In Chapter Two of his book, When The Church Was a Family, Joseph Hellerman highlights the nature and benefits of familial spirituality as modelled in the New Testament. While western marriages are romance-based, those from a collectivist society are alliance based and for the purpose of producing desired offspring. And in Mediterranean antiquity, the marriage relationship took a back seat to sibling relationships, which in turn formed the basis for group understanding among Yeshua believers.
The chapter goes on to discuss the patrilineal nature of biblical families. Married women remained primarily related to their families of origin through siblings of the same father, while their children became the “property” of their husbands’ families. Their most valuable contribution to their husbands’ families were male offspring. The happiness of bride and groom was a consideration secondary to a marriage that enhanced the honor and the extended family. However, relationally, the most intimate and highly-charged relationship was between siblings.
In such a world, the greatest betrayal was to betray one’s same-father sibling, especially one’s brother and ultimately one’s oldest brother from the same father. Think of what this means for Yeshua-communities. All of us are siblings of the same Father through the same oldest brother (Yeshua). To betray each other is to ultimately disgrace our oldest brother and our Father. For people in Yeshua’s cultural time and place, this was not simply a metaphor. It was gut-level reality. The chapter includes examples from that time and place.
He finishes chapter talking of principles that prevailed in NT world:
- In the NT world, group concerns took priority over individual concerns.
- A person’s most important group was his blood family.
- The closest family bond was not the bond of marriage but the bond between siblings.
- The central value that characterized ancient family relations was the obligation to demonstrate undying loyalty toward one’s blood brothers and sisters.
- The most treacherous act of human dishonesty was not disloyalty to one’s spouse. It was betrayal of one’s brother. (50).
What this means is, first of all, that the person perceives him or herself to be a member of a church and responsible to the church for his or her actions, identity, career, development and life in general. . . . The individual person is embedded in the church and is free to do what he or she feels right and necessary only if in accord with the church norms and only if the action is in the church’s best interests. The church has priority over the individual member (41, paraphrasing Bruce Malina, Christian Origins and Cultural Anthropology (Atlanta: John Knox, 1986:19).
All of this hits us hard, because it contradicts our native individualism. Still, consider whether this view of the First Century Mediterranean family illumines some of the teachings of Yeshua, of the Bible, of Paul, and the ways spiritual communities were ordered.
More to come!
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