Sunday 7 June 2020

Jesus on the Sabbath and God as his Father - from William James Tychonievich

Regular readers will know that my understanding of Christianity is based upon the Fourth Gospel - called John; and that I have written a small 'book' about this.

One happy consequence has been that William James Tychonievich has embarked upon a somewhat-complementary project of putting the Fourth Gospel under a microscope, moving through it in considerable detail - and with a greater focus on linguistic and historical aspects; as well as exploring links with the Old Testament and other parts of the New.

William's latest offering is another extremely valuable addition to the series, in which he focuses on the passages of the Fourth Gospel describing the 'Take up thy bed and walk' incident at the healing pool in Bethesda.

Two points he makes towards the end of the post struck home particularly strongly (I have made a few cuts, indicated...):

Chapter 5:[16] And therefore did the Jews persecute Jesus, and sought to slay him, because he had done these things on the sabbath day.

While it is true that Moses decreed the death penalty for sabbath-breaking, the Jews of Jesus' time had no authority to execute that penalty. Judaea was under Roman rule, and only the Romans could put a man to death...

[17] But Jesus answered them, "My Father worketh hitherto, and I work."

This is perhaps not the sort of defense we might have expected. Jesus does not say that carrying a "bed" (probably just a mat) hardly counts as "bearing a burden" and is not a violation of the sabbath. He does not say that, while keeping the sabbath is important, healing a man who needs healing is even more important. Instead, he says, "God is still working, and so am I." God, contrary to what Moses said, never rested from his labors, and neither should we. Rather than argue that his apparent sabbath-breaking was justified in this particular case, Jesus denies the whole idea of the sabbath.

If you search the Gospels, I think you will find not a single instance of Jesus keeping the sabbath or encouraging anyone else to do so. Even when he rattles off some of the Ten Commandments in response to the rich young ruler's query (Mark 10:19, Luke 18:20), he is careful to omit that one. The only time the sabbath ever comes up in connection with Jesus is when he is breaking it, which he does repeatedly and deliberately.

[18] Therefore the Jews sought the more to kill him, because he not only had broken the sabbath, but said also that God was his Father, making himself equal with God.

Centuries of Christianity have made it so natural to think of God as "Our Father" that it is easy to forget that the fatherhood of God is not a Jewish doctrine and was among Jesus' more controversial teachings. Although I am open to correction on this point, I do not believe the Old Testament contains a single unambiguous reference to God as the Father...

It may seem a small thing to say "Father" rather than "Creator," but I think Jesus' would-be murderers were right to regard it as revolutionary and to equate it with "making himself equal with God." If a man builds a house, the house is never going to be anything like the man who created it -- but begetting a son is another thing entirely. A son is fundamentally the same sort of being as his father and is destined to become like him. 

To call God one's Father is to make an astonishing claim about oneself, and the Jews are not to be faulted for finding it shocking in the extreme.

My reflections:

It suddenly seems obvious (to one who regards the Fourth Gospel as primary) that the breaking of the Sabbath was Jesus's message, rather than its keeping. This is surprising, considering the history of most of the Christian churches; but then, the idea of an institutional church and priesthood of Jesus Christ is itself alien to the Fourth Gospel.

Aslo; I had not reflected before that Jesus was making a new designation of God as Father; and, in the Fourth Gospel, very literally and repeatedly so.

Later mainstream Christians (before the Mormon 'Restoration' in 1830) have failed to take into account the implications of Jesus's claim that God was his Father. Which is: "A son is fundamentally the same sort of being as his father and is destined to become like him."

Instead, presumably under the influence of Greco-Roman Philosophy, mainstream Christian theologians have abstracted God into a infinitely-alien 'Omni-deity' (or what William terms a Supergod).

So, by taking the Fourth Gospel with full seriousness, and as the primary source on Jesus; we get two striking conclusions: 1. That the Sabbath ought not to be observed (at least not in a way analogous to the Anceint Jews); and 2. That for Jesus to tell us that God is our Father, is a qualitative break with the Ancient Jewish understanding of the nature of God, and brings God much closer to Man: continuous-with Man.


Ann K. said...

The Orthodox Fr. Deacon Ezra has an amazing lecture series on John here:

Bruce Charlton said...

@AK - But of course, the Orthodox theology is extremely different from what either I or William are saying. Orthodoxy does have truth, wisdom and beauty - and there are many ways of being a real Christian - but there are different metaphysical assumptions at root.

Otto said...

"Although I am open to correction on this point, I do not believe the Old Testament contains a single unambiguous reference to God as the Father..."

Nehemia Gordon begs to differ; he has lectured extensively on references to "God the Father" in the Old Testament (see YouTube, for example: Calling God our Father), and also written a book about it: A Prayer to our Father.

Ann K. said...

If the issues in your post are examples of your metaphysical assumptions, then I assure you they and others are addressed microscopically in the 80 or so hours of this series. Not arguing—just FYI for anyone interested in John.

Bruce Charlton said...

@AK - I know about Eastern Orthodoxy and got as far as being a catechumen for the Russian Orthodox Church - but I moved to my current position from there.