Call No Man Father: Figurative Speech in Early Christianity

A common objective of destructive cults is to get complete control over devotees by convincing them to break all ties with family and friends. The indoctrination process is often subtle, with victims not realising they’ve been manipulated till it’s too late. From the perspective of a twisted mind, establishing absolute control over others by eliminating opposing opinions is a logical requirement of initiation. Goodbye logic, hello darkness.

In the case of Christian cults, leaders often achieve isolation by quoting scriptures like Matthew 23:9. The phrasing as expressed in the New International Version is a typical translation of the original Hebrew:

And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.

On face value, it appears cult leaders may have grounds for encouraging the breaking family ties, at least those between children and fathers. However, if the passage is read in the context of the previous verse, it’s not so simple: But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers.

Matthew 23:9-10
And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.
But you are But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. 

Contextually, the two sentences are indicating that no one person should be considered spiritually superior to another, that is, there should be no “Father Rabbis” because everyone is a “brother”. Matthew’s application of figurative speech is relatively easy to recognise; it does not literally mean you cannot call your male parent “father”. I imagine ancient political correctness was the last thing on the scribes’ mind. (There is a trend being explored in contemporary midwifery which stipulates it is more politically correct to refer to a “mother” as “the lactating parent”.)

In ancient Jewish and Roman cultures it was normal to call Rabbis, or any older man, in particular one with a higher status, “Father”. It was both a title and a means of showing respect.

In 2 BCE Emperor Augustus was dubbed “Pater Patriae”, which means the “father of his country” (Pater = Father in Latin). Rome was not without adversaries, hence, it’s probable not everyone felt warm fuzzies towards Augustus as a father figure. For example, the Jews, in accordance with the prophecies outlined in the Torah, wanted and expected ruling rights over much of the land that their Roman father had won claim to. In turn, it seems plausible that some Jewish citizens (many Early Christians were Jews) could relate to the sentiment no man should be called father. To take that figurative expression and apply it literally to biological parents defies logic, hence, I suspect that is the reason why the caveat is not mentioned in Matthew’s text. (Perhaps Augustus should have been called the “non-lactating parent of Rome”?)

Imagine if every time someone used figurative speech there was an expectation that they explained their symbolic referencing!? For example, a novel that describes a character as being a night owl (not a real night owl, just someone who stays up late at night, like an owl), or a newspaper article that reports of items falling off the back of the truck (the items didn’t literally fall of the back of a truck, they were stolen like they could have fallen off the back of a truck), or historical accounts of Euclid as the father of geometry (there was no mother geometry that Euclid impregnated, he just fathered ideas that were like babies, not real babies but things that grew into bigger things, like babies grow into bigger people). If all writers had to explain their similes, metaphors, or colloquial expressions there would be no point using expressive language in the first place; furthermore, communication would be pretty boring.

Humans have a flair for being creative with words and our cognitive abilities have developed in a manner that enables us to quickly and efficiently identify homophones and their meanings within given contexts. At least that is the case when interpreting contemporary language in cultural contexts that we are familiar with. But perhaps understanding figurative speech from 2000 years ago is different? Afterall, as an Australian I would never imagine calling our prime minister, Scott Morrison, the father of our country! I can’t envision Americans calling Joe Biden their Father either. Hence, perhaps it is due to the differing cultural standards of how and when the term “father” is used impacts Biblical interpretations? 

To add a bit of a different spin to the issue, when looking up Matthew’s verses, I was intrigued by the Aramaic Bible in Plain English version to Matthew’s sentences which hat reads:

But you shall not be called “Rabbi”, for One is your Rabbi, but you are all brothers.

And you should not call yourselves “Father”, in the earth, for one is your Father who is in Heaven.

