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

IS FREEDOM AN ILLUSION?

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

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Does God Collude with Satan?

In Baptist Bible study we were pondering 2 Cor 12:1-10, where Paul claimed he was given [by God] a thorn in the flesh, an angel of Satan to harass him so that he would not be puffed up by the abundance of visions and revelations he had experienced in his trip to the “third heaven” (2 Cor 12:7). We will all no doubt agree that this strange passage tends to perplex the modern Christian mind. But there is an even more serious difficulty in the passage. It rather obviously implies that God colludes with satanic powers by using an angel (aggelos) of Satan to harass Paul. Is there other evidence suggesting that it could actually be the case that God colludes with Satan?

There is a similar statement in 1 Cor 5:1-7 where Paul directs the gathering at Corinth “to deliver” an immoral member of the gathering “to Satan for the destruction of his flesh” so that “his spirit may be saved” (1 Cor 5:5). To be sure this is also a difficult passage, but it is nevertheless clear that Paul encouraged the Christian gathering to collude with Satan for the salvation of the man’s spirit. Compare a similar statement in a text from the Pauline school: the author refers to two persons who “have made shipwreck of their faith”…“whom I have delivered to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme” (1 Tim 1:20).

I checked at random a few commentaries in my last blog (see them here) to see how 2 Cor 12:7 was regarded in the academic community. They all agreed that the passive voice in 2 Cor 12:7 referenced God as the one initiating the action that brought Paul harassment by an angel of Satan to teach him humility. There is a similar incident in Job where God is described as allowing Satan to afflict Job’s body at the request of Satan (Job 2:10). That does not appear to be the case with 2 Cor 12:7, where God directed the harassment of Paul by using an angel of Satan.

In the Jewish Scriptures, dubbed by Christians the Old Testament, God has no evil opponent to challenge his authority. Satan does not make an appearance in Israelite history until after the fall of Judah to the Babylonians (read about it here). In the early years of Israelite history God was the source of divine justice, as well as “evil” acts. For example, God sends an evil spirit to torment King Saul (1 Sam 16:14-23; 18:10; 19:9); he also sends lying spirits into the mouths of prophets to deceive Ahab (1 Kgs 22:1-40) and prompted King David to sin (2 Sam 24).  When Job’s wife counseled him to “curse God and die,” his reply indicated that it was common knowledge that both good and evil came from God (Job 2:10, see also 42:11; compare also 2 Sam 12:11; Ps 78:43-51; Jdg 9:23).

There must be some mistake here! How can it be that God would have anything to do with facilitating evil deeds? A standard definition of God is “perfect in power, wisdom, and goodness, whom people worship as creator and ruler of the universe.” So what is good about colluding with the powers of darkness to bring harm to anyone? The very definition of a Christian concept of God precludes the idea that God would do evil against anyone or incite anyone to evil or that God would work in concert with the forces of evil either to the detriment or betterment of anyone. Is not this statement attributed to Jesus: God “makes his sun rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the just and the unjust” (Matt 5:45)? The thrust of the statement is that God provides the blessings of the considerable bounty of the earth to the Good, as well as the evil and unjust alike without discrimination.

So how should we explain the not inconsiderable clash between God as reflected in the Jewish Scriptures and New Testament? My own view is that through history and within the various world cultures and religions that have existed through time people have basically fashioned their own understandings of God in harmony with the culture in which they were raised and according to the ethical understandings they had at the time. In short, our Gods are, at least in part, a projection of how we understand (hopefully) what is best in ourselves, an idea in modern philosophy attributed to Ludwig Feuerbach.1 How else do we explain the diverse religions of the world?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1 https://phenomenologyftw.wordpress.com/2010/05/12/feuerbach-on-religion-anthropomorphic-projectionism-and-his-influence-on-atheism/: Here is a quote from the article: According to Ludwig Feuerbach “God is an anthropomorphic projection of the human mind, and as such embodies man’s conception of his own nature. This [view] was originally conceived by Xenophanes and Lucretius, and by Spinoza.” Here are three brief quotes from Feuerbach’s writings (translated by Zwar Hanfi), The Fiery Brook: Selected Writings of Ludwig Feuerbach (Anchor Books; 1972):  “Man’s notion of himself is his notion of God, just as his notion of God is his notion of himself—the two are identical” (page 109); “There is nothing more, and nothing less, in God than what religion puts in him” (page 112); “To every religion, the gods of other religions are only conceptions of God; but its own conception of God is itself its God—God as it conceived him to be, God genuinely and truly so, God as he is in himself” (page 114).

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Was Paul, the Apostle, a Mystic?

Mysticism is defined as "the experience of mystical union or direct communion with ultimate reality." See more on mysticism here. In other words, it is an experience in which an individual becomes one with God; that is to say, God is me and I am God. Such a concept carries such a great deal of baggage so that most modern folk will likely find the idea difficult to accept as logical or reasonable. That appears not to be true of the first-century human being Paul.

