Thursday, July 23, 2020

Who Gives Paul Strength?

Here is an interesting question whose answer depends upon a text critical and literary critical analysis of the Bible: What is the proper translation of Philippians 4:13?
1.  Living Bible Paraphrase: "For I can do everything God asks me to with the help of Christ who gives me the strength and power."1
2.  King James: "I can do all things through Christ which strengthenth me."2
3.  New International Version: "I can do everything through him who gives me strength."
4.  Revised Standard Version: "I can do all things in him who strengthens me."
5.  My translation: "I can do all things in the one (masc.) who gives me strength."
In the first two translations Christ is specifically identified as the one who strengthens Paul. In the last three translations it is unclear who does the strengthening.

            The first problem to resolve is what did the author's original autograph of the text read? This is a problem in textual criticism. We have over 5000 manuscripts of the Greek New Testament. Most of them are fragmentary and no two of these exemplars agree alike in all particulars. Text critics weigh the readings of the various manuscripts, discuss them, and then vote to determine what the author's original autograph most probably read. They will then print that reading in a critical Greek text. In Phil 4:13 they determined that the reading "in Christ" (Xristō) was a later addition to the text:

The Textus Receptus, following several of the later uncials [manuscripts with capital letters] and many minuscules [manuscripts with lowercase letters], adds Xristō ["in Christ"]. If the word had been present in the original text, there would have been no reason to omit it.3

If one decides that the text critics are correct and Christ is not identified as giving strength to Paul, the text becomes unclear. The second question to ask is: who then is Paul asking for strength, God or Jesus? In the immediate context (Phil 4:4-13) God is invoked three times (4:6, 7, 9), and the Lord (God or Jesus?) is invoked three times (4:4, 5, 10). The situation most similar to Phil 4:13 is 2 Cor 12:1-10 where Paul asks "the Lord" to remove his "thorn in the flesh: "Three times I implored the Lord (kurios) about this, that it should leave me." But exactly who Paul is addressing is unclear. If we read through the undisputed Pauline letters searching for appearances of the word "Lord" by itself, we discover that Paul uses the word "Lord" to refer specifically to God,4 at other times specifically to Jesus,5 and once to the master (kurios, lord) of an estate (Gal 4:1). With all other uses of "Lord" by itself it is unclear to whom the word refers.

Most of the usages of Lord to refer to God are within quotations from the Old Testament but the context makes it clear that Paul is referring to God in the passage. Where the word "Lord" refers to Jesus the context makes the situation perfectly clear.

            Who do you think Paul is referring to in Phil 4:13? Who is it that Paul thinks grants him strength? Based on Phil 4:6-7, 9, 19, my money would be on God. How do you see it?

            For my conservative brothers and sisters: this exercise reveals that the Bible is as much a human word as a divine word.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1The Living Bible is a paraphrase by Kenneth N. Taylor of the English of the American Standard Version of 1901.
2The King James Version of 1611 is based on the Textus Receptus ("received text"), an ancient Greek text established in the 16th century used mostly by Protestant Groups. Today most scholars use the current Nestle/Aland text, which appears in the 28th edition of the Novum Testamentum Graece.
3Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2nd ed.; German and American Bible Societies, 2000). 550.
4God: Rom 9:29; 10:12-13, 16; 11:3, 34; 12:19; 14:11; 15:11; 1 Cor 1:31; 2:16; 3:20; 4:4; 10:26; 14:21; 2 Cor 6:17-18; 10:17-18;1 Thess 4:6; 5:2.
5Jesus: 1 Cor 2:8; 4:5; 6:14; 7:10; 9:1, 2, 5; 10:21-22; 11:26, 27; 2 Cor 3:16-18; 8:5; Gal 1:19; 1 Thess 1:6; 4:16-17.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Thomas Paine and the Bible, Third Part

Readers of the Age of Reason should not assume that Paine is in step with all positions of modern critical scholarship. One way that he is out of step with the results of modern scholarship is his view of the canonical gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Judging by the current state of scholarship, Paine correctly understood that the gospels were anonymous and that their authors were not eye witnesses; that they contradicted one another in many ways both large and small; that they were written many years after the times they describe by persons he described as “half-Jews”16 (meaning, I gather, that they were from a mixed culture); that they were not written by apostles.17 He thought, however, that the canonical gospels were independent of one another,18 whereas the dominant position in modern scholarship postulates that a literary relationship exists between Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source drawing on another source no longer extant (Quelle, “source”) for material Matthew and Luke shared but does not exist in Mark. The dominant position on the Gospel of John is that John was written independent of the other three gospels.