The semantics of this phrasing changes the interpretation previously explored that was based on the New International Version (Bible semantics is thing and a half, as I discovered while researching the bow” of the white horseman). Instead of the directive being not to call others “father” (presumably with the caveat of there being an exception if you’re referring to your biological father), the instructions are now not to call oneself a “father” as opposed to calling anyone on earth a “father”. In other words, there are to be no Christian “Rabbis” which can be transferred to meaning Christianity initially condemned all leadership positions within the church. I think I could dig (figurative expression, I don’t literally mean I’d dig a hole in the earth) a Christian theology that genuinely supported no leaders and was based upon every individual having spiritual autonomy and a direct relationship with God, aka, the heavenly Father, the One who is the ultimate Rabbi. Alas, whilst that may have been the impulse of Early Christian communities (and there is evidence to suggest in some instances this was the case), Christianity on the whole did not develop in that direction. Ever since at least the second century there are reports of Christian deacons, priests, and bishops, or in other words, “Fathers” and “Rabbis”. Perhaps cult leaders who want to high-jack religions have always been around?

With Emperor Constantine’s legalisation of Christianity came orders to impose structure upon the religion. The structure that was imposed just happened to be consistent with the standards of Roman culture. From the patriarchal hierarchy of bishops through to labelling priests as “father”, Christianity took on a very Roman military-like structure; i.e., it was normal for Roman soldiers to call the leader of their legion “father”.

The Aramaic version emphases the figurative concept of everyone being “brothers”. (I’m deliberately not entering into the whole patriarchal structure of the language and for the sake of simply I’m going with the flow of “brothers” in this context being a gender neutral term; according to Jewish symbology it is acceptable to do so.) The significance of unifying everyone as a brotherhood is as nuanced as the term “father”. 

When using figurative speech, a thing is not identical to the original thing in all contexts. For example, the “father” in Augustus’ Pater Patriae infers control and responsibility, whereas Euclid’s title of “father” implies he metaphorically birthed geometric offsprings, and priestly “fathers” can suggest a nurturing role. Not all associations of the term “father” can aptly be applied to all situations. Likewise, not all associations of “brothers” can be applied to all situations, e.g., loyalty, strong bond, sense of duty, kinsmanship, support, equality, etc., may not all be applicable to Matthew’s usage. (Some could argue that “brothers” implies rivalry, fighting for attention, and other negative traits; hence, the assumption that Matthew meant only positive associations is a cultural bias in itself.) The interpretation of a thing when used in figurative speech is dependent upon both the speakers/writers intentions and the audience’s comprehension; in turn, both are dependent upon cultural understandings of the symbolic significance of the thing. (Humans are a symbolic species, for a background discussion see: The connection between symbolism and mental wellbeing: The basics).

What then did Matthew mean when he said “you are all brothers”? In the context of the statement being prefaced by “you shall not be called Rabbi”, I suggest the emphasis of “brothers” relates to status, in particular not having a hierarchy in which individuals are judged to be closer or further away from the “One”. (The number One as a reference to God has a long standing tradition within Greek philosophy).

Many Christians over the years have claimed that orthodox and Catholic traditions are flawed interpretations of Jesus’ readings, and the examples of the establishment of priesthood and fathers figures can legitimately be used as proof of this. Ironically, however, cult leaders who skew this scripture to isolate and control others, have a tendency to make themselves father figures, albeit they don’t call themselves by that title. Which is worse, to disobey a literal interpretation of the Bible and have church leaders called father, or to dispense with the title and fulfil the essence of the meaning of the terms. While cult leaders, claim to be “brothers” with their followers, their actions speak louder than words; they call themselves “Rabbi” in the sense that they are self proclaimed leaders, like father figures, to individuals whom they manipulate to break ties with their true families. 

Judaism has an abundance of figurative speech that relates to family terms that, in addition to the ones mentioned here, include husband, wife, daughter, son, etc. Likewise, Christianity, as an Abrahamic religion, continued to use many of these Jewish symbols, plus some were harmonised with Greek symbols (Jesus was for the Jews and Gentiles!), and slowly but surely, uniquely Christian symbols were developed.

Identifying authentic meanings of much of the symbolism used in the Bible is not difficult if one knows where to look for it. The problem is that too many well-intended and open hearted people fall for wolves in sheep’s clothing (figure of speech, not a real wolf in sheep’s clothing, but a person with wolf-like qualities who, on the inside wants to devour others, but on the outside appears like a sheep who is placid and willing to follow the crowd) who leads them to dangerous pastures due to their self serving interpretations of Bible verses. On that note, it is also worthwhile to consider that perhaps Matthew’s Gospel was intended to be a document that could be used to establish a cult that deconstructed families … 

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