Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Reinterpreting the Christmas Mythology

The mythological1 message of the first Christmas has endured for over two thousand years, surviving translation from ancient into modern culture, the attacks of hostile rationalists, the naiveté of biblical literalists, its crass commercialism in the marketplace, the self-serving interests of over-zealous pietists, and its amalgamation with other competitive holiday traditions (Santa Claus, Christmas trees, etc.).

            The story of the birth of Jesus has continued to capture the imagination of the most creative and able talent of Western culture. Under its influence artists have produced many of the masterpieces of our Judeo-Christian heritage (for example, Handel’s Messiah). We are still influenced by the Christmas myth in the twenty-first century. Motivated by the ancient story, we moderns have been led to acts of altruism, self-sacrifice, and charity that surprise even us. It is difficult to react with a bah, humbug attitude when we are bombarded with so much Christmas “magic” in the marketplace at this time of year. There is a grandeur, a nobility, associated with Christmas that stirs the slumbering cords of the highest human ideals. For that reason, the Christmas story has become “authentic” in our culture in a way that historical criticism cannot confirm, or even investigate.

Why do the biblical narratives describing Jesus’ birth still speak to modern human beings? It is not because of their philosophical sophistication, or technical excellence. It is because of the hope they hold forth. There are two different ancient Christmas narratives in the New Testament. One is found in Matthew (1:18-2:23) and the other in Luke (1:5-2:52). Mark does not know a birth narrative, and John has an “enfleshing” story (John 1:1-14), not a birth narrative. Many, even devout church people, have confided that they have difficulty accepting the believability of the miraculous elements in the narratives: virgin birth, angels, star leading the wise men from the east, etc. For many, these have become serious obstacles to faith (except for the “traditional believer”). Such miraculous elements, however, are common in the literature of antiquity, where they are used to validate the careers of great men. Compare for instance birth stories about Asclepius, Hercules, or Alexander the Great.

The real “miracle” of Christmas, however, lies elsewhere, in how it inspires us to treat one another. The Christmas narratives still remain relevant in our day, in spite of their mythic character, even in our Western rational culture. Each narrative expresses deep longings of the human spirit. Their promise rises above the insignificant language boundaries separating denominations, and even religions. They address two basic existential issues that concern human beings, regardless of heritage or creed. All of us want to believe what they proclaim is capable of realization in human life. They speak to our fear of human finitude and the apparent nihilism that ultimately surrounds our very existence (Luke 2:10-12). And they address the very deep human desire for peace in the world at all levels of human existence (Luke 1:76-79).

            Matthew proclaims that the humanity of a particular Jewish child born in a remote village of the Roman Empire, in a naïve and prescientific age, brings a forgiving God near to all human beings (Matt 1:21-23). The existential message of this mythical event is: your finitude need not be feared. Luke holds this mythical event forth as the hope of peace “among people of [God’s] good favor”2 (Luke 2:14). The possibility of being liberated from the terror of our finitude and finding peace in a turbulent world is “good news” indeed. Such hope can bring quiet comfort to every human heart, and is worthy of celebration by all of us.3

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Myths usually involves the exploits of Gods and heroes.

2The translation “people of good will” is less likely.

3This essay began life in the late twentieth century as a Religion and Ethics Editorial in the Springfield, MO newspaper, The Springfield Newsleader. It was later published in Charles W. Hedrick, House of Faith or Enchanted Forest? American Popular Belief in an Age of Reason (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2009), 72-73. It appears here again after heavy editing.

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Sidelined at the Far End

Many at the far end of things1 likely feel much like Moses must have felt looking over into Canaan and knowing that he would not be part of the conquest of the “promised land” (Gen 32:48-52). God had effectively sidelined him from the next great adventure of his people. In our case, time has caught-up with us in the form of aging’s numerous aches and pains, or serious illnesses and, in any case, retirement many years ago from our former positions of active engagement in the world has made us no longer players but turned us into observers of the world and the momentous events of recent days (wars in the Mideast and Ukraine and Mr. Trump’s positive numbers in the recent polls), and local crises, too many to chronicle in a two-page blog.

            To the credit of the cable news networks they have enlisted as “consultants” a few of our number who are recently retired political, governmental, military, and academic figures whose opinions they consider still current in order to cast light on the events of the day. These once influential figures from the recent past are once again players in our national drama. Too many current occupants of influential positions in government and academia are reluctant to speak candidly about events that eventually affect all of us.

            Most of those who observe the passing of days from the far end are sidelined and feel powerless to influence the course of few things in their individual lives, much less matters of the state and international affairs. What is left to us is volunteering our services locally, if physically able, contributing financially what we can to causes we believe in, and responsibly voting our conscience. Many are like the proverbial figure in John 21:18, dependent on the help of care-givers. Once we ran gazelle-like through life, shared wisdom as we knew it, loved and were loved in return, wept through the years at too many funerals, and saw our homes depleted as children assumed their own places and activities in life. Some of us observe and ponder our reduced worlds from the far end, while others suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia are no longer capable of such introspective reflection, and still others because of physical anomalies and other handicaps look on from beds and wheelchairs. If you run into one of the far-end tribe, recognize that once they were movers and community shakers; and many in spite of their advanced age and infirmities still have much to contribute, which they will willingly and candidly share. At the far end duplicity is not valued.

            The Judeo-Christian tradition has left us a few cogent appreciative comments about our aged brothers and sisters.

Job 12:12: Wisdom is with the aged and understanding in length of days.

Psalm 92:14: [The righteous] still bring forth fruit in old age, they are ever full of sap and green.

Sirach 8:9: Do not disregard the discourse of the aged, for they themselves learned from their fathers; because from them you will gain understanding.

Sirach 25:4: What an attractive thing is judgment in grey-haired men, and for the aged to possess good counsel.

