GODFATHER IN THE GOSPEL OF JOHN – by Rev Bischof Uwe AE.Rosenkranz

God the Father in the Gospel of John

Adele Reinhartz, ed.

Copyright © 1999 [2001] by Society of Biblical Literature.

Published in Atlanta, GA.


Contributors to This Issue

Introduction: “Father” As Metaphor in the Fourth Gospel

Adele Reinhartz

“Show Us the Father, and We Will Be Satisfied” (John 14:8)

Gail R. O’Day

“The Living Father”

Marianne Meye Thompson

The Having-Sent-Me Father: Aspects of Agency, Encounter, and Irony in the Johannine Father-Son Relationship

Paul N. Anderson

Intimating Deity in the Gospel of John: Theological Language and “Father” In “Prayers of Jesus”

Mary Rose D’Angelo

“And the Word Was Begotten”: Divine Epigenesis in the Gospel of John

Adele Reinhartz

The Fathers on the Father in the Gospel of John

Peter Widdicombe

Disseminations: An Autobiographical Midrash on Fatherhood in John’s Gospel

Jeffrey L. Staley

The Soul of the Father and the Son: A Psychological (Yet Playful and Poetic) Approach to the Father-Son Language in the Fourth Gospel

Michael Willett Newheart


The Symbol of Divine Fatherhood

Dorothy Ann Lee

Reading Back, Reading Forward

Sharon H. Ringe

The Fatherhood of God at the Turn of Another Millennium

Pamela Dickey Young

Contributors to This Issue

Paul Anderson

George Fox College

Newberg, OR 97132

Mary Rose D’Angelo

Department of Theology

University of Notre Dame

Notre Dame, IN 46556

Dorothy Ann Lee

United Faculty of Theology

Queen’s College

Parkville, Victoria 3052


Gail R. O’Day

Candler School of Theology

Emory University

Atlanta, GA 30322

Adele Reinhartz

Department of Religious Studies

McMaster University

Hamilton, Ontario L8S 4K1


Sharon H. Ringe

Wesley Theological Seminary

4500 Massachusetts Ave. NW

Washington, DC 20016

Jeffrey L. Staley

Department of Theology and Religious Studies

Seattle University

900 Broadway

Seattle, WA 98122–4340

Marianne Meye Thompson

Fuller Theological Seminary

Box O

Pasadena, CA 91182

Peter Widdicombe

Department of Religious Studies

McMaster University

Hamilton, Ontario L8S 4K1


Michael Willett Newheart

Howard University School of Divinity

1400 Shepherd St. NE

Washington, DC 20017

Pamela Dickey Young

Queen’s Theological College

Kingston, Ontario, K7L 3N6


Introduction: “Father” As Metaphor in the Fourth Gospel

Adele Reinhartz

McMaster University

The image of God as father is deeply entrenched in Jewish and Christian scriptures. God frequently calls Israel God’s son (Hos 1:10) or God’s firstborn son (Exod 4:22). God is referred to explicitly as Israel’s father, as in Isa 63:16: “For you are our father, though Abraham does not know us and Israel does not acknowledge us; you, O Lord, are our father; our Redeemer from of old is your name.” The relationship between God and Israel is often described in analogy to a human father and son, as in Deut 8:5: “Know then in your heart that as a parent disciplines a child so the Lord your God disciplines you”; and Ps 103:13: “As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.” The usage is also frequent in the Gospels, as in the words of Jesus in Mark 8:38: “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels,” and, perhaps most famously, in Jesus’ cry to his father in Mark 14:36: “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.”

The use of “father” for God is particularly well attested in the Gospel of John. God is referred to as father approximately 118 times in the Fourth Gospel, primarily in the discourse materials that develop the Gospel’s distinctive theology and christology. This usage has not gone unnoticed in the many thousands of works that have been written on this Gospel over the centuries. As new scholarly methods appear, new insights brought to bear, and new questions asked, the traditional approaches to and interpretation of the image of God as father too are called into question.

This volume of essays is intended to explore the metaphor of God as father in the Fourth Gospel from a variety of perspectives and to invite its readers to reconsider the image in light of their own interactions with the Gospel of John. The impetus for a volume on this topic was a session of the Johannine Literature Section at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in 1998, at which several of the papers in this volume were presented in draft form (D’Angelo, O’Day, Reinhartz, Widdicombe). Other papers were then solicited to broaded the purview (Anderson, Willett Newheart, Staley, Thompson), and several respondents drafted (Lee, Ringe, Young). These essays do not cover the field in a comprehensive way, nor do they have a common point of departure. Their interests range from concerns with the original meanings of the metaphor in the Greco-Roman and Jewish contexts of the first century C.E. through to the ways in which the metaphor can be used in self-understanding in the twenty-first century. Their common focus uncovers the complexity of the Johannine use of paternal God-language and suggests some ways in which its ancient and contemporary uses might be understood.

This introduction will address three issues. The first is the context of these essays in the larger scholarly discussion of God as father in the Fourth Gospel. The second concerns the approaches to and assumptions about “father” as a key metaphor in the Gospel. The third traces briefly some directions for further research.

Context in Johannine Scholarship

Gail O’Day’s essay, “Show Us the Father, and We Will Be Satisfied’ (John 14:8)”, outlines the contours of the question in Johannine scholarship. Interest in the image of God as father in the Fourth Gospel runs high in four areas of research.

1.    Historical Jesus studies consider whether or not Jesus himself referred to God as his father. Of particular interest is the relationship between the Johannine Jesus’ prominent use of “father” to address God, and the synoptic Jesus’ invocation of God as “abba,” the Aramaic and familiar form of address to one’s father (Mark 14:36).

2.    Feminist criticism wrestles with the implications of using paternal terminology to refer to God. Especially difficult is the question of whether such language is necessarily and utterly patriarchal and hence to be discarded, or whether paternal language might support alternate readings, including a critique of patriarchy. As Janet Martin Soskice notes, the question is: “Can a feminist be at home in a religion where ‘father’ is a central divine title, if not necessarily in current usage, then certainly in the foundational texts and the subsequent history to which these have given rise?” (1992:15).

3.    Studies in early Christian doctrine examine the development of this metaphor from its biblical usage to its place in more systematic theological discourses.

4.    Narrative critical studies look at the characterization of God and the ways in which the paternal language figures in the development of Jesus’ characterization as well as that of God.

These approaches do not exhaust the potential of the topic for Johannine studies. O’Day points out that the majority of the Johannine occurrences of the “father” figure of speech as well as its most substantive development within the Gospel occur in the discourse material. She urges a closer look at the role of the “father” image in shaping Jesus’ discourses and, by extension, in Johannine theology as a whole. Important in this regard is a focus not only on the meaning of the “father” figure as such, but on its interrelationships with other images and its formative role within the larger contexts in which it is embedded.

O’Day’s fourfold categorization of the field also provides a conceptual framework for this volume. The essays contribute to all of the areas that O’Day mentions and extend the current discussion in a number of ways.

1. Historical issues are addressed in several of the contributions. Mary Rose D’Angelo’s paper, “Intimating Deity in the Gospel of John: Theological Language and ‘Father’ in ‘Prayers of Jesus”, intends to dislodge readings of “father” in the Fourth Gospel from theories about Jesus’ “abba” experience that have been based to a large extent on the work of Joachim Jeremias. She argues that, pace Jeremias, Jesus’ use of “father” was not unique. Rather, it was closely paralleled in Jewish communities. Its very currency in the common parlance of early Jewish piety and resistance made it likely that it was used by the historical Jesus for similar purposes.

Historical-critical approaches to the “father” language focus not only on the possibility that Jesus used this designation but also speak to the role that it may have played in the Johannine community in its Greco-Roman context. Some articles look to the use of the term in Jewish and Greco-Roman texts to explicate as well as to fill in the background to the Johannine usage. Marianne Meye Thompson’s essay, “The Living Father”, points out the presence of this term in the Hebrew Bible, and even more so in the writings of Philo and Josephus, which convey a view of God as the source of creation and the one who gives life. Paul Anderson’s study of “The Having-Sent-Me Father” argues that the Johannine Christians would have heard the Johannine construction of the relationship between God and Jesus against the background of Deut 18:15–22, which promises the return of a prophet like Moses. Anderson links up the usage of “father” language with various stages in the history of the Johannine community. My article, “And the World Was Begotten’: Divine Epigenesis in the Gospel of John”, suggests that Greco-Roman theories about the male role in procreation may have influenced the Johannine presentation of the relationship between God and Jesus.

2. Feminist concerns are prominent in two of the articles and in all three of the responses. D’Angelo examines the context of pater in Roman patriarchy as a social system and concludes that patriarchal ideology is deeply embedded in the Johannine usage of the “father” metaphor. My article supports this conclusion by suggesting that the Johannine usage draws on Aristotle’s theory of epigenesis, which dominated the Greco-Roman understanding of the process of generation. Epigenesis attributed the formative aspect of the generative process to the male. If the Fourth Gospel drew on this theory, then it may be virtually impossible to disentangle the Johannine use of the metaphor from a fundamentally gendered understanding of God as male-like in his role as the source of life.

The three respondents reflect on the essays in light of the contemporary feminist grappling with the “father” image. Pamela Dickey Young suggests that wisdom theology provides a way to counter the patriarchal effects of the language of divine fatherhood. The presence of both “father” and “wisdom” imagery in the prologue (John 1:1–18) allows the latter to supplement or perhaps even to displace the former in a feminist reading of the Fourth Gospel. Dorothy Ann Lee is less sanguine about feminist possibilities. She advocates reading against the grain of the Gospel. She cautions, however, that while “de-patriarchalizing” the Johannine father may challenge the male world, it ultimately fails to embrace fully the female world. This is so despite the prominent and inclusive way in which female characters are dramatized in the Johannine narrative. Sharon Ringe challenges us to consider carefully the use of the “God as father” metaphor today. As Ringe points out, the image of God as father may repel not only women who feel excluded from a community that expresses its theology in male metaphors, but also those children, women, and men whose experience of fathers is negative, violent, or abusive.

3. The development of the father metaphor in early Christian doctrine is the focus of Peter Widdicombe’s essay, “The Fathers on the Father in the Gospel of John”. Widdicombe looks at the ways in which Origen and Athanasius developed the concept of fatherhood and drew on the Fourth Gospel to do so. He shows that the “father” metaphor is used by both Christian Fathers to explore theology, christology, and soteriology but with rather different outcomes. Dorothy Lee discusses the views of two figures of the fourth century C.E., Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus. Whereas some ancient writers, such as Gregory of Nyssa, could concede that “mother” can replace “father” as the name for God, since “there is neither male nor female in the divine,” a number of recent neoconservative theologians argue that “father” is the literal and exclusive name for God.

4. Narrative critical concerns emerge in most of the essays, particularly with respect to the Johannine characterization of God and of the relationship between God and Jesus. For example, in Anderson’s view, God is portrayed in the Fourth Gospel primarily as the one who sends Jesus into the world. For Thompson, the most important element of the divine father’s characterization is that he gives life. They both support their conclusions from the discourse and the narrative material in the Gospel, that is, from the ways in which Jesus and the narrator speak about God and the narrative portrays the relationship between Jesus and God.

The essays thus fit handily into the four categories that O’Day has discerned in previous scholarly treatments of this topic. They also heed her call to consider the ways in which the paternal language has shaped the theological discourse in this Gospel. As already noted, Thompson and Anderson both discuss the central role played by the “father” in Johannine theology and christology. Anderson maps the Johannine discourses onto the Deuteronomic prophet-like-Moses motif to argue that Deuteronomy 18 has structured the language and theology of the Gospel as well as its characterization of God and Jesus. Thompson acknowledges the presence and importance of the sending and agency motifs but argues that God’s role as the source of life is the fundamental structuring device of the discourses. For this reason, this role, which emphasizes the “father” metaphor as such, is the most important vehicle for Johannine theology. My article shares Thompson’s focus on “father” as the one who gives life but takes the argument in a different direction by suggesting that the language of biological generation shapes Johannine theological discourse, including christology as well as soteriology. Jesus as the Son of God does his father’s works and embodies his words precisely because he has been generated by the father’s logos and form. By following the son, others too can enter into this filial relationship with God. D’Angelo draws attention to the irony of the dialogues and discourse and argues that, from the Johannine perspective, Jesus is not in fact the only son of God. Rather, Johannine irony can work only on the basis of an assumption of a shared sonship. Both Jesus and his Jewish sparring partners are sons of God; the deity is the father of Jesus just as he is the father of others. This shared relationship becomes the foundation for the theological strategy at work in the text.

Two of the essays exemplify new approaches within New Testament studies, namely, autobiographical, psychological, and cultural criticism. Jeffrey Staley describes his article, “Disseminations”, as “An Autobiographical Midrash on Fatherhood in John’s Gospel.” Staley moves back and forth between the Gospel and his own life, using the Gospel’s utterances about God as father as a way of thinking about the experience of fathering and of being fathered. Also brought into play is the Beatles’ song, “I Am the Walrus.” Readers would be well-advised to have a copy of the lyrics handy when reading Staley’s essay, better to appreciate the intertextual play around which the essay revolves. Michael Willett Newheart’s contribution, “The Soul of the Father and the Son” is “A Psychological (yet Playful and Poetic) Approach to the Father-Son Language in the Fourth Gospel”. It combines psychology, intertextual readings from the African American experience, and autobiography to reflect on the father-son language. His readings illumine the text and show how the paternal God language in John can be read intertextually with African American poetry and as a vehicle for self-analysis and reflection.

These autobiographical essays illustrate movingly some of the ways in which the divine father metaphor can be appropriated for self-understanding. Their appropriation of this male image, however, may exclude women readers just as the Johannine God-father metaphor may exclude them from the Gospel itself. This possibility is explored in the responses of Pamela Dickey Young and Sharon Ringe. Although Staley’s and Willett Newheart’s autobiographical approaches have been profoundly influenced by feminism, their embrace of the father image in John and their focus on their own experience of fathering might indeed shut out those who by definition cannot be fathers. I confess that my own reaction is quite different. Rather than being excluded, I feel invited to experience, however partially and vicariously, the experience of fathering that will never be my own. I also found many echoes of my own life experience in these essays. Although fathering is a gendered experience, being fathered is not; while Willett Newheart’s and Staley’s experiences of being fathered are very different from my own, their comments were a spur to my own thinking about this fundamental human relationship. Further, the essays resonate strongly with my own sense of myself as a parent and as someone who cares deeply about children, my own and others. The nurturing of young children, whether by mothers, fathers, teachers, or others, raises the same or similar fundamental issues, questions, and vulnerabilities. One example is the fear of failing the children in one’s life, including, as Ringe describes, the young children of our society and indeed of the world for whom, in my view, we have some responsibility whether we acknowledge it or not. Finally, those of us who are not and cannot be fathers nevertheless can rejoice in the care and the joy that these fathers take in their fathering. The autobiographical appropriation of the father image thus calls forth different responses from different readers. In this way, it mirrors the diversity of responses to the divine father image itself, from a life-giving metaphor that has ongoing meaning for all to a patriarchal expression that excludes and demeans women, and many points in between.

Father as Metaphor

One point upon which all interpreters agree is that “father” is a metaphor for the divine in this Gospel. Janet Martin Soskice notes that philosophers and literary critics through the years have proposed over 125 definitions of metaphor (1985:15), with no consensus in sight. Soskice’s study, however, can guide us to some of the basic issues that may prove helpful in reading the essays in this volume. Metaphors are figures of speech; that is, they are linguistic in nature. Metaphors provide a way of speaking about one thing that is suggestive of another. To use the word “father” as a metaphor for God is therefore to speak of a familiar being—a father—in such a way as to suggest the unfamiliar and indeed the unspeakable—God.

According to Soskice, theories of metaphor fall into three different categories: those that view metaphor as a substitution for the thing itself, that is, as a decorative way of saying what could be said literally; those that consider metaphor to be primarily emotive in that its originality lies not in what it says but in its affective impact; and those that see metaphor as a unique cognitive vehicle that enables us to say that which can be said in no other way (Soskice, 1985:24). For Soskice, the latter definition is the richest and most apt, particularly for a consideration of “father” as a metaphor for the divine. In her view, metaphors permit an “intercourse” of thoughts and compel new possibilities of vision (1985:57). That is, through the metaphor of “father” one is able to come to an enriched understanding of the nature of God.

Some metaphors become models. According to Sallie McFague, a model is “a dominant metaphor, a metaphor with staying power” (23). Models are similar to metaphors “in that they are images which retain the tension of the ‘is and is not’ and, like religious and poetic metaphors, they have emotional appeal insofar as they suggest ways of understanding our being in the world” (23). One metaphor that has become a model is “God as father.” McFague continues:

As a model it not only retains characteristics of metaphor but also reaches toward qualities of conceptual thought. It suggests a comprehensive, ordering structure with impressive interpretive potential. As a rich model with many associated commonplaces as well as a host of supporting metaphors, an entire theology can be worked out from this model. Thus, if God is understood on the model of “father,” human beings are understood as “children,” sin is rebellion against the “father,” redemption is sacrifice by the “elder son” on behalf of the “brothers and sisters” for the guilt against the “father” and so on. (32)

Christians typically have not taken models like “God is the father” or “the kingdom of God” as “evaluative phenomena or redescriptions of human experience,” but as ways of speaking, however obliquely, about states and relations that they do not fully understand but that they take to be more than simply human (Soskice, 1985:107).

Some metaphors, on the other hand, do not become or remain models but rather lose their original force and associations. These “dead metaphors” become commonplaces that we use without thinking very much about their content. Everyday speech is replete with dead metaphors; think, for example, of the “leaves” of a book, the “stem” of a glass (Soskice, 1985:71). One way to distinguish a dead metaphor from a living metaphor lies in the relationship between metaphor and model. “An originally vital metaphor calls to mind, directly or indirectly, a model or models.… As the metaphor becomes commonplace, its initial web of implications becomes, if not entirely lost, then difficult to recall” (Soskice, 1985:73). It must be stressed that “living” and “dead” are not evaluative terms when it comes to assessing metaphors. A live metaphor, particularly one that has become a model, provides a rich web of associations that allow us to speak of the unspeakable. A dead metaphor has a different but nevertheless important function in that it provides an image that is free from the control of the associations of the original metaphor and can be used in new and creative ways.

Gail O’Day’s reflections on the degree to which the “father” motif has been taken for granted in New Testament scholarship and Christian theology suggests that for many it has long been a dead metaphor; that is, it is simply a substitute, name, or title for “God.” But many studies that focus on the Johannine usage of paternal God-language frequently imply the former. By reflecting on whether Jesus is the source of the metaphor or whether he adopted it from his environment, on the development of God as father in early Christian texts, on the negative impact or positive potential of paternal God-language for women, and on the role of the “father” image in the Gospel’s narrative and theology, scholars implicitly affirm the vitality of the metaphor in the New Testament period and beyond.

Although the studies in this volume do not address the question explicitly, they do contribute to the discussion of whether the father metaphor is an active model or a dead metaphor. Some imply that “father” was no longer a live metaphor at the time of the Fourth Evangelist. Anderson’s essay argues that the controlling feature of the father is his role as the one who sends the son. That is, the controlling motif is not one that is inherent in either the biological or social elements of the “father” image. In privileging the father as sender over the father as creator, Anderson implies that for the Fourth Evangelist, the metaphor’s content and primary referent is less important than the use of it to describe God as agent. This suggests that the image was already deeply embedded in the ways in which the original audiences would have understood God and that every reference to God as father does not necessarily evoke the original terms of the metaphor. In other words, “father” was already a dead, or dying, metaphor. As such, it could be used to explore other models, in this case the prophet-like-Moses typology of Deuteronomy 18.

D’Angelo argues that the “father” metaphor was not unique to Jesus but rather had already become a substitute for the divine name by Jesus’ day. Although the origin of the metaphor emphasizes generation, alliance, commitment, and intimacy, its importance for Jesus’ usage was precisely its banal and commonplace nature. For this reason, the most important element of the father-son relationship was not intimacy but rather its potential for a theological strategy that allows the Johannine Jesus to assert his superiority over others who also claim a special relationship to the divine.

Not only contemporary commentators but also the church father differed in their implicit assessment of the vitality of the “father” metaphor. Peter Widdicombe indicates that for Justin Martyr, God the father was in fact a dead metaphor; the description of God as father appears to have had no conceptual importance for his thought. Origen, on the other hand, explicitly looked at paternal language as a model that explores the relationship between Jesus and God regarding the generation of the son and found a place in the model for believers. Similarly, Athanasius used the model to support the uniqueness of the son’s generation; he argued that the others can become sons, but only by adoption.

For Thompson, however, the vital nature of the “father” metaphor, and its extension into an important model for theology and christology, are fundamental. This is evident in her emphasis on God as the source of life and her analysis of the ways in which this understanding of God as father shapes the Gospel’s discourses. My own article begins with the assumption that the father metaphor was indeed a vibrant and rich model that extended beyond its role as a paradigm for the social, affective, and salvific relationship between the father and the son back to the process of generation itself.

The papers by Staley and Willett Newheart similarly assume the ongoing vitality of the father metaphor and use it in its Johannine configuration as a model through which to think through other texts as well as their own experiences. These papers take the metaphor back home, so to speak. That is, Staley and Willett Newheart take a human concept such as father, as it has been used metaphorically to describe God, and then bring those associations back to consider their own human roles as fathers and sons. The readings in this volume therefore exemplify not only a variety of approaches to the “God as father” metaphor but also the diverse assessments of its content and function with the Fourth Gospel and in Christian theology.

Future Research

As Sharon Ringe notes in her response, this volume does not solve or resolve the “problem” of paternal God-language in this Gospel. It is likely that solutions or resolutions are not possible in any definitive sense; there are no doubt some readers of the Fourth Gospel for whom it does not constitute a problem at all; those troubled by the “father” metaphor, whether on feminist or other grounds, will not all be satisfied by the same solutions. It is my hope that this volume will be helpful for those who wish to think more about the range of issues raised by the use of paternal God-language in this Gospel.

If it does not offer definitive solutions, the volume does illustrate some of the directions that research and thinking about this topic might take. Some of these articles themselves are parts of larger studies that have been or soon will be published (Widdicombe, Anderson, Willett Newheart, Staley, Thompson). Perhaps these essays will spur additional research, for example, on the Jewish and Greco-Roman background to the “father” metaphor, in order to continue reflection on Jesus’ own use of the title and how it might have resonated with the early audiences of the Gospel of John. Also of value would be additional studies of the ways in which the “father” image is read in a number of interpretive communities, such as Latin American, Asian, Asian American, African, Caribbean, and African American. Finally, the conversation regarding feminist theological approaches to and evaluations of the “father” metaphor is not yet concluded. How, for example, might a woman interact with this image in autobiographical reflections? The fact that paternal God-language is so intertwined with many aspects of Christian theology ensures that the investigation of its meanings and functions is by no means at an end.

Two technical points must be mentioned. First, translations of biblical material are from the New Revised Standard Version (1989) unless otherwise noted. Secondly, attentive readers will notice that the volume has not imposed uniformity on the use of “father” or “Father.” In the process of editing, it seemed to me that this topic presents us with a case of orthography as theology. For some authors, “Father” clearly functions as a divine title, at least as it is used in the Gospel of John. Others retain the lowercase “f” to emphasize its metaphoric nature. I have followed the practice of each author and attempted to ensure that the usage is internally consistent within each essay while accepting inconsistency in the volume as a whole.

Works Consulted

McFague, Sallie

1982    Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Soskice, Janet Martin

1985    Metaphor and Religious Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

1992    “Can a Feminist Call God ‘Father’?” Pp. 15–29 in Women’s Voices: Essays in Contemporary Feminist Theology. Ed. Teresa Elwes. London: Marshall Pickering.

“Show Us the Father, and We Will Be Satisfied” (John 14:8)

Gail R. O’Day

Candler School of Theology, Emory University


This paper reviews four dominant approaches to the study of God as “Father” in John: historical Jesus research, feminist inquiry, the relationship of John to early Christian doctrine, narrative critical studies of God as character. Despite the differences in these approaches, they have in common the tendency to isolate “Father” from the dynamics of the larger Gospel narrative in which it resides. The fundamental role played by “Father” in shaping the Gospel’s many discourses still remains largely unexamined.

The brief conversation between Philip and Jesus at the start of the Farewell Discourse (14:8–9) provides a useful beginning point for thinking about the state of critical inquiry into “Father” in the Gospel of John.

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?”

Philip’s request is met by Jesus with a response that borders on astonishment, that Philip, so long into his relationship with Jesus, could continue to ask for something that has already been amply demonstrated. The mere mention of the topic “Father in John” in contemporary scholarship is apt to evoke a comparable response from one’s listeners: “Have you been studying so long and you still do not know? How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’ ”

Indeed, the well-known and frequently cited lexical statistic that “Father” occurs approximately 118 times in the Fourth Gospel suggests that the terrain in which any quest for “God as Father” in John is to be undertaken is already well mapped. The very frequency of the noun “Father” in reference to God has led interpreters to traverse the Fourth Gospel landscape in well-worn paths. With the aid of such clearly recognizable road markers, one begins to assume with some certainty what the vista at the next turn of the path will be. Indeed, these 118 references are so taken for granted by most readings of the Fourth Gospel that they are passed by unnoticed, no longer viewed as a variable part of the landscape.

This is nowhere more obvious than in the centuries of critical commentaries on the Fourth Gospel. The noun “Father” (πατήρ) first occurs at two crucial junctures in the prologue: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (1:14); and “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (1:18). While commentaries devote considerable space to the discussion of λόγος, σάρξ, σκηνόω, δόξα, and μονογενής, the noun πατήρ does not receive comparable attention. John Calvin, for example, provides detailed exegetical comment on “the Word became flesh,” “flesh,” “and dwelt among us,” “And we beheld his glory,” “as of,” “the only begotten,” “full of grace,” and “the bosom of the Father,” but leaves πατήρ without comment (19–22, 25–26). Bultmann devotes pages to σάρξ and δόξα, but not a word to πατήρ (66–72). So, too, Hoskyns, Barrett, Brown, Beasley-Murray, Schnackenburg—none devotes exegetical space to the noun πατήρ itself. “Father” is most frequently accepted as a straight-forward descriptive noun that requires no comment. Commentators do not stop to question or examine the choice of the metaphor “Father” to speak of God here but simply receive it as a given in the text.2

“God as Father” in John becomes a focused topic of inquiry in four main areas of New Testament research: historical Jesus research, feminist inquiry, study of the relationship between John and later Christian doctrine, and narrative critical studies of God as character. Even in these more focused inquiries, however, the 118 easily identifiable lexical road markers and the attendant assumptions about the familiarity of the terrain may again mask the complexity and variety of the landscape.

In historical Jesus research, to begin with, “Father” is primarily investigated for what it has to say about the prayer language of the historical Jesus and Jesus’ mode of addressing God. The defining treatment of this is the work of Jeremias (1966, 1967), whose primary concern was to sift through the layers of gospel tradition to arrive at the authentic sayings of Jesus. For Jeremias, it was beyond dispute that the address of God in prayer as ἀββά (Abba) was an authentic word of Jesus and that this Aramaic word should always translate the Greek vocative, πάτερ, whenever it was used by Jesus in prayer. Jeremias based his claim on the appearance of ἀββά at Mark 14:36 and extrapolated from there to Jesus’ prayers in all the Gospels (1967:54–57).

The Fourth Gospel presents two major problems for the thesis advocated by Jeremias and that still holds sway in many readings of “Father” in John. First, the vocative case of Father (πάτερ) occurs infrequently in John. The noun occurs most frequently in the nominative and accusative cases and is found in Jesus’ speech about, not to, God. Jeremias eliminates this problem by maintaining that the use of “Father” as a title for God does not belong to the authentic words of Jesus but was introduced by later writers in a traditioning process that is most evident in the Fourth Gospel. Thus the preponderance of nonvocative uses of “Father” in John is by definition excluded from consideration. Second, the specific contours of the vocative when it is used in John are also largely overlooked. Of the nine occurrences of the vocative in John, two are modified by adjectives—holy (17:11), righteous (17:25)—that are quite common in the Hebrew Bible as divine attributes (e.g., 1 Sam 2:2; Pss 5:8; 11:7; 89:14, 16, 18; 97:6, 12; 99:5, 9; 111:3, 9; 119:137). Jesus’ use of these adjectives in his prayer to God suggests that πάτερ is not necessarily and always the unique and intimate form of address that Jeremias claims (1967:57–63).

These serious problems notwithstanding, much scholarly and popular discussion of “Father” in John continues to be refracted through the dominant lens of ἀββά and the Lord’s Prayer. The distinctive and dominant role of “Father” in the Fourth Gospel’s portrayal of God and Jesus becomes a simple variant (aberration?) of the synoptic norm of address to God in prayer. Yet “Father” belongs primarily to the language of discourse and debate in John, not prayer. To understand Father in the Johannine sayings of Jesus, this discursive language, not the prayer language of the synoptic tradition, must be the starting point of investigation.

The 118 occurrences of πατήρ in John also have been significant road markers for feminist scholars who attempt to traverse the Fourth Gospel terrain. John provides much raw material for biblical scholars and theologians who struggle with issues of the gender of God and the blatant and latent patriarchal assumptions that accompany the use of “Father” language to speak of God. Not surprisingly, the primary focus of such investigations is not on the function of “Father” in John per se, but on the broader horizons of Christian theological language, ethics, and often church governance and politics (e.g., Schneiders, Johnson).

A recent article, “Beyond Suspicion? The Fatherhood of God in the Fourth Gospel” (Lee) is a good example of an attempt to merge the broader feminist conversations and Fourth Gospel studies. As the title suggests, Lee reads “Father” in John with a hermeneutic of suspicion and notes the patriarchal assumptions at work in the context out of which the Fourth Gospel emerged. Lee proposes to take a hermeneutic of suspicion one step further by suggesting that the use of “Father” in John is itself a suspicious reading of its own patriarchal context. For Lee, the Fourth Gospel challenges the patriarchal projections that seem to be inherent in the noun “Father” and inverts their conventional meanings. Patriarchal “power” in John comes from giving away, not keeping, and the Father/Son relationship models the intimacy necessary for full human personhood (147–51).

Lee’s reading has in its favor that it deals with “Father” principally in its Johannine context and attempts to understand its functions in the theological and social world constructed and communicated by the Fourth Gospel. Her reading represents a type of feminist reading in which patriarchal images are not rejected as antithetical to feminist interests but are reinterpreted as supportive of the most basic feminist values. Yet Lee also tends to follow the well-trodden paths of “God as Father” in John. Note, for example, that Lee states explicitly what most commentators tend to assume implicitly: θεός and πατήρ are interchangeable in John (145). This type of feminist approach, then, like commentary that simply accepts the use of “Father” as a given, also offers limited access to the distinctive Johannine rhetoric for God.

“Father” in John also assumes prominence in conversations about the relationship of New Testament texts and early Christian doctrine, particularly the early creeds. For example, the phrase from the Apostles’ Creed, “God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth” was the impetus for Juel and Keifert to study the doctrine of God in the Fourth Gospel (1990). The two authors are explicit about the pointed and potentially offensive Father language for God in John (44) and struggle to make sense of this language in light of the other affirmations about God in the creed. They recognize “Father” as the metaphor that is “most appropriate” for God in this Gospel because “it focuses on the single issue on which everything else depends—God’s relationship to Jesus” (52). They conclude that together the two creedal affirmations about “Father” and “Maker of heaven and earth” capture the heart of Johannine theology: for John, the creator of the world, that is, Israel’s God, and the Father—the one who is in relationship with the Son—can only be one and the same God (52).

As soon as the rhetoric of “Father” and “Maker of heaven and earth” are equated, however, the specificity of the Johannine Father language begins to wane in influence on the theological conversation that follows. Despite their careful concordance work, Juel and Keifert assume that “Father” is simply a synonym for God. For example, they write that “Jesus is the sole way to God” (52), when the Fourth Gospel speaks of “the Father” in that context (14:6). They also take the frequency with which Jesus speaks about God in John to show that “God is clearly a participant in the drama recounted by the evangelist” (44). They do not, however, reflect on the difference between being talked about and being given one’s own speaking part—something that occurs rarely, if ever, for God in John (perhaps only at 12:29). In order to understand the place of “Father” in John, one needs to linger inside the Gospel’s theological rhetoric.

Narrative critical studies is another arena where “Father” now receives focused attention, in particular, in literary critical studies of characterization. This approach has tended to focus on God as a character in the Johannine narrative (e.g., Thompson, Tolmie) and on “Father” as one, if not the main, clue to God’s character. The operative approach of narrative critical study is to attend to the textual details of the Fourth Gospel narrative. One does not begin with external constructions about God—whether those be derived from the synoptic tradition, feminism, or early Christian doctrine—but instead one works to surface the Fourth Gospel’s own narrative and theological constructions. Thompson, in her careful analysis, notes that “Father” is the most significant designation of God in John. She also notes that this designation appears solely in the words of others, most notably Jesus, and never in any direct speech of God. Moreover, she notes that the Fourth Gospel lacks any explicit description of God and God’s actions, in striking contrast to much of the biblical witness. She therefore concludes that it is Jesus’ prerogative to identify God as “Father” and that the significance of the identification lies in the familial relationship it establishes (189, 194–96).

Studies of God as character rightly highlight the near absence of any nonmediated presence of God in the Fourth Gospel (mediated either by the words of the narrator or the words and deeds of Jesus), but rarely use this observation to ponder the appropriateness of applying the narrative critical category of “character.” The “Father” is talked about by Jesus more frequently than the “Father” appears as a visible, independent, active agent in the story line. This pattern drives one back to struggle with the discourses of the Gospel. Yet the literary critical questions that are most often brought to bear are more suited to story than to theological exposition and debate.

Each of the four lines of inquiry briefly traced above suggests that studies of “Father” in John tend to look at πατήρ as a category unto itself in the Fourth Gospel. As a result, “Father” can lose its dynamic connection to the unfolding of the Gospel in which it resides. Its 118 occurrences give πατήρ prominence on the Fourth Gospel landscape, but much of the study of “Father” seems to have heeded the markers without heeding the variety and texture of the terrain in which the markers are placed. In particular, the fundamental role played by “Father” in giving shape and substance to the Gospel’s many discourses needs to move to the forefront of scholarly attention. “Father” is not simply the Gospel’s preferred name for God; it is the Gospel’s primary metaphor for shaping theological discourse. This larger role of “Father” needs to be examined throughout the Gospel. To arrive at even a hint of satisfaction in the quest to “see the Father,” broad observations about the 118 occurrences of “Father” need to be set aside in favor of concentrated attention on the complex inter-relationship of “Father” and its specific Gospel contexts.

Works Consulted

Barrett, C. K.

1978    The Gospel according to St. John. 2d ed. Philadelphia: Westminster.

Beasley-Murray, George R.

1987    John. WBC 36. Waco, Tex.: Word.

Brown, Raymond E.

1966–70    The Gospel according to John. AB 29 and 29A. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Bultmann, Rudolf

1971    The Gospel of John. Trans. G. R. Beasley-Murray, R. W. N. Hoare and J. K. Riches. Philadelphia: Westminster.

Calvin, John

1959    The Gospel according to St. John 1–10. Trans. T. H. L. Parker. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd.

Hamerton-Kelly, Robert

1979    God the Father: Theology and Patriarchy in the Teaching of Jesus. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Hoskyns, E. C.

1947    The Fourth Gospel. Ed. F. N. Davey. London: Faber & Faber.

Jeremias, Joachim

1966    Abba. Studien zur neutestamentlichen Theologie und Zeitgeschichte. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

1967    The Prayers of Jesus. Trans. John Bowden. London: SCM.

Johnson, Elizabeth A.

1992    She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. New York: Crossroad.

Juel, Donald, and Patrick Keifert

1990    “I Believe in God’: A Johannine Perspective.” Horizons in Biblical Theology 12:39–60.

Lee, Dorothy

1995    “Beyond Suspicion? The Fatherhood of God in the Fourth Gospel.” Pacifica 8:140–54.

O’Day, Gail R.

1995    The Gospel of John. NIB 9. Nashville: Abingdon.

Schnackenburg, Rudolf

1982    The Gospel according to St. John. 3 vols. New York: Seabury.

Schneiders, Sandra A.

1986    Women and the Word: The Gender of God in the New Testament and the Spirituality of Women. New York: Paulist.

Thompson, Marianne Meye

1993    “God’s Voice You Have Never Heard, God’s Form You Have Never Seen’: The Characterization of God in the Gospel of John.” Semeia 63:177–204.

Tolmie, D. Francois

1998    “The Characterization of God in the Fourth Gospel.” JSNT 69:57–75.

Westcott, B. F.

1908    The Gospel according to St. John. London: John Murray.

“The Living Father”

Marianne Meye Thompson

Fuller Theological Seminary


The primary understanding of God as Father in John comes to expression in John 5:26: “Just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.” In the Gospel of John, Jesus is the unique Son, the one heir of the Father, who receives life from the Father and in turn gives it to others. This familial relationship, construed in terms of the father’s life-giving role, defines the relationship of Jesus to God, and further becomes the basis for a number of claims made for Jesus, including his authority to judge, to give life, to mediate knowledge of the Father and to reveal him, to do the works and will of the Father, and therefore to receive honor, as even the Father does. The view of God as the Father of Jesus also goes a long way towards accounting for the Johannine emphasis on “life.”

The most common designation for God in John is “Father.” John uses “Father” about 120 times, more often than all the other Gospels combined. By comparison, “God” (θεός) appears in John 108 times. But the pattern of the references is even more revealing of the significance of “Father” in John. The first references to God as Father are found in the prologue, where God is specifically depicted as the Father of the only Son, Jesus (1:14, 18). In both passages the term μονογενής (only, unique) emphasizes that Jesus is the only Son of the Father. Subsequent references to God as Father occur in the Gospel almost exclusively in the words of Jesus. Jesus refers to God as “my Father,” or as “the Father,” and most distinctively as “the Father who sent me.” A few references to God as Father are found in editorial comments, where again Jesus’ unique sonship is in view. For example, in John 5:18, the author states that Jesus was charged with calling “God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God” (5:18; cf. 8:27).

John also exemplifies the pattern, found in the Synoptic Gospels as well, that not only do almost all the references to God as Father occur in sayings of Jesus, but it is only Jesus who addresses God as father. Over 85 times we have simply “the Father” in the words of Jesus in John. Jesus speaks of “my Father” about two dozen times, and he addresses God simply as “Father” nine times (once, “holy Father”). Once he speaks to his disciples of God as “your Father” (20:17). Nowhere in the Gospel does Jesus speak of God as “our Father” in a way that includes the disciples with him in such a designation, or in a form of address commended to the disciples as their own. There are but two exceptions to this pattern. In John 8, “the Jews” argue that they have God as father (8:41), but this is a claim that Jesus disputes (8:42). Apparently, then, only Jesus may properly speak of and to God as “Father.”

Given the frequency of the term “Father” in the Gospel of John, one might naturally conclude that it has simply become a substitute for “God,” functioning as do a variety of epithets for God, such as “the Blessed” or “the Most High” or “the Almighty” in other New Testament texts, as well as in literature of Judaism. And yet this is not the case. “God” and “Father” are not simply interchangeable. For example, formulations that refer to the Son as being “sent” belong primarily to the Gospel’s “Father” terminology. It is the Father who sends the Son. Likewise, Jesus is said not to do “the will of God,” but the “will of the Father.” Thus there are distinct patterns of usage that illumine the meaning of “Father” in the Gospel and suggest why it has become the most important term, other than θεός (God) itself, to refer to God. It is these patterns of usage, the particular formulations and contexts in which “Father” appears, that give shape and content to God’s fatherhood in the Gospel of John. Particularly telling is the way in which God’s actions as Father are focused on Jesus himself. It is Jesus who speaks of, and addresses, God as Father. Jesus speaks but rarely even to his own disciples of God as their father, and then only after the resurrection. In short, according to the Gospel it is the prerogative of Jesus to address God as Father and to speak of God in these terms. Hence, to understand God as Father in John demands a concentrated focus on the relationship of the Son and Father.

The primary understanding of God as Father in John comes to expression in John 5:26: “Just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.” In the Gospel of John, Jesus is the Son who receives life from the Father and in turn gives it to others. This fundamental relationship, this “kinship” of God and Jesus as Father and Son, becomes the basis for a number of claims made for Jesus. These claims include his authority to judge, to give life, to mediate knowledge of the Father and to reveal him, to do the works and will of the Father, and therefore to receive honor, as even the Father does. Such assertions depend on the unity and love between the Father and Son, unity and love that are construed in terms of kinship. It is this basic relationship, the relationship of parent and child, father and son, and not any specific characteristic behavior or obligation of a father, which forms the basis for delineating the relationship of Jesus and God in the Fourth Gospel. That is, in John it is not a particular characteristic or attribute of God that shapes understanding of him as Father, but rather the fundamental reality that a father’s relationship to his children consists first in terms simply of giving them life. What it means to be a father is to be the origin or source of the life of one’s children. For John, this pertains to the fact that the Father has given life to the Son and through the Son mediated life to others, who become “children of God” (1:12; 11:52; see 1 John 3:1–2).

This view of God as Father is closely linked with the understanding of a father as the head of a clan or family, and hence the “ancestor” who gives life and bequeaths an inheritance to his heirs. In the Hebrew Bible God is the Father of Israel as its founder, the ancestor of the “clan” of the Israelite nation insofar as he called it into being (Jer 31:9; Deut 32:4–6; cf. Deut 32:18; Isa 64:8–9) (Mason: 52; Jeremias: 13). Just as a human father provides an inheritance to his firstborn son (Zech 12:10; Mic 6:7; Gen 49:3; Exod 13:15), so God provides Israel, God’s “firstborn,” with an inheritance (Jer 3:19; 31:9; Isa 61:7–10; 63:16; Zech 9:12). The inheritance is passed down from father to son—to one son—as an exclusive birthright. In the Gospel of John, it is to this one Son that the Father gives life; that Son becomes the Father’s exclusive heir. The Son in turn may bestow what he has received from the Father to others. In order to flesh out this understanding of God as Father in John, we will turn first to look very briefly at the understanding of God as “the living God” in the Hebrew Bible, as well as in a few first-century Jewish writers. The basic view of God as the one who lives eternally and so is the only source of life for the world fits integrally with John’s view of God as the life-giving Father, crystallized in the phrase “the living Father.” After that, we shall examine a few key passages in John in which this view of the relationship of Father and Son comes to expression.

“The Living Father”

Although “Father” often tends to stand on its own, it is modified once by the adjective “holy” (17:11), a number of times by the personal pronoun “my” (5:17; 6:32, 40; 8:19, 38, 49, 54; 10:18, 29, 37; 14:7, 20, 21, 23; 15:1, 8, 15, 23, 24; 20:17), frequently by the relative clause “who sent me” (5:37; 6:44; 8:18; 12:49), and only once, but tellingly, by the adjective “living” (6:57). God is “the living Father.” This phrase mirrors the common designation of God as “the living God,” which had become quite common by the first century. The phrase occurs about a dozen times in the New Testament. It is found, for example, in Matthew’s version of Peter’s confession of Jesus: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God” (Matt 16:16; see also 26:63; Acts 14:15; Rom 9:26; 2 Cor 3:3; 6:16; 1 Thess 1:9; 3:13; 1 Tim 4:10; Heb 3:12; 9:14; 10:31; 12:22). In the polemic of the Hebrew Bible, the epithet “living God” contrasts the Lord who creates, with “dead idols” made by human hands (1 Sam 17:26, 36; 2 Kgs 19:4, 16; Jer 23:36; Deut 5:26; Josh 3:10; Pss 42:3; 84:3; Isa 40:18–20; 41:21–24; 44:9–20, 24; 45:16–22; 46:5–7). “[Idols] are the work of the artisan and of the hands of the goldsmith.… they are all the product of skilled workers. But the Lord is the true God; he is the living God and the everlasting King” (Jer 10:9–10). The contrast thus also emphasizes that the living God is not a created artifact, but rather the creator and source of life (Ps 36:9; Jer 2:13; Ezek 37:1–4).

This designation of God as “the living God” serves in later Jewish monotheistic polemic to underscore the unity and uniqueness of God. One of the clear corollaries of belief in the uniqueness of the living God, or in God’s eternal existence, is the affirmation of God as creator of the world. Consequently, where some variation of the phrase “living God” or “everlasting God” is absent, one often finds instead a description of God as Creator, or as the source of all life. Sirach explicitly joins God’s eternal existence with God’s creation of the world: “He who lives forever created the whole universe” (18:1). For Philo, of course, God’s eternity is the self-evident truth about God; God is “the one who is” (ὁ ὤν). God is the sole uncreated—hence eternal—being, and so necessarily the source of the life of the world (Her. 42.206); Creator and Maker (Spec. 1.30; Somn. 1.76; Mut. 29; Decal. 61); planter of the world (Conf. 196); Father; Parent (Spec. 2.197); “Cause of all things” (Somn. 1.67); Fountain of life (Fug. 198). That God creates all that is rests on the assumption that God is the only ungenerated being. For Philo, in other words, God is the “unmoved mover.” Eternal existence and creation go together. To be sure, Philo has interpreted these biblical themes in light of his Platonism, but nevertheless they are tenets that he both affirms and develops.

Similar views are found throughout Josephus’s writings. Josephus writes that God is “the beginning and middle and end of all things,” who created the world “not with hands, not with toil, not with assistants of whom He had no need” (Ag. Ap. 2.190–92; cf. Ant. 8.280, “the beginning and end of all”). In fact, Josephus argues that the etymology of the Greek word Zeus “shows” the proper understanding of deity, for the name comes from the fact that “he breathes life (ζῆν) into all creatures” (Ant. 12.22). Once Josephus asserts that “the only true God is ὁ ὤν” (“the one who is”; Ant. 8.350). Josephus likewise assumes that the God of Israel is “the God who made heaven and earth and sea” (Ag. Ap. 2.121, 190–91). In describing the zealous piety of the Essenes, Josephus states that they pray before and after meals in order “to do homage to God as the bountiful giver of life” (B.J., 2.131).

