Monday, July 15, 2019

Democracy and the Bible

On July 4th I began pondering American democracy (our Republic)—I suppose it is appropriate to ponder our fragile experiment in democracy on Independence Day. An experiment in democracy, lasting just a short 343 years, is fragile by definition because its success depends on an educated electorate1 that regularly participates in the democratic process, which includes voting in elections and monitoring of elected officials.2

The Bible offers little positive guidance on a democratic government, and what little it says about governmental rule actually presents a problem for readers. Only two extensive descriptions of a political state are to be found in the New Testament, and both of them present contradictory views on that state (the Roman Empire), which was the dominant political power in the New Testament world (from about 31 BCE [ascension of Augustus] to 410 CE [the sack of Rome by the Visigoths]).

The author of Revelation (chapters 13, 17-18) portrays the Roman Empire in ghastly terms as the evil Empire of the Antichrist (Rev12:1-17). Paul on the other hand has a surprisingly naïve view of the governing authorities (Rom 13:1-7). His view is that the governing authorities of the Empire are “appointed by God” (13:1-2), and anyone who resists them will incur judgment (13:2). Oddly he makes no distinction between types of governments—apparently even repressive, ruthless, and autocratic governments are likewise appointed by God. Rulers are God’s servants “for your good” (13:3-4), he writes. Thus, one must be subject to them or else suffer God’s wrath (13:5). He concludes this short section directing that taxes must be paid and that citizens of the state should give respect and honor to the authorities, for they are “ministers of God” (13:6-7).

Both writers are clearly mistaken in their views. The Roman domination of the Mediterranean basin while difficult for the Roman Provinces nevertheless provided them with the pax romana (Roman Peace); it provided the provinces with “security and safety made possible travel, trade, and renewed economic development and prosperity.”3 So Roman governance under the Empire was not as terrible as John had imagined it. Paul’s view on the other hand is simply uninformed. That all governing authorities are appointed by God could not possibly be true—if we assume that God has a conscience. In any case, Paul’s views about the Empire clearly conflict with our democratic system of which we find no trace in the New Testament.

It seems fairly clear (at least to me) that Mr. Trump was not “appointed by God” (but then neither was Mr. Obama). Mr Trump was appointed by the Electoral College after he lost the popular vote of the country. His administration (and that of Mr. Obama as well) is plagued by gridlock. That is because governance in a representative democracy (a republic) is often messy and inefficient; it is all too frequently partisan, rather than bipartisan. A democratic form of government should probably be avoided except for the fact that all other forms of government are worse.

The Bible offers no specific advice about government. Except that here and there the Bible’s ethical ideas might be inculcated into government. For specific ideas about how government should function we are left to our own imaginations. It is more than disconcerting to see Mr. Trump employ in his presidency ideas and values different from the positive ethical ideas of the Bible (or even conventional American values) , and nevertheless still receive strong evangelical support.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1National Center for Education: In 2016-17 85% of Americans had graduated High School; 21% had a Bachelor’s degree; 9.3% had a Master’s Degree; less than 2% held a Doctorate.
2In the 2016 Presidential election 58.1% of the voting-eligible population voted: https://guides.libraries.psu.edu/post-election-2016/voter-turnout
3E. Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (3rd ed.; Eerdmans, 2003), p. 29.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Caution: the Bible is a Dangerous Book

When I was young and green and growing like an emerald sprout in the steamy Mississippi Delta, I was an avid churchgoer—my junior and senior years of high school I worked on the staff at the Ridgecrest Baptist Assembly Grounds, served as president of High School Youth for Christ, and led the closing prayer at my high school graduation. Yet in all my religious training no one ever warned me how dangerous the Bible was when read prescriptively, and that is precisely the way I was taught to read it in a Mississippi Baptist church—prescriptively! Taking the Bible prescriptively is what one does when one regards it as a divinely inspired book. My teachers in those early years were not critical scholars and they all believed the Bible reflected a prescription for a successful life, one that was pleasing to God. They seemed confident that knowledge of and obedience to its contents would develop a strong Christian character. During those early years, however, no one ever cautioned me that in reading the Bible I should have to choose carefully between its mosaic of good ideas and bad ideas; and it is essential that readers learn to discriminate between the positive and negative ideas advocated in its pages! For example, the Bible rightly extols the positive qualities of a wife and mother—qualities worthy of emulation (Proverbs 31:10-13), but it also promotes a blatant misogyny that easily misleads the unwary prescriptive reader (1 Tim 2:8-15).

Here is another example of the need to discriminate carefully among better and worse ideas appearing in the Bible. In 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 Paul compares three religious abilities: love (1 Corinthians 13:4-7), prophetic powers, and faith. He claims that the ability to love is the greatest of these three abilities (1 Corinthians 13:13). Unfortunately this judgment is something he seems to forget in Galatians, where he aggressively promotes the right kind of faith over some who disagree with him (Gal 1:6-2:14). Discriminating readers will recognize the need to choose between these two contradictory positions—love can lead to reconciliation, while insistence on the right kind of faith will inevitably lead to disunity—and even violence (church history abounds with such examples). A striving after love, is the ethically more demanding choice (1 Corinthians 13:4), while the other, insisting on the right faith, more likely than not will lead to callousness (Gal 1:6-9). It is far more difficult to treat with love and kindness someone who disagrees with your faith than it is to denounce and dismiss them (as Paul did).

The most insidious aspect of taking the Bible prescriptively, however, is that its authors view reality mythically (myth: things that exist only in the imagination), and subliminally they call for readers to share their mythical views. Yet to accept their views one is required to regard the universe as a battleground between the forces of light (God, angels, Holy Spirit, good spirits, etc.) and Darkness (Satan, demons, evil spirits, etc.). Bible readers generally assimilate such ideas without serious challenge. Yet no formal argument for the necessity of believing in such an unseen world is presented in the Bible; its mythical world view simply reflects the backdrop of Hebrew and Greco-Roman antiquity. Such concepts were in the air the authors breathed and the water they drank.

