Category Archives: Bible Thoughts

A Great, and Complicated, Narrative

Every now and then we circle back around to whether it’s all that helpful to think about the Bible in terms of “narrative” when so much of what we read there does not fit into the narrative genre.

I, of course, say yes. The Lord of the Rings is no less a story because Tom Bombadil sings his random song.

In his Theology of the Old Testament Walter Brueggemann hits just the right note:

…it is clear that story in the Old Testament has some special privilege as a governing genre. To be sure, much of the Old Testament is not in narrative form. But in other genres such as commandment, song, and oracle, I suggest that the same claims of narrative reality are operative, albeit one step removed from narrative rendering. Thus the great hymns of Israel (Exodus 15; Judges 5; Deuteronomy 33) operate with a narrative framework. The commandments are regularly embedded in the stories of Exodus and sojourn. Prophetic oracles characteristically tell what Yahweh has done and will do. (p. 66)

There is a narrative reality to the life of Israel. Its story of God provides shape to the entirety of its religious life, even those parts that are not story telling per se.

Another question about narrative arrives from a different quarter. It is sometimes asserted that the level of discontinuity from one scene to the next, particularly with the advent of Christ, undermines the “story” idea altogether.

I’m not buying that one.

Even when a character arrives on the scene in a way that the focused story does not give rise to on its own, even when the hero is imported from CTU or the CIA or Heaven, the disruption the character makes into the otherwise smooth-flowing story line does not undermine the story’s narratival character.

Here’s what Brueggemann has to say about the diversity of expression in the biblical story (in particular the OT, in this case):

The Bible insists upon a common narrative, but one which includes a diversity of voices; many stories comprise the story. God’s story is both single and several. It also insists upon upon a narrative which at times is most disjointed and the connectedness of which is perceived only by way of struggle. (p. 89)

Of course, any statement that begins, “The Bible insists” is already a faith statement: the idea that there is “a” Bible, equivalent to certain canonical texts and not others, is a claim of people of faith.

And, willingness to see a unity in that book is, itself, an act of faith, one that many critical scholars have spurned. Though one that people who have little or not faith can accept in order to see the world created by our sacred text.

But once we have done so, once we have said, “This Bible,” then the draw of the story, in all its complexity, is the route ahead for reading the book as a unified whole.

Reading as a story is the means by which we have our imaginations infused with the new world of glorious possibility that God is bringing to bear in the midst of the old.

Creating Space

Blosphere confessional: I rant here sometimes. More than that, some might say that I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about a couple issues that come around regularly.

To the point: I can be downright confrontational about the fact that the Bible is not inerrant or that the world as we know it is the result of an evolutionary process.

Why poke the hornet’s nest? (And, it is a hornet’s nest!)

Here’s the reason: one of the most important messages we communicate when we talk about our faith is what the borders are, outside of which one cannot be part of “us.” The ways people speak about inerrancy and creationism in some quarters communicates this: that if there is an error in the Bible or if we are here as a result of an evolutionary process then Christianity is not true.

When we communicate the either/or of Christianity or a Bible that has mistakes or of Christianity or a world that is 4.5 billion years old, we are setting up Christianity for an increasing number of people heading toward the door.

Here’s the script: if you tell a high school kid that it’s either inerrancy or bust, and this kid goes and takes an introduction to OT or introduction to NT course in seminary, this young adult is going to have to go for bust unless she can reconfigure her Christianity to make room for a Bible that is not, in fact inerrant.

Sometimes it doesn’t even take a class.

What if your student is particularly “diligent” (*ahem*) and decides while working at summer camp that during the time when the kids are off sailing during sailing class he will sit down and outline the last week of Jesus’ life according to the four Gospels? (I have a “friend” who did this once…)

That’s right: if your students actually read the Bible rather than just talking about what the Bible “is,” they will discover that the Bible that you have bundled up with Christianity does not exist. And then they will have to choose to either deny the actual content of the Bible, cling to the system they’ve been given, and stay Christian, OR to leave Christianity because the options before them are clear, OR to reconfigure their faith in light of the Bible we actually have.

This is an unbearable burden to place on Christ followers. It is a false choice to create a choice between inerrancy or atheism. In short, marrying inerrancy to Christianity is pastorally disastrous.

Why do I rant about “what the Bible is”? Mostly, because I want as many of us as possible to be creating more space within the world of faithful, Jesus-following Christianity for people to continue following Jesus whether or not they’ve found a mistake in the Bible.

