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).