Family in the Early Jesus Movement

Why did the historical Jesus reject traditional family ties? There are a couple of possibilities. First, it is feasible that he did so because his family attempted to thwart his activities…. It is also possible that, regardless of his own family’s attitude, Jesus felt that traditional family ties were insignificant compared to proclaiming the arrival of the kingdom of God (which Jesus no doubt identified with the will of God). One was to make a choice: family or the kingdom.

See Also: Jesus Followers in the Roman Empire (Eerdmans, 2017).

By Paul B. Duff
Professor of Religion
The Columbian College of Arts and Sciences
The George Washington University
December 2018

What role did the family play in the Jesus movement? Were Jesus’ followers to honor their fathers and mothers or turn their backs on them? Curiously, the answer is both. In its early decades, the role of the family shifted dramatically in the Jesus movement. Initially, one was instructed to shun biological family of origin. The traditional Mediterranean family values were overturned by Jesus and his earliest followers. After Jesus’ death, however, the idea of the traditional family was no longer rejected. Instead, it began to take on a more important role within the Jesus movement. Indeed, within the span of less than a century, respect for and devotion to one’s family of origin became the norm.


The Historical Jesus’ Attitude toward Family


There are a number of sayings in the gospels that encourage believers to disparage their family of origin. These passages most likely originated with the historical Jesus for the simple reason that they run counter to the movement’s idea of family at a later time, specifically, at the time that the gospels were composed (most likely between 70 and 100 CE). In fact, as we will see, the gospel writers attempted to downplay the radical nature of such sayings.


One saying, found in both the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas and Q (a relatively early source that lay behind the Gospels of Matthew and Luke) illustrates this dramatically. The version of the saying in the Gospel of Thomas reads, “Whoever does not hate father and mother cannot be my disciple, and whoever does not hate brothers and sisters . . . will not be worthy of me” (Gosp. Thom. 55; cf. 101). The Q version of the saying is slightly different. It states, “If anyone does not hate his own father and mother, he cannot be my disciple and if anyone does not hate son or daughter, he cannot be my disciple.” Although we cannot be sure which version of the saying was closest to what Jesus actually said, for our purpose, such does not matter. What does matter is that Jesus told his followers to “hate” the members of their families of origin, particularly their parents.


The authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were clearly troubled by the historical Jesus’ attitude toward family and each, in his own way, tried to tone down the radical nature of the saying that they had inherited. The author of Matthew’s Gospel altered it to say, “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) (Matt 10:37, emphasis added). As we can see, the author of Matthew’s gospel altered the earlier version of the saying so that it now proclaimed that one should love Jesus more than family. Notably, the author eliminated the word “hate” from the saying. The revised saying implied that one should continue to love one’s family but that love of Jesus took precedence.


Luke tried to temper the saying in another way. His version reads, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Luke, although retaining the word “hate,” nevertheless shifted the emphasis of the original saying. In the Lucan version, the saying extols discipleship over everything else, including one’s family. The fact that this version adds to the list of things to be hated: “even life itself” encourages the reader to understand the saying as hyperbolic. In Luke’s gospel, the saying differs considerably from the earlier saying, in which hating the members of one’s family was to be understood in a more literal fashion.


But the saying commanding one to hate his or her family is not the only problematic saying of the historical Jesus about family. A striking passage in the Gospel of Mark also shows Jesus weighing in on family. According to that gospel, when Jesus and his disciples were in Capernaum, Jesus’ family “went out to restrain him, for they said, ‘He has gone out of his mind’” (Mark 3:21). In other words, Jesus’ family decided that he was mentally ill and so they came to take him away, presumably home. Shortly thereafter, the gospel depicts the family showing up as Jesus was speaking to his followers. Upon hearing that his family had arrived and was asking for him, Jesus simply ignored them. At the same time, he asked his followers: “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Then, “looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother’” (Mark 3:33-35). Here, Jesus not only ignored his mother and brothers but he also redefined the meaning of family; one’s family was now reconceived as “whoever does the will of God.”


A similar saying appears in the Gospel of Luke. According to that gospel, a woman in a crowd shouted out to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!” Surprisingly, Jesus corrected her, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it (Luke 11:27-28). Although this woman praised Jesus’ mother for bearing and rearing such an extraordinary son, Jesus nevertheless responded that “those who hear the word of God and obey it” should be commended instead. In both this and the Markan saying, we likely hear the historical Jesus who overthrows traditional familial bonds for a “family” of individuals who obey the will of God.

Why did the historical Jesus reject traditional family ties? There are a couple of possibilities. First, it is feasible that he did so because his family attempted to thwart his activities as Mark 3:21 (quoted above) indicates. It is also possible that, regardless of his own family’s attitude, Jesus felt that traditional family ties were insignificant compared to proclaiming the arrival of the kingdom of God (which Jesus no doubt identified with the will of God). One was to make a choice: family or the kingdom.

