Monday, May 16, 2022

Did Jesus forgive Sins?

Did the historical man, Jesus from the village of Nazareth in Galilee, in the first century forgive “sins” committed by those Israelites who came under his influence? I cannot answer the question but intend to review the evidence available to answer it. I suppose one could reply to the question: why should he not forgive sins? He is also credited with empowering his followers to forgive sins (John 20:23). In reliance on this one verse some religious groups in the modern Christian church practice the forgiveness of sins in God’s name.1

The word “sin” is also a problem. The Bible uses the generic word sin quite frequently but very few specific acts or attitudes are ever designated as sin in the Bible.2 The modern church, however, regards many acts and attitudes as sin that are not called sin in the Bible. Those acts (called sin) and the persons (called sinners) committing the acts lack a basis in the biblical tradition for so designating them as sin/sinners. Hence, calling people who commit such acts sinners seems little more than a slur against them.3

            The evidence for Jesus forgiving sin is very meager. In Mark Jesus is portrayed as forgiving sin only one time, the Healing of the Paralytic (Mark 2:1-12). Matthew abridges Mark’s story, and Jesus still forgives the paralytic’s sins (Matt 9:1-8). Luke lightly edits the story, and Jesus still forgives the man’s sins (Luke 5:17-26). To this singular attestation (Matthew and Luke took the story from Mark) Luke adds another story, the Woman with an Alabaster Jar (Luke 7:36-50) in which Jesus forgives the woman’s sins, “which were many” (Luke 7:47). In the synoptic gospel literature, there are only these two incidents in which Jesus is portrayed as forgiving sins.

There is, however, a related story in the Gospel of John, the Woman taken in Adultery (John 7:53-8:11. The tradition history of this story does not encourage one to regard it as a historical event, although it is an early tradition; the earliest attestation is 5th century).4 We are told a woman was taken in the very act of adultery. The scribes and Pharisees brought her before Jesus and asked him what he thought about the law that required stoning as the punishment for adultery (Lev 20:10; Deut 22:23-24). Jesus replied, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to cast a stone.” Her accusers departed one by one beginning with the oldest. Jesus was left alone with the woman. “Has no one condemned you,” he asked. No one had. “neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more,” Jesus said. It is interesting that he did not forgive her sin of adultery or her other sins.

Jesus did not condemn her, even though she was clearly guilty of committing adultery (after all, she had been caught in the act, 8:3). Even though Jesus did not condemn her, he did not forgive her and thus she was not absolved of her guilt before God. Hence, her guilt for this sin would have remained with her. Forgiving her sin/sins would have been the greater gift, if one assumes that Jesus, in fact, did have the authority to forgive sins. The story begs the question as to why the author of the story did not portray Jesus forgiving her, as well as not condemning her?

It seems to me that the scribes asked the question that penetrates to the heart of this narrative: “who can forgive sins, but God alone?” The scribes are clearly correct (Mark 2:6-7), it seems to me. Forgiving sins is God’s business.5

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1See Hedrick, “Can the Church grant Absolution for Sins?” Unmasking Biblical Faiths, 258-60.

2For the evidence, see Hedrick, “What is sin?” in Unmasking Biblical Faiths, 247-50.


4See Hedrick, “Orphan Sayings and Stories in the New Testament” in Wry Guy Blog:

5Mark 2:5 “Child your sins are forgiven” is rejected as a saying of Jesus the historical man by the Jesus Seminar; The Seminar understood Luke 7:47-48 as a Lukan embellishment: See the analysis by Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Acts of Jesus (Harper San Francisco, 1998), 63-65; 291-292.

Sunday, May 1, 2022

Outer Space, Religion, and the Bible

One doesn’t normally think of outer space as having anything to do with religion and the Bible, and it may seem rather strange at first to connect the two. Nevertheless, it seems to me they are related. Outer space, commonly shortened to space, is the expanse that exists beyond earth and its atmosphere and that which exists between celestial bodies. Outer space does not begin at a definite altitude above the Earth's surface. The Karmen line, an altitude of 100 km (62 miles) above sea level, is conventionally used as the start of outer space in space treaties and aerospace records-keeping. The framework for international space law was established by the Outer Space Treaty, which entered into force on 10 October 1967. This treaty precludes any claims of national sovereignty and permits all states freely to explore the vast reaches of outer space.1

Outer space is the newest frontier of the human spirit beckoning explorers. We denizens of mother earth, who have lived into our majority in the 20th and early 21st, centuries belong to a first generation of Star Trek travelers whose fate it has become to explore our own solar system in preparation for interstellar space journeys. For a people whose destiny is the stars, the Bible has become, in part, only an interesting relic of our human past. It is a collection of texts accumulating part of the wisdom of our species in its childhood.