Sirach 25:6: Rich experience is the crown of the aged, and their boast is the fear of the Lord.

Lev 19:32: You shall rise up before the hoary head, and honor the face of an old man.

Of course, the biblical tradition does not give blanket approval to the aged just because they are old. Yet these comments show the tendency of the tradition to appreciate the experience of those at the far end.

Alas, there are also other observations as well:

Job 32:9: It is not the old that are wise, nor the aged that understand what is right.

Eccl 4:13: Better is a poor and wise youth, than an old and foolish king, who will no longer take advice.

On balance, it seems that the biblical tradition is realistic. Not all those at the far end have gained wisdom through their experience, but some have, and deserve to be recognized for what they still have to offer.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1The “far end of things” is my expression for what I consider advanced old age. Gerontologists disagree as to when advanced old age begins. For some it is 85+, in my thinking it is 90+. Currently this percentage of the population is estimated by the Census Bureau at 4.7 percent of the U.S. population aged 65 and older.,old%2Dold%20(85%2B).

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Separate Yourselves from Unclean things

The title of this essay is drawn from 2 Cor 6:17, where Paul encourages the Corinthian gathering to separate themselves from the “unclean things” of the world (2 Cor 6:14-18). The statement is from a quote from the Greek translation of Isaiah (52:11). One also runs across a similar idea of separation from the world in the Gospel of John attributed to Jesus. In John 17, Jesus prays to the Father:

They1 do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world (John 17:14, 16, NRSV).

Earlier (John 8:23) in a debate with “the Judahites,” contrasting himself with them, Jesus asserts: “you are of this world; I am not of this world.”2

Paul’s statement effectively calls his followers out of the world and sets them apart from “the world.” The idea that Jesus and his followers do not belong to the world, i.e., that they are separate from the world leads them into a kind of world denial, found in ancient Cynicism3 Such an attitude has encouraged many sorts of separations from the “world” through history, from religious hermits4 to asceticism.5 It has also encouraged other forms of religious withdrawal from the world that some choose as a vocation in the modern world, such as coenobitic monasticism.6

            The truth of the matter, however, is that Paul, Jesus, and their disciples do belong to the world. They were “made” for the world, as all human beings are: they breathed oxygen, and their bodies required sustenance for energy and life. Their hearts circulated blood and their bodies were comprised of the same star-stuff of which our species is made (dust thou art and to dust you shall return, Gen 3:19). They voided like the other animals of the planet. They had the ability to sense objects tactically and visually. They used their brains and experienced emotions, as we all do. They even participated in the “world” to a point: attended social functions (like weddings, dinner parties, feasts, synagogues, the Judean Temple, etc.), enjoyed libations, engaged religious leaders in debate, aided the suffering, etc. Thus, to say that they were not “of the world” did not mean there was no involvement in society; it rather suggests an attitude they held about themselves and everyone else, although there is no denying the mystical implications of the statement attributed to Jesus about himself.

            The author of John uses the term “world” in different ways. For example, world can refer to the physical creation (John 1:10; 17:24; 21:25; compare 3:31). World can refer to other people who are a part of the world order (3:16), while in John 17:14, 16 world appears to comprise an oppositional spiritual realm that has a ruler (14:30; 12:31), referred to as “the evil one” (17:15). This evil empire is alien to Jesus who came “from above” (6:38; 8:23) in order to pass judgment on the ruler and his empire (9:39; 12:31) and to cast out its ruler, the prince of this world (12:31; 14:30; 16:11). In the world Jesus’ disciples are exposed to evil (17:15), but Jesus prays that they may be made holy (17:16-19).

            This kind of mythical complex seems quite different from the potentially ethical lapses that many contemporary Christians associate with negative aspects of living in the world: gambling, bar hopping, “houses of ill repute,” etc. For example, in my teen age years I was reared in the church, where I was encouraged to be “in the world,” but not to be “of the world.” What this meant practically was that I should avoid certain kinds of activities that were deemed religiously unacceptable for Christian folk, like smoking, drinking alcoholic beverages, dancing, and watching movies, etc. There are sound health reasons for avoiding some of these activities and no good reason for avoiding others. The neighborhood of the average teenager is much more dangerous today.

            The bottom line of this essay is that if one is to be a positive influence in the world, one must be part of the world. Religious people in my view should not separate themselves for religious reasons from aspects of the world to which they object. I know a man, for example, who practiced what he called a “bar ministry.” Although he himself was not a drinker of alcoholic beverages, he was there in the bar to provide a positive influence within a setting generally frowned upon by the church. According to Mark, Jesus also attended dinner parties, and was accused of being a heavy drinker.7

If one thinks of oneself as a follower of Jesus, one must ask oneself should there be parts of the world that are left devoid of the comforting ministry of presence in the form of followers of Jesus. Military chaplains of all faiths, for example, join the army to render spiritual comfort to soldiers in garrison, and to wounded and dying soldiers on the battlefield. To do that they must be part of the soldiers’ world.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1That is to say: those the Father gave Jesus “from the world,” i.e., his disciples (John 17:6, 12).

2John is highly suspect as a historical source; see Hedrick, Unmasking Biblical Faiths, 151-63. Thus, this statement attributed to Jesus may simply be a case of the author of John’s Gospel overriding history with his own brand of religious faith.





7One finds the accusation that Jesus was a glutton and a drunkard in the early hypothetical source Q, Luke 7:33-34 = Matt11:18-19. And there is also to consider the infamous incident in John, where the host at a wedding ran out of wine and Jesus turned water into wine for the guests, whom the chief steward accused of being drunk (John 2:1-11).

