Monday, April 5, 2021

Pondering in Back Alleys

My daily walking route takes me through the back alleys of North Kansas City. When I am alone on my 45-minute stroll, I ponder (to weigh in the mind; to consider, quietly, soberly, and deeply). This essay is a result of one of those walks. It may strike you as the original Jerry Seinfeld show—a show about nothing, but at the time it seemed a serious ponder.

The prime directive of all living things is to survive and propagate.1 Just surviving, however, is not enough for a rational human being. We humans are thinkers and we ponder all things even life itself. We are social creatures and require meaning and purpose in our life and in the lives of those near us. To that end, in search of meaning and purpose in life I have pondered my way through life in both clerical and academic careers (and several others) aiming to understand the Bible and to assess what it offers as a guide for finding meaning and purpose in human life. Taken as a whole, however, one will find little in the Bible that addresses the meaning and purpose of the whole of human life. I hasten to add, however, that the Bible does address, in part, religious aspects of life from Israelite and incipient Christian perspectives. Unfortunately, Neither Jesus nor Paul seemed interested in the whole of human life. There is one voice in the Bible, however, to which we may turn for perspectives on the whole of human life, the book of Ecclesiastes. The question is does Koheleth (for so the author dubs the narrator) find anything positive about life? He has the reputation of being pessimistic and begins with this skeptical outburst:

Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything in meaningless! (NIV)2

Here is a sentence clarifying the character of the author that I found in a paragraph introducing the book of Ecclesiastes in the Revised Standard Version of the Protestant Bible.

Ecclesiastes contains the reflections of a philosopher rather than a testimony of belief. The author seeks to understand by the use of reason the meaning of human existence and the good which man can find in life.3

Thus, Koheleth is among the very earliest to ponder life without the safety net of organized religion.

            Koheleth believed in God (3:13, 24-25; 5:18; 8:15) but he did not value organized religion (5:1-7; 7:16). Life appeared meaningless to him because he believed that God had prepared human beings for the ages by putting eternity in the human mind (3:10-11) and yet ended our “threescore and ten” (Ps 90:10) years of living with the grave and Sheol (9:10). Everything that one accomplished with life passes into the hands of others when one dies (2:18-21). Being human is no advantage, for the same fate awaits both man and beast (3:18-21). Living righteously is no advantage to a man for the sinner fares better (7:15), and in the end the same fate awaits both (9:1-3).

            Nevertheless, Koheleth believed that happiness and good could be found in certain simple pleasures of living, such as work (2:24; 3:12-13, 22; 5:18-19), eating and drinking (2:24; 3:13; 5:18; 8:15; 9:7; 10:19), and human companionship (9:9). He counsels that one should enjoy life (8:15; 9:7), for in Sheol to which we are bound there is nothing but shade and shadow (9:10).4

            These are some of Koheleth’s thoughts as he wrestled with the reality of the human predicament and the clash of common human experience with faith in God. He believed that one could come closer to solving the riddle of life “by accepting harsh facts and pondering concrete human experience with its attendant pain than he could by accepting the pallid assertions of complacent orthodoxy.”5 It may seem strange that such a negative outlook is found in the Bible, but some readers are grateful for its refreshing honesty that correlates with the reality of the human situation.

When all is said and done here is what faces each of us: either to accept the practiced institutional assertions of religious orthodoxy or follow the example of Koheleth by pondering the matter for one’s self—a worthy project for the back alleys of any city. What brings meaning and purpose to your life?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1I addressed this question once before; see Wry Thoughts about Religion: “What is the Meaning of Life,” Sunday, August 23, 2020: http://blog.charleshedrick.com/search?q=life

2Eccl 1:2 as translated in the New International Version. It is an attitude expressed numerous times through the book, for example: 1:14, 17; 2:1, 11, 15, 17, 18, 21, 23, etc.

3Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha, p. 805.

4See Hedrick, Wry Thoughts about Religion, “The Land of Forgetfulness” Tuesday, October 22, 2019: http://blog.charleshedrick.com/search?q=sheol

5J. Kenneth Kuntz, The People of Ancient Israel (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 465.

Monday, March 22, 2021

How is Jesus the Son of God?

This essay aims to be a brief summary of Christology in the New Testament and unfortunately it is longer than my blog essays usually are.