            Paine, however, was not really interested in advancing the cause of critical scholarship of the Bible. He was primarily interested in the Bible only as a means of debunking Christianity as a religion of revelation, for Christians argued that the Bible was the word of God, God’s revelation to the world. Paine, on the other hand, argued that it is “fraudulent” to classify the Old and New Testaments as “being all revelation”:

The most detestable wickedness, the most horrible cruelties, and the greatest miseries, that have afflicted the human race have had their origin in this thing called revelation, or revealed religion. It has been the most dishonorable belief against the character of the divinity, the most destructive to morality, and the peace and happiness of man, that ever was propagated since man began to exist. It is better, far better, that we admitted, if it were possible, a thousand devils to roam at large, and to preach publicly the doctrine of devils, if there were any such, than that we permitted one such imposter and monster as Moses, Joshua, Samuel, and the Bible prophets, to come with the pretended word of God in his mouth, and have credit among us. Whence arose all the horrid assassinations of whole nations of men, women, and infants, with which the Old Testament is filled; and the bloody persecutions, and tortures unto death and religious wars, that have laid Europe in blood and ashes; whence arose they, but from this impious thing called revealed religion, and this monstrous belief that God has spoken to man? The lies of the [Old Testament] have been the cause of the one, and the lies of the [New Testament the cause of ] the other.19

Nevertheless, Paine should probably be regarded as something like an “independent” scholar in the history of biblical scholarship. In contemporary language the term means that the individual so designated is not connected to an institution of higher learning, but has the requisite credentials and demonstrated learning to be included among the “guild” of scholars. In Paine’s case he would qualify as a scholar who demonstrated sufficient knowledge of the subject to be taken seriously by others in the field of the critical study of religion. “Layman” is an ecclesiastical term, meaning that that an individual is not ordained clergy, and hence would not be familiar with the professional knowledge of clerics. This term is surely not appropriate for Paine because of his demonstrated hostility against both the church and members of the clergy. As a deist, he would not want to be associated in any way with traditional Christianity.

Although his writing does not reflect the discipline of a mind academically trained, his insights were original for his day. He deserves to be included among the vanguard of modern critical scholarship and required reading for theological seminaries.

Paine deserves the last word. To close this essay, here is a challenging comment from Thomas Paine completely dismissing the entire theological enterprise as practiced in a Christian context, which relies on the Bible for its data:

The study of theology as it stands in Christian churches, is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it proceeds by no authorities; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing; and admits of no conclusion. Not anything can be studied as a science without our being in possession of the principles upon which it is founded; and as this is not the case with Christian theology, it is therefore the study of nothing.20

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

16Paine Collection, 217, 219.
17Paine Collection, 210-16.
18Paine Collection, 212, 216.
19Paine Collection, 222.
20Paine Collection, 225.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Thomas Paine and the Bible, Second Part

It is surprising to me that, although my graduate education was in the critical study of the New Testament literature in its historical context, I never read Paine’s Age of Reason. I cannot recall offhand that anyone ever cited Paine as a part of the history of biblical criticism. Because of the character of his book, one would think that at some point I should have encountered Paine’s work since he preceded both D. F. Strauss and F. C. Baur in describing the importance of mythology and its influence on Christianity and was interested in the historical Jesus before Ernst Renan.1

Paine’s writings reflect a better than competent knowledge of the content of the biblical texts. Although he lived at a time when public education was not compulsory, on his own initiative he read in translation many of the Greek and Roman classics, especially in the sciences.2 He was basically self-educated with respect to the biblical texts yet he anticipated many of the positions that critical scholarship has come to hold today.

            For example, Paine anticipated the necessity for textual criticism, a basic approach to the Bible in modern criticism, but did not have the requisite skills or training to follow it through. Textual criticism is an investigation of the ancient manuscripts of the Bible with a view to producing a version of the biblical texts that restores the readings of the originals.3

It is a matter altogether of uncertainty to us whether such of the writings as they now appear under the name of the Old and New Testament, are in the same state in which those collectors say they found them; or whether they added, altered, abridged, or dressed them up.4

The continually progressive change to which the meaning of words is subject, the want of a universal language which renders translation necessary, the errors to which translations are again subject, the mistakes of copyists and printers, together with the possibility of willful alteration, are of themselves evidence that human language, whether in speech or in print cannot be the vehicle of the Word of God.—The Word of God exists in something else.5

Paine’s Age of Reason is a part of the Quest for the historical Jesus, an attempt to separate what can be known of the historical man from the Christ of early Christian faith. Paine viewed Jesus as the son of God “in like manner that every other person is; for the Creator is Father of All.”6 The canonical gospels do not present a “history of the life of Jesus Christ but only detached anecdotes of him.” Little is known of his childhood.

Where he lived, or how he employed himself during this interval, is not known. Most probably he was working at his father’s trade, which was that of a carpenter. It does not appear that he had any school education, and the probability is that he could not write, for his parents were extremely poor, as appears from their not being able to pay for a bed when he was born…Jesus Christ founded no new system. He called men to the practice of moral virtues and the belief of one God. The great trait in his character is philanthropy.7

The public career of Jesus was short, lasting “not more than eighteen months.”