Now in the late autumn of my allotted years I am hard struck by the failure of the Church to handle carefully the greatest treasure of its historical past. The Biblical corpus is like the corpus of ancient Greek poets whom Plato accused of corrupting the minds of Greek youth by attributing things to the Greek Gods that were untrue (The Republic, 377A-383E). In his ideal state he virtually censored the reading of the poets by the youth for the damage it could do them.* Here is my question: Should the Church learn from Plato’s example, and insist that there be warning labels on Bibles—perhaps something simple like the following: “Caution; contains ideas in part that should not be taken as a prescription for modern life”? There are many types of literature (politics, medicine, etc.) whose authors urge that their ideas be taken as a prescription for modern life. They change with the times. Yet it is precisely because of the Bible’s continuing iconic status in American culture that it requires a warning label. What do you think?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

*See Wry Thoughts about Religion Blog, June 26, 2015: “The Sybil’s Wish: A Mythical Encounter.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Can the Past be changed?

That is to ask: is the Past etched in stone? Or as Omar Khayyam wrote: “The moving finger writes; and having writ moves on: nor all thy piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line, nor all thy tears wash out a word of it.” The dictionary defines the Past as “Time gone by” or as “[something] having existed or taken place in a period before the present.” In other words what we refer to as “the Past” is no longer available to experience. So how could it be changed? From our current linear perspective the past is “water under the bridge”—that is, the Past has passed beyond our ability to influence or affect what happened; in short the Past is transpired “history.”

There is, however, a curious passage in Ecclesiastes that supports the idea that the Past is constantly recurring. In an opening poem (Ecclesiastes 1:4-11) the author (called Qohelet) “characterizes nature as an endless round of pointless movement, a rhythm that engulfs human generations as well.”1 From the author’s perspective the Past is so clearly delineated, however, that it can repeat itself: “What has been is what will be and what has been done is what will be done and there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl 1:9 RSV; compare 3:15). James Crenshaw, however, insists that “a myth of eternal return does not lurk beneath” these words. “Rather, the emphasis falls on the burdensome monotony of everything in nature and among human beings.”2 Nevertheless, Qohelet’s words do seem to affirm that the Past is a “thing in itself,” and that what has been done will happen again.

Today we also think of the Past as a discrete “something” with clearly defined parameters except that it lies in a bygone era. We seem to consider the Past as a substantial “thing”—just like the Present and the Future. The truth is, however, we know the Past imperfectly and then only partially in artifact and narrative, and not at all in its aggregate totality. We know only its artifactual vestiges and partial narrative reconstructions, which do not always agree. One’s personal lived past is also available in one’s faulty memory. The collective memory of our shared human past is recited in idealized public ritual and narrative reconstructions and it is partially available in museum artifacts and personal mementos. The Past is hardly etched in stone, however, but rather it still remains accessible in the present.

The Past can be changed! That is to say: not in whatever actually transpired in that bygone era but rather in how we have come to think of those events—in short, by changing our understanding of those past events we can essentially change the Past’s influence on the present. Here are two examples from the Gospel of John in which the Past has been changed.

John 12:12-19

Jesus passes through Bethany on his way to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem (John 12:1) and stops at the home of Mary and Martha (12:2-3). The next day he proceeds to Jerusalem riding on a young donkey (2:14)—the situation is not unusual; the donkey is a common mode of transportation in the ancient Near East (e.g., 2 Sam 17:23; 19:26; 1 Kgs 13:13-14). The disciples who were present at the time thought nothing of Jesus riding on the ass to Jerusalem. It was a common sight to see travelers on donkeys. The crowd had gathered (12:12) because of the popularity of Jesus (12:11, 13, 19). But later, after the resurrection (12:16) when the disciples were reading Scripture and reflecting on what had transpired they chanced upon Zechariah (9:9), and suddenly the earlier incident became charged with Messianic significance as the disciples came to a new understanding of the incident through the Scripture. No longer was it a simple visit to Jerusalem before an admiring crowd at Passover; rather in the disciples’ new understanding the donkey-event had become a prophetic act announcing Jesus as the Messianic king, and the former enthusiastic shouts of the crowd became a confession of his Messianic status stated in the words of Zechariah’s “prophecy”:

Rejoice Greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Lo your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a colt the foal of an ass. (RSV)

John 2:13-22

John’s account of the “Cleansing of the temple” is described in strongly violent language depicting vicious acts (2:15) more so than what appears in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 11:15-19; Matt 21:12-13; Luke 19:45-48). The depiction features a sequence of vicious attacks by Jesus; he specifically uses a whip of cords to drive men and animals out of the temple and pours out the coins of the money changers overturning their tables. This visual image initially created problems for the disciples. But then they happened to remember that it had been foretold in Scripture that the Christ would be “consumed by zeal” for the Lord’s house (2:17; Ps 69:9). In other words Jesus is overcome by religious fervor at what he takes to be a desecration of the temple. From the disciples’ perspective this new understanding of Jesus’ violence and cruelty provides Jesus the excuse of “righteous indignation,” essentially pardoning his behavior and changing their earlier view of his cruelty—the “incident” had become an instance of divine justice at work.

            Since the Past is remembered and reconstructed from differing perspectives, who is to say that it should not be changed from yet another perspective? For example, was Benedict Arnold a traitor or a patriot? How do you see it?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1James Crenshaw, Ecclesiastes. A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1987), 60.
2Crenshaw, Ecclesiastes, 67.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Time-does it move forward or in Circles?