Monday, November 6, 2023

Inspired Writings

From where do thoughts come to us? Logically, one would think they arise out of the life experiences, reading, and the pondering of the thinker. A letter that a distraught friend finds inspiring, a creative solution to a complex problem, and sage advice at the right time (Proverbs 25:11-13), all constitute the essence of an inspired thought arising within a person. A successful writer will write what s/he knows. If s/he wants to write convincingly about something in an unfamiliar area, s/he must live the subject area until it becomes like a second skin, and then, just perhaps, s/he will have a pregnant thought that can be nurtured and expressed convincingly.

            In my experience, sudden “inspiration” enters my brain, as an unprompted, errant thought that surprises me. It does not enter firing all synapses in my brain, fully formed, like an authoritative dictating voice. It is fragile and malleable, and I must massage it into a “solid” abstract idea, that will, with pondering, perhaps, become a concept forming the basis for writing.

Inspiration begins as a passing brief thought that must be fleshed-out into a formal idea, which I must work at developing into a concept.1 The ephemeral thought that quickly passes through the mind constitutes the essence of inspiration. Ideas and concepts, on the other hand, must be hammered-out of experience by the hard work of the one who had the errant thought. People that are inspired may produce a written text that others may come to value as inspiring because it speaks to them. In our culture we generally call a written text inspired if it inspires us. The exception to this general practice is the Bible. In our culture it is generally regarded as inspired, when most of it is anything but inspiring. It does, however, contain inspiring passages that have even made their way into secular culture.2

Calling a written text inspired or inspiring is a judgment that others bestow on the significance of the writing. It is a personal judgment. Nothing at the level of paper and ink inevitably makes the written text inspired; the author’s written ideas and concepts may inspire others, but it is the writer that is inspired and not the written text. The written text is a record of the inspiration that previously came to the writer, which others may or may not find inspired or inspiring. One can never know if the author of a written text was actually inspired to write.

In Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (OT) and the seven deuterocanonical writings that one finds in the Catholic OT,3 it is always the writer who is described as being inspired by God (Job 32:8, Wis 15:11; LJr 6:4; 1 Mac 4:35; 1 Esdr 9:55). Only once (so far as I can tell) are written texts in the Bible (both Protestant and Catholic) described as inspired. Second Timothy 3:15-16 claims that the “Holy Writings” (iera grammata) are inspired (theopneustos, or literally, “God-breathed”). The term “Holy Writings” is “the name for the Holy Scriptures of the Old Testament in Greek.”4 Second Timothy, along with First Timothy and Titus, is one of three texts in the New Testament (NT) attributed to the anonymous writer, dubbed the “pastor,” because the content of the three texts is concerned with church matters. That the pastor claims to be Paul, and is not, makes the pastor a pseudonymous author. The earliest evidence for the three “pastoral” writings is a papyrus fragment of Titus, which has been dated from 100 to early 3rd century common era.5 In general, however, the pastoral texts are thought of as 2nd century.6 In the early second century the NT did not even exist. Hence, the writings that later came to be included in the NT had not yet achieved the status of canonical literature in the sense of the Greek translation of the OT. Hence, the author of 2nd Tim 3:15-16 was referring to the OT Scriptures. The NT had clearly achieved the status of canonical texts (Athanasius calls them “Divine Scripture”) by the 4th century however, to judge by the Easter letter (39) of Athanasius Bishop of Alexandria in 367,7 although he stops short of calling the NT writings “God-breathed,” as the pastor did.

Why would someone think the 27 NT written texts are “inspired”? What is it at the level of the written text that might lead someone to the idea that they are inspired as their authors may have been? Is it because one believes the original writers to have been “God-breathed”? Such a belief says nothing specific about the written texts themselves, and believers in other religions counter with their beliefs in their own special religious literature, which they find inspiring or inspired, such as for example, the Koran (Islam), the Rig Veda (Hinduism), the Avesta (Zoroastrianism), Tao Te Ching (Taoism), Guru Granth Sahib (Sikhism). But believing a thing to be so does not make it so.

Is it because one regards the ideas of the written texts as inspired or inspiring? That, of course, is something everyone must decide for themselves, because if any inspiration happened, it happened to the original author of the text. The written text itself is produced by the flawed abilities of the human author. Whether the original author’s written ideas are to be accorded the quality of inspired or inspiring is a personal decision for every reader. What does your dentist think?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1These three words are generally conceived as synonyms in English.

2Hedrick, “Is the Bible Inspired?” Wry Guy Blog, Thursday, December 5, 2019:

3The seven deuterocanonical books, not a part of the Hebrew Bible or the Protestant OT, were originally in the Christian Bible (the Septuagint) before being removed by the Protestant reformers. They were later declared canonical for the Catholic OT at the fourth session of the Council of Trent 1545-1563:

4Martin Dibelius, Die Pastoralbriefe (HNT 13; 2nd ed.; Tϋbingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1931), 74.


6W. G. Kϋmmel, Introduction to the New Testament (H. C. Kee, Trans.; rev. ed.; London: SCM, 1975), 384-87.


Thursday, October 19, 2023

The Bible's Story: A Brief Summary

My title is a double entendre that you might catch if you think about it for a bit. First there is the story of the Bible. That is to say, the story the Bible tells from Genesis through Revelation. The other possibility is the story about the Bible. That is to say, how the Bible came into being.

          The Bible’s story begins with the first inscription of each of its writings, the Old Testament (OT) first, and finally the inscription of each New Testament (NT) text. At the time of inscription each writing of the Old and NT existed alone in the ancient world as a part of the literary stream of Western civilization. They were not part of a selective group of writings. Only later did people, who valued their messages, gather them into groups with other writings. They were initially understood individually apart from other writings. The OT contains the writings of the ancient Israelites. It is “old” to Christians but today it is the holy Scripture of modern Judaism.