One could easily multiply texts that assume God’s eternity, and particularly, God’s creation of all that is, to show that for Jewish authors of the period, the uniqueness of Israel’s God was lodged in God’s creation of all the world. God is “the Lord God who gives life to all things” (Jos. Asen. 8:4), the “Creator of all things” who, in his mercy, gives “life and breath” (2 Macc 1:24; 7:23). Precisely in this life-giving activity, God is unique. Echoing the words of Isaiah, one of the scrolls from Qumran reads, “You are the living God, you alone, and there is no other besides you” (4Q504 = Words of the Luminariesa V, 9).

Hence the corollary of monotheism, of belief in one God, is belief that this God is the creator of all that is. There is only one God who, in contrast to idols and false gods, is the living God; and that living God is the source of all life.

The phrase “the living God” does not occur in the Gospel of John. But the interesting variation, “the living Father,” does occur. The occurrence of the phrase “living Father,” rather than “living God,” is not simply an incidental variant. Rather, the epithet embodies within it the conviction that as the eternally existent, living God, God alone is the source of all life. But since life is bestowed by the Father through the Son, the life-giving aspect of God’s activity is illumined by an image drawn from the human sphere of paternal relationship. The affirmation that God is “Father” cannot be separated from the affirmation that God is the source of life, nor from the conviction that the life of the Father has been given to, and comes to human beings through, the Son. Consequently, within the Gospel of John, the commonplace that God is the living God appears within polemic contexts (chs. 5 and 6) precisely as the warrant for the claims about the life-giving work of Jesus, the Son.

Indeed, the Johannine emphasis on God as “the living Father” goes a long way towards explaining the prominence of the theme of life in the Gospel. Taken together, the ideas of God as “Father,” and hence the source of life, and of God as the living God, the creator of all that is, account for the belief that God gives life through the Son who derives his life from the Father. A father gives life to his son; indeed, a son by definition is one who has life from his father. So also, the Father gives life to his Son; the Son by definition has life from his Father. And therefore through him life can be given to others as well; through the Son others become children of God. These virtually tautologous statements can be unpacked by looking briefly at the fundamental assertion that the Son has life even as the Father has it and that through faith in the Son one has life in the present.

“As the Father Has Life in Himself”

We may turn, then, to look briefly at those verses that I earlier suggested provide the foundation for understanding God as Father in John: “Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself” (John 5:25–26). According to these verses, those who hear the voice of the Son of God will live, because the Son “has life in himself” even as the Father does. The parallel clauses in these verses assert life-giving prerogatives of both the Father and the Son. These predications are striking for, as already noted, in biblical thought and later developments, the power to give life is attributed to God alone. As C. K. Barrett comments, “This expression, denoting exact parallelism between the Father and the Son, is the keynote of this paragraph” (1978:260). But the question remains wherein this “exact parallelism” consists. Barrett himself explicates it as “the complete continuity between the work of the Father and the work of the Son.” Hence the emphasis is on the functional unity of Father and Son. Raymond Brown asserts that the life in view is not the inner life of the Godhead but rather the “creative life-giving power” exercised toward human beings (215).

On this view, the Gospel is not addressing the nature of the relationship or the unity of Father and Son, but rather is characterizing the unity of their work. The Father’s work and prerogative are to grant life, and because he grants this prerogative to the Son, the Son participates in the Father’s work. This interpretation of the relationship of Father and Son has much to commend it. The Gospel does indeed argue that the work of the Son is the very work of the Father and that the Father does his work through the Son. Hence the most famous of all the Johannine assertions regarding the unity of the Father and Son, namely, “I and the Father are one” (10:30), actually refers in context to Jesus’ promise that the Father and Son are one in the work of preserving the sheep of the fold from loss or harm. “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (10:28–29 RSV).

But these remarkable verses regarding the parallel life-giving powers of Father and Son in the Fourth Gospel press further. The life-giving prerogative does not remain external to the Son. He does not receive it merely as a mission to be undertaken. It is not simply some power he has been given. Rather, the Son partakes of the very life of the Father: the Son has life in himself. Therefore, when Jesus confers life on those who believe, they also participate in and have to do with the life of the Father, because the Father has given the Son to have life in himself, even as he has it (Grayston: 51). Such predications assume and are dependent upon the conviction that there is but one God, one source of life. Jesus is not a second deity, not a second source of life, standing alongside the Father. Rather, the Son confers the Father’s life, which he has in himself. Hence the formulation assumes the unity of the life-giving work of Father and Son, but it also predicates a remarkable status of the Son, one that is not made of any other creature or entity. The Son “has life in himself.”

Yet it is important to note that this statement does not stand on its own. The Son has life in himself because “the Father has granted it” to him. Precisely in holding together the affirmations that the Son has “life in himself” with the affirmation that he has “been given” such life by the Father, we find the uniquely Johannine characterization of the relationship of the Father and the Son. The Father does not give the Son some thing, power, or gift; the Father gives the Son life. Therefore, the Son has the power to confer life. This power is attributed in the Fourth Gospel to Jesus’ words (5:25; 6:63) and to his signs, which are God’s life-giving work effected through him (10:38; 14:11). God’s fatherhood, God’s life-giving power, is effected through and in the work of the Son. It is as the one who gives life that God is Father. Through the work and words of the Son, the Father’s life-giving power becomes embodied, rather than remaining merely a cipher or idea, and thus God’s identity as Father is concretely realized.

The one verse in John that uses the phrase “the living Father” reads as follows: “As the living Father sent me, and I live because of (διά) the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of (διά) me” (6:57). Here again the Father is described as the one who gives life, and the Son is the one who receives it. Unless Jesus’ life were granted to him from the Father, he would have no life; unless he came from the “living Father,” he would be unable to confer life.

Both verses (5:26; 6:57) do speak of Jesus’ power and authority to give life to others. In chapter 5, Jesus says that those who “hear the voice of the Son of God … will live.” In the “bread of life” discourse in chapter 6, Jesus states that “whoever eats me will live because of me.” These two verses make it clear that Jesus confers the life he has from the Father on others. While there is an analogy between the way in which God gives life to Jesus and Jesus in turn confers it on others, there is not perfect parallelism. On the one hand, there is analogy: Just as the Father has life and gives life to the Son, so the Son has life and gives life to those who have faith (Haenchen: 296). Jesus lives because of the Father’s determination that he should have life in himself (cf. 5:21, 24–27), even as believers live because of Jesus’ determination that they should have life. And yet there is a difference, a breach of the parallelism as well (Carson: 299). Believers always have mediated life, never “life in themselves.” They cannot pass on their “life” to others; they have no offspring or heirs. If others live, it is because they receive the Father’s life through the Son. These differences are expressed in terminological distinctions: those who have faith are children of God (τέκνα), but Jesus is the Son (υἱός), indeed the “only” Son (μονογενής). Furthermore, Jesus is not “born of God” or “born from above,” as are those who have faith in him. Rather, he is from God; he comes from above. He has life in himself, just as the Father does.

The scope of these assertions encompasses God’s life-giving work from creation to resurrection. God is the living and life-giving Creator, who exercises sovereignty over all life. The work of creation, the universal sovereignty over creation, and its expected final redemption are all carried on in the Gospel through the Son and are all expressed in terms of life. At the very outset of the Gospel, we read this affirmation, “All things were made through [the Logos], and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life” (1:3–4 RSV). These verses underscore the presence and agency of the Logos in creation. That same word “became flesh” in Jesus of Nazareth, to whom has been given the power to give life in works and words. Jesus acts and speaks, and the dead come forth from their tombs (5:28–29). His words are “spirit and life” (6:63); in fact, he is life (11:25; 14:6). And Jesus’ life-giving works also anticipate the final resurrection at the last day, which he himself effects (6:39, 40, 44, 54; 7:37; 11:24; 12:48). In short, the life-giving work of the Father in the Son does not refer to a single event but to the all-encompassing creative and sustaining work of God, which has past, present, and future reference points.

“The Father Who Sent Me”

On the lips of Jesus, God is repeatedly designated not only as Father but as “the Father who sent me.” This description underscores the distinctiveness of Jesus’ relationship to God as “Father” in several ways. First, the expression highlights the unique way in which God is the Father of Jesus. God is “the Father who sent me.” When John the Baptist is said to be “sent by God” the designation “Father” is conspicuous by its absence. The only other figure sent by the Father is the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit. Second, the very use of the relative clause, in Greek a participial form (Ὁ ΠΈΜΨΑΣ ΜΕ ΠΑΤΉΡ), designates the Father as the one who sends. It makes the Father the subject and initiator of the Son’s activity (Fennema: 4), and thus the participial phrase identifies the Father by means of his action with respect to the Son. Third, the emphasis on God as the Father who has “sent” the Son introduces a new element into the description of the relationship of Father and Son. Not only is God “Father,” but God is “the Father who sent me.” The language of sending reflects a view of the Son as an emissary or agent who is sent by another to carry out a task or fulfill a commission. Indeed, the Son is identified primarily in terms of the one sent to carry out that mission, and the Father as the one who sends the Son.

Because of the prominence of “sending” language, John’s christology is often understood against the background of the role of the “agent.” This refers to a business or legal relationship or role, rather than to a specifically “religious” function or figure, like a prophet. In the rabbinic writings, one often finds this statement: “The one who is sent is like the one who sent him” (m. Ber. 5:5; b. B. Mesi˓a 96a; b. Hag. 10b; b. Menah. 93b; b. Naz. 12b; b. Qidd. 42b, 43a; Mek.
Ex. on Exod 12:3 and 6). Hence, if one transacts any business with the agent, the one who is sent, it is as though one had transacted it with the one who sent that agent. For all practical purposes, there is a functional, albeit limited and temporary, equality. This category of agency is often deemed helpful in interpreting certain passages in John, such as, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”

But John takes this tradition in a somewhat different direction when, in addition to stressing the virtual equality of the one who is sent with the one who sends, he asserts that the one who sends is greater than the one who is sent. So, for example, in John 13:16, Jesus states, “Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them,” a statement that certainly does not stress the equality of the one who is sent and the one who sent him. And then there is the well-known statement, “The Father is greater than I” (14:28). Such formulations in the Gospel are typically labeled as examples of John’s “subordinationism” (Barrett, 1974). But this label is at best misleading, inasmuch as it conceives of the relationship of Father and Son primarily in hierarchical terms. Since John stresses the function of the Father as the one who gives life to his offspring, rather than the role of the Father as the one who instructs or disciplines, statements such as “the Father is greater than I” ought not to be read against a backdrop of patriarchal hierarchy. The Father is the source of the Son’s life; it is as the origin of the Son’s very being that “the Father is greater than I.” This is clear even from the context of that statement, in which Jesus asserts that he returns to the Father, because the Father is greater; that is, he has his origins in the Father (14:28). In the Fourth Gospel, then, the emphasis on the Son as the “agent” who is sent actually serves to shift attention to the Father who sends the Son, and the notion of hierarchy or “superiority” is subsumed into the Father’s life-giving, not “command-giving,” persona.

The case is much the same in considering the issue of Jesus’ “obedience” to the Father. While maintaining the typical view that a true son is one who “does the will of the Father,” John nevertheless stresses rather dramatically the harmony of the Son’s will with the Father’s, interpreting the Son’s obedience as an enactment or expression of the Father’s will, rather than as submission or acquiescence to it. For although the Son is often said to “do the will” (4:34; 5:30; 6:38, 39) or to “do the works” of the Father (5:36; 10:25, 37) the word “obey” is never actually used. Jesus receives and carries out the Father’s commandments (12:49; 14:31; 15:10).

Yet this does not imply that the Johannine Jesus has no will, rather, that Jesus’ will is fully in harmony with that of the Father. Few passages in John illuminate as fully the character of the Son’s “obedience” as do Jesus’ statements regarding his death: “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again; this charge I have received from my Father” (10:17–18). Here Jesus speaks of his death in terms of a “charge” that he received from his Father, a “charge” that encompasses his resurrection as well (10:18). Yet the passage simultaneously stresses Jesus’ sovereignty: he lays down his life freely, not by force (10:18). Indeed, the emphasis on his own initiative sounds a steady drumbeat throughout these two verses: “I lay down my life.” “I take it up again”; “I lay it down of my own accord”; “I have power to lay it down”; “I have power to take it up again.” The climactic statement, “I have received this command from my Father,” stands out almost as a surd elements, for now Jesus’ command over his own life, death, and resurrection is attributed to the command or charge of the Father.

But the dialectic is resolved in the peculiarity of the Father-Son relationship in John, in which the Father not only gives the Son his life but grants it to him to dispose of it as he will—or, as the Father wills. A direct line runs from these statements to the recasting of Jesus’ prayer prior to his death. In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus is shown praying, “Father, take this cup from me; nevertheless, not my will but thine be done.” In John, Jesus prays a rather different prayer. In a clear echo of the prayer of Jesus in the synoptic tradition, Jesus states, “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—’Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour” (12:27). His prayer is a declaration of his intent to do the Father’s will, not a petition that the Father remove the cup. The Son’s obedience to the Father does not establish their unity, nor does it signal his submission to an alien command. Rather, the Son’s “obedience” is the expression of the will of the one who sent him. The will of the Father is embodied in him, even as the Father’s life is embodied in him. As “the Son of the house” (8:35), Jesus is the heir of the Father; he has life from the Father and can bestow it on others; he alone is obedient to the Father. All the elements of genuine sonship are embodied in him, but his mission is to set others free so that they can enter into the Father’s inheritance through him. The exclusivity of Jesus’ sonship actually becomes the means through which others may receive the life and freedom that characterize the true “children of God.”

The Life of the World

In the Gospel of John, the father-son relationship becomes the theological grounding for the predications of the authority and work of the Father given to and embodied in the Son. This is not to say that the imagery of father-son necessarily generated all aspects of John’s christology. But John has made it central. It plays a dominant role, not only in terms of sheer statistics, but also in terms of its power to shape the way in which other imagery is taken up and used. The Son comes “in the name of the Father.” Because the Son has the Father’s life, Father and Son are one, and those who know the Son know the Father. The Son who has the life-giving prerogatives of the Father is “equal to God” (5:18). The Father has placed “all things” into the hands of the Son (3:35; 13:3; cf. 15:15; 16:15); the Father has given “all judgment” to the Son (5:22). As the Son of the Father, Jesus embodies and confers God’s creative and sustaining work. Consequently, God’s identity as “Father” expresses itself first in the specific and distinctive relationship to Jesus, the Son. That God is “Father” is not some “ontological” predication in and of itself, but historically and theologically bound to the Father’s relationship to the Son and to the embodiment of the Father’s life in the Son.

The images of father and son assume at one and the same time an indissoluble unity and a clear separateness. While a son is not his father, no other human relationship connects people in quite the same way as does the relationship of a parent to a child, for this is a relationship in which the very being of the one comes from the other and in which neither has their identity as “father” or “son,” “parent” or “child,” without other. Although the language of “intimacy” is often used to speak of the “relationship” between Jesus and God, this characterization of the relationship between parents and children owes more to Romanticism than to biblical concepts of paternity (Harvey: 158). The Decalogue, after all, commands children to “honor” their father and mother, to esteem and obey them. The father always retains authority, merits honor, and remains the progenitor of his offspring.

Put differently, the idea of relationship construed as “kinship,” rather than as intimacy or some vague notion of “mutuality,” grounds the understanding of “father.” When Jesus calls God “Father,” he points first to the Father as the source or origin of life and to the relationship established as the Father gives life to the Son. But once again these terms apply differently to those “born of God” and to Jesus as the only Son of God. Ultimately it will be through Jesus’ death and resurrection that others are empowered to enter into the life-giving relationship that characterizes the Father and the Son. The command of the risen Jesus to Mary makes clear the new situation: “Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (20:17). This is the first use of the language of family or kinship (ἀδελφούς; “brothers and sisters”) to refer to Jesus’ disciples, and the first and only reference to God as “your Father,” which includes others with Jesus in relationship to God (contrast 8:41, 42, 44). Still there is no reference in John to God as “our Father” in which Jesus includes the disciples together with himself in such address. Here it is still “my Father and your Father.”

The differences between the relationship of Jesus to the Father and of the disciples to the Father remain, but through the life-giving work of the Son, the disciples—and others—enter into the relationship of kinship granted to them by the Son. Not surprisingly, after Jesus’ resurrection, his disciples are referred to with the familiar New Testament designation ἀδελφοί (“brothers and sisters”; 21:23), a term that plays an important role in 1 John as the basis for the call to unity and love (1 John 3:13, 14, 16). Not only is the Father’s life tangibly and concretely embodied in the life and work of the Son, but also in the life of the community and of the members of it. It is not a life which floats abstractly above the real life of women and men in the world. It is life which is embodied, quite literally, in Jesus and his followers. In this way it can indeed become the life for all the world.

Works Consulted

Ashton, John

1991    Understanding the Fourth Gospel. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Barrett, C. K.

1974    “The Father Is Greater Than I’ (Jo 14, 28): Subordinationist Christology in the New Testament.” Pp. 144–59 in Neues Testament und Kirche, für Rudolf Schnackenburg. Ed. J. Gnilka, Freiburg/Basel/Vienna: Herder.

1978    The Gospel according to St. John. 2d ed. Philadelphia: Westminster.

Borgen, Peder

1968    “God’s Agent in the Fourth Gospel.” Pp. 137–48 in Religious in Antiquity. Ed. J. Neusner. Leiden: Brill.

Brown, Raymond E.

1966    The Gospel according to John. Vol. 1. AB 29. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Bühner, J.-A.

1977    Der Gesandte und sein Weg in 4. Evangelium: Die kultur- und religionsgeschichtlichen Grundlagen der johanneischen Sendungschristologie sowie ihre traditionsgeschichtliche Entwicklung. WUNT 2/2. Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr.

Bultmann, Rudolf

1971    The Gospel of John. Trans. G.R. Beasley-Murray, R.W.N. Hoare and J.K. Riches. Philadelphia: Westminster.

Carson, D. A.

1991    The Gospel according to John. Leicester: Inter-Varsity/Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Fennema, David A.

1979    Jesus and God according to John: An Analysis of the Fourth Gospel’s Father/Son Christology. Ph.D. diss., Duke University.

Grayston, Kenneth E.

1990    The Gospel of John. Philadelphia: Trinity.

Haenchen, Ernst

1984    A Commentary on the Gospel of John. Hermeneia. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Harvey, A. E.

1982    Jesus and the Constraints of History. Philadelphia: Westminster.

Jeremias, Joachim

1971    The Prayers of Jesus. Trans. John Bowden. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Mason, Rex

1993    Old Testament Pictures of God. Regent’s Study Guides. Oxford: Regent’s Park College/Macon:Smyth & Helwys.

Meyer, Paul W.

1996    “The Father’: The Presentation of God in the Fourth Gospel.” Pp. 255–73 in Exploring the Gospel of John: In Honor of D. Moody Smith. Ed. R. Alan Culpepper and C. Clifton Black. Lousisville: Westminster/John Knox.

Ridderbos, Herman N.

1997    The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

The Having-Sent-Me Father: Aspects of Agency, Encounter, and Irony in the Johannine Father-Son Relationship

Paul N. Anderson

George Fox College


Is “the Father” portrayed as doing anything in John besides sending the Son? A good question! This pivotal emphasis upon the Son’s being sent from the Father in John functions to legitimate the messianic mission of Jesus and to call Johannine audiences toward a believing response to the divine initiative, as narrated in the Fourth Gospel’s presentation of Jesus’ ministry and its ironic reception. Rooted in the Prophet-like-Moses typology of Deut 18:15–22, the Father-Son relationship becomes the backbone of the Johannine presentation of Jesus’ words and works. Because it is related to the history of the Johannine situation and the composition of the Fourth Gospel, John’s presentation of the “having-sent-me Father” contributes to Johannine theological, sociological, and literary issues.

Does the Father do anything in John besides send the Son? Yes, the Father also loves the Son (3:35; 5:20; 10:17; 15:9; 17:23), has placed all things into his hand (3:35), is worshipped in spirit and in truth (and seeks such to worship him, 4:23), works just as the Son is working (5:17), is imitated by the Son (5:19), shows the Son all that he is doing (5:20), raises and quickens the dead (as does the Son, 5:21), judges no one (but entrusts all judgment to the Son, 5:22), has life in himself and has likewise given to the Son life in himself (and authority and judgment, 5:26–27), gives the Son works to complete (5:36), witnesses concerning the Son (5:37; 8:18), has placed his seal on the Son of Man (6:27), gives now the true bread from heaven (6:32), draws/enables all who come to Jesus (6:44, 65), is heard from and learned from (6:45), is spoken of by Jesus (8:27), has taught and shown Jesus what he speaks about (8:28, 38), is honored by Jesus (8:49), glorifies the Son (8:54; 17:1, 5, 22), knows and is known by the Son (10:15; 17:25–26), gives his commandment to the Son to speak (10:18; 12:49–50; 14:31), entrusts all to the Son (10:29; 13:3; 16:15; 17:7, 10), is one with the Son (10:30; 17:21), sanctifies and sends into the world (10:36; 17:17–18), is in the Son and the Son is in him (10:38; 14:10–11, 20; 17:21), hears Jesus (11:42), will honor any who serve the Son (12:26), is returned to by the Son (13:1; 14:3, 12, 28; 16:10, 17, 28; 20:17), is come to through the Son (14:6), is seen by those who see the Son (14:9), sends the Parakletos (14:16, 26—as does the Son—15:26; 16:8), loves those who love the Son (14:21, 23; 16:27), is loved by the Son (14:31), prunes “branches” to make them more fruitful (15:1), is heard from by the Son (15:15), is hated (15:23–24), is not known (16:3), gives what is asked in the Son’s name (16:23), will be spoken of plainly by the Son (16:25), is with the Son (16:32), keeps believers in the world (17:15), is not known by the world (17:25), is known and made known by the Son (17:25–26), and gives a “cup” for the Son to drink (18:11).

Of course, within and around all of these actions is “the having-sent-me Father” (or God, or “the having-sent-me one”) who sends the Son because of his love for the world (3:16–17, 34; 4:34; 5:23–24, 30, 36–38; 6:29, 37–40, 44, 57; 7:16–18, 28–29, 33; 8:16–18, 26, 28–29, 42; 9:4; 10:36; 11:42; 12:44–45, 49–50; 13:20; 14:24; 15:21; 16:5; 17:3, 8, 18, 21–25; 20:21). So, in answer to the question as to whether the Father in John does anything besides send the Son, the answer is: not much. Most of the Father’s actions in John are tied directly to the emissary mission of the Son, but this leads to the next question: What are the theological implications of such a presentation?

The thesis of this essay is that the Father-Son relationship in John is rooted squarely in the Prophet-like-Moses typology, founded upon the agency motif stemming from Deut 18:15–22. More specifically, the primary importance of “the Father” in John is associated with his sending the Son, and this emissary function is foundational to understanding adequately the Johannine Father-Son relationship. The “having-sent-me Father” legitimates the Son’s mission. To believe in the Son is to believe in the Father who sent him—a response that entailed different things at different times in the evolving history of the Johannine situation. Just as overlooking the sending motif within Johannine christology skews one’s appraisal of the Johannine presentation of Jesus as the Son, so does the failure to appreciate the background and function of the Jewish sending motif distort one’s appraisal of the Johannine presentation of God as the Father. This agency typology appears pervasively in various parts of the Johannine Gospel, suggesting theological, historical, and literary insights into John’s composition and interpretation.

The Having-Sent-Me Father—The Legitimator of the Johannine Jesus

While the participial crafting of the sending motif in John is typical of other grammatical Johannine moves, the references to God as “the having-sent-me Father” (5:23–24, 37; 6:44; 8:18; 12:49; 14:24) and “the having-sent-me one” as an indirect reference to the Father (1:33; 4:34; 5:30; 6:38–39; 7:16, 18, 28, 33; 8:16, 26, 29; 9:4; 12:44–45; 13:20; 15:21; 16:5) are significant theologically. No fewer than twenty-five times in John, God is defined not in terms of ontic aspects of being but by active aspects of doing, the most important of which is launching the mission of the Son. This observation suggests that the Jewish sending motif, rooted in Deut 18:15–22, is essential for understanding the function and identity of Jesus as “the Son” in John; but likewise, so it is with understanding God as “the Father” in John. Consider the following outline of the Gospel’s presentation of God as “the having-sent-me Father”:

Table 1: The Having-Sent-Me Father/One in John

a.    Authentic Representation. The Son’s teaching is not his own (7:16), nor has he come on his own (7:28), nor does he speak on his own behalf (presumptuously), but only as given a commandment to speak (12:49; 14:24) by the having-sent-me Father and to accomplish his will (5:30).

b.    Divine Accountability. The judgment of the Son is valid because it is one with the judgment of the having-sent-me Father (5:30; 8:16), from whom he has heard (5:30; 8:26).

c.    The Son’s Redemptive Mission. Jesus seeks to glorify (7:18), to do the will of, and to accomplish the work of the having-sent-me one (4:34; 6:38; 9:4), which involves losing none of those entrusted to him and raising them up on the last day (6:39).

d.    Divine Enablement Required. No one can “come to” Jesus except by being drawn by the having-sent-me Father (6:44).

e.    The Response of Faith. To hear Jesus’ word and to believe in the having-sent-me one is to receive eternal life and to pass from judgment and death into life (5:24), because whoever believes in Jesus believes in the having-sent-me one (12:44), whoever receives Jesus receives the having-sent-me one (13:20), and whoever has seen Jesus has seen the having-sent-me one (12:45).

f.    The Father’s Legitimation of the Son. The having-sent-me Father testifies on Jesus’ behalf (5:37; 8:18).

g.    Negative Response As Indicative. The ones not honoring the Son do not honor the having-sent-me one (5:23), and those who persecute believers do so because they have not known the having-sent-me one (15:21).

h.    The Return of the Agent to the Sender. Jesus returns to the having-sent-me one (7:33; 16:5).

Nearly all the above participial phrases are presented in the first-person words of Jesus (except for John the Baptist in 1:33) in speaking of the Father who sent him on his mission. They also occur within the narration, the controversy dialogues, and the discourse sections. The “having-sent-me Father” is presented in ways nearly identical with “the having sent me one,” and they may be considered together in terms of content. It is also fair to say that the participial references to the Father’s sending of the Son are thematically consonant with the rest of the presentations of God as Father in John.

When occurrences of “the Father” and “the having-sent-me one” in John are analyzed further, however, several other interesting connections emerge. First, they serve to legitimate the mission of Jesus. In that sense, the sending motif in John declares what Jesus’ signs and works demonstrate. Second, the Mosaic-prophet typology becomes the Johannine way that Jesus’ messiahship is conceived, enacted, and attested. Jesus is to be regarded as the Mosaic prophet, who speaks on the Father’s behalf with authentic congruity. Third, Jesus’ rejection is portrayed ironically in John, employing the Hebraic model of the presumptuous prophet—one who does not speak on behalf of Yahweh, but on his own behalf—as a means of presenting the rejection and death of Jesus. Fourth, one detects several levels of history in these developments. These levels represent the history of Johannine Christianity as it is forged in the dialogue with neighboring Jewish communities in the latter third of the first century. The Mosaic typology appears traditional and early as well as rhetorical and late. By the time the Gospel reached its final form, the “having-sent-me Father” phrase is a Johannine construct, but the Prophet-like-Moses presentation of Jesus’ ministry is more likely rooted in the self-conception of the historical Jesus than are the King-like-David, or thaumaturgic, typologies. The presentation of the Father in John therefore represents both primitive and developed tradition.

The Father-Son relationship in John, however, must first be located within the agency schema associated with Deut 18:15–22 for it to be understood properly. The sending motif and the Son’s representation of the Father are held in tension with the Father’s legitimation of the Son’s mission and debates over such an authorization. This important motif deserves to be teased out in terms of theological, historical, and literary analysis. In doing so, several interesting aspects of agency, encounter, and irony emerge.

Prophet-Like-Moses Agency and Deut 18:15–22—A Key to the Johannine Father-Son Relationship?

The main thing the Father is portrayed as doing in John is sending the Son, and the central aspect of the Son’s mission is his “sent-ness” from the Father. The derivative source of this agency motif, however, is Deut 18:15–22. This passage presents itself in John in several ways. First, significant words in the Septuagintal vocabulary of this significant passage occupy significant thematic roles in John (ΠΡΟΦΉΤΗς, ἈΔΕΛΦΌς, ἈΝΆΣΤΑΣΙς, ἈΚΟΎΩ, ΦΩΝΉ, ῬΗ͂ΜΑ, ΛΑΛΈΩ, ἙΝΤΕΛΛΟΜΑΙ, ὌΝΟΜΑ, and ΓΙΝΩΣΚΩ). Second, the confessional content of what a person is to believe in John often relates to believing that Jesus is “from God,” “sent from the Father,” or “the one coming into the world.” Climactic in the narrative, for instance, is Martha’s confession: “Yes, Lord; I have believed that you are the Christ—the Son of God—the one coming into the world” (11:27). This, and the other aspects of what the reader is expected to believe about Jesus in John, point back to the Prophet-like-Moses schema rooted in Deut 18:15–22. Third, the Father’s sending of the Son is mentioned in all major parts of John—narrative, controversy dialogues, and discourse, a fact that Meyer overlooks (264). Meyer also wrongly attributes the Father’s sending the Son to diachronic factors of composition. Rather, it is found in several strata of the Johannine Gospel. The sending motif is not limited to the discourses. Rather, in nearly all of John’s narrative, dialogue, and discourse sections where the Father is mentioned, some aspect of the Son’s emissary mission is also narrated, as confirmed by the first two paragraphs of the present essay.

A fourth way the influence of the Deuteronomic passage makes itself known in John is the associative links and parallels that occur with every part of its thematic outline. While often allusive, their presence is unmistakable. Consider, for instance, these eight themes from Deut 18:15–22, as represented in John.

Table 2: The Thematic Outline of Deuteronomy 18:15–22 As Found in John

a. 15a, 18a—The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me (Moses) from amidst the brethren.

i.    Jesus—anticipated by (1:17; 3:14; 6:32; 7:19, 22), written about by (1:45; 5:45), and identified as being a Prophet like Moses (6:14–15).

ii.    “The Prophet“—ceded by John the Baptist (1:21–25) and declared to be Jesus by the Samaritan woman (4:19), the Jews (7:40), and the blind man (9:17).

b. 15b—You must listen to him.

i.    The Son bears witness to that which he has seen and heard from the Father (3:32; 5:19, 30; 6:46; 8:26, 38, 40; 14:24; 15:15).

ii.    Hearing the Son implies believing in him (3:36; 5:24; 6:45; 8:51) and knowing his voice (10:3–4, 16; 18:37).

iii.    Rejecting the Son implies neither having heard nor seen the Father (5:37–38; 8:47), and the one not hearing or keeping Jesus’ words receives judgment (12:46–48).

c. 18b—Yahweh will put his words in his (the prophet’s) mouth.

i.    The words of the Father are spoken by Jesus (3:11, 34; 6:63, 68; 7:16–18, 28; 8:28, 38, 55; 12:44–50; 14:24, 31), and those who receive them receive one on whose behalf he speaks (1:12; 3:36; 5:24; 12:44; 13:20; 14:21–24; 15:10).

ii.    Witnesses include: the Baptist (1:6–8, 15, 19, 32–34; 3:26; 5:33–35; 10:41–42); Jesus, who comes as a witness to the Father (3:11, 32–33)—likewise his words and works (2:11, 23; 3:2; 5:17, 36; 6:14; 7:7, 21, 31; 8:14, 19; 9:16; 10:25, 38; 11:18, 45–47; 12:49; 13:21; 14:11, 29; 15:24; 17:4; 18:37; 20:30–31; 21:24–25); the Samaritan woman (4:39); the Bethany crowd and Lazarus (12:17); disciples (15:27; 19:35; 21:24); the Scriptures (5:39); the word from heaven (12:29); and both the Father (5:31–37; 8:18) and the Spirit witness to the veracity of the Son’s work (15:26).

iii.    In John, of course, Jesus not only speaks the word of God; he is the Word of God (1:1, 14).

d. 18c-He shall speak everything Yahweh commands him (= in his name).

i.    The Son’s word is to be equated with that of the Father precisely because he says nothing on his own but only what he hears and sees from the Father (5:19; 10:28–29, 38; 12:49–50; 17:21). Likewise, he carries out identically the commandment of the Lord (10:18; 12:49–50; 14:31; 15:10).

ii.    Jesus comes in the name of the Father (5:43) and the Lord (12:13), and he seeks to glorify the name of the Father (12:28). Jesus has manifested the name of the Father to those given to him, and they are kept in the name of the Father in unity (17:11–12).

iii.    The Son issues a new commandment (13:34; 14:15, 21; 15:10–17), and that which is done in the name of the Son is also efficacious (14:13–14, 26; 15:16; 16:13–14, 26; 20:31), while a scandal to the world (15:21).

e. 19—Whoever does not heed Yahweh’s words, which the prophet speaks in his name, will be held accountable.

i.    Those not receiving the Son or his words believing have already been judged (3:16–18; 12:47), and the Father entrusts all judgment to the Son (5:22, 27) as the truthful words of the Son produce their own judgment if rejected (12:48).

ii.    Eschatologically, the judgment of the world regards the casting out of the ruler of the world and the lifting up of the Son of Man (12:31–36; 16:11), and the Parakletos will be sent as a further agent of revelation and judgment (16:8–11).

f. 20—However, a prophet who presumes to say in the name of Yahweh anything Yahweh has not instructed, or one who speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die.

i.    Jesus is accused of speaking and acting presumptuously in John (“breaking” the Sabbath, 5:16, 18; 7:22–23; 9:16; “deceiving” the crowd, 7:12, 47; and witnessing about himself, 8:13, 53)—and considered as blasphemy are his calling God his “Father” (making himself “equal to God,” 5:18) and accusations of making himself out to be God (10:33) and the Son of God (19:7).

ii.    Thus, the Jewish leaders seek to kill Jesus (5:16, 18; 7:1, 19, 25; 8:37, 40, 59; 10:31; 11:8), or at least to arrest him (7:30, 32, 44; 8:20; 10:39; 11:57). They accuse him of having a demon (7:20; 8:48, 52; 10:20)—or even of being “a Samaritan” (8:48)—and begin to orchestrate his being put to death (11:53; 18:12; 19:7—likewise Lazarus, 12:10).

iii.    They also agree to put “out of the synagogue” anyone who openly acknowledges Jesus to be the Christ (9:22; 12:42; 16:2).

g. 22a—If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord and the word does not take place or does not occur, that is a message the Lord has not spoken.

i.    The words testified about him by the primary Johannine witness (John the Baptist) are true (1:15, 26–27, 29–32, 36; 3:28; 10:41).

ii.    Moses’ writings, the Law, and the Scriptures are fulfilled in the ministry of Jesus (1:45; 2:17, 22; 5:39, 46; 6:45; 7:38; 10:34–36; 12:14–16; 13:18; 15:25; 17:12; 19:24, 28, 36–37; 20:9), confirming the authenticity of his mission.

iii.    The word of Caiaphas regarding Jesus’ sacrificial death is ironically fulfilled (unknowingly, 11:49–52) being the high priest that year; and even Pilate declares, perhaps unwittingly, Jesus to be “the King of the Jews” (19:14–22).

iv.    Predictions and earlier words of Jesus are fulfilled in John, especially about his own departure and glorification (2:19–22; 3:14; 4:50–53; 6:51, 64–65; 7:33–34, 38–39; 8:21, 28; 10:11, 15–18; 11:4, 23; 12:24, 32–33; 13:33, 38; 14:2–3, 18–20, 23; 15:13; 16:16, 20, 28, 32; 18:9, 32). Likewise, Jesus makes several other predictions assumed to have transpired, though not narrated (21:18–19, 22–23).

v.    To remove all doubt, Jesus declares ahead of time what is to take place so that it will be acknowledged that he is sent from God (13:18–19; 14:28–29; 16:2–4; 18:8–9, 31–32). The typological embodiment of Deut 18:22 could not be put any clearer; Jesus is the true Prophet like Moses because all of his words—as well as the testimony about him—come true. Thus, he is clearly sent from God (3:16–17, 34; 4:34; 5:23–24, 30, 36–38; 6:29, 37–40, 44, 57; 7:16–18, 28–29, 33; 8:16–18, 26, 28–29, 42; 9:4; 10:36; 11:42; 12:44–45, 49–50; 13:20; 14:24; 15:21; 16:5; 17:3, 8, 18, 21–25; 20:21) and is to be heeded as though heeding the one who sent him.

h. 22b—That prophet has spoken presumptuously; do not fear him. (Note the irony, given the fulfilled prolepses!)

i.    Jesus is accused of testifying about himself (see above under f), and not being from David’s city (7:41–52) becomes an ironic criterion for rejection.

ii.    Ironically, in seeking to have the “presumptuous prophet” put to death at the hand of Pilate—in keeping with Deut 18:20 (John 19:7)—the Jewish leaders commit blasphemy and hail Caesar as king (19:15).

iii.    Furthering the irony, those tending to be feared in John are the Jewish religious leaders (7:13; 9:22; 12:42) rather than God or the Prophet like Moses sent from God, and even Jesus’ disciples are “afraid of the Jews” (20:19).

In all of these ways, Deut 18:15–22 comes through as a foundational typological schema underlying the Johannine understanding of Jesus’ mission, his reception, and the work of the Father in his redemptive love for the world. The Johannine depiction of God as “the Father” is integrally related to the divine commissioning of Jesus as the Prophet like Moses, who acts and speaks not on his own behalf, but only as he—the Son—has seen and heard from God—the Father—in heaven.

Agency and Aspects of Theological Analysis

The agency of the Son in John carries important theological implications. As Peder Borgen put it: “The basic principle of the Jewish institution of agency is that ‘an agent is like the one who sent him.’ ” The constructive work of Borgen and others here provides an emissary backdrop for Johannine insistence upon Jesus’ oneness with the Father, his speaking only what the Father tells him to say, his doing the works of the Father, his proceeding from and returning to the Father, and his redemptive mission as the eschatological Prophet like Moses. On the other hand, he is to be accorded the status of representative agent precisely because he does and says nothing except what he is instructed by the Father, he can do nothing without the Father, and the Father is greater than he. Again, Jesus’ egalitarian and subordinate relations to the Father are thus two sides of the same coin—an agency schema rooted in Deut 18:15–22. This sending/returning, emissary schema is not only characteristic of the Father-Son relationship in John; it also can be seen in several other Johannine christological motifs. The Johannine development of the agency motif includes the shaliach (representative agent) principle but is not confined to it.

Theologically, the “having-sent-me Father” is described not in terms of being but in terms of doing, and particularly in reference to the commissioning of the Son. This is understandable, as the central thrust of John is the redemptive import of the divine initiative—over and against all that is of human origin—as the only way forward for humanity. John’s sending-theology is thus every bit as important as John’s sending-christology. To respond in faith to God is to abandon the penultimate and the contingent in exchange for an openness in faith to the divine initiative. Whether it be the illuminating light that enlightens everyone, or the witness of the Scriptures or John the Baptist, or Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life, the issue is the divine initiative versus human initiative. The saving/revealing initiative of God scandalizes the world precisely because it is counterconventional. It exposes the frailty of creaturely schemes and reveals an offering of unmerited love and acceptance that is life producing. And it must be revealed because humanity cannot imagine the possibility of such a counterconventional reality. This is why no one can come except drawn by the Father. It is not a matter of divine permissibility or determinism, but a function of human incapacity to grasp such a paradoxical reality. The “having-sent-me Father,” therefore, asserts that the divine initiative is embodied in the mission of Jesus; to respond to the agent is to respond to the sender.

An agency typology also pervades the central messianic references to Jesus in John. References to “the Son” in John provide the clearest aspects of commissioning by “the Father” (3:17, 35, 36; 5:19–26; 6:40; 8:35, 36; 14:13; 17:1), but the other christological titles reflect the same schema. Recognition of, or debates about, Jesus being the anticipated Messiah/Christ (1:41; 4:25, 29; 7:26, 27, 31, 41–42; 9:22; 10:24; 11:27; 12:34; 20:31) are associated with his being the authentic Prophet (4:19; 6:14; 7:40; 9:17) or “the Savior of the world” (4:42). Such a conviction is expressed confessionally by means of the “Son of God” title (1:34, 49; 11:27; 20:31), but as with the other titles, this one is also used with explicit emissary associations in 3:18; 5:25; 11:4; and 19:7, likewise “Jesus Christ” in 1:17 and 17:3.

The Son of Man motif differs from presentations of “the Prophet” and most other messianic associations in John most radically in that it appears only as Jesus’ reference to himself. The Son of Man is sent from God as an eschatological agent of redemption, to suffer a paradoxical glorification on the cross and to be raised up again into the heavens as a triumphal agent of God’s salvation. In addition to the clear associations with Daniel 7 and Jewish apocalypticism, the title as used in John also denotes agency. The Son of Man descends and/or ascends (3:13; 6:62, likewise, angels ascend and descend on the Son of Man, 1:51), he is divinely authorized to execute judgment (5:27), he is lifted up and glorified on the cross as a paradoxical carrying forth of his mission (3:14; 8:28; 12:23; 13:31); humanity is invited to believe in the Son of Man, accepting his costly mission as their own, thereby receiving the life-producing nourishment he offers (6:27, 51–53; 9:35). Interestingly, the Johannine Jesus conflates the Danielic use of the term with Mosaic associations (3:13–14), and such moves suggest further the foundational place of Deut 18:15–22 within Johannine theology. The Son of Man is sent as the divine agent to accomplish on the cross the saving work of God. He is paradoxically lifted up and becomes a vehicle of cosmic judgment as to whether “the world” will receive the work as such.

Consider also the Logos theology of the Prologue. Not only does the Son convey the words of God; the Son is the Word of God—made flesh (1:1, 14) in whom the glory of God is encountered. In the incarnation the Word becomes flesh and dwells among humanity and in so doing plays out in narrative form the descent of the divine agent. Therefore, “the Father” also occupies a central role in the Johannine Prologue; the only-begotten one is compared with Moses. Building on the works of Meeks, Borgen, and others, Craig Evans shows convincingly that even in the Johannine Prologue we have clear connections with Deut 18:15–19: “Like Moses, Jesus is presented as God’s ‘agent’, a shaliach who speaks and acts with God’s authority. But unlike Moses, Jesus is the shaliach par excellence, in whom God’s Word, Torah, Wisdom and Glory have taken up residence and are revealed” (1993:145). While not all aspects of the sending motif are included in the shaliach principle, we see in the Fourth Gospel several ways in which the larger motif is played out within a variety of its christological constructs.

Finally, Christ as the Light, Word, and Wisdom of God imparts God’s knowledge to the world as a further form of agency; here the typology shifts from a shaliach figure who imparts a message from God to the core of the human/divine relationship characterized as being “taught” by God (6:45). Marianne Meye Thompson (231) puts it well: “Wisdom is a category of agency that allows for the closest possible unity between the agent and God. One may speak truly of inseparability.” As the mediator of God’s wisdom, Jesus is followed by “another” Parakletos, who will be with and in his followers as an ongoing source of comfort, guidance, and conviction. Notice that the Holy Spirit also is sent as an agent of God into the world, empowering Jesus’ disciples to become apostolic agents themselves.

“The sending motif” is the larger rubric under which several types of agency may be grouped. A common error is to identify a particular means of agency (prophetic, juridical, apocalyptic, sapiential, etc.) as exclusive of other means, when they often play complementary and parallel roles. The point emerging from such considerations is that beyond any particular christological title or theological image is a prophetic understanding of God’s being at work in the world through representative agents, who carry forth the divine presence and will in the world by means of their faithful witness. This understanding, however, brings with it a crisis: what will humanity do with that which is conveyed, and what do human responses suggest about God, God’s agents, and their audiences? This is the conundrum of encounter, and it is typified in the Johannine references to God as “the Father.”

Aspects of Encounter in Johannine History

John’s agency motif reflects aspects of encounter in front of the text and behind it. In front of the text are audiences encouraged to hold on to the truth they have received in the light of hardships encountered, while behind the text are traditional reflections in the light of other encounters within the history of Johannine Christianity. Some of that memory even draws upon an independent Jesus tradition. All along the way, the role of the Father and his sending of the Son played important roles for Johannine adherents, and this may be discerned within three epochs: the Johannine reflection upon the prophetic ministry of Jesus, Johannine dialectical relations with local Jewish communities, and Johannine individuation and formation as an ongoing and abiding community. The history of the Johannine situation involved several crises which may have overlapped. These are outlined in table 3.

Table 3: Historical Issues within the Johannine Situation

a.    A northern Palestinian (Galilean/Samaritan?) location with its own developing Jesus traditions.

b.    Debates with Baptist adherents and engagements with the pre-Markan oral tradition.

c.    A move to one of the Pauline mission church settings (Asia Minor?).

d.    A set of dialectical debates with local synagogue leaders, including attempts to evangelize, resistance and expulsion, and the effective recruitment of Johannine community members back into the synagogue.

e.    Hardship under Domitian regarding increasing requirements of public emperor laud.

f.    Tensions with docetizing Gentile Christians wishing to assimilate on the basis of a nunsuffering view of christology and discipleship.

g.    Corrective attempts to reverse institutionalizing innovations within the Christian movement (including dialogues with synoptic traditions all along the way).

h.    Transcending the death of the Beloved Disciple as Johannine Christianity integrates with the mainstream Christian movement around the turn of the first century.