I know; it sounds like a trick question. But in the ancient world time was circular. The earth continually renewed itself through the regular recurring cycles of nature: Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter. Such a cycle is basically “startime” (the sun is a star) produced by the rotation of the earth around the sun in our solar system giving us also, in addition to the recurring seasons of the year, the time of day: dawn, noon, sunset, night. These cycles are described as the theory of the eternal return. “The universe and all existence and energy [have] been recurring, and will continue to recur in a self-similar form an infinite number of times across infinite time or space. The theory is found in Indian [India] philosophy and ancient Egypt and was subsequently taken up by the Pythagoreans and Stoics” in the Greek tradition.1 In many ways, without modern precision, cyclical time replicates our own system of sidereal time—time as tracked by clocks, watches, and chronometers. In short, except for daylight savings time, your watch is keyed to the circle of the earth around the sun.

The Judeo-Christian view of time, on the other hand, is linear. Everything originated in God’s act of creation (Genesis 1:1-2:4a; 2:4b-3:24) and moves forward toward the inevitable Day of the Lord at which moment “the heavens will pass away with a loud noise and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the works that are upon it will be burned up” (2 Pet 3:10 RSV)—and time will be no more. All events in world history, from creation to end, are believed included in this forward movement, which gives an illusion of progress in history.

Today we experience time from both of these perspectives. Reckoning time from a linear perspective and a cyclical perspective both prove useful for us in order to situate ourselves in time—e.g., hour of the day, season of the year, century provided by our linear calendar. We also experience time in other ways—as passing fast or slow, depending on how occupied we are in a given situation; as either individual and private or epochal and public—for example, one’s personal birthday celebration as opposed to the end of WWII. Life is believed to be a progressive series of such milestones or epochs—at least as we calculate time today.

The idea that time is linear is aided by a decision to distinguish the passage of time between BC (before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini—in the year of the Lord). This theological plot on time, which shifts time from circular to linear is credited to Dionysius Exiguus of Scythia Minor in 525 AD; his system was not widely accepted until after 800AD, however. The BC/AD system of Exiguus was used to number the years in the Gregorian and Julian calendars. Our modern calendar derives from the Gregorian Calendar, which is the most widely used calendar in the world today.2 Modern critical scholars change BC/AD designations to BCE (Before the Common Era) and CE (Common Era) in order to secularize the divisions. The segments remain essentially the same, however.

One comes to realize the core problem of time by addressing the following question: how are all personal and public epochs since the beginning of time linked so as to give us a single linear sequence of time with all events taking their place in a relentless progression toward a particular goal?3

Historians also think of the movement of history as a linear movement. History is defined as “a branch of knowledge that records and explains past events as steps in the sequence of human activities.”4 Historical narrative is an attempt to reconstruct the past, not in its aggregate totality, but in what the historian considers its more significant aspects. In my view, however, history itself is something other than a historical narrative.5 Nevertheless modern historians still see time and human history moving forward in a linear line. Yet here we are making circles around the sun locked into a solar system going no place in particular. How do you see it?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

3This argument is adapted from, and with apologies to, John Dominic Crossan, Raid on the Articulate. Comic Eschatology in Jesus and Borges (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), 133-136.
4Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (2002), s. v. “history.”
5Hedrick, “History, Historical Narrative, and Mark’s Gospel,” Wry Thoughts about Religion Blog, Dec 22, 2013.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Of Superstition and Religion

Adapted from the Introduction to Unmasking Biblical Faiths, pages 4-6.*

Is there a qualitative difference between superstition and religion? Perhaps, there is, but you will be the arbiter. Today superstition is defined several ways: as “a belief, conception, act, or practice resulting from ignorance; as unreasoning fear of the unknown or mysterious scrupulosity; as trust in magic or chance”; or as “a belief affording the relief of an anxiety by means of an irrational notion.”

Superstition (Greek: deisidaimonia; Latin: superstitio) in the Greco-Roman period, however, is defined somewhat differently; it is “a free citizen’s forgetting his dignity by throwing himself into the servitude of deities conceived as tyrants…Thus the superstitious were supposed to submit themselves to exaggerated rituals, to adhere in credulous fashion to prophecies and to allow themselves to be abused by charlatans.” Plutarch in contrasting the atheist and superstitious person wrote:

Superstition…is an emotional idea, and an assumption productive of a fear which utterly humbles and crushes a man, for he thinks that there are gods, but that they are the cause of pain and injury. In fact, the atheist, apparently, is unmoved regarding the Divinity, whereas the superstitious man is moved as he ought not to be, and his mind is thus perverted.

Cicero contrasted religion and superstition in this way: superstition “implies a groundless fear of the gods,” and religion “consists in piously worshipping them.” In the Roman period superstition (superstitio) also came to have the idea of “bad religion,” a label by which a dominant religious group might libel a minority religious group.

The term superstition (deisidaimonia) appears only twice in the New Testament (Acts 17:22; 25:19) and to judge from Greek lexicons it is a general term for religion or excessive religious scrupulosity, which generally agrees with the judgments of Greco-Roman writers. On the other hand, religious belief by modern definition is generally seen as something quite similar to superstition, differing only in a negative evaluation given to the latter and a positive evaluation given to the former. Today faith is generally defined as “belief and trust in and loyalty to God” or “a firm or unquestioning belief in something for which there is no proof.” Judging from their definitions, faith and superstition actually seem to function in a similar manner. What I conclude from the shades of meaning accorded the word superstition is that superstition and faith are not two qualitatively different kinds of belief. Rather they reflect a range of similar attitudes best represented by a spectrum with superstition at one end and religious belief at the other end. They presumably meet somewhere around the middle, depending on who is describing the middle point. In short, what some define as acceptable religious belief, others will define as unacceptable superstition.