            Paine raises the issue of traditional material being found in the Bible, meaning that it was not invented by the author in composing the text in which it appears but was material passed down until its inscription. For example, he says of the Genesis account of creation:

[I]t has all the appearance of being a tradition which the Israelites had among them before they came into Egypt; and after their departure from that country, they put it at the head of their history, without telling, as it is most probable that they did not know how they came by it.8

The canonical gospels he regarded as “founded upon tales, upon vague reports, and put together by I know not what half-Jews, with but little agreement between; and which they have nevertheless published under the names of the apostles of our Lord…”9 The recognition that the Bible contains traditional material anticipates at least two contemporary critical approaches to the biblical literature: Form Criticism (the attempt to identify oral forms in Old and New Testaments before they became incorporated into the biblical texts),10 and Tradition Criticism (the study of Hebrew and Christian oral traditions).11

            Here are a few of the conclusions that Paine shared with contemporary critical scholarship: Moses did not write the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible);12 the Book of Proverbs was not written by a single author but it is a collection;13 David is not the author of the Psalms; they are rather a collection;14 and the canonical gospels were not written by eyewitnesses.15 It seems clear that Paine shared the critical spirit of modern scholarship.

            The third part of Thomas Paine and the Bible will follow.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Paine Collection, 148, 153, 156, 161, 170. See Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus. A Critical Study of its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1968) 1968. For Strauss, pp. 68-77; for Renan, pp. 180-92. For F. C. Baur see:
2Paine Collection, 172, 186.
3W. Randolph Tate, “Textual Criticism,” in Interpreting the Bible. A Handbook of Terms and Methods (Hendrickson: Peabody, MA, 2006), 368.
4Paine Collection, 158.
5Paine Collection, 160.
6Paine Collection, 161.
8Paine Collection, 158,
9Paine Collection, 217.
10Tate, Interpreting the Bible, 137-38.
11Ibid., 374-75.
12Paine Collection, 186.
13Paine Collection, 159.
14Paine Collection, 200.
15Paine Collection, 216.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Thomas Paine and the Bible, First Part

Thomas Paine (1737-1809) was an English-born American. As a youth he attended an English Grammar School (Thetford) for five years (1744-49) before he was apprenticed to his father as a corsetmaker at age thirteen. Later as a master corsetmaker he opened his own shop in Sandwich, Kent in England. He emigrated to America in 1774 at age thirty-seven, where he blossomed into a political activist, philosopher, political theorist, revolutionary, and Bible critic. He is best known for his political pamphlet (1776) Common Sense that had a profound influence on the common folk of the American colonies leading them to support the cause for independence from England.1

            He was born into a religious family (his father was Quaker and his mother, Anglican), but he himself in his maturity described himself as a Deist, which meant the following to Paine:

I believe in one God, and no more, and I hope for happiness beyond this life.

I believe in the equality of man, and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.2

The true deist has but one Deity; and his religion consists in contemplating, the power, wisdom, benignity of the Deity in his works [i.e., nature], and endeavoring to imitate him in every thing, moral, scientific, and mechanical.3

When we behold the mighty universe that surrounds us, and dart our contemplation into the eternity of space, filled with innumerable orbs revolving in eternal harmony, how paltry must the tales of the Old and New Testaments, profanely called the word of God, appear to thoughtful man.4

            Paine was severely critical of organized religion of any sort5 and particularly harsh in his condemnation of Christianity and “revealed religion”:

The Christian mythologists, calling themselves the Christian Church, have erected their fable, which for absurdity and extravagance is not exceeded by anything that is to be found in the mythology of the ancients.6

As to the Christian system of faith, it appears to me as a species of atheism; a sort of religious denial of God. It professes to believe in a man rather than in God. It is a compound made up chiefly of man-ism but with little deism, and is near to atheism as twilight is to darkness.7

[T]he church has set up a system of religion very contradictory to the character of the person whose name it bears. It has set up a religion of pomp and revenue in pretended imitation of a person whose life was humility and poverty.8

            He had no documented formal training in biblical criticism and did not know Latin or the biblical languages of Greek and Hebrew.9 Nevertheless he wrote several pamphlets critical of the Bible, which were collected to form the Age of Reason10 by applying what scholars have later come to know as “literary criticism” in analyzing the biblical texts. Basically his analysis relied on human reason and common sense in reading the texts. What is surprising is that he claimed to have written Part One of the Age of Reason without access to a written Bible at the time of writing but rather he was writing from memory.11

Paine was arrested in France on charges of treason and jailed in the French prison at Luxembourg on December 28, 1793.12 His release was secured by his friend James Monroe on November 4, 1794.13 Before he was arrested, he hurriedly finished Part One of the Age of Reason, and entrusted it to a friend, as he was on his way to prison.14 While he was in prison, Part One was translated into French and published without Paine having proofed it.15 Not knowing what might happen to him or the manuscript he had written, Paine says he committed it through his friend Joel Barlow “to the protection of the citizens of the United States.”16 Part Two of the Age of Reason was written in the home of James Monroe while he was recovering from his incarceration of nearly a year. Monroe found him in prison “more dead than alive from semi-starvation, cold, and an abscess. It was not supposed that he could survive.”17

After his release from prison, he acquired “a Bible and a Testament,” and commented “that I have found them to be much worse books than I had conceived. If I have erred in anything, in the former part of the Age of Reason, it has been by speaking better of some parts than they deserved.”18

Much of Paine’s critique of the Bible in the late 18th century surprisingly parallels many of the insights of contemporary critical biblical scholarship. Paine’s critique of the Bible and modern critical scholarship will be the subject of a second essay to follow.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University


2Thomas Paine, Thomas Paine Collection. Common Sense, Rights of Man, Age of Reason, An Essay on Dream, Biblical Blasphemy, Examination of the Prophecies: Age of Reason (1793-94), 152. [No editor or publication information given.]