I. The first epoch (a-c, from the 30s to the 60s C.E.) involved a Johannine reflection upon the prophetic ministry of Jesus. Despite John’s lateness, many of the Johannine details and insights may reflect proximity to the ministry of Jesus rather than distance. One of these plausibly accurate reflections of Jesus is as the Prophet-like-Moses figure, sent from the Father to do the Father’s bidding. This motif is omitted from later christological developments. It is likely that Jesus thought of himself more in the role of the Mosaic prophet than a Davidic king; on this matter, the Johannine presentation of Jesus seems historically superior to some of those of the Synoptics. Then again, the Mosaic prophet motif comes through clearly in the Matthean and Lukan presentations of Jesus.13 Regarding Jesus’ provocative actions and authoritative teaching, John Riches says:

Thus I think it is possible to trace in these sayings a coherent understanding of Jesus’ prophetic role which draws both upon the traditions of Malachi 3 and Deuteronomy 18 but reinterprets them in the light of Jesus’ modified understanding of God’s judgment and mercy which we also met in Jesus’ modifications of the notion of the coming Son of Man. What Jesus says about his role is that it is to mediate God’s righteousness and forgiveness through prophetic word and action and through the proclamation of God’s will and to call men to follow him in his struggle against enmity and darkness. Such action however, precisely because it mediates forgiving love, is also a readiness to stand trial, to be exposed to and to bear the rejection of love, even to the point of death. (184–85)

Here is where encounter comes in—the Johannine Jesus is portrayed as confronting the world and its scaffoldings of human origin with the redeeming love of the Father—that as many as believe might become the children of God (1:11–13). It is little surprise, therefore, that the Johannine narrative begins the ministry of Jesus with the temple-cleansing scenario (2:13–25). Jesus is cast here in the role of the confrontational prophet, who speaks and acts in the name of God, challenging the prowess of the kosmos. Likewise, Jesus is remembered as challenging religious and political authorities in John (Rome as well as Jerusalem); the Johannine memory presents a telling picture of the death of Jesus at the hands of those who responded adversely to such encounters. So, the first epoch of the developing Johannine tradition involved reflecting upon the prophetic encounters in the ministry of Jesus and their mixed reception. Regarding the use of “Father” language for God, it is impossible to rule out the possibility that Jesus himself may have described his prophetic mission using Father-Son terminology. After all, there are also parables in the Synoptics that portray God as a Father who sends his filial agent to accomplish his work. On the other hand, the Father-Son language evolves into a variety of Johannine presentations that tell the story of Jesus in their own distinctively paraphrastic ways. The first epoch thus contains the independent Johannine reflections upon the encounter-oriented prophetic ministry of Jesus and its ambivalent reception. Within this heritage, agency aspects of the Father-Son relationship add reflective commentary to the provocative words and works of Jesus, and in John this relationship is rendered as prophetic rather than pietistic.

II. The second epoch of Johannine reflection (c–e, from the 60s into the 80s) shows traces of dialectical encounter with the local Jewish authorities. Here the controversy narratives in John (chs. 5, 7–10, and 12) display an acutely contemporary relevance. They likely mirror some of the issues, challenges, and answers posed by Johannine Christianity, and it was at the end of this time that the first edition of John was likely crafted. Assuming passages such as the Prologue and chapters 6, 15–17, and 21 (as well as a few shorter sections) have been added as supplementary material to an earlier edition, the remaining material betrays the evangelist’s acute attempts to evangelize the Jewish members of the community with the narration of Jesus as fulfilling the Prophet-like-Moses typology of Deuteronomy 18. On this matter, debates over whether he is “the Prophet” and whether “the Father” has sent him define the dialectical relationship most tellingly. As Meeks notes (1986:145), the Johannine community makes sense of its own dialectical history by telling the story of Jesus’ mission and its reception. And, as J. Louis Martyn has shown, the role of Jesus as the Mosaic prophet based on Deuteronomy 18 was a central aspect of these debates (102–51). Therefore, the having-sent-me Father legitimates the authenticity of Jesus’ mission and forces the world to make a stand for or against the agent—and therefore—the sender. As the story shows, some accept him, and some do not. In both cases the exemplary function of the responses to Jesus is telling: to receive the revelation is life-producing; to reject the revelation by holding to something of earthly origin is death-producing.

Sonship language and claiming to speak on behalf of “the Father” would have been enough to incite serious Pharisaic concern. An emphasis on the Son’s oneness with the Father may have provoked charges of “ditheism.” One may speculate that in opposition to the Jesus movement the Jewish leadership would have invoked Deuteronomy 18 as a way of arguing that Jesus was not the true Prophet, but that he was speaking presumptuously, and that his execution was evidence of his having committed blasphemy. Would such discussions reflect institutional blaming of the victim as a deterrent—to which the Johannine tradition responds antithetically—rather than a Johannine thesis (that Jesus is the Mosaic prophet) which evoked a hostile reception? One cannot know. Either way, as suggested by 1 John 2:18–25, the first known Johannine schism was precipitated by appeals to “return to the Father” with all the cultural security and religious certainty of the synagogue. The Elder’s dejected language here is telling: “liars” are any who deny Jesus is the Messiah, and these deny the Father as well as the Son. Further, no one who denies the Son has the Father. However, any who receive the Son receive also the Father (1 John 2:22–23). Adherence to “the Father” in the heritage of Jewish monotheism becomes the rhetorical pawn for leaders of the synagogue and would-be followers of Jesus alike. For the disciples of Moses, adherence to the Father means keeping the law and resisting the semblance of ditheism. For the disciple of Jesus, adherence to the Father hinges upon one’s reception of the one sent in the Father’s name.

III. The third epoch of Johannine reflection (e–h, from the 80s through the 90s) is implied in the supplementary material added to the earlier edition. Within this material, two primary emphases suggest the encounters faced by Johannine Christianity during the intervening years. The first is an incarnationalist thrust which suggests an antidocetic set of concerns. The eye-witness testifies that water and blood indeed flowed from Jesus’ side (19:34–35), the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (1:14), and believers must be willing to ingest the flesh and blood of Jesus (6:51–58). These passages are clearly levied not only at the docetizing beliefs of the next major Johannine crisis—this time among Gentile believers (see 1 John 4:1–3 and 2 John 7)—but the implications of those beliefs: “If Jesus did not suffer, neither need we, at the hands of the emperor-laud-exacting Romans, or otherwise.” Therefore, in response to encounters with docetizing teachers, within or without Johannine Christianity, the memory of Jesus is narrated in especially relevant ways. It is the Father’s will that the Son should suffer and die, and believers will be persecuted by those who think they are doing the work of God.

The Father-Son language addresses a second major concern: the need for corporate solidarity with Jesus and his community in the face of hardship. Here, the Son prays for unity within the community, and believers are exhorted to abide in Christ and to remain in the community. A few unpleasant encounters with the centralizing Christian movement, say, with Diotrephes and his kin (3 John 9–10), evoke correctives to rising institutionalism within the church. These are suggested by the juxtaposition of Peter and the Beloved Disciple and the bestowing of apostolic commissions upon a plurality of believers rather than a monepiscopal hierarchy. Here the having-sent-me Father not only confirms the authenticity of the Son, but he and the Son also send the Holy Spirit as a present source of empowerment and guidance. Believers are also sent by the Father into the world as witnesses to the truth they have encountered and received. Parallel to the departure of Jesus, the death of the Beloved Disciple (21:22–23) must have produced a crisis evoking once more a focus on the Father—the source of the Son’s mission—to whom this disciple bore witness. Thus, in the final stages of the Johannine material, the having-sent-me Father becomes a source of encouragement for believers in an increasingly complex situation, calling them to abide in the one he has sent and the beloved community. The comforting and empowering role of the Father’s work is therefore a primary feature of the presentation of the Father in John 1:1–18 and chapters 6, 15–17, and 21. To break fellowship is to deny even the Father’s love; appeals to abiding in “the Father’s love” thus become an acute source of centripetal appeal.

Aspects of Irony in the Johannine Narration

The ironic presentation of the Father-Son relationship in the light of Deut 18:15–22 has largely gone undeveloped. George MacRae (1973:42) is correct in saying that “the apex of the dramatic irony with regard to ‘the Jews’ appears, as is well known, in their climactic rejection of Jesus, ‘We have no king but Caesar’ (19:15), which also functions as a desperate rejection of the very values they are portrayed as claiming to defend.” Consider further these ironic presentations of Jesus’ reception by religious leaders, who in citing scriptural and religious rationale for rejecting the revelation conveyed by Jesus miss the prophetic and spiritual bases of his authenticity.

a). First, Jesus, who is clearly designated as the Prophet like Moses, is misapprehended by those who should have known better. On one hand, John the Baptist is not “the Prophet”—that role is left open for Jesus (1:19–23); Jesus declares “Moses wrote of me”—an apparent reference to Deut 18:15–22 (5:46)—and Jesus performs signs after the manner of Moses and Elijah attesting his divine commission. On the other hand, the crowd misunderstands his spiritual mission and wishes to rush him off for a political coronation, which he rejects (6:14–15); the Jewish leaders reject his true marks of divine agency because they look for a Davidic Messiah, implying the favoring of royal power over prophetic authenticity (7:40–52); and, ironically, while having asked for signs in order to believe (6:30) Jesus’ discussants refuse to believe even after beholding his signs (12:37–38). Some of this irony has geographical and societal overtones to it. It is highly ironic that the (supposedly) more sophisticated Jerusalocentric religious leaders miss the workings of God versus the more unlikely Samaritans, women, and especially the blind man—who behold the workings of God because their hearts are open as well as their eyes. Apparently, some religious leaders who should have known better have completely missed the connections between the ministry of Jesus and Deut 18:15–22, and Jesus’ coming indeed exposes as blind those claiming to see (9:39).

b). A second ironic feature is that some of those rejecting Jesus as the Messiah do so precisely on the basis of Deut 18:20! Here, any prophet presuming to speak on behalf of God, or in the name of other gods, shall be put to death. Religious leaders therefore accuse Jesus of having committed blasphemy (10:33), called himself equal with God (5:18), and spoken presumptuously about himself (8:13, 53). They also are offended at his healings on the Sabbath (5:18; 9:16, a highly ironic fact in itself) and eventually tell Pilate they are required by their law to put Jesus to death (19:7)—a possible reference to Deut 18:20. Ironically, the students of the Torah project various aspects of the inauthentic prophet onto Jesus, but they miss the many ways he is portrayed as fulfilling far more prolifically the attributes of the authentic Prophet like Moses. The Johannine tradition exposes their inauthenticity and failure to live in the very Mosaic teachings they espoused.

Their insistence on the death penalty from Pilate is a double wrong: convicting Jesus of speaking presumptuously—or of committing blasphemy—they commit blasphemy themselves by claiming to have no other king but Caesar (19:15). Thus, while their wrongheadedness is confirmed, so is their duplicity. Not only does the crowd deny “the King of Israel” they acclaimed en masse a few days earlier (12:13), but they also deny Moses and the Father in claiming Caesar as their singular king. Of course, beyond the religious and theological issues involved, ideological criticism of structural and institutional idolatry is herein implicated. Here, the darkness of “the world” is exposed as institutions are manipulated into carrying out the otherwise objectionable schemes of other threatened institutions and their representatives. For authority is rooted neither in structural position nor in institutional leverage. Jesus’ reign is not this-worldly in character; its power has its roots in truth (18:36–37).

c). The most telling ironic presentation are the proleptic words of Jesus as a fulfillment of the primary criterion for distinguishing true and false prophets according to Deut 18:22. The true Prophet’s predictions always come true, and this happens prolifically in the Johannine narrative. Again, prolepses and their fulfillments are narrated in several ways in John, but they all convey the same thing: the authenticity of Jesus’ sentness from the Father. The words of the Scriptures and the Prophets are portrayed as coming true in Jesus’ ministry, as are the words of the Baptist, Caiaphas, Jesus, and even Pilate. Likewise, the Father testifies as to the Son’s authenticity, making it clear for the reader that Jesus’ mission is to be regarded as authentic and worthy of acceptance. Climactically, Jesus’ elusive predictions of his death (3:14 and 12:31–33) come true in his crucifixion at the hand of the Romans (18:32), and his veiled prediction of the resurrection (2:19) comes true in the appearance narratives (chs. 20–21). Further, the ongoing evidence of Jesus’ credibility becomes the postresurrection consciousness attested by the Johannine community—a reality into which the reader is invited to become immersed.

Finally, John’s ironic presentation of the Father’s sending the Son, along with the Son’s ambivalent reception in the world, poses a striking critique of “the world”—or that which is not of divine origin, but of creaturely origin. While the formation of this material was hammered out within religious dialectical struggle, it would be a mistake to see the emphasis as elevating one religious expression over another. This would miss the whole point of the having-sent-me Father in John, which is to emphasize the transcendent origin of authenticity. Indeed, it is the wordly character of religious and political conventionalities—and all that is of human initiative—that is here scandalized by the divine initiative, and in the Father’s love for the world, imperial prowess and anthropic sufficiency are exposed as inauthentic illusions in the light of truth. Divine grace deconstructs the very scaffolding humans erect to attain favor, societally and otherwise, and it scandalizes our systems designed to reward merit and to affirm owned values. Indeed, idols of structuralism are challenged with the revelation of connectedness, and yet, to even glimpse the vision requires an extension of grace and divine enablement.

So, why is the “having-sent-me Father” in John portrayed in such a convoluted way, and what are the theological implications of such a presentation? Is the evangelist indecisive, or perhaps contradictory? On the one hand, the Father is the legitimating source of the Son’s mission—the Son derives all authority from God; on the other hand, the Father is the glorifying end of the Son’s work—to draw humanity toward a faithful response to the Father’s saving love. In effecting this end, the Son becomes the means of that incarnate revelation, but without the Father’s authorization and commissioning, the Son can do nothing. It is the authorizing work of the Father, however, which becomes the matter of controversy, and the retrospective certainty of “that which was given”—by Moses or otherwise (6:32)—is all too easily chosen over the immanent ambiguity of “that which the Father now gives.” The “having-sent-me Father” in John thus functions theologically to provide a bridge between the traditional past and the eschatological present, as the God who was and is becomes connected with the God who is doing and will be doing. The Johannine Father-Son relationship, utilizing the Mosaic-prophet typology of Deut 18:15–22, presents the christocentric revelation of the Father as conjoined with the theocentric mission of the Son. In that sense, while the Father in John is both the commissioning source and glorifying end of the Son’s redemptive mission, the Son is the revealing subject and representative agency by which the intended object of the Father’s love—the world—is reached.

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Intimating Deity in the Gospel of John: Theological Language and “Father” In “Prayers of Jesus”

Mary Rose D’Angelo

University of Notre Dame


This essay examines several disparate but not unrelated issues in John’s theology: it locates “father” in the gospel’s discourse as an intimation of deity, describes the distributions of this divine designation in the Johannine tradition and the Gospel, and discusses the ways its appearances in “prayers of Jesus” both articulate the Gospel’s theology and are drawn from traditional prayer strategies that surface in Mark, Q, Thomas, and Jewish materials of the period.

My contribution to this volume is very much un essai: an attempt, specifically an attempt at ground-clearing, it seeks to dislodge readings of “father” in the Gospel of John from theories about Jesus’ “abba-experience.” Both preliminary and supplementary to investigations that explore new contexts for illuminating “father” as divine language in John, this essay examines several disparate but not unrelated questions: What sort of language is “father”? How is this divine designation distributed in the Johannine tradition and the Gospel? How are its appearances in “prayers of Jesus” related to traditions that surface in Mark, Q, Thomas, and Jewish materials of the period? Investigating these areas makes clear that the Johannine use of “father” is not a unique and mysterious revelation explicable only by the special teaching and mission of Jesus, radically revising Jewish conceptions of God and free from patriarchal cultural formation, but rather it is the literary and theological product of communal reflection, cultural meaning, and authorial creativity.

Admittedly, claims about the uniqueness of Jesus’ use of “father” as an address to and designation for God have been based primarily on uses of “father” in the Synoptics. Joachim Jeremias, following Gerhard Kittel, popularized the idea that the Aramaic word ἀββά was Jesus’ universal and unique term of address to God, representing something “wholly new” in Jewish practice (Jeremias, 1967:55–57; Kittel: 6). He read “father” (πατήρ) in most of these sayings as a translation for ἀββά (which occurs in the sayings of Jesus only in Mark 14:36) and constructed a special meaning for it, as the expression of the unique intimacy of Jesus’ relation to God.

The role John’s Gospel has played in theories of “Jesus’ abba-experience” is an ambiguous one. Mark and Q use “father” rarely and in very limited settings; in early Jewish literature the use of “father” for God is hardly more frequent. By contrast, the Fourth Gospel uses the designation constantly and in ways that are not only integrated with, but actually central to, its christology. Thus, Jeremias himself readily drew the conclusion that John represents the increasing tendency of early Christian texts to introduce the title “father” into the sayings of Jesus (1967:29–30, 36). But the supposition of “unparalleled content” for Jesus’ use of this address implied a high christology and frequent use of “father,” both of which are actually to be found in John. Thus Gottlob Schrenk and Gottfried Quell insisted that the Gospel’s use of “father” was an outgrowth of Jesus’ practice, though transformed through the treatment of Jesus as revealer (980, 997).

While ideas about Jesus’ “abba-experience” remain extremely influential, the anti-Jewish character and problematic methodological aspects of the original arguments have increasingly been recognized. At the same time feminist critical rereading of both the theological language and imagery for the divine has inspired reevaluation of absolute claims based upon this idea. The linguistic theories about ἀββά have been reexamined and significantly revised (Barr: 1988a, 1988b; Fitzmyer; Charlesworth). Other scholars have undertaken reassessments of the role of the title in Jewish piety (Gnadt; Strotmann). New evidence also became available; with the publication of 4Q372 1 it became clear that addressing God as “my father” was not impossible in “Palestinian” Judaism (Schuller, 1990, 1992). In 1992, I published two essays attempting to relocate the question of Jesus’ use of this term in the context of other early Jewish uses. The first essay argued that if the Gospels reflect the use of this address in the preaching of God’s reign, they do so because of the deeply traditional resonances it had for Jesus and was capable of evoking for his Jewish hearers. Addressing God as “father” may have served to distinguish God’s reign from Caesar’s by expressing resistance to the imperial title pater patriae (1992a). The second article examined the occurrences of “father” in Mark and Q and delineated both the continuities with Jewish practice and the theological function of “father” in these earliest Christian gospels (1992b).

In extending those investigations to the Gospel of John, I draw heavily on the recent article by Paul Meyer (1996). Responding to Nils Dahl’s identification of theo-logy—the doctrine of God—as “the neglected factor in New Testament theology” (Dahl, 1991), Meyer examined “father” as the primary means of the presentation of the deity in John. His study focused upon the corollary of John’s depiction of Jesus as God’s agent: the Johannine deity as the sender of Jesus, the guarantor of his person, and the vindicator of his mission. Meyer’s suggestion that there is in John not so much a Gesandtenchristologie as a Sendertheologie makes a major contribution to the demystification of “father” in John (264). In what follows I rely on his careful survey of the Gospel at many points, as also I do on the massive review of the evidence from the ancient world in the article on πατήρ by Gottlob Schrenk and Gottfried Quell in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.

Juxtaposing these two articles requires some comment on the issue of the relation of πατήρ and patriarchy. Schrenk’s insistence on the “purely patriarchal” character of the title in the Jewish and Christian traditions strikes a strange note in contemporary ears; in his lexicon, patriarchy is an entirely positive term, descriptive of the organization of ancient Indo-European societies and strikingly manifest in the Roman concept of patria potestas (948–50). Its value for him seems to derive from the nineteenth-century theory of J. J. Bachofen, who posited a development in European society from a lower matriarchal stage of social organization to a higher patriarchal stage. This latter stage was characterized by the control of women’s sexuality within the male-headed family and most fully realized in the “Roman imperium.” Schrenk read “father” as expressing an idealized patriarchal principle through the image of the Hausvater (the Roman paterfamilias) and in the unquestioning obedience and total submission of the son (950–51, 984, 997). Schrenk had no difficulty in absorbing Jeremias’s and Kittel’s insistence on the “unparalleled intimacy” of Jesus’ address to God into his patriarchal ideal or in extending it to John. By contrast, feminist critiques of “father” as a divine title inspired Hamerton-Kelly to defend the title by using Jeremias’s theories as evidence that Jesus’ use was “non-patriarchal” (1979, 1981). Meyer rejects Schrenk’s narrowing of the image to paternal power and filial obedience (257–58) as well as “the almost obsessive desire, running through the literature, to trace the Johannine use of the term ‘father’ for God to the personal piety and religious intimacy of the historical Jesus” (258). At the same time, he views the problematic character of the language as a product of “the brokenness of human relationships” in “our times” (266 n. 8).

I share Schrenk’s understanding of patriarchy as a social system, and one that is particularly well illustrated in Roman society, but not his regard for it as a higher principle. Like many feminists, I use the term to refer to social systems in which power is held by “fathers”: that is, by a limited number of privileged males; access to power is apportioned to women, children, and less privileged males (slaves, clients, unemancipated sons) through their relationships to the family head (D’Angelo, 1994:315, 323 n. 3; 1998:26). Given this definition, ancient (as well as contemporary) uses of “father” as a title for the deity cannot really evade patriarchal ideology, even though they can be and sometimes are deployed for antipatriarchal or anti-imperial purposes (1992a:628–30; 1992b:174). But neither is it appropriate to measure the Gospel imagery against some idealized (or vilified) essence of patriarchy. Rather, social arrangements of ancient patriarchy are refracted through the complex imagery of John in ways that are diffuse and diverse, contested in antiquity and contestable in later interpretation. Adele Reinhartz’s essay in this volume provides a glimpse into one aspect of this process, the way that social power informed and gendered ancient medical constructions of human reproduction.

“Father” As Theological Language: Substitution and Metaphor in Language for the Divine

In the past, I have generally referred to “father” as a divine title (1992a; 1992b; 1992c). “Father” can and does function as a title in apposition to “God” or “Lord” in the texts of early Christianity. But it also names the deity and thereby functions as a synonym and an evocative euphemism for God, as a pious substitution like “heaven,” the circumlocution “reign of God,” or combinations of these like “reign of heaven” and “heavenly father.” Thus while Schrenk saw early Christian worship’s preference for “ΠΑΤΉΡ over Yahweh, ADONAI, KYRIOS or THEOS” as an “astonishing novelty” explicable only by the community’s experience of Jesus (996), it would be more accurate to say that “father” functions in early Christianity much as ADONAI and ΚΎΡΙΟς functioned in early Jewish contexts: as one of a number of substitutes that could either imply a reverential circumspection, supply an image for a less evocative term, or both. One very early factor in this preference may have been the appropriation of ΚΎΡΙΟς as a title for Jesus (Phil 2:11). God the (our) father and the (our) lord Jesus are frequently linked in the texts that appear to have a petitionary, doxological, or creedal function (Rom 1:7; 15:6; 1 Cor 1:3; 8:6; 2 Cor 1:2; Gal 1:1, 3; Phil 1:2; 1 Thess 1:1, 3; 3:11, 13; Phlm 3; cf. 2 Cor 1:3; 11:31).

The Gospel of Thomas offers a particularly striking example of early Christian use of such substitutes. “God” is used only twice in Thomas, both times in contexts that raise questions about its function. The Gospel shows a marked preference for “father” or “heaven,” either of which can be combined with “reign.” The most frequent designation for the deity is “the (your) father” (sayings 3, 15, 27, 40, 44, 50, 61, 64, 69, 79, 83, 101, 105; “father’s reign” also appears in 57, 76, 96, 97, 98, 99, and 113). “The reign,” used absolutely (22, 27, 46, 49, 82, 107, 109, 113), and “heavens’ reign” (20, 54, 114) may likewise refer to the deity as active in the world. “The living one” (37, 59 [?], 111), “the light” (50, 83), and “the whole” (61) are other references to the deity as source of life and being. The ambiguity of the Gospel’s use of “god” and its preference for “father” suggest that the function of “father” in Thomas is continuous with its function in those gnostic and Valentinian texts that use “father” (sometimes translated “parent”) to distinguish the ultimate deity from lesser, defective or fallen divine offspring, while also expressing human kinship to the divine. It is not necessary to read Thomas as gnostic or to posit its acknowledgement of a demiurge to recognize that in this Gospel “father” points to and protects divine transcendence and unknowability while also asserting the kinship between the sages/gnostics and their source of being.

It should be noted that the term θεός was not always or simply treated as a generic term for the divine in antiquity. Philo, for example, supplied an etymology that derived θέος from τίθημι:

… the central place is held by the father of the all, who in the sacred scriptures is called ‘the being one’ (ὁ ὤν) as a proper name, while on either side are the eldest powers, and nearest to being, the creative and the ruling (royal). The title of the creative [power] is God (θεός), by which [the deity] made (ἔθηκε) and ordered the all; the title of the ruling [power] is Lord, for it is for the one who created to rule and control what came into being. (Abraham 121)

Here Philo treats “father” as an overarching and widely intelligible metaphor and ὁ ὤν as the “proper” name for true deity. “God” and “Lord” describe divine powers or functions that are hypostatized in Philo’s thought. The derivation of θεός from τίθημι is frequent and consistent in Philo’s work (Mut. 29, which also uses father; Conf. 137; Fug. 97; Mos. 2.99; Spec. Leg. 1.307). Segal has described rabbinic reflection upon these “powers,” pointing out that their ascription to the divine names is the reverse of Philo’s (175). The difference in language may explain this; Hebrew does not offer the connection between “God” and “create.” Paul too may be aware of this etymology for θεός; 1 Corinthians 12 uses θεός/ἔθετο for the creation of functions in the body (12:18; cf. 24) and the church (12:28). The point is not that either Paul or John depends on Philo, or even that John shared the etymology, but that the meanings and character of designations for the divine were the subject of investigation in ancient theology and that metaphoric content, where it was not evident, could be assigned. Thus for the ancient theologian (as indeed for many theologians today), it is not so much the case that “father” is a substitute or metaphor for “God” as it is that “father” and “god” are both metaphoric and circumlocutory, expedients in the attempt to name the ineffable.

The four canonical gospels and Q all use a range of designations for the deity: “God” (θεός), “father” (πατήρ), “heaven” (οὐρανός) and “reign” (βασιλεία). In Q, Mark, Matthew, and Luke, θεόν remains the most frequent designator of the divine. John fits between the Synoptics and Thomas; the Gospel prefers “father” to “God”—about 118 to 76 uses. “Reign of God” appears twice only (βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ, 3:3, 5). John also uses “heaven” (οὐρανός), “from above” (ἄνωθεν) and “above” (ἄνω) more or less interchangeably as references to the divine: authority is given from heaven (3:27) or (more ambiguously) from above (19:11); one is born of God (1:13) or “from above” (3:3, 7); the “bread of God” (6:33) is “the bread from heaven” (6:31, 32); “who/what comes down from heaven” (6:33, 38, 41, 42, 50, 51, 58) is also what “my father gives you” (6:32). If “father” seems to be what Philo would call the proper name of God in John, it is clear that all these designations apply to the same divine being. There is no suggestion that θεός refers to an inferior or defective power, as it does in the gnostic materials.

Distribution of Designations for the Deity in the Johannine Texts

On the whole, the Gospel of John seems to use “father” (ΠΑΤΉΡ) and “God” (ΘΕΌς) interchangeably and in the same contexts. Both appear most frequently in direct discourse and in the speeches of Jesus. There is some evidence that the differences correspond to redactional or developmental layers in the Johannine tradition and Gospel. The letters use ΘΕΌς far more frequently than ΠΑΤΉΡ; the prologue also prefers ΘΕΌς (using ΠΑΤΉΡ only at 1:14 and 1:18); so does 1:19–51 use ΘΕΌς exclusively; John 2 never uses ΘΕΌς and uses ΠΑΤΉΡ only once. “Father” is never used in John 21, though “God” likewise appears only once (21:19). Meyer observes that “father” for the deity occurs only twice in the material Fortna assigned to the “signs source” (Meyer: 272 n. 61); it should be noted that both of these occurrences have analogues in the Synoptics (John 2:16//Luke 2:49; John 18:11//Mark 14:36). Meyer also regards the use of “father” in the dialogues of the Gospel as linked to specific literary layers and motifs; most important for his study, the language of sending is linked always to “father,” never to ΘΕΌς (264).

Given the pervasiveness of “father” in the Gospel and my observations on the character of divine language above, it is worth reversing Meyer’s question (the usual question) and asking why the Gospel sometimes prefers θεός over πατήρ. I suggest that in the Gospel as a whole, the single biggest factor in the choice of θεός rather than πατήρ seems to be case: when the genitive is required, the Gospel prefers θεοῦ; 44 occurrences of θεός out of 76 are in the genitive. “Of God” appears as a modifier in a number of phrases that are so conventional that Meyer excluded this formulation from his count (269 n. 27). Most of these could be translated by the adjective “divine”: “angels of God” (divine messengers; 1:51), “lamb of God” (1:29, 36), “reign of God” (βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ, 3:3, 5); “words of God” (τὰ ῥήματα τοῦ θεοῦ, 3:34; 8:47), “wrath of God” (3:36), “gift of God” (δωρεάν, 4:10), “love of God” (5:42), “work(s) of God” (6:28, 29; 9:3, but “works of the father” in 10:32, 37), “word of God” (λόγος, 10:35), “bread of God” (6:33), “holy one of God” (6:69), “glory of God” (δόξα, 5:44; 11:4, 40; 12:43; “of the one who sent” him, 7:18), perhaps most importantly “son of God” (1:34, 49; 3:18; 5:25; 10:36; 11:4; 27; 19:7; 20:31). A few traditional phrases prefer “father”: “my father’s house” (2:16, τὸν οἶκον; 14:2, ἐ τῇ οἴκιᾳ; cf. Luke 2:49, ἐν τῖ τοῦ πατρός); “my father’s name” (5:43; 10:25), and “my father’s will” (6:40; see also Matt 7:21; 12:50; 18:14; 21:31; cf. 6:10//26:42 and m. Roš Haš. 3:8). All three of these draw heavily on familial imagery.

In addition to these traditional phrases, θεός is more frequent than πατήρ in the constructions “to be from, come from, or be born from (ἐκ, παρά, ἀπό) God”—all of which are quintessentially Johannine (Keck). These are expressed with the genitive, whether they use πατήρ (6:45, 65; 8:3; 15:15, 26 [2x]; 16:27, 28) or θεός (1:6, 13; 3:2; 6:46; 7:17; 8:40, 42, 47 [2x]; 9:16, 33; 16:27, 30). One example in which the designation appears to change with the case is John 13:3, which begins by using “father” but shifts to θεός when the prepositional phrase intervenes: “Jesus, knowing that the father [ὁ πατήρ] had given all things into his hands, and that he came from God [ἀπὸ θεοῦ] and was going to God.…”

Several of Meyer’s other observations deserve attention here. He points out that commentators generally expect or assume that “son” as christological title and “father” as divine designation are inevitably joined. But the Gospel, like the letters of Paul, does not regularly pair “father” as a designation for the deity and “son of God” or “the son” (absolute; Meyer: 263). While “father” is noticeably more frequent in chapters 14–17 than in other parts of the Gospel, “son” as a title for Jesus appears only twice in this section, in 14:13 and 17:1. Other passages in which “father” and “son” are closely linked are 3:35; 5:20–23; 6:40. Observing that “son of man” and references to God as father are rarely paired in John (as they are in Mark 8:38) suggests that the two concepts constitute quite distinct strands in Johannine christological language (Meyer: 259).

These observations underline Meyer’s warnings against absorbing “father” into the gospel’s christology and help to nuance his claim that: ” ‘My Father’ in the mouth of Jesus (ὁ πατήρ μου, 25 times) makes it clear that God is his Father as no one else’s” (Meyer: 260). This approaches Schrenk’s problematic deduction that since Jesus speaks to the disciples of “your father” only in 20:17, God is not to be seen as also the disciples’ father until after the resurrection (996). The majority of occurrences refer to “the father” as absolute (74 times by Meyer’s count; 269 n. 27).

Much of the drama and irony of the dialogues is elided unless it is emphasized that the deity is the father of Jesus precisely as he is the father of certain others in the Gospel, most importantly of “the Jews.”

In 2:16, one of the two uses from the supposed sign source, “my father’s house” refers to the temple in a fashion that differs little from Luke 2:49. The phrase may make a messianic claim through the terms of the Nathan oracle’s promise to David of a son to whom God will be father and who will build God’s house (2 Sam 7:12–16; 2 Chron 17:14–16, cf. Mark 14:58). In the brief succeeding dialogue, the Jews ask for a sign, perhaps because they see Jesus’ deed as messianic (2:18). The response predicts the resurrection as the building of the temple. Notably, “the Jews” make no protest against his claim of divine paternity (2:18–22).

It is quite otherwise in chapter 5. There “the Jews” protest precisely because “he called God his own father” (5:18). But it is noteworthy that in the long succeeding discourse, the metaphorical character of the terms “father” and “son” remain to the fore, and there is some sense that the Jews ought to be able to claim divine paternity as well. Jesus’ claim to the example of his father initiates a long development of the analogy: “the father loves the son and shows him everything he does” (5:20)—work/creation (5:17), resurrection (5:21–26), judgment (5:27–30). At the close of the discourse, Jesus faults his hearers for not receiving him, although he comes “in my father’s name,” but they in their own (5:43). He warns them that not he but Moses will accuse them to “the father” (5:45). The impact of the warning derives from the recognition that it is to “the father” (theirs also) that they must answer.

The contexts of chapters 6 and 8 are similarly controversial. In John 6 Jesus uses “my father” in contrast to “your fathers” (the Israelites of the generation of the desert); in John 8, in contrast to “your father” (Abraham or the devil?). Meyer argues that the christological concepts of sonship and mission should be distinguished, at least in the sources of John. He cites Ashton’s observation that John 7 does not use πατήρ at all and that there is in this chapter “not the slightest hint that Jesus regarded himself as the Son of God” (Meyer: 262). But caution must be used in drawing conclusions from the absence of πατήρ in John 7. John 7–8, or at least John 7:1–8:30, is a single dramatic and literary unit, a suite of scenes set at Succoth and developing a single question, and it is far from clear that the chapter division represents a redactional layer of the writing process. John 7:1–8:30 uses θεός only once, to articulate the question that controls the succeeding dialogues in both chapters 7 and 8, that is, “whether [Jesus] is from God” (7:17). As Meyer notes, the designation of choice in John 7 is “the one who sent me” (7:16, 18, 28, 33). Only oblique references to the divine appear elsewhere in John 7, in the questions “where [is he] coming from?” (7:27, 28; cf. 7:15, 41–42, 52) and “where [is he] going to?” (7:35). In 8:12–59, the “one who sent” Jesus is consistently identified as “the father” (8:18, 19, 28, 29, 35, 38, 49, 54).

Three of the sparse pairings of “son” with “father” appear in John 8. John 8:28 promises the crowd that when they lift up the son of man, they will know that “as the father sent me so I speak.” The context of judgment (8:21–29) suggests that the promise derives from interpretation of Daniel 7 in which the “ancient one” has been identified as the father of the son of man. In 8:31–59, “son” absolute appears twice in an exegesis of the Nathan oracle that also functions as a metaphor: “the slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever; therefore if the son frees you, you will be truly free” (8:35–36; see Aalen: 237). Then debate turns to the paternity of “the Jews,” who insist on their descent from Abraham (8:39) and, in a revision of the Shema (“Hear, O Israel,” Deut 6:4), from the deity: “we have one father, God” (8:41).

Irony pervades this conflict, because the Jews can and should claim God as their father also (8:41). By refusing to recognize the father of Jesus they reject their own: their deeds show that their father is neither God nor Abraham. The use of “son of God” and “father” in ways that are and are not the same as Jewish uses seems to be a deliberate ploy of the dialogues. The text thus appears to accuse the Jews of disingenuousness in charging Jesus with blasphemy for “making God his own father” (5:19) and “though human, making [him]self God” (10:33). To this charge, Jesus replies that the very scripture applied the term “god” to “those to whom the word of God came”; that is to other humans, Israelites like his accusers (10:34–35, citing Ps 82:6). Twentieth-century interpreters have tended to see this as a specious riposte, claiming to use the same words while actually saying something quite different (Bultmann attributes it to the ecclesiastical redactor, suggesting as an alternative that it parodies Jewish legal argument: 389, 282; see differently Brown, 1966:409–11). But in fact it poses the central dilemma of John’s christological enterprise: the words and scriptural texts the author appropriates are both the same and different at all times, they both draw upon and transform the language of Jewish piety. This is because that language, or rather all language for the divine (even the most direct like “god” and “father”), is ambiguous, human language that can speak of human and earthly things (3:12).

For this reason, claims that the address expresses unparalleled intimacy and distinguishes Jesus’ teaching from Jewish piety in his time run aground on John’s use of the title in the very conflicts between Jesus and the Jews of the Gospel over the announcement that God is his father. While it is clear that these controversies are constructed precisely to articulate and defend the Gospel’s christology, the point at which Jesus forces them to proclaim “we have one father, God” (8:41) may be the point at which the straw Jews of John’s Gospel come closest to the real Jews of the Gospel’s context.

The absolute “father” also occurs in Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman, who challenges his offer of living water by comparing him to their shared father Jacob (4:12). Answering the theological problem she poses for him (where one must worship, 4:19–20), Jesus accuses her people of worshiping what they do not know (4:22) but also proclaims that “the father” seeks those who worship in spirit and truth (4:23–25). The woman appears to grasp this response without difficulty. However imperfect their knowledge of the deity, there is no suggestion that she and the Samaritans might not recognize “the father” as a reference to the deity that they share with Jews and Jesus, as they do Abraham and Jacob.

Similarly, while Jesus speaks of “my father” to the disciples in chapters 14–15, should that really be read as “my father and not yours”? The absolute “father” is frequent not only in 14–15 but also in 16–17, and in the latter the term “my father” never appears. If John 14–15 stresses the identity between Jesus and the father, chapters 16–17 stress the identity between the disciples and Jesus. Pronouncements like “the father himself loves you” (16:27) and “you have loved them as you have loved me” (17:23) suggest that when the risen Jesus sends Mary Magdalene to tell the disciples, “I ascend to my father and your father” (20:17), he does not award them a new status but rather reminds them of the destination they share with him. If “father” presents the deity as Jesus’ sender and vindicator, it also functions both anthropologically and soteriologically in the vindication of the community. “Born of God,” “from above,” “from the spirit” (1:13; 3:3, 7; 3:6), Jesus’ followers suffer opposition from those who come from below, are born from the flesh, are from their father the devil.

“Father” thus functions in the dialogues to express origin, but also alliance, commitment, and destiny, revealing the true being of the participants. But like all the other designations for the divine, it also points beyond the exchange, both naming and not naming, underlining the numinous reality by the common, even banal character of the image.

“Father” In “Prayers of Jesus” In John

In attempts to argue for the uniqueness of Jesus’ use of “father,” considerable attention has been focused on so-called “prayers of Jesus” that use this address, that is, on those points at which the gospels depict Jesus as speaking directly to God. Regarding these speeches as uniquely significant is problematic in a number of ways; it ignores the degree to which they are likely to reflect both Christian practice and the theological and literary concerns of the text. Thus any focus on such prayers should attend to both traditional practice and redactional interests.

Like Mark and Q, the Fourth Gospel attributes the address to Jesus. But unlike the former, John does very nearly present a Jesus who always and everywhere uses “father” as his address to God, though this observation must be balanced with the acknowledgement that “prayers of Jesus” are not frequent in either the Synoptics or John. The three instances in which the Fourth Gospel places a prayer on Jesus’ lips come late in the Gospel and offer highly dramatic interpretations of their context: a thanksgiving that precedes the raising of Lazarus (11:41), a prayer that expresses his attitude to his own death (12:27–28), and the lengthy prayer that closes the testament of Jesus (17:1, 5, 21, 24, 25). In John 17, θεός is used in an oblique address (“that they may know you, the only true God” or perhaps “that they may know that you are the only true God,” 17:3). Otherwise, John does not depict Jesus as addressing the deity as “God” (as does Mark 15:34) or “Lord” (Matt 11:25/ /Luke 10:21). The narrator does use the euphemisms “to heaven” (17:1) and “above” (11:41) to describe Jesus’ prayerful gaze; the response to Jesus’ prayer in 12:27–28 comes “from heaven.” In all, the Johannine presentation of the deity as the sender and vindicator of Jesus is strikingly manifest.

At the same time, these three prayers present certain traditional features. In 1963, C. H. Dodd discussed them in his attempt to undermine the Synoptics’ historical monopoly and establish the Fourth Gospel’s access to a precanonical stage of the tradition and therefore to the earliest communities, including the career of Jesus (1963:423–32). In contrast, the comparisons below set the use of “father” in these prayers into the context of traditional prayer strategies in early Judaism and Christianity as well as into the Gospel’s theological program.

In Mark and Q, “father” is especially important in prayers or references to prayer in three contexts that are continuous with its uses in early Jewish texts. First, “father” is important in the prayers of the afflicted and persecuted, especially of the righteous Jew (or proselyte) who is threatened by the wicked and haughty oppressor (especially the Gentile oppressor: 4Q372 16–20; Jos. Asen. 12:8–15; 3 Macc 6:3–4, 7–8; Sir 23:1; Wis 2:16–20; Mark 14:36; Matt 6:9, 13//Luke 11:2, 4). Second, the title occurs in recourse to the deity as wise and provident in caring for the petitioners or directing history (1QHa IX, 35; 4Q372 I, 17–19, 24; Jos. Asen. 12:15; Wis 14:1–4; 3 Macc 6:3; Jub. 19:29; Mark 8:38; 13:31; 14:36; consistently in Q: Matt 5:48//Luke 6:36; Matt 11:25–27//Luke 10:21–22; Matt 6:9–13//Luke 11:2–4; Matt 7:11//Luke 11:13; Matt 6:32//Luke 12:30). Third, appeals to God’s mercy and forgiveness (4Q372 I, 19; 1QH IX, 30–35; Jos. Asen. 12:14–15; Apocr. Ezek. Fragment 2; Tob 13:4–6; Ant. 2.152; Mark 11:25; Matt 6:9, 12//Luke 11:2, 4) or references to God as correcting the sinner (Sir 23:1–6; cf. Wis 11:10) also call upon God as father (D’Angelo, 1992b:153–56). In both Mark and Q the title not only draws upon tradition but also reflects and contributes to the ethos and practice of the gospels’ users. In Q, special knowledge (Matt 11:27//Luke 10:22) and practice (Matt 5:48//Luke 6:36; Matt 6:32//Luke 12:30) make the practitioners “sons of the [heavenly] father” (D’Angelo, 1992b:162–73). In Mark, “father” is embedded in the Gospel’s theology of apocalyptic expectation (8:38; 13:32) and spiritual power (11:25; 14:36; cf. Gal 4:7; Rom 8:15; D’Angelo, 1992b:156–62).

None of the prayers or references to prayer in the Gospel of John makes or commends petitions for forgiveness or divine mercy for the sinner (although John 2:1 represents Jesus as the advocate to the father for any sin within the community). But early Jewish and Christian uses of “father” in appeals to divine providence and in the cry of the suffering just one are reflected in Johannine use of the designation. As in Mark, “father” functions in John to name the source and the guarantor of spiritual and prophetic power and knowledge, first that of Jesus, but also that of all who believe; as in Q, the prayers to God as father not only invoke the wise director of history, but also warrant the unique knowledge of God enjoyed by the sons. The overlap among the lists provided above makes clear that these contexts are not so much distinct as distinguishable; in the Fourth Gospel they are even more deeply intertwined than in the Synoptics.

John 11:41: “Father” In a Prayer of Spiritual Power

The first occasion on which the Fourth Gospel cites a prayer of Jesus is at the raising of Lazarus: “Father, I thank you because you heard me: I knew you always hear me, but I spoke on account of the crowd standing around, that they may believe that you have sent me” (11:41). This prayer has the form of a thanksgiving or blessing, rather like the Q prayer that begins “I praise you father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have revealed these things to babes” (Matt 11:25//Luke 10:21). John 11:41 implies that the resurrection that is about to take place is the result of Jesus’ request, and perhaps also of Martha’s conviction that “whatever you ask, God will give you” (11:23). But the request is never made, presumably because, since God grants whatever Jesus asks, he does not even need to ask.

In 11:41, “you always hear me” identifies the raising of Lazarus as a manifestation of the deity as sender of Jesus (11:42). But it also serves an exemplary function: the believers too expect that their prayers will work wonders. Martyn’s theory that the cure of the blind man in chapter 9 represents not only a traditional story about Jesus but also the exercise of the gift of healing in the community might be reconsidered here (26–30). In the testament of Jesus, the power to ask and receive from “the father” is passed on to the disciples; Jesus will not have to ask on their behalf, because the father loves them (14:13–14; 15:7; 16:23, 26). A variety of similar promises appears in contexts that assure believers of their own spiritual and prophetic power. In Mark the withering of the fig tree warrants the faith that moves mountains: “therefore I say to you, everything you pray and ask for … will come to you. When you are praying … forgive, that your heavenly father may forgive you …” (Mark 11:24–25//Matt 21:22; 6:14). Matt 18:19 proclaims: “Amen I say to you if two of you agree about whatever you ask from my father in heaven, it will come to you.” Other versions do not refer to the divine father (“ask and you shall receive,” Matt 7:7//Luke 11:9; Herm. Mand. 9.4, Herm. Sim. 3.6, Gos. Thom. 92; see also Dodd, 1963:349–52).