The Role of Family after Jesus’ Death


After Jesus’ death, things began to change. Within a few years, the movement no longer disparaged familial ties. One important reason had to do with the involvement of Jesus’ immediate family members in the movement following his death. Despite Jesus’ estrangement from his own family during his lifetime, we learn from one of the apostle Paul’s letters, composed approximately 20 years after Jesus’ death, that Jesus’ brother James experienced the resurrection (along with Peter and the twelve,” 1 Cor 15:4-7). From another of Paul’s letters, we learn that James subsequently became one of the leaders of the Jesus movement in Jerusalem (Gal 2:1-14). Although Paul mentions three leaders of the Jerusalem church—James, Peter, and John (likely the son of Zebedee), his language suggests that James wielded the most power (Gal 2:12). Paul elsewhere indicates that James was not the only brother active in the movement following Jesus’ death (cf. 1 Cor 9:5).


Due to the involvement of Jesus’ family members in the movement, the later gospel texts presented a rather different picture of Jesus’ relationship with his family than what one would have expected. For example, in Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph (Jesus’ reputed father) is presented as a model of piety and obedience to God. In that gospel, he is labeled a “righteous man” (1:19) and is privileged with heavenly communication via his dreams. Luke’s Gospel, on the other hand, focuses its attention on the piety and faithfulness of Mary, Jesus’ mother. When she hears that she is to bear a son, although still a virgin, she submissively asserts to the angel than had delivered the news, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Unlike the implicit rejection of Jesus by his mother in Mark’s Gospel (who believed her son to be “out of his mind”), in Luke’s Gospel, Mary “treasured” the events surrounding her son’s birth “in her heart” (Luke 2:19, 51). John’s Gospel likewise depicts Jesus’ mother is favorable terms. In that gospel, Jesus reluctantly performed his first miracle (at the wedding in Cana) at the urging of his mother (John 2:3-11). At the end of the gospel, Jesus’ Mother is present at the crucifixion, “near the cross” (John 19:25), something that we do not see in the other gospels.


But the involvement of Jesus’ family members in the movement is not the only reason that the role of family changed after Jesus’ death. Perhaps even more significantly, the household became the central unit of the Jesus movement once it moved into non-Jewish territory. For example, in 1 Corinthians, Paul reveals that his first converts were Stephanas and his household. In addition to that information, the apostle also reveals that the members of the household of Stephanas had “devoted themselves to the service of the saints” (1 Cor 16:15). Consequently, Paul urged the Corinthians “to put [themselves] the service of such people, and of everyone who works and toils with them” (1 Cor 16:16). Later conversions in Corinth almost certainly centered on other households in the city (e. g., the household of Chloe, cf. 1 Cor 1:11). The centrality of the household to the spread of the Jesus movement happened not only in Corinth but also in every other city that established churches (cf. Acts 11:13-15; 16:15, 29-34).


The Jesus Movement’s Attitude toward Family in the Later Years of the First Century


The movement’s attitude to the family did not just change from a negative stance to a neutral one. Rather the movement began to view the family in a very positive light. Indeed, the movement’s attitude ultimately conformed to the larger culture’s view of family. Family was understood as the central social unit, key to any larger group, whether that larger group comprised the church, the polis, or the empire. By the latter part of the first century, those in the Jesus movement understood that parents were to be honored, not hated.


We can easily observe this shift in attitude in two New Testament letters, each attributed to Paul but composed after the apostle’s death. The first of these letters, the epistle to the Colossians, counsels, “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is your acceptable duty in the Lord” (Col 3:20). Here, children are not advised to hate their parents, as they would have been in Jesus’ time. Instead, obedience to their parents was now considered an obligation, their “acceptable duty in the Lord.” It is noteworthy that, in a time in which one parent might be a Jesus follower and the other not (cf. 1 Cor 7:12-16), no exception was made here for an unbelieving parent. Children were to obey their fathers, even if the latter were unconverted pagans.


We see a similar command regarding parents in the letter to the Ephesians. There, the responsibility towards one’s parents is tied to the commandments handed down to Moses at Sinai. “Children,” the letter commands, “obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’—this is the first commandment with a promise: ‘so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth’” (Eph 6:1-3 quoting Deut 5:16).


As the passages from Colossians and Ephesians illustrate, by the latter part of the first century, Jesus’ command to “hate one’s father and mother” had not only disappeared. It had been totally reversed. The Jesus movement had come full circle. More traditional values toward the family had won out over Jesus’ radical command to reject one’s family of origin.


As we have seen, following Jesus’ death, several things quickly changed. The prominent part played by Jesus’ family members, especially his brother James, and the role that family households played in the expansion of the movement as it extended into new territories could not be ignored. Jesus’ command to reject one’s family therefore had to be downplayed. But eventually the movement went even farther than that. The positive Greco-Roman attitude toward family ultimately became the norm in early Christianity, supported by the biblical command to honor one’s father and mother (Deut 5:16; Exod 20:12).








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