Or, to put it another way: there is no reason that someone should feel as though their whole faith is called into question by Bart Ehrman’s NT Intro course.

I have a parallel agenda with evolution: I have read some about evolution. I’m no expert.

But what I do know is that by treating evolution as a scandal to the Christian faith we are creating choices for our college students that not only lead them to being unduly scandalized by their education, but also to fleeing from fields where they might be most useful to the world.

On the latter point: while we get our knickers in a wad about why evolution is demonic, I have an agnostic/atheistic friend who spends all day as an evolutionary biologist studying the evolution of cancer cells so as to help lay the groundwork for future more effective treatments.

He is making the world a better place (something I think God actually cares about) by helping push back the hold that a nefarious disease can take on our bodies (overcoming sickness–I think God cares about) by working in a field that we close off to our young people by raising all sorts of doubts about whether such activity is an active denial of the existence of God.

Seriously.

Here’s the deal: even if the most nuanced articulations of creationism over against evolution, or of what sorts of “creativity” we might find in the Bible could cohere with inerrancy, allow for the very things I’m talking about, most people will not hear the breadth of what is allowed in the nuance, and will hear, instead, the black and white either/or.

Part of my job as a biblical scholar who cares about the church is not simply to engaged in the finely nuanced positions of my colleagues, but the effects of what we say “on the ground.” And part of my calling as a seminary professor is to clear out the ground that people stand on from all the clutter that accumulates on any horizontal surface. In this case, it’s the clutter of what “chrisitanity” demands that Christianity does not, in fact, require.

So I rant about evolution. And I rave about inerrancy. In doing this, what I want to communicate is that you don’t have to make a choice between science and Christian faith or between history and Christian faith.

There are a lot of difficult choices you will have to make. I am not trying to make Christianity easy or conform it to the way of the world.

Instead, I am trying to clear out all this meaningless clutter so that we can hear, instead, that the real decision we have to make is this: “Will you lose your life for the sake of Jesus and the gospel? Will you take up your cross and follow?”

Matthew, Jesus, and Law

I had a professor friend who used to say (maybe he still does) that every controversy of the first couple centuries of the church’s life was over the (dis)continuity of the Old Testament and the life/faith of the church.

We see on the pages of the New Testament that questions about circumcision, food laws, and law-keeping in general were pressing pastoral questions. Later the question arose as to whether this world that we live in, which seems like it’s a disaster, could have possibly been created by the good God whom we worship through the work of Jesus.

The point of this post isn’t to argue that historical claim, but there’s sufficient grain of truth in it to suggest that any time we get into questions of (dis)continuity between Jesus and what came before that we are on ground that has been well traversed but often with little consensus.

In other words, three quarters of you who read what follows will probably disagree, but here it goes, anyway.

The Law in particular, and the whole Old Testament in general was of crucial importance for the writer of Matthew. “Don’t think I’ve come to abolish the law, I haven’t come to abolish but to fulfill… Not one jot or tittle will fall away from the law until all things have come to be.”

Moreover, there’s that marvelous little parable in which Jesus says that every scribe trained in the kingdom is like a householder bringing out of his storehouse treasures old and new.

Scribe: expert in the writings.

So obviously law-keeping as such is important to Jesus, as Matthew presents him. Right?

Not so fast.

The law that Matthew’s Jesus upholds as the standard of righteousness is not the Moses-given Torah, but the law and instruction and refracted through the life and teaching of Jesus.

Immediately after saying that he doesn’t come to abolish but to fulfill, Matthew’s Jesus holds up various commandments and says, “You have heard that it was said… but I say to you…”

Even if you translate this “and I say to you,” the point is largely the same: if you want to “fulfill what is written” it is not enough to keep Torah, you have to keep the words of Jesus. Knowing what you are to do is not to be had from Torah alone, but through Jesus’ teaching.

The end of the Sermon on the Mount reinforces this idea.

In 7:21-23 we get the warning that not everyone who says to Jesus, “Lord, Lord” will get into the Kingdom; those who do “get in” are those who obey God’s will, which is the same set of people whom Jesus knows.

What is perhaps oblique in this paragraph of Matthew is made explicit in the next one: Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and does them is like a person who builds his house on a rock.

Jesus’ words are what must be obeyed, not Torah itself.

The crowd’s reaction bears this out. They were amazed at Jesus’ teaching because he was teaching like one having authority. This doesn’t mean he was a compelling speaker. It means that he was speaking by standing on his own calling to speak for God, not as one passing on a tradition whose authority is vested elsewhere (such as the giving of the law itself or the line of teachers).

