Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Myth and Mystery

Profiling the Early Christian Mind1

Writers of the New Testament use the words “myth” and “mystery,” suggesting that the mindset of early followers of Jesus may, in part, be described as arrogant, anxious, aggressive, and intolerant. They were lacking in critical thought and were hampered by a lack of curiosity. Features such as these might today be described as symptomatic of a personality disorder.

The word “myth” appears in a few of the later texts of the New Testament where it is always employed with a pejorative edge. The term is used to disparage the views of others and defame those holding such views (1 Tim 1:3-4; 4:7; 2 Tim 4:3-4; Titus 1:14; 2 Pet 1:16). The word “mystery” suggests early followers of Jesus are confessing to a type of cognitive dissonance. “Mystery,” on the other hand, is generally used positively to describe the incomprehensible working of divine power, which the early followers of Jesus struggled to understand rationally. There were five issues that perplexed them and oddly some of these issues still remain problems for the modern Christian mind. These five issues are: the mystery of the failure of the Jewish mission (Rom 11:25-29); the mystery of the spiritual body (1 Cor 15:51-52); the mystery of God’s will to unite all things in Christ (Eph 1:9-10); the mystery of lawlessness already at work (2 Thess 2:1-12); the mystery of Christ (1 Tim 3:16).

The canonical gospels use “mystery” to describe a deliberate strategy used by Jesus to teach about the kingdom of God in oblique language in order to prevent the unwashed masses from understanding his teaching (Mark 4:11-12=Matt 13:11-12=Luke 8:10). The Book of Revelation uses the word almost as an equivalent of the word “puzzle” (Rev 1:20; 17:5, 7). Revelation 10:7 is obscure when it refers to “the mystery of God being fulfilled.”

What I have attempted above is to “profile” writers of certain New Testament texts. When scholars of ancient history attempt to characterize a figure of the past, they engage in “profiling.” A profile is a concise biographical sketch, but depending on the available evidence a more complete description might be possible. “Profiling” is an act whereby the researcher infers the likely character traits of individuals on the basis of the profiler’s data and reasoning. Depending on the amount of data available it may, however, amount to little more than educated guessing. In law enforcement profiling an unknown perpetrator consists in inferring the traits of individuals responsible for committing criminal acts. Speculation, however, is a conjecture without firm evidence. Hence a profile is a collection of inferences from data.

In New Testament studies drawing inferences about an author using textual data is an accepted practice. Scholars routinely describe an author’s beliefs on the basis of statements in the text. For example, Joseph Fitzmyer in his esteemed two volume commentary of the Gospel of Luke provides a rather lengthy sketch of Lucan theology.2 The author of Luke is actually unknown and scholars who describe the theology of anonymous authors are basically profiling an unknown subject (an “unsub” in police jargon). It is also the practice of New Testament scholars to profile known authors of texts—Paul for example. They will even include psychoanalytical assessments of known and unknown figures from what has been written about those figures, as is regularly done with Jesus of Nazareth.3

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1This essay is an adapted excerpt from an essay recently published in The Fourth R, volume 32.5, September-October 2019, 7-10, 20.
2Fitzmyer, The Gospel according to Luke I-IX, Anchor Bible 28 (Doubleday, 1979), 143-270.
3For example, Marcus J. Borg, Jesus a New Vision. Spirit, Culture, and the Life of Discipleship (Harper & Row, 1987), 39-56.