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.

7 comments:

  1. In the 18th century, scholars had little that was known about Shakespeare the person, so they worked through his plays, poetry and correspondence to profile him. There were around half a dozen problems with that approach. The interest in his life was understandable. Shakespeare in 18th century England had almost become a deity, with one fellow (David Garrick) building a temple for him on his estate and creating a “Jubilee” at Stratford-on-Avon in 1769, which didn’t come off well in the rain but started a “pilgrimage” (read “tourist”) industry there. One problem I see with creating a profile of an author of a New Testament writing is one which Samuel Johnson noted about Shakespeare profiles of his day. There is a difference in one’s “authorial” identity and one’s “personal” identity. How does one go about distinguishing this in New Testament writers? Or is it just concerned with the author’s theological profile?
    Dennis Dean Carpenter
    Dahlonega, Ga.

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    1. Hi Dennis,
      I agree. There is a difference between the image of the author that comes across in a reading of the document and the actual author that put the text together in the way it appears. Hence one must be very certain about the data on which the profile is made--and even then, as you point out, there is clearly an uncertainty about profiling.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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    2. Hi Charlie,

      My view is that belief in Jesus' resurrection created the NT. The foundation of the belief was experiential. The resurrection, of course, in reflection is both myth and mystery. As far as I know, traits like arrogance, anxiety, aggressiveness, intolerance, lack of curiosity, and a disinterest in critical thinking are not tied to transformational experience.

      The only reason I can think of for identifying those traits is the assertion that the writers were very insecure folks who participated in a held in common delusion? Is their evidence for that in the NT? I guess one could read back into it from a distance.

      Gene Stecher
      Chambersburg, Pa.

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  2. Good Evening Charlie,

    1) You mentioned the use of the word mystery in the NT... Does it appear very often in the OT? If not, why do you think the NT writers emphasized the "mystery" of God more than their OT counterparts?

    2) When it comes to profiling Paul- what other documents would one use other than the NT manuscripts? Is there any other historical evidence of his existence?

    3) Was Paul really a student of Gamliel?

    4) What did you mean by saying that early followers of Jesus confessed to a type of cognitive dissonance? Can you give an example?

    5) Is the use of the term "mystery" in the NT proof that early followers of Jesus were gnostic? It seems like there is a tension between keeping the Gospel and teachings of Jesus "secret" and proclaiming them from the proverbial rooftop... The Great Commission in Matthew 28.... Which is it? Secret or public?

    Many thanks and hope you are getting more and more settled each and every day, Elizabeth

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  3. Good afternoon Elizabeth,
    1. I don't even know if there is a Hebrew word for mystery. And will not know until I can get my books unpacked. So I will have to defer this question.
    2.In describing Paul I would use only the undisputed letters. They are Romans, 1, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, 1 Thessalonians, Philippians, Philemon.
    3 The tradition that Paul was a student of Gamaliel is only found in Acts 22:3, which was not written by Paul. And there is no confirmation of the tradition, In my view Acts is a late first century text. Acts 22:6-11 is one of three accounts of Paul's conversion in Acts. All three are impossible to harmonize. And I have come to think of all of Acts 22 as imagined and created by the Author of Acts. Hence the answer to your question I find impossible know.
    4. The examples are given and discussed in the full published essay. The texts are: Romans 9:1-5, 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:50-52; Ephesians 1:9-10; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12; 1 Timothy 3:16.
    5. The earliest followers of Jesus and the earliest orthodox Christians were not gnostic, although Paul uses gnostic language here and there in his letters. Some have argued that early Christians were a mystery religions cult, and again Paul also uses the language of the mystery religions here and there in his letters. But if anything the "secret" in early Christianity was a public secret.
    Cordially,
    Charlie

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    1. Hi Charlie, Just a couple of follow-ups if you don't mind.... I must admit, I never noticed before how often Paul uses the word mystery. I read the scriptures you provided and has some questions.

      1) I can't think of another NT writer who uses the word mystery as often as Paul- can you?

      2) Do you have an opinion of the way Paul quotes the Tanach? (the "old testament") In other words, do you think his use of passages from Tanach are accurate and in proper context? Have you ever done a comparison between his documentation and the original scripture itself as recorded in our OT? I don't think most Christians know or care how many errors he made or the deliberate omission of words that occurred in order support the narrative he was dictating.

      3) Have you ever heard a Christian leader say that Truth is a mystery that has to be unraveled like a puzzle? "Search out the truth..." Isn't the truth obvious to everyone? (I know that is a broad question) Is it important to believe the truth or to perceive the truth?

      Many thanks as always, Elizabeth

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    2. Good Morning Elizabeth,
      1.I think I listed all the uses of the word "mystery" in the NT. And you are correct that the largest number appear in Paul's writings.
      2. I am working from memory here (my books are still in boxes).It is a complicated issue. The "quotes" from Hebrew Bible in the NT do not always correspond to what we know in Hebrew. In some cases the NT writers seem to be citing a "testimony list." . See my "Vestiges of an Ancient Codex Containing a Psalms Testimonia and a Gospel Homily," Journal of Coptic Studies 8 (2006)1-41,plates 2-3.In many cases the divergence is quite large.
      3. I have never heard that expression. But there is never a single truth; there are many "truths." Just ask a catholic and a Baptist: What is the truth about baptism? You will get at least two answers. Or talk to a member of the Flat Earth Society (check it out on the internet) if the earth is spherical or flat. Each of us holds our truth as the Truth, it seems.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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