Thursday, November 8, 2018

The Marginal Relevance of the Bible

The full title of my new book forthcoming from the publisher Wipf and Stock in their premier Cascade Series is: Unmasking Biblical Faiths. The Marginal Relevance of the Bible for Contemporary Religious Faith. Everything is completed except the indices, which I am now finishing.

Here is a description of the book from the back cover:

This book “aims to address many of the challenges to traditional Christian faith in the modern world. Since the eighteenth century Age of Enlightenment, human Reason, formerly tethered by the constraints of organized religion, has been set free to explore the universe relatively unchallenged. The influence of the Bible, on the other hand, weakened due to the successes of modern historical criticism, is found to be inadequate for the task of enabling the faith “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), in that it cannot adequately respond to the many questions about religious faith and the world that human reasoning raises for modern human beings. In a series of short but tightly reasoned essays, Charles Hedrick explores the confrontation between traditional Christian faith and aggressive human reason, a conflict that is facilitated by Western secular education.”

I was brought to write this book upon my retirement, purposing in the closing years of my life to analyze critically my own personal religious beliefs and my place in the world. The essays are brief but collectively they form a cumulative argument that the Bible is only marginally relevant for developing a religious faith for the contemporary world. The book represents the results of ten years of critical reflection on subjects related to religion, ethics, the Bible, the nature of the world, and human values. Candidly I was disappointed that many of the fundamental ideas of my own personal religious faith did not stand up to rational scrutiny.

Here is a list of the table of contents:

1. The Nature of the Universe
2. Reason and Faith
3. On Being Human in the Contemporary World
4. The Bible
5. The Nature of God
6. Jesus of Nazareth
7. Traditional Christian Beliefs
8. On Being Christian in the Modern World

The book does not offer many definitive answers to the perplexing questions raised by an impartial study of religion, for religion is primarily opinion based. What I can promise, however, is that the book will take you on a rationally sound journey into selected details of religious faith in the twenty-first century.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Monday, October 22, 2018

HALLOWEEN: Do the Dead Walk?

At the end of October we celebrate (?) one of the strangest folk observances of our annual calendar. Coming on October 31, as it does, the custom has become associated with All Saints Day in the Catholic traditions. All Saints Day, in the West falling on November 1, is a church celebration in honor of all the saints who have passed on; it is followed on November 2 by All Souls Day, a day of solemn prayer for all the dead. These holy days in honor of the dead effectively render October 31 as All Hallows Eve—from which we get the name “Halloween.”

            The roots of Halloween have been associated with a number of ancient traditions: the ancient Roman celebration of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and seeds; the Roman festival of the dead, called Parentalia; and most closely with the Celtic festival of Samhain. The major focus of Halloween, as we know it, seems to have evolved out of the superstitious and dark side of the human soul—so costumes largely feature such mythical creatures as monsters, vampires, werewolves, zombies, ghosts, walking skeletons, witches, and devils. Today we relegate such supernatural creatures to the realm of fantasy, myth, fairy tale, and fiction—at least most of us do. In the bright light of day it is easy to be a rational human being, but in a dark empty room in the late evening when the hair on the back of your neck stands up at a sudden sensation of an unseen nearby presence, we may have second thoughts. In the distant past, however, before critical thinking became widespread through public education, such creatures were regarded as real entities that could actually do harm, and people relied on certain protections against them—prayer being one. And today not everyone, even in America, possesses the liberating knowledge that these creatures are merely fictional characters, figments of our dark side.

            The Bible is surely one reason that people are still uneasy about such mythical creatures, since it reinforces human superstition at many points. For example, the gospel writer we call Matthew apparently believed that dead people could come out of their graves and go on a walk about (Matthew 27:51-54). It is a strange story (appearing only in Matthew) but Matthew tells it graphically like an actual historical occurrence (as opposed to a symbolic or legendary story). Except for one phrase in 27:53, “after his raising,” Matthew describes the incident as if it were happening simultaneously with the death of Jesus (27:50, 54). The phrase in Matthew 27:53, however, effectively throws the event forward some three days or so (in Matthew’s chronology) to a time following the raising of Jesus (Matthew 28). The effect of this chronological leap forward is that it associates the report with the Christian myth of the “harrowing of hell” or the “descent into Hades,” when Jesus at his death descends into Hades to free those dead saints who have been in Hades awaiting release. Vestiges of the myth are found in the New Testament (Eph 4:8-9; 1 Pet 3:18-19), but it is fully developed in the post New Testament period. The phrase in Matthew 27:53 may be due to a later editing of Matthew’s gospel, since the incident as a whole seems clearly to go with the death of Jesus and not with his resurrection. So what do we say about Matthew’s sense of history as reflected in this story?

            It appears to originate in a superstition that dead people can rise and walk. A description similar to Matthew’s story is found in Ezekiel’s description of the people of Israel in the Valley of Dry Bones (Ezekiel 37:12-14). The Lord says: “I will open your graves…and place you in your own land.” Matthew’s description of “tombs opening in an earthquake” (compare Matthew 28:1-2) and “bodies of dead saints being raised” (compare Matthew 28:9), and “the saints coming out of the tombs and walking about in the holy city” is a very graphic account. Not even Paul, however, would describe the raising of Jesus as Matthew describes the raising of the saints. (Paul insists that Jesus rose with a “spiritual body,” not a physical body; see 1 Corinthians 15:42-57.) Matthew’s report could be an early Christian legend (a non-historical traditional story told for the purpose of encouraging faith). And that is exactly what Matthew’s report did for the centurion and the soldiers (Matthew 27:54); the “event” confirmed for them (and for Matthew) the identity of Jesus as “son of God.” But dead bodies actually coming out of their tombs and walking about Jerusalem around 3 pm in the afternoon (Matthew 27:46) seriously strains credulity for a post-Enlightenment thinker. In order to think of the incident as “history” a 21st century reader will have to “suspend disbelief,” something we do with all ghost stories—in a sense we simply ignore the incredulous aspects of the report. We know that the dead cannot come out of their tombs and wander about the city, no matter how serious the earthquake—or do we know that?