          I must now leave the story of Israel’s ancient collection of sacred scripture for another day, and will turn to the Bible’s “postscript”: The NT. It is a small collection of twenty-seven initially isolated writings, which date from the fifties of the first century AD into the early second century—or from the Pauline letters to the inscription of second Peter, the latest NT writing. The NT is the Christian part of the Bible. The Jewish Scriptures being treated in the NT as a resource book of prophecies and religious ideas by the Christ followers of the fourth century and later.

Paul’s undisputed letters (1 Thessalonians, Romans, 1, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, and Philemon) are the earliest writings of the collection and date from the 50s and 60s of the first century, some 15-30 years from the crucifixion of Jesus. They are “undisputed” because virtually everyone thinks a particular man by the name of Paul composed them. The other writings bearing his name or the supra script title “according to Paul” in some translations (2 Thessalonians, Ephesians, Colossians, 1, 2 Timothy, Titus, and Hebrews) are not regarded in critical scholarship as being composed by Paul (critical scholarship makes decisions on the basis of historical evidence rather than church tradition). Hence, their authorship is “disputed,” which means: critical scholars regard them as anonymous or pseudonymous writings. These texts were not written by Paul but by an unnamed and unknown disciple of Paul.

The General or Catholic Epistles (James, 1, 2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude) was the latest group of writings to be gathered together and used in the early ecclesiastical communities, although 1 Peter and 1 John were popular in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. We first hear of a group of seven “Catholic Epistles” from Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea (4th century).

Although the book of Acts initially was part of a unitary work of two volumes with the Gospel of Luke, they were early separated and each had its own subsequent literary history. In the 2nd century Acts gained in popularity in early orthodoxy helping to document the concept of apostolic tradition. The book of Revelation (the Apocalypse) was well accepted in the Western church and widely cited as scripture in the 2nd century, but Eastern Christians tended to reject Revelation. The full recognition of Revelation did not come about until the late 4th century.

There are two ways that authorship is determined: following church tradition or by offering a historical rationale for or against authorship. Except for Paul’s undisputed letters, the authors of the rest of the NT texts are anonymous or pseudonymous, meaning their authors are unknown. In antiquity texts were titled by their first lines, not unlike some modern poetry. Their supra script titles were added by the later church.

Who gave the New Testament its present arrangement of grouping texts by literary type (gospels, acts, epistles, and apocalypse) is likewise unknown, but it would have been persons concerned with the religious life of the early Christ followers, who found the texts helpful for the religious life of the community. For that reason, other texts, not in your Bible were used in worship in many churches, such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Apocalypse of Peter, 1 Clement, Barnabas, and others.

Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, Egypt in his Easter Letter #39 in 367 gives the earliest complete listing of the NT texts used in Christian worship and education today.

          If we stand in the middle fourth century and look backwards in time to see the state of these NT writings, we are immediately faced with the following situation. There are over 5000 manuscripts of the Greek NT and no two of them agree alike in all particulars. Further, virtually all early manuscripts date from the third century and later are fragmentary, virtually scraps of texts. Not until the fourth century do we find whole manuscripts that survived, collected into a single volume, although not all of our NT is included in the collections, and certain other texts not in our NT are included.

          The latter half of the 18th century saw the beginnings of a scientific approach to studying the differences between the surviving Greek manuscripts. Ancient scribes who copied the manuscripts would make mistakes in copying and add their own thoughts in the margins. Later scribes would copy the marginalia into the body of the writing. None of the manuscripts that survived is an original author’s copy. To accommodate all this diversity in the texts, Scholars that are referred to as text critics developed the science of textual criticism. The goal of the text critic is to determine the wording of the original author’s copy by comparing the Greek manuscripts and the ancient versions in other ancient languages. It is an ongoing process requiring the seasoned judgement of the text critic, and as each new ancient manuscript is discovered it must be analyzed and compared to the present readings for an improvement of the text. A critical version of the Greek New Testament in koine Greek (the Greek vernacular of the ancient language) is published with an apparatus of approximately half a page listing all the significant variations to the text-half at the top half of the page. Translators are currently working from the 28th edition of this publication giving the current judgment of text critics as to what the original author’s copy of the NT texts read.

          Non-Greek readers of the New Testament will only encounter these different readings by comparing different translations of the NT, because each translator decides for himself or herself the Greek wording to be translated into English.*

          In the first and second centuries there is evidence of some 34 early Christian Gospels. From this wealth of possibility, the church by the 3rd century selected a fourfold gospel collection. Given here in their order of dating: Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John were valued as deposits of an oral tradition that remained viable into the second century and competed with the written gospels. No Christian artifacts from the first century exist.

Matthew and Luke are thought, with good reason, to have used a common sayings source (called: Q[uelle]) that no longer exists except in the agreements of Matthew and Luke against Mark. Their common use of the sayings source accounts for the verbatim or near verbatim passages shared in Matthew and Luke. And the Gospel of John is thought to have used a lost source called “The Signs Source,” which also no longer exists.

This information is something to consider when you describe the New Testament to others. My take on this information is this: If one describes the “Bible” as “the Word of God,” honesty requires that one also recognize and include the role of human beings in its production as well in the description. My recommendation that does this is: The Bible may be inspired by God but it is clearly designed and produced by human minds and hands.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

*For examples of Bible translations differing in the Greek text that each translation uses see Hedrick, “Variations in the Bible,” Wry Guy Blog, May 23, 2023:

Sources Consulted:

Athanasius, Easter Letter, #39:

Eusebius, The Ecclesiastical History (trans. Kirsopp Lake; 2 vols. LCL: Harvard).

Harry Y. Gamble, “Canon/New Testament,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary (Doubleday, 1992), Vol. 1. 852-861.

Charles W. Hedrick, “The Four/34 Gospels” Bible Review 17.3 (June 2002),20-31, 46.

Hedrick, When History and Faith Collide: Studying Jesus (1999; reprint Wipf &Stock 2013).

Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament. Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration (3rd ed.; Oxford, 1992).

