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).

Think Rightly About Yourselves

[This is a repost from 2013 with an additional translation added to the list below]

Text

Λέγω γὰρ διὰ τῆς χάριτος τῆς δοθείσης μοι παντὶ τῷ ὄντι ἐν ὑμῖν μὴ ὑπερφρονεῖν παρ᾽ ὃ δεῖ φρονεῖν ἀλλὰ φρονεῖν εἰς τὸ σωφρονεῖν, ἑκάστῳ ὡς ὁ θεὸς ἐμέρισεν μέτρον πίστεως. (Rom 12:3 BGT)

Translation

Upon first glance the obvious translation/meaning is, “For, I say to all of you through the grace which was given to me, do not think about yourselves more highly than it is necessary to think, but rather think [w/respect to yourselves] in a manner that leads to temperance; each one as God has given a measure of faith. (Romans 12:3)

Other Common Translations:

For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith. (Rom 12:3 KJV)

 

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.  (Rom 12:3 ESV)

 

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone who is among you not to think more highly of yourself than what one ought to think, but to think [sensibly], as God has apportioned a measure of faith to each one. (Rom 12:3 Lexham English Bible)

 

For by the grace given to me I ask every one of you not to think of yourself more highly than you should think, rather to think of yourself with sober judgment on the measure of faith that God has assigned each of you. (Rom 12:3 International Standard Version) [Here, they catch that ‘thinking of yourself’ is implied due to the nature of the contrasted modes of thought.]

 

For by the grace given to me I say to every one of you not to think more highly of yourself than you ought to think, but to think with sober discernment, as God has distributed to each of you a measure of faith.
(Rom 12:3 NET)

Syntactical Comment

Every translation takes the Greek preposition εις to mean “with” and they translate the stative verb (verb about a state of being) adverbially. I’m going against a trend in translations here, but εις rarely means ‘with’ and not ever, that I can think of, with an infinitive. But εις το + [infinitive] often (always?) connotes purpose.  

Paul is contrasting to ways of thinking about yourself. One is haughty, the other is a form of self-reflection that leads to sober-mindedness or temperance. 

Reflections

Paul wants Christians to think about themselves so that they can judge their own capacities soundly. But it’s not just that he wants them to think soundly. It’s that he wants them to think about themselves in a way that leads to sound judgment in interpersonal matters. What this means, if you go on to read the rest of Romans 12, is that we consider just what our gifts are and we use them in a way that is in line with unhypocritical love (Romans 12:9).

This is an interesting way of looking at things. Be utterly realistic about how wretched, weak, and malicious you are (Romans 1-3). Also, be utterly realistic about what God’s grace has done in you (Romans 7-8). Realize that God has a plan that uses even the most dire of circumstances to bring his will to pass (Romans 9-11). Now, use your gifts with circumspection and confidence. That’s what he’s saying, or something like that.

A Recent Translation That Got Things Right

David Bentley Hart Translates the verse:

“For, by the grace given to me, I say to everyone among you not to be more haughtily minded than your thinking ought to be, but rather to let you thinking conduce to sober-mindedness, as God has apportioned a measure of faithfulness to each. (Romans 12:3 DBH NTT)

Jordan Peterson and the Psychology of Redemption

Psychology of God Belief

In his excellent talk on the psychology of redemption in Christianity, Dr. Jordan Peterson explains how the Christian vision of God creates balance in the people’s minds. It does do by allowing for them to pursue an ideal without treating their own personal interpretations or reductions of that ideal as absolute in themselves. How? Because God is beyond our understanding, except as the highest possible good.

A New Testament Theological Take

What Peterson’s take might mean for the Christian is that our vision of God provides an ideal to pursue. But what idea? Primarily, it is that of the virtue revealed in Jesus and his teachings. Secondly, it is the Old Testament, interpreted through Christ. Finally, the virtue evident through the study of nature. But, since God and even the highest human character possible are ultimately incomprehensible, conversations with truth-telling as the goal must occur so that we can make the course corrections necessary to attain to the ideal. This is why Paul can say that he presses onward toward the goal, but also that he does not think he has attained to the goal of perfect participation in God or in the character of Jesus Christ.

The Jordan Peterson Video:

Here’s my own take on that concept:

Here are some of the relevant passages of Scripture:

Matthew 6:25-34 ESV “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? (26) Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? (27) And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? (28) And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, (29) yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. (30) But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? (31) Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ (32) For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. (33) But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (34) “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

 

1 Corinthians 13:1-13 ESV If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. (2) And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. (3) If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (4) Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant (5) or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; (6) it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. (7) Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (8) Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. (9) For we know in part and we prophesy in part, (10) but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. (11) When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. (12) For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. (13) So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

 

Hebrews 1:1-4 ESV Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, (2) but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. (3) He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, (4) having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

 

Philippians 3:12-14 ESV Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. (13) Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, (14) I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Jesus the Good Shepherd

Mark’s Jesus

A common claim in New Testament studies is that Mark’s gospel must be first because it apparently contains the least developed understanding of Jesus, but John’s gospel was last because it clearly refers to Jesus’ divinity.

