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.



Giving up on church

Image used by Barna to illustrate the article being commented on

The Barna group have a new book reporting a five year project on why the young are leaving church.

The study of young adults focused on those who were regular churchgoers Christian church during their teen years and explored their reasons for disconnection from church life after age 15.

From this study theyextract a brief summary of  Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church. The six reasons they give are:1

  • Churches seem overprotective.
  • Teens’ and twentysomethings’ experience of Christianity is shallow.
  • Churches come across as antagonistic to science.
  • Young Christians’ church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental.
  • They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity.
  • The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.

I’d see a clustering in these reasons, especially in the light of the comments they make in the article below each. Together they describe a mindless defensive faith. Several express a sort of mindless, anti-science, be afraid of Harry Potter because the stories have “magic” in them… Christianity. This tendency almost caused me to “lose my faith” back when I was a teenager. Things have changed but not for the better, “Evangelical” churches today are even less healthy places to be young, intelligent and questionning :( But it’s not just the young who have difficulty with that, it’s anyone with a brain who enjoys using it!

Five answers for church leaderships:

  • Churches seem overprotective.

If Christianity is true, and good, if it helps one to be in communion with the maker of everything then loosen up!

  • Teens’ and twentysomethings’ experience of Christianity is shallow.

OK, it’s true that no one ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of a TV audience. But churches are not (whatever the latest multi-mega-pastor tells us) in the business of bums on seats, or entertaining… If you offer your congregation milk instead of steak and chips with broccoli don’t expect them to find this pablum spiritually nourishing!

  • Churches come across as antagonistic to science.

The world was made in seven days in 4004BC it says so in the Bible, the sun goes round the earth otherwise Joshua could not have stopped the sun… Duh! Scripture is richer, deeper and not at all limited to being a “how things work” manual. Wake up and see the beauty of the poetry, the meaning in the stories, the God behind the marvelous everything we inhabit!

  • Young Christians’ church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental.

Let me get this straight… Divorce is OK, serial polygamy is fine, even the odd case of sexual abuse of children can be quietly hushed up, but if hormone crazy kids do more than kiss the sky falls in? Why can’t we start to be consistent, honest and welcoming of sinners, as well as clear on what is sinful?2

  • They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity.

Frankly I don’t think this one is expressed well. The post says:

Three out of ten young Christians (29%) said “churches are afraid of the beliefs of other faiths” and an identical proportion felt they are “forced to choose between my faith and my friends.” One-fifth of young adults with a Christian background said “church is like a country club, only for insiders” (22%).

This is more of that ghetto mentality, fearful of the big bad world outside the church doors. It is not a confident understanding that Jesus is the answer to the brokenness of the world, that God is the maker of everything and that the Spirit is the Lord the giver of life that the kids dislike, it is seeing their elders hiding together in a cupboard in case the evil monsters get them that turns them off church.

  • The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.

Unfriendly? The defensive ghettoised narrow-minded strand that is so vocal in Evangelical Christianity is not just “unfriendly” to those who doubt, it’s so terrified that it will wage total war, with no holds barred… the only answer is to open up, trust the God who made you, who loved the world so much he became flesh and dwelt among us and even died on a cross, who empowers and inspires all who seek him. If you trust such a God perfect love will cast out your fears.

  1. BTW the study was done entirely with a US “national” sample, but I guess you can quickly get a feel for how/if things are different where you live. My take in for NZ the differences are less marked than one might expect. []
  2. BTW homosexuality is not the one sin against the Holy Spirit that will condemn people, without hope of redemption. If narrowminded, back-biting gossips can be held in God’s love, then people who have sex the wrong way probably can too, at least they don’t hurt others as deeply []



Biblical sense and sensibility

Open Bible has a fascinating on post Applying Sentiment Analysis to the Bible.

Sentiment analysis involves algorithmically determining if a piece of text is positive (“I like cheese”) or negative (“I hate cheese”). Think of it as Kurt Vonnegut’s story shapes backed by quantitative data.

The post started with a plot of the data for the whole Bible, which for anyone interested in the “big picture” of the Bible’s story is fascinating. But the data, calculated using available software on an English translation based on the calculated probability of a verse being positive or negative in sentiment, allows a closer look, and running a five verse running average gives really striking and thought provoking “pictures” of each Bible book.

