Was Jesus an "atheist" because he taught that God is Abba?
Hespeler, 19, June 2016 © Scott McAndless
4:1-7, Luke 11:9-13, Psalm 103:1-14
Long before the time of Jesus, it was not
uncommon for people to use father language to talk about God and about various
gods. Take the Romans, they loved to use father language to talk about their
gods. The ruler of all the Roman gods was a fellow named Jupiter and his name
actually meant “Father God” in primitive Latin. In addition, the Roman emperors
were also worshipped as gods by the Romans because they were the so-called
fathers of the nation.
But when the Romans spoke about their gods as
being fathers, they had a very particular idea of fatherhood in mind.
Fatherhood, in ancient Rome, meant one thing above all: authority. The Latin
name for a male head of a family was paterfamilias:
father of the family. And a paterfamilias
was not just a warm and fuzzy dad figure sitting in a La-Z-Boy, wearing
slippers and reading a newspaper. For the Romans, he was a man who had ultimate
authority over every single person in his household.
when I say ultimate, I mean ultimate. A paterfamilias could expect complete and utter obedience from
everyone under his charge. If he didn’t get it, he was not just permitted but
actually required to discipline family members with what we would call torture.
He could do things like beat them, whip them, imprison and starve them and be
praised for it. In fact, if he chose to kill them, that was considered to be
his business. All of this makes me feel like maybe Father’s Day was not the
really the fun lighthearted event in ancient Rome that it is for us. Rather
than sending cards that said, “Happy Father’s Day to the world’s greatest dad,”
they probably said, “Revered Patriarch, please don’t kill me today!”
when the ancient Romans and many other ancient peoples (including ancient Jews)
spoke of God using the word Father, the word carried all of that baggage with
it. When they addressed their Father God, they were speaking to a God who was a
tyrant, a God who ruled over his people with an iron fist and who didn’t pull
back from torturing and even smiting them. It was God as paterfamilias.
when people address God as Father to this very day, the word may still carry a
lot of the same baggage. I certainly do know some people who feel very
uncomfortable with the idea of addressing God as Father. In some cases, of
course, that may be because they have had some very negative experiences with
the father figures in their own life. You can understand that, of course. If the
only experience you have had with a father is abuse or violence or worse, you
are not going to take any comfort from calling God your father. You’ll probably
have a hard time believing that God is any better than the fathers you have
that’s not the only problem that people have. You may have had nothing but the
best experiences with your own father but you could still have some good
reasons not to want to call God by that name just because of all the ways in
which male dominance in society have kept women down and treated them like
second class citizens. Addressing God as Father can certainly make him into the
figurehead of that whole system of male dominance and so responsible for all of
the ills that have come out of it.
used Father imagery all the time when he was talking about God. But there is
good reason to think that, when he called God Father, he did not mean what most
of the people of his age meant by the word. For one thing, Jesus didn’t use the
normal word in his language for Father when talking about God. The usual word
for father in Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke, was ab, and it had all the associations with authority and power that a
word like paterfamilias had in Latin.
But Jesus didn’t call God ab, he
called him abba.
do we know that? Of course, it is hard to be sure what word for father Jesus
used because we don’t have his words in his original language. The Gospels were
written in Greek and so most everything that Jesus said was translated into
Greek. And most of the time, when Jesus says Father in the gospels, it is
translated with the usual Greek word for father. But once, in the Gospel of
Mark (when Jesus is praying in the Garden of Gethsemane) the word just isn’t
translated. Jesus’ original Aramaic word, Abba, suddenly and
unexpectedly appears in his prayer. There are very few Aramaic words that
appear in the New Testament, so it is very significant that this word appears
at this very moment when Jesus is at his most vulnerable and honest, praying to
is another indication. Twice in his letters, the apostle Paul tells us about a
prayer that was prayed by the early church, and the prayer went like this: “Abba,
Father.” What he is telling us is that even after Christianity spread into
areas where the only language was Greek – where nobody could even understand a
word of Aramaic, the church continued to address God as Abba even though
nobody knew what the word meant and so they appended the Greek word for Father
so people would at least understand. Why would they do that, why would they
continue to use an obscure Aramaic word unless it was something that had been
passed down to them from Jesus himself. These are the things that tell me that
Jesus was in the habit of calling God abba. I also believe that he was
the first one ever to dare to use that title for God.
what is the significance of Jesus using that word. As I said, abba was
not the usual word for father. It was the familiar
word that you would use in your family when you were speaking to your father.
You may have had people tell you that it was a word that only a small child
would use for his or her father – the equivalent to the English “Daddy,” or “Papa”
– but that is not quite right. Abba was not exclusively used by infants. Unlike
“daddy,” it was commonly used by children of all ages (including adults) to
speak to their fathers.
