Good Gossip? (Women from the Bible #1)


On Facebook Robyn Mellar-Smith responding to Lindy Jacomb’s guest post at Sacraparental promised to post about a woman from the Bible every day for a week. I doubt I’ll manage that, we are finishing teaching and beginning traveling…

But one of my favourite unsung heroes from the gospels is Anna, after the two old folk have seen the baby Jesus, their responses could hardly be more different.

Simeon gets all poetic and sings a song about being so happy he could die happy, Anna tells all her friends the good news (Luke 2:22-38)

29 Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.
Luke 2:29-32

While dear Anna simply tells all her friends and family the good news….

36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
Luke 2:36-38

There is a sermon here, folks :)

PS: How delicious and ironic (at the same time) I had not read Lindy’s post that started the series when I dashed off the note above (I finish teaching the intensive tomorrow and was preaching in college chapel today…) but when I did I discovered she had chosen my friend Anna to mention in her post!

Fishing on Galilee


Richard Bauckham (University of St Andrews) gave the 2014 Burns Lectures at the University of Otago. The podcast MP3 or MP41 Titled “The Sons of Zebedee: The Lives of Two Galilean Fishers”, the lectures (at least so far, I am finishing #2 as I write) provide careful and full descriptions of the geographical and social contexts of Galilee in the time of Jesus.

If you watch no more, watch the first few minutes of lecture #1! They alone will give you a fine sense of the little world of 1st Century lake Galilee and enrich your reading of the gospels out of all proportion to the time spent.

Here are links to mp4 (video) and mp3 files:
1) The World of the Lake of Galilee’ – Tuesday 12 August (video) (mp3)
2) ‘The Fishing Industry’ – Wednesday 13 August (video) (mp3)
3) ‘Zebedee and Sons’ – Thursday 14 August (video) (mp3)
4) ‘Called to Fish for People’ – Tuesday 19 August (video) (mp3)
5) ‘Sons of Thunder’ – Wednesday 20 August (video) (mp3)
6) ‘Jerusalem’ – Thursday 21 August (video) (mp3)

HT: Deane Galbraith

  1. The MP3s are excessively high quality, 160kbps, so are almost as big as the video, caveat downloador.  []

Did Jesus have a sense of humour?

Dr Jane Heath (Durham University) wrote a piece “Did Jesus Christ have a sense of humour?” In it she suggests that the question might be broken into two parts: “[o]ne about the way Jesus taught during his incarnate life, and another about the way it is proper for followers of Jesus, who seek to share in his risen life, to behave today.” I intend to respond here to what she wrote about the first of these.

Heath begins by noting that the synoptic gospels “[d]o not depict him making people laugh and they do not describe him as ‘witty’, let alone ‘funny’.” This is true, but then descriptions in biblical narrative is commonly sparse, perhaps less so in the New Testament than in the Hebrew Bible but nevertheless the gospels do not describe Jesus as ‘serious’, ‘sober’ or ‘solemn’ either.

In a similar way she erects another straw man to conveniently demolish. When those around him do something silly, she says: “Jesus does not make a joke of their silliness.” Well, no, but then to present Jesus as a sarcastic snob who makes fun of the mistakes of others would hardly fit with the Synoptic Gospels intentions in presenting Jesus. Even if the historical Jesus did make fun of such slips, the gospel writers might well not have reported this.

Moving beyond this trail of successfully demolished straw men, Heath has to admit that: “Some of the things he says in parables might seem to invite us to read them as if told with a twinkle in his eye.” She follows this with a couple of weak examples of such possibly humorous parables, but recognising the difficulty of accurately spotting humour accross cultures concludes: “In general, humour is not a useful tool for interpreting the gospels’ account of Jesus’ life. The evangelists were not writing satire.” The second sentence is true, but entirely irrelevant. Jesus might have been a stand up comedian and the gospel writers would still not have been satirists if they reported his jokes accurately! The question Heath posed is not, are the gospels satire (or even comedies) but rather, did Jesus have a sense of humour?