While Jonah goes from bad to worse ;)

Ruth moves from negative to positive

Which both seem intuitively “right”. However, Esther needs some thought:

Esther: is the beginning really the happiest part?

I’m currently teaching the Song of Songs, and last week was Ecclesiastes, so these are interesting:

They both fit common preconceptions pretty well...

…but is it as simple as that? ;)



Biblical Studies blog and podcasts of September

The biblical studies carnival(s) is(are) up at Scotteriology. Scot provides both smaller and larger versions, illustrating the dearth of nominations, and the work required to produce a good carnival from all the now huge number of blogs and podcasts dealing seriously with the Bible.

Enjoy both the results of nominations: September Biblioblog Carnival: The “Lesser”

And Scotts own selections: September 2011 Biblical Studies Carnival: The “Greater”

Either and both will point you to interesting material you’d have otherwise missed :)



Reading the Bible: seeking teaching on family

Previous posts about biblical teaching on family ( What is a family? and Does the Bible present a preferred pattern of family) led to lively discussion. How do we use the Bible rightly to establish teaching on family? This post addresses two aspects. The Bible uses different sorts of text to teach different ways. We also need to discern the direction or thrust of the Bible as a whole.

How the Bible teaches

The Bible is made up of many different sorts of text, and they do not all “work” the same. We understand a law from Leviticus differently from a Psalm, and both are read according to different rules from a proverb…

Some sorts of biblical passage intend to teach us something. Paul’s letters for example sought first to teach the early churches how to live, and so they also seek to teach us about Christian living.

A narrative does not teach in this direct way. When 2 Samuel 11ff. tells us about David’s adultery with Bathsheba, and subsequent executive murder of her husband Uriah. The purpose is not to teach the moral “adultery is wrong” nor even “murder is wrong”. It does want us to identify with David, and learn about temptation, sin and punishment from his mistakes. So when we read Ps 51 we will learn even more (but about God and ourselves rather than about “morals”).

Epistles and History are told in different ways and teach differently.

Narrative reaches deeper into our being, but we need to be more cautious in identifying its “teaching”. Epistles by contrast teach directly. When reading such direct teaching (and much of Jesus’ speech in the Gospels is like this – direct teaching) we need to be cautious about making the Bible say something different from what it intends. Using Jesus’ teaching about trying to fit a camel through the eye of a needle (Mat 19:24 etc.) to teach about the folly of over loading a beast of burden is simply a way to avoid what Jesus says “wealth is dangerous to our spiritual health”!

Western Christians seek to avoid Jesus’ teaching about divorce and remarriage by turning it into “safe” teaching about families.

I am saying two things here:

1. When reading a Bible passage that “teaches” we should be very cautious of making it teach something more than it sets out to teach – avoid the temptation to make the Bible say more than it does!

2. When drawing teaching from a narrative text we should be careful. Scripture is not seeking to teach ideas to readers of such texts. 2 Sam 11ff. is not merely a warning to murderous adulterers. It is a warning to all of us about following our desires and becoming faithless people.

The thrust of biblical teaching

Granted that much of the Bible (especially most poems and many stories) does not set out directly to teach, we need a way to confirm what we suspect the Bible may be teaching us.

We are so used to hearing people quote Bible verses (and seeing this – as I did above!) that we forget that we need to look at the whole sweep of biblical teaching. I’ll use quotes from the comments to the previous article to try to explain what I mean. (The quotes are in italics.)

Matthew interprets Hosea 11:1 in “messianic” fashion in Matthew 2:15 and gives a meaning to the text that is not evident in its original context.

This use by Matthew of Hos 11:1 is a really good textbook example of some of the issues involved in Christian reading of the Old Testament. At first glance it seems as if Matthew has “played fast and loose” with the biblical text. “Out of Egypt I called my son.” In Hosea the son is Israel, who as the following verses show was less than faithful to God. Matthew says that Jesus “fulfills” this. What does he mean? He uses the verb “fill, make full”(as do other New Testament writers) to point to a relationship between Jesus and Scripture. What the NT means by fulfil is something like: What Israel was intended to be, Jesus is fully. So Jesus was intended to be God’s son, called from Egypt to reveal God. Israel failed at this task, but Jesus (as the rest of the Gospel will show) fills the calling fully. In other words Matthew is not making Scripture say something it did not intend, rather he points to a consequence or conclusion drawn from comparing this text with the experience he has of Jesus.