3Paine Collection, 173.

4Paine Collection, 233.

5Paine Collection, 152.

6Paine Collection, 156.

7Paine Collection, 167.

8Paine Collection, 162.

9Paine Collection, 169-70, 172.

10Age of Reason consists of two parts and a never published third part, consisting of several essays: an Essay on Dream, Biblical Blasphemy, Examination of the Prophecies, Appendix; and an essay entitled, My Private Thoughts on a Future State: Paine Collection. Table of Contents.

11Paine Collection, 183.

12Luxembourg Prison was formally a palace but turned into a prison during the French Revolution:,for%20crimes%20against%20the%20country.

13Paine Collection, 149.

14Paine Collection, 183.

15Paine Collection, 145, 183.

16Paine Collection, 183.

17Paine Collection, 149.

18Paine Collection, 184.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Are Christians Saved by the Blood of Jesus?

The blood that Jesus is believed to have shed on the cross has inspired hymns (William Cowper, "There is a Fountain filled with Blood" 1772), has been made the subject of movie films (Mel Gibson, "The Passion of the Christ" 2004—garishly bloody), and if memory serves, evoked many (forgettable) sermons. It is striking, however, that the death of Jesus in the synoptic gospels is described as a bloodless event.1 Jesus is struck, beaten, scourged, and crucified, but blood is not mentioned. John (20:20, 25) and the Gospel of Peter (6:1) allude, after the event, to his hands being nailed in the act of crucifying him. But the only actual mention of blood during the crucifixion comes in the Gospel of John when "one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water" (19:34), prompted no doubt by the early Christian belief in prophecy (John 19:36-37; Zech 12:10)—so blood had to be spilled because it was prophesied. That the crucifixion was a bloody affair seems due to later Christian imagination, but not to the imagination of the evangelists who described the crucifixion.

How, then, did the idea that one "is saved by the blood of Jesus" enter into Christianity? It was not the only interpretation of the death of Jesus available to the earliest followers of Jesus. For example Phil 2:5-11, a pre-Pauline hymn, understands Jesus' death on the cross as an exaltation of Jesus with no reference to blood or even to the resurrection of Jesus. Acts 2:22-24, 32-33 interprets the significance of the death of Jesus as resurrection and exaltation; no blood is mentioned. The centurion present at the death of Jesus in Luke (23:47) described his death as the death of a righteous (dikaios) man, but the centurion in Mark (15:39) proclaimed his death as that of a divine man (theos anēr).

            In the earliest Pauline letter Paul describes Jesus' death as a "killing" (cf. Acts 2:23) rather than a crucifixion (1 Thess 2:14-16). He adds later, almost as an afterthought, that his death was "for us" (1 Thess 5:10); no blood is mentioned.2 In the later Pauline letters, however, the "killing" of Jesus becomes the crucifixion of Jesus (1 Cor 1:23, 2:2, 8) and Jesus' blood, shed in our behalf, becomes essential in describing the salvation event (Rom 3:24-25, 5:9; 1 Cor 10:16, 11:24-27).

            Those writers of the New Testament who came later than Paul were also insistent that the blood of Jesus was essential for the salvation of human beings. The blood of Jesus appears in the deutero-Pauline essays as a standard feature in describing the salvation event (Eph 1:7, 2:13; Col 1:20; blood was added to Col 1:14 by a later scribe). The author of Hebrews is, perhaps, rather dogmatic about the necessity of Jesus' blood being shed when he writes, "without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins" (Heb 9:22; cf. 9:7, 9:12, 9:14, 10:19, 13:11-12).3 The necessity that the blood of Jesus be shed is well documented in the Apostolic Fathers (1 Clement 7:4; 12:7, 49:6; Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans 1:1; 6:1; To the Ephesians 1:1; To the Philadelphians Intro.; Barnabas 5:1).

            The earliest mention of the blood of Jesus appears in the liturgical tradition of the church. Paul inherited the blood idea through the liturgy being passed on to him in what he called the Lord's Supper celebration (1 Cor 11:23-26; see also Mark 14:24; Matt 26:27-28; Luke 22:20; John 6:53-56; Ignatius to the Philadelphians 4:1). The author of Hebrews (9:1-28) makes clear that the necessity of Jesus' blood being spilled came into the Christian tradition through the church's use of the Hebrew Bible as the Word of God (2 Tim 3:15-17). The ancient Hebrews believed that the life of any creature was in its blood. Yahweh had said to Moses:

For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it for you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement, by reason of the life (Lev 17:11; cf. 17:14).