            Has Matthew given us a kind of ghost story suitable only for telling around the campfire on a dark night, or is it an actual historical occurrence that confirms the identity of Jesus, or is it a legend that only the true believer can appreciate? As a post-Enlightenment thinker, my money would be on the ghost story.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Works Consulted
Nicholas Rogers, Halloween. From Pagan Ritual to Party Night (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).
Richard Bauckham “Descent to the Underworld,” Anchor Bible Dictionary (6 vols.; ed. David Noel Freedman, et al.; New York: Doubleday, 1992), 2.156-59.

This essay first appeared as a blog on Wry Thoughts about Religion on October 16, 2011, and was subsequently published in The Fourth R 25.1 (Jan-Feb, 2012), 25-26.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Magic and the New Testament

Are there those among us who are so learned in the dark supernatural forces that they have the power to put people under magic spells? Paul seemed to think so. Obviously agitated, he wrote to the Jesus gatherings in the region of Galatia: “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you…?” (Gal 3:1); or as other translations have it: Who put a spell on you?”

            Belief in magic spells and charms to counter magic spells are an acknowledged part of the ancient near east in general, the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, and the Greco-Roman world. Magic is also mentioned in the New Testament (Acts 8:9-13; 13:4-12), and even Jesus was accused of working his miracles by magic (Mark 3:22; Matt 9:34; Matt 12:24; Luke 11:15). In Rev 18:23 the City of Rome (Babylon) was accused of deceiving all nations by magic (enchantment using sorcery), and sorcerers casting spells through potions (Rev 9:21) are among those thrown into “the lake that burns with fire and sulfur” (Rev 21:8) and among those not being permitted to enter the Holy City, New Jerusalem (Rev 22:15).

More to the point, Paul warns the Galatians against the practice of sorcery (enchantment using magic), as though it were an actual threat to them (Gal 5:20). Sorcery is linked with other sinful acts to avoid such as fornication, jealousy, drunkenness among other things (Gal 5:19-21). Such activities as these can disqualify one for the “kingdom of God” (Gal 5:21).

            Did Paul seriously think that someone had cast a magic spell on the Galatians? That is to ask, did Paul believe in magic, a common view of antiquity? If so, Paul probably did believe that the Galatians were actually “bewitched.” It is certainly possible, for Paul had a number of strange ideas that clash with a modern scientific worldview, such as believing that one can “spirit travel” over great distances and that holiness and unholiness were physically contagious.1 In late antiquity people believed many such things out of place in the modern world.

            Of course it is always possible that Paul was only speaking metaphorically, and was not claiming that magic is an actual force in the world. Perhaps Paul only meant that the Galatians had fallen under the influence of a teacher with a charismatic personality, or that they had allowed themselves to be “brainwashed” by a competitor of Paul (as he suggests in Gal 1:6-9), or that some fast talking “religious con man” had simply misled them.

            The truth of the matter is that Paul was a child of his own day and shared many ideas belonging to a pre-critical worldview. These survivals from our pre-critical past, which one finds in Paul’s writings, serve as vivid reminders that the Bible does not belong to our age. Here is a quotation from the introduction to my new book just now coming off the press:

The Bible is a selective collection of ancient texts whose ideas are, in part, simply out of place with what is known about how things work in the physical universe. Readers of the Bible should be cautious in accepting without challenge what it says.2

In short, arcane magic is a chthonic force in the world only if you believe it to be so, and it appears that Paul did believe in the dark forces of the world (1 Cor 15:24; cf. Eph 6:12). Believing a thing to be so wills it into reality for the believer—even though it is not real.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Hedrick, “Putting Paul in his Place,” The Fourth R 31/1 (2018) 5-8.
2Hedrick, Unmasking Biblical Faiths. The Marginal Relevance of the Bible for Contemporary Religious Faith (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2018), 12.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Gender Equality in early Jesus Gatherings

Not a great deal of specific information is known about gender relationships in the earliest Jesus gatherings,1 during the period following the death of Jesus (around 30CE+/-) until about 50 CE. The little that is known comes at the end of that period primarily from the letters of one man (Paul) and what he inadvertently reveals in his letters about these social gatherings. One would assume that in part the earliest gatherings would generally reflect the culture of the cities in which the gatherings took place. In part that appears generally to be true,2 but the New Testament reflects a mixed record when it comes to gender relationships. Among the writers of New Testament texts one finds attitudes reflective of a hostile misogyny, while in others one encounters attitudes suggesting a liberal, gender equality.

