Monday, May 27, 2024

The Amalgamated Jesus

The image of Jesus that functions in the institutional church is a composite drawn from the four canonical gospels that is undergirded by a theological statement of the church. Children are taught the theological statement from the earliest possible age and when the child reaches maturity, s/he fills out the image choosing material indiscriminately from the four canonical gospels as taught in the church’s educational program.

            In the popular ecclesiastical mind, the narratives of all four gospels are regarded as reliable historical documents. The truth is, however, that they are written a generation and more after the death of Jesus. The narratives are based on brief anonymous oral reports of the sayings and doings of Jesus. The descriptions of Jesus, his activities, and his words are the products of impressions on the minds of those nameless persons who transmitted the oral reports, and the impressions the reports made on the minds of the evangelists, who then produced the gospels. The information from the oral reports has been filtered through the faith of each evangelist, which s/he had been taught in the church.1 We have nothing directly from the mouth of Jesus. It is doubtful that anything survived the rigors of the oral period intact.

            Hence the gospels are a collage comprised of historical data, ecclesiastical theory and dogma, quotations and misquotations, and invented plots or story-lines. Critical readers of the New Testament have been aware of many of these problems since the late 1700s. The writing, The Age of Reason, by the American Statesman, Thomas Paine, anticipates “many of the insights of contemporary critical biblical scholarship.”2

            Each of the canonical gospels presents to the reader unique portraits of the man.3 A portrait is a unique painting by the artist recording how a particular painter sees the subject, and that is also true of the literary portraits by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. There are always similarities and differences. At times the differences in their portraits are glaring, at other times subtle. The primary reason Matthew, Mark, and Luke (they are called the “synoptic gospels”) are so similar is because Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source, and they also shared another hypothetical sayings’ source, which accounts for similarities in literary structure and in the sayings of Jesus. Matthew and Luke make changes to Mark’s text according both to their own theological proclivities and literary styles. The Gospel of John has little in common with the other three. The images of Jesus in the canonical gospels are not historical photographs but novelistic portraits.

            Here is one glaring example of their contradictory differences. In Mark 4:10, the author we call Mark puts on the lips of his literary character, Jesus, the reason why Mark thinks the historical figure, Jesus, told such difficult-to-understand stories (that is, parables):

So that they may indeed see, but not perceive, and may indeed hear, but not understand; lest they should turn again and be forgiven.

Matthew (13:13) and Luke (8:10b) completely eliminate the offensive phrase, “lest they should turn again, and be forgiven.” Matthew and Luke reject the idea that Jesus told parables to prevent people from understanding, lest they turn and be forgiven by God. John, on the other hand, does not even use the word parable and does not portray his literary character, Jesus, telling any of the classic parables known from the synoptic gospels.4

            These kinds of differences in the portraits of Jesus in the canonical gospels are lost in the pious ecclesiastical amalgamations of Jesus.

It’s just common sense, folks.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Hedrick, When History and Faith Collide.

2Hedrick, “Thomas Paine and the Bible,” The Fourth R (September-October 2022), 4.

3Hedrick, When History and Faith Collide. Studying Jesus (Hendrickson, 1999; reprint, 2013) 30-47.

4See the description of each portraiture of Jesus in Hedrick, When History and Faith Collide, 32-46 and “Is John a Revisionist Gospel?” pp. 151-54 in Unmasking Biblical Faiths (Cascade, 2019).

Thursday, May 9, 2024

Is the Earth still Cursed?

In Gen 3:17 God tells Adam:

cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. In the sweat of your face, you shall eat bread…(RSV)

The "curse" on the ground is because of Adam's sin (his disobedience in eating the fruit of a particular tree in God's special Garden, Gen 2:17). The land is cursed and will bring forth "thorns and thistles," specifically for Adam and because of what he did. He must, as a consequence, laboriously work the land for its produce. In the Garden apparently the land did not require work; it simply produced (Gen 1:29-30; 3:23). There is a similar curse in Gen 4:11-12, as well: the land will not produce for Cain because he killed Abel. Apparently, God's curse of the ground for Adam was not a general curse for all humankind, since another curse was needed to register God's displeasure at Cain's egregious act. But this seems refuted by Gen 5:29, where Lamech claims that the birth of Noah "will bring us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands," which suggests that the cursing of the earth did apply to all flesh.

            Through a great flood God determines to destroy all flesh along with the earth, "for the earth is filled with violence through them" (Gen 6:11-13). Apparently, the earth is to be destroyed because it is corrupted by its association with all flesh (Gen 6:12). God is so delighted with Noah's sacrifice when the flood waters subsided, however, that he vowed never again to "curse the ground because of man" (Gen 8:21), but there is nothing said about the earlier curses being lifted, whether general or specific (Gen 8:20-22).

            The prophet Isaiah seems to share the idea that the earth is generally cursed (Isa 24:3-6). "Therefore, a curse devours the earth, and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt" (Isa 24:6). Why should the earth/ground/land suffer because of its association with "all flesh"? The reason seems to be that God formed Adam/humanity "from the ground" (Gen 2:7):

In the sweat of your face, you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust and to dust you shall return." (Gen 3:19; cf. Job 34:15; Ps 103:14).

In biblical mythology Adam and the ground are the same kind of "stuff." The answer to my question seems to be that it is on the basis of the same principle (although in reverse) from which Paul argues in 1 Cor 15:21-22 (i.e., the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children, Deut 5:9-10).1 God appears to be holding the earth responsible for the sins of its progeny, for people are descended from "earth." In this case, the sins of the children are visited upon the father (earth).

            Is the cursing of the earth in Genesis the background for understanding Paul's "restoration" (Rom 8:21) of creation (ē ktsis) in Rom 8:19-22? Possibly. I know of one scholar (there are no doubt many others) who thought that to be the case: James Denny finds the need for the "restoration" of creation in Romans 8:19-22 to be the cursing of Adam in Gen 3:17, "where the ground is cursed for man's sake; he [Paul] conceives all creation as involved in the fortunes of humanity."2 Paul never clearly says that in so many words, so far as I know. Only in the rather obscure phrase at the beginning of Romans 8:20 is it possible to infer it when he writes, "the creation is subjected to futility (mataitēti, i.e., meaning its lack of value, or usefulness), which is the condition to which God's curse rendered it for Adam, requiring it to be laboriously worked.

            Colossians 1:19-20 seems to include "all creation" in its "all things on earth or in heaven" (note: Col 1:16, ta panta is everything). If this expression can be said to include all creation, then a Pauline disciple (the author of Colossians) includes even the insentient "stuff" of the universe of God's created works in the economy of redemption.

            The difficulty, however, is that the Bible doesn't speak generally of the restoration of an original creation. By far the more dramatic image in the Bible is the dissolution of the old creation, and the birthing of a new heavens and earth (Isa 65:17, 66:22; 2 Pet 3:7-13; Rev 21:1). Will there eventually be an old creation restored, as Paul seems to think, or the destruction of the original creation and the birth of a new heavens and earth, as "Peter" believes will happen? Who is right Peter or Paul?

How do you see it?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1For the Idea of blaming the children for their father's sins, see also Exod 20:5-6; 34:6-7. For a rejection of this idea, see Jer 31:29-30; Ezek 18:2-4.

2James Denny, "St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans" in W. R. Nicoll, The Expositor's Greek Testament (5 vols.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), 2.649.