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Posted January 9, 2004

Book: Marriage and Family in the Biblical World
Editor: Ken M. Campbell
InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, pp. 284

Excerpt from Preface:

The essays presented in this volume represent a comparative and theological survey of six cultural settings in which the human family existed in biblical times. No one today needs to be reminded of how controversial the subject of family became in the Western world, particularly in the United States, in the last decades of the twentieth century. Scholars of all viewpoints were drawn into this debate and unfortunately tended frequently either to mine the ancient texts for their own (Western, modern) views or to make generalized statements based on imperfect knowledge of the large variety of sources that the ancient world has bequeathed to us.

In this volume, six specialists offer a summary of and commentary on the source evidence from the ancient world. On the topic of marriage and family. These cultures provided the platform upon which modern ideas and practices have developed: the ancient Near East, Old Testament Israel, Greece, Rome, Second Temple Judaism, and the New Testament. The reader is invited to appreciate the similarities and the differences, across time and culture, of the beliefs and customs of families in the ancient world.

One of the fallacies of modern biblical scholarship inherited from the old history-of-religions school, is the assumption that the practices (and even beliefs) of the biblical cultures reflected in the Scriptures are derivative from the societies and religions that surrounded them. The historical reality is of course that influence seldom travels one way. All the societies discussed in this book interacted from time to time with one another, sometimes in positive ways and sometimes negatively. Ideas and practices in this area as in others were considered and either emulated or rejected, sometimes casually and other times vigorously. Careful scholarship requires us to compare and contrast both synchronically and diachronically in order to understand why society behaved the way they did within the context of their own Weltanschauung.

Excerpt from Book:

Jesus. Jesus, when questioned about divorce, affirmed the permanent nature of marriage in no uncertain terms. Quoting both foundational Old Testament texts, Genesis 1:27 and 2:24, he concluded, “So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate” (Mt 19:6 NIV). As Stott aptly notes, “The marriage bond is more than a human contract: it is a divine yoke. And the way in which God lays this yoke upon a married couple is not by creating a kind of mystical union but by declaring his purpose in his Word.”

While Jesus affirmed marriage and blessed children, however, he conceived of the community of believers in familial terms transcending those of people’s natural relations. This is one of the most striking, distinctive and central aspects of Jesus’ call to discipleship. Leaving one’s family behind, even literally, was regularly expected of Jesus’ first followers. This is made clear by what is perhaps the earliest account of Jesus’ calling of his disciples in Mark’s Gospel:

“As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him. When he had gone a little farther, he was James, son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.”

Conversely, those who resist Jesus’ call to discipleship frequently are unwilling to forsake their natural ties in favor of total allegiance to Jesus. Luke records a series of three such memorable instances:

“As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

He said to another man, “Follow me,” But the man replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me go back and say good-by to my family.” Jesus replied, “No one who puts his hand ot the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”

All three Gospels also record a rich young man’s unwillingness to part with his wealth in order to follow Jesus, setting his refusal in contrast to the disciples’ unconditional commitment to their Master. Upon Peter’s remark that he and his fellow disciples have left everything to follow him, Jesus responds with the promise that ‘no one who has left home or brother or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields — and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life.”

Jesus himself set the example by repeatedly renouncing his own natural family ties where they potentially stood in conflict with higher spiritual loyalties. Thus the twelve-year0old Jesus retorted to his parents’ anguished concern, “Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” Later, Jesus rebuked first his mother and then his brothers for failing to understand the divine timing underlying his ministry. Again, he refused to be drawn back into the confines of his natural relations when his concerned family went to take charge of him, fearing that the strains of his busy ministry had caused him to lose his mind. When told that his family was waiting for him outside, he queried in a dramatic gesture, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And answering his own question, looking at those seated in a circle around him, he issued the weighty pronouncement, “Here are my mother and brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” In due course, it appears that Jesus’s mother and his brothers indeed acknowledged that they, too, must subordinate their familial claims to allegiance to Jesus as their Savior and Lord.

Examples could be multiplied . . .but the implications are clear. Rather than preaching a gospel urging believers to “focus on the family” — though obviously family has a vital place in God’s purposes for humanity — Jesus placed natural kinship ties into the larger context of the kingdom of God. In keeping with Old Testament prediction, he came, not to bring peace, but a sword, “to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law — a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household. Thus, “If anyone . . . does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters — yes, even his own life — he cannot be my disciple.”

In sum, then, Jesus’ teaching on natural family ties relativizes their significance and places them within the larger context of God’s kingdom. Thus he lays the groundwork for Paul’s teaching that “from now on those who have wives should live as if they had none . . . for this world in its present foundational divine institution for humanity, is therefore to be viewed not as an end in itself but as properly subordinated to God’s larger salvific purposes. The culmination of this development will be reached in the eternal state where people will no longer marry but be like angels. Many of the implications of Jesus’ teachings on marriage and the family are further developed in the writings of Paul.

Table of Contents:

1. Marriage and family in the ancient Near East by Victor H. Matthews

2. Marriage and family in ancient Israel by Daniel I. Block

3. Marriage and family in ancient Greek society by S.M. Baugh

4. Marriage and family in Roman society by Susan Treggiari

5. Marriage and family in Second Temple Judaism by David W. Chapman

6. Marriage and family in the New Testament by Andreas Kostenberger