So far, we have been looking exploring the “Household of God” by reflecting on what constitutes a household. Now I want to look through a slightly different lens. What constitutes a family?
Joseph Hellerman, in his excellent book The Ancient Church as Family, writes:
The universality of family – consisting of highly valued relationships with those to whom we are related by birth or marriage – ironically hinders, rather than enhances, our ability to appreciate some the important values obtaining in kinship constructs that differ from our own. (27)
When we Westerners think of “family” we tend to think in terms of people to whom we are biologically related and with whom we share close emotional bonds. At the core of our family is our spouse. This extends out to our children, our siblings, and our parents. From there it might include grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins related through paternal and maternal lines. Divorce and remarriage adds a layer of complexity but the basics are still the same. Our family identity, while important, does not totally define us. The Greco-Roman world would have found this conceptualization of family utterly foreign.
The family in the New Testament is based on what Hellerman calls patrilineal kinship groups. Family is traced exclusively through the male patriarchs. Transporting this model into the present, assume I have a son and a daughter. They are part of my family. My son and daughter each marry and have one son and one daughter. My son’s children are my grandchildren. My daughter’s children are not.
Similarly, my father’s parents are part of my family. My mother’s parents are not. Therefore, I have only one set of parents, grandparents, and great grandparents, where as in our understanding of family we have one set of parents, two sets of grandparents, and four sets of great-grandparents. Virtually my total identity is wrapped up in my connection with my father. I exist first and foremost to bring honor to my father and his kinship line and to perpetuate the kinship line.
This brings us to the Greco-Roman understanding of the role of women and marriage. Osiek and Balch write:
Marriage…is a legal contract between two families for the promotion of the status of each, the production of legitimate offspring and the appropriate preservation and transferal of property to the next generation. (42)
How romantic! The Greek philosopher Demosthenes writing in the fourth century B.C.E wrote:
"We have courtesans for our pleasure, prostitutes for daily physical use, wives to bring up legitimate children and to be faithful stewards in household matters."
While Roman wives tended to have a higher status than Greek wives, and there seems to have been more inclination toward emotional connection, the issues outlined by Osiek and Balch were dominant. During the years of the Roman Republic, a woman was said to pass from “under the hand” of her father to being “under the hand” of her husband. By the time of the Empire in Jesus day, a married woman would likely feel her primary allegiance to be to her father’s family and not her husband’s family. Should she be divorced, her dowry had to be returned to her father as well. The marriage arrangement was negotiated to mutual advantage of the parents involved. Marriages within kinship groups would serve to keep property within the family and marriages outside the kinship group could build alliances. According to Roman law, only Roman citizens could marry. Slaves could not marry but frequently lived as a nuclear family unit. The historical record is unclear concerning how the Romans dealt with marriage for non-citizens who were not slaves.
While it was by no means unusual for a husband and wife to develop a close emotional bond, it was a secondary consideration. The same can be said about parents toward children. This has important consequences for how we think about allusions to family. We see the relationship between husband and wife as the most emotionally intimate of all relationships. If we want to shock and disturb an audience, we craft a story of spousal betrayal. For the Greco-Roman world, this would not have had the same level of impact. The relationship between spouses, or between parents and children, did not carry the same emotional content. So what relationship would a Greco-Roman writer use to illustrate a violation of deep intimate connection?
The only familial relationship that seems to have been relatively free of these contractual and utilitarian concerns was between siblings and in particular brothers (and indeed this was true of cultures throughout the Ancient Near East.) They assumed brothers to be of one mind and in complete accord. The most disturbing stories featured brothers in conflict. The myth of Rome’s founding has the struggle between brothers Romulus and Remus. The image of them suckling at a she-wolf was a widely shared image of Roman Civilization. The Bible is replete with stories of brothers in conflict. The first murder in the Bible is of Cain killing his brother Abel. The story of the founding of Israel has the struggle between brothers Jacob and Esau at its core. Jesus’ evangelio evangelium (gospel within the gospel) is Luke 15, the story of the compassionate father and his two rebellious sons. (Kenneth Bailey shows that the story of the compassionate father is Jesus retelling the story of Israel. More on that later.) And what is the metaphor that Paul uses to symbolize the relationship Christians are to have toward one another? We are to be brothers reconciled in Christ. The Church becomes a fictive family with God as the paterfamilias, but God presents himself as a paterfamilias that is unlike anything known in the Greco-Roman world, as we will see later.
When we read our modern notions of family back into the biblical text, we distort the impact of the family image biblical writers were intending. We do not appreciate the significance of family imagery used in stories nor of instructions given concerning families in the pastoral letters. In order to understand the richness of being in the family or household of God, we have to learn to think like the Greeks and the Romans.