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

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 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:
2"Intentionality," Wikipedia:
3All the gospels, however, portray Jesus' death as being done at the behest of Roman authority.