In Mark, the prayer of the believer is the source of spiritual power in the community (9:29; 11:24–25) and the prayer “abba, father” has particular spiritual force (14:36; cf. Gal 4:6, Rom 8:15; see D’Angelo, 1992b:159–62). This spiritual power must be understood in the prophetic and apocalyptic context of the Gospel and the community. The Markan sayings that link “father” and “son [of man]” belong to the apocalyptic context of Mark, announcing the terms of judgment (8:38: “the son of man will be ashamed of you when he comes in the glory of his father with the holy angels …”) or considering the time of the reckoning (13:32: “no one knows the hour, not the angels, not even the son, but only the father”; see D’Angelo, 1992b:157–58). In John the two sayings Meyer notes as linking “father” with “son of man” are notable manifestations of a sort of de-eschatologized apocalypticism (268 n. 26). John 5:27 announces and explains Jesus’ status as judge through the imagery of Dan 7:12–14: “[The father] has given authority to him to do judgment, because he is the son of man.” The same image promises a vindication of Jesus’ revelation in 8:38: “When you lift up the son of man, then you will know that I am, and that from myself I do nothing, but as the father taught me, I speak” (cf. 8:38:”… as I have heard from the father, I speak”).

“Father” In the Prayer of the Suffering Just One

The second time the Gospel depicts Jesus as praying is John 12:27–28, where he proposes two alternative prayers: “What shall I say? Father save me from this hour … father glorify your name.” The first of these (“father save me from this hour”) is reminiscent of Mark 14:35–36: “He prayed that if possible the hour might pass away: ‘father, take this cup away but not what I will but what you do.’ ” The cup given by the father appears in John 18:11 as an image for Jesus’ death: “the cup my father gave me to drink, shall I not drink it?” With Mark 14:36, John 12:27 and 18:11 probably attest an earlier prayer that dramatized the interpretation of Jesus’ death through the Psalter’s image of “cup” for a lot given by God (Pss 75:8; 11:6; 16:5; cf. Mark 10:38–39; see differently Dodd 1963:68–69). Both versions of this prayer use the address “father” to locate Jesus as the persecuted just one, the son of God faced with death at the hands of the wicked. In doing so, they draw on a tradition manifest in early Jewish literature like 4Q372 1, 3 Macc 6:3–4, Wis 2:16–20; cf. 11:10 (D’Angelo 1992a, 1992b).

The prayer Jesus chooses, “father glorify your name,” may also derive from traditional language, providing a very Johannine version (or inversion?) of the submission expressed in Mark 14:36: “father … not what I will but what you do.” Matthew’s garden narrative translates this concession into the traditional petition: “your will be done” (Matt 26:42), perhaps on the model of the Q prayer (Matt 6:9–13). Matthew appears to regard this prayer as an example of very simple standard Jewish prayer (6:7–8), and probably rightly so. The Kaddish, known from the end of the talmudic period, offers significant parallels to its first three petitions: “Exalted and hallowed be his great name in the world which he created according to his will. May he establish his reign in your lifetime and in your days and in the days of all the household of Israel.” A string of synonyms open the praise that follows in the prayer book: “Blessed and honored and crowned and magnified and lifted up and glorified and elevated and praised be the name of the holy, blessed be he.” The point here is not the influence of these prayers upon the gospels, but their style as analogous to certain features of early Christian prayers. First, both the early Jewish and the early Christian prayers prefer synonyms and euphemisms for God: “the great name,” “the holy one” in the synagogue prayers; “father” or “father in heaven” in the early Christian ones. Second, the use of synonymous praises in the synagogue prayers suggests the synonymous character of the first three petitions in Matt 6:9–10: “may your name be sanctified, may your reign come, may your will be done in heaven and earth.” So also “father … your will be done” (6:10//26:42) can be expressed equally well as “father, glorify your name” (John 12:28). In John, this prayer receives an immediate affirmation from the divine (heavenly) voice, which comes for the crowd, but is apparently understood only by Jesus, the readers, and perhaps the disciples (12:28–29).

Looking at John 12:27–28 in the context of prayers of the persecuted just one raises the question of whether in John “father” might function in resistance to or critique of the imperial theology exhibited in the use of the title pater patriae for the emperor (D’Angelo, 1992a:623–30). If this is the case, then the point is made by the absence of the title from the passion narrative. As I argued above, John’s Jesus uses “father” in dialogue with those who do, can, or ought to claim the same divine paternity as he does: the Jews, those other Israelites the Samaritans, the disciples and friends before whom he speaks with παρρησία (16:29). He does not use it with those who do not worship this deity, who cannot know the truth (18:37–38). Similarly, Mark’s Jesus appeals to his father in private (14:36); in public, at his death, he cries to God, though the pagan soldiers apparently cannot understand him (Mark 15:34–36). In John when Jesus displays his παρρησία before Pilate, he speaks only obliquely of the deity as the one above who has allowed Pilate this moment of seeming authority over him (19:11), who is “not of this world” (18:36), unlike Pilate and the one above him. Their puny might tempts the Jews to repudiate their one father God (8:41) with the terrible confession: “We have no king but Caesar” (19:15). This last word of the Jews in the trial scene carries a perverse echo of the Shema. It cannot be established that the Abinu Malkenu—a central prayer in the Jewish New Year liturgy—played a role in the construction of this dialogue, for it is not attested before the sixth century. But its earliest form presents a striking contrast to John 19:15: “Our father, our king, we have no king but you” (b. Ta˒an. 25b; see D’Angelo, 1992a:626–27).

“Father” In John 17

John 17 is the passage most readily evoked by references to the prayer of the Johannine Jesus; both its position and its content manifest its importance in the drama and theology of the Gospel. This prayer is so deeply imbued with Johannine thought that Käsemann used it as the entrée into his radicalized description of the theological idiosyncracies of the Gospel. Even so, the chapter both draws upon the style and traditions of Jewish prayer and shares certain features of two sayings from Q. Dodd treated John 17 as a witness to the so-called “Johannine Logion” (Matt 27:25–27//Luke 10:21–22; Dodd, 1963:359–63) and to the Lord’s prayer (Matt 6:7–13//Luke 11:2–4; Dodd, 1963:333–34). The location of these two sayings in Luke suggests that they formed part of a single unit of the version of Q used by Luke (D’Angelo, 1992b:171). Between the missionary sermon (Luke 10:1–20) and the Beelzebul controversy (Luke 11:14–28) lie four sets of Q sayings that are usually treated as separate (Kloppenborg: 92, 190–206; Koester: 141) but that have significant thematic connections. They consist of a blessing of (thanksgiving to) the father and revealer, beginning “I praise you father, lord of heaven and earth …” (Luke 10:21–22), a blessing (beatitude) on those who see and hear (Luke 10:23–24), the “Lord’s prayer” (Luke 11:2–4), and sayings urging confidence in prayer (Luke 11:9–13). If these four passages are seen as comprising a unit, all but two of the nine uses of “father” as a divine designation clearly attributable to Q occur within it (D’Angelo, 1992b:162).

Two brief sayings that follow the Q thanksgiving find echoes not only in John 17 but throughout the Gospel:

1. all things have been given over to me by my father

2. and no one knows the son except the father

and no one knows the father except the son

and anyone to whom the son wishes to reveal him.

(Matt 11:27//Luke 10:22).

The first of these sayings appears in a slightly different formulation among the final (but not valedictory) words of Matthew’s risen Jesus: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt 28:18). In Matthew, “all things” (πάντα) and “all authority” (πᾶσα ἐξουσία) given to Jesus apply especially in the realm of teaching, specifically in teaching how to observe and do God’s will (7:21). Another version appears in the Gospel of Thomas; to Salome’s challenge, “who are you, o man?” Jesus responds: “it is I who have come from the whole; I have been given from the things of my father” (saying 61). Here too the saying vindicates Jesus’ authoritative teaching: for the Gospel of Thomas, finding the true meaning of the words of the living Jesus offers salvation through the apprehension of the whole.

At its first appearance in John 17, the saying appears closest to Matt 28:18: “Father … as you have given him [your son] authority over all flesh …” (17:2; cf. 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12, 22, 24). The explicit mention of ἐξουσία underlines the presentation of the deity as the authorizer of Jesus’ mission. A version of the same proclamation that uses “all” (πάντα) appears in John 3:35: “the father … has given all things into his hand.” Both the prayer of 17 and the dialogues and discourses throughout the Gospel specify the meaning of the “all things” the father gives: it includes “all judgment” (5:22), “to have life in himself” (5:26), “to do judgment” (5:27), “the works” that testify to Jesus (5:36), “the work” the father gave him to do (17:4), the words (17:8), perhaps the name (17:11), the glory (17:22, 24). But in John “everything the father gave” most frequently refers to those who come to Jesus and believe. The Baptizer concedes the divine mission of Jesus: “no one can take anything that has not been given to him” (3:27); and Jesus repeats: “no one can come to me unless it is given to him from the father” (6:65). The divine gift is the guarantee of his followers: “This is the will of the one who sent me, that everything he gave me I shall not lose from it, but I shall raise it up on the last day—this is the will of my father (6:39; cf. 6:37; 10:29; 17:4, 6, 7, 9–10; 17:22, 24).

The second part of the Q saying explains the wisdom and divine revelation that is celebrated in the blessing: “No one knows the son except the father, no one knows the father except the son, and those to whom he chooses to reveal him” (Matt 11:26//Luke 10:21). The Johannine version of this claim that is closest in formulation is 10:15: “the father knows me and I know the father” (Dodd, 1963:359–60). This claim to divine recognition validates the “teaching” of Jesus which causes his own (like the blind man) to follow him. It becomes an accusation to the crowds at Succoth: “If you knew me, you would know the father also” (8:19). So too the knowledge of God is both what Jesus claims and what he offers in 17:1–3: “Father … this is eternal life that they know you the only true God.… righteous father, the world did not know you, but I knew you and these knew that you sent me, and I have made known your name to them.…” (17:24–26).

Dodd’s endeavor to find in John independent witness to sayings from the synoptic tradition most nearly succeeds in regard to the two sayings in Matt 11:27//Luke 10:22. The case of the Q prayer is different. The following table aligns the petitions of Matthew’s version of the Q prayer with similar petitions or phrases that use the same language from John 17. Its point is not to argue that John 17 is a revision of the Q prayer or to claim a kernel of tradition that goes back to Jesus. Rather, the different versions of that prayer in Matthew, Luke, and Didache, the similar petitions in John 17, and the blessings that become the various versions of the Kaddish all reflect the raw materials of Jewish prayer in the first few centuries of the Common Era.

Matt 6:7–15 (Luke 11:2–4)

John 17

our father in heaven

father (17:1, 5, 24), holy father (17:11), just father (17:25)

sanctified be your name

glorify your son (17:1, 5; cf. 12:28, name; and 18:11)

your reign come

the hour is come (17:1)

your will be done

sanctify them in the truth (17:17)

give us bread

you have given (17:2, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 22, 24)



do not bring us to the test; rescue us from the evil one

keep them in the truth (17:11); keep them from the evil one (17:15)

(yours are the reign and power and glory)

my glory which you gave me (17:24)

In John 17, traditional petitions (or imperatives) of praise are refocused around the fate of Jesus and of his hearers, John’s audience explicitly included (“not only these, but also all those who believe on account of their word,” 17:20). Thus “sanctified be your name” appears in John as “glorify your son that your son may glorify you … father holy, keep them in your name … sanctify them in the truth” (17:1, 5, 11, 17).

The first of the second-person petitions of the Q prayer (“give us today our daily bread” Matt 6:11//Luke 11:3) does not appear explicitly in John 17, though Jesus’ opponents articulate a version of it in 6:34: “Lord give us always this bread.” But John 17 offers Johannine versions of this plea: “that he give them eternal life … that they know you the only true God” (17:2, 3). John 6 interprets the gift of bread with eternal life: “My father gives you true bread from heaven. God’s bread is what comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (6:32–33). The ensuing dialogue identifies the true bread from heaven as the knowledge of God (6:44–47). The Didache eucharist similarly identifies the bread with “life and knowledge” (Did. 9.2). The beatitude on the hungry in Gos. Thom. 59 also treats hunger and its satisfaction as spiritual, motions of the search for knowledge (D’Angelo, 1995:78–79).

The final petition from Matthew also appears in a Johannine version. “Keep them from the evil one” (17:15) is virtually identical with the petition “deliver us from the evil one” (Matt 6:13; see differently Dodd, 1963:333). Conspicuously lacking is the plea for forgiveness of debts or sins (Matt 6:12//Luke 11:4). The petitions “that all be one” (John 17:21, 22, 23) do not so much substitute for this plea as cast into high relief the perspective that excludes it. John 17 is the prayer of and for the community of the elect, those who are not from the world, as Jesus is not from the world (17:11). These petitions in particular were the inspiration for Käsemann’s analysis of a radical dualism in the Gospel (56–73). Brown reads 1 John as addressing a conflict over boasts of perfect communion and sinlessness that the writer’s opponents derived from the Gospel (1979:122–28).

Whether John’s communal vision led to gnostic positions (Käsemann: 65–66; Brown, 1979:93–144), responded to them (Bornkamm: 111–12), or instead expressed the spiritual stance of a single community at a specific point in its existence, its highly individual self-understanding is interwoven with traditional functions in the prayer’s setting and content. John 17 locates Jesus and “his own” among the persecuted and suffering just; at the same time, it insists upon the spiritual power at their disposition.


“Father” in John is the preferred designation of the deity and very nearly what Philo might have called the proper name for God. As such, it is a theological strategy of the Gospel, pointing toward, intimating the deity as the origin and destiny of Jesus and of all believers, the guarantee of their authority. The impulse behind the Gospel’s preference for “father” is similar both to early Jewish substitutions for the Tetragrammaton and to the use of “father” in the Gospel of Thomas and in some Valentinian and gnostic texts. This does not suggest that “father” has no metaphoric content. On the contrary, it everywhere calls familial imagery into play. Such imagery cannot but be patriarchal, but the refractions of patriarchy that inhabit both theology and christology are by no means reducible to simple propositions, nor are they expunged by the substitution of new and more inclusive language.

To be effective, the strategy requires that the audience (the first readers and hearers) of the Gospel find its referents immediately comprehensible and meaning-filled. Further, the function of “father” in the dialogues requires that “the Jews” of the Gospel also be seen to understand it. Indeed, “the Jews” claim the deity as their father also and in this they may well come closest to representing the real Jews of the Gospel’s context. Thus, in a sense, the Gospel of John can be added to the list of evidence for early Jewish use of “father,” although at several removes. The “prayers of Jesus” in John bear this out, illustrating the transformation of traditions common to early Jewish and Christian prayer by the dramatic exigencies and theological concerns of the Gospel.

These observations, while they controvert claims that the Gospel’s specialized use of “father” was based upon the unique and revelatory practice of Jesus, are not without some consequence for the picture of Jesus and the movement within which he preached. For the less “unparalleled” the content of “father,” the more current in the common vocabulary of early Jewish piety and resistance, the more likely it is to have functioned in proclaiming God’s reign.

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“And the Word Was Begotten”: Divine Epigenesis in the Gospel of John

Adele Reinhartz

McMaster University


This paper argues that underlying the “father-son” language that is used to describe the relationship between God and Jesus in the Fourth Gospel is the Aristotelian theory of epigenesis. According to this theory, the male sperm is viewed as the vehicle for the logos and pneuma of the father, which provide the form and essence of the offspring. Epigenesis provides a key to comprehending the revelatory function that Jesus plays in the world, but at the same time poses difficult problems for feminist theology by focusing attention on the masculinity of both God and Jesus.


The designation of God as father in sacred texts poses a vexing problem for feminists striving for inclusive theology, religious language, and religious institutions. According to Sallie McFague, the designation of “father” as a name for God transforms a paternal model into a patriarchal model (9). For Elizabeth Johnson, “Language about the father in heaven who rules over the world justifies and even necessitates an order whereby the male religious leader rules over his flock” (36). In the words of Mary Daly, if God is male, then the male is God (19).

Of all the books in the Christian canon, it is the Gospel of John that uses paternal God language most relentlessly. The sheer number of passages that describe or refer to God as father and Jesus as son testify to the centrality of father-son language to Johannine theology, christology, and soteriology. Virtually every chapter of the Gospel, every lengthy discourse attributed to Jesus, and each one of the narrator’s own theological expositions expresses and reflects upon the God-Jesus relationship in father-son terms, and explicitly or implicitly draws humankind into this relationship as well.

One approach that has proven fruitful for feminist theology is to read paternal God language metaphorically (e.g., Teselle: 43–45). The varied nature of the relationship between a human father and son can be viewed as an analogy for the complex and intimate relationship between God and Jesus that otherwise eludes human description and in which the believer is also invited to participate. Applying this approach to the Fourth Gospel requires several steps. The first is to identify the characteristic elements of the father-son relationship. According to John 3:35, “The Father loves the Son and has placed all things in his hands.” John 5:20 declares that “the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing.…” This love is reciprocated by Jesus, who does as the father has commanded him, “so that the world may know that I love the Father” (14:31). Other passages reflect the commonality of activity between father and son and imply that Jesus, like a human son, is apprenticed to his divine father (Lee: 146). Like the father, the son raises the dead (5:21) and has life in himself (5:26). The son works the same long hours as the father, including the Sabbath, when, as Jesus declares, “My Father is still working, and I also am working” (5:17). The son defends the father’s interests as well as his property. When the temple is threatened by moneychangers and their wares, Jesus “cleanses” it and shouts, “Stop making my Father’s house a markeplace!” (2:16), reminding his disciples of the psalmist’s declaration: “Zeal for your house will consume me” (2:17; cf. Ps 69:9).

The second step is to recognize the specific social, cultural, and religious context in which the Johannine father-son language is grounded. Both the mutual aspects of the father-son relationship, such as love and concern, and the hierarchical aspects, such as the father’s authority and the son’s obedience, have a universal and enduring ring. But the ongoing relevance of these aspects to our own society’s discourse on father-child relationships should not obscure the fact that their formulation in the Fourth Gospel reflects the cultural constructions and practices with which the Gospel writer and original audience would have been familiar. Given the ubiquity of patriarchy in the first century as a social system in which fathers had tremendous power and authority within the household, it is difficult to trace the background of the Johannine presentation of the father-son metaphor to a specific philosophical system or set of texts. Nevertheless, the fourth evangelist’s understanding is consistent both with Jewish and non-Jewish authors in the first-century Greco-Roman world.

The father’s absolute authority over his children is stressed, for example, by both Philo and Epictetus. Philo declares that parents have authority over their offspring like that of a master over a slave (Spec. 2.233). This authority has been awarded to them “by the most admirable and perfect judgment of nature above us which governs with justice things both human and divine” (Spec. 2.231). For this reason, “Fathers have the right to upbraid their children and admonish them severely” (Spec. 2.232) and must be respected, obeyed, requited, and feared (Spec. 2.234). The father, in turn, instructs his son according to virtue (Spec. 2.236) and also loves and cherishes his children “with extreme tenderness … fast bound to them by the magnetic forces of affection,” which too must be reciprocated (Spec. 2.240). Epictetus, a first- and second-century Stoic philosopher, admonished his male readers: “Remember … that you are a son; and what doth this character promise? To esteem everything that is his, as belonging to his father: in every instance to obey him: not to revile him to another: not to say or do anything injurious to him: to give way and yield in everything; co-operating with him to the utmost of his power” (Diatr. 2.10.7).

Viewing the father-son language as metaphor grounded in ancient cultural constructions allows space both for reinterpretation of the cultural notion of fatherhood that is more compatible with more egalitarian ideals and for the inclusion of other motifs, such as God as mother, lover, and friend (McFague: 177–92). In these theological moves, the relational aspects of the Johannine understanding of God as father, such as mutual love, can be maintained while the gender-specific formulation, including the linking of divine authority to patriarchy, can be set aside. The metaphorical interpretation of God as father can therefore be read as an analogy and as a simile: the relationship between God and Jesus is “like” that between a father and a son.

Yet this approach, attractive and defensible as it is, leaves some attributes of the father-son relationship unexplained. Whereas the filial relations described above could be as true of adoptive children as of biological ones, and the parental role as true of mothers as of fathers, other passages resist a straightforward metaphorical interpretation. In particular, some passages suggest that for the evangelist and his earliest audience, the “father-son” language was not simply a way of speaking about the otherwise unspeakable, but was also intended as a rather literal description of the relationship between God and Jesus (cf. Moltmann: 51). This possibility is suggested, for example, by passages that describe Jesus as “coming from” God. In 8:42, Jesus declares to the Jews: “… I came from God [ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ ἐξῆλθον] and now I am here. I did not come on my own [ἐλήλυθα], but he sent me.” In 16:30 the disciples declare their belief “that you came from God [ἀπο θεοῦ ἐξῆλθες]” (cf. also 13:3; 16:27–28, 30; 17:8). Ἐχέρχομαι frequently refers simply to leaving a particular location, as clearly seems to be the case in 13:3; 16:27–28, in which Jesus states that he has come from God and is returning to God. But this verb can also have a generative sense, meaning “to be begotten by” (as in LXX 2 Chron 6:9, referring to Solomon as the son of David) or, more generally, “to be born or descend from” (LXX Gen 35:11; Heb 7:5). A secondary nuance in the Johannine use of ἐξέρχομαι may therefore be that Jesus not only came from the place that God was but also that Jesus came forth from, or was begotten by, God.

Even more telling is the Gospel’s prologue, which proclaims the pre-existence of Jesus as the Word of God, who “in the beginning” was both with God and was God (John 1:1–2). This introduction establishes the cosmic and eternal temporal and spatial framework of the narrative (e.g., Kysar: 15) and provides a fitting introduction to Johannine christology, which consistently associates Jesus more closely with the divine realm than with the human world.

Through this prologue, the Gospel establishes that Jesus’ true place is with God in the eternal time and space that is God’s realm. But like the synoptic versions of Jesus’ life story, the Johannine gospel must also bring Jesus into the human realm. Only this way can the good news be accessible to humankind and the narrative proceed. And so we learn, in John 1:14, that “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (1:14a). The incarnation of the divine Word became the medium for divine revelation: “we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (1:14b). The exclusiveness of divine revelation through the Word is proclaimed in 1:18: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”

A curious feature of this introduction to the Fourth Gospel is the shift in language that occurs at John 1:14. Whereas 1:1–13 speak of the relationship between God and Jesus as that between God and the Word, 1:14–18 focus on the Word incarnate as the μονογενής (“only [begotten] son”) and on God as divine father. The pivotal point at which the shift occurs is the incarnation itself, that is, the entrance of the Word into the human and time-bound arena in which filial and other familial relationships have meaning and context.

This introduction to the Fourth Gospel is a conundrum. In comparison with the infancy narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, the silence of the Johannine prologue regarding the timing, manner, and circumstances of Jesus’ conception and birth as well as regarding the identity or even the presence of a mother is glaring. Nevertheless, John 1:1–18 implies that the incarnation itself transformed the nature of the relationship between God and Jesus to that of father and son. This paper will argue that included in the Johannine understanding of the relationship between God and Jesus is the belief that Jesus was quite literally begotten by God in a manner that closely resembles the human process of procreation as understood by the evangelist and his earliest audience. I begin by looking at the ways in which the process of generation was understood in the Greco-Roman world, and second, by considering the passages within the Gospel that may allude to this process of generation as a component of, or indeed the basis for, the relationship between God and Jesus and, by extension, as a key to comprehending the revelatory function that Jesus plays in the world. I conclude with a brief consideration of the implications of this argument for feminist theology.

Greco-Roman Embryology

It is not known exactly how the individuals and/or community that lie behind this Gospel understood everyday processes such as human reproduction. Works such as Aristotle’s treatise, Generation of Animals (Gen. an.), from the fourth century B.C.E., however, indicate that a number of theories were current in the Greco-Roman world. These theories address not only the ability of animals to reproduce but also the role of male and female in procreation, and related issues such as the physical resemblance between parents and offspring. All theories give a seminal (so to speak) role in the generative process to semen or sperm (both denoted by the Greek term ΣΠΈΡΜΑ).

The Hippocratic notion of pangenesis holds that the process of generation involves sperm that originated in all body parts of one or both parents. That is, the arms of the child were formed by sperm originating in the arms of the parents, the legs were engendered by the sperm from the parents’ legs, and so on (Tress: 37). Aristotle cites four arguments in favor of pangenesis (721b10–35): a) the intensity of pleasure involved in the sexual act: just as sexual pleasure suffuses the entire body, so must the generative process that results from the sexual act involve the entire body; b) the observation that “mutilated parents produce mutilated offspring”; c) the nature and degree of resemblance of the young to their parents; d) the relationship of a whole to its parts: “Just as there is some original thing out of which the whole creature is formed, so also it is with each of the parts; and hence if there is a semen [σπέρμα] which gives rise to the whole, there must be a special semen which gives rise to each of the parts” (Gen. an. 721b27–28).

Aristotle devotes many lines to the refutation of pangenesis and related theories (Gen. an. 722a–24a). Most pertinent to our interests is his observation that the resemblance between parents and children is much more complex than the theory of pangenesis can account for. Some children, for example, resemble their remoter ancestors more closely than they do their parents (722a1–15). Furthermore, “not all offspring of mutilated parents are mutilated, any more than all offspring resemble their parents” (Gen. an. 724a5). Also problematic is the issue of gender differentiation. As Aristotle notes, “if the semen is drawn from all parts of both parents alike, we shall have two animals formed, for the semen will contain all the parts of each of them” (Gen. an. 722b7). Since in some species, including our own, the norm is to form only one child at a time, pangenesis cannot easily account for the fact that a female can give birth to a male, or that a male can beget a female, since neither male nor female semen would contain all the body parts from which to construct an offspring of the opposite sex.

A second well-known theory, known as preformationism or the homunculus theory, argues that the sperm contains a miniature animal or a little human already formed and waiting simply to be implanted in the uterus in which it will grow until birth (Tress: 37). Preformationism solves one problem inherent in the theory of pangenesis, namely, the state of the body parts within the sperm itself. As Aristotle noted, if the parts of the body are scattered about within the semen, as the theory of pangenesis suggested, it is difficult to account for their vitality. If, on the other hand, they are connected with each other, then surely they would be a tiny animal, as preformationists argue (722b5). Like pangenesis, however, preformationism fails to account adequately for gender differentiation, since “that which comes from the male will be different from that which comes from the female” (722b3). Similar problems attend a related theory that Aristotle attributes to Empedocles: that each parent, through the semen, provides one half of the offspring’s body. Aristotle objects to this theory as well, for how can the parts remain sound and living if “torn asunder” from each other when small (Gen. an. 722b15–20; Preus: 6)?

Although these theories circulated widely, most influential was Aristotle’s own theory, called epigenesis, which held sway from his own lifetime until the sixteenth century (Needham: 60). According to Aristotle, one ought to look for a single generative material that carried the active principle for making all the others, that is, a “spermatic material which is not from all the parts of the body, but for the whole body” (Preus: 7; cf. Gen. an. 724a17). According to the theory of epigenesis, animals and human beings grow organically—not part by part—from the sperm of the male as set within the medium of growth provided by the female. The male semen determines the form of the embryo as well as the process by which it reaches maturity. The female semen, that is, the menstrual fluids (also called σπέρμα), provides the matter of generation, the substance from which the offspring is made. Both male and female semen are residues of blood, the ultimate food of the body (726b14; Preus: 7). The most important difference between male and female semen lies in their consistency. As weaker creatures than males, females produce semen that is thinner and has less form than that of males. Because that which has less form is matter, it can be deduced that females produce the matter for generation, whereas males produce the form (Gen. an. 729a10).

A number of analogies illustrate Aristotle’s understanding of the role of male and female. “Compare the coagulation of milk,” he suggests. “Here, the milk is the body, and the fig-juice or the rennet contains the principle [ἀρχή] which causes it to set” (Gen. an. 729a10–12). Similarly, the male may be compared to a carpenter, who, in building a bedstead, imparts from and function to the female matter, which is like the wood from which the bedstead is made (729b19). According to Gen. an. 15:730b13–19, the form of the object to be created is present in the carpenter’s soul and is generated in matter by means of movement. The carpenter’s soul and knowledge move his hands and body in a particular movement that is different for different products. In a similar fashion, semen acts as a tool that imparts form. In either case, the tool does not become a material part of the production but serves to transmit the formative movement from the maker to that which is made.

Integral to the form as supplied by the male seed is the sentient soul (Peck: xiii). The sentient soul resides in the πνεῦμα, life-breath or spirit, of the male. The πνεῦμα contains the dynamic structure of the individual and thus is capable of shaping the individuality of an offspring through the process of generation (Peck: xiv; Preus: 52). It is therefore the πνεῦμα, present in the male sperm, that carries the (potential) form of the offspring and is charged with the movement that creates the sentient soul. When given the right conditions and the proper material (that is, the female semen of the appropriate species) to work upon, the movement of the πνεῦμα contained within the male semen will produce a being of the same kind as that from which the male semen came.

Like other processes, argues Aristotle, the process of generation can be discussed in terms of four basic causes (Gen. an. 715a1–10; Preus: 3; Aristotle: xxxviii). The first is the τέλος, that for the sake of which the thing exists. The second is the rational purpose of the thing, often refered to as the λόγος. These first two causes are very closely tied, indeed almost identical. The third is the material cause, that is, the matter from which the object is made, and the fourth is the motive cause, that is, the source of the movement that sets the creative process in motion. The motive cause is also refered to as λόγος. In the creation of a dog, for example, the motive cause is the male parent whose sperm supplies the movement that sets the process of development in motion; the material cause is the menstrual fluid and the nourishment supplied by the female parent, both before and after birth; the formal cause refers to the particular process of development followed by the embryo and puppy; the final cause or the τέλος is a perfect and full-grown dog. In Aristotle’s argumentation, the final and motive causes often coalesce with the formal cause in opposition to the material cause (Peck: xxxix). So, for example, Aristotle describes the male, which possesses the form, supplies the movement, and acts as a motive cause, as superior and “more divine” than the female, which supplies the raw material and therefore serves as the material cause (Gen. an. 732a9).

Epigenesis, like the embryological theories that Aristotle criticizes, must account for the existence of male and female, for if the form and essence of the offspring are determined by the father, it might be thought that all offspring would be male. In Aristotle’s view, the degree of likeness between father and son is determined by a competition between the male and female principles in the early stages of the generative process. When the movement of the male semen prevails in shaping the embryonic child (766b15–16), the result is a child who resembles his father in sex and in other physical and personality traits (767b1–768a8; Horowitz: 199). If the male λόγος fails to gain mastery, the offspring will be deficient, that is, it will depart from the father’s form in some way (Gen. an. 768a25; 768b6–8; 769a22; Morsink: 136). Female offspring are deficient males in the sense that they differ from the father’s form with respect to their sex (767b10; 768a10). Aristotle’s discussion implies that in ideal circumstances, which rarely if ever exist in nature, a man will father a son who is identical to the father in all respects.

Aristotle’s theory of epigenesis, therefore, describes the act of generation as being set in motion by the male sperm, which is the λόγος, that is, the motive and final causes of the reproductive process, and is the vehicle for the male πνεῦμα that determines the form and characteristics of the offspring. The role of the female sperm is to provide the medium of growth for the offspring. Both male and female are considered to be ἀρχαί or principles of generation, which, though small in themselves, are of great importance and influence as the sources upon which other things depend and as the agents of growth and development (Gen. an. 716b3; Peck: xlv.).

The generative process (γένοεσις) as such has its source and analogue in the upper cosmos (ἄνωθεν; Gen. an. 731b24; cf. Tress: 44). For Aristotle, the fact that the male generates in the body of another and the female generates in her own body explains “why in cosmology too they speak of the nature of the Earth as something female and call it ‘mother,’ while they give to the heaven and the sun and anything else of that kind the title of ‘generator,’ and ‘father’ ” (γεννώντας καὶ πατέρας; Gen. an. 716a15). Furthermore, males are described as more “divine” (θειότερον), that is, more godlike, than females due to their active role in the process of creation (Gen. an. 732a9). In this way, Aristotle’s theory of epigenesis does not limit itself to the mechanical and physical aspects of reproduction but also places reproduction in a broader, even cosmic context.

Second Temple Judaism and Early Christianity

Aristotle’s theory, and particularly the role it ascribes to the male seed, dominated Greco-Roman embryology (Needham: 60). Although there is no direct evidence for its impact on Jewish or early Christian views, traces of the general theory of epigenesis including some of its key terms can be found in wisdom and late Second Temple Jewish literature (Needham: 64). For example, the narrator of Wis 7:1–2 declares, “I also am mortal, like everyone else, a descendant of the first-formed child of earth; and in the womb of a mother I was molded into flesh, within the period of ten months, compacted with blood, from the seed of a man and the pleasure of marriage.” The work of Philo too implies a knowledge of at least some elements of epigenesis. In his treatise On the Creation of the World (De opificio mundi), Philo comments that “seed is the original starting-point of living creatures. That this is a substance of a very low order, resembling foam, is evident to the eye. But when it has been deposited in the womb and become solid, it acquires movement, and at once enters upon natural growth” (Opif. 67). Philo also speaks of the divine seed. For example, in Philo’s version of Balaam’s oracles (Numbers 23–24), Balaam declares that the Hebrew’s bodies “have been molded from human seeds [ΣΠΕΡΜΆΤΩΝ], but their souls are sprung from divine [seeds], and therefore their stock is akin to God” (Mos. 1.279). In his treatise On the Cherubim (Cher. 43–44), Philo draws an analogy between human generation and the generation of the virtues. “Man and Woman, male and female of the human race, in the course of nature come together to hold intercourse for the procreation of children. But virtues whose offspring are so many and so perfect may not have to do with mortal man, yet if they receive not seed of generation from another they will never of themselves conceive. Who then is he that sows [ΣΠΕΊΡΩΝ] in them the good [seed] [ΤᾺ ΚΑΛΆ] save the Father of all, that is God unbegotten and begetter of all things?” Philo also describes the birth of Isaac, or Happiness, as begotten by divine seed. Says Abraham, “Lo, I have virtue laid up by me as some precious treasure, and this by itself does not make me happy. For happiness consists in the exercise and enjoyment of virtue, not in its mere possession. But I could not exercise it, shouldest Thou not send down the seeds from heaven [ἘΞ ΟΥ̓ΡΑΝΟΥ͂ ΤᾺ ΣΠΈΡΜΑΤΑ] to cause her [Sarah] to be pregnant …” (Det. 60).

These examples provide some evidence for a general knowledge of the theory of epigenesis in the role ascribed to the male and female semen. They also suggest that Greco-Roman Jewish authors from approximately the same period as the Gospel of John did not hesitate to apply the concept and vocabulary of epigenesis to God, as the creator of wisdom, Hebrews’ souls, the virtues, and happiness.

It is therefore conceivable that the author of John also was aware, at least in a general way, of Aristotelian views of conception and generation and of traditions in which divine creation was seen in analogous terms. This possibility was noted briefly by Bernard in his 1928 commentary on the Fourth Gospel. With respect to 1:13, in which the children of God are said to be born of, or generated from [ἐγενήθησαν], God, Bernard noted that it was a current doctrine in Greek physiology that the human embryo is made from the seed of the father and the blood of the mother (18), thereby implying that John 1:13 draws upon this current doctrine.

A more explicit reference to epigenesis may be found in 1 John 3:9: “Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed [σπέρμα] abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God.” On the basis of this passage, we may surmise that circles related to the Fourth Gospel did not refrain from using the language of epigenesis in order to describe the relationship between God and at least some members of humankind (cf. Brown, 1982:408–10, who, however, does not refer to epigenesis directly).

It is not clear whether the language of generation in these passages is used literally or metaphorically, that is, whether 1 John 3:9, for example, intends to suggest that believers are literally born of God or to argue that it is as if they are born of God. The same difficulty exists with the Fourth Gospel. Nevertheless, I will argue that the Johannine use of generative language, while clearly metaphorical, also may be read as a claim that Jesus is quite literally the son of God.

Epigenesis in John

There are some striking verbal parallels between Aristotle’s account of epigenesis and the ways in which the Fourth Gospel describes Jesus’ origins. These are clustered in the prologue. The term ἈΡΧΉ, which begins the Gospel (ἘΝ ἈΡΞΗ͂Ι), is usually understood temporally (“in the beginning”) and as an allusion to the first line of the biblical creation narrative. But it also echoes the notion of “first principle” of generation that in Aristotelian terms accompanies the ΛΌΓΟς, the rational principle. The identification of Jesus as the Word (ΛΌΓΟς) is often understood against the background of the Hebrew דבר, as the word of God through whom the world is created. Another element that is operative in the prologue is wisdom theology, in which personified Wisdom is seen as the preexistent and divinely created agent in creation (Proverbs 8; Sirach 24; Scott: 94–115). In the context of Aristotelian embryology, as we have seen, the term ΛΌΓΟς is often identified with one or more of the four causes that undergird the physical world and its processes, including generation. In 1:13, the children of God are said to be begotten (ἘΓΕΝΝΉΘΗΣΑΝ, from ΓΕΝΝΆΩ, to beget) of God; the verb ΓΙΝΟΜΑΙ (to be born or to become; 1:3, 4, 6, 10, 12, 14, 15, 17) appears throughout the prologue. Most suggestive are verses that speak of creation, as in 1:3: “All things came into being [ἘΓΈΝΕΤΟ] through him, and without him not one thing came into being [ἘΓΈΝΕΤΟ].” In this verse, the role of the ΛΌΓΟς recalls not only divinely created Wisdom (Weder: 328) but also precisely the role of the motive cause in Aristotelian embryology, that is, the principal mover in the process of generation. This theme continues in 1:3b–4: “What has come into being [ΓΈΓΟΝΕΝ] in him was life.…”Most important perhaps is 1:14a, which declares that the Word (Ὁ ΛΌΓΟς) “became” flesh (ΣΆΡΞ ἘΓΈΝΕΤΟ). Scholarly judgments as to the primary meaning of 1:14a, that is, what actually happened when the Word became flesh, entice us to imagine the nature of the transformation at this point as it was understood by the ancient author and audience (cf. Theobald). Profound as the theological implications of this declaration are, the generative sense of this term should not be ruled out. O’Neill states this forcefully: “The Word did not turn into flesh, did not change its nature and become flesh, did not masquerade as flesh, and did not come on the scene as flesh. We should always be careful to say, ‘the Word was born flesh’ or use the old Latin translation et verbum caro factum est, ‘the Word was made flesh’ ” (27).

Perhaps the most problematic term in the prologue is μονογενής (only [begotten]), which is used of the Word after it has become flesh (1:14, 18; cf. 3:16, 18). In 1:14b, the Word-become-flesh is described as “a [or the] father’s only son;” 1:18 reads “God the only Son” (the strongest reading, e.g., Bodmer), “It is an only Son, God” (e.g., Latin), or “the only son” (the weakest reading, e.g. Tatian; cf. Brown, 1966: 17). In 1:14, the μονογενής is the vehicle of divine revelation, the one who has the glory of his father and through whom this glory may be perceived by those around him. In 1:18, the motif of revelation is also present, since “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”

The precise meaning of the term μονογενής is elusive. Some scholars, such as Pendrick and Fennema, argue that despite its etymology, the term does not convey the sense of “only begotten.” Rather, it is a direct translation of the Hebrew יחיד and means “only” or “unique” without necessarily implying the concept of begetting (Fennema: 127; Brown, 1966: 13). The term μονογενής only took on the meaning of “only begotten” in the hands of Jerome, who translated μονογενής into Latin as unigenitus in order to answer the second-century Arian claim that Jesus was not begotten but made (Fennema: 126). Therefore 1:14 and 1:18 simply point to the uniqueness of Jesus as God’s son without implying that he is the product of a generative process, let alone divine insemination. Other scholars, such as Dahms and Lindars, view “begotten” as part of the intended meaning of the term and argue that the notion of “begotten” is present even in the Hebrew יחיד (Lindars: 96). In their view, the nuance of “only begotten” was not created by Jerome but was implicit in μονογενής already in the New Testament period, though it may have been brought to the fore in response to the Arian controversy (Dahms: 226).

Reading the prologue’s use of terms, such as ἀρχή, λόγος, and various forms of the verb γίνομαι, as allusions to epigenesis supports the argument in favor of μονογενής as “only begotten.” Thus the first few verses of the prologue, when read against the background of Greek notions of generation, declare that God is the first principle of generation, whose λόγος, or rational principle, was given human life and form and sent into the human world as Jesus, the divine father’s only begotten son. This reading provides content for the assertion that the Word became flesh by alluding to the process of epigenesis through divine seed.

What, then, of Jesus’ mother? The theory of epigenesis requires not only male seed, which determines the form and characteristics of the offspring, but also female seed, as the material from which the offspring is to be formed. From the perspective of Aristotle’s theory, the brief and cryptic notice of Jesus’ birth, “and the Word became flesh,” implies a scenario that does not differ greatly from Matthean and Lukan presentations of Jesus’ conception through the Holy Spirit and his fetal development within his mother’s womb. Yet the relative absence of Jesus’ mother from the body of the Johannine narrative contrasts starkly with the ever-presence of the father. Unlike the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (and the many artistic depictions of the baby Jesus in his loving mother’s arms), the Fourth Gospel sets a distance between Jesus and his mother. While Jesus frequently calls God his father, he calls his mother only “woman” (2:4; 19:26); whereas he makes his home with the divine father (14:2), he sends his mother off to live with the Beloved Disciple (19:27). One can, and probably should, construe this latter act as one of love, but the impression of physical estrangement remains. This aspect of the Gospel serves to focus attention squarely on the importance of the father both in Jesus’ formation and also in Jesus’ ongoing mission in the world.

A reading of the generative language as metaphor would argue that the relationship between Jesus and God is like that of a son and father. But insofar as the Gospel imputes uniqueness to Jesus among humankind, as the one who is preexistent and the only son of his divine father, we are afforded a glimpse of a more literal understanding of generative language according to which Jesus’ uniqueness rests in the fact that he is the only one in the human or indeed divine realms who has come forth from, or been generated directly by, the divine seed. This literal reading gives substance to the claim that knowledge of the father can be had only through or by means of the son. Jesus reveals the father not only through his words and deeds (5:24, 36) but also in his very person and essence (6:51).

Epigenesis and Revelation

As the one who is begotten by the divine ΣΠΈΡΜΑ, Jesus is the embodiment of the divine ΛΌΓΟς (word) and the divine ΠΝΕΥ͂ΜΑ (spirit). As such, the essence of the father, and perhaps, in some fashion, the father himself, dwells within him. Anyone wishing to have access to the father, or to witness the father’s works and hear his words, can therefore do so only through the son, who embodies his father’s works and words, acts on his father’s behalf, and has the father within him in the same way as human children carry their fathers within them. Because he comes from the father, Jesus contains the father in his very being, abiding within him, and through his presence in the world makes the father known in the world; God is no longer conceived apart from his ΛΌΓΟς (Weder: 331). As Weder notes, “In this Gospel, the making known of God through Jesus Christ means that Jesus ministers in God’s place, speaks in God’s place, and even dies as God. Such exposition means basically a carrying-through of God’s essence in the world, the actual presence of God” (333).

Interpreting the relationship between God and Jesus in light of Aristotle’s theory of epigenesis also implies a degree of likeness between father and son. In Aristotle’s view, the degree and nature of the resemblance between parents and offspring are determined by a competition between the male and female principles in the early stages of the generative process. In ideal circumstances—as in the case of God and his son—the male principle will father a son who is identical to himself in all respects. References to the mutual indwelling of the father and the son may therefore recall the common human response to physical resemblance: that one sees the parent in the child, and the child in the parent (cf. 10:38 and 17:21). Echoes of this concept may also be found in 5:18, in which the narrator attributes the Jews’ displeasure with Jesus’ Sabbath activity to the fact that Jesus called God “his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.” The Greek word that the NRSV translates as “equal” in 5:18 is ἴσος, a primary definition of which is physical resemblance (Liddell and Scott, s.v. ἴσος). Hence it is possible to read the Jews’ objection as being not so much, or not only, that Jesus elevated himself to the status of God but that he claimed to resemble God in his Sabbath work.

The Telos of Generation

The fact that Jesus, in his person, reveals the father is not only important for its own sake but also as a component of human faith in the divine. This too is expressed in the Gospel in generative terms. In John, as for Aristotle, generation has a divinely given goal or purpose. According to Aristotle, the purpose of generation is the perpetuation of the species through the cyclical process of genesis and decay (Preus: 51; cf. Gen. an. 731b35). The male is therefore “homo faber, the maker, who works upon inert matter according to a design, bringing forth a lasting work of art. His soul contributes the form and model of the creation. Out of his creativity is born a line of descendants that will preserve his memory, thus giving him earthly immortality” (Horowitz: 197; cf. Gen. an. 731b30–732a1).

The Gospel of John also describes a species of sorts. The purpose of the son’s coming in the flesh is explicitly portrayed in terms of revelation (1:18) and salvation (3:16–17). Fundamental to Jesus’ mission, however, is the gathering of disciples or believers (17:6), also described as the “children of God” (τέκνα or παιδία θεοῦ). The primary meaning of τέκνον is a child in relationship to his or her parents, or more generally, as posterity, though it is also used to refer to spiritual children (e.g., Phlm 10). This term is almost synonymous with παιδίον, though the latter denotes a child who is young in age and refers less directly to the generative aspect.

In Aristotelian terms, we might therefore say that Jesus’ purpose was to create a new and unique species—”children of God”—of which he was the first exemplar. The prologue promises that believers will become “children of God” (τέκνα θεοῦ) “who were born [or begotten, ἐγενήθησαν], not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (1:12–13), a formulation that implies the notion of epigenesis. In 11:52, the high priest inadvertently prophesies that Jesus’ death will serve not only the nation but “to gather into one the dispersed children of God [τέκνα θεοῦ].” In 12:36, Jesus urges his listeners, “While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” He calls his disciples, “Children” (παιδία) before inquiring after their catch of fish (21:5), and “Little children” (τεκνία) when he breaks to them the news of his imminent departure (13:33). As in the connection between father and son, obedience and love are central to the relationship between Jesus and his “little children”: “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them” (14:21).