A few weeks ago in Baptist Bible study, the class was pondering 2 Cor 4:7-12 and we encountered a perplexing statement by the great apostle. Paul writes: We are "always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies" (2 Cor 4:10). How does one make sense of this statement? How can Christians carry in their physical bodies the literal death of Jesus? Nevertheless, that is what Paul said! Had he said something like "always retaining in our memories the death of Jesus, so that the new life given us through belief in Jesus' resurrection might be evident in our living," there would be little difficulty with understanding it. But how can living persons bear in the body the actual death of another person? And how can the life of the resurrected Christ be evident in believers' bodies, which are always in some state of aging and mortification?

Here are a few explanations by some biblical commentators chosen at random. J. H. Bernard1 claims that the statement is interpreted by 4:11: "we are always being given up to death, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh." But this interpretation creates further problems: how is the life of Jesus evident in a believer's mortal flesh? M. E. Thrall2 argues that Paul is possibly thinking that his own sufferings are like "a replica or image of Christ's death." In order for this explanation to work, however, one must assume that Paul thinks of his sufferings as being like Jesus' death, although experiencing suffering and being dead are quite different things. James Thompson3 explains 4:10 as indicating "that Paul…on his missionary journeys is following in his Lord's footsteps," which means that Paul suffered as Jesus suffered. But of course Paul could have said exactly that without creating such perplexity over what he did say. F. J. Matera. says, "By being afflicted, bewildered, persecuted, and struck down, [Paul] reflects in his person (his body) the kinds of sufferings that Jesus endured in his passion." This idea regards Paul's sufferings as similar to the sufferings of Jesus, but Paul did not refer to the "kinds of sufferings" Jesus endured, but rather he asserted that believers carry about in their bodies the dying of Jesus. Paul Barnett says: "The 'dying of Jesus' that takes place 'in [Paul's] body' is the bewilderment, persecution, and humiliation mentioned in 4:8-9." In other words the apostle's sufferings image the sufferings of Jesus. But that seems to be different from what Paul claimed. Paul said he was always carrying in his body Jesus' death (nekrōsis), which is something different than suffering in a similar way to Jesus. In fact all of these explanations seem to take Paul's suffering experiences as being something similar to what Jesus suffered.

Thrall provides a summary of views as to how the statement has been understood.5 In my view one explanation, rejected by Thrall, seems to make better sense of Paul's statement in 2 Cor 4:10; the statement seems easiest to understand from the perspective of Paul's mystical union with Christ in baptism: "Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life" (Rom 6:3-4). Paul seems to hold that in baptism the believer is mystically united with Jesus in his death and as a result the believer comes to share his resurrection. In other words baptism is not a symbolical act but a mystical union, a direct communion with ultimate reality—in this case the death and resurrection of Jesus.6 Reading 2 Cor 4:10 in the light of Paul's statement about baptism gives the reader a context for understanding his statement as a mystical experience: believers carry in their bodies the dying of Jesus because they have shared his dying in baptism.

And that raises the following question: if Paul understands religious faith mystically, was early Pauline Christianity a type of mystery religion?

How do you read 2 Cor 4:10?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Expositors Greek Testament (1956), vol. 3: 62-63.
2Commentary on Second Corinthians (ICC, 1994), 334.
3Second Letter to the Corinthians (1970), 66.
4II Corinthians. A Commentary (2003), 110.
5Thrall, II Corinthians, 332-35.
6Webster's Ninth Collegiate Dictionary (1990), s. v. "mysticism."

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Human Intentions and the Biblical Tradition

John 13:1-30 is an interesting narrative illustrating the complexity of understanding human intentions from a written text. The text was written at the end of the first century by someone, whom tradition names as John. If one assumes that "John" has described a historical situation accurately, there appear to be three levels, posited by the author in this text, on which human intentions can be considered: level one, Jesus and the disciples; level two, the later composer of the text; level three, the readers of the text.

Level one: At a meal Jesus, disturbed in spirit, abruptly asserts "one of you will betray me" (13:21). The perplexed disciples do not know who he was talking about (13:22), so Peter asks the disciple "who was lying near the breast of Jesus," "who is it?" (13:24), and that disciple (i.e., he "whom Jesus loved") relays the question to Jesus (13:25). Jesus answers that it is he to whom I give this sop (13:26a), and then he gave it to Judas (13:26b).

The narrator interrupts this dramatic action (which is the "showing" of the story as it happens) at this point to directly address the reader in an aside with information about Judas that the actors in the literary drama do not overhear: "Satan entered into him" after he had taken the sop (13:27). The drama then resumes with Jesus telling Judas "do quickly what you are going to do" (13:27b). At this point again the narrator overrides the description of the scene with interpretive commentary telling readers that the disciples did not understand why Jesus had said this to Judas (13:28) and offers two explanations for Jesus' statement that the narrator asserts the disciples were thinking (13:29). The narrator briefly returns to conclude the scene by telling readers that Judas immediately left on his undisclosed errand and it was night (13:30).

Readers are left to ponder, along with the disciples, why Jesus told Judas to do quickly, what he was going to do (13:27b). But a bigger puzzlement is why disciples could not understand what they had just seen and heard when it is so obvious to any reader: Judas is going to betray Jesus (13:26; John 6:70-71; 18:2-5).