It is understandable that a primitive would come to the conclusion that the life of every creature is in its blood by observing that when exsanguination occurs the creature dies. Today, however, we know that life systems are more complicated. For example, one could argue from knowledge of the human circulatory system that the life of a human being resides in the heart, for the heart pumps the blood. One dies when the heart fails without one drop of blood being spilled. Or one might argue on the basis of the human respiratory system that life resides in the lungs, for the lungs oxygenate the blood that circulates oxygen throughout our bodies. In other words, the life systems of mammals are more complicated and the life of the organism is dependent on much more than its blood.

            One passage that confuses the issue is Rom 5:9-11, where Paul says that "we are now justified by his (Jesus) blood" and "now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life." So what saves the Christian, Jesus' blood or his life (resurrection)?

This has been a strange essay since to judge from the Bible God expects people to forgive one another without spilling anyone's blood (Col 3:13; Eph 4:32; Luke 17:3-4). Go figure! Apparently God (if God there be) expects us to do without spilling blood what s/he thought could only be done by spilling blood.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1I understand Matt 27:24-25 as being metaphorical, meaning that Pilate was not responsible for Jesus' death rather than as a description of the crucifixion that followed. This incident is not found in the other gospels.
2See Hedrick, "Paul's Cross Gospel and 1 Thessalonians," pgs. 113-15 in Unmasking Biblical Faiths. The Marginal Relevance of the Bible for Contemporary Religious Faith (Cascade, 2019).
3See also 1 Pet 1:2, 1:18-19; 1 John 1:7; Rev 1:5, 5:9, 12:11.

Monday, May 11, 2020

All Things Work Together for Good (Romans 8:28)

If we judge by Romans 8:28, God (if God there be) is not watching out for all the denizens of this little blue and white planet earth; rather God is only concerned for the welfare of his chosen people. Here are three translations of the text:

  1. We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (NIV; RSV and An American Translation are similar).
  2. We know that all things work for good for those who love God who are called according to his purpose (New American Bible for Catholics).
  3. And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them (New living Translation).

The word “God” appearing as the subject of the main verb in translations 1 and 3, does not appear in most manuscripts, although the reading is supported by a few very early manuscripts. The United Bible Societies Committee for the establishment of the critical text of the New Testament judged the addition of the noun “God” as subject of the sentence had the character of a natural explanatory addition to the text, since the singular ending to the verb “works together for” (sunergei) suggested a personal subject. Since in Greek a singular verb may take a plural neuter subject, a majority of the committee opted for the subject being “all things” (panta, neuter plural with singular verb). Translations 1 and 3 opted for the minority reading.1 Translation 2 apparently followed the rationale employed by the United Bible Societies Committee.

Here is my translation of the text:

And we know that for those who love God, those who are called in accordance with a proposed end, all things work together for good.

The first thing that strikes me is that “all things work together for good” only for those who love God and are called in accordance with a certain proposed end. The rest of humanity is apparently excluded from the expectation that “all things will work together for good” in their lives. The lives of those not chosen and called will be clouded with things not working well; that is to say, there will be complications and disappointments, etc.

What is the “proposed end” to which Paul refers? In his undisputed letters Paul uses the word here translated as “proposed end” (prosthesis) one other time (Rom 9:11). In its context (Romans 9:6-18) the “proposed end” (Rom 9:11) appears to be “God’s proposed end of election,” which is that God’s calling comes to some and not to others. Paul seems to use the terms election/calling/choosing as different ways of describing the same event.2 This act involves God foreknowing, predestining, calling, justifying, glorifying certain persons but not others (Rom 8:29-30).

            The difficulty with Paul’s idea that “all things work together for good for those who love God” is that it is simply not true.3 Bad things still happen to good Church folk in this briar patch we call earth, as a glance at any church or synagogue prayer list will prove, particularly as regards personal health issues. Church folk will be found to have as many health issues as the un-churched and they are as susceptible to covid-19 virus as anyone. The truth of the matter is that God (if God there be) does the best s/he can for all of us in the human family, or at least Jesus seemed to think so (Matt 5:45).4

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2nd ed.; United Bible Societies, 1971), 458.
2Calling/choosing: 1 Cor 1:26-28; election/calling: Rom 9:11; election/choosing: Rom 11:5, 7, 28-29.
3See Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (1981).
4See Hedrick, The Wisdom of Jesus, 110.

Monday, April 27, 2020

A Conundrum: Two Incompatible Propositions

Two weeks ago I left readers with the following conundrum:

If God is benevolent and controls the universe, how could God be responsible for a pandemic during which so many perish?

The first proposition (“God is benevolent”) in the face of a world-wide pandemic clashes with the second (“God controls the universe”). Even if the propositions are reversed, they are still incompatible, for a God who controls the world could not be responsible for a world-wide, life-killing, pandemic, if that God were benevolent.

            The conclusion seems inevitable: something is wrong; the propositions are incompatible. We actually do have a world-wide pandemic. That is an indisputable fact! Hundreds are dying every day, and the most capable scientific minds of our generation have not succeeded in finding a vaccine to protect us from the virus. We are told not to expect a vaccine for 12 to 18 months.