The modern definition of superstition casts doubt on much of what one finds in the Bible. For example, much of what one finds in the Bible demands a willing suspension of disbelief on the part of a twenty-first- century person. Educated persons will recognize that certain narratives reflect physical impossibilities and hence clash with the way things usually work in the world. For example, in the cycle of stories about the acts of Elisha in 2 Kings (chapters 2–13) one finds among other stories of the same sort the story of an iron ax-head that floated after falling into the Jordan River (6:1–7). Elisha, described as “the man of God,” supposedly caused the ax-head to rise to the surface by tossing a stick into the water. The claim that the ax-head floated violates the buoyancy principle of Archimedes of Syracuse (third century BCE) that states, an object will float if its weight is equal to or less than the weight of the water it displaces. The weight of an iron ax-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 modern physics. In order to think that the narrative describes something that actually happened, readers must suspend disbelief. A true believer in biblical “miracles,” however, will claim an exception to the laws of physics by arguing that God intervenes into the way things usually work in the world to accomplish God’s desired ends, and hence this incident actually occurred. Should one describe the belief that the ax-head actually floated as superstition?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

*Charles W. Hedrick, Unmasking Biblical Faiths. The Marginal Relevance of the Bible for Contemporary Religious Faith. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2019. See pages 4-6 of the introduction for the documentations to this segment.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Do Gods have Souls?

I don’t know much about God, or Gods in general; I only know what I have read and what others are happy to tell me. But I began wondering a day or so ago about the following question: do Gods have souls? The question is fraught with difficulties—defining God and defining the soul being the biggest two. Some Christian readers may even think it a silly question because the Bible describes God as spirit (John 4:24). Is it possible for spirits to have souls? In the Christian West we popularly think of ourselves as “having” souls; that is to say, an eternal immaterial aspect of a human being that leaves the material body on death. But God in the Judeo-Christian tradition does not have a material body, so how could God have a soul? Spirits (if spirits there be) have neither shape nor distinguishing form. So how can invisible spirit be indwelled by a shapeless, formless soul? The Bible says that we human beings are created “in the image of God” (Gen 1:26-27; 5:1-3; 9:6); so if we have a soul wouldn’t it logically follow that God, our prototype, also has a soul? Perhaps we do not have (as we think) souls (psyche) in the Greek sense:

In Homer the psyche is what leaves the body on death (i.e. life, or breath?) but also an insubstantial image of the dead person existing in Hades and emphatically not something alive. But some vague idea of psyche as the essence of the individual, capable of surviving the body (and perhaps entering another) is well established by the 5th century B.C.E.1

Like God, soul is also a slippery concept. We human beings don’t all agree that there is an eternal immaterial aspect of the human being that leaves the body on death. There most certainly is, however, an animating principle in all living beings, which the authors of Genesis recognized as appertaining to Adam (Gen 2:7): “The Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (which is translated in the RSV as “being”).2 Adam was created a living soul (psyche is the Greek word; nephesh is the Hebrew word). So perhaps we do not “have” soul; we are soul; that is, we are simply animated matter having no eternal aspect and when our matter loses its animation (i.e., dies) our matter returns to the dust from whence it came—at least that appears to be the Hebrew concept.

There is a third way of thinking about “soul” that I want to consider in connection with the question do Gods have souls. Soul by this third (dictionary) definition is “a strong positive feeling (as of intense sensitivity and emotional fervor) conveyed especially by black American performers,”3 particularly in “soul music,” which “is characterized by intensity of feelings and earthiness.”4 Soul by this last definition suggests, among other things, the capability of being touched to the core, among other things, by tragedies of the human condition. Does God in Western religious traditions evince such a capability? We find a few such moments in his youth during the Israelite phase of his maturation process into Christianity. Since his conversion to Christianity, however, some of his earliest votaries have been far more optimistic as to God’s ability to be deeply touched by the tragedies of the human condition; nevertheless, before his conversion, God’s behavior as depicted in the Old Testament was scarcely up to Christian standards.

If God is spirit, one can only wonder how spirits possess the capability of “feeling” deeply about anything. Feeling is one of the basic physical senses, which comes to be applied to one’s emotional demeanor. One can also wonder how it comes about that soul can be so intimately associated with spirit. At least two authors in the New Testament find spirit and soul to be two different immaterial aspects of the human constitution (1 Thess 5:23; Hebrews 4:12).

Truth be told: we humans invent our Gods;5 given that, why should we not, if we chose, conceive of a Great Eternal Invisible Spirit with soul in spite of Western religious traditions? The prospect of a soulless God is a terrifying thought.

How do you see it?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Christopher Rowe, Oxford Classical Dictionary (3rd ed.), 1428.
2In the Greek translation of the Bible (the Septuagint) psyche translates the Hebrew nephesh, which is rendered as “being” in the RSV.
3Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (1983), s.v. “soul.”
4Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (1983), s.v. “soul music.”
5Blog: Wry Thoughts about Religion: “God does not Exist,” May 17, 2016.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Historical Levels in the Gospels

Most people who read the canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) assume that they reflect a single level of historical activity; that is, the average reader generally assumes the gospels reflect eyewitness reports about the sayings and doings of Jesus. Hence they pay close attention to what Jesus said and did in the particular gospel they are reading. Nevertheless a simple comparison of the differences between these three gospels reveals that they are scarcely synonymous reports. Their conflicts cannot reasonably be resolved by searching the narrated events about Jesus to achieve an explanation that allows all the reports to be “correct.” For example, one cannot convincingly argue that their differences can be explained on the basis that no two eye witnesses see or hear exactly the same thing. The differences and contradictions range from minor to dramatic disagreements in extensive detail (compare, for example, the disagreements in their accounts of the first Easter morning, Mark 16:1-8; Matt 28:1-8; Luke 24:1-12).

There are actually multi-historical levels at play in the gospels. Level one consists of narratives about the sayings and doings of Jesus. Theoretically these took place during the career of Jesus around 26-36 CE. Level two is the later historical level of the individual gospel writer and that writer’s distinctive narrative and theological views about the events surrounding the career of Jesus. Around 70 CE Mark (the earliest gospel writer) in constructing his* narrative relied on oral reports about Jesus’ activities. Mark decided the precise wording of his narrative, what stories to use among those that came his way, the sequence of events in the narrative, and the form and content of the sayings of Jesus. Hence, the gospel represents Mark’s distinctive view of what Jesus said and did some forty years or so earlier. Mark’s account is colored by his personal theology and theological prejudices. He knew no historical outline of the public career of Jesus but imposed his own plan on the disassociated reports of which he was informed. Level three is located in the later time periods of Matthew and Luke (twenty to thirty years or so after Mark). These two writers used and edited several sets of earlier, apparently written, sources: Mark, Q, M and L, as well as oral tradition.