            Let's begin with the lower road. The lowest point in the New Testament with respect to gender equality is reached by a later disciple of Paul. The passage in which this is found is First Timothy 2:8-15 (RSV). Some of the more recent translations may deliberately soften the harshness of the text.3 1 Tim 2:11-12 (RSV): "Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent." This disciple of Paul (many scholars call him the "pastor" because of his interest in church governance issues) justifies his statement by referring to Scripture: 1 Tim 2:13-15 (RSV): "For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor [see Genesis 2:15-23; 3:1-7]. Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness with modesty." In other words, women are subordinate to males in all respects. Even their personal salvation requires that they bear children, yet they will be saved but only if they continue in faith and holiness with modesty (compare 1 Tim 2:8-10). First Timothy 2:8-15 deserves the charge of being misogynistic (hatred of women)!

            The highest point in gender relationships in the Bible is achieved in the letters of Paul; nevertheless Paul is not without his blind spots. Galatians 3:28 (RSV) signals the high water mark in gender relationships: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." In other words all ethnic, social, and gender distinctions are obliterated in the gatherings of Jesus followers—for "you are all one in Christ Jesus." Hence neither gender has a claim to priority in the ekklesia, for Paul believed God selected leaders through the Spirit (1 Cor12:4-11, 28). Paul uses one part of this slogan in his argument in Romans 10:12 and two parts of the slogan in 1 Cor 12:13. A sense of gender equality corresponding to Gal 3:28 emerges in First Corinthians chapter seven. To cite two: both partners in the marriage relationship have equal conjugal rights (1 Cor 7:1-5); and the wife has the right to separate from her husband (1 Cor 10-11), but apparently not the right to divorce him. Paul's view is that in view of the immediate ending of the world (1 Cor 7:29) everyone should stay in the state they were currently in when they became followers of Christ (1 Cor 7:20), but Paul was realistic and quite willing to break his own rules (1 Cor 7:20-24).

            Perhaps it was this willingness to adjust his values in view of the situation that led him to argue for the subordination of women to men in 1 Cor 11:2-16, thus violating the idea of gender equality he stated in Gal 3:28. And he violates it again in 1 Cor 14:33b-35.

            Paul's equivocation was not necessarily shared by other Jesus gatherings, however. In a letter written to the gathering at Rome Paul takes note of and commends a number of women who had achieved outstanding success in leadership roles in the Jesus gatherings. He commends to the gathering at Rome "our sister Phoebe" who was a deacon in the gathering at Cenchrea,4 and asks that she be received by the gathering as "befits the saints." Paul commends her for her work in helping himself as well as others.5

He asks that they greet Prisca and Aquila, a husband and wife team leading with the wife's name first. They were "fellow workers" of Paul and had risked their necks for Paul's life. He notes that all the gentile gatherings gave thanks for the ministry of this husband and wife team. He calls upon the Roman community to send his greetings to the gathering in their house—Prisca apparently had a major leadership role in the gathering (1 Cor 16:3-5).6

He asks the Jesus gathering at Rome to greet Mary for him for she had worked hard among the followers of Jesus at Rome—personally, I doubt that she just baked cookies.

He mentions a certain Junia (a feminine name); she was a kinswoman of Paul as well as having served prison time along with him. But the most notable thing about her and Andronicus was that they both were "outstanding among the apostles"—apparently they were both "apostles" (Rom 16:7).7 A woman apostle! Think of that.

            He asks to be remembered to two particular women, whom he refers to as those "workers in the Lord," Tryphanea and Tryphosa (Rom 16:12).

            That is essentially the gender situation among the earliest followers of Jesus. The sad truth is that the Bible as a whole does not encourage gender equality, but that does not appear to have been completely true of all the early Jesus gatherings. Unfortunately, however, women today should not expect to be treated with equality in the church if they are members of conservative religious institutions, which have chosen the lower way in gender equality.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Translating ekklesia as "church" is anachronistic. The word church is derived from late Greek kyriakon (of the Lord) and is short for kyriakon dōma (house of the Lord); it describes a modern organization. The Scottish kirk is still in use. These assemblies should be thought of as loose social gatherings of like minded people.
2See Hedrick, Wisdom of Jesus, 42-43 (household codes).
3See the note to 1 Tim 2:15 in the New Living Translation, for example.
4The name Phoebe is feminine while the word deacon is masculine, suggesting that Phoebe was not a deaconess, but worked among the male deacons.
5Note that one of the spirit-endowed positions that "God appointed" in the gatherings was that of "helper," 1 Cor 14:28.
6This husband-wife team is mentioned several other times in the New Testament: Acts 18:2, 18, 26; 1 Cor 16:19; 2 Tim 4:19.
7See Eldon Epp, Junia the First Woman Apostle (Augsburg/Fortress, 2005).

Monday, September 10, 2018

Can All Bible Translations be Trusted?

Perhaps; it depends on what goes on in the translation process before the translation is published. Let's take one example.

One Sunday morning in Baptist Bible study our study group encountered a problem with the translation of 2nd Samuel 22:27. When the instructor read the passage in the NIV translation, it was:

To the pure you [i.e., the LORD] show yourself pure, but to the crooked you show yourself shrewd.

I objected that my translation, in the RSV, read differently:

With the pure thou dost show thyself pure and with the crooked thou dost show thyself perverse.

Surely there is some mistake here! Shrewd and perverse are about as far apart in content as words can be. There are several dictionary meanings of shrewd, but the one we generally think of is the following: shrewd is "marked by clever discerning awareness and hard-headed acumen." Perverse carries the idea of the following: "obstinate in opposing what is right, reasonable, or accepted." So why are the two translations so different and opposed to one another?