Level two: The writer deliberately (or sloppily?) narrates the story in such a way as to leave the reader perplexed as to the writer's intentions: Why deliberately contradict 13:2 with 13:27 as to when Satan entered into Judas? Why would the author use a technique of the fiction writer by reading the disciples' minds (13:29), an act that is impossible in real life, in order to explain how the disciples misunderstood Judas' intentions?  After Jesus' statement to the disciples in 13:21, why would the author leave completely unstated what Judas is obviously going to do? What is the significance of the extraneous "thus, in this manner" (outōs, 13:25), and why does the writer feel it necessary to illustrate the Roman manner of reclining at table (13:23, 25)?

Level three: Every close reader of the Gospel of John since the second century is left to make what they will of these problems.

In all candidness, however, there are only two historical levels in this brief narrative: level one is that of the author who composed the narrative, ascribed intentions and reactions to the characters, invented the dialogue, or lack of it. This shadowy figure either deliberately controlled the narrative in all particulars intending its lack of clarity and verbosity; for example the writer doubles the question "who is it" asked by Peter and by the disciple whom Jesus loved (13:23-25) and twice describes Judas receiving the sop (13:27; 13:30); or were these simply careless oversights?

There may, of course, have been an actual historical meal at which Jesus was upset that one of his chosen disciples determined to betray him, and sensed the gravity of what was about to happen, but our author was not present at the meal and had no way of knowing such intimate details. The most honest thing in the narrative is the writer's omission of Jesus' intention in telling Judas to do quickly what he intended to do—because we never know anyone's intentions. The most dishonest thing in the narrative is the author's reading of the minds of the disciples telling what they were thinking—because we cannot accurately "read" the minds of others.

Well, so what? Is there a greater significance to the information in this short essay? Perhaps.

Readers decide the significance of all information they take in. There is no universally agreed upon significance of anything. In my view the significance of the foregoing essay is the following: "Creative inspiration," if such there be, always resides in the mind of the human author and should not be transferred to a text, which is always subject to critical reviews pointing out flaws in a text. If we decide that a given text is "inspired," that is merely our own opinion.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Intentionality, and knowing another’s Intention

We can never know for certain the intentions of another person. In the event someone describes his/her intentions we listeners would only know what the speaker described his/her intentions to be, and not everyone always tells the truth. "Intentionality is a philosophical concept and is defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as 'the power of mind to be about, to represent or to stand for things, properties and states of affairs.'"1 In other words intentionality is a state of mind, and that is why what others say or do can never be known for certain—because we have no direct access to the mind of another to check if s/he is telling the truth.

            The distinction between "intentionality" as a state of mind and human intentions in terms of actions and statements was first recognized in the medieval period. "The earliest theory of intentionality is associated with St Anselm's ontological argument for the existence of God" in which he distinguished "between objects that exist in the understanding and objects that exist in reality."2 If this is correct, it means that the concept of intentionality was unknown in antiquity until the tenth/eleventh centuries. In the New Testament, for example, there is no word exclusively reserved for the concept of intention/intentionality.

            In the New Testament "intention" is described in terms of a purpose that leads to certain concrete actions. The Greek words that are pressed into service to express intention are boulomai (Acts 5:28, 12:4), thelō (Luke 14:28), mellō (Acts 5:35, 20:13), logos (Acts 10:29). In other cases Koine Greek employs certain constructions that are used to express the idea of purpose, "for this [purpose]": Acts 9:21; "with a view to": 1 Cor 10:6; "so that": John 11:15; Eph 3:10; "for what [purpose]": John 13:28.

            Two examples illustrate the murky distinction between the mental state of intentionality and human intentions underlying concrete actions. In Acts 5:28 the intent of the apostles is "apparently" misjudged in the light of the mood of the crowd (5:26). The Jewish leaders assume that the apostles intended their preaching as an attack upon the Jewish high council, while the apostles, on the other hand, describe the purpose of their preaching as performed in obedience to God (5:28-29) so as to bring repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel (5:31-32). But note that the apostles also accuse the Jewish leaders of killing Jesus by hanging him on a tree (5:30).3 So perhaps the Jewish leaders were at least partially correct and the apostles did subliminally, at least, intend their preaching as a criticism of the Jewish leaders.

This example is made more complicated in that the motives and intent of the characters in the drama (Acts 4:1-5:42) were ascribed to them by an author who was not present at the events, but who writes later about the situation. So readers are left to wonder for what purpose would an author write a narrative making the apostles appear either duplicitous or creating a suspicion that perhaps they do not fully understand their own intentions.