Graydon F. Snyder, ANTE PACEM. Archaeological Evidence of Church Life Before Constantine (Mercer, 1985).

Thursday, October 5, 2023

Pondering Jesus as “Fully God and Fully Human”

This statement is not from the New Testament, and as best I can tell, it is not a quotation from an early creed or council of the Christian church. It appears to be a modern adaptation of what was stated at the Council of Chalcedon in 451: that Jesus was "truly God and truly man."1 This statement stands somewhat in tension with the early Nicene Creed (325), where it appears that Jesus was "true God of true God…of one substance with the Father." He had no beginning since "he was begotten by the Father before all the ages" and "for us men came down from the heavens, and was made flesh of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man."2

The Nicene creed affirms that he was originally God and later "became a person." It does not claim that he was human (in Greek, man/person is anthrōpos; human is anthrōpinos). His entry into human flesh, as described by the creed, is vastly different from human procreation or generation. If the creeds accurately describe Jesus, the only conclusion one can reach is that Jesus was not like us; that is, he was not human, at least not as we are. How many other people do you know who originated in heaven and whose birth was claimed to have been occasioned by insemination from a Holy Spirit (Matt 1:18//Luke 1:35)?

            The predecessors of the later church that created the creeds, however, were not unified in describing the origin or nature of Jesus in the late first and early second centuries.3 During this earlier period the religious marketplace brimmed with competing ideas about Jesus. One could understand Jesus simply as a human being "who was descended from David according to the flesh and appointed Son of God…" (Rom 1:3-4). In other words, he did not originate in heaven but was commonly human like us. God chose to elevate him to divinity like the Roman Senate did for the Roman Emperor:4 declaring that the genius (an indwelling guiding force or spirit) of the emperor deserved to be worshipped.5

Before the creeds in the earlier period, the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke) described his career basically as a Jewish thaumaturge (worker of miracles), faith healer, and Galilean wise man. That is something very different from being God from the beginning and later becoming flesh as the Gospel of John has it. While John is similar to the synoptics, its prologue (John 1:1-18) prompts the reader to see Jesus as having a divine origin before he became enfleshed.6

John presents the reader with the other end of the spectrum: the belief that Jesus, as the Word was, "from the beginning," with God and "was God" (John 1:1-2). He only later "came to be in flesh" (John 1:14).  A slightly earlier description declared that although he was equal to God (Phil 2:6), he came into being in human likeness and was found in human form (Phil 2:7). He was exalted by God for his death on the cross (Phil 2:8-9). One strange idea, reflected in Paul's letters, suggests that some thought he had a special kind of flesh that was only similar to sinful flesh (Rom 8:3), such as we human beings have. His flesh would not see corruption (Acts 2:25-31/Ps 15:8-11 Septuagint, not the Hebrew).

The point I wish to make is that after the third century the view that emerged from the debates became the standard. No longer was there an opportunity to ponder Jesus with impunity. The issue was settled. If you did not share the view of the group that called themselves "orthodox," you were a "heretic" (which only means that you do not share the orthodox view).

If the pondering of the earliest followers of Jesus (as recorded in the New Testament) is your standard for determining who Jesus was, there are several options available for you to consider. A number of ideas were in the air. Here is another that I recently stumbled across: Jesus was a human being, descended from David. He became the pioneer of a certain kind of faith in God, and established that Way of faith for others to follow by being perfected through his own sufferings (Heb 2:10, 12:2).7 So what do you say about Jesus, and how do you explain all the other views?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University


2The italics are mine; the source is Bettenson and Maunder, Documents of the Christian Church (3rd ed.; Oxford, 1999), 28.

3For a survey of the diversity of views in the pre-creedal gatherings of Jesus followers, see C. W. Hedrick, "Is Belief in the Divinity of Jesus Essential to Being Christian," Unmasking Biblical Faiths (Cascade: 2019), 221-33 and "Early Confessions and the Language of Faith," The Fourth R 32.1 (2019), 15-20.

4Hedrick, "Belief in the Divinity of Jesus," 223-24.

5E. Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (3rd ed.; Eerdmans, 2003), 209.

6Hedrick, "Belief in the Divinity of Jesus," 221-24.

7Hedrick, "Belief in the Divinity of Jesus," 221-33 and "Early Confessions and the Language of Faith," 15-20.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Visiting a Church in Old Corinth in 50 A.D.

If it were possible to step into a time machine and travel back to the first-century, you would immediately be disappointed. There were no Christian church buildings in the first century to visit. Such edifices, built to honor God and cater to the religious needs of progressive and affluent congregations, did not begin to emerge until the early third century.1 One possible reason there were no buildings is because they believed the world was soon going to end—within their lifetime (1 Cor 7:26, 29-31). You would be further disappointed because there were no “Christians” in the first century, at least, not like we today think of someone being Christian.2 The creedal statements that shape modern traditional versions of Christianity hearken back to the framers of the creeds of the 4th and 5th centuries.3 Who were the predecessors of those who developed the foundational creeds of modern Christian faith? What were their gatherings like?

            They gathered4 in homes (1 Cor 16:19; Rom 16:3-5; Philemon 2; Col 4:15), rather than buildings constructed to accommodate their particular worship style. Apparently, there was no distinctly Christian symbolism in statuary and painting. These expressions of faith, like all other physical remains, do not emerge until near the end of the third century.5 Corinth in the first century was not a Greek city. The Greek city had been destroyed by the Romans in 146 B.C., and left to lie in ruins for a century. It was rebuilt as a Roman city in 44 B.C. under Julius Caesar. As one of the leading cities of the Roman Province of Achaia by 50 A.D., it had something of a cosmopolitan flavor.6 Basically, Roman houses in which the Corinthian Christ group gathered were fronted by a spacious atrium leading onto a courtyard garden open to the sky, which was surrounded by rooms. Romans did not use glass for windows but there were small openings in the rooms that opened into the courtyard.7 So, we cannot peek through the window from the street and peer in on their gatherings. Fortunately, they welcomed outsiders to their gatherings (1 Cor 14:23-24).

