December 25, 2013


How Jewish Family Values Shaped Christianity: The world into which Jesus was born and raised has shaped morals for two millennia. How Jewish mores became Christianity's customs. (Lisa Miller, Dec. 18, 2006, Newsweek)

[W]hatever one's personal beliefs, no student of religion or culture should overlook the significance of the world of the Nativity, for the milieu into which Jesus was bornâ€"and in which he was raisedâ€"has fundamentally shaped the manners and morals of the ensuing two millennia. The Jewish family values that were prevalent in first-century Judeaâ€"the values of Mary and Joseph and of the young Jesusâ€"became the values of Christianity, and of the regions of the world in which Christianity has long been a critical force.

It all began with the habits and culture of Judaism. The emphasis on family, on sexual morality, on caring for one's kith and kinâ€"all were (and are) sacred Jewish traditions, and the transmission of those mores from a relative backwater of the Roman Empire in the first years of the Common Era to our own time is the unlikely result of Mary and Joseph's parenting, the disciples' failed apocalyptic hopes and, ultimately, the early Christians' search for a way to survive once they realized the Second Coming was not as imminent as they first believed.

The story of Jesusâ€"and thus the story of Christianityâ€"begins with a common Jewish family. Mary is an innocent; Joseph is generous and protective, even of a child who is not his own. The baby is a baby, miraculous enough; like all happy births, his is cause for gossip, celebration and gift giving. On close inspection, the details of the Nativity don't add up particularly well: the birth narrative appears in just two of the four Gospels, Matthew and Luke, and they differ a great deal. Matthew starts with a genealogy, Luke with the story of the miraculous pregnancy of Mary's cousin Elizabeth. The Christmas story most people know from church pageants and television specials is a conflation of the two Gospels, putting Matthew's Magi together with the shepherds of Luke.

As the Nativity story makes clear, though, Mary and Joseph's era was one rich in moral standards designed to offer stability in an uncertain world, and they would have transmitted those standards to their son as he grew up. A woman's virginity, for example, was a sacred possession, to be given away or stolen at great cost. According to Deuteronomy, a man who violated a virgin had to pay a fine of 50 silver shekels and marry the woman in question; an unmarried woman who willfully had sex with a man other than her fiancé could be put to death. In ancient Israel, this value was probably a matter of pragmatism more than theology; it assured men who lived in a culture that prized family above all that their children were their own. "Because it was encoded in Biblical texts and the texts became sacred, [virginity] took on a moral dimension," says Carol Meyers, editor of "Women in Scripture" and a professor of religion at Duke. "By the time of Christianity ... any violation was seen as going against God's word."

The values of Jewish families were unique given the circumstances of the time. It is true that Romans of the first century had some regard for family, too (in his book "Jewish Marriage in Antiquity," Brown University professor Michael Satlow points out that Roman law esteemed married men with children above married men without children and unmarried men as part of the social order).

But Jewish devotion to family predates the Romans by thousands of yearsâ€"think of all those begatsâ€"and by the time of Jesus, Jewish family values were noticeably different from those of their neighbors. A Roman father could, for any or no reason, choose to kill his newborn infant either by cutting the umbilical cord too close or by leaving the baby outside, and the Jewish refusal to do so was seen as peculiar. "The Jews see to it that their numbers increase," wrote the historian Tacitus around A.D. 100. "It is a deadly sin to kill a born or unborn child, and they think that eternal life is granted to those who die in battle or executionâ€"hence their eagerness to have children, and their contempt for death." Herod himself executed two of his own sons, leading Augustus Caesar to remark that "I'd rather be Herod's pigs than Herod's sons."

In a culture so devoted to children, married sex was a blessing. "The harmonious coming together of man and woman and their consummation is figuratively a house. And everything which is without a woman is imperfect and homeless," wrote the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C.-A.D. 40). Within this context, whether Joseph and Mary, a married Jewish couple, did or did not eventually procreate on their own is a subject of endless scholarly and theological debate. When, in the Gospel of Matthew, the author says that Joseph had no union with Mary "until she gave birth to a son," he implies that a union did occur afterwardâ€"a decent explanation for the appearance in Mark and Matthew of Jesus' brothers James, Joseph, Judas and Simon, as well as unnamed sisters. "Some good historians believe that [these brothers and sisters] were part of Jesus' entourage," says Rodney Stark, of Baylor University.

And so the growing Jesus would have come of age in a world that cherished procreation, family ties and the history and theology of Israel, including immersion in the Scriptures and the ancient stories of God's deliverance of his people. According to Luke, when Jesus was 12, he traveled with his parents to Jerusalem from Galilee to celebrate Passover. The family feasted there and when they were done, Joseph and Mary turned around and headed home. After a day, they noticed that their son was missing from their entourage and rushed back to Jerusalem to find him. There, the story goes, they discovered Jesus in the temple, talking to the priests and astonishing the assembled crowds with his wisdom.

But his parents were parents, and they were worried. "Son, why have you treated us like this?" his mother asks. "Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you."

"Why were you searching for me? Didn't you know I had to be in my father's house?" But they did not understand what he was saying.

It would not, in all likelihood, be the last time. Their son was growing up in a time of great theological and political turbulence in Judea; in the time of Mary and Joseph, some Jews had begun to believe that the end of the world was coming any day. It would be brought about by a warrior king, a messiah from the house of David, who would destroy the wicked and usher in the kingdom of heaven on earth. The Gospels do not say what Joseph and Mary believed about the apocalypse, but John the Baptist believed in one, and when Jesus says, in Luke, "The Kingdom of God is near," an apocalypse is precisely what he means.

In the temple, Jesus is as rude as a 12-year-old can be. But he's also the kind of Jewish son a mother would be proud of: he takes the family values of his childhood and, in his later years, makes a revolutionary leap. Family, he comes to preach, is not in the blood ties and biology his parents' generation so reveres. To him, the end of the world is coming and what matters now is the community of believers, the followers of the Messiahâ€"on earth and in heaven. What matters is the family, as he put it, of man. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus makes this point again and again. "Let the dead bury the dead," he says in Luke. There's no need for sweet goodbyes. The only thing a believer must do is "follow me" and proclaim the Kingdom of God.

[originally posted: 12/24/06]

Posted by at December 25, 2013 1:51 AM

"And the LORD shall be king over all the earth: in that day shall there be one LORD, and his name one."

We're still waiting.

Posted by: Joseph Hertzlinger at December 24, 2006 10:33 PM
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