In the Hebrew text of the passage the first italicized word in the translations of 1 Sam 22:27 above is 'qsh and the root of the second italicized word is thought to be a corrupted verbal form of ptl. What actually appears in the Hebrew text for this second word, however, is described by the Hebrew Lexicon1 as an impossible Hebrew verbal form, and the lexicon adopts the parallel reading in Psalm 18:27 to replace the corrupted verbal form in 1 Sam 22:27, whose root is ptl.2

For the first word crooked (an adjective) the Hebrew lexicon provides a translation of "twisted or perverted." Oddly the Kittel edition of the Hebrew Bible leaves the corrupted form of the second word (a verb) in the text rather than emending it, and in a footnote gives the supposed correct reading (a form of ptl) taken from Psalm 18:27.3 The Hebrew Lexicon translates ptl as "to twist" and offers this translation for 2nd Sam 22:27: "with the twisted thou dost deal tortuously." Proverbs 8:8 uses both words: "All the words of my mouth [says the LORD] are righteous; there is nothing twisted (ptl ) or crooked ('qsh) in them."

The earliest translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, translates the verse this way: "and with the crooked you are perverse" (strebloũ/ streblōthēsē).

Here are a few of some other modern translations to demonstrate how differently the two words have been translated into English:

Translation                          1st word 'qsh            2nd word ptl
New American Bible:          1. crooked         2. you are astute
An American Translation:  1. crooked         2. you act craftily
Moffatt:                                  1. treacherous  2. you prove treacherous
New World Translation:     1. crooked        2. you act silly
New English Bible:              1. perverse       2. you show self tortuous
KJV:                                        1. froward       2. you show self unsavory
Douay:                                   1. perverse      2. you will be perverted
Masoretic Text:                     1. crooked       2. you show self subtle
Living Bible:4                        1. evil               2. you destroy the evil
New Living Translation:5   1. wicked        2. you show self hostile
American Standard:            1. perverse      2. you show self froward
Today's English Version:   1. wicked         2. you are hostile

            The problem of corrupted verbal forms in biblical texts is one of those niggling difficulties in the Bible of which most people are unaware. It is an annoying little thread that if pulled at persistently enough, along with the Bible's many other loose threads, tends to unravel any personal authority that the Bible may have once held. The particular little thread of 2nd Sam 22:27 is one of those things that may reasonably be described as one of the aspects of the Bible's "infrastructure."6 Infrastructure issues deal with such things as the ancient languages in which the biblical texts were originally written, the theory and practice of translation, early fragmentary papyrus and vellum manuscripts on which biblical texts were first written, scribal practices and proclivities of a particular scribal hand, the linguistic instability of ancient texts in transmission, textual criticism issues surrounding the identification of the earliest reliable form of a text and how that text might relate to the original author's copy. It is little wonder that most readers are not familiar with such issues, since they require specialized knowledge. The resolution of infrastructure problems is one of the things that must be resolved before Bible translations are published. The personal cost of being able to work competently with infrastructure issues is high indeed, in terms of numbers of years of study required and experience.

Translators of the Bible are only human. The quality of their product is defined and/or limited by their years of training, technical knowledge, and practiced skill. Throughout the process, however, the translation is subtly influenced by the intensity of a translator's personal religious allegiances and the objectivity with which they work. Can we trust Bible translators? Perhaps; but if you do you should always verify—that is, if you cannot read Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, always read the biblical text in several different translations. That practice may cast light on the reliability of your preferred translation.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Brown, Driver, and Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon (reprint with corrections, 1968), 786, 836.
2Second Samuel 22:2-51 is also preserved in Psalm 18.
3R. Kittel, Biblia Hebraica, 495.
4The Living Bible is not a translation but a paraphrase that was made from the American Standard Version of 1901 by Kenneth N. Taylor, an American publisher and author.
5This translation began as a revision of the Living Bible but became instead another translation from the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.
6That is to say "the underlying foundation or basic framework" of the Bible.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Meier's Third Crucial Blunder*

Meier rejects the critical history of the parables tradition written by J. Jeremias in 1947.1 Jeremias demonstrated that “the primitive church related the parables to its own concrete situation and by doing so produced a shift of emphasis” in the parables.2 Thus the church reshaped the character of the parables by allegorizing them3 even to the extent of introducing allegorical features into the narratives to insure ecclesial interpretations.4 The critical distinction between parable and allegory was established in 1888 by A. Jülicher in his two volume work Die Gleichnisreden Jesu.5 N. Perrin summarized the distinction that Jülicher established between parable and allegory in this way: “parable means what it says, using pictures to express its meaning. Allegory, on the other hand…does not mean what it says, but hides its meaning in symbol.”6 Since these two pivotal studies on the parables (Jülicher and Jeremias) critical scholarship has regarded the allegorical flourishes in the parables like barnacles on a clam—the clam is not defined by the barnacle, rather the barnacle by the clam. In short Jeremias found that “most of the allegorical traits in the present form of the parables are not original.”7

Meier defines parables as “comparisons…that have been ‘stretched out’ into short stories with at least an implicit beginning, middle, and end—in other words, a mini-narrative with at least an implicit plot line.”8 But since allegorical narrative is used in ancient Israelite texts and in the synoptic parables “one must come to each Synoptic parable with an open mind rather than a rigid grid” (p. 87) as to the presence of allegory in the parables.9

            Nevertheless Meier regards the narrative parables as “riddle speech” when compared to Jesus’ “legal teachings” (p.4, 34). The parables require a context. Without a context the parables are open to multiple meanings (p. 32-33). He works out his understanding of the historical context of the parables in the career of Jesus in his first three volumes, summarized for the reader in the volume on parables (p. 3). This “historical context” is heavily indebted to the synoptic reconstructions of the career of Jesus. Hence a reliable interpretation of a parable of Jesus requires that it be analyzed in “its redactional context in a Gospel and its historical context in the ministry of Jesus” (p. 5) in order for an exegete to have any hope of recovering the “intention” of Jesus.10 Both requirements, therefore, ensure the continuing influence of allegorical analysis in the interpretation of the parables of Jesus.

