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.

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.
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.
11Dodd, Authority, 8-18. The quote is from page 8.
12Ibid., 15.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Bible and the “Laws” of Physics

There are many narratives in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and the New Testament, which demand a willing suspension of disbelief on the part of a twenty-first century person. Educated persons would admit that certain narratives reflect physical impossibilities, and hence they clash with the way things usually work in the world.  For example, in the cycle of stories about the acts of Elisha in Second Kings (chapters 2-13) one finds, among other stories of the same sort, the story of an iron axe head that floated after falling into the Jordan River (6:1-7). Elisha, described as "the man of God," reputedly caused the axe head to rise to the surface by tossing a stick into the water. The claim in the narrative that the axe head floated violates the buoyancy principle of Archimedes of Syracuse (third century BCE) that states: an object will float if it is equal to or less than the amount of water it displaces (that is why aircraft carriers float). The weight of an iron axe head is not equal to or less than the weight of the water it displaces and hence it will not float. And common sense tells us that a stick tossed into the water would have no influence on what is essentially a law of physics.1 In order to think that the narrative describes something that actually happened, readers must suspend disbelief.

Another narrative requiring a suspension of disbelief is the tradition of Joshua causing the sun to stand still in the sky to allow the Israelites to slay all their enemies, the Amorites, at Gibeon (Josh 10:6-14).

And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies. Is this not written in the Book of Jashar? The sun stayed in the midst of heaven, and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day. There has been no day like it before or since (Josh 10:13-14, RSV).

The belief that the sun rises in the east, moves across the sky, and sets in the west, is an ancient superstition, shared by the biblical writers.2 This belief was proven incorrect only in the sixteenth century CE.3 Until that time it was believed that the sun and the planets circled the earth, which held a position in the center of the solar system. In other words they believed that the earth did not move, but today it is common knowledge that the earth moves in an elliptical movement around the sun.

The New Testament also has narratives defying reason, logic, and explanation as an actual historical event. For example, Jesus is represented as feeding five thousand people with five loaves and two fish; the account appears in all four canonical gospels (Mark 6:32-44; Matt 14:13-21; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-15). In the narrative everyone eats their fill and twelve baskets of food fragments are left over. The story depicts two logical impossibilities. While five loaves and two fish can each be divided into amounts tiny enough to pass out to five thousand people, it is physically impossible that every person would be satiated from eating the tiny amount that they would have received (Mark 6:42; Matt 14:20; Luke 9:17; John 6:12) or that there would be twelve baskets full of fragments left over after the feeding (Mark 6:43; Matt 14:20; Luke 9:17; 6:13).4

Narratives like these, which require a suspension of disbelief by most of us, are nevertheless accepted as a normal part of reality by the deeply pious; they have a high degree of confidence in the Bible and simply dismiss the idea that the event could not have happened by asserting: the Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it—as if the story about how we came by the Bible5 has no impact on the relative value of its ideas. Others offer a slightly more sophisticated theory to explain away some of the problems: God is in control of the universe; therefore God can do whatever God chooses in the universe. This latter statement disregards how the universe is thought to work in secular society; those who live by this statement are simply changing "reality" to correspond to their religious faith. A third way of handling problems  in biblical narratives requiring a suspension of disbelief rejects the "laws" of physics by arguing the universe is not a closed system but rather an open system. Hence in the view of those who believe in miracles physical "laws" are only general rules that are sometimes suspended leaving open the possibility that miracles can occur.

Was Archimedes wrong and Jesus really did walk on the water?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, "Archimedes' Principle":

2For example, Gen 15:12; Exod 17:12; Jdg 14:18; 2 Chron 18:34; Matt 5:45; Mark 16:2; Eph 4:26.

3George Abell, Exploration of the Universe, 34-53.

4Compare similar stories about Elijah and Elisha in 1 Kgs 17: 8-16 (the jar of meal and the cruse of oil) and 2 Kgs 4:1-7 (the jar of oil). Each story contrasts limited amounts at the beginning and the abundant residue at the end exceeding that with which the story began.