            Here is a second example from my own life experience: in my last blog I described a conversation in which I was accused of writing editorials for the local newspaper "in order to draw attention to" myself.  I, on the other hand, tell myself that I think of what I publish in the newspaper as a public service and regard my editorials as an extension of my former classroom beyond its brick and mortar walls. I only publish an editorial when I have information that in my view might help clarify issues in public discussion. Obviously my critic would not agree. So the question becomes have I duped myself and do not fully understand my own intentions? Or has my critic duped himself and erroneously cast aspersions on my motives?  Since one's intentionality cannot be directly examined, the answers to both questions must remain uncertain.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: https://seop.illc.uva.nl/entries/intentionality/.
2"Intentionality," Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intentionality.
3All the gospels, however, portray Jesus' death as being done at the behest of Roman authority.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Apostates and Heretics

Recently I had another unsettling conversation in a crowded public space with a now angry man. The conversation was overheard by others, and his ire was directed toward me personally. Several months earlier we had talked about religion in a more amicable way.1 On this most recent occasion, he began, abruptly and rather confrontationally,

"Do you believe in Hell?"

"No."2

"Where do you go to church?"

"First Baptist."

"Is that what they teach you there?"

"No; I assume that virtually all members of my church believe in Hell."

The conversation continued apace and then he left the area, returning momentarily to assert:

"You know what you are? You are an apostate. Do you know what that is?"

"Yes; and you seem a very angry man."

The conversation continued briefly in another room where I told him, "the term 'apostate' is not correct; in the past some have called me 'heretic," which is likely more appropriate." After a moment he said, "The reason you write those newspaper articles is to call attention to yourself."

            Here are the definitions of the terms. Apostasy is "renunciation of a religious faith." With respect to the conversation above the accusation was that I had renounced the Christian faith. There is a passage in the New Testament that describes the circumstance of the one who commits apostasy: Hebrews 6:1-6 (using in Heb 6:6 the Greek word parapesontas, falling away, making a defection). In the view of the author of Hebrews, those who defect from the faith cannot be renewed again to faith. The actual word "apostasy" is used in Acts 21:21, where Paul is accused of teaching apostasia (apostasy, making a defection) from Moses; that is, Paul was accused of teaching that Jews should not circumcise their children and follow other Jewish traditions. It appears also in the deutero-Pauline letter, Second Thessalonians, where the "man of lawlessness" is revealed in the apostasia (the rebellion or defection, 2 Thess 2:3).

Heresy, on the other hand, is "adherence to a religious opinion contrary to church dogma; or dissent or deviation from a dominant theory, opinion or practice." Hence a heretic is "one who dissents from some accepted belief or doctrine." The word "heresy" (αἳρεσις; transliterated hairesis) is translated by the word "sect" in Acts 24:14, "factions" in 1 Cor 11:19,  "party spirit" in Gal 5:20, and "heresies" in 2 Pet 2:1.The word is used to identify various factions in a given religious body, as for example in Acts 26:5 where Paul refers to the Pharisees as "the strictest party of our religion (compare also Acts 5:17; 15:5; 24:5; 28:22). The word "factious" (or it could be translated sectarian) is used to translate the Greek hairetikon in Tit 3:10.

It appears then that heretics are regarded as erring members of the faith community, and apostates, on the other hand, are no longer members of the faith community but have completely given up the faith.

There were in the early period no generally accepted standards for judging Christian beliefs, until in the fourth and fifth centuries one group from among the early competing factions in the Jesus gatherings achieved an ascendency in the ancient world. The ascendant group called themselves "the Orthodox." They adopted a canon (our current Bible more or less3) and creeds (the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed4). Then they judged others by the beliefs they developed for their own religious communities, and called those in other Jesus gatherings who had different views, "heretics." Of course those that the Orthodox declared to be heretical had a name for the orthodox—it was "heretic." In the game of right belief and wrong belief with respect to religion, the correct answer depends on whose argument one finds most persuasive.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1 See Hedrick, "Did Jesus Believe in the Christian Hell?" Wry Guy Blog, September 9, 2017.
2 See Hedrick, "Does Hell Exist," Wry Guy Blog, August 29, 2015.
3 See Hedrick, "When did the Bible become the Word of God?" Wry Guy Blog, January 26, 2015.
4 See Bettenson and Maunder, Documents of the Christian Church (3rd ed.; Oxford, 1999), 25-29.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Do the early Christian Gospels contain Fake News?

As with everything else pertaining to religion, the short answer is: it depends on who you ask. Fake news is defined this way: “Fake news in a neologism [new expression] often used to refer to fabricated news. This type of news, found in traditional news, social media, or fake news websites, has no basis in fact but is presented as being factually accurate.”1 The word “fact” I define as an actual occurrence or information having objective reality.

            Someone may object that it is unfair to compare the Bible to “fake news,” since it is an ancient document and “fake news” is a contemporary expression. Nevertheless, biblical scholars do make distinctions, for example, between factual information (ideas grounded in historical event) and nonfactual information (ideas not grounded in historical event). Here is why it may be appropriate to ask this question about the Bible: the gospels parade themselves as “good news” (translation of euaggelion), so it does not seem inappropriate to inquire about the factual character of that “news.” Luke, for example, claimed that he was going to set the record straight and present an “orderly” account to ensure that Theophilus would “know the truth” (Luke 1:3-4). Hence Luke seems to claim that his good news is “factual data.” Yet Luke uses mythological language and legends in telling his version of the story of Jesus.