At the end of his chapter on allegory (pp. 85-87) it becomes clear that allegorical motifs in the parables will be regarded as legitimate parts of the parables’ tradition, and such is the case with his discussion of the four parables he finds to be authentic (pp. 230-362). Interpreting the parables allegorically, however, is a denial of the inherent nature of the parables as realistic fictitious narratives about everyday life in Palestinian peasant villages.11 Meier’s view is that while some of the parables might be realistic, not all are (pp. 42-43). The basic realism of the parables, however, challenges Meier’s allegorical method of parables’ interpretation. On the other hand, acknowledging their realism disfranchises allegory thus freeing the parables to come into their own as ancient texts un-encumbered by early Christian theology and rhetoric.12

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

*Meier uses the word “blunder” to describe a position with which he disagrees (40).
1This is the date of the first German edition of Jeremias, Parables of Jesus (first English translation, 1954); see N. Perrin, Rediscovering the Teachings of Jesus, (1967), 258. Perrin was a student of Jeremias.
2Parables of Jesus (revised edition, 1963), 48.
3Ibid., 66.
4Ibid., 68-69.
5Jülicher’s two volume work has never been translated.
6Perrin, Rediscovering, 257.
7Jeremias, Parables, 89.
8Meier, Probing the Authenticity of the Parables, 37.
9Ibid., 87. See his brief discussion of allegory pages 82-88.
10Meier’s goal in interpreting the parables is the following: “our quest concerns what the historical Jesus intended when he decided to use parables in general and to speak this or that parable in particular,” p. 33. From my perspective, however, one never really knows what people intend; one only knows what they tell us they intended.
11Meier specifically rejects the idea that parables are inherently realistic fictions that draw upon everyday life in Palestinian villages (42-43).
12Hedrick, Many Things in Parables, 36-44.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Meier on Parables: His Second Blunder*

New Testament Scholarship is divided on the question of the relationship of the Gospel of Thomas to the synoptic tradition.1 Meier, however, says that “it is more likely than not” that Thomas is dependent on the synoptic tradition in some form (46). This way of stating the relationship seems to suggest that while he (Meier) is personally convinced that Thomas is dependent on the Synoptic Gospels, he recognizes that good arguments have been made for Thomas’ independence of the synoptic tradition. He bases his judgment on an investigation of fifteen sayings in Thomas that, he argues, reveal direct literary dependence or indirect dependence “through literary dependence or secondary orality, through Gospel harmonies, catechetical summaries, or mere memorization, however faulty.”2 The sayings he studied in his view reflect similar conflating, meshing, and harmonizing tendencies found in certain Patristic works of the second century. Thus he argues that the burden of proof shifts to anyone who claims the independence of Thomas from the Synoptic Gospels (47). Meier argues that “the default assumption should be dependence [on the synoptic tradition in some form] unless the opposite can be proved in a particular case” (47). In pages 89-188 Meier seeks to demonstrate that the parables and the sayings in Thomas “evince knowledge of and influence from the Synoptics.”3

Default dependence on the synoptic tradition in some form is not the issue, for it is clear that Thomas is in part similar to the Synoptic Gospels and at the same time quite different from the synoptics. The issue is specifically how does Thomas come by the similarity. Meier argues for both direct and indirect dependence by which he seeks to eliminate oral tradition as a possible source of Thomas. At bottom, however, to prove that Thomas is dependent on the Synoptic Gospels one must show that Thomas preserves instances of distinctive editorial activity from all three of the Synoptic Gospel authors.

            Three of the sayings that Meier analyzes are preserved in the Greek fragments of Thomas, which theoretically are earlier than the Coptic version.4 Here briefly as an example of his argument as to why he thinks these three sayings reflect dependence on the Synoptic Gospels. Meier asserts that saying 5 is a “fairly strong case” for dependence (96). Saying 5 is a two-stitch saying in Thomas as it is also in Luke 8:17. But each shares only part of Thomas’ second stitch and Luke’s first stitch; otherwise the sayings are different. What they share in Thomas, however, is mostly in lacunae. Of the 36 letters in Thomas shared with Luke 19 are restored using Luke 8:17 as a model. In fact, Thomas shares only three un-restored Greek words with Luke in a Lucan saying of 18 Greek words and a Thomas saying of 27 Greek words. Hence the argument for dependence is based on the certainty of restorations that are patterned on Luke. One should always bear in mind, as Meier himself notes in the case of his third example: any restoration of such a highly fragmentary text “must labor under some degree of uncertainty” (154, note 33).

