claimed with regard to the Gospel of Mark. Is the Gospel of Mark a deliberately coded text?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
1Wrede, The Messianic Secret, 228 (225-230).
2See Scott Brown, Mark's Other Gospel, xxii. The Secret Gospel of Mark, or the Mystic Gospel of Mark, adds the missing text supposedly omitted from Mark at 3:14-16.
3See Brown, Mark's Other Gospel, xxii. The Secret Gospel describes him as a youth whom Jesus raised from the dead, who was apparently there for a mystery religions initiation (SGM 3:6-10).
4See Marvin Meyer, "Mystery Religions" Anchor Bible Dictionary, 4:944.
5Apuleius, "Metamorphoses," XI, 1-25; in F. C. Grant, ed., Hellenistic Religions. Age of Syncretism. Library of Liberal Arts, Bobbs-Merrill, 1953. The best source for the original texts of the Mystery Religions in English translation is Marvin Meyer, The Ancient Mysteries. A Sourcebook. Harper and Row, 1987.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Pondering the Human Spirit

Do human beings have an indwelling spirit, or do they have spirit? Answering affirmatively to the first question (i.e., humans have an indwelling spirit?), then one seems to be thinking dualistically. That is to say, human beings possess an inner ethereal spiritual "essence" that is distinguishable from the "stuff" of the material body.
            In the Western literary tradition the idea that human beings are dualistically comprised is found as early as Homer (8th century BCE?): "In Homer, the psyche [soul] is what leaves the body on death (i.e., life, or breath?), but also [it is]an insubstantial image of the dead person, existing in Hades and emphatically not something alive. But some vague idea of psyche as the essence of the individual, capable of surviving the body…is well-established by the fifth century…"1 In the Western Philosophical tradition the survival of the soul (psyche) is well established in Plato's writings (5th century?): "Throughout the dialogues Plato expresses that a person's soul is an entity distinct from the living embodied person, attached to it…"2
            Among the Greeks this survivable essence of human beings was also described as spirit (pneuma), a term coterminous with psyche (soul): "[a]t death it (pneuma/psyche) is separated from [the body], for, breath-like, it escapes with the last breath, returning to fulfill its higher destiny in the element from which it came or in the upper region to which it is by nature related, in the atmosphere of heaven or the aether…"3
            The Apostle Paul used similar language (e.g., 1 Thess 5:23) and embraced the idea that after death there was still a future for a regenerated human being (Phil 1:19-24). Nevertheless, Paul did not share the Greek idea that the human body was a perishable shell housing an eternal spirit or soul; rather, Paul shared the Hebrew idea (Gen 2:7) that people are living beings whose perishable nature in the end will become imperishable, immortal, and spiritual (1 Cor 15:35-57; what is transformed is the whole person not an ethereal spirit or soul that indwells the body and leaves the body behind at death. Although at times he certainly sounds dualistic (2 Cor 5:1-10).4
            In a secular modern sense, however, the human spirit is regarded as "an attitude or principle that inspires, animates, or pervades thought, feeling, or action."5 To judge from human behavior the human spirit can be either evil or idealistic—that is, it can inspire actions that are either egregiously harmful or inspirationally helpful to the human situation. The seat of attitudes lies in the mind, and arises from our intellect, emotions, fears, passions, creativity, and will, and is conditioned by our nurture and personal experiences.
            Hence, if the Greeks are correct, human beings are dualistically conceived; they are comprised of an eternal spirit/soul housed in a perishable body. If Paul is correct, human beings do not house either a spirit or a soul but are living beings. If current secular sentiment is correct human beings have spirit, that is to say they have attitudes that excel, flounder, or lie somewhere in between. How does it seem to you?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
1Christopher Rowe, "Soul," Oxford Classical Dictionary, 1428.
2Kenneth Dover, "Plato," Oxford Classical Dictionary, 1192.
3Hermann Kleinknecht, "pneuma," Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 6.336.
4For a discussion of Pauline anthropology see Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, 203-10.
5Random House Dictionary, s.v. "spirit."

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Helpers—an overlooked “Church Office.”