Finally, when Jesus sends out the eleven after his resurrection, he commands them to make disciples by teaching them to obey everything that he himself has taught.

For Matthew, discipleship is a matter of following this teacher. The Law and the Prophets are essential, but they are essential inasmuch as they have been given a Christological refraction and fulfillment.

There is a paradox entailed here: for Matthew, Law is more important than it seems to be for the other Gospel writers; but, in weaving the Law so prominently through the story, I believe he creates a Jesus who is less acceptable to a non-Christian Judaism, to a people defined by keeping Torah.

Matthew brings the law in closer, but in so doing brings it into such contact with Jesus that it no longer stands as such. The defining activities of the people of God are no longer found in the Law, but in the teachings of this particular teacher of the way of righteousness.

Why Biblical Studies?

Earlier this week, Bryce Walker provocatively suggested that Biblical Studies shouldn’t exist as a discipline. I wanted to join the conversation, but I fear I dallied too long. He now has three posts, in large part engaged in a back-and-forth with Brian LePort at Near Emmaus.

Take this as a general apologia for Biblical Studies, inspired by the conversation but not directly tackling the challenges, rejoinders, and surrejoinders. However, the two basic complaints were that biblical studies masquerades as science and that its methodology is flawed. The hope for the future was articulated at one point was moving toward something akin to theological interpretation.

Here are a few thoughts in reply:

First, the idea that biblical studies or theology might be a science has a historical rooting. After the Enlightenment, when the Bible is no longer the norm for interpreting the world, why should a theology faculty continue to be a part of a university? That was a very real question, and part of the reply was to speak of it as a science.

However, anyone who still speaks or acts in this way has simply not caught up to the past 40-70 years of biblical studies. If the impression someone has of biblical studies is that it is a science, I can only say that one’s instructors have not been continuing to read since the time they were in seminary. And, of course, that one is not up to speed on the discipline that is being critiqued.

Thinking with Bryce

The pistis christou debate was mentioned. This is not, in fact, an area where most proponents act as though they are scientists with the answer. Richard Hays would say (while I was at Duke) that he was convinced about the subjective genitive. Four or five days a week.

Historical claims are always reconstructions, and though we argue vociferously, the idea of theology as a “science” is outdated and, in most quarters I’d say, dead.

The existence of biblical studies as a unique discipline also has a historical root. Critical study of the Bible arose at the same time people were claiming that theology is a science. Why? Because it was becoming increasingly clear that dogmatic commitments were hindering our ability to interpret the Bible.

Now, a good deal of that had to do with wanting to take the Bible apart into a million different historical pieces. And, much of this has been less than helpful in making sense of the Bible.

But the reason that Biblical studies has to exist as a separate discipline is, if nothing else, to keep reminding the church that the Bible is not a systematic theology, that the Bible is not a philosophy text, that the Bible is not ultimately a book of historical antiquarian interest, either.

Biblical studies at its best is simultaneously doing two things:

(1) Positively, it is continuing to keep the Bible as a book to God’s people located in particular times and places in front of the church. This means both: reading it as a book written for the people of God (there is a theological dimension and it calls forth certain praxis) and that it was written in the past to people in different situations.

(2) Negatively, it serves as a gadfly, showing the church where due to cultural, philosophical, and theological blinders, it has misconstrued the words in which it thinks it finds its validation.

Of course, in a healthy theological environment this is not an autocracy or dictatorship! At both points 1 and 2 the theologians and historians and ethicists and preachers and pastors will provide push-back, reinterpretation, and further reflections.

But the history of the church has shown that where Biblical Studies either does not exist as a separate entity or where it exists in a context where theology controls everything (such as a conservative confessional seminary) that the hearing of the Bible, and the hearing of the Bible as the word of God, suffers.

There is no methodological flaw in understanding the texts better as they were deeply contextualized in certain social settings, as they were written by authors whose tendencies we can sometimes discover, and as they were written as part of a larger narrative in which God reveals Himself as the one who saves in Jesus Christ.

Jewish Anticipations of a Suffering Christ

Was a suffering Messiah a surprise?

It need not have been: there were psalms of a suffering, lamenting king. There was Isaiah 53. Plenty of precedent existed for claiming that the Messiah would die. And, the NT writers depict this suffering as the focal point of the OT’s anticipations of Jesus (e.g., Luke 24).

In his final argument for the Jewish nature of the early church’s claims, Daniel Boyarin argues that a suffering Messiah is at home in the exegetical traditions of Judaism.