            The birth narrative in Luke clearly uses mythological language (1:26-38; 2:1-20)—specifically the following verses: 1:26, 32-33, 35; 2:9-11, 13-14.  Myths, although they may inform us about human existence, are essentially stories about gods that people have celebrated and still celebrate in recitation and ritual but such stories have nothing to do with objective reality other than that the ideas about the gods are celebrated in ritual. Plato, for example, regarded what he described as “myths” to be fictional stories about the gods.2

            Scholars in general describe the story of Jesus in the temple at age twelve (Luke 2:41-52) as a legend. Legends are stories about holy people and religious heroes told “for the purpose of inspiration, instruction and religious edification.”3 While a legend may be historically based (as in this case it is told about a historical person), the details of the narrative belong to hagiography (idealizing or idolizing biography).4 For other hagiographic tales of Jesus’ childhood at ages five, six, eight, and twelve see The Infancy Gospel of Thomas.

Some scholars, however, describe this Lukan story about Jesus as a pronouncement story rather than a legend5 since the category “legend” is problematic—the term suggests fraudulent and pious fantasy. In short the designation “legend” suggests that such stories are not historical accounts.

            What do you think? Should the early Christian gospels be described as comprised in part of “fake news” rather than “good news”? The Jesus Seminar published a report in 1998 that found that only 16% of the 176 events they studied in the early gospel literature probably occurred, and the story of Jesus in the temple was not among the 16%.6

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fake_news#Definition
2C. Hedrick, Wry Guy Blog, “The Sibyl’s Wish,” June 26, 2016.
3K. Nickle, Synoptic Gospels (2001), 28.
4C. Hedrick, Wry Guy Blog, “Are there Legends in the Bible,” August 1, 2016.
5See J. Fitzmyer, Gospel According to Luke I-IX (1970), 134-39.
6R. Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Acts of Jesus. The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus (1998), 1, 524.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Bones of Jesus of Nazareth

Is it possible that some archaeologist one day might turn up a bone-box discovery containing the bones of Jesus of Nazareth? As always in matters of religion, the answer depends on who you ask. True Believers, who trust that the Bible always speaks Truth in matters related to faith and doctrine, will dismiss my question as ignorance of the nature and meaning of Jesus' resurrection.

The witness of all four canonical gospels is that the tomb of Jesus was found empty by the first visitors on that first Easter morning (Mark 16:4-6; Matt 28:5-6; Luke 24:2-6; John 20:3-9). The body of Jesus was gone! This is the basis for the argument that the body of Jesus was physically resuscitated and transformed, or as the writer we call Luke has it: the flesh of Jesus did not suffer corruption (Acts 2:24-32; 13:32-35).

The gospel writers double down on the physicality of the resurrection. John adds that Jesus cautions Mary not to cling to him (John 20:17)—a spirit is hardly substantial; there is nothing to cling to. Hence the caution to Mary only makes sense if Jesus' body is physical. And Jesus invites Thomas to "put out your hand and place it in my side"; spirits do not have sides (John 20:27; where the soldier had pierced his side on the cross, John 19:34)—another clue that the body of Jesus was physical and not spirit. In Matthew the women who had come to the tomb "took hold of his feet" (Matt 28:9); spirits don't have feet, but physical bodies do. Luke notes that the resurrected Jesus was given a piece of broiled fish "and he took it and ate before them" (Luke 24:39-42); spirits do not need food but bodies do.

            According to true believers, however, why would one doubt the resurrection? God can, and has done, many things more marvelous than raising Jesus from among the dead. For example, the Bible reports that God transported Elijah bodily into heaven in a chariot of fire by means of a whirlwind—body, blood, bones, calloused bunions, and all (2 Kgs 2:9-12).

            Paul, on the other hand, in discussing the concept of resurrection (1 Cor 15:35) specifically rules out a physical resurrection: the body is destined for corruption; it is only in the spirit that one may inherit eternal life (Gal 6:8). It is foolishness, Paul says, to conceive of resurrection in terms of a physical body (1 Cor 15:36-42). In short, "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable" (1 Cor 15:50). What can inherit the kingdom of God is the "spiritual body" (1 Cor 15:44), Paul argues, and that must include Jesus as well (1 Cor 15:45).

            Paul's idea of a spiritual resurrection does seem to make more sense than what is found in the gospels, but if we are transformed what happens to the old body? Paul argues that it will be changed (allagēsometha), like one changes a suit of clothes (1 Cor 15:52), and "puts on" the imperishable and immortal spirit (1 Cor 15:53-54). Nevertheless, there seems to be a continuum between the mortal and the immortal; the physical body is not divested but "further clothed" (2 Cor 5:1-4).

One of Paul's disciples, however, did not follow this last idea of the great apostle, and argued instead that "at death, the Elect are 'drawn' to heaven by the Savior (Treatise on the Resurrection, 45.34-39). The inner, spiritual self 'departs' and experiences a blessed 'absence' from the fleshly body" (Treatise on the Resurrection, 27.19-24, 35-38).1 In other words, the resurrection is a completely spiritual event. If the writer of this treatise on the resurrection is correct, it would seem that we might yet find the bones of Jesus buried somewhere in Israel.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Malcolm Peel, "The Treatise on the Resurrection," in Harold Attridge, ed., Nag Hammadi Codex I (Leiden: Brill, 1985), 142.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Does the Bible Dissemble?