            There appears to be no concept of outer space in the Bible. The romantic biblical view of the cosmos is restricted to the earth and its atmosphere.2 Briefly, the ancient view of the universe in the Bible may be reconstructed as follows: Initially God created a bit of firmament (the heavens) around which swirled the waters of chaos (Gen 1:6-8; 8:27-29). The earth appeared at God’s command (Gen 1:9-10), mounted on pillars (1 Sam 2:8; Job 9:6; Ps 75:3) over which there stretched a vaulted or arched (Isa 40:22; Job 22:14; Prov 8:27) canopy or tent (Ps 104:2) from which the “lights” and stars in the vaulted canopy shined (Gen 1:14-18). Around this protected cocoon swirled the waters of chaos (Ps 104:5-9).

            The best that can be said for this biblical concept of the cosmos is that it is seriously flawed. The poetic theory that God created all things by a word (Gen 1:3, 6, 9, 14-16) is not as logically convincing as the scientific theory of the “Big Bang.” The “Big Bang” theory avers that the universe exploded into existence in all directions from a singularity, and as a result of the explosion the edge of the universe continues to expand and recede outward from the earth at tremendous speeds that can be measured by changes in light rays (the Doppler effect).3 The farther away one goes in space from the earth, the farther back in time one moves toward the origin of the universe.4 Peering through the Hubble telescope involves one in time travel; one actually sees into the past to earlier stages of the universe’s formation. Of course. that is true of the Bible as well. Reading the Bible is a kind of time travel which allows one to peer into the past of our species. The Bible’s seriously flawed view of the cosmos disqualifies it as a reliable resource; nevertheless, the founders of the Flat Earth Society used the Bible as a resource for their understanding of the universe.5

Here is the point of this essay: If God created the cosmos (and s/he surely might have6), it is obvious from the existing cosmos that outer space came into existence at the same time or later, as scientists postulate.7 And this datum exposes one serious inadequacy in the biblical record.

The clash between the Bible and the challenge of space travel is only one of the Bible’s many limitations. Its failure to acknowledge outer space is a graphic illustration of its limitations. The Bible loses the how-of-creation argument to modern science, and that should make one wonder what other inadequacies exist in the Bible?8

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1These two statements are slightly adapted from Wikipedia:

For the treaty see:

2See “The Biblical View of the Universe” in C. W. Hedrick, Unmasking Biblical Faiths (Cascade, 2019), 13-15. An artist’s rendering of this scheme may be found at T. H. Gaster, “Cosmogony,” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (4 vols.; Abingdon, 1962), 1:703.




6See Hedrick, “Matter and Spirit: Making Sense of it All” in Unmasking Biblical Faiths (Cascade: 2019), 174-77.

7Scientists postulate the age of the cosmos at 13.77 billion years,

And the age of the earth is calculated at 4.54 billion years, Thanks to PaulYR for this correction. See the comments below.

8I address another category of discrepancy in the following: C. W. Hedrick, “Introduction, Superstition, Faith, and the Marginal Relevance of the Bible” in Unmasking Biblical Faiths, 1-12.

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Why doesn't God speak English?

Or for that matter, why doesn’t God speak any modern language? Why do you suppose that is? I suspect, no one knows, if they ever even wondered about it. God, however, is given credit for knowing all languages and is quoted in the Bible as speaking audibly in ancient Hebrew and Greek. In fact, even today many around the world claim that they speak to God regularly in prayer and God answers.

I concluded that God did not speak English several years ago while praying in a men’s Bible class in Baptist Sunday School. I suddenly realized that I was doing all the talking in my prayer. I was aware of no audible, or inaudible, “voice” in any language in my head, other than my own; I detected no indications of a presence other than me. Of course, my thoughts were not audible, but they were in English. Basically, I concluded that prayer was a one-sided conversation, and all effort to communicate came from my end. In my view this situation appertains to most every person who prays. Some, no doubt, do hear voices. Those who hear audible ethereal voices have serious problems and need professional counseling. Of course, it might be objected that God does “speak spiritually” to others in their prayers but that God for whatever reason has chosen not to speak to me. My contention, however, is that my situation is no different from the average person.

