Sunday, September 8, 2019

Church Discipline

How should “erring” brothers and sisters1 be treated in a Christian community of faith that uses the Bible as a guide for life? Jesus followers and early Christians2 were scarcely consistent on this issue. I stumbled across the problem of church discipline in Baptist Bible Study one recent Sunday morning. We were discussing Titus chapter three (one of the Pastoral letters—First and Second Timothy being the other two) when the problem surfaced:

As for a man who is factious3 after admonishing him once or twice have nothing more to do with him (Titus 3:10 RSV; compare 2 Tim 2:23-26; 2 Thess 3:14-15).

This statement seems to evoke the practice of shunning. As far as I know shunning is not something that is practiced today in those mainstream Protestant churches that emerged out of the reformation. Some religious groups, however, do practice shunning as a form of religious community discipline.4 As I understand the practice of shunning, the excommunicated/shunned person may still live in the community but no one will have anything to do with him or her. This advice by the author of Titus (called the “Pastor”) seems to be an informal process, rather than an official act of the community, however.

            The passage that is best known is Matt 18:15-17, but recommends a different and more formal practice in dealing with erring brothers and sisters:

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector (RSV; see also 1 Tim 6:19-20).

This form of official discipline also seems to end in shunning. In ancient Judaism a proper member of the community would not associate with Gentiles or tax collectors.

            Paul, on the other hand, is somewhat more callous in 1 Cor 5:1-5. Here are his final statements on the situation in the passage: “Let him who has done this be removed from among you” (1 Cor 5:2, RSV; i.e., put him/her out of the community), he writes to the church. And adds further: “you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor 5:5, RSV; see also 1 Tim 1:20, and similarly in Galatians 1:6-9). He does sound more compassionate in Galatians 6:1: “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness” (RSV; and similarly in James 5:19-20), but, alas, it is not how he treated the brother in 1 Cor 5:1-5 (quoted above).

            Suppose you were the one considered by others in the community to have erred in some way; how are you supposed to act? The principle stated in Matt 5:23-26 offers some guidance:

So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift (Matt 5:23-24, RSV).

If you are the erring brother or sister the principle reflected in this passage puts the responsibility for reconciliation on you rather than your accuser.

            The word “discipline” in English is generally used with an emphasis on control or punishment. Meanings of the word include “to punish or penalize for the sake of discipline”; “to train or develop by instruction and exercise”; “to bring (a group) under control”; “to impose order upon.” Hence, a “disciplinarian,” is “one who disciplines or imposes order.”

The basic goal of these passages in the New Testament related to discipline in the community of faith can be summed up as being for the purposes of punishment and group control—even though Paul states that it is for therapeutic purposes (1 Cor 5:5). One would have hoped that the practices of the community would have better characterized it as a center of healing and reconciliation, much as Paul envisioned in Gal 3:28:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (RSV; compare 1 Cor 12:13; Col 3:11).

The church as a center of reconciliation and healing remains an ideal to be pursued but it is scarcely a goal that can ever be achieved.

            At its base church discipline in the early gatherings of faith was an attempt at controlling the thinking of members of the community (Phil 4:2-3; 1 Tim 6:20-21; 2 Tim 3:8-9; 2 Tim 4:14-15; Heb 13:17), and it appears that it was no more successful then than it is now.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Those who disagree with the accepted views of the community may not think they are guilty of error, however.
2They are not the same thing.
3The Greek word translated by “factious,” (airetikos), according to the lexicon, relates to causing divisions, and is the adjective related to airesis “party, school, faction, or heresy.”
4For example, the Mennonites and the Amish.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Is Man the Measure of All Things?

In fourth century Greece, Socrates as a young man met and dialogued with Protagoras, who was then an older man (Plato, Protagoras). Protagoras spent some 40 years as a wandering teacher for hire (a sophist), who would have been able to take either side of an argument in a debate. Socrates, however, treated him as a serious philosopher. In another of Plato’s dialogues he depicts Socrates in dialogue with Theaetetus discussing “what knowledge is.” Theaetetus replies “Knowledge is nothing else than perception.” Socrates replies “good response” and adds that this is the same answer that Protagoras also used to give although he said it a little differently:

For he says somewhere that man is “the measure of all things, of the existence of the things that are and the non-existence of the things that are not.” (Plato, Theaetetus 152a; also Cratylus 386c and Laws 716c)

Socrates explains this saying of Protagoras, in this way:

Individual things are for me such as they appear to me and for you in turn such as they appear to you. (Plato, Theaetetus 152a)