            It appears, to judge from Paul’s letters, the gatherings of these early Christ groups were charismatic, meaning that those who shared in the gatherings believed themselves to be possessed of divine gifts (charismata). Persons in the gathering were enabled by the spirit of God to special ends. Some were endowed by the spirit to speak wisely and to utter knowledge, others to heal and to perform miracles or to prophesy, and others to distinguish between spirits (1 Cor 12:4-11). Some, they believed, were enabled to speak and sing to God in a kind of spiritual language (1 Cor 14:2, 15), these gestures were left for others to interpret (1 Cor 12:10; 14:27-28). Paul did not deny the presence of this gift (1 Cor 14:5, 18-19), but he was uncomfortable with how it was practiced (1 Cor 14:9, 15, 26) and particularly, with the excessive outward display of spiritual gifts (1 Cor 14:23). Paul thought all the spiritual gifts could be controlled (1 Cor 14:32) and should be (1 Cor 14:26-31, 37). On the other hand, Paul also had some odd ideas about spirit (1 Cor 5:3-5; 2 Cor 12:1-4; 13:5; Gal 4:6; 2:20).8

            The Christ group association at Corinth was not governed democratically by Robert’s Rules of Order. No leader in the gathering was elected by majority vote, but the spirit of God decided who filled every function (1 Cor 12:27-31). They had no pastors, deacons, or bishops. These came later (1 Tim 3:1-13). Leaders in the early gatherings were generally male (1 Cor 14:34-36), although there were exceptions (Rom 16:1, 3, 6, 12).

Personally, my time-travel self is a little uncomfortable with what I am finding in the Jesus gathering at Corinth. I am rather certain, as an heir of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, that I am more comfortable in the Sunday service of a modern church, which follows Robert’s Rules of Order, checks the credentials of church leaders, and discourages an excessive spiritualism, than in a middle first-century gathering, which could be interrupted by outbursts of glossolalia, competing prophetic voices drowning out one another, and people standing around the room with both arms lifted heavenward simultaneously audibly praying (1 Tim 2:8).9 My world today is not informed by spirits, holy or demonic.

When groups today advertise the organization of a “new ‘Jesus Church,’” they need to be more specific about what it is, and what might be expected by those of us who are becoming increasingly more than wary of some forms of religious expression, where (as Paul put it) such confusion (1 Cor 14:33) makes them seem crazy (1 Cor 14:23). How do you see it?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University


2The term Christian appears in the New Testament three times (Acts 11:26, 26:28; 1 Pet 4:16).

3Bettenson and Maunder, Documents of the Christian Church (3rd ed.; Oxford, 1999), 25-27.

4Hedrick, “Pondering the Origins of the Church,” Wry Thoughts about Religion, Blog: Feb 16:2017:

5G. F Snyder, Ante Pacem. Archaeological Evidence of Church Life before Constantine (Mercer University, 1985), 2.

6Lamoine Devries, Cities of the Biblical World (Hendrickson, 1997), 362.

7Harold Johnston, The Private Life of the Romans (Scott, Foresman and Company, 1903), 117-47.

8Hedrick, “Putting Paul in his Place” Unmasking Biblical Faiths (Cascade, 2019), 124-27.

9Compare the discussion of the Orante in Snyder, Ante Pacem, 19-20; and also

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Are the Parables of Jesus deliberate Enigmas?

I ask the question because they have been exhaustively studied by parable ponderers since the first century and explanations even today are still getting more diverse and contradictory. Scholars today cannot even agree on what a parable is, and how it is supposed to function, much less what a given parable means. Historical Jesus Scholar, John Dominic Crossan, in a dictionary article suggests that this is the very result intended by the historical Jesus himself. He says that parables in the Jesus tradition are problematic.

This is probably because the parables were often told concerning the Kingdom of God and that explained a symbol by a metaphor…The presumption is that Jesus intended this effect, namely, that the parables would be both provocative and unforgettable so that the recipient would be forced inevitably to interpret.1

He concludes the essay this way:

All these differing interpretations…should not be considered the interpreter’s failure but rather the parable’s success. It is a parable’s destiny to be interpreted and those interpretations will necessarily be diverse. When the diversity ceases, the parable is dead, and the parabler is silent.2

An enigma is defined in Webster’s New World College Dictionary as “a perplexing, usually ambiguous statement, a riddle.”3 So far as I am aware no one has argued that parables are deliberate enigmas, but Crossan’s statement seems to lead us in that direction.

In the marketplace of the critical study of religion today there are at least six contemporary strategies for reading New Testament “parables.”4 One of these strategies treats parables as allegories. An allegory is a coded story that describes something totally different from what it says on its surface. On its surface the story of the Sower (Mark 4:3-8) describes the successes and failures of farming in first-century Palestine (Mark 4:13-20), but as its Markan interpretation (Mark 4:13-20) shows, it is really about success and failure of early Christian preaching. Most ecclesiastical interpretation of parables today are still treating them as allegories, particularly in church circles.

In the late 19th century against the excesses of allegory, Adolf Jϋlicher, a German scholar, argued that parables were comparisons comprised of two parts, a picture part (the parabolic story) and a “matter” or substance part. The “matter” part was the unspoken “issue” of the comparison; the “matter” was the real subject of the picture part. Something learned in the picture part evoked the substance part in terms of a single point expressed in a universal moral of the widest and broadest generality. For example, Jϋlicher’s moral for the parable of the Two Farmer’s and a Fig Tree (Luke 13:6-9) was “all who do not repent will perish.”