The Reformation period churches of the sixteenth century that settled this country during the period of the Renaissance (14th -17th centuries) were very different in organization, spirit, and theological ideas from those loosely organized Christ gatherings (ekklēsiai; incorrectly translated "church") of the middle first century. We have detailed information about only one of those early gatherings—the gathering around Christ at Corinth (1 and 2 Corinthians), but the light cast on the character of nascent Christianity in those letters is enough to produce a jarring recognition of a graphic difference from the Reformation era churches. The gathering at Corinth under Paul's ministry (Rom 15:14-16) was a free-wheeling spirit-led group. By the sixteenth century what in the early period was an informal gathering became an organized creedal institution, for which the designation "church" is entirely appropriate.
            One example of the difference is reflected in 1 Cor 12:4-11. Paul discusses varieties of "gifts," which are given by the Spirit of God "for the common good." Hence these charismatic abilities bestowed by God's Spirit are aimed at ennobling and enabling the entire gathering. At the end of the chapter Paul lists a few specific "offices" or recognized functions of leadership (1 Cor12:27-28). These offices consist of apostles, prophets, teachers, [workers of] miracles, gifts of healings, helps, administrations, and [speakers in various1] kinds of tongues. The people who are gifted with these abilities are not chosen by the gathering to perform services in these areas, rather God has appointed them through the Spirit (1 Cor 12:28). Oddly we find no mention in this passage of deacons (1 Tim 3:8), pastors (Eph 4:11), bishops (1 Tim 3:1), evangelists (Eph 4:11), elders (Tit 1:5), or preachers (1 Tim 2:7). These functions came along later, once the charismatic-spirit of the earliest groups dimmed. Later the churches established qualifications for certain offices and began to select their leaders on the basis of secular qualifications (1 Tim 3:1-13). A cursory glance over the list reveals several official functionaries that are lacking in many churches of the modern era, such as an official who works miracles or [speaks in various] tongues or one who utters prophecy (compare 1 Cor 14:1-25).
            One of the early positions, whom God appointed through the Spirit, was that of someone gifted to give "helps," or as it is usually translated "helper" (1 Cor 12:28). The word antilēmpseis translated "helper" appears only here in the New Testament. As to its function, it is listed ahead of administrators and [speakers in various] kinds of tongues and follows immediately after healers. In other words a Spirit-gifted Helper was not regarded as a minor "volunteer" functionary, but such a person was selected specifically to play a significant role in the community—to judge by its association with the other spiritual gifts. For example, the first converts of Achaia (the household of Stephanus) are singled out as "devoting themselves to the service of the saints" (1 Cor 16:15-18) and they deserved to be recognized for their service.
            What exactly might the function of Helpers have been? "Perhaps it is similar to the final three items in the list of Rom 12:8 (service, giving to the needs of others, doing acts of mercy)."2 Hence some in the Christ gathering at Corinth ministered to the physical and spiritual needs of others in the community,3 and those who possessed this gift had a seat at the table right up there with apostles and prophets or those who performed miracles.
            We read of the appointment of elders (Acts 14:23), apostles (Acts 1:21-26), deacons (1 Tim 3:8-13), and preachers (1 Tim 2:7); why shouldn't "helpers" also be recognized as an official function in the church, particularly since Paul insisted that God had appointed them to an official position in the Corinthian gathering?
            This analysis subtly raises another question: if the Spirit ever actually charismatically gifted Helpers or [workers of] miracles, why did it stop? Lord knows, we could use a few scientifically confirmable miracles today!
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
1For the superior ability of interpreting tongues over ecstatic speech, see Pau1's comments in 1 Cor 14:5-6, 13, 18-19, 26-28.
2Gordon Fee, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 621.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Transforming by Renewing the Mind

