Monday, September 23, 2019

Of lowly Prepositions and Bible Contradictions

A preposition is a “linguistic form that combines with a noun, pronoun, or noun equivalent to form a phrase that typically has an adverbial, adjectival, or substantival relation to some other word.”1 There is a recurring phrase in three of the gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and Revelation that refers to a certain figure coming in the future. His coming is associated with heavenly clouds. In the gospels this figure is the Son of Man and in the Book of Revelation this figure is the resurrected Lord Jesus.2

            All of these recurring expressions are thought by New Testament Scholars to be derived from the Book of Daniel 7:1-28, where the author says:

I saw in the night visions and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him (Daniel 7:13, RSV).

The preposition (‘m) in the phrase “with the clouds of heaven” is regularly translated as with and it is so translated in the Septuagint (Greek translation of Hebrew Bible) as meta, which is “with” in Greek. The image evoked by the phrase (“coming with the clouds of heaven”) is unclear—that is to say: do the clouds surround him or precede him or follow in his wake?

            In the New Testament three different Greek prepositions are used in the phrase “coming [with, in, upon] the clouds of heaven. Two verses (Mark 14:62; Rev 1:73) use the preposition “with,” as it appears in Dan 7:13. Three verses (Mark 13:26; Luke 21:27, 1 Thess 4:174) use the preposition “in” (en in Greek). The image evoked by the phrase (coming in the clouds of heaven) is also unclear. Is the figure covered by the cloud, or among the clouds in the air? There are parallels in Hebrew Bible for this figure being covered by (that is, he is “within”) the cloud (Exod 19:9, 24:15-16, 34:5; Lev 16:2; Num 11:25, 12:5). On the other hand, five verses (Matt 24:30, 26:64; Rev 14:14-16) use the preposition “upon” (epi in Greek). There is no question about the image evoked in these verses. The figure is upon the cloud (in Revelation he is “seated” upon the cloud).

Ancient Gods were associated with heavenly clouds. The Greek God Zeus, for example, lived on Mount Olympus among the clouds and was called the “Cloud-gatherer”; and the Canaanite storm God, Baal, was known as the “Rider of the Clouds.” Here is a similar statement from Hebrew Bible:

An oracle concerning Egypt: Behold, the Lord is riding on a swift cloud (Isa 19:1, RSV).

Artists have shown a great fascination with the subject of the triumphant Christ returning [with, in, upon] clouds of heaven. Modern readers of the Bible, however, should note that a scientific view of clouds was common knowledge in 5th century BC Greece. Here is a quotation from a comedy by the Greek playwright, Aristophanes, making that clear:

[I]s the phenomenon of rain best explained as a precipitation of totally fresh water, or is it merely a case of the same old rainwater in continuous re-use slowly condensed by the Clouds and then precipitated once more as rain?5

For the careful critical reader, the inconsistencies between the images and their obvious mythology do little to inspire confidence in the historical credibility of the biblical narrative. Only in myth, romance, or fiction do clouds become stable platforms for divinities.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, s.v. “preposition.”
2Critical Scholars in general think that the “Son of Man” is an apocalyptic figure other than the resurrected Christ. See Funk and Hoover, The Five Gospels (Harper, 1993), 76-77.
3A few manuscripts change the preposition “with” to “upon” (epi in Greek) in these verses.
41 Thess 4:17 refers to the saints “in the clouds,” while the Lord is “in [eis] the air.”
5From The Clouds: W. Arrowsmith, Four Plays by Aristophanes (Meridian, 1994), 125.

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.