My title is awkwardly stated, unclear, and imprecise. Nevertheless, it must be so stated in order to accommodate the numerous contradictory ways that the New Testament responds to questions about Jesus' divine sonship. The question that my title appears to ask concerns the nature of Jesus: what in his nature makes divine sonship possible? Another way of putting the question asks about the process of his becoming son of God: How is it that Jesus came to be son of God? The first question is appropriate for one text; the second question is appropriate for others. Just figuring the right question to ask about Jesus' divine sonship reveals a fundamental divide in the New Testament incapable of a satisfactory resolution.

            A big part of the problem is that no New Testament text ponders the character of Jesus' divine sonship in an extended essay. A reader must track the issue through the texts searching here and there for fragments of the authors' ideas on the issue and then match them up with related ideas, sometimes from other texts.

            There appear to be in New Testament literature at least four distinct ways that early followers of Jesus explained his divine sonship.

Jesus is Chosen by God to be God's Son

            Mark presents Jesus to the reader as a fully grown man. He was a follower of John the Baptizer (1:4-9) and a skilled craftsman (6:3), who was part of a family unit having a mother and brothers and sisters (3:31-35; 6:3). At his baptism by John he has a private vision in which "the heavens are torn apart" and a voice directly addresses only him "from the heavens, You are my beloved son" (1:9-11; cf. Ps 2:7; Luke 3:22; Heb 1:6; 2 Pet 1:17).1 Jesus makes the affirmative claim that he considers himself to be son of God (14:61-62). Hence, one is led to conclude that Mark presents Jesus as a human being whom God chooses to be his son at his baptism. In Mark what divine sonship appears to mean is that Jesus has authority over nature, disease, and evil spirits.

Jesus is born son of God

            This view of Jesus' divine sonship is held by the authors of Matthew and Luke who present to the reader two different narratives of his birth. In Matthew the reader is told that Mary has conceived a child from a holy spirit (Matt 1:18, 20) in fulfillment of what the Lord spoke through the prophet Isaiah (Matt 1:23): a young woman will give birth to a child who will be named Emmanuel (Isaiah 7:14). What this means, Matthew takes from the name of the child, which being interpreted is "God with us" (Matt 1:23). Even though the divine sonship of Jesus is acknowledged by the demonic world (8:29), recognized by his disciples (14:33), publicly announced to the people assembled at his baptism by John (3:16-17) and to his inner circle at the transfiguration (17:1-8), Jesus still evades the question of the high priest: "tell us if you are the Christ, the son of God"; Jesus evades the question (26:62-64). Matthew, however, presents the child to the reader as the son of God (Matt 16:16) by virtue of his divine conception and birth, but does not explain the appellation "son of God" further.

            Luke's imagery about the birth of the child is more graphic than that of Matthew. An angel announces to Mary that the Lord is 'with you'" (1:28), which greatly upset Mary (1:29). The angel replies do not be afraid "for you have found favor with God" (1:30) and clarifies that she will conceive and bear a son and name him Jesus (1:31). This child will be great and called "son of the Most High" (1:32). Mary asks how does that happen because she has not "known a man" (1:34). The angel responds in language mildly evocative of a physical encounter:

A holy spirit will come upon you and power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the child being born will be called a holy son of God. (1:35, italics mine)

Powers of the demon world acknowledge his divine sonship (4:41; 8:28). It is announced to Jesus in a private vision at his baptism (3:21-22) and to his inner circle at the transfiguration (9:35-36), where a heavenly voice calls him "my son the Chosen One." Nevertheless, Jesus twice publicly evades the question of his divine sonship (22:66-71).

Jesus is Inherently the Son of God

In the Gospel of John two things are immediately clear. The first is that there never was a time when Jesus was not the divine son of God. In the poetic section on the Word at the beginning of the gospel (1:1-18) the Word is identified as the "one and only from the Father" (1:14) and the "one and only God in the bosom of the Father" (1:18). Thus, he is inherently divine. What I mean by inherently is: "Involved in the constitution or essential character of something; belonging by nature."2 Or as the Revised English Bible puts it:

In the beginning the Word already was. The Word was in God's presence and what God was, the Word was. He was with God at the beginning. (1:1-2)

The second clarity of John is that the author insists that Jesus is not "a" son of God rather he is the "one and only" son of God (1:14, 18; 3:16,18). The only passage in which the appellation "the son of God" appears in John without the article "the" (ὁ) is John 10:36, while in the synoptics it appears frequently without the article.