            Meier’s second example of Lucan influence on Thomas is found in the Greek fragments of saying 31. Saying 31 is a two-stitch saying whose first stitch is similar to a single stitch saying in Luke 4:24. Meier’s principal observation is that Thomas and Luke use the Greek word dektos (acceptable) rather than atimos (without honor) as it appears in Matthew and Mark. Meier says, but does not argue, that Thomas’ tendency to mesh sayings may be reflected in the fact that Thomas’ second stitch appears in Luke 4:23 immediately preceding 4:24. Lucan influence on the Greek of Thomas saying 31 boils down to the shared use by Thomas and Luke of the Greek word dektos, and the theory that Thomas may have drawn his second stitch from Luke 4:24.

In the third example (Thomas 39 = Matt 10:16b) Meier finds what he claims is a clear case of material drawn from Matthew’s special source (M) since it is not in Mark, but he opines that it “seems more probable that either Matthew 10:16b as a whole or at least its precise Greek wording stems from Matthew’s redactional hand” (101). Although the Coptic text is well preserved, and uses two of the Greek words he names, Meier argues from the highly fragmentary Greek of Thomas 39. The Greek fragment of Thomas (as restored) and Matthew share a similar Greek vocabulary: phronimos (shrewd), ophis (snake), akeairos (simple), although only [a]keairos is extant in the Greek, the rest are in lacunae but restored by the editors of the text. He concludes that because Matthew is earlier than Thomas, saying 39 as represented in the restored Greek fragment (and naturally in Coptic Thomas) “shows dependence on Matthew’s Gospel” (101). His argument that Matt 10:16b is Matthean redaction rather than M traditional material hinges on the fact that it is singularly attested and hence could not be independent special material otherwise available to Matthew and Thomas. On the other hand, if it were M traditional material, then Thomas could have come by the saying independently of Matthew.

In this brief sampling the arguments appear to be based on Meier’s assumption that Thomas has conflated, meshed, and/or harmonized sayings from the Synoptic Gospels. But if one were to assume that Thomas might be based on oral tradition, at least in part, then Meier’s assumed “conflations, meshing, and harmonizing” of the Synoptic Gospels take on the character of independently received oral tradition that reflect Thomas’ own editorial revisions and/or rewriting in a similar way that Matthew and Luke treat Mark (for example, Mark 8:11-12; Matt 12:38-42; Luke 11:29-32).

Oddly Meier does not think he has proven that Thomas is dependent on the Synoptic Gospels. He states: “After examining [the fifteen sayings from Thomas] we have decided that every case we have probed shows dependence on one or more of the synoptics.”5 And on this basis he concludes “the default assumption should be dependence unless the opposite can be demonstrated in a particular case.”6

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

*Blunder: A word used by Meier to describe those with whom he disagrees; Probing the Authenticity of the Parables, 40.

1Hedrick, “An Anecdotal Argument for the Independence of the Gospel of Thomas from the Synoptic Gospels,” pp. 113-14 in Bethge, et al. eds., For the Parables Children, Perfect Instruction (Brill, 2002).

2Meier, Probing., 46-47. This is actually an assumption on his part; see page 95: “the influence of the Synoptics could have been exercised by means of a Gospel harmony or catechetical…” (the italics are mine.) So far as I know we have no early exemplars of gospel harmonies or catechetical summaries to test this hypothesis, or that they even existed early enough for Thomas to have made use of them.

3Meier, Probing, 90. For an argument that Thomas preserves synoptic-like material independent of Thomas, see Hedrick, “An Anecdotal Argument,” 113-26.

4Attridge, “Greek Fragments” in Layton, Nag Hammadi Codex II, 2:96-128.

5He says decided rather than proven. The italics are mine. See Meier, Probing, 146.

6Ibid., 147.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Meier's Three Crucial Blunders* in Analyzing the Parables: One

John P. Meier has published five books under the general title A Marginal Jew. Rethinking the Historical Jesus (1991- 2016). Each book is given an independent title. The independent title of his fifth book in the series is Probing the Authenticity of the Parables (Yale, 2016). The challenge of this book is that it charges the guild with largely assuming the historicity of the parables attributed to Jesus (p. 56). Meier, on the other hand, has come to the conclusion “that most of the parables lacked solid arguments for authenticity” (p. 20). And this in turn leads him critically to sift the parables as to whether or not they originated with Jesus, and he finds that only four parables originated with Jesus. By my count there are forty-one individual narrative parables in all (others count them differently); fourteen exist in multiple versions and twenty-seven exist only in single versions.1 Meier’s four authentic parables are: the Mustard Seed, the Evil Tenants of the Vineyard, the Great Supper, and the Talents/Pounds (p. 231). His prime criterion for sorting the parables is the criterion of “multiple attestation of sources” (pp. 16, 48, 49, 55, 56), which states: “when a motif or teaching attributed to Jesus appears in more than one literary form or more than one independent literary source, the possibility of its originality is increased, provided it is not characteristic of the early church or Palestinian Judaism.”2 Meier applies this criterion only with respect to independent strands of the tradition (that is, literary texts), and in the sorting does not address the ideas reflected in the parables. This enables him to relegate all the singularly attested parables (27 in all) to a category of what he calls non liquet; that is, they must be discounted from consideration because they appear in only one literary text (p. 8). There are, however, more parables that appear in multiple independent sources than just these three3 but he eliminates those texts from consideration for various reasons.