Here is a case on point from Baptist Bible study several weeks ago. Mark narrates two miracle stories (7:25-37: the healing of a deaf mute and the Syrophoenician Woman) that cast Jesus in a poor light. When Jesus heals the deaf mute, rather than healing with a word, he utilizes what appear to be magical gestures—“he put his finger into his ears and spat and touched his tongue, and looking up into heaven he sighed and said to him ‘Ephpatha,’ that is be opened” (Mark 7:33-34). Luke does not use this story and Matthew replaces it with a general story of his own composition (lacking specifics) of Jesus healing multitudes rather than a specific deaf mute (Matt 15:29-31).

Luke does not use Mark’s story about the Syrophoenician woman in which Jesus tells her: “Let the children first be fed for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (7:27). The statement reflects negatively on Jesus by suggesting that he had a prejudicial preference for Israelites and harbored a negative attitude toward this Gentile woman, only healing her daughter because of her witty retort (Mark 7:29). Matthew, on the other hand, includes the story, including part of Jesus’ offensive statement to the woman in Mark (Matt 15:26). Matthew also puts another offensive saying on Jesus’ lips: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 15:24). This statement has the effect of showing Jesus won over by the woman’s intense supplication to him (Matt 15:22) and hence in Matthew Jesus praises her great faith (Matt 15:28), neither of which appear in Mark’s story. One can only wonder why Matthew decided to use the story but double down on the negative attitudes reflected by Jesus that offend later Christian sensitivities. Luke, on the other hand, reflects the mission of Jesus as clearly including Gentiles (Luke 2:32; 4:25-27), and his second book (Acts) features Paul, the great missionary to the Gentiles (Rom 11:13; Gal 2:8-9; Rom 1:5). This may help explain why Luke does not use Mark’s story of the Syrophoenician woman.

There is a fourth historical level that is only accessible to readers of Greek who have some knowledge of textual criticism. Virtually all of our New Testament manuscripts are third century and later. Later copyists made changes as seemed to them theologically right, or to correct a perceived error in the text, or for other reasons. For example, Mark 1:2 is wrong in how he introduces a particular quotation (Mark 1:2-3). He writes: “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet.” The quotation, however, is a composite of Mal 3:1 and Isa 40:3 and some later copyists catching the error changed the text to read: “As it is written in the prophets.”

            If you want to know what is actually going on in a gospel, purchase a Synopsis of the Four Gospels** and always read one gospel in the light of the other four. From my perspective the canonical gospels give us more reliable information about the origins of the early Christian movements in general, than about the historical Jesus in particular.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

*The male pronoun is used only for convenience. For my argument that the Gospel of Mark may possibly have had a female author see: Hedrick, “Narrator and Story in the Gospel of Mark: Hermeneia and Paradosis,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 14.3 (1987), 239-258, particularly the section on the gender of narrators (253-57).

**Available in English text only or in Greek-English from the United Bible Societies edited by Kurt Aland.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Rethinking “Evil”

I'll be the "meet the author" guest at Barnes & Noble in Springfield, Missouri on Saturday, April 13 from 1-4pm. The Bookstore is featuring my new book: Unmasking Biblical Faiths. The Marginal Relevance of the Bible for Contemporary Religious Faith. If you happen to be in or around Springfield at that time drop in and check out the book - and take a few minutes for a chat.

The word "evil" has its roots in the Middle Ages (Middle English, Old English, Old Frisian, Old Saxon, Old High German, Gothic).* Hence it appears to be a relatively late word in the family of languages that translators have chosen, along with its later associated ideas, to use in translating much earlier Greek texts. As used in English today, the word "evil" is a sinister word with supernatural associations. We generally reserve its use in the human community for the most "profound immorality and wickedness," and/or to describe an abstract supernatural force, which is the matrix of all wicked acts that are counter to all that is "good" or "right" in human life. Basically the word "evil" or its cognate in another language, in a secular context seems to mean "well beyond the limits of acceptable conduct."

I began this brief study by looking at value-laden language in English. There appear to be five sets of contrasting moral expressions in English. The expressions contrast human behavior in terms of positive and negative behaviors. The contrasts, as I describe them here, are what I gather to be polar opposites. As we use them in the Western world, each contrast arises out of a different context and each contrasting term carries a different significance deriving from the context in which it arises.

            The five sets and, in my view, the contexts from which each derives are as follows:
good/evil: religious or secular contexts based upon personal views;
good/bad: social contexts based upon particular community values;
right/wrong: social contexts based upon particular community values;
moral/immoral: social contexts based upon particular community customs;
legal/illegal: legal contexts based upon particular law codes.

The first contrast on this list (good versus evil) might be considered an abstraction and hence a basis for the other contrasts, which are then regarded as specific instances of good versus evil in the human community. At least I found the paired contrast between "good" and "evil" has appeared more often in the New Testament texts. When I checked the contrasting pairings of good versus evil in the New Testament, however, I discovered that it was apparently the translator's call whether or not to render certain Greek words by the English word "evil," for in the pairings of good versus evil other words are sometimes contrasted with good. In the contrasting pairings of good versus evil two Greek words (kakos and ponēros) are generally translated by the English word evil; sometimes the Greek words are translated as bad, wrong, or harm. In the pairings good or right is used to translate the Greek words kalos and agathos.**

One significant deviation from the usual contrast is the use of the Greek word phaulos for the negative value in the contrast of good and evil; phaulos is translated by the word "evil" in 2 Cor 5:10, but in Rom 9:11 it is translated as "bad." This latter Greek word in the lexicon has the following semantic value: "ranging in meaning from 'easy, light, simple' to 'common, bad'" (Danker/Bauer, 1050)—evil is not given in the lexicon as one of the translation possibilities for phaulos. In other words, in every instance where "evil" appears as a translation of the paired opposites the underlying Greek word might just as easily have been translated throughout as bad or wrong, or perhaps by harm.

