The Jesus of primitive Christianity—and indeed the Jesus of history—was a Jewish prophet sent to the children of Israel’s Patriarchs. Much like Amos, Elijah, or John the Baptizer before him, Jesus operated within this particular religious framework as a member of the Hebrew prophetic caste. Accordingly, Jesus acted in a manner befitting the type: he delivered a message from Israel’s God to Israel’s people in regards to Israel’s covenants. His gospel, as such, cannot be generalized or universalized—Jesus did not reveal good and evil to an unenlightened world or promise life in Heaven to anyone who believed in him. Rather, Jesus condemned his guilty kinsmen for failing to fulfill Israel’s covenantal laws and promised his repentant kinsmen rewards in accordance with Israel’s covenantal promises.
These ethical expectations, of course, were derived from the Exodus myth and the Mosaic legal corpus it generated. Jesus called the tribes of Israel—long ago rescued from Egypt—to recommit to their ancestral Law—to practice faith, mercy, and justice. For those Jews who did not heed Jesus’ warnings, however, God had prepared a terrible and looming destruction: the fires of Gehenna.
The rewards Jesus promised also originated in Israel’s treaties with their God, those being the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants in particular.1 According to Jesus, Israel’s God would soon fulfill his oath to David by seating one of his sons upon the throne of Israel. This righteous king would preside over the great and mighty Israelite nation long ago pledged to the Patriarchs. Jesus imagined this new religio-political arrangement (i.e. God’s [Jewish] kingdom over the nations) as a joyous banquet of the righteous and, to mark the occasion, hosted anticipatory suppers throughout Israel.
This, in sum, was Jesus’ prophetic project. These covenantal threats and these covenantal promises constitute the fundamental context by which we can tether Jesus to Jewish antiquity.
Abraham’s family reunion
Remnants of this primitive covenantal framework are suppressed but present in the early Christian writings.2 By collecting these scattered crumbs—memories of Jesus as an apostle to the Jews vis-à-vis their divine vassalage—it becomes intelligible to speak of Jesus as a slave of Abraham, a patriarchal son sent to prepare Abraham’s children (the offspring sired through Jacob, that is) for the fulfillment of their ancestral promises. Here are a few examples.
- Paul identifies Jesus as a “servant of the circumcized (i.e. the sons of Abraham)… [because he] confirmed the promises made to the fathers [of Israel] (i.e. the Patriarchs)” (Romans 15:8, cf. Acts 3:25-26). Likewise, the writer of Hebrews claims Christ came “to help the descendants of Abraham” (2:16).
- Jesus has compassion for a “daughter of Abraham”3 in her suffering and enslavement to Satan. He therefore heals her without compunction on the Sabbath (Luke 13:11-17).
- Jesus hails Zacchaeus the tax collector as a true “son of Abraham” when he repents of his fraudulent treatment of his kinsmen. In this way “the son of man” “seeks and saves” a “lost” sheep of Abraham’s Israelite household (Luke 19:1-10, cf. Matthew 15:24). As a faithful son, Jesus works to reconstitute father Abraham’s estate (cf. Isaiah 43:1-7, Jeremiah 31:7-9, Micah 2:12).
- In the Gospel of the Nazarenes, Jesus condemns the rich man of Matthew 19:16-24 for claiming to love his neighbor in accordance with the Law and the Prophets when “many of [his] brothers, sons of Abraham, are covered with filth, dying of hunger, while [his own] house is full of many good things, none of which goes out to [Abraham’s children]” (Fragment 16).
- The Jewish theological reflection contained in the Matthean and Lukan birth narratives portray Jesus as a helper of Israel and thus of Abraham. The infant Jesus, a “son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1), is named Joshua because he will “save his people [i.e. Israel] from their sins” and Immanuel because he will manifest God’s presence “with us [Jews]” (Matthew 1:21-23). Jesus will be a “horn raised up for us [Jews]” in accordance with God’s covenants with Abraham and his children (Luke 1:54-55, 1:68-79).
- The Johannine Jesus condemns his opponents because they do not do “the works of Abraham,” their alleged paterfamilias (John 8:39). Jesus implies that it is he, not “the Jews,” who faithfully carries out Abraham’s will.