The other claim: “humour is not a useful tool for interpreting the gospels’ account of Jesus’ life” is more difficult to argue (either for or against). But I would suggest that the fact that it is difficult to picture Jesus’ parable of the man with the log in his eye (Mat 7:3-5, Luke 6:41-42) without smiling may provoke us to look to see if the signs of humour are present in these texts.

The criteria I have used in the past, are drawn from a number of previous studies by others, and most are present in these texts:

  • incongruity – surely evident!
  • lighthearted mood – this is a subjective criterion, but what do you think?
  • surprise – if you had not heard the parable before would you expect Jesus’ punchline?
  • ingenuity (cleverness is often a mark of humour think of puns) – this one may be missing here…
  • inferiority – the main point of the parable?
  • disguise or something or someone pretending to be something else – the “friend” is pretending to be superior and helpful
  • “inelasticity” (following Bergson) – perhaps not…
  • human pretension revealed in all its lack of glory – oh, yes!

My conclusion: This saying seems evidently intended to be humorous. What do you think? On the basis of this saying alone1 The correct response to Dr Heath’s question is a clear “Yes, Jesus did have a sense of humour!” (At least the Jesus who is presented in the Synoptic Gospels did.)

PS: I omitted “hyperbole” which I earlier added to the original list at David Kerr’s suggestion – the hyperbole in this passage is obvious!

  1. Though I can’t help also remember Jesus’ fondness for camel stories! []

The case of the dog who did not bark

THE HISTORIC FIRST DAY OF GAY MARRIAGES IN THE STATE OF NEW YORK 2011 – Louis J. Lefkowitz State Office Bldg. , Lower Manhattan NYC – 07/24/11 (Photo by asterix611)

Rodney from Wipf and Stock has a post on Running Heads1 The Case of the Centurion’s Servant in which he comments on an argument used by Alex Ross writing about the gay rights in the the New Yorker discussing Matt 8:5–13.  He quotes Ross:

What’s striking is that Jesus shows no interest in resolving the ambiguity. He asks nothing about the relationship. His eye is elsewhere. Only the centurion’s faith matters.

And comments:

A textual argument I’d not seen, though ultimately one from silence, one “almost conspicuous” in its silence, in  Ross’s words.

I used a similar but different approach to the case of the dog that did not bark in my podcast Jesus and the Centurion’s Lad (pais) there I noted a significant difference between Matthew’s and Luke’s versions of the story and asked about its shock value.


  1. What a great name for a publisher’s blog! []

The heresy of exhortation

Photo from Spacemakers

Marking a lot of assignments where students examine different Bible passages, in an institution that seeks to prepare people in Applied Theology, and so expects exegesis to find its natural outworking in application, submits me to a great deal of exhortation.

The vast majority of students reach the application stage of the process, and promptly start telling me how I should try harder. If the passage is Psalm 113 then I should praise God more often, if it is Luke 9:1-6 then I should evangelise more…

Isn’t it strange. Neither passage seems to me to be primarily an exhortation to try harder.

The gospel passage tells how, having himself gone from place to place telling and showing people that the reign of God was breaking into this tired old world, Jesus sent his disciples to do the same with power and authority – there’s nothing about trying harder, and little that sounds like “evangelism”.

It’s true the psalm starts and ends with imperatives: Praise Yah! but the content between is focused on God and on the claim that we have so many reasons to praise God, not least that raising the needy from the ash heap is what God does all the time…

The exhortation to try harder is the preacher’s curse. Not gospel, not even good theology, yet the almost invariable default response to a Bible passage. If “Jesus” is the expected answer to questions asked by Sunday School teachers,1 then “try harder” is the gospel preachers find in every Bible passage.