Similarly: “In 1 Corinthians 9:8-9 Paul quotes from Deuteronomy 25:4 and gives it a meaning that was clearly not intended in its First Testament context.” Paul is also drawing a principle out of Scripture, that even an animal that works deserves to benefit from their labour – and as Paul says how much more a human!

In Matthew 22:32 Jesus quotes Exodus 3:6 as proof to the Pharisees that there is a resurrection. The text he quotes in its original context has nothing to do with resurrection.

It is true that the Scripture Jesus quotes is not about resurrection. Though it is about the nature of God, and God does claim to be the God of Abraham, not to “have been” his God. He refers to a present reality. Here Jesus points to a hint that is already present in Scripture. A hint that the NT again fills out, fulfills for us. God’s self-revelation in the Bible is not static and timeless, but incarnate first in the story of Israel, and then fully in Christ and in the NT witness to what his coming means.

As you point out I did the same thing! Taking what was merely a hint in the Old Testament and recognising its fullness in the revelation of God in Christ, and even in the later doctrines that the Church developed to understand him!

In your first article Tim you say “Already the “preface to the Bible” expresses the equality, and complementarity, of men and women. Through the parallelism of Hebrew poetry we see that together they are “in the image of God”. Through this union of difference, human marriages picture the union of difference that Christian theology calls Trinity”. You of course are reading a ‘trinitarian’ meaning back into the Genesis text that can hardly be said to be intended in the original context. I’m quite comfortable with your approach however because it is consistent with broader themes within the unified canon of scripture.

So, at times the New Testament goes beyond (but builds on) the Old. Because God’s self-revelation in the Bible was “incarnate” like a human being it grows and develops. But the new builds on, and fills out, the old. So that there is a direction or trajectory of Scriptural teaching.

I do not see this happening with the topic of family. This is a surprise to me, I would have expected clear teaching on such an important topic. When Scripture is silent then I am cautious of claiming more than I read… What I think is going on (and here I am merely expressing a feeling, not claiming to teach with authority ;-) is that on this topic God recognised that human cultures are different. Different cultures would have different family and child rearing patterns. So the Bible does not impose one pattern (e.g. the Mediterranean “household”). Rather it shows and teaches us the virtues that we need to strengthen our families.

This piece, like: What is a family? and Does the Bible present a preferred pattern of family was first published on the Vision network site, but changes of URL have lost it there, so I am reposting it here.



West and Southern Baptists

Dr Southern Baptist Convention the famous blogger, biblical minimalist, pastor and insomniac

The Southern Baptist Convention is apparently considering a name change. Jim West is upset (about this, as he is about so many other things). He’s thinking himself  that he’d “like to follow suit and consider a name-change for myself “.

I have a great suggestion:

How about changing your name to “Southern Baptist Convention” the first name echoes your existing surname, the second reflects your adherence, and Convention reminds us that names are merely convenient conventions :)

And besides, that way we’ll still have a Southern Baptist Convention to moan about even after the existing one is gone West ;)



SBL and the digital communications revolution

There is an interesting confluence in aspects of two significant documents that John Kutsko (SBL) pointed me towards. Today was a news item in Inside Higher Ed, it’s titled The Promise of Digital Humanities and reports on a meeting celebrating (US) NEH grants to digital humanities projects. Among the items that caught my eye was a section stressing the importance of open publication to the future of the humanities, in an era of shrinking funding when even prestigious departments are threatened with closure (like a year or two back the University of Sheffield’s renowned Biblical Studies department).

The section I’m quoting itself quotes the NEH’s Brett Bobley:

A lot of scholarly data over the last hundred years or so is locked up in expensive journals that the public could never afford to subscribe to.

“We’re quite happy about how the digital humanities is, in some sense, opening up the scholarly world to a wider audience,” he said.

That could be the key to winning back support for the humanities, suggested Doug Reside, digital curator of the performing arts at the New York Public Library.

Basically the argument goes that open publication could, by raising the public profile, also reduce the danger of the humanities being seen as irrelevant and so not worth funding.