He wants to argue that the church’s construction of a suffering messiah is not a theology that was created after the fact, in light of its conviction that the suffering one was (and is) the Messiah, but a category that was already extant and applied to Jesus.

The chapter does not accomplish this.

What it accomplishes instead is the following: Boyarin demonstrates that one can use traditional Jewish hermeneutical moves to demonstrate from scripture that the Messiah had to die.

While he shows that the biblical interpretation is Jewish, he does not demonstrate that these moves had been made previous to the church’s claims about Jesus, such that he was simply fitting into one possible type of expected Messiah.

In fact, one might argue in parallel with Qumran that after-the-fact readings of Scripture in light of the realities being experienced by one’s community are, themselves, a hallmark of the type of midrash Boyarin sees in play in early Christianity.

He states on p. 132:

The notion of the humiliated and suffering Messiah was not at all alien within Judaism before Jesus’ advent.

What evidence does he offer?

He offers two arguments:

(1) The exegetical methods used in the Gospels are perfectly traditional Jewish, midrashic moves.
(2) Such an understanding of the Messiah as one who must suffer, in step with say Isa 53, continues in the later period of the Talmud, etc.

In other words, the evidence of non-Christian Jews making these precise moves comes from texts a couple hundred years later than the NT.

I think that Boyarin is offering in this chapter an excellent, challenging reading of Daniel 7 as a suffering son of man. In fact, I think that we should mine the suffering of the saints in Daniel 7 as part of what Jesus refers to when he says the son of man must suffer before entering his glory. I’ve not researched this possibility, but I’ve thought there might be something to it, and Boyarin encourages more research along these lines.

But to say that the NT writers use a Jewish way of talking about Jesus, and Jewish exegetical methods to demonstrate his messianic identity, is a very different thing from saying that they are putting Jesus into an already extant category of suffering messiah.

Such a category may have existed, but Boyarin has not shown it.

That Jews in the Talmudic period and later depicted a coming suffering Messiah in step with Isa 53, for example, does constitute an interesting piece of circumstantial evidence. It would have been easy, in the wake of the separation between Christianity and Judaism, to leave such argumentation entirely in the hands of the Christians. But arguing backwards a few hundred years is tricky business.

I have a few overall thoughts about Boyarin’s challenging and provocative book, including a revisiting of Jesus’ declaring all foods clean in Mk 7. So look for one more pass at Boyarin in the coming days.

Interpreting an Inspired Bible

Last week there was a bit of conversation on my Facebook page about what difference it might make for interpreting the biblical book of Daniel if someone believes that the Bible is inspired by God.

By “interpreting Daniel” I mean, specifically, what sorts of conclusions might one come to about the date on which it was written, the legitimacy of its rather “unique” naming of kings, etc. Historical questions.

And, when we’re talking about “inspired by God” we’re talking about something more than one might say for other “inspired” pieces of literature–something that would distinguish the Bible from even, say, Flannery O’Connor (pbuh).

This is a challenging question for many folks, especially as we start getting knee-deep into biblical studies. Do critical scholars question the historicity of certain passages simply because they don’t believe in the God who wrote it? Do scholars read the theological intent of certain passages, in ways that we don’t, due to their rejection of the God whose hand is behind it?

What difference does it make that the Bible is inspired?

First, a positive:

If the Bible is, as we believe, inspired, then this is the particular Bible that God wants us to have.

If we strain the data to make the Bible into something we presume it should be based on our theories of inspiration, we call into question God’s goodness in giving us the Bible we actually have.

If a doctrine of scripture constantly causes us to deny the data about the actual Bible we have, we are clinging to an idol of our own devising rather than gratefully receiving what God has given.

This brings us to the question of history.

We should be very careful about when we demand a different reading of history–limiting our different “readings” to instances when, in faith, we are called to recognize the hand of God at work in a narrative.

Christians will interpret history differently from non-Christians. We believe that God raised Jesus from the dead.

We believe that Jesus did miracles, fed thousands, walked on water.

But we don’t have to believe that Quirinius was governor with authority over Judea while Herod was still alive, or that the census that he took about ten years after Herod died occurred ten years earlier.

The former questions are questions of faith. The latter questions are questions of historical record. The Bible we actually have contains a number of geopolitical statements that do not line up with what we know from historical sources that had access to better records.

We need to exercise caution when we confront a historical discrepancy. The Bible God actually gave us contains this sort of thing, and we need to allow it to shape what can qualify as an “inspired” text.