The problem with this is that Mark’s gospel alludes to and presupposes Jesus’ divinity by what it makes plain throughout its pages. The problem is that these assumptions only surface by means of certain allusions. In other words, Mark believes in Jesus’ divinity, but he only expresses this by “telling it slant.”[1]

Mark 6 and Psalm 23

In Mark 6, the story of the feeding of the five thousand has some wonderful allusions to the twenty-third Psalm. I recommend that you read the Psalm and the section of Mark in the ESV below:

Psalms 23:1-6 ESV A Psalm of David. The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. (2)   He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. (3) He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.   (4) Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.   (5) You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. (6) Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mark 6:34-52 ESV When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things. (35) And when it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late. (36) Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” (37)   But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” And they said to him, “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?”   (38) And he said to them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” And when they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” (39)   Then he commanded them all to sit down in groups on the green grass. (40) So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties. (41) And taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people. And he divided the two fish among them all. (42) And they all ate and were satisfied. (43)   And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. (44) And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men. (45) Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. (46) And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray.   (47) And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. (48)   And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them. And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them,   (49) but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, (50)   for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” (51) And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, (52) for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.

If you compared the above texts you may have noted that Jesus:

  1. Has compassion for people who were as a sheep without a shepherd
  2. That he teaches them (presumably about repentance/righteousness and God’s kingdom as in the rest of Mark)
  3. Has people sit in green grass beside the water
  4. Feeds them
  5. Calms (stills) the waters of the sea
  6. Tells them not to fear sinking (the sea symbolizes chaos and death, see Jonah)

Mark adds the “green grass” bit where it is missing in the other gospels. Also, his is the only gospel that connects the description of the people as sheep without a shepherd to the story of feeding of the five thousand. This is significant for two reasons:

  1. It shows us Mark’s rhetorical point: Jesus is a shepherd like the Lord.
  2. It shows us that, despite claims to the contrary, the gospel writers were not literarily unsophisticated.

The point I wish to focus on is the first. Mark’s gospel, in my estimation, is an expanded statement of the Christian gospel and a manual for repentance (Mark 1:1 and Mark 1:14-17).

In Mark 6, Jesus is presented as having characteristics that make him utterly trustworthy. He is portrayed as utterly competent to guide humanity into life in the house of God. Therefore, part of the Christian gospel is the competence of Jesus. Jesus, according to Mark, is at minimally a human being who is supremely capable of being a broker bringing humanity to God. Maximally, Jesus is presented as the divine Shepherd incarnate.

Concluding Devotional Postscript

For the Christian who accepts the truth of the gospel, this section in Mark is especially valuable. For one, Mark 6 depicts Jesus beyond just a man to know about. He is presented as the most trustworthy figure on the scene of human history. This means that all of his teachings can be relied upon as a foundation for a life of eternal safety.

Second, Mark 6 helps us look back to Psalm 23 as a wonderful summary of the type of life Jesus offers to those who place their confidence in him and faithfully base their lives upon his teachings (see Matthew 7:24-27 and John 8:31-32).

While Psalm 23 not thematically central to the New Testament, over time it has emerged as one of the most significant portions of the Old Testament for Christian living. Learning to read it as a picture of our life with Christ can be a powerful motivating myth for our daily lives. A challenging spiritual exercise might be spending a week looking for ways that God provides each element of the Psalm for you as you attempt to follow Christ.

Footnotes

[1] This is a reference to a poem by Emily Dickinson:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind —

 

 

A thought from a recent friend.

I recently made friends with a man who has a philosophy degree and was taking engineering classes to go to graduate school for computer programming. He became very interested in New Testament studies and his philosophical and logical training from his two fields of expertise led him to make this remark:

I was shocked at the leaps in logic and the variety of strange assumptions about dates and authorship that do not have any basis in actual evidence.

When one is an insider in a field, outsider remarks can often stink of terrible dilettantism. But I think that occasionally outsiders from sister subjects (philosophy is remarkably similar to the practice of history when it comes to carefully reviewing the foundations of knowledge) can notice important gaps of knowledge when a field becomes insular.

Leonard Euler once made a similar remark concerning apparent contradiction in mathematics that are reconcilable to how the Freethinkers treat the New Testament and any difficulty therein as instantaneously culpable or demonstrative or absolutely contradictory.

Mathematics is regarded as a science in which nothing is assumed that cannot be derived in the most distinct way from the primary principles of our knowledge. Nevertheless, there have been people far above average who have believed to have found great problems in mathematics, whose solutions are impossible; by this they imagined themselves to have deprived this science of all its certainty. Indeed, this reasoning that they propose is so deceptively attractive that much effort and insight is required to refute them precisely. However, mathematics is not lessened in the eyes of sensible people, even when it does not clear up these problems entirely. So then what right do freethinkers unwaveringly think they have to reject the Holy Scripture because of a few nuisances which mostly are not nearly as considerable as the ones in mathematics?

My point isn’t that the Bible has no contradictions, but only that within the field of New Testament studies the data set is not taken merely as a given. It is often taken as a hopelessly flawed given that can only yield true data if the content of the text is, not so much doubted (that would be a useful exercise), but assumed to be disingenuous or inferred to be disingenuous because it contains certain difficulties.