I begin with two definitions:

Euphemism: “The substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend.”

Dissemble: “To put on a false appearance: conceal facts, intentions, or feelings under some pretense.”

Thus a euphemism is an attempt to disguise the true nature of a concept by using an expression that might give less offense—sugarcoating it as it were. On the other hand when one dissembles one does not address a thing forthrightly, but attempts to conceal or mask the true character of a thing or situation. Speaking euphemistically and dissembling are essentially attempts to mislead and deceive for whatever reason.

Judging by these two definitions some biblical writers do just that—they dissemble by using euphemisms. The best known instance of this practice is the use of the word “Heaven” as a circumlocution for “God” by the writer we dub Matthew. Matthew uses this euphemism likely for reasons of personal piety (Matt 8:11=Luke 13:29; Matt 10:7=Luke 9:2; Matt 11:11=Luke 7:28; Matt 11:12=Luke 16:16; Matt 13:11=Luke 8:11=Mark 4:11).

Another well know instance of dissembling is the use by certain writers of the word “feet” as a euphemism for genitalia and activities involving the genitals probably for reasons related to modesty (compare Paul’s declining to name the less presentable parts of the human body, 1 Cor 12:22-24). Some of these euphemisms are so clear that Bible translators apparently feel comfortable simply de-euphemizing the euphemism and unmasking the “real” meaning in their translations, albeit it modestly. The King James (KJV) translation of 1611 regularly translates “feet” literally as “feet,” while more modern translations (the Revised Standard Version, RSV) de-euphemize certain passages in which the word feet appears.

Judges 3:24:
KJV: “surely he covers his feet in the summer chamber”
RSV: “He is only relieving himself in the closet of the cool chamber”
1 Samuel 24:3:
KJV: “where was a cave, and Saul went in to cover his feet
RSV: “there was a cave; and Saul went in to relieve himself.”
Ezek 16:25:
KJV: “you have opened your feet to everyone that passed by and multiplied your whoredoms”
RSV: “offering yourself to any passer-by and multiplied your harlotry

In other instances modern translators are apparently uncomfortable de-euphemizing the euphemism (if that is what it is). The RSV translates David’s order to Uriah “Go down to your house and wash your feet” (2 Sam 11:8), which Uriah understands as a directive to enjoy the privileges of being a husband and “lying with his wife” (2 Sam 11:11). Here are several others where the RSV hesitates: Isa 7:20 (shaving the hair of the feet; likely meaning pubic hair); Exod 4:25 (Zipporah cuts the foreskin of her son “and touched Moses’ feet with it”).

What should we now think about Ruth 3:4 where Naomi tells her daughter-in-law, Ruth, to observe where Boaz lies down “then, go and uncover his feet and lie down and he will tell you what to do.” Ruth does as she was instructed “Then she came softly, and uncovered his feet and lay down” (Ruth 3:7).

            Of course an ancient Hebrew would likely have known when “feet” was used euphemistically. But sometimes a foot is just a foot and not a euphemism for something else (for example, John 11:2; 12:1-2; Luke 7:38-39); and even we moderns in our own culture sometimes stumble over euphemisms—so perhaps they may not have known in every case after all. So perhaps some of the other uses of “feet” should be considered a euphemism. Recognizing “feet” as a sometimes euphemism for genitalia does leave me wondering just exactly what was the nature of the disease that King Asa of Judah developed in his old age (1 Kgs 15:23 and 2 Chron 16:12).

More importantly euphemisms in the Bible raise the broader issue of hermeneutics—the methodological principles of interpreting the Bible. The uncertainties of our knowledge of the ancient past should caution us to respect the tentative nature of our knowledge in how we craft historical reconstructions of the ancient past. The better practice is let the text say what it will and put explanations in notes appended to the text.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Does the Name of Jesus work like "Magic" or has the Bible misled us?

In the Gospel of John Jesus told his disciples to “ask anything” in his name: “whatever you ask in my name, I will do it…If you ask anything in my name I will do it” (John 14:13-14; see also 15:16; 16:23-24; 16:26). And so the custom has evolved in conservative Protestantism to conclude every prayer with the refrain “in Jesus name Amen.” In fact, many deeply religious folk feel that prayers lacking this refrain are not heard by God (or Jesus, to whom some people also pray).

Adding “in Jesus name” to a prayer is apparently a reminder to Jesus of his promises in John, for Jesus was believed to intercede for believers (Romans 8:34; Hebrews 7:25). But the practice of praying in Jesus name appears to have been unknown in the synoptic gospels. For example, in the model prayer where Jesus taught his disciples how to pray there is no instruction that prayers should conclude with “in Jesus name.” This model prayer is a Q tradition, an early source, which Matthew and Luke used in addition to Mark (Matt 6:9-13=Luke 11:2-4), and it appears also in the Didache (8.2; dated from 70-150 CE).

The model prayer Jesus taught his disciples is slightly different in all three versions.