What about theology?

We should not disallow an interpretation of a passage because we know that such an interpretation is theologically incorrect.

If a passage tells us that God changed his mind, we should assume, at least at first, that the writer intended to tell the reader that God changed His mind.

This is not to displace the issue of hermeneutics: we may very well reread a passage in light of the fuller Biblical picture. But such “rereading” should not overwhelm the voice of the text we’ve come into contact with until full justice is given to the text itself.

But this leads to the question of why we should reread at all? What positive value does inspiration have? Here, I go back to the famous 2 Timothy passage:

The purpose of scripture is to make us wise for salvation in Christ Jesus.

Everyone loves the part that comes after: “all scripture is God-breathed…”

But the part that precedes helps us understand what the content of this inspiration is. Scripture can teach, correct, and reprove because it is the God-inspired, yes. But it is an inspired story:

“You have known the sacred writings that are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”

To claim an inspired Bible is to claim an overarching unity that is found in a story that climaxes in Jesus Christ. Inspiration means that I can read the parts as tied to a whole.

That whole isn’t a systematic theology. That whole isn’t a history of the entire world. That whole is the story of God reconciling the cosmos to himself in Christ Jesus.

Apocalyptic Flying Humans

Is the “Son of Man” God?

Daniel Boyarin suggests that Daniel 7 (rightly deconstructed) provides us with a first affirmative answer, and then moves on to demonstrate that this affirmation is echoed in other early Jewish texts.

Chapter two of The Jewish Gospels provides his reading of the Son of Man in First Enoch and Fourth Ezra.

The material from First Enoch provides a much stronger basis for arguing that the “son of man” was considered some sort of divinity in early Judaism than Daniel does, in my opinion. This figure is clearly preexistent, one who becomes incarnate at a particular time in order to be messiah, redeemer, savior.

One indication that this figure is divine comes from the statement that his name is known before creation came to be:

Even before the sun and the constellations were created,
Before the stars of heaven were made,
His name was named before the Lord of Spirits. (cited from Boyarin, 78)

In addition to this figure’s preexistence, at the end (in what is perhaps a later addition to the vision), Enoch is revealed to be the son of man.

Boyarin reads the text as a whole, indicating, first, that Enoch on earth was an incarnation of this eternal son of man, and that he is then deified in his ascent into heaven.

Presumably, this means that Enoch will return in order to fill the role on earth of the Son of Man who is the saving messiah.

But this presumption raises a question for me: Is the text that precedes Enoch’s exaltation a description of Enoch before he comes to earth as Enoch? Or is it, instead, a description of the heavenly Enoch after his exaltation to heaven, who will come again as Messiah?

The idea that someone’s name is known from all eternity need not entail their actual existence. Compare Revelation, where people’s names are known and written in the books from all eternity.

Moreover, a significant theme of First Enoch is that the name of this son of man is revealed to God’s people–a revelation that happens at the end, when we discover that he is none other than Enoch.

Finally, there is the repeated use of “son of man.” This word means “human.” I want to see more from Boyarin about why this figure is called “human being” if he is not, in fact, human being throughout most of the apocalypse?

This ties into another general question I have, both from last time and this: to what extent does the fact that this is apocalyptic literature–literature that depicts earthly realities using heavenly visions, literature that is highly symbolic and stylized–influence how we read these descriptions? If sometimes feel that Boyarin is reading too literally.

In this case, however, most scholars agree with Boyarin that the Son of Man in 1 Enoch is a preexistent deity and not simply an exalted Enoch who comes back as a messiah. Here there is some good fodder for discussing the presence of a preexistent, perhaps even divine, messiah figure as present in non-Christian Judaism.

In the discussions of both 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra, however, I have a larger problem with Boyarin’s work. It’s not that there are not parallels between Jesus as son of man and these early figures. There certainly are. Even important dynamics of their life such as receiving worship are entailed across different texts.

But Boyarin has adopted Richard Bauckham’s heuristic of “divine identity Christology” as a measure for saying “here is a figure who is being described as God.” This is problematic.

Receiving worship does not make someone God. Not even in Judaism. Unless, of course, Solomon was God (1 Chro 29:20).

Controlling the waters of the sea does not make someone God. Not even in Judaism. Unless, of course, Moses is God (Exod 14).

Ruling the world does not make someone God. Not even in Judaism. Unless, of course, Adam is God (Gen 1).

Being called Lord does not make someone God. Not even in Judaism. Unless, of course, David is God (Ps 2).