Such concern for Abraham and his children is suggestive. Entrusted as Abraham’s household manager, Jesus went about gathering Abraham’s rowdy children so as to ready them for the arrival of God’s kingdom. While John had accomplished this task by means of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, Jesus now offered a supper of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. By celebrating the rehabilitation of sinners at table, moreover, Jesus was anticipating the great banquet that would inaugurate the eschaton. On that day the “living”4 Abraham would host a feast upon his promised eschatological estate—the great and mighty Israelite nation. There the righteous would sit not with Moses or Messiah, but with the men of highest honor, the Patriarchs: “many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 8:11). In this way Jesus proposed two opposing fates: Abraham’s disowned sons would suffer humiliation in the “outer darkness” but Abraham’s true heirs would rest peacefully in their father’s bosom (cf. Matthew 8:11-12, Luke 16:22-24).
Abraham’s errand boy
Read in this context of the Abrahamic family reunion, the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus offers further clues into Jesus’ self-conception as Abraham’s servant. Consider the rich man’s requests issued from Hades: “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames…. father, I beg you to send [Lazarus] to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment” (Luke 16:24, 27-28). Much like the rich man’s suggestion vis-à-vis Lazarus—Abraham’s intimate and attendant5—Jesus believed he had been sent on behalf of Abraham to warn Jacob’s children of God’s impending judgement, reminding them of all that Moses and the prophets had told them (Luke 16:31). Jesus thus came to save Abraham’s children from apocalyptic fire before it was too late, before death and destruction fixed an insurmountable chasm in Israel.
If then Jesus understood himself in relation to father Abraham, as the Patriarch’s son and slave sent to oversee a mismanaged household on the heels of grand covenantal fulfillment, and if this identity was fundamental, we can plausibly suspect that patriarchal sonship gave rise to and was then supplanted by divine sonship in early Christian conception. This is to say that Jesus was Abraham’s son first and foremost, God’s son secondarily. Here’s what I mean.
The dispute in John 8 represents Jesus’ most sustained discussion concerning Abraham. Therein the Johannine author plays upon the ambiguity between father God and father Abraham. While the Johannine Jesus continually speaks of his own divine sonship, his opponents misunderstand, retorting that they know well their father Abraham (John 8:34-40). Jesus’ claims to have received his prophetic word from “the father” (8:38), moreover, precipitates a discussion regarding Jesus’ seemingly unnatural relationship with father Abraham (8:48-59).
What this controversy demonstrates is that Jesus’ father-son rhetoric was prone to confusion—both among his immediate audience and among his later followers. Early Christian prioritization of the christological designation “Son of God” exacerbated such mistakes in a particular direction. In other words, the Christian purveyors of the Jesus-traditions sometimes conflated sayings regarding father Abraham with sayings regarding father God. Regardless of Jesus’ own priorities and intentions, the later Christians prized divine parentage over Abrahamic parentage.
While this reconstruction of the tradition must remain highly speculative, exploring it allows us to resurrect some of the covenantal and patriarchal framework within which Jesus lived and breathed and had his being. The parables are particularly ripe for this kind of re-examination—not just in the case of the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son—but also in reference to other paternal parables, parables like the Laborers in the Vineyard, the Wicked Tenants, and the Great Banquet. Is it possible that these parabolic patriarchs were once pictures of an exalted and eschatological Abraham set over Israel? When Jesus’ lofty language regarding the Patriarchs (cf. Mark 12:26-27, Matthew 8:11-13, John 8:39) is coupled with his portrait of Abraham as heavenly spokesman and comforter in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus the question cannot be easily dismissed.
1—See also Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28.
2—As the spirit of the risen Christ moved beyond Israel, elements of Jesus’ earlier mission to the Jewish nation were either discarded or repurposed. Israel’s last prophet became the savior of the world.
3—Jesus sometimes calls his faithful patients ‘son’ or ‘daughter’ (Mark 2:5, 5:34)—a rhetorical flourish that confirms the full restoration of a child to Abraham.
4—Jesus believed the Patriarchs had been afforded a special postmortem existence and eschatological future (Mark 12:26-27, cf. Luke 16:19-31, John 8:51-53). According to 4 Maccabees 13:17 Abraham and Isaac and Jacob “will welcome [faithful martyrs in death].”
5—An inferior desires to enter into the presence of his superior (cf. Luke 14:7-11, John 14:28).