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.

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?"


"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

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.

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."