Jesus and His Family

One of the key issues for understanding the New Testament is understanding how ancient family/lineage functioned in storytelling, rhetoric, and perception of individual worth. There are several great books about this topic and a great deal can be gleaned from simply reading the New Testament and documents from the era carefully. David deSilva’s introduction to the New Testament covers this issue in the most succinct fashion I have found. This paragraph, for instance, summarizes several of the issues quite well:

A person’s family of origin established his or her “place” in the world, both in terms of self-perception and the perception of others. Family reputation was the starting point for an individual’s own reputation. Israelites gave careful attention to preserving lineage because without a solid pedigree a person’s place and privileges within Israel were in jeopardy. Both testaments record important genealogical information about particular individuals. Genealogies can be used to establish the legitimacy of claims made about or by a person (as in the genealogy in Matthew, which establishes Jesus’ status as heir of the promises given to David and to Abraham), display the collective honor embodied in the present generation or establish relationships between people or nations.

deSilva covers:

  1. Self and social perception.
  2. Religious/ethic identity
  3. Reputation (place in the honor/shame system of the day)
  4. Economic resources (a few pages later in the book)

Essentially in the ancient world, if you identified somebody as a member of this or that household, you made all of these things about them known. For instance, “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? (Matt 13:55)” This was considered excellent counter evidence to Jesus’ implicit claims to being a prophet.

  1. By reminding people of his household, Jesus’ critics decreased his public perception. He’s not from a family of priests or teachers, therefore he’s not in the know about these issues.
  2. Jesus is Jewish, that is acknowledged, so he should actually know that he shouldn’t be making these sorts of claims.
  3. Jesus’ place is society is that of a peasant and a manual laborer, so even if he has skill as a speaker, he’s not worthy of a hearing.
  4. Jesus’ family, apparently, does not have a great deal of land or money which makes his claims to speak for God suspect to the public.

The ancient conception of family also comes up in the gospels when Jesus is told that his family has come to collect him before he brings embarrassment to the household:
And his mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. (32) And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.” (33) And he answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” (34) And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! (35) For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother. (Mar 3:31-35)”

  1. Jesus’ family is afraid of losing face because of his behavior.
  2. Jesus made claims in this dispute that accused the religious leaders of fraud and heresy thus lending credence to the accusation that he was demon possessed (read: crazy).
  3. Jesus is making claims that only somebody on equal footing with the religious leaders should make, but his own family does not allow for the comparison in the social hierarchy.
  4. Nothing here really has anything to do with economics.


Interestingly though, Jesus response implies something else about his family:

  1. Jesus claims that his family does not need social approval to have a worthwhile self-image due to its relationship with the God of Abraham.
  2. Jesus claims that his family has access to the very God that he accuses his opponents of opposing precisely because they obey him and thus do God’s will.
  3. Jesus claims that in the honor/shame system of the day, his family’s patron (Father) sits at the highest position possible.
  4. Jesus’ claims that his household has the resources to deal with a bit of publish disapproval. Elsewhere he is clear that members of this household will “inherit the earth” and “judge the twelve tribes of Israel.”


These four headings, though not the only aspects of ancient families, provide a useful taxonomy to interpret claims in the New Testament and other ancient documents that refer to lineage or households. Other test cases might include passages wherein Jesus challenges people to “hate” their families or challenges them against showing their families “more love” than they do for Jesus and his household (Luke 14:26 and Matthew 10:37). Also places like Ephesians chapter one wherein the main point is the place of converts to Christianity in a cosmic household and its instantiation on the earth have roots in ancient views of the family. Passages like Ephesians 1 are often read like straight forward systematic theology when in reality they are about the polity of God’s household and the relationship of believers to themselves, each other, and to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.


Application for the Christian life:

  1. Read the Bible more accurately with a summary view of how families worked in the time of the New Testament, thus being more polite to the authors of these documents.
  2. Learn to see other Christians as family members (because Jesus’ mother and brothers are those who obey him/do the will of his Father).
  3. Learn to see yourself as somebody whose honor lies with God and somebody upon whom the honor of the Christian movement depends in some small way.