To judge from the pairings of good versus evil, New Testament writers do not seem to conceive of "evil" in the abstract (i.e., disassociated from any specific instance of harm) as readers might think or as translators seem to suggest when they translate kakos or ponēros as "evil." If the evidence justifies this conclusion, one may reasonably therefore argue that the New Testament does not recognize the idea of an abstract principle of evil in the universe.***

Satan, for example, is portrayed in the New Testament as a kind of wicked actor who does bad things to people. The only passage that gives Satan a comprehensive role is Rev 12:9, where Satan is described as the "deceiver of the whole world." Nevertheless, Satan is not described as an abstract principle, but an individual actor. Even a passage like Eph 6:12 ("…against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places") is likewise particular rather than abstract.

So how does it seem to you?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

*See Webster's Third New International Dictionary, s.v. "evil."

**These are the passages I checked in the Revised Standard Version of the New Testament that contrast good versus evil: Rom 3:8, 7:21, 9:11, 12:21, 13:3, 16:19; 2 Cor 5:10; Heb 5:14; 1 Pet 3:11, 17; Matt 7:11, 7:17-18, 12:34-35, 20:15; Mark 3:4; Luke 6:9, 11:13.

***See also: "What should be done about Evil in the World," Wry Thoughts about Religion Blog, March 13, 2013; and "Does God Collude with Satan," Wry Thoughts about Religion Blog, June 20, 2018.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Posthumous Appearances of Jesus

Over the past year or so I have received numerous queries about 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, specifically as to the statement in 1 Cor15:6 where Paul reports that Jesus had “appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive though some have fallen asleep.” The issue seems to be that appearances to single individuals (like Cephas, James, Mary, Paul, etc.) might seem less convincing than appearances to groups since one person is more prone to hallucinations, or simply being mistaken (as Mary initially was, John 20:14-15). The appearance to multiple individuals at one and the same time, my questioners felt, increased the probability that there was actually something out there to be seen because groups of people would be less subject to the charge of hallucination (“perceptions of objects with no reality”). As one person put it: an appearance by Jesus “to groups of people at once makes it more real, since hallucination is a private event.”1

This raises the question of what exactly was seen by those who claimed to have seen the resurrected Jesus—if anything. An appearance of Jesus is not unique; for example, through the years many have also claimed to have seen an “apparition” (appearance) of Mary, Jesus’ Mother.2 One reasonable way to think about these posthumous appearances is as follows. If something registers upon the retina of the eye then one is seeing something “physical.” Hence, it is not a hallucination. There was something “there.” It would have been something like what occurred in Matt 28:9, where the women took hold of Jesus’ feet—they not only saw but they physically grasped his feet.

If there is no impression on the retina of the eye at the moment of the putative “seeing,” then it is a hallucination. One might argue, however, that it was a “spirit body” (whatever that might be; see 1 Cor 15:44, 50). If it was a “spirit,” however, then there was no actual “thing” out there to be seen, since spirits are invisible (God is spirit [John 4:24] and is represented as an invisible deity in the Christian Scriptures [Col 1:15; 1 Tim 1:17; Heb 11:27]). Yet if there was no actual physical “thing” out there, how does that differ from a hallucination? In that case it must be a mental event. I suppose one might think of it as a vision (something seen in a dream, trance, or experienced during ecstasy), but that is also a mental event. I personally would say the same thing about ghosts or phantoms, which at the very least are not physical, and since they do not physically exist how could they register on the retina?

Ophthalmologists recognize two kinds of afterimages. “An afterimage is an image that continues to appear in one’s vision after the exposure to the original image has ceased.”3 The two types are: physiological, or pathological. A physiological afterimage refers to an afterimage that continues after exposure to the original physical image has ceased. Pathological afterimages are of two types: illusory and hallucinatory. An illusory afterimage is “the distorted perception of a real external stimulus.”4 A hallucinatory afterimage is “the projection of an already-encoded visual memory and is similar to a complex visual hallucination: the creation of a formed visual image where none exists.”5

The difficulty with thinking that groups are not subject to the charge of “hallucination” is that hallucinations are also group events. Such an event is called “mass hysteria.”6

So what can reasonably be said about the posthumous resurrection appearances of Jesus: Depending on your point of view, they are as likely or unlikely as the reported apparitions of Mary.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1For reported group appearances see: Matt 28:16-20; Luke 24:13-53; John 20:19-23, 26-29; 21:1-14; Acts 1:6-11.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Fundamentalism and its Rhetoric of Fiction

Let’s begin with a few definitions:

Rhetoric: the art of speaking or writing effectively.
Fiction: something invented or feigned by the imagination.
Fundamentalism: A movement in 20th century Protestantism emphasizing the literally interpreted Bible as fundamental to Christian life and teachings.*

One of the so-called “fundamentals of the faith” of Fundamentalism is that the Bible is “The Word of God.” Here are two articles from the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978).** 

Article I: We affirm that the Holy Scriptures are to be received as the authoritative Word of God…
Article X: We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God, can be ascertained with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original…

Fundamentalists who work with the original languages of the Bible, however, know that justifying this confessional tenet is an uphill battle for several reasons. We do not possess a single “autographic” text (i.e., the original author’s copy of the manuscript). The manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible date for the most part from the middle ages.

There are over 5000 manuscripts of the New Testament writings. The earliest are in fragmentary condition and date from the third century and later. There are only a few fragments surviving from the second century. Complete manuscripts of the New Testament date from the fourth century and later. None of these manuscripts agree alike in all particulars. Standardization does not begin until the 19th century with the science of textual criticism. Textual critics have established a more or less agreed upon standardized text of the New Testament—not with prayer but with hard-nosed scientific observations.*** While most papyrus and vellum manuscripts date from the third century and later, all of the New Testament, except for Second Peter and perhaps Acts, are thought to have been composed in the first century.