  1. Teacher: “What is fury, and hops along with a fluffy white tail.” Students: Silence, till one brave lad says, “Well, I know the answer is Jesus, but I’m sorry I can’t work out how!” []

Review copies

If you would like a review copy of the print version of my new book:

Tim Bulkeley, Not Only a Father: Talk of God as Mother in the Bible & Christian Tradition (Signs) Auckland: Archer Press, 2011 ISBN: 978-1468091373

Please contact me, please say both where you expect to publish the review (blogs are quite acceptable though a full review rather than a short note would be good) and when you are expect to write it. There are no conditions and you should be as critical as you normally would.

Jesus and talk of God as father (part one)

At present I’m thinking and talking a lot about Jesus’ talk of God as father, and whether this naming of God means that Christians cannot think of God as (also) motherly.

The Old Testament used both father and mother-language to speak about God, but it used both seldom. Language such as shepherd, kinsman-redeemer, king, rock, lion and other pictures were preferred, perhaps because they were less likely to require that God had a partner. A father can only be a father if someone else is a mother, and the reverse. Such language therefore presented a greater danger of a descent into polytheism. Neither rocks, kings or lions need some other being to define them as such. While shepherds need a flock, the relationship is not reciprocal, as it would be for mothers and fathers. Sometimes therefore the Bible uses language which describes an undefined parental caring (like in Hos 11:1ff.) without naming either parent, and on other occasions imagery which mentions both parents provides a balance (like in Job 38:28f. cf. Jer 2:27) also helps avoid this danger. As we have seen there was also explicitly motherly language most notably in Isaiah 40ff. (Is 42:14; 43:1ff.; 42:2, 21ff.; 45:8ff.; 46:3f.; 49:13-21; 50:1-3; 66:7ff.) The New Testament, from the gospels onward, seems to contrast with both this reticence and balance. Father-language becomes common, and indeed ‘Father’ becomes a name for God.

This use of father as a name for God, first in the New Testament and then in Christian tradition until today, presents perhaps the most significant barrier to wide acceptance of the thesis of this book. For, the claim that the Christian God is as much like a mother as a father, sits uncomfortably with this New Testament use of “father” as a name for God. This discomfort is heightened if we recognise that Jesus own talk of God stands as the basis for the later naming of God as “father”. It is therefore important to examine this New Testament usage carefully.

Some German scholarship from the middle of the last century represented the father-language of the New Testament as a unique contribution made by Jesus. It was, they said, unlike both his Jewish forebears and his Early Church followers, because it was more frequent, personal and intimate than either. Much was made of Jesus’ use of ἀββα abba(Mark 14:36 cf. Gal 4:6; Rom 8:15),which was presented as being a baby-talk (and so more intimate and personal) version of ‘father’. They claimed in the light of this that there was a link between Jesus’ special intimacy with God and his and then the church’s subsequent use of father-language.1

A more careful look at the evidence has questioned these claims. More recent scholarship asks whether Jesus himself was as clearly the beginning and driver of this father language as had been argued. Jeremias himself was aware of a striking feature of the Gospels’ father-talk for God on the lips of Jesus.2This usage seems to show a clear pattern (as argued by Hofius in New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology)3 suggesting that talk of God as father in the gospels increased as the distance of the memory from Jesus himself increased.

To put this claim in context before examining it further, father-language is used commonly across the New Testament to speak of God. In his response to an earlier publication of mine making these arguments Keown cited twenty three such references “in the undisputed Paulines”4 and a further eighteen in letters of disputed authorship,5 father language is especially common in the Johannine writings (1, 2 & 3 John and Rev)6 and in 1 Peter, but is also found in Acts, Hebrews, 2 Peter and Jude.7 The phrase “the God and Father of our lord Jesus” (Rom 15:6; 1 Cor 1:3; 2 Cor 1:3; 11:31; Eph 1:3, 17; Col 1:3; 1 Thess 1:1; 1 Peter 1:3) and the fact that God the father and Christ as son are correlated (by mention together) very frequently.8 Indicate clearly that the earliest Christians found the pairing of thought of God as father and Jesus as the son of God to be productive. For one of the key concerns of the New Testament writers was to make sense of, and to explore ways to talk about, who Jesus was and what his life, death, and resurrection mean.