Paul's exhortation in Rom 12:2 is unclear, which explains why bible commentators have responded to it in different ways. Paul writes this to the Christian gathering at Rome:
Do not be shaped by this age, but be transformed by renewing the mind in order to critically determine what the will of God is—the good, acceptable, and perfect.
Paul did not establish the Jesus gathering at Rome and had never actually visited the group previously (1:10-13; 15:22-24, 28-29), but in the salutation of his letter he includes them as full partners in the gospel enterprise (1:5-7), one assumes because of the reputation of their faith "that is proclaimed in all the world" (1:8; no doubt partly an exaggeration to win a sympathetic hearing). The "letter" is heavily theological with little personal information about the gathering at Rome.
            Let me unpack the exhortation: "the spirit of this age" is a condemnation of what Paul regards as the present evil age (Gal 1:4)—hence, those in the Roman gathering should not allow themselves to be shaped by the perceptions of reality pushed on them by the "spirit" of this evil age. Rather they are to be completely transformed (metamorphosed) by "the renewal of the mind" (singular)—perhaps to the end that their collective minds be unified as one (1 Cor 1:10). The goal of mind renewal is "critically to determine" (dokimazein) what God's will is, as to "the good, the acceptable, the perfect"—one assumes with regard to the character of living in this present evil age. The word "mind" (nous) relates to a human being's ability to know, understand, and judge—that is, it refers to what a person "has a will to"—i.e., what a person intends or wills. Hence, a renewal of mind, is not a relearning but a renewal of what one wills, as a matter of customary practice (Bultmann, Theology, I. 211).
            At this point readers should come to a full stop, since Paul has neglected to tell his readers exactly how they should go about renewing the mind. Paul's failure to make that clear is responsible for the different responses from commentators. Strangely, none of the commentaries I checked (randomly) chide Paul for his unforgivable lack of clarity. Here are some of the ideas from the commentators about transforming the mind by renewing it:
1.               Renewal of mind means being shaped by the Holy Spirit to the mind of Christ (L. T. Johnson, Reading Romans, 179-80). [and how does one do that?]
2.               Paul "has in mind the basic recovery of righteousness and rationality through conversion." Compare 1 Cor 2:16, where the community "shares 'the mind of Christ'" (R. Jewett and R. D. Kotansky, Romans, 733).
3.              "Paul is talking about a change in worldview…about a new or 'renewed' and Christlike way of looking at the world." Knowing what is good, pleasing, and perfect comes by means of a fallen person being transformed (B. Witherington III, Romans, 286-87).
4.               "The character and personality are transformed by renewing, renovating ideas and ideals which the mind reaches by the study of spiritual truths—reading the Scriptures, religious books and papers, and by meditation" (C. B. Williams, Pauline Epistles, 301-302).
5.               "This [renewal] is accomplished through the ministry of the indwelling Holy Spirit…by controlling the mental processes of the believer" (Wuest, Romans, 208).
6.               "The process [of renewing the mind] would in modern language be described rather as sanctification than regeneration," which is occasioned "by the Holy Spirit" (W. R. Nicoll, Romans, 688.
7.              "Repentance is—the renewing of your mind…" (K. Barth, Romans, 436).
8.               It is "the new birth, the new mind, the new man." A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures, 403.
Virtually all of the commentators that I consulted regard "renewing the mind" as a mystical act and relate it to repentance, conversion, or sanctification through the Holy Spirit. It appears that answers like these are incorrect if Paul actually did accept the Roman gathering as full partners in the gospel enterprise—meaning Paul would have assumed on the part of the Romans all those things the commentators suggested. Only one commentator (C. B. Williams) takes "renewal of mind" to refer to an act of natural learning that anyone could accomplish by reading and studying certain spiritual things.
            As a former educator, I think that formation and transformation of character can and does take place in an atmosphere of critical learning. Religious "conversion" most often leads to a kind of "group think" from which it takes years to extricate oneself, if ever. With respect to how Paul might explain renewing the mind happening, one can only guess; my guess is that Paul would regard renewing the mind to be a work of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 2:9-13), just like repentance, conversion and sanctification, and the many other things that Paul thought the Spirit did (1 Cor 12:4-11). How do you see it?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)

