Letty Russell and Joachim Jeremias on God as Father

[Original post from 2013 when I was a research assistant and read as much of the academic feminist literature as was possible]

“The title Father for God is placed in the mouth of Jesus in three other passages of Mark (8:38; 11:25; 13:32) and in six passages from Q, including the model *prayer known as the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9 // Luke 11:2). It is much more frequent in the letters and in Matthew, John, and Luke. It also occurs in rabbinic literature and the Jewish *liturgy. Jesus and/or his companions may have used the title Father for God in some form, but it cannot be shown with certainty that they did so. If they did, it was because the title resonated deeply with their Jewish hearers, perhaps to express resistance to the imperial title pater patriae: “God’s reign (not the emperor’s) is near”; “God (not the emperor) is our father.”- Letty Russel, Dictionary of Feminist Theologies (Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 1.

In the early parts of the entry she deals with the view commonly ascribed to Joachim Jeremias’, that αββα (Father) was a term of childlike intimacy. She notes:,

“This idea is based primarily on analyses of *gospel materials by Joachim Jeremias (1967, 11–65). It has been used to privilege Father as a divine title and to reject feminist critiques of exclusively masculine language and imagery for God and of the problematic character of parental language for God. Jeremias’s case, which has been modified very little by his followers, relies on a series of interrelated claims: (1) that the word abba represents a special use by Jesus that was central to his teaching; (2) that for Jesus it expressed a special kind of intimacy and tenderness, deriving from its supposed origin in baby talk; (3) that Jesus’ practice was distinct from the practices of both the early church and Judaism. These claims were formulated under the influence of the patently anti-Jewish article in the TDNT by the Nazi scholar Gerhard Kittel.”

I will say this: Jesus definitely used Father language to address God.

It’s also funny to see a feminist scholar using the genetic fallacy with the ‘Nazi accusations will work’ fallacy. Those antics have been used, it seems, from the beginning. 

Father language most likely had very little to do with emotional intimacy but rather with patriarchal reverence which indicated that Jesus saw himself as the go-between for God and his people (Matthew 11:28-30). Jesus is the broker between the ultimate Patron and his loyal clients. Calling God, “Father” or “Abba” was Jesus’ way of saying that God is supreme to other patrons and apparently Jesus’ way of showing that this apparently distant figure was accessible to Jesus’ followers. (see William Herzog, Prophet and Teacher: An Introduction to the Historical Jesus (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2005), 12, 22-24.

To address her three points:

  1. “Father” does represent a special intimacy, but the intimacy of patron-client relationships. (See Jerome H. Neyrey,“God, Benefactor and Patron: The Major Cultural Model for Interpreting the Deity in Greco-Roman Antiquity” S.J. University of Notre Dame) This is the representation in the gospels themselves, “Nobody knows the Father, except the Son…”
  2. The use of Father was not a context independent term of intimacy and tenderness. Jeremias did not stick to his claims about the intimacy of the word nor make them central to his arguments. He changed his mind by the time he published his New Testament Theology, (see page 62-67). He noted that “It is necessary to issue a warning…the fact that abba was initially a child’s exclamatory word has led to the mistaken assumption that Jesus adopted the language of a tiny child when he addressed God as ‘Father’; even I myself believed this earlier (pp 67).” Everybody thinks this is the case these days. Sentimentality is a powerful argument. 
  3. Jesus’ practice was distinct from early Judaism, he simply called God, “Father” more often and claimed the right to bestow that option upon others. Incidentally, Jesus’ practice was not distinct from early Christianity, the early Christians say themselves imitating Jesus when they did it (see Romans 8:14-17).

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