            If people do receive answers to their prayer, as a great many people claim, could such “answers” arise from the subconscious?1 Our subconscious is aware of what goes on in the conscious mind, while the conscious mind is generally oblivious to what goes on in the subconscious. While the conscious mind prays, the subconscious mulls over the issues raised during prayer, and these subconscious ruminations return to the conscious mind as flashes of insight, which the one who prays interprets as answers to prayer. Such answers may constitute the “still small voice” (1 Kgs 19:12), which Elijah claimed to hear in a cave on Mount Horeb (1 Kgs 19:1-18).

If this speculation has any merit, answers to prayer do not come from outside us but arise from within us. We are not conversing with God but with our subconscious selves. Subconscious thoughts that suddenly break into our consciousness are not God speaking. It is the subconscious summoning us to what we have neglected and/or providing us with answers to problems we have worked out subconsciously. At least such an analysis might explain the awesome silence of our one-sided prayers.

            The apostle Paul describes what may be a similar attitude toward the experience of prayer. He did not seem to think much of a believer’s effectiveness in prayer; he regarded the human spirit2 as simply inadequate at the business of praying:

Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God (Rom 8:26-27, RSV).

What Paul describes seems to be a subliminal experience. I have never been aware of the Spirit in my head when I pray. Our stumbling attempts to engage God in prayer are simply inadequate. According to Paul, it is the deep sighs of the Spirit that bring our concerns, requests, and pain before God. God knows the mind of the Spirit; hence, the communication (if any) is not between God and the one who prays, but between God and the Spirit. The one who prays may initiate the process, but the Spirit intercedes.

            I am not sure what to do with Paul’s early directive: “Pray continually!” (1 Thess 5:17).3 If true, we must have the subconscious capacity for prayer while we consciously tend to other matters. The Spirit intercedes, and the subconscious responds with flashes of insight, while our conscious minds meanwhile are occupied with other things.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University


2For Paul’s references to the human spirit see Rom 1:9, 8:16-17, 1 Thess 5:23.

3This is the translation of the Revised English Bible, and the NIV. The verse is translated as “Pray without ceasing” by the Revised Standard Version, the New American Bible, and Bart Ehrman. Two rather interpretative translations that remove the idea of continually being in an attitude of prayer (which is implied in the present imperative) are Dewey, et al. (“live with reverence”) and Goodspeed (never give up praying”).

Saturday, April 2, 2022

Piety and the early Christian Tradition

Do you think of yourself as pious? In the practice of religion, the word pious is construed today in contradictory ways. The first definition for pious in my dictionary is: "marked by or showing reverence for deity and devotion to divine worship." The second reads: "marked by conspicuous religiosity." The first definition is positive; reverence for deity (if such there be) and devotion to worship of the divine (if such there be, and if one believes in behaving in such a way) is a positive act. The second definition sounds like "excessive religiousness." How could anything in excess be positive? Too much of anything is not a good thing (nothing in excess is an ancient Greek maximum). The fourth definition is divided into two parts: 4a reads: "marked by sham or hypocrisy"; 4b is: "marked by self-conscious virtue."1 So it seems the definitions for piety range from a humble reverence for deity at one end and conspicuous hypocrisy at the other.

            Several words for piety from the ancient Greek world appear in the New Testament. The verbal forms (eusebeō and thrēskeuō) and their derivatives receive different translations from scholars. These words appear in what I construe as the later books of the New Testament. The words do not appear in the gospels or the undisputed Pauline letters. In the Bauer/ Danker lexicon eusebeō is translated as "to show uncommon reverence or respect, [that is,] to worship." And thrēskeuō is translated "to practice cultic rites; to worship." Here are some passages that use these verbal forms or their derivatives (1 Tim 5:4, Acts 17:23, I Tim 2:2, 2 Tim 3:5, 2 Pet 1:3, 2 Pet 1:6, Tit 1:1, Acts 10:2; James 1:26-27, Acts 26:5, Col 2:18). These words in the New Testament do not seem to have the strange positive/negative definition found in the meaning of the English word "piety." Likely because they do not address the issue of motivation.

In the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6:1-7:29), created by the gospel's flesh and blood author,2 one finds a short section (Matt 6:1-7, 16-18) directly addressing motivation for religious behavior. (Motivation constitutes the reasons why one behaves as one does.) Matthew does not use eusebeō or thrēskeuō. Instead Matthew uses dikaiosunē a word usually thought of as "righteousness." In its context here it is best translated in English as "righteous behavior,"3 but translators have rendered it variously into English as piety, religion, good deeds, charity, acts of righteousness, and righteous deeds in the few translations I checked. In these few verses Matthew condemns conspicuousness in the practice of religion and directs that charitable deeds, prayer, and fasting should be quietly and inconspicuously done.4 Those who do these acts in order to be seen by others get no credit with God (6:1, 2, 5, 16). Those who do receive credit with God for their righteous behavior are those who do their religious acts "in secret" (6:3-4, 6, 17-18).

