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.
- Self and social perception.
- Religious/ethic identity
- Reputation (place in the honor/shame system of the day)
- 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.
- 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.
- Jesus is Jewish, that is acknowledged, so he should actually know that he shouldn’t be making these sorts of claims.
- 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.
- 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)”
- Jesus’ family is afraid of losing face because of his behavior.
- 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).
- 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.
- Nothing here really has anything to do with economics.
Interestingly though, Jesus response implies something else about his family:
- 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.
- 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.
- Jesus claims that in the honor/shame system of the day, his family’s patron (Father) sits at the highest position possible.
- 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:
- 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.
- Learn to see other Christians as family members (because Jesus’ mother and brothers are those who obey him/do the will of his Father).
- 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.