His disciples said to him “Lord teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” And he said to them “when you pray, say: ‘Father, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come! Give us each day our daily bread; and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us; and lead us not into temptation.’” (RSV Luke 11:1-4).

But there is no mention of praying in Jesus’ name. The earliest instance of praying in Jesus’ name may be Paul’s prayer language regarding the gathering at Rome: “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you…” (Rom 1:8; also Eph 5:20; Col 3:17). But this is likely just a recognition that all approaches to God should be made through Jesus the mediator (Ephesians 2:14-18), rather than a specific indication that early Christians ended prayers “in Jesus name.”

Nevertheless, Jesus’ name does appear in early literature authorizing the performance of miraculous deeds. His name is represented as being a powerful force. Demons are cast out and other mighty works are done using the formula “in the name of Jesus” (Matt 7:22; [Mark 16:17]). Peter, for example, heals a lame man saying: “‘In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, Walk!’ And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong” (Acts 3:6-7, 16; 4:10). Paul drives a spirit of divination out of a slave girl by saying, “I charge you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her, and it came out that very hour” (Acts16:18). Unspecified “signs and wonders” are also performed “through the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:29-30). In one instance a person who was not even a part of Jesus’ band of disciples was casting out demons by using the name of Jesus (Mark 9:38-39=Luke 9:49-50). So the evangelists apparently regarded power as residing “in the name of Jesus.” Incidentally I know of one contemporary scholar, critically trained, who claims to have stopped a thunder storm and other such things by saying “in Jesus name.”

Perhaps the greatest claim for the name of Jesus is made in the Shepherd of Hermas, Similitudes 14:5: “The name of the Son of God is great and incomprehensible and supports the whole world,” a claim similar to Colossians 1:15-20.

Traditional Reformation-era churches regard the performance of these kinds of mighty deeds performed using Jesus’ name, as restricted to the “Apostolic Age.” That is, such things were actually done, but only during the time of the earliest apostles, which one New Testament introduction dates as 30-65.1 Nevertheless, today in contemporary churches many of these deeds are thought to continue into the modern period. The Catholic Church, for example, has scheduled a week-long international conference in Rome on the exorcism of demons for April of 2018.2 In 1990 the International Association of Exorcists, a Roman Catholic organization, was founded and recognized by the Vatican in 2014.3

Does anyone know the earliest time in recorded history that the words “in the name of Jesus, Amen” (or the equivalent in any language) appeared at the end of a prayer?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1R. W. Crapps, E. V. McKnight, D. A. Smith, Introduction to the New Testament (1969), 373. The apostolic age is generally considered to be the period from around 30 to 100, covering the period of the lives of the earliest disciples/apostles.
2Springfield News-Leader, Feb 25, 2018, B2.
3Ibid.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

A Deliberate Omission or a simple Oversight?

In Baptist Bible study several weeks ago I stumbled into an interesting problem in Acts. Luke (the putative author of Acts) includes a narrative about Apollos (Acts 18:24–28).1 He is described as a Jew, a native of Alexandria. He was an "eloquent man, well versed in the scriptures, and fervent in the spirit." Apollos "had been instructed in the way of the Lord" and he "spoke and taught accurately (ακριβῶς; that is, in strict conformity to a pattern or norm) the things concerning Jesus." That comment suggests Luke agreed with what the man had to say about Jesus. Luke mentions, however, that Apollos knew only the baptism of John (Acts 18:25), but nevertheless Luke does not describe him as being baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus, as the disciples in 19:1–7 were. Is this uncorrected deficiency an oversight by the narrator? The observation is left to dangle and nothing is made of it.

            Apollos spoke boldly in the synagogue, and when Pricilla and Aquila heard him speak, they apparently found deficiencies in his address before the synagogue, so they took him aside and "expounded to him the way of God more accurately" (Acts 18:26; ακριβέστερον comparative of ακριβῶς). Using the word "accurately" in one verse (18:25) and "more accurately" in another verse (18:26) sets up the following problem: "the statements are contradictory: if he taught accurately, he required no further instruction. If he required further instruction, he did not teach accurately."2 Richard Pervo describes the problem as a "gap intentionally left by the narrator."3 Pervo explains that Apollos' lack of knowledge of the baptism that brings the Holy Spirit (as we find it in Acts 19:1–7) is "a Lucan cipher for inadequate doctrine and rite, not explicitly false teaching, since it is based on ignorance other than deceit, and the like."4 He refers to his solution as cutting "the Gordian Knot," meaning I take it, as an unsatisfactory solution to an intractable problem (a problem having no obvious or simple solution).5

            Could the problem relate simply to the difference between Apollos' excellent knowledge of "the things concerning Jesus" and his need for some improvement in his understanding of God? That seems unlikely, however, for a Jewish man from Alexandria who was "well versed in the scriptures" and proficient in his knowledge of things pertaining to Jesus would likely be well versed in what scripture says about God.