            The Word "becoming flesh" (1:14) in the Gospel of John is not describing a birth. It is an "enfleshment" of the primal Word, who was from the beginning (1:1-2). The description is akin to a pre-Pauline hymnic section, where describing Jesus Paul states:

Although he was in the form of God,

Did not regard equality with God

As something to be exploited

But emptied himself,

Taking the form of a slave,

Being born in the likeness of men.

And being found in form as a man,

He humbled himself…(Phil 2:6-8)

In other words, he wasn't a human being but only temporarily took human form.

Enfleshment was a manifestation of a temporary condition (1:14) that did not affect his essentially divine character.

Jesus becomes a Child of God through Faith

Literary fragments of such a view survive, hinting at what may have been the case—if these fragments ever became fully developed and then were simply swept into the dustbin of history by a rising orthodoxy, and forgotten. One hint that there may have been such a such a view of Jesus is the appearance of a rare appellation for Jesus that survives in Acts (3:15; 5:31) and Hebrews (2:10; 12:2). Jesus is called archēgos, which has usually been translated "pioneer" in the New Testament.3 He is a pioneer, according to the author of Hebrews, in that "it was fitting that he…in leading many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through [his own] sufferings" (Heb 2:10): that is to say, suffering perfected him as the pioneer of a Way of faith. Hence, Jesus was not the perfect son of God who suffered "in our behalf" (Rom 5:8). His own faith and confidence in God (Gal 2:16) and perfection through suffering qualified him to lead the Way to glory for many other sons of God (Heb 2:10). It is in this way that Jesus became the firstborn among many brothers (Rom 8:29).

            A second hint is found in the Pauline correspondence, when Paul refers to followers of Jesus being "justified through the faith of Jesus" rather than being justified "through faith in Jesus." That is to say: it was what Jesus believed that mattered rather than what people believed about him:

…a person is not justified by works of the law but through the faith of Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus in order to be justified by the faith of Christ and not by works of the law…(Gal 2:16).4

A third hint lies in Luke's description of a sect called "the Way" (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22). The name likely derives from members of the group describing themselves as following the way of the Lord or God (Acts 13:10; 18:25-26) or the Way of life or salvation (Acts 2:28; 16:17). Nothing else is known of this group. Nevertheless, if these references to the Way are historical and not Luke's creation, the Way appears to have been an early nascent movement around Jesus growing out of Israelite traditions.5

Conclusion

It will depend on who is drawing the conclusions. There are two institutions that have an interest in this material, the institutional church and critical New Testament scholarship.6 Let me draw two conclusions in the form of challenges to both. For the institutional church the question becomes how can deference continue to be rendered to the dominance of Pauline Christology in the face of such diversity? On the other hand, scholarship has long been aware of the diversity of ideas in New Testament Christology. For my colleagues the question becomes, has that diversity grown larger? Is the recognition of another kind of "Christology" valid?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1See Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 112-13. The Western reading adds to Mark 1:11: "This day have I begotten thee." In Matt 3:17 the voice from the heavens addresses the crowd: "This is my beloved son."

2Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (1990): s.v. inherent.

3Other ways it has been translated is leader, ruler, prince, instigator, originator, founder, author. See Danker/Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago, 2nd ed., 2000).

4See Arthur Dewey et al., The Authentic Letters of Paul. A New Reading of Paul's Rhetoric and Meaning (Polebridge Press, 2010), 65-66.  In recent years Gal 2:16 has been mistranslated as "faith in Christ."

5See Hedrick, Wry Thoughts about Religion Blog: "The Gospel of Mark and the Way, a Sect reported in Acts," Monday, January 11, 2021: http://blog.charleshedrick.com/search?q=the+way

6If Hector Avalos is correct in his assessment of contemporary biblical scholarship, there may be three institutions concerned with the material. Avalos describes what he calls an ecclesial-academic complex in the field of biblical studies, in which "much of biblical scholarship still exists as part of a commitment to specific religious traditions and bears an apologetic subtext." See Hector Avalos, "Review of Charles W. Hedrick, Unmasking Biblical Faiths." Review of Biblical Literature 2020, by the Society of Biblical Literature.