Of course, it is possible that neither proposition was ever true, but it is also possible that by modifying one or the other proposition the conundrum may yet admit of a solution and one could still remain somewhat traditionally Christian (should one choose to) with respect to the benevolence of God. Suppose, for example, that God is generally benevolent but unfortunately has a pernicious mean streak that sometimes surfaces in his actions toward the world, as God actually is described in the Bible.1 The writers of the biblical texts apparently had no problem with this inconsistency and describe a God generally benevolent, but regularly describing his mean streak; why could not modern followers of one or another biblical faith2 adopt the same posture, and recognize that God is simply inconsistent and unpredictable when it comes to benevolence? After all, that is what the basic text (the Bible) of traditional Christianity reflects.

I would like to think that obedience to God would exempt one from God’s pernicious mean streak, but that does not appear to be the case. Job’s experience is a case on point. The author depicts God as knowing that Job was absolutely faithful to him (Job 1:1, 8); nevertheless, God allowed Satan to ruin his life (1:9-2:10) in order to prove an unnecessary point.

            The second proposition (“God’s absolute control of the universe”) is likewise undermined even in the Bible. Here are a number of passages describing God’s seeming inability to make things happen in accordance with the divine will: God tries to kill Moses but cannot (Exod 4:24-26); God cannot foresee outcomes of his actions (1 Sam 15:10-11; 6:5-8); and God through his prophets sometimes made failed predictions (2 Sam 7:1-13; Jer 33:17-18; Ezek 26:15-21). In other words God is depicted as not always being in control. It is true, however, that God is described as controlling the weather to keep the Israelites serving him faithfully (for example, 2 Chron 7:13-14), but control of the wind is another matter, as Jesus is depicted as saying, “the wind blows where it wants to” (John 3:8).3 That is good news indeed for people of faith when we consider the case of hurricanes and tornadoes.4 Since God does not control the wind, God could not be responsible for the destruction to property and loss of life from such aberrations of nature.

            As I consider the inconsistency of the propositions, if I am to be completely honest with myself, I cannot allow these two propositions to stand in harmony with one another, and at the same time continue to make sense of the world as I experience it. The second proposition (“God controls the world”) is patently untrue, unless God is actually a demonic force. The first proposition (“God is benevolent”) pales in force, unless one modifies it. I can accept, for example, that God is benevolent and does the very best s/he can in a hostile world controlled by natural forces, which Romans 8:28 seems to be saying:

We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (NIV)5

That is to say God works to bring about the best that he can.

Could someone please convince me that the two propositions with which I began are actually logically consistent?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1See Hedrick, Wry Thoughts about Religion Blog, “Did God Cause (or Allow) the Covid-19 Pandemic.” April 12, 2020. Note in Isa 45:5-7 God is depicted as boasting that he “creates weal and woe,” and in I Sam 15 God takes revenge on the Amalakites, commanding Saul (through Samuel the prophet ) to utterly destroy them and all they have, even down to nursing infants (1 Sam 15:3).

2Clearly there are at least two biblical faiths: Israelite and Christian; but arguably there are several dissonant Christian faiths reflected in the New Testament.

3See Hedrick, “Does God Control the Wind?” pages 49-51 in Unmasking Biblical Faiths (Cascade, 2019).

4See Hedrick, “Does Mother Nature Control the Wind?” pages 51-53 in Unmasking and “Does the Wind Make its own Decisions?” pages 53-54 in Unmasking.

5One should compare other translations of this verse since there are subtle differences in the way it is translated. For example, the King James Version translates: “We know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Did God Cause (or Allow) the Covid-19 Pandemic?

Has God brought the coronavirus into our world (or allowed it) for some reason, which might, by an impossible leap of imagination, be considered good? What could possibly be good about coronavirus? People of faith worldwide, however, are forced to consider this possibility because of a general Christian belief that the God who controls the universe is benevolent (Rom 8:28; Jer 29:11; Prov 16:4). If one believes that God controls the universe (Eph 1:11; Ps 115:3; Isa 45:6-7), then the conclusion is inevitable that God in some fashion is ultimately responsible for the covid-19 pandemic. If one also believes that God is benevolent, it follows that covid-19 is a good thing.

God has done similar things in the past (i.e., plagues and epidemics), if the Bible is to be believed. Recall, for example, God caused eleven plagues on Egypt (Exod 7-11) to free the Israelites. In fact, God is frequently depicted in the Bible doing bad things to people (Amos 4:6-11; Ezek 14:21-23; Rev 8:6-10:7; Rev 16:1-21) in order to achieve what God considered good ends (2 Chron 7:13-14; Deut 28:15-35). Sometimes conscience (if God has a conscience) seems to trouble God causing him to find his actions regrettable (2 Sam 24:15-16; 1 Chron 21:14-17; Ps 106:40-46; Amos 7:1-6), but of course the harm was already done. At other times God reconsiders his intent to harm and does not follow through with his plans (Jer 18:5-8; Exod 32:11-14; 2 Chron 12:1-8; Jon 3:6-10). Sometimes God changes his mind when things do not turn out as he apparently expected (1 Sam 15:11; Gen 6:5-8).