(thinking that abba meant daddy) people have suggested that Jesus
used the word abba in order to imply that our relationship with God is
one of childlike dependence and intimacy. Although there is an intimacy to his
use of the word, it is actually not meant to imply an infantile dependence.
what did Jesus mean by the word? What I see is this: Jesus went out of his way
to avoid using the common and general word for a father in his society when he
was talking about God. I believe that he did that precisely because that word
was closely associated with the patriarchal system of absolute authority and
power vested in male figures. Jesus was convinced that God had no support for
such systems. It was why, for example, he urged his followers to “call no
one your father on earth.” (Matthew 23:9) So, by refusing to use the usual
word for father that people usually used when talking about God, Jesus was
making a strong statement that God had no part in such a system of dominance,
authority and power.
is the first thing that Jesus means by using this word abba, it was a
way of saying who God was not. But
there is also a positive meaning in Jesus’ choice to use this word. It was the
word, as I said, that was commonly used by families within the household to
refer to the father of the family. And I think that, as a household word, it
may have been chosen to direct our attention towards a different role that a
father had in that society.
it is true that ancient Jews, like most ancient Mediterranean people, tended to
think of fathers primarily as those authority figures who had absolute power even
over the lives of every person in their household, there was another side to
the role of a father in Jewish tradition. Not only did he have authority over
the household, he also bore the burden of the wellbeing of the entire
were very large and very complicated in Ancient Israel. A typical family was
not made up of a simple nuclear family of mother, father, and children that we
are familiar with. A family would often include many generations and many
branches of an extended family all living under one roof. In addition, servants
and any livestock were also considered to be members of the family. And the
father of the family, the householder, was the one person who had care for all
of those people.
was the job of the householder to ensure that every person under his roof had
what they needed to survive and thrive. Can you imagine how difficult a job
that was? It wasn’t just a matter of equally sharing out the resources of the
household because, of course, there are always those who have special needs and
requirements if they are going to be their best. Being a father, therefore, was
a heavy burden of care and hard decisions. And there was a strong tradition in
Ancient Israel of speak of God as one who took that kind of care of all his
people – the householder of a entire nation. As it says in the Psalm, “As a father has
compassion for his children, so the Lord
has compassion for those who fear him.”
So, when Jesus chose to use the name Abba, the name used exclusively inside
the household for God, I suspect that he was making a point of portraying God
as that kind of householder – one who takes tender care of the needs of every
person in his household. This is exactly how Jesus portrayed God at every opportunity
– a God who provides for the needs of his people, who takes care of them and
looks out in particular for those who are in special need: the poor, the sick,
the disadvantaged. This is how he taught his disciples to trust in God as their
Father: “Is there anyone among you who, if your child
asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks
for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to
give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give
the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
while Jesus was very comfortable addressing God as Father, he seems to have
gone out of his way to present an understanding of God as Father that was at
odds with the patriarchal assumptions of the society around this. I’ve got to
admit that I have some trouble with how some people promote the idea of God as
Father – especially if they are using it as a way to impose male dominance in
society. It is refreshing to know that, even in his day, Jesus resisted that
Long before the time of Jesus, it was not uncommon for people to use father language to talk about God and about various gods. Take the Romans, they loved to use father language to talk about their gods. The ruler of all the Roman gods was a fellow named Jupiter and his name actually meant “Father God” in primitive Latin. In addition, the Roman emperors were also worshipped as gods by the Romans because they were the so-called fathers of the nation.
#TodaysTweetableTruth Jesus called God Abba – a rejection of patriarchy and control, an embrace of the image of the caring householder.
If you were like me, you were appalled and distressed and maybe depressed when you heard about the terrible events that unfolded in Orlando, Florida one week ago. The largest mass shooting in American History not carried out by the military. And one of the worst things about it is that it seems as if the crime was specifically targeted at a sexual minority group which had specifically gathered in one of the few places where they felt safe in society – destroying any sense of that safety.
I’m wondering, what can Jesus’ teaching about God as “Abba” say to us about such a terrible tragedy? Let me suggest this: if our God were merely a father – a kind of heavenly paterfamilias – who was all about authority and power, all about right and wrong, then I would be particularly discouraged today because that would mean that our only response to such a tragedy would be judgment and punishment. Some, I know, would be inclined to judge the victims in their minority status. I cannot do that. I cannot see (especially right now) how Christian judgement of sexual minorities who do not harm or rape anybody has made the world a better place. Judgement in that case only seems to make things worse. Some would focus on judging the criminal assassin and the communities that he has been associated with. That is little better, perhaps, but it is not good enough and as far as I can see and judgement alone will not make anything better.
But if God is “Abba,” how can that change our response? If God is Abba, if God is the householder who is burdened with the wellbeing of everyone within his earthly household, then God’s first question when looking at each one of us is not, “What have you done wrong that I may punish you?” It is, “What do you need. What are the special challenges you are dealing with that keep you from thriving?” That is a very different question and provides a very different orientation to us as we seek to make a difference in our world, especially with groups that have been targeted because of who they are and what makes them different. If God is Abba, this is something that gives me hope for a better world.