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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament
FATHERS.—The plural of ‘father’ is found in 14 passages in the Gospels, once (in the Greek) with no determining word (Luke 1:17), twice with the article only, ‘the fathers’ (John 6:58 Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885 7:22), and 11 times with a pronoun: ‘our’ (Matthew 23:30, Luke 1:55; Luke 1:72, John 4:20; John 6:31); ‘your’ (Matthew 23:32, Luke 11:47-48, John 6:49); ‘their’ (Luke 6:23; Luke 6:26). With one exception (Luke 1:17) where it means ‘parents,’ as contrasted with ‘children,’ it is always employed in the sense of ‘ancestors,’ as in innumerable passages in the OT (Genesis 47:9, 1 Kings 11:43; 1 Kings 14:31; 1 Kings 15:8 etc.), the Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha (2 Esdras 7:36, Ps-Sol 8:25, 9:19 etc.), and the historical Assyrian texts (šarrani abi-ia = ‘the kings my fathers,’ KIB [Note: IB Keilinschriftliche Bibliothek.] ii. 170, 172, etc.).
As early as about b.c. 200 the Heb. word ’âbóth came to have the narrower meaning of ‘distinguished ancestors.’ The long historical review in Sirach 44-49 opens (Heb.):
Let me now praise godly men,
Our fathers in their generations.
The fathers praised are Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Israel, Moses, Aaron, Phinehas, Joshua, Caleb, the Judges, Samuel, Nathan, David, Solomon, Elijah, Elisha, Hezekiah, Isaiah, Josiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Job, the Twelve, Zerubbabel, Joshua the priest, Nehemiah. In a sort of appendix (Sirach 49:14-16) are given Enoch (again), Joseph, Shem, Seth, Enos, Adam. The Hebrew heading of these chapters, ‘Praise of the fathers of the world,’ or, as Cowley and Neubauer render, ‘Praise of the patriarchs,’ cannot be urged, as it may be of much later date. The Greek heading πατέρων ὕμνος is of more value, as it may be pre-Christian. Among these distinguished ancestors or ‘fathers’ a group of three was early singled out for special notice—Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God is several times described in the OT as ‘the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’ or ‘Israel’ (Exodus 3:6; Exodus 3:16, 1 Kings 18:36, 1 Chronicles 29:18, 2 Chronicles 30:6). In a tradition preserved in the Babylonian Talmud (Berak. 16b) it is said: ‘Only three are called fathers.’ It is assumed that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were ‘the fathers’ par excellence. The group is referred to 5 times in the Gospels (Matthew 8:11; Matthew 22:32, Mark 12:26, Luke 13:28; Luke 20:37), and probably, without the names, in one of the passages cited above (John 7:22 ‘not that it [circumcision] is of Moses but of the fathers’). The ‘fathers,’ then, in the language of our Lord and His contemporaries, could mean ancestors in general, or the ancestors of some particular period, as, for example, the wandering in the wilderness (John 6:31; John 6:49; John 6:58), or ancestors of notable piety or renown, more especially the three patriarchs who were regarded as the founders of the people.
The thought that the great goodness of some of the fathers, especially of Abraham, was helpful to their sinful descendants, which found expression in the phrase zakkûth ’âbôth ‘merit of the fathers’ so often met with in the Talmud, can be traced as far back as the time of Christ and the Apostles. It probably underlies the words of St. Paul: ‘they are beloved for the fathers’ sakes.’ (Romans 11:28); and evidently lurks in the proud boast of being the seed of Abraham or children of Abraham (Matthew 3:9, Luke 3:8, John 8:33; John 8:39 etc.). The phrase, however, is never met with in the Gospels. The allied belief that the holy fathers could effectually intercede for their wicked descendants, which is distinctly attested in some of the Pseudepigrapha (Syriac Apocalypse, Apocalyptic of Bar. 85:12, Sib. Oracles ii. 330–333), is implied in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. The rich man in Hades appeals, not to God, but to one of the fathers (Luke 16:24). Still there is no direct mention of their intercession in the Gospels.
The use of the term ‘fathers’ in the sense of ‘distinguished teachers of the Law, who prolonged the line of tradition’ which has become so widely known through the famous Talmudic tractate Pirke Abôth or Masseketh Abôth, is unrepresented in the Gospels, unless it is alluded to or echoed in the title ‘father’ applied to a living rabbi (Matthew 23:9).
Literature.—R. H. Charles, Book of the Secrets of Enoch, pp. 69–70, note; Weber, Jüd. Theol. auf Grund des Talmud,2 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] etc. 292 ff.; Schürer, GJV [Note: JV Geschichte des Jüdischen Volkes.] 3 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] ii. 317.
W. Taylor Smith.
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Hastings, James. Entry for 'Fathers'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/f/fathers.html. 1906-1918.