In 1935 C. H. Dodd, a British scholar, argued that parables are metaphors. A metaphor is a figure of speech that describes one known thing in language appropriate to another known thing. Dodd argued that parables, introduced by the frame “the Kingdom of God is like…” were intended to cast light on God’s reign. In other words, God’s reign is described in language appropriate to Palestinian village life. As things go in the story, so go things under the reign of God. The specifics of the comparison, however, are never quantified, but left for auditors/readers to fill in. For Dodd, the Parable of the Sower illustrates the arrival of God’s reign in Jesus’ ministry by means of a harvest image.

In 1967, Dan Via, an American scholar, argued that narrative parables are neither allegory nor metaphor (a strategy that treats them as figures). Parables are narrative, freely invented fictions that work like any narrative does. They are a form of literary art that can be appreciated for themselves. They are literary objects that do not reference but instead call attention to themselves. What Jesus intended with the parables is lost to us in the twentieth century. All we have are the parables and they should be studied for what they are. These brief stories dramatize how Jesus understood human existence. In the Laborers in the Vineyard (Matt 20:1-15). The complaining workers understood life in terms of merit and were unwilling to accept the risk of relying on God’s grace.

In 1994, W. R. Herzog, Jr., an American scholar, argued that the parables were stories typifying the oppressed situation of Palestinian peasants at the hands of a wealthy elite. In his stories Jesus mirrored the oppressed conditions under which the peasants lived; they were intended to teach the peasants about their oppressed situation. This explains why Jesus was crucified. He was a threat to the state precisely because he sought to inform the peasants about their oppression. The Laborers in the Vineyard (Matt 20:1-15) reflects Herzog’s understanding of the clash between wealthy elite and disfranchised peasants. The amount paid the workers was not a living wage because day laborers do not work every day. The banishment of the worker who confronts the owner is intended to intimidate the other workers.

In 1994, C. W. Hedrick, an American scholar, argued that the parables are open-ended narrative fictions that Jesus invented by observing the world around him. They realistically portray aspects of Palestinian village life and aspects of the world around him. Complications raised in the narratives are left unresolved leaving resolutions for auditors/readers to solve. Because their polysemy (meaning they are capable of multiple meanings) and what different readers bring to them, they are capable of a wide range of plausible readings, as the history of parables interpretation demonstrates. Narrative fictions work by pulling the auditor/reader into their fictional worlds where discoveries about self and one’s own world may be made. Discoveries are evoked for auditors/readers in the nexus between the narrative and what they bring to it. In the story a Pharisee and Toll Collector (Luke18:10-13) the auditor/reader is presented with two flawed characters praying in the temple. The complication facing the auditor/reader is this: which flawed character will be acceptable to God?

Jesus did not explain his stories to his auditors. Hence, no one has access to that information. We do, however, know how some were explained (or not) in manuscripts through the third/fourth century: Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Gospel of Thomas, the Apocryphon of James, Pistis Sophia, and The Apocalypse of Peter. Interpretations in the modern period add more diverse explanations. Explanations do not generally agree, but each interpreter claims to know how Jesus understood them. My own theory is that we do not interpret parables, but they interpret us (their readers), by evoking from us personal responses. How do you see it?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1“Parable,” vol. 5.146-52 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary (Doubleday, 1992), 150.

2Ibid., 5.152.

34th edition, 2002.

4For the description of these six strategies, I have abbreviated and edited my dictionary entry on “Parable” in The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Abingdon, 2000), 374-76.

Monday, August 21, 2023

Is Prayer a Conversation with God?

In 2022 I published a Blog in which I said that I had discovered that while praying:

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…Prayer was a one-sided conversation, and all efforts to communicate came from my end.1

This likely accounts for my reluctance to sign up for a 30-minute slot at a churchwide day of prayer at my local church recently. Later, I did agree to fill one of the slots and for 40-minutes I found I was still alone in my head. So, on the basis of personal experience, I must conclude that prayer is not a conversation with God; at least I have never been aware of voices responding to the thoughts in my head.

            Do conversations with God ever take place? That is to say: do any of those among us who spend time praying ever “hear” voices in their heads other than their own? Julian Jaynes, a psychologist at Princeton University, argued that the minds of our ancient ancestors worked differently than do our own today.2 Before we humans developed a subjective consciousness, ancient human beings had a bicameral mind (i.e., two compartments). In their left brain they received from their right brain auditory hallucinations from their gods. Jaynes exhaustively tracked the literary evidence for the shift from bicameral mind into human consciousness to near the end of the second millennium B.C.3 The interaction, however, in the bicameral mind between the right brain and the left was not a conversation but the hallucinated divine voices from their right brain directed their subjects to certain actions.4 The biblical prophets of the ancient Hebrews are near the end of the shift, Jaynes argued and reflect the gradual loss of the bicameral mind, and its replacement by subjectivity over the first millennium B.C.5

            A conversation is defined as a talking together, a casual or informal exchange of ideas or opinions between at least two persons. In Hebrew Bible I find few instances of a conversation between God and anyone. God is always the dominant party and the exchange is anything but casual or informal. For example, in Gen 2-3 compare the “verbal” exchange between Adam and God, and that between Adam/Eve and the serpent. The exchange with God is rather formal with God as the dominant party. The exchange between Adam and Eve and the serpent is more casual, more like a conversation. This assessment holds true for the exchanges between God and Cain (Gen 4:9-15), Noah (Gen 6-8; 9:1-17) and Abraham and Sarah (Gen 18). The dominance of God in any exchange is most pronounced in the exchange between God and Job (Job 38:1-42:6). My takeaway from these passages is that God (if God there be) doesn’t casually converse but during “verbal” exchanges, God dominates and directs, similar to Jaynes’ description of the bicameral mind.

