Ethics, Christianity, Philosophy

Jesus, Musonius Rufus, and Family

Many scholars suppose that Jesus had a negative view of the nuclear family that was softened by the gospel authors (or that he was inconsistent in his teaching):

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)

And he was told, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, desiring to see you.” But he answered them, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” (Luke 8:20-21)

This means something like how Matthew puts it: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”
(Matthew 10:37)

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.
(Matthew 10:34-35)

And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” (Luke 18:18-20)

Now, academics are more likely to have this view than normal people, and they do tend to resent those who do not have similar degrees, so it’s not surprising that they want Jesus to be as maladjusted and lonely as they are. But that aside, must Jesus’ view of the family be so inconsistent that the gospel authors made up sayings in which he endorsed the family? I think not. For instance, Musonius Rufus, a philosopher active around the time the gospels were being written, made similar points to Jesus, but in a lengthier and more obviously consistent fashion:

A certain young man who wished to study philosophy, but was forbidden by his father to do so, put this question to him “Tell me, Musonius, must one obey one’s parents in all things, or are there some circumstances under which one need not heed them?”[1] And Musonius replied, “That everyone should obey his mother and father seems a good thing, and I certainly recommend it…

…Because surely all parents have the interests of their children at heart, and because of that interest they wish them to do what is right and advantageous. Consequently one who does what is right and useful is doing what his parents wish and so is obedient to his parents in doing it, even if his parents do not order him in so many words to do these things…

…And so you, my young friend, do not fear that you will disobey your father, if when your father bids you do something which is not right, you refrain from doing it, or when he forbids you to do something which is right you do not refrain from doing it. Do not let your father be an excuse to you for wrong-doing whether he bids you do something which is not right or forbids you to do what is right. For there is no necessity for you to comply with evil injunctions, and you yourself seem not unaware of this…

…If, then, my young friend, with a view to becoming such a man, as you surely will if you truly master the lessons of philosophy, you should not be able to induce your father to permit you to do as you wish, nor succeed in persuading him, reason thus: your father forbids you to study philosophy, but the common father of all men and gods, Zeus, bids you and exhorts you to do so. His command and law is that man be just and honest, beneficent, temperate, high-minded, superior to pain, superior to pleasure, free of all envy and all malice; to put it briefly, the law of Zeus bids man be good….

Now then, it would seem that Rufus explicitly says that the young should not obey their parents, particularly when the study of philosophy is on the line. But, he also says that he recommends obeying parents. He also says that obeying God is superior to obeying men (parents) but that because God wants what is best, so also to disobey parents in the name of what God wants and what is obviously and truly good, is ultimately obedience to both God and your parents who want the best for you. The point I’m making is that people, in Jesus’ era, were able to say that values existed that were greater in comparison to family, but that family was still a good. Jesus didn’t reject family, he simply rejected using your family as an excuse for wrong-doing. Just like Rufus thought philosophy would make you wise, and therefore a good son, even if doing the right thing put you at odds with your parents.

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