            As with most matters in religion, the answer to the question: “did God cause or allow the covid-19 pandemic” will depend on whom you ask. For example, when the Assyrian Sennacherib (705-681BCE) reported in his annals on his successful campaign into Palestine, he credited Ashur, his God, with his successes. He claimed to have shut up King Hezekiah of Judah “like a bird in a cage.”1 The reports on Sennacherib’s campaign in Hebrew literature bear out Sennacherib’s successes (2 Kgs 18:13-19:37; Isa 36-39; 2 Chron 32:9-23), but the Israelites attributed their deliverance to an angel of the Lord who reputedly killed 185,000 Assyrians in one night forcing the Assyrians to withdraw (2 Kgs 19:35; Isa 37:36-37).2 Was it an Assyrian victory or a Hebrew victory?

In the novel, The Plague by Albert Camus, Father Paneloux, the Jesuit Priest of the town of Oran on the Algerian coast, came to the conclusion that the plague, which caused the town to be sealed off from the rest of the world, was brought by God “for the punishment of their sins” (p. 99).3 “You deserved it,” Paneloux said (p. 94). And an elderly asthma patient agreed with the priest: “That priest’s right; we were asking for it” (p.117), although later he contradicted himself: “God does not exist; were it otherwise there would be no need for priests” (p. 118).  One of the town physicians, Dr. Bernard Rieux, a leading character of the novel, is a bit evasive about Paneloux’s sermon: “I’ve seen too much of hospitals to relish any idea of collective punishment. But, as you know, Christians sometimes say that sort of thing without really thinking it” (p. 125). Rieux initially evades a direct question as to whether or not he believed in God by saying “I’m fumbling in the dark.” Later he answers directly “that if he believed in an all-powerful God he would cease curing the sick and leave that to Him. But [he asserts] no one in the world believed in a God of that sort; no, not even Paneloux, who believed that he believed in such a God” (p. 127). A visitor to the city, Jean Tarrou, who had taken residence in a hotel and become a friend of Dr. Rieux, said of the sermon preached by Paneloux, “I can understand that type of fervor and find it not displeasing. At the beginning of a pestilence and when it ends, there’s always a propensity for rhetoric…It is in the thick of a calamity that one gets hardened to the truth—in other words to silence” (p.116). In other words Tarrou was of the opinion that the question has no answer.

Of course it is only a novel and the characters and dialogues were invented by Camus, but the novel has an eerie similarity to our own pandemic. Fiction or not, Camus has graphically illustrated the truthfulness of the statement: when it comes to religion, what is true depends on who is talking. Historians cannot corroborate, or even evaluate, divine intervention in human affairs because such claims are opinion, based on a person’s personal religious faith. I am certain, however, that most readers will have an opinion on God’s responsibility for the pandemic.

Nevertheless, here is the conundrum facing us: If God is benevolent and is in control of the universe, how could God be responsible for a pandemic during which so many perish? My questions to the mystery of the universe are returned in silence. It is difficult to be a “true believer” during a pandemic.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

2Hedrick, When History and Faith Collide, 4-5.
3Albert Camus, The Plague (translated by Stuart Gilbert; Vintage, 1991 [1948]).

Monday, March 30, 2020

A Father’s Two Children

According to the Synoptic Gospels the voiceprint of Jesus was characterized by the aphorism and the short narrative. The synoptic evangelists dubbed these short narratives "parables" because they found them enigmatic; that is to say they could not easily get a religious meaning out of them by reading them as the fictional stories they were. Hence they assumed that the stories were, for the most part, figurative1 and that enabled the evangelists to get a religious meaning from them that suited their own idiosyncratic theology. There is a residue of only 43 short narratives preserved in early Christian literature attributed to Jesus.2

One of the shortest and least studied of these brief narratives, titled by its first line, is "A Father's Two Children."  A synopsis of the story is as follows: the narrative depicts the different responses of two children to their father's instructions to go and work in the family vineyard (Matt 21:28b-30). The general subject of the story is obedience/respect, as Matthew rightly understood (21:31). It is an enigmatic story and two versions of it exist among the various manuscripts of Matthew's Gospel.

Here are translations of the two versions of the story excluding the literary context (21:31-32), which in my view constitutes the evangelist's interpretive strategy. Version one:

A man had two children [tekna,3 not uios], and coming to the first he said "child, go today; work in the vineyard." But answering s/he said, "I don't want to." Later, however, having second thoughts, s/he went. And coming to the other, he said the same. Answering s/he said "I am [going],4 Sir; yet s/he did not go.

Version Two:

A man had two children [tekna,3 not uios], and coming to the first he said, "child, go today; work in the vineyard." Answering s/he said "I am [going], Sir; yet s/he did not go. And coming to the other, he said the same. But answering s/he said, "I don't want to." Later, however, having second thoughts, s/he went.

The answers of the children are reversed in version one and version two.

            Basically the story compares and contrasts the responses of the children and by that contrast invites the reader's judgment on their responses, particularly in view of the fact that the story has no conclusion. The lack of a conclusion seems to be the design of Jesus' stories5 and makes Matthew's introduction to the narrative ("What do you think, 21:28?") plausible as an introduction to the story.

