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.