The model and first son of this second generation is the disciple whom Jesus loved. That the Beloved Disciple is a child of God from his very first appearance in the Gospel in John 13 is indicated by the description of his posture during Jesus’ final meal. Just as Jesus, the only begotten son of God, rests in the bosom of his father (εἰς τὸν κόλπον τοῦ πατρός; 1:18), so does the Beloved Disciple—the son of God through Jesus?—rest in Jesus’ own bosom (ἐν τῷ κόλπῷ τοῦ Ἰησοῦ; 13:23).

Others too can become God’s children by being reborn “from above” or “again” (ἄνωθεν) through water and the spirit (ἐξ ὕδατος καὶ πνεύματος). The idea of being born through the spirit echoes 1:12–13, in which the children of God are begotten by God, and is therefore to be understand as birth through the divine spirit. More difficult is the term ἄνωθεν. Is one to be born a second time, as Nicodemus presumes (3:4), or is one to be born from above? Relevant here may be the fact that ἄνωθεν also appears in Generation of Animals, as a reference to the upper cosmos that is the source of the generative abilities of animal species (Gen. an. 731b25). Also problematic is the reference to water, which is often understood to refer to the amniotic fluids and/or baptismal waters (Pamment; Witherington). Yet it too has a striking parallel in the Aristotelian vocabulary of epigenesis. According to Gen. an. 735b10, semen, that is, the fluid of generation that provides the sentient soul of the offspring, is said to be made of water and spirit (Preus: 26). Thus John 3:5 can be read as a declaration that a child of God is one who is begotten of the divine seed that originates in the upper cosmos.

That the disciples achieve this rebirth is implied in 20:22, when the risen Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit upon the disciples. In Aristotelian terms, the πνεῦμα is carried by the male seed that gives form to the offspring. The giving over of Jesus’ πνεῦμα to the disciples therefore might imply that Jesus is thereby “begetting” them, molding them in his shape and form. Just as the divine father begot and sent Jesus into the world through the process of divine πνεῦμα and generation, so does Jesus beget and send his disciples into the world. As Jesus says to God, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (17:18; cf. 20:21). With this spiritual rebirth, the disciples inherit the abilities that Jesus had, namely, the ability to forgive or retain the sins of others (20:23; cf. 5:14), just as Jesus acquired the abilities of the father to judge and to give life. They will do the works that Jesus does and even greater works than these (14:12). The relationship that the father and son enjoyed will now be entered into by the disciples, “that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (17:21). These children of God, like the only begotten son, will receive the benefits of dwelling with God, as Jesus goes to prepare a place for them in his father’s house (14:2–3) and prays that “those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am” (17:24).

The Gospel uses the language of generation to describe not only those who become legitimate children of God but also those who claim to be so but in fact are not. The confrontation between the Johannine Jesus and the Johannine Jews in 8:31–59 revolves around competing genealogical assertions. The Jews initially claim Abraham as their father (8:39). In 8:41 they trace back their genealogy even further, to God, declaring: “We are not illegitimate children [literally: begotten out of fornication, ἐκ πορνείας οὐ γεγεννήμεθα]; we have one father, God himself” (8:41). To this Jesus responds: “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I proceeded and came forth [ἐξῆλθον] from God; I came not of my own accord, but he sent me” (8:42 RSV). Because their behavior does not resemble that of Abraham or of God, Jesus denies their claim to be children of Abraham and of God. Jesus’ argument in this case appeals to the belief that paternity can be attested by the likeness or similarity between father and son. Epigenesis therefore provides a background against which to understand the Word’s entry into the world and also to delineate the boundaries between those within the Johannine community and those outside it. Those within belong socially and even organically, that is, by means of divine generation, to the children of God. Those outside, though they may claim to be divinely begotten, are in fact children of the devil, as evidenced by their behavior towards Jesus, the son of God.


Viewed through the lens of Aristotelian embryology, the Gospel of John describes the creation of a new species, called the “children of God.” The ultimate cause and origin of the species is God, the divine father, who sent his ΛΌΓΟς and ΠΝΕΥ͂ΜΑ into the world through the generation of his only son in human form. The son, Jesus, continues the work of generation not through his seed, but by the postresurrection infusion of his spirit into those who struggle for true knowledge of the father through the son. These believers, in turn, are sent into the world (17:18) to propagate future generations, not through their own flesh and blood, but through the word—the ΛΌΓΟς—of God (17:20). Though this species resembles the human species in most ways, it differs in one major respect: it does not die but experience eternal life. Taken to its logical conclusion, this aspect will eventually obviate the need for generation of the species.

Is this Aristotelian lens in the eye of the beholder (that is, my own construct) or somehow embedded within the Gospel itself? I began my work on this paper convinced that I was attempting an intertextual reading. Bringing Aristotelian embryology into conversation with the Johannine father-son motif, I believed, would help me better to understand the metaphorical uses of this language. But as I proceeded with the intertextual exploration, I found myself lapsing not only into formalism, that is, a belief that Aristotelian language is actually “there” in the text, but falling beyond formalism into the “intentional fallacy,” the belief, or at least, the suspicion, that the author of the Gospel intended to draw on common Greco-Roman embryological concepts and language in the attempt to articulate the mysterious and vital relationship between God and Jesus.

I also became convinced that the power of this language lies not only in its metaphorical aspects but also in its literal meaning. It seems to me that from the Johannine perspective, Jesus’ special relationship with God as well as his revelatory function stem precisely from the claim that Jesus is literally and uniquely God’s son. Believing in Jesus, truly and profoundly, transforms human beings also into God’s children and thus allows them to experience life, in the present and in the future, in a way that confounds and overcomes the usual human experience of life and death, and to see themselves as truly having passed from death into life (5:24).

Whether the allusions to epigenesis are intended by the author, present within the text, or simply evoked in the mind of this reader by an intertextual reading of John and Aristotle, both their usefulness and their limitations as an interpretive tool must be recognized. A focus on the generative and familial context of the father-son vocabulary serves as a reminder that faith in Jesus as the son of God has a concrete dimension in addition to the complex theological webs in which it is enmeshed in the Gospel and post-Johannine theology. We should not rule out the possibility that John’s Jesus was seen as God’s son in a generative, perhaps even biological sense, in much the same way as Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels imply. At the same time, it is clear that the father-son imagery, while grounded in and evocative of familial ties, developed in many different directions that cannot and should not be reduced to this single element.

The hypothesis that the Fourth Gospel understood the divine father-son relationship literally along the lines of Aristotle’s theory of epigenesis complicates feminist theological approaches to paternal God language. One problem, much discussed by classicists, is that of Aristotle’s portrayal of male and female in general (Horowitz; Allen; Tress). As we have seen, Aristotle’s theory of epigenesis allows an important place for the female as the provider of the medium of growth for the offspring. Nevertheless, built into his account of epigenesis is the notion of the inherent weakness and passivity of the female, as well as her lesser divinity. Also disturbing is the description of the female as a “defective” male. This description posits the perfectly formed male both as the ideal and as the norm for humankind. Any being that departs from the norm, such as in the area of gender, is thus considered defective. This presentation raises the question of whether, from the Johannine perspective, women, who in Aristotelian terms are defective males, were fully children of God. The positive representation of women in the Gospel as followers of Jesus suggests that the Gospel does not adopt this aspect of Aristotelian anthropology, but this conclusion is at odds with the absence of any explicit indication that women were among Jesus’ immediate disciples (Reinhartz).

Perhaps the most problematic implication of the interpretation of “father-son” language in light of Aristotle’s theory of epigenesis is the prominence it gives to the male-ness of God and Jesus. God’s ability to transform the Word, his λόγος, into flesh is predicated on an understanding of God as male and as in some way being capable of generation through divine seed just as human males generate through human seed. As the perfect offspring, Jesus too must be male. These considerations suggest that the theologians among us must consider the ways in which generative and familial imagery, including the father-son labels themselves, can be contextualized in feminist revisioning of theology and christology. Looking at generative language in John as a cultural construction can be a basis of reinterpreting the relationship between God and Jesus in terms of our own understanding that male and female share equally in determining the viability, sex, and other characteristics of their offspring (D’Angelo).

An alternative is to set aside the literal notion of generation and to reinterpret generative language solely in metaphorical terms, as an act of creation the mechanics of which are beyond human understanding and perhaps even human imagination. Or perhaps, indeed, it is best simply to discard the generative language altogether and focus instead on the concepts of mutual love and devotion as we find them in the best aspects of our own relationships with others. I conclude that the father-son construct is like Jacob’s ladder, solidly grounded in the known realities of human existence, while reaching up to the heavens and beyond (Gen 28:12; cf. John 1:51). Whether it is the only, or the best, way to traverse the distance from earth to heaven will be known only if, or when, we all see the father, or the mother, for ourselves.

Works Consulted

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1981    “The Motherly Father: Is Trinitarian Patripassianism Replacing Theological Patriarchalism?” Pp. 51–56 in God As Father? Ed. Johannes-Baptist Metz and Edward Schillebeeckx. English ed. Marcus Lefébure. Concilium 143: Dogma. Edinburgh: T&T Clark; New York: Seabury.

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1995    “MONOGENHS.” NTS 41:587–600.

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1929–53    Philo in Ten Volumes (and Two Supplementary Volumes). Trans. F. H. Colson, G. H. Whitaker and Ralph Marcus. LCL. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

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1970    “Science and Philosophy in Aristotle’s Generation of Animals.” Journal of the History of Biology 3:1–52.

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The Fathers on the Father in the Gospel of John

Peter Widdicombe

McMaster University


The Fourth Gospel’s portrayal of the fatherhood of God had a significant effect on the early church’s thinking about the nature of God and of salvation. Origen was the first Christian writer to make divine fatherhood a topic of analysis, and his writings are replete with citations of verses from the Gospel in which God is referred to as Father. Several of these verses play a role in the development of his understanding of both the Father-Son relation and how the believer comes to participate in that relation. Athanasius, writing in the context of the early Arian controversy, was the first to make the fatherhood of God a topic of systematic analysis, and he too drew heavily on the Gospel of John. Verses from the Gospel were integral to his argument for the full divinity of the Son and to his conception of the Father-Son relation as a relation of love. Through these two writers, something of the Fourth Gospel’s depiction of the fatherhood of God found its way into the heart of subsequent Christian thinking about God and God’s relation to humankind.

The idea of the fatherhood of God became a topic of theological concern in the third century of the Common Era, and by the middle of the fourth century it had become central to Christian reflection on the nature of God and the way in which salvation was brought about. Critical to this development was the fatherhood language of the Gospel of John. This paper will focus on how two of the most important of the early church fathers—Origen and Athanasius—interpreted the Fourth Gospel’s portrayal of divine fatherhood. Origen of Alexandria, the most significant commentator on the Gospel of John (and Scripture as a whole) prior to the Council of Nicea in 325, was the first of the Fathers to make divine fatherhood a subject of theological reflection, and he drew heavily on the Johannine gospel in the course of doing so. Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria from 328 to 371, whose explication of the Creed of Nicea set the basis for subsequent orthodox reflection on the Father-Son relation, also drew heavily on the Fourth Gospel’s language of fatherhood and its presentation of the Father-Son relation. In what follows, I shall comment on the questions of whether and in what ways Origen’s and Athanasius’s interpretation are in continuity with each other.

The Second Century

Before we turn to Origen, it would be helpful to have a sense of how fatherhood language was used earlier in the tradition. In the First and Second Apologies and the Dialogue with Trypho, Justin Martyr refers to God as Father with great frequency, much more often than any of his Middle Platonist contemporaries, but he appears not to have felt any need to explain what the ascription meant. He uses both the platonic phrase “Father of all” and the absolute phrase “the Father” of the Bible and makes no distinction between either the provenance or the meaning of the two styles of reference. The description of God as Father appears to have had no conceptual significance for him. There is nothing in Justin’s writings to suggest that he thought that the word “Father” conveyed a particularly close relationship, either affectively or metaphysically, between the Father and the Son, either in their preexistent relationship or in their postincarnation relationship. There does, however, appear to be a pattern in his usage of the language of fatherhood that tacitly reflects the influence of the Synoptic Gospels. In those places in his writings, mainly the Dialogue with Trypho, where Justin is commenting on the historical narrative of the life of Christ in the first three gospels, the absolute usage predominates (Widdicombe, 1998:110–11 and 117–21).

Of more immediate concern for our purposes here are the questions of whether Justin knew the Gospel of John, and what effect, if any, the Gospel’s use of the word “Father” for God had on his manner of describing God. The latter question is rather easier than the former, which has been a much disputed question. In answer to the former, we may reasonably conclude that Justin “does appear to be familiar with a document which we know as John’s Gospel” but that “he does not (apart from 1 Apol. 61.4–5) quote from it or reproduce a saying of the Lord from it in the same way that he does with the synoptics,” and that he did not “regard it as scripture or the work of an apostle” (Pryor: 169; Bellinzoni: 240). But whatever we may say about the extent of Justin’s knowledge of John, what we can say in answer to the second question is that it has left no discernible trace on his description of God as Father.


We enter a rather different world in the third century with the writings of Origen. The idea of divine fatherhood is central to Origen’s doctrine of God, to his understanding of the Son’s eternal generation from the Father, and to his thinking about how it is that believers become children of God. The fatherhood of God, he believed, was a teaching distinctive to the Christian faith; salvation, as he perceived it, consisted largely in coming to the knowledge that God is Father. His conception of the fatherhood of God, however, is not presented in a systematic manner. It is made up of a highly complex and imaginative weaving together of elements drawn from the broad sweep of Christian tradition, Middle Platonist thought, and Scripture. The Fourth Gospel’s language of divine fatherhood is one of the principal strands in this interweaving. But while Origen’s writings are replete with references to verses from the Gospel (and from the Johannine Epistles) in which God is referred to as Father, it is important to note that Origen also frequently refers to verses from other books of the Bible where the word “Father” is ascribed to God. He gives no sign of having had a deliberative sense that there was a distinctively Johannine understanding of divine fatherhood. The Johannine usage has largely been absorbed unselfconsciously into his vocabulary and the structure of his thought, and it is deeply imbedded in the texture of his writing. Only rarely does he use Johannine verses where the word “Father” occurs to make a specific theological point, and then it is seldom the word “Father” that is the subject of his analysis. Consequently, we shall only be able to catch fleeting glimpses of identifiably Johannine strands in the cloth of his presentation of divine fatherhood. Before we turn directly to the Johannine influence on his idea of divine fatherhood, however, it would be useful to have before us a (summary) account both of Origen’s view of the Bible and of his doctrine of God.

Scripture and Language

Origen had a high doctrine of Scripture and of language, both of which played an important role in his thinking about God as Father. The Scriptures he regarded as the authoritative source for the knowledge of God. When read aright, what one encounters in the text is the presence of the Logos, and through this encounter, one ascends to participation in the Son’s knowledge and love of God the Father (Widdicombe, 1994:44–62). The premier book of the Bible for Origen was the Fourth Gospel, the spiritual gospel as he called it, which he regarded as the firstfruits of the gospel of Christ because it revealed the eternal divine Logos in a more direct manner than the other three (Comm. Jo. 1.22–3).

The words “Father” and “Son” Origen took to be the given terms of the Bible for describing God. Indeed, Origen appears in one place at least—in the course of commenting on Ps 21[22]:23 when he says that Christ came to announce the name of God to his brothers and to praise the Father in the midst of the church—to suggest that the word “Father,” like ὁ ὤν of Exod 3:14 and a number of other titles from the Hebrew Bible, is a name for God (Comm. Jo. 19.28). A name, according to Origen, has an intrinsic relationship with that which it names and has the ability to manifest the particular quality that makes a thing what it is. Although he nowhere discusses the matter explicitly, he seems to have believed that the biblical names actually describe God’s being (Widdicombe, 1994:58–60).

Father and Son and the Doctrine of God

What, then, do the words “Father” and “Son” tell us about the nature of God? Origen argues that inasmuch as God has been revealed by Scripture as Father, he must eternally have been so, since the suggest otherwise would be to attribute mutability to God. This in turn, Origen believed, entailed the idea of the Son’s eternal generation. Following the Aristotelian category of relations (perhaps not knowing its provenance), Origen argues that the words “Father” and “Son” are correlative terms: the very words themselves indicate the existence of that to which each directly refers, and, as terms of a relation, each simultaneously indicates the existence of the other. On the basis of this logic, God as Father must have a Son in order to be what he is and the Son’s generation must be eternal. Accordingly, Origen can conclude that there are biblical texts (which texts he leaves unspecified) that “definitely prove” that “it is necessary for the Son to be Son of a Father, and the Father to be Father of a Son” (Comm. Jo. 10.246). As we shall see, the language of the Gospel of John serves to give content to the mutuality and plurality implied by this notion of correlativity.

The Oneness of God and the Existence of the Son

One of Origen’s principal concerns was to protect the oneness of God while ensuring that the real individual existence and divinity of the Son be clearly maintained against those who, fearing the charge that Christians believed in two Gods, would deny either the Son’s distinct existence or his divine status. In the two passages where he takes this up most deliberately, Origen relies on a number of Johannine verses in which God is referred to as Father (verses that were to be of critical importance for Athanasius as well) to make his case. In Contra Celsum 8.12, he cites a collage of verses from John—”I and the Father are one” (10:30); “For the Father is in me and I in the Father” (14:10, 11); and “As I and thou are one” (17:21–22)—to establish that Christian faith believes in only one God. But, characteristically, he provides no specific exegetical commentary on them to support his argument. In Dialogue with Heraclides 3–4 he has rather more to say on the subject. There he explains that Father and Son have a unity that is greater than that of two being one flesh or of the spiritual union of the righteous person with Christ: the Father and Son are one in a higher way, that is, a divine way. He goes on to remark that “This then is the sense in which we should understand ‘I and the Father are one’ (John 10:30).” Commenting on “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work” (John 4:34) in Commentarii in evangelium Joannis 12.228, he suggests that the union indicated by John 10:30 is one of will. The Son becomes a doer of the Father’s will to such an extent that his will becomes “indistinguishable” from the Father’s and “there are no longer two wills but one.” It was because of this that the Son said “I and the Father are one.” Accordingly, in an allusion to John 12:45, Origen concludes that whoever has seen the Son has seen the one who sent him.

Origen’s concern to protect the distinct existence of the Son is also to be seen in the passage from Contra Celsum 8.12. Following his citation of the Johannine verses, he is immediately at pains to make it clear that these verses should not be taken to mean that there are not two existences, and he quotes Acts 4:32 (“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul”) as a gloss on the verses, though again without explanation. While he underscores the notion that the Father and the Son “are two existences,” he reverts to the idea of unity at the end of the passage, once again echoing, at least in part, Johannine language: the Father and the Son, though two, “are one in mental unity, in agreement, and identity of will. Thus he who has seen the Son, who is the effulgence of the glory and express image of the person of God, has seen God in him who is God’s image” (John 14:9; Heb 1:3; Col 1:15; 2 Cor 4:4).

The Generation of the Son

Origen’s understanding of the Son’s generation, and what that means for how we are to think about the Son’s status in relation to the Father, is a complex matter, which he does not address in anything like a systematic way. In time-honored fashion, he describes the Son as “generated” from the Father, using the verb γεννάω and its cognates, and he commonly refers to the Son, as earlier writers in the tradition had done, with the title μονογενής, from the verb γίγνομαι. But he makes no distinction between the two kinds of words, as later writers were to do. Athanasius and others would later distinguish between γεννάω—”begotten”—and γιγνομαι—”brought into being” or “generated.” The title μονογενής, Origen presumably knew, had its provenance in the Johannine literature, inasmuch as he quotes John 1:14 and 18 frequently, but he appears to have felt no need to comment on it. In three fragments of Commentarii in evangelium Joannis, he associates the word μονογενής with the idea that the Son is Son by nature, but there he is making a contrast between the Son and the status of believers who are sons by adoption, and he does not explain what he means by nature. It would appear that at least on one occasion he called the Son a κτίσμα (a created thing). It is plain, however, that although Origen did not have a specialized vocabulary to describe the generation of the Son, he nevertheless believed that the Son had been formed directly and uniquely by the Father and that the relation of Father and Son was distinct from and (logically) prior to the relation between God and creation. He may have thought that this was signaled in the identification of the Son as only or uniquely generated, but if he did so, he nowhere makes it clear.

The Son’s generation, Origen is careful to point out, is not to be thought of as being similar to that of human beings or animals. It is, rather, to be seen as an “exceptional process, worthy of God … eternal and everlasting” (Princ. 1.2.4). His favorite descriptions of this process are those of a light from its source, for which he finds support in Heb 1:3, Col 1:15, and elsewhere in the Bible, and an act of the will from the mind, both of which had been used by earlier writers in the tradition. He also uses the word “image” itself to describe the Son. The Son, he observes, is the “prototype of all images” (Cels. 8.17). It is because he is the image of the Father that the Son is able to reveal the Father. This, as Origen explains, was what the Son was signifying in the words of John 14:9 (“Whoever has seen me has seen the Father also”) and John 10:30 and 38 (Princ. 1.2.8). And it is because he is the image of the Father’s will that the Son is able to do the Father’s will, which is why in John 5:19–20 the Son can say, “in a grateful manner,” as Origen puts it, that “The Son cannot do anything of himself, except what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Father also does likewise. The Father loves the Son and showed him all that he himself does” (Comm. Jo. 13.231–34).

While we might be tempted to conclude that Origen’s comments about the unity and harmony of wills between the Son and the Father point to an understanding of the union as a moral and relational union rather than a metaphysical one, the description of the Son as the image of the Father’s will suggests that this would be an oversimplification. Although he does not make this explicit, Origen’s thinking about the Father-Son relation is informed by a metaphysical shaping. Underlying this notion of the Son as image is the platonic idea of participation: the image participates in the being of that of which it is the image, and so can make it known (Williams, 1983:67–73). As well, we have seen that Origen uses the language of nature to describe the Son’s relation to the Father. While he does not explain what he means by nature, he does contrast it to adoption. Those who receive the spirit of adoption “are without doubt sons of God, but not as the uniquely generated Son. The uniquely generated Son is Son by nature, Son always and indissolubly” (Comm. Jo., pp. 562–63).

The Subordination of the Son

But while the platonic understanding of participation helps Origen explain the closeness of the Father and the Son and the latter’s ability to reveal the former, it also allows the Son to be viewed as subordinate to the Father. While the image participates in the being of that of which it is the image, it does so in a lesser way. Accordingly, for Origen, the Son, however divine, is less than the Father, and verses from the Fourth Gospel serve to support this contention. Origen famously uses the absence of the definite article before the second occurrence of θεός in John 1:1 to argue that the Son is divine by participation in the Father and thus less than the Father. While the Son is God, the Father is αὐτόθεος, and, in the words of John 17:3: “the only true God” (Comm. Jo. 2.2). While the Son is goodness, the Father is goodness itself, and while the “Son is truth,” the Father is “the Father of truth.” This last remark Origen makes in the passage from Contra Celsum 8, where he is concerned to maintain that there is only one God, but two existences. The subordination of the Son to the Father, Origen thinks, is attested as well by John 14:28, a verse he frequently refers to in contexts where he is stressing the transcendence of the Father. “The Son,” he says in Contra Celsum 8.15, “is not mightier than the Father, but subordinate. And we say this because we believe him who said ‘The Father is greater than I.’ ” In Commentarii in evangelium Joannis, he quotes John 14:28 to substantiate his claim that the Father transcends the Son and Holy Spirit by much more than the latter two transcend the created order (13.151), a claim that he would later reverse in his Commentary on Matthew, where he says that the Son and Holy Spirit transcend the created order by much more than the Father transcends them (15.10). In this latter passage, he makes no reference to John 14:28. In none of the places where he cites 14:28 does he engage in an analysis of the verse. He appears to think its meaning is self-evident.

The implications of the subordination of the Son to the Father for Origen’s understanding of how believers come to know the Father may be briefly stated. In platonic fashion, Origen describes this as an ascent. The believer ascends from a knowledge of the incarnate Logos, to the knowledge of the eternal Logos, and thus to the knowledge of the Father (Widdicombe, 1994:51–62). As we shall see, Athanasius has a much different conception of how the believer comes to know God.

Mutuality and the Father-Son Relation

Notwithstanding his subordination of the Son to the Father, Origen also thought of the Father-Son relation as a dynamic relation marked by mutuality. The Father, he explains in Homiliae in Jeremiam 9.4, unceasingly generates the Son. Citing Wis 7:26 and Heb 1:3, he argues that just as a source of light does not produce the light that flows from it at a particular moment only but continuously, so also the Son, being the effulgence of God’s glory, is generated not momentarily but continuously. He maintains that the use of the present tense of γεννάω in Prov 8:25, following a series of aorists, confirms that the generation of the Son is eternal and continuous. Correspondingly, the Son unceasingly turns to the Father. Origen concludes the passage from Commentarii in evangelium Joannis, where he discusses the absent article in John 1:1, by saying that the Son gives expression to his life with the Father “by remaining always in uninterrupted contemplation of the depths of the Father” (2:18). Elsewhere, referring to Prov 8:30, Origen describes the Father’s life as an eternal rejoicing in the presence of the Son, for it is the Father’s nature to rejoice eternally and he delights eternally in his only begotten Son (Princ. 1.4.4; 4.4.1; Comm. Jo. 1.34). In his commentary on chapter 12 of John, he observes that the Logos is Son, glorifying and being glorified by the Father (Comm. Jo. 32.345–66). For Origen, then, the Son shares in the Father’s glory irrespective of his relation to creation, and, as Williams remarks, Origen “hints at a fundamental datum of later trinitarian thought, that the Father-Son relation is simply part of the definition of the word God, and so does not exist for the sake of anything else than itself” (1987a:139).

Salvation and the Knowledge of God as Father

As important as Origen’s conception of divine fatherhood was for his doctrine of God, it was no less important for his soteriology, and once again verses from the Gospel of John play an important role in Origen’s development of this aspect of his thought. Despite his concern to protect against the Marcionite distinction between the just God of the Hebrew Bible and the good Father of Christ of the New Testament, Origen is strongly inclined to say that the revelation that God is Father is unique to the incarnation. In the course of his exegesis of John 8:19 (“Jesus answered, ‘you know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me you would know my Father also,’ “) Origen argues that God is known by different aspects (ἐπίνοια). According to one aspect, God is known as God, according to another God is known as Creator, to another as Judge, and to another as Father. While he acknowledges that the word “Father” is used of God in the Hebrew Bible, Origen is tempted to blur the evidence, by maintaining that the word Father is never to used in the prayers of the Hebrew Bible (Comm. Jo. 19.26–28). He remarks that he “has not yet succeeded in finding in a prayer [in the Hebrew Bible] that confident affirmation in styling God as Father which was made by the Saviour” (Prayer 22.1). This is a particularly significant point for him as he regards prayer as the most intimate form of communication with God.

Jesus’ words to Mary in John 20:17 (“Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’ “) Origen regards as an especially telling indication of the time at which the revelation of God’s fatherhood took place. In one of the instances where he uses the verse to this end (Comm. Matt. 17.36), he underscores his argument by linking the Johannine verse with Matthew 22:31–32: “And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” He maintains that while it is evident that each of the patriarchs had an extremely close relationship with God, they knew God only as God, whereas the disciples had a much superior relationship with God because they knew God as Father. This knowledge they had acquired through their participation in the Son’s relationship with the Father. It was only at the moment of Jesus’ statement to Mary that Christ granted Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob the favor that henceforth they should know God as Father.

Some of Origen’s most beautiful and impassioned writing is to be found in his description of the transformation that takes place in the believer’s relationship to God as the believer comes to know God as Father. The believer is moved from a relationship with God that is like the relation between a slave and a master, a relation characterized by fear, to one that is like the relationship of a son to a father, a relation characterized by love (Widdicombe, 1994:93–97). In one of his most elaborate statements concerning this progression, Origen writes that as the believer comes to know God as Father, the believer advances from the status of servant to that of disciple, from disciple to infant, from infant to brother of the Son, and so becomes a son of God. “After the resurrection,” he explains, “those to whom [Christ] said ‘Little Children’ (John 13:33) become brothers of the one who earlier said ‘Little Children,’ even as they are endowed with a different quality as a result of the resurrection.” As evidence for this, he once again cites John 20:17 (Comm. Jo. 32.368–75).

As this transformation in the believer’s status takes place, the affective quality of the believer’s relationship with God also changes. In a paraphrase of Rom 8:15, he describes the state that precedes being a child of God as one in which people are “slaves of God, because they have received the spirit of servitude, which leads to fear” (Comm. Jo. 19.289). But, as he notes elsewhere, “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18; Comm. Matt. 13.26). While Christ initially is known as Lord, he becomes the friend of those who strive for piety and wisdom, a progression summed up by Jesus, as Origen remarks, in the words of John 15:15: “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what the master is doing, but I call you friends” (Comm. Jo. 1.201–2). But it is not simply a striving for piety and wisdom that brings this change about. What lies at the heart of the matter is love. Origen takes Heracleon to task in Commentarii in evangelium Joannis for maintaining that while some are “sons by nature,” others are “sons by adoption.” Origen argues that John 8:42 (“Jesus said to them, ‘If God were your Father, you would love me, for I proceeded and came forth from God’ “) shows that the quality of one’s relationship to God is not a matter of preordained nature but rather a matter of choice. God, Origen says simply, is Father of those who love Jesus (20.17.135–39). Finally, this transformation culminates in the ability to address God as Father in prayer, a point he makes in the discussion of John 8:19 in the passage from Commentarii in evangelium Joannis (19.26–28) referred to above.

While coming to know God as Father is the work of the Son and the Spirit, Origen believed that this was bound up also with the moral behavior of the believer. Origen maintains that only those who live a morally perfect life in imitation of their heavenly Father could call God Father. This dimension of Origen’s thinking about divine fatherhood also features the Johannine writings, though with respect to this topic he uses the First Epistle rather more than the Gospel. His understanding of the matter revolves around the polarity he posits between the fatherhood of God and that of the devil. A person is son of either one or the other—it seems that Origen could not conceive of an intermediate condition—and the committing of any sin means that one has the devil rather than God as one’s father. In support of his argument, he repeatedly cites 1 John 3:8 and 9: “Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil,” and “Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God.” In this regard he also cites John 8:41 and 44: “You are indeed doing what your Father does,” and “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires.”

The Restoration of All Things

I conclude my analysis of Origen’s writings with one final example of his use of the Fourth Gospel’s language of fatherhood. Origen’s vision of the fulfillment of the soul’s journey is that those who believe in the Son shall come to know and to contemplate the Father as now only the Son knows and contemplates the Father. In Commentarii in evangelium Joannis, he writes that at the “restoration” (ἀποκατάστασις) of all things

there will be one activity for those who have come to God by the Word, who is with him, which is to contemplate God, so that they might all become perfect sons of God, being thus transformed in the knowledge of the Father, as now only the Son knows the Father. (1.91)

Origen concludes the discussion with an allusion to John 17:21, a verse he uses frequently when discussing the restoration: perfect sonship and the single activity proper to it will be realized “when we become one as the Son and the Father are one.” In Exhortation to Martyrdom 39, he explains that it is not by loving transitory things but by doing the will of the Father that we shall acquire the unity with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit referred to in Jesus’ prayer of John 17:21–22. Once again, he does not engage in an analysis of the Johannine verse, but for him, as he makes clear often elsewhere, doing the will of the Father entails obedience to the Father and the living of a life that manifests the moral perfection of the Father (for instance, Prayer 22.4). What Origen is hinting at in this vision of the restoration is the possibility that through the Son and the Holy Spirit the believer may be taken up into the plurality of the divine life and share in the Father-Son relation.


Throughout his writings, Athanasius, no less than Origen, quotes verse after verse from the Gospel of John in which God is referred to as Father (though it should be noted that, unlike Origen, he did not write a commentary on the Gospel). Several of those verses, particularly 10:30 and 14:9, 10, and 11, are texts fundamental to his conception of the relation between the Father and the Son. The Johannine idea of rebirth, together with the Pauline idea of adoption, is basic to his soteriology. But it is no more clear that he had a sense of a distinctively Johannine portrayal of the divine fatherhood than that his Alexandrian predecessor had. As was the case with Origen, the Johannine materials are part of the warp and woof of Athanasius’s doctrine of God. That doctrine was forged in the first half of the fourth century in the course of the Arian controversy about the divinity of the Son. As we shall see, writing in this context, Athanasius was to apply the Johannine texts in a rather different manner than had Origen.

Athanasius assumes much of what Origen had set out concerning the fatherhood of God. Like Origen, he argues for the centrality of fatherhood to the nature of God, the eternal correlativity of the Father and the Son, and the existence of that relation for its own sake. But he extends and refines these elements, making them the structural pattern of his theology. With Athanasius, for the first time in the Christian tradition, the concept of divine fatherhood and the relation of Father and Son are made the subjects of systematic analysis. Confronted with the challenge that he believed Arian theology posed to the church’s largely unreflective acceptance of fatherhood language to refer to God, Athanasius attempted to clarify and to determine specifically what that tradition of usage meant for a coherent theology of the divine nature and a coherent theology of salvation. For him, nothing less than the affirmation of the full divinity of the Son would protect the Son’s status as savior, and nothing less would protect the fatherhood of God.

Scripture and Divine Fatherhood

Like Origen, Athanasius believed that the Bible, as divinely inspired, was the authoritative source for knowledge about God (Widdicombe, 1994:155–58). What we discover when we read the Scriptures correctly is that the basic word for God revealed by the Son is the word “Father” and not the word “unoriginate,” as Athanasius charged the Arians with maintaining. It is the word “Father” above all that tells us what the divine nature is like, and it is this word that is to be the first word of theological discourse and the worship of the church (Widdicombe, 1994:165–71). In his major work, the Orationes contra Arianos, written in the early 340s, Athanasius points out that it is as Father and not as unoriginate that Jesus addressed God and that Jesus has enjoined believers to do the same. Drawing on the evidence of the Lord’s Prayer and the baptismal formula, Athanasius observes, with characteristic sardonic wit, that when the Son taught us to pray, he did not say, “When you pray, say, O God unoriginate,” but rather, “When you pray, say, Our Father, which art in heaven.” And, in the words of Matt 28:19, the Son did not instruct us to baptize “in the name of unoriginate, and originate, nor in the name of creator and creature, but in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (C. Ar. 1.34). For Athanasius, the calling of God “Father” lies at the heart of the devotional and liturgical life of the believer.

The Coessentiality of the Son

The full divinity of the Son Athanasius thought was entailed in the biblical words “Father” and “Son.” These two words, together with the word “begotten,” he believed indicated in themselves that the relation between the Father and the Son was one of being and not, as Arius had said, of will. For Athanasius, the core element in the words “Father” and “Son” is the semantic field that covers kinship, biological continuity, and membership in the same genus. As he remarks in his Letter to the Bishops of Africa 8, coessentiality is the distinctive mark of the relation of a son to a father—this in contrast to the relation of will between a maker and the thing made.

John 10:30 and 14:9, 10, and 11, among others, were texts that Athanasius regarded as evidence that the coessentiality of the Son and the Father is part of the fabric of the biblical understanding of the relation between the two. In an example typical of his interpretation of the verses, he says that the Son does not “accrue to the [Father’s] essence by grace and participation,” but “the very being of the Son is the proper offspring of the Father’s essence,” and cites John 10:30 and 14:10 in support of the argument (C. Ar. 3.6).

The Begetting of the Son

Athanasius clearly distinguished between the begetting of the Son, for which he always uses γεννάω and its cognates, and never γίγνομαι, except where he is quoting Scripture, and the making of creation, for which he usually uses κτίζω or ποιέω. But he does not consistently distinguish between γεννάω and γίγνομαι. In some passages, he distinguishes between the two in order to make a theological point. In Orationes contra Arianos 2.59, for instance, he maintains that the occurrence of γιγνομαι in John 1:12 and γεννάω in 1:13 establishes that human beings are not sons by nature, that status being true only of the Logos, but that they may come to be called sons through adoption. Perhaps not surprisingly, he does not then go on to comment on the implications of the description of the Son as μονογενής in verse 14. But if the description of the Son as μονογενής was a source of unease for him, he does not betray that either here or elsewhere. While he refers to the Son as μονογενής repeatedly in his writings and quotes John 1:14 and 18 often, he rarely comments on the verses. On one of the few occasions where he does, however, it is clear that he thinks the prefix μονος (“only,” “unique”) gives us the interpretive key for the meaning of the word (C. Ar. 2.62–64). He explains that the difference between the description of the Son, on the one hand, as μονογενής (John 1:18), and, on the other, as πρωτότοκος (“firstborn,” Col 1:15 and 18), turns on the recognition that the two words describe different categories of relations. The word μονογενής refers to the Son’s eternal relation to the Father and is used because in that context there are “no brethren” of the Son, but “only” he, inasmuch as there is no other Word, or Wisdom. The Son is uniquely related to the Father. “Firstborn,” by contrast, refers to the Son’s incarnate existence and is used because, in assuming flesh, the Son was one of many, though as “first,” he was preeminent among them. Athanasius does not explicitly say so, but he seemingly thought that the word only was determinative of the sense in which “generated” is to be taken.

While Athanasius uses much the same imagery as Origen to describe the generation of the Son, for him to say that the Son was the radiance or image of the Father entailed the full participation of the Son in the being of the Father. Thus, for Athanasius, the image must possess all the attributes of the one in whose image it is (C. Ar. 1.21). Accordingly, the Son can be a subject of the divine attributes in the same way that the Father is a subject of the divine attributes. And because the Son shares in the divine attributes, it was possible for the Son to bring the divine presence into the created order and for him to do the work of the Father, for it was as much his work as it was the Father’s. Consequently, while Origen believed that the Christian ascended from the knowledge of the Son to the knowledge of God, Athanasius argued that John 14:9, 10, and 31 mean that in knowing the Son, the believer has an immediate apprehension of the Father. “For,” as Athanasius says, “the Father’s godhead is contemplated in the Son” (C. Ar. 3.5) and, conversely, “the Son is in and contemplated in the divinity of the Father” (C. Ar. 3.6). It is an interpretation of these and other Johannine texts that Athanasius was to come back to time and again, both in the Orationes contra Arianos and in his later works.

John 14:28 seems to have left Athanasius unperturbed. He only rarely refers to it. On the first occasion where he cites the verse (C. Ar. 1.13), he shows no concern to deal with the issue of its apparent subordination of the Son to the Father. He cites it rather (and somewhat obscurely) to help make the point that the Son is eternal and thus that such Arian phrases as “he was not,” “before,” and “when” could not apply to the Son. On the second occasion (C. Ar. 1.58), he does address the matter explicitly, and he does so by making the coessentiality of the Son and Father the interpretive framework for his commentary (as he does in the third instance [C. Ar. 3.7], though there the verse is only one of a number on which he is commenting). In 1.58, he takes the verse to refer to the eternal relation of the Father and the Son. He says that because the Son is “proper to the Father’s essence and one in nature with it,” the Son did not say that the Father was “better” than the Son. The word “greater” he takes simply to signify that the Son has his generation from the Father. Athanasius is not unique among the Fathers in viewing the verse in this way. Tertullian, Hilary, and Gregory of Nazianzus did so as well, but why Athanasius should have taken this tack is not clear. Others, Ambrose, Augustine, and Cyril of Alexandria among them, took the verse to refer to Christ’s incarnate existence, an approach that, as I observed above, is fundamental to Athanasius’s hermeneutics.

Love and the Father-Son Relation

The words “Father” and “Son,” however, do not only tell us that the Son is coequal in being with the Father. According to Athanasius, they also tell us that the godhead is a dynamic, inherently generative relation, a relation characterized by love. Athanasius was the first among the Greek patristic authors to identify the characteristic and determinative quality of the relation between Father and Son as love. The Father, perfect in nature, can only fully express his nature in love and joy with a subject who is equally perfect, who is able perfectly to return that love and joy. The Son is such a perfect subject (C. Ar. 1.38). John 3:35 and 5:20 frame Athanasius’s portrayal of this. He introduces his discussion of the Father-Son relation in Orationes contra Arianos 3.66, by citing a combination of the two verses: “The Father loves the Son and shows him all things.” The Father, Athanasius explains, wills and loves the Son, and with the same will the Son loves and honors the Father. Quoting Prov 8:30, he describes the divine life as one of mutual delight, as we have seen Origen do before him. The Father delights in seeing himself in his own perfect image, the Son, and the Son, with the same delight, rejoices in seeing himself in the Father. There is, as Athanasius explains, nothing intermediate between the Father and the Son. Citing John 14:10, Athanasius concludes that “the Son is the Father’s all and nothing was in the Father before the Son” (C. Ar. 2.82). As Athanasius conceives it, the divine life consists in a plurality and mutuality in which there is an eternal richness of intentional enjoyment and love arising from God’s generative nature as Father and Son. It can be so because the Son, eternally begotten by the Father, shares in, and is expressive of, the divine act of being, which is itself a “generative love that is eternally generative of love” (Williams, 1987a:241). In the divine relation of Father and Son, being and will are one. The words “Father” and “Son,” then, identify the divine being as a “generative nature,” as “fruitful” (C. Ar. 2.2), and it is this act of being as love that gives rise first to creation and then to redemption (Widdicombe, 1994:206–9).

Salvation and Divine Love

Compared to Origen, Athanasius has little to say about the believer’s transition from knowing God as Lord to knowing him as Father. He largely assumes this, as he does the corresponding transformation of the relationship from one of fear to one of love. But he does, in proto-Augustinian fashion, make the eternal relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit the model for the life of the church. The Christian community, through the “indwelling and intimacy” of the Spirit, is to participate in the relationship of Father and Son and to reflect the unity that the Son has with the Father (C. Ar. 1.46). His understanding of this turns on his interpretation of John 17:11 and 20–23.

As we have seen, Origen quotes John 17:21 to confirm his vision of the unity that would be realized at the restoration of all things, and he does not attempt to explain the nature of the union. But in the light of the early Arian controversy, Athanasius felt constrained to work this out. He distinguishes between two kinds of union. The Arians, he explains, contend that if the Son were equal in being with the Father, as the orthodox maintain, John 17:11 and 20–23 would have to be interpreted to mean either that believers also were equal in being to the Father or that the union between the Father and Son was like that between the believers and the Father, and not one of being. (The full discussion runs from C. Ar. 3.17 to 25.) In a long response, Athanasius argues that the occurrence of the word “as” in 17:11, 21, and 22 shows that the two relations are not to be taken as equivalent. While the relation of Father and Son is one of being, that of the Father and the church is to be a relation in which the church becomes “one in the Father and Son, in mind and harmony of Spirit.” In an allusion to Eph 4:2–3, Athanasius concludes that the bond that creates this oneness and holds the common life of the church together is love (C. Ar. 3.23). He is not far from identifying the love that Christians are to have for one another with the eternal love of the Father for the Son and the Son for the Father, a love that Augustine later was to say was the Holy Spirit. But the elements of such an idea are present in his account of the life of the church.


My summary remarks are few. There is no evidence to suggest that either Origen or Athanasius had a sense that the Gospel of John’s portrayal of divine fatherhood was distinctive, but it is plain that the Gospel’s portrayal of God as Father had a profound impact on their thinking. They both drew on verses from the Gospel in which God is described as Father in the course of the construction of their doctrines of God and of salvation. Both theologians saw in the Fourth Gospel evidence of a relationship of intimacy between the Father and the Son, though it was an intimacy they thought attested to in other biblical texts as well. The Fourth Gospel served to help Origen in his characterization of the divine life as one of plurality and mutuality, and, while he did not say that the principle quality of the Father-Son relationship is love, he came close to the idea. Athanasius did so identify that quality, and verses from John played a critical role in the identification. Both thinkers believed that this understanding of the divine life had radical implications for salvation. For both salvation consisted ultimately in a participation in that love, and this too they thought attested by the Fourth Gospel. The interpretations of each, of course, reflect their underlying assumptions about the nature of reality. While Origen used the Johannine texts to emphasize both the Son’s closeness to the Father and his subordinate status, Athanasius used them to support the idea that the Son was coequal with the Father, as the context of the early Arian controversy seemingly required. But whatever we may think about how the two theologians interpreted the material, we may say that through Origen, and Athanasius after him, something of the Fourth Gospel’s portrayal of the love of the Son for the Father and the Father for the Son, and the love of both for the believer, found its way into the heart of Christian thinking about the nature of God and of salvation.

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1967    “πατήρ, πατρῷς, πατρία, ἀπάτωρ, πατρικός.” TDNT 5: 945–1022.

Stead, Christopher

1977    Divine Substance. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

1985    Review of Charles Kannengiesser, Athanase d’Alexandrie évêque et écrivain: Une lecture des traités contre les Ariens. JTS 36:220–29.

Torjesen, K.

1986    Hermeneutical Procedure and Theological Method in Origen’s Exegesis. Patristische Texte und Studien 28. Berlin: de Gruyter.

1989    “Hermeneutics and Soteriology in Origen’s Peri Archôn.” Pp. 333–48 in Papers Presented to the Tenth International Conference on Patristic Studies Held in Oxford, 1987. Studia patristica 21. Ed. E. A. Livingstone. Leuven: Peeters.

Trigg, Joseph W.

1985    Origen: The Bible and Philosophy in the Third-Century Church. London: SCM.

Widdicombe, Peter

1994    The Fatherhood of God from Origen to Athanasius. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

1998    “Justin Martyr and the Fatherhood of God.” LTP 54:109–26.

Wiles, Maurice

1960    The Spiritual Gospel: The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel in the Early Church. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Williams, Rowan

1983    “The Logic of Arianism.” JTS 34:56–81.

1987a    Arius: Heresy and Tradition. London: Darton, Longman & Todd.

1987b    “The Son’s Knowledge of the Father in Origen.” Pp. 146–53 in Origeniana Quarta. Ed. L. Lies. Innsbrucker theologische Studien 19. Innsbruck: Tyrolia-Verlag.

