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