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.

One comment on “Jesus and talk of God as father (part one)

  1. Pingback: Jesus and talk of God as father (part two) - Sansblogue