Young, Frances

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Disseminations: An Autobiographical Midrash on Fatherhood in John’s Gospel

Jeffrey L. Staley

Seattle University


This essay takes fragments from the Fourth Gospel’s father-son language and through a mix of poetry and prose, self-disclosure, and scholarly discourse, explores their theological connection to my experience of being a father. I read my experience of having a son and a daughter as a context from which to critique that dominating, gendered metaphor in the Fourth Gospel. By focusing particularly on my lifelong desire for a daughter and the unplanned decision to circumcise my firstborn son, my essay raises important questions about violence, the male body, and Jesus’ death as “the will of the father.” Although my essay is not explicitly theoretical, it could be termed post-feminist in its literary style and in its avoidance of universalizing a particular ideology, identity, or experience; and postmodern in its intertextual weave of popular music, Jacques Derrida, and medical texts on circumcision.

“… to say the opposite of Scripture is often precisely what midrash does.”

—Jon D. Levenson

“In midrashic, somewhat parabolic fashion our leading stories complicate the binary or polar thinking that would cleanly distinguish the ethical from the critical, the analytical from the applied, weapon from tool—the kind of thinking that comfortably relies upon pure distinctions and categories.”

—Phillips and Fewell

Fragment One

They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” (John 8:39)

And Abraham knew his wife, and she conceived and bore a son, and they named him Isaac. And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked west. And he saw that the land of Indiana was good land, and he journeyed westward and settled there. Abraham Staley and Mary had two sons and two daughters. Abraham lived seventy-seven years, and he died and was buried beside his wife beneath a grove of hickory trees near Cumberland, Indiana.

And Isaac knew his wife, and she conceived and bore a son. And they named him Abraham. Isaac and Lavinia had five sons and four daughters. Isaac lived seventy-five years, and he died and was buried beside his mother and father, beneath the grove of hickory trees near Cumberland, Indiana.

And Abraham knew his wife, and she conceived and bore a son. And she named him Arlonzo. For she said, “There have been far too many Bible names in this family.” And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked west, and he saw that the land of Kansas was good land, and he journeyed westward and settled there. Abraham and Eliza had nine sons. Abraham lived eighty-two years, and he died and was buried beside his wife in Ottawa, Kansas.

And Arlonzo knew his wife, and she conceived and bore a son. And they named him Lloyd. Arlonzo and May Belle had five sons. Arlonzo lived ninety-one years, and he died and was buried beside his wife in Wellsville, Kansas.

And Lloyd knew his wife, and she conceived and bore a son. And they named him Robert. And there was a famine in the land, so Lloyd and Mary moved to the city. Lloyd and Mary had six sons and three daughters. And when they were old, lo, they lifted up their eyes and looked west. And they saw that the land of California was good land, and they journeyed westward and settled there. Lloyd lived eighty-eight years, and he died and was buried beside his wife in Atascadero, California.

And Robert knew his wife, and she conceived and bore a son. And they named him Jeffrey Lloyd. And Robert lifted up his eyes and looked west from Kansas, and he saw that the land of Arizona was good land, and he journeyed westward and settled there. Bob and Betty had four sons and two daughters. And Betty died and was buried at Immanuel Mission, on the Navajo Reservation. Then Robert took Esther for his wife, and they moved to Phoenix, a royal city, a miracle of glass and steel rising like a gigantic bird out of hot desert ashes. And there they live, even until this day.

And Jeffrey knew his wife …

Fragment Two

“Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” (John 6:53)

And he said,

“This is my body;

take, eat ye all of it.

Run your tongue

over its soft round smoothness.

Breathe deep its heavenly scent.

Gaze long at its fragile opaqueness.

Cup it in your hands, caress it tenderly.

Nibble its outer edges

slowly, slowly.

Then swallow me whole.

Eat me up, up, up;

sup on me, one long,

everlastingly long sip—

dip in,

dine, dine.

Come to me,

oh come.

Come unto me,

on to me

now, now,

and I will give you rest.”

And it was so.

And he said,

“Here is my life blood

poured out for you;

drink deeply of it.

Remember me

in the rhythmic passages

of your life.

Wash your body

in my heavenly flow.

Find in its tingling flush




A wriggling mass

of unumbilicled joy.”

And it was so.

And so she conceived and bore a son, and they named him Benjamin, for they said, “It is a good name, a family name.”

Jeffrey and Barbara had one son and one daughter. And they are alive, even until this day.

Fragment Three

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)

I have always wanted to be a father, just like in the beginning. But I wanted to be the father of a daughter first. A son could come later. Just give me the daughter first. My mother promised I would have the daughter first. Moments before she died I saw my daughter in her eyes—a translucent embryo in her last, silent tear that said, “I’m sorry I will never get a chance to hold your baby girl in my arms.”

Now I have two children. A son and a daughter. But my mother was wrong. The son came first.

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος.

Ἐν can mean “in, with, or by,” says Arndt and Gingrich’s A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. And it can mean a host of other things too. It’s like the Hebrew preposition ב. The rabbis speculated about the meaning of the preposition ב together with the noun ראשׁית in Gen 1:1. Does the expression mean “In the beginning” or “With the first thing”? And if it means “with the first thing,” then what is that first thing to which it refers? Maybe it refers to חכמה, said the rabbis. God made wisdom first, a female creature, and then everything else followed from her and was imprinted with her image. Perhaps John 1:1–18 is a fragment of a hymn to wisdom in which the feminine, Hellenistic σοφία or the feminine, Semitic חכמה has metamorphosed into the masculine λόγος.

Some say that Christians, like those Jewish rabbis of old, also have a theology of prepositions. The real body and blood of Jesus are given “in, with, and under” the bread and wine, say Lutherans in argument with Calvinists and Roman Catholics. You are baptized “ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ,” says the author of Luke-Acts (Acts 11:16). But does the writer mean “in the Holy Spirit,” “with the Holy Spirit,” or “by the Holy Spirit”? Entire denominations have been founded upon fine-line distinctions such as these. It’s the difference, for instance, between telling my son, “Go play by yourself for awhile,” and telling him, “Go play with yourself for awhile.” The distinction is crucial, but he doesn’t seem to do much of either. Most often he is outside in the neighborhood, organizing games among his friends. My daughter, on the other hand, is more apt to play by herself and with herself.

“See, Dad, I have a little penis,” she announces proudly as she sits in the bathtub and spreads her labia apart.

“Well, kind of,” I say. I try to explain to her the difference between boys and girls. But she has already lost interest. She is busy blowing bubbles and trying to catch them in the palms of her hands.

I want to be right up front about this gendered thing in John, just as I have been with my children. Gender matters.

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος, the author of the Fourth Gospel writes. One feminine noun and two masculine nouns. And the two masculines, hiding behind the one feminine, have overpowered (κατέλαβεν) the feminine σοφία and חכמה in the history of exegesis (Lee: 152).

But if you take the masculine ending ος off of θεός you simply have θε. “In the beginning was the Θε.” I like that. The terminal sigma, shaped like a slithering snake, is absent, and in its absence θεός loses its masculine power.

In the beginning was the word—defrocked, emasculated, skinned, undone. And the word was with thethe … whatever—and the word was—whatever. Whatever the ος will make it be. And mark my words, the ος will make itself into something.

Fragment Four

All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. (John 1:3)

That sneaky, sibilant sigma, shaped like a snake, is the one sound I could not say as a lisping boy of four. And not only at four. It would be twenty more years before my future wife finally taught me where to place my tongue.

“Like this,” she said, smiling encouragingly. And she opened her mouth into a wide O. So esses came spewing out of my mouth, just as if I were the Gihon Spring or the Euphrates River. And from that day forward the esses have not stopped coming.

Then one day a son came out. Right out of a wide, pulsating O. The unique child of his father. Half Chinese. The first non-Caucasian Staley child that I have been able to find in my family genealogy; the first non-Asian child in my wife’s family. A wrong-headed child from the Staley-Wong family. His mixed-up genetics are a metaphor for my own mixed-up life.

The Father is in me and I am in the Father.

I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.…

I am the eggman.…

I am the walrus, goo goo g’joob, g’goo goo g’joob.

In the beginning there was my son. And then three years later a daughter came along. My son is now eleven and my daughter is seven.

“Seven and three-quarters,” she hastens to correct me.

I always wanted the girl to come first. Just like in John 1:1, where the feminine ἀρχή precedes the masculine λόγος and θεός. But for five generations in the Staley family, boys have come first. I am not as different as my mother thought I would be, nor as different as I had hoped.

I watch my firstborn slowly poke a head through the widening O, into the great unknown. Before the child is waist deep in the world I hear the strong cry of life. Regardless of gender, the child will be strong and healthy. I helped make this child. I will teach this child—born, borne, bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh—about truth, about love, about the ways of the world.



It’s a boy.

Fragment Five

“Look, here is the Lamb of God!” (John 1:36)

My newborn son’s penis is huge. And it is not circumcised. He is not like me. What do I do now? I don’t know anything about foreskins. This is America. American boys aren’t supposed to be born with them. Snakes shed their skins. Baby boys shed their foreskins. Take him out behind the woodshed and have him skinned.

What do you do with a foreskin?

My son’s is the first I’ve seen. Maybe we should cut it off.

“Do you want to make the first cut?” the doctor asks.


“You know, do you want to cut the umbilical cord? Lots of fathers do nowadays. It’s kind of a ritual.”

“Oh. No, not really. You can cut it. I’ll just watch.”


My daughter is different. We know she is a girl almost from the beginning. We saw her in utero, in a frontal position on the sonogram. A head, two arms, trunk, two legs. No penis.


“Really. See?” says the doctor. “Looks like a girl, all right!”

But just to be safe we pick two names: Allison Jean, if the sonogram is right; Stephen Isaac, if it has somehow missed an important part of human anatomy.

I was sicker than a dog when my daughter was conceived. My wife and I had been trying for months to have another child. The child should be born in summer, we decided, just like the first one, because I am a professor, and I will have the summer off to help with the new baby. So in September 1987 we begin babymaking in earnest. But no baby. Now it is February, and I have a horrible cold.

“It’s that time,” Barbara nudges me in the dark.

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, I’m sure. I just took my temperature.”

“It can’t be,” I groan, “Not tonight. I can’t even breathe!”

“But you’ve got to!” she whispers fiercely. And then she touches me.

I know it’s going to be hard, but I give it a try anyway. After all, I am the eggman.

Much to our surprise a child is conceived that night. Our daughter will be born in October, mid-semester, just in time for midterms. Oh well, I don’t sleep much then anyway.

Allison’s umbilical cord is wrapped around her neck. It stretches taut, her heartbeat quickens. Her face begins to turns blue. With a quiet, urgent tone that sends chills down my spine, the doctor commands my wife, “Stop pushing.”

Then she slips a knife blade between my half-born daughter’s neck and my wife’s vagina. Slowly, carefully she cuts the cord. I am surprised at the rush of air that escapes my throat. I feel lightheaded and look for a chair.

The boy is red and smooth; soft, like crushed velvet. He nestles in my arms as I try awkwardly to hold his huge, swaying head. He is perfect, not one blemish or mole on his entire body. A spotless lamb of God.

My daughter is different. She is born with a wine-stain birthmark in the middle of her forehead. It is a special sign. A bright pink star.

A nurse, noticing my intense gaze, says encouragingly, “It will fade with time.” But she misunderstands my staring. I want the star to stay.

Star light, star bright,

first star I see tonight;

I wish I may, I wish I might,

have the wish I wish tonight.

I inspect the rest of her body. Ten fingers, ten toes. An engorged vulva. She waits three minutes before she utters a sound.

She has a beautiful round mole on her left buttock.

—All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how)—

“That mole will make some man happy one day,” I say, and my wife smiles.

His eyes try hard to focus on my face as I speak to him. I have talked to him many times in the past few months, as I nuzzled my wife’s bulging belly. For seven months I have been calling him Katie, to help him become the girl I wanted first. But now I hold a boy in my arms and devise for him an impromptu vow as his eyes careen off crazily in different directions.

“I know I will make many mistakes as a father,” I whisper in his tiny ear. “I’ve never been one before now. But I promise that I will always love you.”

I silently pray that it will be true, for I have never been a father, and I had not been expecting a boy.

I carry him to the Alta Bates Hospital nursery, wrapped in a warm towel, where a nurse washes him off and lays him under a heat lamp, as though he were an entree to be served up from a cafeteria steam table.

This is my son. Hear him cry. A bleating little lamb.

I return to my wife’s side, give her a kiss goodnight, and walk home alone to our two-room apartment on College Avenue in Berkeley. It is June 7, 1985. It is two o’clock in the morning. Even though I know that this will be my last chance in many months to get a good night’s sleep, I lie awake for hours.

I am the father of a son: Benjamin (named for my favorite uncle, who was named for Benjamin Lamb, my paternal grandfather’s maternal grandfather) Walter (named for my wife’s father). A family name. Also a playful inversion of Walter Benjamin, a famous Jewish philosopher and literary critic whose writings I have recently read. My son’s name is a subtle joke that no one in my family or my wife’s family will ever catch. The son’s left-handed father likes to pretend he is a famous New Testament literary critic. So the father gives his firstborn a famous name, turned upside down, just like the way he came into the world.

I have just finished writing a dissertation on the Gospel of John, and I will begin teaching next fall in a tenure-track position at the University of Portland, in Oregon. I have a wonderful wife, a new son, and a new career. I know I will be a good provider, just like God was a good provider for his Son. I want to be like God. Tonight I feel like a god.

The world is a beautiful place. It is my place, my world. I have made it one person more beautiful than it was yesterday.

Fragment Six

“Moses gave you circumcision (it is, of course, not from Moses, but from the patriarchs).…” (John 7:22)

Okay. We’ve had some time to think about it.

Should we have our son circumcised? I am vacillating. Just a few hours ago he was a girl. I was sure of it. Now he is Benjamin, my son. And he has a foreskin.

My wife and I weigh the pros and cons of circumcision for seven days.

Finally, her brother calls. “Look, I had to be circumcised when I was twelve, because of an infection. It was pure hell. Junior high and all that. You should do it now, so he won’t be forced to have it done later.”

How do you clean a foreskin? I don’t know how to do it. If we don’t have him circumcised he will be different, and I will be unable to help him.

Suddenly I am eight years old again, standing in the new, cinder-block dormitory bathroom at Immanuel Mission School. A group of excited Navajo Indian boys, many of them nearly twice my age, crowd around me as I edge up to the urinal and unzip my trousers. I am apprehensive. I don’t know why they have followed me in here or what they are expecting to see. I pull out my little white thingamajigger and begin to urinate. The boys begin to laugh and point. “Ncho’d’ı́ı́l! Ncho’d’ı́ı́l!

I don’t know why they are laughing or what they are saying, but I recognize one word, ncho’. It is the Navajo word for the thing I have just exposed in their dormitory bathroom. They are all laughing at my thingamajigger for some reason. I am ashamed, and I don’t know why. I want to run and hide, but I can’t. I quickly finish what I have come in to do and rush out. For the rest of the day whenever other Navajo boys see me they try to poke me in my thingamajigger. They say “ncho’d’ı́ı́l!” and grin wickedly.

When I am alone with my one Navajo friend I ask him what ncho’d’ı́ı́l means. He is embarrassed and tries hard to explain, but the English words won’t come. “It means your thing is … is … is someway” (Geller: 357, 373–74).

The next day when other Navajo boys are trading insults with my brothers and me, I shout at them “Ncho’d’ı́ı́l! Ncho’d’ı́ı́!” They gang tackle me and beat me up. Whatever it is I have said, I will never again say it to their faces.

On the eighth day we decide to have Benjamin circumcised. Just like a little Jewish boy.

He will look like me.

He will be like me.

I hold him down while the doctor straps his tiny arms and legs to a pad.

He will look like me.

He will be like me.

My son begins to cry.

He doesn’t like being tied down, naked and spread-eagled, like the Greek letter


Caught in the surgeon’s finely woven web, he fights to free himself (Derrida: 213).

In just a few moments it will be over, my son. Trust me.

You will be free. Free indeed.

I hear the bleating of a lamb.

Abraham is my father.

Abraham is my father.

“It won’t really hurt, you know,” the doctor says reassuringly. “I’ve done hundreds of these before. He won’t remember a thing. Trust me. I’m a father too.”

“After properly cleansing the penis and pubis, the dorsal aspect of the prepuce is put on a stretch by grasping it on either side of the median line with a pair of hemostats” (Yellen: 147).

This boy should have been named Isaac—Laughter—like his great, great, great, great grandfather.

Isaac, my son, I want to hear you laugh.

Laugh, boy! Laugh!

The joke’s on me. I have helped bind you to an altar of plastic and steel. You will be altered, and no divine voice will tell the doctor to put down his knife.

23 ,

24 ?

You are my son, but you don’t look like me.

I want you to look like me. I want you to be like me. I want you to fit in.

I don’t want other American boys to laugh and stare at you in the gym or the bathroom when they see you naked, with a foreskin in your hands.

My eyes are on the doctor.

Steady, steady.

A flat probe, anointed with vaseline, is then inserted between the prepuce and the glans to separate adherent mucous membrane. The prepuce is then gently drawn backwards exposing the entire glans penis.… In cases where the prepuce is drawn tightly over the glans, a partial dorsal slit will facilitate applying the cone of draw stud [the bell] over the glans. After anointing the inside of the cone, it is placed over the glans penis allowing enough of the mucous membrane to fit below the cone so that too much is not removed. The prepuce is then pulled through and above the bevel hole in the platform and clamped in place. In this way the prepuce is crushed against the cone causing hemostasis. We allow this pressure to remain five minutes, and in older children slightly longer. The excess of the prepuce is then cut with a sharp knife without any danger of cutting the glans, which is always protected by the cone portion of the instrument, leaving a very fine 1/32 of an inch ribbon-like membrane formed between the new union of the skin and mucous membrane. The pressure is then released. (Yellen: 147)

No anesthesia is used.

5 .

6 .

It is finished.

Ncho’ d’ı́ı́l.

Fragment Seven

The Father loves the Son and has placed all things in his hands. (John 3:35)

Watch my son writhe.

He is purple with rage and pain.

The application of two hemostats to the edges of the sensitive, unanesthetized prepuce, the application of a third crushing hemostat to the prepuce before cutting the dorsal slit, and the crushing of the entire circumference of the prepuce by turning a screw on the Gomco Clamp produces excruciating pain. Since Anand and Hickey’s article in the New England Journal of Medicine …, it can no longer be denied that pain is felt by the male infant during circumcision. Although the Gomco Clamp may have been designed to reduce the risk of bleeding, it has produced excruciating pain in every infant on which it is used. Even if anesthesia is used, the post-operative pain originating in a pleasure center can be expected to have serious untoward consequences. (Denniston)

My son screams. He screams and he screams.

I cannot console him.

His eyes are tightly shut. He doesn’t know that I am here beside him, holding his hand. I will not let him go.

The Father is in me and I am in the Father.

I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.

The father loves the son and has placed all things in his hands.

In his hands.

In his tiny pink hands.

I am the father.

The son of far too many Abrahams.

But I am worse than they are.

I pay someone else to take knife in hand and do what I cannot do.

During the biblical period (c. 1700 B.C.E.–140 C.E.), the operator, or mohel placed a metal shield with a slit in it near the tip of the foreskin, so only the tip was removed. Often the mohel … pulled up on the outside of the foreskin before placing the shield. The result was that virtually all of the inner lining of the prepuce was preserved. This was known as Bris Milah.

The wonderful statue of David by Michelangelo appears intact but is in fact correctly represented because the future King David has been circumcised by the accepted procedure of the biblical era. Only the tip of his foreskin has been removed, fulfilling the covenant with Abraham (Genesis 17). (Denniston; cf. Gairdner: 1433; Hall: 74)

Hours later I am still clasping my son’s doll-like fingers.



I will always love you.


Sweet, sweet Jesus!

I’m sorry.

I am sorry.

Look at me! I’m wet with your sweat and tears.

You look like me.

You will be like me.

You will like me.

For I am the eggman.

Fragment Eight

“Put your sword back in its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” (John 18:11)

“Are you sure you want to go through with this?” my doctor asks as he enters the room where I lie, half-naked, on an examining table.

My legs are spread apart, and my feet are in webbed stirrups, as though I am about to give birth. A white sheet covers the lower part of my body.

A nurse comes in and cleanses my crotch with some orange, purifying liquid. Does she find my penis tiny? How does it compare with other penises she has seen? Does she ever take notes? I watch her eyes. She gives nothing away.

Do I want to go through with this?

Of course I do. I have two healthy children, one girl and one boy. And I have to put them through college someday. I can’t afford to have any more children.

Through with this.

Hmmm.… Δία with the genitaliave? Expression of agency? (With a note of urgency.) Or is it an ablative of accompaniment? Perhaps it should be εἰς with the accusative. The idea of limit, extent, direction toward, is important in this case.

“Yes, I want to go through with it.


The doctor’s needle pricks my skin at a very sensitive point.

“Did you feel that?”

“Yeah, whaddyya think?

The doctor removes the sheet covering the triangular lower half of my body, my “triplicity of death” as Jacques Derrida might say (Derrida: 24–26), and I lean forward, propping myself up on my elbows. I watch as the doctor makes an incision in my scrotum and pulls out two tiny threads that connect my testicles to their ejaculatory ducts.

Ah, the vas deferens.

Truly, I am the vine, and my Doktorvater is the vinedresser. He is removing every living branch in me that bears fruit.

I am still thinking of Derrida and one of his many books—was it in Dissemination that he talked about the vastness of différance? I can’t remember. I’m having problems concentrating on Derrida. I have a weird sensation in my anus, my derrière

da … yes, right there—

as though someone is pulling an enormously long stringnified from it.

The doctor explains the surgery’s aftereffects in response to my unvoiced anxieties.

“You’ll be sore for a few days.

“Don’t do any lifting.

“Take pain pills.

“Oh, and be sure to wear an athletic cup—you know, a Jacquestrap—for at least forty-eight hours.”

I am the vine.

I am the eggman.


I will never be the same. I am forever differant.


The penis … is … is … mightier than the sword.

Fragment Nine

“Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.” (John 4:14)

I imagine a milky white, life-giving liquid seeping out onto the doctor’s fingers.

From my side are flowing rivers of living water.

For ages, fathers and sons have drunk from wells like this. Jacob and his sons, for example. This liquid is a man’s identity, the proof of his virility, masculinity, power. I have been cut off from the land of the living.

Come, all you who are thirsty. Drink of me before I disappear.

A final drink.

To death, then.

Bottoms up. Derrière—da.

I go home and my wife makes a careful inspection of my body.

“Oh, my goodness, it has shrunk!”

She is worried.

“Is it supposed to look like that?”

I look down. It’s true. My scrotum is black-and-blue, and my penis is no larger than that of my four-year-old son.

Within a few days, however, I’m a little kid, playing with myself again. Every few weeks I masturbate and ejaculate into a little plastic cup.

13 .

I put the top on the cup and take it to the hospital.

See what I can do? I am still the eggman, yes I am.

“Am I dead yet?”

“No, not yet.”

This well is deeper than I thought.

Four months later the harvest comes, and I finally hear the response I have been waiting for.

“It is finished. You are dead.

“Now you can go out and live again.”

Fragment Ten

“Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.” (John 20:17)

Ascending is a particularly male problem. Every pubescent male lives in mortal fear of the spontaneous, uncontrollable ascension. Public showers and public beaches raise especially embarrassing problems for the adolescent male who is unfamiliar with the phenomenon. And every junior-high schoolboy has to figure out on his own how to handle these tissues when they arise. After all, no guys ever give other guys lessons on its many possible disguises. When you’re at the beach, for example, you have to learn on your own the importance of turning over on to your stomach every time a pretty girl walks by. And you often have to learn the hard way, not to get up until everything has calmed down. In gymnasium locker rooms, you have to learn the art of meditation, how to be the master of your wandering imagination. When you are naked and in the shower with twenty other boys, think about baseball or what you’re going to eat for dinner, not about the girl you’re going to meet in a few minutes in study hall.

As a graduate teaching assistant, I learned to use the classroom podium as a defensive weapon. When there were cute coeds in cutoffs sitting in the front row, I found that I could protect myself by not moving too far from the comfort of the podium’s shadow.

But now I am nearly forty. I have two children, and I have just been cut off from the land of the living. So I worry. Do ascensions still happen this side of the resurrection, two thousand years after the spear-thrust in Jesus’ side? Will my ascensions be visible to the naked eye, or will they be only spiritual in nature?

My doctor says not to worry. The ascensions will be corporeal.

I forget to worry, and nothing out of the ordinary happens.

I have a theory as to why men can’t find things in refrigerators. My wife says it’s genetic. It has something to do with a male’s defective Y chromosome. But I don’t think that’s the origin of the problem. No, man’s inability to find things in refrigerators has its roots in male physiology. Think about it for a moment. Everyone knows that the male body is made in such a way that its most precious commodity is right up front, in plain sight. So we males are not used to looking behind other things to find what we’re looking for. What’s not up front and obvious must not exist—like the “hypothetical,” feminine חכמה or σοφία behind the λόγος of John 1:1. Women, on the other hand, are built differently. They learn at a very early age that the most important things are stuck back behind other things. So women keep looking, and they don’t give up until they find what it is they’re looking for.

Fragment Eleven

“How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4)

My father was my grammar-school teacher for four years, in the two-room mission school on the Navajo Indian Reservation. He was my Nicodemus, a genuine Nick at Nite, long before there was cable TV or Nickelodeon. Poor old Saint Nick, leader of the Pharisees. He never did quite get things right.

Nicodemus tries to teach Jesus the meaning of Greek words in the same way that I try to teach my children the etymologies of English words.

“From the Greek,” I say, with a dramatic, professorial swirl of my hands. And my kids groan, “Oh Dad, not again!”

It’s a ritual game we play, like Jesus and Nicodemus playing with the meanings of ἄνωθεν and πνεύμα. It is the father’s task to teach his children about origins, about the ἀπχή of the λόγος. I do it because I hope my children will remember their dad’s silliness one day when they are taking their SATs and college entrance exams.

“Oh yeah! Remember when Dad used to say, ‘From the Greek?’ ‘Heuristic’—from the Greek word εὑρίσκω, ‘I find’: hence, ‘helping to find an answer.’ ”

Harvard and Yale will be calling, thanks to my crazy little word games.

My father taught me grammar and entomology, but not etymologies. From him I learned how to chloroform insects and pin them to cardboard. I learned how to put things together in order, with appropriate nouns and adjectives, in order to make sense. I learned how to cut apart sentences and insects and diagram them. Just like Nicodemus tries to open up Jesus and draw him out. But ἄνωθεν and πνεύμα don’t fit the proper grammatical constrictions. They scramble out of the egg of the mother language before the father has a chance to catch them and push them back inside where they belong.

Seize the world! Neutralize it, cauterize it, sterilize it. Pin it to wood before it disseminates and degenerates into syntactical jibberish.

28 .

29 .

30 .

Fragment Twelve

“You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf.” (John 5:39)

My son has decided to read my book, Reading with a Passion, for his sixth-grade book report. The class assignment is to read an autobiography, and since part of my book is autobiographical, he wants to write about me. I am not crazy about his idea, since it is difficult reading and he won’t understand much of anything he reads. But I am pleased that he wants to read the book. After all, I gave him and my daughter Allison autographed copies when it first came out. I was hoping he would read the book sometime before I died. I just didn’t expect him to try it when he was eleven.

Ben Staley 3/5/97 Reading Book Report

Reading with a Passion

I. Introduction. Have you ever dreamed of doing an autobiography book report on your own father? Well, I did. My father’s name is Jeffrey L. Staley. He comes from an immense family that consists of one father, Robert, two mothers Betty, and the step-mother is Esther. My dad also has two sisters, Brenda and Beth, and three brothers, Rob, David, and Greg. Some of his famous ancestors are: George Johnson, who rode horse-back in “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.” William Brewster is another famous ancestor of his, William was the founder of the Plymouth colony.

On December 22, 1951, my dad’s body met the world. Surprisingly, December 22 is the same day that the Mayflower unloaded its cargo at Plymouth Rock. When my dad was born, doctors found nothing wrong with him. But when his older, stronger brothers found out he was born without peripheral vision in his right eye, they would constantly try to coax him into playing baseball. My dad has lived in many places in his life, these places are: Ramona, Kansas, Immanuel Mission, Arizona, and Berkeley, California. Jeff is currently living in Bothell, Washington. Before coming to Bothell, he was living in Portland, Oregon.

II. Can an ordinary dad be famous? Although my dad is not really famous, he is to me. Famous to me is not always being the fastest in the world, or being the best known in the world. My dad is famous to me because he is responsible, loving, and caring to his family members. He is also cooperative. You would have to be if you had two older brothers. My dad has become “famous” by accomplishing what he has done. He has taught at over four different colleges, been a father, a younger brother, an older brother, a McDonald’s employee, and a son! If you ask me, that’s a lot to be respected for. My dad has also been through peer pressure, and pressure in general. Just those two are some of the big things people have to overcome in a lifetime. Jeff has also come over many hardships too. His brother has given him drugs before, and he did not know what to do with them. So, being the good companion he was, he passed them out after school.

III. Although Jeff’s accomplishments do not affect us today (us not being the world or country), they have affected many. For example, his accomplishment of becoming a teacher has affected his students. They are probably now more “equipped” to go out in the world to teach others about Jesus Christ. Also, he has experienced being a younger and older sibling. This accomplishment lets him be a better father in a way. That experienced helped him because it let him appreciate both sides of an argument. It also let him be a younger child with his younger brother and sisters, but I also think it let him be an older child with his more mature brothers. That is why I think my dad has made a difference to some people, but not necessarily everyone.

IV. Now you may think that just because a dad looks old, he is old. Well, my dad is an old guy, but not too old. At heart he is still twelve years old. Now, at the age of about nine and ten, my dad liked two weird things. He liked his brothers “girlfriends” and he liked butter, ketchup, and bologna sandwiches. Pretty strange, don’t you think? By now you probably think my dad is pretty crazy. Well, he did some unusual things too, like in the summer, he liked to burn up ants with a magnifying glass. He also liked to pull the legs off of crickets or grasshoppers, then he would feed them to a nearby black widow spider, and watch it slowly devour them. In the dark of night though, he and his brothers would pull the “flashlights” off of harmless little fireflies, stick the lights on their fingers, and wiggle their fingers around!

Jeff tells the story of his most embarrassing moment when his family was not so very wealthy. In fact, they couldn’t even afford to buy jelly for their toast. When they finally could buy a jar, they did. The next morning my dad was having a “ceremony” in celebration of having jam. He was holding the jar above his head, then, he dropped it!

V. What I really admire about my dad is how, as long as he has lived, he really only remembers the good times and not his bad times. I hope one day I will be like him, in some ways. I also admire how he has stuck to teaching, even though he has been turned down, and been “fired” by many colleges. Someday, I hope my dream will come true. My dad’s accomplishments have changed my life because they have made me a better person. They have made me a better person because I have someone I can look to when I have problems, someone with experience.

Benjamin asked me to proofread his essay when he was done, and I did. I wrote at the top, “Good work! You’ve done an excellent job!” in big, round letters.

Now he is at my side, trying to get my attention.

“Dad, do you have any clothes I can borrow?”

“Why do you want my clothes?” I ask suspiciously.

“Well, tomorrow I have to do a class presentation about the autobiography I read, so I thought I would dress up like you.”

I go upstairs and rummage through my closet, finding a hat and shirt that he can wear. I discover an old transistor radio that I bought when I was twelve years old and show that to him, too.

“I used to listen to ‘Yours truly, KOMA, Oklahoma City!’ on this little radio.” I pat it and sing their signature ditty from 1964.

“That’s where I heard the Beatles for the first time, you know. Out there on the reservation, thirty miles from the closest post office, Navajo girls used to come running over to listen to my Montgomery Ward radio whenever I yelled, ‘It’s the Beatles!’

“KOMA was the only rock ‘n roll station we could pick up there in northern Arizona. I would fall asleep with the earphone stuck in my ear, and wake up in the morning to static.”

“Cool, Dad. Does it still work?”

“I don’t know; let’s try it. I haven’t used it in about twenty years.”

We find a nine-volt battery, put it in the radio, and turn it on.


I turn the dial.

Music. Maybe it’s KOMA.

“She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah!”

“Come on, Dad! That’s not the Beatles! It’s a song by Alice in Chains!”


“Hey, can I take this radio to school, too?”

“Sure! Just don’t lose it. It’s one of the only things I have left from my childhood.”

“I’ll take good care of it. Thanks, Dad!”

And he gives me a kiss.

Fragment Thirteen

“Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise.” (John 5:19)

A poem for my son, at five years old.

Jigsaw Puzzles

So like the father is the son,

matching color to color,

shape to shape,

with quickness and precision;

with flashes of intuition.

Surprises are interlocked

with carefully crafted solutions:

Sometimes he follows shadows to light,

or bright hues to near whites;

at other times, the slippery

ferocity of gravity

pulls pairs together.

But, curiously, he does not begin with borders.

He leaves

without speaking,

those straight edges

that protect the slow-forming picture

from the chaos creeping

across the dining room table,

for another to shape and fit.

Fragment Fourteen

“I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:28)

Cape Kiwanda just two hundred feet high and two and a half miles out into the Pacific Ocean, just south of Tillamook Bay, Oregon. It is a hazy, blue-green Memorial Day weekend, and my wife and children and I are hiking with friends out to a point on the cape where the sea meets the sky. It is the end of the migration season for gray whales, and my son, who wants to be a marine biologist when he grows up, hopes to see at least one today. We make it to the end of the trail and sit on the edge of the rocky cliff, eating our lunch, and scanning the ocean with binoculars. No whales.

My wife, my daughter, Allison, and our friends decide to head back to the campground. But Benjamin and I stay behind for a few minutes. We want one last look.

I notice a faint trail heading over the side of the cliff, beyond the guardrail, and out of sight below us. Forgetting about whales for the moment, and remembering my childhood on the Navajo Reservation, I hop over the guardrail and beckon for my son to follow. We will explore where few men have dared to tread. Deep sea caves, with fierce, fire-breathing dragons. Emerald-eyed sirens and frolicking dolphins. My son hesitates, but after a few words of fatherly encouragement he decides to join me. We quickly disappear from view of the hikers gaping at us from above and scramble down the steep, boulder-strewn path. Suddenly we are alone on the cape, with nothing but a fuzzy blue sky above us and deep purple waves crashing in the distance below.

We round a sharp switchback and find a twenty-foot cliff in front of us. I pause. Shall we go further? My son has never climbed before. He is a city boy, unlike me. But I grew up in the wilderness of the Navajo Reservation. I spent my summers dancing on cliffs ten times this height. My son is nearly ten years old. It is time for me to teach him the ways of a serpent on a rock.

I edge out ahead of him on the cliff and show him the moves I know by heart: hand hold, foot hold; hand hold, foot hold. Like line dancing.

My son follows, but he trembles.

“Dad, I’m scared.”

“Good! It’s a good thing to be a little scared. It’s when you get over-confident that you have problems.”

The cliff is only twenty feet high, but the ridge drops off steeply below us. A person could tumble a hundred feet or more before coming to a stop in a tangle of prickly Oregon grape and wizened Douglas fir. I catch my son gazing at the slope below.

“Don’t look down. Just keep your eyes on me.”

He does.

Right foot. Right hand.

Left foot. Left hand …

His hand misses the outcropping of rock.

He loses his balance.

He begins to fall backward.


I am here. No more than two feet from him.

On the ledge in front of him.

My left arm grabs his shoulder and forces him up against the cliff.

I am here. Now. Called alongside him, to help him. Like a pair of cleats clamped into the cliffside. A solitary paraclete.

We pause and catch our breath. We exhale slowly, then inch our way down.

Right foot. Right hand.

Left foot. Left hand.

We make it to a more level spot and relax for a while, alone on the cliffside, with the late afternoon sun, warm on our backs.

“We should probably head back. Mom will be wondering what happened to us.”

“Yeah. But Dad, don’t tell her about me on that cliff, okay? She would have a cow.”

We scamper up to join the main trail and scan the horizon one last time for a glimpse of migrating whales.

“Look, Ben! A giant gray!”

And so it is. The behemoth lazily turns and flashes its immense side at us before it dives beneath a shimmering wave.

We head back to the campground in silence.

Only once he looks up and grins. “Dad, you saved my life today.”

“I know. You know I’d never leave you.”

“I know. Thanks, Dad.”

I take his hand and squeeze it tightly.

My son must lead now, and I will follow.

My eyes are watery. My vision blurs.

I am blinded by a speck of dust suddenly caught in my eye.

Fragment Fifteen

“Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (John 17:11)

He is my son. I am his father. I am in him and he is in me.

But my daughter is different. She is the intruder, the one that upsets the natural equilibrium. I am in her too, and she in me. But it cannot be the same. Even though we occasionally still sleep together, it cannot be the same as with my son. And I worry about that. I am hot and I sleep in boxer shorts. It’s the niacin. I take it to control my cholesterol. But it gives me hot flashes, and I have felt overly warm ever since I started taking it more than two years ago. So I sleep half-naked.

My wife is out of town, and my daughter sneaks into our bed at two o’clock in the morning.

“Daddy, I hear scary noises.”

I mumble some incoherent words and turn over.



Will she remember this night and other nights like it when she is twenty, and will she accuse me of unspeakable acts?

I have never touched her that way. But there were times before she was born that I thought I might. And I was afraid. And so God gave me a son first.

I will not hold you, daughter of Abraham, for I might ascend. Even though I am old and you are my daughter, I might ascend. So I turn my back to you and hide the shame of my nocturnal ascensions. I feel safe with my back to you, my daughter. And so I will show you only my backside, fleetingly, as I glide by in the night. Only our toes will touch. For no one has ever seen the father. But the son, who is close on the father’s other side, has made him known.

Fragment Sixteen

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)

My daughter is eight years old when we move to Seattle. We have to find new doctors for our children, and now we are in the process of interviewing pediatricians for Allison. This is one my wife likes, and she wants me to meet her.

My wife and I are also somewhat concerned about the mole on Allison’s bottom, the one that she was born with. It is no longer round and smooth as it was when she was a baby. It has grown larger. Now it is bumpy and asymmetrical.

“Allison is forty-nine inches tall and weighs forty-eight pounds. Her blood pressure is ninety-eight over sixty-eight. She’s a healthy girl!” The pediatrician smiles reassuringly. “Now, where’s that mole?”

“Right—or is it her left buttock?” My wife looks at me with a question in her eyes. “I can’t remember.”

“It’s on her left buttock,” I say without thinking. I know where it is. It has been mine for eight years.

—All things counter, original, spare, strange

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how)—

The new pediatrician does a careful inspection. “We should really have it removed. The sooner the better, just to be on the safe side. Strange things can happen to moles like this when girls hit puberty.”

The doctor doesn’t know that I have been saving this mark, this grain of wheat, and it is not time to give it up.

“Will it hurt to take it off?” Allison asks. A worried frown crosses her face.

“Just a little. But not for long.”

I want to tell the doctor, “You can’t have it. It’s not yours to take.” But the seed is not dead, and I want my girl to live forever.

Fragment Seventeen

“In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you will also live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” (John 14:19–20)

He still kisses me on the lips occasionally, this son of mine who is eleven years old. I thought the ritual would have ended long ago.

More and more often he just kisses me on the cheek. But there are times when only a kiss on the lips will do.

He started kissing me on the lips when he was about a year old. He would watch my wife and me kiss. Then he would mimic us, and we would laugh. Now I wonder when it will stop, when he will kiss me like this for the last time. He has no idea where and when the kissing began. And when it stops, he will probably forget that he ever did it. But I am his father, and I will not forget.

I don’t want this kissing to stop, but I am afraid. What if someone sees us kissing like this, at our ages? What will they think?

He still sleeps with a night-light on. Wrapped in San Francisco 49er blankets, he prays passionately each evening that God will keep him from bad dreams and that God will keep his parents safe and alive until they are both one hundred.

When I am one hundred and praying on my deathbed, I want my son at my side. I want to hold his head on my chest. I want to feel his warm lips on mine. I want to smell his sweet breath tickling my mustache.

I want my daughter to slip into the room and ask, “Dad, can I crawl into bed with you?”

And I will say “yes, you may—just this once.”

I will not turn away from her, and she will hold me as close as I held her when we were both young. Then she will sing to me softly—swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim:

“I am she as you are he as you are me and we are all together.

See how we fly like Lucy in the sky, see how we run.

We’re crying.”

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change.…

“Sitting on a cornflake, waiting for the van to come.…”

I smile and drift off to sleep with no fear of bad dreams.

Even as the night-light dims, I fear no evil, for thou art with me my daughter, my only begotten son.

Works Consulted

Anand, K. J. S., and P. R. Hickey

1987    “Pain and Its Effects in the Human Neonate and Fetus.” New England Journal of Medicine 317:1321–29.

Arndt, William F., and F. Wilbur Gingrich

1979    A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Barthes, Roland

1977    Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill & Wang.

Denniston, George C.

1996    “Modern’ Circumcision: The Escalation of a Ritual.” Circumcision 1:1 Online. http://faculty.washington.edu/gcd/CIRCUMSCISION/v1n1.html #article1

Derrida, Jacques

1981    Dissemination. Trans. Barbara Johnson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Doniger, Wendy

1998    The Implied Spider: Politics and Theology in Myth. New York: Columbia University Press.

Ellis, Peter F.

1984    The Genius of John: A Composition-Critical Commentary on the Fourth Gospel. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical.

Fehribach, Adeline

1998    The Women in the Life of the Bridegroom: A Feminist Historical-Literary Analysis of the Female Characters in the Fourth Gospel. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical.

Gairdner, D.

1949    “The Fate of the Foreskin: A Study of Circumcision.” British Medical Journal 2:1433–37.

Geller, Jay

1999    “The Godfather of Psychoanalysis: Circumcision, Antisemitism, Homosexuality, and Freud’s ‘Fighting Jew.” JAAR 67:355–86.

Gosse, Edmund

1983    Father and Son: A Study of Two Temperaments. Ed. Peter Abbs. New York: Penguin.

Hall, Robert G.

1988    “Epispasm and the Dating of Ancient Jewish Writings.” JSP 2:71–86.

Hopkins, Gerard Manley

1967    The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

Howard-Brook, Wes

1994    Becoming Children of God: John’s Gospel and Radical Discipleship. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis.

Kitzberger, Ingrid Rosa, ed.

1999    The Personal Voice in Biblical Interpretation. New York: Routledge.

Lee, Dorothy A.

1995    “Beyond Suspicion? The Fatherhood of God in the Fourth Gospel.” Pacifica 8:140–54.

Lennon, John, and Paul McCartney

1967    “I Am the Walrus”. Northern Songs Ltd. Online. http://www.radiowavenet.com/beatles/bea/lyr-liamthe.htm http://www.beatlefans.com/lyrics/i_am_the_walrus.htm

Levenson, Jon D.

1993    The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Mlakuzhyil, George

1987    The Christocentric Structure of the Fourth Gospel. AnBib 117. Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute.

Phillips, Gary A., and Danna Nolan Fewell

1997    “Ethics, Bible, Reading As If.” Semeia 77:1–21.

Schneiders, Sandra M.

1999    The Revelatory Text: Interpreting the New Testament As Sacred Scripture. 2d ed. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical.

Staley, J. L., and Rebecca G. Staley

1997    “Staley Family History”. Online.http://www.u.arizona.edu/~rstaley/personal.htm

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1935    “Bloodless Circumcision of the Newborn.” American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology 30:146–47.

The Soul of the Father and the Son: A Psychological (Yet Playful and Poetic) Approach to the Father-Son Language in the Fourth Gospel

Michael Willett Newheart

Howard University School of Divinity


In this essay I apply a “soul hermeneutic” to the “father-son” language in the Fourth Gospel. My “soul hermeneutic” is influenced by three elements: analytical and archetypal psychology, which reorients psychology to “the study of the soul”; reflection on African American cultural experience, which is often characterized as “soul”; and reader-response criticism, which emphasizes that the reading of a text is shaped by the reader’s psychological and social location. After discussing briefly my method, I read “soulfully” two discourses (John 5:19–47; 17:1–26) in which Jesus repeatedly refers to himself as the son and to god as the father. I first poetically and playfully engage the images in these discourses, then I identify likenesses to these images in contemporary African American poetry, and finally I note likenesses to these images in my own soul.

A Soul Hermeneutic

This essay comes out of both my academic and personal experience. (Doesn’t everyone’s?) For twenty years I have studied critically the Gospel of John, beginning with my first class of my first semester in seminary (“The Gospel of John” with Alan Culpepper) and continuing with a dissertation (Willett: 1992), a number of articles (Willett: 1988; Willett Newheart: 1995, 1996) and a work in progress. As some of these titles attest, I have particularly been interested in forging a psychological hermeneutic for reading the Gospel.

This essay is also grounded in my experience of fathering and being fathered. I am the only begotten son of the father (full of grace and truth? John 1:14) Edward Willett, who died when I was 16 after a long illness. And I am the father of two daughters: Anastasia, born in 1996, just after I sent off to prospective publishers the first chapter of my current work-in-progress, and Miranda, who was born in spring 1999, when I was working on this essay.

The personal and the professional meet in my experience of the Fourth Gospel. I have been drawn to this book over the years in part because of Jesus’ pervasive speech about the father and the son. Jesus claimed an intimate relationship with god,3 referring to him as father and himself as son. In this essay I explore the images of father and son in the Fourth Gospel, using what I call a “soul hermeneutic,” and it is to that I now turn.

