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.