A Strange Comment

I’ve been reading the Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels Malina and Pilch. On page 360, in an entry on fasting, they note concerning Jesus, “…he was not what modern authors call an apocalyptic preacher.” Essentially, the authors base this claim on the following evidence:

  1. Gospel traditions indicate that Jesus did not fast during his ministry.
  2. Said traditions are clearly accurate because later members of the Jesus movement did fast. Thus they recorded Jesus’ abstinence from fasting despite their own practice.
  3. Apocalyptic preachers had a tendency to fast in protest of the evil in the world.
  4. Jesus, having not been much of a faster, did not protest the evil in the world.

    Therefore, Jesus was not an apocalyptic preacher.

This argument is interesting to me because one of the surest pieces of data available about Jesus (purely from the historian’s perspective…tabling for a moment the possibility that Scripture is inspired by God) is that he preached the immediate presence of and immanent cataclysmic arrival of God’s kingdom. Now, historians, theologians, and such disagree about precisely what the content of Jesus’ preaching meant at those points. But nevertheless, there it is.

Anyhow, I just thought that was a weird notion. Earlier in the book the authors essentially argued that Jesus’ preaching about the kingdom was not “eschatology” but rather “nextology.” They claim this on this basis: Israelite peasants did not think about the far future, but only about what was just about to happen. Aside from being a neologism that is so stupid that I cringed when I read it, the application of the term is also stupid. Here’s why, the authors claim that thinking that Jesus had a world-changing judgment from God in mind is a 19th century idea, rather than an ancient Jewish one. But Luke’s gospel, which is connected to Acts, pretty clearly connects a future judgment of the living and the dead with the teachings of Jesus or at least with the teachings of his disciples.

Oh well, weird stuff like that frustrates me. I think that Bible commentaries are an important genre. I also paradoxically think that there are too many of them. So many, in fact, that people write them and put weird comments like that in them that make one wonder how good the rest of the book is. And this book, in particular, has a great deal of illuminating sections. Sadly, it seems that the need for novelty overrides the need for good historical judgment. Kind of like how science journalists always make claims that have almost no relationship to the studies they read.

Rhetoric and Dialectic in Apologetics

In the first few paragraphs of Aristotle’s Rhetoric (and in his other works of logic and rhetoric), he makes the point that the work of rhetoric is to persuade and that the work of dialectic is to find the real or apparent syllogism. Both are to be used in the service of truth, but one lends itself more specifically to sophistry. Rhetoric can be very dangerous because it can have the air of careful research and argument but actually be a way to make ugly, evil, and false things appealing. Similarly, rhetoric can be embarrassing. If you think you have the truth but you’ve only used rhetoric to defend it precisely because that is how you were convinced and then somebody comes along with the dialectic prepared (knowledge and valid syllogisms), then you can truly look like a fool. Similarly, if you are socially or rhetorically inept and you bring the dialectic (and even the truth) to a rhetoric fight, a crowd of people can easily be persuaded to ignore or be bored by careful argument. The point being that anybody needs both. Scientists need both just as much as engineers, salesmen, and evangelists. That being said, I want to use something Edward Feser said that made me think about this distinction. Namely that there are times when the rhetoric trumps the dialectic purely for social purposes. When I was younger and somebody made fun of me in the slightest way, I would try to explain as carefully as I could why that person was wrong. Needless to say, I had a very difficult time making friends until high school when I learned to banter. Similarly, Christians who care about evangelism ought to avail themselves of the rhetoric/dialectic distinction. There are times when somebody is just trying to make you look stupid and utilizing dialectic to explain their error will simply lead to being ignored. At those moments, use rhetoric in return..not vitriol, but winsome repartee. But other times when somebody with honest questions or dishonest attempts to stump you comes with rhetoric and you actually know their argument because you listen well then you can appropriately tear things down and rebuild with the dialectic (or if they’re a jerk and you really have the skill, bury them in the dialectic). I’m not advocating being malicious, I’m saying that speech seasoned with salt is always gracious even when it’s sharp.