My mind flipped back to the other document Kutsko had pointed to a week or so back. This one was a report, New-Model Scholarly Communication: Road Map for Change from the Scholarly Communication Institute. It is a careful, yet visionary, document which is full of interesting and exciting ideas.1 They talk near the start about how:

Advancing the humanities in and for the digital age demands the active engagement of many sectors of the scholarly community working towards a shared vision. The key actors in the successful transition of humanities to a digital environment are:
• Peer communities of scholars able to assess and validate new forms of  scholarship, including genres that cross disciplinary boundaries,  reach new audiences, and use technology in innovative ways
• Publishers able to support new communities of discourse producing scholarship in multiple media and genres, and engaging the attention of diverse audiences

They also spoke of libraries, administrators and funders, but I suspect these recommendations follow from the first two and that there are few of my readers who are administrators or funders! They then provide a series of “actionable ideas”. Which offer an exciting view of humanities scholarship finally adapting to the digital communications environment. Here I’ll draw attention to one:

Reengineer the system of credit. Explore and articulate criteria for assessing scholarly merit in the online environment; experiment with venues for peer review to increase transparency, reliability, and participation; devise methods to sift through the surfeit of available information and direct scholarly attention to meritorious work; and realign reward and recognition systems to apportion credit where credit is due

The peer-review system has served us well, despite its failings2 for it has promised, and on the whole provided, a more level playing field and access to all, along with a filter to remove the trash and select the good.

But it is not adapted to assessing the worth of digital communications, nor at all “transparent”,3 nor does it begin to filter the huge and exponentially growing pile of trash (with the occasional nugget of gold) that Google presents to our students and the general public – though this steaming pile is all that the underprivileged (those without access to the fine academic libraries) can use as their starting point. And finally as they say current systems of reward and punishment calculated on “peer review” and “established esteemed journals or publishers” do not encourage – in fact actively discourage – experimental discourse in favour of more of the same old same old. Yet the humanities are about discourse and scholarship is about the new and innovative.

Later in the report they speak of the sweeping changes we are experiencing as an environment for scholarship. They highlight four

• changes in the nature and constitution of the audience (for humanities and all online information): readers now expect to be active users and producers of content, not passive receivers of information; the time span between creating and posting content is short, and reception and reaction equally short

Here there are two challenges, assuring quality within a quick turn around environment (for this modified forms of peer review would be helpful)4 and even more radical an environment where “readers now expect to be active users and producers of content, not passive receivers of information”5 this change, from a sequence (with considerable delays) of one way communications to a genuinely dialogical engagement, will require new forms of communication more like blogging than print journals.6

SBL as the largest and most active global association of biblical scholars has a huge potential to promote and develop such a shift in scholarly communications. Alongside (what I can’t resist calling) legacy journals like JBL the society should set up and sponsor alternative communications media that are more open and responsive, more dialogical and yet with robust processes of quality assurance. Such a move on it’s own would have a refreshing and renewing impact on the discipline, opening real scholarship both to producers on the fringe (the various sorts of “independent scholar” who are increasingly around but still have poor access to both resources and publication outlets) and to a new and broader body of consumers (who currently get their biblical studies from Wikipedia and any  blog Google happens to anoint today).

• rise of informal peer-to-peer networks of knowledge: the blurring of distinctions between expert and lay, academic and public scholars, and scholars and the public is potentially a sanguine development in a democracy that assumes a well-informed citizenry; but it poses challenges to professionals and the processes of professionalization

SBL is one of the prime sets of scholarly networks, with it’s massive “meetings” and the less formal networks that gather round (some of) the program units. Again technology exists (not least email, but with newer more social media offering richer affordances) and is being developed to allow far more contact and discussion to continue outside the framework of “meetings”. This would open the society further to scholars who are not Western or not employed in established educational institutions  (and who probably lack the means to spend a few days in a horrendously expensive hotel far from home as often as they would like). We could over the next ten years see SBL become a genuinely global “meeting place” for biblical scholarship.7


  1. I hope to post about others in the coming weeks. []
  2. E.g. “peers” who are sometimes not peers but either old fuddy duddies, not specialists in the precise area of the study, or professional rivals; a review process that is not always as “blind” as it claims or where editors make the real decisions… []
  3. In fact it reeks of 19th century prejudice and pride meeting in smokey rooms in a “gentlemen’s club” ;) []
  4.  Paul Nikkel was already suggesting forms of review appropriate to the digital age in his paper “Through an Open Window: Exploring Openness in Biblical Scholarship” from the 2004 AIBI session I arranged. []
  5. My bold – to match the bold above. []
  6. The technologies for such media already exist, there are even (when one reads further into the report, and you should because it is fine stuff :) some environments designed for scholarly communications currently in development. []
  7. Initiatives like the International Meeting, the International Cooperation Initiative, and awards to enable non-Western scholars to attend meetings have already made fine steps in this direction, but digital communications could swiftly outstrip their combined effect in achieving this goal. []



Does the Bible present a preferred pattern of family?