There are traces in the New Testament of what is likely to be an earlier attempt to understand who Jesus was by likening him to divine personified Wisdom who in the Old Testament was pictured as the first-born of creation (Pr 8:22), existing before the earth (Pr 8:23ff.), with God at creation (Pr 8:27ff.) and who could say: “whoever finds me finds life and obtains favour from the LORD” (Pr 8:35). The earliest strands of the New Testament, and in particular Paul (and what are sometimes claimed to be pre-Pauline hymns) make the most use of the figure of Wisdom to understand Jesus in relation to God. ‘What pre-Christian Judaism said of Wisdom, and Philo also of the Logos, Paul and the others say of Jesus. The role that Proverbs, ben Sira, etc. ascribe to Wisdom, these earliest Christians ascribe to Jesus.’9 However, Wisdom Christology was not adequate to their understanding of Christ and his work, for Wisdom was neither human, nor truly divine. Talking of Father and Son enabled these things to be protected, especially when it took place in the context of Jesus’ designation as also “Son of Man”.

Considering the memories of Jesus’ use of father language to speak of God, Hofius’ quotes these figures for the use of such language in Jesus’ remembered words

Mark: 3
Material common to Matthew and Luke: 4
Material special to Luke: 4
Material special to Matthew: 31
and John: 10010

In an earlier work I used this evidence to claim “The further removed from the historical Jesus the more likely a writer is to talk about God as father.”11 Those figures and my interpretation of them have been questioned by Mark Keown, though his presentation of the evidence seems to show an even more pronounced pattern:

Mark: 5
Material common to Matthew and Luke: 9
Material special to Luke: 5
Material special to Matthew: 18
and John: 117

Interestingly as well as the high usage in John, and in the material particular to Matthew, Keown notes that Matthew five times adds the term “father” to material which is also found in Luke but where this term was missing there (Matt 5:45 cf. Lk 6:35; Matt 6:26 cf. Lk 12:24; Matt 7:21 cf. Lk 6:46-7; Matt 10:29 cf. Lk 12:6; Matt 18:14 cf. Lk 15:7). Whichever the order of composition of these two gospels this suggests that Matthew’s tradition was significantly more likely than Luke’s to remember Jesus as having used this name for God. This suggests the question: Is it more likely that Matthew remembers this name, which became typical Christian usage, where it had not in fact been present, or that Luke forgot it? In both the gospels and in the rest of the New Testament “father” is used of God most often in John and the Johannine writings (11 times in 1 John; 3 in 2 John; and 5 in Revelation).12 So there is clear evidence for differential preferences for father-god language, with the Johannine writings, Matthew and 1 Peter showing the strongest tendency to use such langauge and Mark and Luke among those who use it least.

These usages suggest that: (a) Jesus did call God father, but that (b) he may have done so less than he was remembered as doing, and less himself than the early Christians did. Mark and Luke have only a few examples each, while Matthew remember him as doing so in sayings were he may well have used “God” or the “Most High” as Luke suggests. John develops a strong theology of the Father/Son relationship. In general this father-God language is more frequent in the New Testament in general than it is in quoted speech of Jesus (except in John, and it is often suggested that John reconstructs Jesus’ speeches theologically more than the Synoptics did).

If Jesus called God father (as indeed Jewish usage in his time sometimes did)13 and early Christians made significant use of both the image of Christ as the “son of God” and of Christians being invited into sharing such sonship “in Christ”. The fairly frequent usage of “father” of God in Paul also fits with this a picture of father language about God being more common in the early church than it was on Jesus’ own lips.14

The expression ‘Father in heaven’, and other use of father-language to speak of God was becoming more common (than the sparse Old Testament usage) in Palestinian Judaism by Jesus’ time. In the Old Testament such language was almost exclusively used in relation to the nation or community as a whole, while by the First Century the use had begun to extend to individuals having God as father as well.15So it would seem that the earliest witnesses to Jesus’ speech remember him as using language about God as father in ways which would not have seemed abnormal in a Jewish teacher of his time and place, while in the Early Church such language becomes a distinctive practice.

