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.