I have discussed my soul hermeneutic in detail elsewhere (cf. Willett Newheart, 1999); I will only summarize here. It is composed of three elements: analytical and archetypal psychology, African American cultural experience, and reader-response criticism. First, analytical and archetypal psychology, as developed respectively by Carl Jung and James Hillman, attempts to bring “soul” back into psychology through focusing on images in dreams, literature, and society at large as the language of the soul. Hillman, for example, contends that one must “love the image,” which means sticking with it, twisting it by doing wordplays, and making analogies, or likenesses, for the images (1977:81–82, 86–87). I therefore attempt to find the Johannine soul in the images and with what Hillman calls “a poetic basis of mind” (1975:11) I open up these images (and my own soul) by twisting them and doing wordplays with them. Furthermore, I also open up the images by finding contemporary analogies, or likenesses, for them.

Second, African American cultural experience is often referred to as “soul,” as African Americans have given us “soul music” and “soul food” and refer to one another as “soul brother” and “soul sister.” Psychologists Alfred Pasteur and Ivory Toldson identify soul with black expressiveness, which is based in rhythm (4). Such rhythm or soul can be seen especially clearly in African American poetry. If poetry is the voice of the soul, then African American poetry can be seen as expressing the “soul of soul.” My poetic readings of the biblical images reflect the rhythms of this poetry, and I find the likenesses to these images in this body of literature.

Third, reader-response criticism focuses on the reader’s role in shaping the meaning of a text (cf. Tompkins). A reader-dominant (as opposed to text-dominant) mode of reader-response criticism highlights the reader as an individual subject, influenced by one’s personal narrative, or as a member of an interpretative community, shaped by a certain “social location” (e.g., race, gender, and socio-economic status). In my soul hermeneutic I attempt to do justice to both individual and community, considering the reader’s “soul-state,” which encompasses both psychological and social dynamics. For example, I am a European American heterosexual Christian male teaching in a predominantly African American, university-related divinity school. I still grieve the death of my father, and at the same time I now celebrate my own recent fatherhood.

In treating this subject psychologically (a soul-word way) I first focus on two discourses in the Gospel (John 5:19–47; 17:1–26) in which the father-son relationship is especially prominent. In turn I translate the discourse and poetically play with its images. Second, I find likenesses to these images by exploring briefly father and son in contemporary African American poetry. Third and finally I briefly discuss the likenesses to the Johannine father-son images in my own soul.

So (ul) let us go fo (u)rth!

Playing with the Images of the Father-Son in the Fourth Gospel

The father-son relationship in the Gospel is primarily created through Jesus’ speech, through the word’s word. So I spotlight two discourses that bring out the Gospel’s father-son relationship in bold relief. Both occupy key places in the narrative. the first (5:19–47) is Jesus’ initial dispute with the Judeans surrounding his signs at the feasts. The second (17:1–26) is Jesus’ concluding discourse with the disciples before his return to the father. In the former speech Jesus binds himself with god over against the Judeans, and in the latter he binds himself with god and the disciples over against the world. All this binds Jesus with the reader.

Since the word’s words define the father-son relationship in the Gospel (and after all, the words are “soul mines,” according to Hillman, 1977:82), I set out these words, using my own translation and poetic structure, and then I play with them. First, Jesus’ dispute with the Judeans following the healing of the paralytic.

Like Father, Like Son (John 5:19–47)

Then Jesus answered them,

“Amen, amen I say to you,

the son cannot do anything on his own except what he sees the father doing,

for whatever the father does, the son does likewise.

The father loves the son and shows him everything that he is doing,

and he will show him greater works than these,

so that you will be amazed.

Just as the father raises the dead and gives life,

so also the son gives life to whomever he wants.

For the father judges no one,

but he has given all judgment to the son,

so that all will honor the son as they honor the father.

The one who does not honor the son does not honor the father who sent him.

Amen, amen I say to you,

the one who hears my words and believes in the one who sent me has eternal life

and does not come into judgment,

but has gone from death into life.

Amen, amen I say to you,

the hour is coming and now is

when the dead will hear the voice of the son of god,

and those who hear it will live.

For just as the father has life in himself,

so also he has given to the son to have life in himself.

He has also given him authority to execute judgment,

because he is the son of humanity.

Do not be amazed at this,

because the hour is coming

when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out.

Those who have done good will come out into the resurrection of life,

and those who have practiced wickedness will come out into the resurrection of judgment.

I can do nothing on my own;

just as I hear I judge,

and my judgment is just,

because I do not seek my own will but the will of the one who sent me.

If I witness to myself, my witness is not true.

There is another who witnesses to me,

and I know that his witness to me is true.

You sent messengers to John,

and he has witnessed to the truth.

But I do not accept a human witness,

though I say these things so that you might be saved.

John was a lamp that burned and shone,

and you wanted to rejoice for a time in his light.

But I have a witness greater than John’s,

for the works that the father gave me to complete,

which are the very works that I am doing,

witness to me that the father sent me.

And the father who sent me has witnessed to me.

You have never heard his voice or seen his form,

and you do not have his word abiding in you,

because you do not believe in the one who sent me.

You search the scriptures,

because you think that in them you have eternal life,

but they witness to me.

Yet you do not want to come to me so that you might have life.

I do not accept glory from humans,

but I know that you do not have the love of god in you.

I have come in the name of my father,

and you do not accept me.

If another comes in his own name, you will accept him.

How can you believe when you accept glory from one another,

and you do not seek the glory which comes from the only god?

Do not think that I will accuse you to the father;

there is one who accuses you: Moses, in whom you have hoped.

If you believed Moses, you would believe me;

for he wrote about me.

But if you do not believe his writings,

how will you believe my words?”

It was festival time (yippee!). What festival we don’t know, but a Judean festival, and after all, salvation is from the Judeans (4:22). (Right!) This is the first of several significant festivals in this section of the narrative, in which Jesus signs and discourses. Next comes Passover (6:4), Booths (7:2), and Dedication (10:22). So for this unidentified festival Jesus leaves Galilee to go up (upUpUp) to Jerusalem (though actually Jesus has already come DOWN-Downdown from above, 3:13, 31). In Jerusalem (which is not much of the city of peace for him) Jesus has already passed-over, fathers-house-cleaned, and signed (2:13–23). This time the good shepherd (10:11, 14) goes to the Sheep Gate (in search of his own sheep?) and by the pool gives living water (4:10) to a thirty-eight-year paralytic. But it’s a non-mat-carrying Sabbath (a high Sabbath, 19:31?), and the Judeans decide to feast on Jesus. Thus begins the Judeans’ persecuting, kill-seeking of the Sabbath-working Jesus, who says that his father is a still worker (a steelworker? No, a still worker. Making moonshine? No, making sonshine—gloriously!), and he’s a still worker too (though the water that Jesus gives is flowing and gushing not still, 4:13). It’s “still” the sixth day of creation for Jesus and his father. No Sabbath rest for them. Like father, like son. (But what about the son’s mother? Is she not a “working mother”? Is she a “stay-at-home mom,” and does Jesus not consider that work? Or maybe at the Cana wedding Jesus has divorced his mother: “Woman, what to me and to you?” 2:4. With this divorce the father gets custody and thus becomes a single parent.) When Jesus says “my father,” he’s not talking about Joseph (1:45; 6:42) or Jacob (4:12) or Abraham (8:39) but god. Jesus uses the “everyday language” of fatherhood in a special way (cf. Petersen: 16–17). He establishes a “fictive kinship” with the source of all that is (cf. Malina and Rohrbaugh: 88–89). Jesus is attempting to ground—or better, “sky”—his authority for Sabbath-working. (Now that Joseph is no longer on the scene, has Jesus projected his “ideal father” onto the heavens? Jesus has a “father complex,” or at least a complex father!) Jesus, then, is not just a Sabbath-breaker but a godfather-caller and thus a god-equalizer (though the Judeans themselves call god their father, even though Jesus says that it’s really the devil, 8:41–44). He must die!

Thus begins Jesus’ capital offense trial in the Judean capital (cf. Harvey: 46–66; Neyrey: 9–15). Jesus of course defends himself (he is the first paraclete, 14:16). He first amensamens (as he did to Nicodemus, 3:3, 5, 11) that the son can’t do anything (no way, hunh-hunh) but what he sees (and hears, 5:30) the father doing. (No more “my father/I” but “the father/the son.”) He is the apprentice learning from the master’s “sign” shop (cf. Dodd). (He has a ringside seat because he is in the father’s bosom, 1:18.) The father does it, the son does it. (Indeed, it is the son-abiding father doing his fatherly works, 14:10.) The father is a son-lover and thus a son-everything-shower (and son-everything-giver, 3:35). And this son-loving father’s going to show the son greaterworks than these paralytic-healing (5:2–9), distance-fevered-son-healing (4:46–54), and water-wining (2:1–11) works, and you (the Judeans and the reader) will be a-mazed (in a maze). (“How can these things come to be?” the a-mazed Judean ruler Nicodemus said, 3:9.) This amazing, greater-working father is a dead-raiser and a give-lifer (not the make-deader and give-lifer of the Jewish scripture, Deut 32:39; 1 Sam 2:6; 2 Kgs 5:7), and the son is a dead-lifer and a give-raiser too. (So hold on, Lazarus, the son gonna raise you, 11:43–44! Indeed he gonna raise himself, 10:17–18!) This dead-raising father is not a judger, but he’s given all judging to the son (who says that he judges no one, 8:15), so that the son will be all-honored (all people drawn to him, 12:32) as the father is all-honored. (All rise, the honor-able son of the father now presiding as judge!) Those non-honoring son (i.e., the Judeans who want to kill/stone/crucify Jesus) non-honor father too. Hate son, hate father (15:23).

Jesus amensamens againagain and says that the Jesusword-hearer/ Jesussender-believer is a non-judged death-to-life goer. (They to-the-light come and are from-above born as children of god, 1:12; 3:3, 21.) Amenamen say: Coming hour (the hour of truthful, spiritual father-worshiping, 4:23) IS, when dead (sheep) hear the (goodshepherding) godson-voice and come out into (the green pastures of) life (10:3). The father is a life-in-himself (living light, light living, 1:4; 8:12) father, and he’s son-given that life, as well as POWER to judge, because the fatherson is also the humanson, the descending-ascending, lifted-up, glorified, dying lifegiver (3:13; 6:27, 53, 62; 8:28; 12:23; 13:31). Jesus tells them (and us) not to be (from-below) amazed at this (from-above word). (Be amazed at the coming greater works, 5:20, not the present living word.) The coming hour will be also the in-the-tombs coming-out hour (Ya listenin’, Lazarus?), do-gooders coming out into resurrected (eternal) life, do-badders coming out into resurrected judgment. (The Hebrew prophetic vision resurrected! Day of the Lord Isaiah: “Your dead will live, their corpses will rise,” 26:19. Valley of dry bones Ezekiel: “I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from the graves,” 37:12. Day of Deliverance Daniel: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting contempt,” 12:2)

Jesus the son can’t do nothing on his own (Nothing, nada, just like god-sent Moses, Num 16:28). His speech is now back to where it started, with the “do-nothing” son (cf. John 5:19). But this time it’s “I” again instead of “son” (cf. 5:17). While the son sees (5:19), “I” hears and just judges (as humanson, 5:27). He’s not his own will-seeker but his sender’s will-seeker. (That’s the food that nourishes him, John 4:34. That’s the reason he’s heaven-come-down, 6:38.) Now Jesus/god not “son/father” but “I/sender.” (Music, with Sam Cooke singing: “Darling, yooooooou send me … honest you do.”)

But Jesus can’t be his own witness, for his self-witness is not true. (The Pharisees’ witness at this point is true for once, 8:13.) Hey, he needs at least two non-self witnesses (Deut 17:6; 19:15). The first one that he calls is John, who gives true witness. (“Do you swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you god?” “So help me god? I was sent from god!” John 1:9.) The Judeans sent messengers (Jerusalem priests and Levites, 1:19) to him, and he truly truthfully witnessed (IAM NOT Messiah, Elijah, or prophet, 1:19–21; Jesus IAM the lambofgod/sonofgod! 1:29, 34). Jesus doesn’t need a human witness (he’s got a divine one), but he wants his listeners to be saved (for which he into the world came, 3:17; 12:30). He says therefore that the human witnessing John was a burning, shining lamp (but not the true light of the world, 1:8), in whose light the Judeans wanted temporarily to whoop it up. But Jesus’ second non-self-witness is even better than John: his healing, wining works, which are the son’s homework from the father, done in the father’s name (10:25). They witness that Jesus is fathersent (and that he is in the father as the father is in him, 10:38; 14:11). And this sending father is also a witnessing father. Jesus therefore has a third non-self-witness (he does the law one better), which is even better than his own works: his father. (Do they swear him in? “… so help you (gulp) god!?” “What do you mean? IAM god.”) The Judeans haven’t fathersvoice heard (though they will later and think that it’s angelic thunder, 12:28–29), and they haven’t fathersform seen (though Jesus the son has, 1:18). And they don’t have fathersword dwelling in them (though Jesus is the fathersfleshedword dwelling among us, 1:14), because they’re Jesussender non-believers, who scripturesearch (searching for life, even though Jesus IAM the life, 14:6), but the scriptures—like the father, like John, like Jesus’ works—are witnesses to Jesus. (Philip had it right: Jesus is the one about whom Moses and the prophets lawfully wrote, 1:45.) The Judeans (who are dead) don’t come (out of their tombs) to Jesus to be life-havers.

Jesus is a human-glory-nonaccepter (he accepts glory only from god) because they don’t have godlove in them (and Jesus knows what’s in them, 2:24–25). Jesus the son in the fathersname comes, but they don’t accept him (even though they are his own, 1:11) anymore than he accepts their glory. They accept an own-name-comer and one another’s glory (because they speak on their own, 7:18), but they don’t god’s glory seek (instead they Jesus kill seek, 5:18; 7:19).

Jesus will not fatheraccuse them; he’s only the defense counsel. Their accuser, their prosecutor, will be Moses the law-giver (1:17; 7:19, but not bread-giver, 6:32), the circumcision-giver (though not really, 7:22) and serpent-lifter (3:14), even though they’ve been in-him hopers. (The Mosaic law then serves as a witness against them, Deut 31:26.) But they neither really hope nor believe in Moses, because if they did they would believe in Jesus because Moses wrote about him. (How so? When Moses said that the lord god would raise up a prophet like him, Deut 18:15?) They don’t believe Moseswritings, they don’t then believe Jesuswords.

Now to the second father-son discourse.

2.2 Father and Son Won/One (John 17:1–26)

After Jesus said these things, he lifted his eyes to heaven and said,

“Father, the hour has come.

Glorify your son,

so that the son might glorify you,

just as you have given him power over all flesh,

so that to everything that you have given him he might give eternal life.

And this is eternal life:

that they might know the only true god and the one whom you have sent, Jesus Christ.

I have glorified you upon the earth by completing the work that you have given me to do.

Now glorify me, father, with the glory which I had with you before the world was.

I have made known your name to the ones that you have given me from the world.

They were yours,

and you gave them to me,

and they have kept your word.

I know that all that you have given me is from you,

for the words that you have given to me I have given to them.

They have received them and have known truly that I have come from you,

and they have believed that you sent me.

I pray for them.

I do not pray for the world, but for the ones you have given me,

because they are yours,

All that is mine is yours, and I have been glorified in them.

I am no longer in the world,

but they are in the world,

and I am coming to you.

Holy father, keep them in your name that you have given me,

so that they might be one just as we are one.

When I was with them, I kept them in your name that you have given me.

I guarded them,

and none of them was lost, except the son of lostness,

so that the scripture might be fulfilled.

But now I am coming to you.

I am speaking these things in the world

so that my joy might be fulfilled in them.

I have given them your word,

and the world has hated them,

because they are not of the world,

just as I am not of the world.

I do not pray that you should take them out of the world,

but that you might keep them from the evil one.

They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.

Sanctify them in truth;

your word is truth.

Just as you have sent me into the world,

I also send them into the world;

and I sanctify myself for them,

so that they might be sanctified in truth.

I do not pray only for them,

but also for the ones who believe into me through their word,

that they all might be one,

just as you, father, are in me and I in you,

that they also might be in us,

so that the world might believe that you sent me.

I have given to them the glory that you gave to me,

in order that they might be one just as we are one.

I in them and you in me,

so that they might be completed as one,

so that the world might know that you sent me,

and you have loved them just as you loved me.

Father, I want the ones that you have given me to be with me where I am,

so that they might behold my glory,

which you have given to me because you loved me from the foundation of the world.

Righteous Father, the world does not even know you,

but I know you,

and they know that you have sent me.

I have made your name known,

and I will make it known,

so that your love for me might be in them and I in them.”

Fast-forward (and things do go fast-for- (the)-word in this Gospel) past the disputes with the Judeans to the farewell discourses with the disciples (13:31–17:26). Jesus the world-conquerer (16:33) has said these farewell-discoursing things—these paraclete-promising (14:26; 15:26), love-one-another-commanding (13:34–35; 15:12), father-going (14:28; 16:10, 28) things, and then he heaven-lifts his eyes (as he did at Lazarustomb when he prayed so that the crowd might believe, 11:41–42. Is he now praying so that the disciples might believe?). Jesus addresses in prayer his “father,” the one to whom he goes, the one who is in him and the one in whom he is (14:10). He says, Hour come. Hour coming now is (4:23; 5:25). Hour not yet at Cana (2:4), at stoning (7:30), but coming and ising NOW—hour for true-spirit-worshiping (4:23), dead-raising (5:25), disciple-scattering (16:32). It’s come—with the festival-worshiping Greeks, the hour to fall into the earth and die and, as the true vine, bear much fruit (12:20–24). The hour has come, the hour to pray to father for glorification, son (ofhumanity)-glorification and father-glorification (cf. also 13:31–32). GLORY, glory, GLO (w)ry, as of an only son, fully gracious and true (1:14). Father glorifies son, son glorifies father. (Glorify, glory-fly—to heaven, to father, to above!)

Father’s given son over-all-flesh power: power to childrenofgod make (1:12), power to judge (5:22), and power to lifegive (5:21)—eternally, for god solovestheworld (3:16). Lifeternal means knowing the only true god (who has sent the true light, 1:9, and the true bread, 6:32) and his sent one Jesus Christ, through whom gracious truth came to be (1:17). Through the signs (water-wining, dead-raising, etc.) Jesus has fatherglorified and fatherswork-completed (for that’s his food, 4:34), so now he’s asking father to Jesusglorify with before-world glory, in-the-beginning-word-with-god-glory (1:1–2). Glory in the beginning (creation), glory in the middle (signs, discourses), and glory at the end (death, resurrection, ascension). From glory to glory! (Yet the final glory is gory glory! Deathly glory, glorified death. How oedipally complex! The father kills the son, or better said, he commands the son to kill himself, 10:17–18. But the father bathes the son’s dark death in glorious light, so that he not only dies but rises, ascends, gives the spirit, and reunites with the father. It’s still death, but what a way to go!)

Jesus has fatherglorified by makeknowing the fathersname (IAM?) to the father-given-from the-world-to-the-son-ones. (Through the signs they have believed in Jesus’ godgivenglory, 2:11.) They were the father’s, given to the son, so securely that the son couldn’t drive them away or lose them (6:37, 39; 18:9) and no one could snatch them out of the son’s hand (10:29). These father-given-to-the-son-ones have kept the father’s word (given to them through the son’s word, 14:24), because they love the son (and therefore love one another, 13:34–35), and the father loves them, and the father/son home in on them (14:23). The son knows that the father loves him too (because he has kept the fathersword to lay down his life, 10:17), and therefore he has given him all things (cf. 3:35), including words for the word to speak, given in turn to the fathergivenones, who have received (kept) the fathersonwords (and have become children of god, 1:12) and have known/believed that Jesus has from-god-come/been-sent (though it has taken them a while to come to that belief/knowledge, 16:29–30, for throughout their time with Jesus they have received his words with misunderstanding, cf. 14:9–10).

For these believing knowers (these “gnostics”) Jesus prays, not for the disciple-hating, word-rejecting world (15:18, i.e., the Judeans, who were trying to kill Jesus, 5:18; 7:1) but for father-given-to-the-son-ones, who are the father’s but the son’s too because everything that’s the father’s is also the son’s (16:15), given from father to son (3:35; 13:3). In these father-given-ones the son has been glorified (as they ask in Jesus’ name and do greaterworks, 14:12–13). (Glorified even in/through their misunderstanding?!) But Jesus not in the world anymore. Left his fathergivenones behind, still in-the-world. Jesus not intheworld, going to the father. (Going, going, GONE!) Come from god-father/going to godfather, who’s greater than Jesusson (13:3; 14:28). Jesus is suspended between heaven and earth, between above and below; he’s already on his glorious way! From his going-to-the-father position, son prays that holy father, sanctified father, will in his name keep fathertotheson-givenones, so that in IAM they are, they are one, father-in-son one, made possible by the paraclete (14:16–17, 21). While with them, Jesus kept/guarded them in the father-to-the-son-givenname, IAM, so that none might be lost except son-of-lostness (that satan-entered, gone-out-into-the-night Judas Iscariot, 13:2, 27, 30, who is a devil, 6:70), who is lost so as to scripture-fulfill. (Exactly what scripture is that? Presumably father knows because son is not tellin.) The scripture, like Jesus, is thirsty and must be filled full (19:28).

Son’s a’comin’ to father, these-things speaking in the world (So do his words remain in the world even though he does not?), so as to full-fill not just the scriptures but also the disciples’ joy—abiding, birthing (from-above), asking/receiving, seeing-Jesus-again joy (15:11; 16:20–24; 20:20). (YIPPEE!) Jesus has given the fathergivenones the fathersword (and they have kept it). For that the world hates them (even though they love one another), but world hated son (and father, 15:23) before it hated them because neither son nor fathergivenones are of the world (not-of-the-world/not-of-the-world); they’re aliens, from above. Son has chosen the fathergivenones from the world, and the world hates them (15:18–19). But son doesn’t pray that father should take them out of the world (as he is doing with son, who seems to have an easier job than they do because he is returning to the loving father and they are staying in the hating world). Son prays that father would keep them from the evil one, the satan (the accuser, over against the advocate), who is not only of the world but rules the world (12:31; 14:30) and is father of the murderous Judeans (8:44). He has no power over son or fathergivenones because they are not-of-the-world. The non-worldly son prays that holy, sanctified father might sanctify, holy-fy, the fathergivenones in truth, fathers-word truth (fathers-fleshly-word gracious truth, 1:14, 18; 14:6), spirit truth (that is in them/with them, 14:16–17). Just as father has sent son into world not to judge it but save it (3:17), son sends the fathergivenones into world, breathing on them holy resurrection spirit (20:22). Son holies himself (though father has already holied him in sending him into world, 10:36); thus, holy father, holy son, so that the father-given-ones might be holied in the whole, sanctified, spirited, living truth.

Son doesn’t just pray for the father-given-ones but also for all into-him, through-their-word believers, who, not Thomas-like, believe without seeing (20:29). If the fathergivenones keep fathersword and receive sonswords, then people will believe through their word. Wordwordword! Believers are of word not world, born from above. Son (word from above) prays that all these word-not-world believers might one be (dispersed children-of-god gathered into one flock by one laying-down-his-life shepherd, 10:16; 11:52), just as father in son and son in father and believers in father and son. Youinme and Iinyou and theyinus. IAM/we are/we all are (cf. 10:38; 14:10, 20). So that, so that the world, that disciple-hating, word-rejecting world, might believe that father sent son. Sent son’s given the wordbelievers glory, glorious words, worded glory, enfleshed worded glory (1:14), signed glory (2:11), father-given glory, so that they one (through loving one another) as fatherson (we) one. Son in wordbelievers and father in son. Iinthem and youinme. So that completed/fulfilled (filled full, joyfully and scripturally) as one ONE one (won: conquered world, 16:33). So that world might know (the world might become gnostic)/believe that father is a son-sender and a believer-lover (coming to beloved believer along with son to make a home, 14:23) as well as a son-lover (and son-all-things-giver and son-all-his-doings-shower, 3:35; 5:20).

Beloved son calls loving father: he wants/desires/longs that his father-given-ones (his servant/friends, 12:26; 15:15) be with him where he is. He has after all prepared a place in the fathershouse, and he plans to take them there to be in the father with him and be one and be loved (14:1–3). Here all are family: disciples are Jesus’ brothers (not sisters?) and god is their father (20:17). (But does this happen in the world or not? How can believers be where son is if they are in the world and he is not?) In the fathershouse the father-given-ones will see the sonsglory, father-given-to-the-son in love before worldfoundation (and before worldrejection of the word, 1:10). Righteous and just (and holy) father is not known by the world (though the world was founded by father through the word, 1:3), but son knows father, and father-given-ones know that he is father-sent. (He has father’s scent.) Son known-made fathersname (IAM, through signs, through discourses) and will known-make it (through going to the father), so that fathersonlove might be in father-given-ones and therefore son might be in them, abiding in love through the truthful, fruitful, vining spirit (15:1–11). In the beginning was glory; in the end love.

So … how does the father respond to this prayer for glorification? Almost expect a heavenly voice to thunder again: “I’ve glorified it, and I’ll do it again!” (12:28). But this time heaven is silent, or is it? The earlier voice was for the crowd not Jesus (12:30). The disciples apparently need no such voice, because they know/believe that Jesus came from god (16:30). They have the heavenly word dwelling among them, and they see his glory (1:14). And the reader will too, sort of, by reading the story (20:30–31).

Finding Likenesses to the Father-Son Images in Contemporary African American Poetry

I have played with the word’s words (father-son words) in order to bring the images into the light. Images such as seeing doing, hearing speaking, glorifying, loving. Such images take us into the bosom of the father, where the son reclines. In order to deepen further these images, I will look for likenesses to those images in contemporary African American poetry. This literature comes out of the context in which I work, and it is the voice of the alien in our society, much like the Gospel of John is the voice of the alien Jesus.

So fast-forward to twentieth-century African-Americana, and cue it up to poetic likenesses to the Johannine father-son images. First, the father loves the son. Robert Hayden remembers “Those Winter Sundays” of his boyhood when his father would rise early to warm up the rooms and polish his shoes. Hayden says that he spoke indifferently to his father. He concludes, “What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices?” (Miller, 1994:130). The father loves the son and gives him all things (John 3:35), at least warmth and shine, love and glory. The son sees what the father is doing, but he has no word because he does not know (is not a gnostic) love. He did not understand then, but now (after parenthood? after glorification? 12:16) he remembers.

Such love is evident in two of E. Ethelbert Miller’s poems. (So I guess it’s Miller time!) In one he stands next to the sink as “My Father Is Washing His Face”. He admires his father’s young face and says, “I am happy when someone says / I look like my father or when my / father reminds me to wash my face / and I reach for the soap in his hand” (1998:37). Similarly, Jesus says, “The one who has seen me has seen the father” (John 14:9). He takes the soap from his father’s hand and washes the believer’s face and feet so that one can see and be clean (13:1–5).

In another poem Miller shares with his mother the eucharistic “Bread”:

your father’s skin

was soft like butter

my mother tells me

after grace

the two of us sit

at the kitchen table

where he once sat

our food cools

and we count

our blessings

share the bread

between us (1998:38)

Jesus says, “My father gives you the true bread from heaven” (John 6:32). It comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. Miller’s father’s skin butters the eucharistic (blessed and graced) bread. His flesh, like Jesus’, is true food (6:55).

Lenard D. Moore uses agricultural images in two poems about fatherlove. In the first he remembers “My Father’s Ways” as teacher and shaper:


You perch me on a stool

like a blackbird on a branch,

teach me time tables

that multiply like rabbits.


You take me to football games,

coach me, draw plays

in symbols

on metal bleachers.


You walk through your garden,

farmer, witnessing crops;

you name plants, show me

how to harvest.


You mold me into

a potter spinning clay

in circles,

shaping bowls and vases.


Now, full-grown,

like a tree rooted deep,

I bend forward into the light

of your voice in prayer. (Wade-Gayles: 201)

The father teaches the son “time tables” (the hour is coming and now is) and coaches him in playing with the symbols (light and darkness?). The father goes into the garden (tomb?) to witness, to name the vine IAM, and to show the son how to harvest, for “the fields are ripe for harvesting” (John 4:35). The father molds the son into a clayspinner, anointing people’s eyes to give them sight (9:6–7). The vine is now full-grown, deeply rooted in the farming father, and he prays for glorious light.

In another farmer-father poem Moore celebrates “Black Father Man”, whom he calls “the supreme earth dweller” and “the word-music messenger.” He continues, “We are his ripe black crop / at the-beginning-of-the-harvest.… We are his grace black note / at the four-beating-of-the-song” (Steptoe: 8). Here the role of the father takes on the role of the Johannine son, who, as the word (incarnate) messenger, is the earth dweller (John 1:14). Believers are harvested crop and experience in the son grace and truth, grace upon grace (1:14, 16).

The images of growing and harvesting continue in a poem in the same volume. Javaka Steptoe, who illustrated the book, writes of “Seeds” that his father planted: “You drew pictures of life / with your words. / I listened and ate these words you said / to grow up strong. / Like the trees, I grew, / branches, leaves, flowers, and then the fruit. // I became the words I ate in you. / For better or worse / the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” (Steptoe: 23). (It certainly doesn’t, for Steptoe is the son of children’s book artist John Steptoe.) Again, the son takes words from the father. These words are not only heard but also eaten, and the son becomes the devoured words. He grows like a tree (the true vine? John 15:1–8), and abiding in the father, he produces branches and fruit. (Must they be cleansed and pruned?)

The father plants the seeds and then dies. He lives on, however, in the son, not only in fullness but also in emptiness. Miller inhales “The Gray Smoke of Clubs”, as he writes, “I live my father’s life / the absence of joy in the / center of responsibilities / the dark streets of early mornings / when he finds his way home / to a life already lost” (1998:39). The son here is only doing what he sees the father doing (John 5:19), but his joy is not completed (16:24; 17:13) but absent. He has not seen light but darkness; he has lost his life, not found it for eternal life, in the father’s house (12:25).

In the father’s house, the son receives the word from his father. And this word strengthens, weakens, hurts and heals. Yusef Komunyakaa served as scribe for “My Father’s Love Letters” to his mother, in which his father “promised never to beat her / Again.” As he dictated, he “would stand there / With eyes closed & fists balled, / Laboring over a simple word, almost / Redeemed by what he tried to say” (Miller, 1994:168). Almost, almost. Can he be redeemed through the word? The flesh has been not only useless (John 6:63) but violent. And the spirit? Can this word that he has spoken to his son become spirit and life? Can it become enfleshed?

Flesh. Flesh of my flesh. And that flesh becomes weak, very weak, as Cornelius Eady describes in his prose poem, “I Know (I’m Losing You)”, which opens his book of poems about his father’s illness and death:

Have you ever touched your father’s back? No, my fingers tell me, as they try to pull up a similar memory.

There are none. This is a place we have never traveled to, as I try to lift his weary body onto the bedpan.

I recall a photo of him standing in front of our house. He is large, healthy, a stocky body in a dark blue suit.

And now his bowels panic, feed his mind phony information, and as I try to position him, my hands shift, and the news shocks me more than the sight of his balls.

O, bag of bones, this is all I’ll know of his body, the sharp ridge of spine, the bedsores, the ribs rising in place like new islands.

I feel him strain as he pushes, for nothing, feel his fingers grip my shoulders. He is slipping to dust, my hands inform me, you’d better remember this (1).

Eady remembers his father’s “weary body … slipping to dust.” He is not only into the father’s bosom (John 1:18) but into his bones, back bowels, and balls. This is the father who has in himself not life (5:26) but death.

Fathers die, and they live a ghostly, ghastly existence in the lives of their sons. D. J. Renegade writes of an unholy trinity, “Father, Son and the Wholly Ghost”.

We meet only

in the alleys of memory.

Our broken smiles

litter the ground.

Although we wear the same name,

identical scars,

you can’t remember what day I was born.

Anger spills

down the side

of my face.

This is what you have taught me:

needles are hollower

than lies,

leave bigger holes in families,

than arms.

Now a prisoner in death’s camp,

you grow thinner every day

until I can count your T-cells

on one hand.

The phone rings

Mama pleads

Please buy a dark suit to wear.

I tell her

I wear black every day,

all day,


The ghost that haunts Renegade, like Jesus’ paraclete, reminds him of his father’s words and all that he has taught him (cf. John 14:26–27). These words, however, do not bring joy or peace (14:27; 15:11) but anger. (His heart is stirred up! (14:1, 27). His father has taught him lies not the truth, holes and nothing holy.

The father dies, and/or the father wants someone else to die. Ralph Dickey’s “Father” beats the poet’s mother to death, and then says to him, “I want you to kill a man for me … / I’ll give you a hundred dollars / … /here’s a piece of paper / with the man’s name / … / I opened the paper my name / was on it … / what is this I said / some kind of goddam / joke I never joke / about money / he said” (Harper and Walton: 222–23). The word from the father has the son’s name on it; he is to kill him. His payment is love and union with the father. It is no joke; the father doesn’t joke about resurrection.

Finding Likenesses to the Father-Son Images in My Own Soul

I have played with the images of the Johannine fatherson and their likenesses in African American poetic fathersons. Now it is time to find likenesses in my own experience of fatherson. I have long longed for the kind of father that Jesus had. This father loved the son, was one with him, and showed him what he was doing. My own father and I were very much two, for much of the time I did not know what in the world he was doing. He worked in a large agribusiness firm “in the city,” which I rarely visited. He was an avocational carpenter, building cabinets, shelves, and desks, but he did not take me to his workshop to apprentice me. And then he became ill and died. Who would then be my father? I have been looking for him the rest of my life. At times I think that I have found him, in a pastor, teacher, administrator, or senior colleague, but ultimately these fathers have failed me, some more dramatically than others, probably because they were not my father and could not make up for my lack.

Early in my graduate education the Gospel of John became my father. (Good news!) In reading Jesus’ words, I could vicariously experience his relationship with his father. I was the son, all-loved and all-shown and all-given by my all-powerful father. He illumined the darkness of my ignorance (through biblical criticism!) and put me in a community (professional society) of beloved disciples, whose eyes had also been healed of from-birth blindness. What a father (whose power was mediated through the fathers)!

But this father failed me too. As I became sensitive to feminist concerns, I was uncomfortable with the Gospel’s exclusive male language for god (always “father-son” never “mother-daughter”). As I became interested in the religious experience of believers outside of Christianity, I found that this text seemed to negate anything outside of Christ (“No one comes to the father except through me,” 14:6b). As I became aware of the church’s role in anti-Semitism, pogroms, and the Holocaust, I saw how this Gospel had contributed (“You are from your father the devil,” Jesus tells the “Jews,” as it is usually translated, 8:44). The Gospel too had become a failed father.

Now I am a father. I attempt to show my daughters “all that I am doing.” I do much of my work at home (on the same computer where Anastasia plays “Reader Rabbit”), and the girls frequently come to school. I take Anastasia to art class (my avocation). I realize, however, that I will fail these girls; indeed, I already have—in small ways, I hope. (“I’m sorry, honey; I don’t think that I can fix that toy.”) But a father who sometimes fails does not a failed father make! Hillman reminds me that “failing belongs to fathering” (1987:280). The “all-things” that I give my children include my failures.

Knowing that I too will fatherly fail, can I then relate in a healthier, more forgiving, more egalitarian way to my failed fathers? Can I accept my failed fathers, whether teacher, colleague, or even text? Can I see them as friends and brothers, even fathers to a certain extent, without expecting them to be my “ideal father”? Can I enter into a dialogue with them, going “through the word” of the father, analyzing, critiquing, and appreciating it while speaking to them my own word, which is different from their word? Can I?

If so, then I think my father would be proud.

Works Consulted

Bible and Culture Collective, The

1995    The Postmodern Bible. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Brown, Raymond E.

1966–70    The Gospel according to John. AB 29 and 29A. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Dodd, C. H.

1967    “A Hidden Parable in the Fourth Gospel.” Pp. 30–40 in More New Testament Studies. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Eady, Cornelius

1995    You Don’t Miss Your Water: Poems. New York: Henry Holt.

Freud, Sigmund

1953–74    The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Ed. and trans. James Strachey. 24 vols. London: Hogarth.

Hamerton-Kelly, Robert

1979    God the Father: Theology and Patriarchy in the Teaching of Jesus. OBT 4. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Harper, Michael S., and Anthony Walton

1994    Every Shut Eye Ain’t Asleep: An Anthology of Poetry by African Americans Since 1945. Boston: Little, Brown.

Harvey, A. E.

1972    Jesus on Trial: A Study in the Fourth Gospel. London: SCM.

Hillman, James

1975    Re-Visioning Psychology. New York: Harper & Row.

1977    “An Inquiry into Image.” Spring 39:62–88.

1987    “Oedipus Revisited.” Eranos Jahrbuch 56:261–307.

Howard-Brook, Wes

1994    Becoming Children of God: John’s Gospel and Radical Discipleship. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis.

Jung, Carl G.

1957    The Collected Works of C. G. Jung. Trans. R. F. C. Hull. 20 vols. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Käsemann, Ernst

1968    The Testament of Jesus: A Study of the Gospel of John in the Light of Chapter 17. Trans. Gerhard Krodel. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Lacan, Jacques

1977    Ecrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton.

Malina, Bruce J., and Richard J. Rohrbaugh

1998    Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Minneapolis: Fortress.

Miller, E. Ethelbert

1998    Whispers Secrets & Promises. Baltimore: Black Classic.

1994    In Search of Color Everywhere: A Collection of African-American Poetry. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang.

Moore, Stephen

1994    Poststructuralism and the New Testament: Derrida and Foucault at the Foot of the Cross. Minneapolis: Fortress.

Neyrey, Jerome H.

1988    An Ideology of Revolt: John’s Christology in Social Science Perspective. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Pasteur, Alfred B., and Ivory L. Toldson

1982    Roots of Soul: The Psychology of Black Expressiveness. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Petersen, Norman R.

1993    The Gospel of John and the Sociology of Light: Language and Characterization in the Fourth Gospel. Valley Forge, Pa.: Trinity Press International.

Pippin, Tina

1996    “For Fear of the Jews’: Lying and Truth-Telling in Translating the Gospel of John.” Semeia 76:81–97

Renegade, D. J.

[2001]    “Father, Son and the Wholly Ghost.” In Beyond the Frontier. Baltimore: Black Classic (forthcoming).

Segovia, Fernando F.

1997    “Inclusion and Exclusion in John 17: An Intercultural Reading.” Pp. 183–211 in What Is John?” Vol. 2: Literary and Social Readings of the Fourth Gospel. Ed. Fernando F. Segovia. SBLSymS 7. Atlanta: Scholars.

Steptoe, Javaka, illustrator

1997    In Daddy’s Arms I Am Tall: African Americans Celebrating Fathers. New York: Lee & Low.

Tompkins, Jane P., ed.

1980    Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Wade-Gayles, Gloria, ed.

1997    Father Songs: Testimonies by African-American Sons and Daughters. Boston: Beacon.

Willett, Michael E.

1988    “Jung and John.” Explorations: Journal for Adventurous Thought 77–92

1992    Wisdom Christology in the Fourth Gospel. San Francisco: Mellen Research University Press.

Willett Newheart, Michael

1995    “Johannine Symbolism.” Pp. 71–91 in Jung and the Interpretation of the Bible. Ed. David L. Miller. New York: Continuum.

1996    “Toward a Psycho-Literary Reading of the Fourth Gospel.” Pp. 43–58 in What is John?”
Readers and Readings of the Fourth Gospel. Ed. Fernando F. Segovia. SBLSymS 3. Atlanta: Scholars.

1999    “The Soul in the New Testament: A Contemporary Psychological Perspective, or Soul 2 Soul: A Post-Modern Exegete in Search of (New Testament) Soul.” Journal of Religious Thought (forthcoming).

Wright, N. T.

1992    The New Testament and the People of God. Vol. 1: Christian Origins and the Question of God. Minneapolis: Fortress.

The Symbol of Divine Fatherhood

Dorothy Ann Lee

United Faculty of Theology, Melbourne

Symbol and Incarnation

The series of articles in this issue of Semeia outlines the importance of fatherhood in the Fourth Gospel and demonstrates the different ways in which this key term can be traced. Exegetically the articles reveal a plurality of approach and raise significant hermeneutical questions about how the Gospel is to be interpreted today. In this response, I want to focus on an iconic reading of divine fatherhood in the Fourth Gospel. I read the text as a female reader, without claiming to speak on behalf of all women readers, who read far more diversely than is generally acknowledged (and as the articles in this issue demonstrate).

I take as a starting point the view that the term “Father” is a symbol rather than a literal description of divine essence, in line with contemporary feminist theological thinking that sees exclusively male imagery for God as idolatrous (e.g., Johnson: 33–41). The Christian tradition has tended to equivocate on the gender of God. On the one hand, the iconography, both verbal and pictorial, has been overwhelmingly male, creating the impression that the God of Israel is a male deity. On the other hand, the first creation account presents both female and male as made in the divine image (Gen 1:26–27) and, in the Pauline baptismal tradition, the risen Christ is a universal, representative figure, incorporating and transcending both male and female (Gal 3:27–28). Since biblical language is androcentric, the grammatically masculine gender is used to express not only specific maleness but also that which is universal, cosmic, normative, and therefore “gender-neutral” (as opposed to the feminine, which is local, ever-specific, and “other”; see Spender). The ambiguity of androcentric language thus makes it difficult to unravel the tangled threads of generic and male.

Yet the Judeo-Christian tradition, at its most reasonable, knows that God cannot be confined to the specificity of one gender, despite the weight of its theological representation. In a homily on the Song of Songs (In Canticum Canticorum), for example, Gregory of Nyssa, while using masculine language and imagery for God, concedes that Mother can replace Father as the name for God, since “there is neither male nor female in the divine” (οὔτε ἄρρην, οὔτε θῆλυ τὸ Θεῖόν ἐστι). In effect, he argues (presumably with Gal 3:28 in mind) that no human label can adhere to the innermost being of God, including that of gender:

For how could anything of such a kind be apprehended to the godhead, when even for us humans, this [aspect of our humanity] does not continuously endure; but when we all become one in Christ, we are divested of the signs of this destruction, together with our old humanity [τοῦ παλαιοῦ ἀνθρώπου]? For this reason, every name which is found [πᾶν τὸ εὑρισόμενον ὀνομα] is of equal power in manifesting the [divine] incorruptible nature: neither female nor male defiling the significance [σημασίαν] of God’s undefiled nature. (916)

Here is an example of the tradition acknowledging the fundamentally symbolic nature of its own theology—without necessarily perceiving the radical implications of such a stance or allowing it to challenge its actual symbols.

In contrast, a number of neoconservative theologians have argued that “Father” is the literal and exclusive name for God. Fatherhood for them expresses the divine essence revealed in the incarnation, without gender overtones; it is “not an exchangeable metaphor” (Pannenberg, 1991:31; see also Jenson: 95–109; Torrance: 129–30; Pannenberg, 1993:27–29). It is hard to see how this argument works, except by conceding universalism to masculine language. More immediately, it ignores the intuitive dimensions of theological language, assuming that it is enough to “know” rationally that God is not male—that the title “Father” is somehow gender-neutral—while ignoring the profound, affective power of the symbol.

This view, therefore, is based on a mistaken understanding of symbolism, as well as a failure to grasp the symbolic nature of the Fourth Gospel. Symbolism is not ornamental language decorating the plain truth; if it were so, the symbols, as ornaments, would be arbitrary and external, chosen on purely functional (i.e., pedagogical) grounds. Symbols, like metaphors and similes (which are their linguistic manifestation), bear within them the transcendent reality to which they point (Schneiders, 1977:223; Koester: 4–15; Lee, 1994:29–33). They are deeply enmeshed in human experience; they contain cognitive content; and they are vehicles for transcendence rather than mere signposts on the way. At the same time, symbolism by its very nature is elusive and nonspecific, giving rise, like texts themselves, to a “surplus of meaning.” The same multivalence means that symbols do not attempt to capture essence in a definitive way, but, like icons, they open windows on the eternal (Lee, 1998).

What this means for divine fatherhood in the Fourth Gospel is that, as verbal icon, “Father” is neither an optional picture of God to be arbitrarily discarded, nor a photograph of ontic reality that cannot be touched by human hands. The Father symbol is a “core symbol” in the Fourth Gospel (Koester: 4–8), primarily an expression of the relationship between God and Jesus (Meyer: 255–73), and its theological manifestation is the incarnation. In Johannine terms, the symbol is both divinely revealed yet also grounded in human experience: in the “Word-made-flesh,” divine revelation and material reality are fused, without losing identity; neither is devoured nor rendered obsolete by the other. On the contrary, divine glory (δόξα) is now revealed, with transfiguring power, within the flesh (σάρξ). In the words of Gregory of Nazianzus:

Oh the new mingling! Oh the blend contrary to all expectation! The one who is [ὁ ὤν], becomes [γίνεται]. The uncreated is created. The uncontainable is contained through a thinking soul, mediating between godhead and the thickness of flesh [σαρκὸς παχύτητι]. The one who enriches becomes a beggar; for he begs for my own flesh, so that I might become rich in his divinity. The one who is full becomes empty; for he empties himself of his glory for a little time so that I might share in his fullness … I received the [divine] image [τής εἰκόνος] and I did not protect it; he received a share in my flesh so that he might even save the image [τὴν εἰκόνα] and make deathless the flesh. (In Sanctum Pascha, 633–36)

Gregory captures well the Johannine understanding of the divine entering the material world with transforming power, yet also permitting itself to be shaped by flesh. This dual dynamic has its origins in the language of the Prologue. Birth in the Spirit is the restoration, as well as transformation, of the creaturely world (1:10–14). The one who lies in the Father’s embrace (1:18) is gathered into flesh; God takes shape in human form, created from clay, subject to death, mortal, vulnerable—radiant with deity, yes, but radiant also with the promise of flesh renewed, refined, immortal. In the incarnation, the hidden image (ὁ εἴκων) is restored.