The fundamentalist “fictional rhetoric” is that somehow God has protected the readings of the original author’s personal copy (which has ceased to exist) through the vicissitudes of the historical evolution of copying the manuscripts. Further, fundamentalists confidently assert that the readings of the non-existent autographic versions “can be ascertained with great accuracy” from the some 5000 extant manuscripts. We do not, however, have a single copy of any autographic text in either Hebrew Bible or New Testament. And if we did how would we recognize it as an original author’s copy? The truth, no doubt disturbing to many, is that the Bible is not inerrant. It is a flawed human product; it constitutes Man’s word about God, as well as many other things. And as an afterthought: if there are no autographic copies how can we verify that the later copies and translations “faithfully represent the original”?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

*these are dictionary definitions.
**https://library.dts.edu/Pages/TL/Special/ICBI_1.pdf
***This paragraph touches only on the tip of the iceberg; see the Anchor Bible Dictionary 6:393-435: “Textual Criticism (OT and NT).” These two articles will give readers a good idea of the complexity of the situation text critics face in reconstructing what they regard as the “earliest recoverable form” of New Testament texts (which is not the same as the autographic copy).

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Christian Arrogance and a Rhetoric of Fiction

A braggart is defined by the dictionary as “a loud arrogant boaster.” Hence people who boast do so to give others a high opinion of themselves or of their accomplishments. Arrogance is defined as “a feeling or impression of superiority manifested in an overbearing manner or presumptuous claims.”

In the New Testament boasting and bragging arise from arrogance (Greek, alazoneia) and are regarded as evil (James 4:16). In addition arrogance is associated with access to excessive resources that support life (literally translated, “arrogance of life”). Such arrogance is “not of the Father,” but “of the world” (1 John 2:16). Arrogant boasting (alazones) is thought to be characteristic of people who have merely a “form of religion” but who actually deny its power (2 Tim 3:5). Boasting (Rom 1:30) is further described as a characteristic of “wicked people who suppress the truth” (Rom 1:18). Hence arrogance and boasting are not simple boorish behaviors, but rather they are included among an impressive array of negative behaviors condemned in biblical texts (Rom 1:28-31) that are characteristic behaviors of people whom God rejects (Rom 1:28).

Further, arrogance is associated in the New Testament with hubris (hubris), extreme pride or arrogance (Romans 1:30; hubris is translated in this verse as “insolent”). Aristotle defines hubris as doing and saying things at which the victim incurs shame, not in order that one may achieve anything other than what is done, but in order to get pleasure from it (Fisher, “hubris,” Oxford Classical Dictionary, 732-33). Instances of hubris in the ancient world were believed to draw retributive punishment from the ancient Greek Gods.

Imagine my surprise to learn that boasting is attributed to Yahweh, the God of ancient Israel, who was fond of saying: “I am Yahweh, and there is no other, besides me there is no God” (Isaiah 45:5; 43:11, 44:6, 44:8, 45:6, 45:21; compare Deuteronomy 4:35). Of course there were/are many Gods to be found in the ancient world but Yahweh was a jealous God and tolerated no rivals (Exodus 20:3, 5; 34:14). In Christianity the early Christ cults also tolerated no rivals to Jesus the anointed of the Lord: Luke writes: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).  Apparently, if one’s own God boasts, one tends to hear it as a positive statement of fact and not negatively as a boast. And if the boast concerns a tenet of one’s own religious belief, it is heard as a justification of the rightness of one’s religious belief. Thus, these two “brags” suggest that in the Bible some boasts are “good” while others are “bad”—even though arrogance and boasting as such are condemned in the New Testament.

Even the Apostle Paul boasted. For example, he boasted about some of his converts (2 Corinthians 7:14; 8:24; 9:1-3); he boasted about his own authority (2 Corinthians 10:8); and he boasted about his independence in not taking support from the Jesus gathering at Corinth (2 Corinthians 11:7-11). He boasted even when he knew that some would regard such speech as irrational discourse (2 Corinthians 11:16-33 and 12:1-10).

I am particularly interested in the claims of exclusivity in early Christianity as reflected in Acts 4:12—that there is no other way of salvation except through Jesus. Such an exclusive claim in effect completely dismisses the value of every other religion as meaningless.

What is it that allows people to gloss over disconnects like this (arrogance and boasting are acceptable in some cases but severely condemned generally) in the Bible and not even notice them. There could be many reasons, but they are basically overlooked because we are not taught to read the Bible critically. We have been misled by an effective rhetoric of fiction that touts the Bible as the “Word of God,” a claim that discourages readers from reading these ancient texts in a discriminating way.*

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

*See “Wry Thoughts about Religion” Jan 26, 2015: “When did the Bible become the Word of God?” and Jan 12, 2015: “What does the Term “Word of God” as applied to the Bible signify?”

Friday, February 15, 2019

How do I describe myself?

How do I describe myself if I come to regard aspects of the fundamentals of the Christian faith inherited from the orthodoxy of the fourth and fifth centuries as mythical constructs defying reason? Those fundamentals of faith, as formulated by Christian conservatism in the twentieth century, are belief in the:

  • Inerrancy of the Bible
  • Literal nature of the biblical accounts—the miracles of Jesus and the Genesis account of creation
  • Virgin Birth of Christ
  • Bodily resurrection and the physical return of Christ
  • Substitutionary atonement of Christ on the Cross (i.e., Jesus died for me)

On the other hand, one may still share many other ethical and religious concepts from the Christian tradition. Nevertheless, questioning any of these particular “fundamentals” is certain to compromise one’s relationship with traditional Christianity in the twenty-first century in one way or another.