Thursday, March 4, 2021

On Calling Jesus, “My Brother”

In Mark God declares Jesus to be his son at his baptism: "You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased" (1:11 NRSV; cf. 9:7).1 The unclean spirits (3:11) and the Gerasene demoniac (5:7) also call Jesus son of God. A Roman centurion, on the other hand, does not make the Christian confession but recognizes his divinity by numbering him among the many sons of God in the Graeco-Roman tradition: "Truly, this man was a son of God" (15:39). Jesus himself accepts the appellation; when asked by the high priest "Are you the Messiah, the son of the Blessed One?" (14:61), he replies affirmatively, "I am" (14:62). Nowhere in Mark, however, is that term defined.2

            The terms son of God (Exod 4:22; 2 Sam7:14; Ps 2:7) and sons of God (Gen 6:1-4; Job 1:6, 2:1, 38:7; Deut 32:8) are also used in the Hebrew Bible (Gen 6:1-4; Job 1:6, 2:1, 38:7; Deut 32:8). I have never thought of these expressions as the influential background to explain the terms in the New Testament. It does not seem reasonable to me that these few references to son/sons of God in Hebrew Bible would have triggered the complicated concept of the Christ in NT literature and Christian Orthodoxy. If Mark wrote his gospel "outside of Aramaic speaking Palestine" in some location in the Roman world, as many think,3 there existed more pervasive influences that might have led to describing Jesus as "son of God":

Long before Jesus was born, Greeks had bestowed divine honors on kings and great men whose careers were thought to have been unusually outstanding, referring to them variously as "heroes" "demigods," "immortals," "divine men." The ancient Greeks believed these human beings had a divine origin—they were born as a result of a union between a God and a human being and this explained their unusual abilities.4

If Jesus were to be competitive in such a world, his pedigree would have to be equally as good as that of the Graeco-Roman figures.

In New Testament literature it turns out that God has other children. Paul regarded followers of Jesus the Anointed (Christ) as the children (tekna) of God (Rom 8:16-17, 21; 9:8), as did the author of First John (3:2, 10). And, even more surprisingly, Paul described them as sons (huios) of God (Rom 8:14, 19; Gal 3:26) and "co-heirs with Christ" (Rom 8:17). The designation son of God even appears in one of the synoptic gospels (Matt 5:9).

            On the other hand, in the New Testament four passages (Acts 3:15; 5:31; Heb 2:10; 12:2) sport another title for Jesus, one that undermines the traditional image of a savior crucified in our behalf.5 In Acts and Hebrews Jesus is called "pioneer" (archēgos) rather than son of God. For example:

It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in leading many sons to glory, should make the pioneer [archēgos] of their salvation perfect through sufferings. (Heb 2:10, my translation)

Hence Jesus was the pioneer, who was first to lead the Way in a certain kind of faith. He was pioneer in the sense that it was his own faith and confidence in God (Gal 2:16) that established the Way of faith for others to follow.6 His sufferings were for his own perfecting and not "in our behalf." In broad outline theological elements of this slender thread of an almost forgotten faith surface here and there in New Testament literature: Jesus was born under the Israelite law to an unnamed human mother (Gal 4:4); and later at his baptism (Mark 1:11) was declared the son of God (Rom 1:4). As son of God, he pioneered a Way of faith (Gal 2:16)7 that pleases God (Heb 12:2).8 Thus he became the first-born among many brothers (Rom 8:29).

It is in the sense of Jesus as the pioneer of a new Way of faith that a child/son of God can call Jesus "my brother" (adelphos), for he also is a child/son of God through his faith as they are through their faith, and he is not ashamed to call them his brothers (adelphous, Heb 2:11).

How does it seem to you?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1In Rom 1:4 Paul describes Jesus as being declared (not born) son of God, which corresponds to Mark 1:11. In Mark there is no birth narrative.

2I do not include in this listing of verses Mark 13:32, which could be evoking the title "son of man" that Jesus uses of himself in Mark. The expression "son of God" in Mark's incipit (1:11) is questionable as well on text critical grounds. See Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (4th ed., 2000), 62.

3P. J. Achtemeier, "Mark, Gospel of," ABD 4.543.

4Hedrick, "Is Belief in the Divinity of Jesus Essential to Being Christian," The Fourth R 24.5 (September-October 2011), 15.

5Hedrick, "Religious Titles for Jesus." Wry Thoughts about Religion Blog: Tuesday May 3, 2016: http://blog.charleshedrick.com/search?q=pioneer

6Hedrick, "The Gospel of Mark and the Way, a Sect reported in Acts" Wry Thoughts about Religion Blog: Monday January 11, 2021: http://blog.charleshedrick.com/search?q=the+way

7For the translation of Gal 2:16, see Arthur Dewey, et al., The Authentic Letters of Paul (Polebridge, 2010), 65.

8This theological thread is similar in a few respects to the views of Cerinthus, a late first century Jesus follower. See Cockerill, "Cerinthus," ABD 1.883 and Hedrick, "Cerinthus," NIDB 1.580. At this early period Orthodoxy had not become the dominant Christian view by which to judge as heretical those who disagreed with them. In the early period one was led by one's own inner compass. Compare, for example, the theological differences between Mark and John; see Hedrick, Unmasking Biblical Faiths (Cascade, 2019), 151-54.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Paul and the Kingdom of God

There are striking differences between the synoptic gospel narratives about Jesus and the undisputed Pauline letters. One of the most curious is between Jesus and Paul on the Kingdom of God. Mark, the earliest gospel, summarizes the quintessential message of Jesus as follows: He proclaimed the gospel of God saying, “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom (Basileia) of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:14-15; cf. Matt 4:17). While Paul, on the other hand, mentions the kingdom of God only seven times in the seven undisputed letters attributed to him (Rom 14:17; 1 Cor 4:20; 6:9-10; 15:24, 50; Gal 5:21; 1 Thess 2:12). To judge from his letters Paul does not rely much on the teachings of Jesus, and it is questionable whether he even knew much about what Jesus taught. There are three explicit references by Paul to traditions and sayings of Jesus that have parallels in the synoptic gospels, and two references that do not have parallels in the synoptic gospels. It has also been argued that some of Paul’s statements echo sayings of Jesus or the risen Lord, but what is or is not an echo is debatable. What is more surprising is that the authority of the risen Lord (Christ) seems to have carried more weight with Paul than sayings of the historical man (Jesus, 2 Cor 5:16).1

            For Paul the kingdom of God appears to have been a certain kind of experience (with an aspect of futurity, 1 Cor 15:24) into which one is called (1Thess 2:12). It is characterized by righteousness, peace, joy, and divine power (Rom 14:17, 1 Cor 4:20), rather than physical sensations like eating and drinking, and talking, for people who revel in fleshly sensations do not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9-10; 15:50; Gal 5:21).2

            In Rom 14:17 Paul takes advantage of the issues in a squabble between factions in the gathering of Jesus followers at Rome (Rom 14:1-23) to specify what does not characterize the kingdom. What does not characterize the kingdom of God is precisely the two issues he names as the cause of their squabble: eating and drinking (Rom 14:2-3, 6, 15, 17, 20, 21, 23):

For the kingdom of God is not characterized by eating and drinking but by righteousness, peace, and joy (Rom 14:17, my translation).3

But saying that the kingdom of God is not characterized by eating and drinking contradicts a statement attributed to Jesus at the final Passover meal with his disciples:

Truly, I say to you, I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God (Mark 14:25, RSV).

Paul’s statement contradicts with the ancient theme of the eschatological banquet to be celebrated by the people of God at the end of time:

On this mountain the Lord of Hosts will make for all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wine on the lees well refined… (Isa 25:6-8, RSV).

I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven (Matt 8:11, my translation)

Blessed is he who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God (Luke 14:15; 16-24, RSV).

Blessed is the one who will eat with me in the kingdom of the heavens (Gos. Sav. 1:3, my translation).4

In our day this kind of language is generally regarded as figurative for the obvious reason that eating and drinking are physical delights, but who knows what expectations the authors of these texts, or their ancient readers, had with respect to the eschatological banquet. How should one regard this disagreement between Paul and the ancient traditions? Was it simply carelessness or an oversight on Paul’s part, and hence inadvertent? Or did Paul deliberately contradict the earlier traditions? If he did it deliberately, perhaps it was because he regarded the end-time experience of the people of God as spiritual and not physical, as he insists in 1 Cor 15:50: “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” How do you regard the contradiction?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Hedrick, The Wisdom of Jesus. Between the Sages of Israel and the Apostles of the Church (Cascade, 2014), 27-29. For the difference between the resurrected Lord and Jesus the historical man, see pages 25-26.

2Divine power is the power of God, the power of the Spirit, the power of Christ—that is to say spiritual power: for example, Rom 15:13, 19; I Cor 2:4-5; 2 Cor 4:7; 2 Cor 12:12; Gal 3:5; Phil 3:10.

3He makes a similar statement in 1 Cor 4:20, also related to something going on in the Corinthian gathering of saints (1 Cor 4:19-20).

4Hedrick and P. A. Mirecki, eds. Gospel of the Savior. A New Ancient Gospel (Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press, 1999). The manuscript dates from the fourth to the seventh centuries (p. 15), but the original composition is likely the latter half of the second century CE (p. 23). This date has recently been challenged and others argue that the manuscript dates from the 5th/6th century. See my defense of the original dating, which gives all the pertinent bibliography: “Dating The Gospel of the Savior: Response to Peter Nagel and Pierluigi Piovanelli,” Apocrypha. Revue international des littératures apocryphes: International Journal of Apocryphal Literature, 24 (2013), 223-36.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Groundhog Day and Historical Progress

Many of us of advanced age and/or who suffer from life-threatening health issues decided in 2020 to withdraw from the world and isolate ourselves because we are at high risk of catching covid19. Since last March we have voluntarily quarantined ourselves from society and live in small bubbles available only to a small number of people. Over the last year our lives have become very much like the 1993 film Groundhog Day. In the film Bill Murray plays a Pittsburg weatherman who covers the Groundhog Day event in Punxsutawney, PA. He becomes trapped in a time loop forcing him to relive February 2 repeatedly. Eventually he recognizes that he is in a time loop, although no one else does.1

Life in the bubble is repetitive and there is a sameness to the events of a typical day: wake up; dry and put away dishes; check email; prepare breakfast; TV news; morning ablutions; retire to respective offices to do whatever; prepare lunch; short nap; back to the offices; walk for an hour; check the snail mail (bills); evening news and dinner; doze before TV; retire. This pattern is repeated the next morning and ad infinitum. As a result, I find I am beginning to lose a sense of progress and continuity in time and history, since I seem to be living in an eternal present where everything repeats itself.

            History is defined as a “chronological record of significant events, often containing an explanation of their causes.” If truth be told, however, we humans invented the concept of time to explain our obsolescence and demise (aging and death), and we discovered the ellipse of the earth around the sun in a 24-hour period. We invented and named the hours of the day, the days of the week, and the months of the year. We even invent the connectedness of events by explaining their causes (about which historians frequently disagree) and this becomes the basis of our linear concept of time.2

            A competitor to the linear view of time is the “concept that the universe and all existence and energy has been recurring and will continue to recur in a self-similar form and infinite number of times across infinite time and space.” This concept is called the eternal return or the eternal recurrence.3 One biblical writer who seems to reflect such a view of time is Ecclesiastes:

That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been. (Eccl 3:15)

What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun. (Eccl 1:9)

In this biblical writer’s tone lies a deep weariness and monotony (Eccl 1:2-11; 2:11, 17, 22-23; 7:1-8), occasioned by how he has come to view life:

The central theme of the sage’s reflections is that life is disappointing and transitory—like a momentary breath (1:2-11). There is a weary sameness to life (3:15); it passes like a shadow (6:12). Being governed by chance (9:11-12), life is unfair: the righteous perish early and the wicked live out long lives (7:15).4

The Apostle Paul, on the other hand, had a theologically based linear view of time.5 He believed that he lived between two great events, the time of God’s great victory over sin and death at the crucifixion/resurrection of Jesus, on the one hand, and the Parousia (appearing) of Jesus and the end of the world (1 Cor 15:20-24; I Thess 4:13-18; 1 Cor 6:29-31), on the other. As such he lived between the already and the not yet (Rom 8:15/ 8:23; 1 Cor 1:2/1 Thess 5:23-24). That is to say: he already had received the blessings of salvation, but he still looks forward to the completion of his salvation. Thus, in Paul’s view the follower of Christ was numbered among those “upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor 10:11), that is, between the end of the old world/age and the beginning of the new. In other words, Paul saw time moving forward in a linear way from the resurrection to the time of Christ’s coming again and the end of time.

            This brings me back to the present pandemic moment: are we locked into a series of repeating 24-hour elliptical cycles, or does time actually move relentlessly forward in a linear line toward some unknown goal?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Groundhog_Day_(film). The film was selected by The Library of Congress for inclusion in the National Film Registry and the term “Groundhog Day” has made its way into the English language to describe a monotonous, unpleasant, and repetitive situation.

2See Hedrick, “History, Historical Narrative, and Mark’s Gospel,” Sunday December 3, 2013: http://blog.charleshedrick.com/search?q=history

3https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eternal_return

4Hedrick, The Wisdom of Jesus. Between the Sages of Israel and the Apostles of the Church (Cascade, 2014), 70.

5Hedrick, “Time—does it move forward or in Circles,” Saturday, June 1, 2019: http://blog.charleshedrick.com/search?q=Time

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

A Faustian Bargain: Evangelicalism and Trumpism

What happened in Washington on January 6 was a clash between two idealisms. On the one hand, Evangelical Christianity1 formed an unholy alliance with a self-aggrandizing presidential candidate in hopes, among other considerations, he would appoint conservative judges who would favor evangelical agendas, such as repealing Roe v. Wade. As an ideal, Evangelical Christianity believes that all of life should be brought under the “Banner of the Cross,” and reflect Christian values and ideals, as evangelicals understand them. On the other hand, American Democracy has a different vision, calling for a diverse and pluralistic society:

"Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"2

In other words, America from its beginning has been comprised of different races and religions all of which are considered equal under the U. S Constitution. Each foreign group, as naturalized citizens, can pursue “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in their own way, worship their own Gods, and raise their children, as they choose, under the law. One goal of democracy is to allow every citizen as much freedom and accommodation to as many of their values and mores as is possible under the law. It is a grand ideal that regularly has been stressed and battered, especially in recent years.

Tragically, an attempt to displace American Democracy, as we know it, occurred in Washington, DC on January 6. Security at the Capitol Building was breached while congress was in session, which led to a temporary occupation of the Capitol, the concealment of the members of congress, the death of a police officer3 and several insurgents, while several representatives and two United States Senators4 were attempting to interrupt the Electoral College process by challenging the certified results of the 2020 presidential election.

Just before the assault, at a rally in Washington, Mr. Trump turned his supporters into insurgents by verbally inciting their march on, and takeover of, the Capitol. Among the zealous supporters in Mr. Trump’s political base are Evangelical Christians5 and paramilitary groups, such as the Proud Boys,6 strange bedfellows and a marriage that, to say the least, was not made in heaven. Most of us recall Mr. Trump commenting on his popularity with his base by saying that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and not lose any voters. On January 13, however, Mr. Trump did suffer consequences for sparking the insurrection when the U. S. House of Representatives impeached him a second time; he is the only American president to have ever been impeached twice. The impeachment was the direct result of Mr. Trump’s incentivizing the mob to storm the Capitol Building—so I assume he now knows that he cannot stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot anyone with impunity!

What troubles me about this whole debacle has been the role of Evangelical Christianity in facilitating Mr. Trump’s rise to the highest office in the land. One would have imagined that evangelical leaders could have read the signals in Mr. Trump’s generally unacceptable behavior and consider that things might not end well. Their persistent support for Mr. Trump’s policies, however, blinded them to these signals as they considered the quid pro quo they hoped to receive.

Christianity has always been a “big tent” religion even from the earliest time as is attested by the early sources.7 Hence, it is not unusual to find Christian groups involved, however tangentially, in violent acts; for in its long history Christianity has been stained with violence in the name of God (the obvious examples are the crusades and the inquisition but there are many others). The last four years appear to have witnessed another one of those instances. Without the support of evangelical Christianity Mr. Trump would have been hard pressed to put together the coalition that led inevitably to the insurrection on January 6. Hence, evangelical Christians share the responsibility for enabling the insurrection. Some self-proclaimed evangelical Christians were even part of the mob that stormed the Capitol Building on Jan 6.

Through history there have been many versions of what it means to be Christian. It is embarrassing to the Christian brand that any one group should think of itself as the gold standard for religious faith to the extent that it would undemocratically aim to impose its self-understanding on others in a democratic and pluralistic society by bending the political system to its will.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Evangelicalism is a worldwide trans-denominational movement within protestant Christianity: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evangelicalism

2Emma Lazarus, The New Colossus, Nov 2, 1883.

3U. S. Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick.

4The two are Josh Hawley (Missouri) and Ted Cruz (Texas). On Hawley see Katherine Stewart, “The Roots of Josh Hawley’s Rage,” The New York Times, Jan 11, 2021: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/11/opinion/josh-hawley-religion-democracy.html?smid=em-share

5Elizabeth Dias and Ruth Graham. “How White Evangelical Christians Fused with Trump Extremism,” The New York Times, Jan 11, 2021: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/11/us/how-white-evangelical-christians-fused-with-trump-extremism.html

6Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proud_Boys

7There are several distinct types of “Christianity” in the first 400 years of our era: for example, Synoptic, Johannine, Pauline, Gnostic, early Orthodoxy, creedal Christianity.

Monday, January 11, 2021

The Gospel of Mark and the Way, a Sect reported in Acts

Luke reports that some early followers of Jesus were referred to as members of a sect called “the Way” (o odos [ο οδος], Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22).1  The name likely comes from their description of themselves as following the way of the Lord or God (Acts 13:10; 18:25-26) or the Way of life or salvation (Acts 2:28; 16:17). Luke describes a Jew (Ioudaios) named Apollos “who had been instructed in the Way of the Lord.” After hearing him speak in the synagogue, Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:18; Rom 16:3) took him aside and “expounded to him the Way of God more accurately” (18:25, 26). That Luke describes Apollos as a Jew well-informed about the scriptures but as needing further instruction (he knew only the baptism of John) suggests that his initial introduction to the “way of the Lord” was independent from the group represented by Priscilla and Aquila. Luke even has Paul claim to be a follower of the Way (24:14; cf. 13:10), describing him as a persecutor of the members of the sect (9:1-2) before his conversion (9:1-19). In short, Luke seems to suggest that the Way is a very early description of a nascent “Christian” movement growing out of Israelite traditions.2 That being the case, might there be some evidence in our earliest gospel (Mark) about this group?

I have elsewhere described Mark’s gospel narrative, which includes the gospel Jesus proclaimed (Mark 1:14-15a),3 as “the official ‘gospel’ statement of Mark’s church.” Mark’s gospel is “the proclamation of the public career, death, and resurrection of Jesus ‘in behalf of many’” (Mark 10:45).4 The question becomes does Mark reflect any awareness of an incipient movement or message, reflecting the brief reports in Acts?

Using the Way passages in Acts as background, there are several statements in Mark’s narrative that may reflect an awareness of the Way as a particular religious movement. Mark uses the same terminology as Luke to describe that religious lifestyle: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Mark 1:3; cf. Acts 13:10); Way of the Lord (Mark 1:3; Acts 18:25); Way of God (Mark 12:14; Acts 18:26). Mark has one story (12:13-17) in which the Judean religious authorities try to trap Jesus. The authorities describe him as “teaching the Way of God in accordance with truth” (12:14), presumably an ironic contrast with their own understanding of “the way of God.” While the authorities are insincere in the statement as the rest of the story shows, their statement does present a contrast between the Way (that is the religious lifestyle) taught by Jesus and that of the Jewish authorities.

Mark’s narrative begins with quotes from the Septuagint (Mal 3:1 and Isa 40:3). Mark changes the statement in Mal 3:1 from me to read thy: “Behold, I send forth my messenger, and he shall survey the way before me.” Mark 1:1: “Behold I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy Way. In Malachi the speaker is God referring to himself; in Mark the speaker is Mark referring to Jesus/the Lord. In Malachi the way is the way of the Law (Mal 1:8-9 LXX), but in Mark the Way is the “Way of the Lord,” Jesus (1:3).

Finally, Mark frequently uses the image of travel in the narrative in a literal sense, referring to people in travel mode as being in the road, or on their way to some destination (2:23; 4:4, 15; 6:8; 8:3, 27; 9:33, 34; 10:17, 32, 46, 52; 11:8). At least, one of these common expressions for travel could be metaphorical. There are already several other metaphorical uses of o odos in Mark (1:2, 3; 12:14). The story of Blind Bartimaeus seems be another instance of a metaphorical use.5 This use of o odos (10:52) turns the Bartimaeus story into an account of a lifestyle change. Jesus restores his blindness by saying “Go; your faith has made you well.” Bartimaeus did not leave, however, but followed him in the Way (10:52). The question is: might this be an allusion to the Way [of truth] taught by Jesus or is it a statement that Bartimaeus travelled along behind Jesus on the road for a bit?

How does it seem to you?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1J. McKenzie, Dictionary of the Bible (Macmillan, 1965), s.v. “the Way”: “This usage does not appear elsewhere and has no known antecedents.”

2Mackenzie, Dictionary, 924.

3Mark says Jesus proclaimed the following gospel: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near,” or “Time is up; God’s sovereign rule is about to begin!” “Repent and believe the gospel” (1:15b) is the response demanded by Mark’s community to the gospel Jesus proclaimed.

4Hedrick, “Parable and Kingdom. A Survey of the Evidence in Mark,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 27 (Spring 2000), 180-82 or Hedrick, Parabolic Figures or Narrative Fictions? Seminal Essays on the Stories of Jesus (Eugene, OR: Cascade. 2016), 27-30.

5See McKenzie, Dictionary, s.v. “Way,” for the metaphorical use of “way” in the Bible.