Jesus and Family Values

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Mark Goodacre points to the attention Deirdre Good's new book Jesus' Family Values is getting. Her argument is basically that Jesus had no family values, on the following ground:

1. Jesus challenged some of the societal expectations people in his cultural context had about families.
2. Jesus doesn't spend a lot of time on some of the moral perspectives assumed by all first-century Jews because of the background of the Hebrew scriptures, i.e. he focuses on where the people of his time were misinterpreting or violating the spirit of the Hebrew scriptures.
3. Jesus predicts that families will divide over him, without ever saying that those who reject his followers in this way and put them to death are right to cause such division.
4. We see no sign of Jesus calling his foster father Joseph by the name he reserved for his heavenly Father.

She also says (falsely) that the word 'family' never appears in the New Testament. Now the English word never appears in the Greek, but a simple online search would have shown her that many English translations use the word regularly (see the ESV, NIV, HCSB, TNIV, NLT). Maybe she got some not quite true information about the KJV not having the word in the NT (it does have it once), but that has nothing to do with the content of the Greek NT itself but more to do with the English language at the time the KJV was translated (or rather the English language of a couple centuries earlier, which is what the KJV translators were translating the Bible into). [Update: see the comments for a more careful presentation of her view, why it's a little better than this, and why I still disagree with it.]

Now maybe the bulk of her argumentation is good, and maybe her conclusions aren't as radical as this presentation makes it look, but the impression of what I'm getting is that she's trying to send a message that pretty much everything those who speak of "family values" consider to fall under that would have been foreign to Jesus, and he'd in fact take the opposite views on many of those issues. The implicature is that those who say they derive their moral and political views from the Bible on these issues are in fact making them up whole cloth.

As I said in the comments on Mark's post, this is a very strange argument. For one thing, Jesus did speak about family values. He lambasted the Pharisees for taking the money they should have been using to care for their parents and dedicating it to God with a vow so they could use it now and not have to support their parents. He gives his mother to John to take care of her. He treats the love of the father for the prodigal son as an image of perfect, divine love, which affirms such love for wayward children.

Challenging aspects of social structures of the time doesn't mean you reject all of them, particularly aspects of them that you don't challenge. Not treating a subject your audience already agrees with you about is not a sign that you don't agree with them. I'm not sure at all how predicting that people will divide over him amounts to endorsing that division as if the mere division is good. Key features of Jesus' treatment of himself as the Son of God and of the movement following him as wholeheartedly devoted to him explain some of the features of his view of the family that she sees as revisionist of the mother-father-children model.

But it doesn't do to handpick your evidence selectively and then claim that the parts you ignore are nonexistent. Jesus affirms that some are eunuchs for the kingdom of God, but he also insists that this isn't for some. He affirms marriage as important enough that someone can't just decide to get divorced. He allows for exceptions in certain cases, but those are exceptions. If the woman caught in adultery story is genuine, he did mention that what she'd been doing was sin and told her not to do it anymore. John 4 makes similar suggestions with the woman at the well. It's true that his emphasis is often on other things, but it's very clear that he supported the traditional sexual morality of the time.

But the strangest thing about this is that she's assuming Jesus' teaching is all the Bible might say about something, as if the very strong family teaching connections in Proverbs, the Torah commands for parents to teach their children, the sexual morality throughout the Bible (but especially in the Torah and epistles), and the teachings in the epistles about how to live as believers in relationships with husbands, wives, parents, and children are totally unimportant.

If you want to get across the idea that the Bible doesn't support this notion of traditional family values, a good strategy for such deception is to ignore the parts of the Bible that deal with those issues at greater length and to focus on the part that focuses on one person and his all-important role of dealing with the more general problem of sin. It is the rhetorically effective thing to do to get your point across to the biblically illiterate audience who won't see through such selective handpicking of evidence. Of course it's also pretty deceptive.

8 Comments

So, Jeremy, are we really wrong to focus on the teaching of Jesus? In practice many Christians ignore it in favour of the epistles and the Old Testament, but you are the first person I have read actively teaching that we should play down Jesus' teaching.

Of course I agree with you that Jesus generally affirmed Old Testament moral teaching on sex, marriage and divorce. The picture here is consistent throughout the Bible. But what we don't find in Jesus' teaching or elsewhere in the Bible is a clear affirmation of the "family values" model of a nuclear family with a husband who goes out to work, a wife who stays at home, and 2.4 children. Sure, this is accepted as a valid lifestyle. But it is by no means promoted as the best one. Neither Jesus nor as far as we know any of the other major New Testament characters led this kind of life. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 7, implies that this lifestyle is less than the ideal. So, when Christian teachers promote this as the ideal, are they following the Bible, or is this more a matter of promoting traditional cultural values?

All I said is that just because Jesus doesn't say something that doesn't mean the Bible doesn't say it. How does that constitute playing down Jesus' teaching?

But what we don't find in Jesus' teaching or elsewhere in the Bible is a clear affirmation of the "family values" model of a nuclear family with a husband who goes out to work, a wife who stays at home, and 2.4 children.

Of course not, but who says he did? I don't remember Dan Quayle saying that, and he was the one who started this "family values" language. I don't remember James Dobson ever saying that, either, and he's probably its most prominent spokesman today.

Now I do think a case can be made that neither marriage nor singleness is ideal or preferred but that in certain circumstances, given certain gifting, or in the case of certain people one or the other is better, indeed God's providential plan for that person. This requires limiting Paul's discussion of the current situation of I Cor 7 to a particular setting that didn't last long, but that's not thoroughly implausible.

