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.