We have seen that the Old Testament contains some fictive family references but not nearly to the extent that we see with Jesus. The Old Testament references tend to be more about God as the Father of the Nation and there is not really the concept of the entire nation being brothers and sisters of each other. So was there something that changed during the intertestamental period?
Joseph Hellerman sees some modification of the fictive family idea during the Second Temple era. All three of Jesus’ major themes can be detected.
First, the God as father of his children metaphor occurs often in Second Temple literature.
Second, we see things like the greeting in Second Maccabees where “the brethren in Jerusalem” greet “the brethren in Egypt.” The idea of the people as fictive siblings was taking root.
Third, the conviction that loyalty to God takes precedence of loyalty to family is fully operative. (63)
What is intriguing is to examine what purpose this fictive family language served. It is important to remember the context in which the Judeans were living when Christ was born. The scriptures had promised a day when Israel would be independent, prosperous, and religiously pure. Yet they found themselves with more Jews living outside Judea than inside Judea. They had been under the oppression of multiple foreign powers. They had just a few decades earlier come under the control of Rome. People were being influenced and corrupted by Greco-Roman values and practices. It is hard to appreciate how desperate and bleak things were. Hellerman makes these important observations:
…we must reflect for a moment on the overarching purpose of the Levitical purity code as understood by Second Temple Judeans. Post-Reformation Protestant scholarship has traditionally misread purity as it functioned during the New Testament period. It has been assumed that one undertook such practices as observation of the food laws and Sabbath-keeping in order to earn one’s righteous standing before God and thereby assure oneself of personal vindication at the eschatological court of justice.
This interpretation of Second Temple purity as a “works righteousness” religion has served in turn as the foil against which passages like the following are read – passages that allegedly reflect the radically different perspective of early Christianity (Eph 2:8-9). Recent research has strongly challenged the historical viability of the “works righteousness” explanation of Second Temple purity. The view that individual Judeans obeyed purity legislation solely to earn God’s approval has been identified as the anachronistic projection of Western individualism and Reformation concerns back onto Second Temple Judean convictions and practice.
Drawing upon findings of cultural anthropologists like Mary Douglas, and rereading Second Temple and Mishnaic literature with a heightened sensitivity to its sociohistorical context, a new generation of historians has shown us that Judean purity had an important and highly informative social component. Specifically, the practice of purity was intended to preserve the identity of the eschatological people of God in a world system that was perceived as compromised and defiled by Gentiles and (for certain sects, such as the Pharisees and the Qumran community) fellow Judeans alike. Purity legislation had, in fact, been framed in precisely these terms in Hebrew Scriptures:
I have separated you from the peoples. You shall therefore make a distinction between the clean animal and the unclean, and between the unclean bird and the clean; you shall not bring abomination on yourselves by animal or by bird or by anything with which the ground teems, which I have set apart for you to hold unclean. You shall be holy to me; for I the Lord am holy, and I have separated you from the other peoples to be mine (Lev. 20:24b-26)
Greek and Roman domination rendered passages such as this practically meaningful to Second Temple Judeans. At stake was the very survival of the Israelite remnant as an ethnic-cultural entity. And purity was the primary vehicle adopted to ensure the preservation of the ethnos. (81-82)
We are familiar with the reform movement championed by the Pharisees but the separatist Essenes play a particularly important role in this discussion. There were two branches of the Essenes. One branch removed to isolated areas and held property in common. By separating from society, they hoped to preserve a remnant for the coming age. Another branch of the Essenes lived in villages and retained property but they were very sympathetic with the work of the separatists and supported them.
The Qumran community, of Dead Sea Scrolls fame, was one of these separatist Essene communities. Concerning the Qumran community, Heller writes:
Kinship terminology abounds, and the family symbol arguably constitutes the dominant social metaphor in the Qumran library. Additionally, the PKG [patrilineal kinship group] concept was put into practice in a startling way: the pooling and sharing of material resources was practiced as the community norm. Finally, the Qumran group demanded a PKG type of loyalty that resulted not only in a high degree of commitment to the community but also in a highly polarized stance against others in the land who shared the blood ancestry of Abraham. (74-75)
Hellerman goes on to review some of the Qumran literature to illustrate each of these claims. I will not recount that here, but what is critical is to recognize how the fictive family metaphor had begun to emerge in Second Temple Judaism and how full orbed it had become among the Essenes.
I wrote earlier about Jesus’ likely religious training as a rabbi. The rabbis taught through story and metaphor, drawing on common stories and images of the people and scripture. They reframed them to teach their truths. Jesus use of fictive family was hardly novel based on what we have read in the last few posts. But what is radical is the way Jesus cast the mission of the fictive family. The Judeans understood themselves as a fictive family in solidarity with each other and in hostile separation from a world that threatened their existence. Jesus took the fictive family metaphor and transformed it into a family or household, united in a common mission: To bring the entire world, including unclean Judeans and gentiles, into the household. Once again, Jesus took a familiar idea and turned it upside down and inside out.
In the coming posts we will look at a couple of parables through Middle Eastern eyes. They will open us up to the astonishing radical vision of the Household of God Jesus had in mind. We will begin first with the Evangelium in Evangelio (Gospel within the Gospel) of Luke 15.