Friday, May 9, 2014

Mark's Ending

Today I want to discuss the ending of Mark's Gospel.  In recent years, with the proliferation of literary analyses of the Gospel of Mark, many NT scholars (myself included) have been convinced that Mark intended to end his gospel at 16:8.  This of course is not a debate about whether the same author could have written the various longer endings of Mark, which is an issue that seems to be settled in textual criticism to a large degree.  The most original ending or Mark's Gospel is at 16:8.  But debates have raged about a lost ending, or the possibility that Mark died before he could finish.  But now, many have argued that Mark intended to end the Gospel at 16:8.

What I want to address here is a sentiment that I have heard many times, but most recently in one of the episodes of Mark Goodacre's NT Pod.  The sentiment is as follows: If NT scholars in the late 20th and early 21st centuries have come to find some literary genius behind Mark's enigmatic ending, then they are the only people throughout all of church history who have done so.  That is, they are so narcissistic to believe that they alone possess the knowledge and skill to recognize Mark's genius.  The argument runs that everyone throughout church history has found the short ending of Mark problematic.

I want to push back on this argument for a moment.  Can we really say that everyone throughout church history has found Mark's short ending a problem?  I don't think so.  Sure, we have examples of a handful of people in ancient church history who found the ending problematic.  Matthew sees fit to add to Mark's ending, so does Luke, so does John if he is familiar with Mark. That's 3 people who either found Mark's ending problematic and added to it.  We also have three different endings in the manuscript tradition (the shorter ending, the Freer Logion, and the Longer ending).  So, I count 6 people who we know either had a problem with the ending, or thought they could improve it.  But, those 6 are not everybody.  Certainly, after the longer ending gained ascendancy in the manuscript tradition, we cannot say that people were dissatisfied with the shorter ending.  They weren't aware of the shorter ending.  So we can discount the claim that anyone from about 500-1800 discounted the shorter ending.  They simply didn't know it was an option.

Well, what about before the longer ending became the majority text?  I have pointed out at least 6 people who went a different way and may have found Mark's ending wanting.  But is this everybody?  Again I say no.  The counter evidence suggests that the very fact that we have manuscripts which end at 16:8 means that there were at least some (the copyists of Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, for example) who either found no problem with the short ending, or at least did not feel compelled to change it.  Perhaps there were early Christians who recognized the genius of Mark's short ending, but over time their voices were lost in the midst of the manuscript tradition in which the various other options had become dominant. So I do not think that we can say that everybody except for modern NT scholars have failed to recognize a possibility that Mark intended  to end his Gospel at 16:8.  Modern NT scholars might stand in good company with many others (the copyists of Sinaiticus and Vaticanus included).

Friday, May 2, 2014

More Musings on Belief

In my previous post, I talked about what IMO comprises much of evangelical Christianity: that is that Christianity is a belief system, defining the word "belief" as a granting of mental agreement to a set of propositions.  I then asked, if this was what Christianity should be like.

I now need to narrate the way in which this view of Christianity as a belief system changed for me.

This view began to crumble during my senior year in college.  I was taking a class called "Christian Literary Classics" taught by Dr. Ralph Wood, and in reading Dante's Purgatorio I was served a huge piece of humble pie.  At first I was taken aback by the strange beliefs of Dante, especially with regard to Purgatory.  Then it hit me.  Dante's beliefs were strange to me, but my beliefs would also be strange to him.  Moreover, it became perfectly clear to me that had I been born in 14th century Europe, I would have believed exactly as Dante believed (there is of course the corollary to this view, and that is that if I had been born in India on the same day I was born, I would most likely be Hindu, not Christian).

This realization, that our beliefs are to a great extent dependent on our culture, opened up all sorts of other questions for me and taught me to hold my beliefs a little more lightly and a little more humbly.