There is only one version of this parable: it comes from Luke's special parables tradition. Joachim Jeremias, the distinguished German New Testament scholar, pointed out that of the ninety examples of the Greek historic present1 appearing in Mark's gospel, Luke has only used one from their shared material (Luke 8:49).2 In Luke's special parables tradition, however, he has used the historic present five times in narrating parables (13:8; 16:7; 19:22), two of which appear in Rich Man and Lazarus (16:23, 29). Jeremias argued from these observations that the contrast in the use of the historic present between Luke's broader gospel narrative and his parables constitutes "clear evidence of an underlying pre-Lucan tradition."
            He further pointed out that the first part of this parable (Luke 16:19-26) reflects well-known folk material deriving from Egyptian traditions (The Journey of Si-Osiris to the Underworld), which was transported to Palestine as the story of the poor scholar and rich Publican, Bar Ma'jan.3 His view is that Jesus made use of the underlying folk narratives to compose his own story. The second part of the parable (Luke 16:27-31) is a new epilogue that Jesus added to the traditional folk material in the first part; hence the emphasis of Jesus' parable lies in the second part. Further, the parable's title should be the "Parable of the Six Brothers."
            The result of the discussions of this parable by members of the Jesus Seminar concluded that this parable did not originate with Jesus for several reasons: because folk tales about a rich man and a poor man whose fates were reversed in the next world were well known in the ancient Near East; in no other genuine parable of Jesus were characters given names; and that an interest in the plight of the poor is a special interest of the author Luke. The result of the combined vote of the Fellows was that the first part of the parable is questionable as a parable originating with Jesus. The second part, which described the six brothers, concerns the characteristic early Christian theme of the Judean lack of belief in the resurrection. For these reasons ninety percent of the fellows voted against the parable as originating with Jesus.4
            Hence, on balance, there are enough questions about the pedigree of this parable to seriously question it as a parable composed by Jesus of Nazareth. Not all agree, however. For example, one critically trained scholar is aware of most of these challenges to the parable as a composition by Jesus, but nevertheless argues the following: "Although the parable in its present wording has clearly been transformed by Christian allegorization, it would seem that a nucleus of the parable can be attributed to Jesus."5 And he even uses a 12th century painting of Lazarus at the rich man's gate on the dust jacket of his hard-back book, in a sense symbolizing all the parables.
            Perhaps it is time that critical scholars formulated a history of religions rule for evaluating parables that states: "The more certain it is that a parable reflects themes, plots, values, and traditional religious views of antiquity, the less certain it is that the parable originated with Jesus of Nazareth." The rationale for the rule is the following: because the parable makes extensive use of well-known traditional material it is far less certain that it might have originated with Jesus. The problem is not that one has thereby disproven its origin in the mind of Jesus, but that one cannot disprove that it originated with the gospel writer or elsewhere in antiquity. In attributing the parable to Jesus one runs the risk of attributing ideas to Jesus that were not his own. And for those reasons it should not be included in a database for determining the characteristic ideas of Jesus.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
1 The Greek "historic present" is the use of a present tense where one would have expected a past tense. For example, in telling a story a narrator says: "and he says…" instead of the expected "and he said…" The historic present is a characteristic literary feature of Mark's gospel, but not of the other two.
2 Jeremias, Parables of Jesus (6th edition), 182-86. See Hawkins, Horae Synopticae,149.
3 Jeremias, Parables, 183, 178-189.
4 Funk and Hoover, Five Gospels, 360-62.
5 Hultgren, Parables of Jesus (Eerdmans, 2000), 115.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Did Jesus believe in the Christian Hell?

Some months while waiting in the gym for Herself to finish exercising, a stranger sat down across from me and asked if I was I. I confessed that I was; he asked, "Do you believe in Hell?" I allowed that I did not.1 The brief discussion that followed was awkward. At the end he thanked me for forthrightly answering his questions, and left. I have seen him around the gym from time to time and our exchanges were superficial but always polite. Again a few days ago in the locker room he renewed the discussion: "I believe you told me you did not believe in Hell," he said. "What is your evidence?" I replied that it was by observation; I found no evidence for it. He said "I thought so." I asked, what is your evidence that Hell exists? He replied: "the Son of God"—I took his answer to mean that according to the Son of God (Jesus) in the Bible, there is such a place, and hence I replied "the Bible is a human book. We can talk about it sometime, but it will take longer than three minutes." "Have a nice swim," he said, and we parted—me to the pool and him to the bike.
            I previously published a blog entitled "Did Jesus believe in the Christian Heaven?"2 but neglected to address Jesus' beliefs about the Christian Hell. That impossible-to-answer question runs headlong into the classic contradictions between Jesus as represented in the synoptic gospels and Jesus as represented in the Gospel of John.3 There is no mention of Hell (hades) or Gehenna (geenna) in the Gospel of John, although the synoptic Jesus (Q, Matthew, and Luke) is represented as believing in Hell.4 Of course we don't know what was in his head (nobody can read minds). We only know that statements about Hell are attributed to Jesus in the synoptic texts.
            For me the most interesting of the sayings on Gehenna is Luke 16:23, which appears in the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-26). The Jesus Seminar voted that this story did not originate with Jesus. They further voted that it had been augmented by an early Christian reference to the resurrection of Jesus (Luke 16:27-31).5 If someone decided that the story did come from Jesus, however, they would still be confronted by the fact that the Gospel of John mentions neither Hades nor Gehenna, and on this question one is forced to choose between John and the synoptic.
            There is no future fiery place of punishment recorded in John's gospel! There are hints that there will be a judgment of some kind (3:16-19; 5:24-29; 9:30), but such judgment is not overtly described. In fact judging from these "hints," judgment may not even be eschatological but rather existential. The most interesting "hint" is the description of Judas as "the son of perdition" (17:12; compare 2 Thess 2:3; Acts 8:20; 2 Pet 3:16; Phil 3:19; Isa 57:4 LXX), but the nature of the "destruction" (ἀπώλεια, apōleia) is unclear.
            One must remember, however, that John is not writing history but rather writing theology, and may not even know the difference between these two different writing styles,6 which means John is completely unreliable as a historical source. But that must not be construed as a vote for Mark's representation of Jesus as the "historical" default—for Mark's gospel is also seriously flawed as historical report.7 Also It must always be remembered that "the son of God" is not an actual historical figure, but rather a construct of early Christian faith based on the largely unknown historical figure, Jesus of Judea.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
1See Wry Thoughts about Religion Blog, "Hell does not Exist," August 29, 2015.
2Wry Thoughts about Religion Blog, May 10, 2017.
3See Wry Thoughts about Religion Blog, "The Gospel of John, a Revisionist Gospel?" Dec 6, 2012.
4Hades (Q = Luke 10:15 = Matthew 11:23; Matthew 16:18; Luke 16:23); Gehenna (Q = Luke 12:5 = Matt 10:28; Matthew 5:22, 29, 23:15; Mark 9:43 = Matt5:30, Mark 9:47 = Matt 18:19).
5Funk and Hoover, Five Gospels, 361-62.
6See Wry Thoughts about Religion Blog, "Does John Know the Difference between History and Faith?" (September 21, 2015).
7See Wry Thoughts about Religion Blog, "History, Historical Narrative and Mark's Gospel" (December 22, 2013); and "The Problem of History in Mark" (October 1, 2016).