            In Matthew's view righteous behavior (think of it as pious acts) in the earliest Christian tradition consisted of unostentatiously giving charitable gifts (alms), praying privately, and inconspicuously depriving oneself of food (i.e., fasting) for religious reasons. In addition, one must do these activities motivated by the right reasons (Matt 7:35 = Luke 6:45). The writer we call James adds to these behaviors, humane consideration for others (1:27-28; cf. Matt 25:31-46):

Devotion to God (threskeia) that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

To judge by Matthew's words our modern ecclesiastical ideas about piety may be misguided. Piety does not consist of church-based religious activities. For example, attending a preaching hour of the church is not a "service" rendered to God. (I assume we attend such a gathering for ourselves.) Piety is an attitude toward deity that may be judged positive, negative, or misguided by its behavioral expression. In other words, piety is expressed in specific activities that are commensurate with a certain attitude toward deity. Modern piety, which seems to consist of serving God through group activities in a church context, differs from piety in the early Jesus tradition, which, idealistically, was a deep reverence toward God expressing itself in certain private acts performed with no pretentiousness—or so Matthew thought.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, s.v. "pious."

2There are five addresses by Jesus that the flesh and blood author of Matthew's gospel has arranged throughout the gospel: Matt 5:1-7:28; 10:1-11:1; 13:1-53; 18:1-19:1; 24:1-26:1. Note especially the endings to the addresses: "when Jesus finished these…"

3Some manuscripts use the word "alms" (eleēmosunēn), suggesting the tradition found the word (dikaiosunē), as used in most manuscripts, to be unclear or unsatisfactory.

4Very little of this material (6:3 and perhaps 6:6a) was found to have originated with Jesus by the Jesus Seminar: Funk and Hoover, The Five Gospels, 147-48. Two of these religious acts (giving alms and praying) are found linked in Acts 10:2.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Does Ancient Greek have Dangling Prepositions?

A dangling preposition is also called a hanging preposition or a stranded preposition. That is, it is a word that appears to have no function in a sentence. It is dangling because prepositions in English and Greek are words that appear in prepositional phrases in which the preposition takes an object. Here is an example: I went into the house. Into is the preposition and house its object. Occasionally, however, we use prepositions without an object in conversational English and in that case the preposition is said to dangle, having no real function in the sentence, since it no longer functions as a preposition. Here is an example: I wish I had a friend to travel with. With, in this sentence, is a preposition; it has no object. On the other hand, one might construe the verb to be "travel-with," which is not really a word, except, perhaps, in casual colloquial English. Here is another: I bought some new music to listen to. To is a dangling preposition since it has no object; although in colloquial English it might be "thought-of" as a part of the non-existent verb "listen-to." Here is another: Under these circumstances crucial actions are called for. For is the dangling preposition unless you construe it to be part of the nonexistent verb "called-for."

            A similar situation with prepositions also appears in ancient Greek but is nevertheless considered proper Greek by grammarians. I "looked-up" in the Gospel of Mark all the uses of the Greek verb eiserchomai (εισερχομαι). This word is a compound comprised of a Greek preposition eis (into) + the Greek verb erchomai (to come). It has the resulting translation (in the Danker-Bauer Greek Lexicon) of "to enter" or "to come into." In other words, the word has the force of something moving into something. If such a translation is correct, then why does Mark use another eis (into) with eiserchomai, which already has a preposition built into the verb eiserchomai? As best as I can tell the word appears some seventeen times in the Gospel of Mark. Fourteen times it appears using what I construe as the unnecessary preposition eis (because eis is already compounded in the verb). Once it appears using the preposition pros (to, unto, 15:43).1 And twice it appears without a redundant preposition (5:39; 13:15). In Mark 15:43 eis (into) would clearly be incorrect (one doesn't move into another person). Hence Mark uses pros (to): Joseph enters to Pilate. Mark drops the unnecessary eis in 5:39 and 13:15 since no location being entered into is stated. The general grammatical rule for Mark seems to be that eis is required to complete the verb eiserchomai, if a location being entered into is stated.2 If the location is stated, then eis or another preposition is required.