            In the New Testament literature, the situation is more complicated because there are at least four divine figures whose “spoken” words are narrated: God (Mark 1:10-11; Mark 9:17), Jesus (Acts 9:3-11), the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:2), an angel (Acts10:1-7). Again, similar to Jaynes’ description of the bicameral mind.

On the other hand, in places where people are formally portrayed as praying, God (or another divine figure) is not depicted as responding verbally (for example, John 17:1-18:1; Mark 14:32-42).6 I would describe none of these examples of prayer as casual conversations in which an exchange of ideas and opinions takes place. The divine figure is dominant in every exchange I cited.

            The biblical examples, cited above, suggest that by definition one does not have a casual conversation with God, or any other divine figure. Divine figures are not given to casual conversation. They don’t do a lot of listening, but they are always directing, and human beings do a lot of listening, to judge from Job’s experience.

            So, what is prayer, if one were wanting to describe it from biblical models? To judge from the model prayer Jesus taught his disciples (Matt 6:9-13=Luke 11:1-4), prayer consists of several elements all cast as petitions from the human side: hallow your name; bring in your rule; grant each of us our bread for the day; forgive us our sins; do not test us. Not much casual conversation or small talk in the prayer.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Hedrick, “Why Doesn’t God Speak English?” Saturday April 16, 2022.

2Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Break-down of the Bicameral Mind (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976).

3Jaynes, Origin of Consciousness, 84-125. And

4Jaynes, Origins of Consciousness, 75.

5Jaynes, Origin of Consciousness, 294.

6The situation in 2 Cor 12:7-10 is not a portrayal of Paul in the act of praying with God’s “voice” depicted as responding. Paul is described as relating a prior experience of prayer, but in either case God was directing.

Monday, August 7, 2023

Can you be too Goal Oriented?

I think there is something to be said for just “chilling out”; that is, relax and let life happen. My late wife was fond of telling me, “Relax and smell the roses,” but I was always much too busy trying to meet a goal of one sort or another. Goals are inevitably terminal by design. Once accomplished (or unrealized) we move on to set others. Goals proliferate, but occasionally the unexpected happens rendering all our goals insignificant in the face of some life-changing event.

Every goal-oriented person has at least four general periods in which time-sensitive goals are set, whether s/he knows it or not. Quotidian goals are activities that open or mark a given day. For example, most of us set goals for ourselves to meet in our daily routine: such things as a healthy breakfast, socially acceptable hygiene, personal appearance, and on-time arrival at obligations, or job interview. Goals such as these are almost the basic minimum for successful living in community. It would not be easy to eliminate them.

Many of us set short-range goals for ourselves to accomplish in the near-time frame. For example, one becomes dissatisfied with one’s job and starts looking for another, or we decide we want new living accommodations and look for another space. Neither of these is achievable overnight but as short-term goals they might occupy us for weeks, if not months. Short-term goals are part of life’s inevitable change but they also upset our set routines.

Many of us also set long-range goals for ourselves that take years and a lot of work to accomplish, such as working toward college graduation or completing graduate school, or perhaps one wants to make a trip abroad, something that cannot be done in the near-term but by laying money aside and planning we might just be able to swing a vacation on that Greek island of our dreams at some point in the future. Long-term goals usually involve setting many short-term plans that must be met first.

Strategic goals, on the other hand, are something quite different. They come near the end of life and constitute something we have been planning all our lives. Likely the achieving of these goals will only become evident in retrospect. For example, the goal of having a comfortable retirement involves the realization of a great number of other objectives throughout life that require planning as well: what will my final annual retirement annuity be, what will be the amount of my savings upon retirement, will my investments be secure and prosper? A strategic goal is something that one will fret over all through one’s working years.

At some point, given time, we will also ponder our personal mortality. Another strategic goal, expressed here in the most general way, is the hope that we will be found to have satisfied the standards of the considerable powers of the universe with the time we were given. Some of us orient our lives around preparing for that moment of the “dying of the light”—others not so much. It is reported that even Jesus pondered his own mortality before his death (Mark 14:32-42), and the experience was greatly distressing and troubling to him (Mark 14:33-34).1 According to Mark, he acquiesced, by accepting the inevitability of the moment. It is a rational act to accept the inevitably of one’s death. Nevertheless, that does not mean we cannot still “rage, rage, against the dying of the light.”2

My point in this odd essay is that if we are ambitious, goals are an inevitable part of life, and so is the end of life. Having too many goals, and the commitments they entail, can clutter our living with immeasurable minutiae, excessive pressure, and a great deal of time expenditure. Such a heavy investment of time may cause us to miss the wonder of Being altogether. So, find a way to relax, smell the roses, and chill out!

Here are three stanzas of a poem that is not writ in any book (perhaps wisely so). They express my own frustrations some years ago when I was feeling the pressure of too many irons in the fires of my own goal making. It seems obvious that I had too much on my plate.

Cloistered Space

Blessed be Free-Spaces

who bestow sanity and peace,

And Holy Passages-Between,

Who grants surcease

From demanding Musts

that loudly fill Silence

With shrill dis-ease,

Debilitating Indolence

Cursed be Duty and Decorum,

Twin Nemesis of Ease,

Those who plunder the House of Idleness

With loathsome and irritating Demands,

Omnivorous, crude, belching Time-Eaters,

Who forage in the Holidays

On Leisure and Repose.

Curse thee, we curse thee, we curse thee.

Oh, Blissful Solitude,

Irenic eye of Charybdis!

Bless us with Hiatus;

Seal us with infinite Vacuity.

From Thrall we seek release.

Baleful Locked-in,

She of the Ireful-Eye,

Chief Guard of Servitude.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Mark composed the story, inventing its dialogue, but there is a kernel of history at its core as a second witness attests (Heb 5:7).

2Dylan Thomas, “Do not go Gentle into that Good Night.”