I think a plausible case can also be made for the view that marriage is normal but less than ideal in one respect, and that respect is the pursuit of the gospel in a more single-minded way. Either way, it doesn't denigrate marriage as a lesser status. The former case sees it as equally good, and the latter sees it as less useful but in a way that can be counterbalanced by other considerations, which is consistent with seeing it as intrinsically good and perhaps even intrinsically better than singleness (but just less useful).

So I don't think the biblical teaching is all that obvious, given the several different ways people can plausibly take it. I don't think this is a sign of conflicting teachings within the Bible, either, as Good wants to say, because you can find these interpretations among the scholarship on just one passage, I Cor 7.

I haven't read the book, thought it makes me curious to do so.

Could it be that she's simply arguing against reading our own "traditional family values" back into the text in a rather hyperbolic manner?

Again, I haven't read the book, but I would at least like to give the author the benefit of the doubt.

Mike

I would hope that's all she's doing, but the article Mark Goodacre links to seems to suggest otherwise, and so do the Amazon reviews (which are all positive, so there's little reason to think they're portraying the book unfairly).

Here's another writeup on it. I think the wording here on one point is a little better, saying that the concept of family isn't in the NT but that the word translated that way is wrongly rendered. It should be "household". But the other piece does quote her directly as saying that the word 'family' is not in the New Testament, and that is at best extremely misleading. If she's talking about English translations, then it's simply wrong. If she's talking about the Greek, she's also wrong, because 'family' is an English word. If her point is that no word in the Greek NT exactly corresponds to 'family' in English, she's absolutely right, but that's true of pretty much every word in the Greek NT. I wouldn't derive any consequences from such an observation, particularly ones that have moral significance.

The second write up seems to be a fair evaluation of her work. I think the critique here should draw back to being a critique of whoever critiqued her work. Let's be fair.

Suzanne, I haven't seen any critiques of her work. All I've seen are positive accounts.

The second writeup does seem to me to take her to be offering a more moderate position than the first one did (on that one issue), but both writeups and the Amazon reviews all seem to me to be describing a position that's way too selective in which parts of Jesus (and the Bible in general) it relies on, and it's way too negative about things that can plausibly be derived from the Bible and even from Jesus in particular. None of my assessment changes with regard to that. The only thing the second writeup does better at is in not giving her quote about the Bible never using the word 'family' but instead giving a more careful presentation of what she means when she says that statement.

I'm the author of the other writeup that Jeremy Pierce mentions. In fact, it's a writeup of an hour-long seminar in interview format that Dr. Good gave in London on Thursday. She gave an outline of her argument, but doesn't go into the level of detail found in the book.

The exact point she seemed to be making (if my memory serves correctly) was that the Greek words oikos and oikia are best translated house or household in many of the places they occur in the NT, though some translations use the word family. Jeremy, I think you are engaging with the flawed writeups of 1 or 2 critics, rather than Good's work. She's very nuanced and careful in her book; she is an NT scholar, after all.

The point that she is trying to make is that the kind of family groupings and household arrangements common in Palestine in the time of Jesus were more diverse than we usually think. She argues this from a wide range of texts, plus archaeological evidence. It's easy for us to unconsciously read a victorian nuclear understanding of family into the text, but the text doesn't support such a narrow view of family.

In a sense, all of this would be of interest only to scholars, were it not for the fact that certain parts of the church claim biblical mandate for the nuclear family as the foundation of society. Good claims that the Biblical mandate should be for something more diverse. But how much more diverse, I'll have to finish the book to know.

The point that she is trying to make is that the kind of family groupings and household arrangements common in Palestine in the time of Jesus were more diverse than we usually think. She argues this from a wide range of texts, plus archaeological evidence. It's easy for us to unconsciously read a victorian nuclear understanding of family into the text, but the text doesn't support such a narrow view of family.

That's nothing new, though, and I don't think it supports the wide-ranging political thesis that she seems to be endorsing.

In a sense, all of this would be of interest only to scholars, were it not for the fact that certain parts of the church claim biblical mandate for the nuclear family as the foundation of society. Good claims that the Biblical mandate should be for something more diverse. But how much more diverse, I'll have to finish the book to know.

The argument I see all the time is that marriage between a man and a woman is one foundational social structure in societies throughout history and that it is present in every culture, whereas gay marriage is not. The claim that the nuclear family is the foundation of society seems to me to be a stronger claim and one that is not necessary for the argument (if it's a good one) to be made. So I'm not sure how what she's saying is really even all that relevant to the political point she wants to make.

Now it is true that people have argued that marriage is the foundation to human society. But it's worth pointing out who has argued that. It's not some recent innovation since the Victorian era. It's Aristotle who is best know for that argument. He argues that the most foundational social relationship is marriage, which creates the most basic social institution of the family unit. Even if it's the household as what we call an extended family {including slaves) that he sees as this unit, it's marriage that's foundational to its existence, because it's reproduction that's foundational to society for Aristotle, and marriage is the best context for that in his view. The village and then the city come into existence only because households gather together with other households for additional purposes, and it's all founded on marriage. So this sort of argument appears in the ancient world, well before the NT time. Even if the household was the basic social unit in his day, it's clear that for him marriage is the foundational unit, not the household.

Also, Genesis 2 treats marriage not as bringing a woman into a greater household of the man's family. The man leaves his father and mother to marry his wife. It's clear from the rest of Hebrew scripture that this doesn't mean he joins her family-household. She goes back to her father's house if he dies or divorces her. So they are their own family unit in exactly the way that Good seems to be denying. I wonder, then, if her argument relies on a common problem among NT scholars who assume Greco-Roman social structures (or philosophical background, etc.) as the background for NT teaching, when Hebrew social structures (or philosophical background, etc.) sometimes were very different.

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