Fatherhood in the Gospels: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Fatherhood is well-represented in the New Testament. One of the very few authentic words spoken by Jesus and recorded in the gospels may be the Aramaic form of father: abba. Jesus, like other rabbis of ancient Judaism, characterized God as the male parent, benevolent but just, forgiving but demanding. The first-century world was a patriarchal one in which the father was head of the family and men generally ruled the political and social world. Just as the kings of Israel were men (with a rare queen here and there), so the God of Israel was conceptualized in masculine terms. In the pagan world, the gods could be of either gender though the primary god of the Greco-Romans, Zeus/Jupiter, was envisioned as a male.

There are a number of references to fathers other than God in the gospels. I thought it might be interesting to look at three of them, each distinctly different and spanning the spectrum of what we might judge to be good examples of fatherhood, bad examples, and just plain dysfunctional examples. Let’s begin with the first human father mentioned, Joseph of Nazareth.

Despite doctrinal belief in Jesus’s origins as the product of a union between the Spirit of God and a human woman, the role of human father in Jesus’s life was apparently played by Joseph, probably a lifelong resident of Nazareth. Despite the opening story of Jesus’s supernatural conception in the Gospel of Luke, that author twice refers to Joseph unabashedly as Jesus’s father (2:33, 48). The Gospel of John, which takes great pains to characterize Jesus as God’s preexistent Word made flesh, has the residents of Capernaum call Jesus “the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know” (6:42). Both Jesus and Joseph are described by the Greek word tekton, a builder or craftsman (frequently translated in English as “carpenter”). The Gospel of Matthew refers to Jesus as “the tekton’s son” (13:55) despite its opening story of Jesus being conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. Only the Gospel of Mark avoids calling Joseph the father of Jesus and instead calls Jesus “the son of Mary” but adds that he has brothers and sisters (6:3). This gives us a basic understanding of Jesus’s family situation.

But what of the story of Jesus’s miraculous conception? Was Jesus Joseph’s genetic son or an adopted one? Much depends on how one reads and accounts for the story of the supernatural pregnancy of Mary. It is common knowledge that the two birth stories of Jesus featured in Matthew and Luke are quite different in detail. Yet, they agree on several points. One is that, whoever fathered Jesus, it was not Joseph. Later attacks on Jesus’s origins claimed that Mary had become pregnant by another man while betrothed to Joseph. Adultery would have been the accusation in real time if Joseph was known not to be the father of Mary’s baby. Matthew even makes the point that Joseph knew that Mary had become pregnant by someone else and he seriously considered abandoning her (Matthew 1:19). Nevertheless, whether Mary told him the story of her conception as we have it in the gospel accounts, or whether he believed it, he took mother and child under his wing and raised Jesus as his own.

There are no regulations governing adoption in the Torah yet the practice was common in the Near East and the Greco-Roman world. Adoption was a means of securing an heir or young apprentice. Jews may have felt that God controlled inheritance and people should not interfere. One might become a guardian for a child to preserve it from neglect but this was no substitute for genetic descent. Elsewhere, when a man chose a child to adopt it was a sign that the father had found favor with the child honoring it with patronage. Many times, adopted sons would be more favored in the eyes of the father than natural ones; after all, one cannot choose the child given to them by nature. But a man could judge the qualities of a young boy and favor him with sonship. Joseph’s rationale would have been altogether different owing to the avoidance of adoption per se and the fact that Jesus had not yet born when Joseph chose to accept him. If Joseph took Mary and Jesus into his family, despite village gossip about Mary’s infidelity, it was surely a loving gesture that belied convention (divorce was a legal option for Joseph – Matthew 1:19; cf. Deuteronomy 24:1 – but not adoption). Joseph could have Mary charged with adultery; stoning was a legal remedy according to Deuteronomy 24:24. It may be revealing that, just as Joseph refused to subject Mary to this humiliation and punishment, Jesus, in the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11), refused to punish her or submit her to further calumny.

It is impossible to discern the psychological relationship between Joseph and Jesus or even how long Joseph lived after Jesus’ birth – he is not mentioned in the gospels as being alive during Jesus’s adult ministry. Joseph must have lived long enough to sire at least six more children according to Mark (four brothers of Jesus and at least two sisters). Customarily, Jesus and his brothers would have been trained in Joseph’s trade, helping as young boys and working side-by-side as young men. The oldest brother would have inherited responsibility for the family after their father’s death. That may help to explain why it took Jesus until he was nearly 35 years old to begin his religious career. Jesus seems to have upheld and championed the commandment to honor one’s father (and mother) in his teachings (Mark 7:10, 10:19; Matthew 15:4, 19:19; Luke 18:20). Yet he also makes perplexing statements denigrating the centrality of the nuclear family. Jesus warns that “if anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother” s/he cannot be his disciple (Luke 14:26). This may be an example of hyperbole or words put later into Jesus’s mouth by early Christians who were being rejected by their families over their Christ-faith. See, for example, other statements attributed to Jesus that speak to the disintegration of the family unit (Mark 10:19; Matthew 10:35). Regardless of these sayings, Joseph’s act of love and acceptance of Mary and her unborn child make him a valid representative of good fatherhood.

One also need not look any further than the birth story of Jesus for an example of we might judge to be bad fathering. Herod the Great makes his appearance in the Gospel of Matthew at this point. It is this Roman-appointed King of the Jews who tries to eradicate any potential challengers to his rule by having the children of Bethlehem, aged two and under, slaughtered in an attempt to stamp out the prophesied boy king. Whether this episode is valid historically, it is no stretch to see why Herod might be easily saddled with such a crime.