Here briefly is a critique of his first blunder permitting him to draw the conclusions he does. Meier excludes all singularly attested parables, although he admits that some of them may have originated with Jesus (p. 8). Nevertheless, the multiple-attestation criterion does not prove that a parable originated with Jesus. It only proves that a particular parable did not originate with the writer in whose text it appears, since it appears in at least one other text not literarily related to the first. The criterion only proves that the parable was accessed independently from the tradition by each writer rather than from each other, and only takes one “back to early elements in the tradition, not necessarily to Jesus himself.”4 An additional step is required to show that a given parable probably originated specifically with Jesus. For this proof Norman Perrin preferred the criterion of dissimilarity, which states: “Sayings and parables may be regarded as original with Jesus if they are dissimilar to characteristic emphases in Palestinian Judaism and early Christianity.”5 Perrin found the multiple-attestation criterion to be “less effective” and “restricted”; hence he used it in only a limited way, because “it will not often help with specific sayings but rather with general motifs.”6 Perrin states that “the application of the criterion of dissimilarity enable[s] us to reconstruct major aspects of the teaching of Jesus beyond a reasonable doubt: [they are:] the parables, the kingdom of God teaching and the Lord’s Prayer tradition.”7 Meier takes no second step in arguing authenticity.

The parabolic form was not used by the earliest Christians. They used other literary forms.8 The parables are principally realistic narrative fictions whose content was expressed in terms of the peasant culture of Palestinian antiquity.9 The early church, however, was able to make use of them particularly by interpretive introductions and conclusions, the literary settings in which they were placed, and by allegorical glosses or allegorical rewriting, among other things.10

Here is what leads me to the conclusion that Jesus is probably the originator of the parables. Parables appear in multiple independent strands of the Jesus tradition: Mark, Thomas, Secret James, and Q. The fact that we have forty-one separate parables for which no authorship other than Jesus has ever been asserted argues that Jesus is the putative author. Not that all are from Jesus but responsibility shifts to those who wish to deny that a particular parable did not originate with Jesus. Jesus popularized the parabolic form but the form was not unique to Jesus since it also appears in ancient Israelite texts.11 The fact that the stories attributed to Jesus bear the stamp of Palestinian culture rather than the Hellenistic culture of the authors of the gospels who preserved them and who had so much difficulty understanding them argues that they did not originate them.12 The gospels abound with allegory and Christian theology, but the stories of Jesus themselves as a whole do not, and that makes them strikingly different from the sources in which they appear.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

*Meier accused the Jesus Seminar of a “major blunder” in describing Jesus as sage (p. 40).

1 Hedrick, “Parable,” NIDB, 371. 
2 Hedrick, When History and Faith Collide, 141-42. See in particular: N. Perrin Rediscovering the Teachings of Jesus, 46-47 and M. E. Boring, “The Historical-Critical Method’s ‘Criteria of Authenticity’: The Beatitudes in Q and Thomas as a Test Case,” Semeia 44 (1988): 12-14.
3 Hedrick, “Parable,” NIDB, 4: 371.
4 Boring, “Criteria of Authenticity,” 14; see also Perrin, Rediscovering, 46.
5 Hedrick, History and Faith, 139-41. See in particular Perrin, Rediscovering, 39-43 and Boring, “Criteria of Authenticity,” 17-21
6Perrin, Rediscovering, 46.
7 Ibid., 47.
8 Hedrick, The Wisdom of Jesus, 31-43.
9 Perrin, Jesus and the Language of the Kingdom, 104. Compare Meier, Marginal Jew, 42.
10 These insights are only possible because of the writing of the parabolic tradition by Jeremias, Parables of Jesus, 23-114. Perrin, Rediscovering, 47.
11Hedrick, Many Things in Parables, 17-18.
12Ibid., 26.

Monday, July 16, 2018

What lies behind Gospel Music?

As regular readers of this blog may have suspected, I am a recovering Southern Baptist; yet I still enjoy listening to gospel music. A great number of the older songs I learned by heart in my youth. It is not their words, however, that attract me today but rather the subliminal “message” behind the words—the existential attitude that evokes the words. Behind the song writer’s literary certainty and the singer's rapturous expressions, the gospel idiom, the pithy metaphors, vivid imagery, and sweeping idealistic visions of what lies beyond life in the world for the faithful, I am most struck by two real-world attitudes. On the one hand, the certainty masks the awful existential dread of oblivion that occasionally wells up in quiet moments for all of us; on the other, the music and its performance reflects a primal cry of hope. The songwriters and singers express confident hope that life is not an episode of three-score-and-ten years that ends in nothingness; rather the music holds forth the promise of a future on the other side of our terminal episodes.

            One can easily get lost in the emotional mythical expectations evoked by the words and miss the simple hope (nothing more or less) that lies behind the language of certainty. Behind the confident language of Zion lies a fragile ambiguous hope parading itself as confident expectation. The writers/singers may appear supremely confident in their expectations but hope reflects only uncertain prospects, and believing it so does not make it so!

Early Christian faith reflects this same dissonance between hope and confidence.

Paul: “We rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God” (Rom 5:2; see also Rom 8:24-25; 1 Thess 4:13-18; 5:8).

Acts: “Having a hope in God … that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust” (Acts 24:15; 23:6).

Pauline School: “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col 1:27; 1:5); “In hope of eternal life which God, who never lies, promised” (Titus 1:2; 2:13; 3:7).

Others: “Make a defense… for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet 3:15); “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for” (Heb11:1).