This is a follow-up to the article “What is a Family?” This follow-up asks whether the Bible presents a preferred pattern of family. Discussing Mat 19:3ff; Mk 10:2ff; Gen 1:27,28; 2:18-24; Colossians 3:18-21; Ephesians 5:21-6:4 and 1 Timothy 3:1-4 (cf Titus 1:6) as possible biblical bases for a model of “family”.

Part of the discussion between Sean and me (BTW Sean thanks for a stimulating and useful set of responses!) after my article “What is a Family ?” related to the question of whether the Bible presents a preferred pattern of family. I had used a number of examples to argue that the Bible takes families as they are and presents a set of values or virtues that go with “family”.

Sean however lists:

A number of passages however suggest that at the core of a preferred or normative family form/life are a husband and wife who are mother and father and are committed to the hesed that brings wellbeing of their children (This is not to say that in a broken world the God of grace does not accept and bless other family forms ).

Let’s look at these passages in turn (the introductory italicised material quotes from Sean’s comment):

Mtt 19:3ff; Mk 10:2ff Jesus affirmation of marriage between one man and one women can also be said to be an affirmation of the preferred context in which children are to be nurtured. By prescribing the form of the institution of marriage one would think he is also prescribing the core preferred form of family life.

Gen 1:27,28 Affirms not only the nature of the marriage relationship but the nature of the context in which children are to be raised ie “Be fruitful and increase in number”. It is the man and the woman, the husband and wife who are given the responsibility to nurture the fruit of their union.

We need to look at what is going on here and what Jesus is discussing. Because when interpreting the Bible it is vital that we identify the topic and do not use scriptures to teach about things that they are not “about”.

The topic is set by the Pharisees, “divorce” (Mat 19:3, Mark 10:2),  and Jesus addresses this topic, teaching from Genesis 1 and 2 that marriage is intended to be a lifelong commitment of a man and woman to each other and that therefore divorce spoils God’s intention in creating humans (Mat 19:4-6, Mark 10:6-9). This is teaching about divorce, not about family or childrearing. Marriage and children are evidently closely related, but as the example of African matrilineal societies shows not necessarily related in the way we modern Westerners assume.

Gen 1:27f. And Gen 2 are similar, they address the relationships between men and women, and they address marriage, but they do NOT set a pattern for family.

Colossians 3:18-21; Ephesians 5:21-6:4 Affirm the core relationships at the centre of family as husband, wife and their children.

These passages, by contrast, are about family, they tell of virtues we should show in our family relationships: love, faithfulness, submission, obedience… However, notice that in both cases the “family” is not a contemporary nuclear family, in each case it is assumed to include “slaves” too (Col 3:22ff.; Eph 6:5ff.). We can debate whether these “servants/slaves” (the Greek is doulos) were usually slaves or whether they were often junior members of the wider biological wh?nau. Whichever or both, they are members of the “family” being discussed, so we should not argue for our pattern of family as being “the” biblical pattern from these passages!

1 Timothy 3:1-4 Highlights key family relationships of the church leader and explictly mentions husbands, wives, fathers and children (cf Titus 1:6)

These passages discuss the qualities needed to be a leader in the community, and they focus on family values (as I have discussed them). Leaders should be monogamous (and – I’d assume but will not argue here – faithful) and bring up “their children” well, but these qualities are part of a much wider list: “Now a bishop must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money.” (1 Tim 3:2-3) Here too we are given a glimpse of the sort of people God wants us to be, including how we should behave in marriage and towards “our children”. But we are not presented a model family to which we should seek to conform – it seems God is happy to work with and in families as they are rather than propose one shape to fit everyone!

<Related digression>
I think one of the reasons this recognition comes hard for us is that over the centuries we have come to accept the idea that the Bible is a law book, or a “maker’s manual”, when really it is more like a series of sermons. The Bible much more often exhorts us to live better and more Godly lives, it seldom lays down rules. Just think what Paul had to say about “the Law”.
<End digression>

This piece was first published on the Vision network site, but changes of URL have lost it there, so I am reposting it here.