               My question is whether or not this saying of Protagoras, as Socrates understood it, is an accurate description of the human situation in life? Socrates disagreed with Protagoras and says, “In our eyes God will be ‘the measure of all things.’” (Laws 716c). Most church folk would no doubt agree with Socrates and declare God the measure of all things (Job 38-39), and particularly of humankind (Ps 39:4-5). From my perspective, however, man is the measure of the Gods, of those that are and those that are not. That is to say, human beings invent their Gods, and each of us gets to decide which we will worship and which we will not. Even in the Bible God is depicted in various ways that cannot logically be harmonized.1

               Human beings are even the measure of what texts got into the Bible and have even determined what Scripture itself says. In the earliest days there was no Bible; there existed only individual manuscripts and later small collections of texts initially inscribed by human authors on disassociated papyrus and vellum manuscripts. These individual authors working in isolation recorded their religious experiences and personal faith. Their texts were part of the stream of western civilization. Later, others copied and recopied them and translators translated them into different languages. Small collections of these texts emerged. In the case of the Jewish Bible some of those smaller collections were gatherings related to law, or prophets, or gatherings of “Writings.” In the case of the New Testament, there exist among the papyri collections of gospels and epistles. These individual texts eventually became the religious collections of two faith communities, Israelite and Christian, and the collections are the “inventions”2 of those faith communities. Christian bibles today consist of three different collections: Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic.

               Since the enlightenment of the 17-18th Centuries modern critical scholars have gone back to the some 5000 or so original papyrus and vellum fragmentary manuscripts of the New Testament; they compared the different readings of each manuscript—for no two of these manuscripts agree alike in all particulars. The scholars decided by voting (not by praying) what the original autographs of each New Testament text should have read.3 Translators working from the critical text provided by scholars of textual criticism render the Bible into modern languages, and those translations are the modern literary equivalents of the Bible’s ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. This process, just described, establishes human beings as the “measure” of the Bible, even to the extent of deciding what the original authors wrote in their texts.4 In this way human beings have provided the raw data from which modern Christian believers develop their individual concepts of God.

The belief that God “divinely inspired” (i.e., influenced, moved, or guided) the authors of the Bible (from outside their minds) should be mindful of the fact that it was human ingenuity and creativeness that made the Bible possible throughout this centuries long process.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

2By “invention” I mean to say that the human members of each faith community decided what texts belonged to their collection of Holy Books.
3See Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2nd ed.; 1994), 10*-16*.
4Is Mark 16:9-20 an original part of the Gospel of Mark? Ancient Christian tradition says that it is, and it is still part of the New King James Bible. Modern critical scholarship, on the other hand, has decided it is a later addition to the end of Mark and hence it was not a part of the autograph and is excluded from modern translations. See Metzger, Textual Commentary, 102-106.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Hanging Chads in Politics and the Bible in Religious Faith

Hanging chads evoke the presidential election of 2000 (Bush v. Gore). A hanging chad is a partially punched election ballot still connected to the main ballot by a thread (so to speak). The election moved along smoothly until someone had the bright idea of checking for partially punched ballots and then election officials argued over several thousand ballots that would decide the election in Florida. It was the first time (so far as I know) that non-punched ballots decided an election—or were they deliberately punched?—ay, there’s the rub.1

            In the history of religions there are no hanging chads. In the Bible, however, there are loose “threads.” If one picks at them often enough with one’s mind, they may shake confidence in the Bible and in one’s faith. For example, on the Greek Island of Karpathos late one evening after the dishes had been cleared from the table the conversation turned to “what I did.” It was a family gathering of Greeks plus two Americans. Two of the family members were physicians from Athens. As an example of what I did as an Academic, I gave an impromptu summary of the contradictions between the gospels. One of the physicians, a pediatrician, became visibly upset at my comments. She explained that she would not concern herself with such things. Her faith was a settled matter, and such questions were off the table for her.

It has been my experience that the vast majority of folk by middle age are quite comfortable with their religious beliefs. They tend to put them on the shelf and pull them off only in times of crisis trusting that their religious beliefs can be relied on to carry them through the difficulties they face. Occasionally, however, the Bible itself becomes a threat to one’s religious beliefs when one runs across a passage that seems to undermine what they have been taught and believed for so many years.

Here is one threatening “fly” in the ointment (so to speak) of Baptist theology: Baptists believe that salvation comes “by faith in Christ.” In Baptist faith one only needs to believe that Jesus died for one’s sins—nothing else is necessary. Certain other Christian denominations,2 however, believe as a tenant of their faith that Christian baptism is necessary for one’s salvation. In short, they believe in “baptismal regeneration.” Here are certain biblical verses that some denominations believe point to this teaching. In Baptist thinking, however, they are simply “loose threads” that are easily explained: Mark 16:16,3 John 3:5, Acts 2:38, Romans 6:3, Gal 3:27, Ephesians 5:25-27, Titus 3:5, 1 Peter 3:18-21.