Another great change in my view of Christianity as a belief system came with my study of the New Testament through Seminary and Ph.D. Studies. As I studied the NT, I found that the NT authors don't often (at least on my reading) focus much on belief, at least not in the sense of giving mental assent to propositions.  Now, this might sound strange.  The Greek word for belief, pistis, and its cognate verb pisteuo occur more than 550 times in the NT, so how can I say that I did not see much teaching on belief in the NT.  Well, it has to do with word meaning and translation issues.  You see, there are three perfectly acceptable English words that can be used to translate pistis and its cognate verb.  They are "faith," "belief," and "trust." The noun pistis is most often translated as "faith," and the verb is most often translated as "believe."  Fine, but I do not think that the current connotations of these English words adequately capture the meaning in the Greek. "Faith," and "belief" in their current English connotations carry the sense of giving mental agreement to a proposition.  Thus, one is saved by faith (mental agreement with a proposition about Jesus), not by works (doing something good for God).  But, if that is what faith means, then Paul's letters make no sense to me.  How can Paul, on the one hand contrast faith (mental assent) with works, but then go on to command all sorts of behavior, and to condemn other behavior?  These two don't fit. Luther's saved sola fides, faith (mental assent to a proposition) alone, does not fit then with New Testament teachings on Christian behavior.  Well, maybe the problem isn't the tension between faith (mental assent) and calls for certain behavior, maybe the problem is with our understanding of the word belief.

I think that of the three words given as translation options for pistis, the english word which in its current connotation comes closest to the sense in which the word is used in the NT, is "trust."  Trust, in current English connotation implies action.  Trust encompasses the English concept of "belief," but it goes further.  Trust requires acting on one's belief.  Faith (trust) in Christ is not just giving your intellectual OK to a proposition about Jesus (e.g., Jesus died for my sins), but rather, a trusting following of Jesus in his example.  To trust Jesus, means to change one's behavior, to take up one's cross and follow him.  Trust is much fuller than belief (in its current English connotation).

So, I am uncomfortable with viewing Christianity as a belief system.  Christianity is much more than a belief system.  I guess you could say that Christianity is a "trust system," a system in which followers of Jesus act out their trust in Jesus by following his example, living lives that embody his teachings of loving God with all of their hearts, souls, minds, and strength, and loving their neighbor as themselves.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Musings on Belief

Belief.  It is an interesting word, but what does it mean?

Several recent stimulating conversations I have had with my colleague Trey Gilliam have led to this post.  What is belief?

Many see Christianity as a "belief system."  That is, Christianity is about believing the right stuff.  And belief used in this sense is defined as giving your mental agreement to a set of statements., such as, "Jesus Christ died for our sins," or "Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man, of one substance (homoousios) with the father." To believe these statements, for much of the modern church, means to agree in your mind that these statements are facts.

This is how I grew up as a Christian.  In the early phases, my Christianity was seen as accumulating right (orthodox) beliefs about God and Christ.  This manifested itself in reading the Bible, attending church, youth group, conferences, and the like, and acquiring knowledge.  Later it moved on to reading books which explained right beliefs.  This all culminated in reading systematic theology books to acquire knowledge of a compendium of orthodox Christian doctrines, which were propositions calling for mental agreement.

But what do you do after you have acquired all of these beliefs and given your mental assent to them? Well, there's not much left to do.  You can digest a massive systematic theology in a finite amount of time, and then what do you do?  Well, I found that the only avenue left open, if my faith was not to become stale, was to debate.  Find people who disagree with my mental propositions, and show them the error of their ways.  I think that this is what much of conservative evangelical Christianity engages in: finding the right (orthodox) beliefs, and then searching out those who disagree with them, with the purpose of correcting them, or (more common unfortunately), with the purpose of punishing them for their stubborn doubts.  This is why I believe that evangelicalism has become so ugly in the public arena. The goal is to debate and punish those who won't put a mental checkmark by all of the right (orthodox) beliefs as determined by the evangelicals.

Is this a good way to go?  Is this what Christianity should be?

More to follow.