Herod was appointed King of the Jews by the Romans after nearly a century of independent Jewish rule by the Hasmonean dynasty that originated with the rebellious Judas Maccabee and his brothers. Their successful overthrow of the previous Jewish oppressors from Syria created a long line of Hasmonean high priests and kings. Later, civil strife brought down the Hasmoneans and Rome stepped in to quiet the region. It placed its own authorized monarch on the throne. Herod was not an ethnic Jew; he was from Idumea to the south of Israel. Under the Hasmoneans, the Idumeans were forced to circumcise under penalty of death. Thus, Herod was not accepted by many ethnic Jews as a true Jew or rightful king. His Roman support did not endear him to many Jews of the region either. To strengthen his claim to legitimacy, Herod married a Hasmonean princess, Mariamne. With her, he fathered two sons, Alexander and Aristobulus. Herod married many other women and fathered many other children in his lifetime but it seems that he kept a wary eye especially on these two sons who might prove successful challengers to his throne owing to their Hasmonean heritage. It was not unusual in antiquity for ambitious sons to murder their fathers for power. It didn’t help that the brothers openly despised their father, not least because he had their mother executed for disloyalty. Herod ultimately succumbed to his fears of losing his throne and had both sons murdered in adulthood. Herod performed other, positive deeds during his kingship including completely renovating and expanding the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. But despite his rather successful political life, we can certainly put him down as a particularly bad representative of fatherhood.

An ugly example of fatherhood is perhaps demonstrable by way of a fictional father described by Jesus in one of his most famous parables: The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). Before discussing the family issues inherent in this instructional narrative, we should begin by removing the gospel author’s interpretation of it. Whenever Jesus’s parables were written down the gospels, the authors attempted to explain them, attaching Christianized interpretations to them. Jesus certainly did not teach “Christian” parables but rather made insightful observations of everyday life in ancient Palestine. Whatever meanings Jesus intended with his parables were eventually lost or misunderstood and replaced with explanations that were relevant to late first-century Christians. It is no different with the Prodigal Son. The author of Luke has positioned the parable to follow an unrelated saying of Jesus: “There is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10). As we shall see, this is hardly the point of the following parable.

To summarize Jesus’s story, a wealthy farmer was father to two sons. We know he was successful because he hired servants and owned slaves. He had apparently been treating his sons differently all their lives. His older likely managed the estate for his father – he is the only one ever said to be “in the field.” The younger son seems only to think of himself. He demands that his father cash-out his share of his future inheritance before his father is even dead. While this did happen occasionally, popular wisdom taught against it (Sirach 33:19-21). Nevertheless, we catch a glimpse of how this father doted on his young son by his easy acquiescence to the son’s rash demand. The apparently spoiled, selfish son uses his money to travel to foreign lands and live it up until he blows it all in profligate living. His money inheritance spent, the young son is forced to hire himself out as a pig farmer to a foreigner just to survive. Jesus’s Jewish listeners would have heard loud and clear the indignity of a once-wealthy Jew having to serve a Gentile by raising the one food notoriously absent from the Jewish diet: pork. His employment opportunities must have been sporadic because the young man complains that “no one gave him anything.” He sometimes wished he could eat as well as the swine did. Down and out, he starts to remember the good times he had at home and sets off to return there.

The permissive father, seeing his young son from afar, runs to greet the son with “compassion.” Though the son begins to express his sinfulness and unworthiness, he never asks succeeds in asking forgiveness. No matter. He is treated by his father like a conquering hero. The father has “the best robe” put on him along with jewelry and shoes. He orders up the most expensive feast a farmer was likely to provide: a well-fed calf. A celebration ensues over the son who was once “lost and is found.” All this takes place without notifying the older, hard-working son. He is left in the field where he is dutifully tending to his duties and hears a commotion from the house. The older son was forced to inquire of a child (paidon) slave about the cause of the disturbance (the father never even told him). The father then goes outside to invite the angry older son to join in the festivities. In his own defense, the older son points out the obvious: he has worked hard all his life, been obedient and loyal, yet, citing an apparent pattern of neglectful treatment, he has never been given so much as a goat to celebrate with his friends. Yet here comes the selfish, derelict younger son and papa throws a major feast. The father’s explanation confirms that he takes the older son for granted because he is always here and ever reliable. He makes the equally obvious statement that “All that is mine is yours.” That is true because the younger son no longer has a stake in the father’s assets; he has already squandered his share. Pleadingly the father exclaims: “Your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found!” Really? How so? What has he found and how is he alive?

The younger son can never be anything more than a hired servant or even a slave to his brother or anyone else he cares to work for. He no longer has claim to anything, money or property. If he was married with children, he now has nothing for their survival. If he was not married, he will have even fewer prospects for that now. He has shamed his father and his family. He is a disgrace, no better in social status than the day laborers and slaves who attend the misbegotten celebration. This father is a doting, indulgent fool who should never have given such an irresponsible young man a wad of cash, his entire future means of support, to go off and squander. On the flip side, he should never have ignored the lifelong service of the older son. This father has succeeded only in breaking the family completely apart. Nothing is said of the older son’s acceptance of the situation or of the younger son’s altered behavior or of the father’s refusal to continue to pamper his spoiled younger son. Typically, Jesus left those considerations to his listeners. For most, this was probably an ugly example of the fatherhood of a wealthy fool.

There are many examples of good, bad, and ugly fathers throughout the Bible. Patriarchal literature generally gives primacy to their stories. From God the Father to Father Abraham to Fathers Zechariah, Joseph, and Zebedee, all express their patriarchy in various ways. Let’s learn from the best examples and be warned by the worst. Happy Father’s Day.

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