Andries van Aarde, Fatherless in Galilee: Jesus as a Child of God

Andries van Aarde, Fatherless in Galilee: Jesus as a Child of God – Book Review

Robert L. Mowery

Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2001. Pp. viii + 246. Paper, $28.00.

As indicated by this book’s arresting title, this book argues that Jesus was a “fatherless” child. Assuming that the boy Jesus would have experienced the painful hurts inflicted on such children by first-century Galilean society, van Aarde claims that this factor provides explanatory power for various aspects of Jesus’ ministry, such as his identification of God as his heavenly Father, his non-patriarchal ethos, and his compassion for women, children, the sick, and other powerless people. Van Aarde is Professor of New Testament at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.

The argument begins with the fact that the figure of Joseph is absent from Paul, Mark, Q, and the Gospel of Thomas. Although many scholars suggest that Joseph’s absence from these sources means that he must have died prior to Jesus’ ministry, van Aarde argues that no known father played a role in the life of the historical Jesus. While Joseph is named in Matthew, Luke, and John, he was a legendary figure added to the gospel traditions sometime after Easter; early Christians answered Pharisaic charges concerning Jesus’ fatherlessness by creating a father named Joseph, who stands in the succession of Joseph the son of Jacob who was known for his forgiveness. This early Christian action represents the fifth step in a seven-link “Joseph trajectory” that began with the Genesis narrative about the earlier Joseph and continued with the prophetic traditions concerning the descendants of Joseph’s children, the defensive Judean reaction, the historical Jesus, the addition of Joseph to the gospel traditions, and two stages of later Christian embellishments of those traditions. The discussion includes an exploration of the claim that Joseph was considered the forefather of the Samaritans.

Taking an important cue from the “status envy hypothesis,” van Aarde argues that the young Jesus’ status as a fatherless child would have caused him to envy the status provided by a father. He relates this factor to the adult Jesus’ antipatriarchal behavior and to the fact that the adult Jesus often acted in a womanlike manner. The myth of the absent father was widespread in the ancient world, as indicated by the stories of Hercules and Perseus. Van Aarde concludes by surveying the development of the belief in Jesus’ two natures.

Given the manner in which van Aarde has framed the argument, this book largely stands or falls on the plausibility of his double claim that Jesus had been fatherless and that Joseph was a legendary figure. His dismissal of the historical Joseph will be disputed by many. It is unfortunate that he never posed the question of the extent to which some of his subordinate arguments, such as his claims about the usefulness of the status envy hypothesis, would have been applicable to Jesus’ situation if there had been an historical Joseph who had died while Jesus was quite young. It is also unfortunate that van Aarde did not provide more evidence about the experiences of fatherless children in first-century Galilean society instead of relying so heavily on an “ideal type” of fatherless figures.

This book is a product of van Aarde’s intense personal involvement with his topic. After disclosing that he had experienced a “strenuous” relationship with his own father, he admitted that his sense of relative fatherlessness impelled him toward this study of Jesus’ fatherlessness because it addressed his personal situation. Despite his unhappy relationship with his father, he dedicated this book to the memory of his father, who died in 1974.

The central contribution of this book is the construction of a possible link between the painful events allegedly experienced by the boy Jesus (ostracism due to fatherlessness) and various distinguishing marks of his ministry (such as his trust in his heavenly Father and his compassion for other outsiders). This proposed link represents a potentially significant approach to the study of the historical Jesus–if it could only be more convincingly demonstrated.

Robert L. Mowery

Illinois Wesleyan University

Bloomington, IL 61702

COPYRIGHT 2002 Biblical Theology Bulletin, Inc

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group