            Ancient Greeks construed eiserchomai as a deponent verb (passive in form but active in meaning); it is also construed as intransitive (meaning that it does not take a direct object) even though it is active in meaning. Hence, they would not usually complete the verb with a direct object. With certain prepositions, however, ancient Greeks can attach a complement in the accusative case directly to the verb without an extra redundant preposition. Mark, for example, renders proerchomai as transitive in Mark 6:33 and gives it a complement in the accusative (autous): "came before them" (proēlthon autous).3 The question becomes why should not the implicit preposition built into the prefix of the compound verb eiserchomai also obviate the need for another preposition after the verb? Or to put the issue differently: Why exclude eiserchomai from the list of verbs that can be used without the redundant preposition? What is different about the preposition eis? Surprisingly according to Liddell and Scott, Homer and the Greek poets use eiserchomai with the accusative and without a redundant preposition, but among prose writers eiserchomai is used mostly with the extra preposition and a complement in the accusative. Here is an example of eiserchomai with the accusative from Homer, The Iliad 3.184: και Φρυγιην εισηλυθον ("I went into Phrygia").4 In such instances, one wonders, would the Greek writer construe the accusative as the object of the preposition or the direct object.5

            An enterprising Greek linguist might regard Mark's duplication of the unnecessary preposition as an instance of a pleonasm (the use of more words than are necessary in order to convey meaning, which is either a fault of style or done for emphasis6). Blass/Debrunner/Funk report that "it is a common feature of the [Greek] language that a preposition compounded with a verb in its literal, local sense is repeated with the complement."7 Perhaps it is a pleonasm, but the use of eis with eiserxomai seems to me more a fault of style than something used for emphasis. An emphatic pleonasm would have been amen, amen (John 1:51; compare a single amen in Matt 5:18). In other words, Mark has presented the reader with a redundancy of linguistic expression by using eis after the compound verb eiserchomai; eis appears to be completely unnecessary or useless, since it is already built into the verb.

            From a historical perspective the ancient Greeks appear conflicted about what to do with eiserchomai. Should an extra preposition be added to the deponent verb compounded with eis? Homer and the poets say no; prose writers say yes. For Homer and the poets eiserchomai with the added complement was construed as sufficient; no extra redundant preposition was needed.

What is the significance of my observation? Perhaps it is nothing more than a pedantic exercise. On the other hand, however, perhaps it might suggest that Holy Scripture is not a "perfect treasure"8 (although some do regard it as precious9) since the Greek language in which it is written is not a perfect medium, and for that matter neither is English, one language into which Holy Scripture is translated. Language is no more perfect than the people who speak and write it.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Oddly, Mark uses pros with eiserchomai in this case rather than change the verb to proserxomai.

2Winer reports that compound verbs using eis "uniformly repeat εις." G. B. Winer, A Grammar of the Idiom of the New Testament (7th ed. revised, enlarged and improved by G. Lünemann; Draper, 1892), 427.

3F. Blass and A. Debrunner, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (trans. and rev. by Robert W. Funk; Chicago, 1961), 83-84 (para. 150). Here are two other examples of erchomai compounded with a preposition followed by the complement in the accusative: Luke 22:47; 19:1. There is probably another instance in manuscript P45at Mark 6:48. Other examples will be found in paragraph #150.

4Henry Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (Clarendon: Oxford, 1996).

5See H. W. Smyth, Greek Grammar (revised by G. M Messing; Cambridge: Harvard, 1956), para. 1553.


7Blass, Debrunner, Funk, Greek Grammar, 256 (para. 484). F. Blass, Grammatik des neutestamentlichen Griechisch (revised by Albert Debrunner; Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht: Göttingen, 1949), p. 224.

8Baptist Faith and Message Statement, 2000: "The Holy Bible is a perfect treasure of divine instruction."

9From the hymn, "Holy Bible, Book Divine," whose first line reads: "Holy Bible, Book divine, precious treasure, thou art mine," words by John Burton, Sr. in 1803.

Saturday, February 26, 2022

How to Limit the many Diverse Interpretations of Parables

Through the years the parables of Jesus have been explained as being about many different and contradictory things. Interpreters and interpretations disagree. This diversity of explanations begs the question: is there no way to limit the number of diverse readings? My answer is, perhaps. In my view the final authority for evaluating a parable is the parable itself.

