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:

Sunday, March 1, 2020


Suicide is enough of a problem in this country that we have a national suicide prevention call center (1-800-273-8255).1 Nevertheless, America does not have the highest rates of suicide worldwide.2 On a recent TV show a character committed suicide for no reason that was apparent to investigators. The investigators later discovered that the man had inoperable brain cancer, and they concluded that he committed suicide rather than face the suffering he would experience in his last days. The show prompted the question: why do people commit suicide? The leading explanation for suicide seems to be depression, but there are many possible reasons.3 One possibility is that someone decides everything they care about has passed away so they simply make plans for them to go as well. In this regard one might immediately recall the movie Soylent Green and the suicide of the scholar who remembered how to read books (played by Edward G. Robinson).4

            There are several examples of suicide in the Bible but they are not condemned by the biblical narrator. On the contrary, some of those people might even be said to have died nobly.5 In short, suicide is not condemned either in the Old or New Testaments, as is, for example, murder (1 John 3:15; Exodus 20:13 [usually translated “You shall not kill unjustifiably]). Josephus, on the one hand, calls suicide “an impious act against God our creator” (War III.viii.5), but on the other he writes approvingly of acts of suicide by a large body of Jews (War VII.viii.6-7).6

Prior to the Christian period Greeks and Romans had different attitudes about suicide. For example, Socrates committed suicide rather than be exiled from Athens. Some Roman authors (for example, Cicero and Seneca) at times seem to glorify suicide but they grant “the act greater complexity on other occasions.”7

In the early Christian period (second century) the solicitation of martyrdom as a positive act on the part of Christians blurs the distinction between suicide and martyrdom so that even martyrdom might be viewed as suicide, as the legendary Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas clearly shows.8

In the fifth century, St Augustine wrote the book, The City of God, in it making Christianity's first overall condemnation of suicide. His biblical justification for this was the interpretation of the commandment, "Thou shalt not kill," as he sees the omission of ‘thy neighbor,’ which is included in ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor,’ to mean that the killing of oneself is not allowed either…

In the sixth century AD, suicide became a secular crime and began to be viewed as sinful. In 1533, those who died by suicide, while accused of a crime, were denied a Christian burial. In 1562, all suicides were punished in this way. In 1693, even attempted suicide became an ecclesiastical crime, which could be punished by excommunication, with civil consequences following. In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas denounced suicide as an act against God and as a sin for which one could not repent. Civil and criminal laws were enacted to discourage suicide, and as well as degrading the body rather than permitting a normal burial; property and possessions of the suicides and their families were confiscated.9

From this very brief schematic history of attitudes about suicide in Western civilization it does not appear that the prohibition against suicide in modern society is to be tracked to an early Christian consciousness of the sacredness of life, but it grows out of a later ecclesiastical development that condemns suicide as usurping God’s prerogative to give and take life (Job 1:21). Prohibitions against suicide do not rest on concerns for the welfare of the individual as much as they rest on it being an offense against God. Modern attitudes about suicide, however, seem to be motivated by humanitarian concerns for the welfare of the individual. In my view, if suicide involves an offense at all, it is not against God (if God there be), but against Being, since it is an unnecessary diminishment of all existence.

“My personal view of this situation is that being conscious even with pain, is better than being insentient; or put another way, life lived with physical difficulties and pain is better than a death that instantly banishes all pain—for as long as there is life there is hope…But I cannot fault those who might choose a quick death over an inevitable painful lingering death.”10

How do you see it?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

6Young, “Suicide,” IDB 4.453-54
8Droge, “Suicide” ABD 6.230-31.
10Hedrick, Wry Thoughts about Religion: “End-of-Life Issues” Tuesday March 15, 2016: