Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Have you ever Doubted your Faith?

Someone asked me recently: have you ever doubted your faith? The question itself is interesting as a question. For one reason, it seems to be lacking a prepositional phrase specifying the object of faith. For example, have you ever doubted your faith in God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, or the Bible? Or perhaps the questioner intended that the word "faith" in the question evoke the entire spectrum of my religious beliefs. Or perhaps the question is more secular and the questioner was asking whether I have ever doubted faith in friends, family, or country, and in this secular form it has the general thrust of have I ever doubted the confidence I placed in something that I believe to be certain, like gravity, for example. If all these observations are possibilities, then I must refine the question and pick the subject that is most interesting to me.

Here is the question I choose to address: have I ever doubted aspects of my personal religious faith? The short answer is yes, and I suspect that every one of us has moments of doubt about aspects of religious belief. At least I hope so. From my perspective doubting something you think is certain is a positive ability, not a liability. Doubt is a warning mechanism of the mind that can lead to a correction of misplaced confidence.

Like everyone, my personal religious faith has never been static. It began with the child's prayer I was taught, "now I lay me down to sleep; I pray the Lord my soul to keep; if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take." But through the years it has become more sophisticated, logical, and rational with education, as my understanding of life and my place in the cosmos evolved. My faith began with what I was taught in a Southern Baptist Sunday School in the Mississippi Delta of the 40s and 50s. Hence, it was traditional and conservative. Since childhood, however, my faith has been a thing in process, shedding childish ideas and developing in, what I regard as more mature and philosophical ways. There is a statement attributed to the Apostle Paul (that he likely did not compose), which best characterizes the development and remaindering of the faith of my childhood: "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways" (1 Cor 13:11 NRSV). Doubt has played a major role in developing and remaindering my religious faith. A major premise for me has been the following: faith may not require me to believe something I find to be patently false or impossible given the world as I experience it.

Briefly here are three examples of where this process has brought me. God, if God there be, is spirit and does not exist in the sense that we normally use the word "exist." As spirit, God is not an entity that occupies space and time, as we human beings do. God, as understood by human beings, appears to be an invention of the human mind, whose character and nature change with the confessions of each religious group and individual. God does not correspond exactly to any of the many ideations of the human mind that claim to describe God. And if God does correspond exactly to one of these ideations, how could we tell? The Jewish and Christian Bibles present at least three different concepts of God. Thus, God, if God there be, is shrouded in mystery. There can be no direct knowledge of God. We learn about God from what others tell us, from the study of religions, and from those who claim to have experienced God, but all these sources offer us radically conflicting opinions.1

Whatever else he may have been, Jesus was certainly regarded as a Judean sage, thaumaturge, and healer, or at least the author of the earliest canonical Gospel, Mark, regarded him as such, and those features are reproduced in the other three canonical gospels. His popularity with the masses and laxity in following the traditions of the elders ran him afoul of the Judean religious leaders. He was arrested, found guilty of blasphemy, and eventually crucified for political reasons by Roman authority. The early followers of Jesus, however, believed him to be much more, and used grandiose titles to describe him: God (John 20:28), son of God, Lord, the Anointed of the Lord (Christ), son of David, King of Israel. These honors are not verifiable by naked eye but rather are verified only through the eyes of faith. These days I prefer to think of Jesus as my brother in faith.

In Acts and Hebrews, Jesus is portrayed as a pioneer (archēgos), perfected through his own sufferings and his suffering qualified him to lead the way to glory for many other sons of God (Heb 2:10; 12:2). In this way Jesus, the Judean sage, became the firstborn among many brothers (Rom 8:29). My view of Jesus may make me appear as an apostate or certainly a heretic (they are not the same thing2), since it by-passes divinity for humanity as a classification for Jesus. There were various views about the nature of Jesus in antiquity, and it depended on whom you asked as to whether Jesus was divine. People holding a view different than the so-called orthodox view must nevertheless be classified as being in the stream of Christian history.3 Whatever group was dominant became the judge of what was orthodox.

In church I was never taught data about the Bible except for the most obvious information. Generally, I was taught to regard the Bible as "God-breathed"4 and to pattern my life on its precepts. My views have changed. I no longer think of the Bible as a "Holy Book" but as a collection of texts that reflect the evolution of the faith of two religious communities, Jewish and Christian. There are currently three versions of the Bible: the Jewish Bible, the Protestant Bible, and the Catholic Bible. Their contents are not the same. The Protestant Bible with which I grew up uses the Jewish Bible, which it regards as Old covenant books; to these texts were added certain new-covenant writings, twenty-seven other texts (the New Testament), which were assembled as a collection by the fourth century common era and added to the Jewish Bible. By the fourth century followers of Jesus regarded all these books in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek as in some sense "inspired" by God. Modern Christians transfer that high value to its translation into modern languages, forgetting that no translation is an exact reproduction of the original.

I have only touched the surface of my view of the Bible today as compared to where I began. My hasty summary nevertheless shows that if the Bible is "inspired" by God (a view that cannot be proven), it is also to be regarded as a human product. Human beings collected and canonized the writings, and text critics established what they regard as the original wording of the texts and they still debate what words should appear as the original wording.5

I have learned to live with the evident lack of certainty in matters of religious faith. The major difficulty with religion is that too many are absolutely certain that their religious faith is the true faith.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1C. W. Hedrick, Unmasking Biblical Faiths (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2019), 168-70 and in particular: "Out of the Enchanted Forest. Christian Faith in an Age of Reason" pages 13-24 in When Faith Meets Reason (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge, 2008).

2Hedrick, "How do I Describe Myself," Wry Thoughts about Religion, Friday, February 15, 2019: http://blog.charleshedrick.com/2019/02/how-do-i-describe-myself.html.

3Hedrick, "Is Belief in the Divinity of Jesus Essential to Being Christian," Unmasking Biblical Faiths, 221-233.

4But this could only refer to the Jewish Scriptures in Greek (the Septuagint) for the New Testament had not yet been collected and given the status of "inspired Scripture."

5Hedrick, Unmasking Biblical Faiths, 87-102.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Pondering the "Messianic Secret" in the Gospel of Mark

In 1901 Wilhelm Wrede published Das Messiasgeheimnis in Den Evangelien (The Messianic Secret in the Gospels).1 He argued that Mark’s attempts to conceal the identity of Jesus of Nazareth was Mark’s own design superimposed on the Jesus traditions that he received. Wrede called the concealment of Jesus’ identity the “Messianic Secret.” I tend to think of it as an incognito motif or the motif of the concealed king. C. M. Tuckett has summarized features of the Messianic Secret in the gospel as follows:

(1) Jesus explicitly commands the demons to be silent about his identity after exorcisms (1:25, 34; 3:11-12); (2) Jesus gives orders that his miracles are not to be publicized (1:43-44; 5:43; 7:36); (3) Jesus commands the disciples to be quiet about him (8:30; 9:9); (4) Jesus tries to keep his whereabouts a secret (7:24; 9:30); (5) Jesus gives private instructions only to a chosen few (7:17; 10:10); (6) the so-called “theory of parables (4:11-12) shows that in Mark, Jesus teaches in parables in order deliberately to hide his intent from the crowds; and (7) despite their privileged position the disciples in Mark regularly fail to understand Jesus (6:52; 8:17-21).2

Nevertheless, the secret is broken in Mark’s narrative at 1:44-45.

To these features must now be added an additional feature: Mark’s omission in chapters 1-14 of Jesus’ identity as son of David and legitimate heir as King of Israel, which appears as a standard element of early “Christian” beliefs about Jesus in the later gospels.3 Recognition of the Messianic Secret has endured as one of the most successful achievements of critical New Testament scholarship.

The motif that Jesus was a king in disguise, which Mark uses, is known elsewhere in ancient literature. For example, Julius Caesar disguises himself in a Wild beast’s skin and wanders among his troops observing and listening to them.4 Nero in a slave’s disguise (so as to be incognito) wandered the streets of Rome to brothels and taverns with his comrades.5 Odysseus, King of Ithaca, was changed beyond recognition by Athena to return home and rescue his palace from the profligates who had been courting his wife Penelope. Athena changed his physical appearance so that he appeared as an aged disreputable vagabond clothed in disgusting rags.6 Zeus was King of the Graeco-Roman Gods. He frequently disguised himself to consort incognito among human beings by changing his appearance. His two most famous liaisons were with Leda, where he changed himself into a swan,7 and with Europa, where he changed himself into a tame bull.8 Of these examples, mentioned just above, Mark, writing in the late 60s/early 70s of the first century, would most likely have been familiar with the latter two. Attesting to the popularity of the myth of Europa, in his novel, Leucippe and Clitophon, Achilles Tatius (2nd century) describes his hero seeing a painting of Europa and the Bull, which is described in the novel in great detail.9

The images of Leda and the swan and Europa and the bull were ubiquitous in the ancient world. They appear on ancient coins, statuary, pottery, mosaics, wall frescos, paintings, objects of art etc. For example, Sidonian and Roman coins depicted an image of Europa and the Bull.10 Mark could scarcely help from being aware of the myths and the images. If Mark were aware of the myths and images, he was also aware of the incognito motif. In other words, the incognito motif, or the motif of the disguised king, in Mark may well be simply a literary feature inspired by Graeco-Roman myths.

Guessing at motives is always a risky business, but were I to hazard a guess about Mark’s motives in applying the incognito motif to the Jesus traditions, I would think that he likely did it out of a sensitivity for the political situation in Judea 66-73 CE. These were simultaneously the dates for the composition of the Gospel of Mark, the time of the first Jewish war prompted by the Jewish rebellion against Roman rule, and the subsequent Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.11 During such a tumultuous time in Judea, Jewish followers of Jesus would scarcely need any additional reasons for Rome to notice them. There is a later tradition that they fled the city before the war to the nearby city of Pella in the Decapolis (compare Mark 13:14).12

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1William Wrede, The Messianic Secret (Greenwood, SC: Attic Press, 1971).

2C. M. Tuckett, “Messianic Secret” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary 4.797.

3Hedrick, “Did Jesus Claim to be King of Israel?” Wry Thoughts about Religion Blog, April 19, 2021: http://blog.charleshedrick.com/

4Tacitus, The Annals, 2:13.

5Tacitus, The Annals, 13:25

6Homer, Odyssey, 13.363-434.

7Robert Graves, The Greek Myths (2 vols. in 1; New York: George Braziller, 1959), 1.206-207 (62a).

8Graves, Greek Myths, 194-195 (58b-c).

9S. Gaselee, ed., Achilles Tatius (Cambridge and London: Harvard and William Heinemann, 1961), 1.1-2 (pp. 3-9).

10For images of such a coin see: https://www.google.com/search?source=univ&tbm=isch&q=sidon+coin+image+with+Europa&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwj-gYepjpXwAhUBHM0KHfWaDSYQjJkEegQICBAB&biw=1458&bih=675 Here are also two from the period of the Roman Republic: https://www.coinarchives.com/a/results.php?results=1000&search=europa+and+bull

11L. I. Levine, “Jewish War (66-73 C. E.)” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary 3.839-45.

12Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 1.3.5.