            There is a textual variant in Acts 18:26 that might make a solution possible. Acts 18:26 in Codex Bezae reads simply "the Way," which is an expression describing Christianity (cf. Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22). Text Critics, however, insist that the preferred reading is "The way of God."6

            Another possibility, not considered by Pervo, was that Luke simply overlooked the contradiction; hence it was an accidental oversight by Luke, like (perhaps) the failure to baptize Apollos in the "name of the Lord Jesus." If so it becomes just another example of sloppy writing by a biblical writer.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Apollos is mentioned only twice in Acts. In this narrative and in a transition to the one that follows, Acts 19:1. He plays a much larger role in 1 Corinthians 1–4 and 16:12.
2My source is R. Pervo. Acts (Fortress: Hermenia, 2009), 460, note 16. The statement is by Ernst Haenchen as cited by Pervo.
3Ibid., 460, note 16.
4Ibid., 459.
5Ibid.
6Metzger, Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 414. Two respected scholars, however, accept the reading "the Way" as the best reading: Jackson and Lake, Beginnings of Christianity. Part One, Acts of the Apostles, 3.178.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Authority and Religious Value of the Bible

The early twentieth-century New Testament Scholar, C. H. Dodd, argued that "the measure of any authority which the Bible may possess must lie in its direct religious value, open to discovery in experience; and this value in turn will be related to the experience out of which the Scripture came."1 One reviewer (J.Y. Campbell) objected arguing that "I cannot see that anything is gained by talking of authority if what we really mean is religious value."2 Dodd defined authority "in its primary form" as "the authority of the truth itself, compelling and subduing," and adds to that a "secondary sense of the term 'authority,'" which he sees as the following: "the authority of persons who being presumed to know the truth communicate it to others."3 Hence for Dodd the authority we meet in the Bible is in this secondary sense, which is "the authority of experts in the knowledge of God, masters in the art of living; the authority of religious genius."4 We cannot, however, today engage these "experts in the knowledge of God" in person. They can only be met in written texts that have been passed down to us.
 
            Campbell counters, however, that "any such authority is certainly quickly destroyed when we discover our 'authorities' [i.e., the written texts] making erroneous statements,"5 which modern critical studies have clearly demonstrated to be the case with the Bible, as Dodd himself acknowledges.6
 
            The preeminent "religious genius" in the Bible in Dodd's view is Jesus. According to Dodd, "His inner life possessed a unique moral perfection, which would account for the unique authority His words have actually carried in spite of all local and temporal limitations."7 Sayings of Jesus as reported by the evangelists, however, do not possess the same authority as the man, for in the Gospels one finds sayings attributed to Jesus, as Dodd admits, that "either are simply not true, in their plain meaning, or are unacceptable to the conscience or reason of Christian people."8 This acknowledgement by Dodd of the clearly flawed condition of the gospels leads Campbell to conclude: "This crucial instance suffices to show that no authority of this secondary sort can be claimed for the Bible."9 In other words, the religious authority of those living "experts in the knowledge of God" is not passed on in the texts that contain writings about and by them. On the other hand, Campbell agrees that modern biblical scholarship "has revealed more clearly than ever" the "abiding spiritual value" of the Bible "as Mr. Dodd has shown so excellently."10
 
            This brief exchange contrasting the ideas of Dodd and Campbell uses two words in assessing the relevance of the Bible: authority and value. Dodd had in his book considered and rejected the word: "infallible," in the sense that "the biblical writers infallibly set forth the truth."11 And Campbell rejects Dodd's claim that the Bible has authority in itself.  Both agreed, however, that the Bible has religious value.
 
            Both scholars, however, were speaking as men of faith and evaluating the Bible from within the house of Christian faith, rather than from a disinterested broader historical perspective in a universal and timeless sense. Objectively speaking the Bible has no inherent or intrinsic religious value or authority in itself; the Bible only has that religious authority and/or value that one chooses to give it. According to Dodd, "the Bible itself does not make any claim to infallible authority for all its parts."12 How could it? Later people of faith collected its various parts to make it a whole long after the individuals who lived and wrote it had passed from the historical scene. The Bible is the product of modern critical scholarship, and represents only two episodes (Israelite and Christian) in a longer and broader human quest for God.
 
            Calling the Bible "the Word of God" is a learned personal opinion about the Bible and is not a description of the Bible itself. The Bible consists of human words about how God was understood in two religious communities long before the modern era commenced. Hence its words and ideas need to be vetted for contemporary religious significance. Quite clearly the Bible has historical significance as part of the religious history of Western civilization, but whether or not it has a claim to be the exclusive authority and value for shaping religion in contemporary life is a personal choice on the part of its readers.
 
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
 
1C. H. Dodd, The Authority of the Bible (2nd ed. London: Nisbet, 1938), xiii. The first edition appeared in 1928.
2J. Y Campbell, "An Interpretation of Biblical Authority," Journal of Religion 10.3 (July1930) 423.
3Dodd, Authority, 21.
4Ibid., 25.
5Campbell, "Biblical Authority," 424.
6Dodd, Authority, 233.
7Ibid., 240-41.
8Ibid., 233.
9Campbell, "Biblical Authority,"424.
10Ibid.
11Dodd, Authority, 8-18. The quote is from page 8.
12Ibid., 15.