            The church through the years has evolved certain terms for those it regards as being outside the household of faith. In antiquity orthodox Christianity regarded those outside the church as pagans; that is, they were non-believers or “civilians” who had “not enlisted through baptism as soldiers of Christ against the powers of Satan” (Fox, Pagans and Christians, 30-31). Today a pagan is thought to be one who has little or no religion or an irreligious or hedonistic person, neither of which may fairly describe you.

            Another term used by the church through the years is heretic. The term describes someone who holds a religious opinion contrary to church dogma, or who dissents from some accepted belief or doctrine (see Hedrick, “Heretics and Apostates,” Wry Thoughts about Religion, 4/26/2018). So a heretic might be regarded as an errant member of the faith community, who nevertheless still identifies with the faith community, but whose views are rejected by the faith community.

            Another term used by the church to describe those outside the household of faith is apostate. An apostate is one who has renounced a particular religious faith (Hedrick, “Heretics and Apostates”). Hence apostates by their own deliberate decision are no longer members of the household of faith; they have completely given up the faith.

            The question is: should one simply accept any of these church terms as a self designation, or should one find other ways to describe oneself if one questions the “fundamentals” of the faith? There are other terms that one might use without becoming too specific: for example, free thinker, seeker, atheist, agnostic, etc. These terms might even be used of oneself even while participating in a Christian community of faith, if the community is tolerant of diversity to some extent.

            What later became Christianity in the fourth and fifth centuries was in earlier centuries a “big tent religion,” meaning that in earlier centuries it was characterized by diverse views and theologies. There was no successful standardization of the faith until the fourth and fifth centuries, when it became Christianity. Jesus, to judge by the early Christian gospels, was not a Christian and hence did not share the so-called fundamentals of the faith drafted by conservative Christianity in the twentieth century. Jesus was a Judean man whose religion must be understood in contrast to the Judean temple cult of the first third of the first century. It was only later in the faith of the Church that he was made into a dying and rising God.

            The temptation for many is to react negatively against the church, when they discover its “feet of clay,” but the truth is that most of us reared in the twentieth and now twenty-first centuries in America have learned religion either directly or indirectly through the cultural influence of the church. We are, therefore, in a distant sense “Christians” by cultural tradition. And, truth be told, we still find some redeeming social and religious value in the Christian Church when considering all its manifestations and history.

            In describing oneself one should not hesitate to draw upon one’s roots in the traditional church if some aspect of church history, faith, and ethics allows an accurate statement of where one is religiously. For example, I might call myself Baptist by conscience, Jesusite1 by religious tradition, critic of religious convention by training, skeptic by confession, humanist by disposition, reason’s servant by profession.2 How would you describe yourself?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Compare the designation “Jesuit,” (i.e., one who is a member of the Society of Jesus in the Catholic tradition).
2See Hedrick, “Who am I,” Wry Thoughts about Religion, 6/26/13.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Mr. Trump's Wall

               This essay appeared on the Opinion Page of the Springfield News-Leader on February 8, 2019

I seldom stray into politics but it seems clear to me that walls have held a fascination for some recent poets and presidents—or perhaps it was simply the situation in which each found himself that raised an interest in walls. Everyone of a certain age will recall the Berlin Wall that separated East Berlin from West Berlin from 1961 to 1989. Berlin was in what was then East Germany controlled by Russia after WWII. The Russians built the wall to isolate the French, British, and American sectors of West Berlin. The wall made it an island of Western culture and democracy in the midst of Eastern totalitarianism. The allies supplied the citizens of West Berlin through an airlift running around the clock. The Russian purpose in building the wall was to force the allies out of Berlin, but it also stopped the free exchange of ideas and passage between East and West Berlin. In 1987 a Republican President, Ronald Reagan, delivered a speech at the Brandenburg Gate near Checkpoint Charlie in the American Sector; it contained this famous line: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Mr. Reagan, apparently, saw the Berlin wall as highly effective, but ideologically negative. Two years later the citizens of Berlin, both East and West, tore it down. In this case, to quote a line from Robert Frost: “Good Fences did not make good neighbors”—which begs the question do good fences ever make good neighbors?

            Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall,” begins this way:

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.*

The poet, at that time, was a farmer in New England and every spring he and his neighbor walked the stone wall separating their properties in order to mend it. Frost doesn’t see a need to have a wall because his neighbor’s land is “all pine” and his is “apple orchard” and he opines “My apple trees will never get across/and eat the cones under his pines,” but his neighbor rather stodgily replies “good fences make good neighbors.” Frost, exasperated, wants to get his neighbor to think about the function of the wall: “Why do [walls] make good neighbors? Isn’t it/Where there are cows? But here there are no cows./Before I built a wall I’d like to know/What I was walling in or walling out,/And to whom I was like to give offense.” But his neighbor woodenly says it again: “Good fences make good neighbors.” Mr. Frost, apparently, regarded his shared wall as unnecessary, while his neighbor regarded it as an ideological necessity.

What about Mr. Trump’s wall? He regards it as absolutely necessary for he finds an immigration crisis on our admittedly porous southern border, which is aggravated by illegal drugs pouring in from Mexican cartels. In his view only a wall can effectively resolve the crisis. There is no denying the problems on our southern border, but closing off the border with Mexico with a wall will send an inflammatory symbolical signal to the world exactly opposite to that of the Statue of Liberty on our eastern shore. The Liberty statue once symbolized new beginnings for white Europeans in the 1800s and later. On its base one finds these words: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore…” The signal that Mr. Trump’s southern border wall will project to the world is otherwise, however. It will say: Stay away we don’t want you brown-skinned people here. Over time his wall will come to symbolize intolerance, bigotry, and racism. Eventually it will take its place among some of the darkest moments in the history of our democratic republic: the internment of Japanese-American citizens and Alaska natives during WWII, and the internment of American Indians during the 1800s. Ms. Pelosi may not be far wrong when she calls Mr. Trump’s wall “immoral.” At least it must be admitted that Mr. Trump’s wall does not seem inspired by the better angels of our nature.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

*Edward C. Latham, ed., The Poetry of Robert Frost (New York: Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1967), 33-34.