Mark 16:16: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” (New King James translation)

Acts 2:38: “Repent, and be baptized everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (RSV)

Romans 6:3-4: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (RSV)

The Bible itself can become part of what tends to undermine the faith that one believes the Bible proclaims; particularly if one starts pulling at its loose threads.4 What loose threads have you noticed in the Bible?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1From a line in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “To die—to sleep. To sleep—perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub.” “Rub” carries the meaning of difficulty, obstacle, or objection.
2For example, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Lutheranism, Anglicanism, Methodism (infant baptism). 
3Another one of those niggling threads! Modern text critics insist that Mark 16:9-20 was not part of the original Gospel of Mark but was added later. Modern translations do not include the passage Mark 16:9-20. Is it part of the Bible or not?
4See for example Hedrick, Wry Guy Blog: “Can all Bible Translations be Trusted,” September 10, 2018. http://blog.charleshedrick.com/search?q=loose+threads

Monday, July 29, 2019

Judging Others

Jesus said, or at least two gospels attribute the saying to him: “Judge not that you be not judged” (Matt 7:1; Luke 6:37). The saying is a Q tradition, but it may have been attributed to Jesus in error by the later Christian community. Paul (Rom 2:1) and James (4:12) employ the idea of not judging others without making any reference to Jesus, and the idea of not judging others is found in rabbinic traditions. Hence, the concept may likely have been derived from Israelite and/or Christian wisdom. The Jesus Seminar voted that it was not a saying of Jesus.1 On the other hand if Jesus did prohibit judging others, as the writers of the gospels report, then he failed to follow his own advice, for the gospels depict him judging the intentions of others rather harshly. For example:

But woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you shut the kingdom of heaven against people; for you neither enter yourselves, nor allow those who would enter to go in (Matt 23:13; compare also: Matt 16:6, 12; 23:2-7; 23:13-33; Mark 8:15; Luke 11:39-44; 12:1).

The verse quoted above (Matt 23:13) was printed in grey in the Five Gospels, meaning that the saying itself should likely not be included in a databank of Jesus sayings, but one nevertheless might make use of some of the content for determining who Jesus was. Perhaps the most graphic saying as to how the gospel writers thought Jesus regarded the Pharisees is the harsh depiction of the Pharisee in the story of the Pharisee and the toll collector (Luke 18:10-14).2

            Making moral judgments about others is something that a wise person must inevitably do to survive in life. For example, even Jesus was thought to have denied that Caesar’s government was supported by God (Mark 12:17)3 and he insulted King Herod (Luke 13:32).4 Judging others is something we will all do living in a society that has not succeeded in eradicating the presence of grifters, “confidence men,” charlatans, cheats, swindlers, dishonest businessmen, scammers, “snake oil salesmen," and others who prey on the gullible and unsuspecting for whatever reason. I define “sitting in judgment of others” as evaluating their skill, competence, reputation, character, and honesty.5 We are particularly called upon to judge those who run for political office, but also used car salespersons, grocers (did they set their scales a bit too heavy, perhaps?), physicians, attorneys, baby sitters and even ministers (you will recall the numerous cases of child abuse involving Catholic priests, among others).

            In our society one cannot take everyone at face value, but is required to dig deeper and even question the motives of others. For example, one must weigh this question upon receiving a solicitation for money on the phone: is the person on the other end of the line being duplicitous or honest? Can I trust the attorney I have consulted about a legal matter to rigorously represent my interests in court? Can I simply trust that a particular charity soliciting funds from me will actually do what is promised or should I first judge their record and validate how they spend the money? All of these in my view are moral issues, and I have a moral obligation to act with integrity in my engagement with society.

            It would be nice if we lived in a perfect world, but alas we do not. The world is a threatening place. Even Jesus said: “be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt 10:16 RSV; my translation: “be as sly as snakes and simple as pigeons”; compare Gos. Thom. 39b).6

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1See Funk and Hoover, Five Gospels, 153-54.
2This saying is printed in the Five Gospels in pink (p. 369), meaning that Jesus probably said something like this statement.
3As Paul did for example (Rom 13:1-7).
4Funk and Hoover, Five Gospels, 348-49. Luke 13:32 is colored grey; the Fellows found it plausible, however, that Jesus “may well have said something of the sort found in this verse.”
5I never worry with the intentions of others, for we can never know another’s intentions even should they tell us what their intentions are. Judging someone’s intentions is all guess work.
6Hedrick, Many Things in Parables; see pages vii-1x, for a discussion of the saying. The saying is colored in Pink in the Five Gospels, p. 169.

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.