I agree wholeheartedly with Boyarin that the Jesus tradition is participating in a larger Jewish tradition of exalted son of man figures redeeming, saving, coming as David’s seed, receiving worship, and riding on the clouds.

Where I am not yet convinced is that all of this entails divinity, as such, for an early Jewish audience. There is a whole tangle of unexplored possible implications that swirl around a very different possibility.

Perhaps “son of man” really intends to connote “human one.” Perhaps rather than a divine christology, this is all part of a larger Adam Christology in which the early Jewish people are envisioning human beings, or a Human Being, restored to the primal place of ‘adam: God’s son, ruling the world on God’s behalf.

Who Am I?

As a Christian, who am I? As Christians, who are we?

Lots of different answers are given to this one, many of which we don’t speak out loud, but simple assume.

Other answers are spoken out loud, at times, but perhaps they do not seep in deeply enough to come to the point of “unspoken assumption,” a bedrock presupposition that drives our lives without our knowing it.

A storied theology that places the story of the cross at the center of our story as God’s people should tell us some things about ourselves. We know these things. At least, we know many of them, but too many are allowed to fall away.

The cross is a story that tells us, among other things, that the world is in need of transformation in order to attain to the beauty and perfection that God wants for it.

It’s a story that tells us the way into God’s kingdom is through a self-renunciation, a receipt of forgiveness, a being set free.

But in the process, we discover that there is a beloved “I” who is engaged in this transformation. We are not a despised people who have to become someone else in order to be beloved of God. Instead, we are beloved people who are made more truly ourselves as we come to God in Jesus Christ.

But we don’t believe it.

In the Presbyterian liturgy there is a refrain I have, at times, found myself repeating every week:

Friends, believe the good news of the gospel.

In Jesus Christ we are forgiven. Thanks be to God!

At this moment, we have denied the economy by which most of us live our lives.

We offer an idea. We put ourselves out there. It is ours. And so when someone disagrees, it crushes us.

We get in a fight with our spouse, our friend, our sister, our brother. We believe that we were right. We feel that to let go of that, to admit that we were wrong, would be death. We have wrapped ourselves into what we have done.

And we’re right.

To admit we’re wrong would be death.

But it’s the death of those whose stories are defined by the cross of Christ–a death that resolves in resurrection.

In that moment, when we must. have. our. own. way. in that moment, we have left aside the fact that our defining narrative is the narrative of the cross. We have forgotten that who we are at the core of our being is not defined by our being right, awesome, powerful, amazing.

But, paradoxically, who we are most truly, the way in which we have found life, is not by clinging to the life we had, but in giving it up. In dying. In asking for forgiveness.

“I believe in the forgiveness of sins.”

This is not something that is to be lived out in vague generalities.

Because we are the cross people, we are the forgiveness people: embodying the equally difficult tasks of asking for forgiveness and of extending it to the people around us.

It feels like death to admit when we’re wrong. And, it probably is death, because we are wrapped up in the things we’ve done, the things we’ve said–they are part of our defining narrative.

But a greater narrative provides a greater definition. It is the narrative of the cross that says to all those things I either can’t or won’t or don’t want to turn from: These, too, are forgiven. Yours is a better story.

Thanks be to God.

Abba Chicken, Abba Egg

It is often asserted that Jesus’ cry abba, father, reflects the memory of the early church. This is how Jesus prayed.

Not only this, but several people have followed the line of argument that Jesus prayed like this not once, but every time he addressed God as “father”–referring to him as abba.

The prayer recurs in Paul. Twice.

Thus, the idea is that Paul’s churches participate in this historical memory, themselves participating in the unique form of prayer that Jesus himself taught.

But it strikes me that the opposite may explain the data just as well.

Jesus only says abba once in the Gospels. It’s in Mark. And, it’s in a context where there is no other character around to hear him. In other words, this is one of the least likely places in the Gospel for a historical remembrance to be informing the story.

What if, rather than abba father being a historical remembrance that influenced the Pauline churches, the practice of the Pauline churches influenced how Jesus is depicted as praying in Mark 14?

I have no doubt that Jesus addressed God as “Father” before Paul came on the scene. There is the Lord’s prayer, after all, and other examples of Jesus so addressing God.

But in my study of the abba prayer, I have some concern that too much historical weight is being placed on a passage that can’t bear it. Is abba Jesus’ way of praying? Well, it is in the garden of Gethsemane, and it is in those who are being renewed after the image of this suffering son (Rom 8).

Thoughts?