Matthew's interpretation (21:30-32) describes the conflict between the chief priests and elders of the people (Matt 21:23), the antecedents of "they" in Matt 21:31. Their response to Jesus' question in Matt 21:31 ("the first") only works with the first version of the story, where the youth later did as instructed; in the manuscripts several answers are given by Jesus' interlocutors—the last, the second, the latter, depending on the sequence of the children's answer and actions. These answers do not work with the version chosen by text critics to whom we owe the credit for the version that generally appears in your translation.6

Would you attach a religious meaning to the story? If you would, why would you do so?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Some stories they read as examples such as An Injured Man on the Jericho Road (Luke 10:30-35).
2Hedrick, Wisdom of Jesus, 121. That is not to say that Jesus originated all of the stories. See Meier, Probing the Authenticity of the Parables (Yale: 2016).
3Teknon is a Greek neuter noun which is translated by the English "Child" with no emphasis on gender. Uios is a masculine noun and is translated "son." In Luke (2:48, 15:31), however, uses the term child as an affectionate parental title for a son. Interestingly the only way that the reader knows that the parent is male is by the use of the Greek kurie, "Sir," which is vocative of address for the masculine noun kurios.
4A later manuscript adds after "I am" (egō) the Greek upagō (going). For the use of the Greek egō alone to mean "I am going" see Judges 13:11 LXX.
5See for example the analysis of The Unjust Judge and The Pharisee and Toll Collector in Hedrick, Parables as Poetic Fictions (Hendrickson, 1994), 187-235.
6See Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (UBS, 4th ed., 2000), 44-46.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

A Brief Essay about Nothing

Why is it not the case that nothing exists—no rivers, grass, trees, rocks, animals, people, stars, empty space, etc.? In short, why is there nothing at all? My question is about cosmogony, that is, about the genesis of the ordered universe. The Judeo-Christian answer to the question, learned in religious schools, is the myth of creation.1 The first account of Creation (Gen 1:1-31) begins as follows:2

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness (Gen 1:1-4 RSV).

From this account God is depicted as initially calling into being, or generating from nothing, an amorphous watery mass without firmament into a dark void (Gen 1:6-10). God brought order to this chaos, and then filled the earth with life.

Does one need God to explain the genesis of an ordered world? If so, then the explanation for the genesis of everything is based on religious belief, but sectarian religious belief will not satisfy some as an explanation for there are other Gods and other cosmogonies competing with the Genesis narrative.3 The objection to using theology to explain the genesis of an ordered world is that there is absolutely no verifiable evidence that anything preceded the universe as we know it.

Modern evolutionary theories for the genesis of the universe do not address the originating cause (if cause there be). Theories are of three types:

a universe which starts from a point origin at a finite time in the past and expands continuously to become infinitely large after an infinite time;

a universe whose radius has a certain value at the initial moment of time, and thence expands to become infinite after an infinite time;

a universe which expands from zero radius to a certain maximum and then collapses to zero again; this process of oscillation being capable of indefinite repetition. Within each of these main categories a large number of possible models can be constructed differing in various points of detail.4

The competitor to these evolutionary types is the steady-state or continuous theory of creation.

The steady-state model is an alternative to the Big Bang Theory of the evolution of the universe just above. In the steady-state model, the density of matter in the expanding universe remains unchanged due to a continuous creation of matter, thus adhering to the perfect cosmological principle, a principle that asserts that the observable universe is basically the same at any time as well as at any place.5 The history of the universe on the steady-state model extends to an indefinite time in the past and future.6

While the steady-state model enjoyed some minority support in the scientific mainstream until the mid-20th century, it is now rejected by the vast majority of cosmologists, astrophysicists, and astronomers, as the observational evidence points to a hot Big Bang cosmogony with a finite age of the universe, which the steady-state model does not predict.7 The theory of a steady-state universe is seriously challenged by the evidence that the universe is expanding. This demonstrated reality makes the “Big Bang” theory of the genesis of the universe far more plausible, and raises in an urgent way the question of what generated the “Big Bang”—unless we decide that the question is unanswerable.

            The question “what generated the universe” or put another way “why is there nothing at all” I personally find to be unanswerable, but for me it is an important question. It makes me more confident in the proposition that “God” is. “God” in this case, however, is not the personal God of Judeo-Christian faith, but rather the nonexistent point of origin whence all began.8 What do you think?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Virtually every society has a myth of creation to explain the origin of everything. See J. E. Wright, “Cosmogony, Cosmology” in NIDB 1:755-763.
2The second account is Gen 2:4-3:24.
3See for example the short collection of myths of the world before creation from the Pacific basin: Carl Sagan, Cosmos (Wings, 1980), 256-60.
4Young, Exploring the Universe (Oxford, 1971), 419-20.
6Young, Exploring the Universe, 411.
7 ; Young, Exploring the Universe, 380-81.
8Hedrick, Unmasking Biblical Faiths (Cascade, 2019): “Matter and Spirit: Making Sense of it All,” 174-77; and also for an earlier version: