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.