What is a family?

Family in the Bible

Social change (high rates of separation and divorce, legislation like the Civil Unions Act last year, some impacts of the much older Privacy Act…) together with the strong Christian tradition of “defending family values” combine to make it really important that as Christians we think through what we mean by “family”.

The primary paradigm (or ideal picture) of “family” in the Western world is a mum, a dad and an ever decreasing number of children. However, among Māori and Pacific cultures the paradigm begins with whānau – a much wider concept.

Before Christians can discuss family or family values we need to look closely at the Bible and hear what God has to teach us. In this short article I will try to suggest some starting points for developing a biblical view of family.

Words translated “family”

In the NT (although a large number of words express various sorts of kinship relationship: e.g. daughter-in-law, tribe…) most places where English translations use “family” a Greek word related to “oikos” (household) is used. In the other cases “family” means something more like tribe, since all are descendants of one often distant ancestor, e.g. “the Christ will come from David’s family” (John 7:42).

OT usage is similar, but with a stronger focus on the larger units. Mishpach (clan) is the commonest term, though beth ‘ab (father’s house) is also used. The beth ‘ab was not at all a “nuclear family”. It included slaves and servants, as well as married children and their children, and possibly a widowed aunt as well. A mishpach was made up of a number of households and could be as small as a village or as large as a tribe. Hapu or perhaps whanau seem the nearest equivalents in contemporary NZ to a biblical “family”.

A model family?

The Bible nowhere presents an “ideal family” that we can use as a model for a biblical view of “family”. Firstly no family is presented as a model, and secondly few were even close to ideal. Think of the families the Bible does present. Here is a sample with some comments:

  • Adam/Eve – a two parent nuclear family par excellence which produced the first murderer.
  • Abraham/Sarah (and Hagar) – a ménage à trois with dysfunctional power relationships.
  • Jacob/Leah and Rachel – polygamy producing a dysfunctional family.
  • David and his women – this time polygamy combines with executive murder and adultery…
  • Esther/Ahasuerus – Esther is selected in a beauty contest to replace the disobedient queen Vashti.
  • Timothy who has a mother and grandmother who were believers, but his father was a pagan (he is called a Hellenos, a Pagan Greek, not an Hellenistes, a Greek-speaking believer).

Even Jesus’ family – whom Christians sometimes call “the Holy Family” – left Joseph as step-father. However good a father he may have been (and we simply do not know since the gospels tell us almost nothing about Jesus’ relationship with his parents or brothers) few people argue that step-parenting is God’s ideal!

This surprising apparent lack of biblical teaching on the basic unit of society even allows the growth in the USA today of groups like an “organization for Christian polygamy”.

Biblical Family Values

If the Bible has no model family structure to propose, it does identify and promote a clear set of virtues associated with families and living in family. These virtues are vital in constructing a Christian understanding of family today.

Typical or normative?

However, we need to be careful here. Some Bible passages describe how ancient Israel, or Christians of the first century, lived. Others prescribe how God wants us to behave. On some issues of social structure and organization Christians are clear that biblical patterns are descriptive not prescriptive. So Christians today no longer defend slavery as “biblical” (despite considerable potential textual support for the kindly keeping of slaves!), few either demand that biblical economic prescriptions be applied (returning land within a generation of purchase and interest-free loans are only the start)!

Even prescriptive texts (e.g. Proverbs) come to us carrying the baggage of the social organisation of Ancient Israel or of the Roman Empire. Most Christians accept that the spirit or principles of these prescriptions still apply, but few seek to follow their letter. The same may be true of families and family values! So Proverbs 13:24 may not so much be counselling us to beat our children as to discipline them (while heavy beating was a common form of discipline in the ancient world – see Ex 21:20 – it is no longer acceptable). Paul’s injunctions (e.g. Col 3:21; Eph 6:4) may be felt to better express the normative biblical view of discipline.

So, what does the Bible as a whole present as normative for our understanding of family? Here is one (certainly incomplete) list:

Family images God

Biblical pictures of what God is like, and of humanity’s relationship with God, are mainly drawn from either royalty or family life. (These were the two predominant institutions in the ancient world).