            How can a parable be the final authority for evaluating itself? Perhaps that sounds like nonsense to some readers, but it is nonetheless true. Parables, like poems, provide in themselves certain constraints on readers and interpreters. Here are a few guidelines for how parables should be read—general ones to be sure, but they are there nevertheless built into each parable. There are at least four.

First, the realism of the parable undermines any reading that disregards its realism and exposes as “idealism,” readings of a parable that posit meanings in the parable from another level of reality. Idealistic readings basically ignore the parable’s realism. The narrative1 that is the parable puts all its cards on the table face up, and conceals nothing from the reader: in the narrative a weed is a weed, a fig tree is a fig tree, a steward is a steward, a type of soil is a type of soil, and so on. The elements make sense in terms of the plot of the narrative. Attempts to make these features into something else suitable to another level of reality are mocked by the transparency of the feature in its natural environment in the parable.

Second, the language used in the parable establishes the limits of its discourse with the reader. Thus, readers are engaged with the parable only so long as they observe the limits of its language world. When the reader uses language in discussing the parable that is not authorized by the parable, the reader has broken off engagement with the parable and is in a sense talking to himself. At that point the reader is describing a personal reaction to the parable, which may be based on ideas the reader has extrapolated from the parable but are not there as such in the language of the narrative itself. Such ideas come out of the reader’s mind and personal experience.

Third, the parable is only interested in the social world of village life in ancient Israel in the time of Jesus. When the reader’s interest strays out of the first-century village where the action of the story takes place, the reader has broken off engagement with the parable and is again talking to himself or herself.

Fourth, the openness of the story invites the engagement of all readers. Since none of the stories of Jesus were originally closed off with authoritative interpretations, their invitation to each reader is, “what do you think about this situation?” Because the stories were constructed without conclusions,2 the message to every reader is the following: No final authoritative readings to parables are possible. Trying to close off the parable with a single authoritative solution must be considered a literary heresy because it violates the story’s basic construction. Thus, there will always be a range of plausible readings to every parable. And within these four guidelines parables will continue to solicit the engagements of readers to make discoveries about themselves and their world within the narrative.3

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1I use parable, narrative, story interchangeably. Parables are narrative and tell a story. The story is not a husk that one can peel away for the “real” thing at issue. The “real” thing is the parable.

2See Hedrick, Parables as Poetic Fictions. The Creative Voice of Jesus (Wipf & Stock, reprint 2005), 16-17, 254-58.

3Selected and revised from Charles W. Hedrick, Many Things in Parables. Jesus and His Modern Critics (Westminster John Knox, 2004), 53-54.

Friday, February 11, 2022

The Parables of Jesus are Realistic Stories about Human Life

Most of the “parables” of Jesus portray common peasant folk engaged in average, down to earth activities. Even those parables featuring characters not of the peasant class portray them in actions true to their status in society.1 On the whole parables attributed to Jesus are not about kings and the trappings of royalty, but describe common folk caught in the act of being themselves. They are people in the local village, next door neighbors to Jesus’s first-century auditors. For example, the parables describe a peasant farmer sowing a field and the kinds of hazards any small farmer faces at every sowing season (Mark 4:3-8 and parallels); a woman sweeping her house searching for a lost coin (Luke 15:8-9); the behavior of a particular man (not everyman) who unexpectedly finds a lost treasure (two versions Matt 13:44 and Thomas 109); a shepherd searching for a lost sheep (three different versions: Matt 18:12; Luke 15:4-6; Thomas 107); a man hiring and paying day laborers (Matt 20:1-15); the haphazard planning and murder of a powerful man (Thomas 96); the murder of the son of an absentee landlord (Mark 12:1-11; Matt 21:33-43; Luke 20:9-18; Thomas 65); the questionable actions of a man fired from his job (Luke 16:1-7); two bumbling farmers worrying with a fig tree in a vineyard (Luke 13:6-9). To appreciate the commonness of the stories attributed to Jesus see the categories under which Brandon Scott discusses the parables (in the table of contents): family, village, city and beyond; masters and servants; home and farm.2 See also my own classification of the parables in terms of social, cultural, and economic facets of Palestinian society.3 In the stories that Jesus told, realism trumps theology. In the interpretations of the evangelists and the contemporary church, theology trumps realism, and has the final word.