Pointing out that use of Father as a name for God was probably remembered in Jesus’ speech more often than he in fact used such language, does not deny that Jesus spoke of God as a ‘father’ or even used Father as a name for God. However, it should caution us from making too much of the supposed origin of this language in Jesus.

1 Jeremias is still sometimes cited in support of this claim, although he wrote: ‘One often reads (and I myself believed it at one time) that when Jesus spoke to his heavenly Father he took up the chatter of a small child. To assume this would be a piece of inadmissible naivety.’ J. Jeremias, The Prayers of Jesus (SBT 2/6; London: SCM) 1967, 62 (translated by John Bowen from Abba: Studien zur neutestamentlichen Theologie und Zeitgeschichte, (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1966).

2 Jeremias, The Prayers of Jesus, 29ff..

3 O. Hofius, ‘Father’ in Colin Brown (ed) New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 619-20. Hofius gives: Mark: 3; Material common to Matthew and Luke: 4; Material special to Luke: 4; Material special to Matthew: 31; and John: 100

4 Mark Keown, “The image of the invisible God: A response to Tim Bulkeley” in Myk Habets and Beulah Wood (eds) Reconsidering Gender: Evangelical Perspectives (Eugene, OR: Pickwick) 2011, 44, n.14: Rom 1:7; 6:4; 8:15; 15:6; 1 Cor 1:3; 8:6; 15:24; 2 Cor 1:2, 3; 6:18; 11:31; Gal 1:1, 3, 4; 4:6; Phil 1:2; 2:11; 4:20; 2 Thess 1:1, 3; 3:11, 13; Phlm 3.

5 Ibid., n.15: Eph 1:2, 3, 17; 2:18; 3:14; 4:6; 5:20; 6:23; Col 1:2, 3, 12; 3:17; 2 Thess 1:1, 2; 2:16; 1 Tim 1:2; 2 Tim 1:2; Tit 1:4

6 Ibid., 45, n.23: 1 John 1:2, 3; 2:1, 14, 15, 16, 22, 23, 24; 3:1; 4:14; 2 John 3, 4, 9; Rev 1:6; 2:28; 3:5, 21; 14:1

7 Ibid. Acts 1:4, 7; 2:33; Hebrews 1:5 (2x); 12:9; 1 Peter 1:2, 3, 17; 2 Pet 1:17; Jude 1.

8 Indeed in the epistles father language of God and son language of Christ are rarely separated.

9 James D. G. Dunn, Christology in the Making: A New Testament Inquiry Into the Origins of the Doctrine of the Incarnation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 167.

10 By comparison Paul uses such language about 40 times only.

11 Tim Bulkeley, “The image of the invisible God: (An)iconic knowing, God, and gender” in Myk Habets and Beulah Wood (eds) Reconsidering Gender: Evangelical Perspectives (Eugene, OR: Pickwick) 2011, 20-37, the quote is from 34.

12 Mark Keown, “The image of the invisible God: A response to Tim Bulkeley” in Myk Habets and Beulah Wood (eds) Reconsidering Gender: Evangelical Perspectives (Eugene, OR: Pickwick) 2011, 44-45.

13 Jeremias, The Prayers of Jesus, 15-29; Alon Goshen-Gottstein, ‘God the Father in Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity: Transformed Background or Common Ground?’ Journal of Ecumenical Studies 38 (Fall 2001), 470- 504 (for a more recent and critical Jewish perspective).

14 I am unconvinced by Jeremias’ claim that since it is used in Jesus’ prayers it was necessarily his own usage, since Jesus’ prayers like his other speech comes to us remembered by others, whose own patterns of prayer may influence the wording they remember. We know that this usage was common in the earliest church.