Saturday, August 26, 2017


This essay appeared on September 3, 2017 on page I12 of the Springfield News-Leader under the News-leader’s title “A New Narrative is needed on Confederate Statues."

The recent racist demonstrations in Charlottesville and the ensuing riots are a graphic reminder that all Americans do not share the same values, or the same national story. There are many narratives that Americans have adopted to explain themselves—two conflicting views were in evidence at Charlottesville, revealed by the images streaming from our television sets. Elements of the Alt Right, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Neo-Nazis held a demonstration around Civil War Monuments in Charlottesville celebrating White Power and vilifying African Americans, Jews, and any others they held to be different from themselves. As a result there has been a backlash against civil war monuments. Some have been torn down and others removed. There have been cries to put them all in museums—"get rid of them" seems to be the sentiment of a vocal part of our countrymen.
            I am a son of the post-reconstruction South, born in Louisiana, reared and educated in the segregated public school system of Greenville, Mississippi (1940-52). I do not recall ever having seen a civil war monument during my early youth, although I must have seen a few. At least I can say for certain that in my education the War of Rebellion and its leaders were never extolled or held up for special honor. The "stars and bars" as the confederate battle flag is called was, and still is ubiquitous throughout the south, but in Greenville it was never displayed in public buildings or functions. Online I discovered that Greenville has one civil war monument at the Washington County Courthouse, erected in 1909 by the Private Taylor Rucks Chapter Daughters of the Confederacy "To Commemorate the Valor and Patriotism of the Confederate Soldiers of Washington County 1861-1865." The statue itself presents a single common soldier of the line. On the four faces at the base are statements by Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Randolph H. M'Kim, and Charles B. Galloway. Except for the statement by Jefferson Davis (who mentions "the sacred cause of states' rights"), the others do not specifically relate to the war, and in themselves might be judged inspiring.
A 2017 study reported that at least 1503 symbols of the confederacy can be found in public spaces across the United States. These memorials include monuments and statues; flags; holidays and other observances; and the names of schools, roads, parks, bridges, counties, cities, lakes, dams, military bases, and other public works.1
We cannot ease or erase our national shame for having accepted and tolerated slavery as a convenient solution to economic problems (even as early as our colonial period) by eradicating vestiges of the War of Rebellion. Such symbols are part of our history as a people, whatever the reason they were erected. What is needed is a new narrative that puts these symbols into national, rather than regional perspective, so that there is a more compelling narrative that completely disallows racist rhetoric and ideology. These surviving vestiges of the civil war are like the "stones" the Israelites erected after crossing over the Jordan. The stones were to remain a memorial so that "when your children ask in time to come 'What do these stones mean to you?' You shall tell them…"  (Joshua 4:1-24). In my view, the monuments should remain in place and not be hidden away, but rather officially placed in perspective as symbols of a flawed cause, misplaced loyalties, and the enslavement of human beings. We must not be allowed to forget.
            Any cause that calls one to bigotry, racial hatred, the disparagement and inhumane treatment of others, and/or aims to romanticize or otherwise misstate the national significance of the War of Rebellion by appealing to these vestiges of the war deserves to be condemned.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University