            In the main the parables are thoroughly secular and realistic slices of life in Palestinian antiquity. When read for themselves, they give the impression that they are completely transparent. They are “about” what they present to the reader. Their qualities of secularism, realism, and transparency work against the idea that they are opaque, encoded, arcane, and allegorical. They make good sense when read as fictional stories, but poor sense if the object is to find theological or allegorical messages in them.4

            On their surface the parables of Jesus are secular. They do not moralize, and neither does the narrative voice of the parables either condemn or commend the behavior of the characters in the stories. When read for themselves, the stories reflect neither apocalyptic despair nor imminent cosmic destruction. They are patently a-religious—neither affirming nor criticizing the behavior of characters in the stories. The narrator of the parables expresses no opinions, is completely self-effacing, and is silent on matters of faith, morals, and religion. For example, The Pharisee and the Toll Collector (Luke 18:9-13) present two clearly contradictory courses of life in Palestinian Judaism, but the narrator neither takes sides nor criticizes either man. Such moral ambiguity, a distinguishing feature of Jesus’s stories, associates the parables in some respects with what the literary critic Northrup Fry calls the ironic mode, a style characterized by “complete objectivity and suppression of all explicit moral judgments.”5 It may seem odd to think of Jesus telling stories lacking moral sensibility, but when read without the interpretive comparative frames and concluding moral judgments supplied by the evangelists that is exactly what one finds.6 How do you find the stories of Jesus?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1There are exceptions where narratives shade over into unrealism, however. Especially where allegorical features have been introduced into the narrative during its transmission; for an example, see the parable of the Mustard Seed (Mark 4:31-32; Matt 13:31-32; Luke 13:19; Thomas 20).

2Brandon Scott, Hear Then the Parable. A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus (Fortress, 1989), viii-ix.

3Charles Hedrick, Parables as Poetic Fictions. The Creative Voice of Jesus (Wipf and Stock, reprint, 2005), 259-61.

4This part of the essay is excerpted and revised from Hedrick, Many Things in Parables. Jesus and his Modern Critics (Westminster John Knox, 2004), 39.

5Northrup Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, 1957), 40.

6An excerpt revised from Hedrick, Many things in Parables, ix.

Thursday, January 27, 2022

The Parables and their Study: An Embarrassing State of Affairs

In 2004 I called attention to what I described as an embarrassing situation in New Testament Scholarship.1 Whereas in the natural sciences “the confirmation or not of a limited hypothesis is regarded as an experimental fact if repetition yields the same result,”2 the modern study of the parables of Jesus yields remarkably different results. Each critic claims to have the key to explicate the parables of Jesus. Of course, literary and historical criticism are not the natural sciences, and in the study of parables the researcher’s personal proclivities frequently end up shaping the product of the study of the parables of Jesus.

Shortly before the death (4 B.C.E.) of Herod the Great, King of Judea, Jesus was born. According to early Christian tradition, his birth took place at Bethlehem (Matt 2; Luke 2), a few miles south of Jerusalem. He was reared, however, in the Galilee region at Nazareth, a tiny village in the hills a short distance from Sepphoris, where for most of Jesus’ life Herod Antipas directed the affairs of his tetrarchy (Galilee and Perea). Virtually everything known about Jesus’ public life comes from the early Christian gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, written decades after his death.3 Nothing is known of his private life. The gospels describe a number of Jesus’ public acts and preserve sayings and stories attributed to him in the course of his public career in the first third of the first century. Detailed reports exist of his death at the hands of the Romans during the Prefecture of Pontius Pilate (26-36 C.E.).

            The most prominent feature of Jesus’ public discourse, to judge from the gospels, is the brief story form he popularized in his short career. These stories, dubbed “parables” since the latter part of the first century, on their surface were simply secular stories about aspects of village life in what the Romans knew as Syria-Palestine, and later simply as Judea. Through the years it has been easier to reconcile the gospel accounts of Jesus’ activities with who Jesus has become in the faith of the church, than it has to reconcile his stories (which on their surface are not religious at all) with who Jesus has become in the faith of the church. Since the first century, his stories have remained a conundrum for the New Testament critic. How is it possible, for example, to find something religiously significant about God—or human life, for that matter—from a brief narrative about a woman putting yeast into a rather large measure of flour (Matt 13:33b; Luke 13:20b-21; Gospel of Thomas 96:1)? That issue—how to go from a first-century secular story to an “appropriate” religious explanation—has continued to be the fuse driving the fascination of the critic with Jesus’ stories. In the hands of his critics, those who ponder and analyze his stories for their “true” meanings, Jesus is seen to be many different people and his stories have been found to be about many different things. Each critic claims their own analysis unlocks the true meaning of the stories, giving expression to their true voice. That claim creates the embarrassing situation in which the study of Jesus’ parables finds itself today. The entire enterprise of parables study is threatened by each critic claiming to have the “true” interpretation of the parable. Their contradictory claims undermine confidence in any of the results. Yet no one seems to be bothered by this embarrassing state of affairs.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Charles W. Hedrick, Many Things in Parables. Jesus and his Modern Critics (Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004). This brief essay is adapted from the introduction.