Early Christian writers do not call it a “certain” hope. I found only a few modifiers describing the nature of hope in early Christian faith. Once it is called a “lively” hope (1 Pet 1:3), once it is called “a better hope” (Heb 7:19); and another word that is used to describe hope is “blessed” (Titus 2:13). Once hope is described as “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (Heb 6:18-19). It seems that the early Christians were under no allusions about the substance of what their faith held out for them—it was merely hope: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1-2). Paul described the tenuous hope of faith in this way: “hope that is seen is not hope—for who hopes for what he sees”; we hope for what we do not see (Rom 8:24-25). In early Christian faith hope was therefore not equated with certainty—that is, hope was not equated with a “bird in the hand” but rather with the “two birds in the bush.”

            Paul described Abraham, the Patriarch, in the following way: in hope he believed against hope that in his old age he would become the father of many nations (Rom 4:18). The dictionary defines “hope against hope” as “hoping without any basis for expecting fulfillment.” That definition, it seems to me, best reflects the character of early Christian hope as a whole; it is also what lies behind gospel music. Hope is a primal cry of faith, reflecting the attitude: I trust God in spite of the obvious finality of death.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Tuesday, July 3, 2018


Happy Fourth of July! At the suggestion of a reader, today’s posting is a reprise of one originally published on May 31, 2013

I do not have in mind political freedom, which is always limited. Fortunately in a representative democracy, however, the citizen has a voice in setting the limits and deciding how free "freedom" should be. Political freedom is not absolute. Ideally laws are drafted to give all groups the greatest amount of freedom possible under the law in a way that does not unnecessarily abridge the freedom of others who share minority views. So in a representative democracy all give a little to get a little.

       In this essay, however, I have in mind the ability of individuals to make decisions that have not been influenced, whether overtly or subtly, by their environment. From the earliest moments in life no one can independently envision their course of life. You cannot pick your parents, their social and economic status, or their prospects. You take what fate decrees for you. You cannot pick where you were born. Your birthplace is chosen by your mother. You cannot pick your native language, your skin color, or nationality. All these things happen by chance. Your religion or non-religion in the early years is the choice of your parents whom you did not pick. You are indoctrinated by their religious views, or lack thereof. You do not choose in the lower grades your educational institutions. Schooling hinges on where you live and/or your parents' economic circumstances. So the attitudes, values, quality and kind of instruction, inductively learned prejudices in the region where you live, and the acquired knowledge (both formal and cultural), which subtly mold and shape you, are also not of your own choosing. Your socialization happens almost by osmosis. By the time you think you have gained control from the dominant powers in your life (parents, local educational and political systems, religious institutions, regional cultural mores, etc.) you have already become something that may not be able to be changed, even if the thought occurred to you to do so. Your future choices have already been influenced by the powers outside you in your past. Thus people are free only to the extent that they can escape their own pasts.

       In later life you find yourself immersed in a culture whose expectations, moral values, and ideals demand compliance if you are to live successfully in society. The compliant are rewarded with status in the community and those who resist are marginalized. In later years you marry and become focused on job and advancement—each economic institution has its own rules that must be mastered. There are children to be tended, a home to be kept up to community standards, taxes to be paid, medical bills to be met, the children's future to consider, and retirement to be planned for. The demands are such that you have little time to give to abstract things as thinking about becoming—and anyway you have already "become" by buying into or resisting the culture and its expectations. You simply meet the requirements, without thinking, or challenge the expectations. In any case you are simply too far in to life to make radical changes.

       Nearing the age of retirement, some do find time for reflecting on where life has brought them, or perhaps better: on what their past and present have made them. In retrospect, they look back over their lives searching for the turning points that shaped them.

       Religion is part of the problem rather than the solution. All religions claim to possess Truth, particularly the missionary religions in their traditional forms: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All three of these have attached themselves to certain cultures sympathetic to their religious systems.  They reciprocate symbiotically by helping to reinforce the cultural norms in their chosen societies.  This has always been the case with Christianity, for example. In the first century Paul urged his churches to be subject to the governing authorities, "for there is no authority except from God and those that exist have been instituted by God" (Romans 13:1-7)—and he said this about the Roman Empire, no less! The author of Revelation, whose time and situation were different, disagreed—calling the Roman Empire "Babylon the Great, a dwelling place of demons" (Revelation 18) and "mother of harlots" (Revelation 17:5). Paul, a Roman citizen found in the Empire a symbiotic partner; the writer of Revelation did not.

       Christianity in America thinks of its gospel as "freeing." Jesus said to the Jews "who believed in him": "You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:32). And Paul wrote: "For Freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery" (Galatians 5:1). He of course was talking about freedom from the Jewish Torah. But Christianity has assimilated to American culture and its political system to such an extent that "Americanism" has become a synonym for "Christian." The American flag is displayed in churches, the pledge of Allegiance is taught to children in church schools, and patriotic songs are sung in worship. Not all churches are as blatant about the "Americanism" in their religious programs, however. Nevertheless, the religious instruction and preaching in mainstream churches aim to produce good Christian citizens who reflect American societal norms, so that their lives reflect well on the church, something the early churches were concerned about as well (1 Thessalonians 4:10-12; 1 Peter2:13-15; Titus 3:1-2). The early churches rejected the radical ethics of Jesus (if they happened to remember them) and turned to the ethical values (called "household codes") that governed private life in the early Roman Empire (for example, Colossians 3:18-4:1).

       Growing up in a lower middle class family in the Mississippi Delta in the 40s and 50s leaves me to wonder just how free I really was.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University