5The Bible is a product of modern biblical scholarship. See the two brief descriptions of the science of textual criticism, which is basic to all critical approaches to the Bible: Fuller, "Text Criticism, OT," NIDB, 531-34; Holmes, "Text Criticism, NT" NIDB, 529-31.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Superstition, Magic, and the Bible

There is an unusual statement in Acts 19:11-12. It is no more than a brief aside having little connection with the narrative in which it is embedded:

And God did extraordinary miracles (dunameis) by the hands of Paul so that handkerchiefs or aprons were carried away from his body to the sick, and diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them (Acts 19:11-12, RSV).

The statement immediately plunges the reader into the occult world of ancient magic, superstition, and religious fetishes. The author that scholars call Luke1 describes God as performing extraordinary deeds through the hands of Paul, so that handkerchiefs (soudaria) or aprons (simikinthia) that touched his body (chrōtos) were taken to the sick and demon possessed. As a result of contact with the cloth objects that had touched Paul, these people were healed and purged of evil spirits (Acts 19:12).

            The principle involved in the account seems to be that of healing and exorcism from a distance by "miraculous" power from the objects themselves rather than by an exorcist or healer or intervention by a supernatural deity. Thus it wasn't Paul who healed and exorcised. It was rather a power transferred from Paul's body that came to reside in the cloths that effectuated the cures and the exorcisms. The power, originating with God and working through Paul, passed from Paul to the cloths. The healings and exorcisms are thus not described as healing acts directly from God or from Paul, but rather from what appear to be religious fetishes having miraculous power in themselves.

            The account in Acts nineteen is similar to the woman's belief in Matt 9:20-21. She is described as believing that if she could only "touch the fringe of [Jesus'] garment," she could be made well. That is to say, she is represented as thinking that the garment touching the body of Jesus possessed that same power by which Jesus is credited with performing his mighty deeds. In this same way the author of Acts appears to believe that healing power also resided in things Paul touched. The transfer of power in the Acts account is similar to Paul's idea that holiness can be transferred from a believing partner to an unbelieving partner in a marriage, so that the children would not be "unclean" (1 Cor 7:13-14; compare 1 Cor 6:15-16 where the transference seems to work the other way).

            A kind of primitive supernatural power is described as being at work in the Acts account. Anthropologists have adopted the term mana, a Melanesian term (there are others), "as a convenient designation for the widespread belief in occult force or indwelling power as such, independent of either persons or spirits…Taken together all such terms refer to the experienced presence of a powerful but silent force in things, especially any occult force which is believed to act of itself, as an addition to the forces naturally or usually present in a thing…It is a force that is thought to be transmissible from objects in nature to man, from one person to another, or again from persons to things."2

            Broadly speaking the brief aside in Acts 19:11-12 suggests the operation of a kind of primitive magic in which the objects taken from the body of Paul themselves become the source of a supernatural power, which cures diseases and drives out evil spirits.3 Magic is defined as:

the use of means (as ceremonies, charms, spells) that are believed to have supernatural power to cause a supernatural being to produce or prevent a particular result (as rain, death, healing) considered not obtainable by natural means and that also contain the arts of divination, incantation, sympathetic magic, and thaumaturgy: control of natural forces by the typically direct action of rites, objects, materials or words considered supernaturally potent.4

This brief narrative aside appears to document the practice of a primitive magic in the early Jesus gatherings. If the early followers of Jesus did practice a kind of primitive magic in their communities that negatively affects the relevance of the Bible's beliefs for the modern world, and creates the problem of sorting out in a formal way the Bible's relevant ideas from the irrelevant.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1This is because Acts is believed to have been written by the same author that wrote Luke.
2Noss, Man's Religions, 16. A belief in mana is one of fourteen common features of primitive religions (pages 14-31).
3Magic was pervasive in antiquity; see Betz, Greek Magical Papyri; and Meyer and Smith, Ancient Christian Magic.
4Webster's Third International Dictionary, s. v., "magic."