15 Ibid.

Being an extra in a story Jesus told

Photo by redjar

In response to my post Fairtrade: Coffee, Chocolate & Bananas Heather commented:

…it will do nothing to convince the group that I most often encounter: those who don’t believe that what they do could possibly change ‘the system’. That’s the main point I find myself trying to argue with people.

Oh, you silly people! I’ve always tried to change the world, but, since I was three I’ve recognised that usually I have little success. I have a blog, it’s quite popular, I regularly write posts trying to change the world. However, there are nearly 600,000 websites that are visited more often than my blog. Realistically I stand little chance of saving the world :(

Happily I don’t have to. That post is already taken. What I do have to do is to try to change my little corner of the world. If I persuade five of you to change your buying just habits on just one of these three  products: Coffee, Chocolate and Cocoa, or Bananas then at least one family’s life will be changed for the better. If two of you five persuade five others, we have a snowball, and snowballs do change the world…

But, for the moment forget about snowballs, because Jesus told a story that featured a couple of possible world-changers:

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.  31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.  32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.  (Luke 10:30-32)

Priests are always trying to make the world a better place, and preaching to change the world is a Levite’s job…

Is our “gospel” too small?

Photo by stevendepolo

I’m marking assignments on Luke 9:1-6. (See the post below: Good news for the rich.) As well as spiritualising the passage into safety another common approach to taming it is common.

Jesus in hiding? (Photo by Carly & Art)

It reminds me of the story of the boy whose Sunday School teacher asked: “What is a small furry animal with a fluffy white tail?” Who, after an embarrassed silence said: “Well I know the answer is Jesus. But I sure can’t work out how!”

In Evangelical churches we have so stressed “the gospel” that whenever something is to be preached or proclaimed we know the answer is “gospel” even if we can’t work out how. In this passage what the twelve are charged to proclaim is not called “gospel” till verse six. At the start (before they go) they are commanded to “proclaim the kingdom of God”. This message, that God (really, truly) rules, is to be shown by healing the sick and casting out demons. That is the message really is about how the loving Creator rules, and not the powers of evil that stunt and spoil our world. As I said in the previous post, that really is good news, but all too often it is not the “gospel” we preach!

Good news for the rich

Church foyer come on in and hear the gospel (photo from Stevan Sheets)

The assignments I’m currently marking are all studies of Luke 9:1-6.1 The passage is pretty straightforward, for these are beginners:

Jesus calls the Twelve together, gives them authority to heal and to cast out demons. He then sends them to preach the kingdom of God, and to heal the sick, giving instructions on travelling light and suggested responses to different sorts of reception (they provide enough complexity to allow the best students to shine). They go, preaching the gospel, and healing every where.

It astonishes me how many students manage to miss the bit about demons and healing. As I read their studies of the passage, I wonder about the extent in seeking to ensure that the gospel (which was clearly from the start, as it is today, good news for the poor) can be good news for the rich we end up like some processed food, with all the goodness taken out. The gospel is no longer about a God who rules, and so who heals – if that was what the gospel was about it would not be good news, most of us (except extreme Charismatics ;) would rather visit a Doctor and swallow some pills. The gospel is most certainly not about a God who rules, and so who one day will put powerful oppressors in their place – if that was what the gospel was about it might be bad news for us! No, the gospel is safe and pleasant, good news for the rich, “still more pie in the sky when you die”.

Life is good now, you don’t want it to end, but don’t worry, it need not, you can have another and even better one later, so enjoy this one now, and make a few down-payments to ensure your place in heaven later…

No wonder the Bible read and preached in church is usually carefully censored! Jesus uncomfortable sayings are relegated to special series when the brave pastor explains them away. And anyway most of the really offensive stuff, like “blessed are the poor” and “how terrible for you who are rich now” can be “spiritualised” to hell and gone.

  1. Those of you who know Carey may wonder why the Old Testament specialist is marking Luke, the answer is simple workload equilibrium, few students choose to venture into the Two-Thirds Bible ;) []