God as Father in the Fourth Gospel and Early Christian Writings

This iconic framework shapes the Johannine understanding of fatherhood. C. H. Dodd has argued persuasively that the underlying imagery of Father and Son in the Fourth Gospel is that of a son apprenticed to his father (30–40), arguably a common proverb in the ancient world (Culpepper: 152). Both Father and Son are at work on the same task, the Son learning by imitating his Father and not initiating his own independent work: “the Father is working and I too am working” (5:17); “the Son is able to do nothing of himself, except for what he sees the Father doing” (5:19b); “for that which he does, the Son likewise does also” (5:19c); “for the Father loves the Son and shows him everything that he does” (5:20). This key christological text draws out the symbol pervading the Fourth Gospel’s understanding of the Father-Son relation, emphasizing the way in which, for John, divine revelation and human experience coalesce.

Elsewhere I have argued that the symbol of divine fatherhood in the Fourth Gospel is antipatriarchal in a number of important ways (Lee, 1995). In one sense, Gail O’Day is right to criticize this kind of study for its potential insensitivity to the narrative structures of the Gospel. Nevertheless, it seems to me a legitimate (if limited) enterprise to study the symbolics of a text, providing that the limitations are acknowledged and the narrative context not ultimately neglected. The reformulation of divine fatherhood certainly unfolds through the narrative (see Tolmie: 61–75), yet its contours—as with a number of other Johannine symbols and motifs—are already laid down in the Prologue.

The Johannine transformation of patriarchal fatherhood takes place in two ways. First, the Johannine Father-symbol occurs in narrative contexts that are concerned with the surrender of power. The Johannine language of “sending” is focused on mission and clusters particularly around the Father-Son imagery: God is frequently described by the Johannine Jesus as “the Father [or, the one] who sent me” (5:36–37; 6:44, 57; 8:16, 18; 10:36; 11:41–42; 12:49; 14:24); as Son, Jesus is the one who is “sent” (ἀπεσταλμένος, 9:7). As Paul Anderson’s article makes clear, behind this language lies the image of the messenger, the prophet-like-Moses (Deut 18:15–22), who holds the authority, and something of the identity, of the divine Sender (5:23b; 6:38; 8:26; 12:44–45; 13:20; 14:24; 17:8). Yet the sending of the Son by the Father does not protect either the messenger or the Sender from harm. Motivated by love for the world, the sending costs the Father the death of the Son (e.g., 3:14–17; 12:27). The Son represents the Father’s bequest to the world, the gift of God’s own self (1:1) through identification, suffering, and death.

The Fourth Gospel also speaks of the Father handing everything over to the Son (3:35; 5:22; 13:3; 16:15): for example, in the divine, sabbatical authority of giving life and judging (5:16–17, 21–27). Unlike the Roman-Hellenistic pater-familias, who holds the power of life and death over members of the household, the power of the Johannine Father is handed over to the Son (5:21–22) and the believing community (15:15; 16:25–27). Authority is not held onto in the Fourth Gospel. The Father of the Johannine Jesus does not scheme to retain and increase power; on the contrary, power is given away again and again.

This does not mean power does not accrue to God. As Marianne Meye Thompson points out, the paternal imagery includes that divine authority which calls for obedience and honor (see also Thompson, 1997:239–40). Nevertheless, the function of divine power in the Gospel is life-giving (Jacobs-Malina: 92–93): Jesus’ ministry exercised on God’s behalf brings freedom and wholeness, overcoming the darkness. The authority that Jesus exercises as Son of the Father contrasts markedly with both the religious and secular authorities, as they are depicted in the Fourth Gospel. Whereas they harass and destroy the flock (9:22–23, 34; 10:10a; 19:6–7, 15a) and succumb to political expediency (11:47–50; 19:8, 13–16a), Jesus the Sovereign Shepherd stands up for the needy and for truth at great cost (19:14–18). His willing mortality discloses the nature of true authority (ἐξουσία): “to lay down my life in order than I might take it up again” (10:17). Divine power does not exist for self-aggrandizement but for self-surrender and self-giving (10:14–18; 18:36–37). Similarly, the Johannine language of “glory” and “glorify” (Brown: 1:503–4; Thompson, 1988:94–97; and Painter: 50–60), particularly in relation to the cross, unfolds the paradoxical dynamic of God’s divine glory/majesty as loving and self-giving (cf. 6:51c; 12:32). The self-giving of the Johannine Father is the source of life and salvation (3:16).

The second indication that divine fatherhood restructures patriarchal symbolism is the intimacy between the Johannine Jesus and God. The basis of the Father-Son relationship is the love each bears the other (3:35; 5:20; 10:17; 14:31; 15:9; 17:23–24, 26)—a love expressed in intimate and mutual terms rather than through duty and fear. The relationship of Father and Son is inclusive of others, unlike the ancient world where patronage structures are predicated on elitism and hierarchy. In the Johannine symbolic world, creation is drawn into the relationship between Father and Son: the intimacy that exists within the being of God opens itself to others. All are invited to share the same love, the same “filiation” that the Johannine Jesus possesses (Schneiders, 1977:228–32). In this sense, the divine circle of intimacy is an expanding horizon. The imagery of “abiding,” as the narrative moves towards the passion and the full revelation of the glory, unfolds the same pattern of love, mutuality, and community (6:56; 8:31; 14:10, 17, 23; 15:1–17; Segovia: 123–67; and Lee, 1997). Unlike patriarchal kinship, those outside the immediate family are drawn into the paternal embrace (κόλπον, 1:18), above all in the opening of the divine arms on the cross (12:32). Paternalism and subservience are explicitly rejected in the model of friendship which deconstructs the master-slave paradigm (15:11–17; Schneiders, 1985:140–43).

The Johannine understanding of divine fatherhood thus involves a two-way movement. On the one hand, God’s fatherhood, symbolically portrayed in the Father-Son relationship, is an outward movement of giving away power, surrendering selfhood as autonomous and self-sufficient. On the other hand, divine fatherhood draws others into the filial relationship between God and Jesus, so that the Father-Son language becomes the fundamental icon of God’s relations with the world. Both movements, the inner and the outer, challenge patriarchal understandings of power and relationship. It is in this sense that we can say, with Karl Barth (whatever his precise understanding of the symbolics), that divine fatherhood is not merely the reflection of human experience, but rather challenges, at the deepest level, human projections of authority and sovereignty (229–30). As Anderson points out—though without specific reference to patriarchy—the authentic power of the “having-sent-me Father” is divine and other-worldly in origin, challenging human structures: “imperial prowess and anthropic sufficiency are exposed as inauthentic illusions.” The Johannine symbolism is both iconoclastic and iconographic: in writing the new, it demythologizes the old.

Origen and Athanasius

In his discussion of early Christian interpretation of the same symbol, Peter Widdicombe outlines a similarly iconic approach to divine fatherhood. According to Widdicombe, both Origen and Athanasius—the first theologians to discuss God as Father in a systematic way—see relationship as lying at the heart of divinity, manifest in the kinship between Father and Son. Origen’s stress on mutuality (despite his hierarchical understanding) is one such example, along with the transformation of believers from servitude and fear to love and friendship, and his eschatological vision of ultimate union (ἈΠΟΚΑΤΆΣΤΑΣΙς). Athanasius’s view of the relationship between Father and Son is less hierarchical than Origen’s; for him, the fatherhood of God reveals the personal and reciprocal nature of the deity, as against the philosophical abstractions and subordinationism of Arianism. What is at stake here is the reliability of salvation as participation in the divine love between Father and Son.

In both early Christian writers, there are elements that are recognizably Johannine—particularly Athanasius with his stress on the reciprocity of the Father-Son relationship and the centrality of the incarnation. Athanasius defends the fundamentally relational character of God, whose personhood begins in the “plurality and mutuality” of the divine being and extends to the community of faith (and, ultimately, to all creation). As LaCugna has pointed out, the trinitarian theology of the Greek fathers contains an implicit critique of dominating, subordinationist structures—regardless of the extent to which the early church perceived the political implications of its own teaching: “[t]he arche of God, understood from within a properly trinitarian theology, excludes every kind of subordination among persons, every kind of predetermined role, every kind of reduction of persons to uniformity” (400).

Reading Widdicombe’s article, with its clarity and conciseness, I find myself drawn to his depiction of early Christian faith yet also troubled by it. The fact is that for women to enter this sublime world of divine mutuality and reciprocity, without serious loss of identity, implies something rather different—something that threatens to undermine the very vision it conjures up. Women are required to take an extra step of identification—a sideways leap of faith?—in order to read themselves and their own humanity into iconography that renders them invisible. If the community of faith is drawn into the divine “sonship” (υἱοθεσία), there to find freedom from fear and servitude, what happens to women’s place within the same circle of intimacy: linguistically invisible, pictorially absent, without sensuous representation in the icons, except as additions or exceptions or wraithlike appearances on the margins? How is glorification (or θέωσις) possible for women except by a kind of contortion of being that leaves them stranded, insubstantial, bereft?

It is hard to escape the conclusion that, whether consciously or unconsciously, women cannot be drawn into the intimacy of Father and Son without some loss of identity: that is, without identifying themselves with maleness, either at the human or divine level. Alternately, while retaining their identity, women may choose to make an additional intellectual move—one that demands a sophisticated understanding of the intentionality behind the icon and the inclusive vision it attempts to unfold. In either case, there is no easy access for women: the gate is never so open or welcoming for them as it is for men. Tragically, many women are not prepared to pay what they perceive as the high price of entry. For them, the icon has become, not a window on the eternal, but a barrier that excludes them. LaCugna’s vision of what a revitalized trinitarian theology can mean for persons-in-communion-—male and female—is lost in what seems like a confirmation of women’s alienation and marginalization.

It must be admitted that Athanasius’s androcentric language is probably more complex than this critique suggests. In his Epistola I Ad Serapionem, he describes the work of the Trinity in creation as deriving from a unified energy. God is present to creation in three ways, dependent on three prepositions: “above all things” (ἐπὶ πάντων) as Father, “through all things” (διὰ πάντων) through the Word, and “in all things” (ἐν πᾶσι) in the Holy Spirit (596). What is interesting here is that the image of Father, for Athanasius, seems directly linked to God’s role as “principle and source” of life (ἀρχὴ και πηγή; Latin: &ld;principium et fons“), whether divine or created. This ties in with the Aristotelian embryology outlined in Reinhartz’s article as underlying or at least influencing the Fourth Gospel, where the biological father is literally the “principle and source” of human life. On the same basis, presumably, he is also the source of authority and sovereignty within familial and social structures. In this kind of worldview it is difficult for a strictly monotheistic religion to understand divine parenthood in anything but male terms.

Difficult but not impossible: the figure of Isis, according to Apuleius, is depicted in language that verges on monotheism, despite its cultic provenance and syncretistic overtones. In the end, the goddess reveals herself to the transformed Lucius as “rerum naturae parens” (“the Parent of the universe”) and “elementorum omnium domina” (“Mistress of all the elements”), bearing all divinity and creation within herself (Metam. 2.5). A number of feminists have noted the influence of Isis iconography on the picture of personalized Wisdom/Sophia in the later biblical wisdom writings (e.g., Schüssler Fiorenza: 132–34; Johnson: 92–93), which is an influential part of Johannine christology (Scott: 36–173). Surely the same delicate care that the early church took to understand the symbol of fatherhood as parental yet nonsexual—the “is” and the “is-not” of the metaphor—could also have been extended to the symbol of divine motherhood?

The end result is that the de-patriarchalizing of the Johannine Father, while challenging the male world, fails adequately to embrace the female world, despite the obvious rationale for such a move. This is true despite the inclusive way in which women are dramatized in the Johannine text, to a far greater extent, it can be argued, than they are in later Christian writings. Unlike the church of the following centuries, women are beloved in this Gospel, established through the narrative as witnesses of faith, apostolic leaders, missionaries, and proclaimers (2:1–11; 4:1–42; 11:1–12:11; 19:25–27; 20:1–18). The language to describe their presence within the Johannine community, in mutual relationship with men, is that of “children” (τέκνα) and “friends” (φίλοι); the term “sonship” is never found (cf. Rom 8:15). Nevertheless, in all the ancient texts—the Fourth Gospel as well as the early Christian writings that depend on it—women’s redemptive status as daughters and friends of God is diminished (to a greater or lesser extent) by the paucity of icons reflecting their participation in, and restoration to, the “imago Dei.”

Hermeneutics and Divine Fatherhood

A hermeneutical appraisal of the Father symbol in the Fourth Gospel needs to locate itself within two theological poles. On the one hand, we need to begin theologically with the mystery and incomprehensibility of God (ΘΕῸΝ ΟΥ̓ΔΕῚς ἙΏΡΑΚΕΝ ΠΏΠΟΤΕ, 1:18a) beyond all creaturely categories, including gender (LaCugna: 322–35; Johnson: 104–12, 241–45; McFague: 145–92; Carr: 134–57). As Thompson points out, even though God is designated “Father” in this Gospel, “the Johannine God has no name” (1993:189). At the same time, paradoxically, the Fourth Gospel also maintains that, in the incarnation, God chooses to be revealed within the “flesh.” As already noted, symbols articulate this paradox in a way that discursive language cannot, holding together the separability yet fusion of divine and human, spiritual and material, sacred and profane, mystery and openness, glory and flesh.

In the light of this, what might a more nuanced theological understanding of fatherhood in the Fourth Gospel look like? The first step is to confirm the images of God that arise from a symbolic rather than literal understanding and that dramatically reconfigure the symbol of divine fatherhood. The advantage here is that, as an icon of divine and human identity, the Johannine Father symbol enables us to grasp, with stereoscopic vision, the intimate union of Creator and creation envisaged by the Fourth Gospel, and symbolized above all in the Johannine christology. The second step is to read “against the grain,” bringing gender to the fore in order to re-present the iconography of God’s love for the world in Jesus Christ. Only such a careful deconstruction of the idolatry of gender—along with other forms of false worship—can restore women, without distortion, to the divine image and the divine embrace.

Works Consulted

Apuleius (b. 123 C.E.)

1989    Metamorphoses. Trans. J. Arthur Hanson. LCL 44, 453. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Athanasius (fl. 295–373 C.E.)

1857    Epistola I Ad Serapionem. Ed. J. P. Migne. PG 26. Paris.

Barth, Karl

1957    Church Dogmatics. Vol. 2/1. Trans. G. W. Bromiley. Edinburgh: T&T Clark.

Brown, Raymond E.

1966–70    The Gospel according to John. 2 vols. AB 29 and 29A. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Carr, Anne E.

1990    Transforming Grace: Christian Tradition and Women’s Experience. San Francisco: Harper.

Culpepper, R. Alan

1998    The Gospel and Letters of John. Interpreting Biblical Texts. Nashville: Abingdon.

Dodd, C. H.

1968    “A Hidden Parable in the Fourth Gospel.” Pp. 30–40 in More New Testament Studies. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Gregory of Nazianzus (fl. 329–389 C.E.)

1857    In Sanctum Pascha. Ed. J. P. Migne. PG 36. Paris.

Gregory of Nyssa (fl. 330–395 C.E.)

1857    In Canticum Canticorum. Ed. J. P. Migne. PG 44. Paris.

Jacobs-Malina, D.

1993    Beyond Patriarchy: The Images of Family in Jesus. New York: Paulist.

Jenson, Robert W.

1992    “The Father, He …’.” Pp. 95–109 in Speaking the Christian God: The Holy Trinity and the Challenge of Feminism. Ed. A. F. Kimel. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Johnson, Elizabeth A.

1992    She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. New York: Crossroad.

Koester, Craig R.

1995    Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel: Meaning, Mystery, Community. Minneapolis: Fortress.

LaCugna, Catherine M.

1991    God For Us: The Trinity and Christian Life. San Francisco: Harper.

Lee, Dorothy A.

1994    The Symbolic Narratives of the Fourth Gospel: The Interplay of Form and Meaning. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

Lee, Dorothy A.

1995    “Beyond Suspicion? The Fatherhood of God in the Fourth Gospel.” Pacifica 8:140–54.

1997    “Abiding in the Fourth Gospel: A Case-Study in Feminist Biblical Theology.” Pacifica 10:123–36.

1998    “Touching the Sacred Text: The Bible As Icon in Feminist Reading.” Pacifica 11:249–64.

McFague, Sallie

1982    Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language. London: SCM.

Meyer, Paul W.

1996    “The Father’: The Presentation of God in the Fourth Gospel.” Pp. 255–73 in Exploring the Gospel of John: In Honor of D. Moody Smith. Ed. R. Alan Culpepper and C. Clifton Black. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox.

Painter, John

1975    John: Witness and Theologian. Melbourne: Beacon Hill.

Pannenberg, Wolfhart

1991    An Introduction to Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

1993    “Feminine Language about God?” Asbury Theological Journal 48:27–29.

Schneiders, Sandra M.

1977    “Symbolism and the Sacramental Principle in the Fourth Gospel.” Pp. 221–33 in Segni e sacramenti nel Vangelo di Giovanni. Ed. P.-R. Tragan. Rome: Anselmiana.

1985    “The Footwashing (John 13:1–20): An Experiment in Hermeneutics.” Ex Auditu 1:140–43.

Schüssler Fiorenza, Elisabeth

1983    In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins. London: SCM.

Scott, Martin

1992    Sophia and the Johannine Jesus. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

Segovia, Fernando F.

1991    The Farewell of the Word. The Johannine Call to Abide. Minneapolis: Fortress.

Spender, Dale

1980    Man-Made Language. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Thompson, Marianne Meye

1988    The Humanity of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel. Philadelphia: Fortress.

1993    “God’s Voice You Have Never Heard, God’s Form You Have Never Seen’: The Characterization of God in the Gospel of John.” Semeia 63:177–204.

1997    “Thinking about God: Wisdom and Theology in John 6.” Pp. 221–46 in Critical Readings of John 6. Ed. R. Alan Culpepper. BIS 22. Leiden: Brill.

Tolmie, D. Francois

1998    “The Characterization of God in the Fourth Gospel.” JSNT 69:57–75.

Torrance, Thomas F.

1992    “The Christian Apprehension of God As Father.” Pp. 120–43 in Speaking the Christian God: The Holy Trinity and the Challenge of Feminism. Ed. Alvin F. Kimel. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Reading Back, Reading Forward

Sharon H. Ringe

Wesley Theological Seminary


“God the father in the Gospel of John” names a significant problem for investigation as well as the current volume of Semeia. While the collection of articles published here under that rubric advance the conversation in significant ways, they leave it still unresolved, both in general and in the foci of their various studies. This response, therefore, attempts to identify the waystations that have been reached and to suggest some issues for the next round of the conversation.

Gail O’Day provides the organizing framework for these comments. She notes a general silence in the commentaries concerning the implications of linking the terms “God” and “father.” It has been simply taken for granted and taken at face value: father is a title for God. Recently articles and monographs have begun to explore the meaning and implications of that language in connection with historical Jesus research (and in particular the use of father language in prayers and sayings about prayer); narrative critical studies of God as a character in the Gospel (albeit one who is talked about but does not speak directly, and whose actions are known only through the speeches of other characters); studies of the relationship between the Fourth Gospel and the development of Christian doctrine; and feminist criticism of the New Testament. Those avenues of renewed interest fall into two categories that, for me, define both the scope of this volume and avenues for future study. The first is critical work on the historical and literary factors that shape the meaning and function of “God the father” language in the project of the writer of the Fourth Gospel. The second is the hermeneutical agenda: What are we as modern readers for whom this Gospel is part of Scripture to do with this language in our theological and pastoral reflection?

Critical Concerns

At issue in the question about the critical significance of the phrase “God the father” in the Fourth Gospel is the question whether “father” has more substantive significance than simply a synonym for God. Mary Rose D’Angelo’s study of the language in the prayer traditions of the Fourth Gospel suggests that both “God” and “father” function principally to convey deity, with “father” carrying a reverential or circumspect sense that found its way into one of the primary theological image-systems of later Christianity. Her careful analysis of the specific occurrences of “father” language in the Fourth Gospel demonstrates that the absolute use of the term (“the father”) clearly predominates over the more relational (“my father”); that the term “father” does not occur principally in conjunction with references to “the son”; and that the term occurs most frequently in the discourses of the Gospel, rather than in the prayers or narrative traditions. In other words, it is principally a term to refer to God in rhetorical contexts of persuasion, rather than an invocation of relationship in prayer or in specifically familial imagery.

The debate over how literally the readers to whom we refer as “the Johannine community” would have understood language about God as father continues through a number of articles in this collection. Adele Reinhartz’s exploration of the background of Aristotelian embryology comes closest to exploring how the cultural context in which the Fourth Gospel emerged might have shaped a biological understanding of the paternal language about God. In contrast, Paul Anderson’s intertextual reading links language about God the father in the Fourth Gospel to the “sending” of the prophet like Moses promised in Deuteronomy 18. He bases this conclusion on the fact that the principal description of the relationship between the father and the son, especially in sayings attributed to Jesus, is not the father’s “begetting” the “son,” but rather “sending” him.

Marianne Meye Thompson, who also grounds her argument in a careful analysis of the specific forms and contexts of father language in the Gospel, echoes Anderson in exploring the connection between the term “father” and the motif of “sending,” but she concludes that both the father’s sending and the son’s response of “doing the father’s will” portray an intimacy of relationship that makes the term “father” much more than simply a substitute or epithet for God. In fact, the paradigmatic activity entailed in both the sending and the responsive doing of the will is conveying the “life” that inheres in Godself, and that is given first to Jesus and through Jesus to those whom he chooses, in a continuation of the father’s specific identity and work. Thompson concludes that the “familial relationship” that is encoded in the father’s life-giving role, and that grounds the Gospel’s christological claims, is essential to the theology of the Fourth Gospel.

On the level of a critical understanding of the project of the Gospel writer, then, the issue of how to understand language about God the father still remains under discussion. Two avenues suggest themselves for further study and reflection. Unfortunately, what seems to me the most intriguing one holds out little promise of resolution. It relates to the issue of practices of piety related to language about God in Greek-speaking Jewish communities of the late first century. Obviously the careful circumlocutions to avoid pronouncing the Tetragrammaton in Hebrew are not at issue when the community’s language is Greek, and no Greek word to refer to the deity seems to have moved into an equivalent place. The use of the phrase ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν instead of ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ in the Gospel of Matthew, however, suggests that in at least some communities accustomed to such concerns about language, the word θεός might have been treated with reverence that avoided its excessive or casual use. Clearly that word is not avoided completely, and there appears to be no way to recover an explanation of the views and practices related to its use. The question that remains, then, is whether one might see “father,” not as a name for God, but as a pious circumlocution to avoid using the word God—an indicator parallel in its respectfulness to “most high,” “holy one,” or even “lord” itself to refer to the deity, and one that also conveys a sense of intimacy and relationality.

The patterns of use of the term “father” in relation to God suggest another avenue for exploration. The statistical evidence reviewed in several of the articles in this volume points to three factors. First, the term occurs almost solely in the words attributed to Jesus (at least outside of the opening hymn). Second, despite the fact that it is principally Jesus who uses the term, the absolute use (“the father”) clearly predominates over the word with the personal pronoun (“my father”), even if one were to add to the latter category the vocative use in prayers. Third, “father” is a term used for God especially in the rhetoric of persuasion and argument found in the discourses. In addition, while the actions of sending and giving life are attributed to “God the father,” the image of fatherhood is not indelibly linked to either activity. Consequently, it seems that to substitute “God” for “the father” does not change the content or meaning of what is asserted. In other words, functionally and rhetorically the two terms appear to be synonyms. That hypothesis would need to be investigated more fully within the rhetoric and literary conventions of the Fourth Gospel.

When father language for God is coupled with “son” as a term for Jesus, relationship and intimacy between them are affirmed. It is not clear anywhere in the Fourth Gospel, however, that affirmation of a literally generative relationship is intended. Thus, there is no story of a miraculous birth as in Luke and Matthew, for example. The word “son” is not found in the opening hymn, which is often treated as definitive of the father-son relationship as foundational to the theology and Christology of this Gospel. Instead, the term used in 1:14 and 1:18 is μονογενής, “only begotten one.” In 1:14 it is used in a simile: the glory of the word-become-flesh reflects God’s glory as faithfully as an only child reflects the parent. Similarly, in 1:18 the connection is that the only child reveals or makes known the parent whom we have not seen. The point is the faithfulness of the revelation, not the means of the connection: Jesus the λόγος-become-flesh is a full and accurate revelation of the God whose λόγος he is.

Perhaps, then, the Johannine community would have recognized in the God-the-father language of this Gospel only a familiar way of speaking about God without naming God, in keeping with their accustomed piety. The intimacy of the particular image would thus allow them to express the depth of the connection they recognize between Jesus and God, and the faithfulness of his revelation of the One who can never be known face-to-face.

Hermeneutical Agenda

Clearly, though, the theological and doctrinal reflection of the Christian tradition has heard much more than that in the language of the Fourth Gospel. Peter Widdicombe’s article demonstrates how, already in the work of Origen and Athanasius, theological seedlings were being cultivated that would bear fruit in the trinitarian formulae of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed and in the church’s systematic theologies ever since. For a person raised in the Christian church, it is almost impossible to read the Fourth Gospel without having its language invoke trinitarian affirmations, even when the reader knows that the writing of the Fourth Gospel long antedated those debates. The general silence of the commentaries on the use of “father” to refer to God may reflect the deep theological roots that that language has now in Christian theology and liturgy. We take “God the Father” for granted, and for many people and communities, “Father” is the divine name.

Against that background, the articles by Michael Willett Newheart and Jeffrey L. Staley are especially helpful as they lift to visibility and examination the language that familiarity and ecclesiastical history have rendered almost invisible. Willett Newheart’s “soul hermeneutic” playfully and profoundly refracts affirmations about the father and son in the Fourth Gospel through language, literature, and experiences coming out of African American culture, and through his glimpses into fatherhood through his relationships with his children. Staley’s experiences of having and especially of being a father provide the principal device by which he opens the father and son language of the Gospel into the reality of the physical family of which he is a part. Willett Newheart and Staley both recognize and address explicitly the role played by the reader in determining the meaning of texts, and thus both are explicitly autobiographical at many points in their essays. Both also use their own literary devices of puns, poetry, music, and journal writing to free the text of the Fourth Gospel from the prison of doctrinal or historicizing interpretation, allowing the metaphors of fatherhood and sonship to metamorphose into new possibilities.

As different as they are, these two essays are linked by their being written by fathers. Although both authors recognize the ambivalence of that role as they have experienced it and performed it, they both demonstrate their acceptance of “father” language as a means to reflect on and to encounter the divine. That very posture of assent thus leaves important dimensions of the hermeneutical agenda unaddressed. One obvious aspect of the continuing silence relates to the gender of the interpreters. The repetitive and almost exclusive use of father as a metaphor for God in the Fourth Gospel makes it an alien text for many women readers. Our alienation has been accentuated by the way that term has been elevated into privileged status as the principal name (no longer a metaphor) for God in subsequent interpretations of the Fourth Gospel, as well as in the doctrinal affirmations and liturgical practice of the Christian tradition. It is of course true that the word “father” is not unknown to us, and most women have known fathers or father figures in our lives. However, whether those who have mediated the term have been “good” fathers or not (by whatever definitions one would determine that), father is not a role with which women can identify or to which they can aspire. One hermeneutical challenge, then, is to address the issue of distance and foreignness imposed by the very language of this Gospel, which strikes one category of readers more starkly than others. The result is that this is a different text for women than it is for men—not necessarily better or worse, easier or more difficult as a scriptural witness, but different. That difference must be lifted to visibility and addressed as part of one’s hermeneutical engagement with the text.

Another dimension of the hermeneutical agenda related to language about God the father in the Fourth Gospel is the way that very language so central to the text constitutes an obstacle for some readers or hearers. Once when I was a pastor (about thirty years ago now, so I can somewhat excuse my lack of perception) I was teaching a group of children the Lord’s Prayer. When I explained that it seems from all the evidence we have that Jesus may have referred to God as “father,” one little boy began to fidget. I decided to wait until he identified what was obviously troubling him, and finally he could contain himself no longer. “Did God beat Jesus up?” he asked with eyes as big as saucers. “N-n-no,” I stammered, “What do you mean?” He crossed his arms, leaned back in his chair, and replied, “Then God was never home.” I knew then what was going on. We talked about who the person was to whom he would go if he were hurt, or frightened, or in trouble. That was easy! His grandmother, who also was resident grandmother to all the other children on their block. “A God who is a lot like David’s grandma” was something they all could understand. The language had to change, though, from the usual signifier of “father” to a clearer statement of what was being signified, before the biblical texts and content could be experienced as a locus of hope and grace. The hermeneutical problem of what to do with this Gospel in our contemporary interpretation and appropriation is as basic as the very rendering of the language that is the focus of the studies in this volume.

Concluding Reflections

The articles in this collection have thus moved forward both the critical and the hermeneutical engagement of this important issue of God-language in the Fourth Gospel. More work needs to be done, both to understand what the language is intended to convey in the project of the Gospel writer and to find ways to convey that content through and around the language of the text itself. Each time I find myself sliding casually over the Gospel’s identification of God as father, I see David’s huge eyes again, and I try not to hear his question. Clearly, what he heard is not what the Fourth Gospel is intending to convey. But what language can fully and clearly bring to expression the God who is known in the one who is called the I AM—the way, the truth, and the life?

The Fatherhood of God at the Turn of Another Millennium

Pamela Dickey Young

Queen’s University

It is both a privilege and a challenge to respond to this collection of articles. Too often, I think, biblical scholars and theologians talk past one another rather than grappling seriously with the other’s issues. As a feminist theologian I am never surprised by patriarchy, but I sometimes lull myself into a false sense of hope that we might be on the way to “post-patriarchal” space and time. Yet, here we are facing the second millennium of using New Testament texts, and I am confronted once more by the amazing adaptiveness and persistence of patriarchy.

The articles in this collection bring into focus a number of important questions and issues for my work as a Christian feminist theologian. What do I as a feminist theologian learn from these biblical studies? What is the authority of scripture for theology and, within that, the specific place of the Gospel of John? What kind of language is God-language, and who is the God about whom this language purports to speak? What does it mean to be a child/son of God? In the Gospel of John is “father” language primarily about Jesus or about us, and what theological difference does the answer to this question make? Is there a relationship between the Gospel of John and notions of “family values”? As I respond to the articles I will attempt to reflect on some of these questions.

The articles by Adele Reinhartz and Mary Rose D’Angelo do not shrink from the difficulties that the Gospel of John poses for feminists. Reinhartz raises the possibility that John’s view of the relationship between Jesus and God may be more literally than metaphorically intended and may depend on the Aristotelian theory of epigenesis. Certainly if she is correct this weaves patriarchy further into the very fabric of the Gospel. But, in my view, it does not really change or fundamentally challenge an interpretation of gendered language about God as metaphorical. If today we do not think of God as literally having male characteristics, then gender language about God is metaphorical. This is so even for those who would argue that the metaphor is an appropriate one and intrinsic to Christian talk about God. Unless God has a penis, the language is metaphorical, and what remains then is to sort out the weight of the metaphor vis-à-vis other possible metaphors.

Thus, with epigenesis, even if John meant the relation between God and Jesus to be literally that of father and son, we from our temporal perspective can see this as a clear instance of what Bultmann called “myth,” “that mode of representation in which what is unwordly and divine appears as what is worldly and human” (42). And myth needs to be interpreted. An additional piece of John’s imagery that Reinhartz notes but does not develop is the Wisdom imagery embedded in this same first chapter of the Gospel. Although John takes the figure of Wisdom from the Hebrew Bible and turns her into Logos, the allusions to Wisdom are still visible in and around the text. Many feminist theologians have seen this allusion in John as one hopeful place from which to develop Wisdom christologies (see Johnson; Schüssler Fiorenza). If Word and Wisdom are one, then the incarnation is not the incarnation of a literally male son from an all-male Godhead, but an incarnation of one who can be described in images of both Wisdom and Word. Wisdom exists from creation and then dwells with humanity (see, for example, Sirach 24), imagery parallel to that in the first chapter of John. Pheme Perkins sees the Gospel of John as giving “narrative embodiment to a christology in which God’s creative Wisdom/Word has become incarnate” (277). Although this does not totally mitigate the patriarchy of the Gospel, and indeed may create its own risks of devaluing Jesus’ humanity, it does offer at least some hermeneutical space for feminist interpretation of Jesus as the incarnation of Wisdom, thus challenging the notion of the maleness of Jesus as an indication of the maleness of God.

A Wisdom christology does not depend on the Gospel of John alone, but also draws on other connections between Jesus and Wisdom in the Synoptics and Paul. In Luke 11:49 Jesus says: “Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute.’ ” In Matt 23:34, these words of Wisdom are said to be Jesus’ words. And in Matthew, the passage continues “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you, desolate” (Matt 23:37–38). This passage, found also in Luke (Luke 13:34–35), shows the summons of Jesus in parallel with the summons of Wisdom in the tradition of the Hebrew Bible.

The relation of Jesus to Wisdom is even more striking in Matt 11:28–30: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ ” Here Jesus is seen in the very same terms as is Wisdom in Sir 51:23–26, where it says: “Draw near to me, you who are uneducated, and lodge in the house of instruction. Why do you say you are lacking in these things, and why do you endure such great thirst? I opened my mouth and said, Acquire wisdom for yourselves without money. Put your neck under her yoke, and let your souls receive instruction; it is to be found close by.” This explicit recalling of Sirach comes at the end of a chapter where Matthew makes several allusions to Jesus as part of the Wisdom tradition. Jesus says, for instance: “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds” (Matt 11:19; Luke 7:35 reads “vindicated by all her children”). Jesus also thanks God that things hidden from the wise are revealed to babes (Matt 11:25). In Jesus is one who is “greater than Solomon” (Matt 12:42; Luke 11:31). My point in drawing out the scriptural references here is that a Wisdom christology, partly but not solely dependent on the Gospel of John, can be developed in a way that might serve to challenge the patriarchy of the tradition, including the patriarchy of language for God that concentrates exclusively on fatherhood.

The literal relevance of John’s language and its theological relevance need not be the same. One can see the patriarchal character of the literal father-son/children language and yet still seek to interpret it nonpatriarchally in terms of intimacy of relationship. Reinhartz already shows that Roman Jewish authors used epigenesis symbolically to speak of God as “creator of wisdom, Hebrews’ souls, the virtues, and happiness.”

John’s Gospel is sometimes used to justify certain Christian theological claims that one can only come to God or know God through Jesus Christ. But as a theologian I have always read these claims in light of the prologue to the Gospel of John wherein the Wisdom/Word that is present at creation is precisely the Wisdom/Word incarnate in Jesus Christ. Therefore, relationship to or knowledge of God through Wisdom/Word is not confined to the incarnational moment. Further, I also read such claims as what Krister Stendahl calls “love language” (14), that is, the language of those in whose lives Jesus Christ has made a difference witnessing to that difference in the maximal claims they know how to make.

Here, Mary Rose D’Angelo’s point that in John “father” language about God is not unique to Jesus and God is not just Jesus’ father but the father of other children is useful to push us to broaden the seeming exclusivity of Jesus’ sonship and thus of God’s revelation through him (D’Angelo; see also Reinhartz). Thus, even within the bounds of “father” language itself is a hint of challenge to the theological problem of interpreting Jesus as the one who gives exclusive access to the father.

D’Angelo intimates in her conclusion that if “father” language for God is more pervasive in early Jewish piety than is usually thought, that is, if it is not “unique” to Jesus’ language about God, then this may further embed patriarchy into language about the deity (D’Angelo: 77). Whether from Jewish tradition or from the “mouth of Jesus,” “father” language for God is deeply embedded in Christian tradition. If the image is a traditional one rather than one exclusive to Jesus, however, this gives more theological weight to an argument that “father” is not the Christian deity’s “proper” name.

Likewise, the recognition that “On the whole, the Gospel of John seems to use “father” (πατήρ) and “God” (θεός) interchangeably” (D’Angelo: 64) provides a biblical point from which to challenge the supremacy of “father” imagery for God. Even though this view is not shared by all authors in this volume (see Thompson), the discussion itself of when and where “God” and “father” might be interchangeable is sufficient to put on the theologian’s agenda the question of in what measure the supremacy of “father” language is given in the New Testament texts themselves and in what measure our use of “father” language is simply the dominance of one single and particular metaphor for divinity that can be placed alongside a host of other metaphors. The recognition of this interchangeability of “God” and “father” is also useful in discussions of trinitarian language, for it pushes us to see that the first person of the Trinity might also be named in a variety of ways and, in particular, simply as “God” (Rahner), even while recognizing that “God” is itself an “attempt to name the ineffable” (D’Angelo: 63).

The essays of Thompson, Widdicombe, and Anderson, when taken together, serve to remind us that part of the task of the theologian is to sort through differing interpretations of the same texts with a view to their theological import. The papers in this volume as a whole show the diversity of interpretation of God’s fatherhood in John’s Gospel, not just in the present, but from the time of the early church (Widdicombe). The theologian is left to decide on answers to a host of questions. Is “father” a term about role or function (Thompson)? Is “father” the only possible way to describe that function or will another parent-child relationship or some other relationship of intimacy do? Is Jesus unique as God’s son or are there other divine sons and daughters (Anderson; Thompson; D’Angelo; Reinhartz)? Is John’s view of incarnation to be taken as the sending of a prophet like Moses (Anderson)?

The pieces by Staley and Willett Newheart, midrashic reflections on fatherhood in John’s Gospel, fascinating and evocative as they are, leave me, as a feminist, with a curious response. These reflections on fatherhood serve to draw intimate connections between the writers and God that reinforce and reinscribe my absence as a woman. Where am I in these reflections? Granted, neither writer portrays his reflections as the exclusive interpretation of fatherhood in John’s Gospel. And of course, particularity is necessary for any good story to succeed, but the particularity of the metaphor of fatherhood also becomes its exclusivity when I cannot read myself there. This leads me to reflect once again on the power of metaphor and, therefore, on the necessity of using more than one metaphor of God so that we do not confuse the metaphor with the one whom we are seeking to describe.

For the remainder of this response I would like to move away a bit from the essays and reflect on some broader questions of theology they raise. Fatherhood language for God is persistent in Christianity, due in part to its pervasiveness in the Gospel of John, due in part to its enshrinement as the way to name the first person of the Trinity, due in part to an uncritical patriarchal acceptance of a single male metaphor as adequate to become God’s most common name. All the careful arguments in these papers about God as “my father,” “your father,” and “our father” and the varying ways that these ascriptions appear get quickly pulled into the Christian tradition as “the Father,” the “real” name of the divine. Clifford Geertz points out how a religious symbol once-created (and, as created, being a “model-of” reality) also becomes a “model-for” reality, reinforcing its own symbolic power. In terms of language about or descriptions of God, we are not surprised when patriarchal societies create a male God in the image of those who have the pride of place in society. Then, these images take on a life of their own and reinforce the idea that maleness is more God-like than femaleness.

As a theologian, however, I work not only with the texts of the tradition, which do contain both personal and nonpersonal alternatives to male imagery for God, but with a variety of other tools, including philosophical reflections on the nature of God and feminist critiques of all-male imagery. As a feminist theologian seeking to name and describe God, I take father imagery seriously, but I also take seriously that never has “father” been the only way to name God. As I mentioned above, I take “father” as a metaphor for the God who in Christian tradition has been seen primarily as one who relates to the world in intimacy and love. My own philosophical views of God are drawn largely from the tradition of process theology. And thus, when I draw out the metaphysical implications of defining deity, the God I describe is the God who encompasses and yet surpasses the world, a God who is the matrix within which we all live and move and have our being. I am a panentheist. One image that particularly suits this view of God is the image of God as mother of child in utero (Case-Winters: 220–30). And this image is, I would submit, consonant with the intimacy of the father-son/child relationship in John’s Gospel.

My feminist sensibilities say that using only male imagery for God has contributed to a view of women as inferior to men by aligning men more closely with divinity than women. Using only or primarily the “father” metaphor for God reinforces views of patriarchal family with “father” at the head. Once I recognize the “father” imagery for God as metaphorical I can then place other metaphors, some of them female God-metaphors, some of them already drawn directly from biblical and Christian tradition, alongside the “father” metaphor. I am thinking here of such biblical imagery of God as a woman in labor or midwife (Isa 42:14; 49:15; Ps 22); images of God as Sophia, and medieval female imagery of God (Johnson: 212). Note that I am not saying that we should abandon all “father” imagery for God. I think it is possible that use of the “father” imagery in tandem with a host of other metaphors for God might actually serve as a vehicle to question or challenge patriarchal views of God and family. Not all fatherhood needs to be exercised patriarchally (in terms of reinforcing the power-over of dominant males vis-à-vis the rest of the family). If the image of fatherhood becomes less of an idol (where we worship the image instead of God), then we might look more carefully at the exercise of fatherhood. And a simple unreflective substitute of a “mother” metaphor, imbued as it is with patriarchal views of motherhood, does not necessarily challenge patriarchy either.

My own view is that we need a diversity of images to keep any one image for God from becoming an idol. This is not to say that any and all images of God are fine. I would use a test of “consonance” with biblical and traditional imagery as one norm for Christian God-language. That is, is the name or description of God that is being proposed one that reflects the same sorts of relationships and acts as the biblical and traditional images of God? But consonance with the tradition is not the only norm for contemporary imagery of God in the Christian context. We also need images that stand up to contemporary challenges to be credible. We need, among other things, images that will challenge the idea that one sex, race, class, or any other single group ought to think of itself as more God-like than others. In my view, these criteria offer a wide range of naming and descriptive possibilities for God, all the while recognizing that no one single image used by itself can bear the whole weight of divine naming.

Feminist theologians have developed a wide range of approaches to the persistent patriarchy not just of the New Testament, but of the whole Christian tradition. When women stay in the Christian tradition even after they discover its patriarchy and its effect on them, they do so for a host of individual reasons. But one of the common reasons women stay is because they experience the tradition as multivalent. More is going on here than patriarchy, even if the explicit messages of the tradition sometimes belie this. Christian feminists reject patriarchy as the whole of the Christian message. Sometimes we do this by appealing to a view of the central message of Jesus that sees it as prophetic or liberating, or by arguing for a nonpatriarchal community in which he had effect. Sometimes we do this simply by rejecting patriarchy as the last word and seeking to claim nonpatriarchal space within the tradition wherever we can find or create it.

My own view of the authority of scripture is that scripture has authority only insofar as it reflects or portrays the grace and wisdom of God, which is available always and everywhere, but which is, for Christians, most tellingly re-presented in an encounter with the life and teachings of Jesus. The traditional Protestant way to express this is to speak of the Word of God incarnate in Jesus and expressed in the words of scripture (Barth:88–124). As a feminist, and influenced by the use the Gospel of John and other New Testament sources make of the Wisdom tradition, I prefer to speak of Sophia/Wisdom revealed or incarnate in Jesus, and Sophia/Wisdom accessible through the wisdom of the texts of the tradition. Whereas the notion of Logos/Word has tended to reinforce notions of God’s “direct speech,” the notion of Sophia/Wisdom is more dynamic, less calcified, more open. We do not look for God’s “direct speech,” but for a chance to interact with and act in response to one who is Wisdom herself.

As a feminist theologian, then, I see the liberative-transformative power of the grace of Sophia-God as more powerful than patriarchy. Such an experience of grace is based not just on the verbal expression of a patriarchal symbol system, but on a whole integrated interaction with the tradition, an interaction that involves personal experience as well as the message of “official” texts. It also involves looking for multivalent messages in the “official” texts. Of course the texts are often limited by patriarchy, but they may not be totally devitalized by patriarchy.

I am not looking here for some “real meaning” of these texts as if patriarchy or the overcoming of patriarchy were just a matter of choosing how to clean up or re-dress the texts. The patriarchy is there and cannot be overlooked, and I appreciate the work of biblical scholars who face head-on the patriarchy of the texts. I need this grappling to help me decide when there might be meaning within or beyond the patriarchy and when patriarchy is all there is. But for some women, at least some of the texts have given and continue to give meaning beyond the patriarchal and to give access to possibilities of integrity. Thus, I take the biblical texts seriously and look there for possibilities of integrity. But when I interpret these texts as a feminist theologian, I do not consider myself constrained to make my verbal expressions of the possibilities of grace and integrity absolutely identical to the verbal expressions of the New Testament. I am attuned to a variety of possibilities for experiencing and expressing grace, those that already occur in the tradition and those that might be creative present or future expressions of that tradition.

Works Consulted

Barth, Karl

1975    Doctrine of the Word of God. Vol. 1, part 1 of Church Dogmatics. Trans. G. W. Bromiley. Edinburgh: T&T Clark.

Bultmann, Rudolf

1984    “New Testament and Mythology.” Pp. 1–45 in New Testament and Mythology and Other Basic Writings. Ed. and trans. Schubert M. Ogden. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Case-Winters, Anna

1990    God’s Power: Traditional Understandings and Contemporary Challenges. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox.

Geertz, Clifford

1973    The Interpretation of Culture: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books.

Johnson, Elizabeth A.

1992    She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. New York: Crossroad.

Perkins, Pheme

1987    “Jesus: God’s Wisdom.” Word and World: Theology for Christian Ministry 7:273–82.

Rahner, Karl

1974    “Theos in the New Testament.” Pp. 79–148 in Theological Investigations, vol. 1. Trans. Cornelius Ernst. New York: Seabury.

Schüssler Fiorenza, Elisabeth

1994    Jesus, Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet: Critical Issues in Feminist Theology. New York: Continuum.

Stendahl, Krister

1981    “Notes for Three Bible Studies.” Pp. 7–18 in Christ’s Lordship and Religious Pluralism. Ed. Gerald H. Anderson and Thomas F. Stransky. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis.

Published: January 14, 2015, 13:39 | Comments Off on GODFATHER IN THE GOSPEL OF JOHN – by Rev Bischof Uwe AE.Rosenkranz
Category: ArchBishop, bibleresearch, ROSARY 4 z Bishop

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