God is (to give just a partial list):

  • father – e.g. Dt 32:6; Ps 2:7; Mat 6:6
  • mother – e.g. Dt 32:18; Is 49:15; Mat 23:37
  • redeemer – e.g. Ex 15:13; Ps 73:2; 77:15 (this is very much a “family” word as a look at the examples of human “redeemers” shows, interestingly though the verb is used the noun is absent from the NT)
  • husband – e.g. Jer 2:2; Hos 2; Rev 21:2

The chosen people are:

  • son or daughter – e.g. Gen 42:5; Ex 1:1; Is 22:4; Heb 12:7
  • household – e.g. Ex 16:31; Num 20:29; Hos 1:4; Eph 2:19
  • wife – e.g. Ez 16; 23; Rev 19:7
  • adopted stray – e.g. Ez 16 cf. Ps 2:7 & Eph 1:5
  • slave – e.g. Dt 5:15; Josh 24:17; Micah 6:4; James 1:1

If families help us understand what God is like, then God shows us what families should be like!

Marriage is a one-to-one partnership

From the Genesis account of the creation of humans, to Jesus’ own teaching and its NT outworking, a biblical understanding of marriage is centred on the claim that God made women and men as different-but-equal partners, who need each other, not only for procreation but also by their very natures. When a woman and a man marry they become “one flesh”. Because of this, marriage is the lifelong partnership of one man and one woman. This partnership is total, including the spiritual, mental, physical, and even the economic. It is expected to produce children (when, in the Bible, this is not the outcome of marriage it is a special tragedy, from which many biblical characters prayed to be delivered).

Gen 1:27:

So God created humankind in his image,

in the image of God he created them;

male and female he created them.

Already the “preface to the Bible” expresses the equality, and complementarity, of men and women. Through the parallelism of Hebrew poetry we see that together they are “in the image of God”. Through this union of difference, human marriages picture the union of difference that Christian theology calls Trinity.

In Gen 2:18:

The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”

God expresses humanity’s need to be completed by a complementary partner. The word for “helper” (‘ezer) is most often used to describe God as humanity’s helper(Gen 49:25; Dt 33:26 etc.)! A few verses later the man concurs with his creator’s opinion of this complementary equality saying (2:23):

This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman’, for she was taken out of man.

That this partnership of equals is the point of the story – and that it speaks of marriage – is confirmed when this episode ends with the words:

For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. (2:24)

It is this teaching that Jesus confirms when asked his views about divorce (Mat 19:3ff.; Mark 10:2ff.) “what God has joined together, let man not separate.” His teaching goes on to assert that human law (Moses) allows divorce – in case of adultery – on account of human sinfulness.

The epistle to the Ephesians takes the same OT text to teach on the “profound mystery” of Christ and the church, and of how we are the “body of Christ”.

Loving-kindness (hesed): a family word for God’s love and care

God’s faithful and dependable loving care for us is often described using a Hebrew word that is difficult to render in English. “His hesed endures forever!” is a refrain in Psalms 118 and 136 and the word is used in many places to describe God, but does it mean love, mercy, faithfulness…?

This Hebrew word hesed describes the virtue expected in relationships (like family and covenant). It is a dynamic virtue that we see exemplified in God’s loving and enduring relationship to Israel. It is often associated with words that express grace and love as well as fidelity. It implies the mutual support and protection that family members are expected to offer one another. It may well be the Hebrew thought behind John’s affirmation that “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16).

Since hesed is used to describe actions like paying off a cousin’s or a nephew’s debt it clearly suggests that in the Bible family is not based on “love” (particularly not erotic love as the Western world defines family) but on reliability and dependability. When one party is stronger or more capable hesed involves protection and support. Yet it is mutual and not one-sided.

Families: a God’s eye view?

In the Western world today family is all about marriage and children. Marriage is all about love (understood as socially acceptable lust). Both family and marriage are discussed in terms of “rights”. Increasingly, even parenting is seen as a “right”.

The biblical view is different at every point. Family is much wider than a marriage and the children it produces. Family is about faithfulness and solidarity; about obligation, protection and trust; not about rights. Marriage does not make a family, but marriage widens the circle of existing families. While love is important, it is not the making of a marriage, loyalty is. Parenting is a gift and a blessing, not a right.

Our world likes models to which people can conform. The Bible takes families as they are, and proposes appropriate virtues: trust, loyalty, mutual dependence, faithfulness. Families that manage to show these virtues are indeed the backbone of society, and an echo of how God relates to us (children adopted into the divine family).