Anyhow, Edward Feser here notes:

Another problem with too much contemporary apologetics is that it takes a “kitchen sink” approach that seems more interested in persuading the listener than in presenting the truth.  Hence an apologist will sometimes dump out onto the page a bevy of arguments that have been or could be given for some claim, leaving it vague whether he actually accepts all of them himself.  This is the apologist-as-salesman, happy as long as you walk out of the store with something, and not too particular about what it is.  Welcome to 31 Theological Flavors!  Come on in and sample our wide array of proofs for God’s existence.  See one you like?  Excellent choice, shall I box it up for you or will you be wearing it right away? 
The trouble here is not that one or more of the arguments might not in fact be good, and sincerely believed by the apologist to be good.  And of course, if an argument really is good, it remains so even if you throw a bunch of questionable arguments in with it.  The point is rather that uncritically putting forward anything that might help “make the case” dilutes the intellectual seriousness of the enterprise, and reinforces the false perception of apologetics as mere rhetoric rather than true philosophy.
At this point I need to anticipate an obvious objection.  Surely, the atheist or secularist critic will say, any apologetics must of its nature be merely rhetorical rather than truly philosophical or scientific in spirit.  For the apologist (so the objection continues) is engaged in putting forward reasons  for conclusions which he has already decided beforehand are true, conclusions he originally believed for reasons other than the ones he now puts forward in his role as an apologist (for example, on the basis of what parents and religious authorities told him when he was younger).  And that sort of task is intellectually unserious, even intellectually dishonest.

I sympathize with his concerns here and I actually think his whole post is worth reading and meditating on. It is very good and thoughtful. That being said, I want to deal with a brief part of Feser’s claim here:

The point is rather than uncritically putting forward anything that might help “make the case” dilutes the intellectual seriousness of the enterprise, and reinforces the false perception of apologetics as mere rhetoric rather than true philosophy.

I agree with Feser, that the kitchen sink approach, as pure dialectic and as truth seeking is neither intellectually serious nor helpful. But I do wish to press the distinction between rhetoric and dialectic here that Feser himself acknowledges. The approach that focuses purely on logic, certain premises, and necessary conclusions is incredibly important but sometimes, in normal human interaction, emotional barriers and social barriers must first be breached.

Feser does this himself. When guys like Graham Priest claim that the cosmological argument is silly, Feser will refer to people whose own articulation of the argument is flawed but is still superior to Priest’s. The point being that throughout history this argument has been seen as having probative force and thus should be considered anew, particularly through the lens of a  revitalized Aristotelian metaphysics. Similarly, one might be in a break room discussion wherein somebody says, “There isn’t even any evidence that God exists.” At that point one might say…actually there are 20 lines of evidence pointing to God’s existence and rattle off a kitchen sink list of arguments for God’s existence precisely for rhetorical reasons. This is so that the dialectic dialog can be opened up. Again, if somebody says that “God belief is simply a matter of faith instead of reason,” listing a myriad of arguments that other people have found to be convincing reasons to believe that God exists at least shows that God belief has a purported rational foundation. A third and final example of a positive use for kitchen sink approach might involve learning to show how an argument’s presuppositions lead to the conclusion that God or some lesser god still exists. The point of this is not to actually make the positive case yet, but to utilize rhetorical skill, without sophistry, to gain a hearing for the logical case for God’s existence.

Moral of the story:

  1. Debate is not simply a computer algorithm. It requires certain social skills. This is especially important if you really believe the gospel to be true and you wish to help others see its truth.
  2. Nevertheless, rank sophistry is not to be tolerated. Paul explicitly rejected empty rhetoric in 1 Corinthians 2:1-2.
  3. Making the distinction between which arguments and evidence for God’s existence or this or that Christian dogma are compelling is important for the sake of the truth. You want people to find the truth thus you should express the truth as carefully as you can and you also, in this way, reveal the truth about yourself.
  4. Never let the rhetoric or the dialectic overpower the message of the gospel nor the dictates of Jesus about truth seeking, kindness, love, and prayer. If the kingdom of God came with Jesus, losing an argument or two is not going to ruin things for him.