2James B. Conant, “Concerning the Alleged Scientific Method,” in Louise B. Young, ed., Exploring the Universe (New York: Oxford, 1971), 31.

3The Gospel of John has no parables. See Hedrick, Many Things in Parables, 4-5.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Thoughts on Advanced Old Age and the Bible

Once I was as quick as foxes on a hill, but in recent days rising is more difficult and walking sluggish and slower. Through the years the weight of gravity seems to have increased. The distance between think and speak is longer and words are sometimes lost or misstated. Memory comes back more slowly. There is always a brief nap after lunch in order to still my brain and restore my balance. Hearing once keen and clear, in recent days is muted and garbled by static. Sight has dimmed and must be aided by mechanical devices. Dizziness and imbalance put me always on the cusp of falling. Stepladders, I once mounted with alacrity and intrepidity, I now completely avoid. Pains persist in almost every joint. A dwindling stamina affects what I can plan for each day. Not anything in my body works as well as once it did, and some things do not work at all. Age is not just a number. It is the body’s acquiescence to one law of the universe—obsolescence.

My enforced isolation because of advanced age, health circumstances, and especially the pandemic has introduced into my life a kind of near-bearable monotony, even though the range of different things to be managed these days brings with them a kind of diversity. I find that I do not miss extensive engagement with the world; it distracts me from other things more compelling. Truth be told, the world is too much with us. I do miss, however, intelligent communication with colleagues on subjects of common interest. A little of what I need I meet through my blogging essays. But what I really want to do is to go back in time and do it all over again and this time to do it well. Alas, however, there are no do-overs in life!

William Wordsworth has a poem entitled, “The World is Too Much with Us.” As I read the poet, human beings have surrendered their engagement with the natural order of things for the machinations of a modern industrial world; the present age, one might say. We are so preoccupied with the necessities of surviving in such a world that we seldom pause to see the beauty and wonders of the natural world. The poet imagines renouncing faith and returning to an ancient Pagan world where human life was more in tune with the natural order of things and imagination added a certain spice to existence. There is a kind of world-weariness to the poem and a sense of loss that makes him “forlorn.” But sitting here today, January 1, 2022, I understand the poet’s frustration and loss caused by a necessary world-engagement. So might I, in some sheltered carrel, retreat into my mind from world engagement to imagine other worlds aborning.

Can a person of faith, no matter how eroded, find any consolation and solace in advanced old age from the ancient writings of the Judeo-Christian faiths? The answer is “perhaps.”

            To everything there is a season, as one biblical writer puts it (Eccl 3:1-8) and as the musical group, the Birds, have suggested most recently (in “Turn, Turn, Turn”), no doubt drawing on Ecclesiastes. The nostalgic mementos that we gather through life mark our inevitable “turns” into the other seasons of our lives. No matter how much we may wish to remain at one stage, the turns are inevitable. The early Christian writer, Paul, left behind two pearls of wisdom for those of us who have arrived at the season of advanced old age: on one occasion he opined: “I have learned, in whatever state I am to be content” (Phil 4:11-13 RSV). Sounds like cogent advice for those of us finding ourselves in that most difficult and inevitable season of life, if we are lucky enough to reach it. Nevertheless, he might have been led to that view because he thought the world was going to end in his lifetime (1 Cor 7:25-31). Hence, his advice to all those in the Jesus gatherings was remain as you are (1 Cor 7:17-24). In other words, learn to live with your situation; it will be for only a short period.

            The astute reader of 1 Cor 7:17-24 should by now have discovered his second pearl of wisdom: “were you a slave when called [into faith]? Never mind. But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity. For he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise, he who was free when called is a slave of Christ” (1 Cor 7:21-22). Where slavery is concerned, Paul willingly violates his own rule of “remain as you are” (1 Cor 7:17, 20, 24). The principle involved in both statements appears to be the following: learn to live with your situation, unless you can change it (italics mine). This principle applied to those of us caught in the final season of life is this: “Cope with it, unless you can change the situation to your benefit in some way.”

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

*My thanks to Wallace Stevens and William Wordsworth for a few of their poetic phrases I have adapted for this essay.